Framing effects are funny things. If you’re asked to evaluate something without any context, on its own terms, you might come to one conclusion. But if you’re provided some context, some frame of reference, before evaluating that very same thing, you might come to a very different conclusion.
Such is the case with initial reviews of new gear.
Thus, when Steve Guttenberg, a well-known reviewer with a big audience, published perhaps the first review of Audeze’s new LCD-1 headphone (U.S. MSRP $399) late last year, I worried that it set up the LCD-1 for failure. Guttenberg declared that the LCD-1 “clobbered” the Sennheiser HD-6XX, Massdrop’s stunningly affordable (U.S. MSRP $195) version of the venerable HD-650. That’s an almost impossible bar to clear, especially given the latter’s marked price advantage.
Indeed, much of the initial discussion of the LCD-1 was framed by Guttenberg’s bold declaration. Was the LCD-1 better than the 6XX or not? But that’s grossly unfair to the LCD-1, or any new set of cans. The bar for a rookie pitcher can’t be Sandy Koufax.
That said, it’s reasonable to ask whether a new open-back headphone can surpass the HD6XX, depending on the use case.
The HD-6XX requires serious power to sound its best. It’s not a headphone that can be driven effectively by a smartphone or small digital audio player. Likewise, the HD-6XX isn’t very portable. It’s light, but it doesn’t fold, and repeatedly plugging and unplugging its unique connectors can be a pain. The HD-6XX and its variants are, in short, designed for desktop use and desktop use only.
The LCD-1 has a much different audience. First, with its 16 ohms impedance and 99 dB/1mW sensitivity, it’s incredibly easy to drive. Second, the LCD-1 is slightly lighter than the HD-6XX, weighing in at a mere 250 grams, and foldable. Finally, the LCD-1 has reversible 3.5mm TRS connectors, making repeated plugging and unplugging simple.
Whereas Audeze’s significantly larger and harder to drive LCD-2 line seems designed to compete with the HD-6XX, the LCD-1 is aimed squarely at the portable market.
Physically, the LCD-1 is simple and unassuming. Beyond its spring steel headband, the LCD-1 is almost wholly constructed of black plastic with a few silver flourishes. (All that weight has to come from somewhere.) The LCD-1 doesn’t feel overly cheap, though. The plastic is sturdy. Crucially, I didn’t hear any creaks from the gimbals’ pivot points, the cups’ swivel points, or the folding mechanism.
The LCD-1’s weight, headband, and pads make for a comfortable listen. The LCD-1’s headband has a small pad on top that proved sufficient for preventing hotspots on the top of the head, at least in my listening. I could, however, see some listeners installing an additional aftermarket cushion. The LCD-1’s earpads are firm-but-forgiving memory foam covered in soft lambskin leather. Indeed, the quality of the pads provide the most noticeable hint that, despite all the plastic, the LCD-1 is intended to be a premium headphone. The only potential problem with the LCD-1’s pads, however, is their size. The inside of the LCD-1’s pads is approximately 2.5-by-1.5 inches. The opening of the HD-6XX’s pads, for comparison, is nearly three-by-two inches. While I found that my ears could fit comfortably inside, someone with more generously proportioned ears might find the LCD-1’s pads too constraining.
The LCD-1 comes appointed with few accessories, but those that are included are of high quality. The dual 3.5mm reversible cable is, of course, included. More importantly, Audeze ships the LCD-1 with a quality hard-shell case, underscoring the LCD-1’s place as a portable headphone.
Like all Audeze cans, the LCD-1 is a planar magnetic headphone. It uses Audeze’s “Uniforce” voice coil design and single-sided “Fluxor” magnet array, which has become a staple of Audeze’s lighter headphones. The LCD-1 also features “Fazor” waveguides, a technology that was somewhat polarizing when it was rolled out in a revised version of Audeze’s LCD-2, prompting the company to introduce the Fazor-less LCD-2 Classic.
The latter headphone, the LCD-2 Classic (U.S. MSRP $799), is my favorite Audeze offering. Even though the hulking (550 grams) LCD-2 Classic is a decidedly desktop-only headphone, I couldn’t help but wonder how the LCD-1’s would stack up to my beloved LCD-2 (which I’ve modified with Dekoni’s Elite Velour pads).
