Katz’s Corner Episode 13 - The Big Shootout: Audeze LCD-4 vs. Focal Utopia

In my previous episode, I threw down the gauntlet: Can the world’s best headphones hold up to the world’s best loudspeakers in a perfectly-treated room? Of course we know that headphones image completely differently from loudspeakers. The transient impact of transducers lodged on your ears is distinctly different from loudspeakers at 9 foot distance. The loudness ratios of forward and distant elements, direct and reverberant sound are also different between phones and speakers. But we certainly can compare the tonal accuracy of the two presentations.

My standard of reference always will be the tonality of real life, which is the standard I use to adjust the high frequency rolloff of my Dynaudio loudspeakes. I’ve invited several colleagues to participate in this listening test, and they have the luxury of comparing the headphones under test to a set of highly-calibrated Dynaudios. This is the most natural-sounding and accurate loudspeaker system/room I have constructed in 46 years of audiophile and professional life. The heart of it is a pair of Dynaudio Evidence M5Ps coupled with a pair of JL Audio Fathom F112 subwoofers. The system is digitally corrected and crossed over with a linear phase crossover using Acourate Convolver. It has been time aligned, impulse-response-corrected, and phase-corrected using FIR filters. In layman’s language this means that the depth, impact, and transient response of the loudspeaker system are incomparable.

The digital correction system is also my monitor level controller, running at 64-bit floating point, and dithered to 24 bits on the way to the DACs, which in layman’s language means that the volume control is sonically transparent. The high frequency target for the Dyns was determined empirically by listening to a set of about 50 high quality reference recordings. This target rolloff makes the tonality fall right in the middle so all the reference recordings sound neither too bright nor too dull, and most of the recordings sound just right, with no temptation to adjust any tonality. A perfect system to compare against the world’s best headphones! So, how do the world’s best headphones stand up to these fantastic loudspeakers? We’re about to find out.

I am fortunate to have a good friend who has loaned me the Focal Utopias for five days for this shootout. The Audeze LCD-4s are my own recently-purchased pair. My music source is JRiver Media player, feeding Acourate Convolver via 64-bit ASIO. Acourate Convolver adjusts monitor level and dithers the signal to 24 bits. I could skip Acourate Convolver for the flat headphone tests, but it is needed to run the filters for the loudspeaker correction so may as well keep it in the digital chain and it is audibly transparent. Acourate Convolver then feeds my Oppo HA-2 DAC through USB.

I’m using the low source impedance headphone output of the DAC to feed via line level to two headphone amplifiers through a Y-cord. It simultaneously feeds my custom-built AMB headphone amp and an Audeze Deckard. The analog gains of the AMB and Deckard have been carefully matched to produce equal perceived loudness for the Focal Utopias and Audeze LCD-4s. That way the listener can instantly switch from one headphone to the other at precisely matched loudness. Our procedure was to play each musical selection from the beginning at least through to the first chorus. Then repeat the song with the other pair of headphones. To reduce listener prejudice for the first headphone auditioned, we alternated playing either the Focal or the Audeze first.

The AMB is feeding the Focals and the Deckard is feeding the LCD-4s. I had to make this choice since the 200 ohm LCD-4s are very insensitive and require considerable extra analog gain, which is available in the Deckard but not in my AMB. In case anyone cries “foul” about my choosing a commercial amplifier to feed one headphone and a custom amp to feed the other, I’ve gone to great lengths and listening tests which demonstrate to everyone’s satisfaction that both amplifiers are sonically equivalent. Sonically neutral in fact as far as my ears tell me. I had brought the custom AMB amp to Tyll’s great headphone and amp shootout in Bozeman, and both Tyll and I agreed that the AMB is not only first rate, but that it killed nearly every commercial amp in terms of transparency, naturalness, accuracy and extension, both low and high end. Perhaps things would be different if the Deckard had been available in Bozeman, because I am equally impressed with its transparency, impact, neutrality, purity of tone, separation and extension. In other words, the Deckard and the AMB are as alike as can be.

As a test, I’ve moved the Focals back and forth between the AMB and the Deckard with matched loudness and I cannot distinguish the sound of the two amplifiers. My intern and audiophile Matt Davis performed the same test and he agrees 100% that the two amplifiers are probably indistinguishable. Both have excellent headroom and output power. And so I am confident that any sonic differences we hear are due to the headphones and not the amplifiers. All listeners also agreed that I have matched the two headphones’ loudness perfectly, which is very important for a listening test, and virtually impossible to perform repeatably with a single amplifier, given the greatly different sensitivities of the 80 ohm Focal Utopia and the 200 ohm Audeze LCD-4s. You know it’s not the impedance that’s important, but actually the voltage sensitivity. But we do know that the higher the impedance, the lower the current driving the circuit traces and thus more voltage drive is necessary to produce a given loudness.

