Gramophone Dreams #13: Audeze The King & Focal Elear
With headphones, I'm pretty much forced to listenand that's a powerful thing. I never paid attention to lyrics: I thought lyrics were for girls. Now, with headphones, almost all I hear are the lyrics. I'm embarrassed that it's taken me this long to overcome my misplaced sexism, validate my anima, and embrace this essential aspect of musical content.
Note that I said lyrics, not words. I said lyrics because high-quality headphones put me close not only to the recorded sound of a singer's voice, but to the presence of that singer and his or her lyric-writing intentions. With headphones, the space between microphone and singer feels tangible: a mutually shared space. And that lets me feel closer not only to the singer's mouth, but to the long-gone pieces of paper the composer wrote the lyrics on.
Loudspeakers allow me go to the bathroom, check e-mail, and shift in and out of focus. In contrast, headphones literally hold my head and tether my body to the amplifier. Consequently, they keep my consciousness glued to the song and aware of its vibrating musical elements. Good 'phones do pace, rhythm, and timing (PRaT) easily and naturally, like a puppy chasing a tennis ball. They do texture, weight, and body (TWaB?) better than any coughing, tubercular minimonitor. Headphones pressurize the ears directly and continuously and with full force; a loudspeaker's energy diminishes exponentially as it travels from the cone to our ears. Headphones compel the mind and conduct music through the bones of the skull.
Audeze The King headphone amplifier
Stereophile's editor-in-chief, John Atkinson, politely asked, "Herb, how would you feel about reviewing Audeze's The King headphone amplifier?"
I gave voice to my spiritual mantra: "Hell yes!"
"You should use the Audeze LCD-4 headphones I just reviewed."
Have you ever seen a dog's face when he sees you pull a cocktail wiener from your pocket? That's how my mug looked when John said "LCD-4." I'd already tried these highly regarded 'phones a few times, but my reactions had been inconclusive. I was anxious to listen to them more intensely in my bunker, with my own music. How would the Audeze LCD-4s ($3995) compare with my reference LCD-Xes ($1695)or with Focal's Utopia References ($3995), which I'd raved about in the October 2016 "Gramophone Dreams"?
Audeze's The King ($3995) is named for its designer, Bascom H. King, high-end audio's never-aging, top-gun engineer, who has recently designed amplifiers for Constellation and PS Audio. A standalone headphone amplifier that can output 6W into 20 ohms, The King is moderately large (11.8" by 4.3" by 12.8") and heavy (19.8 lbs), but looks light and streamlined. Its circuit is a hybrid, using ECC88/6DJ8 dual-triode tubes for the input and MOSFETs for the output. Its output impedance is 0.3 ohm, its input impedance 10k ohms. The 5/8"-thick front panel features dual parallel ¼" output jacks and corresponding rows of flashing green power-meter lights that indicate, in dB, the sound pressure level of the specific headphones for which the user calibrates the output. (Just below the flashing lights, my review sample's display said: Calibrated for LCD-4.) On the rear panel are only an IEC inlet for the power cord and pairs of XLR and RCA jacks to accommodate The King's single, unbalanced analog input. The King's substantial machined-aluminum case sits on sturdy shock-absorbing feet.
By Candlelight: Frequently, on my weekend dates, the romantic mood begins when I play one of my newly discovered "special" recordings for my partner, bb. She always listens with focused intensity, but, to my disappointment, never notices anything special about the sound of my ever-changing reference system.
After years of this, I played for her, through headphones, a recent album produced by David Chesky: Macy Gray's Stripped (LP, Chesky JD389). bb owns every Macy Gray CD, and was stunned by what this simple binaural recording and some good headphones were doing for her experience of Gray's music: "This sounds so real and unproduced. She is so close! . . . I can feel her connection with the band."
"Listen! Can you hear her following the lead of her guitar player?"
Slowly nodding her head and speaking a little too loudly, bb declared, "Now I get it! " She removed the headphones. "I understand now why that audio stuff you write about is so important. I have never experienced music this intimately!"
