While some companies like HiFiMAN are pushing the boundaries and working on releasing a new flagship, Audeze have been at the other end of the spectrum, trying to squeeze as much of their well renowned magic into a smaller, more portable and even more affordable package. More affordable is by no means budget at $699 or over here in the UK, £599, but is a very exciting prospect all the same as Audeze have held down some of the best, price no object headphone designs for the last few years and this is certainly a welcome method to allow a few more people to get a pair of Audeze into their home. Worth noting is that price is for both the open and closed back versions of the EL-8. This review focuses on the open back version.
Fluxor, Uniforce and Fazor:
Now one of the most impressive things about these headphones was that it wasn’t just a slapdash effort in getting out a cheaper headphone to compete in a different market segment, one that Oppo have clearly shown is in demand with their recent success, but Audeze gave their upmost effort in pioneering what can be done with planar magnetic drivers once again, just at a new price point, and its for their fabulous work with these magnets, why we love Audeze so much. For the EL-8s we had three brand new technologies introduced, the patent pending Fluxor and Uniforce technologies as well a cable connector that they designed from the ground up. On top of that they have also used the trademarked Fazor tech that was recently introduced in the latest wave of LCD products. Yes it is a lot of fancy words but I am not going to start questioning Audeze’s knowledge of these types of drivers any time soon.
Now here is my best attempt at getting technical with what they have applied into their new planar magnetic drivers. I would like to say I have scoured the Internet for the information using a lot of what Audeze give and also Innerfidelity’s amazing article on planar magnetic drivers work to gain an understanding of what the technologies are doing here. With these new drivers we have an increased magnetic flux creating more force from the magnets on the drivers but at the same time, size is reduced and even more importantly so is weight. This is the Fluxor at work and in simple terms is done by magnetising the magnets at a different angle, 45 degrees to be precise and that in turn means that one side the magnet is much stronger (almost double the flux density) than on the other side. To visualise it imagine north and sound poles being diagonal to one another so at the top of the magnets they are real far apart while at the bottom they are almost seated next to each other. They have dealt with the magnets all the way from the slurry and I can’t imagine it is an easy process.
To make sure I was blabbing gibberish I contacted Audeze’s marketing man Jon Scull and along with one of the engineers at Audeze they sent me through the following. “Hi Sonny, you’re right about the Fluxor magnets. They’re square rods that are magnetized diagonally (45 degrees towards the diaphragm) and used in pairs as described. This practically doubles the magnetic field directed towards the diaphragm. When signal arrives at the diaphragm, current flows through the traces creating a magnetic field that forces the diaphragm to move towards or away from the magnets.
The magnetic field isn’t evenly distributed on the surface of the diaphragm so there are areas where it’s stronger than others. That’s where the Uniforce Diaphragm comes in; it equalizes the force over the entire diaphragm surface by changing the width of the conductors to compensate. In areas with a strong magnetic field there are fewer traces and vice versa. In areas with a weak magnetic field there are more conductor traces.”
The use of Fazor is one that shows how great it is when a company develops something for their higher end products but it ends up trickling down to their cheaper models. The Fazor assembly was developed for the LCD-X but as since been applied to every single Audeze model on the market. Looking inside the earpad and the Fazors are very visible as they are the black grooves you can see seated in from of the magnet. Yup… the construction is a bit odd with it going your ears, pads, Fazors, magnets and then finally the drivers.
This was my best attempt and understanding and simplifying what is going on with these new technologies but what I know for sure is that they are all brand new too Audeze and really will push forward planar magnetic headphones potential in the future. Fortunately for Audeze they have their patents pending and can reap all the benefits of the hard work, too right.
A Design Good Enough for BMW:
Oh yes, with all the crazy nerd stuff going inside the headphone, they had to hand the designing over to BMWDesignworks and these are much sleeker than the LCD series, in my eyes and on my ears anyway. They are matte black with a wooden veneer round the edges and you know what, I would much rather them just be completely matte and Josh agrees on this, the veneer just seems a bit tacky, but that is just two guys opinions on something as subjective as design and fairplay to Audeze who want to keep a bit of wood in their design as a nod to the LCD series. Even with the veneer there are still one of the more stylish headphone in this category and with the classic A in the grille, these are Audeze style through and through.