In this episode you’ll hear my opinions and in the next episode I’ll introduce my other critical listeners, who are more than happy to give their opinions. Photographer Mary Kent was kind enough to produce lovely formal portraits of the participants with her Nikon and excellent eye.

Besides the LCD-4 and Utopia, en passant I will compare my Oppo PM-3 cans. In another episode I’ll present a comparison of the headphone winner of this contest against my Stax 007 Mk2 fed by a KGSS amp. When I received the Focals I did some initial listening tests to ensure they appear to be performing properly and was surprised to find the right channel driver to be 1 dB more sensitive than the left! The center image was shifted slightly towards the right. This should never be the case for a premium headphone, which should pass manufacturer’s muster with precisely matched drivers. I performed extensive elimination tests to prove the issue is not connections, amplifiers or ears and am positive the balance issue is in the sample of Focal headphones that I received. Consequently, I made a separate preset for Acourate Convolver which drops the right channel 1 dB whenever we’re auditioning the Focals. With the 1 dB adjustment, mono pink noise precisely and tightly images in the center so the left and right ears of the Focals are tonally matched. I am confident now that we are accurately hearing the sound of Focal drivers with no issues that would prejudice judgments of imaging, depth or soundstage. On the other hand, the left and right ears of my LCD-4 are matched in all respects. That was not the case with one of the other Audeze units I’ve auditioned, which also has a slight channel imbalance, so it appears that even premium headphones may be subject to variance. Audeze has considerable quality control, and I doubt that a balance issue gets out of the factory very often.

Weighing In for the Title Bout
I performed this formal evaluation at three different times, the first a couple of weeks after I got the LCD-4s, the second as soon as the Focal arrived. The third formal listen occurred after Aaron Gandia and Matt Davis had tested the headphones so my personal grades may have been influenced by their reactions. I’ll do my best to sort these factors out and let you know as we go on. Also keep in mind that since I am the proud owner of the Audeze and the Focals are a loaner, my preferences may be prejudiced by my bank book! But I’ll do my best to be objective.

Bob’s first listen, the LCD-4’s versus the Dynaudios Loudspeakers with a tetch of the Oppo PM-3 in the Mix

First song is one of my favorite demo pieces: Angelitos Negros, from Alejandra Robles album “La Morena”. I’m playing my 2496 master. Her CD may still be available. Alejandra is a trained contralto opera singer performing popular Mexican latin music. This song is particularly challenging as Alejandra sings high notes with a semi-operatic feel, which can get harsh on a lesser playback system or an inaccurately-adjusted system. On the reference Dynaudio speakers, her voice sounds clear, pure and natural, and not fatiguing, exactly as I mastered it. There is also a full complement of electric guitar, fiddle, electric bass, and other melody and harmony instruments, along with latin percussion, congas, including a deep, throbbing bass drum, a great challenge for any reproduction system.

LCD-4 - This listen was performed without direct comparison with the Focals which had not arrived at the time. The bass drum is solid, deep, punchy, accurate compared to the loudspeakers. Perhaps the LCD-4 is exaggerating the extreme bottom a bit compared to the loudspeakers. The high hat is accurate. Bass instrument is accurate. The sound is very satisfying, dynamics are excellent, very moving. Vocal sound is accurate, with no extra sibilance, mirroring its tonality from the speakers. Fiddle is just right. Purity of tone is excellent. I do not feel the pressing need for EQ, unlike any previous headphone, amp or DAC combination I’ve tried here. Even my Stax need some bass boost and treble cut, so I’ll be interested in comparing the LCD-4s to the Stax in another blog, both with and without compensating EQ.

Bass may be a little extra around 55-80 Hz, but this is very minor, not enough to make me reach for EQ as the sound is not boomy or muddy, just a little on the “entertaining” side. There’s an electrostatic-like transparency and extension with these dynamic (Planar Magnetic) cans that I have never heard with previous Planars, even equalized. They are extended in the bottom and top octave that I have not ever heard from the LCD-2, -3, or –x. This is truly Audeze’s statement headphone, a radical improvement over any previous Audeze, with the lightest diaphragm Audeze has ever made.

