The Technologically Impressive LCD-4 Planar Magnetic Headphone Page 2


Sound Quality
A lot of good technology in these cans, but sound quality is where the rubber hits the road. Let's see how the LCD-4 faired in listening tests.

Bass - Most open headphone have troubles getting good bass extension; many sealed headphones get good extension, but few do so without some lack of coherent clarity. The LCD-4 pretty much nails it in the bass. Tight, clean, flat, and extended. Of course, I tend to like a little (3dB or so) bass elevation below 120Hz, but no open headphone that I know of can even draw a flat line below 100Hz, much less have a bit of boost. The quality of the LCD-4 bass is so good that it will easily take any EQ you want to throw at it. EDMers beware: You can knock a tooth out with this headphone.

The Sennheiser HD 800 S with its slight bass distortion and typical roll-off down low for a dynamic headphone is no match at all. Relative the the HiFiMAN HE1000, Mr. Speakers Ether, and Audeze LCD-3/X the call was closer, but I found the LCD-4 doing a better job of producing a natural transition from bass to mid-range. During an acoustic bass solo, the other cans seemed to disconnect the low note itself from the higher frequency sounds of finger plucking and strings clicking against the fingerboard. With the LCD-4 these sounds came together to become the connective tissue portraying the entirety of the whole instrument.

Mid-Range - From roughly 250Hz to 4kHz, the LCD-4 follows the gently rising Harman target response almost perfectly. This profile, in my experience, does wonders to properly portray the human voice and its overtones. When this rising profile is not present, vocals sound slightly distant and less rich and natural.

In addition to a terrific tonal profile through the mid-range, I found the dynamic control of the LCD-4 quite special. Pianos were not only properly percussive, but the touch and dynamic modulation of the pianist was clearly obvious. Latin congas too took on this extra-dimensional character that seemed to allow me to sense size of the drum, the tension of the drum head, and the intensity of deflection imparted by the human hand.

The HE1000 was soft and lacked dynamic punch in comparison. The HD 800 S faired much better in this comparison, besting the LCD-4 in dynamism through the mid-range, but it was not nearly so well integrated into the low notes as it began to loose its punch and clarity.

Treble - All this good stuff...and then, sadly, troubles with the trebles. I've always had trouble with LCD series headphone treble, but I never really got a good grip on what I was hearing. Then the LCD-4 comes along having a somewhat cleaner response than previous models, and all of a sudden the exact problem with the treble became to speak.

Most all LCD headphones I've measured in the past have a distinct drop in treble response starting at 4kHz and going up to about 8kHz. Notches in response are harder to hear than spikes in response, and previously I didn't hear it as a distinct problem. I suppose it was obscured a bit by low level distortions or resonances in the neighborhood.

Further, quite a few headphones have this notch, and in the specific case of the Philips Fidelio X2 I was told by engineers the notch was implemented because engineers found that this 4-8kHz region can be particularly unpleasant if not really well controlled. It also happens to be the area where a lot of modal break-up occurs. So, in the past, I've not been to terribly critical when I see a notch there.

Well, the problem is the LCD-4 to my ears does so well in the bass and mid-range run-up to this frequency that when it all of a sudden goes missing (it's about 8dB down from where it ought be) it begins to stick out like a sore thumb. I have to say that all my commentary on the bass and mid-range performance was burdened by having to evaluate while being very conscious of this missing octave. When I switched form the Sennheiser HD 800 S to the LCD-4 it was like someone draped cloth over my ears...sort of.

I say "sort of" because the treble has another problem: the energy above 10kHz is too strong. In past LCDs (of which most all have a similar response) the presence of this added top octave juice seemed to blend in a bit with the treble as a haze making the treble problems not as obvious to spot. But with the LCD-4, which is fundamentally cleaner, this extra energy is quite apparent and separate from the mid-treble notch.

