Audeze LCD-XC


Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of Audeze. I personally own an LCD-X, which I will be comparing the XC to throughout this review. Additionally, I contend, after having a not-insignificant amount of time with one, that the LCD-4 is my favorite headphone I’ve ever heard. The LCD-4 is a stellar performer in just about every metric, with a bass texture and tactility that is, frankly, insane at any price, and a sense of detail, stage depth, and separation that I’ve yet to hear elsewhere in the flagship headphone space. It is by far the most immersive and enveloping experience I’ve had with a headphone. Luckily for us, the engineering and design ethic behind the creation of such a wonderful product is doubtlessly present in the entirety of the LCD lineup. Audeze’s approach to pushing the envelope regarding what is possible with planar magnetic technology is one of my favorite stories in the entirety of the headphone hobby. So given that context, it should be no surprise that when I was given a chance to spend time with the new closed back version of the LCD-X, a headphone I’ve owned and loved since re-entering the headphone hobby in October 2020, I jumped at the chance to evaluate it. 

The LCD-XC is a closed back planar magnetic headphone retailing for $1299USD (as of the writing of this post).

The finishing and build of the headphones is exactly what we’ve come to expect from Audeze: heavy, rugged, and absolutely stalwart. It sports a mostly metal build, save for the leather suspension strap/ear-pads, and the gorgeous carbon-fiber cups. Touching on the good parts first; the new ear-pads they introduced in November 2020 (which they are referring to as open-cell foam instead of the memory foam pads of earlier revisions) improve the tuning significantly (which we’ll get to later), are quite a bit lighter, more plush, and crush easier. This means, in use, the center of gravity of the headphone is brought inward, which results in less instances of turning your head only to have the headphone lag behind your movement. Logistically speaking, the implementation of carbon fiber instead of wood was an excellent choice, as having to worry about wood cups cracking/drying out is a hassle, and this detail compliments the industrial appeal of the XC. However, my one complaint with the visual design of the headphone is the branding on the outside of the cups. We already have two outward facing Audeze logos on the yoke-connectors, and adding additional branding to the outside of the cups clutters the otherwise flawless design and diminishes the overall visual appeal. The DCA Ether C Flow is probably one of my favorite looking headphones of all time, but if the LCD-XC got rid of the cup branding, it’d win that fight handily. As it is now, it’s cluttered at best, corny at worst.

While being preternaturally sturdy, and gorgeous (with the one caveat I mentioned), comfort and build lag on a few accounts. The first being, the weight: while the 2021 revision did quite a bit to address the heft of the older LCD-X and XC, I find whatever weight reduction is imparted is undone summarily by the current headband system. On current models, they use a leather suspension strap. While this is usually the type of headband that can guarantee comfort for long periods of time, in this case it is poorly implemented. The leather strap that rests atop your head is too long, which means, in use, there is little-to-no clearance between the strap and the spring steel headband, which causes the steel to pretty much always rest on your head. My suggestion to Audeze; ship these out with a shorter headband strap. It will result in greater clamp due to the headband design, which initially could seem like a problem, but greater clamp could be a plus, as it would further bring the headphone’s weight distribution more to the center (as mentioned previously) Additionally, more inward caliper pressure would mean more of the vertical pressure being taken off the headband. That being said, other than the weight and headband, I see absolutely no issues with this build’s finish or prospective longevity, and aside from the cup branding, it’s in my opinion, one of the best looking headphones available today.

Moving onto the sound, this is where things get spicy. If you’re also familiar with Audeze’s open-back LCD headphones, you might be as surprised as I was when you first hear this. Instead of having Audeze’s signature tuning of flat bass + upper midrange dip + boosted treble, LCD-XC comes with a more conventional tuning, with contoured bass and a – for lack of a better term – properly elevated midrange. This tuning difference paired with LCD-X’s technical ability and within context of the wider closed-back headphone market being dismal, leads to me being able to say that, aside from LCD-4 and the new LCD-5, LCD-XC is possibly the most impressive overall product in Audeze’s LCD lineup.

This is the first LCD series headphone I’ve ever heard that doesn’t immediately engender a desire to pull the EQ up and start playing with filters. Pianos have all the clarity and note definition they are supposed to have, while maybe being a smidge too vocal/forward, guitars sound biting and incendiary when they need to, vocals are clear, present, and clearly more tonally correct than on any other LCD headphone I’ve heard. The bass emphasis here is tasteful, if a bit slight, while still giving enough of the sub-bass extension and rumble that fans of Audeze will no doubt be expecting. There’s absolutely no trace of the modest, but welcome, bass shelf clouding up the lower mid-range and causing congestion or muddiness, if anything the inverse is true and I could do with a little more warmth. Moving up into the midrange; as mentioned previously, the upper-midrange tuning is the closest they have ever gotten to an appropriate level between 1kHz-4kHz and it is immediately the most correct sounding headphone they have (barring the new LCD5) as far as overall instrument/vocal tonality. The upper midrange integration with the treble, while not being absolutely perfect, is also among the most coherent of the LCD lineup, only following LCD-4. The treble, while not perfect by any means, is very sparkly while also being revealing of micro-detail.

