The Resident Summit-Fi Gatekeeper
I’m the high-end gatekeeper that you keep hearing about in budget audiophile communities. So let’s get this out of the way from the get-go. I’m only interested in the absolute upper echelon of audio performance, like the Audeze LCD-5 (website). I listen to gear, and while measurements can have their place, they don’t drive my taste or purchases. I’ll always be chasing the best sound I can find, and price point isn’t something that matters to me. I won’t ignore a great value, but if a piece of gear (or system) isn’t the paragon of sound at any price, I’m rarely ever interested.
Words and Photos by Jameson Mourafetis
I don’t have time for inexpensive gear that isn’t excellent nor time for expensive gear that isn’t near the absolute best. That may sound unreasonable, but when it comes to what I’ve said about my taste and what I’ll be reviewing here, there’s a catch: I love headphones, and the headphone endgame costs a fraction of what it does in the loudspeaker space. Because of what I do for work (read my bio here), whenever I’m not traveling, most days I’m able to spend a dozen or so hours listening, much of it done with headphones.
My first touch with audio nirvana came from a needle drop of “Whole Lotta Love” through the original Abyss AB-1266 headphones driven by a Cavalli Liquid Gold amplifier. I’ve matched and surpassed that level of performance with my current gear, but I’ll always chase the feeling of that first experience: my first dive into truly high end performance. To that end, I’m always happy to try any new piece of ultra-fi like Audeze’s new flagship planar magnetic headphones, the LCD-5s.
My Thoughts on Audeze, and the Audeze LCD-5
If you aren’t familiar with Audeze, they’re pioneers and absolute behemoths in the high end headphone space. Their in-house designed planar magnetic drivers have gone through a long series of iterations and employ many patented and patent pending technologies. Just about everything Audeze does is unique to them from their magnet shapes and waveguides to their trace designs and diaphragms.
Despite Audeze’s position in the headphone space, I’ve never been moved enough to purchase their headphones. I’ve come close with the LCD-Xs and LCD-4s, but the rest of their lineup generally left comfort to be desired (with the exception of other co-flagship models with hard/carbon fiber bands that didn’t cause a hotspot in the center of the top of my head or lower weight cup materials), and unsurprisingly their lower end models are not made to deliver the same level of performance as their flagship pieces.
The LCD-5s are a major departure in both sound and physical design from all of their previous headphones. They’re smaller and lighter. The pads lack Audeze’s usually large, flat contact patch and instead are cone shaped rather than flat with a cutout. The foam inside the pads is a bit more firm than other models, and the headphones clamp quite a bit more than previous designs. This lessens to comfortable levels with use, and I suspect the new design fits a larger range of head sizes and shapes more comfortably than their other offerings.
The LCD-5s are substantially lighter and smaller than the outgoing flagships, weighing roughly 2/3rds that of the LCD-4s. Build quality is top notch, as usual with Audeze’s higher-end models. The cup enclosures are made from acetate rings and shaped magnesium rather than the LCD-4s wood rings with flat stainless steel plates. The headphones are packaged in a high quality hard, metal travel case with the cable and a pair of white gloves (see photo at the bottom).
The transducer is 90mm in diameter compared to the LCD-4’s 106mm diaphragm and employs an array of new and updated technologies. If you’d like to read more about the design changes, visit their website here. The LCD-5s appear to be Audeze’s new platform for both their driver technology and design language. Now for the sound.
Huh? Transparency, Speed, a Resolution Monster with Caveats
My initial impressions were…interesting. They’re not at all what I’ve known and expected from Audeze.
The Audeze house sound is completely absent here for better or worse. The upper midrange/lower treble darkness is gone. The signature planar wall of giant bass is gone. The bass is more even and extended but much less present. On first listen, the LCD-5s sounded confusingly shouty and bass shy. Perhaps this was because of my expectations when it comes to Audeze’s house sound. As my brain readjusted to their sound signature, which is also a far departure from my reference Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC headphones, they started to make more sense.
While the Audeze LCD-5s are more forward in the upper midrange to lower treble region than I might prefer, they’re very flat and even in frequency response, extremely transparent and resolving, and their speed rivals TOTL electrostatic headphones. Their staging isn’t overly exaggerated or gigantic for a headphone, but the imaging is very precise. The reverb reproduction especially vertically is class leading if not in scale, but precision. Over time, I understood them far more but still wasn’t entirely satisfied with their tuning. Out of the box the frequency response was odd for a flagship headphone at $4,500 USD.
With Hubcon occurring during my review period, I decided to bring them up to Dave McNair’s mastering studio in North Carolina to get his professional opinion.
Audeze LCD-5 at Hubcon
Before Dave McNair got the chance to give them a go, Eric, Grover, and myself gave the collection of headphones I brought a fair listen on the VAC speaker amps Dave had in the system for review (Hubcon article linked here).
The big VAC monos helped tame the LCD-5’s forward upper mids/lower treble, and with all that power on tap, they sounded much more dynamic, but the bass was still shy for my taste. At Dave’s studio, he plugged them straight into his console to compare against his LCD-Xs and immediately recognized their evenness across the spectrum but preferred the frequency response of his LCD-Xs, as we all did. So what’s up with that?
Well, Audeze designed this driver with as little damping as possible seemingly to avoid constricting dynamics and reducing transparency and speed, and in my opinion, they accomplished that at the cost of a slightly odd out of the box tuning. Audeze doesn’t shy away from recommending EQ and offers their own convolution files. These can be found both online in the usual forums and integrated into the Roon Labs app.
