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Headphones item created by Trogdor, Sep 10, 2017
Pros - Full size reference level sound size in IEM package!
Cons - Plastic hooks, doesn't isolate, needs a solid amp
When Audeze introduced their iSine series about a year ago, there were actually three different models announced: the i10, the i20, and the LCDi3. Most of you however, probably remember reading only about the i10 and i20 since those pairs were the only ones in actual production and ready for review. I myself reviewed both pairs and to make a really long story short, walked away considerably impressed. Not only do both models outperform most IEMs in their class, but rival many full sized headphones too.
Fast forward to today: Audeze just recently announced they are finally shipping their LCDi reference model, now renamed the LCDi4. And by "reference", I'm talking about $2499 worth of reference, a relatively unheard asking price for a pair of universal IEMs outside of a few esoteric, boutique brands. So given all of the above, you are probably asking yourself: Is the LCDi4 really worth its asking price? Does it sound anything like its big sibling? And are they really worth almost four times the i20's asking price? Good questions.
Reference Level Performance
In terms of performance, Audeze claims the i4 gives a flat bass response from 900Hz all the way down to an earth shattering 5Hz! On the flip side, they are also capable of reproducing frequencies up to 50kHz. But here's the real kicker, and this is key: It does all of this using a single driver. Why is this important?
Most high-end, ultra-expensive IEMs use a multi-driver design; vendors typically stuff a dozen or more tiny balanced armature drivers in a shell and then work diligently to get their crossovers in sync while still keeping everything in phase. It is very difficult to get right, and the truth is most really don't. One of the big advantages with Audeze's iSine design is that there are no crazy crossover schemes or half a dozen (or more) drivers to keep track of. The iSine acts and sounds like a full sized headphone all within the confines of an IEM-like form factor. Pretty amazing if you think about it.
Note that the LCDi3 was renamed to the "4" since the majority of technologies contained within were developed first for its full-sized counterpart, the LCD-4. In fact, it shares the same proprietary film used to make the transducers in the LCD-4 as well as its patented Fluxor and Uniform voice coil technologies. In addition, the i4 is hand assembled with both sides matched to within +/- 1dB of each other. Again, when the drivers are placed this close to your ear drums, keeping all that sonic brouhaha in phase becomes paramount if you want reference level performance, and the i4 is clearly up for the task (at least on paper).
Fit and Finish
As you can see, the overall design of the i4 is similar to the i20, featuring a handsome golden mesh grill enclosed in a black inner hexagonal shell. What's also particularly nice is the upgraded cable Audeze ships with every pair of i4, which features premium made, braided silver-lined OCC copper with Kevlar threads. Slow down killer, it's not that I think this cable will make the i4 sound any better; but it is rugged, and doesn't easily get tied into knots. That's something I can't say about the i20's cable, which though is somewhat tangle proof, can still get itself into trouble from time to time stuffed into that pouch.
Speaking of which, the leather pouch that comes with the i4 is a nice upgrade over its little sibling's packaging. However, it still doesn't address my original gripe with the pouch design which is durability. I would be hard pressed to zonk the i4's pouch in a backpack knowing full well they could get minimally damaged, and most likely crushed, during any kind of significant impact. As you can see, the same is not true for my Roxanne's case made out of carbon fiber.
I also have another gripe with the iSine series and now particularly with the i4: the hooks. In it themselves, they work well for the most part and are certainly good enough for government work. However, with the i4 fetching a boutique price tag, I strongly feel Audeze needs to do better in this department. First off, they are plastic and will break. Period. The hooks that came with my i20 review unit broke after several months of light use and I see no reason why the i4's iteration of them will be any different. Secondly, they are plastic. Surely a more exotic material such as carbon fiber, both for its ruggedness and exclusivity, would better serve the i4 given its price point. Finally, you can lose them. I've had the hooks fall out of the pouch several times while taking them out. Just make sure you have a spare set of hooks stashed away somewhere in case you one because you will.
In terms of comfort, the i4 weighs in at a paltry 12g and almost feels non-existent once you match hook to ear. And this is where the use of plastic for the sound ports I believe was ultimately the right move. The form factor for these is unquestionable atypical, and weight does matter. Moreover, trying to shell a planar magnetic in exotic materials could lead to other unforeseen issues. Put simply, this shell design worked swimmingly well for the i20s, so I don't blame Audeze for re-using it for the i4s.
With all that said, I do empathize with some of the Head-Fi crowd grumbling that the i4's magnesium shell could be a bit more snazzy instead of being so utilitarian. Ultimately, you have to judge for yourself what's more important to you: the fact that are in a plastic housing or that they sound phenomenal despite it?
An All Juice Diet
Another aspect of i4's design is that unlike other portable headphones and IEMS, they need juice - the more the better. With a full-sized impedance rating of 35 ohms and the ability to handle up to three glorious watts of output power, don't expect much from your i4 out of most smart devices and mainstream DAPs. For example, plugging the i4 into my Pixel yielded a pleasant but clearly muted sound.
