The Swarm

June 06, 2013

Sonic Satori: Has Audeze Created the Ultimate Headphones Audio Experience?

Michael Mercer

Walking into room #3 at Harry Pearson’s place in Sea Cliff, New York – the original home of The Absolute Sound magazine – proved a turning point in my life: until that fateful day in 1993, I had never heard the sheer magic that can be created using two audio channels until that day. I had nothing to judge it against, no frame of reference, and nor did I care to. As the music washed over me, I walked around the room, wondering how the hell these giant loudspeakers – $150,000 Genesis 1s – were creating a three-dimensional soundstage in front of me. I could discern where first and second violins were, the horn section, and so on. The experience was like watching a giant movie screen, in 3D. It was so intense, it actually became a visual experience. From that day on, I’ve been chasing great stereo sound like a drug. And incredibly, some of my most intense listening sessions have occurred with not speakers, but headphones: in particular, my Audeze LCD3s.

High-end audio is a wonderfully strange world, but it’s also a small one, and many of us audiophiles know each other. So full disclosure: Alex Rosson, CEO and co-designer for Audeze, is a close friend. None of this, though, can change the fact that Audeze’s LCD3 headphones (and the LCD2s before them) have, after twenty years in the hi-fi and music industries, presented me with sonic territory to explore that I never even thought possible. How could I not document these revolutuionary experiences? The truth is, there are millions of headphone users out there, but most of the cans flooding the market don’t even approach the magic that Audeze provides. At 45 ohms, these aren’t the easiest headphones to drive, but they’re not nearly as difficult as the spec might imply. It depends on how loud you need your headphones to be, but even the HRT microStreamer, a tiny headphone amp/DAC combo drives the LCD3s without issue. That’s a big bonus, as some low-impedance headphones prove unforgiving when it comes to amplifier power. However, I don’t think Audeze’s clientele – people who are buying $2000 headphones – are worried about getting a decent headphone amp. If you can afford them, you probably need them.

I almost can’t say enough about the Audeze LCD3 headphones, and how transformative my experience has been with these sonic marvels. I’ve experienced things with my LCD3s that have completely changed my view of the potential of personal audio playback. Before I heard the Audezes, I considered headphones as, say, tools for DJs or the recording studio; other than that, they were merely a way to carry my music with me wherever I needed to go. After living with the LCD3s for nearly a year, however, I’ve come to trust their accuracy completely. Sound nuts? Well, Audeze’s growing number of brand ambassadors – including Grammy-Award-winning artists, producers, and engineers – also trust their accuracy enough to to mix with them. One of those gentlemen, legendary producer/engineer Frank Filipetti, told me that he uses them to mix on the road, and about one third of the time in his studio. (I’ll be interviewing Frank soon about his experiences with the LCD3s.) Frank always told me that he hated headphones, but I had a feeling he would understand the significance of these cans from a technical perspective. I was right: the moment he put them over his famous ears, he got it. They’re just not like any other headphones that I’ve tried – and if you’re a regular “Sonic Satori” reader, you know I’ve tried more than most. I put my trusty Sennheiser HD800s high on the list of headphones I’ve tried. Hell, I own a pair, so that tells you how much I love them. The LCD3s deliver a far more dynamic performance than the HD800s, however, and have a much greater ability to connect me to the music emotionally-and let’s not forget about their insane soundstaging. (Yes, I’m using the correct terminology for the effect I’m describing.)

Soundstaging and imaging are not the most important things in sound reproduction: the LCD3s’ ability to recreate the real time and space of concert halls on classical recordings, is unparalleled. Many of us have been hearing that for decades on loudspeakers, but imagine a pair of headphones giving you that sensation! It’s not easy to comprehend, and certainly wasn’t for me before I experienced it. These are the first headphones that have, on numerous occasions, tricked me into thinking I was listening to my rear-channel speakers! On none of these occasions was anything else playing-only my LCD3s and my E.A.R. HP4 headphone amp, plus the CEntrance DACmini ahead of it. If that doesn’t tell you what you need to know about their imaging capabilities, I’m not sure what else to say. It’s wild: they actually project an image around your head instead of simply firing the music into the middle of your skull. That’s what big speaker systems do, and what most headphones just can’t pull off. Do the LCD3s load a room like your loudspeakers? Of course not, but it’s frightening how close they get at times.

