Wow – another contender in the high-end headphone market! Amazing. I was pretty excited about the emergence of some planar magnetic headphones when I first heard about these and the HifiMan HE-5. I was a Magneplanar speaker guy for many years – until my kids were born. Loved them. Sadly, they were too big a target for the kids, and so they got sold. But I was very excited about being able to get some planar sound in headphones! So excited that I rushed to pay just shy of $1,000 for the privilege…
They are very beautifully made, and ship in a beautiful wood box:
Sources used for this review: VPI Scoutmaster with Benz LP-S > Eddie Current Transcription phono amp, Audio By VanAlstine Fet-Valve Ultra-Dac (from Denon DVD-5900 or iPod and Wadia i170 serving as transports, and Assemblage jitter filter/re-clocking device); Red Wine Audio iMod iPod with ALO VCap dock.
Some observations about the LCD-2 though in terms of their ergonomics/design:
1. They are very attractive
2. They are pretty big
3. They do seem to clamp quite fiercely
4. The leather earpads are awesome
5. The headband though - just a piece of open-cell foam glued to the metal? In a $1,000 headphone? That is absurd. It's comfortable, but there is no way that uncovered open-cell foam will last a year. It's such a pity to mar the beautiful looks with the crummy open-cell foam. Wrap it in some leather, Audez'e! C'Mon! I would much rather have a leather headband and a cardboard box than the beautiful wood box they included. I'm already trying to figure out how I will fix this. Some leather, some snaps, and some trial and error...
Anyway, after some stretching and some adjustments, the LCD-2 are no longer uncomfortable. I would call them "comfortable", but not “very comfortable”, really, but at least they aren't actually UNcomfortable anymore. I can wear them for quite a long while without issue. But they set no benchmarks in this regard.
Another ergonomic issue - I cannot turn my head from side to side wearing these very easily, due to the stiffness of the cable combined with the length of the connector.
Amping the Beast
Well, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that with the Leben CS300X, the LCD-2 is absolutely astonishing. The Leben with the LCD-2 provides a level of sound quality I have not personally experienced before from headphones. I've spent many late hours just excitedly going from track to test track. All of them have been a treat. It really has to be heard to be believed.
Now the bad news - the LCD-2 exhibit, to some degree, a slightly rolled off treble with all of my OTL tube amps. I actually first thought the LCD-2 had a rolled off treble. It doesn't. But when used with OTL tube amps that have an output impedance higher than the LCD-2’s impedance, the treble is rolled off. With the transformer-coupled Leben - no roll off at all. Just open, clean, super-transparent and super-smooth. And I mean WIDE open sounding. Great detail without any etch or force. And the soundstage is astonishing.
Vexed a little by this, I spent some time with the LCD-2 on the Meier Concerto. It has plenty of juice to drive them for sure, and no treble roll off for sure (got to love that 0.1 ohm output impedance). The Concerto and the LCD-2 are a good pairing. The sound is very nearly as good as I described above with the Leben - not quite, as the Leben is the better amp IMO, but for the money, the Concerto is excellent, and the sound from the LCD-2 via the Concerto is open, transparent, and extended as it was on the Leben. The soundstaging is also excellent on the Concerto, although here again I think the Leben has a slight edge.
But not so much on either the Decware CSP-2 or my modded Singlepower Extreme. The LCD-2 sound very good on those amps, but not as good as they are capable of sounding. With the Leben - they are just amazing. The roll-off with the CSP-2 isn't as noticeable as I originally thought. Once I had a lot of time to spend with them, and I was able to try a bunch of different things, I ended up feeling that the LCD-2 are best with the Leben, and second best with the SS Meier Concerto, but the CSP-2 does a pretty good job, really. And just for grins I tried them with the J Sound Lab Headphone, which, while pretty cheap, is transformer coupled, and actually sounded pretty good with the LCD-2 at reasonable levels. The only amp that I have that will not work at all with the LCD-2 is the RSA Stealth, which just distorts at even moderate levels - which I found very surprising, as it did very well with the 70 ohm DX1000. But it is what it is.
