Two pairs of high performance headphones facing off in a direct A/B comparison. May the most accurate sound win!
For many years I've used the Sennheiser HD600 phones. It's an old model, released in 1997, but in many ways it's still fairly close to the pinnacle of dynamic transducer technology. Later models such as the HD650 or the HD800 have addressed some of its perceived weaknesses, while allegedly introducing issues of their own, depending on who you ask. There's still disagreement as to which is the top player in this game, but a lot of people will still reach to their 600 cans when they need accurate sound reproduction - and I'm one of them, although I consider myself open-minded.
But some years ago a new major player appeared, spearheading the second big wave of planar technology. The company is called Audeze and their first important product, the LCD-2, made a big splash. Using a new (actually, resurrected from decades ago) technology, and with a sound signature of their own, they were bound to stir up controversy. And sure enough they did. I was intrigued.
Recently I was able to do an A/B comparison of these phones, my trusty old HD600 against a shiny new LCD-2, thanks to Audio High at their store in Mountain View. Their test equipment is excellent and Eugene runs the show in the demo room with aplomb. The bake-off was done on the Chord Red Reference CD Player with the Chord CPA 5000 Reference Preamplifier.
I've used four CDs for the comparison:
- Hyperborea by Tangerine Dream. Representative for a lot of music I listen to. Dense textures of synthesizer sounds, layers of sequenced tracks; overall an alien, unnatural soundscape with a dynamic rhythm and lively electronic percussion. I was not sure what to expect here, since the sound is complex and has no natural components.
- Alexander by Vangelis. The music that the grand master of the electronic genre made for this movie by Oliver Stone. Typical Vangelis, a mixture of synthesizers with orchestral elements and epic, big-sounding choral phrases. Lots of wide, spacey reverb along with powerful, rumbling but slow percussion, and some natural sounds mixed in.
- Forgiven, not forgotten by The Corrs. I've always liked their music, and I just needed some typical pop band sound for the comparo, including vocalists, guitars and drums, and some classic instruments too (violin) for good measure.
- The essential Andreas Vollenweider. I thought I was stacking the deck in favor of the HD600 with this one. Vollenweider's lush textures of string instruments, his electroacoustic harp, the crystalline sounds with dense but airy reflections, unremarkable bass (or even lacking altogether) - it's like it's custom-made for the old Sennheiser flagship. Reality, however, begged to differ and I had the biggest surprise of all here - but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
The opening song, No Man's Land, is a snappy piece of synthesizers / sequencers woven mesh of sounds. The rhythm is focused and never lacks any energy. There's reverb aplenty, but the sound is not exactly airy - there's still a good dose of grit therein.
This was also my first ever encounter with Audeze, after years and years of listening to this song on Sennheiser (HD600 and HD280) and Grado (SR-125 and iGrado). And immediately I thought - yeah, I can hear "the veil". Or can I? It's... subtle, just barely there, but there's clearly a difference. Whereas the HD600 shine and sparkle (and the Grado fizz and pop and boil all over the stove), the LCD-2 just show you the soundscape and go "what you hear is what you get, duh".
Oh, there was no lack of detail with either phone. I don't think there's any sound element that you can hear with one, that you cannot hear with the other. That was the remarkable thing. You don't lose any information with either device. But they have somewhat different characters.
Big sound stage with HD600 vs smaller stage with the LCD-2? Uh, maybe. But at least some of it could be attributed to the sparkly, reverb-go-happy sound of the HD600.
As expected, the LCD-2 did very, very well with the bass. It's not the hugely bloated, muddy, ugly bass of some mass-produced Beats or Bose phones or whatever. But it's not the thin, slightly "theoretical" bass of the HD600 either. It's just a flat response, but it stretches out forever and ever and ever, deep into the deepest rumbles down below. You can feel too, not only hear, the synthetic percussion in the LCD-2.
Just see for yourself the frequency response, from measurements made by Innerfidelity:
In the high frequencies both phones follow somewhat close to the Harman downward slope, as they should; perhaps the LCD-2 is a bit closer to the ideal curve.
There was no clear winner here, just different approaches to solving the same problem. Maybe the LCD-2 did a little better overall.
You would think, after all reviews saying how the HD600 has a bigger sound stage, it would be a favorite when tackling Vangelis' larger than life, epic songs. And you could not be more wrong.
By this point, I was already not thinking anymore in terms of "Audeze veil", but rather in terms of "Sennheiser sparkle". Sure, the HD600 just shines at high frequencies; but I was beginning to wonder if that shine is a bit of an added polish. In other words, the accuracy/realism absolutist in me was starting to doubt that the more forward treble in the HD600 is actually the more accurate sound.
