Review: Audeze LCD-3 Planar Magnetic Headphone

One of the most interesting success stories of the new wave of headphone audiophila is Audeze. The company, which specializes in planar magnetic headphones with wooden ear cups, luxurious appointments, and you're-got-to-hear-it-to-believe-it sonics. We got a chance recently to spend some time with their flagship, the LCD-3 ($1,945), a headphone that's become the top choice for many of today's personal audio enthusiasts. Obviously, we needed to hear why.

Audeze, founded by Alex Rosson and Sankar Thiagasamudram, who met working on the tech side of the film industry (they still do - their company,  amazingly enough, remains a side project; the two remain busy with their careers), was initially launched to build line arrays, but the pair turned to headphones after realizing how high the barriers were to entry in the speaker market; having already developed a planar magnetic driver for that application, a miniaturized version was a natural choice for their first experiment with a headphone; a retrofitted pair of off-the-shelf cans they dubbed LCD-1. 

That headphone, despite its unassuming appearance, made quite an impression at CanJam in 2009, and Rosson and Thiagasamudram sold their run of 25 units quickly - and decided to make Audeze a going concern. 

The company really came into its own with the LCD-2 ($995), which has sold upwards of 5,000 units (an impressive number for a pricey 'phone from a small firm) over the past couple of years. Audeze has no interest in trying to wow consumers with a headphone for every market segment - they're looking to perfect their craft, improving their line and introducing new models only when the time is right.

The LCD-2 saw a mid-run revision in 2011, with an improved driver, but the LCD-3 (introduced earlier this year) features a wholly new, thinner planar maggetic driver design that proved significant enough that it warranted a new model designation. And with that came even more luxurious earcups and band, and a significantly higher sticker price, despite which it has since become the talk of the headphone enthusiast town. If the LCD-2 was a defining pair of cans for the Head-Fi crowd, the LCD-3 may have marked the entry of some of that scene's most valuable players in the game of serious audiophilia.

But you know what? You do - sometimes - get what you pay for.

I've been auditioning a pair of LCD-3s (helped out by PopPhoto tech editor Philip Ryan), listening to a variety of program material, alongside, for comparisons sake, two other excellent -- if less luxurious -- planar-magnetic models, the HiFiMan HE-400 and HE-500, as well as another quite different $2,000 luxury headphone housed in exotic woods and bridging the gap between headphone enthusiasm and traditional audiophilia, the Logitech UE Personal Reference Monitor.

Setup

You can order the LCD-3 with either a Pelican flight case or an elegant wooden box. Either way, you get balanced and unbalanced cables; they connect to the headphones themselves via a very secure locking mini-XLR jack at the base of each earcup. The balanced cable terminates in a 4-pin XLR connector; a little soldering should whip up an adapter to bridge the gap with the source of your choice. And as you might expect, there's a thriving market in aftermarket cables (many in exotic materials,  some approaching the cost of the cans themselves) so you should be able to pick up something ready made if you like. The supplied cables are quite substantial and performed perfectly well; I had no complaints.

They're huge - the plush, angled leather pads and wooden housings make for a large overall earcup volume - and they have a handmade feel that says "old-school radio engineer." They're certify handsome, and quite comfortable as well: the pads really do a great job of supporting the heavy cans, and they keep a good amount of airspace between your ears and the drivers, perhaps contributing to the perceived spaciousness of their sound.

All of that makes for a look that is somewhat polarizing ("The only problem I had with the LCD3s," Phil told me, "was worrying if someone was going to see me wearing those huge things.") These simply aren't for anyone who puts fashion first. Wearing the LCD-3, you'll look like you take your headphone listening very seriously, no more, no less. And that's a good thing, since not only does the LCD-3 provide little isolation from external noise, it leaks pretty significantly, so keep in mind that you'll be sharing your music, audibly, with whoever might be hanging out around you.

In the box you'll find a frequency response chart for your pair; if it's anything like ours, you'll find it unremarkable -- a flat line, for the most part,  with few deviations. We couldn't help but do our own measurements, of course, and we'll tell you all about those later in this post. But suffice it to say that these sound as good as they look like they sound. Which is good. Really good.

Performance

I'll just come out and say it: this is certainly among the best headphones I've ever heard, and perhaps the best, handily outdoing old personal favorites like the Denon D7000, with which it shares an uncanny ability to render room ambiance and recreate a convincing soundstage, but with more controlled bass and just plain better sonics across the board.

