Katz’s Corner Episode 14: Guest Listeners Shoot out Audeze LCD-4 vs. Focal Utopia

[Editor's Note: Through a long and tedious process it was found that the Focal Utopia and Audeze LCD-4 reviewed here at InnerFidelity in numerous articles were found to be not representative of currently manufactured product. This article is therefore not entirely indicative of our current impressions of this product. To get a complete understanding of our evaluation the reader should start with this summary article and work back through the articles leading up to our current understanding.]

It’s nice to hear different listeners’ perspectives: Each listener brings something different to the table. I learned a lot about how different people perceive sound and their preferences when putting together this post about experienced listeners listening. Our quintet of expert listeners consists of:

  • Aaron Gandia, chief engineer of Phat Planet Studios in Orlando; he is a recording, mixing and mastering engineer and also an audiophile-grade loudspeaker designer. He’s produced two excellent loudspeaker systems which impress me with their tonal accuracy and impact.
  • Matt Davis is my intern; he is a professional mastering engineer, a musician and an audiophile; he has a BS in music engineering, a Master in Music Technology, and is studying for his masters in Electrical Engineering.
  • Andrew Diaz is one of my mixing engineers, with a discerning ear, he’s a graduate of Full Sail. He’s learned a lot from me about how to mix recordings, how to analyze subtle sonic differences, balance instruments and produce space and depth in mixes. Andrew’s working with a team of professional musicians looking for a Grammy, let’s wish Andrew the best!
  • Paige Coley has an A.S. degree in Music Production and Sound Technology. She’s a musician, member of a rock band, producer and mixing engineer.
  • Veit Renn is a music producer and engineer. He’s a great vocal producer, was the producer for N’Sync and Back Street Boys and many other styles including straight ahead jazz and smooth jazz. You can find Veit’s credits at allmusic.com or rennmusic.com. He is also a professor at Full Sail University teaching audio engineering techniques.

There’s a lot to learn about these two phones from expert listeners’ nuanced responses. More than one of my listeners is sitting on the fence about which headphone he (or she) prefers, very much depending on the application. Each listener has a different preference for attributes such as detail and space. I present them in the order I interviewed each participant, and also the order in which they listened to the headphones since I alternated which was auditioned first for each musical cut.

Photographer Mary Kent kindly produced lovely formal portraits of all but one of the participants with her Nikon and excellent eye. I took Aaron Gandia’s photo with my Iphone. Let’s meet and greet our herd of hearers.

Serious's picture

I admit I haven't read all of it yet, but so far it seems to me this is more a FR comparison between the two headphones and not a test of their inherent capabilities. Might make more sense to compare them EQed.
In the end I'd still take my modded HD800 over either phone, but apart from FR I don't see why I would take the LCD-4 over the Utopia. The Utopia sounds weird tonally and the LCD-4 isn't that great either, tonally speaking.

Also all of the rankings feel too heavily biased towards the upper end of the spectrum, as if the lower 5-7 points were meaningless. For example comfort ... how the hell can a headphone even get a good comfort rating? If speakers are a 9 or 10 I'd maybe put the HD800 at 6 and Utopia at 4 (too much clamping) and LCD-4 at 3 (too heavy and too much clamp). It's never comfortable to wear headphones. I find my CIEMs much better and those are annoying too.

bogdanb's picture

this is more of a letter than a comment.
I just love how you and your talks with Tyll made me aware of what mastering can do. But it was not until recent that I did actually end up not buying an album because it really sounded horrible.

Who am I and what I bought- Long story longer:
My audiophile, connoisseur path started with headphones. I might have bought my speakers system before the first pair of headphones, but I really can't tell for sure. I remember clearly spending a lot of time searching for the first affordable set of headphones. Tyll convinced me of the Sony MDR zx700, a year or so later I bought the NAD viso's HP50. I went to all the shops that let me listen to headphones in Romania at the time and I head the pleasure to sample listening to 6-7 different types, among which the hd 800's. It was a joy searching for a set, ended up blind ordering a set of HP 50's and I don't regret that, ended up buying another set since the first one broke for a second and final time - story could be longer.

