LCD-3 measurements can be found by clicking this link.
In Chicago last spring, at the 2013 Audio Expo North America (AXPONA), I browsed the demo tables of head-fi and desktop gear. I was especially interested in reference-level headphones, as I was looking to upgrade from my tried-and-true Sennheiser HD 650 ’phones. The genial Sankar Thiagasamudram, president and co-founder of Audeze, invited me to try both the Audeze LCD-2 ($1145 USD) and LCD-3 ($1945) headphones. Both models impressed me, but especially the LCD-3’s seemingly full-range sound with symphonic music. I’ve found that symphonic music is extremely difficult for any system to reproduce, let alone headphones. Sending to my ears a high-resolution recording of Mahler’s Symphony No.6, the LCD-3s got the strings right -- not only the top notes of the violins, but also the midrange lushness of the cellos and the gravitas of the double basses in their lowest register. Not long afterward, I asked to review them.
In contrast to conventional headphones, which use cones similar to the dynamic drivers found in most loudspeakers, the Audeze LCD-3s have planar-magnetic drivers. In this technology, instead of a voice coil, a circuit is directly printed on a thin diaphragm, with an array of magnets on either side. These diaphragms are far lighter than the cones in conventional headphones (e.g., my Sennheiser HD 650s). When the circuit is energized with an audio signal, the diaphragm’s interaction with the magnets produces an electromagnetic field that pulls and pushes the diaphragm back and forth, which rarefies and compresses the air to produce soundwaves. In theory, a planar driver can produce faster, more coherent sound than a cone because the diaphragm moves “as one” rather than, like a cone, beginning from the center outward, which makes cones more susceptible to breakup at higher frequencies. In addition, since the Audeze driver is so large, the excursion it needs to move a given amount of air is far less than a conventional cone would need -- which also, in theory, should result in less distortion.
The LCD-3s’ stunning looks have a custom-made vibe. The largish earcups are made of precision-crafted, hand-selected Zebrano wood; with the sloped earpads, they create a feeling of luxury. The pads come in premium black lambskin (like my review samples) or nonleather microsuede, and are filled with a special foam designed for firmness and acoustical balance. The steel headband is padded and wrapped in leather; two metal rods with click-stop adjustments descend from it on either side and attach to a semicircular frame of anodized steel via a single screw fitted over a fine-toothed grommet. Finally, each earcup attaches to its frame and is held in place by two more screws. The mechanism allows for good movement and size adjustments, but I found that the single screw holding each earcup frame could easily work loose to cause a sloppy fit -- or, worse, fall out and get lost in the carpet. After this happened a couple of times, I was able to tighten the screws enough that it didn’t recur.
The LCD-3s were fairly comfortable to wear, especially given their relatively heavy 1.2 pounds, and the earcups created a consistently tight seal. However, for long listening sessions -- say, a full symphony or concerto -- I found that the lambskin sometimes got uncomfortable and hot, making me sweat a bit. I removed the ’phones on occasion, just to create some relief.
My review pair of LCD-3s came in a case of black-lacquered wood; I’m told that this is no longer available, and that the ’phones currently ship in a rugged travel case with foam cutouts -- which might actually be more useful. Inside were the LCD-3s, warranty documents, a frequency-response graph specific to that set of ’phones, a care kit for the wooden earcups, and two sets of cables: one terminated with the standard 1/4” stereo plug, the other with a balanced connection. I used the 1/4” plug exclusively for this review, but it’s good to have the option of a balanced connection without having to pay extra for a custom cable. The cables are on the long side -- 8.2’ -- and attach to the headphones with locking connections that fit perfectly.
Audeze claims a frequency response of 5Hz-20kHz for the LCD-3s, with a usable high-frequency extension of 50kHz and total harmonic distortion of less than 1% throughout the audioband. The impedance is cited as “45 ohms, purely resistive,” and the overall efficiency as 91dB/1mW -- fairly insensitive, as headphones go. The maximum power handling is 15W (for 200ms), and the optimal power requirement is on the high side: 1-4W. I found the latter to be true -- the LCD-3s sounded best when paired with a Pathos Aurium headamp, whose output tops out at 3.6W. Though I played the LCD-3s plenty loud at times, I don’t think I ever approached their claimed maximum sound-pressure level of 130dB. The warranty is for three years.
Setup and sound
The Audeze LCD-3s arrived in midsummer 2013, and ever since, I’ve been using them in varied situations with an assortment of electronics. I took them with me on a monthlong retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and I’ve used them at home and in my writing office. At first, while on retreat, I paired them with the Eximus DP-1 DAC, which has a headphone jack; and, using a mini-plug adapter, with the Astell&Kern AK120 portable media player.
The LCD-3s arrived well broken in, according to Audeze, but on first hearing they sounded veiled, with muted dynamic contrasts. The famed Audeze warmth was there in spades, but I was disappointed to hear so little clarity, punch, or dynamic range. I was then using my Eximus DP-1 DAC, the Astell&Kern AK120, and a NuForce UDH-100, and none of them had quite enough oomph to fully drive the LCD-3s’ relatively insensitive diaphragms.
