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The B&H SuperStore is proud to offer our worldwide customer base more than a thousand different kinds of headphones and earphones for every conceivable professional and consumer application, in almost every imaginable combination of style, tuning, and at every price.
Over the last several days, I have enjoyed the opportunity to listen to a very special pair of headphones that are new to B&H, and are distinguishable from all others because of their unusual magnetic planar driver technology and realistic sound signature. The brand is called Audeze (AW-deh-zee).
What’s a Magnetic Planar Headphone?
Traditional earphones and headphones typically use either balanced armature (a tiny magnetic assembly that pushes a drive rod within a sealed chamber, similar to what it is found in hearing-aid technology) or dynamic drivers (an electromagnetic voice coil repelling a cone from a fixed magnet) or some combination of both balanced armature and dynamic driver(s) in a crossover network.
Both of these technologies have inherent strengths and weaknesses due to their design, as well as electrical, thermal, mechanical, and material limitations.
Balanced armatures can be good at producing mid- and high frequencies, but struggle to generate realistic bass and require complex assemblies of multiple drivers to generate low-frequency sounds.
Dynamic and balanced armature drivers both have to a push a diaphragm of some mass, which must be sufficiently excited at a certain threshold to generate all frequencies within their designated range and which, over time, is subject to distortion, power compression, and eventually material and sonic degradation.
A magnetic planar driver (also sometimes referred to as planar magnetic, isodynamic or orthodynamic by various manufacturers) differs from traditional balanced armature and dynamic drivers in that, instead of adhering a diaphragm to a voice coil and repelling from a fixed magnet, Audeze headphones, with their magnetic planar driver design, etches an aluminum trace (similar to how a circuit designer would acid-etch a circuit board) into a sheet of super-strong, super-lightweight film.
The film is then stretched and tensioned between two assemblies of magnets, called stators, which use neodymium, the most magnetic rare metal on Earth. The audio signal is delivered from the amplifier to the aluminum trace on the film, which causes the diaphragm to move within the magnetic field of the stators. Around the stators are two acoustic waveguides called Fazors that help deliver the sound to your ear.
The film is so light, in fact, that it has considerably less mass per surface area than the air that it excites and this, in part, accounts for the headphones’ incredible dynamics, speed of the transient response, and realism of the overall frequency spectrum.
My Listening Impressions
For this hands-on review, a pair of the LCD-X version of the headphones were lent to me. Audeze offers four different models (LCD-2, LCD-3, LCD-XC, LCD-X), which I will describe in greater detail shortly, and are intended for different applications.
Each model offers a few options, including either leather lambskin ear cups or vegan, leather-free micro suede ear cushions and your choice of either a ruggedized rubber travel case made by SKB or a luxury wooden display case, intended to be given as a gift and then arrayed in a home or office.
Upon opening the ruggedized travel case of the LCD-X phones, my initial impression was along the lines of, “Wow, these things are beautiful.” When I took the headphones out of their case, it became immediately clear how well made they are. Handcrafted by audio engineers in California to within 0.5 dB of the targeted frequency response, everything from the precision of the machined, anodized-aluminum ear cups to the tension of the headband, to the separate balanced mini XLR cable connectors for each ear communicated the overall quality of the product.
The headphones are a circumaural or “around-the-ear” design, but unlike traditional circumaural dynamic headphones, the Audeze LCD-Xs are larger in size, with the diameter of the driver covering a much larger area on the side of the head. The larger surface area of the drivers translates to a much larger sound stage.
"In short, they don’t sound like a set of headphones attempting to reproduce the sound of the music. They don’t even sound like a set of loudspeakers attempting to reproduce the sound of the music in an acoustically treated room. Instead, I simply heard music."
At first, I thought the size of the headphones would correlate with their being heavy and possibly fatiguing to wear, but was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable they felt. There appears to be no unnecessary weight added to the design. Every component serves a function in positioning the very special drivers in relation to the listener’s ears. Once I became comfortable with the size, I felt I could wear the headphones for hours of continuous use, especially after I heard them.
The term “Audiophile” literally means “Lover of Sound” (a person who is enthusiastic about high-fidelity sound reproduction), and the first moment I heard the sound of the Audeze LCD-X headphones, felt very much like falling in love.
