Audeze LCD-4 Headphones

Introduction

It has been a little over ten years since I listened to Rust In Peace in its entirety through Sennheiser’s much coveted Orpheus system. And since then, I have been spending the better part of the last decade trying to recapture that sound.

If you haven’t heard of Sennheiser’s much revered Orpheus system, I’m not surprised. Only 300 were made back in the 90s, and each system cost approximately $16,000 dollars a pop, consisting of a pair of electrostatic headphones and matching tube amplifier. I was fortunate enough to listen to one at a local Head-Fi meet where I was given unfettered access to it for the better part of an hour. The sound was nothing short of spectacular. But did it sound $16k good? The answer to that question doesn’t really matter since even back then I knew that in the not so distant future there would be plenty of playback chains that would not only surpass the Orpheus, but do so at a fraction of the price. Ironically though, what I and everyone else thought was just a one-off has now actually turned into a real product line, as Sennheiser has recently announced a new iteration of the Orpheus, clocking in at an even more absurd $55,000 dollars a system and of course supposedly sounding even better than the original. Peace Sells awaits.

I only mention all of the above because listening to Audeze’s LCD-3 for the first time was another “Orpheus-like” magic moment for me. I remember the experience vividly. It happened right after I had just sold the Sennheiser HD-800 after losing an incredibly infuriating, long protracted battle with it. Don’t get me wrong, the HD-800 is a fantastic headphone in its own right, but I just couldn’t extract enough low-end grunt out of it nor could I really quell its peaky treble. Not to mention its performance varied wildly depending on how you juiced it. But the LCD-3 was quite another animal altogether, offering truly deep bass as well as having this highly engrossing lush midrange that breathed new life into my favorite recordings. It also sounded great no matter what system I plugged it into. No, it didn’t quite reach Orpheus levels of fidelity, but the Audeze house sound was in many respects just as intoxicating, and rekindled my love for the hobby.

However, like the original Orpheus, the LCD-3 has gotten a bit long in the tooth these days as Audeze’s flagship. It has been about four years since it was released, and in that period of time there have been a flurry of top shelf cans that have come out of the woodwork; some of which arguably outperform handily the now venerable LCD-3. Case in point, I myself have shelved my LCD-3 in favor of the latest HiFiMAN flagship, the HE-1K. So when Audeze announced the LCD-4 at last year’s CanJam, I was not in the least bit surprised. What did surprise me however, was the price ($3995), which was a full two thousand dollars more than its predecessor and a thousand dollars more than some of its closest competitors including the aforementioned HE-1K ($2995). So that begs the question, is the LCD-4 worth it? Does it sound as good as it costs? Audeze was kind enough to send me a pair to find out.

Fazors and Fluxors, and Teslas, Oh My!

Fazor

Not only have we’ve seen a myriad array of reference level headphones flood the market since the introduction of the LCD-3, but Audeze themselves have developed a slew of new headphones, and with them a number of innovations in that time frame as well. In fact, the LCD-3 itself got a revision bump back in 2014 when Audeze introduced their patent-pending Fazor technology, which eventually trickled down to their mid-tier EL-8 line. This technology introduced a set of Fazor elements that are placed just outside the double magnets that surround the diaphragm as a form of acoustic impedance matching. In English, planar magnetic headphones typically employ two magnets on both sides of the transducer with conductors spread across its surface. When current flows through these conductors, they energize the magnets which in turn creates an electromagnetic force that vibrates the diaphragm producing sound. As you can see from Audeze’s diagram above, the Fazor elements act almost like a wave guide, and streamline the sound waves to act more uniform as they exit the diaphragm and not interfere with each other. This results in better impulse response as well as improved phase response, especially at higher frequencies where the energy at these levels tend to interact.

non-Fluxor

With the introduction of the LCD-4 however, Audeze has upped the ante even further with what they call their Fluxor technology. Getting back to those pesky magnets, even though EMF emanates from both sides of the magnetic array, only one side is actually used – the one facing the diaphragm. So literally half of the magnetic array’s EMF is wasted or redirected by steel poles. The good news is that Audeze’s original LCD-3 design, which incorporated two magnets per element in the array, still keeps both sides of the magnetic flux uniform. Remember, the goal of these magnets is to not only vibrate the diaphragm but do so in a uniform manner. By keeping the LCD-3’s magnetic flux uniform across the diaphragm, even if some of this flux is ultimately thrown away, Audeze is still able to extract better control out of it and thus achieve a smoother response while still maintaining efficiency.

But what if there was a planar magnetic design that could focus the overwhelming majority of its flux towards the diaphragm without wasting any of it? That’s where the LCD-4’s Fluxor technology comes in. The Fluxor array, as you can see above, uses magnets that are magnetized diagonally and then arranged in pairs touching each other. The idea is that the North and South poles of each magnetic pair near the diaphragm face away from each other which results in a larger magnetic field. But because the opposite sides are positioned so close and their poles oppositely charged, their flux gets nearly canceled out. The net result is a whopping three times the flux in the LCD-4 over the LCD-3 (1.5 Tesla vs. 0.5 Tesla to be exact) as well as an even more uniformly distributed force across the diaphragm. And with more control means ultimately better sound.

