Audeze LCD-4z Headphones

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
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Chicagoland
First, let me refer readers to my prior thread on all-things-headphones related. While titled "Sennheiser HD 800 S Headphones + SimAudio Moon Neo 430HA Headphone Amplifier," it actually also discusses much more, including my experience with headphones going back several decades (such as the early Koss, Sennheiser, and Grado phones), various after-market headphone cables, other headphone amplifiers, as well as other modern headphones including the original Sennheiser HD 800, Focal Utopia, Audeze LCD-4, and NAD Viso HP-50. While I was originally going to add this discussion of the LCD-4z to that thread, I'm worried that it will "get lost" in that thread since it would start on page three of the old thread. Thus this new thread.

Yes, I now own the Audeze LCD-4z headphones as well as the original LCD-4 version. I don't really "need" to own both since my new Benchmark HPA4 headphone/line amp is one of the few which has plenty of power to drive the original LCD-4. But from my experience I believe that high sensitivity in headphones, as in speakers, can have some expected benefits, such as an increase in apparent dynamics, as long as the amp is quiet enough not to distract with background hiss. No problem there, since the HPA4 is one of the quietest bits of active audio electronics you'll find anywhere. No quiescent background noise of any kind can be heard at any volume level setting even with the even-more-sensitive NAD Viso HP-50 headphones.

Compared to the LCD-4, the new LCD4z is physically both smaller and noticeably lighter. The ear cushions are thinner, the frames of the ear pieces are magnesium and have no wood, and the headband is lighter and more open. Attractiveness wise, I think the new phones with their sleeker look and gold wire mesh backs are at least as nice looking as the original and definitely look much less ponderous. Comfort on the head (at least my head) is also a bit better, both because of the lighter weight and because of the way the new headband sits on my head.

The cable is the same excellent OEM one which comes with the 4 and which Audeze sells separately for $599. While some might prefer a "balanced" cable to this single-ended 1/4" phone-plug-terminated one, my extensive comparisons of this OEM cable with various balanced aftermarket cables using both the Benchmark HPA4 and SimAudio Moon Neo 430HA headphone amplifiers has convinced me that the stock cable is at least as good in this application as anything else I've tried, including various Moon Audio cables.

Also included with the 4z is a short adapting cable with a 1/4" female jack on one end and a 3/16" male stereo mini-plug so you can use the 4z with computers and personal devices which take the stereo mini-plug. Nice, and potentially even practical since these phones are fully sensitive enough to deliver satisfying levels from even the anemic power amps of personal devices, computers, and TVs. You definitely cannot satisfactorily use the original LCD-4 with most such devices; they tax even most audio component headphone amplifiers, much less anything portable or computer driven.

I do think that the drivers of the new version sit closer to my ears than the old ones. This is inevitable, I think, because of the thinner ear cushions and the fact that the housing is certainly no deeper than it was before. Whether the sonic differences between the 4 and 4z (and there definitely are differences!) are at all related to this distance-to-ear difference, I cannot say.

The 4z has the distinction of being the speaker/headphone most changed by break-in of any in my experience. The changes have been vast and they have been very slow to occur. When I first listened to the 4z I was quite disappointed and almost immediately thought I'd be sending them back during the 30-day-money-back trial period. They sounded nothing like the 4, and not in a good way: lots of midrange notes popping out as if because of resonances, an ill-defined bass range, a general midrange honk, a very thick lower midrange, very recessed top octaves, a very opaque (the opposite of transparent/clear) sound with little inner detail audible.

But, I decided to give it my best shot in terms of break-in and, after treating all the connecting cable connections with my standard Caig Deoxit Gold G100L brush-on contact enhancer, continuously played classical music WFMT's online stream through them at moderately high levels for days. Changes did occur for the better starting about three days in. But it was more than a week before the things started to come into their own and more than three weeks before they fully stabilized. The last coloration to melt away was the overly heavy/prominent lower midrange and top octave softness.

If you get a chance to hear a pair, thus beware. What you hear will not be how they really sound unless the pair you hear has a good 500 hours or more of playback time on them. This certainly was not the case with the LCD-4, whose sound had stabilized by the time the contact treatment does, about four days after application, and whose sound did not really change all that much from first use to fully burned in.