It's not as detailed and bright as something like the Denon or the Sennheiser HD-800, but then again it isn't trying to compete, say, with detail-oriented audiophile flagships. And given that, it avoids the strident harshness that some hear in the HD-800. Rather, it's voiced a bit warmer, as are many of the current crop of planar magnetic headphones (though I'd say HiFiMan's line is worth a look if you want things a little brighter) - if you're thinking Sennheiser, it's more in the mode of the HD-600/650, but with more impressive soundstage and resolving power. The LCD-3 may be warm, mind you, but it still reads as neutral -- it's simply not designed a clinical studio monitor like many of the old flagships; rather, it gives you about the most convincing simulation of good speakers in a good room I've experienced from any headphone aside from electrostatics...and that without any need for fancy, specialized amplification.

Here's where its worth turning for a bit to the history of Audeze -- to my mind, it's key to understanding the sound, and likely an important component of the success of the LCD-3 and its precursor, the LCD-2.

Rosson and Thiagasamudram aren't traditional audiophiles by any stretch of the imagination. Rosson, in particular, is primarily interested in electronic dance music (as if he wasn't busy enough, he runs a small specialist label, Play Me), spa, not accurate reproduction of acoustic ensembles -- a big part of the reason for the LCD-3's tightly controlled , yet warm, forward bass, -- and, perhaps, the explanation for why Audeze's most visible celebrity wearers are an interesting mix of studio types like Michael Lockwood and Erick Labson and DJ/producers such as Goldie). 

It's tough to reproduce subsonic bass, do justice to a wide range of samples, and cover the immense sonic range of synthetic sound - possibly as difficult a task as the traditional audiophile gear mission of placing a recorded orchestra in a realistic acoustic environment. And the fact that the Audeze LCD-3 does so well with such a wide variety of material is testament to the care the company takes in the voicing of its products. And they managed to make the things pretty easy to drive as well - you can just as easily run it from a smartphone as you can with your exotic balanced reference rig.

But enough meandering. This thing just plain kicks ass. Pick your poison: Autechre or Andrew Hill, Gorguts or Glenn Gould, and these deliver the goods. I've been listening fairly obsessively lately to the piano, namely Andras Schiff's recent, crystal-clear take on Bach's Das Wohltemperierte Clavier for ECM (24/44.1 FLAC) and Pierre-Laurent Aimard's recordings of Debussy's Preludes for Deutsche Grammophon (also FLAC, at 24/96). I know the LCD-3 wasn't necessarily designed with this sort of listening in mind, but it reproduces these two exceptional piano performances (by masterful players with incredible control of the instrument) almost startlingly well; the pianos seeming as present in the room as I've heard from any headphone; the clarity of the complex decay of the instruments into room tone a particular highlight. A rather different approach to the keyboard, from Egberto Gismonti, made me take particular notice - as his final piano chord decays into room noise and applause at the close of Garbarek/Gismonti/Haden's "All That is Beautiful" (from Magico, on ECM, in a 24/48 FLAC), you really do feel - silly as it is to write - like you are in the room.

Phil Ryan - checking out the Thirteen Pictures Charles Mingus Anthology - was also impressed by the Audeze's ability to create a sense of acoustic space. Cueing up Charles Mingus' 'Wig Wise' and 'Better Git It In Your Soul', Phil commented that "Mingus's bass is reproduced with a full range of dynamics and tone. The brass sounds rich, full bodied, and complex, like a top notch red wine. In those moments of full orchestral madness that Mingus is so good at composing, the LCD-3 presents the material with a  nuance that is rarely achieved in headphones. Indeed, with music recorded to sound as though it's being performed live - as so much jazz of Mingus's era was - the LCD-3's give a real sense of being present in a performing space. This also means that it jarring when a coworker comes along and you have to transport yourself out of that lovely world and back into reality. What sad moments those are."

As mentioned earlier, the LCD-3 doesn't even really require additional amplification beyond whatever your source device of choice is capable of providing; sensitivity (93 dB/1mW) is high enough that you can drive it with an iPod, somewhat improved over the LCD-2, which could also be driven by portables. Phil gave them a workout with his Corda Stepdance2 portable headphone amp, using an iPod Classic as a source. "It did," he said, "require a lot more of the amplifier's power to drive them compared to my Shure SE535 in-ears, but the LCD-3 didn't require anywhere near the limits of the amp." Audiophiles with an adventurous sense of style should be cheered by this, since at least theoretically the LCD-3 could be your out-and-about pair (though since these are open-back 'phones, your fellow commuters might not be quite as happy as you are, unless they share your taste in tunes.

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