- Feb 21, 2007
This thread is now updated to a full review. Some of the posts that follow were done prior to the full review being posted, so if things seem a little confusing, it's because the review was added later.
Starting from the beginning: Lear is a custom IEM company out of Hong Kong. You may recall the name from my prior review of their mid-range LCM-2b model. This new release is the flagship LCM-5, with the 5 referring to the 5 balanced armature drivers in each side.
On price: the LCM-5 costs 6,888 HKD plus 200 HKD for shipping. That works out to just over $900 as of today's exchange rate. For that price one can select from a variety of colors in translucent or solids, and a free "Lear" logo is optional. On my LCM-2b the logo was a standard engraving, but since then they have apparently upgraded their equipment and can do a nice metallic electroplate printing. It's shiny silver and looks pretty nice. Another option is their "True Texture" faceplate for 398 HKD. It's rather unique, almost 3 dimensional in nature, and looks somewhat like Carbon Fiber (though it isn't). It's like they "stamped" the texture into the faceplate. Good stuff. It is limited as to which colors it works on. I got mine in black.
Also available for 888 HKD (shipped) is their "Monitor Sound Tuned Adapter" which I got along with my LCM-5. This is a special adapter that supposedly tunes the IEMs differently, offering a variation in sound signatures. I haven't been able to confirm just what the heck it does but I suspect it is an impedance adapter at the very least.
I got my LCM-5's in different colors - right side is in a very light blue, so light that it almost looks clear from some angles, and then sometimes looks teal green in certain lighting. The tips are clear, a small upcharge, and then I got the True Texture faceplates and the Lear text. My left piece is the same but in a deep translucent blue.
I'm exceedingly impressed with the way they look. Just like my LCM-2b, they are practically flawless.
I look inside and see the drivers but so far haven't identified them. If I had to guess, I'd say the low frequency driver is a CI variant, the mids are 23689s, and highs are TWFK, all from Knowles Acoustics. But I could be (and probably am) way off on some or all of those. I haven't actually asked Lear yet nor have I taken out the flashlight/magnifying glass to really get a better look.
Lear lists the specs as follows:
[size=small]Frequency response: 20~20kHz[/size]
[size=small]Impedance : 28ohm @1000 Hz[/size]
[size=small]Sensitivity : 122dB @1mW[/size]
[size=small]THD Ratio: Below 1% (20~18kHz)[/size]
[size=small]Driver: 5 Balanced armature (1 low,2 mid,2high)[/size]
[size=small]Crossover: Passive 3 way[/size]
Notice that sensitivity rating - that's about as high as you'll find on any IEM, and it really is a brutal load for some larger/more powerful desktop amps. The Apex Butte for example did not give me near enough volume travel with this IEM - it went from too quiet to LOUD!!!!! in a very short turn of the knob. And there was a very clear hiss in the background which I would consider a dealbreaker if that was my only amp. Thankfully other amps are capable of driving this load.
The adapter makes them far less sensitive. I'm able to use them with various tube amps I have on hand without causing major hiss or other background noise. I haven't made up my mind exactly what it does to the sound just yet, but at very least I appreciate it making the IEM usable on a wider range of gear.
Once again Lear shows impeccable build quality. From the cool True Texture faceplates to the shiny chrome-look logo to the clear, blemish free shell, the LCM-5 is even more well built than my already-impressive LCM-2b. This is the kind of build one should expect from a CIEM in the $1000 range, but sadly it is not always delivered.
I will say that I've noticed an increase in quality from major IEM companies, compared to several years ago. I think when UM, Heir Audio, and Lear can show up making exceptional customs, it reminds the big players like UE, Westone, and JH that they need to step up their game. And I believe they have for the most part. But that doesn't take anything away from Lear, who apparently has the process under wraps.
Source: Auraliti PK90 music server with NuForce LPS-1 power supply, Cambridge Audio 840C
DAC: Anedio D2, Violectric V800, Yulong Sabre D18, Yulong D100 mkII, Matrix Quattro, Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11
Amplification: Violectric V200, Yulong Sabre A18, Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2, Icon Audio HP8 mkII, Yulong A100
Portable stuff: Sansa Fuze and Clip+, iHiFi812, QLS QA350, Leckerton UHA-6s mkII, Meizu MX 4-core, iPad 2
The home rig is supplied by a CablePro Revelation power conditioner and CablePro Reverie AC cables. Interconnects are NuForce Focused Field and Signal Cable Analog Two, digital cables also from NuForce and Signal Cable.
