The best closed-back in the game?
PROS: Excellent boutique build quality, built like a tank, highly attractive design, very comfortable ear pads and headband design, revealing tonality, exciting and highly engaging, sparkly and resolving treble tuning, excellent technical performance for the price – detail retrieval, separation, layering as well as a nice wide and open soundstage for a closed-back.
CONS: The upper-treble tuning can have LCD-XC come off sparklier/brighter than neutral, would’ve been great to not have the 450Hz dip, heavy 677g of weight can be troublesome for long sessions (I’ve gotten used to it though), I would’ve liked if Audeze offered choice of stock cable in the Creator Package itself than ask for $500 extra for the Premium Package because a lot of audiophiles prefer a balanced cable than a 1/4″ termination.
The product was provided to me free of charge for the review in exchange for my honest opinion.
About Audeze LCD-XC 2021.
Audeze is a high-end audio headphone manufacturer based in Costa Mesa, CA. Established in 2009, they have grown from a garage based startup to one of the most innovative audio companies in the past few years. LCD-XC was first introduced in 2013. The LCD-XC shares the same drivers and basic construction as the LCD-X, lending it a similar level of detail and transparency. Its closed-back design adds isolation, which lets you to focus as intesely as you need without distraction. When used with Audeze Reveal+ to create an AI-generated map of your own hearing, the LCD-XC puts you inside renowned studios, letting you mix consistently and efficiently from anywhere, regardless of background noise.
It is offered in two package options –
- Creator Package which comes with the standard single-ended 1/4″ braided OCC copper cable and Audeze’s economy travel case.
- Premium Package which comes with both a 4-pin balanced XLR and single-ended 1/4″ braided OCC Copper cable, a 1/4″ to 1/8″ stereo adapter, and their premium travel case for the toughest protection.
- Style – Over-ear, closed-back
- Transducer type – Planar Magnetic
- Magnetic structure – Proprietary magnet array
- Phase management – Fazor
- Magnet type – Neodymium N50
- Diaphragm type – Ultra-Thin Uniforce
- Transducer size – 106 mm
- Maximum SPL – >130dB
- Frequency response 10Hz – 50kHz
- THD – <0.1% @ 100 dB SPL
- Sensitivity – 100 dB/1 mW (at Drum Reference Point)
- Impedance – 20Ω
- Max power handling – 5W RMS
- Min recommended power – > 100mW
- Recommended power level – >250mW
- Cable – 1.9m (6.8ft) length, Single ended 1/4″ (6.3mm) termination
- Wire material – 20 AWG high-purity OCC audio-grade copper
- Weight – 677g
LCD-XC uses patented Audeze technologies, including Ultra-Thin Uniforce™ diaphragms, Fazor waveguides, and powerful neodymium magnets. The sophisticated planar magnetic drivers achieve a high efficiency with low impedance, such that LCD-XC can deliver great sound from nearly any device with a headphone output.
Build Quality and Design.
For me, Audeze headphones have always had an eye catching high end boutique design and are built link tanks, with LCD-XC 2021 being no different! The ear cups are carbon fibre whereas the grill, headband and headband adjusters are all made of metal. The ear pads and suspension strap are made of high quality leather – which are extremely comfortable, breathe quite well and don’t feel sticky. I do have some minor complaints though. Even though I love the headband adjustment design, the adjustment mechanism isn’t the smoothest and the 677g weight is substantial for one to always be aware of them sitting on your head.
Cable – Audeze include a very nice premium 20 AWG high-purity OCC cable that has a 1/4″ jack and mini-XLR connectors. It is 1.9m (6.8 feet) long, tangle-free and non-microphonic, that works perfectly with desktop setups. The downside is that it isn’t a balanced cable and audiophiles who want to use it with a DAP or desktop amp with balanced ports either need to buy the $1700 Premium package which includes a 4-pin XLR balanced cable and 1/4″ to 3.5mm adapters or invest in buying a 3rd party cable. The $500 up-charge for the Premium package is a little too steep in my opinion and I would rather recommend buying a nice balanced cable from a cable manufacturer instead, some of which can be had for as low as $40-50.
Case – LCD-XC 2021 comes in a really nice heavy duty hard shell case which fits the headphones as well as the cable really well in a stable foam cut out inside. I’m really impressed with Audeze including their Economy LCD Travel Case even in their cheaper priced Creator Package option. The Premium package however comes with the Premium LCD Travel Case.
