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March 2015
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Audeze EL-8 Headphone Review
World Premiere Review!
Audeze EL-8 Headphone Review
Michael Mercer's Impressions Sessions
At $699 bucks, a first for this music addict!
Review By Michael Mercer

 

Audeze EL-8 Headphone Review

 There was so much information and misinformation flying around the Interwebz about the Audeze EL-8 headphones at CES it was dizzying. It's only grown worse since. Honestly, if I were working for Audeze, I'd be psyched to know that my marketing guys had a wicked plan, if only they did, but they don't. My Audeze EL-8 review here has all the juicy details and info. Luckily, most of the chatter has been positive, and for good reason. Personally, I was impressed with the new Audeze EL-8 from my favorite headphone manufacturer, even in its pre-production form. However, some personal audio devotees chose to harp on the fact that Audeze brought these pre-production pairs to audition at their first large booth at the Las Vegas Convention Center (CES-proper; see my CES report here).

Contrary to some of my peers, I think it was bold of Audeze to share pre-production cans. At this point I can't write more, but lets just say Audeze knew this was a tall task months ago. They could've taken the easy route, only having one or two pairs on majorly over-built displays, and taking the time getting those few precisely the way they wanted them. But they wanted to show people what they're up to, and, I believe, where they're headed.

This is news to Audeze fans? We heard their first LCD-XC at CanJam what, like a year and a half before they released it. They brought the prototype of the LCD-Z to CanJam this year, another work-in-progress that hasn't been released yet. This is a company that's shown up with products in development before, and the EL-8 is just more of that. I think what many aren't seeing is the bigger picture, and that's what counts at the end of the day.

But yeah, it's also like offering crack cocaine to an addictive personality, and then saying we'll have to wait a couple months to get more rock!

The thing about waiting is that it, as my bro and partner at Audio360.org would say, "sucks somethin' awful."  And he's right. The EL-8 thread at @Head-fi.org, started by its founder Jude Mansilla, and including his informative EL-8 video entitled Audeze EL-8: The EL-8 is a must-hear at CES 2015. It's passed 230,000 views already – that's over 2400 posts of curiosity and anticipation and angst. Yes, at times, somethin' awful indeed.

And we all had to suffer through it, none of us personal audio enthusiast/writers have had a pair up to production level, not until now at least. So I'm honestly and wholeheartedly honored and grateful to be granted the first pair to meet production-level standards for these early impressions! I can't try to hide my giddiness, I won't. Right now I'm like a kid at Chanukah (that's an eight-day-long version of Christmas for my goyishe friends!)

But up until now we Audeze devotees and new jacks alike only got to hear the EL-8 open and closed-back pre-production units and Audeze's first headphone amp/DAC, the Deckard. This thing's a sleek modern brushed-metal block of musical goodness, but that's for another time. I auditioned everything at their booth, and I also got to hear the EL-8s in a few high-end audio rooms at the Venetian as well.

The Chord Audio room was one of my favorite stops at the Venetian this year. The open-back EL-8s were fantastically dynamic and engaging on the critically acclaimed Hugo DAC/Amp using my Astell&Kern AK240 DAP for the source. I couldn't get enough of the hi-rez (192kHz/24-bit) version of Stevie Wonder's "Big Brother" off Talking Book. This song's a l'il bit laid-back and  bluesy. It feels like it was a B-side originally, like they just rolled tape during a jam session, and decided to put it on the record. There's this awesome playful vibe goin' on that's infectious. Whenever I experience this track on a resolute, excitable sound system (headphones or speakers) it feels like an audible glimpse into the studio when Stevie's just rockin' out with the band.

 

Long story short: After CES I was EL-8-less. Alex (Rosson, CEO of Audeze) was nice enough to offer a pre-production CES pair, but I didn't wanna continue with my impressions, especially at Head-Fi, where we're all eager to hear more actual impressions of production-ready EL-8s! Jude also had a pre-production pair. With precious few of these cans up to production-level floating around the globe at the moment getting the email confirming my review pair would be shipped (and gratefully arrived two weeks later) it felt like scoring the best possible drug. I couldn't wait to crank music through the EL-8 open-back, as the Audeze LCD-3 literally changed the way I listened to music. It was the very first headphone I experienced that painted a broad audible image and had soul. I'd tried other expensive open-back cans, but the biggest difference to me, what made the LCD-3 stand-out, was that I truly loved hearing my music through them just as much, and perhaps even more at times, than my two-channel reference system. Feeling that way about a pair of headphones actually freaked me out. Even as a DJ I looked at headphones as tools for mixing, or as a means to listen to music while I was mobile. Audeze was the manufacturer that literally tipped me over the edge to high-end personal audio in 2009 and I haven't looked back since. That's a big moment in this audio enthusiasts life, and Audeze were responsible for that.

On that note, Audeze, to me, represents more than the present and future of high-quality headphones. First, I make sure to put this out there in every Audeze article I write: Alex Rosson of Audeze is a dear friend of mine. Some may consider my reporting on their cans as a conflict of interest, but having heard from many of my readers on the subject (thanks to all of you BTW) who say they appreciate my candor but they trust me because I shoot from the heart. I've said it before; for me, the fact that one of my best friends and his team build my favorite headphones is a blessing! Trust me, when Audeze builds something that I believe is sub-par, I'll say so. In the meantime they just keep rolling out products that excite me.

