REVIEW – Audeze LCD-3 planar magnetic headphones
The announcement was a well-kept secret, and it hit the head-fi community like a ton of bricks. Audeze was coming out with a new headphone, the LCD-3, which would feature a new driver, new pads, slightly uprated cosmetics, and would cost $1,950 – roughly double what the popular LCD-2 cost. Explosions ensued. There were lots of people very upset about the much higher price. I was intrigued. I sought out a pair at CanJam, and having liked what I heard in what was admittedly a very difficult environment to judge open headphones, I asked Alex from Audeze if I could get a review pair sent. He obliged, and here we are.
Audeze made huge strides over the 18 months the LCD-2 were in production in terms of improving ergonomics and comfort, and these are all in play in the LCD-3 – much softer leather earpads, leather headband, angled cable exits, etc. The LCD-3 has a metal cable exit rather than the extruded wood. I think this is a very wise move. Not sure it’s a cosmetic improvement, but given that there were quite a few reports of splits in the wood of the LCD-2’s cable junction, I think this was a wise move.
Personal opinion: I like dark wood, and I prefer the darker wood of my original LCD-2 over the Zebra-wood of the LCD-3. The wood finish is nicer on the LCD-3 to be sure, but I like darker wood. That’s just me, though. Many will like this look better. The dark brown leather is VERY nice looking, and matches the grill color well. Judge for yourself:
As you can see, the LCD-3 comes in a ver nice wood box, and includes some leather conditioner, as well as balanced and unbalanced cables.
I think the LCD-3 are much more comfortable than the LCD-2, also, and this is largely due to the MUCH cushier pads.
Sources uses: RWA Audeze Edition DAC, AVA Vision Hybrid DAC, MHDT Havana DAC, all playing lossless music files.
Amps used: RWA Audeze Edition, Leben CS-300, Trafomatic Head One, Meier Audio Corda Classic; Marantz 2285, Pioneer SX-1980, Sansui 9090DB receivers.
Headphones compared: Audeze LCD-2 R1, Sony MDR-R10, Beyerdynamic T1, HifiMan HE-6
Cables used: ALO Cain Mail balanced, Q-Audio unbalanced
So, before we can possibly tackle the question of value, we have to first decide how the things SOUND. And there is no doubt that they sound excellent. But that isn’t good enough. A high-end headphone must go beyond that. It was OK for the LCD-2 to sound “just” excellent. The LCD-3 needs to sound even better – it has to be at the pinnacle of headphone sound to play at this price point.
And, in the opinion of this reviewer, it is indeed. The LCD-3 has a coherency, transparency and top to bottom consistency of sound that rate it as the very best headphone I have ever heard.
Take just one example – Diana Krall’s “Do Nothing ‘til You Hear From Me” from “Stepping Out”. The bowed cello solo in the middle is the most lifelike reproduction of a cello I have ever heard. The stand-up bass is deep and powerful but with a truly astounding level of definition. And Diana’s vocals are cleanly rendered in a very lifelike way.
That deep bass was very much in evidence again on Mastodon's "The Hunter", by the recent album of the same name. Bass is as deep and powerful as one could even ask for, and actually manages to best the LCD-2 in terms of definition and taughtness while not giving up any weight. This is as good as bass performance gets via headphones. The LCD-3 have no equal that I have ever heard in this regard.
Midrange performance was also absolutely first rate. There is a slight lushness to the mids, I feel - I'm not sure how else to describe it. I know one head-fier has described the LCD-2 as "creamy". I am not sure that's the word I would use, but the mids are surely beautiful, while not sounding colored in any way. I think you can see this in the frequency response chart below, there is a small measured dip at the upper end of the midrange, and I think this is what keeps the mids from ever crossing over into overly-bright territory.
Nonetheless When guitar has bite, the LCD-3's reproduce the bite, but not in a way that's painful - in a way that seems always very natural. "Cosmic Egg" from the Wolfmother album of the same way evidences this nicely.
I think it bears mention that, from the FR chart above, supplied with my review pair, the FR is not markedly different from the LCD-2 FR charts I have seen. Nonetheless, the LCD-3 are more neutral sounding than the LCD-2. I liked the LCD-2’s slightly dark tonal balance a lot, but there is none of that in evidence with the LCD-3. I would definitely not call them “bright” though. In fact, I found them to be so neutral as to be difficult to get a handle on sometimes. I started listening to them on my vintage Marantz 2285. I thought they sounded very good, but thought they were missing something at the top that I was sure I had heard at Can Jam. So I quickly moved them to the Red Wine Audio Audeze Edition, and there it was – that treble extension that I hadn’t noticed before that the vintage Marantz lacks (probably not surprisingly). The RWA AE was much more adept as driving the LCD-3 than the Marantz. The 2285 doesn’t lack at all for power, but doesn’t seem to have the nuance that the AE does. And the LCD-3 laid this very plain, in no time at all.
All that transparency and neutrality isn’t always a universally good thing, though. There was a degree to which the LCD-2 allowed one to listen to sub-par recordings and not immediately be struck by how poor they are. Not so with the LCD-3. The Waterboys “This is the Sea” from the album of the same name came up on my iPod (which goes digitally via the Pure i20 into the RWA AE’s DAC) and I thought “wow that sounds really, really awful” – but that is just how that recording sounds. It’s sinfully bright, and that is how the LCD-3 rendered it. Up right after it was Nickel Creek’s “Best of Luck” from “Why Should the Fire Die”, and that sounded TERRIFIC, as I would expect. All well recorded material sounded really, really good, and in fact, was the best I have ever personally heard from a headphone, including my beloved Sony MDR-R10.
The LCD-3, though, are better than the MDR-R10. They are more even in frequency response, and just slightly more transparent. The R-10 have a phenomenal midrange, and so do the LCD-3. The R-10 have a little peakiness in parts of the treble, though, that I do not hear from the LCD-3. And the bass on the R-10 is also a little pronounced in the midbass and a little lacking in the very deep bass versus the LCD-3. I find the LCD-3 to be a remarkably neutral transducer. I do not hear any obvious frequency-response aberrations with the LCD-3. In this way it departs from the LCD-2 – the 3 is more neutral sounding to these ears, and this is most germane in the treble. The LCD-2 featured a shelved-down treble, which I personally liked, but as such it was not flat from 20Hz-20kHz. The LCD-3 has much less of this in terms of both the measured performance, and even less in terms of what I hear. And yet, the treble is not aggressive or biting, but VERY pure and sweet. Again, the LCD-3 will not hide a recording with a nasty treble though. If it’s there, you will hear it.
And I think that defines the LCD-3 for me. The combination of a very neutral frequency response and an almost startling transparency are its hallmarks. The vast majority of the time I enjoyed listening to music through the LCD-3 more than I ever have with headphones. Alison Krauss’s new record, Paper Airplane, is a terrific recordings, and it sounded just terrific on the LCD-3. Alison’s vocals were beautiful. Same for Steven Wilson’s, on “Postcard” from his new and terrifically recorded “Grace For Drowning”. The song is just haunting, and it sounds beautiful on the LCD-3. Then again, I have some metal records that are super-aggressive sounding, and the LCD-3 laid them bare. Such is life. For those I will probably stick with the LCD-2. But one cannot blame the messenger! I know such recordings are harsh. No surprise the LCD-3 renders them as such.
One result of the combination of the neutrality and transparency is an outstanding retreival of detail and resolution. Other headphones I have heard force detail at you my pushing the mid treble up. That's not what is happening here. The resolution is due to the transparency. This is something I have found in evidence in all planar magnetic headphones (and speakers) I have heard - and it's very much in evidence here. There are some very subtle percussion elements in Opeth's "Death Whispered a Lullaby" from "Damnation" that I had never really noticed before, but that I was able to hear on the LCD-3.
I also spent some time comparing the LCD-3 to the HifiMan HE-6. I find the HE-6 to have just a touch more treble energy than is neutral, although overall I find the HE-6 to be an absolutely outstanding pair of headphones, and I listen to them at work almost daily. The LCD-3 were just better, in every dimension, IMO. Which isn’t to take away from the HE-6, but I found the LCD-3 to be more neutral, and just slightly more transparent.
I spent the majority of my review time listening to the LCD-3 on the Red Wine Audio Audeze Edition, since I felt that it had made the LCD-2 sound about as good as anything else, and wanted to give the LCD-3 a very clean signal. I also played them on the Leben CS-300, the Trafomatic Head One, the new and several of my vintage receivers. I also listened to it on the new Meier Audio Corda Classic, on which they also sounded great (review forthcoming on the Meier). They sounded great on the Pioneer and Sansui receivers, but not as good on the Marantz, as mentioned above, just because the LCD-3 exposed a treble roll-off on the Marantz I hadn’t been aware of. The LCD-3 definitely benefit from the best you can give them, but they sounded very good from everything I listened to them on.
So it also was with sources. The RWA DAC, my MHDT Havana, and my AVA Vision Hybrid DAC all sounded good, and all sounded different. And to a degree I wasn’t quite used to. It was very easy to pick out the differences. The LCD-3 will make a good source reviewing tool! The Havana is the warmest, the RWA the most neutral, and the AVA in the middle. This was plainly apparent.
Lastly, let’s talk about soundstage. The LCD-3 is excellent in this regard, but in this one area I don’t think it is quite state of the art. I think the LCD-3 is better than the LCD-2 in this regard, especially in terms of image specificity. But the R-10 is better in terms of image definition and specificity. The LCD-3 projects the soundstage out in front of the head somewhat, which I really like – it does NOT feel like the sound is just between your ears, at all. The width is outstanding, and so is the depth. But the images are just not quite as well defined as I hear on some other headphones, like the R-10, or even the Beyer T1. That said, I am not an imaging freak, and I value tonality and transparency higher. And so for me, the LCD-3 is as good as it gets. But if soundstage gymnastics are your primary thing, I think I would probably go with something like the HD-800. The LCD-3 is “merely” excellent in terms of soundstaging ability.
So, overall, where does that leave us? I think the LCD-3, as a whole, is the best headphone I have heard. I have never owned any electrostats, but I have had several pairs for review, and have heard quite a few others, and I prefer the meatier sound of the LCD-3 to any of those. But again, that’s not a direct, detailed comparison. Someone else will have to offer that. However, the LCD-3 is a big improvement over the LCD-2, and handily beats the Beyer T1 (which is a headphone I like a lot). I prefer the LCD-3 to the HE-6 as well, and even prefer it overall to the MDR-R10. And folks, that’s saying a mouthful. Does that make it worth the asking price? For me, beyond any shadow of a doubt. But I liked the LCD-2 a great deal as well, and of course, like all reviews, this one is my personal opinion, and nothing more. Only you, dear reader, can decide that for yourself. I sure hope you get a chance to hear a pair, though. I don’t think you will be disappointed. I am buying the review pair. No way am I letting these go.
Edited by Skylab - 11/1/11 at 10:01am