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Audeze LCD-3

Audeze planar magnetic flagship headphone review

Audeze LCD-3 wooden box

Introduction

For years the world of high-end headphones has been divided between dynamic and electrostatic, like a battle between giants in the challenge to create the latest model. A battle that has prompted manufacturers to sell headphones with higher performance and prices but lacking musicality and naturalistic listening. For some time the most demanding headphone lovers hankered for a product that combines the best sonic characteristics of the electrostatic and dynamic world.

This challenge has been taken on by a small Californian company called Audeze whose headphones, based on planar magnetic technology, have brought a flurry of novelties that have created a real earthquake in the world of enthusiasts. Firstly, by means of the LCD-2 model and later on with the more refined and powerful LCD-3 which is the subject of this article. Audeze, which was founded by Alex Rosson and Sankar Thiagasamudram, was initially created to build line-array loudspeakers, but the two founders soon realized that it was very difficult to penetrate that segment of the market and therefore they turned to the world of headphones. Given that they had already developed a planar magnetic driver that was suitable for speakers they decided to create a miniature version for the first model of headphones called LCD-1. Despite their unassuming appearance, LCD-1 headphones made a significant impression and all 25 units produced were sold quickly. Later the company, driven by the enthusiasm of its fans, created the LCD-2. This headphone in recent years has sold the highest number of pieces. The LCD-2 was modified in 2011, with an improved driver. However, the features of the new LCD-3 pushed the sound performance to even higher levels. With a more refined look, the use of the finest materials, planar magnetic drivers with a completely new design and conception, the LCD-3 has given new glitz to headphone listening.

Design

Audeze LCD-3 wooden box

Wooden box

The LCD-3 can be purchased in a stylish wooden box or in a more practical and robust travel pouch. Cables are provided to connect the headphones in unbalanced or balanced mode . The cables connect to the headphones through a mini-XLR jack with a very safe locking system at the base of each earpad. The balanced cable terminates with a 4-pin XLR connector. As you might expect, there is a thriving market of aftermarket cables made especially for this headphone by many different specialists. The cables provided by Audeze prevent you from loosing yourself in this maze — at least to start with. External headphone earpads are made with precision craftsmanship and from zebrano wood which is selected by hand. The internal earpads are assembled with inclined soft earpads made from the finest lamb’s leather and with suede microfibre fabric. Also inserted inside the pads is foam which offers the right amount of stability and balance. The construction and the general look of the LCD-3 is reminiscent of headphones used by old-school radio engineers.

Technology

Bundled cables

Bundled cables

Planar magnetic technology used by LCD-3 aims to reproduce the sound as accurately and as vividly as possible. Those unfamiliar with this technology should think of planar magnetic drivers as a sort of cross between a dynamic and an electrostatic driver. As with standard dynamic headphones, planar magnetic headphones use the magnetic field around a conductor through which the electrical current that drives the diaphragm passes. Also as with an electrostatic driver, the membrane of a planar magnetic loudspeaker is a thin sheet of transparent flexible film, but unlike the electrostatic sheet it is much thinner, flatter and full of electrical conductors. An array of magnets is placed in front of and behind the diaphragm so that the wires are immersed in a isodynamic magnetic field. When current passes through the wires, the magnetic field created by the flow of current interacts with the isodynamic field created by permanent magnets, causing the wires and then the diaphragm, to move. The important function of the isodynamic field is to ensure that the ratio of current flow exerted on the diaphragm is constant regardless of the position of the conductor in its trips across the field. In addition, the quality of the isodynamic helps to determine the linearity and the minimal THD of the reproduced sound.

Listening test

Zebrano external earpad

Zebrano external earpad

The Audeze headphones, once extracted from the case, are rather bulky and are particularly heavy in comparison to competing models such as the Sennheiser HD 800. You really notice this when you first put them on and it becomes even more evident when you have been wearing them for a number of hours. However, you do get used to it. Even though the voluminous leather interior earpads are attractive they cause discomfort in warm surroundings. For our test we wanted to use a top end listening chain to make sure that the LCD-3 could express its full potential. The chain was formed by the MSB Platinum DAC IV with separate power supply as well as the Bryston BHA-1 and the Violectric V200 headphone amplifiers. The connection between DAC and the amplifiers benefitted from the balanced connection. What struck us in the opening minutes of listening, using the unbalanced connection, was the naturalness of the sound message. The voices and acoustic instruments seemed real as regards extension and fidelity.

The entire source was returned in a pleasant and rather musical way, with a linear response on low and medium frequencies. The separation of the channels was very good with a very good reconstruction of the soundstage. The ease of listening of LCD-3 is in fact determined by a certain softness in the most critical spectrum section for the human ear. We are talking about the range of frequencies between 4 and 8 kHz where the LCD-3 showed minor focus when compared to the HD 800. A tendency to soften certain details in less refined sound recordings was perceived. Specifically, the sibilants and small distortion at high frequencies, more easily highlighted by HD 800, were less obvious. If you switch to the balanced connection the volume increases slightly and the sound message gains more body and authority. The articulation of transients is addictive and impressive. The bass and the kick-drum are precise and have a big dynamic impact. The soundstage opens even more. Low frequency depth becomes important. Medium frequencies are returned in a more precise manner and also the high frequencies gain greater openness.

The user should remember that the headphone tone improves with its continued use. In order to yield its full potential a propaedeutic burn-in time is necessary, therefore leave the headphones to play for at least a hundred hours. The LCD-3 requires, despite the low impedance, an energetic and decisive driving. The Bryston BHA-1 seemed to us to be the ideal companion for Audeze because it manages to enhance micro and macro capabilities thereby improving linearity at high frequencies. Liquid music and in particular high resolution and high dynamic range songs, have proved to demonstrate the full sonic potential of the LCD-3. It should be noted, however, especially in some complicated musical passages, that is has difficulty keeping the same pace as the very fast HD 800 headphones. There is in fact some congestion in transients and on scene recostrunction. The response at high frequencies in some passages seems to be a limitation of the planar magnetic headphones probably due to an ongoing need to solve the damping problems.

Final thoughts

Leather internal earpad

Leather internal earpad

The LCD-3 is one of those headphones that definitely impresses at first listening and this feeling is reinforced especially with constant and prolonged use. Planar magnetic technology, compared to the dynamics and electrostatics, offers a good balance between accuracy and musicality even with less refined recordings. We can say with confidence that LCD-3 is one of the best headphones available today, along with headphones such as the Sennheiser HD 800 and Beyerdynamic T1. In pragmatic terms the LCD-3 has the ability to be ranked among the best of the best, both for the quality of its construction and materials used, as well as the type of listening and the natural timbre, especially in the mid-frequency range. The dynamics, the articulation, and the extension of low frequencies are able to bring the listener very close to what is a live performance. Provided, however, that you build a respectable listening chain to go with this headphone. The LCD-3 in fact benefits from the use of solid state amplifiers with balanced topology and great power. It is not a proper monitor headphone, unlike the HD 800. It has a softer tone on high frequencies. This feature makes it more forgiving with less refined music.

It is possible to improve performance by replacing the stock cable with a pure silver one to improve the linearity in the upper part of the sound spectrum. Certainly it is not a headphone for a listening session outdoors, also it can’t be driven by any form of amplification located within a smartphone or iPod. In addition it is big and heavy. This means that during a long listening session you may suffer from muscle fatigue at the base of your neck. In addition being a handcrafted product built with quality materials, greater care must be given when using it. The price of the product is such, that it is positioned in a segment at the high-end of the market. To conclude, setting the price aside, the time spent with the Audeze LCD-3 proved to be very interesting and helps raise the level of music listening, whether you’re an audiophile, a professional or an audio fanatic. There are equally valid headphones on the market but the Audeze are a great tool that brings more than naturalness to the listening of the sound message. Perhaps the best compliment that we can give to LCD-3 is to say that it is not a headphone for the masses who listen to music occasionally, but for those of us who live and breathe music.

Personal Opinion

LCD-3 on stand

La LCD-3 on stand

Many things have been said and written about the LCD-3, but as far as I’m concerned, I still don’t consider it the definitive headphone for all sorts of reasons. Primarily for the limits of its magnetic planar technology, that doesn’t have a linear response at high frequencies. Secondly, because of its considerable weight and its less monitor-like nature when compared to dynamic headphones such as the Sennheiser HD 800 and the Beyerdynamic T1. As a mastering engineer I have always tried to use headphones that allow me to have as neutral listen as possible. To be honest, however, I can say that the LCD-3 is the best headphone that I’ve ever tried in terms of naturalness and musicality. The dynamic impact on low frequencies and restitution of voices is truly remarkable. The path undertaken by the Audeze is definitely valid in terms of musicality and naturalness. I hope they can continue to improve it further in terms of timbre and linearity.

Score

  • Scoring110
  • Sound quality [1]9
  • Bang for the buck [2]7
  • Measures [3]8
  • Build quality [4]10
  • Versatility [5]8
  • Overall rating8
  1. 1. Sound quality stands at fairly high levels of fidelity
  2. 2. Value of Audeze is on the highest level but its price doesn’t make it accessible to all
  3. 3. Measures show a very good linearity on different parameters
  4. 4. Build quality is at the highest level but the aesthetics could be improved a little
  5. 5. Versatility is wide-ranging and the headset can be easily driven.
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