When comparing different pairs of headphones, it’s common to discuss different sections of the frequency spectrum such as the bass response, the presentation of the mids, and the clarity of the highs. It’s also common to talk about the width, depth, and height of the stereo image and the way that the headphones convey the character of especially important sounds like the human voice. Typically, words like “clear versus muddy,” “bright versus dark,” “warm versus clinical,” can be used to describe the relative strengths and weaknesses of dynamic driver designs.
In many ways, I don’t think these words are appropriate or even approximate for describing the sound of the Audeze headphones. In short, they don’t sound like a set of headphones attempting to reproduce the sound of the music. They don’t even sound like a set of loudspeakers attempting to reproduce the sound of the music in an acoustically treated room. Instead, I simply heard music.
For the test, I listened to music of a wide range of genres including Classical, Jazz, EDM, Funk, Hip Hop, and Bass. The stated frequency response of 5 to 20,000 Hz with extension up to 50,000 Hz seems accurate. The LCD-Xs handled every genre marvelously, from conveying the subtleties of the most delicate pianissimo concerto passages to psycho-acoustic, rib-rattling infrasonic bass drops, with total authority.
I tried listening to mixes I know very well, having previously heard at least 100 times before (in some cases more than 500 times). I was stunned to hear layers in the production that I had not heard before, even on professional studio monitors in a treated room, or using some very rare electrostatic speakers I use for mastering. I listened to a live Bass music mix a friend recorded in a warehouse and when I would close my eyes It felt as though I were back at the show.
I also tried using the headphones to produce a few jams with Ableton Live and Bitwig Studio. In all cases, the effect was the same. The fidelity of the signal, the immersive character of the experience, and the holographic, almost 3-D imaging of the soundstage was astounding, and I didn’t want to stop. I was lost in the music.
With a specified impedance rating of 20 ohms, the LCD-X headphones can be driven by the widest variety of sources, including Smartphones. For this review, I tried listening to them from an iPhone 5s, the headphone output on a MacBook Pro, through an Apogee Duet Audio Interface, and through the headphone output of a Rane Sixty-Four DJ mixer.
Even when driven by the battery-powered iPhone or the soundcard on the MacBook Pro, the details of the sound were impressive. When I used the dedicated headphone amps on the Apogee Duet and flagship Rane Sixty-Four, the sound took on a whole new dimension. When supplied with more power, the headroom of the headphones seemed to increase to a point at which I felt as though I could not overdrive them.
At one point, I raised the level of the headphone amp, expecting to hear the kind of distortion and power compression that is inevitable when overdriving traditional headphones. This didn’t happen. Instead, the music just got louder and louder and more immersive, with no sign of clipping or compression. I couldn’t wrap my head around the phenomenon. I had never heard any headphone, or speaker system for that matter, respond this way.
As an aside, please be very careful with your hearing and follow the table of guidelines provided by OSHA for safe listening levels. I only cranked the level of my amps temporarily for the test to determine if there would be any distortion. What’s fantastic about the magnetic-planar design is that the drivers are so light and move air so effortlessly that they can produce a flat frequency response at almost any amplitude.
Typically, drivers with greater mass or different shapes require that a certain threshold be crossed before generating all the sounds in the frequency response. With the Audeze headphones, I was able to hear everything at even the lowest volumes, which is fantastic, since I can imagine listening to them safely for hours on end.
Which Model is Right for You?
Audeze makes four different models of magnetic planar headphones. All of them are designed to deliver your music with the highest fidelity in the most transparent way possible, but with slightly different characteristics, and intended for use in different applications. The four models can be broken down into smaller groups. When selecting a pair of Audeze headphones, the main points you have to consider are where you intend to listen to them and what other equipment you intend to pair with them.
The LCD-2 is the original model and is described by the manufacturer as having the most forgiving sound signature, due to a magnetic structure that provides a uniform distribution of magnetic flux and incredibly low distortion. They have an impedance of 70 Ohms, so they will require either an integrated amplifier or dedicated headphone amplifier to realize their full sonic potential. This model is especially good for people who are just getting into magnetic planar technology and imagine listening to them at home, at the office, or both, where a separate amplifier is easily accessible.
The LCD-3 is Audeze’s flagship offering. The LCD-3s have the longest voice coil and the strongest magnetic driving force on the diaphragm of any model in the collection. Sonically, this translates to the fastest transient response and the best resolution that the company can currently offer. The impedance of these headphones is 110 Ohms, meaning you will need a capable external headphone amplifier to drive them properly. Like the LCD-2s, the LCD-3s are appropriate for home listening or office use, where it’s possible to keep a dedicated music player and amplifier on your desk.
