Mini-Review: Audeze LCD-3
vs Audeze LCD-2 r2, Audio-Technica AD2000, Sennheiser HD800, and Stax OII MKI
published on February 6, 2012
- download a printable 5-page PDF version of this review (right-click the link & save target)
- download a printable 5-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 full-length notes are also posted below in post #2 for quicker reference.
This is basically a mini-, multi-way review of the Audeze LCD-3 headphones, which were announced and demonstrated at CanJam@RMAF 2011. Though I also included the AD2K and HD800 for the sake of calling this a multi-way review, the most extensive comparisons were made specifically against the LCD-2 r2 and Stax OII MKI (SR-007 from here on out). The LCD-2 r2 and SR-007 comparisons were done specifically to address what I thought would be two of the most common questions about the LCD-3: (1) What does the LCD-3 offer over the LCD-2 r2? (2) Is the LCD-3 competitive with the SR-007?
To clarify my "mini-review" heading, I always call my reviews "mini-reviews" when the review period is a relatively short length of time, as my reviews are usually done over months. In this case for the LCD-3, the review period was approximately 4 weeks.
This mini-review can be considered as a companion/follow-up piece to my Audeze LCD-2 multi-way review, which can be read here: 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
Note: the review LCD-3 unit is one I bought. I usually write reviews on stuff I buy, as I'm averse to manufacturer loans - IMO this removes any manufacturer expectations on the review, and it allows me to take as much time as I want as well.
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/notes 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 or chamber orchestra, and I've attended classical-music concerts as well.
- Source component: Plinius CD-101 (CD player) (power cord: Signal Cable Silver Resolution Reference - directly into wall)
- Analog interconnects: Analysis Plus Silver Oval XLR
- Headphone amplifiers: HeadAmp GS-X for the dynamic headphones, HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE for the SR-007 (OII MKI)
- Comparison headphones: Audeze LCD-2 r2, Audio-Technica AD2000, Sennheiser HD800, Stax SR-007
- Aftermarket headphone cables: Moon Audio Silver Dragon V3 XLR on Audeze headphones and HD800, APureSound V3 XLR on AD2000
It should also be noted here that I used the LCD-3, LCD-2 r2, and AD2000 solely in balanced mode. I never once used the stock ADZ-6 or ADZ-6-B4 cables. I used balanced mode because I expected the LCD-3 to sonically benefit from it, as I previously compared the LCD-2 r2 balanced on my GS-X versus unbalanced on the Schiit Lyr and found that it sounded better when balanced on the GS-X.
CDs by the following artists/bands, by genre:
- Americana/Bluegrass/Folk: Alison Krauss & Union Station, Priscilla Ahn
- Blues: Eva Cassidy
- Classical: Carlos Kleiber & VPO, Julia Fischer, Nicola Benedetti
- Electronica/Trip-Hop/Industrial: Andrea Parker, Fluke, Front Line Assembly, Future Sound of London, Hybrid, Massive Attack, Neotropic, Orbital, Portishead, The Crystal Method, The Prodigy
- Jazz: Dave Brubeck, Lee Morgan, Tord Gustavsen
- Rock: Porcupine Tree, Tool
- Metal: Amon Amarth, Anthrax, Arch Enemy, Behemoth, Dimmu Borgir, Emperor, Helloween, Lacuna Coil, Meshuggah, Soilwork
- Soundtracks: Batman Begins (film OST), Descent II (PC game)
Specific tracks on the CDs are given in the review notes (see the PDF, linked at the top).
vs LCD-2 r2
When I first started informally comparing the LCD-3 to the LCD-2 r2, I wasn't sure there was a huge difference between them - the differences seemed subtle, primarily in the soundstaging.
However, after extended critical comparisons I ended up concluding that the LCD-3 was more different than I initially thought - and in some ways, better, though not in every aspect. The primary differences that I found between the two were: more treble quantity and more of a treble tilt on the LCD-2, accordingly less bass and mid-range quantity on the LCD-2, and a suffocating forward/up-front/closed-in soundstage on the LCD-2 - specifically, too-close positioning of musical elements that made music sound more directly in front (as well as directly to the left & right sides), plus just a slight sense of trapped sound-wave reverberation (sort of like the acoustics of a small soundproofed room). The LCD-3's soundstage, on the other hand, wasn't as suffocating and for me was a step in the right direction - adding just enough breathing room and pushing everything away so nothing felt too close.
The more listening I did between the LCD-2 and LCD-3, the more I came to like the LCD-3 - for specifically its added mid-range body and bass quantity. Though it did seem to sacrifice a bit of treble quantity in comparison, the LCD-3 sounded even more full, visceral, and tactile, traits that I thought were already done fairly well on the LCD-2. Not that this was a day & night type of difference, but for me it was noticeable enough to increase my enjoyment of certain music genres like electronica/trip-hop and metal.
