Life is too short to put up with poor-sounding headphones, I mused the other morning, during my 60-minute commute on the NYC subway. All around me, straphangers gripped smartphones and listened to multicolored Beats, noise-canceling Boses, white Apple earbuds, and, only rarely, Sennheisers and Grados.
Most of my personal listening these days is through Audeze’s large, open-back, circumaural LCD-X headphones, which I bought following my review of them in the March 2014 issue. (On the subway I use the Ultimate Ear 18 Pro in-ear monitors, which provide much better isolation and are not as visually intrusive.) At $1699, the Audeze LCD-Xes are undoubtedly expensive, but offer superb sound quality, and a tonal balance that is more to my taste than the almost equally expensive and well-regarded Sennheiser HD800s. Then Audeze upped the headphone ante with the LCD-4s, which cost an astounding $3995!
I saw that price, gulped, shut my eyes, strapped on a seat belt, and asked for a review sample.
In March, my colleague Tyll Hertsens reviewed the LCD-4s for Stereophile‘s sister site InnerFidelity.com; I refer you to his review for a more detailed discussion of the LCD-4s’ design than I have room for here. Briefly, these large headphones look very similar to the LCD-Xes, other than a wooden shell around each planar-magnetic drive-unit, a chromed rather than black back plate, and a thick blue rather than thin black cable.
While both models have thin-film diaphragms with Audeze’s patented Fazor elements, which act as waveguides to match the acoustic impedance of the diaphragm to that of the air, the LCD-4s’ “nano-grade” Uniforce diaphragms are just 0.5 micron (0.5µm) thick. (The diameters of human hairs range from 30 to 100µm.) According to Hertsens, the diaphragm material is drawn, in a lengthy and largely proprietary process, through a device that slowly deposits a very thin layer of aluminum on the surface, and is then spooled onto another roll. When the entire roll is on the take-up spool, the process is repeated in the opposite direction, resulting in an aluminum layer with an extremely fine grain structure.
Because the conductive layer is much thinner than that used in the LCD-Xes’ diaphragms, the LCD-4s have a much higher specified impedance: 200 instead of 20 ohms. While both use a push-pull array of powerful neodymium magnets on both sides, the LCD-4s feature Double Fluxor magnets with a flux density of 1.5 teslas, to increase the sensitivity to a practical level.
Adjustment of fit is via notched metal rods attached to each earpiece, which fit into the sprung headband of carbon fiber and leather. Electrical connection is via a mini-XLR/Micro-dot XLR at one end of the cable for each channel, these marked L or R, and a ¼” stereo plug at the other end. An alternate cable fitted with a four-pin XLR plug is also supplied, but not a ¼”-to-3.5mm adapter, as the LCD-4s are not intended for use with smartphones. The headphones and accessories come in a small, smart black case; and, like all Audeze headphones, the LCD-4s are made in America.
I primarily drove the LCD-4s with a single-ended connection from the Pass Labs HPA-1 amplifier (reviewed in this issue). I also tried the Audeze ‘phones with a balanced connection from the Ayre Acoustics Codex D/A headphone amplifier, using Nordost Heimdall and Cardas Clear balanced cables, as well as those supplied with the Audeze. At the end of the review period I received a sample of Audeze’s new The King headphone amplifier, designed by Bascom H. King. I did some brief auditioning with this amp, but will report more in a future issue.
The LCD-Xes excel in low-frequency performance, but the LCD-4s were bass champions. The 1/3-octave warble tones on Editor’s Choice (ALAC files ripped from CD, Stereophile STPH016-2) were audible down to the 20Hz limit, and, like the LCD-Xes, the LCD-4s spoke cleanly and evenly in the bass, with no audible distortiona difficult test for headphones to pass.
My go-to music reference for low bass is a recording I made in 2014 of Jonas Nordwall performing the Toccata of Widor’s Organ Symphony 5 in Portland, Oregon’s, First United Methodist Church (24/88.2 AIFF file). The primary mikes were a distant-spaced pair of DPA omnis, which are generous in the lows; through the LCD-4s driven by the Pass Labs, Jonas’s bass-pedal notes were not only generous but had weight, depth, and power. Despite my brain being shaken by the mighty C1s (32.7Hz) and F1s (43.7Hz), there was no boom or blur; I could still hear the superb spatial definition given the upper-frequency pipes.