I asked Karthick Manivannan ( @AudezeLLC ) , Audeze’s research director, how the LCD-1 was positioned, in both market and sound terms, in Audeze’s lineup relative to the LCD-2 Classic. He wrote:
With LCD-1, our goal was to create a portable, lightweight and easy to drive headphone with a sound signature that will please mastering engineers and audiophiles alike while keeping the cost low. We felt there were not that many great options in the market in this price category if you factor in the sensitivity, fold-able form factor and weight. LCD-1 is a great option for those who are interested in mixing on the go, those who need a lightweight headphone for prolonged use and those who are looking for an affordable planar that sounds neutral.
I do not think LCD-1 will replace your LCD-2 classic as they are quite different. LCD-1 was designed for a different use case and does not directly compete with LCD-2 classic. LCD-2 Classic is a better for in home desktop-based setups. Sound signature-wise , LCD-2 classic is on the warmer side of neutral while LCD-1 is just neutral. LCD-2 classic by virtue of its larger ear pads and drivers, has a larger sound-stage, bass impact and is a bit more open sounding. Just like LCD-2 classic LCD-1 has good bass extension down to 20Hz and great treble extension too. Tonally where you will find them different is how they present the mids in the 1kHz - 5kHz region.
While Manivannan didn’t mention them, it’s clear that the LCD-1 is designed to replace Audeze’s two retired smaller models, the EL-8 and the Sine. Like the LCD-1, both of those previous models featured Fazor, Fluxor, and Uniforce technology. Both tried to shave weight off of the LCD-2, with varying degrees of success. (The open-back version of the EL-8 weighed in at a still-substantial 520 grams, while the open-back version of the Sine was a more svelte 320 grams.) Both the EL-8 and Sine also folded, albeit only flat.
As a lighter, fully foldable Fazor/Fluxor/Uniforce set of cans, it seems that the LCD-1 represents a further refinement of Audeze’s attempt to create a truly portable set of audiophile-quality planar cans.
Having previously owned or auditioned both the EL-8 and the Sine, simply holding the LCD-1 made clear that Audeze had succeeded in making the LCD-1 its lightest and most portable headphone yet.
But how would it sound?
Before turning to the sound of the LCD-1, it’s worth mentioning that, despite my love of the LCD-2 Classic, my history with Audeze cans is mixed.
I first bought the Titanium version of the EL-8, which I found both supremely uncomfortable and bass-light, though with nice clarity and imaging. Next, I tried out the Sine. The Sine was much more comfortable than the EL-8 and sported a better, if somewhat “fun”-tuned, tonal balance. However, they left something to be desired in terms of neutrality and resolution. Next, I bought a pair of Fazor-equipped LCD-2. I was impressed with its detail retrieval, frequency response, and clean, impactful bass. But the timbre of the Fazor LCD-2 simply sounded off. It had a grainy, plasticky treble that never quite struck my ears as correct. Plus, the old-style LCD-2 headband of my Fazor LCD-2 pair was absurdly uncomfortable.
I finally found the right Audeze headphones for me when I ordered the LCD-2 Classic. The LCD-2C’s possess a timbre that sounds much smoother and more convincing than their Fazor counterparts. While the LCD-2C undoubtedly is a warm-tilted pair of cans, they don’t make me feel that I’m sacrificing an unreasonable amount of detail in the somewhat-recessed mid-treble area. More importantly, the LCD-2C’s low-end slam, bass clarity, and left-to-right soundstage are stupendous. (Thanks to the LCD-2C’s bass and resolution, certain songs with multiple interlocking, nuanced low-end parts – such as the drum, bass, and clavinet groove on Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” – sound better on the LCD-2C than just about any other headphones.) In terms of comfort, the new LCD-2 headband used on the LCD-2C distributes weight much better than the old headband, substantially increasing comfort. Finally, swapping out the LCD-2C’s stock pads for Dekoni’s Elite Velours fixed some peakiness in the treble region and made the LCD-2C even more comfortable. The LCD-2 Classics have stayed in my headphone rotation since buying them from Audeze a few years ago, and I don’t anticipate they will go anywhere anytime soon.
As I approached evaluating the LCD-1, I couldn’t help but wonder whether they’d share more traits with my beloved LCD-2C or with the previous Audeze cans I’d discarded.
I’m happy to say it’s the former.*
First, let’s take a look at some measurements of the LCD-1 taken with my MiniDSP EARS rig, which has been calibrated with a slightly modified version of Marv from SBAF’s compensation curve, where a flat frequency response is represented by a flat line.