Nano-Grade Technology

The other key aspect of extracting the maximum performance out of a planar magnetic design is the diaphragm itself. The exact specifications of the transducer in the LCD-4 is unknown, which is to be expected since most vendors consider this information proprietary. However, it has been reported that the diaphragm is sub-0.5 micron thick which is insanely thin. Even more interesting is that it takes a little over two weeks just to manufacture a single diaphragm for every pair of LCD-4 made! That’s why to some extent, Audeze has not been able to keep up with demand with current lead times somewhere between 3-4 weeks. Bottom line: Even if Audeze wanted to manufacture them faster, they simply can’t.

If you have been following the LCD-4 roll out then you know that Audeze has made an update to its diaphragm after its initial launch. So why did they do this? To make a long story short, while working with their diaphragm vendor to setup a long term production run, Audeze discovered that they could improve both the reliability and performance of the diaphragm through a slightly improved manufacturing process. This updated diaphragm would have a lighter mass and thus a faster impulse response, yet still retain its relatively high efficiency. The only downside is that it causes the LCD-4’s impedance to jump from 100 to 200 ohms. That means stiffer amp requirements to properly juice them.

With all that said, at this price point, I think the overwhelming majority of Audeze customers, current and future, will already have some kind of dedicated headphone amp that should have more than enough headroom to power the LCD-4. In my testing, I had no issues whatsoever using the micro iDSD’s normal power mode to reach acceptable volume levels; though I did wound up using turbo mode for most of my listening sessions since it falls more in line with Audeze’s recommended power guidelines of 1-4 watts. If you are a proud owner of an early version 1 of the LCD-4, then Audeze will upgrade you to version 2 at no cost. My advice is to do it because the updated diaphragm clearly out performs the old one.

Down in Cocobolo

Although the LCD-4 retains the basic shape of the rest of the LCD line, everything else has been taken up a notch. The outer wood housing is made out of Cocobolo or aged Macassar Ebony, both of which are extremely limited and quite exotic in their own right. The headband is made out of leather with an additional carbon fiber strap on top of it that provides the actual clamping pressure. The grill has been updated too, and now has a chrome finish to it that is simultaneously both striking and classy looking. I highly encourage you to just hold the LCD-4 in your hands and really give it a once over. It just exudes luxury and high-end craftsmanship across the board.

Interestingly enough, in terms of weight, the LCD-3 (543g) and LCD-4 (600g) are about the same. Yet I still found the LCD-4 to be more comfortable nonetheless. No, not as comfortable as my HE-1K, but certainly comfortable enough to listen to them for several hours straight without any sort of noticeable fatigue; though I still developed a slight hot spot on the top of my head after a few hours. But overall, I would still rate the LCD-4’s comfort factor as relatively high. Note, I also thought the leather/carbon fiber band had enough flexibility to it that it could easily fit a wide range of noggins. So if you are on the fence due to past experiences with the LCD line, at least give the LCD-4 a try. I think you will be comfortably surprised.

Speaking of fit and finish, planar magnetic transducers need a very good seal around the ears for the best low frequency reproduction. And a testament to the LCD-4’s technical prowess in this regard, is that it has an incredible low frequency extension down to 5hz! To achieve this kind of low-end grunt, Audeze added an acoustically resistive gasket between the earpad and transducer surface. This not only helps with the seal, but alleviates some of the suction effect when you put the LCD-4 on your head, which can push the diaphragm to an extreme excursion and can cause all sorts of mechanical issues. These gaskets help alleviate these sort of problems when you decide get a little too frisky with your earpads. Hey, it happens.

Sound of the Beast

Since the HE-1K is currently my current go to headphone, I spent an awful long time comparing it with the LCD-4. For the record, I did initially throw in my original non-Fazor LCD-3 into the mix, but that proved to be a non-starter. The LCD-4 (and HE-1K for that matter) is such leaps and bounds above the original LCD-3 that it’s just not even fair to compare the two.

In any event, I spent a lot time listening to the same track over and over again but switching headphones in between. I know, I know, you feel sorry for me, and you can hear the smallest violin in the world playing in the background right about now. Anyway, let’s get to it.

The very first aspect of the 4’s sound that immediately jumps out is its incredible midrange; probably the best I’ve ever heard out of a headphone including the Orpheus. The acoustic guitar intro of the first track off Agalloch‘s now seminal 2002 classic, The Mantle, is a shining testament to that fact, with every subtle sonic nuance on full display. Reverb and decay are just phenomenal, which verifies the level of control Audeze has over the 4’s diaphragm. However, the 4’s overall tonality still remains indelibly Audeze, as the midrange is pushed a tinge forward though still sounds twice as open compared to its older siblings like the LCD-3 and X.

