Yes, the specifications of the LCD-i3 suggest it’s a product that can run on any source. And it does. I could power the i3’s with my OnePlus smartphone or any available DAP. It’s still a planar-magnetic driver though, and it does like additional power. We’ll take a look at how the i3 fares with different sources. Some are portable, some desktop sized.
Lotoo – PAW Gold
I don’t bring out the original PAW Gold a lot, but when I do I leave with a smile on my face. You get a wide-spread stage, superb imaging and resolution. The PAW Gold is known for its supreme transparency, and that’s what gets fired into the i3.
It’s an expanded sound with very good extension on both sides. The i3 gets a touch more sub-bass for a tighter and faster sounding low end. There is very nice punch in the sound, that can absolutely take off with certain electronic tracks. If you’re a fan of the early Prodigy material, this is something you should check out with the i3. There’s tons of energy and excitement in the sound that makes it through the i3.
You get a fast, well controlled and punchy bass. A discreetly warm lower midrange, transparent and neutral mids coupled with an agile top-end. The soundstage is as expected. Massive, wide and deep. Layering, resolution and instrumental separation are top. The background isn’t dead-silent, as there is some very mild noise.
Chord Electronics – Hugo2
Last month one lucky German won my Qutest, since then the Hugo2 became my main home source again. It handles the LCD-i3 with ease and the pairing is really nice.
You get a well controlled low end, that features a slightly tighter grip. It reaches down low with exactness and rumble. The slightly warm sounding i3 pairs great with the uber-resolving and detail oriented Hugo2. You get heaps of information, great imaging and layering. The Hugo2 is a source, that’s more on the brighter side of neutral. The treble however isn’t piercing but of softer touch.
One thing the Hugo2 manages to do like no other DAC/Amp is to transport the listener into the scene. The LCD-i3 manages to do exactly that with the British DAC/Amp. You get a holographic soundstage, that spreads for miles and miles. Width and depth are exceptional, couple that with very high resolution and sharp imaging and you got yourself a truly fantastic sounding pair.
Matrix Audio – Element M
The Element M is one of the latest additions in the Vienna offices of Headfonia. It comes with a ton of features and loads of power. We will go over the Element M in more detail in its dedicated review. Just wait a couple of weeks.
You get wonderful low end weight that makes it way through the lower midrange. Instruments sound organic, vocals full of emotions and realistic. The Element M reproduces detail with impressive precision, and that’s what you’ll get. Big orchestras are no problem for the i3 here, it separates instruments sharply and places them on the stage. Midrange is fast, precise and transparent. You get a wonderfully open stage with immaculate imaging.
The background is almost pitch black, musicians get their spotlight and are displayed with sharpness. Resolution, layering and separation are all very good. The Element M does have a typical Sabre sound with heaps of details and a slightly more present treble section. You get more glare in the upper registers, with definite precision. Although I still wouldn’t consider the highs sharp or piercing, they are brighter in coloration.
Schiit – Ragnarok II (fed by Hugo2)
Yes, that’s not primarily a headphone amplifier. It’s completely over-specd for headphones. That’s what makes it fun to try it out. The Ragnarok II fires 6W RMS into 32 Ohms unbalanced and a mind-bobbling 42 Watts RMS balanced. Talk about gobs of power.
With the Ragnarok II you get an impressively large soundstage, superb texture in each note and a controlled scene. The i3 resolves the scene nicely, every musician and instrument is placed with care. One thing that could be better is background darkness. As I feel there is some noise in the back, that makes some parts a bit too connected.
The Ragnarok II gives a bit more weight and body to the midrange, which makes them fuller and a touch less transparent. Instruments however sound more organic, natural and intenser. There is extra richness in each note, which makes the overall appearance less dry. You get a well controlled bass, a harmonic midrange and a top end that’s free of fatigue. You will be able to place every musician in the scene and pinpoint them.
This is where I will disappoint most people, and I’m really sorry for that. I wish it were different. Unfortunately I can’t compare the LCD-i3 to a monitor I’d love to. I don’t have the iSine 20. I know many of you guys want to see the i3 compared to them, and I would love to give you the information you seek. But I can’t. I can only compare the i3 to monitors that I have access to. I won’t ever do comparisons based on short-term listenings. Show conditions are far from good enough to give a credible opinion. Especially when working with open-back monitors.
