Review written by Andrew Park (@Resolve)
Headphones provided for evaluation by headphones.com
The Audeze LCD-X is a headphone that's been around for some time now, however I'm told there was a recent revision near the end of last year that makes it worth evaluating in 2020. For a long time, the LCD-X was considered the first step up into true flagship territory, taking notable steps forward in terms of technical performance over the LCD-2. But now, with the HiFiMAN Ananda regularly on sale at $700, the LCD-X has some stiff competition at its $1200 price tag. I had considered the Ananda a bit of a benchmark at its lower price tag, so it's worth asking if the LCD-X in 2020 is worth the price increase over the HiFiMAN Ananda.
- Style - Over-ear, open-back
- Driver Type - Planar Magnetic
- Transducer size - 106 mm
- Maximum SPL - >130dB
- Frequency response - 10Hz - 50kHz
- Impedance - 20 ohms
- Sensitivity - 103 dB/1mW (at Drum Reference Point)
- Minimum power requirement - >100mW
- Recommended power level - >250mW
- Weight - 635-675g
- Price - $1200
- iFi Pro iDSD -> Cayin IHA-6
- iFi Pro iDSD -> SPL Phonitor X
- Mytek Liberty DAC
- Auris Audio Euterpe
- Earmen TR-Amp
Build, Design & Comfort
The Audeze LCD-X might be an example of a headphone that's built too well. It sounds counter-intuitive, we want our gear to last long and feel solid (robust?), but in this case I think it's resulted in too much weight. The LCD-X weighs over 635g, and while much of this is due to the magnet structure in place, there's quite a bit of metal on this headphone as well. Thankfully the cable is excellent, being both lightweight and tangle free with no microphonic issues. The comfort - apart from the weight - is also excellent. When you put them on, you feel somewhat encased into the headphone, but this isn't a bad thing. I also don't find the LCD-X to feel as heavy as the LCD-4, but it does weigh down on my neck after some time. I don't recommend using this all hours of the day for most people, but for a few hours, it's acceptable. So while I firmly believe headphones shouldn't weigh more than 500g, the weight of the LCD-X may not be as much of a deal-breaker for some.
After Audeze's popular LCD-2, the LCD-X fits in a price range between it and the LCD-3. The question is whether or not its performance is appropriate for its price increase over the LCD-2. The Audeze LCD-X uses a double sided magnetic array along with Audeze's Fazor elements. In spite of its "full-sized" look and design, the LCD-X is also easy enough to drive, however it does still benefit from a good headphone amplifier and I wouldn't run it from a phone. My guess is the LCD-X was designed with music creators in mind, to be able to work with a wide range of source equipment.
The LCD-X has really good detail retrieval and image clarity - a noticeable step up from lower priced planar magnetic headphones. I find it to be ever so slightly better than the HiFiMAN Ananda, with just a bit more clarity in the treble above the consonant range (anywhere above 9khz). This causes cymbal hits to come through with incredible clarity and texture. Image separation and distinction is also better defined than on the entry and mid-level planars out there, and it's even better than some that cost quite a bit more.
Remembering that the LCD-X is still quite a bit more expensive ($1200) than the Ananda ($700), I'm hesitant to give it top marks for detail, since it's only ever so slightly better. But at the same time, there's nothing else in this price category that I'd consider better at the moment either, so the LCD-X scores quite high regardless.
Speed & Dynamics
The LCD-X has the kind of immediacy and snappiness that we should expect from a high end planar magnetic headphone. Everything sounds tight and well controlled, meaning bass definition comes through strongly and it has an easy time handling complex layers and busy passages. The LCD-X also has reasonably good dynamic slam and impact for a planar. It doesn't hit as hard as the Focal Clear, but it does hit noticeably harder than the HiFiMAN Ananda and Arya. I find that the slam doesn't always show up on modern planar magnetic headphones (especially the lighter ones), but the LCD-X uses the more traditional design and does retain it. I suppose when you don't go with single sided magnetic arrays, you get to have a bit more punch and impact from the transducer as well.