Based on my cumulative headphone experience since 2006 (dynamic & electrostatic), I'd call the LCD-3 one of the most visceral-, tactile-sounding headphones that I've heard to date. To me it represented almost exactly what I originally wanted from Audeze when I first heard the LCD-2 r1 - a ballsy, gut-driving, bass-focused, and very assertive-sounding headphone. I'd probably sum it up as a less-suffocating, heavier-, and darker-sounding version of the LCD-2 r2 - sort of like the LCD-2 r2 tuned down for even more mid-range/bass presence, and with more spatial dimension at the same time (primarily in z-axis depth, but also x-axis lateral span). In other words, the LCD-3 offered more physical-, deeper-sounding vocals (mostly male, but also female) and brought out instruments like bass guitars more. For me this made the LCD-3 an even more obvious choice than the LCD-2 for electronica/trip-hop, heavy/hard rock, and metal music - it just made everything sound more atmospherically "dark" or malevolent. In fact, I think I'd recommend the LCD-3 for listeners of dark or malevolent music in general, it was that awesome. By the end of my LCD-3 ownership, I was seriously enjoying the LCD-3 on industrial music as well - I'll just say it was bad-ass! I can't think of a reason why anyone who listens to electronica/trip-hop, hard rock, or metal, would be dissatisfied with the LCD-3.
Not that the LCD-3 didn't also do well with other genres like classical and jazz, because it did - it was completely fine. Acceptable for most people I'm sure, and for me it was probably among the best dynamic headphones I've heard for this music type - but that's not really saying all that much for me, as the only other full-size dynamic headphones that I think are the best for classical & jazz are the Grado HP1000 and Sennheiser HD600.
However, classical music is where I started noticing most of the LCD-3's recurring flaws from the LCD-2 (r1 & r2). The LCD-3 continued to lack in the aspects that I criticized the LCD-2 - specifically scale, dynamic range, soundstage accuracy, clarity, and diffusion. To be more specific on scale, dynamic range, & clarity:
- Scale: This is a subjectively nebulous term admittedly, but on orchestral recordings, usually you want the orchestra to sound "big" - i.e., to generate a wall of sound that fills up the acoustic space and sounds like every instrument section is contributing to it left to right, back to front (violins to cellos, including percussion and brass from the back). The LCD-3 never sounded like anything more than mid-sized, while the SR-007 consistently generated that filling wall of sound from a massive-sounding symphony orchestra. For me, scale also alternately means a single instrument (or a few at most) sounding small as well, which the LCD-3 didn't convincingly portray and made single instruments stick out way too much in the soundtrack mix.
- Dynamic range: The LCD-3 rehashed the LCD-2's relative inability to produce really quiet versus really loud volumes, in contrast to the SR-007, which is extremely adept at this. Pianissimo-level violin parts, for example, simply sounded not very quiet on it, and likewise fortissimo volume levels weren't tear-off-the-ceiling loud. Additionally, everything in between quiet and loud all sounded at similar volume levels with barely any audible modulation. In fact, it seemed like there were only 3 volume settings on the LCD-3: slightly quiet, moderate, and slightly loud. This actually negatively affected my enjoyment of recordings like Carlos Kleiber's Beethoven 5 & 7 with the VPO, Nicola Benedetti's Fantasie (specifically "Spiegel Im Spiegel"), and Julia Fischer's Bach Concertos & Paganini: 24 Caprices. In contrast to the LCD-3's might-as-well-have-been 3 volume settings, the SR-007 rendered everything from barely-there quiet to intensely loud, and every music piece sounded way better because of it.
For those familiar with the musical terms, I'd describe the dynamic range of the LCD-3 vs SR-007 this way: the LCD-3's seemed like it went from mezzo-piano (mp) to mezzo-forte (mf). The SR-007's seemed like it went from pianissimo possibile (ppp) to fortissimo possibile (fff). The LCD-3 was completely incapable of rendering sforzando, which the SR-007 handled easily. Other musical dynamics that were also mostly lost on the LCD-3 but properly conveyed on the SR-007: crescendo/diminuendo, fortepiano, & marcato (among others as well, but notably these).
- Clarity: I expected this to be a large improvement on the LCD-3 from the LCD-2 given its new "Lotus" driver as reported by Audeze, but found that in actuality it was actually largely exactly the same and didn't offer any improved clarity. As in the case of LCD-2, there was a severe noticeable disparity between the LCD-3 and SR-007 in this aspect. I ended up concluding that its lack of clarity was completely unacceptable for a $2K headphone - it should have been much better considering the ~100% price increase over the LCD-2.
