Audeze LCD-2 Review - Best planar magnetic headphone under $1000?
Review written by Andrew Park (@Resolve)
Headphones provided on loan for review by headphones.com
The original Audeze LCD-2 was one of the first planar magnetic headphones I ever owned. I remember being completely blown away by its performance, never having heard anything quite like it. Unfortunately it had some downsides, like weight and comfort, and the company has since made a number of revisions to this model. They've also come out with a number of other headphones like the LCD-GX and the LCD-X that fill out the full-sized Audeze lineup around the LCD-2's price. But, given that there have been some changes and improvements over the years, the question in my mind with this modern LCD-2 is does it still live up to the 'best headphone under $1000' title I once held it up to be?
- Style - Over-ear, open-back
- Transducer type - Planar Magnetic
- Magnetic structure - Proprietary magnet array
- Phase management - Fazor
- Magnet type - Neodymium N50
- Transducer size - 106 mm
- Maximum power handling - 5W RMS
- Maximum SPL - >130dB
- THD - <0.1% @ 100dB
- Impedance - 70 ohms
- Sensitivity - 101 dB/1mW (at Drum Reference Point)
- Minimum power requirement - >100mW
- Recommended power level - >250mW
- Weight - 595g (Rosewood), 580g (Shedua/Bamboo)
- iFi iDSD Micro Black Label
- iBasso DX160
- iBasso DX220
- Matrix X Sabre Pro -> Cayin IHA-6
- Matrix X Sabre Pro -> SPL Phonitor X
- Matrix X Sabre Pro - > Cayin HA-1A MK2
- SMSL SU-9 -> Topping L30
Build, Design & Comfort
I find the Audeze LCD-2 to be one of the best looking headphones period. I’m personally a big fan of design styles that use wood, leather and metal - not unlike the design language of ZMF headphones. Of course, the LCD-2 isn’t quite as boutique as the ZMFs, but at the same time the headphone does use a number of handcrafted components. This particular Audeze LCD-2 uses the Shedua wood, as opposed to the more commonly found bamboo wood.
For comfort, the LCD-2 is a big step up from older versions since modern ones use a redesigned headband with perforations for the strap. It also uses the iconic massive pads that Audeze’s higher end LCD headphones are known for. Unfortunately the LCD-2 is still quite heavy, this one comes in at around 640g with the cable. Still, I was able to get through a full day of wearing it, but my neck wasn’t too happy with me after about 5 or 6 hours.
The Audeze LCD-2 is a planar magnetic headphone, and this one is different from the LCD2 Classic and LCD-2 pre-fazor, meaning it’s a modern, double-sided LCD-2 with the fazor array. It should also be noted that there have been a number of revisions to the LCD-2 over the years, and so for the sake of simplicity I’m going to call this one a ‘2020’ version (even though it may have been in production before 2020). This means that the following sound descriptions may not be applicable to previous LCD-2 revisions and also potential future ones if more revisions take place. Audeze is a company that’s been particularly transparent about its revisions and the fact that they’re constantly trying to improve things.
For the overall sense of image clarity, structural definition and textural nuance, the LCD-2 has the potential to be the best headphone under $1000. I say potential because it’s really not helped by its frequency response and tonal balance. So listeners may hear this headphone and at first glance think “wait a minute, this doesn’t have that good ‘resolution’”. However, the internal sense of detail is remarkably good, and once this headphone has been EQ’d a bit - to get the most out of it and bring back some of the clarity that’s lost due to its tonal balance, it becomes more easy to recognize just how good the LCD-2 is at representing all the textural nuances of and finer details of your music.
Speed & Dynamics
For the initial leading edge, the LCD-2 is also quite quick, leading to a tight, well-controlled kind of sound - the kind of thing I’ve come to expect from planar magnetic headphones. It’s slightly ahead of the Sundara in this regard, and similar to the speed of the Ananda, however with a slightly stronger sense of decay to the tones. Now before you think this is something that might show up as a ‘wall’ on a CSD (cumulative spectral decay) plot, it’s important to remember that time domain information in headphones should be proportional to frequency response information as well. So really what I’m saying here is that perceptually I get the sense of a slightly more pronounced decay, even if it’s not demonstrably available in the data.
