Before you start reading Mike’s part, here’s a little intro by L.
Don’t be surprised, but what you will read below isn’t the normal “who-what-when” kind of review. Every single person in the world who has a slightly more than average interest in headphones has already read an LCD-2 impression, or has at least heard about it and Audez’e, its creator. Mike really wanted to tell you what makes “the three” so exceptional in his own way. I liked reading it but I can very well imagine people don’t get it or want a “normal” kind of review. Those however who know what he’s talking about will get exactly what he means and they will probably want the LCD-3, right away. I’ve listened to the LCD-3 on lots of different amplifiers and for me it’s one of the very best headphones out there, yet I don’t own one myself. Maybe Santa will surprise me in December, who knows. Now , on to “the review”.
The LCD-X has been announced and I’ve yet to write or publish an LCD-3 review. I’m glad I don’t have a boss cause otherwise I would’ve lost my job by now.
Why even bother writing a review about it now? Almost some two years after it’s been released and countless of reviews and praises have been written about it? Maybe I’m just trying to catch up? Maybe I want to try to write a bad review on it (uh-oh, Alex).. Or maybe, like the reason I write on Headfonia, is that an impressive piece of gear needs to be talked about.
I wasn’t that enthusiastic when the LCD-3 was released. The LCD-2 was at the height of its popularity and it seemed as if Audez’e was just trying to capitalize on the momentum. I’ve experienced the degree of improvements that could be introduced from merely applying simple damping mods on vintage orthodynamic headphones, and I thought that Audez’e was just trying to pull out the same trick.
And the early reviews seemed to suggest that. More spacious, more air, improved treble extension were the adjectives applied to the three. I asked people who had firsthand experiences with the three and they told me the same thing, so it was a consistent impression shared by a large group of people. The bottom end answer people told me was that it’s an improvement from the two, but not worth twice the asking price. I drew my conclusion right there: the three is just an old dog, though not really that old, being taught new tricks and being sold at a much higher price to support the improved image.
Months passed and maybe even one year passed and I didn’t bother checking out the three. Then I had my own headphone shop and naturally, we became an Audez’e reseller. Obviously, you want to sell the gear that people want, and the two was becoming very popular with the local enthusiasts. Once in a while, there would be customers who asked to purchase a three and since the product seemed to be in very low supply (at least in our country), most of them had to wait for one-two months, easy, before they could get their LCD-3 delivered. For this reason, we had no LCD-3 demo at the store as with every unit we got, we immediately shipped it out the same hour we received it from the distributor.
Sometime around the time I was about to receive the ALO Studio Six amplifier (I’ve written a glowing praise on that amp), we managed to get one extra unit of the three that was not reserved by a customer. I immediately asked our store manager not to sell that one so that we can have an in store demo of the three, and I can have an LCD-3 to review the Studio Six with. I spent weeks listening to the three out of the Six, and the Studio Six review came out glowing primarily due to the superb, out of this world pairing with the LCD-3. It was during the period of that review that I discovered why I need to write about the three. Not only was the three better, but out of the Six, I simply couldn’t go back to the LCD-2 even though tonally, the first-generation dark-tonality LCD-2 definitely strikes a better balance to my ears than the LCD-3. It was a whole step up in terms of technicalities, and not only in the sense of being more spacious yada yada yada, but it had the dynamics that made music so much more alive. An entirely new level of dynamics previously unheard of from headphones.