So in sum on amps, the Singlepower Extreme and the Decware CSP-2 had enough power for the LCD-2, but with slightly rolled off highs (and probably some other slight frequency response aberrations due to the impedance mismatch that were just less obvious). Just to be clear, all of these amps drive the Beyerdynamic T1 very, very well. But they did a less good job with the LCD-2. Strong solid-state or a high-quality transformer-coupled tube amp will be needed, or an OTL tube amp that has been designed with a very low output impedance (of which I am not aware of very many...) to get the best of what the LCD-2 can offer. The sound with the Decware CSP-2 was plenty good, really – just not what the LCD-2 are ultimately capable of, and if you’re going to pay almost $1,000 for a headphone…you want to get the most out of them.
What's fascinating about the LCD-2 is that it actually requires less volume from my CSP-2 than the HE-5LE does. The LCD-2 also requires more volume from the CSP-2 than the T1, but this does not surprise me. And I was also a little surprised that the LCD-2 brought the Stealth completely to its knees, even though I know that it isn't meant for super-low impedance cans. I need to try my impedance-matching transformer and see what that does.
Quirky beast the LCD-2. Pickiest headphone about amplification I have had. I don't want to overplay this - the LCD-2 still sound good with the SP Extreme and the Decware CSP-2 - just not as good as they can sound. But given that they did not work at all with the Stealth, they will not be a "buy them and use them with whatever amp you own" kind of headphone. Paired with the right amp, though, the sound is remarkably natural and lifelike - very impressively so. So be warned - amp matching will be critical.
I listened several nights WAAAAAY past my bedtime - that combo, the LCD-2 and the Leben was just amazing me - the soundstage especially was the best I ever recall hearing. I wish I had the HD800 to compare - I have a feeling the soundstaging capability of the LCD-2 is even better than the HD800, which formerly is the best I have ever heard. The LCD-2 as heard through the Leben puts a truly holographic soundscape out a little in front of the listener with a depth and width I do not recall getting before, and in an unbelievable natural way. The delicacy of the treble on the LCD-2 is something special too. It has a purity, nuance, and articulate combined with a complete lack of fatigue or etch. It’s pretty special in this regard.
I can say, however, that some people will not like the treble balance. I think it is absolutely spot on, neither soft nor bright, but for people who like their treble W5000-style, the LCD-2 will not play. I, on the other hand, do not like to have the highs forced on me, and so I am like the balance on top. In fact, it's very hard for me to understand how some people who were HD800 fans like the LCD-2 so much. It's definitely a different tonal balance from that. Super-smooth, lots of detail, and ultra-natural sounding, with great transparency. But not at all fatiguing or hyper-analytical. Very subtle instruments, like the triangle strikes in Carbon Leaf’s “Let Your Troubles Roll By” were very easy to hear without being overly emphasized in a way that I felt the HD800 presented that sort of thing. Effortless, and natural – I kept thinking this.
There is something to the planar treble that seems to lack a grain that all dynamics have, even if you don’t realize it’s there. I had thought the Beyerdynamic T1 wad a completely grain-free treble. And while it is indeed very transparent, the LCD-2 is even cleaner and more pure than the T1. The T1 does have a treble balance most similar to the LCD-2 of all my dynamics – but the LCD-2 is slightly more refined and detailed, while being slightly smoother too. A neat trick!
Down low, things are equally as impressive. The bass on the LCD-2 (again via the Concerto and/or the Leben) is really quite something. It doesn't call attention to itself until required by the recording, but then it is reproduced full measure. No lack of texture or definition, either - outstanding performance in that regard, in fact. The bass notes in Goldfrapp’s “Koko” from “Supernature” were powerful, but had great nuance and texture.
I decided to test the bass response of the LCD-2. I tested both the LCD-2 and the Ed 8, using the Stereophile test CD 3, and my SPL meter, set for "C" weighting, which accounts for the Fletcher-Munson roll-off. The LCD-2 was shockingly flat to 25 Hz - measuring right around 72dBC from 200-25 Hz - only the 20Hz tone was rolled off, and even there by only about 4 dB. I could not HEAR 20 Hz from these headphones, but I don't think people can really hear 20 Hz via headphones, because you really feel 20Hz more than hear it, and headphones don't really allow for this. I could hear the 25 Hz tone very clearly from the LCD-2.
By way of comparison, the Ed 8 I felt like I could actually hear 20 Hz a little more, but it might have just been doubling. It measured a little less flat, but still +/- 4 db from 200-20 Hz. Note that I made no attempt here to measure the relative bass levels between the LCD-2 and Ed 8 – I was just measuring the two for bass extension and smoothness.
