Editor’s note: Arnie Nudell is the co-founder of Infinity Systems and one of the true legends of high-end loudspeaker design. His Infinity Reference Standard (IRS) pushed the boundaries of what was possible, and remains to this day one of high-end audio’s most iconic products.
My adventure began on a crisp October evening in Denver, Colorado, where many music lovers and audiophiles were attending the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. The RMAF is one of the newest high-end audio shows to feature audio-based products of nearly every genre. I attended the 2013 RMAF not only to see what was new in high- end loudspeaker but also to peruse the area of the show called Can Jam, which includes almost every imaginable product even remotely connected to headphones, an area of audio in which I had only recently taken an interest.
Another of the reasons for my attendance was an outgrowth of my recent participation in The Absolute Sound’s great new major volume, the Illustrated History of High-End Audio, Volume One: Loudspeakers—an invitation to dinner with friends and colleagues that I hadn’t seen in a number of years. The dinner was to be hosted by Jim Hannon, the vice president/group publisher of The Absolute Sound, and would take place on the Saturday night of the show. Robert Harley and Jonathan Valin and his wife, Kathy, were also to attend. The dinner was a very festive occasion, with great conversation, food, and wine. We discussed everything from our favorite recorded music, to how the harmonics of a violin were so difficult to reproduce by audio systems, and finally, to what we thought were the best-sounding exhibits at the show. Obviously, all of us were having a wonderful time and suddenly near the end of our get together, I was asked by Jonathan Valin, “Why don’t you review for The Absolute Sound?” To say that I was taken by surprise is an understatement. My answer was that I would have to think about that since I’d never written a review of any product in my long years of working in audio. Undeterred, he then asked if I did accept the review challenge, what would be the first thing I’d like to review? Without a second of hesitation my reply was a state-of-the-art headphone. Needless to say he was astonished since everyone at the table knew that in my long career in audio I was mostly involved in designing high- end loudspeakers. Their next question was simply, “Arnie, why headphones?”
The answer to that question is the raison d’être of this review. It was generally known by many of my friends in the audio field that I really didn’t really cozy up to headphone listening. However, it had become apparent that a whole lot of other folks did. Because my music listening habits had been so different, I thought maybe I was missing out on something really great, and started to look for an explanation of why, given all of the great loudspeaker-based audio equipment available, so many people opted for headphones.
I started a rather amusing personal journey by asking questions of young people walking down the street with their in-ear headphones and iPods in their pockets. I got many of the same answers from those that I asked, relating to the privacy of their music-listening experience, and the great enjoyment they took in being able to access thousands of recorded songs via their media players. I could see that these young people were really into their music in a way that many older people did not understand.
In a way I envied that they found this kind of passion in music from a source that I knew so little about. So, curiosity getting the better of me, I decided that I would try to duplicate their experience—at least, in my own way. I began by purchasing a pair of Audio Technica ATH MR 50 headphones, which were highly recommended for the music I generally listen to and were also inexpensive. Additionally I purchased a Schiit Asgard 2 headphone amplifier, and with those items I began my personal- audio quest. I started simply, using my Google tablet and my smartphone to download an application called Tunein, with which I was able to listen to Internet stations all over the world. I selected a number of stations offering baroque music, jazz, and classical and flamenco guitar. It was a simple matter then to choose the station from Tunein, plug the tablet or smartphone into the Asgard 2, put on the Audio-Technica headphones, and listen to music every morning while drinking my first cups of coffee. I soon found that I could completely relax and listen to music in a very different manner. Well, well, I thought, I’m really starting to get it; I’m enjoying music in this new personal way.
The next major step in my quest was to explore computer audio, where I had the possibility of installing many music files using the program JRiver Media Center 19 as my player/server. This, of course, is a monumental deviation from the simple iPod approach, since high-resolution files could now be played with my computer rig. As my friends and close colleagues would tell you, I’ve never stopped pursuing every aspect of audio reproduction, ultimately looking for greater sonic realizations of live music. This time it happened with headphones instead of loudspeakers.
As I studied this field more intensely, I found that in the last several years two companies were pursuing planar-dynamic headphones, and that really rang my bell. Why? In the early 80s, Infinity had started manufacturing planar-magnetic drivers. The availability of samarium cobalt and neodymium magnets was the key that made their construction possible. The two major companies that are currently involved in manufacturing planar- magnetic headphones are Hi-Fi Man and Audeze. Both of these companies make excellent headphones, and their upper-end offerings are quite expensive. I decided to try a mid-range Hi- Fi Man model: the HE-500, which costs about $700. Initially I wanted to buy planar-magnetic headphones that were good enough to let me determine if the design really could produce music in a better way than my Audio Technica MR 50s. I should mention that the HE-500s are open-ended, which means that music flows in two directions, one direction is obviously into your ear, and the other direction is to the outside world. These open-ended headphones gave me a much greater sense of musical space, with a much smoother and extended frequency response than the closed-ended MR 50s.
At that point I knew that this path was going to lead me to much more complex state-of-the-art headphones, headphone amplifiers, and DACs to play back from the USB output of my computer all the high-resolution files that I’d collected. Rather than just purchasing something like the expensive Audeze LCD- 2 and the LCD-3, I auditioned them at shows like RMAF and also at the homes of friends or friends of friends. I was also able to get an excellent listen to the Stax 009 electrostatic headphones and the Senheiser HD 800. At this point, I really liked the fabulous sound of the Audeze LCD-3, although I found it quite dark and less open in the high end than I would have preferred. Speaking to the nice people at Audeze, I was told about a new state-of-the-art headphone that the company would be releasing shortly that had a lot of new technology which would preserve the wonderful sound of the LCD-3 but also allow the top end to open up considerably. This new headphone would be called the LCD-X. I knew immediately that this would be the high-end headphone I would review.