- Category: Feature Reviews
LCD-X measurements can be found by clicking this link.
At CanJam 2009, in Los Angeles, Alexander Rosson and Sankar Thiagasamudram showed off a new headphone prototype. Two things made these headphones stand out from the variety of do-it-yourself contrivances usually found at CanJam: though Rosson and Thiagasamudram used a commercially available enclosure, the driver was entirely their own -- a rather rare planar-magnetic design. By the end of that year, the two had organized themselves into a company they named Audeze (pronounced Odyssey) and come out with their first salable product -- the LCD-1 headphones.
In 2010 the LCD-2 ($1145 USD) was introduced, and that’s when the headphone community and professional reviewers really began to take notice. Not only was the sound surprisingly good for a product from a brand-new company, it was something very different from what other headphones offered: denser, more robust, and comfortably warm. The next few years saw incremental changes to the LCD-2 and the launch of the higher-end LCD-3 ($1945), which has a thinner, lighter diaphragm and is claimed to sound more transparent. The latest creation from Audeze, debuted at the 2013 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, is the LCD-X ($1699).
The planar-magnetic driver might need a bit of explanation. The drivers in typical dynamic headphones are similar to those of conventional loudspeakers: a dome-shaped diaphragm with a voice coil affixed to it. Current flowing through the wire induces a magnetic field, which interacts with the field of a permanent magnet placed behind the coil -- the electromagnetic force causes the diaphragm to move back and forth, and the resulting compression and rarefaction of air produces soundwaves.
In a planar-magnetic design, the diaphragm is a thin membrane with a complexly patterned conduction path printed directly on or otherwise bonded to it. The magnetic field induced by current flow along this path interacts with an array of magnets -- usually, as in the LCD-X, placed symmetrically on either side of the diaphragm. This approach has two theoretical advantages over a standard dynamic driver: the thin membrane has less mass than a dome and voice coil, which should allow it to respond more quickly and accurately to changes in the signal; and driving the diaphragm uniformly over its entire surface reduces resonant modes and distortion. Like the previous models from Audeze, the LCD-Xes’ diaphragms have a radiating area of 39.8 square centimeters, or nearly twice that of a circular driver with a diameter of 50mm -- the average size found in other large over-the-ear headphones. A larger radiating area means that the diaphragm has less far to move to displace the same amount of air. All else being equal, that, too, should result in faster response and lower distortion.
Audeze has chosen a different material for the LCD-Xes’ diaphragms, and developed a new process for making it. The result is a thinner, lighter membrane, for improved speed and accuracy. Audeze also claims better efficiency than the previous designs (96dB at 1mW vs. 90dB for the LCD-2s, and 91dB for the LCD-3s). While it’s indeed possible to drive the LCD-Xes with an iPod, it’s not an entirely satisfying experience. If you want to hear all that the Audezes have to offer, a good amp is required. The LCD-Xes also incorporate Audeze’s new Fazor elements (patent pending), which “help guide and manage the flow of sound in the headphones” to deliver better phase and frequency responses, greater frequency extension, and more holographic imaging.
There have been structural and aesthetic changes as well. Most obvious, the wooden earcups have been replaced with black-anodized aluminum. The well-padded headband is made of leather-wrapped steel, and from it descend robust metal rods with click-stop adjustments. These support sturdy yokes in an arrangement that allows ample ranges of pivoting, up/down and front/back, without feeling loose or sloppy. As on the original LCD-2, the thick earpads are wedge-shaped, so that the transducers are somewhat angled back. The new pads, however, are much softer -- as is their lambskin covering -- creating a better seal and giving great wearing comfort, despite the ’phones’ weight of 21.6 ounces. The look and feel of the LCX-Xes is altogether more professional than previous Audeze models -- they don’t look as if they’ve been put together in someone’s garage.
