Do the math, it’s Psquare!!!
PROS: high quality hybrid wire design, excellent workmanship, flexible and lightweight, unique sound characteristics.
CONS: price, sound improvement varies depending on pair up, additional cost of Psquare connector.
The product was provided to me free of charge for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion.
Aftermarket premium replacement cables have been a controversial topic of discussions in many audio communities. There are some who don’t hear a sound improvement and others who consider the improvement to be too subtle to justify the cost. Some are firm believers (myself including) and do hear the change in sound, while others talk themselves into believing to validate their purchase. I also ran into a group of people who consider cables as another accessory to personalize the appearance, just like if they would with CIEM customization, or those who switch from single ended to balanced and take the opportunity to upgrade to fancier wires. And then you have a group who never tried a replacement cable and formed their opinion based on reading someone else’s rant.
From my personal experience, I do hear the change in a sound, but I’m not able to capture it accurately in measurements. The most obvious change even disbelievers can agree on is based on principals of physics where higher purity material will yield a smaller resistivity, better conductivity, fewer losses, and corresponding boost in signal level. Various metals have different properties. There is no magic behind it and you’ll get an instant benefit of a slightly boosted output, improving the efficiency of your headphones, something that could be measured. Also, doubling the number of conductors will lower the overall resistance of the cable. But when I hear a change in a bass texture and articulation, or more airiness in treble, or overall improvement in retrieval of details which feels like a layer of veil is lifted off – this is not easy to capture in measurements. Considering we all have a different perception of sound, without supporting measurements some people jump into conclusion and form a “snake oil” opinion, especially when price is taken into consideration.
The intent of this review is not to change anybody’s mind, but rather to share with you what I hear and how I hear it. Perhaps, I can’t fully explain why there is a change in sound, but I do hear it and would like to describe it. What makes sense to me is that I look at the wire as a material with physical properties of resistivity, conductivity, level of purity, etc, which acts as a filter between your source and headphones. Variations of these physical properties will affect the conductivity of electric signal and will result in a sound change, from a subtle to a more noticeable level. Also, I want to bring up the design of these cables, to make people aware why they cost so much, and that you are not dealing with a “coat hanger” wire but rather high grade materials, advanced production techniques, and hours of labor which all add up to a premium cost. Finally, the sound improvement of one specific cable is not universal because it will depend on the synergy between your source and your headphones.
* I use this preamble with all of my cable reviews.
My first encounter with Effect Audio cables was last year when I had the opportunity to review their Thor II+ pure silver cable which changed my mind about typical cable stereotypes, like assuming that pure copper going to make the sound “warmer” while pure silver will make it “brighter”. With premium cables, it’s not always black’n’white because there is a gray area where every manufacturer has their own secret sauce when cooking cables with different wire “ingredients”. Everything from the wire geometry, to different manufacturing processes, mixing and combining different materials, and choosing connectors – all can potentially affect the sound. I’m not here to argue and certainly not going to preach that $500 cable will make your IEM sound $500 better. Besides the point that we have different hearing level and ear sensitivity to hear sound changes the same, I always consider a cable to be part of diminishing returns. I tested and reviewed many cables, and to my ears never heard a night’n’day drastic change, but I have heard a noticeable fine-tuning of the sound.
For example, Thor II+ demonstrated that pure silver can also improve the bass, making this cable a permanent companion of Earsonic’s last year flagship S-EM9, based on my sound preference. Or just recently, until I discovered Lionheart, Ares II demonstrated how it can improve the bass while keeping resolution and transparency of the sound when paired up with 64audio latest U18 flagship. I was curious what Lionheart is going to bring to the table, especially with all the latest talk about its Psquare connector, so I was excited about the opportunity to test this new EA cable. What I didn’t expect that EA was so confident about the power of Psquare, they sent me 2 identical Lionheart cable demos with the only difference of one having a “standard” Rhodium 3.5mm TRS connector while the other one being equipped with an upgraded Psquare (Palladium-Platinum) 3.5mm TRS connector. That was a fun test which I’m going to talk about further in the review.
