Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
My philosophy regarding audio gear has always been to buy the best I could afford and sell the rest to fund that purchase. This philosophy extends to any items of quality; watch, television, computer, even non-technical items such as musical instruments, furniture, pens, etc. Items I purchase are those I find that mix the highest quality with a minimum of diminishing returns. If it is an item I can't currently afford, I will patiently save up until I get it. I do not compromise and purchase a cheaper option in all but the rarest cases. I live life on a cash only basis, so I have no credit cards and currently owe no money to anyone, and thus I carefully consider exactly where my money is going when I make purchases. In that vein, I am probably one of the most boring people on the planet because I am logical to a fault. My highly analytical nature has benefits when it comes to judging audio, but I have problems getting past this phase and into enjoying the music. I consider myself what I define as a true audiophile, someone who is obsessed with quality of audio of any kind. I am not a music lover. For me, music is a tool to judge gear, and to enjoy when I can. You might be thinking 'poor guy, can't enjoy his music', but this isn't it at all. My thrills come from hearing what the gear is capable of, responding to all of these different combinations of instruments and effects. There are certainly times where I kick back and just listen to the music, but this isn't regular. I could say I feel sorry for those who are music lovers but don't really enjoy the fine details of sound production, but I realize everyone has their own approach, so please understand my perspective, but don't judge or pity me because of it. I'm still the only person I know of who goes to Head-fi meets with a notebook and pen and takes notes for every rig he listens to. Analytical listener or not, I still don't understand why people don't do this.
My priorities are center focus by far the most important. What does that mean? When a singer is present, the voice should be directly in front at a 12 o'clock position if you were standing on the face of a clock. It should never sound like it is coming from a range of 11 to 1, which I call fuzzy to varying degrees, and absolutely should never come from both 10 and 2 with a gap in the middle. This is horribly distracting and I cannot listen to the rig even if everything else is touched by God himself. Next is the balance of the spectrum and if it is seamless or not. This is somewhat personal taste in how much of what I want, but it being seamless is not. One range should not bleed into the next or overpower to the extent where it completely covers another. Far lower in the priority are things like texture, bass presence, extension, detail, soundstage depth and width, and imaging (excepting center focus, which is technically a part of imaging, but I make a special category). These last several are not in any particular order, but are much less important than the first two.
To see further examples of my preferences, click the links in my signature for reference headphones you can use to align yourself to my judgments.
Welcome to my second review on Head-fi. My previous was a shootout of 4 mid-fi cans. This time I've moved up to the very tip top of mid-fi and into summit-fi. These two cans are some of the most popular on this site, and typically end up being companion headphones, where the owner keeps one of each to have well performing headphones with different presentations and signatures. This is my take on how these headphones compare and contrast. At this level of performance I expect excellent extension from 20-20k and good to great clarity and great to excellent speed. Claps should be crisp and with good resonance. Bass should be full, but controlled while treble should be smooth with little to no sibilance and a good amount of 'air' should be detectable. Imaging should be pin point precise. Build quality should be the best available with high quality materials and perfectly fitting joints. Headphones of this level should be comfortable, though there are some wonky designs once you start getting into price-isn't-that-important territory. Some headphones in this range are intentionally aimed at certain genres such as the AudioTechnica 3000, or the Ultrasone Edition 10 so I won't be expecting as wide an acceptable genre compatibility as in my previous review. Also unlike my previous review, the winner will not be decided by which is the cumulative best via points or anything like that. This is a simple 2 headphone comparison and my favorite will be the winner.
Rotel RDD-980 Transport > Coaxial > Schiit Gungnir > Balanced silver XLR > Bryston BHA-1 in balanced mode, low gain.
