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HolidayBuyer's Guide
Headphones

Great American sound: The Audeze EL-8 headphones

Audeze's new headphone wows the Audiophiliac.

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Audeze EL-8 Open-Back headphones Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Audeze makes some of the very best headphones on the planet. That's great, but now with the introduction of the sleek new EL-8, Audeze has brought the price down to a somewhat more affordable range. The handsome new look, with subtly curved aluminum ear cups and sumptuous padding lends a decidedly luxurious feel to the design. Just like its upmarket Audeze siblings the EL-8 is designed and made in the US. Not only that, I think it's more comfortable and better looking than Audeze's higher-end LCD series headphones.

The EL-8 is one of the few planar magnetic headphones to shine when plugged into portable (battery-powered) music players. The EL-8 played pretty loud, certainly loud enough for me, but its vivid transparency is the reason to buy this headphone. Comparing the Sony MDR-Z7 with the EL-8 revealed major differences in clarity and soundstage. The Z7 is "darker" and pulls the sounds closer, the EL-8 liberates them; the Z7's bass is full and rich, but the EL-8's low-end is more distinct and precise. Then again, Audeze headphones have always had seriously potent bass; the EL-8 upholds the tradition.

Impedance is listed as 32 Ohms, the EL-8 headphones have large 100mm planar magnetic drivers, that's more than double the size of most conventional dynamic drivers. It's a heavy headphone, 16.2 ounces (460 grams), but I found it comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. The EL-8 ear cups have a new type of cable connector with eight contacts per channel (the other end of the cable is terminated with a standard 3.5mm connector). These new gold-plated connectors were designed to have very low contact resistance and capable of carrying up to 2 Amps per connector for a total of 16 Amps. The only real catch is Audeze is the only company for the time being that uses these connectors. Special "balanced" cables designed for use with Sony, Astell & Kern and Pono music players will be made available soon.

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Audeze EL-8's new cable connector Steve Guttenberg/CNET

I'm writing here about the EL-8 Open-Back headphone, but there's also Closed-Back version that does a better job blocking external noise. Sonically, they're not so different, but if I had to choose I'd go for the Open-Back, because it does sound more open, less inside my head. The EL-8 Closed- and Open-Back models sell for the exact same price, $699 with free shipping in the continental US, £599 in the UK, and AU$999 in Australia.

The latest version of the Audeze LCD-2 headphone has a sweeter tonal balance; the EL-8 sounds more neutral, with more treble sparkle. It's a higher energy headphone, and the LCD-2 is more laid-back. Frank Sinatra's vocals sound oh-so natural, and his phrasing, nuance and bravado are more fully realized over the EL-8. Next, I pumped up Oasis' "Definitely Maybe" album to a healthy volume level -- yeah, the EL-8 handles power with ease.

Oppo's top-of-the-line PM-1 planar magnetic headphone sounds lovely with the Kronos String Quartet's "Early Music" CD; the string tone was sweeter there, the EL-8's sound thinner and brighter. Listening to funk albums with lots of staccato bass lines, they were more viscerally felt on the EL-8, but there was more pronounced bottom fullness on the PM-1 as it's a richer-sounding headphone. Both are excellent and there's no clear winner here, but the EL-8 is considerably less expensive.

I love this headphone, it delivers extraordinary resolution, hard-hitting dynamics, accurate and powerful bass, and spacious imaging. The Audeze EL-8 is a force to be reckoned with.