Spending thousands of euros on a pair of headphones isn’t something I consider foolish anymore. It’s what you’ll have to do if you want a pair of Audeze LCD-5, and I’ve come to understand why you’d want to. Sound is truly a passion, and the fact that you can get a listening experience superior to that of a pair of speakers, regardless of how much they cost, is obvious to me. But let the record show that my love for good speakers still remains strong.
It’s by no means the speaker’s fault, but rather the room they’re placed in, as that plays a big part. Sound waves are reflected back and forth, echoes and time distortions are created, and on top of that the frequency response itself is coloured, adding and subtracting here and there. Which means that sound from even the best speakers in existence can become a shadow of itself.
Listening under ideal conditions
Headphones eliminate the problems of a physical room. A pair of headphones provides a more intimate connection with music. One of the few drawbacks of headphones, however, is that you can’t share the music with others. But let’s face it: true musical pleasure is best enjoyed alone.
There’s also another disadvantage that’s harder to address: headphones don’t let you feel the vibrations in your body. Unless you’re willing to mount a ButtKicker under the seat …
High-end with plan magnetic drives
With the open-back LCD-5s, US-based Audeze has set out to make the best headphones possible, and comfort is of equal importance. Which matters just as much for music lovers as those working with sound and music all day.
Like all Audeze’s headphones, they’re planar magnetic. They differ from ordinary dynamic headphones by using a thin foil suspended between two magnets, where the foil vibrates with the electrical signal and produces sound. In comparison, dynamic headphones have drivers with a much heavier diaphragm, with less surface area. Dynamic headphones often – but not always – have more powerful bass and can withstand higher sound pressures, while planar magnets have the advantage of a much faster transient response and often lower distortion – until they are overloaded.
Planar magnets are somewhat similar to electrostatic panels, except the fact that they don’t require external power to be activated. The magnets themselves combined with the electrical music signal coming out of the headphone jack is enough to power them.
LCD-5: A smaller top model
Planar magnets used to be quite rare and a lot more expensive than dynamic drivers, but now you can get fair priced headphones with this principle. Although the Audeze LCD-5 are not among them. If you think four hundred euros is expensive for a pair of headphones, try multiplying it by ten. That’s how much the LCD-5 actually costs, because Audeze set out to make “the world’s best headphones”.
The LCD-5, which is the successor to the LCD-4, are entirely handmade. When I first laid eyes upon them, I didn’t think too much about the design. It was similar to what we’re used to from Audeze: thick ear pads and the metal lines on the outside of the ear cups with an A-shaped pattern in the middle. A for Audeze, of course.
But when I got my hands on the LCD-5 and opened the sleek, black metal case, I was struck by how much smaller they were than other models in the LCD line. Because while the LCD-4 were massive and heavy, weighing a total of 735 gram – without cable – the the LCD-5 is much more compact. The weight is cut by more than 40 percent, to 420 grams! And the ear pads, while still thick in the way that counts, have a much smaller outer circumference. There’s still room for ears inside of them, but it’s a significantly thinner wall that encircles the ear.
The LCD-5 has newly developed leather ear cushions, the carbon fibre headband should provide optimum damping and the magnesium housings should provide optimum rigidity its weight. The cable is new and made of copper with very high purity.
Requires a hefty amplifier
The Audeze LCD-5 has an impedance of just 14 ohms. That means they should be coupled with an amplifier with low output impedance – preferably down to or even below 1 ohm to avoid distortion. Low impedance headphones also benefit more from separating the left and right channels with a ground connection through a balanced cable. You should be able to hear the difference between a balanced and an unbalanced cable with LCD-5, compared to headphones with higher impedance. If a balanced XLR cable is required, it can be purchased separately.
Additionally, the LCD-5 has low sensitivity of just 90 dB at 1 mW. Which means that they won’t work properly with a low-power laptop like the cheaper LCD-Xs can. The LCD-5 needs a proper amplifier to sound good.
These are the amps we used
The main setup while testing the LCD-5 was the (sadly) discontinued Auralic Taurus headphone amp, the Hegel HD30 DAC and a MacBook Pro with Roon as the signal source.
In addition, I’ve tested the Burson Soloist 3X Grand Tourer and the T+A HA 200, which was the one I had the most fun with, but it’s also got a ridiculous price point. I had some fun with the McIntosh MHA200 as well.
Silky smooth neutral sound
When I first put on the Audeze LCD-5, I thought: “Oh my, they’re so light!”
420 grams is quite a lot compared to your normal wireless headphones, if that’s what you’re used to. Surprisingly, they’re not really that heavy. Not uncomfortable in any way, while still sitting firmly in place when headbanging to your favourite music.