Later, bb and I zoned out together on the bed, listening again to Gray sing "Annabelle" through his-and-hers Audezes: respectively, the LCD-4s and LCD-Xes. Watching bb absorb satisfying, soulful Gray, I was reminded of the direct, intimate, dream-enhancing power of musicand of headphone amps with two front-panel output jacks. I also became aware of how radically different in sensitivity these two models are. When I set the volume to bb's preference with the LCD-Xes, I could barely hear Macy Gray through the LCD-4s.
The King hides its royal title behind a clean, sober, workmanlike audio presentation. Which is good: that mute-spectator neutrality let it get out of the way of a wide range of headphonesand a wide range of musicians just trying to be themselves. It let cowboys sing ballads, Rasta fellas be 2 Tone rudies, cocktail crooners be faux seductive, and jazz guys with crocheted hats be serious hipster dudes. Peasant amps bowed down in the presence of The King, village folk called it "Your Majesty"but to me, that sounds too patriarchal. I think we should call it The Monarch: The King played music with the authority of an absolute ruler.
After I installed The King, I began reauditioning all of my headphonesbeginning with four LCD models from Audeze.
Audeze OdysseyLCD-2: I've always used headphones, but the Audeze LCD-2s ($995), which predate the company's Fazor waveguide technology, were my initiation in today's high end of headspace listening, and to the Audeze house sound: pacey, detailed, and visceral, especially in the bass. No other headphones of my previous experience, not even the top Koss and Stax models, delivered pounding rhythms and juicy mids like the LCD-2s. Their bass weight, dynamic ease, and luscious Technicolor midrange were and remain enjoyable revelations.
The King added delicacy and a more evenhanded balance to the unfailing excitement of the LCD-2 experience. Think PRaT and TWaB out the yin-yang. Judge me as you will, but my heart still swoons for the non-Fazor LCD-2s. No questionAudeze's patented Fazor technology increases clarity and transparency, and improves imagingbut for me, the non-Fazors do a noticeably better job of flexing my humanity and making solo acoustic pianos sound real.
Audeze OdysseyLCD-3: Soundwise, the Audeze LCD-3s ($1945) represent a significant step up from the LCD-2s. Their detail and transparency are uncanny. The King made the LCD-3s' midrange even more pure and squeaky-clean. With some headphone amps the '3s' bass can be a little over-resonant, but The King kept it tight and tuneful. Rhythms rolled out easy through the '3s, and The King turned that good trait into a great trait. The King plus LCD-3s played The Best of Booker T & the MG's (CD, Atlantic/Rhino 81281-2) with more guts and groove and Memphis moxie than I ever dreamed possible. Most important, it let Booker T.'s Hammond M3 organ massage my body and stir up my soul. With The King, the LCD-3s were substantially more airy and descriptive than the '2s, but still less lush and more audiophile.
Audeze OdysseyLCD-X: Every day now, I cheat on the LCD-2s and '3s with the LCD-Xes ($1699), which deliver the best of both in a uniquely beguiling balance of audiophile thrills and musical insights. They're spring-water clear with celestial highs. They're jumpin', boppin', colorful fun, and they put the song and its instrumentation right up front. The King showed me why the LCD-Xes are my ongoing reference for how intimate and enjoyable headphone listening can be.
Audeze OdysseyLCD-4: Significantly, Audeze says its flagship LCD-4 fully open, circumaural headphones use "Unique Double Fluxor magnet arrays . . . for the most powerful (1.5 tesla) magnetic flux density in existence." (AKG claims 1.5 tesla for their K812 headphones.) Audeze's "106mm diameter ultra-thin nano grade Uniforce diaphragms" possess an enormous 13.1 square inches of quasi-pistonic air-moving area. That's about the same as the 12.6 in2 of the Uni-Q drivers used in KEF's Blade and LS50 speakers. And don't forget: the LCD-4s' diaphragms are less than an inch from your ear canals. Add powerful magnets, and you have genuine pinnae-pulsing, bass-generating, skull-boneconducting power.
Listening through headphones is the most directly physical of all home audio experiences. This direct-force capability and its concomitant perceived corporeality are two reasons headphone listening is so attractive to me. Box resonances? Energy storage? Crossover frequency and slope? Off-axis dispersion? Room reflections? These problems of loudspeakers, none of which can ever be entirely solved, simply don't apply to headphones.