- Apr 6, 2011
Battle of the modern Planars: LCD-X vs HE-560 vs PM-1
About your reviewer:
Before we get into the review, I’d like to take this time to offer you more understanding of my background in order to clear up any confusion left by my impressions in the following paragraphs. The Hifiman HE-400 has stayed as my go-to headphone for the last 2 years and has conitnued to do so, even though I EQ its treble down and upper midrange up a tad. I enjoy a very linear and clean, hard hitting bass that extends low, with an upfront and textured lower midrange, and a hint of a laid-back characteristic to the upper midrange, plus a nice, coherent and present treble to give music the definition it needs to sound realistic. I’m not a basshead, soundstage freak nor a neutrality purist, however I can be accepting of a headphone’s general sound if it matches even only a couple of my preferences and has plenty of other redeeming qualities to build upon. Headphones like the Audeze LCD2 I’ve enjoyed, but ultimately didn’t like due to a lack of treble. Headphones like the Beyerdynamic DT990 and Sennheiser HD800 are too cold for my liking. The Sennheiser HD650’s bass is both too tubby sounding and rolled off in the low extreme. The Focal Spirit Professional was actually very good to my ears, with its very neutral but slightly warm tilt, but ultimately didn’t win me over due to comfort issues. The Audeze LCD-XC has been the best headphone I’ve listened to, but it has some major flaws in its hard upper midrange and lack of isolation/comfort. Most of the music I listen to consists of instrumental and orchestral soundtracks, progressive rock, folk, and electronic.
It’s been a great time for the Planar Magnetic headphone. The American Powerhouse Audeze revealed their newest lineup of Planar cans sporting new waveguide technology through the use of their new fazor implementation as introduced on the LCD-X and LCD-XC. Audeze ended up liking their new technology so much that they later implemented the new fazors throughout their entire lineup, to include the LCD-2 and LCD-3 as well. The new fazors give more coherent imaging capabilities to make their LCD planars sound more realitic and open Meanwhile, the Chinese company Hifiman has just recently started producing their newest lineup of Planars sporting single-ended drivers. Trading a hypothetical lack of driver control for lighter weight and more open, resolving sound. Not only did they reduce the weight on their newest models, but they also implemented new headbands utilizing a suspension system similar to the Stax models, which works wonders in dispersing the weight on the top of your head, shattering any preconcieved notions about Planars being heavy and uncomfortable. Hifi component manufacture Oppo stepped into the market with their first take on a high end planar with the PM-1, a headphone sporting many unique features throughout its driver, and a build quality that’s to die for with a supremely rigid feel and high quality aesthetic. Not only is the PM-1 decently light, but also very sensitive as well. With my own funding and thanks to a loaner program on *********, I’m able to bring you guys a (somewhat) short, but concise comparison between these three latest Planar offerings and try to help you on your decision for your next high-dollar headphone. Which one of these will ultimately swing my heart over from my ever-beloved HE-400?
Presentation, Build, and Comfort: LCD-X
When purely taking into consideration first hand impressions of these three packages before even putting them on your head, it’s pretty clear the Hifiman is the cheapest of the three. Both Audeze and Oppo invested a good part of the cost of their headphones into their presentation. The Audeze comes in its usual Pelican-like travel case, which looks both amazingly built and amazingly durable. Truthfully, the travel case was a huge draw to the Audeze line of headphones when I first saw them. The LCD-X drops the classic Audeze wood offerings for a more modern look with an anodized black aluminum ring. Not only does this assure Audeze’s position at the top of the headphone—weight—world, but also it enhances the previous construction and makes the LCD-X a superbly rigid and solidly built headphone. The leather pads of the Audezes have long been my favorites out of any headphone I’ve tried, and the super plushy and graceously huge earpads of the LCD-X continue Audeze’s reign of excellence, putting the earpad offerings of Oppo and Hifiman to shame. However, with all the innovation in their fazor technology, Audeze still fails to disperse the monstrous weight of their headphones by using an uninspired and bumpy headband that can easily caues hotspots on the head in no time. While the comfort on the ear side of things is very plush and natural, the great weight of the LCD-X means that the comfort of the heaband is easily one of the worst—if not the worst, I’ve experiencd in my time of being a headhopne enthusiast. Overall the LCD-X is the least comfortable of the bunch for long term listening, but maybe the most comfortable for short term listening.
