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A fine pair of headphones, but does have issues

A Review On: Audeze LCD2 Planar Magnetic Headphones

Audeze LCD2 Planar Magnetic Headphones

Rated # 4 in Over-Ear
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Lunatique
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Pros: Full-bodied sound, extended bass, non-fatiguing sonic signature

Cons: Very slightly recessed mids, physically heavy, slightly sloppy craftsmanship, odd design decisions

It's been about a month since I've received my Audez'e LCD-2 headphones (after being on the waiting list for almost three months). It's currently one of the most praised high-end headphones on the market, and before I jump into the review, I'll just get straight to the bottom line--it is a fine pair of headphones, but it's not without issues.

Here's what the LCD-2 looks like:
lcd2-1.jpg

lcd2-6.jpg

lcd2-0.jpg

Cosmetics & Ergonomics
First of all--the build is excellent. It looks every bit the high quality hand-made product that it is, but it has a quirky problem--one of the earcups came out of the frame upon arrival and my heart sank for a moment, but a quick look revealed that it was designed to be able to come off very easily if you simply pull on the anchoring frame a little, and it's very easy to put it back in. While this makes it easy to take the earcups off, it also means it can happen by accident if you simply pull on the headphones a bit hard from the wrong angle. No other headphone I've ever used had this problem, where it literally comes apart easily. It's sort of a blessing at the same time since it's easy to take the earcups off to run audio tests one channel at a time (but obviously, this is something only total audio geeks would do):
lcd2-8.jpg

The actual earpads are very comfortable, but because leather (or pleather) can get sweaty after a while, I always have sanitary covers on all my headphones, including the Sennheiser HD650 with velour earpads (since it protects the earpads from getting worn out). Here's without the sanitary covers:
lcd2-2.jpg

Here's with sanitary covers:
lcd2-7.jpg

My earpads don't match since the right side is 0.6cm thicker, but it doesn't affect the sound--just looks a bit lopsided. They also put in the cable sockets with the wrong orientation on the right side too, making the cable twist a bit on the right side. Minor issues, but slightly annoying since this is a $1,000 pair of high-end headphones and I expected more careful craftsmanship. I wonder why they didn't use metal or plastic parts where the frame's anchoring points inserts into the wooden cups though--they just dug out the wood, which looks a bit too hand-made for comfort to me--I'd prefer they installed metal parts into the wood so that there's no danger of the wood cracking or chipping. I also don't understand why they'd use an open-cell foam on the headband--it just doesn't look very durable since the edges could peel off eventually (like it did on my Sennheiser HD555 after a few years), and it's also terrible for sanitary reasons. Hair has oil and dirt and other stuff that you don't want to get caught in the cell of the foam. They really should have sheathed the foam under a cover for the headband--something like pleather or leather since it's much easier to wipe those clean. The Sennheiser HD650's foam is covered with fabric, and even that inspires more confidence than just bare foam. The cables on the LCD-2 are also awkward since they are stiff have long connectors, and they will poke into your shoulder if you look down. The main cable is also the stiffest headphone cables I have ever seen--they are basically typical thick instrument cables, and all musicians hate instrument cables because we're constantly coiling and uncoiling them all the time and they can be a bit unruly.

In terms of isolation, the LCD-2 is an open-backed design, so you will hear outside sounds--in fact the LCD-2 is one of the most open headphones I have ever heard. Usually open-back headphones still muffle the clarity of outside sounds a little, while the LCD-2 changes the outside sound only very subtly. I personally much prefer open-back designs since not only is the sound a lot more natural and not so claustrophobic like closed-back designs, you can also hear when people talk to you, or when the door bell rings (but they can also hear your music clearly too--it just sounds like a tinny version from a small radio). But of course, if you really need isolation, then only closed-back or IEM's will do.

Here's the whole package and the wooden box:
lcd2-box.jpg

lcd2-package.jpg

lcd2-5.jpg

The overall visual sensibility of the LCD-2 is the steampunk look, which is quite appealing if you dig that style (I do). It's similar to the Hifiman HE-5, the other currently popular orthodynamic headphone, combining wood, naked metal, and painted metal.

The comfort level of the LCD-2 is just fine in general. It's a lot heavier than most headphones (up to 2x or 3x heavier), but it's very comfortable in a snug, substantial way that inspires a sense of security, like how when you hold up something of quality and it weighs a bit but feels very solid and secure. That's how it feels on my head--solid, secure, snug, yet very comfortable. It's no less comfortable than all the other headphones I have, despite being significantly heavier; however, its weight will take its toll after prolonged listening--you'll start to feel it, while with really light headphones like the Denon AH-D7000 or very comfy headphones like the HD555, you pretty much forget you are wearing headphones until you stand up and they are accidentally ripped off your head.

