X-rated odyssey. X presumably means xtra whilst odyssey spells Audeze. And though there’s a rather big one, C isn’t for brassiere cup size but closed. The LCD-XC thus becomes the first closed not open-backed headphone from Audeze. In pincer-type attack formation this US firm have in effect teamed with China-sourced HifiMan to replace the classic dynamic headphone at the very top of the headfi heap with their vintage planarmagnetic designs. Since then many—this writer included—consider such planars the new standard in ultra-fi cans. In fact what might be today’s costliest production headphone, the $5’495 Abyss AB-1266 are also such a type. Because that’s what it really boils down to, the associated bumper sticker might read Maggies for headphones.
This segues straight into what makes the LCD-XC xtra special. Aren’t all Magnepans dipoles? To find just one that wasn’t time travels us back to 1995 and the short-lived Infinity IRS Epsilon. About it then Stereophile’s Tom Norton wrote “…though many audiophiles are fans of dipole-radiating loudspeakers, this type of design has its problems: placement sensitivity; dipolar cancellation of low frequencies; and frequency-response anomalies resulting from the rear radiation as it bounces off the front wall, then combines in a time-delayed fashion with the output from the front. Infinity avoid or minimize these problems by absorbing the rear radiation of the naturally dipolar EMITs and EMIMs—a technique they first used in the Renaissance loudspeakers. The entire top half of the cabinet above the sealed subwoofer enclosure is an open baffle filled with absorbing material designed both to damp the rear radiation and prevent it from reflecting through the thin low-mass laminate diaphragms…”
Of course here we’re talking circumaural ‘magneplanar’ headphones. Their rear wave never really meets the front. All frontal radiation is more or less effectively sealed around the ear. The rear wave dissipates in open space. This neatly bypasses Norton’s bugaboos of dipolar LF cancellation, front-wall bounce and mixing of time-delayed rear wave with front wave. Why then would anyone deliberately erect a very close-proximity wall for this rear wave to ricochet off, reflect back through the read-thru-thin membrane and cause issues with time delay, comb filtering and partial out-of-phase cancellations? Hadn’t all of that been so neatly sidestepped already? Open-backed headphones take the room out of the equation. Sealed ones put it back in.
Without getting too technical, this suggests why sealed planarmagnetic headphones are rare and sealed cans in general positioned lower. Even the model which Audeze themselves call their reference—the LCD-X—is an open-backed variant. Putting your hands across a standard on-head Maggie from any maker demonstrates the difference. The sound immediately suffocates, dulls, shrinks laterally and gets fuzzier and a bit hollow. Why bother restricting such fabulously fast open sound with a perfectly sealed barrier as Audeze have now done in your choice of Bubinga, Purple Heart, Iroki or Walnut wood?
As so often happens in Hollywood when a ‘uniquely’ themed major motion picture meets one or two unexpected competitors in the very same season, the launch of the LCD-XC was accompanied by the rise of the Alpha Dog from Dan Clark of MrSpeakers. His barker is a $600 rebuilt Fostex planarmagnetic with 3D-printed ‘maze’ cups which present the rear wave with micro-pore channels to (putting it casually) get lost in and never return.
Here is today’s crux. First Audeze expose an unsuspecting public to the very real glories of ambitiously designed open-backed planarmagnetic cans duly accompanied by global accolades and review distinctions. All of that had the firm very deservedly go zero to hero practically overnight. Now they follow it up with what in theory ought to be an inferior version but charge more. The much admired original Audeze LCD-2 was US$995. The new XC is US$1799. What gives? Privacy. The price for it should be a (cough) reflection on the inherent challenges involved. Presumably it’s also an indicator that Audeze not only managed but perhaps even improved upon their first open-backed model.
Though it’s obvious, let’s hammer home the privacy advantage to enlarge the XC’s appeal. All open-backed headphones leak sound. The very large diaphragms of Audeze versions do so super efficiently. Broadcasting your tunes isn’t always appropriate, desirable or possible. Per se the headphone experience is the quintessential anywhere/anytime proposition when mated to portable sources. But when excessive sound leakage from a beefy dipole puts as much into space as it does into your ears, all your no-guilt freedom is suddenly squashed for guilty displeasure. Should you care about your co-workers and loved ones. Punks always blare away clueless right next to you on a bus. We assume you don’t.