Audeze EL-8 Headphone Review

However, I believe it's a huge mistake not to offer an all-black EL-8 which would have been far more sleek, modern and elegant. And IMHO, it would speak more to the heart of what the EL-8 represents – the future, a whole new direction, at an MSRP of $699. It's a new headphone line for them, so I say go for it, all the way. But I hear they're evaluating changes that'll include all-black so let's give Audeze the benefit of the doubt that they'll come up with the right look.

For this piece I shared what we Head-Fiers call early impressions, our first observations with regard to sonics, build-quality, musicality, a general description of the user experience with the headphones thus far. I had listening sessions and took notes, crafting copy with those as many of us reviewers do. I also tried some live sound impressions; I wrote about the music as I experienced it. I got into doing this at Head-Fi, it's far more interesting and stimulating finding the flow of consciousness (or lack thereof?) during playback. This way, I get to describe what I'm actually feeling in the present-tense, in the moment. Doing this sort-of live blogging style on everything from the musicality and sonic performance of the headphones to the feelings and memories that the music and sound triggers excites me and I sincerely hope you enjoy them. Not all Impressions are live – they're labeled accordingly.

This is not, however, my full review of the EL-8s, rather it's a journal-type expression of my feelings regarding them based on my initial time with the open-backs (closed-backs for review will be arriving ASAP). If you're seeking a terrific technical explanation of the EL-8 and the two new technologies employed in the headphones, I highly recommend my brother from another mother and partner in Audio360.org Warren Chi's Audeze EL-8 at CES article at The Audio Traveler. I'll provide plenty of detail in my full review as well, but this is a chance to just flow and share my musical journeys with the stunning EL-8 over the last two weeks with you. As a result I've not had way too many sunset to sunrise sessions with the 8s, but I made it a point to explore their capabilities with a barrage of different gear. I've traveled with 'em using my favorite portable DAP (digital audio player) rigs like the Astell&Kern AK240 and Glove Audio A1 (by CEntrance) DAC/Amp for the Astell&Kern AK120. I've tossed them at big and small amplifiers and DACs: Everything from my beloved Cavalli Liquid Gold (solid-state differential fully-balanced solid-state), my top reference amp, to my other cherished desktop references like the E.A.R HP4 and ALO Studio Six tube amps. I even paired the EL-8s with new gear (that I've come to know sonically) like the updated ALO International+ Amp/DAC. The original International is still one of my favorite battery-powered balanced Amp/DACs, so after hearing the new version, I had no choice but to include it.

I've tried to offer you a glimpse into why I think the EL-8 is a class-defining headphone at $699. Even though it's still early, I can can say, and sleep soundly saying so, that I believe they've achieved what I've been wanting since I got my original LCD-3s in 2009, a smaller, modern, slick pair of headphones worthy of the Audeze name that I can easily take with me anywhere I go. Unlike the world-renowned LCD-series, these don't make me look like Mighty Mouse when I rock em' (and hey, I love my LCDs) at Barnes & Noble or stroll through town. Of course, the closed-backs would be the ideal choice for that.

The EL-8 open-back is stoutly-built, precisely what I'd expect when Audeze has BMW DesignWorksUSA do the industrial design while they handle the drivers and sound. If you ask me, thus far, the EL-8 delivers far more than people experienced at CES this year. I can't wait for others to bask in it's silky sound. Here's why I'm so excited about it...

The EL-8 looks like the bizness, and its a sincere pleasure to put on. That sounds like Glamour-type reporting, but it's true. Lately I've been appreciating that minute detail more and more. Though the modern styling of the headphone chassis (headband to ear-cup arch-like attachments) is minimalistic in its execution, it provides two very important features when it comes to finding the right fit on your dome. Our domes are shaped differently; big, small, watermelon or pear-shaped, and this has to be a tough choice for headphone designers: How to accommodate as many end-users as possible. Well, those two key design elements I mentioned above take care of the vertical and horizontal pivoting of the ear-cups. This way you control the way the pad sits on your head from side-to-side and up-and-down. I find, when I first put on the EL-8s, that I mess with the ear-cups for a few seconds, getting 'em snug and comfortable. I fully appreciate the ability to find the right fit instantly. C'mon: Sometimes we're all sore, we're cranky, other times we're so happy we could give a s*** if they clamp a bit too much. With the 8s chassis and comfy pads I've been able to listen for more than 14 to 16 hours at a stretch. Now, I don't recommend it – I'm clearly a nut job.  But it's good to know you can right? Unfortunately the weight in the specs state the EL-8 is technically heavier than their highly-regarded (especially in the recording world) LCD-X. At 460 grams – just a hair over a pound – the 8's sheer weight has a few objectivists already expressing concerns across the interwebs. I'm happy to report that I just spoke with Alexandra (my wifey) about her overall impressions of the 8s thus far. Without knowing any specs of course, she told me "they don't feel nearly as heavy as the LCD-3," (her personal favorite Audeze headphones). Notice she didn't jump to say they're lighter but that they "felt" lighter and that's the key.

I think it feels lighter as a combination of the industrial design of the headphone chassis, the pads, the shape of the driver housings and the earcups. Bottom-line, they don't feel heavy to me. Sure, are they heavier than, let's say, Sennheisers' HD650 (great cans too BTW) – indeed they are. Do I own lighter headphones? Sure. Good fit makes for a comfortable listening experience ensuring your can rock 'em for extended listening sessions. The fit and overall physical aspect of the EL-8s made 'em feel like they were built for me. You can't build a better physical relationship with a headphone than that. However, what makes the real connectedness that I seek, something at best intangible, is that awareness that overcomes me when listening to a piece of music, but it's not all conscious. There's just something magical about hearing your favorite music on a kick-ass system, whether headphone or loudspeaker! I can get lost in the music if all the elements come together in a way that wholeheartedly moves me. I know, some have dismissed this connection I speak of as mere hyperbole, but it's how I feel about it. There's just no right or wrong about it.