LCM-5 was burned in for several hundred hours prior to listening (I was busy). I used the stock cable a few times and it is nice enough, but honestly 99% of my listening was done with the exceptional Heir Audio Magnus 1 cable since I find that cable so ergonomically perfect. Lear also has their own upgraded cable for an extra fee but I didn't try that out for myself.
The Lear LCM-5 is unique in the Lear collection: while the LCM-1, LCM-2, and LCM-3 each come in three configurations (Bass heavy, Flat, or Clear), the LCM-5 has only a single version. Apparently Lear felt that the capabilities of the 5 drivers were such that it had an ideal tuning in mind, and thus didn't want to upset that balance by offering different versions. Keep in mind though that the adapter cable does in fact change the sound, so essentially you get two versions in one.
My initial report will be concerning the LCM-5 by itself, sans adapter. The first thing that stood out to me was the intoxicating clarity of the upper mids and highs. It sounded so clean and so transparent that it really shined a spotlight on the quality of the recording. That wasn't always a good thing, as some albums are so packed with grit, grain, and glare that they aren't fun to listen to. Other headphones may accentuate those flaws less, and some will actively seek to hide them. Not the LCM-5. The flip side of that experience came when I tried some of my favorite reference albums. Marta Gomez - Cantos de Agua Dulce (24/96), Alison Krauss and Union Station - Paper Airplane (24/96), Eric Clapton - Unplugged, Bill Evans Quintet - Interplay Sessions (XRCD), Herbie Hancock - River, the Joni Letters (24/96), and many others. These all sounded exceptionally clear, to the point where it might just be the best I've heard in this particular area. And remember that I do own some reference level CIEMs such as the Heir Audio 6.A LE and UM Merlin, and have owned or heard many others such as JH13 and UM Miracle. In this one area, I feel like the LCM-5 just might surpass them all. It seems roughly comparable to the HD800 or the Stax SR-404LE, not just in terms of clarity but also transient response. Some people value this more than others and if this is your thing, the LCM-5 is hard to beat.
I'm going to stay focused on the upper mids and highs for a while because they really deserve some attention. Anyone familiar with IEMs knows that they can't just deliver a completely flat frequency response from 20Hz to 20kHz. The ear doesn't work that way. To compensate for the fact that the drivers are firing from within the ear canal, and thus not interacting with the outer ear, good IEMs need to have some type of boost in certain spots in order for the resulting sound to be heard as natural. If the IEM measured flat, the perceived sound would be very dull and not actually "flat" according to your ear.
As you can see, there are some areas where the human ear is more sensitive to certain frequencies - and then some areas where we are less sensitive. The LCM-5 seems to be tuned in order to counteract that and thus give a flat, natural response. But of course this is nothing new and many IEM makers have their own take on how to accomplish this. I will say that the LCM-5 is exceedingly clear and transparent sounding, so they did accomplish that aspect of their intended goal.
Mids on the LCM-5 are somewhat dry in that they don't have extra bloom to them. Some IEMs aim for a warm, romantic sound, and the LCM-5 largely avoids that. At the same time it doesn't have that "thin" sound that some IEMs have. It's nicely balanced for both male and female vocals, though if I had to choose I'd say it is somewhat tipped towards the "crisp yet full-bodied" side of things rather than "slow and smooth". Attack and especially decay is very well controlled but not overly speedy - it is capable of sounding as fast or as slow as the recording dictates and the associated equipment can handle. I tend to dislike it when IEMs have a deliberately rapid note decay, in an attempt to sound "accurate". This, to my humble ears, leads to timbre that is less convincing than it would otherwise be.
Even compared to a mostly neutral competitor like the UM Miracle or Heir 4.A, I feel like the LCM-5 has more content in 2kHz to 5kHz range. This makes for a more noticeable "snap" on snare drums, more "bite" on trumpets, and more "splash" on cymbals. On an excellent recording where there is no inherent grain, this can sound very convincingly real. Unfortunately not all recordings are perfect... so a lot of times the LCM-5 just ends up spotlighting how poorly done the song is.
This is definitely an IEM for the detail lovers out there. Due to the very high resolution and clarity levels, it essentially lays bare the micro-details in the recording. Hearing a metronome in the background of a pop song, or pages being turned by an orchestra, or coughs from the audience at an acoustic performance, can really enhance the "you are there" part of the experience. It helps that the soundstage presentation is very realistic - almost enveloping the listener in the performance. It's not quite the most expansive I've ever heard, but it does rank among the top overall for combining accuracy with size - especially depth. It's very immersive and fun.
