The Audeze LCD-X, Fazor, and a Fresh Listen to the Current LCD-2 and LCD-3
While covering the Munich High-End show for Stereophile last year, I was hanging around outside the MOC convention center just shooting the breeze with some folks when I saw Alex Rosson, CEO of Audeze. I'd been thinking quite a bit about planar magnetic cans and how they might be improved and had a couple ideas I wanted to run by Alex.
"Hey Alex! Got a minute?"
"Sure Tyll, what's up?"
"Well, I been thinking about planar magnetic cans and some of the problems I see in the measurements. I think those big magnets are creating some problems with the acoustics around the drivers. I was wondering if you've thought about shaping the magnets so they present less acoustic impedance around the diaphragms and maybe clean up the leading edge of the impulse and square wave response?"
Alex pauses and looks at me with a bit of the squint eye...
"Good thinking," Alex says, "but you'd have to stop by the factory and sign an NDA...then I could tell you what we're up to."
Cool. Obviously I had struck a chord with their developments at the time...and now we know about the "Fazor" assembly in the LCD-X. (We'll talk about it in just a minute.) But I had another idea regarding planer-magnetic headphones, which I explained and asked about.
Alex gave me another squint eye.
"Damn, more good thinking Tyll, and again I'd have to have you sign an NDA."
I won't mention the idea, because it didn't show up in the LCD-X and it's one of those "very far away if ever" ideas, but having hit two interesting and sensible (to me) ideas in a row, I've got to guess that Audeze's sleeves are ample in size and quite a few surprises are up them as we travel into the future. Good stuff.
The Audeze LCD-X ($1699)
All Audeze open-back headphones are quite similar in size, shape, and weight. These are fairly heavy headphones, which may be one of the few significant draw-backs with planar magnetic headphones. Differences in weight between the various Audeze models are fundamentally due to differences in the driver magnet structure and the headphone capsule material; the LCD-X is the heaviest in the line due to the aluminum capsule housing.
- LCD-2 Bamboo Composite - 490 Grams
- LCD-2 Rosewood - 522 Grams
- LCD-X Anodized Aluminum - 600 Grams
- LCD-3 Zebrano Wood - 548 Grams
Earpad size and shape is ample providing plenty of space for your ears; the padding and cover materials are extraordinarily soft and comfortable. Given the weight, size, and softness however, I find the headphones can move around on my head while active and feel a little insecure. This is a headphone for serious listening though, and I don't find this a problem at all while listening in a stationary position...and all these headphones are likely to stop you in your tracks.
Three different pads are available: black lambskin, dark brown premium lambskin, and medium brown micro-suede (non-leather). Black lambskin is the stock offering for the LCD-2 and LCD-X, and the dark brown premium lambskin pads come as stock with the LCD-3. All headphones can be ordered with the leather-free micro-suede pads. Spare pads are available ($80 for LCD-2 LCD-X, $100 for LCD-3) and are user replaceable. Attachement is done by a double-sided adhesive ring, so don't try to remove your pads just for a look as you'll need a new adhesive ring to replace them. Audeze headbands are also constructed with the three different materials to match with each model as shipped.
The earpads have a significant angle on them to place the drivers slightly forward on your ears with the planar wave front hitting your ears from a slightly forward angle. This configuration is believed to provide more natural reflections as the sound enters your ear. A number of other headphones have angled drivers (Sennheiser HD 800, Sony MDR-1R, for example), but usually the driver is angled in the housing; I see nothing wrong with the angled pad approach, however.
Accessory deliverables with all the Audeze headphones is excellent. All Audeze headphones use an 8-foot "Y" cable terminated with a female 3-pin mini-XLR at each headphone capsule (see here for pin-outs) and a 1/4" stereo headphone plug on the other end. The LCD-X and LCD-3 include a second cable terminated with a four-pin male XLR for balanced operation. All headphones come stock with a very cool Pelican case for storage and transport; the LCD-3 can be purchased with a very nice wooden presentation case alternatively. A 1/4" to 1/8" short cable adapter is included with all cans; a wood care kit (cloth and small bottle of wood care oil) is included with wooden models.
Audeze Product Differences Over Time
In this review I am going to try to put the LCD-X in context with its sibling headphones as they are currently being produced. There have been a lot of changes over time to the LCD-2 and LCD-3...a lot! This, in my opinion, is a good thing.
Like the guys at Audeze, in most headphone companies small and large product management is almost universally done by what I would term as "professional audio enthusiasts". In fact, I can think of no other identifiable group of people that I would call more enthusiastic about audio than the people responsible for bringing us the products we hobbyists enjoy. They fall off our radar as hobbyists when they cloister themselves behind corporate walls, but they are, I can assure you, enthusiastic about audio and rabid innovators, just as you or I would be in their shoes. Corporate environs differ from place to place, and the pace of their innovation gets throttled in different manners, but I guaranty you successful companies are continuously changing their product. They're forced to both by the internal drive to innovate and the external pressures of customer input. A company would be dumb not to have a culture of ongoing product improvement.
