While putting the finishing touches on my recent review of the Meze Audio ELITE, I started thinking about where the high-end headphone category sits in 2022; how easy it has become to spend $4,500 on a pair of headphones like the Meze ELITE or Audeze LCD-5.
It is understandable why some within the community are upset about the pricing; flagship headphone models are becoming increasingly unaffordable and the venom isn’t only being directed at Audeze. Meze Audio, Kennerton, Dan Clark Audio, HiFiMan, and Abyss are also in the crosshairs for some who feel that the high-end headphone brands are quickly becoming like their brethren in 2-channel category.
It’s definitely true that the prices for top flagship models have escalated in recent years above $4,000 which was unthinkable a few years ago.
At the same time, audiophiles are willing to spend $20,000 or even $50,000 on a single pair of loudspeakers; not to mention all of the electronics required to make those speakers not sound like a giant pile of dreck.
That doesn’t make that investment of money wise, but that’s for the person buying it to decide and process based on their own financial situation.
Audeze has taken enormous risks over the years developing its latest CRBN technology and a lot of it has trickled down into less expensive products like the LCD-1, Mobius and Penrose gaming headphones, LCD-2 and others.
Nobody forces anyone into buying anything and a product has to deliver the sonic fireworks or consumers won’t buy it. I think much of the criticism is misplaced to be quite frank; Audeze’s success has driven innovation within the category and forced other brands to develop better products. We are all better off as listeners at the end of the day.
Speaking of the Audeze Penrose — that aforementioned gaming headphone was supposed to be the subject of this review but someone at Audeze (your tip is in the mail) accidentally shipped me the LCD-5 instead. I reached out asking if they wanted it back right away because it might have been promised to someone else before us but the response was that a review from us before the holidays would be great and here we are.
Honesty is a great way to conduct yourself; I can’t wait to get these back in 2022 for another trip with some new headphone amplifiers that are on the calendar for Q1 and Q2 2021.
Audeze was started in 2008 by Sankar Thiagasamudram and Alexander Rosson in Southern California, and began selling the LCD-2 shortly thereafter. The LCD-2 was a planar magnetic headphone with an impossibly thin membrane and it paved the way for 13 years worth of excellent headphones; with a few missteps along the way.
The Weight Remains the Same?
EIC Ian White has been an Audeze customer for many years but he’s always complained about one aspect of the Audeze products that I think is very true and relevant to our discussion about the Audeze LCD-5.
The LCD-2 was 580 grams when it first launched; the sound quality was beyond great but nobody wants to wear a “suitcase” on their head for more than 20 minutes.
As the models became more sophisticated and the driver technology evolved, the weight jumped to 690 grams with the LCD-4. The headband improved dramatically during this evolution of the products because it needed to with so many new high-end headphone startups challenging Audeze for the first time.
The suspension headband and new design of the LCD-5 demonstrates that Audeze have heard the criticism from its customers and developed a flagship full-range planar magnetic headphone that is impressively lighter at 420 grams.
The Audeze LCD-5 feel dramatically lighter than the previous generation and that’s a very good thing; almost mandatory considering its $4,500 price tag.
Engineering or Parlor Tricks?
The most interesting part of the new design is the brand new driver at the heart of the Audeze LCD-5s.
The LCD-5 uses a 90 mm transducer instead of the 106 mm version used in the older LCD models and MX4. The fluxor magnet structure and the fazor waveguides are still used in the new driver, but with the addition of their new parallel Uniforce™ voice coil design. This new technology varies the width of the traces to alter the current density within the trace at different points along its length.
This allows for higher voltage headroom than conventional traces and solves the same problem that using staggered magnets did way back in the original LCD-2 but in a much smaller space and without the added weight associated with the earlier solution.
The result is a driver with a nominal impedance of only 14 ohms and a sensitivity rating of 90 dB/mW and a THD (notice this is not THD+N but just THD) of <0.1% at 100 dB SPL.
Construction and Ergonomics
The shell of the LCD-5 is similar to the MX4 with rounded edges that help blend the face plate with the cup sides and confuses the eye just enough to look like a single piece from a distance.
The micro XLR connections are also moved to the rear and are immediately below the gimbal attachment point on the cup. This leaves the cable exiting almost vertically rather than at the 45° angle of the previous models where the exit point was at the bottom of the cup.
Having had most of the LCD models in my collection at some point, I greatly prefer this new positioning of the connector to the older design. It looks and feels like an integral part of the design as opposed to the older style that felt almost awkwardly placed.