LCD-4 versus Oppo PM-3 - Some of you asked me to compare these cans with the Oppo PM-3, which I still consider a rave headphone, especially at $399. Read my blog/love affair with the Oppo which began in Episode 10 and continues through Episode 11. I found the sound through the PM-3 is a little veiled compared with the LCD-4 but still the Oppos are an excellent portable experience. Compared with the large, circumaural LCD-4’s, the image thrown by the Oppos is smaller. To be honest, in an immediate comparison, the PM-3s sound shockingly wimpy. But what would you expect comparing a small $399 phone against a $4000 behemoth? The LCD-4 is more open and extended than the PM-3. EQ on the PM-3 would bring them more in line. But the LCD-4 is clearly in another league, and I must admit makes the PM-3 sound wimpy, probably because of the large image, visceral bass and more open sound of the LCD-4. I hope after a day away from the Audeze I’ll be able to appreciate the virtues of the PM-3 again. I don’t want it to become my lost love! I suspect the PM-3 is a bit too “flat”... but I still would not kick the PM-3 out of bed as it’s so much more tonally neutral than any of the under-$500 “best of the pack” phones I tested in a previous blog. And I do run it with a rising high end EQ in my Iphone’s high res Onkyo player.

The Oppo HA-2 headphone amp cannot adequately drive the LCD-4’s. Their sensitivity is so low that the Oppo amp goes into distortion and perhaps clips when trying to drive them loudly enough. In fact, this new 200 ohm version of the LCD-4 is so difficult to drive that I recommend at least a 3 watt amplifier of exceptional quality and transparency, preferably 4 watts. I tried the revered O2 amp from my collection and it couldn’t cut the mustard either. The Burson subsidiary Lycan test amp is able to do the trick more or less, but it’s not in the same league as my AMB or the Deckard. The Audeze Deckard is a great, transparent sounding match for the LCD-4, fortunately, as I have one on loan and intend to buy it.

Next song is Donald Fagen’s Morph The Cat from that 2006 album. I’m playing the 2496 from HD Tracks. As usual, we get impeccable, infectious performance and great production as we would expect from this Steely Dan alumnus. This is a highly recommended demo piece for pop music fans.

LCD-4s - Nice phasing effect in this mix. The bass goes down to the center of the earth! The vocal has perfect level of presence. The snare drum has great punch and snap. I have no idea if I could replicate this experience in the Stax, even with EQ. We’ll see about that in another episode. The sound is rich, clear and extended from bottom to top and is transparent and revealing. Maybe I’m into my love affair with my new purchase, but I truly believe I’m being objective.

Counting Crows, live version of Hard Candy, my 2496 master. I don’t know if this has been released, but it’s a fabulous live rock cut and I have to tell you my reactions to this on the LCD-4. I notice that the Dynaudios sound brighter on this cut than the LCD-4’s around 8 to 10k, but below that, the tonality is very similar. The Dynaudio speakers have more snare impact than the 4s, perhaps because of their first order crossover and phase linear (corrected) impulse response. It would be very interesting to develop a phase and impulse correction filter for headphones, but very difficult to figure how to set it. I prefer the loudspeakers for all that they do—big sound in a big room, but the tonal difference between phones and speakers has gotten a lot closer with the LCD-4s than any other can I’ve auditioned so far in this room.

Blackbird, by Cassandra Wilson, from her Silver Pony album, which is available as a CD. I played my 2496 master. Cassandra is a Grammy winning jazz artist. Her contralto voice is surrounded by New Orleans’ best jazz musicians on this album. Her vocal sound is warm and beautiful on the cans, just as I remember it from the loudspeakers. There’s still plenty of presence and clarity on the LCD-4s to satisfy, and plenty of body and power in both headphones and speakers, so they are both superb references.

Daft Punk, from the album Random Access Memories, 2488 from HD tracks, Give Life Back to the Music: This sounds full and strong on the LCD-4s.

Next up, Deepest Crystal Black, by IceCocoon, from the album of the same title. This is the Bob Katz 2496 master. This recording of a hard rock group has a drop-tuned bass (tuned to D) that goes very deep. On the Dynaudios, it sounds big and clear and has a huge soundstage, is very satisfying. I estimate Bass fundamental goes down to a remarkable 30-40 Hz. The loudspeakers eat the headphones for lunch, with their visceral power that hits you in the chest and spatiality which fills the room (I’ll take credit for producing much of that quality, along with the excellent mix from producer Owen Gillett). Still, back to the LCD-4s, if I did not have a superior loudspeaker system and room I would be in heaven with these phones. Unfortunately the close to the ear presentation misses some of the ambience and space of the loudspeakers, but if you are a fan of detail you might prefer the cans, except missing the punch that the speakers throw to your body and the feel of the room. This resonant, strong, hard rocking recording just kills on loudspeakers but on the headphones, it’s a different mix.

