It’s been such a long time coming that some people in the head-fi community were beginning to wonder whether California’s Audeze had lost interest in the high-end headphone market. After the launch of the company’s flagship LCD-4 in 2017, which Stereophile’s John Atkinson claimed was the finest sounding headphone he had heard in 45 years, there was – please excuse me – a deafening high-end silence from Audeze (pronounced odd-e-zy) as it concentrated on development of in-ear devices and, heaven forfend, gaming headsets. The company that effectively re-defined the high-end over-ear headphone market with ground-breaking planar designs had seemingly gone dark on its fans.
The launch in the last month of a new Audeze planar flagship, the LCD-5, is evidence both that the company’s designers were having a serious think about where to take class-leading planar technology next, and that they have lost none of their touch for innovation.
The 5 is not so much a warming-over of the 4, but a ground-up re-design. At first glance it’s not easy to tell. The 5 retains the characteristic form-factor of the 4 – open-back, round shells, carbon fibre and leather headband, fat leather earpads – but on closer inspection differences do become clear. The shells are slightly smaller overall, and the earpads are thinner, sculpted internally both to give greater comfort on a wider range of head shapes and with the aim of reducing resonances for a more even frequency response.
It’s been some four years since I tried the LCD-4, and my abiding impression is of a gloriously refined sound. But I criticised the weight which at nearly 700 grams wasn’t so much an issue when listening normally but, despite the firm clamping force of the headband, it made leaning over a turntable to change a record while wearing the headphone an alarming prospect. I felt that at any moment they might slip-off followed milliseconds later by hideously costly disaster.
There were no such concerns with the LCD-5, though; the use of magnesium for the shells, together with lightweight but beautifully marked acetate decorative rings, combines with the carbon-fibre and leather headband to give a weight of just 420gms. I suspect too that the new design of the earpads has enabled Audeze to use less clamping force yet still achieve a much more secure and comfortable fit. Long listening sessions – and changing records while wearing them – were a breeze.
Driver-wise the 5 has the same diaphragm area as the 4, but the material is thinner – Audeze say less than the thickness of a red blood cell – with varying width traces to equalise the magnetic force exerted by the magnets and parallel voice coils. Audeze claims accurate phase, neutral frequency response, a wider, more accurate soundstage and a frequency range of 5Hz to 50kHz with 0.1% distortion at 100dB. The connecting cable is now single-crystal OCC copper, braided, I assume, for a degree of RFI rejection.
It’s dangerous to wholly trust audio memory after four or so years, but I feel that none of the sonic claims made by Audeze for the LCD-5 are mere commercial hyberbole although the degree of improvement over the now discontinued LCD-4 in some areas might be marginal. When a design is already very good, it’s a statement of the obvious that making it better can be quite a challenge and that gains will likely be incremental rather than ground-breaking.
The 4 had a claimed 97dB efficiency with a nominal impedance of 200 Ohms. The 5 has a claimed efficiency of 90dB with an impedance of 14 Ohms, and Audeze advises a power level of >100mW, implying a good degree of compatibility with a wide range of desk-top amplifiers, although some portable devices may well struggle. In my review system I got very acceptable results using the built-in headphone output of a Bryston BP-173 pre-amplifier, and better still when I switched to a Graham Slee Ultra Linear Solo headphone amplifier. The listening observations that follow were made using this latter source.
My memory of the LCD-4 is of a big sound, generous in dynamic expression, comparatively fat and lush. In a foolish and light-hearted moment I thought of them as the Cadillac of the headphone world. The LCD-5 sounds more Ferrari-like; faster, more dynamically agile, with an overall more analytical presentation that I suspect will win a lot of fans, and particularly in the recording industry where the ability to hear deeper into the mix is a prized attribute. That’s not analytical in the sense that faux detail is provided at the expense of neutrality by a calculating uplift towards the top end, but analytical in the sense that the LCD-5 is better able to transcribe micro-dynamic content in recordings; the kind of detail that attends a closely-miked singer’s breath control, the kind of detail that allow us to discern the apparent size and nature of the recording space, for example. Audeze says this new level of transparency is a result in part of the development effort put into the diaphragm and energising assembly which allows it to react more quickly to transients, and produce lower distortion.
There’s no getting away from the stark reality that even if you are as wealthy as Croesus, just shy of £4,000 is an awful lot of money for a headphone. A number of very good speakers, both bookshelf and floorstanders, are available for that and less money, and if we make a comparison based on size and weight, they make the LCD-5 and its ilk look like decidedly iffy value.
But there’s also no getting away from the fact that a headphone of the quality of the LCD-5 is absolutely and literally revelatory. If the system’s capable of it, you’ll hear musical and spatial information right to the outer limits of the human ear, and sense even more beyond that, courtesy of that 50kHz high frequency extension. Certainly, the results in my system were at times, and depending on recording quality, breathtakingly good, with power, intimacy, resolution and yes, musicality, to die for. The review sample – not specially selected but straight from the production line – was also impeccably finished, giving off a high-end aura, even when just parked on the headphone stand.
But never mind cosmetics, or even neighbourly resistance to loud music, the real reason we all need a really good set of cans like the LCD-5 is because they take the room completely out of the equation; by default it’s just you and the recording, with no room nodes singing along out of time or phase to spoil the illusion. Audeze’s LCD-5 offers one of the most direct connections to the music it’s possible to buy.