Brief notes about gear used: The Rotel transport uses a quality Philips mechanism. The Schiit Gungnir is a quality upper-mid-fi DAC that has proven to be quite neutral and spacious if a bit boring and flat. The BHA-1 is a tank of an amp with very high build quality and sound to match. It is powerful, smooth, and airy. Some consider it slightly bright, though I think it fairly neutral. There are only a few solid state amps I have been told that can compete with or beat the BHA-1 and all of them are more expensive, and/or require DIY. This combination of DAC and amp are very much in line with the headphones being tested.
Audeze LCD-2 Rev. 2 (2.5)
The headphone that started the planar magnetic revival en masse, the LCD-2, was an instant hit, selling in quantities Audeze could not keep up with. I'll spare you the history, but suffice it to say, the LCD-2 has had some problems along the way, but that seems to be fixed for the most part. This latest version is the most robust and consistent and anyone ordering one, should expect to have zero issues. Build quality has improved dramatically from the very first LCD-2 including headband and adjustment block redesigns. I rate the build of this version as very good. The materials are sturdy, parts fit together perfectly, adjustments are stiff, but doable when you want. Just looking at the headphone you see the product of many iterations and refinement of the crafting and assembly process.
The headphone can be a bit tricky to get adjusted correctly at first. My first try led to me having the cups extended all the way, which lead to high pressure under my ear on my neck giving me earaches. I then moved the cups slowly the other direction until I found out the smallest adjustment actually felt very good. After a day or two, I realized the headband was putting too much pressure on the top of my head and it was becoming sore. I increased the adjusters by 2 points and have found a good mix of headband and pad pressure to where I can wear them problem free for hours.
I opted for the XLR stock cable which is your standard rubbery, flexible cable with a Neutrik 4 pin connection that is very easy to plug in, much easier than the Switchcraft on my HD800 aftermarket cable. The cable is longer than I need, but not too annoying. The mini-XLR connections at the headphone side are also remarkably easy to connect and disconnect. I do wish they had figured out how to position them differently though as when I take them off my head and lay them down, I have to first turn them around so that the XLR jacks are pointing up instead of laying on the surface putting bending pressure on the cables. A minor annoyance, but one I find myself having to constantly remember to do. The standard case is a plastic travel case with form fit foam. I opted for the wooden box via an anonymous retailer. I store my headphones on my desk ready to play at a moments notice. The travel case is ill suited for my use. The wooden box is elegant and opens easily. Exactly what I wanted. Also included is a care kit for the wood, and for those with leather pads, a leather care kit (I chose vegan). Things I would see improved would be the more easily available choice of travel case and wooden box direct from Audeze and inclusion of both XLR and 1/4 cables, not one or the other. These options and inclusions are standard for the double priced LCD-3.
The LCD-2 has body, but perhaps too much. The sound is thick, weighty, while still being nimble. A big beefy linebacker comes to mind when I think of the LCD-2. The treble roll off is still evident even when trying to balance with a neutral to slightly bright amp/DAC combination. The mids are as good as it gets. Very natural and smooth. The soundstage is disjointed, at times seeming rather large, and it can sound extremely small too, but most alarmingly.. this often happens at the same time. Listening to a rock group I hear drums and guitars on my immediate left and right, but the vocals that are in the center seem pushed far back. The center focus in this setup is not bad, but fuzzy enough to make determining a point of origin impossible. Vocals come out of a cloud, it seems, while things on my immediate left and right are easily located and come through clearly. This happens in orchestral pieces where the instruments seated in the center are indistinct and the violins and cellos on the left and right are clear as a bell. Imaging, thus, is very good on the sides, but imprecise in the center.
The smooth nature of it's treble makes it more forgiving on bad recordings, but I find the LCD-2 resolving enough to show most of the flaws, it just doesn't highlight them. Even on this rolled off treble, harsh, bad recordings are still not very palatable. Don't buy these expecting to use it to cure the mp3-only section of your collection. They will still sound bad, just not as bad. The lack of treble extension leads to lower detail, making things sound less defined and not quite natural. When I first got the LCD-2 I found myself turning up the volume to uncomfortable levels, trying to get the detail I'm used to from the HD800. After a few songs my ears would start feeling sore and I would realize just what I had the volume knob set to. The LCD-2 lacks air in a big way. - The elevated bass level gets on my nerves after a while. It doesn't cover any other areas, but it just feels slightly bloated, tubby even. The bass is clean and well textured, there's just a bit too much of it. Impact is great, tight and focused. It is not as accentuated as I expected though.
