Audeze LCD3 Planar Magnetic Headphone (Playback 60)

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Audeze LCD3 Planar Magnetic
Audeze LCD3 Planar Magnetic Headphone (Playback 60)

The product that put Audeze on the high-end audio map was the original LCD2 planar magnetic headphone ($995, click here to read our review), which won critical acclaim and sold well among knowledgeable, critical listeners. Later, Audeze released improved Rev2 drivers for the LCD2, which raised the performance bar even higher (click here to read our follow-up on the LCD with Rev2 drivers). But toward the end of last year, Audeze rolled out an entirely new model called the LCD3 ($1945) that features all-new driver assemblies and that represents Audeze’s attempt to build a headphone that offers, “the highest level of audio quality, unsurpassed bass extension, exceptional treble and the best mid-range you will find in headphones.”

This review will address two key questions. First, does the LCD3 meet the ambitious sonic goals its manufacturer has set forth, and second, does the LCD3 justify the almost 2X jump in price vis-à-vis the original LCD2? We’ll try and supply in-depth answers in the text below, but we’ll offer you this introductory hint; in our view the LCD3 is arguably one of the two best headphones that money can buy at this point in time. To learn why, read on.

FEATURES

  • Drivers: Unlike Audeze’s original LCD2 model, the LCD3 features next-generation planar magnetic drivers using a proprietary thin-film “Lotus” diaphragm that, says Audeze, “uses a special alloy for conductive traces giving us greater control and lower distortion.” The Lotus diaphragm, in turn, is “housed between a unique super-efficient push-pull magnetic structure.”
    • Left and right transducers have, Audeze claims, “matched sensitivity and frequency response within ± 0.5 dB” (exceptionally tight tolerances).
    • Driver distortion is said to be “less that 1%, even at full output.”
    • Testing: Audeze says that “transducers are tested every step of the production process to enforce (our) very strict quality control process.” Accordingly, every LCD3 headphones ships with a frequency response test chart specific to the headphone the customer receives—a thoughtful touch.
    • Transducer active diaphragm area: 6.17 square inches.
    • Maximum diaphragm excursion is a whopping 2.5mm, peak to peak.
    • Magnet assembly: Audeze describes the LCD3’s magnet assembly as a “specially designed self-closing, acoustically transparent magnetic structure (made) with highest grade Neodymium magnets.”
  • Construction: Open-back, circumaural (surrounding the ear) design featuring ear cup housings made of “precision-crafted, hand-selected Zebra Wood (zebrano).”
  • Ear cup pads: Ear pads are sloped (thicker at the rear and thinner toward the front for superior comfort), covered in “premium lambskin leather” (a “no leather” option is available, and use “specially molded foam to offer the right amount of firmness.”
  • Headband frame: The LCD3 features a spring-type headband frame fitted as standard with a leather-covered pad (a “no-leather” option is available).
  • Ear cup yokes: The LCD’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.
  • Weight: 550 grams without cables.
  • Impedance: 50 Ohms
  • Sensitivity: 93 dB/mW
  • Frequency Response: 5 Hz – 20kHz with “usable high frequency extension (to) 50kHz.”

Accessories:

  • Two high quality, quick-disconnect signal cables, on 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.
  • User’s choice of a Caribbean rosewood presentation case or a rugged and heavily padded SKB-type travel case.
  • Vial of wood polishing fluid and a lint-free polishing cloth.

Caveats: The LCD3 is lovely to look at and feels great to wear, so that there are few if any major nits to pick. However, there are two points of concern that bear mentioning. First, 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. Second, the LCD3’s clamping pressures fall somewhat above the median among ‘phones we’ve tried, which can potentially cause problems for glasses wearers. On a couple of occasions, I found the LCD3 ear pads grabbed hold of my glasses frames and tugged them away from my face. Neither of these points undercuts our appreciation for what the LCD3 is and does, but they are worth knowing about up front. 

SONIC CHARACTER

The LCD3 builds upon the many strengths of the LCD2, while addressing what some perceived as the LCD2’s shortcomings. Perhaps the easiest way to make this point is to compare the performance of the two Audeze ‘phones, starting at the bottom of the audio spectrum and working our way upward.

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 (including the Stax SR-009).

Through the midrange, where most music really lives, the LCD2 was known for a broad smooth band of evenly balanced midrange response, with very good levels of transient agility and definition. Again, though, the LCD3 raises the bar with what sounds like an even broader band of evenly balanced midrange response with dramatically improved purity of timbres, transient speed, and rendering of low-level sonic details. Thus, the LCD3 sounds noticeably more open and revealing through the midrange than the LCD2 or any other headphone I’ve yet heard, with the sole exception of the incredible (but exceedingly expensive) Stax SR-009 electrostatic headphone. Even so, the performance gap between the Stax and the Audeze, though audible, is not so large that any rational listener would ever find the LCD3 disappointing. Instead, it’s a case of comparing an excellent product (the LCD3) vs. one that pushes the outermost limits of headphone performance (the SR-009) in much the same way that the Bugatti Veyron pushes the envelope for supercar performance.