Audeze's specs show the 4z to be about 12 dB louder for any given volume control setting than the 4. This increase in sensitivity comes from use of a different low impedance (15-ohm) driver in place of the 200-ohm driver in the LCD-4. It may also arise from the fact that the new driver sits closer to your ears than the one in the LCD-4. I would say that subjectively the difference is even a bit larger than the specified 12 dB, subjectively around 14 dB. That may be because of a good thing: the sound of the 4z once broken in has less of the presence range/lower highs suck out/relaxation than the 4. Oh, it's still a relaxed sound in this range, not as neutral as that of the NAD Viso HP-50. But if you are turned off by what you feel is a lack of presence from the LCD-4, just know that the LCD-4z is a bit more present, a bit more "there." No, it is never "in your face" with its presence, but it is not as relaxed/withdrawn as the 4.

Now, the 4z will, because of its more present/less withdrawn sound tend to sound as if the soundfield is a bit smaller and less expansive than the 4. However, it still plays plenty big and open and is even more focused. It is also more "out front" of my head, although not to the extent of the NAD Viso HP-50 which reigns supreme in this respect in my experience.

The 4z is also the most particular headphone I've used in terms of needing to get the volume set correctly to sound its best. This is a common attribute of fine speakers: there seems to be only a single very tight SPL range where everything really comes together for best sound for any given program material. The 4z is the same way and chances are, before you get used to this, you will be playing them too loudly so that they are "shouting" at you a bit. It's not that the sound gets distorted, it's just that this is the effect headphones and many speakers give when they are played louder than what gives you the best tonal and dynamic balance. There is also a tendency to play them too loudly at first just because you can. They go insanely loud cleanly given enough amp power, which in the case of the 4z, is easy when driving them with the Benchmark HPA4.

The Audeze LCD-4 already had the best bass of any headphone I've experienced. It is extended flat right down to 20 Hz and has a nice combination of power, punch, and warmth. However, the LCD-4x bass is yet better, in my opinion. It has a yet-more-powerful-but-never-overblown bottom octave, quite a bit more bass detail, tremendous bass slam (for headphones--remember you can't get body slam without speakers) and a purring warmth up further, without undue coloration of the lower midrange once fully broken in. I would not have believed that the range from 20 Hz up through the lower midrange could be much better than in the original LCD-4, but there it is.

Perhaps because of a combination of this lower range adeptness/authority and the lessened recession in the presence/lower highs, macrodynamics really kick with these headphones. There is a sense of dynamic bounce to the presentation, something akin to what I and others hear with the Stirling Broadcast LS3/6 speakers.

Clarity/transparency is top notch. The LCD-4 is more overtly clear, but the 4z's clarity is just there without calling attention to itself. I think this distinction arises from the fact that the LCD-4 sounds airier because of the greater recession in the presence/lower highs, leaving the detail-enhancing upper octave or two more exposed. I also think the LCD-4 has a bit more emphasis on the top octave than is actually natural, as is the case for many modern speakers.

An example of this is that I have never heard such well-resolved and tonally natural crowd noise on one of my guilty pleasure recordings, Kenny Loggins, Outside Live From the Redwoods as I do with the 4z. All sounds on that recording are as tonally natural as I've ever heard, there is more inner detail there than I've ever heard through headphones or speakers, and the dynamics from soft to loud and everywhere in between are like a force of nature. This is a high energy, exuberant performance with wide dynamics for a pop recording and the 4z lets you hear this to maximal effect. On the LCD-4, the presentation is just a bit too sizzly, even though the voices and crowd noise are not as present and clearly presented/focused as with the 4z and the dynamics are a bit more restrained and the whole thing lacks that bouncy energy.

What's my bottom line on the LCD-4 versus the new LCD-4z? On classical and other primarily acoustic music the LCD-4 can sound bigger and more expansive since the music sounds a bit further away on a yet-larger stage and in a yet-larger room. That's a very nice effect on a lot of acoustic music. The more relaxed presence range may even be tonally preferred on much classical and other acoustic music. The more exposed upper octaves can make some program material sound yet clearer. If you are not an eclectic listener, listening mostly to classical music at reasonable volumes, the LCD-4 may well be subjectively superior.

But, the more I listen, the more convinced I am that, for my eclectic tastes, the new LCD-4z is actually the better, more satisfyingly natural sounding choice for most material, certainly for more "processed" rock and pop music. These are not only musically accurate, but quite a bit of fun to listen to, owing to the combination of richness and dynamic bounce.

However, even for me, it's not a slam dunk especially since my Benchmark HPA4 can easily power even the LCD-4. And for now I am free to choose between them. Perhaps with further listening I'll reconsider or develop a stronger preference. But be assured that the 4 and 4z do sound considerably different. It's good to have choices, especially at the exalted performance level of both the LCD-4 and LCD-4z!
 

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