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Headphones: 0.2 x 0.19 x 0.1m
Inside ear cup: 65 x 60mm
Cable: 2.5m, Adaptor: 0.25m
Case: 0.36 x 0.3 x 0.16m
The LCD-5 is Audeze’s flagship planar magnetic over ear headphone, hand-assembled in California. It features an all-new design, including the driver and magnet structure, uses premium materials, and comes in at less than two thirds of the weight of the original LCD-4 model. Existing in the rarefied air of the high end of personal audio gear, the question is: just how far does it venture into the territory of diminishing returns for audio quality? Let’s see if there’s any way it can justify its extravagant price.
Editor’s note: this is the first version of the article. Updates will follow as the market changes.
This one is for audiophiles with money to burn, who appreciate fine craftsmanship. They will also need a very quiet place to listen to their music to fully enjoy these premium grade open-back cans.
What’s it like to use the Audeze LCD-5?
It’s hard to start a review of this product without mentioning the asking price. It’s a lot. For most sane people, it’s an irresponsible amount of money to spend on headphones. My life basically revolves around audio, and I don’t think I could ever justify this kind of outlay on a set of headphones—speakers maybe, but not headphones. Our LCD-5 review sample arrived in a smart black metal attache case with the Audeze logo silk screened onto its side, and carrying it through the city on my way home I felt like hand-cuffing it to my wrist wouldn’t have been a bad idea.
Opening the case, it’s clear these over-ear headphones mean business. The design incorporates magnesium grilles, acetate ear cups, and a carbon-fiber headband, united by a retro-futuristic aesthetic. The color scheme is primarily black, offset with notched headband adjustment rods that resemble stainless steel, and a tasteful tortoise shell marbled amber color accenting the perimeter of the ear cups.
The sculpted ear pads are covered in soft black leather to provide a comfortable seal around the ears. According to Audeze, these earpads are held in place using Pressure Sensitive Adhesive (PSA) to ensure everything stays sealed, providing a consistently smooth frequency response over time, although this makes replacing the earpads inconvenient. There doesn’t appear to be a vegan alternative to these pads being offered, so if wearing dead animals on your head isn’t your thing, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
Besides the subtle white capitalized Audeze brand badges on the bottom of each ear cup’s face, there are no markings on the headphones to identify the model, and the left and right channels markers are subtly embossed inside the headband frame above the yokes. It’s fairly obvious which way to put them on in low light (connectors to the back), and the supplied braided gold and black cable has a red identifier for the right hand channel. Overall, the fit and finish is as good as we’ve seen at any price.
The 420g weight is an accomplishment, but this still isn’t a light pair of headphones. It’s 9% heavier than the 385g Apple AirPods Max, and the weight’s not quite as well distributed. It is very comfortable, but the weight might become an issue over extended sessions for some. Also, it isn’t a good choice for those who wear glasses.
The cable supplied with the LCD-5 braids the 4 separate conducting wires together with no outer sleeve, which is visually interesting but doesn’t help with the cable’s ergonomics in any way.
How do you connect the Audeze LCD-5?
The cable connects to both the left and right ear cups using locking mini XLR connectors, and is terminated at its input end with a quality, locking, 4 pin male XLR connector with gold plated pins. The implication here is that you should be connecting this to an amplifier that provides “balanced” (aka differential) drive to the headphones. Thankfully, a matching short (0.25m) cable adapter is included to convert this into a more conventional 1/4-inch TRS jack for single ended sources like you’ll find on most high end and hi-fi equipment. If your source offers neither of these connector options, and relies instead on a 3.5mm connection, you’re out of luck and will need to source your own adapter for that.
Technically, you can drive these headphones from practically any source, as they have a very low impedance of 14 ohms, thanks to Audeze’s Nano-Scale Parallel Uniforce technology, providing a reasonable sensitivity of 90 dB/1mW (at the ear Drum Reference Point). This should give you plenty of level with just a few milliwatts. However, Audeze recommends using an amplifier that provides 500mW or more, or greater than 100mW at a minimum, presumably to ensure lots of headroom. If you’re spending this much on headphones, you’ll probably going to want to drive them with some dedicated hardware.
How well does the Audeze LCD-5 block out noise?
Because of their unenclosed design, open-back headphones can’t provide good acoustic isolation which means unsurprisingly the LCD-5 hardly reduces any outside noise. Hence, the passive isolation we measured here is not good. As is typical, not only will you hear your environment, but anybody nearby will hear your audio too.
What’s less typical, (although we have seen it before with open-backs) and not shown by our standard chart format above (it only shows attenuation, not gain), is that these headphones passively amplify noise from your surroundings in a very narrow band (2-4kHz). You’re unlikely to notice this in general use, as long as you do your listening in a well isolated, quiet environment. If there’s noise nearby, from heating or cooling systems for example, you may pick up on it since the headphones can make it slightly louder in your hearing’s most sensitive region.
So if you do purchase the Audeze LCD-5, you’ll undoubtedly also need headphones for less friendly environments!
How does the Audeze LCD-5 sound?
Editor’s note: this review to makes use of a hover-enabled glossary, based on a consensus vocabulary. You can read about it here.
