Sonic Satori - Audeze LCD3
Why I Love These
Dear PFO readers... A shorter, edited version of this review ran in The Daily Swarm due to space restrictions. I wanted to share the review in its entirety, as I put alot into this story because these headphones have changed the way I listen to music daily. In our hobby, experiences like this are scarce. Hopefully you'll enjoy it!
While I'm a known advocate for Audeze headphones, I've shied away from writing about them because Alex Rosson, CEO and co-designer for Audeze, is a close friend. There's a conflict of interest here, but I figure that if I share this information up front, I might fend off some of the venom in the online commentary that is likely to follow this article. High-end audio is a wonderfully strange world, but it's also a small one. Many of us know each other. It’s important for you to know that Alex is my friend, because if I didn't love his products, I'd simply stay quiet about them. Judge that however you wish.
None of this, though, can change the fact that Audeze's LCD3 headphones (and the LCD2s before them) have, after twenty years in the hi-fi and music industries, presented me with sonic territory to explore that I never even thought possible. How could I not document these experiences? The truth is, I can't keep my big mouth shut any longer. There are not thousands, but millions of headphone users out there, and most of the headphones flooding the market don't even approach the magic that Audeze provides. Actually, that's a good thing for high-quality headphone manufacturers (and of course for Audeze), as well the high end itself—but that is an essay for another day. The subject at hand is the Audeze LCD3 headphones, and how transformative my experience has been with these sonic marvels.
Let me state this at the outset: I've experienced things with my LCD3s that have completely changed my view of the potential of personal audio playback. Before I heard the Audezes, I considered headphones as tools for a house DJ, as well as in the recording studio (where I've used them for years). Aside from that, they were merely a way to carry my music with me wherever I needed to go. After living with the LCD3s for nearly a year, I trust their accuracy completely. Sound nuts? I'm nobody compared to Audeze's growing number of brand ambassadors, including Grammy-Award-winning artists, producers, and engineers. Some of them also trust their accuracy enough to use them to mix with. One of those gentlemen, legendary producer/engineer Frank Filipetti, told me that he uses them to mix on the road, and about one third of the time in his studio! I'll be interviewing Frank soon about his experiences with the LCD3s. When I first heard them, I knew I had to get him a pair, as he’d always told me that he hated headphones. I had a feeling he would understand the significance of these cans from a technical perspective, and I was right. The moment he heard them, he got it. They're just not like any other headphones, at least none that I've tried.
I put my trusty Sennheiser HD800s high on the list of headphones I've tried. Hell, I own a pair, so that tells you how much I love them. The LCD3s deliver a far more dynamic performance than the HD800s, and have a much greater ability to connect me to the music emotionally—and let’s not forget about their insane soundstaging. Yes, I’m using the correct term for the effect I'm describing. These are the first headphones that have, on numerous occasions, tricked me into thinking I was listening to my rear-channel speakers! On none of these occasions was anything else playing—only my LCD3s and my E.A.R. HP4 headphone amp, plus the CEntrance DACmini ahead of it. If that doesn't tell you what you need to know about their imaging capabilities, I'm not sure what else to say. It's wild! They actually project an image around your head instead of simply firing the music into the middle of your skull. I enjoy the sensation of being immersed in the soundstage, being a part of it, sitting inside. That's what big speaker systems do, and what most headphones just can't pull off. Do the LCD3s load a room like your loudspeakers? Of course not, but it's frightening how close they get at times.
I can write all day about the LCD3's ability to recreate the real time and space of concert halls on classical recordings, but I've done that before. Many of us have been hearing that for decades on loudspeakers, but imagine a pair of headphones giving you that sensation! It's not easy to imagine. It wasn't for me before I heard it, so if you believe me (and you should), give the LCD3s a try. I'm confident that you will come to a similar conclusion about their soundstaging abilities. Soundstaging and imaging are not the most important things in sound reproduction for me, and perhaps I made a bad choice leading with that aspect of the LCD3s, but it's one of the things that continually blows my mind about these headphones. Listening to the Audeze LCD3s is just so unlike the common headphone experience that you really need to hear it to believe it.