To get technical, help yourself on the Audeze website to the performance specs and how those compare to their three open-backed brethren’s. We shall head straight for the sonic ring and a number of friendly matches. Keeping it in the family I had LCD-2 owners and LCD-3 loaners (those compliments of US dealer Fred Crane aka StereoDesk – gracias). Acknowledging Audeze competitor HifiMan I had HE-500 and HE-6. Crossing into the lower rent hood for a 2/3rd reduction of fiscal pain I had the Alpha Dog just reviewed on my own site and featured in my first keep-it-honest installment for DAR. For a dynamic take on the sealed concept I had beyerdynamic’s T5p.
When the postman rings twice, know that your LCD-XC will arrive in a sturdy plastic case with dense foam liner, ribbon-type ¼” and 4-pin XLR terminated leashes, a wired mini-to-standard adaptor, a bottle of wood polish, an Audeze sticker to spread the luv particularly when stuck somewhere on your car and a small user manual. Fit ‘n’ finish are typical O-dear-z, the replaceable wooden cups are lustrously finished to a fare-thee-well and the plush real-leather pads and padded bridge make for high wear comfort despite all their designs’ considerable weight and size. Even animal rights activists are catered to with optional non-leather trim.
In short, with the XC you’re an instant member of the luxo club and a posh headfi citizen. Even an utter headfi newbie does recognize such bespoke quality at a glance. They could simply wonder. Why should anyone give a toss when in-ear buds come free and are essentially invisible? Small, cheap and invisible are fashionable. Could there really be good reason why some of the better things must be big, heavy and expensive? Isn’t that returning to the stone age? C’mon, you already knew the answer to that.
To be terse about it, big speakers with compound cone surface move loads of air. Little two-ways with a 6-inch woofer don’t. Particularly in the power zone of the upper bass and below this subtracts shove, impact and slam. By definition IEMs insert into your ear canal. This makes allowable driver size considerably less than the already small 1” tweeters which otherwise act as standard full-range headphone drivers. Audeze worship at the altar of bigger. That moves far more air to benefit impact, scale and bass. Quite literally it’s the bigger ripple effect.
IEMs compress soundstage width to the possible limit. For a reminder and as far as they’ll go, jam your pinkies into your ears, then turn them a bit. Where they end is how wide an IEM will get. Shy of hard-wiring a hifi circuit directly into your cortex, it can’t get narrower. Unless one freely floated transducers next to the ears as Jecklin still do and AKG did with their brutally inefficient K-1000, the Audeze plush-puppy pads create one of the widest possible panoramas. It’s rather wider than your head in fact yet doesn’t throw out the seal with the bass water. If you want powerful visceral low bass, impact from associated bigger air waves and what for cans approaches an Images Maximum or IMAX headstage, the Audeze recipe of bigger nets better. Without applying unhealthy pressure that’d get objectionable in a jiffy, thinking folks then don’t expect a wear experience that allows for rapid head bopping and jerky turns without shifting about such large protuberances. Steady she goes. All that is common sense and all Audeze models have it in common. Though look at yourself in the mirror with one on and you might spell ‘em Oddease. Fashionable does live on another continent. Those two worlds will never meet. But that too was common sense.
Onward to concrete sonics, in my case with my usual iMac → PureMusic 1.89g → 176.4kHz NOS-style upsampling in full memory play → Light Harmonic LightSpeed USB cable → SotM battery-powered super-clock’d two-box USB bridge → Van denHul AES/EBU → Metrum Hex → Zu Event → Bakoon AMP-12R, all electronics plugged into Vibex Three 11R AC/DC filter with Zu Event cords.
My open-backed stable mates diverged right off in their reduced physicality of hard-panned images. Remember, those are essentially reproduced in just one channel. Presumably because of the XC’s padded wooden side walls where the others air into open space, images at the lateral borders of the in-head stage felt more substantial. They actually seemed to benefit from proximity to a material barrier. This was not the muffled sound of closing up an LCD-2 or 3 with my hands. In fact there was no sonic muffler involved.
And yes, the open LCDs’ outer borders were airier and with that the more diaphanous – less defined or concrete but more spacious. Being on the far left and right more robustly grounded and defined, the XC’s centre image too felt more robust even though here I suspect psychoacoustics. How I think of such effects is simple. Take a photo of a red rose against white backdrop. Duplicate it. Frame one copy in a green mat, one in blue, one in black and so forth through the rainbow. Watch what happens to the colour hue of the rose based on what tint surrounds it. With identical photos our brain still registers different colour values in the centre. In audio our perception of the midrange can change if we add a subwoofer or super tweeter even though either addition occurs outside our actual ‘photo’. It’s all in our head. But since our brains dictate perception, it’s fact as far as we’re concerned. And that’s what really matters if this entire game is about an illusion. This one was more robust.
