Audeze LCD3 Headphone (Hi-Fi+)

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Audeze LCD3 Headphone
Audeze LCD3 Headphone (Hi-Fi+)

The LCD3 is – quite simply – Audeze’s attempt to build a headphone that offers (according to the company), “the highest level of audio quality, unsurpassed bass extension, exceptional treble and the best mid-range you will find in headphones.” That’s an ambitious sonic goal. Does it achieve that, and if so, does its healthy price tag represent true value for money. Well, not wishing to spoil the review from the get-go, we’ll offer you this introductory hint; the LCD3 is arguably one of the two best headphones that money can buy at this point in time.

Unlike Audeze’s original LCD2 model, the LCD3 features next-generation planar magnetic drivers using a proprietary thin-film ‘Lotus’ diaphragm that Audeze claims is made of a special alloy for greater control and lower distortion. The diaphragm itself is held between neodymium magnets in push-pull (allowing for an impressive 2.5mm maximum excursion) and the whole 6.17 square-inch transducer unit is said to be sensitivity and frequency matched to exceptional ±0.5dB tolerances. As this is tested extensively, customers are given a frequency plot of their own headphones in the box.

The LCD3’s open-back, circumaural (surrounding the ear) design has distinctive sloped lambskin-leather ear pads (meat-free options are available for the ear cups and the pad covering the spring-type headband frame). Meanwhile, those ear cup housings are made from a tasty shade of hand-selected zebrano wood.

The LCD3’s ear cup housings are carried by sturdy metal yokes that allow the ear cups to swivel in both vertical and horizontal axes for an optimal fit. The yokes attach to the headband frame via polished metal shafts cut with precisely spaced grooves that serve as click stops, allowing listeners to dial-in precise and repeatable amounts of clearance between the tops of the ear cups and the arched surface of the headband. Plainly, Audeze takes precision fitting and wearer comfort quite seriously.

Audeze also packs the LCD3 box with some handy goodies. It includes two sets of high quality, quick-disconnect signal cables, both equipped with mini-XLR connectors on the headphone end. One cable is fitted with a ¼-inch phone jack-type plug and the other fitted with a 4-pin, XLR-type connector for use with balanced output amplifiers. There’s also a vial of wood polishing fluid and a lint-free polishing cloth, plus a choice of case; either a Caribbean rosewood presentation affair or a rugged and heavily padded SKB-type travel box.

The LCD3 is somewhat heavier than many of the open-back headphones we’ve tried—not heavy enough to be uncomfortable, but heavy enough to remind you these ‘phones do have a good bit of mass to manage. Also, the LCD3’s clamping pressures fall somewhat above the median among ‘phones we’ve tried, which can potentially cause problems for glasses wearers. Neither of these points undercuts our appreciation for what the LCD3 is and does, but they are worth knowing about up front.

The LCD3 builds upon the many strengths of the LCD2, while addressing what some perceived as the LCD2’s shortcomings. In the bass region, the LCD2 was rightly regarded as an excellent performer, with extremely good low-frequency extension, good measures of weight and punch, and plenty of detail. Even so, the LCD3 offers even better bass, with equally good extension, but noticeably better low-end transient speed, focus, and resolution. Where the low end of the LCD2 was excellent, the LCD3 now pushes the performance envelope even further, to a point where we think it delivers the best bass we have yet heard from any headphone.

Through the midrange, where most music really lives, the LCD3 again raises the bar with what sounds like a broad band of evenly balanced midrange response with extremely pure timbres, excellent transient speed, and superb rendering of low-level sonic details.

The upper mids and highs of the LCD3 are noticeably more prominent than those of the LCD2 and for that reason more accurately balanced, though if you look at the frequency response test charts for the two models you’ll discover the differences in tonal balance appear more subtle on paper than they sound in reality. Still, Audeze did not go overboard with its voicing adjustments, so that the LCD3 preserves elements of the classic Audeze “house sound”. But even so, the voicing of the LCD3 is now more similar to that of its top-tier competitors. What is more, the upper mids and highs of the LCD3 also show the same across-the-board improvements in speed and transparency that we’ve observed in the LCD3’s bass and midrange performance, which is all to the good.

