TOTL Headphones
Mike Piskor 2014

The TOTL Guide – 12 Flagship Headphones Compared

Audeze LCD3 – Let the Old Gods Tremble

No doubt that Audeze punched us all in the throats a few years back, appearing out of thin air and taking root in the audiophile community as a force to be respected. Recently, Audeze has introduced a bit of a revision and upgrade to their LCD2 and LCD3 series headphones called “Fazor”, which is simply a new magnetic alignment styling over the drivers.

I must say, while the new Fazor LCD3 sounds audibly more clean than the original version, I very much prefer the tone of the last generation.

Summary

What I felt set the LCD3 apart from most of the other top tier headphones has been totally erased out of existence in the new version, while completely subjective I still fully understand the value of the improvement in the Fazor versions of this headphone.

However, the original LCD3 had perhaps the most satiable tonality in any headphone I had ever heard in my life. The Fazor tech absolutely ruined it by swapping that yummy, gently beautiful coloration to the tone of the headphone for a more natural one to my ears.

Sometimes, headphones invoke a deep, emotional response inside the user that transports them away from reality entirely. Musicphiles are a different breed than Audiophiles, those who wish to get lost and escape through a window to an alternate stress-free universe for a short time, the other who may care more for raw purity in the experience.

Sure, there are hybrids of both, which is a category I fall into, but I can’t help but feel that Audeze’s original version of the LCD3 catered specifically for those tired of a clinical experience in their music.

Those weary of the reference tone, that snobbish flair to the sonic void were more at home with the original version of the Audeze’s flagship masterpiece, whereas those who wanted to keep the general quantity of bass up through the treble but whom also wanted a less colored experience would probably enjoy the new Fazor version more. Pick your poison, both are fantastic.

Vocals

The LCD3 also happens to be one of the best vocalist headphones available and is my go-to headphone for moderately paced jazz tracks. In my opinion, the midrange is half a step-less clean than the Sennheiser HD800.

Not many of these flagship headphones spark something inside me when I listen to my favorite tracks, not many really make me want to press the pause button on life simply to enjoy the musical experience in full. Michael Buble’, Torsten Goods, Mr. Sinatra, and Big Band tracks, in general, offer some of the best dynamic and intimate experiences out of the entire lot of Summit headphones I have here in this report.

If vocals and intimacy is your thing, look no further than the LCD3 and the LCDXC, both will satisfy anyone interested in a highly musical and hyper-clean headphone experience.

Treble

The treble on the LCD3 is a bit laid back and natural sounding, I find it very out of place with the plentiful bass and midrange thing headphone has to offer.

The Hifiman HE-6’s treble absolutely and mercilessly devastates the LCD3 in every facet of the word, side by side there is no question the LCD3 is more prone to sibilance and audible haze over the entire upper end of the audio spectrum. The Sennheiser HD800 also is capable of more tonally accurate, clear, and beautiful treble depending on the rig.

The Audeze headphones are dreadfully heavy, exceeding 400g and beyond. This makes it very hard to enjoy music for extended periods of time, I also cannot help but to feel extremely claustrophobic while wearing them not only due to the excessive clamp by my standards but because the general sound staging properties from left to right are relatively poor.

Despite that closed in sound signature, the depth of field is excellent. Of course, it isn’t as cavernous as the HD800 depth of the stage is, but it certainly does not lack in the slightest. I am on the fence about the new Fazor version of the LCD3 and I am leaning towards subjectively strong dislike, just as I absolutely hated the LCD2 with the fury of 1,000 suns.

Yet, despite that disdain for the LCD2 and the new Fazor LCD3, I regard both as fantastic headphones. If I had a choice, I would always choose the first generation of the LCD3 without the Fazor tech upgrade.

Audeze-LCD3

Most Interesting Comparisons

LCD3 vs HD800

The Fazor LCD3’s more natural approach to the tone of the presentation is simply much more enjoyable than the clinical and brighter tone the HD800 offers.

It is very hard to compare these headphones directly. These headphones are worlds apart and offer different sound signatures: where the LCD3 is more intimately forward and far less spacious, the HD800 is more relaxed and aired out.

I find the shape and feel of the LCD3 presentation to be too closed in for comfort, but also significantly less prone to warping and sounding like something is wrong. The sound signature in a physical sense of the word never changes on the Audeze, however, it seems like every track on the HD800 physically sounds different…even lopsided at times.