Ultimately my subjective sense of space width was even wider with the open Audeze. The real kicker was how minor this offset became. If on brand scale the LCD-2 and 3 net a 10, the XC with its equally spaced membranes still grabbed a 9. The next interrelated difference was of tonal weighting. Here very specific qualifiers are needed to avoid mistakes. The XC sounded somewhat heavier, the LCD-2 lighter. Deeper more anchored materialism met greater airiness. This begs an explanation. Directly off my bedroom Burson Conductor, the LCD-2 is darkish. Forget airy. It’s dense, voluptuous and decidedly of the chocolate-rich slightly sinful persuasion. The ultra-wide bandwidth Bakoon however injects considerably more light. Hence it’s my designated Audeze driver on the night stand and why the 12R rarely makes downstairs appearances in the big rig. With the Bakoon my 2 no longer register as dark per se even if compared to a Sennheiser HD-800 with stock leash they still would.
On the 12-R, the XC’s particular physicality thus didn’t trigger darker but heavier. Think gravitas. Given the LCD-2′s exceptionally hung bass which the LCD-3 does more linear, I was curious. How had sealed loading dealt with Audeze’s signature LF power? I spun up some Mercan Dede Nefes to find out. This difference was easy to pin. The LCD-2 acted like a ported alignment. It had the higher amplitude with the looser bloomier textures. Big drum hits and synth chicanery landed like mortar hits with follow-up debris. On size and impact that is the proverbial elephant in a room filled with pygmies. The LCD-3 gets a bit more damped and its bass output lowers a tad but on gestalt it remains ported once our sealed brother enters the room. The XC played it drier and firmer yet but on tonal balance no longer bassy. Here particularly the LCD-2 stands out. Elephantine bass reach and mass are one of its obvious attractions where the costlier LCD-3 became a bit more civilized to lighten the emphasis.
For tonal heat and colour saturation Audeze have always struck me as endowed with a built-in valve emulator. They’re the antithesis of desiccated or monochromatic even with pure transistor gear. Whilst these headphone gigantors aren’t hard to drive loud—even my ‘zero-ohm’ Red Wine Audio modified Astell&Kern AK100 gets ‘em up–you still need proper drive to tap this most fully. Antelope Audio’s Platinum DAC with its two ¼” jack was patently paler than the far more intense Bakoon.
How did sealed loading factor into this subject of rich hues and glossy textures? The LCD-3 had the most lit-up informative presence band for the greatest breadth of midrange nuance. Performer halos as micro-burst reflections around voices or instruments recorded in a wet acoustic also sparked farthest. In keeping with the textural bass flavours the XC played this a bit drier and more damped (in SET terms with some applied feedback) though the lag again was smaller than anticipated. Ditto for the sense of oscillating space when multiple drummers tickle a large array of cymbals, triangles, suspended pipes and gongs. Our ears seem wired into cotton candy whose gossamer fibres are electrified with very fine sizzle and energetic shimmer. This kind of full-on aeration and max illumination put the LCD-3 in the lead.
Here we take momentary pause to recall the latter’s very high standards. Coming on certain counts a close second whilst offering very effective isolation from sound leakage has the XC operate at a very high level indeed. A need for privacy doesn’t render us third-class consumers in trade. In lieu of a direct A/B you’d be none the wiser in fact. If sealed headphones have suffered a certain second-rate or lower-tier rap, this Audeze chips away hard at such perception.
Versus the Alpha Dog. On wear comfort the lighter even cushier canine took the first bite. On efficiency the XC ate first. The rebuilt Fostex needed significantly more input voltage to play as loud. Sonically the Audeze strut its stuff on a more sophisticated tier though past the $600 Alpha our favourite law of diminishing returns takes huge bloody chunks out of any hope that thrice costlier means even twice as good. Top to bottom the XC’s primary advantage had it play texturally more of a cloth. Take Twin Brothers by Ludovic Beier (accordeon) and Samson Schmitt (Manouche guitar). Between the harmonica-type high registers of the bellows injected with distracting post-production reverb and the aggressively glassy twang of the French gipsy guitar, their interpretation of Chick Corea’s “Spain” sports loads of splashiness and deliberate spit.
As such the XC showed these fiery transients across a broader bandwidth. The Alpha focused their intensity in the presence region. This created some highlighted emphasis. Though this music is highly energetic and very spiky, the greater even-handedness of the Audeze made it the smoother operator even here. It also showed better separation where mastering had inserted the faux echo reflections to keep it distinct from the recorded feed. The same difference arose with the Trio Esperança’s glittering vocal harmonies on De Bach à Jobim. With the Audeze lateral expanse and subjective scale felt even bigger too. If I were a betting man, I’d say that over the Fostex its membrane was the thinner, lighter film with some undisclosed hi-tech coating. On Rafal Blechacz’s Chopin Piano Concertos with the Royal Concertgebouw this manifested as greater microdynamic inflections and richer orchestral string tone.