Before we talk about how the LCD3 performs in the upper midrange and treble regions, it’s important to stop for a moment to consider what some listeners regarded as one potential area of weakness in Audeze’s original LCD2. While many listeners loved the tonal balance of the LCD2, finding it rich, warm, and easy-to-listen-to, others felt the headphone was a little too warm (or even “dark sounding”) for its own good, meaning that—in the LCD2—upper mids and highs sounded a bit recessed as compared to the response you might hear from headphones such as the HiFiMAN HE-6, Sennheiser HD800, or Stax SR-009. Personally, I always felt the tonal balance of those competitors was more accurate than that of the LCD2, though I could definitely “get” the appeal of the LCD2’s warmer and more relaxed sound. In the LCD3, however, Audeze set out to address these concerns by giving their flagship model not only a more transparent sound but also revised voicing that pulls upper mids and highs further forward in the mix.

Accordingly, the upper mids and highs of the LCD3 are noticeably more prominent, and for that reason more accurately balanced, than those of the LCD2, 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,” meaning that the LCD3’s upper mids and highs are still not as forward sounding as, say, those of the Stax SR-009 or HiFiMAN HE-6. But even so, the voicing of the LCD3 is now much more similar to that of its top-tier competitors than the LCD2’s voicing was. 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.

My sense is that purists will prefer the somewhat brighter balance and perhaps more overtly defined sound of the upper mids and highs of the Stax or HiFiMAN ‘phones, but that many others will find the LCD3 strikes a just-right balance between neutrality and resolution on the one hand and a rich and engaging tonality on the other. In short, the LCD3 is the sort of headphone that serves up gobs of musical detail, yet without becoming punishingly analytical or sterile sounding in the process.

In the paragraphs above, you’ll notice that I’ve used the words “transient speed” pretty often in describing the LCD3. What I’m getting at is that the LCD3 exhibits desirable qualities of turn-on-a-dime musical agility and all-around responsiveness as if to suggest that the LCD-3 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 ($5200) costs more than twice what the LCD3 ($1945) does and that the Stax will require a dedicated electrostatic headphone amp that will likely set you back another $4250 - $5000 or 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). While the LCD3 is obviously not cheap, it is not overpriced given the exceptional sound quality on offer.

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 price and a very slight degree of upper midrange/treble reticence, there aren’t any. Instead, you just relax and enjoy the ride as the LCD3 takes you as far up the performance ladder as most of us will ever need or want to go.

MUSICAL EXAMPLES

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 maximizes 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 a little juiced up, but presents them in a rich sounding and well-organized 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 a whole new level through the LCD3. I particularly enjoyed the title track "She’s Tough," which is 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.

CONCLUSION

Consider this headphone if:

  • You appreciated many aspects of Audeze’s LCD2, but wanted something more (specifically, a headphone with more neutral overall tonal balance and even greater resolution).
  • You want what Playback regards as one of the two best headphones that money can buy.
  • You want to hear state-of-the-art headphone bass and truly impressive levels of midrange lucidity.
  • You love the idea of a headphone that is super-revealing yet also amazingly unfussy; in particular, you want a top-class headphone that’s easy to drive and can work well with a wide variety of headphone amps.

Look further if:

  • $1945 is too rich for your blood. But note: though undeniably expensive, the LCD3 gives you substantial value for your money (in fact, viewed through some lenses, it could even be considered a bargain).

Ratings relative to comparably priced headphones:

  • Tonal Balance: 9.5
  • Frequency Extremes: 10 (bass)/9.5 (treble)
  • Clarity: 10
  • Dynamics: 10
  • Comfort Fit: 9 (The sloped ear pads feel terrific, but clamping pressures may be higher than you would expect.)
  • Sensitivity: 9 (The LCD3 is quite easy to drive as planar magnetic headphones go.)
  • Value: 8.5 - 9

BOTTOM LINE

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.

SPECS & PRICING

Audeze LCD3 planar magnetic headphone
Type: Open-back, circumaural, planar magnetic headphones.
Accessories: As under FEATURES, above.
Driver complement: Full-range planar magnetic drivers with thin-film diaphragms and premium-grade Neodymium magnets. (See description under FEATURES, above)
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: $1945

Manufacturer
Audeze Incorporated
(657) 464-7029
www.audeze.com

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