The LCD-Xes come in a rigid plastic SKB case with foam cutouts. It’s perfect for throwing into your car or your checked baggage without worries, but would take up a sizable portion of a carry-on bag. (Anyway, no one will use these on a plane.) Inside are two 10’ cables. One is terminated in a standard 1/4” stereo plug, while the other ends in a four-pin balanced connector; both attach to the ’phones with locking connections. The cable must be detached to fit the headphones back in their case; those who don’t want to leave them lying on a table but still want ready access to their music will probably want to invest in a headphone stand.
The first recording I listened to through the LCD-Xes was of Yefim Bronfman’s performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.2, accompanied by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, along with Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No.2 (24-bit/96kHz FLAC, NYP/HDtracks). It was immediately apparent that the improvements to the LCD-Xes over the LCD-2s extended beyond comfort and ergonomics. Though they still leaned to the warm side of neutrality, the LCD-Xes were significantly closer than their predecessors to the center line -- I can’t imagine anyone describing their sound as “dark.” The top octaves of the piano rang forth clearly and brightly, and the muted trumpet in the beginning of the concerto’s second movement had a satisfying amount of bite. Like many romantic composers, Rachmaninoff relied as much on a broad tonal palette as on melody and harmony. The strings were lush in the first movement, though not overly so, and more sprightly in the second movement, a scherzo. The sound of the brasses ranged from rich and burnished to superbly brassy, and the glockenspiel had an excellent combination of tone and sparkle. The LCD-Xes also helped me appreciate Rachmaninoff’s weaving of the melodic line through the woodwinds, rendering the diverse timbres of clarinet, oboe, and English horn in a distinct way that made each instrument immediately recognizable.
For many audiophiles, a pair of headphones will succeed or fail based on their reproduction of the human voice. From Anu Komsi’s soaring soprano in the Queen of the Night’s aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, on her collection Coloratura, with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo (24/96 FLAC, BIS/eclassical), to Fredrik Zetterström’s rich baritone in his duets with Anne Sofie von Otter on her A Summer’s Day: Swedish Romantic Songs, with pianist Bengt Forsberg (24/88.2 FLAC, BIS/eclassical), the LCD-Xes sounded close to natural -- with just a little extra midrange warmth and saturation. They acquitted themselves equally well with close-miked pop vocals. I’ve been listening to Alison Krauss for over a decade, and through the LCD-Xes I heard the unique combination of sweet tone and breathiness that keeps me coming back to her recordings both old and new. At the other end of the spectrum, in “Bird on the Wire,” from Leonard Cohen’s Songs from the Road (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia), the Audezes cleanly rendered the big, bass-heavy sound that Cohen adds to his voice by using the vocal mike’s proximity effect. In many places in that recording, Cohen’s voice clips the microphone preamp. The LCD-Xes neither covered these up nor exacerbated the problem.
While the LCD-Xes weren’t as forgiving of poor recordings as the LCD-2s, the ruthlessly compressed “Rolling in the Deep,” from Adele’s 21 (16/44.1 FLAC, XL), was still tolerable, and I wasn’t overly distracted by all of the artifacts on the poor tape-to-digital transfer of Sade’s Diamond Life (CD, Portrait RK 39581) -- though I prefer to listen to the Audio Fidelity edition, pressed on 180-gram vinyl. The laid-back sound of the earlier Audeze headphones made them a great match for some of the brighter jazz and classical recordings from the 1950s. The LCD-Xes may be an even better pairing, as it gave those albums a bit more life without making them fatiguing to listen to. The only time the LCD-Xes crossed the line into edginess was when I drove them directly from the headphone output of a Harman/Kardon CD player/recorder with recordings that had a lot of treble energy.
