To put things in perspective, consider that the SR-009 ($5200) costs more than twice what the LCD3 ($1945) does and that the Stax will require a dedicated electrostatic headphone amp that will likely set you back another $4250 - $5000 or more. In contrast, the LCD3 is surprisingly easy to drive as planar magnetic headphones go (93dB sensitivity), meaning that you can get good results with well-designed mid-priced conventional headphone amplifiers (though the LCD3 certainly justifies investing in the best headphone amp you can afford). While the LCD3 is obviously not cheap, it is not overpriced given the exceptional sound quality on offer.
In a “big picture” sense, the LCD3 is that rare audio component that does literally everything well, and that offers state-of-the-art bass reproduction and near state-of-the-art midrange lucidity. With the LCD3 you never have to worry about tradeoffs or drawbacks because, apart from price and a very slight degree of upper midrange/treble reticence, there aren’t any. Instead, you just relax and enjoy the ride as the LCD3 takes you as far up the performance ladder as most of us will ever need or want to go.
I’ve said that the LCD3 offers state-of-the-art bass, extraordinary midrange lucidity, and powerful and expressive dynamics. To hear all three sets of qualities on display in one relatively short piece of music, try listening to the second (Scherzo: Allegro molto) movement of the Copland Organ Symphony as performed by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, with Paul Jacobs as organist [SFS Media, SACD]. This beautiful, angular, contemporary piece often begins themes with one or two group of instruments, then adds layers of instrumentation, and in the process weaves in the voice of the pipe organ—more as a member of the orchestra than as a solo instrument. As I listened to these passages unfold, I was struck by how pure and richly evocative and detailed the voices of individual instruments—be they woodwinds, brass, strings, or the upper registers of the pipe organ—truly were. But what was impressive was the effortless way the LCD3 took in its stride the addition of more and more layers of instruments, as if it always had reserves of clarity and definition sufficient to handle any musical challenge I might throw its way.
But at several distinct points in the movement the overall dynamic tenor of the music become dramatically more forceful, with notes and phrases punctuated by brilliant, blaring brass lines, insistent concert bass drum thwacks, and both the upper and lower registers of the pipe organ holding forth (including, at times, very loud, low-frequency pedal notes). As you can probably imagine, these passages pose stiffer dynamic challenges than many earphones and headphones can meet, yet the LCD3 seemed complete unfazed by them, as if playing at high volumes with extreme subtlety and clarity were—for this superb headphone—no more difficult than handling simple musical lines at low volumes. One of the coolest aspects of the LCD3 is that its performance envelope seems to stretch (that is, to expand or contract) to match the demands of any given piece of music. Precious few headphones can do this kind of dynamic “shape-shifting” as gracefully as the LCD3 can.
As if to make this point even more dramatically, the first large-scale dynamic outburst in the Organ Symphony’s second movement is followed by a much more simply orchestrated passage played at lower volume levels, with minimal woodwind and brass voices initially carrying the melodic theme. Right on cue, the LCD3 “downshifts” from the powerful, bombastic levels at which it has just been playing to present instead a hushed, intimate, up close and personal rendering of the quieter themes as they unfold. I found the LCD3’s handling of the upper register of the organ in this section simply riveting, because the voice(s) of the organ—and in particular its delicate reed-like sounds—seemed shockingly pure and realistic (almost as if I could hear air flowing through pipes and then beginning to resonate within them to produce sounds). This ability to shift back and forth from full-on orchestral crescendos to quiet intimacy is, in my book, a rare and beautiful thing.
The LCD3, unlike some top-tier headphones, proves able to work and play well with non-audiophile-grade recordings, so that it maximizes whatever is good while reporting sonic flaws honestly but without “malice.” A great example of such a recording would be the title track “She’s So Scandalous” from Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears’ Scandalous [Lost Horizon]. This hugely funky neo-R&B track has, thankfully in the service of the music, some overblown elements such as a huge kick drum and bass guitar sound offset by semi-realistic but somewhat extra-crispy sounding guitar notes and vocals. But the track also has beautifully recorded horn section and percussion elements, all holding forth with real gusto. The LCD3 is accurate enough to show which elements are realistic and which are a little juiced up, but presents them in a rich sounding and well-organized way that, I presume, conveys the producer’s desire to provide a somewhat “larger than life” sound that nicely captures the energy and feel of a live R&B performance. My point is that the LCD3 finds a way to faithfully show what the recording is really like (warts and all), while letting listeners find as much to enjoy in their records, even their imperfect ones, as possible.