That feeling also has me itching for the closed-back EL-8s – I'm a music junkie. You remember when you saw your favorite band live for the first time? Remember how pumped you were? That's the feeling I'm talkin' about. With the onslaught of bleeding-edge personal audio I can feel that special way walking to get my mail! The catch is, because there's literally nothing between you ears and the transducers, all the components have to be up to task when it comes to reproducing my music my way; fast and visceral with dimension and soul. Thus far I've experienced a few listening sessions with the open-back EL-8s bordering on the transcendent. While my expectations were unreasonably high for these cans they've begun to pull it off as they break-in. It took some time for things to settle in and some system configurations were better than others. After the time I spent playin' the 8s on a bunch of different gear I know really well I can't name a headphone in the same price range with the same intensity, speed, and overall gestalt. Why? Music through the EL-8s has been magnetic lately...

 

And Now, Here Comes The Music
Associated Gear: MacBook Pro Retina SSD running Amarra Symphony software
TIDAL Hi-fi streaming service, using Amarra sQ – from MacBook Pro
VPI Traveler turntable w/ Ortofon 2MBlue cartridge + Gingko Audio Cloud9T Iso Base
Unison Research Simply Phono tube phonostage
Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies headphone amp/DAC (used as amp)
iFi Audio Micro iDSD USB DAC/Headphone Amplifier
 Nordost Heimdall2 interconnects
Locus Design Nucleus USB cable
Sonicweld prototype active power cord on Woo Audio PS
Nordost QRT Power Qb8 w/ 2 Qv2 plug-ins


"Jaded" On Acid – Recondite
Via TIDAL & Amarra sQ
I've started using Recondite's "Jaded" lately for a couple of basic reasons; speed, and how that speed translates into the bass and lower-midrange. This may be difficult to describe but I'll give it a try. I've been at many electronic dance parties with pounding sound systems that are both insanely clear and resolute at ridiculous volumes. For me only the clearest systems were able to create a powerful sway in the bass and lower-mids. It's not like the kick is changing melodically – it's a straight-up four-to-the-floor dance-floor knocker -- but you can't help but move to it. It might be PRaT (Pace, Rhythm and Timing), or something like that. It's sway, but if you don't know sway, think PRaT for now. That's what I listen for when listening to "Jaded. With the open-back EL-8s and Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies complementing each other's sonic attributes so well, I simply couldn't stay still in my chair. That was the first good sign. The fist-pumps later kinda sealed the deal. It seemed like it took a couple days of burn-in to really get there, but once it clicked I couldn't stop listening to this damn club track. The sound of the system through the 8s was infectious and clear. There was no hint of distortion, even when I cranked it way too loud. I just had so much fun rockin' this track on these cans.

 

"Kim and Jessie" Saturdays = Youth – M83
Via 12" vinyl pressing on VPI Traveler
Some are undoubtedly shaking their heads right now looking at this choice. But ever since I reviewed this 12" vinyl pressing of M83s "Kim and Jessie" for Big Black Disc I started using it for critical listening sessions. At first I started using it as a sort of playback intermission. I'd toss it on to recharge and step away from the seriousness of it. The breeziness and the wide-open soundscape M83 creates is refreshing. Unfortunately it also reminds me of the eighties a little too much, of being a child of the mid-eighties/early-nineties. Having spun this record enough times to need a second copy I want you to know there's a method to my madness. In this track I'm listening for the sense of space and how the headphones manages the separation of individuals sounds in this soaring, rhythmic, synth-driven pop ballad. Because, while the airiness I mentioned before presents a nice departure from my usual Impressions playlists, after many spins I noticed that certain cans present the hovering synths like a wash of sound over many of the other sounds. The transient attack of the drums would get lost in this audible muck. It was an instant tell. If the drums, the keys, guitars, and the vocals remained intact while engulfed in this sonic wave of eighties-like synths it's a good sign. I'm not implying the musical elements should sound separate but they should be easily picked out. The EL-8s got this song stuck in my head for days.

 

"The Fireside" Popular Songs – Yo La Tengo
Via MacBook Pro/Amarra Symphony (44.1kHz/24-bit AIFF file)
This jam, as it's an instrumental tune, couldn't be more aptly named. Unfortunately I realize I used that precise line in a previous review, so either my OCD is getting the better of me (possible, not-likely today) or the musical composition and execution reminds me of sitting next to friends at a camp or bonfire! It's the latter for me. This track let's you know if your system's squashing the signal, compressing what should be a wide and deep soundstage. But "The Fireside" has a large and beautifully dark sonic signature, so if it sounds small you have some work to do. The night-time like atmosphere comes via airy, echoing guitars, and maybe a synth or two, but all the sounds seem to float in a dark space. Every note sounds like it's soaring up like an ember in a bonfire! That maybe the closest I can come to describing.  The EL-8 not only nailed it, but this system configuration rendered new and excitedly impressive depth with an even bigger soundstage image.

It's one of my favorite tunes to chill out with. I can't tell you how many times I've listened to it. The open-back EL-8, driven by this system, reproduced colorful sonic imaging. There's just a synergy to this particular system that recreated a deeply vivid and dimensional sound. It's actually soothing, like sonic tonic. Next to my Audeze LCD-3 w/ Fazor, HD800, and Audio Technica ATH-900X, the open-back EL-8 has become one of my favorite for this particular track. I think that speaks far more than my prose ever can.


