This year marks twenty years since we started wearing headphones almost every day to master the audio of records, tv commercials, tv series or just to listen to good music. All these years we have gained skills, we refined the way we listen and above all we have gained the most valuable thing: experience. Experience that has allowed us to be a humble reference to ask for advice regarding which headset or headphone amplifier to buy.
These requests come to us from both common users and audiophiles, as well as audio professionals. This is why, in our small way, we make it a matter of pride and we always try to improve ourselves by trying new paths and new ways of listening. Often, the most asked question, by experts and non, regards which are the best brands on the market or headphones that really represent a product whose sound characteristics are superior to others. Well, to avoid any misunderstandings we have noted that for most people, there is a lot of confusion about this matter and we’ll explain why. Sometimes we happen to go on the subway and in addition to seeing people glued to the screens of their cell phones, we notice that many listen to music on headphones. The first thought that comes to mind is that life is too short to use cheap headphones, perhaps because brands like Bose or Beats, which are among the most widespread, are just a fashion statement and don’t represent, in our opinion, a good way to play music on headphones. Rarely we see headphones from AKG, Sennheiser, Denon or Beyerdynamic, products that we consider to be very good. It’s impossible to see top brands like HiFiMAN, Stax or ABYSS in public. At this point the most attentive of you will have noticed that among those mentioned there is one brand missing. This is an American brand that for some years has taken hold among the many fans in the field of headphones, but ultimately it’s getting a good slice of the market even among audio professionals. Yes, we are referring to Audeze. Since the creation of the first LCD-1 in 2009, Audeze has been one of the most prominent companies in the market for audiophile headphones to date. In fact, Audeze specializes in orthodynamic headphones similar to HiFiMAN and ABYSS. The orthodynamic headphones are known for their realistic timbre, for the excellent control and the impact of the bass, which puts them in a category by itself compared to the dynamic and electrostatic headphones. So, today we will talk about Audeze as we have been granted the honor and the duty to review their top of the range, the LCD-4.
The exclusive look of the Audeze LCD-4 brings together the perfect combination of metal, leather and wood, making it aesthetically reminiscent of previous models, while offering at the same time a completely new definition of luxury and sonic performance. The headphone is by far the heaviest of the whole Audeze line weighing 695 grams. However, the Californian company has seen fit to overcome this minor inconvenience by providing the headset with a carbon fiber head-band that not only redistributes the weight on the neck and on the head in an optimal way, but is itself very light. The equipment, in addition to the classic hard case with the company logo on the front, also provides the certificate of guarantee and authenticity, a blue unbalanced cable created by the late Lee Weiland, owner of Locus Design, and a pair of white gloves to handle it with care. Audeze states that as its top of the range, the LCD-4 is the result of 40 years of research and advances in planar technology culminating in this project developed since 2009 the year the company was founded. The headset uses a nanoscale diaphragm with an array of Double-Fluxor magnets patented by Audeze itself and currently unique in the world of headphones. The diaphragm material, which is inspired by NASA research, has given Audeze the ability to make it very thin and lightweight while at the same time, very durable and able to withstand high levels of sound pressure. The result of using this thin diaphragm allows a fast attack and release of notes along with an extended, linear and precise bass response. Aesthetically speaking, the headphone exudes luxury and refinement while not deviating from the previous models in general design. The LCD-4 is equipped with 30-year-old macassar ebony wooden rings. The pads are soft, in fact you can choose between real lambskin or microsuede inside which there is a carefully chosen acoustic foam. Moreover, what distinguishes it visually from all the other models, is the chrome plates with a slight reflecting effect. The headphone drivers are hand-paired and have an impedance of 200 Ohms with a sensitivity of 97 dB.
