Headphones and Earphones
- Written by Stephen Hornbrook
- Published on 12 December 2012
Design of the Audeze LCD3 Planar Magnetic Headphones
Audeze, (pronounced like "odyssey") a relatively new company, started just a few years ago with their extremely limited production run of the LCD1 headphone. It used their own custom planar magnetic driver, housed in an off-the-shelf set of headphones. Merely a year later, Audeze made its true mark on the headphone market with the LCD2: a luxurious set of high-end headphones targeted at recording engineers and picky audiophiles. Not feeling content with just the LCD2, Alexander Rosson and Sankar Thiagasamudram, the men behind Audeze, have recently released an even better performing model, the LCD3.
The well-regarded LCD2 headphone did so much, so very well that it left little room for improvement with the new LCD3. Yet Alexander and Sankar managed to achieve even greater resolution and lower distortion on the LCD3 with a new planar magnetic driver made from a higher grade material. With an active diaphragm area of 6.17 square inches, the new driver is capable of 2.5mm of push-pull extension.
Included with each set of headphones is a frequency response graph showing the results of the exact pair of headphones inside the box; not something most, if any at all, manufacturers do. Right away, that says a lot about the confidence Alexander and Sankar have in their product.
For me, un-boxing the Audeze LCD3 was like a thousand Christmas's in one. The package was shipped in a secure double box and after I got through the excess cardboard I was greeted with a glistening, piano-black lacquered box. You could smell the newness of it. Clearly, this came straight from the US based factory where it was built. Opening the lid revealed the elegant, voluptuous LCD3 headphones resting snuggly in a bed of silk. To me, the LCD3 are the Rolls Royce in comfort and style, and the Porsche in performance, of the headphone world.
I cannot imagine anyone not being impressed with how the LCD3 looks. The exquisite zebra wood that surrounds the metal work adds an organic element to the design and that lambskin leather is ridiculously swanky. If only I had a listening chair made out of these materials! They even come with a small bottle of oil to keep the zebra wood in tip top shape.
At 550g, these headphones feel quite heavy. Much of the weight is due to the powerful magnets that are used in the drivers. As a planar magnetic design, an array of opposing neodymium magnets creates a strong magnetic field in which a thin diaphragm is placed in between. The strength of the magnets is such that the frame of each earcup requires quite a bit of bracing, which in the end means more mass to the design.
The lambskin leather that encases the earpads is softer than you'd ever expect. The earpads are thicker on the rear side which not only makes for a better seal as they wrap around the rear of your head, but it also provides for a slight angle to the drivers, improving the performance of the drivers. There is no hiding the fact that for headphones, these are heavy, but the headband is well padded and thick enough to distribute the weight across your head. In order for a tight seal, there is also quite a bit of force put on the ears, which can get irritating after awhile, especially if you wear glasses. The softness of the earpads help to alleviate this pressure to an extent, but I wouldn't mind a tad less pinch in future models. They won't get perfect marks for comfort, but given the weight, the LCD3 are pretty darn comfortable.
Since these are not on-the-go headphones, setup was about as easy as it gets. I hooked them up to the powerful HiFiMAN EF-6 headphone amplifier and fed music to that via an Oppo BDP-95, through a Cambridge DacMagic Plus via my laptop, and finally with my Clearaudio Concept turntable. To connect the LCD3 to an amp, Audeze provides both 4-pin XLR and a ¼" plug cables in the box. Both connect to the headphones via mini XLR locking connectors, which allow for easy disconnection and the use of custom cables.
I threw on the LP of Joanna Newsom's Have One on Me and began enjoying her unique sound. For those of you that are unfamiliar with Joanna, her music is comprised mostly of herself singing while playing the harp along with a small orchestra. The recordings are very well done and offer an excellent test for a speaker's ability to reproduce female vocals. Through the LCD3, the violin and cello had a warm natural tone, like you could hear the fine wood cabinets resonating with the changing frequencies. Joanna's unique voice was strong, yet delicate, with the proper amount of body to her notes. Her voice, along with the harp, was portrayed inside my head; as opposed to another planar magnetic headphone I had on hand, the HiFiMAN HE-6's more distant, in-front-of-you approach. I found the HE-6 to present a bit more of a polite sound, in front and around my head, whereas the LCD3 was warm and inviting, filling a virtual space between my ears with music. Joanna's harp showed off the LCD3's speed and quickness, each pluck could be heard with haunting realism.