However, the i4 does sound glorious through the Chord Mojo as well as the Schiit Jotunheim and iFi Audio's micro iDSD. So again, don't be shy about plugging these into full-sized desktop amps. They will thrive when you do so. I actually did the bulk of my listening through the Mojo at work and the iCan Pro at home. Just to give you a sense of how power hungry the i4s really are, I had to flip the gain switch on the iCan Pro's single-ended 3.5mm output to get the volume to a comfortable listening level. Again, their headphones not IEMs, and need to be treated as such.
Let me get this off my chest right now: The i4's are by far and wide the greatest sounding pair of headphones for their size I have ever heard. Think all of the fantastic transparency you get out of a traditional IEM or CIEM but layer on top of that gobs of deep and tight bass, a silky lush midrange, and finally, a planar with treble that is nothing to sneeze it. However, repeat after me, "Their headphones. Not IEMs. Headphones." Yes, they do fit in the ear so that technically makes them an IEM but Audeze is very clear that the iSine series are really a type of in-ear headphone because they don't offer the same kind of isolation performance as your typical IEM, and the i4 is no different. So trying to compare them to my Roxanne's or some other high-end IEM is frankly not a fair comparison.
In fact, it is this taxonomic distinction that has a lot to do with how the LCDi4 is priced: Audeze believes that the LCDi4 can replace many full sized headphones and in fact be the only pair of reference headphones you'll ever need. And after many weeks with them as my go to, I believe that is not too far from the mark. Most of my listening had me switching back and forth between a pair of Focal Utopias, the i20, and the i4, all through the iCan Pro and Mojo.
If Australia's Voyager were not based in the Land Down Under, I think they would be bonafide rock stars. Regardless, they are in my book one of the best progressive metal bands on the planet and their latest, entitled Ghost Mile, is nothing sort of superb. If you haven't heard of Voyager, I highly recommend perusing Steel Druhm's excellent review of their latest over on Angry Metal Guy as a primer.
Switching back and forth between the i20 and i4, one thing became abundantly apparent: The i4 does everything the i20 does but better, faster, and smoother. If you thought bass was deep on the i20, it pales in comparison to the i4. For example, when the kicks come in during the opening of the track "Misery Is Only Company," your whole body feels it through the i4. It's a very visceral and immediate response, and I am absolutely convinced now that Audeze's claim of the i4 being flat all the way down to 5Hz is spot on. Same is also true with the its transient response; if you thought the i20s were fast, you haven't heard fast. Take for instance the track "Lifeline," where the drummer is riding the hats quickly while a competing bass line is vying for your ears attention. The i4's transparency is not only in a different league than the i20 but is on par if not even faster than the Utopia (not shocking given it's form factor and thus the amount of air the i4 has to move). And then there is the song "What A Wonderful Day," where the band sounds down right electric on the i4 as opposed to the i20.
Meet this year's Surgical Steel. Akercocke's comeback record absolutely lives up to the hype, and will no doubt land on many a year end list. I've written about them before, but if you still haven't yet discovered literally the UK's best kept secret, then their latest release, entitled Renaissance in Extremis, is a fine place to start.
Most of my time was spent between the i4 and the Utopia. Both offer plenty of bass, with the i4 doing a better job overall of rocking your socks off. Where things get interesting is in the midrange, and this is where one's definition of "reference" can make or break the i4. I found the i4's midrange to be a lot warmer and downright lush at times compared to the Utopia, which tends to be more neutral and in-line of what my ears expect. I suspect a bit of EQ on the i4 side could tame some of that midrange fuzz if you so choose but the lushness is hard to argue with at times. In terms of soundstage though, the Utopia still sounds bigger than the i4, which again is not surprising given their respective form factors.
Perturbator is going down as one of, it not my favorite electronic artist of all-time. Everything this Frenchman touches is pure gold. And though his medium of choice is dark synthwave, he composes some of the most aggressive sounding music on the planet. His latest, a surprise EP entitled "New Model," also marks a stylistic departurea as well, eschewing the fast and furious style compositions for a more atmospheric and in many respects, darker approach. And like most metal, Perturbator likes his music heavily compressed, typically clocking in the sub-DR4 territory, i.e. perfect review material fodder.
In some ways, the i4 offers a richer experience albeit a less accurate one. Both the Utopia and the i4 are insanely fast, with again a nod to the i4. However, the Utopia's more balanced approach allows the music to breath more and thus keep a track like "Tainted Empire" from spiraling out of sonic control. Though I must admit the bass out of the i4 is really astonishing, and will get your head nodding instantly. If I listened to mostly hip-hop and electronica, the i4 would win every time on this aspect along.
The LCDi4 in many respects may very well be Audeze's greatest achievement to date. And though the i4 is not a true replacement for a top tier can like the Utopia, or for that matter its bigger brother, the LCD-4, it is within striking distance, which is why I feel its current value proposition is more than justified given its level of performance. What is most astonishing to me is that the i4 offers a robust, lush sound all delivered through a soundstage that I thought not possible in a headphone of this size. And if you are an existing iSine user, start saving pennies. The i4 is a huge leap above its siblings.
But bare in mind that you really need a meaty amp to drive these puppies in order to maximize their potential which does limit their portability. And although I feel the hook mechanism is their weakest link, they do work. In fact, if I had to live with only one pair of headphones that I could carry around with me wherever I go, the LCDi4 would be it. That's why it easily earns our top honors.