Sumptuous and Revealing
August 2nd, 2011 -- by Chris Martens
I first heard Audeze LCD-2 planar magnetic headphones ($945 – $995, depending on options chosen) about a year ago at a Can-Jam event organized by our friends at www.head-fi.org. When I visited the Audeze demonstration table, I must say that I experienced a veritable flood of favorable impressions, one right after another. Let me take you through that experience step by step.
Even before hearing the LCD-2 I was struck by its beautiful appearance. What caught my eye were both the LCD-2’s lovely Caribbean rosewood ear cup housings, and also the precise fit of the headphone’s metal parts and leather ear pads. Even from a quick glance it seemed obvious that the headphones had been built with care and terrific attention to detail.
Then, after putting the headphones on, I couldn’t help but be wowed by the sheer levels of comfort the Audezes provided. Though the LCD-2’s have quite large ear cups, their well-designed leather ear pads do a great job of making them feel lighter than you might expect and of pampering the listener. Frankly, these headphones feel the way that the interior of a Rolls-Royce automobile looks—in a word, sumptuous.
Finally, as I began to play reference musical material through the LCD-2’s, my attention was drawn—as if by a tractor beam—to their sound. After a few minutes of initial familiarization, I thought to myself that the LCD-2 was perhaps one of the very best headphones I had ever heard (an impression reinforced, no doubt, by the fact that the Audezes were being powered by an early prototypes of Cavalli Audio’s spectacularly good Liquid Fire headphone amplifier). Although I perceived their voicing to be slightly on the warm (or dark) side of strict neutrality, I found the LCD-2 seemed for the most part to provide smooth and accurate frequency response, and that it had an uncanny ability to retrieve low-level sonic details without ever sounding as if it were working hard to do so.
Given all of these favorable first impressions, I of course requested review samples of the LCD-2 for Playback, with results I am pleased to report in this review.
- A Home-Grown Product: Audeze’s LCD-2 has been designed and manufactured entirely in the U.S.—a factor potentially of great importance to some buyers.
- Fit and Finish: Everything about the LCD-2 is finely finished, including its presentation case, which is made of Caribbean rosewood, as are the open-back ear cup housings of the LCD-2. Alternatively, buyers can forego the wood presentation case and instead opt for a well-made travel case.
- Planar Magnetic Drivers: The LCD-2 features planar magnetic drivers that differ substantially from the voice coil-driven, piston-type drivers found in most headphones.
- In a traditional driver a voice coil/magnet assembly serves as an electromechanical “motor” that drives a cone- or dome-shaped diaphragm forward and backward to produce sound waves. Because the voice coil exerts force on the diaphragm either from its center (as with a cone) or from its outer edge (as with a dome), traditional driver diaphragms must, as a matter of practical necessity, be strong, stiff and rigid—qualities that ultimately limit how low the mass of the diaphragm will be.
- In contrast, planar magnetic drivers use ultra thin, membrane-like diaphragms whose surfaces feature etched circuits that—in essence—serve in the capacity of “voice coils.” The entire diaphragm, complete with embedded circuit traces, is suspended in a magnetic field (typically created by magnets positioned in a precise pattern and attached to a flat, open, grid-like frame), so that when audio signals are present the whole diaphragm surface moves forward and backward, producing sound. Since the diaphragm is effectively driven over its entire surface area it can be made incredibly light, thin, and responsive. Audeze points out that, “the mass of the (LCD-2) diaphragm is very light and is comparable to the mass of the air it moves.” The result, according to Audeze, is a drive unit that offers several compelling benefits relative to traditional piston-type drivers.
- Planar magnetic driver benefits:
- More precise, piston-like driver motion with lower distortion. According to Audeze, these benefits are “due to the even application of force by the magnetic field surrounding the diaphragm, which reduces distortion effects. “
- Toughness and durability: As Audeze notes, “the diaphragm is mounted on all sides, reducing fatigue points; Planar Magnetic speakers employ a tough polymer as the base material, which makes it much more durable than cone diaphragms.
- Responsiveness: Audeze observes that, “because the diaphragm is very thin, it is also more responsive, leading to more faithful sound reproduction and the crispness of sound that is the hall mark of good quality speakers.”
- Superior cooling and reliability: Audeze point out that “because (they are) flat, planar magnetic drivers can dissipate heat more quickly using the large surface area of the diaphragm itself, which dramatically reduces the chance of burn-out. “
- Relatively high sensitivity and efficiency: Unlike some planar magnetic headphones, the LCD-2 is comparatively easy to drive, thanks in part to what Audeze terms a “very strong magnetic field” created by a grid of 12 very powerful Neodymium magnets per earpiece (hence, a total of 24 such magnets are used in each headphone).
- Transient speed: According to Audeze the LCD-2 strong magnet assembly “creates a linear force that moves the diaphragm back and forth with extremely low distortion” and that “also results in extremely fast transient response.”
- Unit-to-unit consistency: Audeze claims that the response curves of all LCD-2 driver units match one another to within ± 0.5 dB.
- Very important note: Just before this review was finalized, Audeze announced the release of new Rev2 drivers for the LCD-2, which use a slightly lower mass membrane material than the original driver used (our review samples feature the original driver). The Rev2 driver are said to offer a sonic signature similar to the original design, but with these changes: “Low frequencies stay flat, but are tighter and even more extended (flat to 5 Hz), midrange is smoother and more transparent, while high frequencies are more extended, detailed and more pronounced.” Thus, there is every possibility that the LCD-2 you would buy now might sound even better than our review sample did (and does).
- Comfort Factors: The LCD-2 comes fitted with a broad, metal-reinforced, foam-padded headband to which the headphone’s earpieces are attached via swiveling, height-adjustable mounts. The headphone allows a very broad range of adjustments, and is extremely comfortable to wear.
- As an extra-cost option (+$50) the LCD-2 can be ordered with a leather-clad headband pad. The standard pad is made of a foam rubber material.
- The LCD-2 features soft, cushy, leather-clad ear pads. Interestingly, the pads vary in thickness around their circumference so that, when viewed from above, the pads seem nearly wedge-shaped—that is, they are thicker in the rear than in the front. As a result, the pads serve to angle the earpieces for better alignment with the wearer’s outer ears. This sort of attention to seemingly small but ultimately significant details is very typical of Audeze.
- Verified Results: Each LCD-2 comes with a frequency response test chart to document the performance of the specific unit you receive. Our test sample exhibited almost ruler flat (that is, dead accurate) response from 10 Hz to about 1kHz. Above that point, upper midrange and treble response are shelved downward a bit, but otherwise remain fairly flat, on out to 20kHz. The only deviation (and then a fairly minor and well-controlled one) was a narrow peak centered just above 10kHz.
- The LCD-2 comes with a very high quality, detachable (and thus user replaceable) “Y-shaped” signal cable that attaches to the headphone earpieces via mini-XLR-type connectors.
- Also included are a small wrench, a polishing cloth, and a vial of wood-care oil.