“Don’t you know there ain’t no Devil that’s just God when he’s drunk.” — Tom Waits
Surprises can be very welcome, and sometimes not. In the case of the Audeze LCD-5, it was the shipping notice from Audeze, contents unspecified. I was only aware that there was to be an LCD-5, but not anything about it. Thus, the second surprise was finding out just how they were far more than just a new model from the California company.
Upon opening the large case the first things I noticed was just how light the LCD-5s are. Not just the weight, but while they look like a pair of Audeze headphones, every part is new. It really hits home when you put them side-by-side with a regular pair of Audeze headphones. I had been thinking that while I love the LCD-R headphones I recently purchased after reviewing them, that the industrial-looking metal yokes, sliders screwed in with a regular screw and washer seemed quite out-of-date.
Thus, the LCD-5s were completely refreshing. The heavy steel bands of the yoke have been replaced with magnesium, which feels and sounds like plastic when tapped, but is considerably more robust. The slider system is now part of the headband, and the clicky sliders angle out, rather than in, when the headphones are hanging, and point almost straight up when on my head.
As usual, recessed hex nuts allow for locking the sliders for studio engineers who want to ensure the adjustment (and thus sound) doesn’t change each time they are put on. However, finger-removable screws sit atop the sliders for headband replacement without a screwdriver.
Acetate has replaced wood for the decorative ring, not for imitation reasons, as some have suggested, but due, according to Mark Cohen of Audeze, to wood rings taking up the most manufacturing time of a pair of headphones, and supply being limited.
Finally, the ear pads, still stuck on with tape for an optimum seal (Audeze hasn’t come up with a more convenient system that gave as good a seal, at least for now*) have a concave shape to produce a more optimum sound chamber.
With a rather firm clamp, the decrease in contact area for the ear pads made the LCD-5 initially uncomfortable, with stretching not readily possible from the carbon fibre headband.
While the headphones are smaller than other LCD models, the drivers are still very large, at 90mm (the other models in the LCD series have 106mm drivers).
At least the cable set-up is the same. Included in the box is Audeze’s new “Ultra High Purity Cable” with OCC conductors. Thankfully the collection of Audeze-compatible cables I have in my drawer would work with the LCD-5, handy, as the included cable only had a 6.3mm (1/4″) connector and a number of amps I have here use 4-pin XLR or Pentaconn.
Measurements credit Head-Fi.org. Note that the graphs do not compensate for the varying levels of sensitivity our ears have for different frequencies, so will show a more pronounced bump in the mid-range than we will actually perceive.
Unlike previous Audeze models, the LCD-5 eschews the warmer sound signature of past and aims for as close to dead flat as possible. No Harman curve here either, which is aimed at listening preferences. Instead, the target is studio mixing and mastering engineers.
A simple analogy would be to take the old, classic Sennheiser HD650 headphones and re-imagine them here as high-end planer headphones, with bass that goes deeper, and with far better resolution. Or, in the in-ear monitor world, a headphone version of Campfire’s Aras.
Into specifics, treble, to me, seems a touch muted, especially compared to HiFiMan headphones like the Susvaras. It’s even a touch behind the HD650/HD6XX. The mid-range is forward for preference, to the point of irritation on some tracks, especially those with distortions added in mastering, but on high-quality music a fantastic insight into everything from vocals to guitars, violins and piano.
I thought that I would not experience potentially better bass than I have the Final D8000 Pro, or the LCD-R out of the Audio-gd Master 10 speaker amp, however I suspect that the LCD-5 may have taken the crown for bass resolution, though HiFiMan’s Susvaras weren’t going to give up the fight out of Audio-gd’s Master 10 speaker amp.
Since the amount of any frequency is left dependant entirely on the mastering of the track, unlike other headphones, such as the LCD-3, Meze Empyrean or Final D8000, the LCD-5 doesn’t entertain. When there is plenty of bass, the entertainment level out of a good amp is ridiculously good.
More so, when we talk about instrument separation – that is how clearly we can make out individual instruments in a mix – never once, in the slightest, was the strength of any one instrument, or collection of any others in a piece enough to overwhelm any other, no matter how busy any track became.
Take Fiesta en el Solar by Marc Ribot (from the Y Los Cubanos Postizos album). I had the LCD-5 plugged in to Headamp’s GS-X Mini for this track, the liveliness and detail from this amp and accompanying Schiit Yggdrasil A2 DAC is enhanced by the headphones. The guitar is very much in-your-face with the LCD-5, too much so almost. This is why it can be such an intense track on more conventionally-tuned headphones. The more granular sound from the Yggdrasil was readily apparent versus the more nuanced Chord TT2 and MScaler system adjacent to it when I switched them over.