Presentation, Build, and Comfort: PM-1
The Oppo PM-1 makes an incredibly strong case for itself from the moment you unbox it and open up the gray protective box, exposing the supremely glossy and seductive wood product case. Inside the case sits the PM-1 snuggly tucked away within foam that fits its form factor perfectly. While I still prefer the utility of the Audeze’s travel case, the PM-1’s case is definitely a looker. The PM-1 itself feels very, very rigid and well built. The gimbals are all aluminum, the headband adjustment and cup rotation are very smooth with the right amount of pressure feedback, while the headband and earpads are made out of what look to be real leather. The overall look of the PM-1 does a superb job at striking balance between a sleek and modern appearance while still showing refined and classical design foundations within its form factor. It’s a contemporary and modern look that doesn’t shout in your face like an HD800, but it’s also a classical and refined look that doesn’t look like a hipster’s wet-dream ala the Audeze offerings. Comfort wise it’s decent, but the biggest drawback will be the earpads, which I find slightly too small for my liking. They are circumaural, but your ears will certainly feel a bit cramped compared to the more spacious LCD-X and 560. Oppo is perhaps the biggest of the three companies in this review, and the amount of disposable funds at hand to put into product research and build shows with the aesthetic and form of the PM-1. It most certainly has the overall best presentation of the bunch.
Presentation, Build, and Comfort: HE-560
The HE-560 looks understated compared to the more expensive PM-1 and LCD-X. Although it sports an ebony veneer which comes off as a bit flashy, it's still very rudimentary compared to the high dollar aesthetics of the LCD-X and PM-1. The finish and application of the veneer could be better, as the edge of the veneer is a bit rough looking. However, overall the build of the 560 is a solid step-up from the previous HE models, and comes off as a subtle yet refined look compared to the somewhat toyish appearance of Hiifman’s previous offerings. The new headband resembles the suspension system utilized in the SR-009 from Stax, and it not only is it a decent look in person, but also does a remarkable job at distributing weight on the top of your head. No other headband has dissapeared on the top of my head like this short of an Audio Technia AD700. Hifiman has chosen to keep the same fundamentally sound cups and grills as the previous HE models. The new earpads on the HE-560 are inspired from Head-Fi user Jerg’s diy findings, and incorporate a slightly slanted form for better fit and isolation, mesh interiors for better damping, and velour tops for less heat buildup on the skin when worn. The newest pads Hifiman offers have slightly larger openings than the preorder variants, but the insides are pleather and don't seem to dampen the sound of the 560 as well as the preorder pads. More on that later. Hopefully Hifiman can offer both pads for the 560. Overall the HE-560 has the least impressive presentation of the bunch, but the most impressive comfort.
Previous Audeze models have been both loved (and hated) for their euphonically warm and thick sound, sacrificing treble and air for hard-hitting bass and mids you could seemingly drown in. The LCD-X , along with the LCD-XC, is said to be Audeze’s take on a neutral sound signature. The LCD-X has been highly praised on head-fi for being very neutral sounding, while having a bass that was less thick than previous models and treble presence that opens it up significantly. The LCD-X’s first and formost redeeming quality to my ears is its soundstage. The width of the LCD-X’s soundscape is about on par with other planars I’ve heard, but the depth has the potential to become awe-strikingly deep. There are at times where instruments two to three layers deep within recordings seemingly float out way in front of your head, although this is highly recording dependant on highly dependant on your mood as well. The LCD-X still retains the Audeze house sound and still imbues its own coloration on the sonics being produced. Texturally, everything is rounded off a tiny bit, decreasing the LCD-X’s perceived tactility and trading it for smoothness. However, what I can’t emphasize enough is that the LCD-X is definitely not a neutral sounding headphone. It might be Audeze’s take on a neutral headphone but in the grand scheme of things it is not neutral at all. The LCD-X takes the linear midrange of the LCD2 and to some degree the LCD-XC, and trades it for a noticeable and apparent recession in the upper midrange, while the bass sounds boosted and the treble, although not super prevalant, has a completely noticeable, small spike in the area around 9khz, which can sound a bit shrill at times. Overall I would describe the LCD-X as a u-shaped sound wih coloration not too dissimilar from the Hifiman HE-400, although its treble is way more in-ine than the HE-400, and its upper midrange a bit more prominent. This coloration, combined with the Audeze house sound which trades tangibility and textural richness for smoothness, lessens the LCD-X's realism for me, although it can still be a great listen for the right type of recordings. The bass extends deep, but with a little excess bloat instead of taught impactfulness, it gravitates more towards being atmospheric than visceral. The rough transition from upper midrange to treble grounds the LCD-X and weakens its sense of perceived airiness, which is a major trait that’s needed to sound realistic in my opinion. Instrument separation of the LCD-X is about what you’d expect out of any good planar magnetic-- in one word great, while the new Fazors help out in imaging a good amount, but the LCD-X can’t overcome its own coloration to truly get away from its marketing lingo as ‘reference class.' The issue of neutrality aside, the LCD-X is still a pretty good sounding headphone though, but isn't on the level of what it has ben hyped up to be.
