The Listening Tests
The first musical example that I have chosen is the Shostakovich string quartets numbers three, seven, and eight performed by the Hagen Quartet on a DG CD. The quality of sound of this CD is quite remarkable in itself; however I have up-sampled it using the professional Korg Audiogate computer program, from 44kHz/16-bit up to 192kHz/24-bit, to greatly relieve most of the sonic problems which unfortunately afflict all CDs.
The first movement of the Shostakovich Seventh Quartet starts with a simple Russian motif and becomes more animated and musically interesting as it progresses, with rather violent, stabbing plucks of the violin strings that are really a precursor of the third movement. This intense plucking of the second violin is a very difficult sound to reproduce correctly via any audio system, and yet the LCD-X recreates this musical performance in such a faithful way that I have to admit I have rarely heard its equal from any high-end-audio speaker-based system. The LCD-X beautifully renders the violin body sound, the bête noir of most headphones and high-end speaker systems, and its extremely fast rise time produces the initial transient of the plucked string in a most convincing way.
The third movement of this work involves some of the most violent sounds that four stringed instruments can produce, all at the same time. It is fascinating to me how the LCD-X separates this mass cacophony of sound so that each player can be clearly heard, individually and together as an ensemble. Once again, the top harmonics of the violins, viola, and cello are reproduced in a spectacularly lifelike fashion. It is also interesting to note that the four players—the first violin, the second violin, the viola, and the cello—are rendered in three-dimensional space as you might hear them in a live performance. The first violin is far to the left and slightly forward, the second violin to the right of him, the viola further to the right and forward, much closer to the cello which is quite far out from the right side of the headphones. It is similar to the spatial characteristics that you would hear if you were sitting close to the players at a live chamber music concert. Furthermore, the venue of this string quartet recording is easily heard because of the superb resolution of the LCD-X (and the rest of the other components in front of and driving the headphones). This is also a wonderful example of how three- dimensional a rendering this headphone can create.
While reproducing four instruments in three-dimensional space is certainly challenging, reproducing a full symphony orchestra in a large concert hall is a much more difficult problem. Some of the best program material that I’ve ever heard are the DSD downloads of the Mahler symphonies offered by Blue Coast records. Of the four recordings of Mahler symphonies that I own, I chose the Mahler Fifth Symphony, with its massive orchestration, which highlights almost every instrument of the orchestra. This is a huge job for any audio system to handle in a life-like manner.
There is no doubt that the imaging of a great speaker system in a room is different from the imaging of a great pair of headphones. With the loudspeaker in a living room, the sound is very three-dimensional with great depth and sometimes equally great width. It can be likened to sitting extremely close to the orchestra where, because of your proximity, you hear great depth and width. With the LCD-X headphones, the image is more reminiscent of sitting 15 rows farther back in the hall, where the depth of sound is somewhat foreshortened, while the width is nearly preserved. What I’m suggesting is that both presentations are very acceptable and are capable of re-creating lifelike sounds in a different way. In all other ways, like the dynamics, the presentations are really the same. For example, the LCD-X headphones are capable of playing this music at full orchestral levels without any strain or distortion. In some ways, the presentation of these very loudest levels are better reproduced than by speakers because there is no room interference. Frankly, being an old speaker guy, I was really surprised that the level of realism from these headphones is sometimes better than some of the best speakers. The tremendous blast from the timpani, coming from the back right of the concert hall is startling in its sonic accuracy, and truly reminiscent of a live venue.
The recording to which I am referring is of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, recorded in the Davies Hall in San Francisco. Tilson Thomas configured the orchestra particularly for all the Mahler symphonies. The first violins are front left, the second violins front right, the violas on the right just behind the second violins, the doublebasses along the left wall, and the cellos on the left just behind the first violins. The woodwinds are basically in layers in the center and all the brass are far right on the stage. The reason I’m offering so much detail concerning instrumental placement in the orchestra is because this placement is so unusual; in all my years of concert-going, I’ve personally never seen this arrangement. So when I began to listen to this recording with the LCD-X headphones, I initially thought that the headphones were distorting the spatial images. However, when I listened more carefully, it was very obvious that the normal orchestra placements were conspicuously different, and that the LCD-X headphones were reproducing the instruments in space so correctly that it was astonishing. The sound of the massed doublebasses was remarkably correct and certainly unhampered by room acoustics. I could go on and on trying to tell you what wondrous sound and imaging this headphone system was capable of; however, I would advise you to download some of these symphonies yourself so that you might have in your collection one of the best-sounding and most accurate renditions of full symphony orchestra. I should also mention that the performance of the Mahler Fifth Symphony is first-rate.
Two female voice recordings are the next selections I would like to discuss. The first is Rebecca Pidgeon’s old, familiar rendition of “The Rose in Spanish Harlem.” I should be describing the superlative sound of her voice; however, the thing that stood out for me, having heard this recording many, many times over the years, was the very soft plucking of the doublebass accompanying her singing. For years, speaker systems produced her voice in a very realistic way, but very few of them ever got the initial pluck of the doublebass without a boomy sound. For the first time, I believe I heard that doublebass as it was put on the recording, correctly rendered. Her lovely singing is also accompanied by a piano, two violins, a guitar, and a shaker. This 24-bit/96kHz version had a wonderful three-dimensional image, the piano being very near Pidgeon, while the two violins are far left and far right and a little forward in the soundfield. The guitar sounded like Pidgeon was playing it, and the shaker was very far right outside the earpiece about as far as your right hand could extend. This headphone can really create a realistic soundfield, especially for small groups.
The next recording is the remarkable Susannah McCorkle singing Gershwin’s “Summertime” accompanied by a single bowed doublebass. Through the LCD-X headphone, listening to this recording was like hearing the singer in three-dimensional space with a doublebass to her left and further back. I could close my eyes and see the two performers executing their craft right in front of me. The bowing of the doublebass was so realistic that all I could do was shake my head in wonder. And McCorkle’s vocal ain’t bad either.