The headband has also been redesigned with the carbon fiber band being rectangular with a central slot for weight reduction. The leather suspension remains very similar to the previous models but the attachment between the headband and suspension has been improved and looks less “Grado-esque” as it no longer has the box and spindle adjustment.
That design works just fine on the Grado models but not on $4,500 full-sized planar magnetic headphones.
The adjustment rods are now angled through the headband from the inside and the outer box with the old logo is nowhere to be found. The old system worked well enough but the new one looks more upscale and fitting of a product at this price point. It is minimalistic and classy.
The earpads are a new design and while that might seem obvious if the overall driver diameter is new, the pads were redesigned not just to fit the new frame, but to improve the sound quality and in particular the upper midrange according to Audeze.
I have an LCD-3 in my collection and an LCD-4 available to me on loan, and I can unequivocally state that the improvements are noticed immediately when you lift the LCD-5 out of its case and place it on your head. The changes are dramatic from pervious models; and we’re talking about headphones that sold for thousands of dollars and were considered category leaders.
The initial clamping force is a touch high, but that tends to lessen with time so I approve highly of the decision to make them slightly snug out of the box. These will never feel loose or wobbly on your head.
We Got Both Kinds, Country & Western…
With so many changes to the Audeze LCD-5, there are probably a lot of people wondering how it compares to the LCD-4. The hard truth (and people won’t like this) is that LCD-5 doesn’t just sound like an evolution of the rather expensive older model but a completely different headphone. I found the sonic differences rather dramatic.
Audeze recommends 48 hours of burn-in with pink noise and that’s exactly what I did. I usually do that with almost every headphone that we review but I was especially interested in hearing how this altered the sound cold out of the box and after the 48 hours.
I gave the Audeze LCD-5 a rather rigorous workout with more than 90 hours of listening time; most headphones only get 45 before I write up my thoughts. It felt only appropriate considering the $4,500 price and the high level of interest in the product.
With a much lower impedance than that of the LCD-4 or even the LCD-3, I expected the LCD-5 to be much easier to drive and less fussy about pairings than the previous generations but quickly discovered that I was only partially correct.
The LCD-5 is a bit picky about what you use to drive it and still requires a bit more power than the specs might lead one to believe to bring out its absolute best.
It mated gorgeously with the Bel Canto 2.7/Pass Labs HPA-1, and almost equally well with the RME ADI-2 and Burson Conductor 3XR.
I found that most portables in the mid to upper tiers (Cayin N6ii, Sony WM1A, A&K Kann Alpha, A&K SP1000) will have no trouble driving the LCD-5, but none of them were capable of getting the kind of detail retrieval out of it that something like the Bel Canto/HPA-1 combination delivered on the desktop.
I applaud Audeze for trying very hard to make this flagship headphone and other models more compatible with portable source devices but the reality is that you’re not going to hear what these exceptional headphones are capable of unless you use a really first-rate desktop or rack-mounted DAC/Headphone Amplifier combination.
I know that our EIC Ian White, is very fond of the Linear Tube Audio Headphone Amplifiers with the Audeze range and I know from other members of the Head-Fi community that Ampsandsound amplifiers work really with Audeze as well.
A Confession is Good for the Soul
I have a confession to make. I’m not a big fan of the Audeze LCD-4. I auditioned it and did not prefer it to my older LCD-3 model and decided to send it back because it did not feel like an improvement to me.
I didn’t appreciate the tuning of the LCD-4 with its sub-bass and lower treble emphasis and I was a little worried that the LCD-5 with its new and smaller driver would be “Honey, I shrunk the driver” and even less to my liking.
The reality was that my fears were completely unfounded. The LCD-5 is a much more linear sounding pair of headphones and possibly one of the best hi-fi products I’ve ever listened to — and that includes loudspeakers.
The Sound of Music
The low end of the LCD-5 is not emphasized but has good speed and texture and enough impact to be pleasing without becoming a distraction from the rest of the music. These are not bass monsters if that’s what you are looking for; the emphasis is on definition and speed which you can clearly hear with different types of percussion.
The low end impact on the LCD-4 was stronger by comparison but the LCD-5 is tighter and more textured. The mid bass is extremely detailed but again while slam is there when called for, it doesn’t take over or obscure any other detail in the music.
I particularly like the timbre of stringed bass which is very tough to get absolutely true to life and the LCD-5 gets as close as I’ve heard on Koussevitzky’s Concerto for Double Bass.
Typical of Audeze tuning, there is a gradual rise to the lower midrange which I really like as it improves the weight of lower voiced instruments and improves vocals as well. This is where I really think the LCD-5 shines as strings have wonderful timbre and energy and there is an organic nature to the sound that makes you sit up and engage emotionally with the music.
