We always emphasize the benefits of shooting raw, we spend a lot of money on high-end monitors, and we calibrate those monitors, all so we can create the best foundation for editing our photos and video. But do we do the same for our audio? That's where reference monitors and headphones come into the picture.
Audio is both one of the most important parts of a video project and a complex set of skills and knowledge in its own right. That's why whenever a project's budget can afford it, I bring in someone specifically to handle recording and mixing. Unfortunately, just like in a lot of photography assignments, the budget doesn't always reflect the vision. So, I am always trying to improve my audio skills and better understand my gear, so that I am always starting from a good, solid foundation. For me, part of that is knowing the difference between a reference set of headphones and one I might use to just enjoy music.
With the introduction of the LCD-1, is seeking to capture the high-end audio success of their industry-leading reference headphones in a more lightweight, enthusiast-priced package. A quick search of Audeze headphones will take you down a rabbit hole of audiophile lingo and specs that will make your head spin. Now, I am not an audio expert, and I expect a lot of photographers and videographers like me are not either. So, it can get confusing reading through different product listings in the complex personal audio world. I have, however, been a musician for most of my life, and that meant I could reach out to some of my friends who are audio experts to help me understand some of the tech packed into these portable headphones.
Full disclosure, Audeze made available to me a demo model for testing. However, the opinions and following review are mine alone, and Audeze hasn’t had any influence or feedback on my review process or this article.
Driver size: 90mm
Magnet type: Neodymium N50
Maximum power handling: 5W RMS
Maximum SPL: >120dB
Frequency response: 10Hz - 50KHz
THD: <0.1% @ 100dB
Sensitivity: 99 dB/1mW (at Drum Reference Point)
Impedance: 16 ohms
Weight: 8.8 oz (250 g)
Planar Magnetic Technology
So, what is PM tech and how is it different from dynamic drivers used in most other headphones? A PM driver has a flat diaphragm, unlike the cone or dome-shaped ones similar to what you often see in common speakers. In dynamic drivers, a voice-coil moved by a magnet behind it connects to the cone-shaped diaphragm, whereas the PM driver is embedded directly into the flat diaphragm with a conductor that snakes back and forth across its entire surface. Having the conductor directly on the surface allows for it to react more evenly to the magnets. This results in tighter, more accurate bass, less distortion at higher levels, and overall better clarity.
The LCD-1s feature an open-back design. Open-back headphones are just what they sound like: they allow air to flow through the ear cups. The reason for this is to prevent pressure from building up and causing small echoes inside the headphones. This results in a much better, more natural, and clearer sound profile. Of course, this also has its own drawbacks. With an open-back design, you don’t get any noise-canceling effects, in fact, you will hear most of the sound around you. Meaning open-back headphones usually are not very good for commuting or loud airplanes. The entire design of the LCD-1’s is to create a technically better reference headphone in a smaller, more portable package. These are meant to be used in somewhat controlled environments whether in a home office or while editing audio on the road. I also found them very useful for recording on location, as I often need to keep one ear on the set and another on the audio.
Removable Wired Cable
While wireless headphones have become popular for their versatility, they still don’t reproduce the same high-quality, accurate sound that you get with a wired cable. Included with the LCD-1 is a premium braided six-foot cable that terminates with a 3.5mm connector (1/4-inch adapter is included). The TRS connectors that plug into the bottom of the ear cups are interchangeable so you don't have to waste time on which is for the left or right, something I’m told is usually the case in most other high-end headphones.
Something that is often hard to find these days and is sometimes an important factor for others is that Audeze makes all their headphones and drivers here in the US, Southern California to be exact.
Design and Comfort
The overall design of the headphones is a modern, compact style. They don't stand out or look too bulky, which is nice if you plan to use them on location or while traveling. They are mostly made from plastic, and while that can make them seem a little cheap in your hand, after using them for a while, I can say they are not fragile and the plastic used will hold up over time. The material choice also helps with lowering the weight of the headphones, coming in at just 8.8 ounces (250g). This is considerably lighter than Audeze’s higher-end headphones and most Planar Magnetic headphones. The headband and earcups are both lined with soft lambskin leather and memory foam. The earcups are an oval shape that fits me great, and this should lead to most listeners finding them a good fit.
