Headphones

Audeze LCD-X Headphones

Audeze pronounces their name “Odd-eh-zee.” Now when seeing the same, I find it hard not to reflect back on my high school English classes and studying stories from ancient Greek mythology. Other than Homer’s Iliad, the Odyssey may be the best-known story which chronicles the perilous journey of Odysseus and his efforts to return home after the Trojan War. (Yes, the Trojan Horse was his idea.) I’ve read that Odysseus means “trouble” in Greek.  How ironic. Every time I hear a pair of Audeze headphones I find myself in trouble, wanting to reach into my wallet to buy a pair.

After releasing the highly successful LCD-2 and LCD-3 open-back headphones, Audeze refuses to rest on its laurels. Their latest headphone incarnations, the LCD-X series, include both an open-back and a closed-back design dubbed the LCD-X and the LCD-XC respectively. We enjoyed the chance to hear the LCD-X, and with their other open-back models on hand, it’s a delight to hear them head-to-head – literally.

Setting Sail

On arrival, the LCD-X comes in a black, foam-lined Pelican case, ready for travel and abuse while protecting the precious cargo within. For versatility, Audeze also includes two sets of 8′ (2.5m) headphone cables. One set is a balanced 4-pin to 2×4-pin mini XLR. The other cable is a single-ended version with 4 pins on the headphone end and a standard ¼” termination on the other.  Finally, a ¼” to mini-jack adapter leaves the listener wired for sound with any headphone amplifier on hand.

At 1.3 pounds (600 grams) the X is hefty indeed and there’s no mistaking the weight on one’s head. After an hour or two of listening, I’m generally ready to free my head from the velvet vise for a short break, but that’s a small tradeoff for its great sound. The wide headband and large, comfy earcups distribute that weight well and when you have them on, physical heft certainly yields to the delicate sonics.

Scylla and Charybdis

Audeze’s headphone designs are dangerously attractive indeed. Like the famous hazards Odysseus attempted to navigate, it’s difficult to avoid their pull. Although there is a generally similar appearance to the earlier headphone models, the LCD-X takes a departure from the familiar wood-laden earcups. The Xs offer anodized aluminum enclosures, with a choice of either black or grey rings around the ’cups. There’s also a choice of padding: either a black lambskin leather, or a non-leather microsuede. In either case, as with earlier headphone designs, the foam underneath gives the earcups a slight slope, canting them forward when worn and projecting the sonic image forward a bit. Throughout listening sessions, the ear pads proved generally comfortable.  I find the leather cups do get a little warm and tacky against the skin, so the microsuede may be the preference of some.  I realized also that trying to wear glasses at the same time as the LCD-Xs is an uncomfortable pairing, so these aren’t the best ’phones for those far-sighted folks like me who enjoy music while working on the computer.

Not fixing what’s not broken, LCD-X retains familiar design elements of planar magnetic transducers and Neodymium magnets as with the past headphone versions. The LCD-X headphones differ from their siblings through the use of a new transducer, though, made of a lighter and thinner material plus what Audeze dubs “Fazor” technology. The company claims these alternations manage the flow of sound through the headphone facilitating better imaging, a smoother frequency response, and greater frequency extension. Listening to the new cans, I see that Audeze doesn’t exaggerate. They also claim the capability of frequency response exceeding the 20Hz–20kHz range of normal human hearing, dropping down to 5Hz and with information transfer up to 50kHz. Without an elephant and a porpoise on hand, I’m not able to verify the extremes, but what does reside within my audible range proves magnificent.

Song of the Sirens

As with the other LCDs, bass is a strong attribute. I have not heard another open-back design that offers the depth, weight and punch that Audezes do. Percussion is portrayed marvelously, and these headphones can rock. I’m surprised by the level of heft these open backs produce. Only with custom IEMs have I heard the level of tangibility of drums interacting with my eardrums. Bass, snare, toms, tambourines and cymbals all have an extremely convincing level of impact, resonance and decay. In addition to jazz tracks, I tossed Electric Six’s “Fire” into the mix for fun. The song’s heft though the LCD-Xs is an absolute joy and completely immersive experience.  Green Day’s “St. Jimmy,” another favorite rock track, startled me to the point of a physical lurch when the first notes burst forth from silence. Nice!

These headphones are capable of great delicacy as well. Vocals sound incredible through the X. They strike the right balance between capturing every nuance while avoiding stridency and sibilance that often accompanies them. As with Shivaree’s “Who’s Got Trouble” the LCD-Xs reveal the sound and palpability of Ambrosia Parsley’s breath in anticipation of vocal passages. When the first note rings forth with clarity and refinement there’s certainly no disappointment.

With the LCD-2s the soundstage is well rendered, but as with the LCD-3, the LCD-X improves on this somewhat with better ability to project outward those recorded instruments panned to the far left and right. Sounds at the far edges of the soundstage wrap out and slightly behind the center plane of my head. Instruments are layered well in the X’s presentation and it’s easy to pick them out in the mix. Similarly, naturally (and artificially) created reverberation is quite evident as it reveals a sense of the original recording space.  Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds Live at Luther College provides a good sense of the live performance, especially the applause, shouts and song requests from the audience as the stage mics capture them. Compared with my reference hifi system, the LCD-X makes the concert sound more like an intimate club setting rather than a larger concert space, but it’s no less convincing or enjoyable.