All of this would become tedious if the bass impact was insufficient, as is the case with lots of "reference" type IEMs. Thankfully Lear has tuned the LCM-5 to have a very slightly tipped up low end that hits just hard enough to sound natural without overdoing it. It isn't quite a "basshead" sound, but should satisfy most users with its depth and texture. In volume it reminds me of the Heir Audio 6.A LE, though in character it is a bit different (which I'll discuss later). Worth noting is the fact that getting good bass out of the LCM-5 requires a fairly nice setup. When I simply plug in a Sansa Clip+, the presentation tilts more towards the bright and cool side. The "lowest" I like to go with the LCM-5 is the Meizu MX 4-core, but even so I still prefer to use a portable amp. With the Leckerton UHA-6S mkII in the mix, things shape up nicely. Bass hits with more authority and I really enjoy the overall experience.
On a related note, this IEM is very sensitive to noise. At 122dB for 1mW of power at 1kHz, this thing is more sensitive than most other IEMs out there. Thankfully the impedance is not very difficult - 28 ohms at 1kHz. Contrast that with the Lear LCM-2b which dips down to 10 ohms at 1kHz, meaning an amp with low output impedance is essential. The LCM-5 is not as concerned with output impedance (anything under 5 ohms should be fine) but it will absolutely show any noise, hum, or other undesirables in the output stage. A few amps that I had previously found to be rather quiet, such as the Audinst AMP-HP, turn out to have a bit of background noise that I hadn't heard before. So not only does the LCM-5 require amplification to reach its full potential, it also demands that amp to be exceedingly quiet. Then again, the target market for a $900+ custom IEM should be assumed to have access to a quality source.
Overall the LCM-5 is characterized by a high clarity sound that remains engaging. Calling it somewhat bright might be partially accurate but it doesn't paint the whole picture, and is usually a byproduct of an inferior signal chain. If the treble was of lesser quality I'd be disappointed in the tuning, but as it stands the highs are so clean and so transparent that it really is enjoyable (again, depending on the recording). And the rest of the spectrum is reproduced in a natural and engaging manner that moves this IEM beyond the realm of purely analytical. So while I make several allusions to the HD800 in this review, the LCM-5 actually has more of an "all-purpose" sound than that model - similar in some ways but more engaging in the lower regions.
Now for the adapter - Lear advises that this is not a mere impedance adapter (though it does increase impedance to roughly 180 ohms at 1kHz) - it uses passive components specifically designed for tuning the LCM-5, so it isn't for use with other IEMs. Combined with the increased impedance, sensitivity drops significantly, so the adapter really isn't good for most portables (though perhaps some of the more potent portable amps would work).
I tended to use the adapter at home, and mostly paired it with tube amplification, though I did try multiple solid state amps as well. I like the fact that impedance is raised to levels high enough where practically any amp is an option. Even some OTL tube amps will be acceptable, which is not usually the case with IEMs.
In a nutshell, the adapter seemed to turn up the brightness a little bit, while also reducing the overall impact of the bass by a small amount. The result is a sound that I don't particularly enjoy when paired with a brighter system, but does pair quite well with warmer gear and especially most tube amps. Care must be taken in system matching: I don't love the results when using my Cambridge Audio 840C as a source, feeding a Yulong A100 amp. Both of these components lean towards the analytical side, and with the adapter the LCM-5 becomes just too bright for my tastes. Even without the adapter, things sound a bit better but still not ideal. When I replace that solid state amp with an Icon Audio HP8 mkII tube amp, the sound is very nice indeed. Once bright highs become smoother and more enjoyable, and the bass, while still relatively neutral, has a sweeter and more textured feel to it. Things get even better when adding a warmer DAC like the Yulong Sabre D18 and drafting the Cambridge 840C into transport duty. In short - the LCM-5 again takes on the attributes of the signal chain itself itself. This wouldn't be possible without the adapter, since the LCM-5 is far to sensitive to use on its own with this amp. I get similarly enjoyable results when using my reference Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2 SET amp, as well as a low priced Project Sunrise tube amp. Where the 10 ohm output impedance of the Project Sunrise amp is a poor match for the LCM-5 on its own, the adapter makes it pair up very well. It is possible to use the LCM-5 without the adapter when pairing with most solid-state amps, but the adapter plus smooth tube amp combo is a real winner.
My contact at Lear tells me that the LCM-5 was tuned for a smooth, natural sound, non-fatiguing, with slightly boosted bass (which they feel is preferable to a purely neutral response). They designed the adapter to help tune the sound more flat, being therefore useful for studio work or for people who just like that type of sound. My definition of smooth and natural must be slightly different than theirs since that's not exactly the way I would describe the LCM-5. Or maybe my hearing is just different. But that doesn't mean I don't enjoy them a lot. The adapter is a perfect match for warm and smooth amps, especially tube amps, and it allows the IEM to be used in systems where it otherwise would not fit. On paper it seems a little odd that increased brightness would be a good thing. In practice, it just works. A very good idea from Lear.
