About a year ago, Audeze released two new headphones in their lineup: The X ($1,699) and the XC ($1,799) to complement and fill a void between their previous generation models that included the LCD2/LCD3, and beyond. I will admit, that I am not a fan of the Audeze LCD2 series and all of their revisions, nor was I a fan of the more recent Fazor upgrade revision to the LCD3 that altered the tone of the original. However and with that aside, I was very fond of the tone of the original LCD3 and how memorable the musical experience had been. I am very particular about what makes me happy. It seems many enjoy the more natural, colorless appeal many flagships of late have been offering with regard to tone.
In the case of Audeze’s first closed back Planar Driver endeavor: the LCDXC, I quickly realized this headphone was something very different from the rest of the flagship crowd, something indeed very to my liking and that I regard with great reverence. You see, this headphone is the first that I’ve taken months to review; this is a product that I’ve spent a great deal of my own funding to properly set up for my own personal enjoyment. Normally, we reviewers earn our keep with audio companies via years of reviewing, gaining a respect for the company and likewise that company respecting us for our opinions. I don’t get to keep products often; I have to fund it myself most of the time.
So, with that in mind I must thank Audeze for standing in my corner for the duration of the time I’ve spent with this product. It took a while, but it also took even longer for me to acquire. I kept at it and remained as patient as humanely possible throughout, waiting for my sample to arrive. At long last I finally feel something lifted off my shoulders, finally able to let my fingers do the talking. It is rare for me to know immediately upon first listen to a headphone that I must own it; this has only happened to me a few times and out of hundreds of headphones that I’ve experienced in my life thus far. Let me detail the setup and build before getting into the actual sound qualities of this closed back headphone.
Fit and Setup
Most audio enthusiasts should be aware by now that Audeze headphones are not really known for immense comforts, quite the opposite. They are very heavy, clunky and are even a bit tight with the clamp. In the case of the LCDXC, all 650g of it, the experience is noticeably less strenuous in the Microsuede pads and headband option. I’ve found the leather versions to be overly rigid and susceptible to uncomfortable heat, especially so on the XC model. I’ve opted for the Microsuede version, I enjoy their texture much more than the leather versions, but more importantly I find them to rest on my head with less of a vice grip than my leather LCD3. I would assume the reason to be due to the more forgiving nature of the Microsuede material, which has a tendency to sink in and conform more efficiently than the leather version. I’ve little issue with clamp or how the headphone rests on my head in the Microsuede version, but I did have some comfort issues when I demoed a friend’s leather version in the past. Long listening sessions are no problem and I find that the Microsuede headband provides better support, thusly allowing the headphone to rest on top of my head without feeling lopsided.
Due to the great efficiency of the LCDXC, rig pairing was made very easy. This headphone is not at all snobbish and reacts exceptionally well to multiple tone types in whatever your rig may be composed of. I’d originally had a nightmare scenario with balanced cable options, one that took months to finally obtain: each company and cable maker I’d asked flamed out like a torch in a rainstorm on me, promising a cable made only to find that a month later they were unable to deliver on their product. This happened to me multiple times in succession until I stumbled across ‘BestintheVerse’ cables, which promptly made me an Audeze LCD series balanced cable with an RSA adapter: a cable that costs roughly $60 and made of Kimber cable with Paracord exterior casing. It is beautiful and sleek, easy on the wallet as well.
Also on the list is a highly modified Astell and Kern AK120, worked on by Red Wine into what is known as the RWAK120B: an incredibly dynamic change to the stock sound via the complete swapping of the internal stock DAC’s in the player, with a balanced 3.5mm TRSS output drilled right into the volume knob. Vinnie at Red Wine is a great guy and I am reviewing this player very soon. He’s also crafted me a 3.5mm balanced TRSS to RSA balanced interconnect, which bridges the RWAK120B to my Ray Samuels SR71B; one of the newer generation with some tweaks and upgrades made by Ray that include a higher output power rating. I might as well feed the LCDXC one of the best portable rig experiences available on planet Earth. Go big or go home, right?
The Desktop rig is composed of the Balanced Oppo HA-1 USB DAC and amplifier, as well as the Burson Conductor SL9018, a Sansa Clip Zip Sport and FiiO’s latest X1. For referencing and comparison, I’ve chosen the Koss ESP950 Electrostatic ($999), the Audeze LCD3 Original ($1950), the Beyer Dynamic T1 ($999) and the JH16 Custom IEMs ($1099). I am also using a standard external hard drive to house my computer enabled music library, which is always sourced via Foobar2000.