Jaclyn Guillou, Cry Me A River, my 2488 Master. From her jazz album “This Bitter Earth”. This young jazz singer really emotes, highly recommended. She performs with a small combo and in some songs with strings. The CD is available.

On the Dynaudios: Jaclyn’s vocal has perfect presence in the Dyns, as would be expected, since the recording was mastered in this room (on my previous Revel loudspeakers, which were no slouch). Bass instrument is a little light but that’s the way it is on the master because when I tried to bring up the bass instrument during mastering it muddied up the vocal. Mastering is the art of compromise, and since Jaclyn is the star we must not compromise her voice. The snare has nice pop and spatiality. The tenor solo is rich. There is not much stereo separation in this recording. Cymbals are there in the room, and not close miked.

On the LCD-4s: The vocal is warmer and the whole presentation is warmer than on the loudspeakers. This makes me think that we may need a tetch of EQ boost in the low treble in the LCD-4s to match the speakers, and I mean just a tetch! Anyway, I’m completely satisfied, bottom to top. Depending on your taste you might like a few tenths more at 8k-11k from these cans, but in my opinion this is completely optional. Switching back to the loudspeakers for a moment: It’s very satisfying. There’s more tonal and dynamic similarity between these two excellent playback methods than there is difference. Let’s keep in mind these loudspeakers retail for $60,000, compared to a pair of $4000 headphones, quite a savings!

Which brings up the question: at what price and quality point would you consider a pair of headphones to be superior to a pair of loudspeakers? Frankly, many apartment dwellers and home listeners are not able to have a loudspeaker system that would approach the quality of these headphones. Room acoustics are difficult to control and there’s much to be said for a great set of headphones. Frankly, I’m privileged to have both available to me. If you like detail you’d go for the LCD-4’s, which have better inner detail than even these fine loudspeakers. I can see why Audeze considers the LCD-4 to be their statement product, especially the 200 ohm new model, and Audeze will upgrade any of the older 100 ohm models.

Flip Flop and Fly, by Joachim Palden, Bob’s 2496 master. From the jazz album “Guilty”. This is a down home rocking electric blues number that really pops in the low end. Highly recommended. The CD is available.

LCD-4 - It sounds beautiful. Bass drum and toms rock. The impact and punch of the acoustic bass is marvelous. This is a warm, fat recording with amazing transient impact that shows off the virtues of these cans. Switching to the loudspeakers: Surprisingly, I prefer the presentation on the cans to the loudspeakers! That’s because there is little depth on this recording; on the cans, the bass instrument and drums make your head soar. This is more of a visceral experience on the LCD-4s than on my loudspeakers! Sure it sounds great on the speakers but in a more intellectual and less involving way. Clearly this intimate recording is very suited to cans. Spatiality is not the message of the Palden recording, as opposed to the spacious and big IceCocoon cut. You don’t play the Palden recording to experience audiophile space and depth. You play it to move your body to the punch of the music, so having everything up front in the cans is a virtue, not a liability.

General Comment on the LCD-4’s versus Calibrated Dynaudio Speakers
J. Gordon Holt taught us that if we don’t get the midrange right, nothing else is right. Well, the midrange tone exactly matches when switching between my calibrated loudspeakers and the LCD-4’s. The tone of vocals is perfectly matched. I am confident that Audeze has gotten the critical midrange just right. For extreme highs I must give the edge to the Dynaudio tweeters, for the extreme lows I vote for the chest-slamming impact of the JL subwoofers. Yet there is a close finish in the competition for the most satisfying bass drum pop. The presence range (2k-6k) is very comparable between the two. The low treble around 6k-10k in the LCD-4 are a bit attenuated but not in an unacceptable manner: these cans are not even a close relative to the LCD-2s, 3s and X’s in the range above 6k. So do not use your previous Audeze experience as a guide to how well the LCD-4s are going to reproduce high frequencies. The LCD-4s are the first headphones from Audeze that I feel have a completely satisfying upper mid presence and high end. I’m not using any EQ at this time, but in later blogs I’ll experiment with some EQ. Cymbals are present and extended on the LCD-4s. If the HF in these cans is down, I wager it’s not more than a dB. Nice diaphragm, Audeze!