One other small issue with the weight is that because it's so heavy, if you hang the LCD-2 on a typical headphone stand where the entire weight of the headphone rests in the middle of the headband, then the foam on the headband will become compressed in that spot. Some LCD-2 owners just rest it flat on a thick piece of fabric due to that issue, but I don't really have flat surfaces to spare, so I improvised and DIY'd a modification on my headphone stand with some old socks:
lcd2-sockmod.JPG
See how the hanging surface now is almost as wide as the entire headband, and the weight is now evenly distributed? This way, the foam won't compress severely in just one tiny spot like with typical rods that many headphone stands use.

Sound
First of all, take a look at this frequency graph of the LCD-2 (all graphs are taken from measurements done by Tyll Hertsens, formerly owner of HeadRoom--one of the most popular headphone and amp retailers):
lcd2-FR.jpg

That's pretty amazing, isn't it? From 1KHz to 20Hz, it is almost ruler flat. It is extremely rare for any headphone to achieve that kind of linear and neutral frequency response--in fact the LCD-2 is the only one I've ever seen that can do it to that degree. (All LCD-2's are shipped with its own individual graph, showing you how your particular pair tested. Mine looks similar enough to the one above that it's not necessary to post it.)

Now, look at how a 30Hz square wave looks on the LCD-2:
lcd2-30Hz.jpg

Now, look at how a 300Hz square wave looks on the LCD-2:
lcd2-300Hz.jpg

That is also very impressive--the square wave is reproduced so cleanly and with very little distortion.

If you compare the LCD-2's measurements with the out of production, very expensive, and legendary Sony Qualia, you'll be shocked to see just how laughly bad the Qualia's audio quality is compared to the LCD-2:

Sony Qualia frequency response graph:
sony_qualia-FR.jpg

Sony Qualia 30hz square wave:
sony_qualia-30Hz.jpg

Sony Qualia 300hz square wave:
sony_qualia-300Hz.jpg

Pretty horrendous frequency response and distortion for a "legendary" high-end headphone, eh? Not even a fraction as good as the Audez'e LCD-2, and costs more than twice as much when it was in production, and now even more since it's been discontinued and elevated to mythical status.

While all that is great on paper, how does the LCD-2 actually sound? Overall, the LCD-2 has a full-bodied sound, but it is not slow, too heavy or too lush. The bass is extended and sounds neutral without any bloat, while being authoritative and substantial. The mids are smooth and clear, but it's recessed around the 2KHz~3KHz region for about -3dB, which results in the LCD-2 sounding a bit too polite in some cases--especially when it comes to the bite of distorted electric guitars, the snap of the snare drum, or the power of the brass section. I usually EQ that region a little to restore that little bit of brightness. Here's how I EQ the LCD-2:
lcd2-EQ.jpg

The treble of the LCD-2 is just fine. It's articulate and detailed, never too exaggerated or too dark, and very natural sounding.

One very important characteristic I care about the most in audio reproduction gear is that it cannot be fatiguing and offensive, and the LCD-2 has no such problems at all. It isn't excessively bright and fatiguing, nor does it have overwhelming bloated bass, or exaggerated upper-mids that causes annoying sibilance. If anything, I wish the 2KHz~3KHz region didn't have that -3dB of recess, but it's very easy to correct with a simple one-band EQ compensation. If I'm watching a movie or playing a video game where I can't apply surgical DSP processing via software, I actually don't ever notice the slight recess and in fact welcome it since it makes prolonged listening very pleasant. Truth is, if I didn't A/B the LCD-2 against my other headphones or my reference studio monitors (Klein + Hummel o 300D's), I probably would not have noticed that slight recess, although I'd probably note the somewhat polite presentation on aggressive music that has lots of energy in the 2KHz~3KHz region.

Anyway, I could go on listing all the music and test tones I used to put the LCD-2 through its paces, but I listen to some very obscure and eclectic choices of music, so describing them in detail would be meaningless to most of you. If you must know, you can just search head-fi forums for my posts in the official LCD-2 thread. In that thread I even posted the tracks I used to test the LCD-2, and which sections to listen to in order to hear that slightly recessed mids.

