- Oct 15, 2008
- Audeze LCD-3
- Impedance: 110ohms
- Sensitivity: 101dB/1mW
- 1mW required for 100dB
- Weight: 635g/22.4oz
- Focal Clear
- Impedance: 55ohms
- Sensitivity: 104dB/1mW
- 1mW required for 100dB
- Weight: 450g/15.9oz
- HIFIMAN Arya
- Impedance: 35ohms
- Sensitivity: 90dB/1mW
- 10mW required for 100dB
- Weight: 404g/14.3oz
- HEDD HEDDphone
- Impedance: 42ohms
- Sensitivity: 87dB/1mW
- 20mW for 100dB
- Weight: 718g/25.3oz
I am a 61-year-old male. I suffer from tinnitus that for me is a slightly warbling tone centered at about 11,500Hz. It can range from quite loud but not overly bothersome to barely noticeable. I have some hearing loss in my right ear as compared to my left and my hearing range in both is 20Hz to 16,000Hz. I have a large head (7⅝ hat size) and rather large ears. I cannot tell the difference between a 320kbps MP3 and a 16bit 44.1kHz FLAC ripped from the same source. I also cannot reliably identify distortion at -33dB and below on the Klippel listening test. Lastly, I like the Harmon target curve and prefer my headphones EQed. That said I believe I have a discerning ear.
The songs I used for this review are all FLAC:
- Anette Askvik – Liberty – Liberty (24bit 48kHz Download)
- Sarah McLachlan – Surfacing – I Love You (16bit 44.1kHz CD rip)
- Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go – Bad Guy (16bit 44.1kHz CD rip)
- Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms – Brothers in Arms (24bit 44.1kHz XRCD rip)
- Supertramp – Crime of The Century – Crime of The Century (24bit 192kHz Blu-Ray rip)
- Led Zeppelin – IV – Stairway to Heaven (16bit 44.1kHz CD rip)
- Nickel Creek – Nickel Creek – Reasons Why (16bit 44.1kHz CD rip)
- Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman – Fast Car (16bit 44.1kHz CD rip)
- Natalie Merchant – Ophelia – When They Ring The Golden Bells (16buit 44.1kHz CD rip)
These headphones were all listened to using the unbalanced 6.3mm/¼" output of my Topping DX7 Pro DAC / headphone amplifier set to high gain. It is connected via USB to a 2GB Raspberry Pi 4 running piCorePlayer which is connected via a Linksys Velop Wi-Fi mesh network to Linksys Media Server running on my Synology DS918+ NAS. I used the unblalanced cables that came with the Arya and HEDDphone and a NewFantasia 6.3mm to 4-pin XLR adapter on the LCD-3 and Clear balanced cables.
The Audeze LCD-3 headphones were the first of these I purchased. I bought them used and one of the earcups had a crack in it. I sent them in to Audeze to be repaired. They replaced the earcups and pads for $350. They also replaced the drivers under warranty; when they measured them, they said they were out of balance. Great customer service. I love the look of them. The wood is absolutely gorgeous. The headphones are heavy but not too heavy for me. They are very comfortable. The clamping force is a little too tight but not uncomfortably so. There is plenty of room for my ears inside the round pads. They seem to be built very well but at the same time also seem somewhat fragile. They are definitely something you want to keep a firm grip on. The 1.9m/6.2ft stock 4-pin XLR balanced cable is braided 20AWG wire and a little flimsy but works well enough; it has nice metal connectors on both ends. They come with a very sturdy, padded Pelican case style travel case.
The Focal Clear are works of modern art in comparison to the rustic Audeze look. They are built very well and feel substantial in your hands. I bought them used from somebody who owned them all of two months before they replaced them with Focal Utopias. When they arrived, there was a screw loose inside one of the drive units. This seems to be a common problem with Clears. I opened it up, found the screw and put it back together. They are a bit smallish but fit nice although they are a little tight. My earlobe touches the inside of the oval pads. They seem very well built and don’t seem at all fragile. The 3m/9.8ft stock 4-pin XLR balanced cable is very sturdy but finicky in the way it lays; it has nice metal connectors on both ends. They come with a nicely designed travel case.
The HIFIMAN Arya look modern but plain. The stamped thin metal, black plastic and thin pads do not look like $1600 headphones and they’re so light they feel like toys, especially compared to the other headphones. They do not feel like they would stand up to much abuse. I bought these open-box directly from HIFIMAN. They have barely enough clamping force to keep them on my head but are very comfortable. There is a lot of room inside the ear shaped pads. The 1.5m/4.9ft stock 6.3mm/¼” unbalanced cable is short but flexible and has a cheapish molded plastic plug on the amp end. They did not come with a case.