The LCD-4s excelled in the midrange, the organ’s upper registers sounding clean and uncolored. A recent classical orchestral purchase was Introit: The Music of Gerald Finzi, performed by the Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon (24/96 AIFF files, Decca/HDtracks 00028947893578). The only jarring note on this superb album is Clear and Gentle Stream, whose melody is identical to Disney’s “Whistle While You Work.” I’ve been a fan of this very English composer since I first heard the luminous 1964 recording of Finzi’s cantata Dies Natalis featuring tenor Wilfred Brown and the ECO conducted by Christopher Finzi, the composer’s son. On both that recording (16/44.1 ALAC files ripped from CD, EMI Classics CDM 7 63372-2) and the new Decca, the tonal qualities, not only of the orchestral instruments but of Brown in 1964, and the solo wind instruments that replace the original vocal parts in 2016, were impressively true. As reproduced by the LCD-4s, there was no danger of confusing the distinctive lower register of the soprano saxophone with which Amy Dickson plays the vocal line in the “Salutation” from Dies Natalis with the cor anglais, which has a similar tessitura.
The solo violin in Finzi’s Introit was reproduced by the LCD-4s as a narrow, stable central image. The high-frequency violin tone sounded sweet without being rolled off, even when the soloist plays harmonics. However, when Tyll Hertsens reviewed the LCD-4s, though he agreed with me about the Audezes’ bass and midrange quality, he found their mid-treble too subdued and the top octave too strong, which made cymbals sound “breathier, less melodic.” Yes, perhaps voices sounded sweeter than I was used to with the LCD-Xes, with less of an “intermoddy” treble character with high-level choral passages.
But I listened to many recordings with cymbals and generally liked what I heard. For example, in Van Morrison and Georgie Fame’s live performance of “Moondance,” from their How Long Has This Been Going On (16/44.1 ALAC files ripped from CD, Verve 314 529 136-2), the top-octave energy of the ride cymbals seemed in good balance with the metallic ring lower in frequency. Perhaps this is an example of Tyll’s and my preferences differinghe has written in the past that “finding headphones that tickle your fancy is part of the fun of headphilia.”
The obvious match-up was with my Audeze LCD-Xes ($1699), which are considerably more sensitive than the LCD-4s. This made matching levels tricky. (The calibrated 1dB steps of the Ayre Codex came in very useful here.) On repeated listening, I felt the less-expensive Audeze planars had a very slightly clanky quality in the upper midrange that could be heard in “Moondance” when the baritone sax took its solo. The slight leading-edge buzz on the double bass’s notes during its solo was less pronounced through the LCD-4s, and while the ‘Xes and ‘4s had equally extended low frequencies, the midbass was a little fatter with the LCD-Xes than with the LCD-4s. Both Audezes got the slow-Leslie midrange character of Fame’s Hammond organ correct, however.
Next up was the Master & Dynamic MH40s ($399), which Art Dudley wrote about in February 2016. Art felt that the M&Ds sounded “clear and explicitqualities they delivered in a manner that was smooth rather than brittle [and] tonally on the warm side of neutral.” Once I’d found and pressed the discreet un-mute button on the side of one earcup, I didn’t disagree with Art’s characterization, though I found the trumpet in “Moondance” had a bit more bite than through either pair of Audezes. The MH40s’ midrange also sounded more forward overall, which favored naturally recorded voices, though there was a bit too much energy for my taste in the region where Tyll Hertsens had found the LCD-4s lacking.
In the bass, the MH40s had less extension and more upper-bass bloom than the LCD-4s, which made them sound blurred in the low-frequency climaxes of my Widor recording. With the low-frequency warble tones, the 25 and 20Hz tones were starting to break up a little at the same volume as the Audeze LCD-4s. But for one-tenth the price of the LCD-4s, the Master & Dynamics MH40s sounded surprisingly satisfying. My only complaint was that, with my bigger-than-average pinnae, the M&Ds weren’t as comfortable as I need for long listening sessions.
Life is too short to put up with poor-sounding headphones. Not only do Audeze’s LCD-4s not sound poor, they’re the best-sounding headphones I’ve heard in the 45 years since I bought my first high-end cans, a pair of Koss Pro4AAs. If only the LCD-4s weren’t so expensive!
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