Final Thoughts
For about $1,000, the LCD-2 might be too expensive for some people, and the truth is, you can get pretty close to the sound quality of the LCD-2 while spending a lot less. The Sennheiser HD650 for example is an excellent pair of headphones, costing less than half of the LCD-2. The HD650 does just about everything right, except its sub-bass isn't as substantial as a full-range speaker system with subwoofer. It's really only from around 35Hz and lower that the HD650 is rolled off though, while in rest of the frequency response it performs very well and is one of my favorites. It's actually kind of hard for me to say if the LCD-2 is all that much better than the HD650 in terms of value (but in terms of sonic signature, the LCD-2 is definitely a class above, being more refined, balanced, and full-bodied), since both have a singular issue in its frequency response--the LCD-2 in the mids and the HD650 in its sub-bass. The Denon AH-D7000 costs a lot more than the HD650 too but it's certainly not better--at least not to me. Whether you think the LCD-2 is worth the price of admission depends on what you prize the most in a pair of headphone's sonic signature.

As the result of getting the LCD-2, I have sold my Denon AH-D7000. While the D7000 can sound very satisfying when EQ'd to compensate for it's recessed mids, sibilant upper-mids, and exaggerated treble, I just couldn't justify keeping another high-end headphone similar in price to the LCD-2, especially when I would never use it for movies and gaming since I can't apply software DSP processing to it (and buying a high-quality hardware EQ unit just for that purpose seems a bit too much of a waste). Also, needing three bands of EQ to make it sound great is two-bands too many for me. I will definitely miss that visceral and grin-inducing bass though, even if it's a bit exaggerated.

When I decided to purchase the LCD-2, I was hoping it would sound similar to the Stax SR-007 MK2 that I heard months ago when I was in Taiwan--it was one of the most memorable "eargasm" experiences I've ever had, and it was my first experience with an electrostatic system. I was mislead to think the LCD-2 can come close because some members at head-fi had compared the LCD-2 favorably to the flagship Stax rig. I'm tempted to say those guys are smoking something powerful because the LCD-2 to me does not compare to the magical flagship Stax sound, but sonic preferences are very subjective, so maybe to them the LCD-2 really is that magical. Also, I have never A/B'd the two side-by-side, so until I do, I can't say for sure. But at this point my hopes of saving the thousands of dollars I'd need to spend on the flagship Stax rig by getting the LCD-2 was dashed. I bought it without having auditioned it in person--this is just how it is when you live in a crappy city in China--you must rely on other people's reviews and hope to God they have similar taste to yours. While the LCD-2 sounds great, it was probably a bit naive of me to think it could sound like a flagship electrostatic--the two technologies are inherently different after all.

 

Obviously I like the LCD-2 a lot, otherwise I'd have turned around and sold it immediately to recoup my money, since the LCD-2 is very hot right now and the waiting list is about two to three months. I have ordered the Stax SR-007MK2 and the SRM-717 solid state energizer/amp, and they should be coming in about a week or so. I'll decide after I have spent some time with the new Stax rig if I'll be selling off any more of my headphones.

 

EDIT: Now that I have had the Stax rig in my studio for a while now and have A/B'd the LCD-2 against it extensively, I have written a detailed review of the Stax rig. In the review, I go into detail about how the LCD-2 compares with the Stax rig. You can read the review on this page: http://www.head-fi.org/products/stax-sr-007-mk2/reviews#3796

 

If you don't want to read the detailed review of the Stax rig, I'll simply say this--the LCD-2 compares very well, and in some ways they do share a similar sonic signature, but they also have important differences.

 

The similarities:

They both have a full-bodied sound, with authoritative bass, refined mid-range, and articulate treble. They both have slightly recessed mids and upper mids, which contributes to the warmer sonic signature. They both are non-fatiguing and remain pleasant during long listening sessions.

 

The differences:

The LCD-2 is overall denser and creamier, with lower bass extension, while the 007mk2 has punchier bass and more prominent treble, while having a more elegant presentation.

 

Both are excellent, and I would rate them similarly in terms of overall sound quality. In terms of comfort, the Stax is a more comfortable due to the lighter weight.

 

EDIT (August 15, 2011): I have been refining and tweaking the LCD-2's custom EQ curve, and the one I have been using for a while now is this one:

2011-08-15_101239.png

 

When Audez'e released the rev.2 version of LCD-2, the updated frequency response graph really surprised me (in a good way), because it looked almost exactly like the response of my custom EQ curve. That tells me Audez'e agrees with my assessment of the LCD-2 and updated it accordingly.

4 Comments:

Very nice review. Thanks.
Recessed mids???
Yes, the versions before rev.2 had recessed mids--by about 3 dB or so around 2,350Hz and 4,700Hz, as well as missing a little bit of air, also about 3 dB at 12,000Hz. If you look at the updated rev2's frequency response chart, it looks exactly like the custom EQ curve I have been using on my rev.1 version. That tells me the Audez'e guys thinks exactly the same thing I do and updated the LCD-2 accordingly.
That's very interesting to say the least. Aside from a Grado, the LCD-2 has about the most non-recessed mids I've ever heard.
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