Magical Warmth – Audeze iSine 20 Planar IEMs Review
Audeze iSine 20 is a truly amazing headphone, because it is the first planar magnetic IEM (In-Ear Monitor), which is also open back, made by Audeze, that I am reviewing. It has a midrange price, but it really needs the cipher cable, as I’ll explain in the review.
Audeze is a really well known company, founded in 2008, and which started with designing large planar headphones, like the LCD-1, LCD-2 and LCD-3, all of which have been received really well by everyone who heard them. I have reviewed Audeze LCD-MX4 already, and can ensure you Audeze does stay behind their products, and if any kind of problems are to appear, even minor ones, they will solve those for you, and offer you an experience truly commendable and reliable.
It should be noted that I have absolutely no affiliation with Audeze, I am not receiving any incentive for this review or to sweeten things out. This review is not sponsored nor has been paid for by Audeze or anyone else. The review sample for this review is a personal unit, I have owned for a while, and about which I decided to make a review. This review reflects my personal, subjective experience with Audeze iSine20. Every opinion expressed is mine and I stand by it, the purpose of this review is to help those interested in Audeze iSine20 find their next music companion.
First things first, let’s get the packaging out of the way:
I have noted in my Audeze LCD-MX4 review that Audeze are really good with designing an interesting and rather useful package, and the iSine 20 is no exception, those things come in a cool and pretty funky package.
Inside the main package, you can find their rather intricate carrying case, as well as the two IEM units, seated in a foam and hard plastic cutout.
One thing to keep in mind with iSine 20 is that the main case is protected by a rather thick transparent plastic cover.
While Audeze LCD-MX4 came packaged in a really hard yet not so flowery large pelican hard carrying case, iSine20 comes in a more friendly package, with lots of details about them on the package.
This review unit is with a latest generation cipher cable, but that one was ordered separately, so I’m not sure if the package that includes it by default is different from this official package.
You also receive ear clips, and tips with the package, and considering that they work best with the cipher cable, getting that variant means that they’ll have included everything you could need with the package.
What to look in when purchasing a high-end In-Ear Monitor
Starting with the built quality, those IEMs are quite solid and made of plastic and metal, but even before we start talking about that, we need to talk about their shape and size. You may have noticed that they aren’t your typical Sunday Morning IEMs, and are rather something different, they are more like two speakers that have an IEM plug that connects to your ear.
This is because those are two larger planar drivers, which are made to be worn as IEMs (In-Ear Monitors), and have silicone plugs to connect to your ears, but they aren’t really IEMs, and they are a touch heavy, requiring Audeze’s own ear clips to attach to your ears.
The clips are a bit easy to break, and most people seem to require exchanges, but most people seem to be fine ordering some from third party sellers, which can be found on Head-Fi iSine threads, or glueing the original clips back. Audeze also sells replacement clips if you need more.
Now, the locking mechanism is quite different, because this unit being so large won’t just stay in your ears, and the cable is made to go straight down, so you need to use a clip, or plastic ear hook that goes around your ear, to keep the IEMs in your ears safe and sound.
The bore, or the sonic tube is on the large side with iSine20, so you may need to experiment a bit with tips to get the best comfort. Isine 20 uses a very typical tube design, but the larger size means that not all tips will be compatible.
Overall, after you manage to get a good seal / fit, you may notice that there is a bit of driver flex, and this is actually something real for pretty much all planar drivers, even those found in headphones sometimes, but it won’t damage the unit, nor be dangerous in any way. If anything, it may be concerning at first, but since this is an open-back IEM, it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t affect comfort in any way.
After getting them seated properly, iSine 20 is very comfortable, becomes very natural to wear, and the fact they are open means that you aren’t isolated from the outside noise, so you can take them in a morning jog, or when going on a walk without having to worry that you’ll be separated from the outside noise entirely.
One thing to notice though, is that they leak quite a lot of noise, so you will not be able to listen to technical death metal at maximum volumes in a library using iSine20.
Now, the build quality is quite eccentric, they use metal and high quality plastic in the build quality, and the entire IEM feels very solid, there is a grille on the outside, so you won’t have to worry about dust and debris getting to the driver, and overall, the whole IEM simply feels trustworthy. They also look pretty cool, although I can’t say whether the design would best fit with either a casual or an office environment, rather, having a style of their own that should fit with any suite.
In terms of aesthetics and build quality, they are a golden IEM, but the comfort, while good, can’t be golden, because the bores are a bit wide / large and won’t fit all ear canals out there.