Bob’s First Listen to the Focal Utopia compared to the Audeze LCD-4

The Utopias have arrived, in a deluxe black cardboard case, but the case is not as impressive or functional as the rugged Pelican travel case that Audeze supplies with all its headphones.

These next tracks were auditioned after I interviewed Matt and Aaron so my reactions may be a bit colored by their influence, but I believe my judgments are independent. First up is a very special jazz audiophile recording on Chesky Records, engineered by Nick Prout, from HD Tracks at 2496. This totally acoustic live performance with intimate audience is to die for, very naturally recorded largely with a single point stereo microphone. The song is called You Lied from the album “Blues and Grass”, starring James Ulmer, Queen Esther and the “52nd Street Blues Project”. Dynamics of this recording and tonality are very natural, every instrument and element sounds alive. Queen Esther’s voice sounds startlingly real, unamplified, in a bluesey, smokey club atmosphere. The small audience’s claps are holographically presented. It’s an absolute reference for any stereo system.

LCD-4 - Bass instrument is coherently located midway between center and right with excellent ambience around the instrument. Claps and finger snaps are wonderfully delineated in full width with nice room ambience around the claps. Vocal is warm and clear, perfectly in the center, not in your face but spaced out in the room in a natural way. Bass instrument has more growl than fundamentals as it is an unamplified acoustic instrument at a moderate distance from the main mike. This recording sounds very real and alive on these cans.

Utopia - Bass is alive and I don't notice any immediate reduction of deep fundamentals, probably because they are not there in this recording to begin with. Vocal is centered but much more up front than with the LCD-4. She has maybe more presence than on the Dynaudios, but since the recording is so natural and warm, the extra presence doesn't annoy me and can easily be interpreted as “more there there”. Claps seem attenuated compared to the LCD-4. Vocal range is not as microdynamic as the LCD-4. The ambience around the vocal is less than with the LCD-4, so there is less “there there” in the critical ambience and space. The bass solo is more forward and has less ambience as well. My preference is slightly for the LCD-4 but on this great recording both headphones shine.

Next song is Here We Go Again, from Ray Charles’ luscious album “Genius Loves Company”, the 10th anniversary remix produced by maestro engineer Al Schmitt. This album is highly regarded for its music and sound. We played the 2496 master files from HD tracks. This track features both male and female singers (Norah Jones) and is a dual challenge to see how the two headphones reproduce male and female vocals. Schmitt must have used the world’s best microphone for each singer because the two vocals have excellent presence, warmth, and natural quality as revealed on the Dynaudios.

Focal - Norah's vocal is very forward, but still pretty warm. Bass is thick, a little muddy and a little loud. I can tell Ray is left of center and Norah a little right of center. There isn't a tremendous amount of reverb around the vocal or instruments. I don't hear as much presence in either Norah or Ray’s vocals as I remember from the loudspeakers. Billy Preston's organ solo seems to come predominantly from the left side where the high frequency Leslie horn is panned, as if there is a sharp tweeter on the left ear, but neglecting to some extent the low frequency portion of the Leslie that's supposed to be on the right side. The snare drum is a bit tinny and missing its body and fundamental and seems a bit attenuated compared to the loudspeakers and LCD-4s.

LCD-4 - Very rich opening, it grabs me from the first note. Norah's vocal is more centered than in the Focals...and is warmer. Ray's vocal is slightly left of center and Norah’s more centered, and I think that’s intentional. The bass instrument has more pluck and definition on these cans and is quite clear, not muddy like it was on the Focals. When I switch to mono in Acourate Convolver, the sound is perfectly centered so the amp and phones are right on balance-wise. Billy Preston's organ solo has a more stereophonic effect on these cans than with the Focals, with the high and low Leslie participating more equally on left/right side of the stereo image. If I were the mixing engineer, that’s the way I would balance it so I think the LCD-4 reflects Al Schmitt’s intent more accurately. The snare is clear and tight and in a good proportion with good body and fundamental.

Next song is I Lost My Girl From Memphis by the FB Pocket Orchestra, using my 2496 master. This album, called “Guerilla Jazz”, is available on CD. FB Pocket Orchestra is a trio performing exciting 20’s and 30’s swing jazz. It’s an impressive little group, with an infectious melody that will create an ear worm—it’s running in my head right now. Combining a charismatic female vocal with clarinet, acoustic guitar, trumpet, tuba, piano, banjo, and percussion, it’s recorded in a very pure and natural way. I urge you to ask the group to make the 2496 masters available for purchase.