Of course, you can’t wrap up the Intro without talking about the company and the people behind it. As I already mentioned in my Thor II+ review, Effect Audio was founded in 2009 by Zou Suyang, an electrical engineering student while still at school, who invested a lot of time doing research, testing, and development of various prototypes to come up with a solution to upgrade stock cables of the popular earphones. His hard work and workmanship skills were quickly recognized as he turned this into a business, and with a growing demand, he shifted his focus from basic cables to premium ones. Another key member of the team is Eric Chong, who’s behind EA Marketing and also the face of the company at numerous worldwide audio shows. So, what makes Lionheart special and is Psquare a real thing or just another marketing hype? Let’s find out!
Unboxing & Accessories.
All EA cables usually arrive inside of a small sturdy cardboard white box with a company logo on the top and a foam cutout inside to keep the cable secure during the shipment. Lionheart was no exception, and it also comes with a small leather case pouch which is roomy enough for a cable and a pair of IEMs – a nice touch. The leather pouch I received had Lionheart Demo printed on it, while obviously, the final product is not going to have “demo” label.
The cable I received arrived with 3.5mm TRS single ended connector since Psquare 2.5mm BAL connectors are in high demand with extra waiting time. I typically suggest to get 2.5mm to 3.5mm adapter accessory when you’re ordering a balanced 2.5mm cable, but if you are going with Psquare 2.5mm connector I’m not so sure if it’s a good idea. With a sound change I hear between Rhodium and Psquare connectors, I think getting 2.5mm Psquare with a regular 3.5mm adapter could negate the improvement. Thus, if you are going with Psquare, decide on the source and the corresponding headphone jack you are planning to use before placing the order.
When Effect Audio started to work on this new cable design, their main goal was to make a premium affordable cable. EA decided to combine wires from two of their flagships, Mars from Premium series and Leonidas from Heritage series. As a result, you have a 4 conductor design where every wire is a hybrid with a multi-bundled (7) Litz woven of Silver plated copper (from Leonidas) and Gold plated copper (from Mars) strands, including UltraFlex insulation. Basically, the emphasis of this design was on a specific copper material which EA refers to as “a core catalyst” for Lionheart.
Even so this cable combines wire strands from two different series, Lionheart is listed under Heritage series, which is known for a more pliable wire design. That was the first thing I noticed, in comparison to Thor II+, Lionheart being only 26awg gauge cable, very flexible, light, and with a smaller and lighter y-splitter. Starting with a connector, the review unit arrived with Oyaide 3.5mm TRS Psquare (a rare Palladium Platinum connector), but you can choose from many different options, including Psquare in both 3.5mm TRS and 2.5mm TRRS (either one is $50 additional option), 3.5mm or 2.5mm Rhodium plated connector (I got this one for review comparison as well), and other connectors in 3.5mm TRS, 3.5mm TRRS, 2.5mm TRRS, 4.4mm, and RSA.
The matching y-splitter had the aluminum finish with a carbon fiber insert, like on the connector plug, and a chin-slider which is a clear plastic piece with enough friction to slide easily, but not too loose. Going up to earpiece connectors, you have a pre-shaped clear earhook without annoying memory wire; glad to see more manufacturer implement it now. The connector housing has a slim aluminum cylindric shell with EA logo pointing outward so you know which side is left and which one right, and with earhook pointing one way you don’t have to worry about flipping polarity of pins when attaching to IEM shell connector socket. Here, EA offers every connector option from 2pin, mmcx, fitear, ATH, UE, and even JH with bass control.
