By Andrew Park (@Resolve)
With the release of the LCD-1, it's clear that Audeze have been listening to enthusiast feedback. Anytime I think of Audeze headphones, I think of something that sounds great in the bass but with a severe lower treble recession, is huge, uncomfortable, and heavy. However, that's the old Audeze I'm thinking of. Due to several of their recent releases, including the Mobius, LCD-GX, and now the LCD-1, the general sense of what an Audeze headphone is should probably be updated. The LCD-1 marks an important entry into the light, comfortable, and ultra-portable world of headphones. They've listened to all of us who aren't NFL linebackers with the neck strength to wear their 700g headphones all day - all of us who've been clamoring for more convenient and usable headphones that we can take with us. Moreover, they've also been able to achieve a tonality that is completely different to what I expected.
In this review, I evaluated the LCD-1 both with its default tonality and by making use of Audeze's Reveal+ DSP to see how it responds.
- Style: Over-ear, open-circumaural
- Transducer type: Planar Magnetic
- Magnetic structure: Single-sided Fluxor™ magnet array
- Phase management: Fazor
- Magnet type: Neodymium N50
- Diaphragm type: Ultra-thin Uniforce™
- Transducer size: 90 mm
- THD: <0.1% @ 100dB
- Impedance: 16 ohms
- Sensitivity: 99 dB/1mW (at Drum Reference Point)
- Ear Pads: Memory foam, genuine lambskin leather
- Weight: 250g
- Price: $399 USD
- Chord Hugo 2 -> Cayin IHA-6
- iBass Dx220 SE out
- Chord Hugo 2 -> iFi iCAN Pro
- Chord Hugo 2 -> SPL Phonitor XE
Build, Design & Comfort
The LCD-1 is made of mostly cheap feeling plastic. That doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing, because with this choice of materials also comes a dramatic reduction in weight, when compared to other Audeze headphones. This is an extremely light headphone, coming in at around 250g. It's also quite small, reminding me somewhat of their earlier Sine on-ear headphones - but of course the LCD-1 is thankfully still an over-ear headphone. The ear cups also fold upwards to help with portability. I worry that because of the plastic materials, this folding mechanism may wear out over time, but we'll just have to wait and see for that.
The ear cups are also quite small, and the pads barely fit around my ear. This means that they're still noticeable and not as comfortable as headphones with larger cups. The nice thing about the pads though is that they're oval-shaped, so it's likely most listeners won't have too much trouble getting a good fit. Additionally, the ear pads simply snap on and off, meaning it will be easy to replace them if needed.
As mentioned, The LCD-1 is a planar magnetic headphone, just like the rest of Audeze's headphones, and of course it also uses a single-sided 'Fluxor' magnetic array (rather than a double-sided system), which helps keep with weight down. Again I'm reminded somewhat of their older Sine headphones, but this new implementation is in many ways what I wanted that to be: A lightweight, portable, planar magnetic headphone that I could take with me anywhere - and this time it's with an over-ear design, making it much more enjoyable to use. I'm someone who really doesn't like on-ear designs for longer sessions.
Overall, this is unlike any other Audeze I've been used to using, and in many ways I consider this to be a strong design success. I do wish it were slightly more comfortable with bigger pads (or just bigger cups to accommodate larger ears), but the lower weight makes it a convenient and usable headphone.
Score - 8/10
For technical performance, the LCD-1 enjoys many of the expected benefits conferred by its use of planar magnetic tech. To be more specific, I often find this to be a tighter, better separated, and almost 'plucked' quality to every tone. But it's also important to remember that this is a comparatively small and lightweight headphone that once again could have almost been an on-ear. So it's important to consider its performant qualities for what it is as well.
For most of the frequency range, the detail retrieval is appropriate for its price point. However, for treble frequencies, the LCD-1 is exceptional. Not only is it well-extended in the treble above the consonant range in the 'air' frequencies, it's also incredibly resolving for where the 'S' and 'F' sounds do occur. It's the kind of thing you can really notice when comparing it to headphones that don't do as well in that region - and it's also not withdrawn in that range either. A headphone with worse detail capability at 8.5khz can sound etched or grainy for those consonant sounds - in spite of a similar elevation for that range - and with the LCD-1 they sound detailed and clear instead. In fact I'd go as far as to say that the LCD-1 has some of the absolute best treble detail capability of any headphone around its price range, and even does better than some that cost more.