Ultimately the LCD-3 failed just about as much as the LCD-2 in approaching the level of my SR-007 electrostatic system for classical & jazz, barely sounding like any kind of progress over the LCD-2. Though it was certainly at least one step closer with the improved, less-suffocating soundstaging, it needed at least 100 more steps (if not more) to even get on the same plane of existence as the SR-007. It had less-realistic-sounding violins than the LCD-2 as well (not enough treble quantity), which to me was a step backwards.
I wrote in my LCD-2 multi-way review that I thought the LCD-2 had a yin-yang relationship with the HD800, with the two as sonic opposites - the HD800 being clear and treble-tilted with a very open soundstage, the LCD-2 being more mid-range- and bass-tilted with a compressed soundstage.
I ended up thinking that the LCD-3 was even more yin to the HD800's yang. It was even more opposite to the HD800 thanks to its increased, heavier mid-range & bass and dulled treble, contributing to a fuller, more "assertive" sound compared to the HD800's thinner, "passive" sound. The two headphones seemed like a good complementary pairing and I could easily believe that a Head-Fier would want to own both for different reasons.
I wrote of the LCD-2 in its multi-way review that it was heavier-, deeper-, and more physical-sounding versus the AD2K, with less treble quantity as well. This was even truer for the LCD-3, enough that it was almost an opposite to the AD2K in only the frequency-balance aspect. It was clearly a darker-, heavier-sounding "version" of the AD2K as well with much more of a fill in the lower mid-range and bass. It was a very nice difference, as this made the LCD-3 sound more "mean".
Although the LCD-3 got substantially closer than the LCD-2 to unseating the AD2K as my favorite headphone (disturbingly close, actually), it failed mostly because it just didn't have the AD2K's forward-moving insistent sound that I've gotten used to. If the LCD-3 had that elusive quality from the AD2K, that would probably be my ideal headphone - or to put it another way, if the AD2K had the LCD-3's bass, that'd be my ultimate electronica/rock/metal headphone, period.
I really enjoyed my short time with the LCD-3. So much that I actually kinda miss it a little bit now (sold it just after my 4th week with the headphones). It kicked serious ass on especially electronic, industrial, and metal music.
Some might ask why I sold both the LCD-2 r2 and LCD-3. There were two major reasons: (1) Neither of them were very comfortable to wear and exerted too much clamping pressure, and (2) Neither of them sonically offered much beyond the AD2K or HD800 for my music preferences while downright detracting my enjoyment in certain ways (lack of forward-moving insistence versus the AD2K, lack of treble versus the HD800) and as a dynamic counterpart to my electrostatic system it wasn't remotely good enough. For all the times I tried listening to music I would've otherwise used my electrostatic system for, I couldn't get past the LCD-3's sub-standard portrayal.
I think anyone seeking more high-end options than the LCD-2 should seriously consider an electrostatic system instead of the LCD-3, like an SR-007 & KGSS, or just not bother upgrading at all. For me personally, I can easily get just about all of the LCD-3 enjoyment through my Audio-Technica AD2K instead, which is ~25% the cost. I do admittedly miss the heavy bass and extreme tactility of the LCD-3 now, but the AD2K is awesome in its own way. My current headphone system comprised of the balanced AD2K and HD800 plus the SR-007 & BHSE, with the JH13 IEMs thrown in for good measure, meets my preferences just about perfectly for every music type that I listen to. I can live without the LCD-3, but that doesn't mean I didn't think it was awesome - it was, but it was also a severe let-down to me at the same time. Despite that, the LCD-3 easily earned a place on my personal above-average headphone ranking, which also includes the HD800, T1, LCD-2 (r1/r2), and Grado HP1000, but for me it's too bad it couldn't transcend to my excellent ranking, which includes the SR-007, Qualia 010, and JH13 (IEMs).
As highly as I thought of the LCD-3 in certain aspects, at the same time I thought it was very mediocre too. It took some steps forward from the LCD-2 - wider & deeper soundstaging, fuller mid-range contributing to increased tactility; but it made no progress at all in other aspects including scale, dynamic range, and clarity. As awesome as it was for the music types mentioned above, it didn't sound like the improvement it should have been over the LCD-2 at approximately twice the price, and for that I can't recommend it for any kind of critical listeners who'd be expecting the LCD-3 to be "better" than the LCD-2.
- HeadAmp KGSS vs BHSE mini-review: http://www.head-fi.org/t/566419/mini-review-headamp-kgss-vs-blue-hawaii-se
- LCD-2 multi-way review: 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
- Audio-Technica AD2K 5-year re-review: http://www.head-fi.org/t/574882/5-year-re-review-audio-technica-ath-ad2000
- Beyerdynamic T1 vs Senn HD800 review: http://www.head-fi.org/t/511201/review-beyerdynamic-t1-vs-sennheiser-hd800
- Schiit Lyr mini-review: http://www.head-fi.org/t/580636/mini-review-schiit-lyr