The PM-1 is Oppo’s first attempt at a high-end planar headphone from my understanding, and has many good qualities going for it. When listening to the PM-1 it’s clear that it has been tuned for a decently neutral, yet warm and involving experience. The midrange is very linear but suffers some coloration, messing with its timbre and as a result giving it an artificially plastic quality that’s akin to a lot of closed headphones. The bass has ok control and has great extension during tone sweeps, but during busy passages in songs the lowest of the bass fails to come through, which hampers the PM-1’s ability to hit as hard compared to the LCD-X and 560. The upper treble is in good balance, but suffers from extension in the last octave to give it the kind of airy presence that’s needed to sound more open. The lower treble fails to come through during music playback, and as a result hurts PM-1's textural rendering in the treble, ultimately impede its realism. Taken as a whole, the PM-1’s sound reminds me of other warm, yet rolled offerings like the HD-650 and to a lesser extent the Mad Dogs. Upon closer examination of its sonic qualities, the PM-1 does have very good instrument separation, a good part in thanks to its relatively neutral sound signature and perceived high amount of acoustical damping. Certain instruments and subtle cues picked up four to five layers back within complex sonic passages are easy to follow, but lack texture and suffers some of the same Audeze butteriness. While the sound of the PM-1 can easily come off as smooth and easy to listen to without much glaring flaws, it also comes off as something you could most likely get out of a good 300-500 dollar headphone. I think the PM-1 drivers show a lot of potential when I listen to the headphone closely, however there seems to be some limitations with the design itself. The PM-1 sounds the most closed-in of the three headphones in this comparison, and sound suffocated and constricted as a result. I cupped my hands over the rear of the cups where the grills are to see how much the reflection of my hands changed the signature of the PM-1. To my surprise it hardly changed at all, telling me the PM-1 is most likely suffering from too much damping within the housing itself, as it isn’t as free and open as the other two, which likely explains the closed, plasticy coloration I find in its midrange. Upon reading my initial impressions of the PM-1 on the PM-1 thread here at head-fi, an Oppo representative messaged me personally to offer a pair of new pads that supposedly alters the PM-1 for the better good. Since these aren’t my PM-1 I had to refuse, but it at least tells me that at the very least Oppo is in the business to provide good customer service and ultimately a good sounding headphone. I gave the representative my views on what the PM-1 needs and that was that. I like half of what I hear from the PM-1, but it has major limitations. However I feel as if Oppo is only 2 or 3 steps away from producing something incredible. The PM-1, however, is not it.
The 560 is part of the newest lineup of planars coming from Hifiman in what will eventually be a full product revamp. They chose to use the single-sided planar magnetic structure as I mentioned earlier for this new line of headphone. Single sided planars theoretically sacrifice ultimate driver control for better acoustics, and if the 560 is anything to go by, I think the 400i and whatever will replace the HE-6 will be tremendous headphones. Like the 400 I’ve grown to love for the past two years, the HE-560 continues to exemplify Hifiman’s house-sound of a texturally rich and open sounding experience. Hifiman said they aimed at HE-6 like sound quality with the 560, and it seems as though that somewhat included sound signature as well. The 560 sounds like what I expected the HE-6 to sound like based off many head-fi impressions, minus some of the treble problems the HE-6 was known to exhibit. It is an overall very neutral headphone, with some very slight hardness to its lower treble in the 4-6khz range, which can become a problem for modern recordings that were mastered hot, but for the most part is benign. The open sound of the HE-560 doesn’t extend as deep as the LCD-X at times, but more often than not it sounds like the most open and realistic headphone of the bunch, and doesn’t implement a large treble spike centered around 10khz to do so either. The bass hits very deeply, and is very authorative given its balance within the rest of the sound signature. Often times the 560 punches just as hard as the LCD-X while sounding snappier due to having less excess thickness in the lower notes. The midrange has the best and most realistic timbre to my ears of the three headphones in this comparison, making instruments sound very believable as if you could reach out and touch them yourself. The midrange becomes warm and enveloping if the recording calls for it. A couple of times I thought I was listening to my HE-400 when I realized I had the 560 on instead. However, unlike the HE-400 and to lesser extent the other two headphones in this review, the midrange of the 560 has adequate energy in the upper registers to give proper energy and presence to electric guitars, brass and strings when they need it. Upper midrange to treble transition is something many headphones struggle with to get right, but the HE-560 does a remarkable job at keeping a somewhat smooth yet adequate presence in this area to give it a good sense of air. As I said previeously the only thing troubling me is a slight bit of excess energy in the 4-6khz area which could be the result of ringing or distortion, but I can’t say for certain. This wealth of frequency balance and seemingly fast speed of the 560 driver makes it the most detailed headphone of the bunch, allowing me to pick out very subtle cues that I couldn’t hear previously in my tracks. Hifiman has since been working on releasing a ‘production’ 560 with a more sturdy plastic cup, allowing for a more rigid baffle for the 560 driver to sit in. Some have described the ‘production’ 560 to make the preorder version sound veiled while still retaining the same sonic balance as a result, which seems quite shocking to my ears. When Hifiman ships the ‘production’ 560 to me I’ll make sure to update thist post on my findings if appropriate.
