My Pilgrimage to Headphone Mecca (The Source AV) [Audeze LCD-5 and CRBN Reviewed]
Dec 30, 2021 at 11:11 PM Thread Starter Post #1 of 7

BassicScience

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As I was in Southern California for the Christmas holiday and had some time on my hands, I made my way over to The Source AV in Torrance on Tuesday, with the primary objective of giving the Audeze LCD-5 a serious audition. As a bonus, I discovered they had recently acquired an Audeze CRBN, so I was able to conduct a shootout between the CRBN, the Stax SR-009S, and my HifiMan Shangri-la Junior, which I had in tow.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Source AV, they are a fixture at CanJam and one of the most awesome (IMHO) purveyors of high end headphones in the United States (and perhaps the world). Their store is located in the bowels of an industrial park, and would be unidentifiable as a retail outlet except for the sign out front. The building and location are a metaphor for their low key, no nonsense approach to audio. One side of the interior space is dedicated to speaker systems (notably Sonus Faber), while the (smaller) wing houses an impressive array of headphones from Focal, Audeze, Meze, DCA, Stax, Sennheiser, Raal, HEDD, SONY, etc. There are roughly a dozen listening stations with a wide variety of DACs and amps to choose from. Prospective customers are free to spend as much time auditioning gear as they desire with attentive support and zero pressure! My only slight niggle would be the level of ambient noise, but it's not really an issue once you start cranking some music on a headphone.

The first order of business was to audition the LCD-5, as I had only heard it very (!) briefly at CanJam under less than ideal conditions. At that show, Audeze let me A/B it with my Susvara, and I felt it didn't quite equal the Sus in terms of resolution, soundstaging, or frequency response smoothness (AKA tonal balance or natural timbre). Nonetheless, the LCD-5 made a positive first impression and I was quite interested to follow up with a proper audition, particularly in light of the overall favorable response since its release. Since it was unwieldy to travel with my Susvara and associated power amp and since The Source no longer sells HFM, I decided to A/B the LCD-5 with the Focal Utopia, which might be my second choice if I could only own a single headphone. The electronics complement I chose was the Questyle Gold stack (CAS192D DAC, CMA800P preamp, 2 x CMA800R amps), in part because I own, and think very highly of, that DAC, and in part because it was the stack that Focal was featuring at CanJam in 2017 when I originally purchased the Utopia. Audeze also used said stack at shows to demo the LCD-3, so I figured it should work well for the LCD-5. It's very neutral, detailed, and has a low noise floor. The LCD-5 is less sensitive than the Utopia, but it didn't strain the Questyle stack unduly. Volume was typically around 12-1 o'clock when listening to the LCD-5. The source was Tidal on my Lenovo laptop, connected via USB to the DAC. All listening was done without any EQ.

Among the tracks I listened to were:

Buried Alive - Greg Osby (Black Book)
Flight of the Cosmic Hippo - Bela Fleck & the Flecktones (FotCH)
Faith to Clay - Eric Matthews (It's Heavy in Here)
Electrified II, Kiss the Cloud - Yello (Toy)
Find an Island - Benee (Stella & Steve EP)
Sun is Shining - Bob Marley & The Wailers (Kaya, 40th Anniversary Edition)
Lost and Found - Prong (Beg To Differ)
One Finger Snap - Herbie Hancock (Empyrean Isles)
E.S.P. - Miles Davis (E.S.P.)
Handel: Concerto Grossi, op. 3 - Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr

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Before I get into the sound, I'll mention that, like many others, I found the clamping force of the LCD-5 (original headband) to be rather uncomfortable. I have a larger head, and would certainly order the less clampy headband if I were to purchase the headphone. The tortoise shell band around each ear cup is pretty dark and visually unobtrusive. The LCD-5 is light and compact for a TOTL headphone. I didn't seem to have any issues getting it to sit squarely on my noggin. Aside from the clamping force, ergonomics were very good to excellent.