When flipping back and forth between the 4 and 1K, a few things become immediately apparent. First, the 1K still has a wider soundstage overall, and I got to believe that has to do with the strategic upper midrange hump in its response. This recession has the by product of sounding more open despite being ultimately less accurate. Second, the 4’s detail retrieval is truly second to none, and that again has a lot to do with Audeze’s class leading control over their diaphragm. Three, the 1K has more energy in the treble department. By energy, I mean cymbal crashes have a more visceral impact to them through the 1K over the 4. But make no mistake about it, the 4 is no slouch either. I’ll have more to say about its treble in due time. And finally, the 4’s bass goes deeper, has more impact, and sounds even tighter over the 1K, which certainly has plenty of first rate bass to begin with. As I said above, Audeze claims that the bass extends all the way down to 5Hz, and after listening to the 4 for a little over a month straight now, I tend to believe them.

Here’s a funny story: I’m a Type-O Negative fanatic. I’ve seen them over a dozen times, and even was fortunate enough to see the band play live right before Pete died. Well one day I made this revelation abundantly clear to a colleague at work, and it turned out that he too was a big fan. He then proceeded to ask me to name my favorite Type-O record. Simple, right? Well, I just couldn’t do it. I love them all. Lame, I know. But he could. He instantly rattled off Type-O‘s 1999 doom epic, World Coming Down, and ever since, I’ve had a new found respect for this album. I also think its title track is a great tune to test headphones with, since it moves at a funeral doom pace allowing you to absorb everything as it’s happening.

I spent a lot of time again switching back and forth between the 4 and the 1K, and after a while, I felt that each time I went to the 1K it was a step down. There is no question that the 1K is very engrossing with its pleasant, laid back sound, which makes it an absolute joy to listen to over long periods of time. But it doesn’t nearly resolve as well as the 4, nor does it have the tonal prowess of it either. Moreover, the 4 just has a level of instrument separation and impact that really earns the end-game headphone moniker. Pete’s bass simply sounds monstrous throughout. Kenny’s guitar driven fuzz is crystal clear, and lingers in the ear as each note decays. Every hit of Johnny’s snare is viscerally felt, not just heard. The last time I heard this kind of clarity was when I owned a pair of Sony Qualia’s ($2700 back in 2004) driven through a very expensive DIY balanced chain setup. Ah, sweet memories.

So let’s talk treble, since that seems to be the elephant in the room when it comes to many online discussions around the 4. The Dave Brubeck Quartet‘s 1959 classic, Time Out, is one of the greatest jazz records of all time. And ironically, their most famous tune off of it, “Take Five,” was actually designed to be a glorified drum solo, which makes it perfect source fodder to test treble (and for that matter, transients as well). If you aren’t familiar with the track, take a listen and you’ll hear what I mean. Morello rides that hat for a good bulk of the song, and his midflight solo is filled with transients galore. What’s also nice is that Time Out’s mix has the cymbal and hats all panned to the left, with the piano to the right and the bass and sax front and center, which means it’s very clear where all the frequency content is emanating from.

The main difference in treble between the 1K and 4 is again, energy. Neither are dark by any stretch of the imagination, but the 1K feels hotter upstairs and in a good way. The 4 certainly sounds more articulate. with the 1k sounding a tinge muddy compared to the 4. But there is no doubt in my mind (or ears) that the 4 could benefit greatly with a little EQ and smooth out the upper midrange to treble transition to give it more high-end oophm.

Note that treble is very difficult to do right because the human ear is very sensitive to it. Moreover, everyone has their preference on the amount of treble they prefer. So even if a headphones measure “right” with respect to frequency response, it may still not sound natural to you. For example, I find the HD-800 to be piercing, same goes with the AB-1266 (though in the Abyss’ defense I did not get formally fitted which I’m told can make a big difference). Some vehemently believe just the opposite. Bottom line: I find the LCD-4’s treble to be absolutely spot on with the caveat that it doesn’t have the same impact relative to its full bodied bass and midrange response. Your mileage may vary.

Conclusion

The LCD-4 not only embodies the state-of-the-art in planar magnetic headphone design, but it is by far and wide one of the most thrilling headphones I’ve have ever had the pleasure to listen to. In fact, its only real downside is its price. At $4k, the LCD-4 is way outside most audiophile’s budgets, but is admittedly on the high-side within its own target segment. Its closest competitor is the HE-1K, which though overall is clearly less accurate, has a wider soundstage, more energy upstairs, and costs a thousand dollars less. And those who of you who are looking for LCD-4 like performance without the LCD-4 like price should consider MrSpeakers’ Ether, which offers a superlative musical experience and costs over half as less, as well as Audeze’s own LCD-X, which is more neutral sounding than the 3 yet still retains that wonderful Audeze house sound. The bottom line is you have to have very deep pockets to justify the cost of the LCD-4 otherwise there are better options out there that offer more bang for the buck. Truth be told, if I did not know the LCD-4 existed, I would be more than happy with my HE-1K.

Yet with all that said, the LCD-4 is still a stunning achievement nonetheless, and may very well be the best mass produced headphone on the planet right now. So its high barrier to entry is somewhat justified given its marvelous performance both inside and out. And if you have the cash, I can think of no better option. Highly recommended.