Fit and Comfort.
LCD-XC fits really well with ear cups that encompass the whole ear and ear pads that are extremely well padded for the ear to not touch the driver assembly, with them staying comfortable for hours. The 677g weight can feel heavy after a couple of hours of usage, but I do find the suspension head strap and cushy ear pads distributing the weight pretty well. Now if Audeze somehow manage to reduce LCD-XC’s weight by a couple of 100 grams, it will be a big win for them!
Drivability – With an impedance of 20Ω and sensitivity rating of 100dB/mW, LCD-XC 2021 is extremely easy to drive from most sources but I do find it sounding better when driven from a powerful source.
Sound summary – First of all, LCD-XC 2021 is unlike any of the other Audezes I’ve tried as it has ear gain! I’m so happy to see Audeze go in this direction of better, more accurate midrange tuning. Tonally, I’d classify LCD-XC 2021 as a neutral-bright headphone with a Diffuse Field like sound signature. It has fairly well extending bass response that extends till 20Hz without much perceivable roll-off, a slightly leaner lower-midrange character, a very good forward upper-midrange presentation with good ear gain of around 10-11dB, fairly neutral lower-treble with one prominent 6kHz peak and a significantly north of neutral airy presentation post 12kHz, with excellent treble extension till 20kHz. Where LCD-XC 2021 shines greatly is technical performance and it is one of the best performing closed-back headphones I’ve had the pleasure of trying – a closed-back that actually has a really nice, open and airy soundstage with very good left to right separation as well as imaging. It does have its tonal caveats but it sounds pretty good for the most part and all the slight tonal disagreements I had personally were easily sorted with a bit of EQ, which the LCD-XC 2021 takes really well. Audeze also have their own calibration and virtual studio room modelling plugin called Reveal+, which offers the ability to calibrate any Audeze headphone as per your personal HRTF and also enable the Aural Map to listen to some popular speakers in some popular studio rooms, which is very interesting (more on that in the later part of the review)! Yet, I can see a lot of people being perfectly fine with the stock signature and not wanting to use any EQ or calibration.
Let’s dig in deeper…
Bass – Even though LCD-XC 2021 has a small bass shelf, its overall focus leans towards the upper-end airiness, which takes a bit away from the lower-end warmth and results in the bass having a more neutral approach to rumble and slam than what the bass shelf would have you expect. However it’s a very technically rich bass with a very detailed presentation of the micro-details and really good speed to accompany. So, turning down a bit of upper-treble airiness or EQ-ing in a bit more of a bass shelf really adds on greatly to LCD-XC 2021’s overall signature and brings it closer to a more natural and pleasing balance and tonality.
Midrange – The lower-midrange has slight recession around 450Hz that lends it a leaner character. So, vocals and most instruments have a slightly leaner bodied presentation, for which the upper-treble airiness has a lot of part to play as well. It also has slightly more emphasis in the 1-2kHz region than neutral that adds a very slight tinny tinge to instruments but a lot of Focals have this bump in the 1-2kHz region, including the Clear and Elex. The upper-midrange on the other hand has proper ear gain of around 10-11dB, which is a very welcome step for Audeze whose most other headphones didn’t really have much ear gain earlier. The forward midrange enables a more realistic tonality and timbre of instruments than the previous Audezes and presents them strong and well defined in the soundstage.
Treble – Coming to treble, this is where LCD-XC 2021 falters a bit. It has a prominent peak around 6kHz which exaggerates stick attack of acoustic and percussive instruments more than neutral. Lower-treble is fairly neutrally balanced otherwise but the upper-treble post 12kHz is boosted significantly above neutral and that lends it not only a leaner but also a very sparkly character. This does help LCD-XC 2021 bring out all the details in the songs left right and centre, like shining a bright light to all the little nuances in music but it’s a bit much in my opinion. I personally like to EQ the 12-20kHz region down by around 5-8dB in order to bring it down to a more neutral, reference balance, in line with my personal preferences. However, the treble extension on the other hand is commendable, with it extending to 20kHz really well.