The biggest flaw with the sound of the LCD-2 is something I never noticed until I had them in my home. These headphones do not know what dynamics are. It's as if, hidden in the cups, there is a normalization circuit that puts everything on the same volume level. Obviously this is a bit of an exagerration, but not far from true. When there are multiple sound sources playing at the same time, they are all roughly the same volume. This makes listening to solo concertos challenging to say the least. What it also does, is make everything boring. When there is no dynamic contrast everything seems to be on the same plane both in soundstaging and musical importance. When nothing stands out the sound begins to sound like a wall. The LCD-2 is far from a wall of sound, very far, however it is easy to become bored while listening to these headphones. Listening to tracks with heavy bass lines and toe-tappin' beats, I end up just sitting there listening instead of being drawn in and unconsciously tapping my toe or moving my head with the beat.
Despite these, IMO, significant flaws, I do really like these LCD-2s. They do just about everything enough right that they are enjoyable to listen to. I had hoped to have a companion headphone to keep with my HD800, but I think these are just enough off I will continue my search for a companion headphone. If I was forced to only use the LCD-2 from here on, though, I would be very much OK with it.
On the polar opposite, in terms of looks, is the Sennheiser HD800. This is a space age headphone that looks the part. It's driver mechanism is the latest in a long line of refinements to the standard electrodynamic driver. The headphone is light, exceptionally so in comparison to the LCD-2. The pads are large but thin, and are more face-pads than earpads. This design relies on the shape of the cups closely matching your head and the pads simply make the transition comfy. The result is a headphone that applies pressure evenly across a very large area making it almost disappear after you've had it on for a few minutes. There is no other (non-IEM) headphone that is anywhere near as comfortable as the HD800. Adjustment of the headband is easy and secure.
The stock cable is a lumpy bit that is very long, much too long for me, but of all the headphones out there, Sennheisers tend to be the highest percentage being used from across the room in a home theater situation, so I don't begrudge the long cable too much. The connections to the headphone have been known to be stiff to near-impossible to remove the first time. There is a guide that follows a slot that should mean the cable can be pulled straight out, however I was unable to remove the plug of my HD800 with force I would consider safe. Eventually I twisted and wiggled the cable until it came free and now, after a few insertions and removals, it is very easy to change. As frustrating as this can be the first few times, I'm not going to penalize the HD800 for it because most people will simply not ever remove the cable. Those who do, will plug in an aftermarket cable and again never remove it. By the time you may be experimenting with different cables, the socket will have freed up to the point where it is no longer a problem. Also, this is not a widespread problem. There was a brief discussion about this on Head-fi recently where it seemed to be very much a minority issue. Regarding my aftermarket cable, it is simply the cheapest balanced aftermarket cable I could find. For the record it is a solid core silver cable. I did not choose it for it's sound nor do I believe in cable sound differences (yet). I will experiment with cables at some future date, but while my system is continually undergoing changes of hardware, cables are not important.
Cable quibbles aside, the build quality of the headphones is first rate, and has never been worse. This headphone came out of the gate perfect and continues to be. It is one of the most reliable and consistent. Considering there are now over 20,000 pairs in existence and that we have measured pairs in the first 1000 and the last 4000 and found them to be within variation tolerance, this is exceptional. Another interesting thing going for the HD800 is it's ability to be ordered custom painted by Colorware, and at no surcharge over regular MSRP. I personally think the HD800 should have been made in a flat black on all parts but the mesh parts of the cup, so I had mine customized this way. The only thing I would change in the standard build and options (besides black paint!!) is to include a balanced cable (4 pin XLR) in addition to the stock 1/4 jack cable. Sennheiser is now selling their own amps that feature balanced connections, so these cables should be included on ALL of their midrange and up headphones.