Associated Equipment List
Glove Audio A1 (by CEntrance) DAC/Amp for Astell&Kern AK100 and 120 DAPs
Astell&Kern AK120 docked into the A1 (as storage)

I jumped right to the Woo Audio WA7 before because I had a feeling the two would sound great together. The Audeze LCD-XC also sounds terrific on the WA7. But I needed to get out'a the house with these cans. Now, of course I would've preferred (and can't wait) for the closed-back EL-8s for this purpose, but I've walked around with my huge open-back LCDs so I don't care too much; I was always heading to a place where I'd have privacy for hours on end. I realized how magical it is to listen to a pair of high-quality open-backs outside when we were at the Four Seasons at Haulalai in Kona, Hawaii a couple years ago. Like the nutbag I am, I brought my Audeze LCD-3s in their road-case. While that was amazing, I also had to bring the much-larger ALO RxMK3-B battery-powered headphone amp (top of its game at the time) and my iPod Classic for music. I wish I had this rig during that trip. Maybe we'll make it back there again someday. It would've been fantastic! I could've taken my open-back music on a walk down the beach. This portable rig would've been so amazin' in that environment. I couldn't believe, at times, the level of musical engagement and dynamic power produced by this combo.

 

"One Mic" Stillmatic – Nas (44.1kHz/24-bit AIFF file)
Thanks to a reader who dropped me this request for this first edition of Sonic Satori Impressions Sessions...

"I'm interested to hear how this system ultimately compares – not technically because that's boring – but in terms of how it makes you feel, what it makes you think of, how it changes the mood of the scene. Because when you're out and about and listening to music, it becomes your soundtrack and creates a context for what you're looking at, walking through and feeling."

I was psyched to get that PM (private-message), as this track by Nas represents more about my memory association and feelings about recorded music than anything technical. For these sessions I ended up in wine country all over Sonoma County in California. I was seeking a more meditative experience with this song.

Usually I (and some of my life-long NY friends) rock this to get motivated for anything important, good or bad. It feels like Nas is absorbing all our angst, fear, and anger during the build-up to the chorus. There's a downside to the high-fidelity hobby (well, it's been one for me and Alexandra for sure); it takes a certain kind of system to stir those memories and feelings to work me up. I'm not saying I can't have the same sort of transformative experience listening to an old clock radio in my garage. After all, I'm chasing the music through the gear and I know many of you are just like me. But with today's never-ending, always plugged-in, never fully-conscious of everything state-of-mind that plagues most of us it helps to slow my mind to hear a system that's resolute and faster than most.

Especially with the hip hop I tend to enjoy, a system's gotta have a serious hold on the tightness of the sub-bass, bass, and lower-mids, along with the mid-range where most of the music lives. When I hear this song on an engaging system, portable, desktop, or in-room, I think of a handful of friends going back to 3rd grade. I feel gratitude, and some guilt for not staying as close as a couple of them. It's a serious duality. I'm not quite sure why it's this track that sparks those feelings in me as we were all more into the Native Tongue movement (De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Black Sheep, Brand Nubian and others). You can lose yourself to in it if all the components in the system are doing their job, especially the headphones or loudspeakers.

Using the EL-8 with the Glove Audio A1 + AK120 as a portable rig was sonically addictive. I must've rocked "One Mic" well over fifty times by now. The bottom-end slammed with authority and precision. Nas'svocals, through a clean and coherent system, has this silky yet gritty natural vibe that's unmistakably his. That voice reflects the grimy days of our collective youth when I hear it clearly. The EL-8 turned my internal clock back instantly with the Glove combo. Suddenly I was sitting in my sh***y l'il 1980 Toyota Starlet, rockin' two Cerwin Vega 12" subs in the rear. Don't get me wrong, it didn't sound nearly as bass-heavy and muffled as that, it's just the attitude we carried back in those days. Those youthful feelings came back with this track's wicked dynamic crunch.

The down side? I love to listen to the Glove Audio A1 via its 2.5mm TRRS balanced output. Audezes cables and their proprietary Zinc connectors aren't available at Double Helix Cables yet! They would complete my reference gear chain. I wanna hear that right now, so fellas, somebody figure this out please. I know there's more to be unleashed from these cans, like with the original LCD-3s! My first experience with Cardas Clear cables with the 3s made it clear that was a grand understatement. Anyway the stock cables didn't stand in the way of EL-8's transparency and dynamics. I can't talk about other options right now, but I have a sneaking suspicion when some of the cable experts (Double Helix Cables or Nordost, WyWires, Moon Audio, Black Cat Cable or ALO) get their hands on the sync terminations we'll start to hear all sorts of different sounding EL-8-driven systems. I'm confident that many headphone enthusiasts will also feel they could be more expensive! Like this portable rig – its natural sounding, musical and dynamic, nothing short of captivating. Another feather in the EL-8 open-backs cap for these sessions.

 

"Special N" Les Revenants – Mogwai (44.1kHz/24-bit AIFF files)
I used this track in my first Audeze article for The Daily Swarm because (as mentioned) there's something about the string arrangements that gets to me emotionally. This one is straight-up silly, but hey, it was a memorable moment of raw emotion with the wonderfully moody sound of Mogwai. I remember going so far as testing which headphone – Sennheiser HD800 or Audeze LCD-3 – would make me cry faster! My wifey witnessed this odd behavior and asked me what I was doing, and tears ran down my face as I explained it to her. She said I was nuts. After eighteen years, she ought'a know. But this track accesses something inside me, and whatever it is, it's strong enough to trigger tears. That's pretty damn powerful.