Technical performance – LCD-XC has impressive technical performance! In fact it is one of the best performing closed-backs I’ve had the pleasure of trying. It has quite an open, airy and spacious soundstage for a closed-back, with very good left to right separation and imaging. It not only has good width but also very good depth layering and even better micro-detail retrieval.
LCD-XC 2021 for Music Production.
With technical performance to beat in a closed-back, LCD-XC 2021 can work really well for music production too if you prefer a closed-back for tracking, cross referencing your mixes or when you want to work on your music while travelling, when isolation is a key necessity. If you calibrate it to a reference target curve using Audeze’s own Reveal+ or AutoEQ profiles in Wavelet (Android) or Soundsource (Mac), it’ll work even better! Calibration really takes it to the next level and you can just use the AutoEQ LCD-XC 2021 profiles if you’re too lazy to EQ it yourself.
Even though I generally recommend well-tuned open-back headphones for production work, LCD-XC 2021 with calibration actually has the capability to replace a lot of my open-back recommendations with its fine tuned performance and added advantage of isolation. Even without calibration, it is quite a revealing headphone and I’d be more than happy using it while stuck on an island and a project deadline approaching. The island of course needs to have internet too for me to deliver the final mix/masters. Ha!
Since it has a really good soundstage with very good imaging, much better than any other closed-back I’ve tried, it really works wonderfully for panning and setting the levels of instruments before digging into the mix. Its excellent depth layering and resolution makes setting and fine tuning reverbs and delays quite easy while its micro-detail retrieval ability makes it even easier to work on the smallest nuances in the mix. A good EQ calibration, fine tuning it to a reference target curve turns it into a wonderful, an extremely capable, high quality reference headphone to beat, and I find myself achieving good mixes that translate well very quickly, especially compared to the amount of time it takes me on lower-end closed-back headphones that aren’t as technically proficient.
Audeze Reveal+ (Headphone calibration with individual HRTF and Virtual Studio Room Modelling plugin).
As per Audeze – Reveal+ puts you inside real mixing environments used by world-renowned audio engineers like Bob Horn, Carlos de la Garza, Erik Reichers and Warren Huart. While other virtual studio plugins rely on generic HRTF profiles, Reveal+ uses AI algorithms to create your unique personalised Head Response Transfer Function (HRTF) in 30 seconds or less. You can then select the Audeze headphone you’re using and any of the listed studio monitors in any of the studio rooms. The plugin basically creates a virtual model of the studio room to give you the feeling of listening to the expensive studio monitors, sitting in the sweet spot of exactly those rooms – all measured and calibrated for a reference listen based on your own personal HRTF. Every one has a unique HRTF and a plugin having the ability to create a calibration profile as per an individual’s HRTF is quite cool!
Here’s how you go about it –
- With Audeze’s Reveal+ plugin you can create your personal HRTF in 30 second by scanning a QR code inside the plugin. You click a picture of your ears and it creates an Aural Map based spatial audio that’s based on the measurement of your ears.
- You then need to select the Audeze headphone you’re using and it’ll calibrate the headphones to Audeze’s reference target curve (which is very good). You can listen to music with just the headphone calibration without the Aural Map (Virtual Studio modelling) too.
- You can then switch on the Aural Map to enable the virtual studio rooms.
- You can switch between different studio monitors in each room as well as switch between different rooms.
- You have a HRTF Intensity Slider to adjust how much HRTF is applied to your source and Ambience control to customise the level of room reflections.
I actually quite like Audeze’s target curve (which is supposedly based on Fletcher Munson and Harman curves) and LCD-XC 2021 calibrated to it (with just the headphone calibration on). I’d however love to see what their target curve actually is since as I couldn’t find it published anywhere. Aural Map is quite interesting and quite resourceful for cross referencing and checking mix translation, even if one doesn’t want to use it for mixing primarily. There are quite a few Virtual Studio Room modelling plugins in the market like Waves Virtual NX Studio Collection (CLA Nx, Nx Germano Studios New York and Nx Ocean Way Nashville), Slate VSX, dSONIQ Realphones, etc. All of them are quite fun to use and tinker with but Reveal+ calibrates everything according to individual HRTF, which in my opinion is quite amazing, unique and a breakthrough in the field of calibration and virtual studio room modelling!
Comparison against Audeze LCD-X 2021.