LCD-4 - Muted trumpet is perfectly centered, warm and luscious. Tuba is clear and you can hear each note but it does not go down very deep, exactly as I know it from the speakers and my master. The vocal is warm and clear. Stereo separation is gorgeous with percussion and stringed instruments spread left and right. The duet between trumpet and piano is perfectly balanced. The tuba solo is gorgeous in the center. Guitar solo on the right is nicely and correctly balanced by the level of the tuba accompaniment. The clarinet left of center is warm and not strident. The tom solo à la Gene Krupa is gorgeously clear and delineated with the high hat perfectly defined over on the right.

Focal - Trumpet is slightly right of center. Maybe my 1dB of compensation was not quite enough. Clarinet is left of center and has more presence than the presentation on the LCD-4s. The clarinet harmonics actually sound more real on the Focals, however the Dynaudios reveal that the clarinet does not have much presence, so I conclude the Focals must be giving a slightly exaggerated harmonic impression. The vocal is not as rich as it is presented on the LCD-4s. The drum solo doesn't have the magic punch that it had with the LCD-4s but it is still pleasant.

If I didn't have the LCD-4s to compare with I would be quite satisfied with these Focals using this reference quality recording. Overall on this recording the Focal seems a bit colored or boxey but not unpleasantly and only by a direct comparison with the more natural-sounding LCD-4s which I judge to be a hair superior. But I would not kick these Focals out of bed, even with this bright recording. Personally I wouldn't choose them, but if you are a fan of detail in recordings I recommend that you audition them and see for yourself which headphones you prefer.

Next song: Lindsey Webster, Back To Your Heart. My 2496 master of a kicking jazz piece. This song is from Lindsey’s Jazz/Soul album of the same title, which has reached number one on the Billboard charts. It’s a great recording, with perfect arrangement, performance and sound by a consummate electric jazz group and mixing by Mark Gray. Lindsey’s voice can get a little edgy on peaks of some songs which I know is in the original recording. This does not deter the listening enjoyment, so not to worry. The five or six string electric bass, going down quite deep, is one of the stars of this pop-jazz performance.

Focal - Bass instrument is deep and strong. Cymbals are strong. Vocal, which I know to be warm, is warm on these cans but the sibilance is stronger than I know it to be on the Dynaudios. Ride cymbals are a bit tizzy, in your face around 12k, revealing a treble emphasis in these cans. Vocal is just a margin right of center, so now I know I could have used perhaps 1.1 dB of attenuation on the right channel in Acourate Convolver for this sample of the Focals, but this is very minor. Background vocals seem attenuated compared to what I remember from the loudspeakers. The sound is not very rich in the low mids, but I know it should be richer based on the Dynaudio presentation. Guitar solo is pretty and the back beat snare pops. Overall I like what I hear, but it seems a bit like a pastiche of real sound. Lindsey sounds just as sexy here, so I would not kick these Focal cans out of bed; if I did not have the LCD-4s to compare I would be impressed. The presence issues that I think exist in the Focals are not emphasized in this warm and full recording.

LCD-4 - Bass fundamental grabs me; it goes down to the center of the earth, as I know it should based on the mastering. Ambience and space are stronger and more obvious than on the Focals. Vocal has a very nice full lower midrange and body as I know to be on the master recording. When she goes to the B part the cymbals fill in the highs, not the presence of the vocal, as it should, but on the Focals I heard more presence on the vocal B part than I think is in the master. There is not enough somewhere around 11k, and I think there is the weak link of these cans. Maybe the cans have a little dip around 11k which is restored around 15k since I do hear the air of the cymbals, just not not quite enough presence circa 11k... I need to play around with just the right EQ. But in the meantime, we should just enjoy...overall this has a very satisfying feel so I prefer the LCD-4s on this cut to the presentation of the Focal.

Next cut: A rock classic that everyone knows, The Doors, from LA Woman, "Love Her Madly", a wonderful transfer at 2496 on HD tracks that’s so revealing it feels like we’ve traveled through a time machine to 1971.