One of the great strengths of the first Audeze headphones was the depth, potency, and linearity of their bass, which was superior to what other open-back headphones offered. The LCD-Xes carry on that tradition. The bass-synthesizer notes in Massive Attack’s Heligoland (CD, Virgin 5 09996 09466 2 1) were powerful -- as they need to be -- but also had distinct pitches. While no headphones can give the full-body experience of being in the presence of a pipe organ, the louder passages of Jan Lehtola’s recording of Kalevi Aho’s Alles Vergängliche: Symphony for Organ (24/96 FLAC, BIS/eclassical) had an intensity that comes only when the full range of this grandest of instruments is reproduced. What was even more impressive was hearing the softer notes underpinning the sparser passages. Through most headphones, such subtle bass notes disappear entirely, which significantly alters the character of those sections. I can’t leave the Aho recording without remarking on the fact that, through the Audezes, those pedal notes sounded as they do from real organ pipes, not as ambiguous low-frequency energy -- yet another feat beyond the abilities of all but a few headphones.
The LCD-Xes’ bass performance was far beyond their predecessors’ in the areas of definition, agility, and articulation. The electronic bass drums in “Babel,” from Heligoland, were extremely tight, fast, and hard hitting, and the electronically processed drums on Elton John’s Madman Across the Water (24/96 FLAC, Island/HDtracks) exhibited plenty of punch. Turning to the entirely acoustic realm, Bernard Purdie’s kick drum on Bucky Pizzarelli’s Swing Live (24/96 FLAC, Chesky/HDtracks) had a firm attack, but not so firm as to sound like a rock kick. In his drum solos in “Sweet Sue,” the LCD-Xes preserved the sound of Purdie’s floor tom -- from the strike of the stick against the head, to the tone of the drum, to its interaction with the recording space. On the classical side, I never had any trouble differentiating bass drums from timpani on the dozens of recordings I played through the LCD-Xes in the course of this review.
Double basses in jazz recordings present a challenge to most headphones, but they didn’t faze the LCD-Xes. Ray Brown’s instrument on the Oscar Peterson Trio’s Night Train (24/96 FLAC, Verve/HDtracks) was broad and full, but the notes didn’t run into each other, they were even in volume, and each had a definite pitch. Sam Jones’s double bass on Milt Jackson and Wes Montgomery’s Bags Meets Wes (24/96 FLAC, Riverside/HDtracks) was miked to give a nice fundamental, but with more of the plucking of the string and its sound against the fingerboard than Brown’s instrument on Night Train -- and through the LCD-Xes, that’s what I heard. Sometimes, however, when there was a lot going on down low, the resonant chamber between my ear and the driver, created by the excellent seal of the Audezes’ earpads against my head, negatively affected clarity. Though the leading attacks of the drums on Madman Across the Water were punchy, the trailing sounds became somewhat homogenized. The bass parts in orchestral recordings provided a strong foundation for the rest of the ensemble, but those lines sometimes blended into the reverberance of the hall. This last criticism should be balanced against what I otherwise regard as the LCD-Xes’ extraordinary bass performance.
One area where previous Audeze ’phones -- and, really, all planar-magnetic designs -- needed improvement was in their ability to deliver macrodynamic swings. The LCD-Xes had no such troubles. The re-entrance of the full orchestra at the end of the Prokofiev concerto, after the contemplative piano interlude, was truly explosive. On the small scale, the LCD-Xes clearly differentiated, in volume and in character, the legato passages from the more accented figures in Hélène Grimaud’s recording of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No.8 (24/96 FLAC, Deutsche Grammophon/HDtracks), and faithfully communicated her nuanced phrasing in this marvelous performance. The LCD-Xes’ responsiveness also preserved small details -- like the click of the accordion’s keys in “Razor Face,” from John’s Madman Across the Water -- and the turned pages and audience coughs in the New York Philharmonic concert.
Whether it was the planar-magnetic drivers, their distance from my ears, the angled earpads, or, more likely, a combination of these, the LCD-Xes had an exceptionally spacious sound. The soundstage extended well to my left and right, with solid placement of singers and instruments along that axis -- though central images were very much in my head rather than in front of it. With naturally miked classical recordings the LCD-Xes conveyed some sense of layered depth: strings in front of woodwinds in front of brass, with percussion at the back. The general spaciousness, along with these headphones’ ability to reproduce truly low bass, re-created the cavernous acoustic of “Long Distance,” from both the binaural and SoundField versions of Jamey Haddad, Mark Sherman, and Lenny White’s Explorations in Space and Time (24/88.2 FLAC, Chesky/HDtracks).
