Dedicated 2-Channel Sound
In the audio realm something pretty special happens when you have the right mix of source material, digital-to-analog conversion, amplification, and transducers (headphones or loudspeakers). And I am just talking about stereo, as 2-channel audio has the potential to immerse as deeply, and even more so, than 3D positional audio can; but it does take more care in overall setup. Enter EVGA, a company famous for its video cards, power supplies, motherboards, etc., and no stranger to diversification in the enthusiast PC community. And while EVGA in recent years has expanded their offering to include cases, coolers, and even laptops, they have never attempted a dedicated sound solution - until now.
Coming as a surprise as the featured product in their suite at CES 2019, EVGA’s introduction of the Nu Audio card was exciting for me as an audio enthusiast, and this is really an enthusiast-level card based on the pricing of $249 ($199 for EVGA ELITE members). The Nu Audio is an all-new, designed from the ground up sound card with a true hi-fi pedigree and a stated goal of high-quality stereo sound reproduction. Just hearing the words “two channel” in relation to the computer audio was music to my ears (literally), and to say I was intrigued would be an understatement. I will try to temper my enthusiasm and just report the facts here; and yes, I understand that this is expensive for this market and a product like this is not for everyone.
The Nu Audio was created in partnership with Audio Note, a UK-based hi-fi component maker with a solid reputation and a philosophy that emphasizes component selection and material quality. In breaking down the components selected for the Nu Audio card it is evident that a high level of care went into the product, and it is the first time that I am aware of a computer sound card having this much in common with dedicated audiophile components.
Of course component choices are irrelevant if the Nu Audio doesn’t sound any better than what users already have, and proving the value of a quality 2-channel experience can be tricky as it generally requires the user to provide both source material and headphones (or amplifier/speakers) of sufficient quality to hear a difference.
Introduction, Specifications, and Design
More than an ordinary pair of headphones, the SINE headphones from Audeze feature planar magnetic drivers, and the option of direct connection to an Apple Lightning port for pure digital sound from the SINE's inline 24-bit DAC and headphone amp. So how does the "world’s first on-ear planar magnetic headphone" sound? We first had a chance to hear the SINE headphones at CES, and Audeze was kind enough to loan us a pair to test them out.
"SINE headphones, with our planar magnetic technology, are the next step up in sound quality for many listeners. Instead of using ordinary dynamic drivers, our planar technology gives you a sound that’s punchy, dynamic, and detailed. In fact, it sounds like a much larger headphone! It’s lightweight, and folds flat for easy travelling. Once again, we’ve called upon our strategic partner Designworks, a BMW group subsidiary for the industrial design, and we manufacture SINE headphones in the USA at our Southern California factory."
Planar headphones certainly seem be be gaining traction in recent years. It was a pair from Audeze that I was first was able to demo a couple of years ago (the LCD-3 if I recall correctly), and I remember thinking about how precise they sounded. Granted, I was listening via a high-end headphone amp and lossless digital source at a hi-fi audio shop, so I had no frame of reference for what my own, lower-end equipment at home could do. And while the SINE headphones are certainly very advanced and convenient as an all-in-one solution to high-end audio for iOS device owners, there’s more to the story.
One the distinct advantages provided by the SINE headphones is the consistency of the experience they can provide across compatible devices. If you hear the SINE in a store (or on the floor of a tradeshow, as I did) you’re going to hear the same sound at home or on the go, provided you are using an Apple i-device. The Lightning connector provides the digital source for your audio, and the SINE’s built-in DAC and headphone amp create the analog signal that travels to the planar magnetic drivers in the headphones. In fact, if your own source material is of higher quality you can get even better sound than you might hear in a demo - and that’s the catch with headphones like this: source material matters.
One of the problems with high-end components in general is their ability to reveal the limitations of other equipment in the chain. Looking past the need for quality amplification for a moment, think about the differences you’ll immediately hear from different music sources. Listen to a highly-compressed audio stream, and it can sound rather flat and lifeless. Listen to uncompressed music from your iTunes library, and you will appreciate the more detailed sound. But move up to 24-bit studio master recordings (with their greater dynamic range and significantly higher level of detail), and you’ll be transported into the world of high-res audio with the speakers, DAC, and headphone amp you need to truly appreciate the difference.
Introduction and First Impressions
Edifier might not be a household name, but the maker of speakers and headphones has been around for 20 years now; formed in 1996 in Beijing, China. More recently (2011), Edifier made news by purchasing Stax, the famous Japanese electrostatic headphone maker. This move was made to 'improve Edifier's position' in the headphone market, and with the Stax name attached it could only raise awareness for the brand in the high-end audio community.
But Edifier does not play in the same market as Stax, whose least expensive current offering (the SR-003MK2) is still $350. Edifier's products range from earbuds starting at $19 (the H210) to their larger over-ear headphones (H850) at $79. In between rests the smaller over-ear H840, a closed-back monitor headphone 'tuned by Phil Jones of Pure Sound' that Edifier claims offers a 'natural' audio experience. The price? MSRP is $59.99 but Edifier sells the H840 for only $39.99 on Amazon.
"Developed with an electro-acoustic unit on the basis of the coil, these Hi-Fi headphones provide life like sound. The carefully calibrated balance between treble and bass makes Edifier H840 the perfect entry level monitor earphones."
At the price, these could be a compelling option for music, movies, and gaming - depending on how they sound. In this review I'll attempt to describe my experience with these headphones, as well as one can using text. (I will also attempt not to write a book in the process!)