Let’s see what it sounds like on the loudspeakers: Stereo separation is very entertaining. Bass does not have deep fundamental as is the case for that era but it's well defined. The phase-effected vocal is nice. This tune is not a heavy rocker because the drums are not very sharp, clear or loud, at least on the loudspeakers. I'm impressed with the analog tape restoration: This is an excellent historical document restored and brought back to life. I think I hear an authentic picture of what this recording is supposed to sound like. I hear everything in the mix, very entertaining, and warm. The drums seem to come more to life by the middle of the tune, perhaps the 40+ year old oxide layer is in better shape at this point in the track. Or perhaps it was just the mix. I'm really interested in hearing what it sounds like on the cans.

LCD-4 - Initial guitar has good presence. Bass is a bit boxey as it is in the original recording, but it sounds strong enough. The phase effect on the vocal seems attenuated compared to the speakers, probably because of the slight depression somewhere in the lower highs that I think is the weak link of these cans. But regardless, this song rocks on these cans! Surprisingly, I prefer the cans to the speakers for the rock quality...it punches; the drums are strong and punchy.

On the other hand, the speakers sound a bit too...clinical? Anyway, this song is very entertaining on the LCD-4s, everything is in your face, there’s not much depth as there wasn’t much depth engineered into an 8 or perhaps 16 track tape mix in 1971. Yes, the speakers seem to reveal more depth, no surprise considering they are phase corrected, and so any phase shift in the recording would translate to a depth image which cans have more difficulty reproducing. Horses for courses! Again, I love how this song rocks on the LCD-4s, it's much less analytical than it sounds on the Dynaudios and so the LCD-4s are the winners over the loudspeakers!

Focal - Opening guitar has good presence as does the organ on the right. Bass is a bit thinner than it is on the LCD-4s but still reasonably strong. There's more presence and detail, but conversely, I think the sound doesn't rock like it does on the LCD-4s! I seek a strong rock feel for this song as I'm sure the producers did years ago. High end transients and detail are clearer on this cut on these phones, but is that what I really want to hear? I don't want to analyze this song, I want to live it! So I give the edge to the LCD-4s once again over the Focals and even over the speakers!

This next song was auditioned by me before anyone else here heard the Focals so my reactions are completely independent:

Redstick Ramblers: Stay All Night, my 2496 master. I’m very fond of this music. This great Texas Swing and Cajun group’s album, “Bring It On Down” may still be available on CD but the group has disbanded and so you may need to look on the used shelves.

Focal - Bass is muddy, not clear, which is not helped by the fact that this album was recorded to analog tape and the bass instrument is fat in the master. So I think the Focals may not be kind to fat bass instruments. The 8k range is exaggerated and harsh, making the fiddle far more scratchy than it should sound. It’s a pastiche of a recording rather than a natural reproduction. Treble is extra clear but thin around 10k and boosted artificially around 20k compared to the reference loudspeakers. The sound of this recording on these phones has some depth and holography, but it’s definitely not my cup of tea, at least on this cut I’ll give them an 8 out of 10 for accuracy. The lower midrange (the warmth region) is attenuated too much for my tastes and doesn’t match the loudspeakers either. I compensated for the 1 dB channel imbalance in Acourate Convolver. The Focal has a more forward upper midrange than the loudspeakers, which I judge to be inaccurate. But overall the sound of the Focals is not terrible, at least on this already warm and analog-sounding cut made from analog tape.

LCD-4 - I think these phones sound warmer and more accurate using the Dynaudios as a reference. They have a bigger and heavier bass than the Focals, still pleasant even though subtly exaggerated circa 20-40 Hz. Sub bass emphasis may be an endemic characteristic of planars as I noticed a similar sub bass boost in the Oppo PM-3s. Although since the Oppos have broken in I think the sub bass is not exaggerated any more in them. The Focals and the Audeze could not be voiced more differently! If you want to decide between these phones and this blog has not helped you enough, then you are definitely going to have to audition these two cans side by side!

Overall - The Dynaudios have been perfectly voiced so that bright reference recordings are not too bright and dark references are not too dark, to enable creating masters that translate to the widest variety of playback systems out there. This tonal balance broadens the portion of my music collection sound that I can play back without adding EQ. That should be the same goal with reference headphones.

I think the high frequency tilt of the LCD-4s comes closer to the reference ideal than that of the Focals, and so I conclude the LCD-4s will reproduce a wider range of recordings without sounding harsh or dull. I also find that even though the bass of the LCD-4s is a little stronger than correct balance, this is largely the sub-bass and they have so much bass definition and punch that the bass never seems bloated or masked, using a set of good reference recordings.

