Price (in USA): 1945 USD
Manufacturer: Audeze Inc.
AUDEZE | 10725 Ellis Ave, Unit E | Fountain Valley,
CA 92708 | USA
tel.: (657) 464 7029
Manufacturer’s website: www.audeze.com
Country of origin: USA
Text: Marek Dyba
Photos: Marek Dyba | Audeze
Data publikacji: 16. sierpnia 2012, No. 100
I've been an audiophile for quite a long time now, but until more or less a year ago I had lived happily without headphones (except for my AKG K26P I use with an old iPod) and I didn’t even think about having any. It’s not that I never tried – sure I did. I borrowed, a couple of times, some popular cans like the HD600, the AKG K701, some models of Audio-Technica (and some others that I don’t even remember), plus some very decent headphone amps (including the Yamamoto HA-02 for example) but each time my conclusion was the same – it simply wasn’t my way of experiencing music. Firstly, I couldn’t really bear that unbearable feeling of pressure on my head and ears all the time, secondly, this was totally different presentation comparing to what I was used to getting from loudspeakers. I tried hard a couple of times doing my best to find some upsides of headphone listening and finally I let it go, I quit. Loudspeakers it is, I said to myself and I thought the story was over.
And it was at least until last year when I realized I was going to spend a month of vacation away from home, and that it would mean spending it without any decent system, hence without my music. A month without music?!! No way! Just iPod? No way! Take my whole stereo system with me? Clearly impossible. So there was only one choice left – some decent headphone system. I knew I would spend this month in one place so I could build a system based on a laptop as a source, a USB DAC, a headphone amp and some nice cans. Problem was, at the time, I only had the laptop. As I wrote a couple of times before – sometimes it’s good to be a reviewer – I had no problem with borrowing a USB DAC, a headphone amp and cans. All I had to do was to choose which ones I wanted. I did my search on the web, especially on www.head-fi.org, and I “discovered” planar magnetic headphones by HiFiMan. Reading comments on their sound I realized that I might actually like it. I also learned that there was one downside – these cans required a powerful headamp to drive them well. After a quick search I found a Polish distributor of HiFiMan – Rafko (www.rafko.com), and also a distributor of one of the recommended amplifiers – LYR by Schiit Audio (Polish distributor - Earmania.pl). Luckily for me both distributors were kind enough to send me the requested products, so I received the LYR and two pairs of HiFiMans – the HE-4 and the HE-5L. As for a USB capable DAC I borrowed the Music Hall dac 25.3 (from Eter Audio). I’ll skip the details, as it's not important for this review, but the point is I spent a wonderful month with planar magnetic cans from HiFiMan. It was a new, amazing experience that changed my mind about headphone listening. In my ears the sound offered by any of these two pairs of headphones was much better than anything I had heard before from “regular” dynamic cans. This time I could easily spend many hours with headphones on my ears (even during very hot days) without any fatigue, neither physical (as these were very comfortable to wear), nor psychological (created by delivering sound so directly to my ears/head). Because of great spacing (as for headphones performance of course), transparency and impressive bass presentation, sound wasn’t THAT different from that delivered by my loudspeakers. It became clear for me that sooner or later I would become an owner of planar magnetic cans. After that test I decided to buy the Schiit LYR for myself, realizing of course that it wasn’t the best amp in the world, but it was great value for money, it offered a possibility of tube rolling, plus it delivered so much juice that it could drive even most difficult loads, like the HiFiMan's cans. As I said it was also clear for me that I would surely buy a pair of planar magnetic cans but before making my choice I still wanted to check the top model from the same manufacturer – the HE-6, and their biggest competitor – the LCD2 from the U.S. Audeze. Thanks to a Polish distributor I had a chance to listen to the HE-6 a few months later and after that I had no doubts that this model performed better, much better than the HE-4 and the HE-5LE, and that it sounded so good I hardly imagined any cans would sound any better. But still before spending a few thousands PLN on cans I wanted to make sure that they were the best my money could buy. I needed to compare them to the Audeze. The latter was also quite a new player on the market but it seemed that over just few years they won the hearts of a huge number of fans in the U.S., but also worldwide. I read many threads about both, the Audeze and the HiFiMan cans, and as with most audio products, I did not get much wiser after that, as there were equally many people preferring one brand over the other as well as the other way around. No easy answer to the question which ones to choose, the HE-6 or the LCD2. There was one thing left to do – listen to the LCD2 myself. Good idea, but almost infeasible in Poland as there was no local distributor of this brand.