Manivannan warned me that the LCD-1 might measure wonky on the EARS because the LCD-1 features rather small cups with rather shallow pads, which means the driver is closer to the EARS’s unnaturally stiff pinnae.
That said, I was pleased with how the LCD1 measures on my EARS. The LCD-1 has the relatively flat bass expected from planar drivers, albeit with a slight shelf below 80Hz. From there, it’s flat until a slight dip from between 1 and 2kHz, a peak around 3kHz, and then another dip before peaking again in the 12 to 17kHz region.
As Audeze has pointed out, measurements of the same pair of headphones will look very different depending on the rig and compensation **. To that end, it’s worth comparing the LCD-1 to some of the benchmark cans mentioned above in order to provide some context.
Here’s how the LCD-1 (red) stacks up to the LCD-2 Classic (black):
From the above, it’s clear why the LCD-1 is more of a neutral headphone, while the LCD-2 Classic features a darker tuning. The LCD-2’s bass response is flatter than the LCD-1’s, but the two Audeze cans really diverge above 2kHz. Both the LCD-1 and LCD-2 Classic feature a smooth downward slope from 1 to 2kHz, but the LCD-2 Classic stays roughly 5dB down below 2kHz, while the LCD-1 features the additional peaks around 3kHz and 13 to 17kHz.
Now let’s take a look at the LCD-1 (red) in comparison to the HD-6XX (blue):
From the sub bass through about 600hZ, the LCD-1 is flatter than the HD-6XX. However, from the mids through in upper registers, the HD-6XX has peaks and dips that are between two to four dBs less significant than the LCD-1’s. That said, the overarching story from the graph is that both the LCD-1 and the HD-6XX are predominantly neutral cans.
While I don’t fully trust the EARS’s topline distortion numbers, as a relative measure it has value, and it shows that the LCD-1 has lower distortion than the HD-6XX, especially in the bass. This observation is confirmed by InnerFidelity’s numbers.
Especially with headphones, though, numbers don’t tell the whole story. So let’s move to some listening.
First up is a track from one of my favorite audition albums, Van Morrison’s collection of unreleased cuts, The Philosopher’s Stone. As engineer Walter Samuel, who remixed the mostly ‘70s-era tracks for release, explained, Morrison recorded live in the studio. “For a lot of the early stuff at the Record Plant there were no booths,” Samuel explained in 1999, “so one of the major problems is spill. If there were girl backing vocals lots of drums went down their mics, so when one of the girls wasn't sure of her words and I wanted to cut her out, suddenly the drum sound completely changed. It’s a problem with Van as well--they had him in the middle of the room next to a guitar amp with a U87 and all sorts went down there. You just have to keep to the spirit of the way it was recorded.” While the leakage may limit what an engineer like Samuel can do to fix mistakes, it makes Morrison’s recordings excellent audiophile fodder. The vocals and instruments sound live and unfussed. For this gear audition, I picked “Drumshambo Hustle,” Van’s delightfully bilious rumination on the predations of the record industry, as test track from The Philosopher’s Stone.
and Monoprice Monolith THX 887 headphone amplifier.
Working in reverse order, the differences between the LCD-1 and Alara, despite both being relatively small open-back planar headphones, are clear. The Alara bests the LCD-1 in front-to-back depth, while the LCD-1 overtakes the Alara in raw detail retrieval. Both Mark Jordan’s piano on the left and John Platania’s guitar on the right of stage in “Drumshambo Hustle” are rendered with more tonal nuance on the LCD-1, too, suggesting that it also bests the Alara in microdetail and microdynamics. The Alara does pull ahead of the LCD-1 in bass quantity, but the two cans are roughly equal in bass quality, both exhibiting wonderful, clean planar bass. Overall, I’d take the LCD-1 over the Alara, especially when comfort and portability are taken into consideration. While I care about soundstage depth, it’s mainly valuable as a further source of clarity and detail. Greater depth without the corresponding increase in resolution is of less value, in my humble opinion.
Turning to the LCD-2 Classic, Manivannan’s comments immediately ring true. The Classic is a much darker-tuned headphone than the LCD-1. At first, the LCD-1 smacks you with its more overt treble detail. Upon closer listening, however, the Classic still retrieves the information, it’s just that the Classic is tilted towards the bass. Speaking of bass, the Classic handily beats the LCD-1 in both quantity and quality of bass. Likewise, the Classic’s larger and wider-set drivers help it to create a significantly deeper and wider soundstage than the LCD-1. That said, given that the LCD-2 Classic is a considerably pricier, heavier, and harder-to-drive headphone, it’s almost asking too much for the LCD-1 to clearly best it. Certainly, if one is looking for a neutral frequency response, let alone any measure of portability, the LCD-1 is an easy choice.