Unfortunately the same can't be said for the rest of the frequency response. The midrange and bass do an acceptable job, but nothing particularly remarkable. I'd even go as far as to say there's occasionally a bit of what some people describe as 'haze' to certain midrange frequencies. Again, not at all inconsistent with the price point, however if you compare it with something like a HiFiMAN Sundara, the Sundara has noticeably better detail capability throughout the rest of the frequency range, and that's a less expensive headphone. For bass frequencies below 100hz, once again the LCD1 disappoints a bit, not being as well-defined as its larger counterparts, but perhaps we shouldn't expect it to perform as well given the type of headphone this is.
Score - 8/10
Speed & Dynamics
I personally love the 'tightness' quality to planar magnetic headphones, and the immediacy of the initial leading edge contributes to an addictive and engaging sound. The LCD-1 retains this quality, setting it apart from similarly priced dynamic driver headphones like the Sennheiser HD660s and the Beyerdynamic DT-1990 Pro. The LCD-1 is just tighter, with a more well-defined snap to it - especially for midrange and bass frequencies.
For dynamics, unfortunately this is one of the LCD-1's major shortcomings. Normally I look for a strong punch, and Audeze has been able to consistently deliver that for their larger headphones. The LCD-1 by contrast has what I can only describe as a "wimpy" slap to it instead of the kind of solid punch and impact I've come to appreciate. This is especially noticeable in the bass, and even when using the Reveal+ plugin, which elevates the bass, it also doesn't enhance the perception of slam or impact all that much.
Score - 7.5/10
Stage & Imaging
Soundstage is one of the LCD-1's biggest weaknesses. Due to the small cup size, there's only so much that can be done. This is a very tight and "in your head" type of experience, rather than a broad speaker-like presentation. It's significant enough that I do find it bothersome, but it's also important to recognize that the LCD-1 doesn't attempt any frequency response-related tricks to enhance the perception of space, such as dramatically cutting out certain parts of the upper midrange. Additionally, the LCD-1's images are evenly distributed, but that's also likely due to the intimate stage in general. Another upside is that occasionally the LCD-1 does provide some lateral presence - so you'll occasionally hear something far left or far right. But for the majority of the music, it's all focused and centered in the middle.
Instrument separation is of course impressive due to the planar magnetic transducer. I find planars generally provide impressive separation qualities, in spite of the diminutive stage the instruments are represented on. Ultimately, while not as tight as an M50x, it's not much better.
The LCD-1 suffers from a bit of dryness in the bass. This is also somewhat unexpected, since Audeze planars typically don't exhibit this quality, and instead represent lower frequencies with a bit more sweetness and richness. But then again, the LCD-1 is unlike any Audeze headphone one might expect. It's not something that detracts from the music significantly, but it's also not as natural sounding as it could be - and I'm personally a bit sensitive to this quality. Add to this the limited dynamic impact, and the bass is represented as a somewhat dry and lifeless thud. Still, this isn't a significant shortcoming for the timbre since many other planar magnetic headphones do this as well.
Frequency response is where the LCD-1 shines. Audeze's approach to frequency response also includes their 'Reveal+' DSP plugin for various EQ tools, so this evaluation looks at both the headphone's default tonality, but also how it performs with Audeze's corrections. This might be sold as a "pro use" option, but realistically it's far more likely to just be what Audeze wasn't able to achieve with the default tonality. This is also an interesting idea that they've explored in the past for the majority of their headphones. In general, I'm a fan of it.
The LCD-1's default tonality is generally agreeable, with just a few potential issues depending on listener preferences. Those looking for a more Harman-like presentation with a bit more bass energy for modern genres may find the LCD-1's default tonality to be a bit bass lean. The bass is well-extended, however it does also sit a bit lower than what the consumer reference curve prefers. Additionally, there's a bit of emphasis around 3khz that makes the upper mids or lower treble sound slightly shrill at times. The rest of the treble, however, is non-fatiguing and not sibilant at all (partially thanks to the lack of grain or etch at 8.5khz). There's also exceptional treble extension in the 'air' region above 11khz. Importantly this region isn't elevated to an unnatural degree. I've been critical of headphones in the past that do this, as it can throw off tonal balance for the splash quality of cymbal hits - but the LCD-1 keeps it in check, and that's also helped along by not having a significant recession throughout the rest of the treble. Overall the treble is the LCD-1's best quality, both in terms of technical ability, but also in terms of balance and extension.
The following measurement was taken with the MiniDSP EARS rig, which is not industry standard. This graph uses the HEQ Compensation.
Turning on Audeze's Reveal+ plugin, which includes a preset for the LCD-1, elevates the bass below 80hz to be more appropriately in line with the Harman elevation. It also evens out the upper mids by dropping 3khz and elevating 2khz slightly to get a more linear response. This fixes just about every issue I could have had with the already excellent tonality (for the most part). The bottom line is that for anyone buying the LCD-1 without the intention of enabling this preset will get a decent experience, but they'll also be missing out on what the headphone can potentially do merely with the press of a button.