Audeze utilizes a refined version of its signature planar driver, magnets, and waveguides to drive these over-ears. According to its website, Audeze’s house sound is loosely based on the Fletcher-Munson and Harman curves. However, testing on our B&K 5128 artificial head reveals that neither of those seem to be reflected by this headphone’s response shape, so maybe it’s not the best representative of the Audeze house sound.
What we do see here is substantially flat low-end frequency performance, sometimes referred to as a “ruler to the mids” type response, rising in the upper mids to a hump around 3kHz that matches our ear’s natural unoccluded behaviour when measured at the eardrum. In the chart above, we compare the response with what we dub our “studio target” which caters to this type of response, but offers quite a different listener experience from our standard target. The response shown will be likely sound familiar if you’ve spent time listening to planar magnetic and electrostatic headphones. The Audeze LCD-5 provides an experience that’s extremely similar to listening to loudspeakers that have been equalized to produce a flat in-room response, but with more of a roll-off of the high end than a typical diffuse field response. If that’s your preference, you will like the sound, probably a lot.
On the other hand, you may be like the majority of listeners, and prefer listening to speakers whose measured in-room (sound power) response slopes gently downwards, as illustrated in the chart below. If so, your headphones should also provide a slight preference to the lower frequencies, and you may find that the LCD-5 sounds wanting in the low end, with a slightly “bright” character overall. Personally I like a bit more low end emphasis or “tilt” to the sound.
Lows, mids, highs
To provide some context, the only Audeze products I’ve previously had first hand experience of are the Mobius and Penrose, both active over ear headphones aimed squarely at gamers, and both excellent in their own rights. Somehow I managed to skip over the rest of the LCD series and am diving in with the 5. So while Audeze says the LCD-5 has improved on everything, this is my first listening experience with premium Audeze. For listening I sent the output from a MacBook Pro to a Topping E30 DAC, which fed the Drop + THX AAA 789 amplifier.
Slipping these onto my head and hitting play button, it’s apparent that the LCD-5 provides a full, homogeneous presentation, with a precise delivery that’s similar to my listening experiences with electrostatics in how it handles transients. It sounds a tad mid-forward, with some brightness in the upper mids, whilst also lacking brilliance. While the bass strength does not register as particularly strong, as discussed above, it does have great bass depth. This is well illustrated just by listening the intro to Billy Eilish’s Bad Guy.
The stereo field is given a wide presentation, to the point where Muddy Waters’ vocal in Feel Like Going Home localizes like he’s standing directly behind me, rather than to the front. In The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Take Five, the drums on the left and piano on the right both appear to be positioned below me, while the lead sax is in front and above. The sound of the saxophone’s keys opening and closing are rendered with superb detail and clarity.
Smoke on the Water simply sounds awesome on this headphone. The presence it lends to this slice of 70s rock glory is like hearing a new version of the piece. As the iconic guitar riff introduces the song, is joined by the overdriven hammond and high hats, then snare, the sound gets progressively larger and larger. Once the growly, woody tone of the bass guitar joins in, it becomes apparent that there’s so much thick, saturated analog tone in this recording that only something as clean sounding as the LCD-5 can reproduce it all without further smearing the details. When Ian Gillan’s vocals come in, center stage, they land perfectly, and I note that the LCD-5 really picks up on the sibilance on the line “some stupid” which audibly zings on the recording.
Audeze advises against aftermarket compensation being applied, since that “can introduce distortions, skewed phase response, and filter anomalies” and “compensations can actually diminish what’s special about the headphones, and that reduces their value as a tool.” However Audeze does actually offer a DAW plugin for producers and engineers called Reveal+ (Personalized Virtual Studio), which is fundamentally an equalizer, so you can take the previous statement with a grain of salt. There’s really nothing stopping you from applying EQ to any headphones, but if you’re spending the amount of money the LCD-5 costs, you may as well get something that sounds right to you out of the box.
Should you buy the Audeze LCD-5?
Generally, we recommend listening to any headphones before purchasing. In this case, if you’re seriously considering dropping some substantial cash on headphones, then you really ought to take any on your shortlist for an extended test drive. As alluded to at the outset, there really isn’t any set of headphones that can justify the asking price for the LCD-5. For a lower price, you could pick from over 99% of the headphones on the market right now, and there are plenty that can get close to this level of performance for considerably less outlay, you’ll just miss out on the prestige that goes with owning a high end flagship product.
What should you get instead of the Audeze LCD-5?
The Focal Utopia is an open back headphone that uses traditional dynamic driver technology. Built in France in the Focal workshops from fine materials including lambskin covered memory foam earpads, leather headband, and forged, recycled carbon yokes. Focal produces outstanding headphones and these promise an uncompromising sound signature. Also not vegan friendly. 80 ohm impedance, 90dB/1mW sensitivity, 490g.
Dan Clark Audio’s flagship EXPANSE is an open-back headphone that features DCA’s 4th generation planar-magnetic drivers and an Acoustic Metamaterial Tuning System to combat standing wave resonances at higher frequencies. Weighing 418 g, it’s one of the lightest super-premium headphones on the market, and uses vegan suede and “leather” ear pads, with a self-adjusting suspension.
If you’re not convinced about spending thousands on headphones, and maybe want to work your way up slowly, we’d recommend the HiFiMan Sundara as a good entry point into the world of planar magnetic headphones. It’s a comfortable, straightforward, excellent performer.