The HEDD HEDDphone is a substantial piece of industrial art. They are big and heavy and have rectangular earcups and pads. The inside of the pads are surprisingly small for how large the headphones are; my earlobes touch the inside of the pad as they did in the Clears. The clamping force is lighter than in the LCD-3 but enough to keep them in one place as long as I didn't move my head too quickly. They are comfortable. There is a disconcerting crinkly sound coming from the drivers when you put them on and adjust them but reading about these it seems that this noise is normal. The 2.2m/7.2ft stock 6.3mm/¼” unbalanced braided cable is plenty long, covered in TechFlex and has nice metal connectors on both ends. They did not come with a case.
I listened to all 9 songs while swapping between headphones. So the first song on each headphone, then the next, etc. The HEDD HEDDphones were late to the game so I listened to them without EQ separately with some reference checks against the other three. I level matched the headphones using the calculated mW required to reach 100dB in the specs above. I used pink noise to check level matching by ear. I know this method is not 100% accurate but I think it got me close enough so that volume was not a factor in my evaluation. I listened to the Audeze and Focal headphones with the volume set to -15.0dB, the HIFIMAN with it set to -5.0dB, and the HEDD set to -8.0dB. I found the HEDDphones considerably louder than the impedance and sensitivity calculations indicated.
These are my unedited notes taken while listening to the 9 songs listed above:
- LCD a little more laid back. Nice tonality. Clear punchier mid-bass and more air in highs. Very low bass tone under singing less pronounced. Arya nice tonality. Highs are more pronounced while low bass tone under singing closer to LCD than Clear. Slightly brittle top end. HEDD beautiful clear airy treble. Zero brightness or sibilance. Bass is strong. Very nice tonality.
- Arya nice bass, high whisper a little sharp. Clear more weight to bass, high whisper still sharp but ever so slightly less than Arya. Soundstage is larger. More body in acoustic guitar. LCD nice bass weight, less than Clear, more than Arya. Much less sharp top end. Acoustic guitar almost matches Clear. HEDD less bass weight than others. Treble slightly sharp, almost too much.
- Clear nice mid and low bass, great finger snaps. Sensual, intimate right ear whisper. Nice. Arya mid-bass lacking, low bass good, sharp finger snaps. Missed whisper. Collapsed soundstage. Nice percussion. LCD excellent mid and low bass. Dull finger snaps. Soundstage is back. This song is what made me love the LCDs. HEDD is doing things right. Good bass except the lowest notes, sharp finger snaps. Huge soundstage.
- LCD nice weight to rolling thunder. Excellent guitar and vocal tone. Beautiful guitar midrange. Nice rim shots. Arya good weight to thunder. Picky guitar but weighty vocals. Nice cymbals but almost painful rim shots. Keyboards forward. Clear great weight on thunder. Great guitar and vocals. Perfect rim shots and beautiful guitars. The Clears shine on this recording. HEDD striking clarity. Really good thunder, great vocals, forward, edgy guitars, nice rim shots.
- Arya sounds small. Distortion in drum strikes. Piano and strings are nice. Cymbals emphasized. Lacking bass weight. Ending is a muddy jumbled mess. LCD opens up the soundstage. Distortion some are actually doubled strikes, some in the recording. Piano is excellent, strings and cymbals very nice. Instruments nicely separated. Clear has open soundstage. Drum distortion sounds like drum membrane flex. Nice decay. Excellent piano, strings and sax. Clearly separated instruments. HEDD piano is excellent. Clear drums. Midrange is too forward making bass sound weak. Nice instrument separation.
- Clear nice balance between acoustic guitar, flute and Robert Plant’s vocals. Page’s guitar is perfect and Jone’s bass work stands out nicely. Bonham’s drums have the right thwack. The Clears seem to do most everything right with seemingly no weaknesses. LCD seems to better separate acoustic guitar, flute and vocals. Bass guitar slightly more emphasized than standard guitar. Excellent drum thwack. Instruments better separated. Fast drumming near end slightly better than Clear. LCD very, very close to Clears. Arya beginning more intimate. Very nice blending of guitars and keyboards. Drums and cymbals nicely emphasized. Holds up better here than on Crime of the Century. Arya surprised on Stairway but still seems to fall short of the Clear and LCD overall. HEDD nice balance between guitar, flute and vocals. Bass guitar is too quiet compared to guitar. Fast drumming seemed a little muted.