Mozart's Requiem was presented by the LCD3 with many dimensional layers to the sound. I got the impression I was standing in the center of the orchestra and could picture each row of instruments in half circles in front of me. I could feel the resonating of the low double bass anchoring the composition. The vocals from the choir felt effortless with life-like dynamics thanks to the ample power from the HiFiMAN EF-6. The female alto and soprano soloists sounded as natural as I have ever heard on a headphone.
The 1971 recording by Benjamin Britten of Edward Elgar's Dream of Gerontius features some fabulous low end dynamics and the LCD3 did not let me down in that respect. With such low distortion you can hear each note in the bottom octaves, rather than just one muddy bass tone. The bass was so rich on this recording that it seemed to surround my entire body even though only my ears were hearing it. From explosive war-like passages, to delicate whispers of music, the LCD3 had zero problems showing off just how epic live orchestrated music can sound.
I decided to add a little rock and R&B to my musical mix with Alicia Keys' Element of Freedom and the recent SACD release of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here. I kept thinking to myself as I listened to these albums, "If I were a professional sound engineer, I would be using these headphones to do my mastering." I can see why Audeze is marketing the LCD3 in this fashion as they leave no detail left unnoticed. The sound was never harsh or tiring and I could enjoy the music both at low and high volume levels. The bass was tight and well-defined, where every note of the beat was differentiated from the next. I felt spoiled listening to a sound so refined and wished every system had bass this clean. Sadly though, it would take a professionally designed listening room and many tens of thousands of dollars to get bass performance anything like the LCD3 from a traditional 2 channel system.
I did get a chance to test out the LCD3 on the Burson Soloist headphone amplifier and what a nice combo that was as well. I found the Soloist to be a tad more polite than the EF-6. Like a warm gentle massage as opposed to a deep Swedish massage. Both are good for you and make you feel better, but sometimes you feel like one or the other. Stringed instruments had more of a wispy tone to them on the Soloist, one that I found quite intoxicating. To me this speaks to the LCD3's ability to perform well with a variety of amplifiers.
There was never any doubt in my mind during my review that the Audeze LCD3 headphones were a state-of-the-art product. From the initial wow-factor of the packaging and presentation, to the time I spent listing to music, I was consistently impressed with the LCD3. Their ability to reproduce music with body and dimensionality, while retaining detail and accuracy is flat-out astonishing.
Alexander and Sankar have a great challenge ahead of them and that is, how do they improve upon the LCD3. Sonically, what does the LCD3 not accomplish? I am not sure I can answer that. They reproduce music in such a way that makes you want to revisit every album in your collection, once again hearing it in a new light. I suppose they could take a different approach to some things like placing the soundstage more around and outside of one's head, but is that more correct? No, it is purely a personal preference, much like the music we choose to listen to. If the LCD3 design could weigh less, yet retain the same sound and build quality, that might make them even more appealing, but this is minor quibbling.
Audeze has produced an elite product and at $1945 its price does put it in a league unattainable by most. However, think about how much would it cost to build a 2 channel full size speaker system capable of the performance of the LCD3? A heck of a lot more than the price of the LCD3 plus a quality headphone amp (and that isn't even taking into account room acoustics and the difficulty of obtaining such flat in-room bass response). There isn't a lot of competition currently for Audeze, but for those that are fighting between the LCD3 and HiFiMAN HE-6, stop asking which one is better. They are different designs from different engineers and they have unique sounds and I, personally, cannot decide which one I like better. There are times when the sweet warmth, terrific bass extension and detail, and intimate sound of the LCD3 press my buttons. Yet there are also times when the wide, airy and open soundstage and clean precise sound of the HE-6 does it for me. They are both amazing products and both deserve a chance to be heard. If you decide to go with the Audeze LCD3, get ready to revisit your music collection as you will not be remotely disappointed.