HEADPHONES

 

HEADPHONES

Headphones are becoming ever more sophisticated, and more technologically advanced. The latest reference design from Audeze is a good case in point. While it carries a hefty price tag, and isn’t exactly lightweight either, it delivers a level of musical engagement that makes for enthralling listening.

California, US-based Audeze (pronounced ‘odyssey’, by the way) has an established reputation for producing innovative, high-tech, audiophile headphones. From the unusual iSine in-ears to the high-efficiency LCD-X, Audeze products ooze technology and class.

The LCD-4 is the marque’s current reference-standard headphone – and it looks the part. Large, substantial and fairly heavy, it’s also a thing of beauty, thanks to ebony earcups, chrome finishes, plush earpads, and a carbon fibre headband with broad leather strap.

It’s fairly easy to get comfortable with the LCD-4s, thanks to the swivelling earcup mounts, adjustable headband and ample padding. But their sheer size and weight means you’re always aware of wearing them – especially during extended listening sessions.

It’s worth noting that Audeze recently launched a lighter, magnesium version of the LCD-4. The LCD-4MX is also easier to drive – and at at US$1 000 less than the LCD-4, it’s also easier on the pocket

UNDER THE COVERS
The real story of the LCD-4s is the technology that underpins them, though – and specifically their planar magnetic drivers. At less than 0,5 microns, the aluminium-coated diaphragms are ultra-thin, and are suspended between magnet arrays delivering a field strength of 1,5 Teslas!

The combination of ultra-light, ultra-thin diaphragm and powerful magnetic field promises very fast, very precise responses to signal input across the entire diaphragm surface, suggesting a broad and linear tonal response, together with close attention to fine detail, and athletic dynamics.

A quick glance at the specs confirms that the LCD-4 demands decent amplification. Specifically, the 200 ohm impedance means that this isn’t a headphone to be partnered with limited-output mobile players. These cans demand (and deserve) real drive and muscle to show off their best.

As an aside, Audeze released a free DSP plug-in for use with its headphones after our review period with the LCD-4. Dubbed Reveal, the plug-in is compatible with most DAWs and music playback apps that support AU, VST or AAX plugins. Both Windows and Mac are catered for.

The plug-in recreates the sound of reference-standard studio monitors, and is meant to further expand and enhance the listener experience. We’ll be trying out Reveal in a future Audeze review.

SETTING UP
For this evaluation, I connected the LCD-4 to the latest-generation ADL Esprit headphone amp/DAC, with Roon playback software facilitating access to my digital music library (and Tidal CD-quality files).

The review example was already well run in, so I could immediately enjoy the engaging, expansive sound delivered by the Audeze headphones. Despite their physical presence, the accessibility and effortlessness of the LCD-4s made it easy to become completely immersed in the music.

SOUNDS LIKE …
These are headphones that closely scrutinise the music, but without stripping it of its emotive essence. The sound was precise and truthful, but not overly analytical.

Simply put, the LCD-4s afforded the listener full, unfettered access to the sonic character, the impetus and emotion of the music in a way that was both believable and thoroughly enjoyable.

Tonally, the LCD-4 linked a substantive, powerful and tautly structured bass to a superbly rendered, fully-fleshed midrange, ensuring that the music’s substance was delivered with authority and integrity. Indeed, the headphone treated the music with a welcome glow that further highlighted texture and timbre.

The trebles were smooth and well defined, allowing ample attention to fine detail. But compared to my reference Sennheiser HD 800s, the LCD-4s sounded slightly rolled off and not as transparent.

They were certainly more accessible and less critical than the Sennheisers – more music-friendly, perhaps – but at this level, some listeners will demand headphones that are more revelatory than appeasing in their approach to the music.

That said, there was a wholesomeness, an intensity to the LCD-4’s treatment of the music that made for compelling listening.

On ‘C#’, from the Avishai Cohen Trio’s From Darkness set, the syncopated rhythm initially drives the melody, with the articulate percussion, agile bass and muscular bass all vying for attention.

Despite the complexity of the arrangement, the LCD-4s easily, even gracefully maintained their poise and lucidity, affording each instrument close attention, yet never losing sight of the music’s overall thrust and intention.

Nitai Herschkovits’ piano sounded liquid and incisive, leading the music’s charge with brilliance and intensity, while the virtuoso percussion of Daniel Dor was succinctly and powerfully rendered across a clearly delineated soundstage that gave the music free rein and never constrained the sound.

Dimensionality was effortlessly presented but never artificially emphasised, meticulously placing each instrument in the sonic space, and always promoting a sense of cohesion and musical empathy.

The lush, Latin-lounge jazz of Eliane Elias was beautifully translated by the LCD-4s. They extracted the smouldering, sexy essence of the Brazilian singer’s vocals to riveting effect, and placed her against a backdrop of slick piano, enthusiastic percussion and seamless backing vocals.

The piano provided a compelling melodic counterpoint to Eliane’s breathy delivery, while the doo-wop backing added a richly timbred backdrop. Again, it was the effortlessness of the LCD-4s that impressed: the hardware got out of the way of the music, allowing it to flow with an unencumbered grace and ease that made the result sound more like the real thing, and less than hi-fi.

THE BOTTOM LINE
And that, my friends, is the true magic of the Audeze LCD-4. It brings the listener closer to the heart and soul of the music with a vivid, all-embracing intensity that makes you forget all that hi-fi mumbo jumbo, and focus on the essence of the performance instead.

In terms of sheer resolution and detail retrieval, outright transparency and sonic precision, there are better headphones out there. But when it comes to musical authenticity and sheer music pleasure, the Audeze LCD-4 is one of the very best.

VITAL STATS

Type: Open-back, circumaural
Transducer type: 106 mm planar magnetic
Impedance: 200 ohms
Frequency response: 5 Hz – 20 kHz
SPL: >130 dB at 15 watts
Mass: 680 g
Price: R54 495

VERDICT
Technologically impressive and sonically immersive. Supremely comfortable – but can become a bit heavy during extended listening. Price tag can lead to cardiac arrest …
SUPPLIED BY
Arbalest.
WEBSITE
www.myhd.co.za

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
ADL Esprit headphone amp/USB DAC
Naim Audio Uniti2 integrated amplifier
Linn LP12/Ittok/ Ortofon Cadenza Black
Valve Audio Whisper phono stage
PS Audio DirectStream DAC + Bridge II
PS Audio Stellar 300S power amp
Vivid Audio V1.5 loudspeakers

MUSIC
Eliane Elias – Dance of Time (|Concord 96/24 FLAC)
Avishai Cohen Trio – From Darkness (Razdaz 96/24 FLAC)
Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues (Nonesuch 44.1/16 FLAC)