Audeze LCD-5 Listening Impressions:

I started off listening to each track with the Utopia to get a baseline with a familiar headphone, and then switched to the LCD-5 for the same track. Let me note again that I consider the Utopia a highly competent and enjoyable headphone. My primary complaint is that its soundstage is rather small, particularly in width. I also don't think its imaging is as precise as the Susvara's. Tonally, it commits very few sins, and thus handles all genres quite well. Here's my take on the LCD-5 (without EQ) vs. Utopia:

  • Tonal Balance: The LCD-5 has very good tonal balance and plays well with every genre I threw at it. I've never been a fan of the voicing of previous Audeze headphones, but they really upped their game with the LCD-5. As reported by some, upper mids can get borderline shouty, something I noticed with female vocals in particular. The bass is well-integrated and not prominent, which surprised me a little, but it's very tight and punchy, with no detectable bleed or midbass hump. In quantity, I'd say the bass is roughly on par with the Utopia, but qualitatively it's somewhat better. Treble on the LCD-5 was quite good, IMO. There's nothing dull about its sound. Detail retrieval is superb, again roughly on par with the Utopia, but not quite on the level of Susvara or most electrostatics. The LCD-5 doesn't render acoustic instruments quite as naturally as either the Utopia or Susvara, but it's still quite respectable. I can imagine EQ would narrow or eliminate the gap.

  • Soundstage and Imaging: The LCD-5 doesn't have a particularly large soundstage. It's wider than Utopia's, but not as deep. As has been reported, the center of the stage has less apparent depth than does either side. Imaging is generally excellent, particularly in the bass, and a bit more precise than Utopia's. Whether one prefers the spatial presentation of the LCD-5 or Utopia probably comes down to preference; neither is the clear winner, IMO. Susvara clearly betters both to my ear.

  • Summary: So where does the non-EQ'd LCD-5 rank in my opinion? Would I buy it if I had $4500 burning a hole in my pocket? The short answer is no, but I can easily imagine that it would be a top choice for many people. The Utopia is $500 less, is more comfortable (pending headband update from Audeze), renders timbre more realistically without EQ (which is impractical/impossible to apply in some use cases), and is easier to drive. The LCD-5 has edges in bass quality and imaging specificity. I think both LCD-5 and Utopia offer good value for the money in the current headphone landscape, and are well worthy of an audition.

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After I had a handle on the LCD-5, the next order of business (or should I say, pleasure) was to compare my recently-acquired HFM Shangri-la Junior to the Stax SR-009S. By happy coincidence, The Source AV had just procured an Audeze CRBN, so it joined the rotation for a 3-way shootout. Unfortunately, the Stax SR-X9000 isn't due to arrive at the shop for another 2-3 months. The electronics complement comprised the Chord DAVE into a BHSE. Again, I streamed tunes from Tidal on my laptop via USB. As before, I listened to each track on each headphone before moving on to the next musical selection. The volume setting was typically between 11-1 on the BHSE, with the Shang Jr. being slightly less sensitive/efficient than the CRBN or 009S.

In terms of build quality, I'd have to give the nod to the CRBN, followed by the Shang Jr., with the 009S pulling up the rear. Wearing comfort was comparable across the board for me. The Shang Jr. clamps slightly harder than the Susvara, else it might be the winner. I preferred the circular cups of the Shang Jr. and 009S to the oblong cups of the CRBN, but would probably get used to the latter fairly quickly. Again, they're all quite comfortable to wear as headphones go. None of them has a detachable cable, FWIW.

Audeze CRBN Listening Impressions:

I started off with the Miles Davis tune E.S.P. on the 009S, which headphone I've heard previously on several occasions. Coming from the LCD-5 and Utopia, the increased precision of the imaging was almost shocking. Also Tony Williams' ride cymbal work was just so present and crisp, and lent the tune an addictive propulsive boost in tandem with Ron Carter's ultra-nimble bass lines. Electrostatics and jazz are a marriage made in heaven, and the 009S sounded better than ever to me! Next I played the same track on the CRBN. The immediate impression vs. the 009S was less treble presence (the cymbal work was a bit recessed/muted) and slightly less realistic rendering of timbre. Bass on the CRBN was slightly more present and authoritative than on the 009S, but it wasn't night and day by any stretch. I then switched to the Shangri-la Junior for the same track. In this particular system, the HFM sounded brighter than the other two. It still had decent bass weight, but it imaged the bass noticeably more narrowly, which sounded less realistic than on the CRBN or 009S. The HFM had the most realistic timbre of the three overall, but the Stax was not far behind. The CRBN couldn't quite compete in that department, although in absolute terms it was still very good. I noted that in my CanJam audition of the CRBN, I was bothered by some grain in the treble on ride cymbals. I didn't detect any of that in this audition, so it was either an issue with the previous chain or on the recording.

