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A Review On: Audeze LCD2 Planar Magnetic Headphones

Audeze LCD2 Planar Magnetic Headphones

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Pros: Full-bodied mid-range, relatively close to neutral- & natural-sounding, music genre versatility

Cons: Suffocatingly-small soundstage, lack of clarity & musical dynamics, physically heavy & uncomfortable

Originally published on April 11, 2011

Updated on December 11, 2011

 

Note: this review is an exact cross-post from post #1 of this thread on Head-Fi, which contains some user discussion on the review that may be relevant to read: http://www.head-fi.org/t/548875/review-audeze-lcd-2-r1-r2-hifiman-he-6-stax-sr-507-stax-oii-mki-bhse-et-al


- download a printable 9-page PDF version of this review (right-click the link & save target)
- download a printable 15-page PDF version of the notes that were written for this review (right-click the link & save target). The notes should be considered a supplement and not a replacement for this review (as the review is not straight from the notes). The notes for this review in particular are HIGHLY-RECOMMENDED reading for anyone who wants the in-depth details of how most of the headphones directly compared to each other.

Intro

Not much really needs to be said to "intro" this review—it's basically just a multi-way review of various mid-level & flagship headphones, which were all owned at different points in time. Every comparison below was a simultaneous one though, and notes from every listening session were saved over the course of a few months. My review process is always at least several months (to get familiar with the equipment being evaluated) and this review was no exception.

A big disclaimer I want to add: the HiFiMan HE-6 and Stax SR-507 were the only headphones that did not get extensive listening time. I had the HE-6 in-house (on loan from another Head-Fi member) for only a couple of weeks, and the SR-507 has been in my possession for just over a week as I write this. So my opinion of the HE-6 and SR-507 should not be considered finalized.

 

This was originally a review of the LCD-2 r1 (revision 1). Review update on December 11, 2011, was for a new section covering the r2 (revision 2), see below.

Reviewer Biases & Info

My view of a headphone system is "source first" followed by headphones and then amp. In other words, a source of highest quality possible (assuming recordings of high quality also) should be paired with the most preferential-sounding headphone(s), to be driven by the most technically-optimal amp. In my view, the most technically-optimal amp is the one that provides sufficient power for all headphones being used without inflecting its own sonic signature, or minimally at least.

Some portions of the review below refer to the sound of live instruments. As an FYI to put those references into the proper context, I'm a trained violinist (learned via the Suzuki method for 12 years starting at age 6, then quit lessons at 18 and have been playing on and off since, and I'm 30 now) and have had the opportunity several times to play in a symphony orchestra, and I've attended classical-music concerts as well.

Equipment Setup

- Source component: Plinius CD-101 (CD player) (power cord: Signal Cable Silver Resolution Reference - directly into wall)
- Analog interconnects: Analysis Plus Silver Oval RCA & XLR
- Headphone amplifiers: HeadAmp GS-X and Nugget Audio B22 for the dynamic headphones, where noted. HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE for the Stax SR-507 and SR-007 (OII MKI).

Evaluation Music

CDs by the following artists/bands, by genre:

- Americana/Bluegrass/Folk: Alison Krauss & Union Station, Priscilla Ahn, Sierra Hull
- Blues: Eric Clapton, Eva Cassidy
- Classical: Hilary Hahn (Bach), Julia Fischer (Bach), Carlos Kleiber & VPO (Beethoven), Pierre Boulez & VPO (Mahler)
- Electronica/Trip-Hop: Massive Attack, Orbital, The Crystal Method, The Prodigy, Trifonic, Zero 7, Zero One
- Jazz: Dave Brubeck, Lee Morgan, Steve Kuhn, Tord Gustavsen
- Rock: Led Zeppelin, Porcupine Tree, Radiohead, Tool
- Metal: Emperor, Helloween, In Flames, Megadeth, Nightwish, Symphony X

Specific tracks on the CDs are given in the review notes (see the PDF, linked at the top).

Audeze LCD-2, overall

LCD-2 w/ 2010 stock and ADZ-5 cables. Amps: GS-X in unbalanced mode and B22.

