Pros: Liquid midrange, deep powerful bass, extended smooth treble, wide, deep and tall soundstage, blazing fast transients
Cons: heavy, can sound 'thick' with overly warm amplifiers
Audez’e LCD-X www.audeze.com
The LCD-X’s arrived well packed in an outer cardboard shipping box around their rugged transport case. Inside the case, the LCD-X were well protected in custom cutout foam. Also in the case were a Single Ended Cable, a Balanced Cable & a 1/4 to 1/8 Adaptor. I love the rugged case. It features a nice handle for transporting your headphones. While no one will mistake these for typical portable headphones, it’s nice to be able to take them from home to office or from meet to meet with the confidence that this case inspires. That said, I do wish the ‘phones would fit in the case with cable of your choosing still attached. The LCD-X mini-XLR solution for attaching the cables to the headphones is by far the best I’ve seen, but I still don’t love the idea of taking those on and off over and over. This is a minor quibble as I don’t expect to be taking these out of the house all that often.
Fit and Finish:
To date, Audez’e has been known for using various woods to make the ring that surrounds the drivers. With the X and XC incarnations, they have chosen to go instead with a metal ring, available in gunmetal gray or black. Opinions vary, but I find myself quite enjoying the aesthetic. The leather pads and headband are carry-overs from their prior headphones. They are comfortable and exude luxury. I’m able to get a very secure fit that allows for no around-the-ear sound leakage. These are, however, open back ‘phones and you will hear ambient sounds and others will hear your music. These are not headphones for commuters or frequent flyers. If you need isolation from the outside world, consider the XC’s. Those are the cousins of the X’s that feature a closed back design...but that’s another review altogether.
Make no mistake, the X’s are heavy headphones. At 600g, they are almost double the weight of the reigning comfort kings, the Sennheiser HD800’s That said, I have never experienced discomfort from either the weight or the clamping force while wearing the LCD-2’s nor the LCD-X’s. In long listening sessions, I tend to sit in an Ikea chair that allows me to rest my head, thus relieving my neck from having to hold them up, but even in long sessions sitting at my desk, I find them to be comfortable for long periods of time. If you have neck or back issues or if you don’t like heavy headphones, these may not be the model for you.
For this review. I used FLAC or ALAC files from MAC computers Most of the listening was done on the Red Wine Audio Balanced ‘Audez’e Edition’ Isabellina HPA DAC/Amp (Mullard ECC88 tube, optical input) and Schiit Gungnir/Mjolnir (USB input) with additional listening done on the Schiit Bifrost/Lyr (tubes used: Amperex Orange Globe ECC88 and Mullard ECC88, optical input). All listening was done using the stock cables from Audez’e. www.schiit.com www.redwineaudio.com
Let me begin by saying that the Audez’e LCD-2’s (rev. 1) were a revelation in listening for me. When I first heard them, I had a solid mid-fi budget system and thought it was as good as it could possibly get. Then I attended a Head-Fi.org meet up and heard the LCD-2’s and my jaw literally dropped. I will always have a soft place in my heart for the LCD-2’s as they brought me into the world of true high end headphone listening.
I still have my pair of LCD-2’s and I listen to them often. Again, I thought I had found audio nirvana. So much so, that I wasn’t even tempted by all the accolades that were heaped upon the LCD-3’s when they were released. I was content. Flash forward to October 2013. I attended CanJam at the Rocky Mountain Audio Festival. Much like that first Head-Fi meet, I had my ears and mind opened. Even over the cacophony of the CanJam room, I was able to tell that the LCD-X were something special. I was able to procure a pair for an upcoming meet I was hosting and have been able to spend an extended time listening to them for this review.
After playing them on a continuous loop for 24 hours to loosen up any tightness that might have remained in the new drivers and then having them in use for the day at the meetup, I started listening critically.
The first track that listened to was Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Couldn’t Stand the Weather. The intro showed immediately that the new drivers were a big step forward over the LCD-2’s. Transients were much faster. There was clear delineation between cymbal strikes and the corresponding decay with no hangover between the two. The treble was more extended without being bright. The snare attack was palpable. The voice seemed less congested and the bass line was delivered with typical Audez’e force and depth. Though with the Lyr, a warm sounding amp, the upper bass seemed to have a hump that blended into the lower midrange a little bit.
This was all quite surprising, as I would never have characterized the LCD-2’s as congested nor slow, but the X’s were simply more open and faster throughout the midrange and treble regions.