Likewise on Recuerdo by Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan’s baritone sax is pushed right up in front of the other instruments. Gerry must have been moving around quite when he played a bit as I notice the fluctuations mid-note as if the instrument is moving towards and away from the microphone in different directions. Yet, at the same time, the percussion and piano never lose their intensity, nor are overwhelmed by the saxaphone.
At the end of Peace Piece by Bill Evans (Everybody Digs Bill Evans), there is a slap-sound just before the very end — whether something Bill himself did, or a noise that someone in the studio made I don’t know, and for a moment when I first re-heard it again, it felt like it had come from somewhere in my room, behind me. Of course, the solo performance has me just about holding my breath during the more intense passages that sound like two people are playing, such was Evans’ masterful skill at expression. I forgot about the headphones entirely listening to this track again. The tape hiss, however, was annoying.
An old favourite of mine, Keep the Streets Empty For Me by Fever Ray (Album: Fever Ray) which, out of the GS-X Mini/TT2/MScaler combination, the space of the sound with the percussion in sharp relief in the mix was fantastic, the deeper notes filling out the space without even the slightest sense of bloat or bloom.
Likewise Gutenmorgenduft by dZihan & Kamien from Gran Riserva. This it the album a friend introduced to me when I first took an interest in jazz. A couple of DJs, taking inspiration from their parents’ music (the album cover features their respective fathers on the front) and synthesising it with a DJ’s aesthetic results in a fun fusion. While I’d dial the mid-range frequencies back a bit for this for best results, as I like it from the LCD-R or other headphones for preference, there was no lack of bass, either from the recording, or the headphones — only that it was overshadowed by the mid-range too much for preference, if that mid-range revealed the layering of the mix beautifully. There’s also a triangle hidden in the mix I hadn’t noticed before!
Bowers & Wilkins used to have a music service, a subscription to which would give access to some absolutely incredible recordings. Of that, there is a series called Accidental Powercut, which consists entirely of live, binaural recordings. Among that are tracks by Jon McCleary which from time-to-time end up on my current playlist, not just for evaluation, but for the richness of the experience that they present. Garden was wonderful here, every nuance of the space, McCleary’s voice and the snap of each note of his guitar and how the sounds vibrated through the instrument fantastically clear.
On Fala, by Tom Diakité, Tom’s voice is amplified with all its glory, the actual space in which he sung the track readily audible. It’s very apparent that the instruments were mixed in to the recording, rather than being recorded in an whole space, all the more as the chorus of children cut in and out. Every note of every instrument is distinct and clear, regardless of where in the frequency spectrum it sits.
The passion of Mellencamp’s vocals on Last Chance, with all the subtlety in how he sings the track is apparent here. While the other instruments don’t stand out especially in what is a fairly typical pop/recording, what the whole set-up with the LCD-5 brings out is how the instrument parts were arranged in moments of sophistication throughout the track.
While still enjoyable, the LCD-5 shows up the harshness in parts of Beck’s Beautiful Way, with, apart from left-right instrument panning, nothing to show for soundstage.
Muddy Waters Folk Singer album has became something of a standard amongst some headphone audiophiles for it’s incredible dynamic range. It was recorded on a system created by Mike Moffat of Schiit Audio way back in the day, and the recording holds up today as being of outstanding quality. The dynamics delivered by the LCD-5s were of a degree of intensity that it was painfully easy to discern the difference in capabilities of the mid-range Singxer and Soncoz amps and the more sophisticated $1000+ amps such as the Headamp GS-X Mini and Audio-gd Master 9, the former presenting the music in a way that sounded flatter, with less depth, and the latter fairly disappearing, with only the music remaining.
This left a common theme with a lot of modern pop/rock and the LCD-5. Anything mastered with the vocals and instruments too far forward, or anything that that had any distortion headed quickly towards being unpleasant. My favourite Ray LaMontagne was victim to this as well, various tracks from his Ouroboros album having the vocals too forward for comfort, especially as they seem to have deliberately had an echo effect overlayed up on them.
On the other hand, straight-forward, high-quality jazz, classical and blues was a wonder, the bass and treble being so good that I found myself rarely giving them a second thought, beyond enjoying hearing the subtle nuances of bass notes from various instruments highlighted in great detail.
The treble, being that the tuning aim of the LCD-5 was dead flat, does not come across to me as being either bright or dull. What one would perceive as forward mids contribute more to the sense of brightness, especially where, as described above, a track has audible distortion. More so, switching between headphones and returning to the LCD-5, I found myself feeling that the sound was dull, until my brain had a few seconds to adapt back to the sound.