As with all the tests performed so far in our study, we have let the headset do the burn-in process for a whole week before proceeding with any serious listening. This time moreover, we deliberately enlarged the number of DA converters and amplifiers used in order to leave nothing to chance. These include both tube amplifiers and solid state balanced ones. As for the tube amplifiers made available by our friend Fabio, the equipment included: Woo Audio WA5-LE with V-Cap decoupling capacitors, Sophia Electric’s Royal Princess 300B final tubes, General Electric 6SN7 NOS 1950 preamplifiers and Emission Labs 5U4G; Woo Audio WA-22 with an Emission Labs 274B rectifying valve, 6SL7 Tung-Sol preamplifiers and General Electric JAN 5998A finals; Halgorythme SE 300B built on specification for Audeze with calibrated transformers for headphones with impedances from 20/110/200 Ohm with 300B EAT final tubes. Regarding the D/A conversion of the signal, we had at our disposal 3 different DACs all connected in AES/EBU to the MUTEC MC-3+ interface externally clocked with a 10 MHz rubidium word clock by Jays Audio. We refer in particular to the Lynx Hilo combined with the WA5-LE, the Mytek Stereo192-DSD combined with the WA-22 and finally the Weiss DAC202 combined with Halgorythme. As sources we used both a professional Tascam CD player and a streamer by Pro-Ject Design for liquid music.
The musical genres we used ranges from jazz to rock. All audio equipment was connected to a dedicated stabilized and filtered power line. The cables used on the headset were made with a DIY MOGAMI W2549 cable terminated respectively by a 6.3 mm jack and a 4-pin XLR connector. On starting the test with the WA-22 we immediately notice, that the amplifier lacked power and failed to properly control the headset and in fact interfacing rather badly with it. The slightly dark timbre of the WA-22 then certainly didn’t exalt Audeze’s top of the range resulting in an uninspiring sound performance. Things, however, got much better with the Halgorythme, which is able to drive it more authoritatively, when moving the impedance selector to 200 Ohms. We noted a good result for timbre and thrust, but honestly we feel that the headset is not exploited to its full potential, unless the amp it’s connected to the LCD-X. But when we connected the LCD-4 to the WA5-LE, by setting the output selector to the maximum power, we noted a decisive increase in the quality of the level of sound. Surely this is the listening that we liked the most because the headset was finally able to express most of its full potential, also thanks to the excellent digital-analog conversion provided by LynX Hilo. The thrust and the yield of transients was good, just as the reconstruction of the sound scene was precise. The voices and the acoustic instruments take on a realism that gives us almost the distinct sensation of being in the same studio where the recording took place. There is a lack of materiality in the low register, but the musicality that was missing in the two previous combinations, here comes to life, giving rise to that very pleasant, warm sound full of harmonics that is typical of tubes. A subsequent comparison with, what up to a few years ago was the top of the range, i.e. the younger sister LCD-3F, knocks the latter off the throne of best headphones currently available from the Californian company. The LCD-3F comes out under different parameters for which the LCD-4 expresses a greater depth of scene, a greater precision in the reproduction of all the instruments and above all a better overall linearity, which in our opinion is lacking in the LCD-3F. The combination with a deeply modified tube amplifier like the WA-5 LE and with a level DAC like the Hilo, allowed us to appreciate the step forward made by Audeze as regards the planar technology, that in our opinion remains one of the best so far available today. While the use of tube amplifiers with the headset showed a very interesting performance, things went quite differently and surprisingly in our studio with the use of 3 balanced solid state amplifiers.