The HD800 is much more true to the track recording and that to me is a serious issue, some of my music ends up sounding skewed with regard to sound staging through the Sennheiser. Bigger doesn’t always mean better.

LCD3 vs Stax 007

There is a noticeable haze over the entire LCD3 sound signature when directly compared with the Stax 007 electrostatic headphones, no chance for the LCD3 to compare to what the Stax is capable of while focusing on raw clarity aspects of the experience.

The 007 is purer, more solid, and more well-formed and defined, instruments feel less pristine on the LCD3 than they do on the 007. The LCD3 has a more dry and natural tone, whereas the Stax 007 is significantly darker everywhere except the treble, which happens to be more like a Hifiman headphone (which I am afraid to say is much better than Audeze’s treble in most cases ).

The Stax 007 is also the more bassy and enjoyable of the two on the low end, it also has more rumble and physical quantity on the low end than the LCD3. Of course, the Stax 007 is the more musical of the two in comparison to the Fazor edition of the LCD3, it also offers more wow factor in terms of dynamics on the low end.

Rig Recommendations

The Fazor LCD3 has a naturalistic flair to the tone and texture of its presentation, so you’d want to pair it with a neutral amplifier in an attempt to avoid altering that tone. Pairing with a warm or colored amp would be unwise, that it unless you buy the original version and want more coloration, in which case I would recommend the 1793 Dac option on the Burson lineup of Dac/amps.

Anything with a gentle coloration or musical flare will pair nicer with the original version, more neutral or natural/reference amps and sources will pair better with the Fazor edition. The headphone is moderately needy with voltage needs so I would recommend something with at least 2watts of output potential, the more the merrier.

The LCD3 responds nicely to the higher output current and generally sounds the same with physical spaciousness on most amplifiers, so no need to hunt for an amp that is known for exceptional staging qualities, however, you do want to hunt for one that is known for offering the purest bass texture you can find.

A softer bass experience via source or DAC, in my opinion, would be detrimental to what Audeze intended. If you want a solid portable amplifier, you need something similar to the Ray Samuels SR71B or F-35 in balanced mode.

Audeze-LCDXC

Audeze LCD-XC: A True Heavyweight

Let’s not beat around the bush, this headphone is shockingly beautiful but easily one of the heaviest headphones on the market. At 650g, it feels like a lead weight strapped to my ears. Silly weight like this forces the inability to fully enjoy my music for more than a few minutes.

Sometimes, I feel a bit euphoric and even dizzy due to the immensity sitting on top of my head, ultimately taking me out of that reality escape I seek. Thankfully, the headphone sounds bloody marvelous with a virtually flawless sonic presentation.

Summary

I personally believe Audeze has created something special with the LCDXC. It offers a wildly engaging sound signature, one that subjectively seems perfectly balanced with a fun signature and tone, ultra-high-end clarity, and efficiency.

When comparing the LCD3 Fazor, it becomes instantly apparent that the XC offers a noticeably more colored experience, something less natural and more prone to what most might consider highly musical sound. More akin to the original tone sound of the LCD3 on a warm source and amp: slightly colored, gently bright treble with plentiful bass and a forward midrange.

Bass

The bass on this headphone is easily one of the smoothest and cleanest out of any headphone appearing in this report. Control is the strongest quality the low end offers in the XC, as I find the overall texture to be a bit lackluster and without the substance of the Hifiman HE-6’s bass-type by comparison.

Tone and texture were never a strong suit of the bass on Audeze headphones and it was clear they’ve opted for as pure of a sound signature on the low end as possible just as they always have.

Whereas Hifiman has a tendency to offer more body and solidity over Audeze’s pristine and liquid-like bass experience, I feel the XC offers a moderate quantity, yet one of absolutely the highest tier quality available.

Treble

The treble experience on this headphone is simply magnificent, fixing the boring and reserved treble response all prior Audeze headphones were tuned with. This XC model is very different and counters Hifiman tone and texture, a brighter flare with absolutely beautiful and stunning clarity without being sibilant in the slightest.

I would say the XC offers the same general tone and texture to the treble Hifiman HE-500 but with a bit less brightness and quantity. Both remain excellent on the upper end and I would certainly opt for the HE-6 if you are into the treble thing, but know that the XC is no slouch and is much like what the Sennheiser HD800 treble can sound like when you get that dream rig and a proper quality track.