You talk a lot about how different headphones sound, and that is so important when I buy new stuff. What I find really important: fit, comfort clearly, the forgiveness factor also has a big role, TONAL BALANCE oh yeah that is extremely important. Something you talk less is "soundstage" spacing stuff, probably I have an issue with my HP 50's imaging close to my ears and never imaging something 2 cm further than the axis between my ears and thus making me interested in the next upgrade.

To the point:
I was obsessed with flac, 88/96 stuff and listening to variances setting my mac's digital output. A month or so ago I was lost in some youtube recordings. WOW, even my HP'50s if I close my eyes I would imagine perfectly and the recordings were so detailed. Never my ears were so exited by sound. these guys audiotree make some live recording stuff on youtube. wow! I did not find a copy on an album of a certain band that sounded as nice as the recording they did. So I listen it of youtube. Hardcore audiophiles will probably want to shoot me right now.
It was a time a watched all the review sites for headphones. I stopped and I fallow 99% innerfidelity. I learned more from here that anywhere else about audio. chapeau!

why not talk about who does good recordings and review them too. Also companies, also teams of engineers.
David Chesky, Audiotree and other's I might not have heard of.
Or just let's talk more about this. help me and others understand why it is good and if it is good audio, and help us discern better. (I can pm you with the exact examples that make me write all this)
Isn't it your target to help us listen to good audio!?

Thank you!

P.S. yap a PS was needed :) it was hard to write and edit what to say to explain correctly myself, present myself and present what is my point while on a post about extremely expensive headphones. Sorry and thank you!

ADU's picture

Fwiw, I think you did a very nice job expressing yourself. I love Romanian music btw, esp. "Doctor" Costi (and his lovely Bulgarian friend, Andrea), Sava, A. Balan, and the G Girls.
(LOL) But many others as well. : )

Kpop (and some Albanian pop) is my current obsession at the moment though. Fwiw, you can find some of my favorite down-tempo Kpop tracks in the Comments here...

Taeyeon and Ailee are two of my favorites...

I'll try to put my thinking cap on, and suggest a few cantareti romani as well.

I agree btw that tonal balance is extremely important. But it's also one of the easiest characteristics of headphones to correct, especially on closed HPs.

ADU's picture

Taeyeon and Ailee are two of my favorites...

There are some fairly loud station IDs at the end of these 3 videos. So watch volume levels toward the end.

markus's picture

Somebody get Mr Diaz a real good amp! Sub-bass presence and separation are not dynamics.

hanshopf's picture

Thank you so much for these detailed expert-impressions! With these highly resolving headphones even slight product variances can fundamentally change one's impressions. I listened to four pairs of Utopia (three of them at the same day and two of them side by side, all of them with the same amp and music) and all of them sounded differently, ranging from harsh and loosely defined to very well grounded and spot-on neutral. They even differed in size with different clamping pressure on my (small) head. I also had a listen to LCD-4, but obviously had a "bad" sample of that one. Conclusion: no end to the debate... .

Jim Tavegia's picture

I will bet that Bob can almost (almost) make each set of cans sound nearly identical. The trick is how to do that in as transparent a way as possible.

For most of us it is cheap and easy these days to buy a dual 31 band EQ, but to do it right I am thinking that you must do at least Rane quality, and probably better to not mess with the phase relationships that reside in all music.

I eagerly await this next installment. I should add that I was able to sell my Focal Spirit Pros to someone who does not have hearing loss like I do and was able to replace them with a 3rd pair of AKG K271s that I really enjoy in my studio. They work best for me and my hearing deficiencies.

We just replaced the speaker system in our church and something is really amiss as it sounds very bad to me, much worse than what we had before. It is clearly not EQ'd right for our sanctuary. I am resisting saying anything as I do not want to hurt anyones' feelings.

