For the past few years, and continuing today, we’ve been experiencing a golden age of personal audio, especially in headphone design. In recent years the headphone market has grown tremendously where the high-end-loudspeaker-based market has inexorably decreased. I’m not going to go into my theories about why this is so, but the fact is that sales in the personal-audio market today are an order of magnitude larger than those in the hi-fi market. The Beats by Dr. Dre headphones alone generate sales of more than half a billion dollars a year, and headphone purchases are increasing every year, led by units costing over $100 per pair. As a result, almost every well-known hi-fi brand is now making headphones to be part of this booming business.
The company Audeze was created a little over four years ago. It was founded by Alex Rosson and Sankar Thiagasamudram, who met working on the tech side of the film industry. When they first started collaborating, initially they wanted to be a part of the speaker industry, but they soon realized how high the financial barriers were for entry to this market. Their first serious debut in the headphone industry was a planar-magnetic headphone called the LCD-2, which sold initially for about $1000—a pricey headphone, but Audeze sold thousands of them. The LCD-2 became an overnight sensation, much loved by cognoscenti of high-end headphones. About a year later, Audeze upped the ante by creating the LCD-3, one of the most seriously musical headphones ever made and also costing a serious amount of coin, a cool $1945. The LCD-3 became the new darling of high- end headphone aficionados, and has garnered a trove of fantastic reviews.
Planar-magnetic headphones differ greatly from the great majority of headphones on the market. Most headphones operate with a voice coil surrounded by magnets, which is attached to some sort of a cone—very similar to the way most loudspeakers are constructed. The planar-magnetic ’phone uses a very thin plastic material to form a movable diaphragm with etched conductors forming a sort of voice coil. Extremely powerful neodymium magnets are put in front and in back of the diaphragm so that the conductors are immersed in a very even magnetic field, sometimes called the iso-magnetic field. When an audio signal is passed through the conductors, the magnetic field created by the current flow interacts with the iso-dynamic field causing the conductors and therefore the diaphragm to move back and forth. The purpose of the iso-dynamic field is to ensure that the relationship of the current flow to the force exerted on the diaphragm is constant regardless of the position of the diaphragm. This so-called push-pull configuration allows the transducer to have very low distortion as a consequence of the extremely accurate motion of the entire diaphragm and its inherent lightness, which permits extremely fast rise times that allow transients to sound musically correct. The LCD-X features a newly developed and processed diaphragm made of thinner and lighter material that uses new Fazor technology. The Fazor elements in the magnetic circuit were developed for the LCD-X (and are standard in all Audeze headphones made since January, 2014) and help guide and manage the sound flow in the headphone. This new Fazor technology and planar-magnetic design have come together to create a headphone of unusually extended frequency response, very low distortion, lightning fast transient response, improved phase response, and remarkable 3-D holographic imaging. [Owners of LCD-2 and LCD-3 headphones should contact email@example.com if they are unsure if their units include Fazor elements, and to find out of they can be upgraded.]
The LCD-X ear-cups are made from polished anodized aluminum with sloped ear pads of either premium lambskin leather or leather-free microsuede microfiber fabric. The ear pads are designed with specially crafted foam offering the proper firmness and acoustic balance. The LCD-X headphones are certainly no lightweight, weighing in at 600 grams (nearly 1.3 pounds). Even though these are perhaps the heaviest headphones ever made, they are amazingly comfortable for long- term listening. When they start to press on the sides of my head too strongly after a few hours of listening, I generally pull up the top of the headphones to slightly change their position, and the comfort factor is then restored for further listening. The LCD-X headphones are priced at $1699.
Reviewing an audio product is extremely challenging, because it is difficult to describe the intensity of human emotional experience when one listens to music. It involves putting on a two-dimensional page the magnitude of the three-dimensional sonic experience. I will try to describe how a piece of musical information actually sounds to me through a given chain of the tangible media, comprising headphones, a computer, a DAC, music data files, an amplifier, and cabling. The first few minutes of listening in my own environment suggested to me very quickly that the LCD-X headphones were extraordinary, and would require equally state-of-the-art equipment in order to review them properly, no different than if I were reviewing a very high-end speaker system.
The Audio Chain
I was extremely fortunate to have a number of state-of-the-art DACs, headphone amplifiers, and a variety of different cables at my disposal in order to select what I would ultimately use in my final review of the LCD-X headphones. After months of auditioning many different components, I chose what I consider the best gear for this job. Perhaps my favorite player/DAC is the Modwright Oppo 95, which I have owned for several years. I only used it sparingly for this review since this model of Oppo does not accept streaming data from my computer. Much of my listening was computer-based, using the J River Media Center 19 program playing many of the files on my computer and also using a Digsitor external optical drive, which uses a lithium-ion battery for its power supply, and is connected to a USB port.
The DAC that I finally selected for the majority of my listening is the Resonessence Mirus, which I have compared with a number of very expensive DACs, including the EMM Labs DAC2X. The Mirus is the new flagship of the young company Resonessence and I liked it so much that I ultimately purchased it. I also auditioned many headphone amplifiers and found that the best audio seemed to be derived from those using a vacuum-tube front end for voltage, and a zero-feedback MOSFET design for current. The headphone amplifier that I ultimately selected was made by an Italian company called Pathos, and its headphone amplifier went by the name of Aurium. This amplifier had an output of just under 2W into 32 ohms and easily drove the LCD-X to a sound that I thought was nearly as good as it gets. (As an aside, the LCD-X headphone is extremely efficient, with its impedance at a very low 22 ohms. As such, it can be plugged directly into a smart phone or a tablet, playing music with barely any strain or distortion.)
The last pieces of equipment that I used are probably the most controversial. Many people still believe that wires, be they interconnect cables, power cords, or USB cables, are mostly irrelevant to ultimate sound quality. I can tell you, with my many years of experience in the audio industry, that they are not only not trivial choices, but are actually critical to the ultimate sound quality. I alternate between three USB cables which I consider the top contenders. They are: the J Cat USB cable, the Lightspeed USB cable, and Synergistic’s latest example of its USB cable. Each of these cables has its own strengths and virtually no weaknesses. I sometimes alternate these cables depending on the kind of music to which I am listening. I always try to use balanced cables if the equipment contains the requisite balanced inputs and outputs. After relentless comparisons between many other balanced cables, I have carefully selected a 2m balanced cable made by a small company in Boulder Colorado called M G Audio, which I have come to feel is the best I’ve ever heard by a fairly wide margin. This cable is about as musically agnostic as any I’ve used.