When I first got the Audeze LCD-2 in September 2010, I was unimpressed. It was dark-sounding (not a whole lot of treble quantity), closed-in (not much "air" to the sound, which made it borderline suffocating to me), and it lacked general bass drive. But my amp at that time, a Rockhopper-built M3, might not have been optimal for it. Later on in early 2011, with the HeadAmp GS-X and the Moon Audio Silver Dragon XLR re-cable, the LCD-2 turned into something much more promising when driven in balanced mode. It had very solid & physical bass, actually even better than my Audio-Technica AD2000—very deep, heavy, and low-sounding, not just in the lowest bass but throughout the mid-bass and up into the mid-range. I'd call the LCD-2's overall bass & mid-range almost sneaky in a way—doing a subtle yet fantastic job at making you think vocalists and instruments like acoustic double-bass, bass guitar, etc, are right there in front of you because of how low, full, & "fat" they are, whereas most other headphones just lack that presence factor. The only other headphones in the round-up that offered a similar type of presence factor were the Grado HP1000 and Stax OII MKI.

There are 4 headphone "classes" that I personally define: excellent, above-average, average, and below-average. For reference, there are only a few headphones I classify as excellent: Qualia 010, OII MKI, and JH13 (IEMs). (Not that I think they're flawless though.) I'd classify the LCD-2 as above-average, in the company of headphones like the Beyerdynamic T1, Grado HP1000, and Sennheiser HD800. I don't think any of these headphones to be "better" than one another per se—they all have their trade-offs, the LCD-2 included.

So what I mean by my "above-average" classification is that the LCD-2 is very good—it's just not the best of the best that I've heard. I've heard the LCD-2 on a variety of amps so far—SPL Auditor, Rockhopper-built M3, Schiit Asgard, Avenson Audio Headphone Amp, HeadAmp Gilmore Lite & GS-X, and Nugget-built B22. The best I've heard from the LCD-2 has been with the GS-X in balanced mode and the B22. And with those two amps, the LCD-2's sound can be summed up as bassy, full, assertive/direct, and fast (as in impulse response). It's one of the most mid-range-focused headphones I've heard with a heavy slant towards the mids, mid-bass, & bass in general, and it offers a sufficiently different sound than any of the other headphones that were compared that one could easily find an excuse to own it along with any of the others. But if one can afford to buy only one headphone, or just a few at most, I'd call the LCD-2 an instant recommendation for anyone who doesn't really like treble very much and is seeking bass & mid-range more, for listening to music like classical/soundtracks, jazz, electronica/trip-hop, pop/rock, and/or metal. Not that I think the LCD-2 excels at any one of those genres, but it handles them all to varying degrees of success.

 

LCD-2, revision 2

LCD-2 r2 w/ Moon Audio Silver Dragon XLR on HeadAmp GS-X. Also with stock ADZ-6 cable on Schiit Audio Lyr.

The r1 LCD-2 that was originally used for this review was sold shortly after it was written, in April 2011. The primary reason I sold it was due to its relatively mediocre sonic performance, at least for me. After the r2 was introduced, I decided I wanted to try it and finally bought one in October 2011, so my impressions of the r2 are now about 2 months ongoing (as I write this new section, it's December 2011).

Without a direct comparison to the r1, which I was unable to do, I can't say with any certainty how the two revisions compared to each other. But I will say that the r2 seemed to sound very similar to the r1 that I previously owned, and more to the point, just about as good—I'd say it retained the "very good" quality level that I gave to the r1. Having now heard the r1 and r2—both in the exact same way, balanced on the GS-X—I'd also argue that the LCD-2 benefits from balanced operation, because the r2 sounded just as good, if not better, than the r1, when balanced on my GS-X.

In spite of not having any experience of the r2 directly versus the r1, I feel that this review as originally written completely applies to my thoughts on the r2 in addition to the r1, and I mean that in both the good and bad implications. It means that for every aspect that I thought was good about the r1, I thought the r2 was just as good; but for every aspect I thought was less than stellar, I didn't think any of them were fixed with the r2 either—specifically the areas in which I criticized the r1 versus my electrostatic system (OII/BHSE). Scale, dynamics (including intensity), clarity, soundstage, etc, were not significantly improved on the r2 enough that any of them were rectified for me. My conclusion was that the OII/BHSE absolutely sonically crushed the r2 in the same way it crushed the r1.