It’s a very nice looking design with a transparent cable sleeve to see the details of the wires (very easy to distinguish which strand is silver plated and which one is gold plated). Also, pliable and very comfortable without memory effect or microphonics effect. The left/right sides of the cable after the splitter are twisted, but going down to the termination plug you have a semi-tight neat 4-conductor braiding. Furthermore, the cable was very comfortable to wear, and I found it to be lighter and more comfortable than Thor II+ since it was thinner and not weighting down as much. Thor II+ is still comfortable, but I prefer to wear it less on the go, while Lionheart is more mobile.
Another thing to keep in mind, thinner wire means less material which results in lower cost. This explains the “affordable” aspect of Lionheart pricing relative to other premium series cables with higher gauge wires, and also using only copper based plated wires without mixing more expensive silver based wires.
If the cable review, in general, wasn’t controversial enough, here I’m going to add more oil (no pun intended for the fans of “snake oil” term) to the fire by talking about the termination plug, the cable connector which goes to your audio source. I learned my lesson not to speculate about the sound based on a wire type, the same way how I won’t draw a conclusion about the sound sig just by looking at FR graph. I only trust my ears, the tool I’m quite familiar and comfortable with. Thus, when I review a cable, I compare it to other cables with the same pair of IEMs and describe what I hear. But, when someone tells me “this connector going to affect the sound” – I can’t just take their word for it.
As I mentioned before, EA was so confident in sound improvement of Psquare connector, they sent me two identical demo cables with the only difference of Rhodium-plated vs Palladium-Platinum Oyaide connectors. I’m a cable believer, but sometimes you have to draw the line somewhere, and I was very skeptical about it. After all, this is a cable review, not connector review, but the constant mentioning of Psquare got my attention, and I decided to be open minded about it. Both cables went through approximately 120hrs of burn in, connected to DAPs playing random audio in the loop with some new IEMs on burn in.
Using LPG and Plenue 2 as my sources, and comparing Lionheart Psquare vs Rhodium with U18, TIA Fourte, W900, and SEM9, I noticed that Psquare improved the soundstage by making it wider; no changes in depth of the sound but the perception of the width became more expanded. Also, I hear a little more rumble in sub-bass and a little brighter tonality in upper mids/lower treble with improved airiness and a touch more sparkle. In general, I noticed with warmer and neutral tuned IEMs the sound became a bit more resolving, while with some brighter tuned iems the sound remained as resolving and transparent, but upper frequencies started to sound a little harsher.
In summary, to my ears Lionheart cable with Psquare vs Rhodium connectors improves the perception of soundstage width, and I also hear the improvement in sub-bass rumble and texture, while upper frequencies become a little more revealing with more airiness between the layers of the sound. There is no change in sound level, and I used Veritas coupler to verify it before and after the burn in and between Rhodium and Psquare connectors, though without any noticeable “visual” differences. Maybe I don’t see it in measurements, but I can hear it with my own ears when switching between the cables/connectors. Coincidentally, all three of these noble metals (Rhodium, Palladium, and Platinum) are part of Platinum Metal Group in Periodic table, but they do vary in properties where Palladium and Platinum are very close to each other while Rhodium is set apart when it comes to resistivity and conductivity. The Psquare connector has green spacer rings.
For the following sound analysis, I focused on a handful of high end IEMs where I compared how Lionheart Psquare stacks up against other premium cables I typically use with those monitors. I was using Plenue 2 as my source because it’s neutral. Also, I used EA 2.5mm to 3.5mm adapter with other cables if they were balanced, so I would use only single ended output of Plenue 2. Everything was volume matched during comparison.
U18: Lionheart vs 1960 4wire – despite 4wire being the king of soundstage expansion, in this pair up I hear soundstage width being a little wider with Lion. In terms of overall tonality, Lionheart makes sound smoother, more analog, a little laid back while still keeping its resolution and transparency, while 4wire sharpens the sound, makes it more revealing, more analytical, and a little colder in tonality. It’s really up to a personal taste depending on sound preference.
W900, Lionheart vs 1960 4wire – besides a little wider soundstage with Lion, I’m actually not hearing too much of a significant difference in this comparison.
