Audeze LCD-X and EL-8 Closed Back Headphone Review
By Steve Huff
It’s been a while but today I am back with a new HiFi review, but this time I will be taking a look at high-end headphones, the Audze LCD-X and EL-8 (closed back). For years now I have heard rave after rave on the Audze line, specifically the LCD-2 and LCD-3. The one thing that held me back from really seriously considering a set of these was the fact that you needed a nice and powerful and expensive amp to make them sound their best. At $1700-$2000 for the LCD-3 I just was not swayed enough in my brief listening tests at a local HiFi shop. So I waited. I also was not a 100% fan of the LCD-2 dark sound but these days Audeze have opened up their line to new and exciting models that offer the whole range of sound quality while retaining the same house sound. Yes, this is good as the Audeze “House Sound” is so so so nice, and with the new LCD-X I have here, the sound is blowing my mind with its rich thick meaty sound, just like I remember from my younger days.
Even though this is a $1700 headphone, it is well worth the cost to any Music lover if you love that visceral drive to your music.
But read on…
Before I saved up and plunked down for some Audeze cans of my own I kept reading raves on Audeze and then noticed they released a new and much more affordable set of cans. The new EL-8 loaded with their latest Fazor technology for easier to drive efficiency, a more streamlined smoother design and yes, even more comfort than the almost home-brew looking LCD series can give. Coming in at $699 the E-L8 seem CHEAP compared to the $2000 LCD-3 or $1700 LCD-X so I thought “they must suffer in the sound quality”, I mean…how could a $700 Audeze compete with a $1700 Audeze? But I also did not want to waste money if the EL-8 were “good enough”. (little did I know what road this would take me down..now with an ALO Studio Six amp, Studio 6 Phonostage, and HiFiman HE 1000 Headphones…read on)
In any case I recently found myself in Portland Oregon on a business trip and low and behold, a 45 minute walk from my hotel was the now famous ALO Audio. If you do not know about ALO, they sell headphones and headphone amps along with cable upgrades (made by ALO themselves) and high res music players. I decided to stop by and audition a set or two of headphones and the Astell and Kern high res players, as the buzz on these have been something if not controversial.
Upon arriving at the shop I discovered the owner of ALO, Ken Ball, knew me from this website, and he said he was a huge fan of my photo reviews and even owns a Leica Monochrom! How awesome is that? He was such a cool guy and he let me listen to the Astell and Kern players along with a set of LCD-2’s, HD800’s and the new EL-8’s.
I also heard a pair of their new Lyra in ear phones and I will be reviewing those soon, but wow, the Lyra are some amazingly good earphones. My #1 travel or on the go phone without question 🙂
When I listened to the older original LCD-2 through the Astell and Kern 240 I thought “Ugg, these sound bad”..flat, lifeless and dull. But I knew it was because these needed an amp to sound their best and without one, the sound falls flat and sterile. So I asked for HD800’s and I KNOW these are very hard to drive, just to confirm it was the amp of the player and not the headphones. Again, lackluster as the HD800’s TRULY need a decent amp to sound good, I used to own a set and had a $3k amp to power them, so yea, a little media player will not have the juice to give the HD800’s what they need, or the LCD-2’s.
I then grabbed the new Audeze EL-8 closed back headphones Ken had on his desk as these are supposed to be efficient and they are made to sound good out of portable players. As soon as I hooked them up there it was! I was hearing crisp highs and fantastic mids with a nice tight (but weak) bass signature. I thought they were light on the bass and high on the treble but the more I listened the more I was liking what I was hearing. The detail was phenomenal, and never did it sound harsh or brittle, instead they sounded very very “sweet”. They were nice and comfy with the huge soft ear pads and the design was striking. Even though I thought it was a tad “thin” I was hooked on the detail, and knew I could drive them from a portable, which was cool.
I decided to buy them and walked out of ALO with the EL-8’s in closed back, a set of Lyra’s (review soon) and the absolutely awesome Astell and Kern 120MKII player. Damn, there went my budget…again! BE SURE TO CHECK OUT ALO AUDIO’S Web Site HERE!
After getting back home and settled, I decided to sit and do some serious listening with these new headphones of mine, as well as the new player.
While listening at home to the EL-8’s on my new AK120II I was regretting my purchase (Of the EL-8) as I enjoyed the in ear Lyras more as they gave more punch and volume and an even more get up and dance type of feeling. I let the EL-8’s run for 24 hours by using my Macbook Pro to feed it tunes non stop in hopes some of the crisp high end would tame down…and it did.