That said, I'm sure that the reason for their sublime imaging (I almost typed imagining) and transparency can be attributed to the advantages of planar magnetic transducers over traditional dynamic drivers. I could attempt to summarize the differences in these technologies, but Audeze does a far better job than I could on their website:
Planar transducers are fundamentally different from conventional dynamic drivers. They use a flat, lightweight diaphragm suspended in a magnetic field rather than a cone attached to a voice coil.
I often relate my experience with the Audezes to my time spent listening to Magnepans, which are legendary floorstanding planar magnetic loudspeakers. Maggies exhibit a window-like transparency and have excellent detail retrieval. When set up optimally, they also disappear into the room.
Getting a loudspeaker to disappear into a room is not easy. When you manage to get your speakers out of their own way, it's partly the result of their transparency and detail, and while headphones don't disappear, if they're designed well you can get just as lost in the music and forget about the technology as you can with an expensive loudspeaker system. Isn't that part of the goal? It is for me. I enjoy equipment that gets out of the way of the sound as much as possible. If that happens, I become less aware that I'm listening to hi-fi, and focus primarily on the sound itself. Everything melts away except the music. I guess I should say I prefer equipment that doesn't remind me that I'm experiencing a facsimile of the real thing. I want to close my eyes and disappear into the sound of the music. This sounds like new-age horseshit, but it's not. With the LCD3s, I can go far more places than I can with my stereo! I'm not saying I prefer listening on headphones. I love the experience of a bad-ass stereo system blasting sound waves at my whole body, but just knowing that I can have something close to that when I'm not at home is a brave new world.
Some of my most intense listening sessions have occurred with my LCD3s. Of course, my "best" differs from your "best", and ultimately we are all reacting to art, so the truth is always in the ear of the beholder, but the LCD3s provide what I believe to be the very best headphone listening experience of which I am aware. I haven't been this captivated by music since I walked into room #3 at Harry Pearson's place in Sea Cliff, NY (the original home of The Absolute Sound magazine) in 1993. That was a turning point in my life. I had never heard the sheer magic that can be created using two audio channels until that day. I had nothing to judge it against, nor did I care to. As the music washed over me, I walked around the room, wondering how the hell these giant loudspeakers (the $150,000 Genesis 1s) were creating a three-dimensional soundstage in front of me. I could discern where first and second violins were, the horn section, etc., etc. The experience was like watching a giant movie screen, in 3D. It was so intense; it actually became a visual experience. From that day on, I've been chasing great stereo sound like a drug.
That chase keeps many of us up nights, making new sonic discoveries. I was up all night a couple of days ago, listening to my LCD3s with my Macbook Pro/Amarra rig as the source and the CEntrance DACmini going into the E.A.R HP4 tube headphone amp. The sound was spectacular. The velocity of the lower and mid-bass while listening to DROKK, a wildly cinematic soundtrack LP by Geoff Barrows (of Portishead and Beak) and Ben Salisbury (the film’s director) was so exciting, I must have listened to the record twenty times. The spaciousness was sublime, too. Considering the fact that much of this album is electronic (or so it seems), this says a lot about the LCD3's capacity to reproduce dimensionality, by which I mean their ability to reproduce the space between instruments—in this case, synthesized instruments. I love it when a system makes symphonic sounds come alive! With the LCD3s, many of my most cherished electronic recordings, including Aphex Twin's I Care Because You Do and Swayzak's Snowboarding In Argentina, jump out at me. Their crazy sounds ripple as if on an audible pond, yet there is also space. These records are so dynamic that it’s a challenge to listen to them. Usually I listen three or four times, and isn't that the mark of an engaging sound system?
Another key to extended listening is comfort. This extends to your listening seat, and in the case of headphones, their fit. My LCD3s have Audeze’s "leather-free" super suede headband, which I prefer to the leather original because of its heavier padding. The headphones also feel so much lighter on my head than they did with the leather headband. It's not that they felt heavy before, but I didn't realize the difference until I tried the alternative. With the fit dialed in, I can listen for hours on end. In addition to the components I’ve already mentioned, the following pieces of gear ended up in the reference system for this review: the VPI Traveler turntable with Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge and the Unison Research Simply Phono tube phono stage.
This little system is glorious. I've skipped meals and lost sleep because of its hypnotic effect. Alexandra (my wife) has been complaining about the amount of time I’ve been spending at my desk—far more than usual lately because of these damned headphones. I've also been doing a lot of listening to vinyl through the LCD3s, which is a sincere pleasure, and one I haven't seen enough reporting about. I love listening to analog through these cans! I also happen to think that analog front ends are something sorely missing at headphone trade shows. Sure, there are exceptions, but I'd like to see more turntables at CanJam!
Some consumer products level cultural boundaries—financial and social status, geography, politics, things that consume us as much as we do them. Music, as a commercial art form, does all that. No matter what the playback system, music touches us deeply. I can't imagine life without it. I fell in love with hi-fi because it stripped away all the bullshit between me and the music. I lived (and still do) for the wide-open spaciousness of Pink Floyd in Dark Side Of The Moon and the spirit of my generation's angst and rebellion in Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." When I first heard a large-scale high-end audio system, I knew I wanted to be involved in this world forever, either on the audio or the music side. I've dreamed of owning an obnoxiously large, jaw-dropping reference system since I was 18 years old, and after all this time, my home system is not too shabby. With the Audeze LCD3s, however, I can take a killer reference system with me everywhere I go. Thanks to their sturdy travel case, I've listened to music all over the States, including beachside at Hualalai in Kona, Hawai'i! That was a magical experience: I would sit on the lanai overlooking the ocean after sunset, cranking Burnt Friedman's Secret Rhythms, Burial's first LP, or Nosaj Thing'sHome. For sunrise, I often picked Brian Eno's LUX EP.
I will never forget those listening sessions, and it isn't simply because I was on vacation. The LCD3s achieved such a natural tonality that it was difficult to grasp, considering I hadn't brought my turntable with me! The haunting subtlety of Tori Amos' sexy delivery of the lyrics of "Icicle" was jawdroppingly realistic. Because the LCDs are open-back, with no noise cancellation, I could hear the waves smashing against the sand while the wide-open tribal soundscapes of Friedman floated all over the porch. It was a meditative experience. An audio designer doesn't achieve this level of sonic integrity by accident, or by copying someone else's product. The Audeze LCD3s are the trendsetters in high-performance headphones today.
My reference headphone system literally brings me to tears. That rig, with these headphones, is achieving something I seek in music systems but rarely experience: emotive transference. "Special N," a track on Mogwai's latest Les Revenants LP (the soundtrack to a French television series) got to me over and over again through the LCD3s. The song is a gorgeously subtle instrumental pop ballad that makes me feel so good whenever I hear it that I want to cry. It's ridiculous, I know, but somehow it sums up the feelings of the end of a long night out dancing with dear friends, a night that turns into another day. The sunglasses, and the party favors come out, everybody's getting their second wind, and the sun has just crested over the horizon. I think of that, or I think of my friends back east that I've had all my life, and how grateful I am to have them in my life today. That may seem irrelevant in a review of a pair of headphones, but it’s how I feel this way when I’m listening to them.
I never saw this coming—not this level of quality in music playback, not the kinds of experiences I've had with the Audeze LCD3s. I know that the world of headphones has produced more potential hi-fi converts than ever before, but people still need to experience something vastly different from their everyday experience, something that shakes them out of their over stimulated, Twitterized comas. On one occasion, my wife had to bring me some tissues while I was listening to these things! There I was, sobbing. She asked me if I was okay, and I looked up with tears in my eyes, saying "No, this is amazing"! "You weirdo, what the hell are you talking about?" she said. "You're crying like crazy." "I know. These fuckin' things are amazing!" She said I was nuts, but she also understood, strange as that may sound. Maybe I've dipped a little too far into audio geekdom. I'm not sure. What I'm trying to say is that these headphones give me the same kind of musical satisfaction that I get when
I'm listening to my big, expensive system, and I'm not afraid to admit that.
Headphones are embedded in our lives. We use them to talk on our cell phones and listen to our music, at home or on the go. Kids (and adults) use them while playing insanely realistic video games. They're everywhere. Why not create a high-end class of products that people are using every day? I think Audeze has raised the bar so high with the LCD3s that they have created their own product class. That's the ultimate goal for any designer/manufacturer. I think we're going to see many Audeze wanna-be headphones coming out. There are already a few companies selling magnetic planar headphones that look just like Audeze's original LCD2. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.