While the LCD-5 doesn’t yet have a profile in Roon, this gives an idea as to Audeze’s design objectives with their latest offerings. In a studio setting, EQ’d to a target curve, with its technical proficiency, I suspect this headphone would outshine anything else Audeze has offered thus far.
Ahh. Now I Get It.
I’m not going to mince words, the Audeze LCD-5 are extremely technically impressive, but their frequency response out of the box still leaves something to be desired at this price point except in the case of a few genres where the forward midrange works.
Swapping to a more synergistic DAC, Allnic Audio’s soon to be available D-10000 improved tonal density, and imaging performance significantly and improved bass presence to a lesser degree but the frequency response still wasn’t quite there, so that left two options, write the review you’ve read so far and leave it there, or commit audiophile sacrilege and use EQ as Audeze evidently recommends to try to fix the frequency response issues I have with them.
Given their stated design objectives and other impressive attributes, I felt compelled to give this a shot despite generally avoiding digital EQ, as it often negatively affects transparency in highly resolving systems. A few hours of tweaking later, I finally understood this headphone.
They respond tremendously well to even fairly extreme EQing without sacrificing their fantastic transient performance and speed. If you aren’t afraid to EQ your headphones, the LCD-5s are worth every bit of the $4,500 USD they cost and more.
They’re as fast as some of the very best electrostatics and out-resolve just about every other planar-magnetic headphone available from bottom to top. They are absolutely right up there with the very best from Abyss, RAAL, and Stax but with that one caveat: they need some tweaking to the frequency response to sound their best.
Audeze LCD-5 Test Tracks and Recommended Listening
There’s a reason I haven’t gone into song or genre specific impressions before this point. The LCD-5s just didn’t perform well with certain music sans EQing.
My go-to test tracks to cover the gamut and assess the performance of any system always include at least one track from Polyphia’s New Levels New Devils (usually Nasty, O.D., Death Note, Rich Kids, G.O.A.T.), The Faceless’ cover of “Shake the Disease” from their album In Becoming a Ghost, “Giant Steps” from Steve Henderson, Steve Smith, and Victor Wooten’s Vital Tech Tones, “Hollywood Swinging” from T.R.A.M.’s Lingua Franca, “If You Were the Only Girl (In the World)” from Dean Martin’s Dream With Dean, “Vamo’ alla Flamenco” from Nobuo Uematsu’s Distant Worlds, “Sincerely” from Lia’s Revives II, Time from Wintersun’s Time I (I highly recommend purchasing the Time 1.5 remaster from their bandcamp, Jarii has come a long way since Time’s initial release), Chopin’s Etude Op. 25. No. 11 (Winter Wind), and La Crimosa from Mozart’s Requiem.
For the LCD-5s I also highly recommend Opeth’s Ghost Reveries and Blackwater Park, Symphony X’s Underworld and The Odyssey, Ayreon’s The Human Experiment, Tame Impala’s Slow Rush, Porches’ Pool, Evan Call’s VIOLET EVERGARDEN: Automemories, and Allan Holdsworth’s The Sixteen Men of Tain.
I wouldn’t normally assemble such a long list, but given that this is my first official review with Part-Time Audiophile, I felt it a necessary addition to understand where I derive my impressions. Before EQing the LCD-5s, several of these tracks were grating in the upper midrange and lower treble. After EQing, there wasn’t an area they didn’t perform superbly.
Audeze LCD-5 at Now Listen Here
I could’ve ended things there, but with a planned trip up to dealer friends Aaron and Jessica Sherrick, owners of Now Listen Here in Harrisburg, PA.
I figured I’d bring the LCD-5s up to give a listen on their showroom gear. They happen to carry Weiss Engineering products, and Audeze often brings Weiss gear to most head-fi events they attend. You’ll be hearing more about the Sherricks in my upcoming review of the Allnic D-10000 DAC, but sticking to the headphones, the pairing of the Weiss DAC501 with the LCD-5s is the most synergistic pairing I’ve yet heard for any headphone system.
It’s rare that a pair of headphones will go from odd with a half dozen different amplifiers and in drastic need of EQ—to completely wonderful without EQ on another amp. But the Weiss/LCD-5 pairing did just that.
For some genres and tastes, they still benefit from light EQing (especially with the Weiss’s extremely transparent integrated EQ), but they no longer need it to sound like a true cost-no-object flagship headphone. All the class leading qualities mentioned above with EQ are now present without any tweaking, and the transparency of the Weiss just flows through like pure water. This is synergy.
If you were considering the LCD-5s and found the same weirdness in the frequency response, you haven’t given them a fair listen until you’ve heard them with a Weiss DAC/amp. Go back and give them another shot.
Audeze LCD-5 Closing Words
You’ve already read three different conclusions. What It really comes down to is this: If you can afford to pair the LCD-5s with the Weiss DAC501/502, just do it, enjoy endgame for a fraction of the price of what some of us spend to arrive at the same desirable plateau. This pairing will fit in nicely in a studio environment or in the home of a hardcore head-fi enthusiast.
If you can’t afford the Weiss DAC501/502 to pair with the LCD-5s, just EQ them. You’ll be fine there as well.
If by principal you can’t bear the thought of EQing headphones and/or can’t afford the Weiss DAC 501/502 as the perfect companion piece (or some other perfect synergistic pairing that I can’t imagine exists near the Weiss’ price point), then the LCD-5 might not be for you in that rare case.
- Auris Nirvana
- Chord Qutest
- Chord Mojo
- Allnic D-10000
- Weiss DAC501
- Various amplifiers in search of synergy
- Roon EQ Convolution
- Transparent cabling
It would have been helpful to post the EQ settings you found beneficial. I have no objection to good EQ, but would be nice to have a starting point.