Diving in more critically to the tuning here, there is definitely a wide-band elevation of about 1.5dB-3dB between 1kHz-3kHz, which causes vocals and guitars to sometimes be just a bit *too* forward, and results in the overall tonality/timbre of the headphone to be mostly lean and, at times, bordering on too thin. I find this to be less of a problem on tracks of an electronic/synthetic nature and more apparent on things that token organic sounds like voices, acoustic guitars, and drum kits. My other complaint with the tuning, which actually bothers me more than the midrange, is *quite* a lot of treble above 8kHz. I’d go as far as to say even more than my LCD-X, which is already a good bit more than I prefer for my mid/upper treble. Conversely to the midrange problem, which is only really noticeable on some recordings, this issue in the treble made itself known on quite a few tracks, regardless of synthetic or organic nature. Hi-hats, specifically, always sounded quite a bit more light, ethereal and hashy than they ought to be.

These criticisms withstanding, I still have no issue saying that this is one of Audeze’s best tuned full-size LCD headphones (barring the new LCD-5). I have very few qualms listening to this headphone without EQ, which either isn’t possible, or isn’t nearly as easy to say confidently for the rest of their lineup. I know they changed the pads to the open-cell design in 2020, which lifted energy on most of the headphones a decibel or two around 2-3kHz, and I think this change in conjunction with driver changes have made this an absolutely singular tuning within Audeze’s LCD line.

Moving into the technical aspects of the performance here, it’s about what you’d expect, mostly. While it doesn’t completely escape the timbral and treble compression problems that plague pretty much all planar magnetic headphones, in nearly every other aspect, it is pretty damn impressive. For some context, the existing market for high-resolution closed back headphones is heavily compromised, and that is being generous. Most closed headphones present with pretty stark tuning problems due to poorly managed back-wave resonance damping and improperly-done bass porting, and while the XC could still improve on these things, in my opinion, it does them well. Audiophile closed backs will also, usually, have exceedingly poor technical performance for the prices charged… however, I can say confidently that this is not the case with LCD-XC, and even when compared to its open counterpart in the LCD-X, I actually think XC is more technically impressive.

Compared to the (stock, non-EQed) LCD-X, I can confidently say the sense of overall detail and resolve is better on the LCD-XC, no doubt thanks to it’s added clarity in its midrange/treble tuning, as well as the isolation afforded to the listener from the closed back design blocking out external noise and darkening the backdrop of the stage, making micro-details even more apparent. The sense of stage width and depth isn’t as significant a departure from LCD-X as one might think either. The center image is a little more intimate and in your face on XC, but the lateral width is still, surprisingly, very much intact compared to LCD-X. Separation is about on par between LCD-XC and LCD-X, though I will say LCD-XCs tuning also helps here in making the images themselves seem more coherent as individual units in a stereo space, whereas the low-midrange emphasis of LCD-X can cause things to seem disjointed in a front-to-back sense, where the chesty thump of a vocal can seem too intimate/close compared to the rest of the vocal energy. Both are excellent in terms of separation and imaging. for sure. 

In terms of dynamics, the LCD-XC represents a pretty clear microdynamic upgrade from the LCD-X, the isolation and tuning offering a helping hand to the low-volume elements, while the closed-back lends a sense of additional punch and slam to the volume swings across the frequency range, but not as much as I’d have hoped. I think the differences in tuning, with the LCD-X having more low-midrange bloom, while the XC has a contour there, means that the X is more thumpy/boomy, while the XC is more truly punchy; but overall impact is not a huge difference, more like a minor upgrade. They both have a very well-sealed front volume, so I think most of the difference here is going to be in tuning and overall chamber pressurization differences. I wish I had an LCD-4 to compare with as well, but in side-by-side comparisons, the LCD-XC beats the LCD-X when it comes to overall macrodynamic contrast and physicality, but possibly not as much as one might hope.

In summation, the LCD-XC is a top performer when it comes to microdynamics and detail in a closed back headphone. Its tuning needs a bit of work and the macrodynamic punch could also be improved. in my opinion. The main comparison points for this headphone are, first, the similarly new Focal Celestee, which I actually preferred to Focal’s flagship Stellia due to the latter having a worse frequency response tuning for my taste. The only thing the Celestee beats LCD-XC in is it being significantly lighter, and *easily* having more macrodynamic contrast, punch, slam, etc. Otherwise, LCD-XC smokes Celestee in pretty much every other technical aspect, and importantly, LCD-XC is made here in the USA and comes with the glorious 3-year warranty, something that those experienced with Focal quality control and customer service will know you cannot take for granted. The other comparison point is the Aurorus Australis, and if I’m being perfectly honest, I 100% prefer the Australis in just about every way; comfort, tuning, dynamics, timbre, and staging are all better on the Australis, and it’s $400 less… but currently unavailable for purchase, as well as being a product made by a small company (which can be a hard sell for a lot of us looking for tools we can trust the longevity of).

I’m feeling kind of stuck. I already own an LCD-X, and love it, but after comparing the two side-by-side, it’s hard not to wish I’d have bought an LCD-XC instead of my LCD-X. The only downsides I can see in getting an LCD-XC is the sense of front-back staging not being *quite* on par with the LCD-X, and the upper treble being a bit too bright relative to the X. Otherwise, I can’t help but see the XC as a straight forward upgrade from the LCD-X in most metrics. It has similar comfort, better tuning, mostly equal and sometimes better technical performance, added isolation, and is only $100 more.

Regardless if you are an engineer working in the pro audio space, or an audiophile wanting to hear the best a closed back planar can actually be in 2021, the LCD-XC is a must-try. in my opinion. It will surely give pro audio people all of the retrieval of micro detail needed, as well as serve as a competent reference for equalization/compression decisions… and just as importantly, it emerges as a clearly worthwhile option in a frankly grim closed back planar headphone market.