The aforementioned Auralic Taurus is my personal amp, and therefore the one I use the most. It can handle just about anything you throw at it, and the LCD-5 is no exception. In fact, it turned out to be a really good combination. And damn, what a great midrange! Till Brönner’s trumpet on the Cohen-cover of A Thousand Kisses Deep is intimate and warm, while Dieter Ilg’s contrabass packs a hefty punch, all the while small details such as breathing and sniffling can be heard in the background.
It all becomes even clearer – though perhaps not quite as dynamically exuberant – with the T+A HA 200. Although it’s with it that the headphones truly flourish. It’s precise and detailed at the top, while the undertones in the bass register are just as impressive.
Does not pair well with McIntosh
Somewhat surprising, the LCD-5 does not pair well with the McIntosh MHA200. In fact, it doesn’t really work at all. It has settings from 32 up to 600 ohm load. But McIntosh have simply forgotten the fact there are headphones that go a lot lower 32 ohm. Set to 32 ohms, it has better control than when set to higher impedance, as a larger and larger cap is placed on the harmonics as you go up to 100, 250 and 600 ohms. It’s not just closed off, but downright distorted.
With the 32 ohms setting, the problem isn’t nearly as big; but it’s still just okay. Which won’t suffice when you spend 4.000 euros on a pair of headphones! The McIntosh puts the impedance theory to the test, and it holds up. Which the McIntosh MHA200 does not. Not with these headphones. However, it works significantly better with the Burson amplifier, which I would argue has better resolution than the Taurus, while having even more power (6 watts versus the Taurus’ 4.5 watts into 32 ohms).
The T+A HA 200 is somewhat similar, but T+A hasn’t disclosed the output power. A 100 watt power supply speaks for itself. And the HA 200 is in a league of its own when it comes to resolution and detail, without anything feeling strained. And the LCD-5 is capable of bringing this to light.
Is this the best there is?
Describing the sound of the LCD-5 is both easy and difficult at the same time. It comes across as neutral. So neutral in fact, that a sound engineer can easily put them on and immediately recognise the piece they’ve mixed the sound to.
But there’s more here. An X-factor. Talking about silence inbetween notes might be a cliché, but with the LCD-5 it’s quite relevant. Since there’s so much control over every microtrance, you’ll experience a musical journey from the moment you put the headphones on, and until you take them off again – usually hours later. They’re so comfortable that you’ll forget time and place.
I recently did a duel between the Audeze LCD-X and the HiFiMAN Arya. They’re both high-end headphones, but cost less than a third of the LCD-5. And while they’re both great, it’s a more of an emotional experience with them. I’m on the verge of tears when listening to “Longing” from composer Dobrinka Tabakova’s Concerto for Cello & Strings.
The T+A Solitaire P is another pair of plan magnetic headphones at about the same price. They are considerably heavier and fit looser, so you’ll have to sit still. The soundstage from the Solitaire P is warmer and fuller, with a more laid-back overtone range. Without lacking airiness; it’s just a different way of presenting the sound. More like a pair of high-end speakers in a sound-processed room, with a softer and creamier sound. The LCD-5 are more neutral – which sound engineers will appreciate, and music lovers who want the sound unadorned and straight on.
Audeze versus Stax
I think the headphones that are the most relevant to compare are the Stax SR-009s. They’re similar in character, and they’re both neutral sounding. While they both share the magic X-factor.
The SR-009s are even more subtle in their rendering of music and rhythms, and are experienced as more transparent – almost ghostly – in presentation. But the amp I tested them with at the time, Stax’s own T8000, isn’t powerful enough to bring out the weight of the rhythms at higher volumes. You can’t really pair them with your favourite amplifier with electrostats, as they require their own. I’ve read online that the Audiovalve Luminare and Mjölnir KGSSHV pair really well with Stax SR-009s, but I haven’t tried that out myself.
I think the LCD-5 is a more sociable pair of headphones that will work with multiple amps. You just need an amp with enough power, while still balanced at low impedance. In fact they also work quite well with the FiiO K9 Pro at a fifth of the headphones’ price. It’s not quite in the same league as the more expensive amps, but not far away either! We’ll talk more about it in a separate test of the FiiO
Audeze LCD-5: Conclusion
4.000 euros is without a doubt a ridiculous price to pay for a pair of headphones. But there’s simply nothing else that compares to the Audeze LCD-5. And regardless of what you think of them, you should at least experience the sheer delight that they provide.
There are other spectacular high-end headphones for half the price, and some of them may even challenge the LCD-5 on a few points. But not if you put an emphasis on comfort. They’re among the lightest and snuggliest, and the fact that you can actually headbang with them is really impressive. What other high-end headphones can do that?
There are just a few things to be aware of: the low impedance requires a stable amplifier with low output impedance. And the moderate sensitivity means that you can get a rather negative experience if the amplifier doesn’t have enough power. So you can forget about powering them directly from your laptop.