For the sense of punch and slam, the LCD-2 is one of the better planars out there, giving a satisfying impact to bass tones and drum hits. At the same time, it’s also not on the same level as Focal headphones or some other dynamic driver headphones that hit really hard. The Focal Elex slams harder to my ear for example. Note that this isn’t a statement about bass level or bass energy, merely the sense of physicality the headphone has. Some do this better, while others do this worse, regardless of bass level shown in frequency response.
Soundstage & Imaging
The LCD-2 has an average soundstage, meaning that while it’s not as spacious as an HD800s, it’s still better than that of an HD6XX. I also find it slightly more spacious than the HiFiMAN Sundara, but just slightly. Lateral definition is good, as is forward presence, and there are no significant gaps across the front of the stage - at least for my in-head localization.
Imaging is decent as well, I think also not quite as evenly distributed in front of me as the Ananda, but importantly the image separation and distinction on the LCD-2 is superb - potentially class-leading. To describe this a bit better, if you’re listening to music with busy passages or a lot of layers to it, the LCD-2 allows you to hear those layers more distinctly and well defined than any other headphone in this price range.
Normally planar magnetic headphones have a kind of ‘plucked’ character to them, and in that sense the LCD-2 is no different. This may be in part due to how quick the initial leading edge is as well. But the LCD-2 also doesn’t have that somewhat dry quality in the bass and lower mids that I associate with a number of the HiFiMAN headphones.
For frequency-response related timbre, however, the LCD-2 has a somewhat muted and muffled kind of tone to it, which we will discuss next.
Frequency Response & Tonality
The following is how the Audeze LCD-2 measures on the GRAS 43AG standardized measurement rig relative to the combined Harman target curve (Harman 2013 bass but Harman 2018 mids and treble). For reference, the Harman 2018 bass is substantially elevated - far too much for what I think most audiophiles would consider appropriate, even if some bass heads may like it, so I prefer to use the more modest 2013 bass shelf. In any case, these are raw measurements, meaning it should not look like a flat line across. This instead shows the raw measurement relative to the target that would otherwise be normalized in compensated measurements.
How do you read this? The dotted black line is the target (how we might want it to measure), and the colored line is how the headphone in question measures. Effectively, this shows how significantly the headphone’s frequency response deviates from the target.
Channel Matching: the LCD-2 is mostly good for channel matching, with some variation likely due to pad influence.
Starting with the bass, the LCD-2 extends all the way down past the limits of human hearing, however it also sits slightly below the bass suggested by the Harman target. So when you hear that the Audeze LCD-2 has fantastic bass, it really does - in terms of bass extension, detail, and clarity - but that doesn’t mean it’s bass elevated in any way.
The mids have a somewhat odd feature between 700-900hz, but the real problem with this headphone is that between 1khz and 4.5khz the amplification imparted by the physical ear and ear canal that the brain expects to hear simply isn’t there. This means that you lose out on much of the clarity that should be there, and instead you get a kind of muted and muffled effect to the sound.
Now this is interesting, because while it doesn’t have appropriate ear-gain, it’s not that the balance for the upper midrange is bad at all. In fact, it has the general curve you want to see, and this means that it retains decent balance for fundamental and resonant harmonic tones. So all this means is that while the overall energy simply isn’t high enough for this range, the balance within that range is still appropriate.
The downside with this, however, is that it does come across a bit disjointed with the treble response - which, on its own, is also totally appropriate. There’s no percussion compression, no emphasis to sibilant tones, it has an appropriate dip at 9khz to reflect concha interaction (this should be there, and for more information you can read this article here). And lastly, it has an appropriate level for the ‘air’ region above 10khz. Oftentimes Audeze headphones go kind of crazy in this region and throw off some of the balance for fundamental and harmonic tones, but this LCD-2 doesn’t have any problems with that region.
So overall, the biggest issue with the LCD-2 is that the lack of energy in the upper mids and lower treble means you lose some sense of ‘resolution’ - or in other words, the frequency response related impacts to overall clarity. Now some may appreciate this kind of relaxed and warm tuning, but keep in mind that it’s not warm in the sense of relaxed treble, it’s warm in the sense of being somewhat muted and muffled in the upper midrange.
