Popping open the faux-leather-wrapped plastic box on Audeze’s LCDi4 IEM (US$2495) we get a short hit of déjà vu: the plastic-bagged selection of over- and in-ear hooks plus various sizes of standard and Groove tips, identical to those that ship with with considerably more affordable iSine 10/20. The iSine 20 was by yours truly reviewed here and serves as a primer to what follows.
For the LCDi4, the iSine’s soft shell carry case has been moved from fabric to leather and the iSine’s plastic outer shell (and mini-Tie-fighter aesthetic) has given way to the LCDi4’s more conservative look. Created in collaboration with BMW’s Designworks, an aluminium exoskeleton lends the LCDi4 greater physical substance and a more luxurious in-hand feel – critical for an IEM priced at two and a half large. The LCDi4 are made at Audeze’s factory in California – check out our factory tour here.
With a form factor largely similar to the iSine 10/20 but everything else moved up market it’s easy to simply see the LCDi4 as Audeze’s flagship IEM, designed primarily for portable use.
From the manufacturer: “Designed to give the user a truly wide and accurate soundstage, superior transient response, bass response flat from 900Hz down to 5Hz, the LCDi4s with a single driver deliver a coherency of sound lacking in multi-driver designs.”
As one might expect, the LCDi4’s sound quality bests the iSine 20, most notably on bass depth charge and textural details but also on overall transparency and finesse. Hearing LCD Soundsystem’s mighty American Dream is a revelation: scale, drama, impact, subtlety. Even more so than JH Audio’s first generation Layla – and that’s saying something.
With an iPhone 6S Plus’ 3.5mm analogue socket dispatching Spotify, the LCDi4 remains capable of delivering a seriously impressive sound. I’d happily take the meatier, more muscular-sounding Audeze/Apple combo over the cleaner, zippier sounding flagships from Noble Audio, Campfire Audio and (hybrid) Fitear, even with a leg up from the Chord Mojo.
The LCDi4 sound considerably more detailed than the Campfire Andromeda (US$1099), deliver a taller, deeper soundstage than the Noble Katana (US$1850) and show considerably dynamic flair than the Fitear Air (a dynamic/BA hybrid at ~US$1500). The LCDi4 are more expensive but you really do get what you pay for. The improvements wrought by the Audeze over these competitors are not minor.
The LCDi4 do a better job of revealing many of the subtleties that course through the veins of The War on Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding. Tonal colour saturation and acoustic mass is where the LCDi4 pull furthest ahead in this peleton. Guitar and electric piano connote more realism and the album’s occasionally complex arrangements are elegantly pulled apart by the top flight Audeze in-ears but – and this is important – without a hit to acoustic mass.
Like the iSine 20 before them, the LCDi4 render music as larger and more substantial than per most other IEMs. The LCDi4’s bountiful low end will likely knock the majority of challengers – including the iSine 20 – back onto the ropes.
Separating the LCDi4 from the (quite literally) thousands of balanced armature and dynamic driver IEMs coming to market in 2017 is what lies beneath its gold grille: a single, 3cm planar magnetic driver that calls for no crossover. Is that what has these Audeze IEMs sounding so pure, so refined and yet so impactful and dramatic?
With performance deltas of considerable magnitude showing up between the LCDi4 and other in-ears, we might worry for the future of rival high-end IEM manufacturers were it not for the Audeze IEM’s significant use-case-gotcha: like the iSine 10/20, the LCDi4’s open-backed design means (some) sound leaks outward and we’re not full isolated from external noise. The latter might be great for inner city pedestrian safety but robs the listening experience of a certain sealed-in intimacy.
Here, the Campfire, the Noble and the Fitear go where the LCDi4 cannot: into the open office or the subway but without sound leakage troubling co-workers or fellow passengers, thus guaranteeing a more intimate listening experience when/where we most need it.
In our pre-determined portable audio context, the Audeze are particular about their environment. They demand a quiet room to sound their best.
Listening at home with the iFi micro iDSD Black Label (review here), the LCDi4 draw a baseline from which even full sized headphones can be judged. The LCDi4 defy expectation to offer a wider headstage and weightier bass impact than the Sennheiser HD800S. Yes, seriously.
