DISCLAIMER: This review may rustle some feathers. As such, I must remind you of my role as a reviewer: sharing my honest opinion to help consumers make informed decisions and provide feedback to manufacturers.
Audeze is an American company founded by Sankar Thiagasamudram, a trailblazing figure in the headphone industry. Since 2010, the introduction of the LCD-2 paved the way for numerous important and successful releases. Having advanced planar magnetic technology notably through laser etching and complex magnet array structures, their products hold strong footing in the market, recently even venturing into electrostatics.
Despite their quirks, I’ve enjoyed owning the LCD-2, 3, 4, i4 and SINE. However, I did not hold all their products to similar regard. Despite short audition time, the LCD-XC has long been my least favorite of their headphones, given its disjointed tonality and intangible characteristics making it, quite frankly, lifeless. This contrasted sharply to the LCD-X, which was significantly less affected by such downfalls, and as a result was more enjoyable to me.
Audeze recently revised their LCD-X and XC headphones, with tuning and driver modifications aimed at improving the coherence of their tonality. My good friend Dan, an early adopter of the XC 2021, kindly loaned me this unit for my impressions, so I thank him for making this review possible.
Ergonomics & Comfort
Starting at $1299 for the Creator Package, or $1799 in Premium Trim (including an additional 4-pin XLR cable and nicer case), this headphone exudes quality in look and feel, similarly to other Audezes. Generous use of carbon fibre in the headband and ear cups have helped save weight from the original. Despite still being very heavy at 677g, the wide suspension strap and roomy protein leather ear pads ensured lasting comfort. However, your mileage may vary, as some have noted neck fatigue with prolonged wearing.
Venting is minimal, if there is any, causing minor pressurization of ear canal which some may find uncomfortable. However, this high degree of seal provides superb isolation, blackening the background for the 106mm, 20 ohm, dual-sided magnet planar magnetic drivers to fire. Rated at 100 dB/mW, this is a highly efficient headphone that can be well driven by a variety of sources. For this review, I have used a Bryston BHA-1 headphone amplifier in balanced, fed by a Dangerous Music Convert-2 DAC.
Sonically, although slightly less wonky than the original LCD-XC, I am still disappointed by this updated model. Tonally, its neutral bass response paves the way for a significant lower midrange dip into an upper midrange rise, topped with a boost in the mid to upper treble. This headphone is undeniably lean and bright.
Bass, albeit not bottomless, is decently well extended and tight. Its articulation evades the “one-notedness” or wooliness that can be heard in sloppier headphones. Yet, decay is severely truncated and there is a pervasive lack of initial impact and slam, robbing this headphone of any authority in basslines. Simply put, although FR does not demonstrate a lack of bass, the LCD-XC 2021 sounds anemic down low. This is disappointing trait I’ve noted in some similarly compressed planar magnetic headphones such as the DCA Stealth, making this a no-go for listeners seeking a punchy bass presentation.
Primo, a lower mid dip is evident. This is a possible by-product of cup reverb, a design challenge inherent to closed back headphones that is often difficult to overcome. For example, Sennheiser’s high end closed backs such as the HD 250 Linear, 630VB and 820 are known for these issues, although I should say that this problem isn’t as pervasive here. Nevertheless, it still severely impacts vocal and acoustic rendering, as their fundamental frequencies often lie in this range. This sound is thin and nasal, especially given the absence of upper midrange recession. This is a far cry from the open back LCD variants, which rather adopt a linear lower midrange followed by a withdrawn upper midrange, a coloration that is much more tolerable. If you’re expecting an LCD-XC expecting it to sound similar to an LCD-X, you’re in for a rude awakening.
Sadly, problems are not only tonal. Timbrally, this headphone is decidedly dry. Although this can be impressive with EDM tracks requiring speed, it ultimately makes performances unnatural due to compounding by a midrange FR balance shifted greatly towards 1-2 kHz. Furthermore, some grain is apparent in the upper midrange, possibly due to cup resonance characteristics. Although this drops its resolution below the more liquid open LCD-X 2021, I must admit that the XC 2021 remains one of the more revealing closed backs I’ve heard, and is still less “cuppy” than popular alternatives like the ZMF Verite Closed. However, its blunted leading edge and dynamic compression work in unison to neuter the intensity sudden peaks in SPL, killing crescendos and fueling this headphone’s sterile character.
Modern open Audeze LCD series headphones are known for a mid to upper treble boost, which can add a pleasing sense of sparkle due to its contrast with a recessed lower treble. Unfortunately, the LCD-XC 2021 is not withdrawn in this region, while maintaining the emphasis above 10 kHz. Hence, it is a very bright headphone, which in conjunction with the thinner bass and midrange, has marred my listening experience with fatigue. Nevertheless, despite a slightly coarse textural tilt, the treble is decently resolving for a closed back headphone.
A redeeming factor for the XC 2021 is its remarkably immersive stereo image. This is one of the widest-sounding closed back headphones I’ve heard, with a similarly remarkable sense of height. Despite my qualms, I cannot deny this impressive trait.
Graphs taken with MiniDSP EARS with HPN compensation, please take with a grain of salt as it is not industry standard equipment.
First, the LCD-XC 2021.
The severe lower midrange dip and rise to 1-2kHz aligns with my subjective impressions. Bass appears elevated, but as described above, is lacking dynamics and sustain to the point of sounding feeble. Additionally, this headphone sounds brighter to my ear in the lower treble region, but the recession on the graph may be a result of the EARS’ known 4.5 kHz resonance point.
One of my favorite closed back headphones is the biocellulose driver Sony MDR-CD1700 released in 1996, now 26 years old.
The MDR-CD1700’s FR is much more coherent, especially in the midrange frequencies, with darker treble. Intangibles are also more natural: despite being less resolving and spacious, it textures in a richer and sweeter manner, being more enjoyable as a result.
Although the LCD-XC 2021 may please some with its adequate resolution, speed, and staging, it is unfortunately still far too compressed, artificial and fatiguing for me to enjoy. While this review may appear harsh, it is an honest reflection of my experience as someone with respect for Audeze. I am aware of their ability to make a fantastic closed back, as evidenced by the much more coherent and engaging SINE, which I would pick it ten times out of ten for music listening. Thus, I need not assert the XC’s much greater cost being crucially problematic. It reflects its market’s dire situation, being one of many kilobuck closed backs whose haphazard mix of esoteric traits put into question the very essence of its value proposition.
I hence extend this piece of honest feedback for the American brand’s brilliant engineers to build upon…
… and look forward to witnessing their future trials.