Imaging

The stereo imaging on this headphone trumps the X and the LCD3 ( both versions ) in every way: height, width, separation, airiness, and depth. A far cry from what Audeze headphones tended to sound like in the past, I truly hope this is a new staple of the Audeze brand for the future.

Upgraded sound staging qualities are always appreciated and in this case, I find the XC to offer bar none the best overall stereo imaging qualities available in a Planar headphone, with a respectful nod to the Alpha Dog from MrSpeakers. Exceptionally well-formed from top to bottom and making the HD800 sound a bit lopsided and frugal as if the physical locale of the HD800 midrange is simply coming from below your eye level.

Much like the AKG K812, the Audeze XC is highly intimate and sadistically engaging with a very forward midrange that never feels U-shaped or overly emphasized. This headphone, for the lack of a better word, is tonally perfect in my humble opinion.

Most Interesting Comparisons

XC vs Stax 007

The most intense flaw of the XC would certainly be the weight and the lack of a dark background, the Stax 007 has a much less colored and significantly darker backdrop. As a result of that, the Stax simply sounds more solid and layered. Considering it is a closed-back headphone it still retains a nice depth of field, it is a bit shocking that the XC still dishes out a wider and taller sense of staging.

The Stax 007 also has a more hefty bass response with more quantity, however, I feel like it doesn’t respond as deeply as the XC can. I also find the XC’s bass more interesting, more precise, and more musical, the Stax 007 bass is quite boring and almost absent of texture that I would consider fun or vividly engaging. Two very different bass sound signatures in these headphones.

No doubt the Stax 007 is a bit more clear sounding and dynamic on the treble, surprisingly I found both headphones to share similar quality in the midrange and left the debate undecided and too close to call for which model had superior vocal quality.

The XC is noticeably more forward sounding, much more intimate yet oddly has a bit of snap and kick. Not sure this was a wise move, I’d rather have the XC exude a highly intimate midrange with a smoother approach to potential speed and snappiness.

The Stax is much more smooth, more softly focused, and offers a more pushed back, flat experience to the way the physical presentation is offered.

XC vs HD800

It is very hard to compare these headphones fairly, due to each one being literal polar opposites that retain similar sound purity. Where the HD800 is clinical and a bit cold at times, the XC is more inviting and leaning more toward the warmer and colored end of the spectrum.

Musicality is top-notch on the XC and utter failure on the HD800 ( depending on the rig ). In some cases, you can squeeze out a bit of warmth and color through the proper source and amplifier matching on the HD800, ultimately altering the sound type to your liking. However, that takes time, patience, and experience.

That is something XC owners do not have to worry about, the headphone simply sounds generally the same on most rigs. You can alter the sound signature a bit on the XC with an overly warm or overly neutral-sounding setup, but it won’t let you toss it around nearly as much as the HD800 will with regard to sound signature and coloration fluctuations between rigs.

The treble on the XC is always beautiful, always tonally enjoyable, and never sibilant. However, the treble on the HD800 is a disaster until you can get a nice track. The XC is not a purist’s headphone, the HD800 is. The HD800 sounds much more firm than the more freely flowing, pristine, and typical Audeze-type bass the XC exudes. No doubt the HD800 crushes the XC with sound staging qualities, but I am still impressed by the XC’s immensely airy and well-formed stage.

Rig Recommendations

Due to the highly intimate and forward midrange, as well as the gently colored background effect of the XC, I would recommend a source or amplifier that retains a bit of bass coloration with a very highly detailed texture on the low end.

I’ve found that the Oppo HA-1 outperforms the Burson Conductor in this regard so I would probably go with something similar for amplification and source needs, no need to get a high output amplifier, higher voltage is detrimental to efficient headphones like this.

Avoid notoriously U-shaped sound signatures. Get yourself a great USB Dac with at least 1.5watts of output driving power in balanced mode and enjoy. No amplifier needed. The XC pairs magnificently well with a Red Wine Astell and Kern AK120 combined with Ray Samuels RSA F-35 Lightning.

Burn-In & AKG K812
Audeze LCD3 & LCD-XC
Beyerdynamic T1 & Fostex TH600/900
Hifiman HE-560 & HE-6
Jhaudio JH16 Pro & MrSpeakers Alpha Dog
Oppo PM1 & Sennheiser HD800
Stax 007 & Our Verdict

Click on the page below for the Beyerdynamic T1 and Fostex TH600/900

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