- Category: Feature Reviews
The headphone market is dominated by a few very large professional-audio companies, but there are some smaller firms -- e.g., Grado and Ultrasone -- that offer significant products at various price points. What haven’t historically been seen in the headphone world are the one- and two-person garage operations that make up a substantial part of the rest of high-end audio. Designing and making your own headphones generally means designing and making your own drivers, and neither is a trivial task. The mounting structures/enclosures can be very different for different driver types, and their production requires either dedicated tooling or substantial amounts of labor. When a small company comes out with a pair of headphones, these are usually modifications, or even mere rebadgings, of someone else’s product. That’s not the case here. The Audeze LCD-2 headphones ($945 USD) were designed from scratch and are built entirely by Audeze in the USA. That’s a huge undertaking for a small company, but Audeze thinks they’ve got something special and can directly compete with the big boys.
The first thing that sets the LCD-2s apart from the vast majority of headphones out there is that they are a planar magnetic (aka orthodynamic) design. In the typical dynamic headphone, the driver is attached to a voice-coil mounted in front of a magnet. In a planar-magnetic headphone, the driver is a thin membrane with a conductive layer that has been etched into a specific pattern, mounted in a nearly uniform magnetic field. There are two theoretical advantages to this latter arrangement. First, the membrane can be lighter than a driver and voice-coil, and should therefore be able to move faster. Second, the membrane is driven over its entire surface, which should reduce resonance modes and distortion. The area of the LCD-2’s membrane is 6.17 square inches, which is nearly twice the radiating area of a dynamic driver of 50mm diameter -- the average size found in other large headphones. More area means that a greater volume of air can be moved for a given displacement of the diaphragm. In the LCD-2s, the field is created by an array of 12 neodymium magnets per driver, these placed on both sides of the membrane in a push-pull configuration. Historically, planar-magnetic headphones have been difficult to drive, but the LCD-2s’ claimed sensitivity is a moderate 91dB/W/m. In practice, although I could get adequate volume levels directly from the output of a fifth-generation Apple iPod, the LCD-2s really require a dedicated headphone amplifier to give their best. During the course of the review, I tried them with four different headphone amps, none of which had any trouble delivering adequate drive.
The LCD-2s come in a lacquered wooden box lined with satin. While such packaging has nothing to do with the sound quality of the headphones, it is a luxurious touch that the more expensive Sennheiser HD 800s and Ultrasone Edition 8s don’t match. Inside the box are the ’phones, the detachable cable, a care kit for the wooden earcups, and the documentation -- including a chart of each headphone’s measured frequency response. The headphones themselves have lambskin-covered earpads, cups of Caribbean rosewood, metal grilles, and a robust metal headband with click-stop adjustment. The materials quality and assembly get top marks, but the mixed-media aesthetic won’t appeal to everyone. The split cable attaches to each headphone with four-pin mini locking connectors; the other end is terminated with a standard 0.25” plug. An option is also available for running the LCD-2s in balanced configuration.
Although at 19.5 ounces the LCD-2s are some of the heaviest headphones I’ve used, their weight is distributed in such a way that I found them comfortable for long listening sessions. The pads went all the way around my average-size ears, and were clamped with enough force to keep them in place, but without making me feel that my head was in a vise. The LCD-2s sounded fine straight out of the box, and their character didn’t change significantly during break-in or over the course of the review.
It took me a while to get a handle on the LCD-2s’ sound because it differed significantly from that of any other headphones I’ve heard. At first I thought they sounded warm. Well . . . they did, but warm is insufficient to describe their sonic character. Their tonal center was in the lower midrange, which emphasized the fundamental tones of instruments and voices relative to the upper harmonics. That gave the sound an overall impression of greater density and solidity than I’ve experienced through most other high-end headphones. Other adjectives that came to mind were rich and full. It was a sound that worked well with many types of music, and added welcome body to otherwise thin-sounding recordings and equipment. The downside of such fullness was that it could be difficult to follow individual lines in densely orchestrated passages or complex mixes. This sort of “wall of sound” works better for some types of music and some listeners than for others.
The top end of the LCD-2s’ frequency response didn’t seem especially rolled off, but they were more forgiving of bright or harsh recordings than are many other headphones. That made them particularly good complements to most modern pop and rock recordings, which tend to be a little hot. That forgiving nature also worked well with many older recordings -- such as the orchestral releases of RCA Living Stereo and Mercury Living Presence -- which were engineered to be played back through systems with limited top-end frequency response. It’s not that those recordings didn’t still sound bright, but the LCD-2s smoothed out their rough edges to make them much more enjoyable. Being able to enjoy all of the music in my collection without regard to its audiophile pedigree was a liberating experience, and one of the things I valued most about the Audezes. Their smooth sound also meant that, provided I kept the volume at a reasonable level, long listening sessions were utterly free of fatigue.