If you enjoy listening to a composer like Aram Khachaturian, the Audeze LCD-5 do something very special with his music; there is so much texture and body to the music and your head moves up and back with the pace of the concerto or symphony.
Not only is the midrange well nuanced and textured, but it benefits from the fantastic speed of the new driver and you really get a feel for just how cleanly instruments are separated and transients are resolved when you feed the LCD-5 a piece of music other headphones stumble on.
That’s definitely one of the most interesting aspects of its performance; how easily it handles dramatic dynamic shifts and complex arrangements. I’ve heard so many other expensive headphones utterly stumble with some of this music and that’s what you are paying for; that ability to unravel music and recreate it into something both delicate and incredibly complex and explosive when required.
While I usually use Serkin playing Beethoven’s Concertos, the LCD-5 demanded that I go with Chopin Etude Op. 10 No.4 played by Valentina Lisitsa. It may not be my favorite piano composition but it is incredibly demanding and challenging for both loudspeakers and headphones. The speed of her finger work is quite something and a lesser headphone can barely keep up with her.
The same can be said for “La Campanella” from Paganini Etude No. 3 by Liszt performed by Alicia de Larrocho; the performance is way too much for some headphones that can’t keep up with the pace of the music or recreate its wonderful layers of texture and nuance.
The midrange is not as lush sounding as the Audeze LCD-4 or Meze Empyrean, but the resolution is decidedly superior to both headphones. The LCD-5 might be the best I have ever heard in regard to resolution.
If you love the treble performance of the LCD-4, you’re going to find the LCD-5 somewhat darker sounding on top. If you prefer slightly less treble energy without a loss of detail, you will certainly like the tuning of the LCD-5. It’s smoother and less fatiguing overall and if you listen for long periods of time, you will learn to appreciate the differences in resolution and less forward sounding presentation.
All The World’s Indeed a Stage
If you were expecting fireworks from the Audeze LCD-5 in regard to imaging and soundstage dimensions, I think you’ll leave the party quite satisfied. Width and depth are both excellent; although I would give the edge to soundstage width in that regard.
Image height is superb with all kinds of recordings and artists are carved very neatly into their respective spaces onstage or in the recording studio. I was not prepared for the excellent uptick in stereo separation with large orchestral pieces and it’s one of the LCD-5s best qualities. Other headphones sound quite small in comparison.
Binaural recordings like The Trinity Sessions by the Cowboy Junkies are reproduced with wonderful precision and the echoes are clearly heard making distances and angles between the walls and stage very audible.
Is the Audeze LCD-5 worth $4,500? I’m rather hard on flagship models because I think they need to be better than everything else (or equal to other headphones at their level) to justify their very high asking price.
Are the LCD-5 my favorite headphones for casual listening? No, they are not.
I’ve heard another headphone do some things better but I don’t think they are superior to the Audeze LCD-5 overall. They just move me emotionally in a different way with more of my music and that has to count for something.
I also don’t think that the Audeze LCD-5 are headphones that you can listen to for a brief audition and truly appreciate. They will not rattle your bones with crushing bass and nor will they dazzle you with airy highs and copious amounts of detail.
At the end of the day, the LCD-5 will deliver your favorite music with resolution, texture, decay, nuance, and incredible speed.
It definitely likes to be challenged with complex music and I discovered that it soared with Dvorak, Strauss, Liszt, and other music with layers of instrumentation.
While my normal fare of rock, blues, and funk sounded great, they simply don’t challenge the LCD-5 enough to show off its amazing transient and midrange capabilities.
Once you spend some time with the LCD-5, you will discover that neutrality and speed are its strengths, and while it may not draw you into the music as much as an Empyrean or Rognir, it does a more faithful job of presenting the recording exactly as intended and has better resolution than either one of those exceptional headphones.
The Audeze LCD-5 comes on the heels of its first electrostatic headphone, the CRBN which we detailed earlier this summer. The CRBN delivers unbelievable speed and clarity and is one of the best of its kind.
What’s amazing about the LCD-5 is how close it performs in regard to the CRBN and that’s a rather amazing feat for a planar magnetic headphone.
You can’t shortchange the LCD-5 when it comes to power and that needs to be part of the equation for sure. If you’re looking to build a state-of-the-art headphone system, the LCD-5 is a mandatory audition for sure.
At the end of the day, I would buy the Audeze LCD-5 because I think it represents the best design from the brand since the launch of the original LCD-2 in 2008 and that places it in some very elite company.
Where to buy: $4,500 at Audeze.com
Related reading: Best Headphones