Oh, the HD600 does reverb just great. Sure it presents a wealth of texture and detail. But (and I still hesitate to put it this way, and please forgive the blasphemy) are they basically cheating? I still don't know; this is my completely honest answer as of now.
Meanwhile the LCD-2 was handling the hefty, warlike drums on this album (and, indeed, the whole sound, across the whole spectrum) with authority and unmatched transparency. In fact, "authority" is a word that comes back again and again when thinking of the Audeze sound. There's just nothing loose in it. Those massive, high-power magnets manhandling the breezy nanoscale membrane in the transducers might have something to do with it.
Maybe old Sennheiser heads might scoff here at me saying that the Audeze are "transparent" at high frequencies. I know what you're thinking, because part of me thinks that way too. But the question that occurred to me here was: have we all been "brainwashed" by the Sennheiser sound? Are our brains now fine tuned to that sparkle? In my case, it's probably worse, because I've also been accustomed to the fizzy, electric, bright Grado sound.
Again both phones showed the same refined details, just in different ways. It was a battle between sparkle and authority, and authority won.
Finally an album with center-stage vocalists.
I had real trouble distinguishing the two phones at mid-frequencies, where the voices are. There are clear differences everywhere else in the spectrum, but not here. Sure, their respective characters remain, with the HD600 airy and "theoretical", and the LCD-2 immediate and "real". But beyond that surface, the fundamentals are the same - excellent reproduction of lush, expressive vocal sequences. Everything else I've said above remains true for most songs on this album, so no point repeating it.
And then I've played Toss The Feathers.
You see, among all nations the Irish know best how to party. You can hear it in their music. And when they grab the violin and play some fiery jig, it's impossible to just sit down and listen. You've got to get up and dance. Or just tap, whatever. That's how I feel when listening to that song - it's such a direct, honest expression of plain joy in its dynamic form. When I'm on my death bed, go ahead and play it, and I'll get up and wobble around before expiring.
All parts of that song never come together properly on the HD600. Don't get me wrong, it's wonderfully detailed, I can hear everything with great clarity. There's no part that's obscured or muddled, and all instruments simply shine. And I don't care. It's like looking at a bug under a lens.
And then I've switched to the LCD-2. Dear Lord, what have I done. The sound of the big drum is coming out of the freaking floor! The band is here, playing in this room! Hold my beer, cause I need to get up and dance.
I don't have a good explanation for it. It's not like the LCD-2 are "bright", or "colored", or "forward-sounding". They're totally not it. They're not optimized for the "experience", they're optimized for accuracy. And they fly in formation with the HD600 all through the stratospheric skies of electronic music. But pull them down on the earth of some fine Irish pop music, played from the heart, and what a difference that makes. Yes, they're still analytical. Yes, they're still detail-oriented. But all those different sounds converge into a single body, and that body has a soul - and some good muscles too, for handling the drums and the bass guitar.
Can you tell I've a clear preference here? Yeah, that's what I'm afraid of. Because, after all is said and done, these phones are actually not very different from each other that much. Go figure.
This was me stacking the deck in Sennheiser's favor. Harp sounds? Reverb? Crystalline percussion? No bass to speak of? That's HD600 territory, so I put them on for a refresher. Yeap, there it is, the old familiar sound. So let's switch over to the newcomer.
And I don't know what to say anymore, because there is no difference.
The overall character of the phones is still there, of course, but the "veil" is gone. Or perhaps my brain was at this point de-conditioned from years of listening to Sennheiser. The LCD-2 did very, very well. In any transducer, the initial attack in the sound of plucked strings is very brief, very energetic, very complex, and hard to handle. The LCD-2 had no problem dealing with it. I could hear everything. It was very detailed. It sounded both accurate and pleasing, and without support from any hefty bass to give the Audeze a leg up on competition.
I honestly don't know what's going on.
I could go on and on in the way of analysis, but that horse has been thoroughly beaten elsewhere and is dead and buried now. Instead, here's a little joke that occurred to me during the test. This being a joke you shouldn't take it too seriously. But part of me sort of sees things this way now.
The HD600 is like a character by Charlize Theron. Refined, smart, sophisticated? Sure. A little frosty? Um... maybe. But attractive anyway? Oh, hell, yeah. Beautiful in an analytical, detail-oriented sort of way. Nothing quite escapes her attention, everything is registered and processed upstairs. And she can indeed dazzle, turning the glamour on at will.