Listening to the Audeze LCD3s is just so unlike the common headphone experience, you really need to hear it to believe it – and perhaps study their innovative engineering, too. I’m sure that the reason for their sublime imaging and transparency can be attributed to the advantages of planar magnetic transducers over traditional dynamic drivers. (By the way, if you want to read a terrific technical review of the LCD3s, check out Chris Marten’s review in Playback) I could attempt to summarize the differences in these technologies, but Audeze does a far better job on their website:

Planar transducers are fundamentally different from conventional dynamic drivers. They use a flat, lightweight diaphragm suspended in a magnetic field rather than a cone attached to a voice coil.

I often relate my experience with the Audezes to my time spent listening to Magnepans, which are legendary floorstanding planar magnetic loudspeakers. Maggies exhibit a window-like transparency and have excellent detail retrieval; when set up optimally, they also disappear into the room. Getting a loudspeaker to disappear as such is not easy. When you manage to get your speakers out of their own way, it’s partly the result of their transparency and detail; headphones don’t disappear, but if they’re designed well, you can get just as lost in the music and forget about the technology as you can with an expensive loudspeaker system. I prefer equipment that doesn’t remind me that I’m experiencing a facsimile of the real thing: with the LCD3s, I can go to far more places than I can with my full stereo setup. I love the experience of a bad-ass stereo system blasting sound waves at my whole body, but just knowing that I can have something close to that when I’m not at home is a brave new world.

I was up all night a couple of days ago, listening to my LCD3s with my Macbook Pro/Amarra rig as the source and the CEntrance DACmini going into the E.A.R HP4 tube headphone amp. The sound was spectacular, as usual: the velocity of the lower and mid-bass while listening to DROKK – a wildly cinematic, synthesizer-driven collaboration by Geoff Barrows of Portishead and Beak and Ben Salisbury – proved so exciting, I must have listened to the record twenty times. The spaciousness was sublime, too. Considering the fact that much of the DROKK album is electronic says a lot about the LCD3s’ capacity to reproduce dimensionality, i.e. the aural space between instruments. With the LCD3s, many of my most cherished electronic recordings, like Aphex Twin’s I Care Because You Do and Swayzak’s Snowboarding In Argentina, jump out at me: their crazy sounds ripple as if on an audible pond. There is also space to be discovered in them, too: these records are so dynamic that it’s a challenge to listen to them, but with the LCD3s, I usually I listen to them three or four times in a row. If anything, that’s the mark of an engaging sound system.

Another key to extended listening is comfort: this extends to, in the case of headphones, their fit. Fit matters a great deal when it comes to headphones. If you’re using an over-ear model, for example, you want it to make a good seal in order to be dynamically effective. The large leather pads on Audeze headphones prove very forgiving when it comes to fit. My LCD3s have Audeze’s “leather-free” super suede headband, which I prefer to the leather original because of its heavier padding. The headphones also feel so much lighter on my head than they did with the leather headband. It’s not that they felt heavy before, but I didn’t realize the difference until I tried the alternative. With the fit dialed in, I can listen for hours on end. (In addition to the components I’ve already mentioned, the following pieces of gear ended up in the reference system for this review: the VPI Traveler turntable and the Unison Research Simply Phono tube phono stage. This little system is glorious. I’ve skipped meals and lost sleep because of its hypnotic effect.)