Audeze has had a lot of opportunity to improve their product over time. They've only been at this for five years, so a lot has been, and will continue to be, learned. They've grown at an extraordinary pace over that time. They've changed production methods a number of times, and they've recently moved into a new facility where they now control the entire manufacturing process. My impression both from experiencing Audeze product over time and from conversation with the principals there, is they've been working smart and hard on continuous product improvement and, as a result, today's models are better headphones than those of old. As a headphone enthusiast I appreciate that...but yes, I know it can be a little frustrating at times. For example, even though I had models made last November, I had to significantly delay this review so that I could get my hands on the most current LCD-2 and LCD-3 with Fazors to compare with the LCD-X. If I had purchased those cans in November only to find out the Fazors were added a month later I would be bummed, but it's not like Audeze has done anything wrong. It's just the way things are. (Note: Fazors can be retrofit for an additional charge onto more recent LCD-2 and LCD-3, so Audeze is doing all they can to deliver improvements to existing customers when possible.)
When I ran HeadRoom we were continuously investigating and implementing changes both small and large to our amps. I have a Kawasaki KLR 650 motorcycle, a model that's been in production for more than 20 years. But changes have been ongoing and my 2001 is a better bike than those before it...and not as good as current models. The two year old MacBookPro I'm typing on is not quite as good as the ones in stores today. This is the way of the world: Most products are continuously undergoing change. When I see people on the forums bitching and moaning about how this or that manufacturer is changing product over time it makes me just a little bit crazy. Would you want to stop manufacturers from being innovative with current product? If you were a manufacturer wouldn't you desire to contually improve your product? When you buy a product from a manufacturer, you're buying their best effort to date. If you want next year's model, you need to wait until next year. If you buy this year's model, you need to understand that it may be improved upon.
Lastly, on the subject of product changes over time, I hope the reader understands that I cannot go back and try to resurrect a timeline of all the changes to all the models in Audeze's stable for this review. I will make a couple of generalizations about the older models, but for the most part this review is to capture a snapshot of the LCD-X in the context of the Audeze family at this current time. To do so I will be essentially reviewing the LCD-3 and LCD-2 as I compare them with the LCD-X. It is important to know that the current LCD-2 and LCD-3 now ship with Fazors (an acoustic waveguide assembly attached to the magnets), and are somewhat different sounding than previous models. So please be sure to understand that when I talk about the current LCD-2, for example, it may not sound like the LCD-2s you have heard in the past.
One of the problems with planer-magnetic headphones is the large magnet structure to either side of the diaphragm, which tend to produce acoustic problems as sound radiates through them. One recent trend is to use single-sided magnetic structures (Abyss AB-1266 and soon-to-be released HiFiMAN HE-560) that significantly reduce the acoustic obstruction to the diaphragm. But these designs do have to make trade-offs as magnetic field strength and structure are significantly altered. To the best of my knowledge, single-sided magnetic structures will not produce the iso-dynamic magnetic field (where field strength remains exactly equal over the entire excursion of the diaphragm's conductors) needed to keep diaphragm response perfectly linear. (See more on this subject in Abyss AB-1266 review.) The distortion produced, however, tends to be strongly even-order (which tends to sound good) and may be preferable to the acoustic problems associated with a bulkier magnet structures.
Audeze's solution to the problem is to keep the two-sided magnet structure, but add the patent-pending Fazor assembly to provide acoustic impedance matching. The diagram below is for illustrative purposes only and is not drawn to any particular scale, or with any particular frequency in mind. I've drawn it simply to give you an idea of where the Fazor is in the driver assembly, and to give you a rough idea of what's going on. I have no knowledge of the exact workings of the driver and Fazor assembly.
You can see in the drawing above that the Fazor assemble acts to allow sound to escape the driver assembly in in a way that is less problematic than without. The question is: What are the real world results?
In the 300Hz square wave plots to the right, I show responses from the LCD-2, LCD-2 w/Fazor (LCD-2F), LCD-3, LCD-3F, and LCD-X. One of the things I've always noticed with dual-sided planar-magnetic drivers is a significant second blip after the first leading edge overshoot. In both the LCD-2 and, to a lesser extent, the LCD-3, you can see a significant second bump after the initial leading edge spike. It's my opinion that headphone imaging is strongly helped by a very clean leading edge spike with little subsequent information. I think this gives the ear clear edges to get needed timing information for good acoustic localisation and therefore imaging.
In my listening tests, it did seem that the Fazor models did provide a slightly better sense of image than those without, and I would add that they also sounded just a little more refined and clear. It seems clear to me that the Fazors are doing a good job of providing an incremental improvement to these headphones, but I would definitely characterize it as a modest improvement compared to the overall changes these cans have seen over the last four years.
Fazors are identical on all current models and can be retrofitted to your later model LCD-2 or LCD-3 product at moderate cost. Please contact Audeze for details.
Alrightythen, flip the page and we'll talk a little bit about the differences between the three models, and how they all sound.