The LCD-2 is like a character by Daniel Craig. He, too, is plenty smart. Sophisticated? Oh, yeah, he can play that game, too. He may not wear as many sparkly gizmos as the previous character. And he has a sort of Russian deadpan expression on all the time.
But he can be very down to earth and practical. No nonsense, no bullshit. What you see is what you get. And mister "Bond, James Bond" can also punch you in the face, kick you in the chest, throw you down on the floor and stomp all over you. He has the muscles to manhandle the biggest baddies, no problem. He doesn't mess around - and, when he's in the room, there's no doubt where the center of authority is.
Oh, and the LCD-2 can party with the Irish girls, too. Sláinte mhaith, mate!
Coda - a few weeks later
After writing the original review, I've spent more time with another pair of LCD-2 phones. To make a long story short, I just went further down the road I was starting to take initially.
I've listened to Beethoven's Symphony No.9 "the Choral" (interpreted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe - an excellent performance both artistically and technically). And while the Ode to Joy is resplendent on any high-end transducers, the LCD-2 excels at building up the foundation - the sound has a material heft that's not easily found anywhere else.
This is not simply about "bass response", although that's clearly part of it - not how emphasized the bass is (because it's not emphasized at all, it's the flattest you've ever heard), but how deep and deeper, on and on it goes. But that's not all. It's the deadpan, organic, non-jittery slam that these transducers deliver with rapid sound variations. "Authority" is one way to put it, but without any fake sharp edges. You can hear the instruments as material presences, not just disembodied voices.
Frequency response is not the whole story. In Foobar2000 I've fired up the MathAudio Headphone EQ plugin and attempted to "flatten" the frequency response of the LCD-2 as I hear it, using the sweep function. The results were a bit strange (which is why I've said this can't be the whole story):
That's just me mucking around with it for 20 minutes, and it's not perfect, there are ways to make it sound flatter. But for a pair of phones that have been described as "a little dark" it's curious how you have to depress the response in a few places in the mid-high range. The tall peak around 8 kHz is where a lot of shenanigans happen and it's just a vague approximation of the many ripples you can hear there. The last peak in the high frequencies is just me not being 20 anymore.
With that filter the LCD-2 does open up a bit. But I'm not sure I like the new sound. It's a little more harsh. The phones lose some of the liquid smooth response. Details do seem to get sharper - but that's my point actually: how easy it is to fake "detail resolution" when you just make the cans sound a little brighter.
I went back to the unfiltered sound eventually, although the case is not closed.
Accuracy / realism
What is reality? That is the question, isn't it? We know that the sound made by these devices is not the real thing. Reality has been interpreted and what you get is a simulacrum. But before you go all Jean Baudrillard on me, and throw me at the back of Plato's cave like the postmodern scum I am, just hear me out: it's not reality, but we can get pretty close to it. The thing is, which one of these devices is actually "closer", whatever that means.
It's a tough question. I do not think the Audeze "veil" is a thing actually. Well, not to the extent that most reviews would have you believe. And now I do think that the "Sennheiser sparkle" is a thing, in the opposite direction. I could be wrong. But I'm starting to suspect that the HD600 are doing something that's not actually there - but even if this is true at all, it's a very, very tiny artifact.
There's no question that both handle mid frequencies with equal accuracy, just in different ways. And there's no doubt that the HD600's bass, while natural sounding and transparent, is thin and lacking muscle; whereas the LCD-2 is slamming you in the head with the best, flattest, most natural sounding bass you've ever heard. Seriously, at times I could feel rather than hear near-infrasonic shock waves slapping my ears from the Audeze transducers; this is not a figure of speech, it's physical reality, and I was not even listening at a very high level (I'm rather protective of my eardrums).
You might say that my reaction to Toss The Feathers was purely emotional and has nothing to do with realism. But if The Corrs were in that room, doing what they do best, I would not want to sit in a chair, analyzing the details of the second harmonic of whatever. I would rather have a reaction similar to what the LCD-2 managed to conjure up. This in the context of both phones being wonderfully analytical everywhere else.
I've heard reviewers say that the LCD-2 is "slow". And yes, part of me nods and goes "yeah, I know what you mean". In some cases, where the HD600 had a glittery, lightweight and vibrant response, the LCD-2 felt fluid and smooth and yet decisive. But was it "slow"? Another part of me thinks it has an explanation. It might be due to LCD-2's infinite but superflat extension into deep bass, which adds a lot of unseen heft to the sound, and to its completely unflinching response to fast transients. Where, after a step function, the HD600 would go fluttering about in the high frequencies, pretty and breezy, the LCD-2 got up and punched out a pressure wave exactly once ("He's dead, Jim." "Yep, I'm done here.")