TIA Fourte, Lionheart vs 1960 2wire – soundstage width improvement is noticeable. While Lion has a noticeable improvement in sound over the stock SPC cable (more texture in bass and more sparkle in the top end), in the pair-up with 2wire the upper mids/treble are pulled a little back to make sound signature more balanced, while also taking an edge off the brighter tonality. If you want a more vivid micro-detailed sound, go with Lion, but if you want a more balanced revealing tonality, I prefer 2wire in this pair up.
K10UA, Lionheart vs stock OFC – wider soundstage, bass is tighter and more articulate, mids are a little smoother, more organic, yet still as revealing with an excellent retrieval of details. K10UA is always a challenge when it comes to replacement cables, because they either make sound too warm or too bright. In this pair-up with Lion, the refinement was just perfect. It was a surprise for me because I expected Lion to make sound brighter, but instead it made it more natural.
U12, Lionheart vs Ref8 – I hear a soundstage width improvement and the bass is more articulate and with a little better control. Also, Lion brings up upper mids a little more forward and makes them a little brighter, just enough to give sound more clarity.
S-EM9, Lionheart vs Thor II+ – I hear a wider soundstage, a little tighter bass, and a more revealing mids. It wasn’t a night’n’day difference, and I actually like both of the cables with S-EM9. I probably will continue using Thor II+ with S-EM9, but Lion does offer a level of refinement.
RE2000, Lionheart vs stock – soundstage is very similar, RE2k has a wide staging to begin with, so even the “magic” of Psquare didn’t make that much of a difference. The overall signature becomes more balanced with a noticeable difference in upper mids and lower treble where you have a little more body and slightly smoother and more natural tonality. I was afraid Lion will make RE sound harsh, but surprisingly it made upper frequencies sound a little more natural and even smoother.
Most of the C/IEMs are sold with cables, either if it’s a cheap basic OFC wire or an upgraded SPC or maybe a bundled cable from another manufacturer. If you are already happy with a sound, that’s all that matters. And sometimes the upgrade doesn’t make sense if a cable cost as much or more than IEM itself. But when you get into TOTL flagships, with an average price of anywhere between $1k-$2k, people’s priorities change and they look for summit-fi DAPs to improve the sound of their source, explore different eartips (w/universal shell design) to improve the seal, and as a last resort – look into cables to fine tune the sound. If you invested a grand or two into a flagship and it arrived with a stock $10 OFC cable, wouldn’t you be wondering if you can scale up its performance to the next level? That’s where a cable upgrade can help, but it all depends on its pair up with earphones and the source. In some cases you will hear a more noticeable difference, while in others it could be very subtle. And if you don’t believe in cables, hopefully you stopped reading this review after the Preamble.
Lionheart cable is unique because it takes a pure copper as its core material with a baseline sound improvement, and enhances some wires with a gold plating and others with a silver plating (plating is more efficient due to “skin” effect where the current density is larger near the surface of the conductor). To my ears, this hybrid design with GPC and SPC wires results in not only the refinement of sub-bass rumble along with a tighter and more articulate bass, but also the refinement of upper mids with improvement in layering and separation, and more airiness and sparkle in treble. On top of that, I also hear a soundstage improvement when switching to Psquare connector which combines a rare Palladium and Platinum noble metals. This improvement is not universal and will not have the same effect on every IEM; for example, I preferred Lionheart Psquare pair-up with U18 over TIA Fourte due to their individual signatures. But once you find that perfect combo, you will realize that even a small micro-tuning change introduced by a cable, such as Lionheart, can have a bigger effect on hitting that sweet spot of the sound you were looking for. I was happy with U18 and its stock SPC cable, though found fine-tuning with Ares II to hit closer to my sweet spot, but not until I switched to Lionheart Psquare that I realized this was the exact sound I have been looking for all along. And keep in mind, cable is not about drastic sound changes, but fine-tuning the sound!