The LCD-X headphones were designed with a different aluminum trace pattern to optimize efficiency when driven by lower power amplifiers and media-playing devices such as smartphones. The neutrality of the sound signature lends itself extremely well to professional audio applications that require a flat frequency response, such as for mixing and mastering.
Even though the LCD-Xs can be driven by battery-powered devices such as iPods and many smartphones, they still benefit from the additional power provided by dedicated headphone amplifiers, which is exactly what I found in my test when listening through the Apogee Duet and the Rane Sixty-Four DJ mixer.
These are a great choice for the professional musician or sound engineer, as well as people who imagine using them in more mobile applications, such as when working around the house or in a hotel while traveling, when it isn’t practical to bring external amplifiers. The impedance of these headphones is 20 Ohms.
The LCD-XC headphones are similar to the LCD-X in that they have an impedance of 20 Ohms and can be sufficiently driven by the amplifiers in mobile devices such as smartphones. All of the aforementioned headphones are open-backed designs, meaning they generate sounds both internally into the listener’s ears and externally into the outside environment.
The open-back design contributes to the very open, airy, and spacious sound signature that gives them so much depth and realism. When playing music at higher levels, it’s possible to hear some bleed into the external environment. The LCD-XCs were designed with sound-damping, closed-back shells so people around you can’t hear your music. An added benefit of the closed-back design is a more forceful infrasonic and bass response, which will surely be appreciated by fans of the low end.
Given their high-efficiency, low-impedance design and the fact that they sufficiently block out external noise and prevent bleed, the LCD-XCs are best for DJs, bass-heads, and people who may want to use them while commuting to work or while working in public spaces, such as coffee shops or office environments where you are sitting in cubicles or carrels alongside colleagues.
The Value Proposition
Though these prices may seem very high for a pair of headphones, especially when there are so many decent sounding and inexpensive options available, a closer examination of the value proposition reveals them to be quite the remarkable deal.
To achieve this level of sound quality in Hi-Fi speakers could easily cost more than two to ten times as much, in Hi-Fi speakers, amplifiers, and cabling―let alone the cost of having your room acoustically treated to get the best results from your speakers.
A new 40” 4K TV costs about the same as a pair of LCD-2s, and that technology is constantly being updated by manufactures and regularly upgraded by consumers. With audio equipment, both speakers and headphones will retain their value significantly longer than televisions and other consumer goods. If you do a cost assessment and imagine using the headphones every day while commuting, working, and relaxing, you could easily enjoy them (at lower listening levels) for upwards of 9 to 10 hours. The average American watches TV for approximately half that time.
If you listened to your favorite music, podcasts, and movies while at work and at home every day for even the minimal course of their 3-Year warranty (though I expect if properly taken care of they could for a decade or more), the cost per day, for even the flagship LCD-3, would translate to about $1.77, the average price of a cup of coffee. For this kind of sound quality, that is an amazing listening opportunity.
Suppose you are excited and have decided on which model of Audeze is right for you. The next question becomes: how do you get the most out of your headphones? Fortunately, Hi-Fi audio is one of the largest growing categories at B&H, with an extensive selection of Digital Audio Players (DAPs), Digital to Analog Converters (DACs), Headphone Amplifiers, and integrated solutions that combine these components.
For high-end mobile media players, I suggest you take a look at the offerings from Astell & Kern, which offer features such as Burr-Brown converters, separate digital to analog converters for each ear in some models, and support for super high-resolution audiophile formats, such as DSD.
More affordable options that still deliver outstanding performance can be had from companies like Fiio. The X3 and the X5 media players are close to the price of an iPod, but offer Hi-Fi features similar to those found by Astell & Kern. Fiio also makes an outstanding collection of headphone amplifiers in a broad range of prices, depending on your needs.
For desktop headphone amplifiers, check out offerings from companies such as Sony, Fostex, Sennheiser, Grace, Teac, Centrance, and Creek.
If you want to take it even further, consider upgrading your standard power and interconnect cables to those offered by Audioquest. Though at first, cables may not seem like they can make that big of a difference, remember that the fidelity of your signal is only as good as the weakest link in the chain and you may be amazed at how much better your new headphones can sound with a simple cable upgrade.
In all cases, the important thing to remember is to trust your ears and try experimenting with different combinations of players, amps, cables, and headphones until you find a sound that you love.