Pricey Lightning headphones will make you care less about headphone jacks [Reviews]

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Audeze EL-8 headphones
With a Lightning connector and an $800 price tag, the EL-8 headphones from Audeze are very Apple.
Photo: Lewis Wallace/Cult of Mac

They don’t call them “headphones” for nothing.

Slipping on a pair of quality closed-back headphones puts you in a rarefied headspace where sound envelopes you completely and nothing matters but the music. Just close your eyes, cue up the perfect tracks to suit your mood, and drift away.

The Audeze EL-8 Titanium headphones, which use a Lightning connector to plug into your Apple device, will take you to that special place. But you’ll pay a steep price for your trip to aural bliss.

Audeze EL-8 headphones with Lightning connection

The EL-8 headphones deliver impressively detailed sound. In fact, on some songs — like Glenn Miller tracks from the 1940s — the age of the recordings was immediately, and painfully, obvious. I must have listened to loopy love song “Elmer’s Tune” a hundred times before on regular speakers, but I never really paid much attention to the scratchy audio artifacts that seemed to step forward for a solo when heard through the EL-8s.

The prominence of the surface noise was enough to send me down an enjoyable audiophile rat hole. And then the vibrant vocals and breathy clarinet solo of “Moonlight Cocktail” transported me to the studio to stand among the amazing musicians as they laid down the boozy Big Band tracks.

Cueing up Tool’s brutal first EP snapped me back to an uglier reality and again showcased the headphones’ clarity. Using the 10-band graphic equalizer on the Audeze app gave me fine-grained control over the punishing tracks: Kick drum a bit too in-your-face? Back it off a smidge. Want a little more bite from the vocals? Tweak the settings again.

Modern tracks from Apple Music’s New Music Playlists packed a similar sonic wallop, with songs previously unfamiliar to me filling my ears with interesting and energetic sounds. Instruments danced and swirled in the mix, showing off the headphones’ impressive soundstage.

This is the kind of scalp-tingling musical experience that is all too uncommon in an era of low-quality audio streams and cheapo headphones. It’s easy to forget how much fun listening to music can be, and in a way it’s a curse: It’s easy to adapt to the audio quality of a convenient portable speaker, but plop yourself down in front of high-end equipment like Bang & Olufsen’s outrageous BeoLab 90 — which I had the pleasure to experience at CES 2016 — and you might find yourself grimacing at your go-to Bluetooth banger.

Planar magnetic drivers and 24-bit digital signal

You can chalk up part of the EL-8’s audio magic to the beefy planar magnetic drivers that power the headphones. But the headphones’ detachable Cypher cable does the heavy lifting. It carries a 24-bit digital signal from your iPhone or iPad’s Lightning port through high-grade circuitry that includes an amplifier, a digital signal processor and a digital audio converter.

By offloading the audio processing from the Apple device, the Audeze EL-8 delivers undeniably better audio. To hear the difference, just connect the EL-8s through the iPhone’s analog headphone jack. Without the Cypher cable in the mix, the Audeze headphones don’t sound as good to me as Bowers & Wilkins’ fine P7 headphones. With it, the EL-8s sounded simultaneously silkier and brawnier than the P7s.

About that Lightning connector …

There are some serious caveats about the Audeze EL-8 headphones, though. They are rather heavy, especially if you’re used to earbuds. Even the flat, proprietary Cypher cable — which also lets you stop and skip through tracks as well as take (incredibly clear) phone calls — is bulkier than your typical headphone cable. (A regular headphone cable is also included for non-Apple gear.)

And then there’s the Lightning connection itself. Apple will supposedly eliminate the 3.5mm jack for the iPhone 7, which means we’ll all be buying Lightning headphones, going wireless or dicking around with dongles. Cupertino’s rumored assassination of the headphone jack is already causing controversy, but the Audeze EL-8 makes a case for higher quality through Lightning.

Are headphones with Lightning cables more convenient? Quite simply, no. You can’t charge your iPhone or iPad while you’re listening through a Lightning-connected headphone. But can a Lightning connection improve the quality of the audio you get? Absolutely, and the EL-8s prove it.

Audio quality aside, these Apple MFi-certified headphones are built like a tank, or rather like a BMW: The industrial design is by Designworks, a BMW Group company. The muted silver and black finish looks suitably upscale, in an Apple kind of way, but the design is not as distinctive as some of Audeze’s exotic wooden models.

The EL-8s’ closed back blocks out room noise so you can fully immerse yourself in the music, but they can start to feel tight and sweaty on your ears after a long listening session. They weigh slightly more than 1 pound, too, so they’re not exactly light and airy. And while the Audeze headphones might weigh down your head, the $799 price tag will most assuredly lighten your wallet.

As with all headphones, the way they feel and sound is intensely personal. Even more personal than an Apple Watch, I’d say — we’re talking about music being pumped directly into your noggin. So here’s the last bit of genius about the EL-8 Titanium headphones: If you want to taste the titanium without committing, you’re in luck, because Audeze offers a 30-day free trial (although you will pay return shipping if you decide you don’t want to keep the headphones).

Just be careful. They might get inside your head.

Price: $799

Buy from: Audeze, Apple

Audeze provided Cult of Mac with a review unit for this article. Read Cult of Mac’s reviews policy.