In case I haven't made it clear enough by now - the Lear LCM-5 sounds exceptional when mated to the right gear, but it can also sound edgy and bright in the wrong system. What you generally want is a smoother sounding component - not necessarily dark, though darker gear will work if that's what you have. Otherwise something neutral but smoother on the top end is desirable. DACs and amps which tend to get shrill or sound thin will not pair very well.
COMPARISONS (done without the adapter)
Heir Audio 6.A LE: The 6.A is a spectacular reference-type IEM. It's almost totally neutral by my definition of the word, but does have a bit of extra grunt on the low end in order to make things more lively. In comparison, the LCM-5 is warmer and more lively, with increased "bite" in the upper mids and extra sparkle in the highs. They have roughly the same amount of bass by volume but the presentation is different. The 6.A bass is ultra-clean, textured, nuanced, refined, while still having some slam to it. The LCM-5 can dig a little deeper into the sub-bass region, likely due to the sheer size of the driver, but the overall presentation of the bass is smoother and less detailed. Don't get me wrong - it's still accurate, and is certainly far from the one-note bass you'll hear on some other IEMs. It is just a tiny step behind the clarity of the excellent 6.A LE. That's not bad company to trail behind, and I suspect some people would actually even prefer the trade-off of a little articulation for the slightly improved extension. But both IEMs are quite good at what they do. The 6.A shows its edge when dealing with subtleties, and the LCM-5 counters with a more rewarding sense of slam. Each is a good fit for its respective presentation - I wouldn't like the 6.A bass as much if paired with the overall sound from the LCM-5, nor would I like it the other way around.
The mids of the LCM-5 are somewhat more immediate than the Heir. There's a certain "zing" to the upper midrange that can be either exciting or annoying depending on your preferences. Vocals are brought more forward and presented in a more intimate way, as if the singer took a few steps towards you. Both are very clear and very convincing in their own way.
Highs on the LCM-5 are somewhat hotter than the 6.A. When I start with the 6.A as a baseline, then switch to the LCM-5, it sounds exciting but also bright and somewhat fatiguing. Yet after listening a while and adjusting to the sound, it seems great, and I wouldn't change a thing. Then I switch back to the 6.A and that model sounds muffled and boring. Listen for a while and it becomes clear again. The brain has a funny way of adjusting to things, so it really does make A/B comparisons difficult between these particular models.
The Lear unit has the edge in soundstage immersion. The 6.A is extremely accurate with regards to imaging, but the LCM-5 is able to match that while giving more depth to the presentation. This is unexpected because the more forward vocals would suggest inferior layering, but it doesn't work out that way. The LCM-5 is closer to the Heir 8.A than the 6.A in soundstage size, though the 8.A beats the Lear at its own game.
Overall I think the 6.A remains my favorite for general listening. However, the LCM-5 certainly has its strengths, and at times I prefer its razor-sharp clarity and open-window transparency. I know some people who would almost certainly prefer the Lear presentation over the 6.A, so it really comes down to preference. Both of these are masterfully tuned IEMs that fully capture the intent of their designer - it's just that the designers had different goals in mind.
Other good candidates for comparisons would be the JH13 and the UM Miracle. All three models are vaguely neutral but have some level of slightly aggressive or hyped upper mids/highs. Unfortunately I sold my JH13 a while back and only had the Miracle as a demo loaner for review. From memory, I'd say I like the LCM-5 more than the JH unit, but I'd have to have the Miracle here for direct comparisons to make a judgement on that one. But just the fact that the LCM-5 competes with the likes of these is an indicator of its high level of performance.
Is the Lear LCM-5 a top-level custom IEM? Without a doubt. Is it perfect for everyone? Of course not. But no IEM or headphone is. Having said that, the LCM-5 will appeal to certain people in a way that not many other CIEMs do. If you like crystal clear highs, or the HD800 (when properly driven), or Stax in general, and tend to listen to quality recordings on quality gear more often than not, the Lear LCM-5 should definitely be on your radar. Feed it something good and it will reward you with stunning, lifelike playback that sounds convincingly real.
Adding up the score, Lear is two for two in my book - their LCM-2b is a very solid entry level unit in the $400 price bracket, and now their LCM-5 is a strong competitor in the flagship arena. After experiencing their products, their customer service, and their build quality, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them.