New year new life goes an Italian way of saying, so we made several major upgrades. First of all, the dedicated computer we used during our test is a DAW, acronym of Digital Audio Workstation, built with military standard components. As an operating system we used Windows 10 Pro 64 bit on SSD disk combined with Process Lasso Pro and Fidelizer 8 Pro in Purist mode. As a player we used JRiver-23 64 bit and Foobar2000 Darkone 4.0 both with the core-engine of JPLAY in xtream mode at the maximum of its allowed settings. The use of the plugin called Reveal developed by Audeze was fundamental for the test. The use of this plugin allows us to linearize to the max the frequency response of the headphones, thus eliminating any peaks or any holes along the entire sound spectrum. On the one hand we can assure you that the difference with / without it is definitely noticeable and on the other hand that once you start using it you can’t do without it because the headphone improves even more. We also wanted to equip our DAW with a dedicated USB card by Matrix Audio called X-Hi. The particularity of this USB PCI-e card, in addition to being fully screened, is that it has filters and proprietary clocks. We have also chosen to power this card externally with a very low-noise 12 Volts power supply called iPower and produced by iFi Audio. In this way the USB signal no longer comes from the motherboard on which other devices are connected, such as external hard drives mouse, keyboard etc., but from an independent source that is powered separately. A totally power modified Singxer SU-1 is connected to this USB card. The Singxer SU-1 has the task of transforming the USB signal coming from the X-Hi card into an AES/EBU digital signal to be sent to our Benchmark DAC1 which has also been heavily modified both as regards the analog section and the digital one, at our request, by the expert hands of Alessandro Boschi in his laboratory. We would like to point out that all these hardware modifications made on the DAC1, including the complete bypass of the volume control, the headphone amplifier, the digital input selector, were made by recording portions of musical pieces and listening to them again and again in the recording studio owned by Alessandro before and after every single modification, just to be sure of the excellence of the achieved sound result. As amplifiers for our test we used the iFi Audio Pro iCAN and the Audio-gd HE-9. All the audio equipment was connected to a dedicated power line, externally stabilized and filtered through a power-strip created by engineer Romagnoli of Lector Strumenti Audio at our request. The choice of musical pieces for the test ranged from jazz to rock to EDM, trying to use if possible high-resolution or at least 24-bit tracks. The balanced cable used to connect the headphone to the amplifiers is a cable we had customized for us by Emiliano Bruschi of Invictus Cable who used an experimental material that requires a long working process. The initial listening test commenced by connecting the headset to the Pro iCAN.
The first thing we noticed was a very good stereo image with a precise placement of the instruments. The sound takes a round timbre without particular roughness in the upper part of the sound spectrum. In our opinion, however, it lacks a bit of impact and boost with regard to the low frequencies with a slightly smaller extension compared to what we would have expected. Even the upper part of the sound spectrum is slightly less extensive. Particularly pleasant was the performance of voices and acoustic instruments as well as the articulation of transients. Moving on to the connection with the HE-9, we immediately noticed a greater focus on the audio signal. The tone becomes cleaner especially with regard to the medium-high and high part of the sound spectrum. The driving of the LCD-4 becomes more authoritative and there is a greater dynamic thrust. The articulation of the transients is definitely very good and the headset acquires speed in the passages from pianissimo to fortissimo. Compared to the previous combination, the top and bottom extension gain intensity attesting to very good values. The stereo image is a little less extensive, but we hear a more precise consistency across the entire sound spectrum. The performance of the voices stands at very high levels regarding reproductive realism. The beauty of this combination is that you can also reach high levels of sound pressure without any particular problems or obvious signs of saturation or distortion of the audio signal. The Audeze LCD-4 / Audio-gd HE-9 combo is, in our opinion, a great match because the headset is able to engage the listener as regards realism and dynamics. However, once we thought we had finished our listening tests, we wanted to connect the headphone to the HPBA-2 S by QES Labs, out of curiosity. It must be said that this current driven balanced dual-mono amplifier, which drives headphones from 250 Ohms up, was developed specifically for our Sennheiser HD 800 S so we weren’t expecting anything in particular. Never were we more wrong!!!
We were really surprised and amazed by the sound of this combination that we think is really amazing and for those of you who know us, we don’t easily get excited, especially after 20 years in this field. The combo is really fantastic. The headhone is finally groomed properly and driven energetically. It’s especially evident in the pianissimo to fortissimo passages that have a noticeable impact and speed. The articulation of transients is excellent as well as the stereo image on different sound levels giving the instruments a very precise location. Everything is more focused and more impactful. It’s felt in particular on the speed of attack and release of transients that are clear giving a great punch to the headphones. The timbre of the LCD-4 takes on even more naturalness and realism, giving the performance of the voices that magic that has made Audeze famous. Even the upper part of the sound spectrum is more natural and balanced than before. In short, we think that the problem of binaural listening in headphones, often the subject of criticism for its lack of three-dimensionality and realism, can find in this union (i.e. LCD-4, Reveal and HPBA-2 S) a point of arrival for those looking for a reference listening system with headphones that’s very close to the one of a traditional high-level stereo set-up.
