There’s a newcomer on the audio scene. Shooting to redefine the way wireless audio is delivered, they have a completely unique approach in their upcoming headset, the SE-1. With over a dozen hours of battery life, and sound normally reserved for high-end wired headsets, could this be the new benchmark for wireless audio? Time to find out!
The first thing I had to tackle with the SE-1 wasn’t even the hardware, it was the horrible condition of the box. FedEx decided to smash in the side, crushing it a few inches on two sides. As you can see below, they did their very best to “handle” it as roughly as possible.
Amazingly, the Sineaptic team has even less faith in delivery companies than I do. Opening the box I literally laughed out loud. Dubbed “Airshock”, the case for the Sineaptic headphones are literally suspended in the middle of the box, ensuring that it survives whatever shipping mishaps might occur as it is being delivered. Using bungee straps attached to velcro zip ties looped into the case, the Sineaptic SE-1 hovers in the center, safe from harm. Frankly, I’ve never seen anything like this, and now that I have, I wish more people did it. Sure, it makes the box bigger, but this was a clear demonstration of why it’s needed.
Cutting the SE-1 case free, I cracked it open. Inside are just two cables and the headphones themselves. The first cable is a nearly 10 foot long 3.5mm male to male audio cable, and a similarly lengthed USB-C to USB-C data/charging cable – ample length for any use case for both.
The headphones are larger than many similar devices at 250x140x115mm and 412g of total weight. The over-ear cup contains a 50mm driver (we’ll dig into that in a bit as it’s a big differentiator), as well as all of the controls, charge, and audio ports.
Holding in the wireless mode button for two seconds will put the headphones into pairing mode. The headphones immediately went into pairing mode, showing clearly as SE-1 Wireless and connecting with the tap of a button. A pleasant voice announces that it’s now in wireless mode and that it’s pairing – something it did easily and accurately, showing as the SE-1 in my phone’s list. The ES-1 supports Bluetooth 5.2, meaning it’ll wirelessly connect to more than one device at a time, connecting over SBC (sub-band codec) or AAC (advanced audio coding). Once connected, our testing revealed about 13 hours of battery life. If you need a longer run than that, you can plug in the included USB-C cable and use these while they charge.
As a musician, my wife is an audio nerd so I asked her to fill in my knowledge gaps on ribbon drivers – the primary juice that brings this device to life. Most audio devices use conical drivers, with only a few ultra-high end headphones nudging into the balanced armature / dynamic driver pairings. All of these send sound down a small enclosure, vibrating a small reed inside, transferring the sound to a diaphragm. This is then centered between two coil-wrapped magnets, and when electricity is applied to these coils, causes the reed to vibrate against said diaphragm, producing sound. Ribbon drivers tackle this same outcome, but with a wildly different method.
Unlike conical drivers, ribbon drivers use a thin metal ribbon (polyimide) wrapped in circuit traces and held aloft in a strong magnetic field between two coils of neodymium magnets. These are electrified, just like the conical drivers, but the metal ribbon is reverberated directly, generating sound. This sound is piped through a horn. I once took a trip to an audio shop in Denver, CO. that had SoundKaos LIBéRATION speakers with ribbon tweeters and a hand-carved wooden horn. I honestly can’t explain in words the warmth and wholeness of sound, but it was unlike anything I’d ever heard. They were also $17,000 – each.
To say that ribbon drivers are unheard of in a headset would be accurate – these Sineaptic headphones are the very first that aren’t hand-carved, being mass-produced and available on the shelf. Oh, and most importantly, at a price of just $199. We’ll get back to that ribbon driver, but let’s get a closer look at the headset first.
The Sineaptic team’s first outing is much like any other hardware developer’s first run – big. These aren’t what anyone would describe as svelte or compact. Likely due to the size of the unique drivers and the components that support it, the ES-1 has some beefy earcups. Measuring roughly 4 inches from top to bottom, and about 2.5” in depth, the earcups go over the ear entirely to contain the sound. The cups are made from a faux leather with soft cloth covering the surface, making the pads comfortable, even for long periods of use. We’ll remove them in a moment, but first let’s talk about the next design choice – the open rear.