A few days later I was listening again to the EL-8’s and this is when I started falling in love with them. From the style, the looks, the comfort and yes, even the wood veneer which I think looks awesome. They look like $1200 headphones and sound like $1000 headphones but come in at $699. Fantastic and what this hobby needs. High quality without having to spend thousands just for a set of headphones.
Song after song I was enjoying detail like I have not even heard from my past huge money 2 channel speaker HiFi setup. I was enjoying resolution I was not used to..well..ever. As I was enjoying them so much I wondered what the higher end Audeze’s would give me. All of this enjoyment was with the Astell & Kern 120II as the DAC and AMP, nothing more, no big desktop amps or systems, just one that would fit in my pocket, so this was impressive to me! These are powered just fine and dandy with the 120II, and can go louder than my ears want to listen as well as giving them a full sound and drive. After a few days these broke in more and the sound was more relaxed than new and while still more detailed than I am used to, the sound signature was nice.
I also liked the proprietery cable connectors though I do have to say that three times in the past two weeks one of them has fallen out while listening as they do not lock into place, so maybe in a future mod Audeze can make these locking so they do not fall or wiggle out.
But now I was hooked on Audeze, and HAD TO SEE just what the fuss was all about with the LCD series. Yep…I was screwed, or at least my wallet was.
I decided to order a set of LCD-X as these were just under the LCD-3 flagship but at 20 Ohms, even my new player or even iPod could drive them. I placed my order online at B&H Photo as they had them in stock (ALO was out) and within a day they arrived. I read and read on the LCD-X vs the LCD-3 and while most say the LCD-3 has that little bit of extra sweetness, I would need an external amp to get the best of them, so I went with the 2nd best reviewed LCD, the X. (At this time I did not yet have the ALO Studio 6 Amp)
When I opened the customized and beautiful pelican style case and saw the actual set I was in absolute awe. The certificate of authenticity, the cables, all wonderful. Beautiful, work of art…lovely..all things that came to mind. I could now easily tell these were handcrafted and the E-L8’s were mass produced. The LCD-X was truly something special to look at and put on my head. LUXURY, HIGH END, THIS WAS IT. They are huge, massive and yet, on my large head, comfortable for 6-8 hours of wear. After that and my ears sweat a bit but they never clamp or hurt my head, anywhere and this was the 1st headphone ever I am able to say this about. While they do have a “home made” look to them, they are made very very well.
As for sound, I threw on the LCD-X and they were powered even easier than the E-L8’s by my 120II player! I was getting more volume at the same level (50) than the E-L8’s. I was also getting MUCH more warmth and OOMPH along with a much more organic analog sound signature. It was easy to hear the massive differences between the LCD-X and the E-L8’s. After switching back and forth after a set of 5-10 songs each I strongly preferred the LCD-X with its more organic rendering of the music. The E-L8’s never sound harsh but they do sound a bit thin next to the X’s. At the same time, I get more details and resolution from the EL-8’s. They are two different sounds altogether. Since my EL-8’s are closed back and the LCD-X is open back I decide to keep both. The E-L8 for my desktop setup and general use set and the X for serious listening in a quiet room (now with HE 1000). I have the amazing little in ear Lyra’s for all of my travel, and with these guys as my travel I am not really sacrificing much at all as these Lyra’s have a BIG FAT HUGE sound. Less of a soundstage width but that is a given with in ear vs over ear.
I was expecting to return the LCD-X because at $1700 it is VERY hard to justify but once I listened to them, and only through my Astell and Kern 120II so far, I was sold 100%. Best headphones I have ever used, tested or listened to and I have heard A LOT. Stax, HD800, and everything in between. I have owned Sennheiser HD800, HD700, HD600. The LCD-X for me, surpasses them all. The way I would describe the LCD-X sound is rich, full, detailed, neutral, plenty of oomph and bass but never overpowering like those artificial headphones (beats, bose, etc). Again, Analog as the combo of the 120II and the X produce a warm but large soundscape that almost stretched out beyond my head but always remained more “in my head” then out of it. To me, the combo of LCD-X and 120II sound better than when I had the HD800’s with a DAC and AMP setup on my desktop and $5k invested. It’s a beautiful sound that is never fatiguing or never dull. It’s perfect for my tastes but I always enjoyed that thick and meaty sound I use dot get from my vinyl back in the 80’s when Vinyl was king. These headphones deliver this sound, but much better than it used to be. Just WOW.
