Audeze LCD-3 Headphones

They "bring you closer to the music, with an exponential increase in detail and subtlety."

by Eric Hetherington | November 26, 2012

y first audio love was a pair of headphones. As a geeky teenager, I would religiously buy records, record them to cassette and play them on my Walkman during hikes that lasted hours. I loved being both alone and out in the world simultaneously. The Walkman headphones kept me apart from both the forests and town streets I would traverse and insulated me from the rain and cold -- with New Order, the Cure and Stravinsky. Years later, as a graduate student in New York City, I had little room for a proper stereo, but I desperately wanted better sound than I had. Between hours of studying, I found burgeoning headphone websites like HeadWize (before the arrival of Head-Fi) and online manufacturers and retailers like HeadRoom. I soon had sophisticated headphones (Grado SR60s, AKG K501s and Grado RS2s for starters) and a dedicated headphone amp (a HeadRoom Little that I now regret having sold -- for nostalgic reasons if nothing more). Even now, when most of my listening is through speaker-based systems, I retain a keen interest in in-head hi-fi. I still like escaping into a private aural world that is mine and mine alone, somewhere I can be lost without ever leaving home.

audeze_lcd3.jpg (32697 bytes)

Price: $1945 per pair.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.

Audeze, Inc.
10725 Ellis Ave., Unit E
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
(657) 464-7029
www.audeze.com

The last decade has been good for the headphone fanatic. The proliferation of iPods, iPhones, iThis and iThat, along with laptop computers has put headphones in nearly everyone’s ears. Tweens and teens the world over tune out their parents with simple white cords dangling from their ears. Audiophiles and music lovers have discovered the ease of digital music collection and the excellent cost-to-performance ratio that headphones can bring. In pop culture, headphones are cool -- just ask my twelve-year-old son.

Savvy companies have jumped at this market and filled it with every kind of headphone, headphone amplifier and accessory you can imagine. One significant development is the growth, both in terms of available models and sales of expensive (greater than $1000) headphones. It used to be that $400 would get you just about the best headphones money could buy. Now several manufacturers have models that top $1000 -- some of them by quite a distance. The Audeze LCD-3 headphones are well into that latter group -- their retail price is $1945. When the opportunity to review these headphones came up, I was both excited and skeptical. I wanted them to offer clarity, resolution and musical engagement far beyond any other headphones I had heard. But I wasn't sure that any headphones could be worth nearly $2000. I still think my initial skepticism was warranted. Warranted, but wrong.

The LCD-3s are visually striking. The earcups are made of hand-selected zebrawood and the earpads are covered in buttery-smooth lambskin leather. Audeze does not claim any particular sonic attributes for these luxurious choices, but the wood is beautifully finished and the leather was very comfortable on my head. The headband seems to have the same leather covering and, after time, this was equally comfortable. Initially, the headband was a bit tight, but this could be by design, ensuring that the LCD-3s won’t become loose on a listener’s head. At 550 grams (almost 1.25 pounds), the LCD-3s can’t be considered a lightweight. You’ll never forget you have them on your head, and moving around while wearing them can cause annoyance. I often felt like the headphones wanted me to sit down and sit still -- I couldn’t even think of looking down with the 'phones on my head or they’d fall forward. If I wore my glasses along with the LCD-3s, after an hour or so I would face a choice: remove the glasses or the headphones. The LCD-3s were tight enough to make the arms of the glasses dig into my temples.

The LCD-3 headphones use planar-magnetic transducers that have an active diaphragm area of just over six square inches. Audeze states that the transducers on each pair of headphones are matched to within 0.5dB, have a frequency response of 5Hz to 20kHz, an impedance of 50 ohms, an efficiency of 93dB and a maximum output of 133dB (which is far, far above the volume at which anyone should listen). These specifications are not that different from those reported by John Crossett in his review of the Audeze LCD-2s, although the LCD-3s are claimed to be slightly more efficient.

The earpieces of the LCD-3s are fitted with mini XLR connectors to attach a headphone cable. Audeze supplies two cables with the headphones: one that ends with a 1/4" plug and another with an XLR connector. The cords are flat rather than round and, while not stiff, are not as pliable as other cords. (The champion in this regard are the cords supplied with my AKG Q701s -- they are very flexible but heavy enough to keep from sliding or unraveling if coiled.) The only minor quibble I have is the lack of a cord or adapter that ends with a 3.5mm (1/8") plug. Even if we assume listeners will be using the LCD-3s at home, there are several products (e.g., HeadRoom Total BitHead, Wavelength Audio Proton, TTVJ Slim) that perform admirably as headphone amplifiers but only have 3.5mm inputs. A 1/4"-to-3.5mm adapter is an easy and inexpensive fix but, since it is easy and inexpensive, why not include it with a nearly $2000 product -- or even better, offer a 3.5mm termination option on the supplied leads?

