Review: Audeze EL-8 Titanium Over-Ear Headphones
Audeze is an American headphone company with an impressive history of technical innovation. Recently, we were impressed by their entry-level Sine, which packed planar magnetic drivers into a classy, portable package and made us feel a little more confident about a future without headphone jacks. Based on our experience with the Sine, we excited to receive Audeze’s mid-range closed-back headphone, the EL-8 Titanium ($799). Though the EL-8 "Ti" shows many of the forward-thinking design elements that make us fans of Audeze, the complete package failed to capture our hearts and minds.
It may sound strange to refer to headphones that cost $500 and $800 as “entry level” and “mid-tier”, but it makes sense when we consider that Audeze’s high-end LCD collection goes as high as $3,995. First released in 2015, the EL-8 diversified Audeze’s offerings with a lower price and and a new closed-back option. The Titanium version is new for 2016, with a number of improvements over the original. According to Audeze, this version of the headphone has reduced diaphragm thickness, an improved diaphragm tensioning system, improved internal damping, changes to the magnetic circuitry, and improvements to the diaphragm’s electrical trace pattern. Though we have not tested the original version of the EL-8, it is heartening to see the company is making refinements relatively close to the product’s original release.
This headphone was designed in conjunction with BMW’s Designworks team, and it shows. Their influence is immediately apparent in the EL-8 Ti’s contrasting shapes, colors, and textures that complement each other in a package that is pleasing to the eye and the touch. Its headband is only padded at the top — the opposite of the Audio-Technica A1000Z — which makes sense when you realize that this is the only portion that actually touches the head. Though these are not marketed as “portable” headphones, a swivel joint at the yoke enables the EL-8 Ti to fold flat, making them easier to transport than any of the headphones in Audeze’s LCD line. An analog and 6.3mm adapter are included in the box along with a Cipher Lightning cable which, unlike the Sine, is provided at no extra cost. We appreciate this addition, but at this point we think the $40 Audeze travel case could have been included as well.
The EL-8 Ti’s classy industrial design made a great first impression, but some of the luster is lost the details. Though its ear pads are some of the most comfortable we’ve ever used, we strongly disagree with Audeze’s use of adhesive to keep them in place. Both of the pads on our unit were partially unstuck out of the box, and stayed that way throughout testing. Also of concern is a plasticky creak heard every time the EL-8 Ti is stretched to be placed on the head — we worry that this signals a potential future failure in the sizing mechanism, where plastic and metal flex at different rates. Even if these first two issues don’t bother you, the EL-8 Ti’s weight is difficult to ignore. Weighing in at slightly more than a pound, the Titanium is heavy enough to cause discomfort for some, either from neck fatigue or the unpleasant feeling of inertia when turning your head while wearing these massive cans.
After our time with the Sine, the EL-8 Ti’s Cipher Lightning cable was very familiar. It’s slightly thicker, but is the same length, has the same control pod, and works with the Audeze iOS app. The biggest difference is in its connectors, a pair of 8-contact plugs that can only be inserted into the headphone one way. Though we would have preferred that the Cipher cable at least be compatible with Audeze’s other headphones, Audeze has defended the new connector by claiming that it offers technical advantages: it has lower electrical resistance, can carry more current, and enables them to add features like noise cancellation and DSP in the future. While we’re interested to see how Audeze exploits these capabilities in the future, we had to settle for testing the Lightning cable’s performance here in the present.
Proper amplification is required for the EL-8 Ti, which is to be expected with any large planar magnetic headphone. We found it to be even more power-hungry than the Sine; the iPhone’s internal amplifier is too weak for the EL-8 Ti, making the Cipher Lightning cable essential if you want to use these headphones with an iOS device. To its credit, the Cipher cable was able to drive the EL-8 Ti to acceptable volume levels, even if we did have to turn the volume up a bit higher than we did with the Sine. Still, the EL-8 Ti didn’t seem to reach its full potential until we tried it with a powerful desktop amplifier. While the Cipher cable might not be a perfect solution, one thing is clear — the extra power provided by the Lightning port, when paired with Audeze’s inline electronics, enables iOS users to drive bigger, better headphones in a way that was previously impossible without a separate amplifier.
We tested the EL-8 Ti extensively, comparing it to several other headphones, using both an iPhone and our desktop amplifier. On its own, the EL-8 Ti is a solid performer. As a closed-back, it provides excellent isolation and the deep, punchy bass we’d expect from a well-amplified planar magnetic headphone. The EL-8 Ti’s bass isn’t overpowering — it’s just more present when compared to the Sine. However, we found the mids and treble veiled when compared to other headphones. This is not to say that the EL-8 Ti sounds bad, but we consistently experienced a subtle bluntness in the higher frequencies. In some tracks this manifested as less “air” in the mix; in others, details like the gradual decay of cymbals was truncated and sounded less natural. If we had to choose, we would be willing to trade some of the EL-8 Ti’s bass for some extra clarity in the highs.
While researching the EL-8 Ti, we noticed that the photos of the headphone on Audeze’s site are slightly different from the unit we received. In photos available around the web, the EL-8 Ti’s driver is clearly visible through the earpads. Our unit, by contrast, had a thick oval of felt in front of each driver. This is clearly one of the recent refinements that Audeze has made to the headphone, and is probably responsible for the “smoother” sound that they promised. It also could be causing the somewhat laid-back treble that we heard in testing. Even if it’s not our preference, it’s very interesting to see that Audeze is apparently still adjusting the sound of the EL-8 Ti. We have to wonder — when will it be “finished?”
Our biggest complaint with the EL-8 Ti’s sound has nothing to do with its voicing — in fact, we are sure that many would prefer the “relaxed” sound signature. Rather, we had problems with the EL-8 Ti’s extreme sensitivity to its position on the head — more so than any headphone we’ve ever used, including other planars. Any touch, tip of the head, or even movement of the jaw, can cause a significant change in the sound of these headphones. We can only speculate as to the cause of this sensitivity — perhaps the EL-8 Ti’s pads seal too well, and changes in pressure affect the sound. Whatever the reason, we found this issue very distracting, and therefore can’t recommend using the EL-8 Ti in a situation where you’re not sitting still.
As fans of technology, it’s easy for us to be fans of Audeze. With this year’s Sine and LCD-4, Audeze have shown real technological innovation in the headphone market. While also technically impressive, we get the sense that the EL-8 Titanium (or at least the EL-8 line) is still evolving. It appears that Audeze is still tweaking the sound and design of these headphones. Even if looking past our issues with this headphone’s weight, sensitivity to movement, and our preference for a less laid-back sound, we simply didn’t find that the EL-8 Ti exceled far enough past other, cheaper headphones to justify its price. Though we cannot give a broader recommendation for the EL-8 Titanium in its current state, we’re excited to see what Audeze comes up with next.