This was also true of the soundstage, which is the most significant trait the LCD-5 has, at least for me. Until now, Focal’s Utopia held the crown for the deepest soundstage, albeit one that sacrifices width. The LCD-5 beats them out by having what feels like a perfect sphere of sound — like other Audeze cans not being too narrow or wide, but just right, but with the addition of being able to clearly make out the depth of the soundstage (no doubt helped by the Chord stack, which excels at this). Other headphones, such as the Final D8000 Pro can sound a bit too left-and-right in comparison. To nail both width and depth for me is remarkable.
A low sensitivity of 90dB/1mW, combined with low impedance of 14 Ohms means that, of the headphones I have to hand, the LCD-5s are only second to HiFiMan’s Susvaras in power requirements.
While Cayin’s C9 amp and iFi’s iDSD Diablo can output over 4W into the LCD-5, using either with them resulted in a degree of uncontrolled bass, even at lower listening levels. Desktop amplifiers, such as the Soncoz SGA-1, Singxer SA-1, Audio-gd Master 9, Schiit Audio Jotunheium 2, Chord TT2 (from the front sockets) and Headamp GS-X Mini all had no trouble with the LCD-5, on the other hand, with a tight, controlled sound from all.
The only portable device that seemed to drive them with any level of control was Chord’s Hugo 2, which is capable of driving sensitive speakers.
Out of the Chord TT2/MScaler combination, given I already feel that the LCD-5 is a bit mid-forward for preference and incredibly revealing, the Chord combo was great if you like detail above all else, but was a touch on the aggressive side for my preference.
Adding the Headamp GS-X Mini in the chain (on high gain) seemed to add a touch of warmth. In return, the LCD-5 revealed nothing unpleasant about the amp, but more so the often very subtle differences between interconnects and, dare I say it, power cords.
The LCD-5 also revealed the slightly flatter and less dynamic presentation of both the Soncoz SGA-1 and Singxer SA-1, as well as the slightly grander and smooth-to-a-fault presentation of the Master 9 (especially after its requisite couple of hours of warm-up time).
ALO Audio’s Studio Six proved to be the ticket here. The pure 1W of Class A power available through massively over-sized transformers, 1+2 tube power supply and 1+2 tube amplification was spot-on both technically and sonically, seeming to both mellow the mid-forwardness while not diminishing the transparency, detail and soundstage of the LCD-5s. In fact, it seemed to enhance it even more, without doing so overtly.
More so than an issue of synergy was how the LCD-5 unfailing reveals the quality of everything up-stream. Those with audiophillia nevosa who purchase a pair are going to be spending many an hour tweaking and switching components I’m sure.
Versus other headphones
The obvious comparison is with the LCD-R, despite it being unobtainable. The LCD-R has a more typical Audeze house sound, more like a very resolving pair of LCD-X. There is more rumble to the bass out of the TT2 from the XLR outputs. The vocals aren’t quite so far forward. Instruments are delicious, as are vocals, but there is a space-filling warmth to the sound that is more emotional and engaging for my preferences, but can sometimes feel a bit too much.
The most requested comparison seems to be with HiFiMan’s Susvaras. Take the LCD-5 and replace the forward mids with a forward treble instead for a slight v-shape and you’re about there. It’s more the old HD-650 vs. HD-600 question. Suffice to say, I preferred the latter when I owned both, and haven’t ever been a fan of too forward a midrange.
I have the Susvaras running out of the same XLR outputs of the TT2 as I did the LCD-R, as it doesn’t require being left on for hours for best results unlike the Master 10. This is my preferred sound — what I call “listening neutral”, even if it’s not actually neutral or flat. Neither, though, does it have too much of anything, and with a powerful amp (eg: the above-mentioned Audio-gd Master 10 speaker amp) they are fantastically entertaining, if that, according to various CSD plots taken of the headphones, is due to slight imperfections in the design.
Listening with the LCD-5 after the Susvaras, the flat tuning seemed rather honkey, at least for a few seconds, until my brain adapted back to the sound.
However, if I used both headphones out of amplifiers that were most optimum for them — the Audio-gd Master 10 for the Susvaras and the ALO Audio Studio Six for the LCD-5s — the Susvaras gained depth as well as width, almost disappearing on my head; and the LCD-5s were less aggressive in the mid range. This meant I could switch happily between both, even mid-track, and apart from the difference in mid-range forwardness, both became a pure delight to listen with.
In the end...
With the design of the original LCD series of headphones feeling somewhat dated, the LCD-5s are the revolution Audeze needs to have in design and sonic capabilities.
However, there is a yin-and-yang to the LCD-5s. They are great at showing you everything you want to hear, and everything that you don’t. They reward gear synergy, and curse the lack of it, along with anything imperfect in music or system.
I have no doubt recording engineers will love them. For everyone else, I advise carefully considering the system they will be used with for best results, as they can be extremely rewarding when set up well.