Moving on to female vocals, I dropped the digital needle on the title track from Allison Krause’s paper Airplane. The opening guitar plucks showed that the treble speed was no fluke. The pluck, ring and decay were all distinct and clear. Her wonderful voice soared without a hint of graininess or sibilance.
Switching to acoustic Jazz, I played title track from Harry Connick Jr.s excellent Lofty’s Roach Soufflé album. Again I was struck by the natural sound of the drums. The snare was realistically portrayed while the cymbals had just the right amount of metallic ring rather than digital ‘tick’. The upright bass was a little in-my-face for my liking with the Lyr. The piano was lovely. From left hand to right, it seemed to have the right combination of detail and timbre. More surprising than all that was the imaging. One of the knocks on planar magnetic designs was that they didn’t present a wide, deep and tall soundstage. While the jazz trio didn’t really provide an opportunity to demonstrate width and height, the depth was a significant improvement on the planars I have auditioned to date. There was a clear sense of the space with excellent separation between the instruments front to back and left to right.
Time to put that imaging to the test with some classical music. LvB’s 5th Piano Concerto (Till Fellner, Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Kent Nagano) was first up. The tonality was spot on. While I would stop short of calling the imaging ‘holographic’ I will say that the left to right width and the placement all across the soundstage was excellent. There was no ‘Three Blob’ imaging here. I could clearly ‘see’ the placement of the piano center stage forward while the strings were distinctly just behind and evenly spread. It was also easy to get a sense of the space.
Next up was Yo Yo Ma’s interpretation of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B (Yo-Yo Ma, New York Philharmonic, Kurt Masur). The warmth of Yo Yo Ma’s signature Montagnana cello comes through in spades. It’s almost as though the cello was what these ‘phones were meant to play. Again the imaging was distinct, but this recording really lent itself to showing how tall the image was. Mic placement was closer to the stage and the sound enveloped from both sides as well as from above and below. The horns are rendered exceptionally as well. There was no hint of grain or metallic sound from the violins.
Listening to two different recordings of the 4th movement of LvB’s 9th was a fascinating exercise with the X’s. Their imaging ability made the choices the recording engineers had made crystal clear. The London Symphony Orch recording with Wyn Morris on the podium was clearly a stage mic’d recording with the soloists much more up front in the presentation despite them more likely being behind the musicians. This presented an great opportunity to hear the detail retrieval capabilities of the X’s as well as how they handled the choral vocals. The words to the ode to Joy are clear and easy to understand. The soloists each occupy their own space. The timbre is excellent but there is little sense of the space in which the recording was made. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance under Christoph Eschenbach was a live recording and you get a much greater sense of Verizon Hall where the performance took place. You get the obligatory coughs and creaks from the audience, but even those are clearly well placed. The soloists are much further back in the presentation and tend to blur together more as a result. This should not be seen as a knock on the LCD-X’s, but rather a logical difference stemming from the recordings. What I found interesting was that the X’s made the differences so readily obvious.
A note on Amp Synergy:
While the LCD-X’s are relatively easy to drive with their resistive 22ohm load and 96dB efficiency, they do require an amplifier to get the best sound from them. They are a current hungry design that will be best served by transformer coupled tube amps or discrete solid state designs rather than OTL tube or op-amp based amps. As to which specific amps, I can speak to the ones I have on hand. I found the Lyr to have great synergy with the X’s cousin, the XC, but not as much with the X’s. The notoriously warm sound signature of the Lyr rendered a ‘thickness’ in the midrange that I found to syrupy. The RWA Balanced Isabelina, with it’s 5W of high current battery driven power, proved a great match. None of that syrupy signature from the Lyr while rendering palpable imaging and still never approaching what I’d call bright or aggressive The RWA got the best from the treble capabilities of the X’s. Another solid match is the Schiit Gungnir/Mjolnir combination. I had been concerned that this combination might be too aggressive or bright with the extended treble of the LCD-X's, but quite the contrary. There is power and detail to spare, but I never get the hint of any glare. This combination rendered the best fine detail and offered the greatest control over the prodigious bass. The best news is that the X’s absolutely do scale with the amplifier and will showcase the pluses and minuses of your electronics chain.
I found the LCD-X’s to represent the state of the art in headphone design. They improved upon the prior designs in a way that did nothing to detract. The imaging is improved, the speed and detail retrieval is excellent. I did note a small upper bass emphasis on a very few recordings, but it was not consistent and it left me thinking it had more to do with the recording than the phones, but it may mean a little care should be taken when pairing them with a very warm amplifier.
I’m happy to say that the LCD-X’s will be remaining in my system and I am looking forward to experiencing my entire library again for the first time.