The Audeze LCD-XC is special because it is the long awaited closed-back version of Audez’e’s world famous planars. Audez’e have been making quite a name for themselves through the release of the LCD-2 and the LCD-3s, but all these time people have been asking over and over again for a closed back variant of the LCDs. And from what I gathered, they would even be content if that meant a sound quality lower than any of the open-back variants. After all, designing a reference class closed back headphone has always been a challenge. Hence, the notable lack of closed-back reference class headphones. From the time of the Sennheiser HD650/AKG K701/Beyerdynamic DT880 to the modern flagship time of the HD800 and Stax SR-009 and even the all time king the Sennheiser Orpheus, they’re all open back headphones. I’m not saying that there are no closed back flagship headphones (Beyer T5p, Ultrasone Edition 8, Fostex’s TH900, or the classic Sony MDR-R10), but the general consensus is that open back would in most case yield a superior sound quality.
Together with the Audeze LCD-XC, the company also released a new open back headphone which nobody saw coming: the LCD-X. In my review of the X, I made it clear that though there are some good things about it and while some people felt that it’s their version of the best Audez’e LCD headphone, I personally wasn’t a fan. The XC, on the other hand, has convinced me that it is my fav version of the Audez’es LCD headphones, far exceeding my expectation that a closed-back unit can sound this good.
The XC came out as being the cleanest sounding model out of the entire line up, even besting the LCD-3. Though obviously not as open or spacious as the open back models, the XC has its own way of projecting a more three dimensional sound stage image within its closed back boundaries. Whereas the LCDs have always been good with sound stage image, the XC takes it to a whole new level, giving you a much sharper image and focus of the sound stage and the instrument placements. Three dimensional depth is also on a whole new level even compared to the flagship open back LCD-3. This paragraph alone gives enough reason to why the XC should be considered a serious threat to the flagship model, even ignoring other benefits it offers such as being closed back.
While I mostly grew up listening to open back headphones and preferring their generally more natural timbre to closed back headphones, lately I’m beginning to understand why a well-executed closed back headphone could be the holy grail of personal audio. And it doesn’t have anything to do with libraries or other people getting bothered by my music either. Yes, those are real benefits obviously, but I’m even looking for something more than that. A high quality, well-sealing, closed back headphone gives you an almost 100% undisturbed space for music. It’s like walking into a world-class concert hall with close to zero noise level. Even the subtlest sound waves emitted from the instrument can be heard because noise level is close to zero.
Even though my house is situated in a pretty quiet neighborhood, it’s almost never dead quiet. Depending on the time of the day, you would hear noise from a car passing by, a door being opened or closed, the kids playing games on their iPads, activities in the kitchen, and so on. There is always small noise interrupting the music, and no matter how faint, they distract a certain percentage of your brain from the music. Of course, some people have dedicated sound-proof music rooms, but even if I can afford building such a room, I don’t want to isolate myself like that. This is where the XC shines. While I loved the Fostex TH900, its pads didn’t isolate outside noise anywhere as good as the XC. With the XC, I get an instant, world-class music hall for whenever I want to listen to my music. And the resulting zero noise experience is why a lot of us prefer listening to music at night. It puts you right in the music without any distractions whatsoever.
You can actually simulate the effect to understand what I’m saying to a certain extent. Even with well-sealing IEMs, you never get a 100% noise isolation. Compare listening to your IEM in a subway to being in a library. Even more, go into your room at night when everybody in the house is sleeping, close the door, get under the blanket, and listen to your music there. That’s the sensation of listening to music in a zero-noise experience.
Obviously, the zero-noise experience wouldn’t mean a thing if the XC had a flawed sound somewhere because the lack of distractions would only accentuate the flaw. But the XC happens to be one of the sweetest sounding, most tonally perfect headphone I’ve ever encountered. And through my ears, again better than the LCD-3. The sound is clean, clear, grainless, and with a strong black background. It’s a little bit more laid back than the other Audez’es. Not a hallway or tunnel-vision step back, but like moving one row back and this new listening spot perfectly puts me in a position that allows me to see the complete orchestra while still close enough to feeling the presence in the vocals. The midrange is magical: smooth, clean, clear and with a sweet bloom. The bass is impactful, clear, and well layered. The treble is just right. This is the perfect Audez’e headphone for me.
Gear pairing: The XC is not difficult, you can drive it straight out of an iPod. Of course it won’t sound that good, but it’s doable. I still think that despite the relatively sensitive driver, a good portable amp is needed to get the dynamics right. For instance, while the resolution of the new AK240 is absolutely more than enough for the XC (and the built in headphone out has enough voltage to drive the XC as well), I usually add a CypherLabs Duet between the 240 and the XC just to get the dynamics alive. Make sure you set the 240 to LINE OUT to get the full effect. On the Theorem I can plug it straight without additional amping and be fine, but the general rule of thumb is that the AK players need additional amping. The Chord HUGO comes with an desktop-beating built in amp and can really shake the drivers of the XC, so that’s another portable device that you can look into.Though my store sells both the Hugo and the 240, personally I like the AK240’s sound more because it’s smoother and more refined, not to mention smaller sized. I hadn’t used that many desktop rigs lately, with the exception of the Studio Six rig. Obviously when plugged in to the ALO Studio Six, I get unmatched bass impact and dynamics. Serious bass that is truly felt on the chest. However, I do feel that the CypherLabs Duet is good enough to enjoy the XC with.
Editor’s note (Lieven)
The Audeze LCD-XC is not cheap, it’s a reference class headphone with a reference class price tag. The XC can be bought directly from Audeze or via one of the distributors and it will set you back $1.799. But you get a whole lot in return: if you need a top closed heaphone an are not on a budget, look no further, this is the one.