Of course, the LCD-2s applied that same warmth and smoothing to neutral recordings, which put some limits on instrumental timbre and musical expression. In real life, the sound of a violin can range from smooth and sweet to insistent and slightly strident -- after all, the E-string is made of steel. That full range is captured on Mira’s violin recital, Pearl of Passion (SACD/CD, Ars Produktion 38 009), and I’ve heard it reproduced by high-quality speakers and by some other top-quality headphones. Through the LCD-2s her violin was always gorgeous and silky, even when it shouldn’t have been. It wasn’t that there was no differentiation between the styles of playing, but that the entire range was shifted toward the romantic side. That robbed her performance of a little fire and intensity, and the high notes lost a bit of their clear, singing quality. And if you like searing electric-guitar riffs in your rock music, you won’t find them with the Audezes.
Every tonal balance -- even perfect neutrality -- has its trade-offs, and understanding them is key to appreciating what the LCD-2s have to offer. I’m not saying or implying that the LCD-2s made all recordings sound the same, but no component can cover up the ragged high end of poor recordings without sacrificing a bit of the best recordings’ extension and sparkle. Some listeners won’t be able to get past the LCD-2s’ warm sound, but I suspect that even more will embrace it.
The rich, full nature of the LCD-2s’ midrange was supported by an astonishingly deep and powerful bass response. This is one area where many headphones seem to have trouble -- they’re either too lean or overblown -- but the LCD-2s’ bass was perfectly in line with the rest of their output. Not only did they manage electric and acoustic basses, they were even convincing when reproducing large orchestral bass drums and the pedal tones of pipe organs. Using test tones, I verified that the LCD-2s’ output extended evenly down to 30Hz, and I could make out activity even below that.
The bass had not only depth and quantity, but quality as well. It was absolutely free of bloat or overhang. Furthermore, I could always tell what type of instrument was producing those low frequencies, because they were so well integrated with the higher frequencies. Dave Holland’s double bass, in his quintet’s Extended Play: Live at Birdland (CD, ECM 1864/65), exhibited great tone that included not only the strings but the body of the instrument, with plenty of articulation and decay. Listening to Billy Kilson’s drums on the same album, I could hear his stick hitting the toms, as well as the resonant body of each note. (Yes, toms are tuned: you should hear a specific pitch.) I also heard the somewhat looser nature of the kick drum in this recording when compared to a rock kick drum like the one in “The Happiest Days of Our Lives,” from Pink Floyd’s The Wall (CD, EMI 8 31243 2).
Speaking of percussion, I wasn’t immediately impressed by the LCD-2s’ transient response, but as I continued to listen, I realized how impressive it was. Most headphones highlight transients by making them sound especially zippy. At first this grabs the attention, but over time it can become annoying. The LCD-2s weren’t like that: Their transients were quick but extremely clean. Sticks hitting a drum rim or a closed hi-hat sounded very precise but also natural. Plucked strings also require the driver to move quickly and accurately. I could use a classical pizzicato example here, but if you’re really interested in the sound of plucking, you should check out mandolinists Sam Bush and David Grisman’s Hold On, We’re Strummin’ (24/88 FLAC, Acoustic Disc/HDtracks). Each pluck had a well-defined beginning with no additional sizzle. What’s more, I heard variations in their finger technique as the musical style changed from song to song.
Many of today’s top headphone designs attempt to reduce the “in the head” feeling of listening through ’phones, and the LCD-2s are no exception. The angled placement of the drivers, while not presenting the same spatiality as loudspeakers, does reduce the claustrophobic effect of most headphones’ sound. With closely miked studio recordings, instruments and voices floated in the area just around and in front of my head. But when a recording had a sense of space, the LCD-2s could convey it. Many of the orchestral recordings I favor have a mid-hall perspective when heard through speakers. The LCD-2s maintained that sense of distance between me and the stage, while placing the various sections of the orchestra in their appropriate places from left to right and, more impressively, from front to back. Percussion sounds came from far behind the rest of the orchestra, and the singing in Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra’s recording of the suite from Respighi’s Belkis, Queen of Sheba (24/88 FLAC, Reference/HDtracks) was set so far back it was spooky. Even though all of the spatial information was present, the LCD-2s portrayed it in a way that was continuous and blended rather than hyperprecise.
Not only did the LCD-2s accurately represent the relative positions of sound sources, they also rendered much of the ambience that’s captured on the best recordings. Much like adding a subwoofer to a speaker system, the Audezes’ deep-bass response helped convey the sizes of specific venues. The LCD-2s also offered a good measure of the decay of notes, a quality that contributes to the impression that you are listening to real instruments in a real space. Combined with an isolation from external sounds that was somewhat better than one usually gets with open-backed headphones, these characteristics produced a deeply immersive listening experience.