I’ve opted for the Iroko wood; I am a sucker for the lighter blonde wood appeal with dark contrasting grain. The XC used to be available in Bubinga, Purple Heart and Walnut wood options also but now just the Bubinga seems available online. One thing I immediately noticed is the high quality lacquer job Audeze has imposed onto these wooden cups: it feels very thick and layered with multiple coats. A closer look confirms this when I popped a friends loaner XC’s cups off to take a look at the inner area of the cup chamber…not like I am going to touch mine…do you think I am crazy or something? (I would much rather butcher someone else’s headphone than mine). The thickness and cut of the wood is fairly solid feeling, a bit thicker than Fostex’s TH900 wooden cups and even Lawton’s custom woodie cups as well. Quality aside, the thickness of the cut of wood that Audeze uses on the XC adds to the weight and firm feel of the cups themselves. Once you handle them for yourself, you will know what I mean.
Some other woodies, like the JVC HP1000 for example make it easy to feel the lower quality wood simply by holding it. The HP1000 feels thin, hallow even, where the XC feels more solid, weighted and of a higher quality. From an artistic standpoint with absolute subjectivity in mind, Lawton’s TH900 and Denon D-series cups are untouchable with wood selection and flare. Summed up, the XC wood doesn’t feel cheap. The XC’s framework is composed of metal all around, which of course add to the already heavy experience in the wooden cups alone. It feels very sturdy and of a high grade quality pretty much everywhere, even the screws used to bridge the cups to the driver plate are good quality.
One design element that makes me absolutely livid is one that the XC and LCD3 share, which is that weird angled cable output at the bottom of each cup. It makes sure I am not allowed to tilt my head a bit downward and to either side without my shoulder meeting the cable ends. Anyone ever experience what I call the ninja sneeze while wearing the LCD3 or XC, where one of those damn sneezes sneaks up on you, unexpected and random? Well, if so I am sure you understand my frustrations with this design. If you can’t really move your head around freely without parts of your body getting in the way of the headphone, there is a design problem. The cable ports should be on the rear side of the ear cups, either pointing downward or actually embedded into the ear cup itself. There is plenty of room to achieve that, in my opinion and judging by the thickness of the metal brace just above each cable port, there is absolutely no reason for this weird triangle port design jetting out so far and at this specific angle. It’s so odd and I think it looks awful. The Audeze connectors are stupidly large. What is this, the dark ages? Let’s get something nice and small that doesn’t get in the way and force giant output ports on the headphone itself for future models please, which further adds to bulk and weight.
Despite my negative opinion on some design elements, I do find it beautiful and bold for the most part. There is certainly room for improvement in an updated model, which I want very much. I desperately want an XC revision with lighter materials and a different placement of the cable ports. I realize it takes away from the woodie experience, but if it were possible to retain the sound qualities of the XC without the wooden cups, I would gladly welcome a much lighter material. As great as the wood is, it is nothing more than aesthetically pleasing to me on an artistic level; it is not something I require to enjoy the sound. Again though, that is only if the tone is not reliant on the wood itself. I’ve opted for the bomb-proof looking travel case with a standard ¼ and balanced XLR cable option. (Again, I do have custom RSA balanced cables as well from a third party vendor).
I really love the Audeze travel case, always a great and fun experience to travel and have to explain why I have a box that not only looks suspicious on the outside, but also with a lot of wires on the inside as well. If you have ever seen an Audeze headphone show up on the X-ray scanner at an airport, you know what I am talking about: instant sweat, panic setting in as I grasp and pull on my shirt collar to vent some stress building up. The quality of the included cables are pretty good, although I wish Audeze would start selling a shorter version, as well as some other adapter options to satiate the other Audiophiles out there who might want to use their product with one of the Ray Samuels amplifiers. Minor gripes, but still stressful when you have to contract a third party company just to use the product with your portable rig.
Home desktop amplifiers and USB DACs with a ¼ output are much stronger than a portable sources 3.5mm output. This is a huge pet peeve of mine and I just don’t see why a headphone this expensive doesn’t come with all the cables you need. I don’t like the included ¼ to 1/8th adapter; just give us a 3.5mm and a ¼ cable with the option of an RSA or XLR for additional cost on checkout. I do not want to lug a giant adapter around with my portable rig. It’s dumb and I wish all audio companies will discontinue usage of stock ¼ adapters on their cables. Using a ¼ to 1/8 adapter on a larger home amplifier is much less of a problem than it is to force portable users to use a large adapter.
Basically, it’s a big ol’ middle finger to anyone who has a portable hifi rig without a ¼ output. Most audio companies seem to not be aware that a lot of enthusiasts use their headphone on portable rigs without a 1/4 jack. The included ¼ to 1/8 adapter is massive and similar to Grado’s adapter. It is silly in physical size and causes nothing but problems, making my portable rig NOT portable anymore. Can’t pocket that giant adapter, so what good is it?
Click here for sound impressions…