Audeze headphones: Redefining the state of the art, again
The headphone market boom covers all price ranges, but it's the high-end models, like the Audeze LCD-2, that are showing the greatest sonic improvements.
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Most headphones have tiny dynamic drivers, basically miniaturized versions of the drivers used in box speakers. The Audeze LCD-2 features a completely different technology: it uses thin-film planar magnetic drivers. I first checked out the Audeze LCD-2 headphones last year and absolutely loved them. The company redesigned the drivers to produce even better sound, made the earpads thicker, and now covers the headband in real leather. I found the sound improvements of the revised model significant enough to warrant a new review.
The styling is bulky and retro, but the quality feel of the LCD-2 is more than skin deep; I know of no other headphones, including the far more expensive Grado, Sennheiser, Stax, or Ultrasone models, that can touch the LCD-2's solid build quality. Audeze's real Caribbean rosewood ear cups and oh-so-soft lambskin earpads feel great in your hands.
That's nice, but it's the sound that puts the LCD-2 ahead of the pack. While other full-size headphones direct most of their sound into your ear canal, the LCD-2's larger diaphragms project sound over more of your outer ear, so the sound is a little more like listening to speakers. It's a large and heavy pair of headphones, but I found the LCD-2 fairly comfortable to wear for long periods of time. Then again, if comfort and great sound are both high priorities I recommend Sennheiser's HD-800 headphones.
I listened to Neil Young's "It's A Dream" from his "Prairie Wind" high-resolution DVD-Audio disc, and the LCD-2's clarity and effortless detail knocked me out. "Llama," an audiophile DVD with high-resolution 88.2-kHz/24-bit WAV files, sounded even better. Silvia Perez Cruz's ethereal voice and Ravid Goldschmidt's gentle hand percussion, recorded in a little church in the Barri Gotic quarter of Barcelona, were even more natural-sounding, so I felt like I was actually listening to a live performance. In side-by-side comparisons the newer LCD-2 is just a wee bit more vivid and clear, and the sense of being there is more complete than with the original LCD-2.
Comparing the LCD-2 with a Sennheiser HD-650 came down to a matter of scale. The LCD 2 sounded bigger, more dynamically alive, with more treble detail, and a lot more bass depth and tactile texture on Morphine's "The Night" CD. The considerably more expensive Stax headphones sound more transparent, but the LCD-2 has a more accurate tonal balance and considerably more dynamic oomph. I admire the Stax's sound, but I love the Audeze's.
Some audiophile gear can provide extraordinary resolution and detail, but can't deliver the power and glory of live music. Not this time. The LCD-2, teamed with my Burson Audio HA 160 headphone amp, could play far louder than I could stand, and the headphone's dynamic punch was state-of-the-art. I cranked Detroit's premier garage band, the Dirtbombs, way up loud and reveled in their sound. Their "Party Store" CD has a bunch of seriously potent drum and bass workouts, and the sheer physicality of the music came through better on the LCD-2 than any other full-size or in-ear headphones I've tried. But it wasn't just the displays of brute power that impressed; the "woody" sound of acoustic, stand-up bass instruments was closer to the sound of the real thing, and the low shudder of a gently struck large bass drum was played well by the LCD-2. The bass of the original LCD-2 was excellent, but the revised model is "faster," more detailed and powerful. So while the basic sound is pretty similar overall, the newer design is better in every way.
The new model's price, with the real leather headband, went up by $50 to $995. You can still buy the older-style headband version of the LCD-2, with the new better-sounding diaphragms, for the original $945 price.