It ended up a tie by the way between the HD800 and LCD-3 (original version pre-Fazor). At first I wasn't sure about the EL-8's emotive impact. The song didn't sound thin or dry, quite the opposite actually. The sound was vividly reproduced but it lacked something. Again I'm talking intangibles like emotions but I think it's important to know if an audio component, as part of any playback system (we're always hearing the interaction of the various components) can translate the emotional weight of a song as well as its sonic impact. This is definitely more cannon fodder for the objectivists, but again, I'm trying with good faith to paint an audible image of what I heard and felt with the new Audeze EL-8 open-back planar magnetic headphones so far. This track presented me with damn convincing proof of headphone break-in, just like speakers. I say that because, if I wrote these sonic impressions last week I'd be writing about a different listening experience.

Whatever, however, I got to the point that "Special N" grabbed me in some deep-seated sad kind of way that seemed like it happened only a few days ago. It was heavy like when you break-up with someone and you keep listening to the song that reminds you of him or her. It's crazy how we torture ourselves without knowing exactly what we're doing. Maybe we just wanna feel something deeply. The sad thing is that I know when the sound of this song is at its best because it makes me cry like a little bitch, and I play it anyway. I can say honestly that I enjoy a good cry now and then. But, as emotional as I am, and I'm a Scorpio emotional wacko – I don't cry easily. At this point: Listening to Mogwai's "Special N" turns me into something out of Steel Magnolias. It's not pretty. Hello, my name is Michael and I'm a music-addict. I love it all if I really feel it. It's Sunday, February 15th, 8:02AM, and I've just gone through another all-night listening session with the Audeze open-back EL-8. Action speak louder than words.

Associated Equipment List
MacBook Pro SSD running Amarra Symphony
TIDAL Hi-fi streaming service + Amarra sQ
CEntrance HiFi-M8 Amp/DAC
Soon-to-be-released USB cable (limited edition, in honor of a fallen friend - TBA)

The CEntrance HiFi-M8 continues to be my top travel reference headphone Amp/DAC (battery and USB-bus-powered). As I wrote in my original review of the M8 at Part-Time Audiophile, the HiFi-M8 is more like a desktop amp than any other portable I've heard. Jude Mansilla, Founder of Head-Fi.org, said something similar in his featured video review of the M8. Its got a shitload of power, and excellent sound-shaping options. Both features aids to dial-in the M8 with your headphones. One important setting is the impedance switch (11, 2, 1 Ohm). I'm constantly reminding other M8 users who ask why I don't run 4-pin XLR/balanced cables from the HiFi-M8 that when using the 4-pin XLR output the impedance switch is rendered useless. Normally little things like that don't necessitate an explanation, but the difference in sound, especially on the EL-8s, is staggering going from 1 to 11 Ohms. The entire soundstage moves forward instantly with the flick of that switch. It's as if the music was emanating from further away, on a stage at a music festival perhaps, and they suddenly boosted every fader on the house console all in a split-second. It's that immediate and apparent.

There were certain aspects of this combination that made it one of my favorites for the EL-8s. For one, the sound of electronic dance music on this l'il system was hard charging, drivey, and downright fun to spin. Another was that while it could sound like a desktop Amp/DAC even though it's totally portable but not small. The unfortunate truth is, size, weight, and style matters! I used to take the M8 on planes but now I just rock the Astell&Kern AK240 or my Glove Audio A1 Amp/DAC (by CEntrance) for AK100 and 120 DAPs. They're much smaller and have big sound. But the HiFi-M8 stands alone, IMHO, not to mention it'is $699.99. The M8's insane price punctuates its unusually high level of cost-vs.-performance compared to other portable Amp/DACs.

Unfortunately I'm measuring this with one of my most-important, if not the most important, sonic characteristic that can't be quantified, soul. There's something about the sound of my music through the HiFi-M8, whether through its USB or iDevice inputs, that's just got that extra somethin'. Music playback feels so energized that it's seductive. This is why I had to include the M8 here, the very first installment of Sonic Satori's Impressions Sessions, but with only room for a couple short licks. More to come in the full review.

 

"Petrichor" (Tin Man Remix) On Acid – Recondite
Via TIDAL Hi-fi streaming service + Amarra sQ
Live Impression: In case you haven't noticed yet, I'm a big Recondite fan and I highly recommend all of his records. I don't think I've ever said that about an artist before. Just check out Hinterland and Iffy ASAP if you're into intelligent electronic dance music or tech house. Most of his tracks are also well recorded and that's a serious bonus. Unfortunately I don't own On Acid, but I love the album, and it's available on TIDAL. I get that goin', fire up Amarra sQ (their equalizer/DSP software plug-in for TIDAL) and the tracks sound great. I consider TIDAL + Amarra sQ as high-fidelity sources these days. So I have no qualms about describing the experience of listening to "Petrichor" (Tin Man Remix). It's one of my latest motivational tracks. I've also been using it for awhile to gauge bass and sub-bass clarity and dynamics. This track, when played perhaps a bit too loud, is also very visual for me. Lots of dance floor memories. If I could've only DJ'd for a living. The guys that do are Gods, like Mr. C, my friend and part of the foundation of tech house. Don't get me started, most of em' are mere button-pushers...