That all changed when I paired the LCD-3s with, first, the Heed CanAmp and Resonessence Concero DSD DAC, then the T+A Elektroakustik DAC 8, and finally the Pathos Aurium headamp (review forthcoming) and Concero DAC. All three of these combinations produced sounds that were rich, punchy, and clear, no matter what genre of music I played. The warmth was still there, but more in touches, and it never dominated. In combo with the Resonessence Concero DAC, the CanAmp and Aurium headamps produced more clarity, extension, and top-to-bottom balance than any veiling. And I could push the Audezes to thundering levels with both rock and orchestral music and hear terrific dynamic contrasts and timbral agility -- two of their finest features.
For example, in the second movement, Molto vivace -- Presto, of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, as performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Christophe Eschenbach (24-bit/96kHz FLAC, Philadelphia Orchestra), violins sounded crisp and well defined, with superb tonal sweetness during a march-like passage that was remarkably sonorous. There was considerable weight to the midrange, with cellos, violas, and horns playing smoothly. Timpani strokes were explosive and quick. When the march commences in full about a third of the way into the movement, the authoritatively piquant tone of the violins in their upper register stood out against the sharp pipings of the piccolo. Then, the violins sounded mellow and full against the dark tone of an oboe. There was lots of rhythmic excitement but also the sweeping sweetness natural to violins. Never was there a hint of that dreaded “whistling” given to strings by lesser systems and headphones.
The lead guitar in “Heaven,” from Los Lonely Boys’ eponymous first album (16/44.1 ALAC, Sony), had a pure, ringing quality, liquid with a slight bite. In the left channel, the intricate strumming of the rhythm guitar was clearly rendered, and in the right, the voice of the lead singer stood out, forward in the mix, backed by an organ a little deeper or farther back. The close vocal harmonies of the three Garza brothers as they sing the chorus in Spanish had a timbre akin to that of the lead guitar. The entire track had great rhythmic drive and punch and proved to me that the LCD-3s could handle rock as well as orchestral music.
The Audezes did very well with a variety of vocal styles and registers. Operatic tenor Joseph Calleja’s powerful chest voice and radiant head voice both came through beautifully in Puccini’s “Che gelida manina,” from Calleja’s The Maltese Tenor (16/44.1 ALAC, Decca). Chilling were Joni Mitchell’s high soprano notes in “I Had a King,” from Joni Mitchell (16/44.1 ALAC, Reprise), the speed of her vibrato making everything sound more gothic -- and her broad chest voice added a darkness that contrasted with the haunting top notes. Finally, I heard great ambient depth and clearly separable vocal lines in Dulces exuviae, a motet for four parts by Josquin Des Préz and sung by the Huelgas Ensemble, directed by Paul Van Nevel, on Le Chant de Virgile (16/44.1 ALAC, Harmonia Mundi). There were rich harmonics, a smooth bass, and, in the tenor and soprano parts, clear trebles. I heard a superb sweep of choral sound as the melodic line moved through the tenor and soprano voices -- I had a feeling of sailing, flying through the music. There was great delicacy in passages of decrescendo, the bass singer providing a solid foundation for the other soloists.
Acoustic piano was a great pleasure to hear through the LCD-3s. Alice Sara Ott’s recording of the Promenade from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (ALAC 16/44.1, Deutsche Grammophon) had a rich, authoritative sound, bountiful in harmonics, great in sustain and decay. Kenny Barron’s comping in “Stella by Starlight,” from Stan Getz’s Anniversary (16/44.1 ALAC, Verve), was rich and deft, alternating between chords and trilling fills. Best of all might have been pianist Yevgeny Sudbin in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4, with the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä (24/44.1 FLAC, BIS). In the first movement, Allegro moderato, after the great, long orchestral introduction, Sudbin’s playing sounded agile and articulate, with intricate trilling, magnificent rolling arpeggios, and exquisite chromatics in a ringing crescendo. His playing had great weight, sweep, precision, and harmonic richness that together demonstrated a breathtaking range of pianism, all rendered with ease and aplomb by the LCD-3s.
Other instruments fared equally well. “Corcovado (Quiet Nights),” from Paquito D’Rivera’s Brazilian Dreams (16/44.1 ALAC, MCG Jazz), features successive solos on trumpet, clarinet, and tenor sax. Claudio Roditi’s trumpet solo was appropriately brassy, with plosive impacts and brilliant top notes. D’Rivera’s clarinet solo sounded agile, pure in tone, speedy, and articulate. There was a lovely bloom to his high notes, which might have sounded piercing had it not been for the inherent sweetness and sensitivity of the LCD-3s’ planar presentation. The horn choruses sounded smooth and relaxed, the New York Voices lovely and clear in the choruses. This track is a fine test of tonal expressiveness, speed, and timing, and the LCD-3s rendered all of it with ease. I was able to enjoy the variety of tonal textures in each instrument and voice and revel in their clarity and precision of timbre.