Both the fraternal twins are priced the same at $1299 for Creator Package and $1799 for Premium Package – one is a closed-back (XC) and the other an open-back (X) headphone. They do have the same high quality of build that just oozes of boutique perfection but very little in common tuning wise.
LCD-XC 2021 has proper ear gain, much better than LCD-X 2021 but is also brighter in comparison by quite a few dB. As a result, LCD-X 2021’s bass comes across having more punch, slam as well as rumble. When it comes to lower-midrange, LCD-X 2021 is more neutral whereas LCD-XC 2021 has a leaner presentation because of a dip around 450Hz. LCD-XC 2021 has a more forward instrument presentation because of much better ear gain, a difference of around 8-9dB. LCD-XC 2021 is not only brighter in lower-treble but also much brighter and airier in upper-treble which makes LCD-XC 2021 a significantly brighter headphone in comparison. LCD-X 2021 mostly comes across as a warm headphone with slightly airy upper-treble. LCD-X 2021’s soundstage is slightly wider but LCD-XC 2021’s is a bit deeper. If you compensate LCD-XC 2021 for its brighter tuning, both have excellent, equally good resolution and micro-detail retrieval for their asking price. LCD-X 2021 does have slightly better left to right separation and imaging. Without EQ, LCD-X 2021 comes off as warm, pleasing and easy to listen to whereas LCD-XC 2021 comes across sparkly and vibrant. LCD-XC 2021 will need a bit of EQ in upper-treble to sound its best to neutral-heads and the treble sensitive. With EQ, I think I prefer the LCD-XC 2021 a bit more but the jury is still out on that because they both are so dam capable!
Audeze LCD-XC 2021 is a very cool headphone and a very welcome step in the right direction for Audeze when it comes to proper upper-midrange tuning with good ear gain. XC does some things exceptionally well for a closed-back headphone – a very open and airy soundstage, good stage width and depth, really good left to right separation, very good imaging and even better micro-detail retrieval. But then there are a few things that restrict it from absolute perfection in my opinion – mostly the much airier than neutral upper-treble and the slightly leaner lower-midrange tuning. Don’t get me wrong, its stock sound signature is quite good but it also takes EQ really well and I find it quite easy to EQ the slight tonal disagreements to my personal reference-neutral oriented preferences, which really helps take the headphone to a very high level of performance when it comes to closed-backs. It’s even simpler to use the auto calibration using Audeze’s own Reveal+ plugin or one of the AutoEQ profiles, which tune it to Audeze’s target curve and the Harman target curve respectively. Closed-backs are not the easiest to tune in general and for that reason I find LCD-XC 2021 checking quite a lot of boxes in terms of getting things right, which in fact makes it one of the best closed-back headphones I’ve had the pleasure of trying. So, if you’re in the market for a closed back, I highly recommend giving the Audeze LCD-XC 2021 a shot!
Gear used for testing and review.
- Desktop setup – Universal Audio Apollo + DROP THX AAA 789 Amp
- DAPs – iBasso DX240 | Shanling M6 Ultra | Lotoo PAW6000
- Phone – OnePlus 7 Pro + iBasso DC05
Artists I like and listen to.
- Rock – Foo Fighters, Linkin Park, Switchfoot, Imagine Dragons, Daughtry, Green Day, MuteMath, X Ambassadors, Dave Matthews Band, Vertical Horizon, Our Lady Peace, Lifehouse, Fall Out Boy, Breaking Benjamin, Muse, ACDC, Audioslave, Rage Against the Machine, Biffy Clyro, I Am Giant, Normandie, Paramore, Slash & Guns N Roses, 3 Doors Down.
- Pop Rock – John Mayer, Coldplay, Paul McCartney, James Bay, Hunter Hayes, Niall Horan, Keith Urban, The Bros Landreth, Bryan Adams.
- Progressive Rock/Metal – Porcupine Tree/Steven Wilson, Karnivool, Tool, Dead Letter Circus, Periphery, Lamb of God.
- Pop/Soft Rock – Ed Sheeran, Adele, Taylor Swift, OneRepublic, The Script, Gavin James, Magic Man, Maroon 5, Bruno Mars, Charlie Puth, Dua Lipa, The Weeknd, Oasis, Panic! At the Disco, TwentyOne Pilots.
- EDM – Chainsmokers, Zedd.