I have the LCD-X on my head as I write this listening to Beck and wow. Just wow. I would say you would have to spend $10k to get this good of sound in a 2 Channel speaker setup. I hear it gets even better with an amp (it does but not a huge upgrade for these as they are so efficient). After so much listening with the X I went back to the EL-8 for some serious listening and I still enjoyed them but they just lacked the body of the X, and reminded me more of the HD800, but without the expansive soundstage of the Sennhesiers or treble detail. SO I think of the E-L8 as a HD800 mini with more body and less soundstage width but equal detail though the EL-8’s, for me, after comparisons with other headphones..well, they sound as if they are missing something in the sound. Not sure just what yet but even my non audiophile friend who was here checking out the phones (he uses $30 earbuds) hated the EL-8, loved the LCD-X and said “it can’t get better than this”..then he put on my new HE1000’s and said “HOLY SHIT, it just got WAY better”.
The EL-8’s will be best for someone who prefers detail over mid bass or bass. It leans to the treble detail side more than anything.
The EL-8’s were thinner but with more detail. When bass was called for they delivered but that mid bass warmth of the X was gone. The mids are more recessed than the X and not as forward, which means intimate jazz vocals will sound better and more “in the room” with the X. Even so, the EL-8’s are incredible and for the money, a steal. Listening to “cloudy” from Simon and Garfunkel I can hear tiny tidbit details I never heard before when using the EL-8’s. With the X, the song is more fluid and flowing (good) but those little details that are so prevalent on the EL-8 are a bit recessed and faded, but overall the X sounds better to me and more enjoyable but I like mid bass warmth with detail and the X is the only headphone I have heard that does this perfectly. The X is music. The EL-8 is about the details of the music IMO.
At the end of the day though both are sort of close as they do have similarities in the sound signature, you just get much more of it with the X. Is it worth $1100 more for the X? No not really. Is the LCD-X worth $1700? Absolutely. Is the EL-8 worth more than $699, well maybe not but they are worth the $699 as you do not get this level of sound or refinement in any $500 headphone that I know of, these are up to Audiophile levels and while I was criticizing them, it was only in direct comparison to the LCD-X where they lacked in many areas. When they can get close to the $1700 X in enjoyment, then $699 is steal. Even though their sound signature is similar but different, they do have a similar flow and sound to them. I guess this is the Audeze sound, and I really really enjoy it.
For me though the 8’s just lack something that the X’s give me and this is why I should have never tried the X, as now I am out $1700 as I can not return them or sell them, they are here to stay. (UPDATE: I did this again with the HIFiMan HE1000, and now I am screwed as I can’t go back to the LCD X now…they sound muddy in comparison)
Long story short? Bottom Line Conclusion?
The E-L8’s are crisper and with less body than the LCD-X. They are a tad more comfy and are more streamlined with fantastic construction and design. WELL worth the $699, and I would say they will beat most cans up to $800-$1000. I hear the open backs are even better but since I have the X I am happy I chose the closed version as now I have one of each 😉 Oh and if you use headphones you bought at Best Buy or Apple or even if you spent $400-$500 on such headphones (Master & Dynamic, B&O, BLUE, BEATS, BOSE, etc) those do not even come close to what the LCD-X or E-L8 can do, not even close. The big name store brands are always muffled and focus on bass instead of giving you the music as it is intended to be heard. The LCD and EL’s are in another class entirely.
Between the EL-8 and LCD-X, The LCD-X sound bigger, richer, more organic and without a trace or hint of harshness, ever. They have more mid warmth and a more forward mid so vocals pop out into your room. The soundstage width of the X is larger than the 8’s but both offer a nice soundstage width and height. if I close my eyes and listen with the X I am transformed into the music. With the 8’s I am enjoying the music but not “in it”.
ALL music sounds good on these. ROCK, JAZZ, VOCAL, CLASSICAL, ELECTRONIC or whatever. This is amazing as it is not an easy feat. The LCD-X can ROCK out though..bring on AC/DC, KISS, Metallica or whoever. They will rock you head off.
Audeze is kicking ass in the headphone arena, and for me they deliver some amazing music to my ears. I highly recommend the EL-8 and LCD-X. My next review will be on the Studio 6 Amp from ALO where I will update the sound and what happens when I add the amp that can make any headphone sound amazingly delicious.
Where to Buy?
If you are ever in Portland, check out ALO Audio, great people and amazing products. If you are in Phoenix AZ where I live, the local dealer for Audeze is AZ HiFi and they have them all on display. Also, B&H Photo sells the Audeze line as well, HERE.