Audeze LCD-X headphones
I well remember my first "real" headphones: a pair of Koss Pro4AAs that I bought back in 1970. The Kosses were relatively expensive, but, like headphones today, they allowed an audiophile with limited cash to get a taste of high-end sound that was not possible with a speaker-based system. I bought the Pro4AAs because I had become fascinated with how the images of the instruments and singers were strung along a line between my ears inside my head. It seemed so much more intimatea more direct connection with the musicthan playback through loudspeakers.
And in those early days of recording rock music in stereo, engineers were doing crazy things like panning instruments from side to side, and moretoward the end of "For Haven's Sake," from Richie Havens's 1969 album Richard P. Havens, 1983 (UK LP, Verve Forecast 2317 027), the entire soundstage was repeatedly panned from left to right and then from right to left with additional reverb, the idea being that the musicians are rotating in a lateral circle around the singer and bass guitar. Through headphones, the effect was mind-blowing! (And still ischeck out this needle drop.)
Headphones have been a regular part of my music listening ever since, though the reliably unreliable Kosses were replaced by Sennheiser HD420s in the early 1980s, then by Sennheiser HD580s and Sony MDR7506s in the 1990s, Sennheiser HD600s in the early 2000s, and finally Sennheiser HD650s (footnote 1). My headphone experience changed, however, when, following the purchase of my first iPod in 2003, I began using in-ear monitors, culminating in Ultimate Ears 18 Pros and JH Audio JH16 Pros, both of which have bodies molded to fit the dimensions of my ear canals. But I've kept an eye on the world of traditional headphones, and noticed the rave reviews being received by models from Audeze (supposed to be pronounced odyssey, though I tend to say ord-ease).
Stephen Mejias mentioned, in his December 2013 "The Entry Level," that even mainstream music commentator Bob Lefsetz had enthused about Audeze headphonesso I felt it was time I auditioned a pair. I asked for a sample of the new Audeze LCD-X ($1699), a model premiered at last fall's Can Jam/Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.
These large headphones have planar-magnetic drive-units (footnote 2), 2with a thin-film diaphragm energized by an array of powerful neodymium magnets on both sides. They employ Audeze-patented "Fazor" elements that are said to guide and manage the flow of sound in the headphone. The circular drivers, measure 6.17 square inches, are housed in polished, black-anodized aluminum earpieces, with generously sized pads made either from lambskin (as were mine) or leather-free, "microsuede," filled with foam. These pads are large enough to fit entirely around the pinnaeeven mine, which are on the large sideand are very comfortable. Adjustment is via notched, chromed metal rods attached to each earpiece, which fit into the sprung, leather-covered headband.
Electrical connection is via a mini-XLR/Micro-dot XLR for each channel, these very subtly marked L or R. The connecting wire keeps the two channels' signal and ground wires separate up to the ¼" stereo jack plug. An adapter is provided for use with 3.5mm stereo jacks, as is an alternate cable fitted with a four-pin XLR plug. The headphones and accessories come in a small SKB case, and the total feel is one of luxury, as is appropriate for a pair of headphones costing a dollar short of $1700.
During the auditioning period, I was belatedly mixing the May 2013 concert by Bob Reina's jazz ensemble Attention Screen, using Adobe Audition running on a Windows 7 PC fitted with a Lynx soundcard to feed an AES/EBU digital datastream to my Benchmark DAC1. I always do the first mixes of my recordings using headphones, though the perceived relationship between the loudnesses of sounds at the sides and those in the center is different from what I hear through speakers. I always start a rock or jazz mix with just the drums and bass guitar or double bass. The spatial spread of the drums is the canvas on which I will paint my picture, and the bass is literally the music's fundamental instrument.
Using the Audeze LCD-Xes, the basic drum mix was straightforward. I had my usual four mikes on Mark Flynn's kit: an AKG D112 in front of the kick drum, a Shure Beta 98 close to the snare drum's top skin, and a pair of Shure SM81s in an ORTF pair over the cymbals and toms. I also had a distant ORTF pair of DPA 4011 cardioids in front of the church's altar platform, on which the musicians were playing, and through the LCD-Xes, this pair gave me an unambiguously stable picture of the drums, which were positioned to the audience's left. I could therefore pan the close drum mikes to the correct places in the soundstage.
It was more complicated with Chris Jones's double bass. Chris was standing audience right, in front of his Trace Elliott amp, from which I had taken a direct feed. Again I had the reference for its position in the soundstage from the distant pair of DPA mikes, but now I had to deal with significant bleedthrough of the bass into the DPA 4003 omnis I was using to pick up the sound of the pipe organ. But with the accuracy of the Audeze LCD-Xes' imaging, I could readily distinguish among the sounds of the five mike channels that contributed to the sound of the double bass. I could therefore play with the panpotting and levels of those five channels to construct a realistic-sounding, correctly positioned image of the bass. Only then did I add Liam Sillery's trumpet or flugelhorn and Bob Reina's pipe organ, the resolution of these instruments aided by the Audezes' lack of coloration in the midrange and treble.
Once the mixes were finished, for my regular music listening I retrieved from storage the sample of the HeadRoom BlockHead headphone amplifier I'd bought following Jonathan Scull's rave review in July 2002. The dual-mono, fully balanced BlockHead uses a three-pin XLR jack for each channel's input; fortunately, Audeze sells a balanced adapter cable ($60) with a four-pin XLR on one end and dual three-pin XLRs on the other. I used the BlockHead without its proprietary crossfeed processing bypassed, and with its high-frequency equalization set to None.