Audeze LCD-2C - Open Back, Planar-Magnetic Headphone Review

December 17, 2018

Audeze LCD-2C - Open Back, Planar-Magnetic Headphone Review

Written by Kyle Dionela (@Ishcabible)

Audeze’s LCD-2.1, their original version of their popular LCD-2 line, is fabled for their unique dark, intimate sound. I owned a pair of these myself and they still remain as one of my favorite headphones at any price because of how they presented some music—I actually preferred it to my LCD-3 Pre-Fazor. More recent Audeze LCD-2’s have gone for a less dark sound in favor of a flatter sound, so there is now a demand for a return to the original dark sound. I do like the LCD-2 Fazor, but they lack that certain special quality the 2.1 has. When Audeze announced the LCD-2C, which was meant to replicate the old 2.1, I was incredibly excited.

The LCD-2C comes in a plain white box with foam cut out shaped to fit the headphone. When the LCD-2C was released at $599, this plain packaging was acceptable versus the more expensive LCD-2 Fazor’s hard case, but at $799, it’s a bit less reasonable.

The LCD-2C uses a suspension headband unlike previous Audezes. In theory this should help distribute the weight better, but on this particular unit, the suspension headband didn’t really do much suspending as it was almost flush with the headband. The cups are an ABS plastic rather than aluminum or wood like its bigger brothers, but with its rough finish, it doesn’t feel as cheap as one would assume. It still retains the metal grill that other LCD Audezes have, and it also keeps angled mini-XLR connectors.

The LCD-2.1 was famed for its relaxing sound that stood alone against most of its bright competitors like the Sennheiser HD800 and Hifiman HE-5. It was something that people who loved the warm-sounding Sennheiser HD650 could potentially upgrade to. While it wasn’t a direct upgrade, it was more romantic-sounding than the HD800 or HE-5. The LCD-2C was said to be similar to the LCD-2.1, which gave hope for those who think the LCD-2 Fazor is a little too bright and lacking in upper midrange. Unfortunately, the LCD-2C isn’t the LCD-2.1. It really isn’t similar at all, it sounds like an Audeze, but tonally, it sounds like a definite step down from the LCD-2F and LCD-2.1.

I primarily used my reference system for reviewing the LCD-2C, which consists of a Cavalli Audio Liquid Fire and an RME ADI-2 DAC, but I also tested it out with a variety of sources, such as my iPhone 7’s Lightning dongle, a cMoy, and a modded Bottlehead S.E.X. 2.1 C4S to show how it scaled with better equipment. I thought it sounded best out of the solid state ADI-2 DAC. The tube-based amps seemed to make them sound more congested.

Bass

The LCD-2C’s bass, like most planars, is quite linear. It has decent sub impact and extension, but like most planars, people who are looking a lot of midbass impact similar to what many dynamics can provide may be disappointed. The decay is a bit too fast—I like hearing a little bit of decay lingering for low percussion that is cut short on the LCD-2C. This was most noticeable in orchestral music; I never got the sense of decay I hear from actual performances. I’ve found this to be common in many planar magnetic headphones and seems to be a trait that dynamic headphones tend to do more accurately. They also sounded rather muddy compared to what I expect from a planar at this level and sounds odd when juxtaposed by the unnaturally fast decay. It sounded about as clean as the Hifiman HE500, which many do complain is slightly muddy in the midbass.

Midrange

The midrange is where most of my reservations with the LCD-2C lie. I’m no stranger to Audeze’s characteristic hard drop past 2kHz that almost all their headphones do, so I always take that into account before using an Audeze headphone so it’s not too shocking initially. But the LCD-2C takes that and adds some extra complications. The large dip always takes some time to get used to on Audeze headphones because it’s a stylistic choice Audeze makes for its headphones which gives them a very laid back sound that many find relaxing. The LCD-2C’s dip took a bit more time to get used to than other Audezes I’ve owned or demoed because while with many Audeze, the shelved midrange can be somewhat compensated for by turning the volume up, the LCD-2C has something around 5-6kHz that makes the midrange and low treble sound noticeably off in tone and makes the shelf seem more obvious.

Rather than a shelved sound like many other Audezes, the LCD-2C’s 2-4k dip sounds less like a characteristic trait and instead sounds like an issue that wasn’t fixed because it doesn’t sound cohesive. The 5-6k low treble prominence shows off the LCD-2C’s plastic, artificial tone more immediately than the LCD-2.1 or LCD-2 Fazor. While the LCD-2 Fazor’s upper mids dipped more than the LCD-2C and sound more distant, it still manages to sound more natural because the LCD-2 Fazor doesn’t seem to have the same plastic tone the LCD-2C has.