Obvious competitors for the Audeze LCD-2s are Sennheiser’s HD 800 headphones ($1499). There are a number of significant differences in the sounds of these two models: Both are on the warm side of neutral, but the HD 800s are only slightly warm, the LCD-2s much more so. I find the tonal palette of the HD 800s a little subdued; the LCD-2s were much richer and more vivid. The HD 800s’ bass goes just as deep as the LCD-2s’, but it’s somewhat lighter in quantity and character when used with a headphone amplifier of low output impedance. When used with an amp of high output impedance, the HD 800s present a strong midbass hump that gives the impression of greater bass output, but thickens it and slows it down.
The HD 800s produce a soundstage that’s larger, more open, and more airy than that produced by the LCD-2s, yet it’s a little more precise. When I played recordings that lacked a convincing soundstage, the HD 800s put more space between me and the performance than did the LCD-2s. Although the Audezes didn’t confine the music inside my head, the Sennheisers’ sound was much more akin to that of loudspeakers. These differences are just that: differences.
In a few areas, the HD 800s have an edge over the LCD-2s. Though the LCD-2s uncovered a lot of details in recordings, the HD 800s uncovered a little bit more. I particularly felt that such things as the whisper of brushstrokes on cymbals, a singer’s intake of breath, or the slide of fingers along guitar strings are portrayed more accurately by the lighter touch of the Sennheisers -- which also reveal a bit more specific ambient information than did the Audezes. Nor are the HD 800s’ advantages only with small signals: They handle macrodynamics with a somewhat bigger sense of scale than did the LCD-2s, though they also require significant amplification to give their best. Though I find the HD 800s to be the more highly resolving and accurate transducers, some listeners won’t be able to get past their austere, faraway sound.
Another worthy competitor to the LCD-2s are the Ultrasone Edition 8s ($1499), which I reviewed for Ultra Audio, and which have some things in common with the Audezes in addition to lambskin earpads. Both ’phones produced fully saturated tonal palettes rather than the paler hues of the Sennheiser HD 800s, but the Edition 8s are more neutrally balanced than the LCD-2s. The Ultrasones also have greater high-frequency extension (though it’s not perfectly even), and bass that goes just as deep as the LCD-2s’ -- maybe even a bit deeper -- and with similar weight. The bass is also a little punchier, but the trailing edges are a little more damped. But while the Edition 8s are slightly forgiving of poor recordings and poor associated gear, they’re nowhere near as forgiving as the LCD-2s.
The Edition 8s’ drivers are also angled toward the ears -- one of the hallmarks of Ultrasone headphones -- but the resulting soundstage is quite different from what I experienced with either the LCD-2s or the HD 800s. The Edition 8s present more truthfully what’s on the recording. If that recording was naturally recorded, with a good sense of ambience, the Edition 8s will reproduce that sense of space, though making it somewhat smaller than either of the other two headphones. If, on the other hand, there is no distance between the instrument and/or voice and the microphone, the Edition 8s will put the sound source right next to your ear. That’s more honest, but it’s what drives many people away from headphone listening.
Over the past several months I’ve heard a number of excellent headphones, the sound of each of which has represented a different take on what a pair of headphones is supposed to sound like. The Audeze LCD-2s are yet another take -- in both the sonic goal and the technology employed to achieve it -- but one just as valid as that of any of the other top contenders. If you find that most high-end headphones sound analytical, bright, diffuse, insubstantial, or lacking in bass, then the Audeze LCD-2s may be for you. Their sound is warm, solid, and dense, with a robust bass response that remains under control. They present the music to you rather than shoving it at you, and their way of handling ambience creates a deeply immersive listening experience.
In the LCD-2 headphones, Audeze seems to have pulled off the contradictory feats of making less-than-perfect recordings enjoyable while still conveying many of the benefits of better ones. That makes them very special indeed.
. . . S. Andrea Sundaram
- Headphone amplifiers -- Grace Design m902 , Apex Audio Peak, Furutech GT40, HeadRoom Total BitHead
- Headphones -- Ultrasone Pro 2900, Ultrasone Edition 8, Sennheiser HD 800
- Digital sources -- Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP CD player, Apple iPod (fifth generation)
- Computer -- Laptop computer with coaxial digital output running Windows Vista, Realtek HD Audio ALC272, foobar2000
- Analog source -- Michell Tecnodec turntable, HR power supply, modified Rega RB-300 tonearm, Shure V15X cartridge, Trigon Audio Vanguard II phono stage with Volcano PS power supply
- Interconnects -- DH Labs Revelation, QED Silver Spiral, JPS Labs Superconductor
- Power conditioner -- Equi=tech Son of Q
Audeze LCD-2 Headphones
Price: $945 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.
848 N. Rainbow Blvd. #774
Las Vegas, NV 89107
Phone: (818) 588-6530