The Audeze LCD-3s are famous for their bass, and the review samples did not disappoint. “Redención,” from Cuban bassist Orlando Cachaito López’s Cachaito (16/44.1 ALAC, Nonesuch), features López’s big, thumping double bass, which energized the LCD-3s like no other track. From Cachaito there were strong impacts, lingering reverberations, and deft glissandi. There were also fine mid- and upper-bass articulation and a great rhythmic foundation from Cachaito and punctuation from the drums, both of the latter using repeated figures. James Carter’s bass saxophone in “Nuages,” from his Chasin’ the Gypsy (16/44.1 ALAC, Atlantic), sounded like the coal-fired engine of a freight train blatting out the tune, astonishingly agile in a low register. Finally, the foundation of fine, oceanic swells from the double basses of the BBC Symphony Orchestra led by Jiří Bělohlávek in the first movement, Adagio moderato, of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, with soloist Jean-Guihen Queyras (24/96 FLAC, Harmonia Mundi), was deeply resonant and satisfying.
The LCD-3s’ main shortcoming was something common in headphones: no matter which recording I played, the sound appeared between my ears. Copland Conducts Copland (16/44.1 ALAC, Sony) had great depth, especially in Buckaroo Holiday, from Rodeo -- the orchestra seemed layered in space from front to back, the woodwinds farther back than the violins and cellos. But all of this happened in the space between the two earcups, rather than in an illusion of a soundstage spread before me, as I hear through headphones from Sennheiser and, to a lesser extent, Ultrasone.
The Audeze LCD-3s sounded strikingly different from the two other pairs of headphones I had on hand: my references, Sennheiser’s HD 650 ($499.95), and Ultrasone’s Edition 8 ($1499), the latter a loan from Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio in Santee, California.
I found the Sennheisers more resolving with some music, particularly orchestral, but with far less bass. The HD 650s, their dynamic cone drivers angled toward my ears rather than pointing straight at them, as in the Audezes, provided more of a soundstage, and more of a sense of perspective and an illusion of space and a soundstage. But there was much more presence to all music via the LCD-3s, whose sound was much more full, impactful, and vivid.
The Ultrasone Edition 8s were most resolving of all -- fast, with great bass, but thin with orchestral strings, particularly violins. I loved the Edition 8s with most music, especially acoustic jazz and electric rock -- there, their tight, well-defined bass was a delight, bringing such superb focus to the lower register that the cleanness of their mids and highs was accentuated. Furthermore, the Edition 8s’ earcups are considerably smaller and much lighter than the LCD-3s’, which made them more comfortable to wear over long periods. Even the Ultrasones’ leather seemed to breathe more easily than the Audezes’. Finally, the Edition 8s are more sensitive and could be easily driven by my Astell&Kern AK120, making them a good choice for home and portable audio.
In the LCD-3s, Audeze has produced a superb set of headphones. They performed wonderfully with all types of music, producing a rich yet well-defined sound with good spectral balance across the audioband. They’re certainly of reference level. Some may quibble that their bass is inaccurate and too emphatic and that their warmth might dominate, but these weren’t problems when I paired them with the proper electronics -- e.g., the excellent Pathos Aurium headamp and Resonessence Concero DAC. I did find the LCD-3s’ single-screw, cup-frame attachments a bother and a weak point in build quality. And although physically well balanced, the Audezes are heavy, making for some ergonomic clumsiness and requiring short breaks over long listening sessions (e.g., an entire symphony).
But, in the end, it’s the sound that matters most. The Audeze LCD-3s created the best head-fi listening experience I have yet had. They’re serious contenders for a reference-level set of headphones and a must-hear for anyone looking at the top-tier of head-fi.
. . . Garrett Hongo
- Digital sources -- Cary Audio 303/300 CD player; Apple iMac computer running Mavericks OS X 10.9.1 with JRiver Media Center 19.0.55 with Eximus DP1 DAC, T+A Elektroakustik DAC 8, NuForce UDH-100, Resonessence Concero DAC
- Headphones -- Sennheiser HD 650, Ultrasone Edition 8
- Headphone amplifiers -- NuForce UDH-100, Heed CanAmp, Pathos Aurium
- RCA interconnects -- Siltech 330i, Van den Hul Orchid
- USB cable -- Wireworld Silver Starlight 7
- S/PDIF cable -- Wireworld Gold Starlight 7
- Power cords -- Siltech Ruby Hill II and SPX-800
- Power conditioner -- Pranawire Linebacker
- Power distributor -- Siltech Octopus 8
- Accessories -- edenSound FatBoy damper, Apple Mac Mini remote
Audeze LCD-3 Headphones
Price: $1945 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
10725 Ellis Avenue, Unit E
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
Phone: (657) 464-7029
Fax: (702) 823-0333