Some consumer products level cultural boundaries-financial and social status, geography, politics, things that consume us as much as we do them. I fell in love with hi-fi because it stripped away all the bullshit between me and the music. I lived (and still do) for the wide-open spaciousness of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon and the spirit of my generation’s angst and rebellion in Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” When I first heard a large-scale high-end audio system, I knew I wanted to be involved in this world forever, either on the audio or the music side. I’ve dreamed of owning an obnoxiously large, jaw-dropping reference system since I was eighteen years old, and after all this time, my home system is not too shabby. With the Audeze LCD3s, however, I can take a killer reference system with me everywhere I go. Thanks to their sturdy travel case, I’ve listened to music through them all over, including beachside at Hualalai in Kona, Hawai’i! I would sit on the lanai overlooking the ocean after sunset, Burial’s first LP, or Nosaj Thing’s Home ; for sunrise, I often picked Brian Eno’s LUX EP.

Cranking Burnt Friedman’s Secret Rhythms in that context provided another revelation: because the LCD3s are open-back, with no noise cancellation, I couId hear the waves smashing against the sand while the wide-open tribal soundscapes of Friedman floated all over the porch. My reference headphone system as at times literally reduced me to tears. That rig, with these headphones, is achieving something I seek in music systems but rarely experience: emotive transference. “Special N,” a track on Mogwai’s latest Les Revenants LP (the soundtrack to a French television series) got to me over and over again through the LCD3s. The song is a gorgeously subtle instrumental pop ballad that makes me feel so good that, whenever I hear it, I want to cry. I will never forget those listening sessions.

As well, the LCD3s achieve such a natural tonality, sometimes it proves difficult to grasp: through them, the haunting subtlety of Tori Amos’ delivery of the lyrics of “Icicle,” say, proved jawdroppingly realistic. An audio designer doesn’t achieve this level of sonic integrity by accident, or by copying someone else’s product. That’s why Audeze LCD3s remain the trendsetters in high-performance headphones today. I never saw this coming – not this level of quality in music playback, not the kinds of experiences I’ve had with the Audeze LCD3s. I know that the world of headphones has produced more potential hi-fi converts than ever before, but people still need to experience something vastly different from their everyday experience, something that shakes them out of their overstimulated, Twitterized comas.

Headphones currently remain embedded in our lives like never before in audio history. We use them to talk on our cell phones, to listen to our music, at home or on the go; kids use them while playing insanely realistic videogames. They’re everywhere, so why not create a high-end class of products that people might use every day? To this end, Audeze has raised the bar so high with the LCD3s that they may have created their own product class. That’s the ultimate goal for any designer/manufacturer. There are already a few companies selling magnetic planar headphones that look just like Audeze’s original LCD2. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.

I don’t think I can identify the sonic signature of the Audeze LCD3s. I say this because, when I listen to them, I’m not concerned with the headphones at all. I even find myself listening to records I’d forgotten about, pulling them off the shelves to experience them all over again; I’m rediscovering things I missed in albums that I thought I knew backwards and forwards. I listen to Burial’s 2007 Untrue LP weekly; when I try a new headphone amplifier or DAC with my LCD3s, I can discern the sonic differences instantly. They connect me to the music so deeply, I always feel like I’m hearing my records for the first time – a result that is partly based in physiological research. Indeed, Audeze’s earcups even show the company’s attention to detail and knowledge of anatomy. Most companies just give you a circular pad that doesn’t aim sound at your ear in a natural way, which your brain immediately perceives; Audeze’s cans, however, direct the sound of the transducer into your ear at an angle, like a continuation of the outer ear. Similarly, there’s something almost intangible about the speed of the transient attacks of the LCD3s. They produce crystalline, ear-numbing bass; Distortion proves so low, meanwhile, that I felt I was hearing deeper into certain albums and tracks than I ever had before. What I perceived was not just a highly detailed experience, but a soulful one.

Soul is the key here. There are other great headphones out there, there’s no doubt about that, but I haven’t heard any that approach this level of sonic integrity. Previously, I never considered headphones to be a way to wholly experience music; perhaps the best compliment I can pay Audeze is that I don’t think of the LCD3s as headphones at all.

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