I'll give you a couple examples of when I can hear these two problems clearly: When a drummer hits a cymbal right at the center with modest force, you hear a "tang" sound followed by the shimmer of the cymbal. The "tang" is at a lower frequency than the shimmer, and has a somewhat bell-like quality. With the LCD-4, the initial mid-treble "tang" is suppressed some, and the subsequent higher frequency shimmer is more accentuated. The result is a breathier, less melodic sound. I have a track where the drummer spends quite a few bars making the rounds of his cymbals in this way. A little dancing about architecture here, but it sounds sort of, "Ting, tang, tong, ting, tang." Through the LCD-4, and with a bit of literary exaggeration, it sounds more, "Tisss, tasss, tosss, tisss, tasss."

As another example, I have a Latin conga track with lots of percussion going on at once. While the LCD-4 does a great job with the dynamism of the fundamental tones of the drums, it has a hard time recovering the sounds of the fingers tapping and sharpness of a stick hitting a wood block. It's hard to describe what the 4-8kHz notch and accentuated 10-20kHz region does to this track; it's sort of as if the conga players have cotton fingers coated in fish scales. The balance just isn't right and the result lacks the organic, natural character I hear with these sounds that the HD 800 S does so well.

So while the LCD-4 does the bass-through-mids transition better than the headphones I used in comparison, the other cans did quite a bit better job handling the mids-to-treble transition. In previous LCD headphones I think I heard this mostly as a lack of imaging and depth—a closed-in, hazy feeling. The LDCD-4 also seems to lack depth and feels closed-in compared to the other cans—and its added clarity makes the actual source of the problem more obvious.

The LCD-4 does, however take an EQ quite well due to its very well behaved nature. Once the treble tonality is sorted and integrating into the whole of the tonal balance, the LCD-4's very good bass through mid-range performance shines. It never resolves as clearly as the HD 800 S, and the imaging doesn't magically get much better. But tuned up a bit with EQ it becomes a fine listen.

Without EQ though, to my ears the HiFiMAN HE1000—while having its own unusual soft and gentle sonic presentation and measurements with more obviously weird artifacts—ended up a more musical listening experience. The new Sennheiser HD 800 S was both cleaner and more musically satisfying by a clear margin to my ears.

Couple the above treble troubles with the $4000 price tag and the LCD-4 becomes a hard headphone for me to recommend. If you're a big fan of the Audeze sound you may become quite taken by the improvements to this headphone—which are very real compared to previous models. But if you can only afford one end-game headphone, stay away. If you've got a shit load of money and love and collect headphones, have at it. It'll be going to people doing great engineering work.

Boy, it pains me to write this review, I do so admire the work done by the folks at Audeze. Fortunately, they also sent me the new SINE in the process of moving gear around for this review. The good news? Yes, the SINE might fare much better in a future InnerFidelity review. Lots of learning and technological development for the LCD-4 ended up in the SINE, and it, so far, seems to have come together in decent and price-realistic fashion.

The LCD-4 is a clear improvement over previous LCD models both technically and musically with better clarity, and bass through mid-range control and evenness. Audeze LCD line fans will be tickled pink with the LCD-4. But the added clarity make all the more obvious to me that a notch in response between 4kHz and 8kHz, and elevated response above 10kHz throw off treble balance and cause cymbals and other high-frequency sounds less snappy and more breathy. At this price, I would steer others looking for an end-game headphone in the direction of the Sennheiser HD 800 S.

I very much appreciate the work done by Audeze so far in the development of planar magnetic technologies; I see them at the forefront of this work. But I don't think they've yet got the difficulties of treble reproduction quite in hand.

I'm not going to be putting the LCD-4 on the "Wall of Fame", in fact, I will be raising the bar and removing a few more headphones off the circumaural, open acoustic page. This is the category that should eventually deliver the best sounding headphones in the world, and it's time to remind headphone manufacturers they have a good distance to go in achieving that level of performance. I'll take a good hard look and listen to the cans over the weekend and do the rearrangements next Tuesday.

View at YouTube.

Audeze home page and LCD-4 Product page.
SBAF threads here and here.
Head-Fi reviews here, and threads here.

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