Okay, went a little off-topic there, back to the music. Think of an ancient African drum circle. Think of the instruments used, and the number of them. Not many either way right? It's tribal, that's the thriftiest way I can explain it. When you've faced down your nasty week and it's time to let it all go on the dance floor it can be a transformative experience. I used to work out some of my demons there. I even stayed in great shape! But its not merely the music itself that makes up the magic when it comes to the realness of electronic dance music culture. It's the energy of the people around me, and having that memory and many others like it stored in my brain forever. If I'm rocking one of my reference headphone systems or a component in for review that I'm enjoying, when I hear a track like "Petrichor" it just grabs me. I start moving at my desk, and sometimes it can get pretty-damn embarrassing for my wife around here but keeping smiles on your face as often as you can will save your life in the end.

Music like Recondites can take me on the types of sonic journeys that'll have me doing shit I'd never do without this music behind me. You want visceral? Crank this muthafucker up on something like the Cavalli Audio Liquid Glass and the open-back EL-8s. "Petrichor" (Tin Man Remix) has it all for a soundtrack-to-life kinda vibe. It's flowy, airy, drivey, and it's got that dance floor sway that you just can't resist if you've got a pulse. Are there adjectives that end in "y" that I missed there by the way? "Groovy"?

It sounds bloody tight from top-to-bottom. The mid-band is crisp and full-bodied, with an almost tactile silky presence. The driving force of the four-on-the-floor kick-drum and swirling, hovering, interwoven synths and other percussive elements create an enveloping sensation. I don't sense any smearing of the bass impact or timbre, same with the midrange and higher frequencies. Actually this is a more linear sound signature overall. I'm not saying it turned boring... it's a more balanced presentation than what I was expecting. I don't say that with a hint of negative judgment. Life ain't flat! Why should my music be? And when I say linear sounding I mean it in an LCD-X kind'a way. When I say linear in an LCD-X kind'a way I mean it's got a more balanced sound but it's also exciting and dynamic.

Perhaps this illuminates my point. Grammy Award-winning producers and engineers like Frank Filipettitrust the LCD-X enough to work with in the studio. I'll be connecting with Frank ASAP for a conversation about getting him hooked on LCD-3s. He's truly A-Team. His credits, the body of work he's been involved in, include Judy Collins, Barbara Streisand, and KORN! One helluva resume. So it's a great compliment to the EL-8 that I heard and felt the same.

 

"Hearse" Which Side Are You On? – Ani DiFranco
Via Spotify-Plus & Amarra sQ
C'mon TIDAL – Tell JayZ to get to work and get Ani's full albums!
Live Impression: Yup, I ain't scared. I'm using Spotify Plus and Amarra sQ Equalizer/DSP software that works with any legit streaming service for these impressions of the EL-8's handling of this magnificent love song. I'm psyched listening it right now. I feel more focused on the music itself. This is a truly gorgeous and heavy love song for the Mercer family. It's also actually one of our songs – me and Alexandra. You know, you find a song that reminds you of your partner; perhaps its their smile, their laugh, there's just something very familiar and warm about the tune when you're listening together. Whenever I play DiFranco's "Hearse", whether on speakers or my headphones (if they're open-back like these EL-8s) Alexandra will eventually come over to wherever I am, and we'll share a moment. It's always an exchange of smiles, as we both consider the places we've been together. Physically, spiritually, emotionally, we go through it all when a sound system's got that sparkle. We love the song so much, if we can, we end up listening to the full-resolution files (44.1kHz/24-bit) via our dedicated MacBook audio rig in our main reference system. The chorus, when you just read the words, can seem pretty freakin' morose... "I will follow you into the next life like a dog chasing after a hearse." But when I hear Ani DiFranco's lyrical delivery I know it's all about the infinite and the commitment we've made to each other. Precious moments like this are what keep me going when I've been writing all night and day, and all I wanna do is sit next to my wifey on our couch.

Sonically this sounds surprisingly sweet. DiFranco's vocals are not nearly as compressed as I expected. After all, it doesn't matter how great Amarra sQ is (and it's freakin' great), if the source is already compressed to shit for massive distribution (or any other reason) you're screwed. I know DiFranco wouldn't let that shit ride. Her albums have always been exquisitely mixed and produced. She's into Hi-fi as well; I heard she rocked a pair of Magnepan 3.6s (legendary US-made floor-standing planar speakers). Listening to the Spotify + Amarra stream of "Hearse" off her powerful Which Side Are You On? album reminds me that some artists still care and pick the right people to squeeze some kind'a fidelity out'a that cyber-pipe! This sounds surprisingly dynamic and spacious. There seems to be a bit of haze over the macro and micro-dynamic details, but it's not nearly significant enough to kill the feel of the playback. When it comes to the overall coherence of the music that haze is noticeable but only barely when I'm enjoying the tune and not all critical-listened-out. I get the chills I usually get when the song ends. I was also surprised at the air and dimensionality of the playback via Spotify. I'm so thankful that Amarra took on streaming audio. I've had a beta version of it and something's coming that's very cool for all of us. I was obviously not shy about using a Spotify stream in these impressions because I believe Vince has a point when he says to remember the average user. But I also wanted to see how the EL-8s would do with it. Thumbs up on this sonic treat.

 

Associated Equipment List
MacBook Pro SSD running Amarra Symphony
TIDAL Hi-fi streaming service + Amarra sQ
HRTmicroStreamer USB DAC/Amp
Moon Audio Silver Dragon USB cable

Live Impression: HRT Levels the Field with the MicroStreamer. I love this l'il music-making monster of a USB Amp/DAC! Looking back at my microStreamer review on Positive Feedback I believed in it then and it still holds its own today, so the headline was warranted. However, HRT released the microStreamer at the height of Audioquest's reign over these small USB Amp/DACs with their sexier Dragonfly. Thankfully the Head-Fi community has been keeping the microStreamer flame alive right through from the first thread I ever started. I'm psyched to see that conversation continuing today! Whenever I hear what this deceivingly small headphone Amp/DAC is capable of, I think about driving my original LCD-3s with this small aluminum brick (which is precisely what I called it back then) and I still dig the combination! I was really worried that everyone in the personal audio community was gonna think I lost it. How could this thing work? Well if ever you have the opportunity to hear one check it out.