I moved on to the Eric Matthews track which features male vocals and acoustic guitar. The 009S had a bit more sparkle than the CRBN, thus highlighting the ambience of the recording better. But the Shang Jr. won this round by rendering the overtones of the plucked guitar strings with stunning realism and beauty. The speed of the Shang Jr. is breathtaking, even by estat standards.

Another revealing track was Sun is Shining by Bob Marley & The Wailers. Here, the Shang Jr. was handicapped by its more pinpoint rendering of bass, which sounded much less natural compared to the other two, where the bass sounded fuller and broader. The track is beautifully recorded and sounded great on all three headphones, but overall I think the 009S presented it best. If you just focused on the bass, maybe the CRBN took first place.

Classical music is another genre that's right in the wheelhouse of estats. Listening to the Handel concerto grosso, I again preferred the Shang Jr. for its supremely realistic rendering of timbre, and imaging prowess. The 009S sounded great here, as well. The CRBN again lagged a bit, and I couldn't help wondering if it might benefit from a bit of EQ.

Based on my audition, I've ruled out the CRBN as a candidate headphone for me, but I should emphasize that it's still a superb headphone that many people would prefer among the three depending on sonic priorities and favorite genres. The CRBN has the most impactful bass of the trio, but don't expect slam on the level of the best dynamic or planar headphones.

Given how well the 009S acquitted itself, I'm now extremely interested in auditioning the SR-X9000 when it finally shows up! Depending on the level of improvement over the 009S, I could seeing it overtaking the Shang Jr. as my favorite estat. I still haven't heard the Shang Senior, but I haven't yet come to grips with spending $18k on a headphone anyway, even if I can technically afford it. One thing is now for certain: I will always own at least one estat! I wish I'd gotten into them earlier.

Final note: I listened to the Shang Jr. on my system (see signature) upon returning home, and found the bass to sound more natural. The DAVE is on the brighter end of DACs in my experience and may not be the best choice for the Shang Junior. It was also good to hear the BHSE driving the Shang. Junior, as I now realize that the iFi iESL is a superb component and can compete on the level of a TOTL dedicated estat amp. It's really a shame that iFi recently discontinued the iESL.

Well, folks, that's the end of my report. I spent about 3.5 hours straight just listening to headphones at The Source AV, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. If you're in the LA area, I'd highly recommend you pay them a visit. Great people, and just an awesome place to try out headphones. Meanwhile, keep in mind that the above are one listener's impressions, and as always, YMMV!
 

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Dec 31, 2021 at 12:38 PM Post #3 of 7
Really interesting read and your impressions mirror my thoughts almost to a tee with the 009, LCD-5 and CRBN. Coincidently, I had a really long and amazing session with the 009, CRBN and SGL Sr. last night and I just can't believe how well positioned stats are right now. I'm leaning towards selling off most other gear. And I too can absolutely not wait for the x9000 and have high expectations for it.

Again, great read.
 
Dec 31, 2021 at 5:59 PM Post #4 of 7
Great read, thanks for sharing. Looks like a heck of a shop too, have always wanted to check it out if I'm ever in LA.
 
Dec 4, 2022 at 11:31 AM Post #6 of 7
I just stumbled onto this post. I was wondering if you could maybe compare how guitars sound on utopia vs lcd5?
No can do, unfortunately. I don't own either headphone, and it’s been too long since I did this comparison. Generally speaking, if you're willing to fiddle with EQ, I'd probably lean toward the LCD-5, but you're probably going to have to audition both headphones yourself to know which works best for you.
 
Dec 4, 2022 at 11:38 AM Post #7 of 7
No can do, unfortunately. I don't own either headphone, and it’s been too long since I did this comparison. Generally speaking, if you're willing to fiddle with EQ, I'd probably lean toward the LCD-5, but you're probably going to have to audition both headphones yourself to know which works best for you.
Thanks for the response I feared that might be the case since this is a year old thread
 

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