Hifiman shipped the production 560 to me a couple weeks ago, and I had some time to listen to it before sending it and my preorder 560 off to Purrin for measurements. Early impressions showed the newer 560 to have a more aggressive sound, with more bite, while sounding slightly colder throughout the midrange. Treble and bass seemed about the same without changes. I also noted that the production version of the 560 with the preorder pads made it sound almost identical to the preorder 560. Purrin has taken measurements of the production 560 with the production pads and preorder pads to confirm these subjective impressions:
Production 560 with production pads:
Production 560 with preorder pads:
Preorder 560 with preorder pads:
The above measurements confirm that the production 560 with preorder pads will sound very much the same as the preorder 560 which I gave high remarks in this topic. The upper midrange to treble transition is near flawless, without much coloration at all. The production 560 with production pads has more of a hump centered around 4khz, which will bring out 'f' and sometimes 'th' in vocal sibilances, while also giving more bite, edge, and excitement to many instruments, namely strings, brass and drums. Me and a few others are trying to get hifiman to bring back an option for the older pads so users can tune their 560s the way they want to.
At the end of the day, given the merits of all these headphones from build, comfort and sound quality, I ‘d rate the 560 as the clear winner. Not only was it the most comfortable headphone of the bunch, but perhaps the easiest for anyone to get into, as its sound signature parallels very closely with neutrality, while offering many traits that you’d expect from a completely open, top dollar planar magnetic. The LCD-X represents both good and bad from Audeze. The fazor technology seems to be doing its job and is a clear stride into the future for Audeze and their offerings, but their stubborness in making their already heavy headphones even heavier by using a thick aluminum housing, and then giving the LCD-X a deliberately colored response and calling it ‘reference’ doesn’t fly with me. Although while ulitimately the PM-1 isn’t a success, I consider it a possible sign of what’s to come for Oppo. Given some tweaks and fixes, and just general understanding of their headphones in the future, combined with their current tightly knit customer service and relationship with head-fi, I think we’ll be seeing some very strong offerings from them in the not too distant future. I’d rank the Oppo as the worst sounding of the bunch, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if they made headphone that eventually become one of the best on the market in the not too distant future. Ultimately though the 560 comes out as the winner for me, and somewhat shocked me considering my previous reference has been a dark sounding headhpone throughout the bass and midrange like the HE-400. It’s interesting that such a headphone like the 560 made me alter my opinion in such a short time, and only serves as an example to the many of its sonic merits it can provide any person out there.
Associated Gear and albums:
Schiit Bifrost Uber Analog
iMac late 2009 27 inch
Alice in Chains: Unplugged
Beck: Sea Change
Daft Punk: RAM
Hans Zimmer: Man of Steel; Inception
Eric Clapton: Unplugged
Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues
Pink Floyd: Wisih You Were Here
Radiohead: In Rainbows
Loreena McKennitt: Live in Paris
Two Steps From Hell: Skyworld; Power of Darkness
Trentemoller: The Last Resort
Mumford and Sons: Sigh No More
Joe Hisaishi: Ni No Kuni
Arne Domnerus et al: Jazz at the Pawnshop