by Warren Chi
Eight months ago, in the dead of night, my partner at Audio360 (and brother in life) Michael Mercer drove me to an undisclosed location. It was there that we had the opportunity to listen to something remarkable.
As the details were slowly revealed that night, one after another, it quickly became clear that the secret prototype headphone I was listening to wasn’t just playing the game for keeps, it was out to change the game.
That headphone is what the world now knows as the Audeze EL-8 Open Back. And even back then, it was all that and a bag of chips.
Though I had less than an hour with it that night, the signature was something that I won’t soon forget. It was essentially an LCD-X with more visceral macro detail, to the point where it was almost raw and brutally honest (in contravention of typical planar smoothness), and infused with some of the low-end warmth from an LCD-2. It was, for all intents and purposes, a pre-Fazor, “LCD-3 lite” type of signature and very well-balanced. It was with some hesitation that I handed them back to my contact, whom I shall hitherto refer to as “Deep Ears”.
It wasn’t just the sound of the headphone that had me in awe, it was the whole package. The technology, efficiency, design, build, comfort, fit and weight (or lack thereof) were all things that I did not see coming. But it was the expected price point that truly held me in disbelief. “Under $700.” Was that even possible? For an Audeze?
That’s cray cray!
There was only one problem: I couldn’t tell anyone about it. My inner Head-Fier was crushed under the weight of seemingly interminable gag order. Even Michael Mercer was effectively muzzled, much to his Facebooking/Tweeting/Instagramming chagrin. And so, for eight months, we waited. Putting that in perspective, products are announced, launched, hyped and then die in less time than that.
And even when the news broke in a CES teaser ad in The Absolute Sound, we still couldn’t say anything. It was enough to drive a person insane, and I’m not altogether sure that it didn’t do just that in Mercer’s case, if only by a little bit.
Heading into CES, the Audeze EL-8 was the main attraction for many of us, if not all of us.
I arrived at the Audeze booth a little later than most. But when I finally got there, and listened to the EL-8 Open Back, it was… well… it wasn’t exactly the same headphone I had become enamored with eight months ago.
Yes, I understand that listening to an open-backed headphone on the show floor is not at all ideal, but this was different, and I mean literally different. It varied, not only from the early prototype that I heard long ago, but also other from its litter mates nearby. I’m not going to say whether it was good or bad, only that it was not ready. It was exactly as I was cautioned it would be: an early preview of a pre-production tuning.
Moving over to the EL-8 Closed Back, I heard a presentation that I would describe as perhaps less ready versus its open-backed sibling. Ah well, that’s fine. It had been made abundantly clear — through both official statements from Audeze, and my own ears — that the units present at the show were non-production tunings.
Accordingly, I won’t be providing any sonic impressions here… there’s absolutely no point in adding more premature findings to the cacophony of disjointed impressions already floating about. I’ve already waited this long just to even be able to talk about the EL-8, so I think I can wait a little longer until I receive my production-voiced unit before I present authoritative impressions.
In the meantime, let’s take a look at everything else.
Over the course of the past few years, Audeze has been on a mission to lower the cost of high-end headphones. The result of these efforts is the EL-8, which will be priced at only $699. That’s absurdly low as Audeze headphones go. Seriously, think about that for a second. That puts the EL-8 in the same segment as Audioquest‘s Nighthawk, Fostex‘s TH-600, MrSpeakers‘s Alpha Dog and Sony MDR-Z7.
Yet confoundingly, there doesn’t seem to be too much given up in the way of build, fit or finish to hit that $699 target. The EL-8 continues Audeze’s penchance for metallic construction. Every unit, open or closed, is styled with wood veneer. There’s a newly developed magnetic plug and jack system, one that is surely more costly than off-the-shelf mini XLR terminators. The entire unit is now hinged and articulated in a way that LCDs never were, necessitating new tooling and processes that are – again – more costly than those utilized in LCD production. And with the recent addition of their Fazor™ technology, and the introduction of their Fluxor™ and Uniforce™ technologies, the EL-8 isn’t merely a derivative of the LCD line – it’s at the very forefront of planar magnetic technology.
So what gives? Why is the flagship of the new EL line so darned cheap? The answer is found in the synergistic combination of new technologies employed.
When we take a look at the range of planar magnetic headphones out there, we see a variety of models ranging from $129.99 to an astounding $5,500.00. And while many considerations come into play to determine a headphone’s production cost, and hence final selling price, there is a finite set of factors that govern planar magnetics more than most others: magnet structures, conductive traces, and material science being at the top of that list. For the past few years, Audeze has been advancing on all of these fronts, and thrown in a waveguide tweak as well.
Making its debut in the EL series is Audeze’s new patent-pending Fluxor™ technology. Simply put, it is an ingenious re-arrangement of the drivers’ magnets so as to exert more magnetic force upon the diaphragm. In other words, there’s an increase in magnetic flux, without a corresponding size or quantity increase to the magnetic elements themselves. Or to put it even simpler, they are doing more with less (or the same).
Tyll Hertsens presented us with a brief overview in his CES coverage — and I hope he goes into more detail in an upcoming article. In the meantime, I’ve had a chance to play with a Fluxor concept demonstrator, and I can indeed confirm that the increase in the magnetic field strength is not trivial.
At the same time, the EL series also marks the introduction of Audeze’s new Uniforce™ technology as well. With the foundational understanding that the magnetic field influencing the driver diaphragm is not uniform across the entire surface of that diaphragm, Audeze is now varying the width of the circuit traces within the diaphragm, so as to simultaneously increase magnetic flux in certain areas, while decreasing it in others, the result being a more uniform or “uniforced” magnetic field.