I'm quite torn about the "slowness" dilemma. I would love to see transient response graphs, but measured in terms of air pressure, not electric response, and focused on the attack side, not the release. The slope of the attack curve should put this issue to rest. I am inclined to believe the LCD-2 behaves as it should, and it's all due to the planar magnetic system's authority and hefty sound. But I've no way to be sure. I'm not a professional reviewer, I'm just a guy blogging in his spare time, so I don't have to pretend like I have answers to all questions.
I'm not one of those folks who keep postulating on and on about "sound stage" and "detail resolution". To me, more is not always better in these departments. The truth of reality is the ultimate yardstick to me. You could take a picture and run it through Photoshop and go all HDR on it, and turn the sharpness filter way up, and it looks amazing - and it's not real anymore. It's just eye-pleasing bullshit. That's how I feel about headphones too.
I do think the LCD-2 is the winner overall. It's not perfect. It's a different breed of transducers, and I had to make a lot of mental adjustments coming in from the direction of traditional dynamic transducers like the Sennheisers. I had to unlearn a lot of Pavlovian conditioning from years of listening to headphones engineered to walk a thin line between being accurate and delivering a pleasing sound. But you see, I don't want to be told pretty little lies. I want to be told the truth.
Regardless of all that - at the very least, the LCD-2 manages to sound accurate and real without being too clinical. You could party to the sound of those cans. Not so much with the HD600.
Random bits and pieces
Much has been said about the weight of the Audeze LCD series. And I honestly can't figure out what everyone is talking about. The reviews make you believe you'll be wearing a pair of dumbbells, stolen from the gym, strapped to your head. Do you even lift, bro? That is not the case at all. There was not a single moment when my attention was drawn to their weight.
Yes, they are heavier, by the numbers. And yes, the HD600 have got to be some of the most comfortable phones ever made. But the LCD-2 did not seem bad in any way in terms of weight or discomfort. You don't forget they're there, like you do with the HD600, but I never got distracted by that from listening. In a sense, the heft is part of the experience and it matches the sonic persona of the transducers.
The LCD-2 also seem more warm (in terms of actual temperature of your ears), but again this is comparing them with the HD600 which are completely neutral in this regard.
Three months later
I've listened to a lot of music on the LCD-2 meanwhile. Mostly CD-quality lossless files, with the phones plugged into a very transparent, linear, very neutral DAC+amp stack. The phones, just the way they are, are great. But if you do a tone sweep to identify the peaks and throughs, and filter those out, they sound even better.
This is the EQ curve I'm using now. The bump around 1.5 kHz is probably the bump on the Harman curve, and these phones apparently don't have it, which is perceived as a hole, so you have to add it in EQ. There are a couple other peaks that need to be tamed (show as holes on the graph), and then there's that deep resonance hole at 8 kHz which needs to be bolstered (shows on the graph as a peak, of course).
With these local fixes, the phones are outstanding. They retain that deep, earth shaking, tectonic-scale bass, which is the hallmark of big planar transducers. But the mids and highs are a little bit more lively - like the Sennheiser sound, but more honest. I'm using this EQ curve all the time now.
I've listened to the album 'Crises' by Mike Oldfield. It's an older record, from the early '80s, and as such it's mixed in a way that doesn't try to impress at any cost. On the LCD-2, the grand finale of the title song is glorious. It's a sound that's at once crisp, detailed and accurate, but also lively and engaging. By the time you get to 'In High Places', Jon Anderson's vocal interpretation is very life-like, natural and real. The earth-shaking bass doesn't stretch out its legs until 'Foreign Affair', and then it's very material and convincing - "material" is the right word to describe these phones' bass. And 'Taurus 3', a purely (or mostly?) acoustic song again shows this excellent balance between high detail and convincing life-like delivery; the guitars sound amazingly real and present, and the effervescent energy of the song does not suffer at all from the analytic character of the transducers - in fact, the guitars seem to have a weirdly substantial and impactful presence. I've listened to this album many times in the past, it's one of my favorites of all times, but it's never sounded so good before.
To me, this is the end of the road. I feel no need to look for even better phones. Are there better performing phones out there? Maybe. Well, certainly. But these are close enough to the elusive "perfect sound", for now. Maybe in a decade or two, when technology advances to the next level, I'll look again for the "perfect" phones. For now, however, I'm all set.