I you're looking for a USB Amp/DAC for under 200 bucks it's either the MS or the new Dragonfly. That said, I threw it a couple of curves with my track selection. I just wanted to have fun with this impression but I needed the EL-8 and microStreamer to play well together sonically and musically. I had confidence in the MS having used it ever since I wrote about it. But I didn't need to worry, when I heard them together I was elated! (I couldn't resist throwing a joke in.) Kidding aside, the HRTmicroStreamer and Audeze EL-8 combo is a fierce high-end personal-audio experience at a total cost less than $900. I'd work on music with this rig comfortably. That's nice, straight-up.

 

"Exposed" EX Club Mixes – Plastikman (44.1kHz/24-bit FLAC files)
I had to pick a Plastikman track for these impression sessions. Ever since I saw the pic of Richie Hawtin (Plastikman) and Alex Rosson (of Audeze) on Rosson's Instagram, I remember noticing how genuinely happy they looked after spending time talking about music and the future of headphones. I also thought about hearing him on this tight tour and how "Spastik" changed my life. I had to make a record when I heard what he did with the simplest tools. Hawtin's a masterful technician on decks and whatever you got that bumps. I've seen him get sounds out of Roland drum machines during gigs that I couldn't even imagine before watching him create'em and hearing it take shape on a big-ass system in a warehouse in Brooklyn.

Moments like that shaped me. The underground dance music scene became my community and my escape from the built-in nightmares of real life. I know I've danced away many fights and negative moments that built up inside me. I got to release all that bullshit on the decks eventually, which was even more spiritual because then I became responsible for the dancers' journey. I'd remind myself of that before every live DJ gig I played with my boy Peter Wohelski together as the Ol' SkoolBastids. We got to rock dance floors around the world together. All of that's going on in my head when I play this track and my legs can't stay still, nor can I keep from bobbin' my head in ways that are making it difficult to type at the moment.

The sonic power of this track relies heavily in the control of the rippling kick, and the pond/puddle-like audible effect of carrying some of one bass hit to the next creates a slight wave effect at the bottom-end. Bass-ripples, that's literally what it sounds like. This pounding wave of bass energy gets me movin' no matter what mood I'm in or the time of day I hear it.

His tunes aren't merely about the bass however, Plastikman is a Jedi Master of techno build-ups and break-downs, and keeping the momentum on the dance-floor going no matter how minimal the music is. I picked this track because I hoped the EL-8s were going to surprise me with their reproduction of the bass that opened-up so much in the last two weeks it's unbelievable even to me! But it's happened. These cans can bang and handle musical nuance like no other headphones I've heard near this price. The fit, the feel of the headphones in my hands, everything about the EL-8 is fresh. It's just masterful how the EL-8 reproduces the dynamic sway of this club-banger. It's immersive, and so drivey I can't listen anymore without grabbing Alexandra for a quick dance, whether she wants to or not! The sound was tight, focused, and dimensional. The soundstage was much wider than I remember from last week. Plus, according to my critical listening notes the bass started to "bust loose" last Thursday. Right now they're busting loose alright. This is pure silky sound. I'm feelin' it.

 

"9 Crimes" 9 – Damien Rice (feat. Lisa Hannigan on vocals) (44.1kHz/16-bit AIFF file)
Live Impression: This song is like a sonic soul salve; the EL-8s sound like they were literally built to monitor this specific recording. I've played this song too many times. I don't wanna burn-out on this masterpiece, and yet if a system's resolving capabilities are up to the task I'll sit through the whole song and play it at least once or two more times, but most-likely three or four more times. The open-back 8s have me hitting the repeat button over and over, so I'd say they captured the mood and the extended frequency extremes.

I've always loved the sense of space in this recording. It's very minimal compositionally with just a piano, Rice and Hannigan, and a few strings. The sound is so huge though, and every element has black space around it. So while the song itself is stripped down, the sound is luscious and vast with lots of reproduced space while subtle vocal inflections are intensified. Or, better to say, since they have room to breathe they appear almost larger-than-life. As every haunting element is seemingly amplified, so is the raw emotion of their lyrical deliveries. Lisa Hannigan emanates this feeling of longing and regret. Damien Rice's lower, more chesty tonality complements her wispy vocals beautifully. As the chorus crescendos they enter into this sort of glowering vocal dance, trading-up verses and choruses that frame this dark singer/songwriter ballad perfectly. This was a winning combination. I'm psyched I picked it at the near-end of these impression sessions.

 

Concluding Thoughts
The EL-8 is not a replacement, nor an upgrade from Audeze's current reference LCD-series headphones. The design, physically and technologically, represents Audeze's entry into a headphone price range packed with hobbyist favorites like Sennheiser HD650s and HiFiMAN ‘phones. I'm not sure about their current price because of the Prime, but I think the Alpha Dogs might be in the same ballpark too. Now, out of these other headphone examples, I've heard 'em all, but only owned one, the HD650. Knowing that, the sheer speed of the EL-8's transient attack and imaging has set yet another benchmark for other headphones to be judged against. What I experienced at CES wasn't even an appetizer equivalent and I was happy with 'em then. I wasn't as ecstatic as the first time I heard the prototype, but I also knew they had a bit of a road ahead of them so I didn't judge too harshly while in Vegas. But this pair of 8s have already replaced a good portion of my headphone collection (as I try to come up with wicked ways to convince Alexandra to let us buy 'em!)