- LCD stand-up bass has nice weight. Mandolin and voices sound natural with no sibilance. Guitar wood body is palpable. Clear bass has slightly more weight. Soundstage more intimate. Mandolin, guitar and voices all sound natural with perhaps a slight treble boost when compared to the LCD. Arya bass has good weight, similar to LCD. Mandolin and voices nice and forward. Ever so slight brightness approaching sibilance. HEDD standup bass is very clear, vocals and mandolin are sweet. The HEDDphones and their clear airy treble shine on this acoustic song.
- Arya beautifully intimate. Nice thwack to the drums. Bass is quiet under the guitar and vocals. Clear all around better weight. More air/reverb in voice. Bass closer to guitar in weight. More weight in drums. LCD is again more open. More room ambiance/reverb in vocals. Guitars and bass have good balance. Less snare in drums. This is a good song to show the differences between these headphones. HEDD even more open and airy than LCD. Guitars forward, vocals recessed. Nice snare drums.
- LCD Natalie is in my head. All instruments are clearly separate yet blend beautifully. Palpable body and weight to string instruments in second part of song. Hauntingly beautiful. Clear has beautiful tonality. The soundstage seems smaller, more intimate than with the LCD. Better deep bass. More body and weight, instruments sound clearer. Even more haunting. Arya more immediate, brighter, slightly grating. I hear the musicians breathing. Emphasized treble. Brightness makes this passage less haunting but still beautiful. HEDD oh my, Natalie has never sounded better. Nice bass. HEDD realize the ending of this song better than any of these headphones. Wow!
The Audeze LCD-3 and Focal Clears are very, very close, too close to choose a definitive winner. They each do some things very right and neither has any clear faults. The LCD has outstanding soundstage and instrument separation while the Clears have better tonal accuracy and overall instrument balance. The HEDD HEDDphones are also very close. They have amazing openness and air but are too forward in the low to middle midrange to be the winner. Their tonality and soundstage are excellent. In some ways they are the best of the bunch. Let’s see how they do with EQ. The HIFIMAN Arya are also close and do some things right but they are a definite fourth in this group. They seem a little bright in the top end and can become muddy in louder complex musical passages.
I use SOX on the LMS by editing the convert.conf file to implement EQ in my system. Because I need to stop LMS, edit convert.conf, then restart LMS, listening to one song on each headphone as I did without EQ was out of the question. So I listened to all 9 songs on one headphone, then moved to the next, etc. Because of this I listened to them as I would normally listen to headphones; i.e., using the balanced connection when I could and playing with the volume.
These are my unedited notes taken while listening to the each of the 4 headphones listed above:
- Sparkly highs, nice bass, good tonal balance.
- Still a little sharp at times, bass good but a little monotone.
- Much better. Stronger bass, caught whisper, nice crisp percussion.
- Nice thunder. Good guitar and vocal. Toned down rim shots. Better balance.
- Drums lacking and still distorted. Piano ok. Muddiness cleaned up some.
- Acoustic guitar forward, then vocals, flute distant. Vocals more forward, bass guitar too quiet. Bonham’s drums a little nasty. Track was better unEQed.
- Acoustic guitar, stand-up bass, female vocals and mandolin all improved. Sibilance gone.
- One note stands out. Weighty drums.
- Instruments very forward, vocals nice but a little recessed at times. Nice bass weight. Ending nicely balanced.
In one word: Polite.
- Very nice bass and midrange with excellent balance and tonality. Nice soundstage. Really nice weight.
- Good weight to bass, but not planar quality. No sibilance.
- Nice thumping bass. Billie is whispering in my ears. Soundstage a bit closed in. Bass tickles my ears but sounds overdriven.
- Best thunder? Vocal, guitar, bass and drum better balanced. This song is best on these headphones. Mark knows how to make his guitar sing. Just beautiful.
- Everything sounds good, vocals, piano, guitars, sax and drums. Very competent.
- Very nice balance at beginning. A little bright. Excellent guitars, drums and vocals. Hold up well to drum flurry. They rock!
- Nice intimate group, vocals, standup bass, mandolin and guitar are all nicely rendered. Sounds like I’m listening to headphones.
- Very close to HEDD. Really nice instruments and vocals. One note almost as noticeable as on Arya.
- Thoroughly enjoyable headphones but they don’t disappear like the others. Strong bass and cool vocals. Again, very competent.
In one word: Clear.
- Strong bass and excellent midrange. Great treble but not quite as airy as HEDD. Very open soundstage. Great balance and tonality.
- More powerful bass than HEDD. Slight sibilance.