Most “gaming” focused headsets are completely sealed against the head, containing the sound entirely. Audiophile headphones can occasionally have a more open design, allowing some sound to disperse through a vent or out of an opening in the overall cup circle. While these aren’t billed as audiophile headphones, these have more of the latter design. When snug against the head, there is a small opening on both sides, allowing for a more airy and spacious sound. It’s more of an acoustic choice to meet the parameters as designed by the engineering team. It has the added bonus of allowing you to remain aware of your surroundings. This will likely be a sticking point for you, and I frankly cannot answer that on your behalf.
The headband for the ES-1 is completely unique in the world of headphones. Eschewing the traditional solid band, or a bit of leather and padding suspended with cabling, the ES-1 uses a set of hinged and articulated pads that rest on the top of the head. Frankly, they remind me of the small nose pads you’d find on a pair of prescription glasses, and they serve much of the same purpose. They sit atop your head, alleviating direct pressure on the head across the entirety of the crown of the skull. I’ve never seen anything like this on headphones, but surprisingly, these are actually quite comfortable.
There is one thing that baffles me with the ES-1. While the pads on the headbands are comfortable, there is zero adjustability to the headset. They can’t be raised or lowered off of your head, and the pads can’t be moved at all. They are on a spring lever system so they’ll have a small amount of give on your head, but what you see is what you get here. I would suspect this “one size fits all” approach will, in fact, fit most, but my wife found the SE-1 less comfortable than I did. Your mileage may vary.
With these being as large as they are, you’d assume they’d be heavy. In fact, they weigh just 400g. For reference, a full 12oz soda can is just shy of 400g. 2 rolls of nickels is 400g, and 400 paperclips, but now we are just into the fun zone. What that means is that they are quite light. For direct comparison, they are 80g lighter than the HyperX Cloud II and a full 144g lighter than the Steelseries Diablo IV Arctis 7. Sure, there are lighter headsets, but none with the audio ranges conferred by these ribbon drivers.
The entirety of the frame for the SE-1 is a hardened plastic, undoubtedly to keep the overall weight low. While carbon fiber would have been more durable, it would have also added to the overall weight and cost. They do feel like they should hold up to some abuse, but I do worry about the all-plastic shell around these ribbon drivers. I think I’d have liked it if Sineaptic put a little bit of armor around the major components of the ES-1.
Firing these up, the first thing I noticed was that they have a very rich and whole sound, thick to bursting with bass. There’s a difficult line to toe with bass, with too much becoming a reverberating mess that clobbers everything else, and too little leaves the output tinny and lacking richness. These are just right, if just on the happy side of overly strong. If you like bass, there is a whole lot of rumbly goodness here.
There really is only one weakness I could find in terms of audio quality – the microphone. There are two small pinholes in the bottom that appear to be an embedded microphone, and it doesn’t quite match up to the capture quality I’d expect when compared to the rest of the headphones. If I were making a wish list, the ES-2 will have a 3.5mm audio jack where I could plug in a microphone when needed. It’s not that they are necessarily bad, they just don’t match the incredible quality of the audio. If anything, they are a bit quiet, and largely due to placement would be my guess.
Ultimately the open back to these are likely the key differentiator on whether or not you’ll appreciate these or not. The sound bleed means everyone around you will hear everything you are doing – fine for a solo office environment, but problematic on a bus. It also means you’ll likely be pushing the volume a bit to hit the same levels you’re used to with other audio solutions. On the positive side, the quality of the sound is much better, even if you have to “pump up the jams” a bit.
Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming.
Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter.
Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 27 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
Sineaptic SE-1 Headphones
With a rich and full sound thanks to the ribbon drivers, the Sineaptic SE-1 strikes a great balance of price to performance. The volume and open back design may not work for everyone, but the sound quality and battery life makes this an excellent first outing for newcomer Sineaptic.