I often have trouble with wearing tight-fitting things on my head. Occasionally, even a winter hat will cause me discomfort. So, the best test for a good set of headphones is if I can wear them for over an hour without problems. Between the soft leather feel, oval shape, and lighter weight, wearing them for long sessions was a joy compared to other similarly sized headphones I’ve tried.
The LCD-1’s are designed for portability so they have a folding feature that allows you to tuck the cups into the headband for traveling. They even come with a nice protective traveling case. As far as Audeze setting out to create a more affordable lighter version of their high-end reference headphones, I would say from a design standpoint, this is a solid success.
Audio Quality Impressions
To test out the LCD-1s, I tried using them on location, shooting some video interviews, as well as back at my hotel during editing. I did some A:B comparisons with a slightly cheaper pair of reference headphones I had. Finally, I set up a high-res audio playlist of some of my favorite songs in a variety of genres to just sit back in a chair, close my eyes, and listen.
My first impression was just how large the soundstage was considering the small size of the ear cups. I’m sure compared to larger reference options, they are limiting, but for these smaller, portable headphones and compared to a lot of headphones I've used, they made a big impact. I can’t imagine what it is like to come down from a full-size pair of studio headphones to these, but moving up from other similarly priced consumer offerings, the difference was quite noticeable. I’ve been a drummer my entire life; closing my eyes, it felt like I was sitting at my kit, playing along.
The frequency response is where the LCD-1s really stood out for me. While listening to classical arrangements, not only could I clearly separate the violin parts, I could hear the bow being dragged across the strings. Again, as a drummer, I could distinguish between two different-sized ride cymbals, something that I’m just not used to in a lot of headphones I’ve used. The wide range in frequency response gives a natural and neutral quality beyond what the average person can perceive so that it is not falling apart at the upper range of what you can hear. The overall tone response seemed pleasing to me. It was very clean and open, but it really shined in the treble, both in terms of clarity and balance. I would say it was at its weakest in the mid-range, where it felt like it had a warmth to the sound. I’m not quite sure how to describe it. It wasn't unpleasant, but in comparison, it wasn’t truly clean either.
The dynamics seemed to lack a little impact, especially in the low end, though not necessarily in a negative way. I think if you're used to the strong punch of bass often tuned into consumer headphones, it might be more noticeable to you.
Who Are They For?
I think if you are on the road a lot, doing video work, and find yourself going from your desk to working in a hotel room, these might be a good match. The light weight means less fatigue while working, and if the cups fit your ears, then they are very comfortable for their size. I found the long cord and open back style to be very useful while on set, especially moving between multiple cameras.
If you're looking for a do-everything pair that can go from the office to the airplane or your daily subway commute, then these are not them. While I enjoyed just tuning out and listening to some of my favorite music, not everyone is going to like the sound profile of a reference model. I’d also say if you don’t plan on taking advantage of the portability designed into the LCD-1, you might be better served to invest in one of the larger reference models from Audeze, though the prices start to rise quickly.
What I Liked
- Compact, foldable size
- Oval earcups
- Open, precise, and clean sound
- Wide soundstage
- No need for a powered amp
What I Didn’t Like
- Plastic feel
- Narrow dynamic range (compared to other reference headphones)
Sound like most of our senses is extremely subjective. So, you really should test headphones for yourself. We all have drastically different hearing ranges and overall knowledge when it comes to understanding what we are hearing. Read any audiophile article or review, and you will quickly see the depth some people can go into. With that said, reference headphones are a completely different experience from even really nice consumer headphones. So, if you do any audio work, you really should at least experiment with a few pairs to see what they are all about.
As consumers, we have become accustomed to highly compressed audio on cheap devices, and it's easy to forget the quality and amount of work that goes into a lot of sound engineering. During the testing, one of my favorite renditions of Black Sabbath's "Changes," performed by Charles Bradley, started playing. Now, I’ve heard this song hundreds of times, but the first time I ever heard it, it really moved me, even making my eyes tear up a bit. Hearing it this time on these headphones was like hearing it again for the first time. The depth and clarity in Bradley's soulful voice reached me as if I had never heard it before.
Whatever you end up choosing in the end, a good quality pair of headphones that are designed for audio engineering will open your eyes to a lot of what you’ve been missing in your sound.
You can pick up a pair of Audeze LCD-1 headphones over at B&H Photo.