Perhaps the LCDi4 aren’t only for portable pleasure after all. First hand experience tells me that they are just as well suited to home listening and are ideally suited to those who don’t dig the bulk and weight of overhead, over-ear ‘phones.
As Audeze’s promo material is keen to point out, the LCDi4 are a downsized version of their flagship circumaural LCD4, targeted at listeners (like yours truly) who baulk at their bulk: 600g.
Both LCDi4 earpieces put a combined weight of 24g on the scales and retain their bigger bro’s half-micron thick driver, Fluxor magnet array and Uniforce voice coil to net less than one percent distortion (according to Audeze’s published specs). Lower distortion tends to lead to better sound quality. According to their manufacturer, each LCDi4 earpiece “is individually assembled with care and matched within +/- 1dB of each other”.
Click here for Audeze’s white paper on Fluxor magnets. For an pithier explanation of Uniforce voice coil I turned to Audeze CEO Sankar Thiagasamudram: “In any magnetic circuit, the flux density varies. It is strongest under the magnets. The circuit traces are modified so that the force generated is uniform. The whole surface will move in unison as the force is distributed uniformly across the surface. Hence Uniforce.”
Further steering the LCDi4 away from full-time portable positioning is the inclusion of a high-end cable: silver plated, cryo-treated OCC copper braided cable. That’s none too dissimilar to other flagship IEMs. What stands out here is what’s missing: a Cipher Lightning cable for iOS hookup and DSP-powered SQ optimisation (that ships as an optional extra with the iSine 10/20)
Curiously, the iPhone 6S Plus brings forth a more audibly vibrant result from the LCDi4’s 35 Ohm driver than does the more polite Sony NW-ZX2. Stepping up and into the Chord Mojo, the LCDi4 respond very favourably to its extra go juice, their rich ‘n meaty substance able to absorb the Mojo’s more effervescent (than the iFi) take on D/A conversion and headphone amplification.
Swapping out the Mojo for the superior sounding Hugo 2 (review here), I wonder aloud: is this pairing the best-sounding portable audio rig on the planet? Quite possibly. And not just for die-hard headphiles but for many of the world’s DJs who earn a crust from endless touring but whose artist profile upkeep demands that music-making continue whilst out on the road. The LCDi4 (and Hugo 2) are ideal for the bulk conscious DJ firing up a laptop and Ableton in airport lounges and hotel rooms.
In the home studio, headphone-based mix monitoring removes the room colouration that plagues active monitors as well as the possibility of neighbour disruption. The Hugo 2’s battery power keeps creativity flowing, even when mains socket-derived power does not. Together, the Chord brick and the Audeze IEMs, the latter stashed in their less-than-robust carry case, are easily coat pocketable.
As evidenced by Audeze’s presence at Superbooth 2017, plus marketing manager Mark Cohen’s confirming as much in Munich two months later, we know that Audeze are taking serious aim at the pro audio market.
Time to wrap things up? Not quite.
For a twist in this high-end portable audio story, we come home to Roon whose ‘Core’ now implements server side DSP (digital signal processing) for upsampling, user-adjustable EQ and, more recently, specific presets for all current Audeze headphone models, even those that don’t ship with a DSP-loaded Cipher cable.
Roon have worked with Audeze to bring the audible enhancements of their DSP-fuelled Cipher cables to, in this writer’s opinion, the world’s best streaming software.
Sankar Thiagasamudram explains: “After using the Roon DSP engine and seeing how easy it was to get the sound I wanted from my cans, we approached Roon and they immediately saw the potential for attracting headphone users. They did all the UI work, we just provided the graphics and the preset filters to go with it. For the Roon presets we provide filters for all commonly used sample rates 44.1kHz – 768kHz. Roon picks the filter at the appropriate sample rate for the selected headphone. This ensures that the filters do not get resampled and hence their phase response or frequency response is not altered in anyway.”
“A lot of of Roon users with speaksers already use Roon DSP for room correction. Since room correction is both room and speaker specific, this has to be done manually. With headphones, it is very easy to provide a turn-key solution. No tweaking or guess work, just click and listen. If needed, you could do some personalization on top of the presets too.”