There isn’t a trademark to fire our imaginations about Audeze’s advancements in material science. Well, there’s no trademark owned by Audeze anyway, as such advancements are most likely the purview of whichever chemical conglomerate developed them. I would imagine that Audeze – should they ever devise something novel and distinctive in this area – would probably call it Thinnor™ or Flexor™ or Fin[e]or™ or something like that. But just because there’s no trademark being promoted doesn’t mean there’s no improvement in this area. There is. I just can’t say how at this moment due to the lovely NDA in place between us, Audeze and I that is.
And finally, the EL-8 incorporates Audeze’s Fazor™ technology for reduced distortion, as it’s been proven effective in doing so throughout Audeze’s LCD line.
So, how does all of this combine to help make the EL line so much cheaper?
With their Fluxor™ and Uniforce™ concepts working in concert on improved driver diaphragms, the EL-8 can (theoretically) achieve the same or better sonic performance of units in their LCD line with only half as many magnet assemblies, each of which are smaller than their predecessors. And that results in a huge decrease in production costs, especially when you consider how the Chinese are monopolizing rare earth elements these days.
However, as an enthusiast that puts performance first, I am thrilled about the technological ramifications here.
While I have not seen measured magnetic flux data to either prove or disprove the following assertion… but I would surmise that Audeze’s Fluxor™, Uniforce™ and Fazor™ technologies have been combined with better materials to synergistically produce something unique: the world’s first truly isodynamic (constant magnetic field strength) single-sided planar magnetic driver – or at least something damned close to that.
If that is the case, then it means that the EL-8 will have achieved a technological – if not sonic – advantage over other single-sided planar magnetic headphones. This would include the recently announced HiFiMAN HE1000 with its nanometer diaphragm, as well as the critically-acclaimed JPS Labs Abyss (a planar magnetic headphone that is nearly eight times as expensive while not being truly isodynamic). And if the EL-8 performs admirably, this will also mean that Audeze has found an effective way to sidestep the material science arms race, where lighter and more responsive membranes are everything.
In any case, I very much look forward to the continuing maturation of Audeze’s new technologies on many levels.
Design & Features
Audeze is making one heck of a bold move here with their new EL design. Straying from the safe confines of a bespoke, handmade and boutique product, the new EL-8 features an appealing consumer-influenced design that resonates more with casual headphone enthusiasts.
Designed in collaboration with the BMW Design Group, the new EL-8 incorporates sweeping arcs, fluid lines, and sculpted curves that are far more reminiscent of something from Sennheiser or AKG. Personally, I dig the new design. But if you’re not a fan of the EL-8’s design, at least look on the bright side… thank heavens Chris “Bangle Butt” Bangle left years ago in 2009. Can you imagine the monstrosity that would have resulted from him getting his hands into the mix?
And of course, in retaining part of Audeze’s legacy, the EL-8 sports a band of wood veneer that harkens back to the LCD line. I am of mixed opinion about this, and wouldn’t mind seeing some alternative materials used as an accent in lieu of wood veneer. I would imagine that some of my fellow enthusiasts would like to see a bamboo option, as would I. But more than anything else, I’d like to see leather as an option, which would also serve a function in preventing scratches or marring on surfaces when the EL-8 is set down.
In addition, I would like to offer Audeze another small suggestion. I’ve had the opportunity to see some of the design concepts that did not make it into the final product. And while I agree that Audeze made the correct overall choice, I would have liked seeing portions of those other designs integrated as additional EL-8 variants, particularly in terms of color and trim. Think Sennheiser HD 598, and all that entails, only much better tonally-speaking (i.e. not computer beige).
Nevertheless, I would be proud to wear this headphone out and about as-is.
I’m also thrilled to see that Audeze is moving away from mini-XLR connectors. While I’ve never had any issues whatsoever with my Audeze LCD-X or LCD-XC, I know that other owners have experienced their plugs getting stuck inside jacks, as well as loose jack assemblies. This new magnetic connector system promises a secure yet graceful connection that should do much to relegate those connection issues into the past.
Comfort & Fit
We personal audio enthusiasts, being a sect of a larger audiophile cult, are eager to point out that sound quality comes first in our purchasing decisions. What we don’t often mention is that comfort is equally important. After all, if it can’t be worn, it can’t be heard. On this point, I am happy to report that the EL-8 is leagues more comfortable than any LCD model could ever hope to be.
The near-final EL-8 on display at CES is not nearly as light as the secret prototype I donned long ago, but it’s not nearly as heavy as what we’ve come to know and love from Audeze. The clamping force, while still snug and secure, is likewise significantly reduced versus any previous model from the LCD line. And the new off-axis single-sided yoke is a welcome improvement, being able to articulate itself more ergonomically than ever before.
Coming from the LCD line, I have no complaints whatsoever about the EL-8’s comfort and fit.
Again, I’ll reserve sonic impressions for later, after my production unit arrives. But in the meantime, I have to admit that Audeze has managed to exceed my hopes and expectations thus far.
Over the course of the past eight months, I’ve been observing the implementation of their new technologies, keeping an eye on the development of the new EL-8, and witnessing Audeze’s efforts in moving to the next level in terms of catering to a more diverse range of customers. In many ways, they are almost a new company all over again, right down to their recent changes in branding and location. I, for one, wholeheartedly approve.
And it appears that I’m not alone.
Given the incredible interest over the EL-8 in both of its incarnations — the EL-8 launch thread being one of the fastest growing threads in Head-Fi.org history — I think it’s safe to say that many an eye are focused on Audeze right now. I look forward to receiving my review pairs just as soon as they are ready, and final. But I can tell you one thing right now: if the final tuning sounds anything like what “Deep Ears” handed me that night long ago, I’m getting one for myself, without hesitation.