I appreciate this approach for several reasons. It noticeably improves the headphone's sound quality, and it does so without the need to manually adjust various frequency ranges with EQ applications. But importantly it also demonstrates a concept that many other manufacturers would do well to emulate - namely that transducer implementation and tuning based on physical properties such as pads and damping need only take you so far. It may sound strange to those of us who would never add any digital signal processing or EQ, but by taking this approach, Audeze are pioneering the idea that a manufacturing process need not be limited by trying to achieve a meticulous target curve. As long as they get it close enough, and with a capable driver (one that can handle the DSP), they're able to fine-tune the experience after the fact. In my mind this pushes us in the direction headphones will inevitably go in the future. I do have to admit though, at the moment it's a bit of an odd idea, because in some ways it's like admitting that the tuning they ended up with wasn't the one they would have liked to achieve if they could have.
In any case, it's remarkable that Audeze have bothered to care about frequency response and fine-tuning to the degree that they have - and I can't think of any other manufacturer at the moment that's willing to do this. It's possible that this idea introduces too many question marks surrounding what a headphone should sound like. Maybe it's just easier to tell everyone that you got it right the first time, and DSP wouldn't improve what's already perfect (and keep in mind... in some cases, certain manufacturers really do get it right).
Default tuning - 8.5/10
With Reveal+ Plugin - 9/10
The Sundara is currently only $349 (permanent sale?), and from my experience, it has better sound quality on just about all fronts. The LCD-1 competes for detail retrieval in the treble, but that's about it. The one area where the LCD-1 may outshine the Sundara is in the tonality with the Reveal+ plugin. The Sundara has a more counter-clockwise tilted frequency response, which I find also better suited to genres that I generally prefer, such as jazz, classical and acoustic music. But of course, the LCD-1 is far more portable, and it thankfully has cup-swivel (it's a big deal that the Sundara doesn't), making it more versatile.
Dan Clark Audio Aeon 2C
This is one of the few other portable planar magnetic headphones available, and it comes in at more than twice the price ($899). In my mind, because the Aeon 2C is a closed-back headphone, it has a much wider range of use cases, however it's still a bit difficult to drive, while the LCD-1 is considerably easier. So while I wouldn't use the Aeon 2C for studio purposes, field recording, pro use or otherwise, I can still take it to the office and not disturb my neighbors. For detail retrieval, stage, and even dynamics, I find the Aeon 2C to be noticeably superior to the LCD-1. However, the Aeon 2C is also more significantly dipped in the upper midrange and lower treble between 3-5khz. I find the LCD-1 to do a better job of overall tonality - especially with the Reveal+ plugin, even if it doesn't perform as well for its technical capabilities. If Audeze is able to release a closed-back version of the LCD-1, with the same tonality, the Aeon 2C will have serious competition.
Beyerdynamic DT-1990 Pro
A lot of readers will likely want this comparison, but in my opinion it's not particularly close. The DT-1990 Pro excels at the areas where the LCD-1 falters, such as soundstage and dynamics, however the LCD-1 has significantly better treble detail retrieval. This may come as a shock to some, but I'm someone who considers the DT-1990 Pro to be a headphone that gives a fake and oversharpened sense of detail. If you look at the frequency response for the DT-1990 pro, you'll notice a massive treble peak at 8.5khz, making it the perfect blend of oversharpened and sibilant for consonant sounds. The LCD-1 on the other hand has considerably better clarity throughout that range without being overemphasized, and then it also has better air and extension in the upper treble as well. Because the LCD-1 is a planar, it also has better speed and separation qualities (despite the tighter stage). Now with that said, I still think the DT-1990 Pro would be at least as good if not better for studio use, specifically because of its treble peak. In any situation where you're trying to find issues in the mix, it'll become difficult to miss with the DT-1990 Pro throughout the consonant range.
Given the LCD-1's form factor, portability, and excellent tonality with Audeze's Reveal+, I do recommend it for certain people. For anyone specifically looking for a portable planar magnetic headphone, the LCD-1 is a solid choice that I consider to be a cut above most other portable options within its price range. But for anyone looking strictly for the best sound quality for home listening, without the intention to make use of the LCD-1's portability, the HiFiMAN Sundara performs better, and at a lower price. With that said, I'm excited to see if Audeze is able to pull off a closed-back version of the LCD-1. If successful, this would open up a much wider range of use cases for a headphone that has a very desirable form factor.
Score - 7.7/10 with Reveal+ preset
Check out the video review here:
- Andrew Park (@Resolve)