A Survey of Six High-End Headphones

Alternate Paths to the Sonic Mountaintop

Equipment report
Audeze LCD3 Headphone,
Beyerdynamic T1 Tesla,
Grado Laboratories PS1000,
Sennheiser HD800,
Stax SR-009
A Survey of Six High-End Headphones

Planar Magnetic-Driver Headphones

Headphones in this category use light, responsive, full-range planar-magnetic drivers that are, conceptually, much like the drivers used in Magnepan’s award-winning planar-magnetic loudspeakers (on a much smaller scale). Planar-magnetic drivers feature thin, flexible, membrane-like diaphragms upon which conductive circuit traces are arrayed (the circuit traces serve as “voice coils” of a sort). The entire diaphragm is, then, suspended in a grid-like array of magnets, where the magnets are precision- aligned relative to the conductive traces on the diaphragms.

When music signals are applied, the entire diaphragm is either pulled toward, or pushed away from, the magnet array, thus producing sound.

The benefits of planar-magnetic drivers include superb responsiveness (because the membrane/conductor is typically much lower in mass than the moving parts of a dynamic driver), plus uncanny cohesiveness (because the diaphragm is driven across its entire surface). Much like the designers at Magnepan, designers of planar-magnetic headphones seek to increase driver performance by reducing diaphragm mass (using thin-film diaphragms and reducing conductor mass where possible) while increasing magnetic flux density (by using rare earth magnetic materials and “push-pull” magnet arrays).

Models to Audition

Audeze LCD3 ($1945) audeze.com

Audeze is a relatively young American company that specializes in planar-magnetic headphones and whose products have taken the high-end headphone universe by storm. The LCD3 is Audeze’s flagship model and it has become a widely used reference for many audio journalists (the author included). What sets the LCD3 apart is Audeze’s all-new, ultra-low-mass LOTUS driver diaphragm and “super-efficient push-pull magnet structure.” Many consider the LCD3 one of the two finest headphones now available (the other being the Stax SR-009, described below).

What sets the LCD3 apart sonically are its state-of-the-art bass (and no, we don’t use that term lightly), astonishing levels of midrange resolution and nuance, and fast, detailed, silky-smooth highs. What is more, the LCD3 finds the elusive balance point between ultra-high-resolution, on the one hand, and musicality and natural warmth on the other. The miracle is that the LCD3 is extraordinarily revealing, yet also welcoming and engaging— never cold, sterile, or analytical. Furthermore, compared to top- tier competitors, the LCD3 is relatively easy to drive (an important consideration for those looking to constrain overall system costs).

HiFiMAN HE-6 ($1299) hifiman.com, head-direct.com

HiFiMAN is a Chinese firm that specializes in high-end dynamic and planar-magnetic driver headphones, earphones, and portable high-res music players. HiFiMAN’s flagship HE-6 uses a very- low-mass thin-film diaphragm with gold conductive traces, plus what the company terms a “super efficient magnetic circuit.” The HE-6 enjoys a reputation as a “must-hear” top-end model (arguably one of the three or four best headphones available), but also is recognized as perhaps the most difficult-to-drive headphone on the market. To tap the full performance potential of the HE-6, users must inevitably use very high-powered, high- resolution headphone amplifiers.

The HE-6 offers a neutral tonal balance, exceptional transient speed, extremely high resolution, plus a quality of musical “soulfulness.” The HE-6 comes ever so close to matching the resolution of Audeze’s more expensive LCD3 and does so while offering what some consider even more accurate overall timbre. Remember, though, that the HE-6 is extremely sensitive to and demanding of associated electronics. When pushed by inadequate amps the HE-6 can sound bright, edgy, and ill at ease, but with appropriate amps the headphone’s sonic persona changes, becoming powerful, masterful, engaging, and at times downright majestic. Hint: To ensure “known good” results, try powering the HE-6 with HiFiMAN’s beefy, high-output EF6 amp.