I currently have four headphone amplifiers in regular use. My Rogue Audio integrated was hot-rodded by Rogue so that I can switch between speakers and headphones. The sound from this output offers clarity and astonishing authority, resulting in holographic sound. But as a reviewing tool it is a non-starter. No matter how great it sounds, if readers have no access to it, then it is meaningless as a benchmark. I have a HeadRoom Total BitHead that I use on my travels, but its portable nature seems incompatible with the Audeze design. For years I have had a Benchmark Media DAC-1 that has served me ably, but in recent months I have been enjoying the ADL GT40 USB DAC with phono stage.

ichael Kiwanuka’s debut CD, Home Again [Polydor B0016954-02], consists of eleven soulful, acoustic songs reminiscent of early-seventies Bill Withers, tracks that secured Kiwanuka first place in the BBC’s Sound of 2012 poll. The LCD-3 headphones gave me a stunningly detailed impression of the music, keeping instruments tonally separated from each other and spatially located. During the closing chorus sections of "I’ll Get Along" there are several instruments and voices, but the LCD-3 'phones kept the delicate flute and acoustic guitar both distinct from each other and from being overpowered by the louder percussion and voices. Delineation? Oh, yeah. On songs with simpler instrumentation, like "Home Again," the LCD-3s gave Kiwanka’s voice three-dimensionality that complemented the tonal accuracy of the acoustic guitar. It became clear during repeated listening that the LCD-3s have no distinctive sound themselves; they offered the most natural, pleasing headphone sound I’ve ever experienced.

The Audeze ‘phones were equally at home with horn-heavy jazz. On Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners LP [Analogue Productions AAPJ 037], the title track starts with Sonny Rollins’ tenor and Ernie Henry’s alto sax taking over from Monk’s opening piano part. On lower-resolution headphones, these two instruments become one indistinct sound. The Audeze ‘phones kept the instruments separated tonally; they played together but did not become one. Even greater sonic confusion can result on John Coltrane’s Ascension LP [Impulse A-95], which features seven horn players contributing to a composition that some listeners find beautiful, others think cacophonous, and many believe to be both. The energetic playing presents some listening challenges. If a system is unable to delineate the horns from each other (and the other instruments), the record becomes a noisy mush that can quickly become unlistenable, even to diehard Coltrane fans. This is one record where a system’s limitations can really impair enjoyment and understanding of the music. Even on good systems it sometimes takes effort to listen for instrumental lines as the record plays, but this was not the case with the LCD-3s. I was able to listen to the instruments without concentration. This record can also be overly demanding of headphones. If the presentation of the music is too forward it can simply become too overbearing to listen through the complete piece (I’ve found this true with Grado headphones, for example). This was not the case with the LCD-3s; the presentation of the music felt physically removed from my ears, so that I did not feel as if I was on stage with the musicians, but rather a reasonable distance from them, a distance that allowed me to study the sound rather than be overwhelmed by it.

The success of the LCD-3 headphones was not limited to acoustic music. Listening to "26 Basslines" from Benga’s debut CD, Diary of an Afro Warrior [Tempa CD010], was like hearing the music for the first time, even though the album has been a favorite in recent years. The bass played exceptionally deep and tight, while allowing the electronic shading of the various lines to be clearly heard. Halfway through the song there were parts of the composition that I had never noticed before (sounds almost like droplets of water, if water were bass). The deep bass did not affect the articulation of higher frequencies, which were also detailed with precision in both sound and space. Unlike with "26 Basslines," part of the appeal of Burial’s "Archangel" from the CD Untrue [Hyperdub HDBCD002] is that the sounds and voices (often pitch shifted and/or stretched) all run together, making it difficult to discern where one finishes and another begins. Instead of separation, the beauty here is in the way the sounds lie on top of one another. The LCD-3s made the percussive sounds pop, the ethereal voices float and purposeful static sizzle below the surface. They just seemed to move me closer to the kind of sound these electronic artists wanted to produce.

The ease with which one can amass a collection of headphones is both a boon and a curse. A boon because it is great to have a variety of listening options that can be easily stored and used at a moment’s notice, at home or out and about (even those of us with large listening spaces would be hard-pressed to keep three or four world-class speakers on hand; and if someone does it will certainly take more than a moment to switch from one set to the other). A curse because it is possible to become nearly addicted to the accumulation of headphones. Once you have a very nice amplifier and source, it isn’t hard to think every six months, Well, why not one more pair? After all, given the relative cost against other audio gear, headphones seem a bargain.