The Schiit Lyr was an informative experience for me as well—proving to me that an amp with loads of power output doesn't necessarily translate to better sound. I thought the HeadAmp GS-X in balanced mode (2W @ 32 Ohms in balanced mode) sonically crushed the Schiit Lyr (6W @ 32 Ohms) and the r2 sounded significantly better on the GS-X than it did the Lyr. I wrote a review of the Schiit Lyr and it can be found here: http://www.head-fi.org/products/schiit-lyr/reviews/10264

vs AKG K701

LCD-2 w/ Moon Audio Silver Dragon XLR. K701 w/ SAA Equinox XLR. Amp: GS-X, in balanced mode.

The K701 was my original favorite headphone before the AD2K (below)—I owned it from April 2006 up to January of this year. Over that time my opinion of it grew increasingly negative though, and at my peak of negative opinion, I thought it was one of the most average headphones I still had. Not that it was terrible, but it just didn't do anything especially good, for any type of music. So the LCD-2 really had almost nothing to go up against for me here. In almost all cases, it eclipsed the K701, offering much more natural tonality on orchestral instruments with a more realistic soundstage, more powerful and filling bass & mid-range, more overall clarity, a faster impulse response, and more diffusion (forced "separation" between musical layers to spread them out from each other more). The only thing the K701 really brought to the table was its usual forward female vocals but even that I don't consider a good quality on every music type, or every female vocalist for that matter (as it tends to deepen upper-register voices, Alison Krauss being just one example).

vs Audio-Technica AD2000

LCD-2 w/ 2010 stock cable. AD2K w/ APS V3. Amp: GS-X, in unbalanced mode.

I've owned the AD2000 (AD2K for short) since June 2006 and it's become my #1 favorite headphone of all time. It started out as my headphone preference for electronica/trip-hop but is now also my preference for metal. One of the biggest reasons I like it as much as I do is due to its forward-moving, insistent sound—not a quality I've heard from any other headphones to date. It's hard to explain this forward-moving insistent quality—there's an extreme tightness to its sound overall, and on fast music it really keeps up the tempo (the musical term for "speed"). On fast music especially, it has the drive of something running really fast, like a runner leaping over endless hurdles without running out of breath. On complex, heavy bass lines, it can charge through like it's Superman smashing through boulders.

The LCD-2 had a lot going up against here simply because I've had the AD2K for years and have gotten so used to it, I couldn't imagine liking anything else for electronica/trip-hop & metal. So it was a huge surprise when I found that the LCD-2 did really well on those music types too—good enough that I'd absolutely recommend it for those music types. It could easily come in at a #2 favorite spot if I added one. For all intents & purposes, it approximately matched the AD2K's impulse response (audibly, that is), while adding an appreciated dose of heavy, deep, & physical bass. I've never thought the AD2K to really lack bass, but against the LCD-2, it sounded light-weight in comparison—but at the same time, the AD2K also had more treble quantity than the LCD-2, so it was somewhat of a trade-off. I wouldn't really say the LCD-2 is great for every sub-genre of electronica though—I thought it was best on breakbeat, trance, & techno (though a disclaimer here as I don't listen to every sub-genre).

I wouldn't say either of the headphones was better than the other but I still prefer the AD2K, at least for the music types mentioned. It has a forward/up-close, very assertive & direct sound that's addictive for metal in particular—its insistent quality makes the fast drumming in most of metal really stand out. I consider the LCD-2 more versatile though, as it handled other genres relatively well too, in addition to electronica/trip-hop & metal—classical & jazz specifically, which I don't listen to at all on the AD2K, because its mid-range makes acoustic instruments sound unnatural.

vs Grado HP1000/HP2

LCD-2 w/ Moon Audio Silver Dragon XLR. HP2 w/ APureSound V3 XLR. Amp: GS-X, in balanced mode.

Among all the headphones that I've heard to date, none have matched the HP1000's "living soul" x-factor, but the LCD-2 got the closest. This is an extremely unexplainable aspect of the HP1000 though—you have to hear it to understand it, and while the LCD-2 got very close, it still didn't deliver a true breath-of-life quality to orchestral music. The only other headphone I've heard to match or exceed the HP1000 in this aspect is the Stax OII MKI when amped by the HeadAmp BHSE.