Because of the LCD-2’s lack of ear-gain, I do think this is a headphone that really benefits from EQ if you want a kind of tonality that most people prefer. Once again, if you like a kind of muted and muffled experience for the upper mids and lower treble, you may not feel the need to EQ this headphone, however if you want to get the most out of it, I highly recommend taking EQ seriously - and really that’s kind of what the Audeze headphones excel at in general. Audeze themselves have put together their 'Reveal+' DSP service, that's effectively a preset for many of their headphones. Unfortunately, in this particular case, Reveal+ isn't appropriate - and this may be just be due to the software needing to be updated. But at the time of writing this, I recommend doing EQ manually rather than relying on the preset.
Remember though that this EQ profile won’t be applicable to other revisions of the LCD-2, so this is only for those who have the modern ‘2020 version’. There is also a chance of unit variation, so I also recommend doing this by ear.
- Low shelf - 100hz, +5dB
- Pk - 750hz, -2dB, Q=2.3
- Pk - 1600hz, +3.5dB, Q=1.41
- Pk - 3000hz, +3.5dB, Q=1.41
- Pk - 5600hz, -4dB, Q=3
- Pk - 35hz, +2dB, Q=1.41
- Pk - 528hz, +1.5dB, Q=2.3
- Pk - 890hz, -1.5dB, Q=3.5
- Pk - 1224hz, -1.5dB, Q=2
- Pk - 2200hz, +2.5dB, Q=3
- Pk - 4200hz, +3dB, Q=2.2
- Pk - 8130hz, -2.5dB, Q=4
- High shelf - 6000hz, +4dB
- Pk - 7400hz, +2dB, Q=3
Audeze LCD-X ($1199)
The LCD-X is Audeze’s next step up from the LCD-2. While the LCD-X does have better technical performance (detail, image separation and so forth), the LCD-X’s default tonal balance is also quite strange, perhaps even more strange than that of the LCD-2. Where the LCD-2 merely lacks the appropriate energy for the upper mids, the LCD-X not only lacks energy but has a significantly less balanced presentation for that region as a whole as well. In both cases, I recommend EQ, but I do also find that the LCD-X requires more significant adjustment. The LCD-X is also a bit heavier. Still, I do think for those who are comfortable doing some EQ, the LCD-X is worth the price increase.
DCA Aeon 2 Open ($899)
The Aeon 2 Open is one of the strangest sounding headphones I’ve ever heard - with the default pads - to the point where I simply do not recommend it whatsoever over the Aeon 2 Closed. However there are reports of alternate pad options that significantly improve the Aeon 2 Open’s tonal balance. At the moment, I’m unable to verify that, however it’s also worth pointing out that the LCD-2 simply has better technical performance than either Aeon 2. It has better detail, dynamics, soundstage - you name it. The one area where the Aeon 2 wins for me is in its comfort, weighing half as much as the LCD-2, and also its portability. For this reason, I recommend the Aeon 2 Closed for anyone wanting a lighter, more comfortable, more portable planar headphone. But for the open-backs, the LCD-2 is more capable.
HiFiMAN Ananda ($699)
The Ananda is the planar magnetic headphone I recommend under $1000 for anyone not wanting to EQ. It has a much better sense of clarity with a significantly more appropriate tonal balance - but there is a tradeoff. The Ananda is nowhere near as punchy and dynamic as the LCD-2, in a way where many consider this a significant drawback of the Ananda, and I’m inclined to agree. Still, the Ananda also has a better sense of space and openness, and it’s also lighter - making it potentially easier to wear for long periods of time.
Audeze LCD-GX ($899)
The LCD-GX is Audeze’s flagship gaming headphone, and while it’s marketed at gamers, in many ways this is also excellent for those just wanting something for music listening. The LCD-GX has some of Audeze’s ‘warm and relaxed’ heritage, while also having a much more agreeable tonal balance. It’s also lighter and more comfortable. The downside, however, is that it simply doesn’t have the same kind of technical performance as the LCD-2.
The Audeze LCD-2 is in my opinion the most technically impressive headphone under $1000. Unfortunately, it also requires a bit of EQ to sound appropriate - at least for what we know most people prefer. For those who enjoy a relaxed upper midrange, then this may not be a problem. But for everyone else, this is a headphone that I do recommend, once some adjustment is applied. In short, this is the headphone that I personally would choose as my number one pick under $1000. But if you’re not comfortable doing some EQ, then it’s likely best to look at either the Audeze LCD-GX or the HiFiMAN Ananda.
-Andrew Park (@Resolve)
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