Throughout this review, I’ve been comparing the LCD-Xes to Audeze’s own LCD-2s. In many ways -- bass agility, dynamics, detail retrieval -- the LCD-Xes are better, but I could still see someone preferring the LCD-2s or ’3s to the ’Xes for the formers’ warmer tone and supersmooth sound. Of course, at $1699, the LCD-Xes also face stiff competition from other brands. I’ve praised their bass, but those for whom punchy bass is a top priority may want to consider the Ultrasone Edition 8 headphones ($1499). Though it can be more forceful, the Edition 8s’ bass is not as linear as the LCD-Xes’, nor as pitch-defined or textured. The Ultrasones have more sparkle in the treble, but can turn a bit biting at times. They are also closed-backed, with the traditional pros and cons of those designs. Ultrasone’s placement of the drivers at the front bottom of the earcups (they call this S-Logic) can bring the image a bit forward, out of the head, and better reproduce depth information, but the Edition 8s don’t sound as big as the LCD-Xes.
Other likely competitors are Sennheiser’s top-of-the-line HD 800 headphones ($1499.99), which offer a more neutral tonal balance than the Audezes. Put another way, the HD 800s sound more matter-of-fact, the LCD-Xes a little extra-vivid/colorful. The HD 800s best the LCD-Xes in reproducing instrumental and vocal textures -- the buzz of an oboe’s reed, the scrape of horsehair on strings, the rasp of Leonard Cohen’s voice. The Sennheisers also make it easier to pick apart a dense orchestral tapestry or a complex studio creation. (Though those who make a high priority of fine texture, detail, and the ability to unravel musical lines may also wish to consider electrostatic headphones -- such as the Stax SR-507 Lambda Signatures, which cost $1099.) The HD 800s have excellent bass definition, but can’t match the LCD-Xes in scale or power down low. What most differentiates the HD 800s from other designs is their ability to portray a sensible soundstage: all music seems to come from a little in front of you rather than off to the sides, and talking about depth starts to really make sense. No headphones present music the way loudspeakers do, but the HD 800s come closer than any others I’ve heard. If you have an opportunity to audition these top-tier headphone models, you’ll either come away with a clear preference or wish you could own them all.
The continued efforts of Audeze’s design team have resulted in headphones with tremendous strengths. The LCD-Xes’ bass goes deeper and plays stronger than any other open-back design I’ve heard, while remaining faithful to the character of the instruments that produce those low frequencies. They are as responsive to microdynamic shading as to macrodynamic swings -- equally essential characteristics of real music. Their only, minor weaknesses are that the bass has a touch of extra resonance, and clarity isn’t quite at the level of the very best available. Like previous Audeze headphones, the LCD-Xes imbue every recording with a little extra glow, but their enhanced high-frequency performance, and the fact that they’re more easily driven, will likely broaden their appeal beyond Audeze’s current fan base. Last, the LCD-Xes’ materials, build quality, and accessories embrace both luxury and utility. For anyone truly serious about headphones, the Audeze LCD-Xes are a must audition.
. . . S. Andrea Sundaram
- Headphones -- Audeze LCD-2, HiFiMan HE-500, Stax SR-507
- Headphone amplifiers -- Grace Design m902, Woo Audio GES
- Digital sources -- Apple iPod Touch 5, Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP, Grace Design m902, Harman/Kardon CDR 20, Mel Audio Rechav
- Computer -- Laptop with coaxial digital output running Windows Vista, Realtek HD audio ALC 272, and foobar2000
- Interconnects -- DH Labs Revelation, JPS Superconductor, QED Silver Spiral
- Power conditioner -- Equi=Tech Son of Q
Audeze LCD-X Headphones
Price: $1699 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
10725 Ellis Avenue, Unit E
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
Phone: (657) 464-7029
Fax: (702) 823-0333