The LCD3 exhibits the desirable qualities of turn-on-a-sixpence musical agility and all-around responsiveness as if to suggest that the LCD3 can effortlessly track with even the quickest or subtlest shifts in the music. These qualities also pay huge dividends in terms of the LCD3’s ability to faithfully reproduce both large and small-scale dynamic shifts in the music. Frankly, I know of only one headphone that can better the performance of the LCD3 in these areas, and that would be the Stax SR-009.

To put things in perspective, consider that the SR-009 costs more than twice what the LCD3 does and that the Stax will require a dedicated electrostatic headphone amp that costs still more. In contrast, the LCD3 is surprisingly easy to drive as planar magnetic headphones go (93dB sensitivity), meaning that you can get good results with well-designed mid-priced conventional headphone amplifiers (though the LCD3 certainly justifies investing in the best headphone amp you can afford).

In a ‘big picture’ sense, the LCD3 is that rare audio component that does literally everything well, and that offers state-of-the-art bass reproduction and near state-of-the-art midrange lucidity. With the LCD3 you never have to worry about tradeoffs or drawbacks because, apart from a very slight degree of upper midrange/treble reticence, there aren’t any. Instead, the LCD3 takes you as far up the performance ladder as most of us will ever want or need to go.

I’ve said that the LCD3 offers state-of-the-art bass, extraordinary midrange lucidity, and powerful and expressive dynamics. To hear all three sets of qualities on display in one relatively short piece of music, try listening to the second (Scherzo: Allegro molto) movement of the Copland Organ Symphony as performed by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, with Paul Jacobs as organist [SFS Media, SACD]. This beautiful, angular, contemporary piece often begins themes with one or two group of instruments, then adds layers of instrumentation, and in the process weaves in the voice of the pipe organ—more as a member of the orchestra than as a solo instrument. As I listened to these passages unfold, I was struck by how pure and richly evocative and detailed the voices of individual instruments—be they woodwinds, brass, strings, or the upper registers of the pipe organ—truly were. But what was impressive was the effortless way the LCD3 took in its stride the addition of more and more layers of instruments, as if it always had reserves of clarity and definition sufficient to handle any musical challenge I might throw its way.

But at several distinct points in the movement the overall dynamic tenor of the music become dramatically more forceful, with notes and phrases punctuated by brilliant, blaring brass lines, insistent concert bass drum thwacks, and both the upper and lower registers of the pipe organ holding forth (including, at times, very loud, low-frequency pedal notes). As you can probably imagine, these passages pose stiffer dynamic challenges than many earphones and headphones can meet, yet the LCD3 seemed complete unfazed by them, as if playing at high volumes with extreme subtlety and clarity were—for this superb headphone—no more difficult than handling simple musical lines at low volumes. One of the coolest aspects of the LCD3 is that its performance envelope seems to stretch (that is, to expand or contract) to match the demands of any given piece of music. Precious few headphones can do this kind of dynamic “shape-shifting” as gracefully as the LCD3 can.

As if to make this point even more dramatically, the first large-scale dynamic outburst in the Organ Symphony’s second movement is followed by a much more simply orchestrated passage played at lower volume levels, with minimal woodwind and brass voices initially carrying the melodic theme. Right on cue, the LCD3 “downshifts” from the powerful, bombastic levels at which it has just been playing to present instead a hushed, intimate, up close and personal rendering of the quieter themes as they unfold. I found the LCD3’s handling of the upper register of the organ in this section simply riveting, because the voice(s) of the organ—and in particular its delicate reed-like sounds—seemed shockingly pure and realistic (almost as if I could hear air flowing through pipes and then beginning to resonate within them to produce sounds). This ability to shift back and forth from full-on orchestral crescendos to quiet intimacy is, in my book, a rare and beautiful thing.