So I contacted them directly asking to send me a pair of Audeze cans for a review. The answer was positive, and it came quickly. The headphones came much later, but I was happy anyway. Before that I was asked which model I wanted – the LCD2, as in my original request, or the new top model, priced at close to two thousand USD, the LCD3. It took me a while but I chose the latter, apparently clearly better than the HE-6, while I felt that with the LCD2 it might have been a matter of taste, preferences rather than real performance advantage. If I had taken the LCD2 I would have still wondered if, and how much better, the LCD3 were.
A selection of recordings used for the review:
You can buy the Audeze headphones either in a very nice, black, shiny, wooden box or in a travel case. I received the former – large, elegant looking, black with a golden lock. Inside it’s padded with some nice looking, soft, velvet-like fabric. Apart from the cans themselves one finds there two sets of detachable cables – one with a 6.3mm jack, other with a 4-pin XLR plug. At the other end the cables (separate end for left and right channel) are fitted with locking, 4-pin plugs. The interesting and smart feature of the LCD3 is angled headphone connectors, which make moving your head around, with the cans on, much easier. Another smart detail are sloped ear pads made of lambskin leather, with specially molded foam to offer the right amount of firmness. The cans are quite large and really heavy (550g). Such a significant weight comes mostly from wooden ear cups made of Zebra Wood. The ear pads and the headband are made of the same lambskin. Long story short – the LCD3 are very nice and elegant looking headphones that seemed to be well made.
My first use of the Audeze cans was somehow surprising – comparing to the HE-6 (heaviest among HiFiMan’s models) these were significantly heavier, plus they put more pressure on the ears and the head. So to be honest in terms of wearing comfort I preferred the HiFiMans. Weight was one thing, others were velour pads that I preferred over leather ones. Plus there was my prejudice (some might say phobia) against anything I could really feel on my head (that includes even a hat... yes, I know, there is probably some treatment for that) – with the HE-6 it was much easier to forget about them on my head when listening to the music. So on my private list points for the looks went to the Audeze (wood and leather are surely more elegant than plastic and velour, although I have to mention that with the HE-6 you get two sets of ear pads, and one of them is made of some leather, or leather-like material), the American cans also got points for some smart solutions (sloped ear pads, angled connectors), but the HiFiMans got points for wearing comfort (of course that was my subjective impression – others might feel the opposite).
Audeze says that one of the key advantages of their cans is a special, obviously better, diaphragm material. Most manufacturers (including HiFiMan) use Mylar with special aluminum conductive traces, while the American manufacturer uses material called LOTUS with special alloys in the conductive traces, that is supposed to give “a greater control and lower distortion”. The large, 6.17-square-inch circular flat diaphragm is sandwiched between rows of neodymium bar magnets. When audio signals pass through the diaphragm it moves in and out to produce sound. Because of their large size and super low mass the planar magnetic drivers are supposed to generate significantly lower distortion than conventional headphone designs and in my ears that seems to be the case.
As I always like to repeat, the design and theory behind it is one thing, but what I (and supposedly most audiophiles) really care about is how it sounds, not how it should sound. Before I start describing my experience with the LCD3 I have to say that I liked the HE-6 so much that it was hard for me to imagine that other headphones could sound even better; maybe differently, but better? It seemed almost impossible even though my whole experience in audio says: “never say never”, as regardless of how much I liked a particular amplifier/player/loudspeaker sooner or later I would encounter some device sounding even better. So there was hope for the Audeze regardless my delight over the HE-6..