Construction wise though these are tight and precise. Metal is used in large for a sturdy feel but there is a bit of plastic used where safe such as under a thin strip of metal on the headphone, so that weight on your head is reduced, seems like the smart thing to do. The yokes rotate, unlike any other Audeze headphone before them and this is all part of the more consumer and portable feel of these headphones. It makes fitting them into a lower profile case possible, get them to fit more comfortably around your neck and even help in getting them seated correctly on your ears. My pair are open so as far as I am concerned, certainly not portable but the closed pair I think would be borderline, they clamp firmly on your head and stay put, unlike the Fostex TH900 for example but they still are quite bulky headphones with a bigger profile and more weight than the Oppo PM-2s for example. They still are much lighter than any of the LCDs and the likes of the HiFiMAN HE-500s, which is great and these go along with a select few in the portable planar section.
Suspended at the top the headband you have a cushion and along with the absence of weight from the mostly plastic headband, feels very light on your head. Clamping has both loosened since opening these and even more from the prototypes I heard both at the Headroom and Bristol show but is still quite firm, much more so than the Sennheiser HD800 for example but not skull crushing, or even painful any more, it does however provide a firm seal. Yes you will notice it a little bit but I don’t think it is something to put a lot of thought into. Especially since the angled pads are squidgy and soft as well, mmmm….
So the last development for these headphones that I am yet to talk about is the removable cable connectors of these. Now it uses magnets (what can I say, Audeze like playing with magnets) to stay in place and it also has 8 signal points per side. Now while it doesn’t do anything special in this implementation, it has a lot of opportunity to shine in the future, maybe for charging a Bluetooth headphone or connecting to the lightning output of an iPhone 6, who knows the possibilities are endless. Of course you can do the traditional good stuff such as balance it and I should be getting a balanced cable for these soon from Double Helix Cables. Now I have found a few caveats with the connector and mainly that it just doesn’t seem to hold in place strong enough. With a few knocks while wearing the connector has actually fallen out and this has now happened a few times, with the lock in mini XLRs on the LCDs this just could never happen. They also stick out quite a bit and that lends a hand to the first problem, I think if the sockets were recessed they would be a lot better. That being said they are really quick and easy to insert and remove and look well made with no areas to go wrong. The actual cable is sturdy and has a flat construction. It is terminated with a 3.5mm jack, showing its intent to be used with portable gear although it does come with a far from discrete ¼ inch adapter.
A Fresh Take:
From the first time I heard the EL-8 prototypes all the way to listening to my full production pair right now one thing has been pretty clear in my mind, just how different this sounds to any other Audeze headphone I have tried. This is not just a different headphone series in name; the sound really is a departure from that LCD house sound we have all become accustomed too since Audeze’s breakthrough into the market. While the sound of this headphone has changed considerably in terms of ability since the prototypes I heard back in January, it still has some of tonality characteristics.
The sound instantly hits you as being forward and especially present in the midrange and treble, in fact at times I even consider this a bright sounding headphone. Overall though, Audeze have made a very balanced headphone, although it does come with a few spikes and dips in the frequency response.
The presentation of these headphones is forward and your presented very close to the stage. If I am to swap to my HD800s at any point after listening to these we seemingly take an obvious step back from the stage. It makes you feel involved with the music although it does take a little away from the imaging ability because you’re so close. Other than being up front I don’t find anything else stand out regarding the soundstage, it is out of your head but not anything special considering they are an open back. I find width decent but depth could certainly be better, although I think again that may be due to the forwardness of presentation.
I have found the bass incredibly even with only the slightest sign of things getting a little weaker when we get under 50hz and even then, not by much. Compared to other Audeze’s such as the LCD-2 and LCD-3, these aren’t as warm or wet in the bass, with the EL-8s seeming to focus more on punch and precision and they do it well. The bass is not something that try’s to draw focus to itself, it is not like the Apollo Audio Lab X1 that just seems to always been blowing out masses of bass even when the song doesn’t call for it. There is a combination of both control and ability here. When I say it is crazily balanced as well, I mean it; sub-bass lies even with the mid-bass. Now while I love the control, cautious manner of the bass with these, people who like a bit more bloom, warmth or even power from bass could find these to sound a little weak from the bass. I think this is because the decay can be quite quick, in fact these are a fast headphone in general but the bass especially doesn’t ever have the most lingering bass lines and the sub-bass while present and capable, doesn’t ever seem to whollop the side of your head.
In all though I find these to have a capable, fast and punchy bass, far from anaemic but it isn’t going to supply you with skull crushing waves of bass but the punch still can satisfy. In terms of quantity, the mid-bass is similar in quantity to my ZMF Blackwood, while sits a little behind how much my Sennheiser HD580 and Oppo PM-2 has. The Blackwood then shows more presence in the deep bass while this digs deeper than both the Oppo and HD580. Making it more balanced through out the bass than any of them, hence I said it was pretty darn flat.