The only IEMs that makes sense to compare the LCD-i3 to is the LCD-i4 and the Nightingale by AAW. It’s a ten millimetre planar-magnetic open back monitor. It has a more conventional IEM shape and is made of aluminium, which gives it more weight in the ear.
Comparisons were done using the stock cable. Mentioned prices are in USD.
Audeze – LCD-i4 (1PM; 2,495$)
The LCD-i4 and i3 aren’t too far apart in terms of overall signature. They mostly differ in dynamic range, resolution, stage dimensions and other technicalities. All of which are superior on the LCD-i4. The i3 does put vocals a bit more upfront, where the i4 seems to place them slightly laid-back.
The i4 has the upper hand when it comes to speed, rendering and precision. It has a darker background and handles complexities easier. The LCD-i4 seems to give male vocals a bit more warmth. They sometimes can sound a bit closed in and even nasal, whereas the i3 just doesn’t do that. The LCD-i4 has better extension on both ends. It goes deeper into sub, with more grunt and higher resolution.
What the LCD-i4 does better than the i3 is placement of the instruments. It gives each musician more space, while the i3 seems to keep them closer together. Treble on the i3 is a bit smoother, less energetic and maybe a touch darker. While the i4 does extend further into highs, it also gives them a brighter overall sound. The i4 has a richer tonality throughout the frequency response. Although the i3 also isn’t exactly dry sounding either, it’s the i4 that keeps things wetter.
For the price difference, it’s hard to argue against the LCD-i3 here. It offers a lot of the i4, although differences are undeniable. The LCD-i3 without a doubt is a miniature version of the i4 to me.
AAW – Nightingale (1PM; 999$)
The Nightingale is a lot darker sounding. It has a more upfront presented bass, that goes almost equally deep. The LCD-i3 sounds more balanced and neutral. Nightingale has more weight in its lows and entire midrange, it portrays vocals with more density. Singers sound thicker and heavier on the AAW than on the Audeze.
The LCD-i3 creates a much bigger sound stage, it has superior imaging and resolution. It really pulls you in the scene, while with the Nightingale you’re watching in a smaller venue. The Audeze has better abilities to stay in control. When you listen to big orchestras or information-overloaded Electronica it’s the i3 that resolves cleaner, clearer and more accurately.
Audeze’s LCD-i3 sounds more open, wide-spread and bigger. It has better layering and texture throughout. What I feel the AAW suffers from most, is treble energy and presence. It can sound muted and muffled at times, especially when underdriven. The LCD-i3 in comparison has better treble extension. Its highs are brighter, faster and just more present.
I have never been a big fan of open-back IEMs. I don’t see the point of them. Seriously, if you want something with the sound stage of an Over Ear, why not get a full sized headphone? On top, most open back monitors I heard can’t compete with the big boys. Enter the Audeze LCD-i3, because this one can.
Back in the day when Audeze introduced their iSine monitors, they had the guts to try something different. In my opinion it really paid off. The LCD-i3 creates a sound that is hardly comparable to your typical IEM. The experience in total is so very different. The only thing the i3 has in common with In Ear Monitors, is the fact that there’s a nozzle that goes into your canal. The LCD-i3 is the closest I’ve come a headphone experience, with an earphone.
The comparatively big drivers create a sound that really is on par with some open Over Ear headphones. The stage is massive for an IEM, the layering, imaging and separation are just incredible. Audeze’s IEMs are the only ones I would consider wearing at home instead of a full sized headphone. It’s just that good. A big plus is also that you get two different sounding monitors in one package. Just slap on the Cipher cable, given you have an Apple device, and you get a different beast all together. The Bluetooth cable is a nice addition for those who want extra convenience.
I know this review sounds like pure rave, but honestly, I am deeply impressed. That doesn’t happen a lot anymore.
The LCD-i3 will replace the iSine 20 in our list of Best Universal IEMs.