- These are the headphones for bassheads. Bright finger snaps. They tickle your earlobes and make my eardrums itch.
- Thunder is thunderous. Vocals, guitars and drums are nicely balanced. Bass slightly emphasized.
- Nice piano. Very good balance and separation. Clarity not quite at the level of the HEDD.
- Beautiful tonality and body to acoustic guitar, flute and vocals perfectly balanced. Excellent electric guitar and drums. Nice attack. Holds up best to drum flurry.
- Very nice. All instruments sound nice. Good balance. Standup bass is strong.
- Very nice tonal balance between vocals, guitar and bass. One note seems more noticeable but not as much as on Arya.
- Nice balance with bass emphasis. These headphones made me fall in love with the end of this song. Very strong bass weight with beautiful tonality across the spectrum.
In one word: Powerful.
- These are very special headphones. The clarity, speed, soundstage and tonality are all excellent.
- Bass notes nicely differentiated, not as powerful as LCD. Treble is clear and airy.
- Vocal and instrument separation are exemplary. Whisper brought goosebumps. Bass is there but just below the quality of the LCD.
- EQ has nicely tamed the midrange. Vocals, guitars, bass and drums nicely balanced.
- Piano sounds like a piano. Very nice balance and separation. Very clear, no muddiness at all.
- Beautiful tonality and body to acoustic guitar, flute and vocals perfectly balanced. Bass guitar and drums are perfect. You can hear the drum flurry is clipped in the recording. These are ****ing amazing headphones. The clarity is mind blowing.
- Very intimate. Instrument timbre is perfect - standup bass, mandolin, acoustic guitar all sound like real instruments.
- One note repeated through song is not emphasized as it was on the Arya. Love Tracy’s vocals.
- Natalie’s vocals are nicely balanced with instruments. Even better. Goosebumps again.
In one word: Special.
Without EQ I would rate these headphones thusly:
- Audeze LCD-3 & Focal Clear (tie)
- HEDD HEDDphone
- HIFIMAN Arya
- Audeze LCD-3
- HEDD HEDDphone & Focal Clear (tie)
- HIFIMAN Arya
Before I get into my rankings I want to say that all four of these headphones are very, very good. None do anything really wrong and anyone buying any of them would be happy with their purchase. It is only upon close scrutiny in a test like this that differences and preferences arise. This ranking is my personal preference - your preference may differ.
Fourth Place: HIFIMAN Arya
This Arya does nothing really wrong, they are just not in the same league as the other three with regard to build quality. Sound wise they are a bit closer but still not quite there in comparison with the others. Unequalized they are a bit bright and lack low bass. Equalization improves them considerably but I found they could get muddy in complex or loud passages.
Before moving on I compared my three favorites playing a 2.82MHz DSD of Boston’s More Than A Feeling because I have 358 DSD albums and they cannot be EQed. The HEDD sounded very nice, polite with excellent guitars. The LCD rocked with sublime power. The Clears had nice power too but the guitars were overly bright.
Third Place: Focal Clear
The Clear are excellent dynamic headphones. When equalized their tonality and balance are very good. They have strong bass and very good midrange and treble. Their soundstage was a little closed in compared to the others. Unequalized I found them painfully bright on Boston's More Than A Feeling. The Clears are a great headphone but the must be equalized to get the most out of them. They are also the only headphone of the four that did not disappear - I could always tell I was listening to a headphone.
Second Place: HEDD HEDDphone
This was very, very difficult. The HEDDphone is incredibly open and airy. I could not believe a headphone could sound so much like a pair of speakers. They do things with female vocals and instruments that are uncanny. I loved the sense of body to instruments, the air they bring to vocals and the substance they impart to drums. Their only lack was sheer slam. I tried playing around with the EQ but could not get them to give me the oomph I got from the LCD-3. Both the HEDDphone and LCD-3 have huge open soundtages but can sound very intimate when the recording is intimate. I could easily live with these headphones without regret.
First Place and the Winner: Audeze LCD-3
This brings me to the LCD-3. First, they just sound right without equalization. They do nothing wrong and are missing only the sweetness in the upper midrange and lower treble that the HEDD has in spades. Equalized they just amaze. They seem to do no wrong. When I think the HEDDphones or Clears are better I put on the LCD-3's and find I was imagining things. They are that good. I think the thing I like the most about the Audeze LCD-3 is that they sound very much like my Von Schweikert VR4 Gen III HSE speakers and I love my speakers. The LCD-3 rock when you want to rock and can be nuanced and subtle when you want nuance and subtlety. They are utterly amazing headphones and are my end game.