I'll be doing some A/B comparative listening in my full review for Audio360.org. But I urge every Audeze devotee in the meantime to try and strike comparisons to the LCDs from your mind. I'm not saying this because I think the EL-8 is weak. I'm saying this, as I have from the announcement of the EL-8, that Audeze didn't look back for answers when they sat down to design the EL-8. For example, the EL-8s drivers are single-sided (another design aspect that sets them wholly apart from the LCD-series that are dual-sided) and this, along with other new implementations that we'll dig into in the full review, makes it more practical. If you have to judge them against other cans, try using things like a Sennheiser HD650 or HiFiMAN HE-400. Because I just can't picture another set of cans out-foxing the EL-8s to my ears, musically or sonically, for $699. Their speed alone is enough to raise the bar for all headphones under 1000 bucks today. They're also built like a brick shithouse, but look damn good nonetheless.

I checked the 8s out using various systems so people could get a broader picture for how they play sonically with differing configurations. As it's important to remember, we're always hearing more than any one component in any audio system. We're hearing and experiencing the system as a whole. This is why I try to stay away from statements like "this headphone sounds like.." without mentioning the associated components. It's like saying "this cable sounds like..." Can a cable actually have a sonic signature? Isn't it the cables' job to transmit the source signal without imparting much of itself onto the original signal? Generalizations have come back to bite me.

I've tried to share my observations and experiences of the spectacular Audeze EL-8s performance from a sonic, spiritual and musical viewpoint across numerous reference systems over the past two weeks. It's been the easiest hard work I've ever done as an audio reviewer. I'm still attached to the idea of an all-black EL-8. It would be so damn sexy. Just make it happen Audeze.

I'm against comparing the LCDs – very different headphones in cost and design – to the EL-8 but it's a necessary evil. After all, like I said in the EL-8 thread recently, the only Audezes we can all relate to are the beloved LCDs. So I'm going to do my best.

The irony is, of course the EL-8 carries some LCD DNA, like my John Coopworks Mini carries BMW DNA. I love my little car, and it does certain things on the road better than my wife's Beemer. But the X3 is a far more sophisticated sports SUV, just a much nicer car all-around. But when it comes to handling at high-speed, I'm gone baby, gone. It's all about personal preference. One of the coolest things about EL-8 is how it sets itself apart from the LCD series. Let's also try to be rational for a second! Audeze offers the EL-8 at $699, the most-affordable Audeze headphone ever. The closest in price is the now-legendary LCD-2 at $995! Were you really expecting these $700 headphones to out-perform their all hand-crafted reference series? Perhaps my expectations were a little more realistic; I expected Audeze to raise the bar in the field they chose to begin playing in. The $500-$1,000 headphone arena is packed with some very capable cult faves like the Sennheiser HD650. I owned 650s, and, personally, the EL-8 hits harder and feels faster, more of my kind'a headphone.

I'm so relieved it's strange. I mean, it's a damn pair of headphones, and I don't even work there or have equity in Audeze, but the responsibility of providing the first production-level open-back EL-8 early impressions was enormous! I was getting pinged like mad. It was like a bad movie! My wife saw me stressing out over leaving all those impressions in the Head-Fi thread. But the conversation, like most Head-Fi threads where there are a lot of pros around, has survived and that actually changed with this piece! But we were banded together in our collective EL-8 anticipation for updates.

I feel a little guilty sometimes for having this pair (hmmm... maybe not) but a mans gotta do what a mans gotta do, right? Touching on that, I'm at the end of my rope having put in 24+ hours of continuous listening and writing with just a few breaks. I've officially entered that zone in sleep deprivation when things start to look a l'il trippy. Glad I finished the sonic commentary beforehand! Well, sleep-deprived or not, as I crank "Rule" by Nas to cap the Impression Session on the new ALO International+ (w/ upgraded DAC, amp, and optical input) and EL-8s, the bass is thumpin', the percussion is wickedly dynamic, the mids and lower-mids are full-bodied and tight and Nas' vocals are fantastically rendered and represents the present and the past for me. Heard this song a million times and this early morning it feels like victory. I'm eager to dig in deeply for my formal review, but in the meantime I'm psyched to report that Audeze has done what they promised. They said they'd deliver with the EL-8. If I was another headphone manufacturer in that price range, and I'm not a monster company with piles of money for marketing, I'd be afraid. I'd be very afraid... 

 

Specifications
Type: Planar Magnetic stereo headphones
Style: Open circumaural 
Frequency Response: 10 Hz to 50 kHz 
Transducer Type: Planar magnetic 
Magnetic Structure: Fluxor magnets 
Magnet Type: Neodymium 
Driver Size: 100 mm
Impedance: 30 Ohms
Optimal power requirement 200mW to 4W
Maximum Power Handling: 15 Watts (for 200ms) 
Efficiency: 102dB / 1mW 
Maximum SPL: >130dB 
THD: Less than 0.01% (1kHz @ 1mW) 
Weight 460 grams
Price: $699

 

Company Information
Audeze LLC.
1559 Sunland Lane 
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Voice: (714) 581-8010
Fax: (702) 823-0333
E-mail: support@audeze.com
Website: www.Audeze.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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