THE SWING FACTOR
Now I want to introduce a new adjective that I don’t think has been used before to describe sound and it’s called the Swing factor. What is the swing factor? It’s how well a driver can reproduce the non-linear transitions in dynamics. Jazz vocal singers tend to have lots of swing on their vocals, likewise acoustic wind, strings, and percussion instruments. This is a hard concept to grasp but a simpler example is like when you pluck a low note guitar string or a low note on a piano, they tend to have very long decay and there is a strong decay trailing the note all the way to total silence. The pattern of the decay highly varies depending on the finger who plucked the finger, the material of the instruments, the room acoustics, and perhaps other factors too. It’s the palpable element of the micro dynamics that makes music more real. High end dynamic drivers like the Fostex TH900 and the Senn HD800 have almost no difficulty in reproducing that seemingly infinite number of steps of the note decaying down, but planars have always been stiffer and more static, electrostats included. Of course the swing factor is not limited to only the note decay but also the attack, as a piece of music usually go up and down in dynamics throughout its length.
If you’ve been listening to a lot of Acoustic, Jazz, and Classical, this may be an easier concept to grasp. Modern Pop, Rock, and even more Electronic music tends to demand very little of this swing factor as they are either heavily processed or even being generated in the most part using electronics and so doesn’t really need to excel in this area. The swing factor is not an easy concept to grasp and explain through text, but very evident in conveying a sense of realism once you hear it. If you’ve been noticing this factor during your music listening, then you know what I’m talking about. If you find the concept alien, then I really wouldn’t worry about trying to understand it right now. If your music has it, then you’ll notice it in time, and as I’ve said, this tends to be more evident in music with minimal electronic processing.
Going back to the LCD-3. It’s priced high above the Hifiman HE-6 which is the LCD-2 competitor and that’s because the three has something that the Hifiman, nor other planars have achieved before. It can reproduce the swing factor which usually is only found on high end dynamics while still offering planar-class transients. The three really surpassed the Stax 007 by far. And though the 009 is a little less stiff than the other planars in existence, the three is still better in this area. It really is the best planar driver I’ve heard today, though a friend told me that the newly released Abyss is even better at this swing factor.
Another factor that I need to outline is the driver’s flexibility to portray the true colour of the recording. Planars have been favored over dynamics for one reason being their predictable presentation. And for the most part, the planar presentation is always smooth and pleasing to the ears. In fact the reason that electrostatics are so desirable is that people want to get that unique electrostatic presentation that applies their own color to the recording being played, and that the coloration is usually smooth and very fine. The problem with this type of a treatment is that you lose the flexibility to hear the true color of the recording. And on high end recordings, this is actually a downgraded presentation as you don’t get to hear the recording to the fullest. High end dynamic drivers, on the other hand, are a lot more flexible in conveying the true color of the recording and this is one of the reason people tell you to stick to good recordings when listening to the HD800 (otherwise you’ll hear the full gory details of bad recordings). Again the LCD-3 is excellent at this. This is the first planar I’ve heard that truly has the flexibility to portray the true nature of the recording. Obviously this is a double edged character and for this reason I’d still stick to the LCD-2 if I still listen to a good amount of bad recordings.
In the overall scheme of things, I consider the more spacious sound, the air, and the treble of the LCD-3 to be relatively minor improvements. For me, it’s very impressive to hear a planar that’s finally able to present a good swing factor and flexibility with recordings, as it really allows the recordings to become alive and palpable, provided you’re listening to a good recording and from a good source. On the other hand, if most of my listening are tuned to mainstream recordings, I’d actually think that the LCD-2 is the better headphone. It’s less resolving and has a better ability to mask distortion introduced from the mixing and mastering process. The two also does a better job with the majority of modern music and their compressed, constantly-loud-level dynamics.
Another factor that I discovered was how the three, a lot like the top end dynamic drivers, demands top end source and amplification to truly shine. Even with the ALO Pan Am and the Violectric V200, both very good amps for the LCD-2, I really don’t see the reason I’d spend $2K on the bigger brother. On the Studio Six, however, I’m making no exaggeration when I say that I really struggled to go back to the two as the dynamics in the music sound very constricted and limited on it.
So, here is a belated hurrah to the LCD-3. I think Audez’e has done a lot more on the three than merely making the sound more spacious and improving treble extension. I would pay the $2K if I have the money because the three is just that much better.