I place no judgment on those who want to collect things rather than listen to music, but the accumulation of headphones can become a hobby in itself -- leaving the music listening by the wayside. I have at times been infected by this affliction; I have owned more headphones than any other kind of audio equipment. I would like nothing more than for there to be one pair of headphones that met all my needs. The Audeze LCD-3s are without a doubt the best-sounding headphones I have used, but that doesn’t mean they are the best headphones for everyone -- or every situation. For instance, these are not commuter headphones. When I’m headed to NYC for the day, I’ll grab my Shure SE315s (or, if I’m really lazy, the headphones that came with my iPhone). You won’t be shoving the LCD-3s in your pocket, briefcase or daily backpack; the bulk and weight are just too much. But, leaving the LCD-3s at home will also mean leaving behind the spacious soundstage and tonal accuracy across the sonic spectrum that they provide. The Shure ‘phones, even when situated in my ears just right, tend to emphasize bass in comparison to the Audeze, losing the bass clarity and accuracy of the LCD-3s. This added bass can actually be helpful in loud environments (the subway or the gym), but it isn’t what I want for my more serious listening. On the other hand, you’ll gain a significant amount of isolation and portability with headphones like the SE315s, while no one will be able to peg you as an overly dedicated headphone enthusiast on the subway.

The LCD-3s are not casual headphones. Sometimes I want background music while I write, read or surf the Internet. I found the LCD-3s so demanding of attention that these other activities suffered. The Shure ‘phones don’t work for me in this context either -- they isolate too much and share a touch of that demanding quality of the LCD-3s. Both the Sennheiser PX200s and Grado SR60s work perfectly for me in this situation. To be clear, they aren’t in the same sonic league as the Audeze ‘phones, but the Grado SR60s provide a lively if unrefined sound in a package that allows me to hear outside sounds and easily remove the 'phones when I need to engage with others. They don’t deliver any of the things that make the Audeze 'phones so enjoyable, but they make up for their sonic shortcomings by their versatility and success as utilitarian headphones.

The Audeze LCD-3s are serious headphones. Since they’ve been with me, I haven’t used any other headphones for serious or dedicated listening, except to write these comparative remarks. The AKG Q701s appeal to me because their sound is not up front and forward, but they provide a soundstage at a comfortable distance. You are not in the first row or amongst the musicians, but sitting comfortably in the best seat of the house. The LCD-3s move you slightly further from the band but bring you closer to the music, with an exponential increase in detail and subtlety. Most notable in this improvement is an increase in the gravitas of voices. Vocals through the AKGs sound believable, but through the Audeze headphones they sound present. The AKG 'phones sound natural, but in direct comparison it is clear to hear that everything gains physical weight through the LCD-3s. While listening to the AKG 'phones in isolation it won’t be noticeable, but switching back to the Audeze 'phones there is a noticeable increase in the blackness between voices and instruments. Imagine inking a pencil drawing with a darker, though just as delicate line. When it comes to comfort, it is worth mentioning that when I was reconsidering my listening impressions for this review, I was shocked at just how light the AKG 'phones felt on my head in comparison to the LCD-3s.

Chances are that if I’m not at home reading, writing or listening to music, I am out on my bicycle doing my best to climb the steepest hills I can find, and this leads to an analogy. Because I spend more hours than I care to count on my bike, I’ve recently had a custom road bike built. On the one hand, it was a rather indulgent purchase; on the other hand, I won’t have any urge to buy a new road bike for years (if ever). I can stop wondering if next year’s bikes will be lighter or faster -- none of them will fit me as well or be as dialed into my aesthetic, my cycling wants and needs, as my new bike.

I have a similar reaction to the Audeze headphones. Two thousand dollars is a lot of money for headphones, but you can purchase these and be sure that while there might be other great-sounding headphones out there, any change would simply be lateral at best. Like me with my bike, I think one can purchase these headphones and not have to worry about needing or wanting a replacement. But, also like me and my bike, I think this makes the most sense if you are going to spend a lot of time using the LCD-3s. These headphones and an associated amp will be a substantial financial investment; if you only use headphones occasionally, they may be more than you need.

he Audeze headphones did what the best audio equipment does: they made me want to listen to more music, not only revisiting old favorites, but searching out new discoveries. Sometimes, towards the end of a review cycle, I start to look forward to the departure of the equipment. I start to long for my own equipment -- the things I’ve chosen to live with -- and the comfort of just listening to music without critical appraisal. And sometimes just the opposite happens -- I start to think that the equipment under review really shouldn’t leave. The LCD-3s fall into the latter category.

In summing up the sound of the LCD-2s, John Crossett wrote that they "produced a relaxed yet detailed and natural sound that just seemed to unite my ears and brain" and "the LCD-2s are easily the finest headphones I’ve yet heard, and, even with taste being what it is, they are among the finest headphones available today." I know exactly what he means. I’d say much the same about the LCD-3s -- if he hadn’t beaten me to it! Are the LCD-3s worth the nearly $1000 premium over the LCD-2s? I can only suggest that answering that question by spending a weekend comparing the two would make for a very enjoyable time.

Associated Equipment

Analog: Thorens TD-309 turntable, Audio-Technica AT-440MLa cartridge.

Digital: MacBook Pro using both iTunes, Decibel and BitPerfect.

Headphone amplifiers: Rogue Audio Tempest II Magnum, HeadRoom Total BitHead, Benchmark Media DAC1, ADL GT40 USB DAC/phono stage.

Headphones: AKG Q701, Grado SR-60, Sennheiser PX200, Shure SE315.

Interconnects: Analysis Plus Silver Oval-In.

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