Lightning can be scary. Just look at the hordes of people that howled in terror at the idea of Apple replacing the traditional headphone jack on the next iPhone and using wireless and Lightning-based solutions instead. I'm not sure exactly how I'll feel about having a phone with no 3.5mm jack, but I can at least assure you that Lightning headphones are a significant improvement on the status quo.
I have been listening to Audeze's Titanium EL-8 and Sine headphones for the past few months, both in the conventional way and through the iPhone's Lightning port. These audiophile cans sound dramatically better when exploiting the all-digital connection with their so-called Cipher Lightning cable, which houses its own digital signal processor, digital-to-analog converter (DAC), and headphone amplifier. If all future Lightning headphones are designed as thoughtfully and in the same integrated manner as Audeze's, then we'll have nothing to fear from the future. These Lightning headphones are the real deal: good enough to make me forget all about the 3.5mm jack.
Hi-fi portability. The first thing any serious headphone enthusiast will tell you is to buy a separate DAC and amp. If your source is your PC or, worse, your smartphone, you're unlikely to get the best out of whatever headphones you end up buying. The trouble with external DACs and amps, however, is that they're often quite chunky in their own right, and rarely convenient for use on the move. Audeze takes care of that by integrating those components within its Cipher cable. From the outside, the Cipher module looks like an enlarged remote control, but on the inside it performs an almost magical transformation.
More power. As good as the iPhone's integrated audio circuitry is — and it is indeed among the best on the market — it simply lacks the power to drive Audeze's EL-8 to their full potential. Maximum volume directly from the iPhone is quite mediocre, pushing the EL-8 to no more than 70 percent of their capacity through the standard 3.5mm jack. Swap in the Cipher cable, however, and the EL-8 transforms into a super powerful set of cans. It's loud even before you hit Apple's warnings about continuous playback at high volumes, and it's straight up bad for your hearing at its max. The Sine are slightly easier to drive, though they too get an appreciated boost in volume when amplified via the Cipher cable.
Better sound. A lot of power would be meaningless if it's not delivered cleanly, and the Lightning-connected Cipher DAC augments the amplifier brilliantly here. Both sets of headphones sound vastly better when going through their own cable and audio processing. The clarity of voices is crystalline, the soundstage is much more expansive, and every instrument feels more natural and tangible. If the Cipher's integrated amp is akin to turning up the brightness on your TV, its DAC completes the picture by bumping up the resolution and widening the color gamut. Once again, the EL-8 show the starker difference than the Sine, but you don't have to be an audiophile to notice the upgrade. The EL-8 with a Cipher cable just embarrasses the iPhone's own audio processing.
Better EQ. The Audeze iOS app gives you granular control over the frequency response of your headphones — and I do mean your headphones, because the settings you change in the app are actually saved in the firmware inside the Cipher cable. With two customizable presets per headphone, that means you only have to make your adjustments on one iOS device, and then your pair of EL-8 or Sine will carry those preferences with them to the next Lightning-connected device. I love the granularity of Audeze's EQ adjustments — which span all audio sources, whether your sound is coming from Tidal, YouTube, or the default Music app — as they can be made in 1dB increments across 10 frequencies. What's more, the sound remains precise even when I imbalance it: because a bass or treble "boost" is actually generated by lowering the volume of other frequencies, I'm never adding distortions or imperfections to my music.
Digital potential. Love it or loathe it, the trend in advanced personal tech is to become more digital and less analog. Wireless protocols and the above benefits of Lightning make the classic 3.5mm jack redundant. I can get more convenient audio if I drop the wires, or I can get better audio if I go digital via Lightning. With upgradeable firmware and new sensors being built in, headphones are changing in function just as they're changing in connectivity. If you want to buy the headphones of the future, don't cling on to the connector of the past. Sure, there'll be an adaptation period where adapters will be necessary, but over time Apple's Lightning and the more universal USB-C standard will take over from the 3.5mm connector. LeEco has already started the trend by eschewing the old jack in its latest phones, and others are sure to follow.
Lightning headphones are the real deal
What Audeze's first two Lightning headphones have shown me is the benefit of designing all the audio components specifically for the headphones using them. Like a tailored suit, each Cipher cable is designed for just one corresponding model of headphone. Audeze relegates the iPhone (or iPad or even iPod touch) to the role of a simple digital source. The headphone maker takes over the most important audio reproduction tasks and does a much better job with them.
There are, of course, downsides to this otherwise happy tale. The Cipher cable isn't free, costing $50 for the Sine and $100 for the EL-8, and isn't interchangeable between models. It also isn't free in terms of power consumption, and its impact on the iPhone's battery life isn't insignificant. Tailored suits aren't for every occasion, after all. I don't think Audeze's proposition is for everyone, but judging by the iPhone's typical price, I wouldn't say that device is for everyone either. Are the two of them a desirable combination, though? By all means, yes.