Will the thrice-the-price bill settle this offset to your satisfaction? Here reviewers take the fifth. The Alpha Dog sets such a high bar for a lot less that the extra sophistication Audeze milk from their LCD-XC costs disproportionately more. But you also get the more efficient load. As one descends from the spectacular 15-watt Bakoon to lesser and lesser amps, this begins to weigh more and more in the XC’s favor. That said the woodies still sounded noticeably better with the Bakoon than a budget Schiit Lyr. At this level of performance potential, throwing the proverbial kitchen sink at partnering electronics really is the eventual destination so you hear all of it.
Even so AURALiC’s Gemini 2000 all-in-one headfi dock (stand, 2-watt class A amp, 24bit/384kHz USB DAC with DSD128, analog volume) worked very ‘kitchen sinky’. At $4’000 for the combo including a good USB cable like Chris Sommovigo’s SilverStar, this is far from a casual expenditure but does buy you a complete very compact system that performs at a very high level. With 5 LEDs on its volume display, I couldn’t get past three lit ones before my ears folded. Mercan Dede’s “Aziz” rocked. You want bass, this combo delivers.
Versus the T5p. Vintage planar concept meets modern dynamic. Did the wording set up foregone conclusions? For one of the most hallucinante voices in all of Flamenco, Camaron de la Isla remains king though Duquende is an obvious usurper to the throne. Streaming up the prawn’s Castillo de Arena with Paco de Lucia on lead guitar whilst I await the fully remastered 21-disc Integral collection, the differences between headphone technologies were stark. As such they were very nearly black and white. The planar’s weightiness and deeper color saturation had far more black in its palette. The seriously more lit up and overall drier dynamic injected plenty of white into the same scenery. This shifted a half-shadow enhanced autumn vibe into a high-noon summer feel.
The effect had parallels to moving from a Sennheiser HD-800 to an AKG K-702. The latter is texturally far less generous. It sounds like a perfectly boring studio monitor EQ’d for ideally flat. Where the 800/702 comparison doesn’t hold? Both designs are equally lit up compared to the chewier moister Audeze. Were we to cast our net of hifi similes into SET surf again to drag up how loading a zero feedback triode amp with negative feedback diminishes presence and dries up moisture and succulence, we’d call the T5p a high-feedback design. If you owned the Beyerdynamic but wanted to move them a bit into Audeze turf, you’d not use the Bakoon. You’d go for something like an April Music Stello HP100 MkII or, even deeper in that direction, a Burson Soloist/Conductor.
Here we invoke once more the earlier smaller sound of 2-way bookshelf monitors against the bigger air currents and motional energies of bassier more-ways. The T5p’s comparative whitishness and pixilation effect exaggerated by the Bakoon made for a type of small-speaker sound. Here this didn’t imply staging size but diminished gravitas and guttural response. The reading was of lighter weight. The opening not main act. In the end we’re back on black and white. Quads against Wilsons and as such two very different types of sound. To try keeping to one we’ll now look at the two HifiMans. With the AMP-12R the notoriously demanding HE-6 would be properly served.
Versus the HE-6 & HE-500. On fit & finish and wear comfort the Chinese with their harder velours pads aka dust devils were no match for such 2nd-gen American luxury. Their screw-on cable connectors in fact are outright flimsy and due for a rethink given how much better Audeze do it. For a big noggin like mine (hat size 61 or 7 5/8th), the clamp pressure of the HifiMans also was the more uncomfortable. This could reverse for smaller heads. Both HE models are lighter too. Sonically the 6 was somewhat of a planar T5p sibling in that it was drier, more damped and temporally rigid. It exhibited less elasticity and give of decays. Its articulation was sharper, it had more top-end fire and as such more focus on subjective detail and transient beginnings. From past speakers in my arsenal, I’d point at the Voxativ Ampeggio widebander driven by transistors for an echo. But the HE-6 needed unbelievably more turns on the dial before it deigned to play as loud as the Audeze. Being that reluctant to wake up approaches being a serious design flaw. It really limits appropriate amplifiers.