It's tricky to sum up the LCD-2 vs HP1000, as there were various subtle differences. So although this glosses over the finer details, the HP2 could be described as a version of the LCD-2 with: more natural tonality on strings, brass, & woodwind instruments; more treble; a more solid, tighter bass component; more bombast when the recording calls for it; a substantially "richer" and deeper mid-range with a greater degree of texture; a smaller, compressed soundstage; and a more "integrated" type of imaging that made the orchestra sound less like disparate instrument sections and more like a unified body of sections all playing together. All of these aspects made the HP2 sound really good with jazz too, maybe even better than the LCD-2, as it provided more of an intimate setup with the jazz group, throwing you right in with the group (almost as if making you another group member to jam along with them), instead of sitting back from a distance, as the LCD-2 did instead.

vs HiFiMan HE-6

LCD-2 w/ ADZ-5 cable. Amp: B22.

The only thing I conclusively came away with after this comparison was a dislike and negative opinion of the HE-6. I found very few redeeming qualities to this headphone.

The one headphone the HE-6 reminded me most of was the Qualia 010 due to a loosely-similar treble response, but IMO the Qualia's treble is king and the HE-6 nowhere near matched it. The Qualia had the clearest, cleanest treble I've ever heard from headphones, with true razor precision, and the HE-6 simply lacked this quality. It failed to deliver clean high-speed zings, for example, or proper metallic sheens, on bluegrass-type music. The HE-6 did have a very wide, deep, & open soundstage, but that too is eclipsed by the Qualia. So as far as the HE-6 and Qualia go, I think anyone who actually likes the HE-6's treble or soundstage and wants even more would likely find a lot to like from the Qualia.

The HE-6 to me fell in the same trap as the Qualia did—I thought it fared best with bluegrass & ambient electronica due to the treble response and insufficient balance of mid-range & bass. Like the Qualia, the HE-6 was relatively thin in the mid-range (though probably not as thin as the Qualia) and did not have very much bass—though more bass than the Qualia. This made it completely unsuitable to me for every type of music that wasn't bluegrass or ambient electronica—for classical it made violins too screechy, for jazz it made brass instruments too weak-sounding & distant, for electronica it lacked bass power & force, and for rock & metal it was way too thin- and passive-sounding. It was just way too much of a weak-sounding headphone overall. The LCD-2 in contrast was a polar opposite with its full & heavy mid-range and bass, almost like a yin-yang relationship.

The HE-6 was a poor-fitting headphone as well on my small-ish head and I was never able to get a secure fit with it. At the lowest adjustment it still didn't fit my head and I had to put a hand towel under the headband to situate the earcups high enough to level with my ears.

vs JH Audio JH13

LCD-2 w/ ADZ-5 cable. Amp: GS-X, in unbalanced mode.

If there was one thing that this comparison proved, it's that the JH13 was a far easier headphone load, and that the GS-X under-drove the LCD-2 in unbalanced mode. But the GS-X is probably the only amp in the world that can drive both of them realistically, because it has unity gain for the JH13 and High gain + balanced output for the LCD-2. How did they compare, though? The frequency balance was very similar, but the JH13 had lower, more powerful bass. The biggest difference though was that the JH13 was more closed-in (not as much "air" within the soundstage) while the LCD-2 was more open-sounding with more "air" between instruments/layers in comparison.

Despite sounding more similar to each other than any other headphones should sound (not that they were identical-sounding though, just relatively close), I'd say the JH13 and LCD-2 serve separate functional purposes, considering one is an IEM and the other is a full-size headphone. The JH13 can sound really good directly out of a DAP, but it clearly takes high-power amplification to begin to get good sound out of the LCD-2.

vs Sennheiser HD800

LCD-2 w/ 2010 stock & ADZ-5 cable. Amp: B22.