I need to start by saying that this review is about the iSine20 and their cipher cable, using an apple-based source and Audeze’s own DSP embedded within. It makes no sense to review them without the cipher cable, and I do not recommend them at all without it, they need a complex EQ that I wasn’t able to reproduce using any of the typical EQ within Hiby Music and such, and at the end of the day, iSine 20 sounds better from an apple source using their cipher cable, than from any audiophile music player, their DSP being required to truly enjoy them.
So, after you get the cipher cable, and an apple source, the sound can be described as one of the most natural, one of the most open and euphonic sounds you have ever heard. Everything simply flows, and there’s a unique melody to everything that you most probably haven’t heard before, and not even all Planars don’t sound this way, the fact that those are open-back IEMs, with this degree of open-backness means that you get a really huge soundstage out of them, but with a good instrument separation and definition. The sound could also be described as laid back, and it most certainly isn’t one of those super energetic types of sound, rather being something on the leaner and more musical side.
The bass feels very liquid and smooth, there’s a certain quality to Audeze bass that you simply can’t get enough of, like a high-end subwoofer, but even better, they simply make bass flow, and in a big way, similar to the way their larger headphone counterparts do. This being said, the quantity is what I’d call enhanced, but not over-the-top, the bass rather being enough for most people, but not enough for true bassheads. For me, it is enough, and the musical note thickness is good, and so are lower male vocals, but the bass doesn’t bleed into the midrange, and feels right in its place. The bass speed and agility is exactly what you’d expect out of an Audeze product, quick, yet still natural.
The midrange is extremely musical, liquid and smooth, laid-back, and slightly forward. The soundstage openness is very real, and so is the really natural tonality they manage to play with (kindly keep in mind, this is with the latest cipher cable). Warm, musical and clean, the midrange feels pretty much like you’d expect the midrange to sound like, knowing this is an Audeze planar magnetic IEM. The voices, on an overall level, are a touch forward, but the background instruments are placed in a proper different background layer, offering enough space in between for a proper detail to take shape. There’s a bit of bloom, and the midrange has softer edges, and a more friendly overall approach, so you’ll be able to listen to iSine20 for long hours in a row without any hint of fatigue, and I could call them laid-back in terms of textures, they aren’t analytical nor overly textured, rather offering what you could consider a fairly lean and musical experience, although they do not lack bite in acoustic music, and they also have proper tonality and overall texture for electric guitar solos, like those found in rock and metal ballads.
The treble is soft and lacks the uppermost part of the sparkle, is reserved in quantity, but to their advantage, this also means it will offer a truly fatigue-free experience, and as with all smooth and lean IEMs, when listening to more aggressive music, metal, or EDM, you may desire that it had a touch more sparkle. This being said, they do have enough for most music styles, and Jazz or other more laid back music styles feel truly magical. The same can be said about pop, which sounds very euphonic, and I could say that artists like Lady Gaga are very nicely portrayed.
Overall, this is one musical, smooth and free-flowing IEM that feels very easy to listen to for long hours in a row, and which has a nice warm and clean overall sound.
The portable usage is average.
Actually, iSine20 doesn’t feel quite that portable, considering that you either require large amounts of power to drive them, if not using the cipher cable, but even when using the cipher cable and making them easy to power from an iPhone, they still leak a lot of sound, and are open.
This means that while they would make a really fun experience while walking through a park, taking a subway while wearing them, or going through an crowded place, you’ll be hearing pretty much everything, and by the time you increase the volume enough to cover all the other sounds, you’re listening quite loud.
The design doesn’t make them overly practical either, the cables are positioned at a slight angle, and they may feel like they’re pulling from the IEMs by their own weight, making walking or jogging with iSine20 a touch more complicated.
This being said, I was able to enjoy them even on more brisk walks, but I don’t mind if other people are able to hear my music, and Bucharest is a more noisy place, but I enjoy music loud when out and about, but if you’re looking for a typical IEM experience from iSine 20, maybe you won’t be getting quite exactly that, but rather more of an open-back experience in an IEM factor.
iSine 20 is pretty different than most IEMs, but they have a pretty clear price of 600 USD, when you purchase them with the cipher cable, which is the review setup of today. This makes them pretty much in competition with something like HIFIMAN RE800 Silver (600 USD launch price, currently on sale for 300 USD), Acoustune HS1650CU (650USD), and Beyerdynamic Xelento (800 USD).