I recently spoke with Audeze CEO Sankar about what causes 'slam' to show up in some planar magnetic headphones while not so much in others. His answer was that it depends on a number of factors, including the driver's ability to displace air, diaphragm thickness, the magnetic force exerted upon it and the seal of the earpads. Check out the video below to hear Sankar's comments on slam and impact comparing the LCD-X to the LCD-1:
Soundstage & Imaging
For soundstage and imaging, the LCD-X is good but not great. It's clearly better than the kind of "in your head" experiences like the Sennheiser HD6XX and the rest of that line, however it's not quite as spacious and open sounding as the HiFiMAN Ananda. I get the sense that the soundstage is about as wide, but it doesn't sound quite as refined or 'open' overall. This may be due to the additional mesh covering the back of the grille on the LCD-X, while the Ananda's window-shade grille is considerably more open (even leaking a lot more sound out). But it may also be due to the way the pads seal around the ear. In any case, this results in a slightly more claustrophobic sound, but it's not something I mind all that much because it also imparts an extra sense of intimacy to the sound as well that I can enjoy.
Imaging is also evenly distributed across the stage, once again not quite as well represented for the center image in front of me, but it's quite good for front left and front right (as I often expect with planars).
The LCD-X's tonality causes it to sound somewhat more unnatural than I think its timbre actually is. When using Audeze's Reveal+ (which we will get to), the LCD-X sounds like most other planar magnetic headphones, with a slight artificial edge to it, but nothing to complain about too much. So I think it would really depend on whether or not the listener is comfortable using the Reveal+ plugin, but it's likely to sound a bit more natural if you do.
Tonality & Frequency Response
Unfortunately it's impossible to measure the LCD-X using the MiniDSP EARS rig. While this rig is sometimes helpful for showing comparative differences, the interaction between it and the LCD-X specifically causes results to be completely meaningless. The reason we can be sure of this is because Audeze have supplied their Reveal+ EQ preset for the LCD-X, and when applied the difference in the measurement doesn't show anywhere close to the adjustment that gets made by the preset (upwards of 5dB). Moreover, any additional adjustments made seem to be skipped by the measurement rig entirely in certain places. Because of this, I won't be able to post the measurements at this time. This will be updated with measurements in the near future.
It should also be noted that it's common for planar magnetic headphones to have some minor unit variance when it comes to frequency response and tonality, so the following comments just identify my experiences with this one particular unit.
The LCD-X undoubtedly has a strange tonality out of the box. I say "out of the box" because when you buy a high end Audeze headphone, you also get to apply their EQ profiles. Whether this is done in Roon or Equalizer APO, Audeze's Reveal+ make a fairly substantial improvement to the overall tonality. But let's begin with how it sounds by default, since I'm well aware there are still holdouts that don't want to bother using EQ, even if it's already done for them with a manufacturer supplied preset.
The LCD-X has linear bass extension all the way down into the sub bass beyond the range of human hearing, meaning there's no substantial bass roll off below 50hz. It does, however, sit several dB below the Harman bass shelf. So to some, the LCD-X may actually sound a bit bass light, but in general it has an excellent bass response that will likely be appreciated by most audiophiles.
For the midrange, there's a bit of forwardness around 1khz leading to a somewhat compressed sound. But that's also made more noticeable by a substantial recession in the upper mids that begins around 3khz and ends around 5khz. To me, this is a Typical characteristic of Audeze headphones I've heard in the past, but the LCD-X sounds slightly more recessed in the upper mids than I've been used to. It's enough to cause harmonic tones and resonant properties of instruments to sound a bit muffled and muted - almost like you're not getting all of the information that should be there. In my mind this is the biggest issue with the LCD-X's default tonality.
For the treble, I find the LCD-X to be mostly agreeable. There's no percussion compression that would be caused by a 5-6khz peak, it's not particularly sibilant throughout the consonant range around 8khz, and it comes back down again around 10khz appropriately. There is a little bit of extra energy above 12khz, but not to any significant degree that puts it out of balance. At worst, the treble energy where it comes back up from the upper midrange dip below 5khz is merely somewhat emphasized as a result of the preceding upper-mid canyon, and this can make it sound a bit aggressive as a result. But thankfully Reveal+ fixes this problem.
Audeze's Reveal+ plugin adds a slight bass shelf below 100hz, bringing up slightly but not in a way that overpowers anything. The bass shelf added by the plugin remains slightly below the Harman target, but I tend to think that's a good thing. Remember that the Harman target curve is a consumer preference curve, and this is likely why its bass emphasis is as strong as it is. For most of the midrange, things stay the same, however in the upper mids around 3-5khz, Reveal+ adds close to about 5dB. This does a lot to fix the tonal balance overall, and it's immediately noticeable when toggling on and off.