We hereby acknowledge that Audeze has created a truly remarkable product. But we want to clarify some things. First of all this is not the classic headphone that you can buy and then connect to your phone, iPod, or your portable digital audio player. For the values of impedance and sensitivity declared by the company you need at the very least a decent dedicated amplifier. Then, as we did in our studio, you really want to play it to the maximum, it really takes a high-level chain to do that. In our opinion, moreover, the LCD-4 is a headphone that prefers the solid state amplifiers especially balanced ones compared to those with tubes since, in the first part of the test, it gave us a lower performance compared to the solid state amps. In addition, given the rather high price it can hardly be purchased by a large number of users such as ourselves. For a demanding audiophile or an audio professional, be it Mixing or Mastering Engineer, the LCD-4 can certainly be a final destination but it’s a choice that needs to be well thought out. Given the figure at stake, those who make the purchase must put themselves in the position of knowing how to make the most of it. Otherwise it would be like buying a Ferrari and not being able to go beyond second gear. The Reveal DSP correction system created by Audeze itself for all its models as well as for the LCD-4 was fundamental in further improving the sound performance of the headphone. A DSP that we strongly recommend to all owners of Audeze headphones that use a computer to listen to music or work on audio. In all honesty, despite the huge number of qualities, there are also a couple of cons that we would like to mention. Indeed the LCD-4 does not have the lightness, comfort and soundstage of the Sennheiser HD 800 S. It doesn’t even have the ease of driving of a headset like our Audeze LCD-X Creator Package 2017. However, besides being aesthetically very beautiful, it remains today one of the greatest expressions of orthodynamic technology in terms of naturalness and sound realism. Therefore, excluding the Stax SR-009 and very few others, in our opinion the Audeze LCD-4 combined with HPBA-2 S and Reveal remains absolutely one of the best headphones listening systems that we happened to try over the last 20 years. Well done Audeze!!!
Those who know me well know that I don’t get very enthusiastic about things, especially after so many years of using headphones both for work and listening to music. It’s also true that in the last ten years the technology and the sound performance of headphones has made great strides, however this Audeze flagship in my personal opinion, expresses a combination of performance and sound quality that I found difficult to find in other headphones. On the one hand, listening with tube amplifiers provides a more captivating and ruffian performance, and on the other hand, the balanced solid-state cap fits precisely for the purposes of my work, ie realism and neutrality. In fact, in my case, combined with the HPBA-2 S by QES Labs and used with the Audeze DSP Reveal system, the LCD-4 allowed me to reach really high levels of listening making me think seriously, despite the rather high price, of selling everything to buy them. I didn’t really expect that the combination of the three could give such high-performance, but it fits with my work philosophy, which is leave nothing to chance. I must say that listening to the trio is as close to a couple of high-level speakers that I’ve ever heard. It’s in fact the naturalness, the realism of reproduction and the cohesion between the different sound ranges that impresses me the most. Of course there may be even better headphones but now I find myself in the position for which personally a headset loses interest to me if from the one hand it doesn’t have a certain performance and on the other it can’t be used with a DSP correction system. Honestly I could live and easily work with only the Audeze LCD-4 which turned out to be decidedly pleasant, precise and performing despite me already having two purebred horses such as the Sennheiser HD 800 S and the Audeze LCD-X ver 2017 in my studio. If dreams were wishes I would tell everyone that life is too short to use cheap headphones. Therefore if dreaming doesn’t cost anything one day maybe who knows…
- Sound quality 
- Bang for the buck 
- Measures 
- Build quality 
- Versatility 
- Overall rating
- 1. Sound quality stands at the very high level.
- 2. Price of this headset makes it a product accessible only to a few.
- 3. Measurements demonstrate a very good values on all the line.
- 4. Build quality is of a very high standard and aesthetics are rather appealing.
- 5. Versatility is not wide-ranging but the headset can be driven very well with suitable equipments.