Even before I’d gotten a brief demo “taste” of the mini but mighty LCDi4 in-ears at the 2017 High End Munich show (where they were introduced), I figured I’d like them, mainly because I’ve been both a fan and reviewer of other planar-magnetic headphones. But I didn’t think I’d find the LCDi4s so utterly addictive. With the LCDi4s, Audeze has found a way to achieve the sonic advantages of planar ’phones with the smaller form factor and greater portability of in-ears. Indeed, I’ve taken the LCDi4s with me plenty of places: There was the breathy delivery of Melody Gardot at the grocery, making the errand feel like less of a chore. They passed the workout test, too, staying put—and comfortable—during a treadmill run to a funky groove. With their semi-open design, the LCDi4s trade some in-ear isolation for a more open and spacious sound, but they don’t intrude on other folks’ privacy. (Only at higher SPLs will anyone within a couple of feet of you catch an aural glimpse into what you’re listening to.)
Although Audeze is an illustrious industry leader in the planar-magnetic headphone category (with designs such as the LCD ’phones) and has already created some basic in-ears (iSine), the LCDi4 concept involved dramatically reducing the overall size and scale of planar-magnetic technology while further enhancing sound quality—goals that presented special challenges. Designed in collaboration with DesignWorks USA (a B&W Group company) and engineered and handcrafted to order in Audeze’s California factory, the LCDi4 boasts an even more efficient and lighter-weight version of the company’s new, patented Fluxor magnets (first used in the LCD4 ’phones) said to be nearly twice as strong and efficient as the highest-grade neodymium magnets. Audeze’s proprietary planar-magnetic film also needed to be made even thinner and more flexible. The diaphragm is created by a slow (week-long) process of gradually building up the ultra-thin (0.5 microns) metal layer. (The 30mm planar-magnetic drivers are built by hand, matched, and tested to +/-0.5dB.) Finally, there’s a patented Faozor waveguide that sits between the diaphragm and the eartip to channel the sound and reduce distortion.
How Audeze crammed this much innovation into such a small package is a feat in itself. The LCDi4s are designed to be in-ears for those who don’t like in-ears, in part because they rest just inside the ear canal (not too deeply), with a small over-ear “hook” clipped onto each earpiece, helping to keep them in place. The LCDi4 uses a unique and rather cool-looking (and vaguely Star Trek-like) honeycomb-inspired housing made of magnesium to reduce both weight and resonance; the attractive little pods weigh just 12 grams a side! Naturally, brilliant design doesn’t come cheap. At $2495, the LCDi4s might be the most you can spend on such a lightweight yet heavy-hitting in-ear.
But oh, the sound! With this much true-to-life timbre, finely filigreed detail, transient speed, and astounding soundstaging, I was hard pressed to find music that didn’t sound convincing and compelling. Given the in-ears’ portability, most of my listening was to native hi-res tracks or Tidal streaming (HiFi mode) via either the Astell&Kern AK380 portable player or my iPhone 6. (Naturally, a powerful headphone amplifier will deliver even more robust sonic results.) I can’t recall much that didn’t sound texturally rich and gorgeous. Again and again, from jazz, to classical, to energetic rock, the quick, crisp, nuanced impact and realism of percussion, particularly piano, blew me away—a nod to the LCDi4s’ outstanding rendering of transient attacks and sustains through decays. Bass reproduction was also remarkable, reportedly flat to 10Hz. The LCDi4s certainly plumbed the deep-dive bass-guitar depths with solid definition on El Vy’s cheeky “I’m the Man to Be,” as well as the low-octave organ rumbles on The White Stripes’ “In the Cold, Cold Night.” Complex layers within a mix seemed crystal clear, balanced, and “all there,” including the reveal of accents and flourishes I’d seldom noticed before—e.g., a tinkling piano bit deep in the right channel on the El Vy track.
Natural tone color was displayed in the way a hand-loomed tapestry is woven in fine layers that still retain a sense of palpability and authentic human touch. The multitude of layered acoustic instruments (guitars and percussion especially) on Buena Vista Social Club tracks such as “Chan Chan” were imaged so beautifully and distinctly I felt enveloped within their lifelike presence. On some harder-hitting rock cuts, I didn’t expect planars could deliver so much of the swagger and impact of Jack White’s searing guitar solos and Meg White’s signature drumming on the heavy-blues-rockin’ “Ball and Biscuit,” but the LCDi4s did, right down to the studio echo.
A listen to a DSD file of “So What” from Kind of Blue presented a clearly defined bass line and highly specific imaging of all the musicians within the soundscape. On trumpets and saxes, even some subtle embouchure nuances of each of these virtuosos—Davis, Coltrane, and Adderley—were revealed within the context of their exceptional playing.
Those who enjoy the advantages typically associated with planar-magnetic technology—a high degree of fine detail and resolution, smooth and effortless openness and realism, and crisp, clean transient response—but who prefer such qualities in a less bulky, more portable package will find much to love about the LCDi4 in-ears. The extra effort put towards offering greater extension at the top and bottom ends of the frequency spectrum is also noticeable, and noteworthy.
The LCDi4 delivers high-performance audiophile-grade sound you can take anywhere, and with its friendly 105dB sensitivity can be driven (to reasonable levels) by anything from a lowly smartphone on up to a top-tier headphone amp. In short, it’s hard to imagine a more satisfying and habit-forming in-ear experience.