BrooklynNick's picture

One of the best things I've read on this site. Really enlightening. Quite remarkable that when forced to put a number to their subjective evaluations most of the listeners were fairly similar. More of this please!

Jazz Casual's picture

Thanks to you Bob and your colleagues for this series. It's been an interesting one to follow and I look forward to the next episode. It's outraged some Utopia fans over at Head-Fi, which is to be expected and has been amusing to witness.

LMagoo's picture

Great to hear how several people perceive the sound of two different 'phones. Especially having a gal on board to get her takes in makes for a interesting read! Great work!

Bob Katz's picture

Thanks so much guys for your kind words (and even your disparaging words :-). For those Focal fans who are quite miffed at the results, the best I can suggest is you send your better-sounding Focal sample down here and I'll compare it with the LCD-4 again, as objectively as I can, and even bring in some other listeners for opinions. I would have to say that the LCD-4 and the Utopia have both become controversial cans since Tyll is not so thrilled and is quite thrilled with the Utopia, while John Atkinson and Bob Katz love the LCD-4. All reviewers say that their favorites are either "best I've ever heard" or "worthy of great merit". Is it possible that having different samples of the Focal, which seems to be quite variant, could be the cause of this controversy? I'm 100% convinced that I do not like the Focal's stridency, I wouldn't ever have it in this room, and most of my expert listeners concurred with the comparison. So the gauntlet is thrown.... bring your Focal samples here and compare for yourselves. We'll report here and not obfuscate! Personallly I'm skeptical, I've not been seduced by the bright side of the force. We shall see if Focal can give us a sample that's radically improved from the one that I got to hear.

in my next episode not only will I be EQ'ing and comparing Stax vs. Audeze but also have an improved DAC that almost makes me want to hear the Focal all over again. And the beat goes on :-)

hanshopf's picture

Hi Bob, I'd send my Utopias, but am based in Germany, which makes it a bit impractical. But I am not a fan anyway and with my initial pair had the same issues as all of you had with your pair. Of the four pairs I had the chance to listen to only one has been really excellent without any issues in FR.
My current pair are so spot on neutral (ok, still lacking sub bass), that remaining issues are only soundstage (but greatly improved with crossfeed) and comfort.
The drivers a rather small, which is one reason why the sound changes significantly with position. Even a millimeter up or down your head changes FR. The steps on the headband are rather rough. I put paper tissues of different sizes under the headband until I found the perfect fit to "fine tune" the FR.
In a system which is so sensitive to even slight positional changes it's no wonder that there are variances in production. It may even be impossible to build these headphones more consistently. Anyway, for that prize they should listen to each pair individually before selling them and sort out some of the lesser than ideal ones. The same seems to apply for Audeze.

Bob Katz's picture

It seems that unit-to-unit variation in headphone response, especially with the Focal and possibly with the Audeze... is a problem. But we cannot say it's "position on the ears" because six listeners (including me) is a pretty good combined assessment of a single unit.

The poster who denied the reports based on saying that I am the other expert listeners mentors sounds like someone who would deny global climate change on the basis of a snowfall in his back yard. Re-read the biographies of each of the expert listeners, and their entire unexpurgated comments before leaping to conclusions. Some of my experts would be insulted at your thoughts that they were influenced by my own conclusions, especially those of my listeners who have Grammys and major credits on their walls which were certainly not obtained through my influence :-). If your hobby is reading between the lines, then your glasses must be fogged.

In short, you are entitled to your opinion, but it should be clear to most of the readers here that the aggregate opinions of six expert listeners has a lot of weight. By all means loan me your sample of Focal Utopia and I'll ask some independent experts to come in and write down their own opinions without me being in the room and we'll see if the results are any different.

Or maybe we should just attribute your post to your personal prejudices and let the reviews in toto speak for themselves.

hanshopf's picture

I did not want to be understood as if I meant "it's position on the ears". My first sample of Utopias sounded harsh and unfocused even after several experiments with slightly different positions. My point is that Utopias are more sensible to positioning than most other headphones and that - in case you are lucky to get a "good" sample - one should put some effort in finding the ideal positioning.