Suitors for the Ears

So how does the LCD-X compare with its siblings? In most meaningful ways, the LCD-X exceeds the very good LCD-2’s capability. The battle for the open-back Audeze kingdom rests with the LCD-3 and the LCD-X. Things get tricky comparing these two, because they are both wonderful and there’s far more similarity than difference.

Ultimately, it’s a slight, nuanced “flavor” change rather than one headphone being superior to the other.  Rather than go into a lot of detail about the LCD-3 which Jeff Dorgay reviewed here, [1] I’ll just focus on the small differences I hear between the two sets of cans.

In most of my test recordings, the LCD-X gives a slightly increased sense of palpability. Bass feels a touch more punchy too. Perhaps this is the result of their new Fazor technology. On the upside, there’s a great degree of connection to the music and a “live,” nimble sense to it. On some recordings it can be a little intense. The LCD-3s also give the listener an exciting, engaging musical experience with extended bass, but the tangible intensity is taken down one notch, and it’s easier to relax into the sound.

In parallel with the above characteristic, the X is slightly more revealing of recordings in general. Especially listening to digital recordings, that can imply both upsides and downsides depending on the quality of the recording. Those who prefer to have every musical detail revealed – or those like recording engineers who need to hear every detail – will love the X’s prowess.  By comparison, the 3s are a touch more forgiving and lean just slightly to the side of warmth. I find this most evident in female vocal passages or in some recordings of horns.

The last subtle difference is hard to describe and best offered as an analogy. Imagine that the music heard though each set of LCDs is filtered through a set of sunglasses. The X has a very neutral grey lens, and the 3 has a slightly rose-colored lens. Each LCD has its own way of portraying – and enhancing – all that comes through it. There’s no right answer. Depending on a listener’s musical selections, associated amplification, sources, and personal preferences, either headphone could find itself welcome in an existing system.

If Marooned…

On the very slim chance I’m shipwrecked and stranded like Odysseus, there are a few things I’d hate to be without. After chap stick, the top of that list is music, and a means with which to hear it. While my first love is the sonic experience from a full-sized stereo system, the sound and presentation of music with the Audeze LCD-X headphones is beguiling enough that it could serve as a worthy substitute. It’s a marvelous addition to their headphone lineup.

Pricing for the LCD-Xs is $1,699 placing it between its other open-back siblings, the LCD-2 and -3 costing $1,145 and $1,945 respectively. That’s certainly not cheap, but considering the X’s build quality and sonic value in comparison with a big iron system, think about it in the cost-context of a good set of speakers. You will need a good amplifier to get the most out of these headphones, so that should be factored into your budget at some point. With that and your favorite source, you have a very musically satisfying personal sound system.

If you are considering headphones in this price range, the LCD-3 and the LCD-X are enthusiastically recommended, and currently my favorite open backs. After many hours comparing the two, the X won over my ears with their punchy, highly resolving and neutral nature. The LCD-X sonics, for me, left little to be desired. I purchased the review sample as my open-back reference headphone and that’s the best compliment I can give.  -Rob Johnson

Additional Listening

It’s tough to pick a favorite between the LCD-3 and the LCD-X.  Both are incredibly compelling, and while I’d give the nod to the LCD-3 in ultimate smoothness, without sacrificing resolution, the LCD-X might be a better choice for those making their first foray into high dollar headphones.

We can argue to infinity about which presentation is more desirable, however these two fantastic phones are a lot like the Lyra Titan-i and the Atlas phono cartridges, or if you’re an old school analog photographer, Kodachrome and Ektachrome.  The LCD-X has a little more contrast, a little more edge sharpness if you will and the other one has a touch more ultimate resolution.

The ultimate decision will be determined by your listening taste and of course, your headphone amplifier.  Personally, I prefer the LCD-3 with solid state amplification and the LCD-X with my ALO Audio Studio Six.  But the bigger story, is that the LCD-X is more easily driven by a laptop, smartphone or iPad than either the LCD-2 or LCD-3, making it the perfect place to start assembling a mega quality personal audio system.  Grab a pair of LCD-X’s for now and add a big daddy headphone amp later as your enthusiasm and budget allows.

We are happy to make the LCD-X our choice for Product of the Year in the Personal Audio category.  It’s been exciting to watch Audeze grow and continue to expand their repertoire.

–Jeff Dorgay

Audeze LCD-X Headphones

MSRP: $1,699

www.audeze.com

Peripherals

Sources Audio Research CD3 Mk2    Light Harmonic DaVinci    PC with Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center 15    iPod Classic Gen 7    Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo    Marantz TT-15
Amplification Coffman Labs G1-A    ALO Audio Rx Mk 2    Van Alstine Fet Valve CF Hybrid
Headphones Sennheiser HD-650     Audeze LCD-2 & -3    JH Audio JH16    Ultimate Ears UE18
Cables Jena Labs interconnects    Cardas Clear USB
Power Running Springs Audio Haley    RSA Mongoose and Cardas Golden Power cords