Treble

Like the midrange, the LCD-2C’s treble is undoubtedly dipped. This leads to a “veiled” sort of sound, especially combined with the dipped upper midrange. Most Audeze headphones are like this, so I came in expecting this, but the low treble peak contrasted the rest of the treble far too much and contributes to the plasticky sound. I heard a slight elevation around 9-10k though, leading to some fatigue after a couple hours. I also heard a pretty substantial lack of air. The original LCD-2.1 also has quite dipped treble, but it is able to create a more coherent sound.

But my biggest issue with the LCD-2C’s treble is that there’s a strong sense of grain, or lack of smoothness. Cymbals don’t have the clean shimmer I expect and instead sound almost discordant.

Measurements

The measurements have been taken with a Brüel & Kjær 4128C Head and Torso Simulator paired with a Rohde & Schwarz UPL. The frequency response measurements are an average of 10 different seated positions but I am posting the variance.

Averaged Frequency Response

The bass extends quite well to 20Hz but does dip a couple dB from 40Hz. It’s quite linear to 1k otherwise. The upper midrange takes a tumble from 1.5kHz onward, leading to Audeze’s trademark laid-back or distant sound. The sharp peak at 6kHz is likely why I hear them as so artificial-sounding. It’s a trait that I do hear with the HD800, though I don’t hear the LCD-2C to be as sibilant as the HD800 can be. It seem to affect the overall tone more than anything, which is odd. The mid-treble rolls off from that 6kHz peak, lending to its dark sound, but it’s contrasted to me so much by the grain it doesn’t even sound particularly dark because it still manages to sound harsh to me.

Variation

Reseating the LCD-2C on the HATS head led to minor changes in FR for the most part, so the LCD-2C shouldn’t sound particularly varied depending on how you put it on your head.

Distortion

90dB:

100dB:

Distortion is quite low throughout the range, proving to be inaudible at both 90dB and 100dB.

Comparisons

The LCD-2C occupies an awkward spot because there aren’t many other headphones that cost $800 other than the Aeons, which I have heard but not for long enough to use as a comparison point other than the Focal Elex, which isn’t always available off Massdrop. I can, however, compare it to products that occupy the same or lower price point in the used market like the LCD-2 Fazor, Sennheiser HD800, and Hifiman Ananda. I’ll also gladly write quick comparisons for headphones I’ve heard if people ask. I compared the LCD-2C to many more headphones than these three, but I feel these three are the most relevant of the ones I’ve heard long enough to feel comfortable writing in-depth comparisons.

Audeze LCD-2 Fazor

Honestly, I don’t see the point of the LCD-2C when the LCD-2 Fazor is “only” $200 more new. While $200 is a nontrivial amount of money, if you’re spending $800 on a headphone, saving up a little more money to buy a much less problematic headphone makes so much more sense to me. Used, I often see the LCD-2 Fazor selling for between $600-700, so it ends up being cheaper than a new LCD-2C. The LCD-2 Fazor has similar bass presentation as the LCD-2C, but the midrange and treble presentation are much more coherent. While the LCD-2 Fazor’s upper midrange is a little more dipped than the LCD-2C’s, they don’t have the same plasticky timbre, which is enough for me to wholeheartedly recommend the Fazor over the LCD-2C. The Fazors do have a bit more treble than the LCD-2C, but it doesn’t have the same grain the LCD-2C has.

The LCD-2 Fazor extends to about 20Hz much like the LCD-2C, but it does sound cleaner. I hear better separation of notes in the Fazor version than the 2C. It’s most noticeable in songs that demand a fast driver; large orchestral music benefits greatly from this. The slightly muddier sound may give the initial impression that the LCD-2C is bassier because it does sound “thicker” due to the additional muddiness, but once I noticed the LCD-2C wasn’t as clean as I’d like, it became bothersome.

Midrange may be a toss up between the LCD-2 Fazor and the LCD-2C. While the LCD-2 Fazor’s midrange is much more coherent and integrated with the sound because of the more natural tone and timbre, it is a little more dipped than the LCD-2C’s which is already quite dipped. This results in vocals and instruments sounding slightly more pushed back. However, the LCD-2C’s upper midrange tonality bugged me so much and so often that I’d easily take slightly more dipped midrange every time. The LCD-2C’s tonality distracted me so often than I’d sometimes change tracks to something where it would be less noticeable, which completely defeats the point of listening to music for me as I end up listening to music for the gear rather than listening to music for the sake of listening to music.

