Oh, what the hell, I'll just come right out and say it: there are headphones, and then there is Audeze's LCD3. Relatively new to the scene, Audeze has made a splash at tradeshows and events, what with the company's bold, one-off designs that often command prices befitting a whole system rather than a pair of headphones. Audeze makes cool-looking headphones, plain and simple. If Beats taught us anything, it is that headphones are in fact fashion and that their sound quality matters not, so long as the person wearing them feels good. Audeze isn't so much after the Beats market, as the company's headphones most decidedly appeal to a more audiophile or pro-audio-centric crowd, but that isn't to say they have to be your grandfather's headphones, either. But do they sound good?
The LCD3 reviewed here is Audeze's flagship effort. Retailing for $1,945, the LCD3 is not going to be an impulse purchase, nor is it likely to accompany its owner to the gym or nearby cafe. No, the LCD3 is for serious listeners and for serious listening, which is both a good and a bad thing. Good, because that's what listeners require in order to get the most out of the headphones, and bad, because, well, the LCD3 is a work of art - meaning you can't help but baby it. The LCD3 is hand-built right here in the US and was designed from the ground up to be the finest headphone the world has ever seen. The LCD3's physical beauty is due in large part to its construction and materials, which consist of Zebra Wood and lambskin. The Zebra Wood is used for the LCD3's ear cups, each housing its own frequency response-matched (within +/- .5dB) planar magnetic transducer. The ear cup is then cushioned by arguably the most supple foam/leather combo I've ever had the pleasure of wearing, which is good for the LCD3, as it is heavy at 550 grams or one-and-a-quarter pounds (sans cable). The head strap is equally luxurious and well-padded, making long-term wear a joy rather than a chore.
Behind the scenes, the LCD3 boasts a reported frequency response of 5 to 20kHz courtesy of each phone's six-square-inch diaphragms. Distortion is listed at less than one percent at full output. The LCD3's impedance is listed at 50 ohms (nominal), with a sensitivity of 93dB/1mW. All this is supposedly good for a maximum output of 133dB. Incoming signals arrive via a custom cable, terminated with mini XLR connectors for each left and right ear cup, with a full quarter-inch headphone plug on the other.
I evaluated the LCD3 via its stock cable going into a Wyred 4 Sound mINT integrated amplifier, which also happens to be a fantastic headphone amp in its own right. My source was my desktop PC running J River. Without belaboring the issue, the LCD3 proved to be among the finest headphones I think I have ever heard. Then again, it should be for a hair under $2,000, for one could purchase an entire multi-channel setup for that kind of money. Still, for those who may live in apartments or simply not have the space, time or resources for a dedicated system, the LCD3 paired with a good headphone amp and laptop computer is arguably all one would need to enjoy music (and movies) to the nth degree, albeit solo. The thing that struck me most about the LCD3's sound was its liquidity and effortlessness. While it didn't sound like a pair of discrete loudspeakers placed in the near field (though you could do that with the Smyth Realizer), it was the next best thing. The midrange was so natural in its tone and so fast that every breath, inflection and pause seemed to take on greater purpose. The high frequencies were delicate and smooth with copious air, while the bass managed to sound (and feel) deep and yet retain the same resolution as the midrange. Dynamically, and provided your amp is up to snuff, the LCD3 is a tour de force. What else can I say, other than that the LCD3 is phenomenal.
But there's a catch: you have to want to listen in ways that the LCD3 wants you to provide you with sound, meaning you have to treat listening to the LCD3 much in the same way you would a dedicated system, which isn't exactly how I enjoy headphones. I enjoy headphones on the go, in my office, at the gym and so on. While the LCD3 may be among the finest headphones available, arguably the best I've heard, that doesn't necessarily mean I turned to it all the time.
Read about the high points and low points of the Audeze LCD3 headphone on Page 2.
The LCD3's build quality, materials and comfort are second to none and among the best I've encountered, period.
Long-term listening isn't a chore, but rather an experience via the LCD3, which is more than I can say about other headphones, even high-dollar ones.
The LCD3's natural timbre, especially throughout the midrange, was a thing of beauty and one that is hard to go without once experienced.
The LCD3's high-frequency response was smooth and grain-free, with terrific detail and nuance.
The bass sounded appropriately deep yet musical and possessed tremendous extension that bordered on being tactile.
The LCD3 isn't a set of headphones for on the go listening, as it most assuredly requires some form of amplification other than what is found in your smart phone or laptop. Due to its need for additional equipment, the LCD3's true cost of ownership isn't exactly its retail price.
The LCD3 is quite large and heavy, and while this may not contribute to listener fatigue, this isn't a headphone set that you're likely to wear anywhere outside of your favorite chair.
Because the LCD3 is so finely crafted and made from materials that wear a little differently over time, there is some minor maintenance that is required in order to keep it looking and thus performing at its peak. This includes wood oils and leather conditioner, both of which Audeze supplies with purchase.
Competition and Comparisons
I'll admit it, I don't run into a great many $2,000 set of headphones. Several hundred dollars sure, but two grand? The only of comparable headphones that I've spent any considerable time with that I feel would compete against the LCD3 are those from Stax. Outside of that, the other headphones I could reference aren't really going to be in the same league, though they are terrific-sounding in their own rights. However, my go-to headphones, such as Bowers & Wilkins P5 or AKG's k240 Studios, are a lot more versatile and rugged compared to the LCD3. For more on these headphones, as well as others like them, please visit Home Theater Review's headphone page.
$2,000 is a lot of money for anything, let alone a pair of headphones. It's an even crazier amount, considering it would be for a set of headphones that I wouldn't necessarily listen to all the time. And yet, I want the LCD3. I want it if for no other reason than for those times that I did want to listen, and listen on its terms. It isn't perfect, but the flaws aren't found in the build quality or sound, but rather in my inability to view a set of headphones in the same way that many may view dedicated systems. But I want it. It doesn't make a lick of sense, but that's how hard the LCD3 appears to have tugged on my heartstrings. I guess if you could always justify certain things, then there would be no such thing as an indulgence. That's what the LCD3 is - a pure, unadulterated indulgence. And I want it.