Since I received a brand new pair of cans I let them burn in for a week and only after that I started to listen seriously for the first time. The first session was conducted with the Accuphase E360 (review HERE www.highfidelity.pl/@main-1291&lang= ) – an impressive amplifier with high quality headphone output. I remembered the very difficult to drive HE-6 (I listened to 6 month earlier), most of all by their extremely clear and transparent sound with very good stereo imaging, and powerful, well extended bass. Now the LCD3 with the Accuphase delivered sound that was first of all amazingly smooth, rich, and colorful. I was amazed by rich, dense sound this system delivered, with lots of information extracted from recordings, but in general I would describe this sound as a bit dark. It seemed that the HE-6 and the LCD3 went opposite ways – the former preferred speed and transparency, the latter smoothness and great sound saturation but at the cost of transparency and minor but real loss of some details. Obviously that was sound delivered by the system, not just the cans. I suspected that some features of both of elements of the system accumulated and the sound did not really benefit from that, or at least not in all of its aspects. I loved the smoothness and richness of the sound but I needed that supported with more transparency and detail. I was listening to one of the best cans on the market so I had the right to demand more, didn’t I? To be on the safe side – as I explained it many times before, when describing the sound of high-end devices I need to use “regular” words like “better/worse, more/less” and so on, but in such cases those words describe subtle, not huge, differences. In the high-end world those subtleties have more weight than in “regular” hi-fi, as we are looking for “perfect” sound; but still they describe minor discrepancies between different devices. So the real meaning of the Audeze lacking a bit of transparency and detail in this system was: the HE-6, as I remembered it, had a slight advantage in that aspect.
Since I listened a lot (6 month earlier) to the HiFiMan cans driven by my Schiit Audio LYR, I decided to use it also now, when reviewing the LCD3. It’s a really nice and powerful amplifier, surely delivering much better performance than one would expect from something at this price level. Surely not the best possible fit for neither the HE-6 nor the LCD3, but it was supposed to give me a better perspective for a comparison between those two pairs of cans. As I mentioned, it is a very powerful amplifier delivering up to 6W into 32Ω, so even though the sound of the Audeze driven by it wasn’t as sophisticated as with the Accuphase, it gained quite a lot in terms of dynamics, energy, and, what I found particularly interesting, transparency. There was no such fabulous richness or smoothness as with the Accu, some details got lost somewhere in the background, although some others were presented more distinctly than before. To be honest, the sound was already damn good and I could easily live with it if it weren’t for this annoying little voice that kept repeating in my head: “that's still not all these headphones can do, you need to squeeze more of them”. Since at the time (and still today) a new product from Schiit Audio – the Mjolnir – wasn't yet available in Poland I had to keep looking for another amplifier offering even better performance.
Next choice was pretty obvious – it was the Burson HA-160D. I'm pretty sure that at least some of you know why. If you don't you can check it here www.6moons.com/audioreviews/burson8/1.html . The HA-160D is in fact three devices in one body – a D/A converter, a preamplifier and a headphone amplifier. It is quite popular around the world and among Audeze fans, as Burson together with Audeze and 6moons.com organized a tour of the LCD3+HA-160D set, that was sent to people willing to listen to it and later describe their impressions on 6moons.com. Fortunately, also the Polish distributor of Burson Audio, dc-components, was kind enough to lend a piece to me for an extended period of time.
Now back to the system with a separate DAC and a USB/coax converter. As I already mentioned listening session with the HiFiMan HE-6 gave me unforgettable experience that convinced me I would have to build a headphone system with planar magnetic cans. Now continuing listening session with the LCD3 I was still under impression that the Chinese competitor had been more impressive with its speed, transparency, spacing, amazing, deep, powerful and nicely controlled bass, and lots of details given in a very direct or distinct way. Even though the Audeze with the Burson (as headamp) performed better than in any setup before, they still sounded a bit dark, and that meant less distinct details presentation, the sound wasn't so airy, so open, and bass, although powerful, well extended, wasn't that well defined, not so taut. Anyhow, when I stopped comparing my present experience with something I thought I remembered from another session 6 month before, I was truly impressed. The Audeze presented music in a bit different way. The sound was most of all very, very dense, rich, saturated and smooth. It was also powerful, with tons of dynamics. More or less at the same time I reviewed the Bastanis and later the Ardento speakers, both with 15” paper cone woofers, both offering this amazingly natural, powerful, extended bass with truly visceral impact.