I find a forward nature in the midrange and a slightly higher pitched tonality due to a gradual rise into the higher mids. However I find the decay in the mids to be a little uneven, creating a resonance that makes male vocals sound a little muffled and even unrealistic at times, in Muses “Panic Station”, Matt Bellamy seems to be singing out of key. Female vocals don’t seem to have as much trouble though, Lana Del Ray sounded as seductive as ever and listening to London Grammar, I found the vocals captivating, strong and right in the spotlight, there was no compression to it either, truly airy and forward. What the midrange does manage though is to be very open and present sounding at all times. I do find there to be a lot of attack though and it almost gets itself in a rut with this because it sometimes can’t cool off and sound refined. Listening to the HD800 against the EL-8 and it was just so much resolving every time, it just made the EL-8 sound a bit hard. The attack does have its benefits though and I find dynamics to be on point, everything is energetic and quick to punch while not be sloppy or slow.
Instruments are well isolated from one and other, quite well and as I said about the bass, the midrange is also impressively quick, and also strikes me as being quite revealing and while it may not be as brutal as some headphones to poor source material, it certainly shows some impressive transparency. Body wise this does seem a little on the thinner side, especially compared to the Apollo X1.
Comparing to some others I find the HD580 to be warmer, smoother but not as detailed, forward or as it happens aggressive. The Blackwood seems to have a similar feeling in terms of body, forwardness and detailing but doesn’t have the weird resonance of the EL-8. The PM-2’s midrange was even less balanced to my ears it seemed veiled, held back and just not as revealing as what we have on the EL-8. The PM-2 was also thicker and smoother but not in a way that meant better resolution.
It could be the decay that makes the midrange sound a little wonky and lacking precision but it also could be the drop out in the treble treble after a slight peak in the upper mids/lower treble. The drop out just takes away from the coherency of the sound as well as overall tonality, it seems like something is a little confused. However if we have a drop out at the beginning at the treble why have I said earlier that I can sometimes find these bright. Well that is because as we approach 10kHz we have a peak up, one that sparkles a LOT and also can be quite splashy. It is not afraid to throw its weight around and can make the treble feel quite brittle and strident and to sensitive ears I could see these getting a little fatiguing from time to time, although these never have any sibilance, which I find much concerning in a headphone than the extra sparkle that these have. I could see them becoming fatiguing though because of quantity and not because they harsh, they are still clear and fast, just a bit peaky and on the thin side. But because the entire treble response is not boosted, these don’t always even sound bright and sometimes these are very tolerable and sometimes just a little over cooked. The treble must however be commended for its ability to extend to incredible heights and is very airy.
Overall these headphones have points that I like and other parts I don’t. The bass is great, I like the up front mids and the overall clarity, detail and freedom of the sound. However I find the treble to be finicky at times and overall coherency, with the midrange and treble sounding especially disjointed. That being said I still prefer them to the Oppo PM-2 in frequency response and technicalities and they crush the Apollo X1 unless all you want is bass making them certainly one of the better offerings in the price range.
I do want to talk about how these perform with different gear as well. Now it is no lie that these are an efficient headphone, they can be got fairly loud out of pretty much anything be it a mobile phone or cheap DAP but the sound can be pushed further than that and this should of course be the case. Handily if you were to get these before having a serious amp and DAC to use these with, you will still get a quality sound and then you build up its front end to work on that sound. I listened to these of the Lotoo Paw Gold for a few hours after these had burned in and I quite enjoyed the session but when I moved to one of my desktop systems, namely the Exogal Comet to the Aurorasound HEADA, I couldn’t believe the increase in body, soundstage and bass depth. But by far my favourite set up with these is using the Lotoo’s line out along with the transportable Bakoon HPA-01M. This is sonics you can take on the move that will cause tingles in peoples skin!
I think the EL-8 is a good headphone, especially in terms of the overall package, build, finish, technology and sound. That being said I do find the sound to be a little unfinished. I remember my first experience with the EL-8 and how I was told things really would be improved; well I feel like they have done 90% of the job. That also is 90% of the way from being a truly awesome sounding headphone and just a pretty good one. It seems like now Audeze have the technology there, they just need to have the fine tuning to finish of this headphone and while it is great to see them entering this new market, I don’t think they have the slam dunk they may have hoped for but that’s not to say this poor. Listening to my other headphones of all price ranges I feel that if you already own a top pair of headphones, I dunno maybe a HD800, a ZMF Blackwood, Beyer T1, HiFiMAN HE-6 or even an LCD, you don’t need this. If however you’re looking to improve up from a budget pair of headphones, well due to the combined efficiency and scalability of these, they are a decent choice, the best sounding no, but the best sounding don’t sound near as good off my phone and keeping getting better with the gear I treat them to.