Here again, however, some people will find the bass from the LCD-2 to be too much. It absolutely does not color the rest of the spectrum, but I have been around head-fi long enough to know there is a large faction that thinks that accurate bass is a lot less bass than I personally think is natural. This is an age-old argument – which part of the hall do you like? The W5000 is front-of-hall – bright treble and very restrained bass. The HD800 is mid-front. The T1 and the LCD-2 are mid-hall. The JVC DX1000 is mid-back. You pays your money and you takes your choice. I’m a mid-hall kind of guy, I guess. But if you think the W5000 have an ideal bass balance, the LCD-2 will not be for you.
And then there is the midrange. It’s just as natural as you could possibly hope for. Again, ahead of my rather esteemed pack of headphones – T1, Edition 8, D7000, DX1000, W1000X – better than all of these, for sure. Amazing transparency, and an almost fascinating degree of naturalness – this was really kind of a revelation, because I didn’t just respect the mids – I loved them – and yet there was no coloration there I could detect at all. The Beyer T1 sounds a tiny bit artificially ripe in comparison, but not in a way that means the LCD-2’s mids are in any way thin – far from it. The T1 are terrific in the mids – but the LCD-2 are slightly better. Female vocals were really wonderful – I was shocked when listening to Nightwish’s “Ocean Soul” – it was almost as if I’d never heard the song correctly played back before. Mary Black’s cover of Richard Thompson’s “I Misunderstood” from her “Shine” record was also enthralling for it’s incredibly unforced, natural presentation.
And oh, the soundstage. So deep, so wide, and so well defined – and not only between the ears, but out in front of the head. No question the best of any of the headphones I have. Perhaps the HD800 is as good or better – since I no longer have them I don’t feel I can accurately say. But the imaging qualities of the LCD-2 are terrific. For someone who really values a holographic soundstage highly, the LCD-2 are sure to please. Listening to some live Alison Krauss was enthralling – it felt so much like the performance was really going on it was a little spooky. This effect was more noticeable with the Leben than the Meier, but it was definitely there with both.
Compared to the HE-5LE, I can confirm that the LCD-2 require less juice from my amps than the HE-5LE do. The HE-5LE do not seem to have the same issue with being rolled off in the treble by my OTL amps, though. As much as I like the HE-5LE, with the right amp, the LCD-2 is a significant step above the HE-5LE in terms of performance (although not ergonomics - I find the HE-5LE to be more comfortable). The HE-5LE are excellent. The LCD-2, talking just about sonics, are superlative. I think the HE-5LE provide a huge taste of planar goodness for a relatively affordable price, and they are highly competitive in their price range. But the LCD-2 are more neutral, more transparent, and more nuanced. That isn’t an indictment of the HE-5LE as much as praise for the LCD-2.
The LCD-2 versus the Beyer T1 is more interesting. The T1 is outstanding IMO. It is also infinitely more comfortable than the LCD-2, again IMO of course (like this whole review!). And the overall spectral balance is somewhat similar. The T1 seems a little lush in comparison, and somehow just slightly less immediate. As mentioned above, it’s also just slightly less transparent. Being 600 ohm, it will mate better with some amps than the LCD-2, and as such, will be a better choice in some systems, and it’s close enough in performance that I wouldn’t toss a T1/high-end amp combo that sounds great in favor of trying the LCD-2. But if you have a great solid-state or transformer-coupled tube amp, then the LCD-2 might synergize better than the T1 – perhaps.
I would rate them for sound: LCD-2 > T1 > HE-5LE - but they are all truly excellent sounding
I would rate them for comfort: T1 > HE-5LE > LCD-2 - the T1 and HE-5LE being very comfortable, and the LCD-2 being just fair (but after some break in no longer truly UNcomfortable).
So what are the LCD-2? A fairly expensive, high-end headphone that offers absolutely world-class sonics, is picky about the pairing amp, looks beautiful, and is only somewhat comfortable. So where does that leave them? I will certainly be keeping the pair I bought. But it’s not a no brainer to plunk down a kilobuck when there are a few gotchas. I suggest trying to find a way to hear a pair – but also to have them on your head for a while, if possible. And you’ll need to read a lot of opinions here on head-fi about what amps will work well. But given these caveats – the LCD-2 is pretty impressive. It has delivered some true musical magic for me.