Treble is also somewhat of a sticky point. “Grain” is something that I’ve found many people don’t notice, which frankly can be advantageous because it’s lowered my opinion of a few headphones for me that would be fantastic otherwise such as the Sennheiser HD800S and HD650. Grain is typically defined as roughness, most noticeable in cymbals but can be found in most harmonics. Cymbal decay should be smooth, but grainy headphones portray cymbal decay as uneven and harsh, a trait that bothers me almost as much as bad tone. The LCD-2C’s grain is at a level that I find unacceptable for how much they cost. The LCD-2 Fazor on the other hand has a much lower level of grain, so it’s more tolerable in the upper regions than the LCD-2C. They both are quite dipped, so neither would be a great option for a treblehead, but the LCD-2 Fazor does have a little more treble. It’s not enough treble that I’d even call it “neutral” in treble, but it is brighter.

Focal Elex

The Focal Elex was an incredibly surprising headphone. I flat out hated the Elear which the Elex was based on, so when I finally used it and discovered it fixed many of the issues I had with it, I was stunned. For $699, the Elex is a fantastic value versus its competitors.

The Elex’s bass is quite different from the LCD-2C’s bass. It’s much more visceral than the LCD-2C’s bass, though it doesn’t extend quite as far. While the Elex doesn’t hit as hard as the much higher-end Utopia can, I’m impressed with the degree to which the Elex can slam without the bass quantity being too overwhelming. It’s also cleaner than the LCD-2C.

Midrange presentation quite significantly between the Elex and LCD-2C. While they may seem somewhat similar on measurements, the Elex’s 1.5k spike makes vocals seem shoutier and more forward than the LCD-2C’s vocals. This shout and its general slightly metallic timbre may bring upper midrange forward enough that its presence dip around 4-5kHz may not be immediately noticeable. I actually don’t notice it too much in normal listening unless I strain to hear it.

The Elex is a brighter headphone, so like the HD800, the LCD-2C and Elex don’t necessarily vie for the same type of listener. It isn’t Beyerdynamic bright, but a slight mid treble rise combined with its timbre does may it seem somewhat bright.
Those comparing the Elex and LCD-2C may be somewhat disappointed to find that picking between the two isn’t quite black and white because their presentation is so different, but unless you’re highly sensitive to treble or are bothered by the Elex’s timbre, I can’t think of much reason to pick the LCD-2C over the Elex. It’s a much more technically competent headphone.

Frequency Response Comparison:

On paper, the Elex and LCD-2C look remarkably similar. The LCD-2C seems to measure with more bass, though if I had to guess, it’s due to the way I scale measurements. I try to match headphones at 1kHz, but since the Elex has a rise beginning at that level and the LCD-2C has a dip starting at that level, it may not represent the quantity of bass quite the same as reality may show when comparing the two. This also doesn’t show the effect of bass impact, which is a very interesting thing to consider. I’d never consider the Elex to be “anemic.” They also have a similar dip between 4-6kHz which, for some reason, is much more noticeable on the LCD-2C. Treble does seem to align quite well with what I hear.

Sennheiser HD800

This isn’t really a fair or particularly useful comparison considering they sound completely different and new HD800s are $400 more than a new LCD-2C, but used HD800s in great condition are quite easy to find for less than $800 (I got mine for $450), so this is more of an exercise to show what people can get for $800. I consider the HD800 to be one of the best reference headphones in the $1000 price range, not necessarily because it’s perfect, but it’s a headphone many people are quite familiar with and it has traits that not even other more expensive headphones can completely surpass it in such as detail retrieval and soundstage width.

The HD800 has more midbass than the LCD-2C so there is a stronger sense of impact, but it does roll off in the extremes faster than the LCD-2C, so you don’t get the rumble with the HD800. The HD800’s low note separation is slightly cleaner than the LCD-2C, but in warm high output impedance tube amps such as a Bottlehead Crack, I can see the HD800 being slightly muddier due to the interaction of the HD800’s low end impedance bump and the ~80ohm output impedance, making bass slightly louder and more distorted. In many setups, I find the HD800’s upper bass boost to lead to some congestion in the upper mids, which the LCD-2C doesn’t do. However, the HD800’s decay is consistently more accurate-sounding to me. The bass decays at a more life-like speed than the LCD-2C.

While the HD800’s upper midrange is dipped, it’s measurably more forward than the LCD-2C’s. But the difference between the upper mids and low midrange and upper bass makes the HD800’s upper midrange sound more recessed than it is. This creates a sense of congestion that I’ve always been annoyed by when I’m listening to something vocal-forward, especially bluegrass, where upright bass can overshadow the vocals. The HD800’s midrange tone is slightly plasticky and artificial, but to a lesser degree than the LCD-2C’s, as I’ve never been tempted to change music due to the HD800’s tonal issues.

