Audeze LCD-XC Headphone Review

The First Closed-Back Headphone from the First Name in High-End Personal Sound

Audeze LCD-XC headphone
Brent Butterworth

Let's get this out of the way right now: The Audeze LCD-XC is expensive. But I expect audiophiles will practically line up to buy it. 

Audeze's previous headphones, the LCD-3 and the LCD-2, are both open-back designs, which results in a more spacious and natural sound. However, with open-back headphones, the sound leaks out so others can hear it. Worse, external sounds -- the ones most headphone listeners want to shut out -- leak into the headphones, so outside conversations and clattering compete with Chopin and Coldplay.

The LCD-XC is Audeze's first closed-back headphone, so it seals out external sounds and keeps the listener's music from bugging others. The back of the headphone is a gorgeous piece of polished wood, available in your choice of iroko (seen above), walnut, purple heart or bubinga.

For the LCD-XC, Audeze developed a new, more sensitive version of its planar magnetic drivers, which use a wire-impregnated plastic film to create sound. The LCD-2 and LCD-3 can't really be driven to useful levels with, say, a smartphone or tablet; they require the use of an external amp. The LCD-XC is designed so you can plug it straight into your phone or laptop or whatever. It might not sound its best that way, but at least it'll work.

According to Audeze, the new driver was such a success that the company used it to create a new open-back headphone: the LCD-X. Both headphones are made with aluminum ear cups instead of the wood ear cups used on the LCD-2 and LCD-3.

For full lab measurements of the Audeze LCD-XC, check out this image gallery.

Features

• Planar magnetic drivers
• 8.2 ft/2.5m cord with 1/4-inch plug
• 8.2 ft/2.5m cord with XLR plug for balanced amplifiers
• 1/4-inch to 3.5mm adapter included
• Available with backs in iroko, walnut, purple heart or bubinga
• Available with earpads covered in lambskin or leather-free microsuede
• Frequency response graphs available from Audeze
• Pelican-style carrying case included

Ergonomics

When I tried the LCD-3, I fell in love with the sound but couldn't stand to wear it for more than a few minutes. Not only was it heavy, its earpads pressed against my temples in a tortuous manner. But as I noted in my Rocky Mountain Audio Fest headphone report, Audeze has switched to a plusher, lower-density foam for all of its headphones, and for me, at least, it's far, far more comfortable. The LCD-XC is still a little heavy, but the earpads are so comfy I can forgive.

Like most audiophile headphones, the LCD-XC does not offer an inline microphone or remote for your smartphone. It does offer two cables, though. One has a standard 1/4-inch TRS-type headphone plug. The other has a four-pin XLR connector for use with headphone amps that have balanced output, in which each driver gets its own ground connection.

Audeze includes a super-rugged, Pelican-style case. Like the headphones it holds, it's bulky, but it's perfect for tossing your LCD-XC into your car trunk for extended road trips.

Performance

The first thing I tried with the LCD-XC was driving it with my iPod touch. It was a little bit shocking. The HiFiMan HE-500 planar magnetic headphone I use as one of my reference headphones just barely works with an iPod touch, but the LCD-XC not only played loud enough, it played one notch louder than I needed.

It didn't sound fantastic -- the sound seemed a bit thin to me, with less bass than I'd like -- but it did work.

Clearly, even though the LCD-XC worked with a portable device, it deserved a better source. So I hooked up my laptop to a Musical Fidelity V90-DAC digital-to-analog converter, and connected the DAC to my Musical Fidelity V-Can headphone amp, and later to my Rane HC 6S six-output professional headphone amp so I could make some quick comparisons.

I compared the LCD-XC with two open-back headphones, the LCD-X and the HE-500, and with two closed-back headphones, the NAD Viso HP-50 and the AKG K551.

I know, the latter two aren't anywhere near the LCD-XC's price class, but few closed-back headphones are. 

I worried that the LCD-XC's closed-back design might leave it sounding ... well, closed. As in "not open" and "not spacious." It didn't. Quite the opposite, actually. Consider this: The NAD Viso HP-50 sounds huge compared to most closed-back headphones, but the LCD-XC sounds huge compared to the HP-50. The LCD-XC made audiophile recordings such as The Coryells sound almost live; when I closed my eyes I could easily picture the walls and ceiling of the Manhattan church where the recording was made. No, the LCD-XC couldn't equal the awesome spatiality of the open-back headphones, but it gets you maybe 80 percent of the way there.

Up until now, the K551 was probably the most open-sounding closed-back 'phone I'd ever heard, but the LCD-XC delivered an even more spacious sound -- although I have to say the K551 came pretty close in this regard. The K551's tonal balance sounds comparatively lean, though, and a little too bright for my taste, and its midrange and treble can't approach the smoothness that the LCD-XC achieves.

Tonally, the LCD-XC sounds close to flat -- but not quite flat. The bass has a subtly pumped-up quality, nowhere near as punchy as most closed-back headphones deliver, but not as dead-flat as the bass of the LCD-X and HE-500. It's not that the LCD-XC's bass sounds louder, though -- it's just more resonant. I'd compare it to the difference between a good ported subwoofer and a good sealed sub. As with a ported sub, the LCD-XC's bass has a more resonant quality with more punch, while the open-back headphones have that more neutral quality often heard in sealed subs.

Want to get a scientific perspective on the LCD-XC's performance -- including a comparison with the LCD-X? Check out my full lab complete lab measurements.

When I played the recording of the Saint-Saens "Organ Symphony" from Boston Audio Society Test CD-1, the LCD-XC seemed at ease with the deep organ notes while the other closed-back 'phones choked, the K551 sounding rather lightweight and the HP-50 almost entirely eliminating the fundamental frequencies of the deep notes. Next to the LCD-X and HE-500, though -- both of which handled the deep notes practically perfectly -- the LCD-XC's bass sounded a bit overenthusiastic.

On pop and rock music, that little extra kick in the bass worked very much to the LCD-XC's advantage. For example, the LCD-XC easily outkicked the LCD-X and HE-500 when I played Soundgarden's "Drawing Flies." I felt Matt Cameron's kick drum and the low notes of Ben Shepherd's bass ... well, not in my chest, but in my head. And my soul. Chris Cornell's nearly screamed vocals sounded hauntingly distinct, almost like I was in a rehearsal room with the band and standing right in front of him.

Final Take

So can I honestly recommend you go out and buy this headphone? It depends.

Are we talking about sitting around in your house all alone, enjoying your favorite records and high-res files with no one around to bother you? In that case, I'd get the LCD-X. Its sound has an ease that the LCD-XC can never quite match. Every time I put the LCD-X on, I felt myself relax a little more and slip further into the music, no matter what headphone I heard before it.

If an open-back headphone isn't practical for you, though -- if, say, you want to listen while the rest of the family's watching TV, or you live in a noisy apartment, or you want to use your headphones in the office without bothering others -- then in my opinion, the LCD-XC is the best headphone you can buy.