As smooth as the LCD-2 sound from their liquidy nature, the HD800 sounds just as smooth from it's much higher resolution. The HD800 is a brighter headphone, not because the bass is shelved down, but because the treble is not rolled off. Detail is available in spades as is soundstage size and imaging precision. This headphone is the soundstage king. Large, natural sounding spaces but with the ability to sound intimate as well. Sounds that slowly come from distance sound as if they literally emerged from thin air. Voices are precisely in the center and going from one side to the other, no instruments of an orchestra sound any less clear.
Bass is excellent on the HD800, with hard hitting impactful bass that avoids any hints of being one-note. Bass volume varies depending on the recording, as it should. You may listen to one band and find the bass too little, then the next album the bass is rattling your teeth. The most exhilarating thing about HD800 bass is that it seems to come from nowhere. It is a primordial bass that just happens. It is the most subwoofer-like bass I've ever heard in a headphone. - This experience with the LCD-2 has been informative in that I now think there may be too much treble energy, but it is really close to perfect. I look forward to trying the Anaxilus mod in it's latest version when ready to see what that does to the overall sound. I still think the HD800 is basically perfect in the treble volume department, but I can recognize how others may be overloaded by it. If you are not a detail oriented listener it will simply cause fatigue. I am an extremely detail oriented listener so this is my bread and butter. I love it.
The HD800 is incredibly dynamic. With multiple sound sources present, they can all be at different volumes and distances. This makes music interesting! Proper sound layering can occur with such traits. I never get bored listening to the HD800 because there is always something drawing my attention. This dynamic ability of the HD800s is what makes the bass so good. By itself the bass would probably be too little in quantity, but when you add the rest of the sounds at their proper dynamic contrast, the bass on these headphones is beastly.
The combination of massive soundstage, high detail, high speed, and coherent side to side imaging make the HD800 a forever headphone for me. I doubt I will find a headphone that wraps all of these together as well. The scary thing is I think these have a long way to go to find their true potential. I am also fond of the Jades (HE90 clone) but they will share similar imaging problems as the LCD-2 due to both of them being planar. I could easily see the Jades as my true companion headphone, Fang just needs to get busy making them again!!
With the LCD-2 I feel that music is being played at me at close range, with the HD800 I feel I am there and music simply exists. I'm drawn in with the HD800 with it's dynamics making things interesting and pushed away by the LCD-2 putting everything at the same level. The speed advantage clearly goes to the HD800, but the LCD-2 is no slouch. I rate the bass in favor of the HD800 in all aspects, including impact (!), which I NEVER expected. Comfort also goes to the HD800 by a landslide. Once adjusted the LCD-2 is fairly comfortable, but it is ever present compared to the HD800 disappearing. Soundstage and imaging is no contest in favor of the HD800. Perhaps the only field where I prefer the LCD-2 is in the midrange where it is truly great. The HD800 can sound a little thin here, but not bad at all.
The HD800 is a world class headphone and will stay in my stable, while the LCD-2 is merely a good headphone and will, unfortunately, be put out to pasture. I could be happy with the LCD-2, it is not bad, but there is better available. The commercial modded planar magnetic headphone market is getting very crowded, and there is a chance of equaling or surpassing the LCD-2 at a lower price point. One advantage the LCD-2 retains over these is fit and finish. It is a beautiful headphone with no flaws and (now after revisions) is likely to be more consistent in sound than the modded planar magnetics. If only the LCD-2 had better dynamics, that might have been enough to keep it as a companion to my HD800, but with all of these flaws added up it just isn't going to work. I can't have a headphone I get bored of listening to. I will continue the search!
Thanks for reading.