“We have always had a reference speaker. Even when the original LCD-2 was designed. Our aim has always been to make our headphones sound like a good pair of speakers in a well treated room. We have what we call the Audeze house curve. This is our target curve for all headphone designs when we design them.”
Audeze engineer Karthick Manivannan takes us further down the tech info rabbit hole: “There is no specific target curve such as the Harman’s that you can put on paper as our experience has shown us that these target curves will be different even on the same measurement rig depending upon the form factor and earpad geometry.”
“The Cipher cable for SINE and EL-8 has a simple bass boost. For iSine10/20, it uses a target curve that brings it very close to our house target curve for in-ears.”
“Though we squeezed all the clock cycles we could get out of the Cipher cable, it is still hardware limited. With Roon, we have a much more potent DSP architecture and also all the computing power we need. This allowed us to create presets that are more precise and allows us to have fine control on both phase and frequency response.”
“The term ‘neutral’ aims at creating a natural presentation like being present at a live concert. In that sense there is no specific target curve such as the Harman’s that you can put on paper as our experience has shown us that the target curves will be different even on the same measurement rig based on the form factor and geometry of earpads.”
Juiced by a DAC/headphone amplifier and fed by a Roon Ready endpoint or Mac/PC, any Audeze headphone can have a bespoke SQ-enhancing preset applied via the endpoint’s DSP settings panel. As a neat touch, artwork for the Audeze headphone in use is displayed in the right-hand side of the playback bar.
Manivannan again: “One way we look at this is, a majority of our customers already lover our headphones out of the box. Through Roon presets, we are providing another flavor of their Audezes. In a way it is two headphones in one. Our drivers have a very low distortion and linear response and responds in a linear fashion to any change that is made in the frequency response. When you make a measurement then add a preset to it on paper, what you see is very close to what you will get if you measure the headphone with the preset applied.”
With the Hugo 2 powering the LCDi4 and digitally fed by the Roon Ready microRendu, I applied the appropriate Audeze preset. Here the DSP-d take sounds fuller, richer and warmer than the bitperfect digital audio supply. More prominent is how the Roon-applied DSP makes the LCDi4’s midrange sound less chesty. Upon disengaging the Audeze preset, vocals sound somewhat trapped in a cardboard box – a quality I don’t hear with the DSP turned on.
These LCDi4 results were cross-checked with Audeze open-backed, on-ear Sine DX. Again, the Roon DSP brings forth a fuller, richer low-end without the cardboard boxed in vocals – the latter only heard for the first time after disengaging the Sine DX-specific DSP.
Two headphones in one? Yes – but with the turn-key DSP-d take sounding the more convincing of the two. Furthermore, Audeze’s Roon-based filters come on as more potent than those built into the Hugo 2 (or any other DAC heard by this reviewer). A finding that may lead to some FOMO-induced grumbling from existing Audeze headphone owners unwilling to pony up the US$500 for a lifetime’s supply of Roon.
How about porting this SQ-enhancing DSP to other playback apps e.g Audirvana Plus?
It’s already on the roadmap. Thiagasamudram elaborates:
“Roon and Audirvana+ take a very different approach when it comes to DSP based personalization. In my interaction with the Roon team, Roon prefers using in-built DSP enhancements and maintain full control of the digital stream till it leaves the Roon end-point and their philosophy did not allow for plugins of any kind (VSt/AU etc). The only way we can get the Audeze presets was by directly working with them.
“With Audirvana+, the solution is quite simple. Audirvana+ supports AU plugins. The REVEAL plugin we will release next month supports VST, AU and AAX. All Audirvana+ users have to do is choose the REVEAL plugin. The REVEAL plugin uses exactly the same presets.”
In other words, Audeze will soon gift anyone using their headphones in tandem with VST/AU/AAX-compatible playback software with better sound, notably taking of the pro audio sector and/or those seeking to elevate the sound of their LCDi4 (or other Audeze headphones) but without Roon. Everyone wins.
With Roon or REVEAL, the highest of high-end portable audio – the Audeze LCDi4 – sound quality goes higher still. In doing so, Audeze showcase the clear and present potency of DSP over and above a bitperfect-or-die approach and leave the door open for further software-coded improvements down the track – no new headphones required.