Listening to the Audeze I had a very similar impression – lots of power, bass nicely controlled and defined down to the very bottom, with that visceral impact, and what was important, with these cans I could achieve all that at reasonable listening levels, while the HE-6 required lots of power and listening at a higher than “reasonable” volume. Midrange was also very good – well differentiated, colorful and creamy. I particularly enjoyed all vocals that were rendered in a very natural way, with all the details, textures and every single emotion the singer wanted to convey. And while I would have gladly seen a bit more openness and crispness in treble, I already found this performance amazingly good and involving as I listened to various types of music for hours truly enjoying it, making breaks only now and then when my ears and my head needed a short rest from the pressure and weight coming from those cans.
Even though I already enjoyed listening very much, there was still this little annoying voice in my head saying that most likely the LCD3 could sound even better. Undeniably there was some logic behind that – these were, supposedly, the best headphones presently manufactured, so I could really expect even more from them. There was one problem though. If you check the American market of headphone amplifiers you will see a large selection of them and even if you look for top quality ones, there are still many of them with prices reaching 2, 3 or 4 thousand USD. I would love to listen to the Audeze paired with the Liquid Fire, or one of Ray Samuels amps, but these are available only on the American market so I would have to buy them to listen to them. Well, for me a couple thousand bucks for an amp to be used for a review was simply too much. Obviously the Polish market of headphone amps is still very shallow and thus not many high quality ones are offered. What we can be happy about is that there are some entrepreneurs that already realized that and we've seen some new Polish brands on market. So far I haven't had a chance to listen to any of them, but I heard many very positive comments and opinions about them so maybe one day we will have a top performance headamps made in Poland.
You know what, sometimes happy coincidents happen. Wojtek told me that I was to conduct a review of the Auralic MX+ D/A converter from Studio VanderBrug. That was a totally new brand for me. I contacted the distributor and he told me that there was also a high quality headphone amplifier from the same manufacturer called Taurus and that he wanted to send it over, too. I did a quick search – I found that first of all it was a balanced amp, secondly it seemed that the manufacturer considered this amp to be their top achievement. So just a few days later I received both devices – the MX+ and the Taurus. I described my experience with the DAC in a separate review, so I'm not going to get into details here. Let’s focus on the Taurus and how it worked with the Audeze cans. As already mentioned the Taurus is a balanced device, capable of delivering up to 4.5W at 32Ω. There are two outputs, one for a regular 6.3mm jack, the other for a XLR plug (with the Audeze cans the customer receives two sets of cables). I gave the unused before cable with the XLR plug a chance to break in for several hours and then I started to listen and... is there something called “wow factor”? “Wow” was the first thing that came to my mind after a few minutes of listening. I was truly impressed with what I heard as it seemed that I finally got an amp that made the LCD3 really sing. Now I finally started to think that these cans might actually be the best of the best presently manufactured.