Like the HE-6, the HD800 was somewhat of a treble-tilted headphone. It was better balanced throughout though, with more mid-range & bass quantity. The HD800 had a smaller soundstage than the HE-6, with less depth in particular that made it sound more closed-in. So for anyone who thinks the HD800's soundstage to be large, that should put the HE-6 in perspective, as I thought its soundstage was even bigger with substantially more depth and diffusion (resulting in more "air" throughout).

I thought the HD800 represented another yin-yang to the LCD-2—the HD800's treble tilt versus the LCD-2's mid-range tilt made for a complementary pairing. The HD800's large amount of soundstage depth & width was another contrast to the LCD-2, which was compressed in comparison. The LCD-2's soundstage was much more realistic to me though, despite sounding substantially more closed-in. Its "integrated" imaging was a good contrast from the diffuse imaging of the HD800.

vs Stax SR-507

LCD-2 w/ ADZ-5 cable, amped by B22. SR-507 amped by HeadAmp BHSE.

The SR-507 was more similar to the HE-6 and HD800 than LCD-2, so comparisons were done against those two headphones instead. And between the three, I was the most impressed by the SR-507. Qualities the three headphones had in common included relatively strong treble, high overall clarity throughout the spectrum, and appropriately diffuse imaging—layers were nicely spread out from each other. It could be said that the SR-507 was the most diffuse though, as its imaging had the most lateral span from left to right. The SR-507 had the least soundstage depth though, but I didn't think it was really a negative aspect—if anything, it made it sound less fake and more genuine with respect to the recording. It wasn't quite as good as either the HD800 or HE-6 in certain, minor aspects, but overall it had the most direct, up-close, & driving sound. The HE-6 and HD800 were passive- and detached- (HD800) or distant-sounding (HE-6) in comparison.

The SR-507 also had the fastest impulse response and hence the most precision—fast sequences of notes were the most cleanly separated on it. For bluegrass music it delivered the most pop and twang, qualities that were mostly absent on the HE-6 and HD800. I ended up liking the SR-507's treble the most of the three, primarily because of its precision—the HD800 was simply too slow & imprecise, and the HE-6 didn't accentuate note "attacks" very well—which included details like ringing and high-speed "zings".

None of these three headphones (HE-6, HD800, SR-507) were particularly bassy (and the HE-6 had the least amount of bass) but they did have some bass, just not enough that I'd call any of them satisfactory for music that rides on bass, like electronica/trip-hop. As expected, the LCD-2's higher level of bass was a good contrast against them. The LCD-2 had a substantially more full-bodied mid-range too.

vs Stax SR-007 (OII MKI)

LCD-2 w/ Moon Audio Silver Dragon XLR & ADZ-5 cable, amped by GS-X & B22 respectively. OII MKI amped by HeadAmp BHSE. Balanced XLR input on LCD-2/GS-X vs OII/BHSE comparison.

The LCD-2 had an uphill battle against the OII/BHSE, which remains my reference for all acoustic types of music—in the aspect of tonality & timbre, or whatever you want to call it. It's also my reference for soundstage accuracy, as the OII reacts to different recordings and grows or shrinks the soundstage appropriately.

I'll begin by stating that the LCD-2 in balanced mode on the GS-X made for a very fine-sounding LCD-2. But single-ended on the B22 was definitely better—the LCD-2 developed more bass power, more forward drive, and more fill to the bass/mid-range area for an overall slightly-thicker sound—i.e., even more of that presence factor as previously mentioned.

But as good as the LCD-2 was on the B22, and it was definitely good enough that I'd call the pairing an optimal one, it was still no match for the OII/BHSE. For classical music specifically, the LCD-2 completely lacked several qualities. Scale was missing—the sense of the orchestra sounding big with instruments coming at you from back to front. Dynamic range too—the various instrument sections all sounded at similar volume levels and nothing was truly quiet or truly loud. Volume intensity, accurate soundstage width/depth, true clarity, and proper diffusion weren't there either. The OII provided all of these and in spades at that. Julia Fischer's "Violin Concerto in E major, 2nd movement" from her Bach Concertos CD is probably the best example of the OII doing what it does best, especially in the intensity aspect, on her solo violin. The violin's intensity was completely lost on the LCD-2. It made the solo violin sound merely like a violin playing. Not that that there was anything wrong with this portrayal, but against the OII there was simply no peer—the OII made the violin "sing" with subtle rises & falls in intensity, with the orchestra coming to virtual life at the same time.