If you’re drawn to the Audeze aesthetic, HifiMan won’t be your exact cuppa. And vice versa. To inject into the HE-6 some of the more burnished colors and legato rather than staccato elements, you’d want the previously mentioned tube-hybrid Lyr amp just to get started. Ideally you’d end up with my prior 300B Woo Audio W5 or an Eddie Current Balancing Act.
Of the two HE I prefer the rather more sensitive HE-500. It strikes me as the better balanced design. To my ears it worked fine even on the caffeinated Bakoon. On tonal balance it’s not as top-heavy as the HE-6. It feels a bit mellower and more centred. But should you fancy the particular color gloss and wetness of the Audeze, it still won’t get you there. It does however split the difference to the HE-6. That the two open-backed Chinese should sound texturally more damped than the closed XC—sealed versus ported loading or isolation transformer power conditioning versus passive to once more reach into our grab bin of hifi examples—was surprising but the case.
Having now heard three out of four Audeze, I call this triode-type color intensity and elastic gestalt their special appeal. It’s the signature element. It’s the house sound, hot button and unique selling proposition. On the wrong amp or with a hooded source one can shift too deeply into the dark and overcast like an overly buxom but bad triode with curtailed treble. But anything ‘normal’ like an Eximus or Stello amp or something hyper aspirated like a Bakoon removes that qualification. Where for some the LCD-2 arguably veered too deeply into the shadows, the LCD-3 and LCD-XC both step out a bit to get more illuminated. Where the LCD-2 was undeniably bassy, the newer siblings are more balanced. Their bass is still very powerful when the recording merits but now plays it more ‘in line’.
On the go. I can’t see anyone in their right mind strolling down the boulevard wearing these. You’d outright beg for being ripped off by a skateboard hustling thief bored with purses. But as long as you avoid direct sunlight to protect those wooden cups, there’s the porch, balcony or garage workshop. What type of portable device can lift the XC load? Believe it or not but my trusty 160GB iPod Classic at full boogie did just right by my thirst for SPL. Naturally head bangers would run out of steam. So would classical recordings with full dynamic range to lower the median level. For better sonics than an iPod in a pinch, I’d want my ALO Audio International. My ‘zero-ohm’ AK100 however did the happy below 60 on a log scale which tops out at what here became a quite deafening 75 well out of reach. The rebranded iRiver also whuppy-assed the Apple sonically. I had no itch to reach for the ALO. Despite its upscale tag, tech and sound, the huge LCD-XC played like peanut butter and jelly with the tiny $699 Astell&Kern. David and Goliath finally made up.
Closure. The inevitable post-coital blues when review flings break up after a few weeks demands proper final words. Whilst in our intro the concept of a monopole rather than dipole planar predicted technical compromises of back-wave reflections exiting through the very thin membranes for all manner of undesirable comb-filtering effects, actual listening rather begged to differ. Theory in the shredder. With two open-backed Audeze on hand to be sure, the XC sacrificed precious little for the very real advantage of not leaking sound. With the XC you’re not condemning fellow space sharers to noise pollution like passive smoking. If you’ve been a fan of the very recognizable Audeze sound but needed privacy, the XC has you covered in full. To tart up its proposition there’s even a choice of wood trim in four species. And yes, it does cost without any apologies. And it’s big and heavy. Altogether serious and end-of-the-road stuff for shoppers demanding the best. But as I’ve said elsewhere like a broken record, to approach–much less equal or beat–this sound quality with regular loudspeakers would cost you upward of 10 times. Or more since here you get true full-range performance without room intrusions. That should make you pause. Which was my cue. Pause. Or actually, repeat all…
- Quad-core iMac with PureMusic 1.89g in 176.4kHz NOS upsampler and memory play modes
- SOtM 2-box battery-powered super-clock USB bridge
- Metrum Hex
- Bakoon AMP-12R
- Audeze LCD-2, LCD-3; HifiMan HE-500, HE-6; beyerdynamic T5p; MrSpeakers Alpha Dog
- Light Harmonic LightSpeed USB cable, Zu Event power cords, Vibex Threee 11R power conditioner
- Mercan Dede “Su”, “800″, “Dünya”
- Rafal Blechacz “Chopin Piano Concertos”
- Esperanca Trio “De Bach à Jobim”
- Sevda “Worlds of Love”
- Eva Cortés “…in Madrid”
- Ludovic Beier & Samson Schmitt “Twin brothers”
- Wolfgang Meyer “Choro y Bossa Nova”
- Camaron de la Isal “Castille de arena”
- Aytac Dogan “Deva”
- Javier Limon “Promesas de Tierra”
- Bruckner 7th Symphony (Haitink, Concertgebouw)
- Anoushka Shankar “Anourag”