Now it’s time for the real showdown: the LCD-1 versus the HD-6XX. The first thing that strikes the listener is that the LCD-1 provides a more immediate, up-front sound than the HD-6XX. Perhaps owing in part to the slightly “veiled” nature of the 6XX, the LCD-1 renders everything in higher contrast. It offers, in other words, more apparent macrodetail and macrodynamics than 6XX. However, in a sometimes-related phenomenon, the 6XX exhibits better microdynamics than the LCD-1. What does that mean? Let’s take Jordan’s piano on “Drumshambo Hustle” again. The LCD-1 renders the edges of the piano work, the initial transients of the hammer strikes, more sharply than the 6XX does. Coming from the LCD-1 to the 6XX and listening for the same piano flourishes, one’s initial instinct is to turn up the volume on the 6XX, even though the levels have been matched. The attack of the piano comes across as lightly muted. However, when one listens beyond those initial transients, it’s clear that the 6XX is more accurately rendering the recording’s microdynamics, those small gradations (often heard after the initial attack) in volume that make sounds appear more lifelike. This is especially apparent in the little inflections of Van’s voice. The 6XX also provides a slightly wider and decidedly deeper soundstage on “Drumshambo” than the LCD-1, making it easier to place the players in the studio.
Given the above, it’s time to remove the Alara and the LCD-2 Classic from the comparison and pull up another test track. This time it’s “Brokedown Palace” from the beautiful Joe Gastwirt-mastered version of the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty included in the 2004 Golden Road box set. Immediately, it’s clear that the 6XX once again has soundstage depth and width in its favor. The Sennheiser’s edge in microdynamics is still apparent, especially on the acoustic guitars. However, it also clear that the LCD-1 shines in rendering the textures and nuances on Phil Lesh’s bass and Bill Kreutzmann kick drum. This edge in all forms of low-end detail was apparent on “Drumshambo” but really stands out on “Brokedown.” The 6XX’s somewhat wooly bass simply can’t clearly render things like bass guitar as well as the LCD-1’s planar driver can. Even more surprisingly, the LCD-1 did a nicer job than the 6XX of allowing me to separate the individual singers in the Dead’s harmony vocals.
The final score gives the HD-6XX the edge on soundstage (both depth and width) and microdynamics and the LCD-1 the edge on macrodetail and low-end clarity. Microdetail, that low-volume information that contributes to tonal accuracy, is a bit harder to parse, since I find that it sometimes follows microdynamics and other times is a function of distortion. With the 6XX versus the LCD-1, this tends to mean that the 6XX reproduces microdetail better at the upper end of the spectrum while the LCD-1 reproduces it better in the lower registers.
All in all, the LCD-1 is a worthy challenger to the HD-6XX, even if it can’t cleanly unseat the king (thanks, in part, to the latter’s edge on price).
However, for anyone who needs a set of portable reference cans, the LCD-1 has to leap to the top of their list. The LCD-1’s raw detail retrieval, neutral soundstage, foldability, drivability, and quality hard-shell case make them an excellent choice for audiophiles on the go. While I can’t help but wonder if Audeze will create a closed-back version for those working in noisy environments, the LCD-1 does a better job than many open cans (including the HD-6XX) of blocking outside noise. However, they’re still open cans, so they won’t block out loud noise, nor will they keep your significant other or coworkers from hearing you blast “Truckin’.”
Ultimately, I came away from the LCD-1 believing that Audeze had succeeded in its goals for these cans, even if Guttenberg’s initial declaration that they’d unseated the HD-6XX was an exaggeration.
* Initially, I came to a very different conclusion. The first time I put on the LCD-1, I didn’t have the reversible plugs fully seated, resulting in a narrow, congested sound that made me wonder what the heck everyone else who had tried the LCD-1 was hearing. Once I fixed that, it was a different story. But let that be a warning for LCD-1 auditioners and buyers: Make sure the cables are seated flush with the ear cups!
- Audeze LCD-1 Headphones ($399)
- Audeze LCD-1 Headphones Product Page
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.