First of all the sound, while still very rich, even dense, organic, finally became truly transparent and detailed. All details, smallest subtleties ceased to blend into the background but became clear, distinct and easy to follow. In general the whole presentation moved a bit closer to my ears (comparing to what I remembered from my sessions with the HE-6), but soundstage was still very precise, with impressive depth. I could say that the whole presentation was driven by this amazing, mighty, deep, very well controlled and defined bass, which, interestingly, is also the case for most (good) floorstanding loudspeakers. It's the bass or bass line that “lays foundation” for the whole presentation; a really good performance can't do without it. The differentiation of bass notes also reached the level I wouldn't believe was even possible for any headphones. Finally the sound coming from a great orchestral bass drum was causing shivers traveling down my spine with its immediate attack, slow decay, overwhelming power, and huge amount of energy it produced – all phases of each strike were clearly marked – attack, sustain and decay, all in right proportions. When it came to electric bass guitar in the skillful hands of Marcus Miller, the LCD3 (with the Taurus driving them) proved that they could play anything, better than most cans I ever listened to. To reproduce that music so well bass had to be perfectly gripped, to show the “light-speed” attack and then immediate decay. Plus the bass guitar needed proper weight, power, and it had to go down really low to deliver that visceral impact – with the LCD3 it simply did, and it seemed to come easily to them. Midrange and treble were all about smoothness, saturation, and richness that made this sound still darker than what I remembered from the HE-6, but now I couldn't complain anymore about the lack of details or transparency. It seemed to be a complete sound, and even a bit richer, denser, mightier, more palpable and organic than the HE-6 top performance. But all that was based on my (faint) memory of the review of the HE-6 I did six months before this one. So could I really trust my memory?
Another coincident helped me solve that. I was to receive the HE-500 for another review from HiFiMan's Polish Distributor, Rafko. So I asked them to let me also have the HE-6 once more for a couple of days to compare them directly with the LCD3, to be absolutely sure which headphones I should choose for myself (maybe not immediately, as both cost a lot of money, but eventually). So I'd like to take an opportunity here to officially thank Rafko for letting me play with the HE-6 for another week. I spent that week comparing directly two best planar magnetic cans available on the market nowadays – the HE-6 and the LCD3. I must say that it was one of the most beautiful weeks in my audiophile's life as it was a very rare opportunity to compare directly two top notch products from one category. When compared directly to the Audeze, the HE-6 seemed to offer a brighter sound, still damn good, with tones of details, amazing transparency, brilliant bass with great grip and definition, but they lacked this unbelievable degree of richness that the American competitor delivered. The LCD3 on the other hand seemed to offer darker sound, well, some might even say too dark! But that was just the first impression. I needed to get used to that presentation to realize that while it was darker, it offered at least the same level of transparency and detail that the HiFiMans did. This “darker” sound came from the extraordinary level of richness, density of sound, which, in the long run, was a damn good thing. A cymbal hit with a stick sounded as if its plate was somehow a bit thicker than usually, delivering even deeper and more vibrant sound. Trumpet also gained some weight but without losing its natural ability to make high pitched, shrilling sound. Human voices were... well, nothing short of natural – deep, palpable, sensual, delivered with finesse and all details of their textures. My favorite acoustic and classical guitars gained a small but significant bit of more “wood” in their sound, which made them sound very realistic, full, simply complete. When listening to some classical music with the HE-6 I was amazed with their ability to convey the mighty power of an orchestra, to present such a nice, well defined spacing that allowed taking a closer look at particular groups of instruments, and now the LCD3 proved that it could be done even better, in even more convincing way. All those advantages of the Audeze over the HiFiMan cans were not huge at all, but still noticeable, making them (for those on a cost-no-object hunt) worth spending more, even though more money spent would not give you proportionally better performance. Better yes, but not that much better as their price difference might suggest. So it’s your choice. The HE-6 will be an excellent choice, but if you can spare a few hundred USD more for slightly but noticeably better performance, then you should go with the LCD3 as these cans will take you a small step closer to your private musical heaven. Obviously personal preferences will also decide for some audiophiles – not all of them have to love sound that rich, dense even, and thus perceived as a bit dark, as that delivered by the American headphones.