The other poster whom you are also referring to in reply to my post seems to be the naughty type of person. Best to ignore these guys, who rudely complain about something other persons are doing for free.

Bob Katz's picture

You seem a very sensible guy! Forgive me for misinterpreting your post about position, because you are right. Anyway, I figure if 6 people are switching back and forth between two headphones and each time putting brand A and B back on their heads, that we get a good average of positions. It seems to me If it takes serious time to find the best position for a given headphone that headphone should not be rated so high.

I'm happy I took the bait from the "nasty" poster.... It gave me a chance to defend some of my expert listeners who are quite independent in their thoughts, as anyone who read Aaron, Veit or Paige's reports would have to agree! Yes, there is some unscientific prejudice in there, but I certify that I transcribed each listener's reactions verbatim, and furthermore, I sent each one a copy of their report to proof read and ensure that I had transcribed their reactions accurately! It's as scientific as this underpaid reviewer knows how to get :-).

Best wishes and thanks,


hanshopf's picture

Hi Bob,

you are right, the Utopia is of course overrated: it's too expensive for having to try several samples and experiment with head-position. I'd rather prefer another headphone to sound as perfect for me as they do! But the Stax 007 needs a port mod and some expert knowledge to find a suitable sample (ranging from Mk1 to Mk2.9 or something?) and the Audeze is heavy like a stone and needs additional EQ and some luck with the stability of their drivers. Seems, we are living in world full of overrated things. Starting to get philosophical... . ;)

24bitbob's picture

A bunch of guys are asked by their boss / mentor to confirm a prejudice that he already holds. There should be no surprise that the results are what they are.

A more interesting result would arise if the 'match' were to take place on neutral ground, with an unbiased referee.

Maybe this comment is tad poor taste; like vinegar for a bee sting perhaps.

tomb's picture

sort of glad someone else said it first, though. Still, kudos to Tyll for publishing opposing views.

amartignano's picture

Thank you for the very interesting multi-user comparison with different tracks. It has been a very good read. But I have a small critic: the absence of a good recording symphonic orchestra track, maybe one of the few cases in which we can have an idea of a sort of a "root mean square" reality to compare the headphones to. This is an "issue" seen in many reviews. By the way, good work!

Bob Katz's picture

Agreed... It was my prejudice that picked each of the tracks that we used for each of their attributes and did not include a classical symphonic recording. But in the next episode you will see that the Vienna Philharmonic plays a pivotal role as tie breaker.

Keep in mind that the "You Lied" cut which is totally live and audiophile, is as natural a recording as can get and recorded in a similar fashion to how symphonic recordings are made. Coming from an audiophile background I tend to pick recordings, even pop recordings, which have a natural tonality. That's the only defense I can give for having missed using a symphonic recording in this group of samples.

amartignano's picture

Ooohh the gorgeous sound of the Wieners... :) Thank you for the reply Mr. Katz.

MRC01's picture

I also noted the lack of a music source consisting of pure acoustic sounds. If reality - the sound of acoustic music in natural spaces - is the absolute reference, it's hard to compare sonics against the absolute reference if you don't have the absolute reference. I'm glad you're including this in the next round. It would be great to hear both small (soloist, chamber music) and large ensemble (symphony, choir).

tony's picture

Beats latest headphones do better than 5, I'm told.

Of course you folks are Audio Professionals, who work with performing Artists, whom you record First Generation and are quite adjusted to near perfection, as technology permits.

On balance, I know people that feel Bose loudspeakers are superb ( all models from cheapest to the 901s )

I'm suspecting that your numerical ratings are not 100% to 50% but rather 100% to 95% in range. It's simply that you are probably intolerant of less than 100%, as I would expect from Pro people.