Treble is going to be even more of a toss up. The biggest complaint I’ve seen about the HD800 is its strong 6kHz peak, which many find uncomfortable. I can totally understand this position, as it does lie close to the sibilance peak, but the level of discomfort is going to depend on the person’s sensitivities--for example, I’m quite sensitive to mid-treble peaks but the HD800’s 6kHz peak has never really bothered me. If you can get past the peak, you’ll be rewarded with a much smoother (less grainy) treble and a better sense of air than the LCD-2C.

While I can’t say I can think of too many people who would pick one over the other, the HD800 does prove to be a legitimate step up in quality for the same or less money if you’re willing to buy a used headphone.

Frequency Response Comparison:

The midbass difference is shown in the measurement to be about a dB stronger, and the upper midrange and treble are both much higher.

HiFiMan Ananda

I’m kind of disappointed that I haven’t seen much talk about the Ananda. It’s a pretty solid headphone for the $1,000 that Hifiman is asking. While I understand the QC issues that Hifiman had with the HE-560 and HE-400i could be scaring some people off, the Ananda’s headband is made of metal and won’t have the same cracking problems. It’s not a dark sounding headphone like the LCD-2C, but I find it to be a very tonally pleasing headphone without the strong bass roll off I heard with the older Hifiman Edition X V1.

The Ananda rolls off a little bit at the extreme sub bass, but it still manages to rumble almost as much as the LCD-2C. It also has a bit of a midbass hump, possibly related to the bass roll off, as planars without a perfect seal exhibit both characteristics. This leads to a stronger sense of slam while still retaining much of the rumble the LCD-2C has. The Ananda is also a little bit cleaner than the LCD-2C; I hear better separation of notes, but the decay is still similarly fast so I find both to be rather unnatural.

I much prefer the Ananda’s midrange tonality to the LCD-2C’s. It is much more forward though, so those who prefer more distant midranges may find the Ananda too midrange-heavy, but I’m quite surprised at the stark difference in quality between the two for the price. The Ananda’s midrange is still rather problematic; I hear some timbral issues that make it sound uneven and artificial, but it’s still much more realistic-sounding than the LCD-2C and even the LCD-2 Fazor.

The Ananda’s treble is noticeably brighter than the LCD-2C’s, but is also much cleaner. I don’t hear much, if any, grain that the LCD-2C has. I can see people thinking the Ananda is too bright though, so those who are treble sensitive, especially in the low treble, may find the Ananda too harsh. For everyone else though, the Ananda is a clear upgrade in quality.

Frequency Response Comparison:

The Ananda has more of midbass bump than the Audeze LCD-2C and rolls off a bit from it, but its sub-bass level does not seem to be drastically lower. The Ananda dips at about 1kHz unlike the LCD-2C which is the “shout” region, but they’re much more forward than the LCD-2C past 2kHz, which is shown in their more forward presentation. They are also more trebly than the LCD-2C.

Conclusion

Overall, I’m quite disappointed by the LCD-2C. I had high hopes, as someone who really enjoys the Pre-Fazor sound. However, the LCD-2C doesn’t have any of that Pre-Fazor magic. It’s something completely different, something much more artificial and worse. At $599, I think the LCD-2C was priced a little more competitively than its current price at $799, but even at that price I wouldn’t consider it a good value for what you get. While at $599 it would be much cheaper than the better-performing LCD-2 Fazor, it falls so flat to be that if I paid $599, I’d be settling for a poor-value product and want to upgrade relatively quickly, making money saved by buying the LCD-2C to be, effectively, money wasted.

But this does put the market in a difficult position. The LCD-2 Fazor is brighter than the LCD-2C so I can see the argument that the Fazor may not be for these particular people, but I also consider the LCD-2C to not be a product worth buying at current costs, so this leaves people to look for a Pre-Fazor LCD-2 that is likely out of warranty by now, and Audeze is infamous for failing drivers, so that may be too risky for people to consider. So I guess the most sensible decision would be to just save up for a Fazor LCD-2 and experiment with equalization. The mild quality decreases I hear with EQ such as a slight veiling and loss of microdetail are not nearly as problematic as the LCD-2C’s core issues.

Alternatively, I heard the ZMF Aeolus at RMAF and found it to have many similar qualities that I missed from the LCD-2.1. It’s priced similarly to the LCD-2 Fazor new and may be a fantastic alternative. I will try to get my hands on an Aeolus to review in the coming months for a more in-depth view, but for now, I’d recommend skipping the LCD-2C unless the grain and tonality absolutely will not bother you.

Kyle Dionela (@Ishcabible)

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