Hands On: Audeze LCD-3 Headphones

Luxury materials and performance, at a luxury price for personal audio.

Audeze's LCD-3 planar magnetic headphones

In its best form, listening to music becomes a transportive, emotional experience. If you’ve ever sat down to listen to a few songs, or maybe one album side, and later discover you’ve just spent the better part of two hours glued to your stereo system then you know what I mean. A great listening session can get out of hand in a hurry when you’re in your happy place.

That’s where the Audeze LCD-3 headphones took me every time I donned them. Of course, I was partly blocking off some quality time to evaluate them in the first place … but when you’re listening to an audio component that reveals your music collection in a new light, you just want to continue with another song or album.

At around $2,000, the LCD-3 is priced more like a good floorstanding loudspeaker pair, and in the headphone world is probably more akin to a five-figure speaker relative to the market. There are some really good on-ear headphones populating the $200 to $500 range, but these were constructed to outperform that level and it’s reflected in the materials and cost.

Make no doubt about it, these are some serious headphones and they deliver a seriously transportive music experience. If it’s a casual listening experience you’re looking for while on the treadmill or a plane ride, you might want to check elsewhere (although Audeze provides a carrying case option deemed “military grade” so you can be sure your LCD-3s are safe if you do remove them from your audio cave.

These are meant to elevate your private audio sessions, and they will have you grinning ear to ear while you listen.

My pair did in fact arrive in the “ruggedized travel case” (you can also opt for the “wooden show case”) that told me right away these were going to be a bit … different. I thought the case looked like something that might hold valuables in a bank safe—and that was before I actually checked on Audeze’s website to see it described as exceeding Department of Defense specs. “The case is gasketed, waterproof (DoD MIL-STD-C-4150J), airtight, submersible (IP67), and UV and corrosion and solvent resistant (DoD MIL-STD-810F). It even has an automatic ambient pressure equalization valve (DoD MIL-STD-648C & IP67) so you can open it after changing altitudes.” Well, OK then.

The headphones themselves also look different from what you may have come to expect from more traditional on-ear models. That starts with the exotic materials, which include Zebrano wood for the rigid, striking earcup housing of the drivers and the premium lambskin leather of the sloped earpads and headband. The leather made me think of Bang & Olufsen’s latest H6 headphone that features New Zealand cowhide, from a company that is very style-oriented. And Audeze gives you a wood care kit for the wood and leather, blending beeswax, carnauba wax and orange oil.

Cosmetics aside, the big detour Audeze takes for the LCD-3 compared with traditional on-ear headphones is the use of planar magnetic transducers. Encased in the Zebrano wood, they’re also behind what looks more like a grille covering suited for a bookshelf monitor. The planar magnetic active diaphragm area covers a little more than 6 square inches, leading to circular-shaped earcups that are very big. I saw myself in the mirror wearing the LCD-3s and I can assure you that—while they might look better on others—I wouldn’t be going out in public wearing them anytime soon because on me they looked ridiculous and Princess Leia-like.

No matter; in the confines of my home the sound quality was my focus. The headphones didn’t feel too heavy on my head like some on-ear models, so they weren’t fatiguing to wear and the supple, soft leather was quite comfortable.

I don’t have much experience with planar magnetic loudspeakers, but for a couple of examples of manufacturers that employ the technology, every review I’ve read of Magnepan speakers is glowing and every demo I’ve heard of Wisdom Audio and its thin-film planar magnetic drivers (and neodymium magnets, which Audeze also implements) has been a treat.

I plugged in the single-ended ¼-inch TRS to 2×4-pin mini XLR cable that snaps tightly into the bottom of each earcup (Audeze also includes a balanced 4-pin to 2×4-pin version). I connected the single end into an Anthem D2v pre/pro for some listening, and later into an Onkyo TX-NR929 A/V receiver. You may want to use a dedicated headphone amplifier, but even through the headphone stages of the components I used I found the LCD-3s pretty easy to drive and crank up. The mix of recordings I played included CDs, MP3s, 24-bit FLAC files and vinyl records.

What can I say? The performance was as lofty as I’d hoped for out of a pair of $2K headphones. Hearing the LCD-3s was like having your own personal concert hall with top-notch acoustics.

The overriding impressions of the LCD-3s for me were its incredible clarity, fine transients, gorgeous midrange and spot-on imaging. A bit more bass extension is about all I’d ask for more of, not that I need to be knocked over the head with it like some headphones. The LCD-3s gave the present bass such definition that it blended in well with the rest of the presentation. On Bettye LaVette’s “I’m Not the One” from HDtracks’ high-res ANTI-Master Quality Collection, the highly defined drumming through the LCD-3s fuels the bluesy groove.

Actually, above the facets I just mentioned was the big, coherent picture the headphones deliver out of pieces that were just as fascinating to listen for on an individual scale. What I mean by that is that the LCD-3s made it really easy to find myself focusing on single instruments and voices, especially for nuances that I’d previously not heard or get overshadowed in traditional speaker playback, but then being able to check myself and hear the song as a vivid, entire picture.

This was exemplified on a couple of tracks featuring trios—Crosby Stills and Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping” (on CD) and “Metamorphosis” by guitarists Larry Coryell, Badi Assad and John Abercrombie (24-bit). In both cases, the left and right channels clearly present two of the three performers … but then seemingly centered in the image comes the third voice or guitar. Whichever direction I focused the LCD-3s articulated the individual pieces perfectly, but then soaking in the complete harmonic image was mesmerizing.

I’m not a huge classical music listener, though I greatly respect it, but I can see after playing several 24-bit recordings from Norwegian label 2L how one could get hooked on headphone playback of everything from orchestral to quartet performances with detail like that of the LCD-3. You can readily follow and appreciate each well-defined instrumentalist’s role, with the appropriate dynamics and transients to bring the recordings to life. The furiously paced finale of the Engegard Quartet’s Haydn String Quartet in D, Op. 76, No. 5, roared through the headphones in elevated dramatic presence.

These audiophile high-res recordings don’t hurt, either, but the clarity was evident on traditional redbook CDs like the Greatest Hits from CSN, Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois and Phish’s Hoist. The layering of instruments in Illinois sometimes makes it challenging not to get muddled, but here it was crisp and spacious; on Hoist’s “Down with Disease,” I was surprised to so clearly hear background vocals behind Trey Anastasio’s lead during the chorus that even through other headphones were far less pronounced that I hadn’t realized how many there were. Background vocals on the whole were a revelation.

Are the LCD-3s for everyone? Of course not. But there’s a segment of audiophiles that prefer the headphone experience, where others might take the $2,000 and put it toward floorstanding speakers or turntable. For those seeking headphones that will take them to that transportive musical point of no return, well, try these on for size.

• Transducer type: Planar magnetic
• Magnetic structure: Proprietary self-closing design, acoustically transparent
• Magnet type: High-grade Neodymium
• Transducer active diaphragm area: 6.17 sq in
• Sound pressure level (SPL): 130 db (maximum)
• Frequency response: 5 Hz – 20 kHz, usable high-frequency extension of 50 kHz
• Impedance: 45 Ohms, purely resistive
• Efficiency: 91 dB/1 mW
• Optimal power requirement: 1-4 W
• ADZ6SE Cable (single-ended): ¼” TRS to 2×4-pin mini XLR
• ADZ6B4 Cable (balanced): 4-pin XLR to 2×4-pin mini XLR
• Cable length (both): 2.5 m or 8.2 ft
• Weight: 548 g (without cable – Zebrano)
• $1,945

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