Considering that the Polish market was not full of high quality headphone amplifiers I thought I did everything I could to squeeze everything I could from the LCD3. But then I remembered one of the reviews Wojtek did in the last months. He reviewed, and then obviously impressed with their performance, he bought cables for the HE-6 and the HD800 made by Swedish company Entreq. I read many times information delivered by users of the Audeze cans that while stock cable was pretty decent, replacing it with one from other manufacturers (like ALO for example) further improved, the already great performance of these headphones. Well, ALO and other brands mentioned there were not available in Poland (of course). Entreq wasn't either, but I wrote an email to Per-Olof Friberg (of Entreq) asking if he could lend me a cable for the LCD3, and a few days later I received a small, elegant, wooden box with the proper cable inside. Along with the cable I also received information that the cable needed around 250 hours to fully break-in. I gave them around a week, when the LCD3 were plugged into headphone output of my LS100 preamplifier, while I was reviewing some loudspeakers. After that week I was desperately anxious to check if the Entreq really improved the sound of the Audeze headphones even further.
Well, there is this old saying: never say never; and it works in audio, too. I thought the performance of those amazing cans couldn't get any better, it was already so good, so convincing, offering so much joy from listening to my favorite music. And there were no obvious downsides, so how could it get any better? But with the Entreq cable it did improve a bit more. The background became really black (I thought it had already been before, but it got even “blacker”), which made music even more spacious, with better definition of placement and dimensions of all sound sources in space. Everything became more distinct, clearer, more transparent and got extra colors. None of those changes/improvements were huge, so some might say that it wasn't much considering the price of that cable (close to 400 EUR), which increased the value of those, already quite expensive, cans. But after spending almost two thousand USD for headphones, another 2-3 for a proper amplifier, wouldn't you consider spending another 500-600 dollars to get one step closer to “perfect” sound? The closer you get to this hypothetical “perfect” sound the more it costs to make another step – that's how audio world works, whether we like it or not. The step towards “nirvana” delivered by the Entreq is not that expensive and surely worth taking, which I confirmed to myself each time when, after listening with this cable, I went back to the stock one. Not even once did I have any doubts that each time I did it, I lost something, maybe not huge, but important. The Swedish cable seemed to bring some kind of calmness to the presentation, not the one meaning deficiency of dynamics or energy, but the one the made me believe that everything was exactly where it belonged. There it was – natural, organic, beautiful presentation that took my mind off the review and filled it with pure music.
I assume that it is absolutely clear for all readers that each review reflects my personal opinions that are not, and cannot be 100% objective – that's simply not possible. So let me express another opinion – the Audeze LCD3 are the best headphones I've ever listened too. I’m not going to say “the best existing”, as there are plenty models I've never had a chance to listen to, but I accept a possibility that they are the best of the best. At first they seem to offer a bit dark sound, surely darker than most people would be used to after experiences with other cans. But in fact this “darkness” comes from unusual level of richness, density of the sound that is also extremely smooth. These planar magnetic cans deliver powerful, energetic, very well defined and controlled bass, a notch warmer (over the HE-6) midrange that is even richer and more palpable, plus this amazing, vibrant, crisp, strong, airy treble that completes the whole, outstanding performance. When properly fed, these cans will deliver a presentation with impressive resolution and selectivity, and they will prove how revealing they might be. Their performance is of course different from what we can hear via loudspeakers, but it is also damn good, giving a fresh, very interesting view on recordings we love and know by heart.
The LCD3 are the top model of planar magnetic headphones in American manufacturer's, Audeze, lineup. They look very solid and elegant with their earcups made of precision-crafted, hand-selected Zebra Wood (Zebrano) and the earpads and headband made of lambskin. The customer may select whether he or she wants them delivered in a travel case or a nicely finished, shiny black wooden box. Along with the cans two sets of cables are delivered – one with a regular 6.3mm jack, other with an XLR plug. On the other end the cables are terminated with small, locking 4-pin plugs. The headphone connectors are angled on both earcups, which makes moving your head around with cans on much easier. Another smart detail are sloped ear pads, with specially molded foam that offer the right amount of firmness. The LCD3 are quite heavy with their 550g, which regardless of excellent lambskin finish of earpads and headband makes them (in my opinion of course) not so comfortable to wear.
Technical specs (according to the manufacturer):