I don't think I can identify the sonic signature of the Audeze LCD3s. I say this because, when I listen to them, I'm not concerned with the headphones at all. They connect me to the music so deeply that I always feel like I'm hearing my records for the first time. That is an amazing gift, and it may be the best compliment I can pay to any piece of audio equipment. I can honestly say that these headphones provide me with new sonic territory to explore. I even find myself listening to records I'd forgotten about, pulling them off the shelves to experience them all over again. I’m rediscovering things I missed in albums that I thought I knew backwards and forwards. How can pontification over the sonics supersede that? The LCD3s are so damned good that when I listen to Burial's Untrue LP, released in 2007, I feel like I'm hearing it for the very first time, and it's one of my favorite LPs of the last decade. I listen to it weekly, and when I try a new headphone amplifier or DAC with my LCD3s, I can identify the sonic differences instantly. I'm not sure when loving a product became frowned upon, but I'm willing to take my licks here because I believe in this product so much.
Audeze's freakin' earcups even show the company’s attention to detail and knowledge of anatomy: they direct the sound of the transducer into your ear at an angle, like a continuation of the outer ear. Most companies just give you a circular pad that doesn't aim sound at your ear in a natural way, and your brain knows that immediately, believe it or not. Okay, to achieve the ultimate in fidelity you have to use big headphones that make you look like Mighty Mouse. I don't give a shit. It feels pretty damn good to be Mighty Mouse, doesn't it?
At 45 ohms, these aren't the easiest headphones to drive, but they're not nearly as difficult as the spec might imply. It depends on how loud you need your headphones to be, but even the HRT microStreamer, a tiny headphone amp/DAC combo (reviewed HERE) drives the LCD3s without issue. That's a big bonus, as some low-impedance headphones are unforgiving when it comes to amplifier power. However, I don't think Audeze's clientele—people who are buying $2000 headphones—are worried about getting a decent headphone amp. The company is happy to make recommendations if you inquire, but I highly recommend checking out the threads on Head-Fi for information on anything Audeze-related. The LCD3s (and 2s) are highly respected in that community, which is another feather in their cap.
When I first heard the LCD3s I knew, deep down, that I was hearing a whole ‘nother level of detail retrieval than what I was accustomed to, and my systems kick serious ass! However, there was something almost intangible about the speed of the transient attacks of the LCD3s. They produced ear-numbing bass, and it was crystalline. Distortion was so low that I felt I was hearing deeper into certain albums and tracks than I ever had before. What I perceived was not just a highly detailed experience, but a soulful one. I just loved the character of the LCD3s—which, by the way, can sometimes sound a shade dark, but not as often as others have claimed. That's important, as headphones are far more personal than loudspeakers, and loudspeakers are the most personal purchase in hi-fi. Headphones are loudspeakers that sit on your head! You don't get more personal than that. I believe that it's even more important to audition high-end headphones than high-end loudspeakers. Fit matters a great deal when it comes to headphones. If you're rockin' an over-ear model, for example, you want it to make a good seal in order to be dynamically effective. Some cans just don't fit well on some heads! Audeze headphones are very forgiving when it comes to fit. Their large leather pads sit comfortably on my skinny friends and plump ones alike.
There are other great headphones out there, there’s no doubt about that, but I haven’t heard any that approach this level of sonic integrity and soul. I never considered headphones to be a way to wholly experience music. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Audeze is that I don’t think of the LCD3s as headphones at all. I think of them, along with whatever headphone amp I'm using at the time, as another stereo system. They are not merely a temporary audio gateway, doing their job until I get home to my "real" system, where the music lives and breathes.
I look forward to listening to my LCD3s as much as I do my reference system. I'm not sure it gets any better than that. If none of this has piqued your curiosity about the LCD3s because you're just not a "headphone guy," wouldn't it be nice to crank up the system after the wife or husband goes to bed, without disturbing them? I love ‘em for that alone, but I realize that's no reason to spend two grand. Do yourself a favor and experience the LCD3s for yourself. I'm sure you won't regret it. The Audeze LCD3s are the Ferrari 250 GTO of the headphone world. Take ‘em for a spin and floor it.
(By the way, if you want to read a terrific technical review of the LCD3s, check out Chris Marten's review in Playback. In my opinion, Chris nailed that review, and as a fellow audio scribe I have tip my hat to him for that excellent review.)
LCD3 Retail: $1945