For the treble, Reveal+ also adds a bit of energy around 9khz, and I'm not really sure it's necessary here. It causes the LCD-X to border on being slightly aggressive. I don't think most listeners will mind this, however the HiFiMAN Ananda has a much smoother sound to it overall. I think this may come down to preference in the end, as there are certain times when I'd rather listen to the LCD-X's more intense presentation rather than the somewhat softer character of the Ananda's treble. In any case, it's not enough extra energy to over-emphasize the sibilants in any bothersome way, just a bit of extra sparkle.
As noted, when toggling Reveal+, the LCD-X becomes immediately more 'normal' sounding - in a good way. The only issue with this is that because of the occasional unit variation for planar magnetic headphones noted above, there's no guarantee it's going to have the same effect universally. Indeed this is one of the problems with using EQ presets in general rather than just doing it yourself. I personally find that the Reveal+ preset adjustment is still a bit conservative in the upper midrange, at least for my taste. But I think that's also understandable. I tend to advocate in favor of a conservative approach to EQ in general when doing it by ear, so I think this is a decent starting point.
Overall, with Reveal+ the LCD-X sounds classically neutral, but still with a bit of an upper mid dip - but I find it a lot more enjoyable with Reveal+ turned on than its default tonality.
With Reveal+ or Roon preset: 8.5/10
The LCD-4 is Audeze's flagship, and it's clearly a step up from the LCD-X in terms of detail retrieval. I found the LCD-4 to be a bit heavier, making it even more difficult to wear for long periods of time. The LCD-4 also has an upper midrange recession, but I found the treble balance above 12khz on the LCD-4 to be even more extreme than on the LCD-X. So while the LCD-4 is noticeably better at image clarity and detail, it's tonality and frequency response isn't all that much better. I think both headphones require a bit of EQ, or making use of Audeze's excellent Reveal+ presets to get the most out of them.
The HiFiMAN Ananda is considerably lighter (400g), with a much more agreeable frequency response without any EQ adjustments, however after using Reveal+, I think it may just come down to preference. The Ananda is maybe a bit more 'U-shaped', with a touch of extra bass energy, while the LCD-X ends up being a bit more neutral, just with an upper midrange dip, but better treble extension above 12khz. Additionally, the LCD-X has a more aggressive presentation and it also has a bit better slam, while the Ananda has a softer 'refined' kind of sound. I find the LCD-X is also ever so slightly better at detail retrieval, but it may also be just in the upper treble. I think if you're not prepare to EQ or use Reveal+, the Ananda would likely be the better choice, but when using Reveal+ I can see reasons to prefer the LCD-X.
The Focal Clear comes in at a slightly higher price tag (depending on if you get the LCD-X case), but I often get asked which of these two are better. To put it bluntly, the Clear is a much more 'normal' headphone in every sense. It's more comfortable (being lighter), it slams harder (being a dynamic driver headphone), and it has a more agreeable tonality and frequency response. On the other hand, the LCD-X has a better soundstage and it has better image separation and distinction. For detail and image clarity, it's really more of a comparison between planar and dynamic - both are excellent in that regard, but I tend to prefer the way planars handle image clarity.
There are two knocks against the LCD-X that are worth keeping in mind. The first is that due to its somewhat strange frequency response, getting the most out of it means making use of Audeze's Reveal+ preset, or adding a bit of EQ. The second knock against the LCD-X is its weight. At over 635g, for those of us sitting upright at a desk working all day, the LCD-X may not be the best choice.
On the other hand, it's nice to know that when you buy an Audeze headphone you're not left having to EQ blindly just by ear. For listeners comfortable using the Reveal+ preset, either through Roon or EQ software, the LCD-X is a great sounding headphone. If you're comfortable doing this, and the notion of a slightly heavier headphone doesn't turn you away, the LCD-X is an excellent technical performer and I highly recommend trying it. Is it better than the HiFiMAN Ananda? If you prefer a more intense kind of sound with a bit more punch to it, then the price increase may be worth it for you, but I could see a compelling reason to prefer either one.
Weighted Score: 7.8/10
Weighted Score with Reveal+ or Roon preset: 8.4/10
Weighting prioritizes detail, frequency response, comfort and image distinction.
-Andrew Park (@resolve)
Check out the video review below: