Audeze is a California-based designer and manufacturer of headphones, microphones, and amplifiers since 2008. The LCD-4 ($3,995) is the flagship headphone employing planar magnetic technology. Planar magnetic transducers suspend a flat, lightweight diaphragm in a magnetic field rather than employ a cone attached to a voice coil, as is the case with most dynamic headphones. Planars use an array of bar magnets to create a magnetic field. The diaphragm has electrically conductive traces (the voice coil) that run parallel to in-house, custom-cut and treated bar magnets. When current passes through the voice-coil traces, it induces a magnetic field that interacts with the field produced by the magnets so the diaphragm moves and creates sound. This results in faster transient response and a smoother frequency response across the entire spectrum.
Audeze mated an oversized yet ultra-thin diaphragm with this planar magnetic technology. Thinner equals less mass, which equals faster transient response and a more faithful reproduction of the music. But wait, there's more! The LCD-4 boasts near zero distortion, thanks to the patented Fluxor magnet array that focuses the magnetic flux for lower distortion and greater accuracy. Great care has also been taken in the internal headphone chamber through the use of Audeze's Fazor Elements guide, which avoids unwanted resonance.
Consistent with all my headphones reviews, I use FLAC 24-bit/192-kHz music files via the VLC player coming out of a MacBook Pro into a tube preamp and separately into solid-state amps that are Class AB, Class H, and Class D. I compare all of those setups to figure out which one may be better suited to the headphones under review for which musical genres. In all cases, specs maintained throughout the signal path are minimally 20 Hz to 20 kHz (max is 10 Hz to 60 kHz), a S/N ratio >90 dB, THD 0.015 percent, and an output impedance of 20 to 600 ohms.
These are substantial headphones weighing in at 600 grams (1.32 pounds); however, once properly positioned on your head, they are very comfortable. The weight somehow settles in, and as I reclined in my "listening" chair, it was easy to forget I had anything on my head at all. No doubt, this is a result of all the angles of adjustment that happen automatically as you simply put them on and pull down a bit until they feel right.
The LCD-4 is a circum-aural, open-back design, with beautifully polished Macassar Ebony wood rings. The ear pads are large and comfortable, and there was no discernible heat buildup even after hours of listening. The materials are beautiful, and the design harkens back just a bit to a "radio operator" look, which for me isn't a bad thing. The overall design is a little bit retro. Let's not forget one of the design requirements must be that the headphone not get in the way of sonic performance--to say that the Audeze LCD-4 succeeds in this department is an understatement.
I ran the LCD-4 through the same listening session I used in my previous review of the Focal Utopia headphones and compared them to the same Sennheiser HD800 S ($1,700) and JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266 ($4,495).
With Holst-The Planets (London Philharmonic, Boult), the LCD-4 provided a smoothness and clarity that made for an enjoyable experience throughout this seven-movement piece, which transitions from quiet to crescendo and covers every frequency range that exists in an orchestra. Tempos range from slow to frenetic. All of it was handled with ease and accuracy by the LCD-4. I found these to be more similar to the HD 800 S than either the Utopia or the Abyss, which were able to bring more impact to the crescendos and more depth to the quieter passages. The LCD-4 and the HD 800 S are the elegant swans floating on a calm lake, while the Utopia and Abyss are speedboats cresting waves at 70 knots.
Next up was "Alone" from Don Ellis' album Electric Bath. The LCD-4 faithfully reproduced every instrument and provided a very high-quality overall experience; however, here again, I have to give the nod to the Utopia and Abyss headphones in the areas of depth, punch, and dynamics. There is an unmistakable trend here...and it's not necessarily a bad thing. The LCD-4 is more polished, a bit more reserved, and lean towards restraint--which is certainly not a bad thing, it's just a different sonic signature that might make it better with denser, heavier tracks. If this sounds counter-intuitive, consider this: A headphone that is more reserved will do a better job at resolving thicker tracks because it is not already providing that itself.
The next tracks proved this: "Street Fighting Man" from The Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet, "Don't Bring Me Down" from Electric Light Orchestra's Discovery, and "River Deep Mountain High" from Ike and Tina Turner. As I anticipated, this is where the LCD-4 shines. It was the clear choice for this genre, and if this type of music is what you primarily listen to, the LCD-4 would be my recommendation to you. This headphone can certainly handle the other styles very well; so, even if your tastes occasionally run to the eclectic, you will be very well taken care of.
For consistency's sake, I promised to mirror the same listening session as my Utopia review, so how did the LCD-4's manage "Be-Bop-A-Lula" by Gene Vincent from the Rockabilly Rules compilation? It sounded the best during the full-on sections as expected, and it performed very well during the breaks, which is consistent with what these headphones are...and that is a very, very fine headphone indeed!
• The LCD-4 offers smoothness and accuracy. This is faithful reproduction, which is best for rock-and-roll and denser tracks.
• This headphone is extremely comfortable. Listening sessions can go on for a long time with the LCD-4.
• The look, feel, fit, and finish earn top marks. No doubt, this is quality craftsmanship!
• The LCD-4 is not best choice for every genre: transitions from quiet to crescendo are a little reserved and less impactful than competitors.
• The soundstage is narrower and less dimensional--which, again, is not always a bad thing and, in fact, is sometimes preferred.
Comparison and Competition
Regarding the Sennheiser HD 800 S: If $1,700 is your limit, then these are your headphones. If you can muster a bit more than twice as much, then the Utopia or the LCD-4 is a better choice, and you can't go wrong with either of them. I hope my observations in the review has already helped inform you as to which one might be "right" for your music taste. If I rate the Utopia as just a smidge faster, a trifle bit more dynamic, a tinge wider, with a slightly more open soundfield, why wouldn't I simply tell everyone to just forget this and buy the Utopia? Because I can't. And I can't because the LCD-4 simply owns a different sonic signature--neither better nor worse, just different. It is somehow smoother, somehow easier, and the sum of the parts is altogether greater than the whole. While it may not win against the Utopia in any of those very important categories, the LCD-4 at least ties in the single most important category: overall listening enjoyment. Like a team that has no all-stars but manages to win the World Series, the Audeze LCD-4 is indeed a winner.
Did they make me smile? Yeah! The overall tonal balance and easy extension throughout the frequency spectrum just seem to happen effortlessly. When I can finally stop paying attention and just let the music play, that's when the magic happens, and it does indeed happen with the LCD-4.
If you have the means and inclination to pay $4,000 for an incredible headphone, stop reading here and run out and buy the Audeze LCD-4. If you are struggling to rationalize a purchase such as this, think about all the things many of us pay $4,000 or more for--and about how much actual enjoyment we get from those things. Measure this purchase against the Premium Package 2 on your car or the difference between economy plus and business class. And then consider how many years you will enjoy a headphone like this. Five? Ten? more? Divide that out, and this purchase will cost you $750 a year (over five) or $400 a year (over 10). How many hours of stress-relieving enjoyment does that buy you? What is it worth to be blissfully transported to exactly where you want to be? That's how I would rationalize an acquisition like this...and then I would run out and buy a pair!
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