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Taron & Andrew Lissimore
In the past few years, planar magnetic headphones have taken the audiophile world by storm delivering previously unheard sound quality into the ears of music freaks everywhere. The beautiful Audeze LCD-XC is among the first full-size planar magnetic headphones geared for reference portable personal listening.
As always, deep musical bliss doesn’t come cheap.
Like the wild free-flowing Yellowstone River rushing near our Headphone.com headquarters, the headphone industry moves dangerously fast and turbulent. So the swift passage of time may have obscured the fact that Audeze single-handedly revitalized the audiophile planar magnetic headphone category with the introduction of the original Audeze LCD-2 model back in late 2009.
Since then, California-based Audeze has continued to innovate at a torrid pace releasing an array of planar headphones up and down the performance, application and price point ladder, all geared for discerning music lovers. And now other manufacturers have jumped on the speeding planar magnetic headphone train, including superb high-end planar models recently released by HiFiMan and Mr.Speakers.
So here's a bit of backstory. The planar magnetic transducer dates back to the very early days of the headphone era when they were termed “Orthodynamic” headphones by Yamaha. However, the category was really best suited for studio and recording pros looking for loud, clear, unadulterated sound - not necessarily wearing comfort or accurate precision sound quality.
But from the moment the first Audeze LCD-2 hit the shelves and dropped our audiophile headphone-loving jaws in '09, we knew we were in for a sound quality revolution. There's absolutely no doubt that Audeze has worked furiously to deliver true reference audio performance and constant advancement with every new product.
The Audeze LCD-XC headphone represents their first foray into the notoriously difficult closed-back earcup category. Closed/sealed headphones always present spiky audio engineering problems given the odd frequency resonances an enclosed/sealed earcup chamber can potentially create versus an open-type earcup design where no such compression speaker loading or untoward resonance issues exist.
Compared to the Mr Speakers Ether C, another great sealed-back, full-size planar magnetic audiophile headphone full of proprietary goodness, the LCD-XC is significantly heavier at almost twice the weight (without cable). The extra ounces will add up after several hours of listening, so the ergonomics and wearing comfort nod easily goes to the Ether C.
Both headphones are exceedingly well-built in Southern California with the Audeze real tonewood outer shells (you can select from iroko, walnut, purple heart, or bubinga wood earcup backs) standing out from the very lightweight but somewhat less distinct-looking grey matte carbon fiber earcups of the Mr. Speakers Ether C.
Sonically, both cans also offer different musical strengths with the Ether C slightly besting the Audeze XC in depth of field and soundstage presentation. In fact, the Ether C may be the most open-sounding closed-back headphone we’ve heard to date; its pinpoint sense of space and ‘air’ around the instruments and voices remains astonishing to our experienced Headphone.com reviewers.
The Audeze XC does carry an audibly more ample, richer bass punch in the lows with improved extension versus the Mr.Speakers Ether C which has a good but very tightly controlled bottom-end response. Interestingly, when compared against the Fostex TH-900 Mk II headphone - a dynamic driver design manufactured by one of the originators of the planar magnetic headphone - the Audeze LCD-XC exhibited a somewhat similar, energetic front-row liveliness with the Fostex delivering significantly more low-octave bass kick, but also a slightly muddier tone in the low/mid bass region.
The Audeze LCD-XC also clearly bests the Fostex in midrange/treble smoothness and silky detail resolution, especially in the uppermost part of the frequency range where the TH-900 MkII can sometimes become unruly with some digital recordings or highly analytical sources.
The Mr Speakers Ether C seems to offer a more precise transparency in the highs than either competitor, and its plainly dead-accurate sound way up top may also be nice for longer listening sessions without fatigue setting in.
To sum up, the overall acoustic differences between the Mr Speakers Ether C and the Audeze LCD-XC remain close to our ears. For bass presence and a fuller, richer presentation, the Audeze cans are the choice. And the easy efficiency and deep-hued tonal clarity of the LCD-XC makes it seem like the logical winner for top portable headphones. However, the less-efficient Ether C also delivers excellent musical detail but in a more ergonomically comfortable design with an outstanding widescreen imaging ability. So the toss-up winner can be a pretty close call for many discerning audiophiles.
Our Headphone.com review team considers both to be truly excellent headphones at the top of the category. In our expert opinion, it is these two planar magnetic models now clearly ruling the sealed-back headphone roost and, provided your wallet can take the blow, it would be hard to go wrong with either choice. As we always say, “Cry once, but forever have the best musical sound in your ears!”