The headphone jack has been a ubiquitous part of audio for more than 138 years. In 2016, Apple made the decision to eliminate the 1/8 inch headphone jack from the iPhone 7. For those attached to old-school wired headphones, it was a punch in the gut, but one that would nevertheless open the door for a new wave of portable audio tech that would allow the iPhone to become the premier music player on the market, especially when paired with high-quality headphones and hi-def streaming services.
For years, I’ve dreamed of the ideal portable music “system” with my iPhone at its center, with near unlimited access to high-quality music without worries of the limitation of device storage or bandwidth. The “system” would also need a truly fantastic amplifier to power even more spectacular headphones. But portable headphone amplifiers were a give-and-take: in exchange for the sonic improvements they provided over Apple’s built-in headphone amp, you'd carry a box alongside your iPhone and you’d likely have to charge that box’s batteries more than you’d like. An outboard solution was not for me.1
If the iPhone 7 was sans headphones amp, the functionality would have to either be built into headphones or into a cord or dongle style solution, like Apple's $9 headphone jack adapter. Thing is, who wants to worry about a dongle that you'll likely misplace or lose? Integrated corded solutions make the most sense for innovating around the Lightning adapter, and are the reason why companies like Audeze are leading the charge with products like the Audeze SINE.
Audeze’s SINE was a logical step forward from the Costa Mesa, CA audio company famous for their audiophile-grade headphones. In 2009, they blew the doors off the high-end headphone market with their debut LCD-1 and subsequent LCD-2, planar magnetic headphones universally lauded as new benchmarks in audiophile sound. Through subsequent new iterations of the LCD series, Audeze continues to be one of the finer choices in the high-end space. But the $995 entry price is a real barrier for most consumers.
Audeze’s next move would lean on BMW Designworks to help architect a new planar magnetic headphone with more street-friendly appeal at a lower price point. The resulting EL-8 series is a beautifully designed headphone with a starting price of $699. It sounds as spectacular as its older siblings, and opened the door for the brand to go deeper down the consumer road.
Audeze SINE is the answer and response to those looking for a portable, travel-friendly planar magnetic headphone. At $449, the SINE is reasonably priced compared to its predecessors. It powers well through modern smartphones and music players and its on-ear positioning muffles out some (not all) extraneous noise, making it a good choice for commuters. Frequent fliers will appreciate its fold-flat portable shape and durability for quick stowing.2
The portable hi-fi game got interesting with the release of the iPhone 7 and its missing headphone jack. While many saw the missing jack as a huge loss, others saw it as a visionary approach for future audio. By uncoupling the headphone jack, and the burden of digital to analog conversion (necessary to take a digital music file and make them playable on headphones) from the device, the road was open for Audeze to manufacture their own Lightning cable with premium amplification and DAC capabilities—well beyond what Apple themselves was willing to provide.
Enter Audeze CIPHER, a 24-bit AMP/DAC/DSP Lighting Cable built for Audeze’s SINE and EL-8 series with hi-fi fans in mind. Audeze CIPHER cable is a game changer for portable audio and is a necessary addition for those looking for high resolution audio playback on iPhones.
If CIPHER is the thread, then Tidal HiFi is the spool. Tidal HiFi is the beast in the streaming service’s arsenal, delivering 40 million tracks streamed at CD quality, compared to Tidal Premium, their standard subscription, at a lossy AAC 320 kbps. CD-quality streaming does come at a premium price: Tidal HiFi costs $19.99 monthly compared to Premium’s $9.99 price tag.
One big bonus of Tidal HiFi: if you’re listening to your subscription using Tidal’s desktop applications and have an MQA-enabled amplifier, you’ll have access to Tidal Masters, their master-quality recordings library that delivers higher than CD-resolution music, but that's a story for another day.
The appeal of Tidal HiFi is simple: It is the choice streaming music service for CD-quality playback on the iPhone.3 With the chain complete – Audeze SINE headphones + Audeze CIPHER cable + Tidal HiFi - music fans have a fantastic full resolution music solution that's portable and works reliably over LTE and 4G data networks.4
Final note: While working on this story, I’ve been demoing the new ASUS Flip C302 Chromebook, one of the latest generations of Chrome OS notebooks shown this year at CES. The Flip C302 features a speedy Intel Core m3 mobile chip and an impressive 12.5-inch HD touchscreen display with flip hinge for tablet mode. At $499, it's a strong web laptop and excellent way to stream Tidal HIFI when paired with a $30 Google Chromecast Audio device.
1. Sorry, but standard Bluetooth headphones are just not there for hi-fi yet, although they're certainly convenient.
2. If you're looking for a truly sealed headphone, there are other options.
3. So, Apple Music and Spotify users: I hear you loud and clear, but please bear in mind that neither offer CD-quality playback. However, I still subscribe to both as they offer platform-only exclusives, like Tidal.
4. When possible, I do recommend using Tidal's "offline mode" to pre-download tracks. It will keep your music playing if you hit WiFi or cellular deadzones (and saves data charges for some).
In other technological music news, a teenager has created an A.I. Bot that raps entirely from Kanye West lyrics. Get the scoop right here.