No, the LCD-2 could not compete with the OII. There were just too many areas in which the OII crushed it on sonic merit alone. But considering the relative prices between the LCD-2/B22 (approximately $2K) versus the OII/BHSE (~$6.5K), it's an acceptable compromise for those unwilling to pay for the high-end electrostatic system. Were there any aspects in which the LCD-2 was better than the OII? Oh there were a few—the LCD-2 was easily the more physical-, tactile-sounding headphone, with a more direct & assertive sound, and there was that heavy, deep bass too. In fact, one of my complaints against all of the electrostatic headphones that I've heard (which include the SR-X MKIII, SR-404LE, SR-507, and even the OII) is that they lack a sort of "directness" to the sound, but this was not an issue on the LCD-2.

 

SR-507 vs SR-007 (OII MKI)

Amp: HeadAmp BHSE.

A disclaimer here as I didn't formally compare these two headphones against each other to determine relative strengths & weaknesses, but I will say I found them different enough from each other to form a complementary pairing, similar in line with the AD2K & LCD-2 pairing.

In fact, I could take an analogy from the AD2K & LCD-2 pairing. The AD2K was brighter and more forward/up-front, while the LCD-2 was a shade darker with more mid-range & bass and a marginally more passive sound. In a loose sense then, the SR-507 to the OII paralleled the AD2K to the LCD-2. Not that the SR-507 was particularly bright or forward/up-front though, only relatively compared to the OII. But the SR-507's treble tilt & flatter imaging in relation to the OII made it more ideal for certain types of music to me, like bluegrass, trip-hop, rock, and metal, for example. And despite the flatter imaging, I still thought it was perfectly acceptable for ambient electronica, which tends to sound best on headphones with an imposed large soundstage. In fact, I thought the SR-507 ultimately beat out the HD800 which was my previous ambient-electronica headphone, primarily because of its combined clarity, treble, & precision.

Although some might call the SR-507 inferior to the OII, to me it was more of a different flavor that went well with music genres I don't typically use the OII for, as the OII is my preferred classical & jazz headphone. And in my system, I thought it went alongside particularly well with the OII, to comprise a strong electrostatic counterpart to my remaining two full-size dynamic headphones (AD2K & LCD-2).

Summary

Alex and Sankar at Audeze, whom I've met in person on a few occasions now, came up with a really good headphone in the LCD-2. They're good guys too and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend dealing with them.

The LCD-2 did very well in most aspects, all things considered. No single headphone can be all things to even one person IMO, which is why I own multiple headphones, but for me the LCD-2 nicely filled in a void—a (planar) dynamic headphone capable of being driven by the HeadAmp GS-X for classical, jazz, & rock, for times when I don't want to rotate in my electrostatic system. I consider it a bonus that it just happens to also do electronica/trip-hop and metal just as well too. The AD2K, SR-507, and OII MKI fill in for its weaknesses nicely—forward-moving drive & insistence in the case of the AD2K; more treble, diffusion, & clarity in the case of the SR-507; and dynamic range, intensity, & scale in the case of the OII MKI.

Once again I defer to the Notes file (linked at the top) for in-depth details of every headphone comparison that was staged. This review was just a scratch on the surface on the iceberg of notes that were written—so read the notes if you want the full compilation of everything that went down for the listening of this review.

 

4/25/11: relevant info & backstory on the OII/BHSE in my system: http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/548875/review-audeze-lcd-2-hifiman-he-6-stax-sr-507-stax-oii-mki-bhse-et-al/60#post_7427838

 

Related Reading

- LCD-3 multi-way review: http://www.head-fi.org/products/audeze-lcd3-planar-magnetic-headphone/reviews/10298
- Audio-Technica AD2K 5-year re-review: http://www.head-fi.org/products/audio-technica-ath-ad2000/reviews/10293
- Beyerdynamic T1 review: http://www.head-fi.org/products/beyerdynamic-tesla-t1/reviews/10295
- Sennheiser HD800 review: http://www.head-fi.org/products/sennheiser-hd-800-headphones/reviews/10294

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