I'm thinking that these Headphone Manufacturers should have "critical" ears working Quality Control just as we Auto Manufactures have our "Final Inspection" team at the end of every process. ( Ideally )

If I'm Focal, I'm already knowing about this TEST and sending a responsible technical person down to Florida to investigate, unless they already know they have a problem. ( my CEO would have two engineers down there doing discovery and reporting )

Darn smart of Mr.Katz to have a group's confirmation of this problem.

To Focal: I'll expect a full report, on my desk, in the morning! and I'll expect an complete final ( traceable ) inspection of each individual headphone to be included with each headphone. This is exactly the sort of thing that can't be tolerated!!! The entire Brand is suffering.

Tony in Michigan

ab_ba's picture

Sounds to me like we need Big Sound 2017!

Since getting the Utopias I've gotten way more into vinyl. There's just a beautiful synergy between vinyl's warmth and the clarity of the Utopias. I think that goes along with what these listeners describe.

I am very eager to try the LCD-4's side by side with the Utopias. I'm not sure my goal for headphones is that they sound like speakers in a room. Rather, they provide a different perspective on music - headphones can convey mirco-detail that only the best speakers can render.

Bob Katz's picture

If we're going to have the LCD-4s against the Utopias at Big Sound, let's make sure that each one is a pair which an experienced listener says represents the best that each brand can deliver. There's a lot of concern about unit-to-unit variations. I know that Audeze made certain that my LCD-4s met specs as they made this pair knowing it was for me and I waited two-three weeks for it.

BrooklynNick's picture

With due respect, I don't think that is a good approach. We consumers get the luck of the draw. Reviewers should not give manufactures with quality issues a break like this. It means that your review does not necessarily represent the product we can go out and purchase and that makes the value of the review itself questionable. Ideally, Innerfidelity would buy headphones at retail rather then getting them directly from the manufactures, but I know that is not realistic. There should still be an attempt to make sure you are not getting the reviewer special rather than something identical to what we can get in retail channels.

tony's picture

Something is causing a wide range of performance, something intermittent. These transducers can't perform such a wide range of qualities between listener without a causal source.

2% to 3% variance could be acceptable, 20% to 30% variance points to multiple problems.

Geez Bob, if I have 6 skilled individuals looking at something and they all report completely differing data, something is very wrong.

Tony in Michigan

ps. look for at least 3 causes.

MRC01's picture

Since HRTF varies significantly by individual, and it applies only to headphones not to speakers or source components, we expect more variance in opinions on which headphones sound most realistic than we do on speakers or source components.

hanshopf's picture

Good point, but I think a bit off the mark in this discussion, where we saw, that 6 experienced listeners had very similar impressions and only very gradual variance in opinions. HRTF variances seem to be a minor problem assessing headphones compared to other aspects. One of these seems to be unit-to-unit variations.

tony's picture

These performance numbers are all "over the map".

Harmon's Olive trains his listeners for his research purposes, kinda putting them all on the "same page" so to speak.

I would still like to see a proper audit, these results are exaggeratedly inconsistent. Even our Auto Industry performance ratings carry a "Your Milage May Vary" caution but vary by only a few percentage points despite some driver's aggressive driving style, like my wife, she manages to get only a few percentage points below established norms. This test is like my wife getting 1/2 of a car's MPG. rating with the next person getting 100% but the next getting 80%.

I've been to headphone meets where HeadFi's Jude brought a car full of headphone gear for everyone to try ( evaluate ), we even had a very wide range of amplification to use. A few headphones and two Amps were consistent in getting "outstanding" ratings : Sennheiser HD800 & Audeze 3 on a Valhalla 2 Amp with Russian Tubes. The Bottlehead also won vast approvals. We had most of the Schiit range on hand, including the RAG integrated and Yggy Dac.

Yes, we can expect some variance but not a 5 out of a possible 10 from a top performing headphone class transducer system, something or somethings are wrong.

Tony in Michigan

ps. we have an interesting puzzle here, I'm figuring Bob Katz is working this out and will report. Stay Tuned