The LCD3, unlike some top-tier headphones, proves able to work and play well with non-audiophile-grade recordings, so that it maximises whatever is good while reporting sonic flaws honestly but without “malice.” A great example of such a recording would be the title track “She’s So Scandalous” from Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears’ Scandalous [Lost Horizon]. This hugely funky neo-R&B track has, thankfully in the service of the music, some overblown elements such as a huge kick drum and bass guitar sound offset by semi-realistic but somewhat extra-crispy sounding guitar notes and vocals. But the track also has beautifully recorded horn section and percussion elements, all holding forth with real gusto. The LCD3 is accurate enough to show which elements are realistic and which are little juiced up, but presents them in a rich sounding and well-organised way that, I presume, conveys the producer’s desire to provide a somewhat “larger than life” sound that nicely captures the energy and feel of a live R&B performance. My point is that the LCD3 finds a way to faithfully show what the recording is really like (warts and all), while letting listeners find as much to enjoy in their records, even their imperfect ones, as possible.

At every step along the way, the LCD3 proves capable of showing new elements, even in recordings one knows well. Of late, I’ve been using John Hammond’s incredibly well recorded solo acoustic blues album Rough & Tough[Chesky, SACD] for some of my listening tests, partly because it contains great music, but partly because it can—at its best—sound tremendously lifelike and real. The disc sounds good through most headphones, but its sound jumps to whole new level through the LCD3. I particularly enjoyed the title track ‘She’s Tough’, which is a jauntily paced blues shuffle that’s full of great acoustic guitar and harmonica work, plus vocals loaded with sly, sardonic humor. As Hammond sings about his “baby,” the chorus becomes a real treat as these, lyrics sweep past: “Now when she walk past the clock/the clock don’t tell time/ walk through the college/the professor lose his mind/’cause she’s tough/...ooh, ooh baby you tough/ my baby touch/she’s rough and tough.” Hammond sells these lines partly by delivering them with sincere conviction seasoned with just a hint of grit, but also by inserting sly, just barely audible spoken side comments in between the words being sung. The uncanny impression you get is of being present in the interior of St. Peter’s Church in New York as this recording was being made, seated perhaps a few feet away from Hammond as he sings and plays. This sort of realism is what makes the LCD3 so musically satisfying and, we think, well worth its asking price.

The LCD3 is one those headphones that seems very impressive right off the bat, but even more so after you’ve spent long hours listening through it and to it. The headphone finds that oh-so-elusive balance point between being accurate and highly revealing on the one hand, yet capable of bringing to light all that is good and right in less-than-perfect recordings. In an absolute sense, we think this is one of the two best headphones available today (where the other would be the Stax SR-009 electrostatic headphone—a headphone we regard as the benchmark to which all other top-class ‘phones must be compared).

In pragmatic, real-world terms, however, Audeze LCD3 may be the best of the best, partly because it works so well with moderately-priced, high-quality headphone amps, and partly because its prices falls thousands of dollars below that of its closest competitor (namely, the SR-009). Add to this the fact that the LCD3 is lovely to look at and beautifully made, and you can see why the LCD3 is likely to take its place at the top of many serious headphone enthusiasts’ “most wanted product” lists.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Open-back, circumaural, planar magnetic headphones.
Driver complement: Full-range planar magnetic drivers with thin-film diaphragms and premium-grade Neodymium magnets.
Frequency Response: 5 Hz – 20kHz, with useable frequency extension to 50kHz
Sensitivity: 93 dB
Impedance: 50 Ohms
Weight: 550 grams (without cables)
Warranty: Not specified.
Price: £1,700

Manufactured by:
Audeze Incorporated
URL: www.audeze.com

Distributed by:
Decent Audio
URL: www.decentaudio.co.uk
Tel: 0845 601 9390 (UK only)

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