Audeze iSine20 vs HIFIMAN RE800 Silver – Starting with the build quality and the package, RE800 Silver is actually much smaller, and comes with less accessories than iSine20, but RE800 Silver has no detachable cables. This being said, RE800 Silver is much more comfortable, and easier to wear, and has no driver flex, while isine20 has driver flex, is larger and more complicated to wear, making RE800 Silver a better choice for portability. The sound is much brighter and more energetic on RE800 Silver, with more edge and more detail, more clarity and more overall energy, it is more punchy and more forward, and also more analytic, where it is more euphonic, larger and more airy, more smooth, laid back and liquid, with a smoother bass, smoother midrange and smoother treble with iSine20, feeling like iSine20 was created for pure relaxation, while RE800 Silver is more versatile, especially if you listen to a lot of rock, metal, EDM and upbeat music, where iSine will shine better with classical and Jazz, and acoustic or laid back music in general. The value is better on RE800 Silver at this moment, as they are priced at 300 USD, making them a deal really hard to beat, although iSine20 is not to be taken lightly, because although they cost 600 USD, which was the launch price of RE800 Silver, in that price you also get the DAC/AMP, where with RE800 Silver, even though they are about 300 USD now, you’d still want a high quality DAC/AMP which means that the whole setup may cost more than the 300 USD implied, although a HIFIMAN Megamini won’t add that much to the price. The difference in tuning and sonic style should make this an easy choice though, RE800 Silver is much better for energetic and upbeat music, while iSine20 is much better if you prefer a smooth, laid back and euphonic sound.
Audeze iSine20 vs Acoustune HS1650CU – Acoustune HS1650CU comes with a better overall package, with a more intricate carrying case, and with a better cable, with better ergonomics, and it has a much better comfort, being easier to wear than iSine20, although iSine 20 feels like the whole IEM is also created really well. The sound is more creamy and more tight on HS1650CU, with better overall detail and with a much better dynamic and punchiness, iSine20 being more laid back, liquid and smooth, HS1650CU having a much more textured bass, although iSine20 has more air and feels more open overall, has a wider soundstage, and expands more in all directions, the whole experience being more open. HS1650CU has no driver flex, where iSine20 has some driver flex. The price is similar between the two IEMs, and both feel like a good value, both have metal in their build quality, although iSine 20 feels like the package is more premium, where HS1650CU feels like the IEM itself was designed more premium. The overall choice is simple, if you want a smooth sound, but if you want it punchy, creamy and with a textured bass, then HS1650CU is the option, while if you want a laid back, smooth and more liquid, flowing experience, and if you prefer a more open and airy experience, then iSine20 should be your choice.
Audeze iSine20 vs Beyerdynamic Xelento – Beyerdynamic Xelento has already been on the market for a while now, but it still is a very relevant IEM. When it comes to their package, both iSine20 and Xelento come in a pretty eccentric package. Both have a more unique type of tip, and you may need to make sure you’re getting good comfort with both. Both Xelento and iSine20 have a bit of driver flex, but only iSine20 is open-back and has a larger size. In terms of sound, Xelento and iSine20 are both very smooth, laid back and liquid, but Xelento is much much bassier, much warmer, and its bass is much more the focus point of its signature, where with iSine20, the entire sound is more tuned to be clean and clear, without making the bass the star of the day. In fact, that is the largest difference, Xelento is like an iSine 20 with much better bass for a basshead, and with a bass that could make being a basshead the guilty pleasure of anyone, while iSine20 is a more open and clean experience, if you don’t wish for that much bass. Overall, if you’re looking for a really smooth, warm, bassy, thick and punchy experience, Xelento is one of the best there are, while if you’re looking for a really liquid, smooth, soft and open / airy experience, iSine20 would make better sense.
Value and Conclusion
It has been very fun reviewing iSine20, and so it’s been using them, especially since they’re one of the very few open or semi-open IEMs out there, in this sense of the word.
For 600 USD, you don’t get just the IEMs, but you also get the cipher cable, which is basically a DAC/AMP for them, and as long as you have an iDevice as your daily smartphone and such, you won’t need anything else soon, as they really sound better with their own cipher cable, than most high-end Audiophile Players, the DSP Audeze made fitting like a glove to them.
You may notice that I’ve taken them outside to take photos of them, and speaking of their reliability, I can say that even after taking all those photos of them, they still work very well and didn’t take any damage, so you don’t have to worry about their build quality, they are made really well.
Furthermore, they are fairly comfortable, after you manage to get the sweet spot for your own ears, and they will sit there, offering a very open experience.
The sound is not very characteristic of IEMs, but more open, and airy that what you’re most probably used to. The same can be said about the warmth and smooth experience, Audeze really managed to nail it with the way they portray the sound, a liquid yet euphonic experience that is rarely seen, so easy to listen to, yet so addictively clear and engaging.
Overall, if you have an iphone, and if you’re looking for an open-back IEM, something to sound airy and open, yet smooth and musical, you should totally check out Audeze iSine20, as they’re one of the best IEMs to pair with an iPhone, the 600 USD price mark being everything you need to pay for them, as long as you’ll keep using your iDevice.
Full Playlist used for this review