However, with the Focals, I found several recordings that were a bit too “present” above 2 kHz for my taste, but not so strong that a typical audiophile music fan would pick obvious nits unless you are as picky as me! I also found bass notes to sometimes be masked (undefined) in the Focals, so if you like to hear bass punch, these are not your cup of tea.

Bob Katz Ratings

Attribute Audeze LCD-4 Focal Utopia
Comfort 9.5 – the excellent cushions are luxuriously cushy and compensate well for the weight issue. However, if you tilt your head back they will tend to slide off. These are not good cans to use in bed. 9.5. The cushions are not as cushy as I would expect from premium cans, but they are certainly very light and comfortable. If you tilt your head back the cans do not slide because they are so light. Can be used lying down in bed.
Accuracy bass- sub 20-40 9, a little bit hot 7... this range is greatly attenuated
Accuracy Mid bass 50-80 9.5, almost perfect 8, a bit attenuated
Accuracy Upper bass 80-110 10... great definition and punch here, very accurate 8.5, a bit muddy or undefined. I wonder if Focal tuned this range up to accomodate for the lower frequency weaknesses of the Beryllium driver.
Accuracy Low mids 200-1k 9.5. Great warmth, maybe a bit too much by a hair, perhaps because of the attenuation circa 9k-12k 8.5, a bit attenuated
Accuracy mids 2k-5k 9.5. Good presence. 9.5, very good
Accuracy Upper mids 5k-8k 9.5. Good presence. 8 because it sounds exaggerated, especially sibilance
Accuracy Treble 9k-12k 8.5. This range is attenuated a bit 9, a little better definition here
Accuracy Extreme Treble 13k+ 9 9.5. It might be a hair hot
Enjoyment Factor 10. This can is a wow for me, lots of punch and very impressive and natural 8. Sounds a bit artificial and not quite as involving to me.
Stereo Imaging 9, because the 12k attenuation reduces apparent separation slightly in that range 7.5, uneven and phasey due to the contour curve, but very well defined in the upper mids
Depth 9, about as much as I expect a headphone can produce, since I give the best loudspeakers a 10 7. This phone brings too many presence ranges forward, obscuring depth
Overall Size of image 10. They throw a big image with big circumaural drivers 10. They throw a big image with big circumaural drivers
Transparency/Clarity 9.5 9.5, but in entirely different ranges than the LCD-4s
Impact and transient response 9.5, because of the attenuation circa 12k they don’t get a 10 8, a bit phasey and uneven through the spectrum
Any harshness (10 means none) 10 9, sometimes a bit harsh in the sibilance range
Design and look 8, industrial strength, functional. I just don’t love the bright metal vented sides which give it an industrial look. I’d prefer a more muted side color to match the gorgeous lacquered wood grain body. 10. French Haute Couture.


Folks, it ain’t over till it’s over! In my next episode you’ll hear what five expert listeners have to say about these two fine headphones!

electrokid's picture

Specifically which AMB amp, B22 ?

Bob Katz's picture


electrokid's picture

Must really be a 'custom' build as that amp does not do well on multiple objective measurements against sub-$100 amps. I'm not saying price is an immediate disqualifier for an amp, but it just seems strange to use such a lowly measuring amp for this clash of the giants.

Bob Katz's picture

It is a custom build. The input opamps are reverse biased from the way that AMB does it and they sound better. But measurements of the M3 do puzzle me. It measures objectively worse in terms of the spectral lines present in an FFT when sending a 1 kHz sine wave or a 19/20 kHz IM signal, compared to the headphone jack in my new Prism Callia DAC, which measures pristine clean. The AMB and the Callia appear to clip at the same equivalent SPL point (LCD-4 reference), which is equivalent to about 115 dB SPL... but subjectively, the AMB headphone output kills the Callia. The Callia seems to clamp on peaks but the AMB produces effortless instantaneous sound peaks.

So I must be measuring the wrong thing! I have to look for a measurement that shows why the AMB sounds superior... a way to produce a dynamically changing signal and measure it on both systems as the principle: "Measures bad, sounds good" doesn't make sense. In other words, I conclude that continuous sines and IM tones don't seem to tell the story of why one amplifier sounds better than another.

Dirac, headphones are a hobby for me, self-funded from my not-substantial earnings as a mastering engineer. I cannot afford to own a stable of high wattage, "measures good and sounds good" amplifiers, so I accomplished a great sounding high-wattage amplifier from a kit with some of my special sauce. Subjectively, this amp beat every one of the best commercial amplifiers that Tyll had in Boseman for the big get together there. So I'll stick with it for the moment and feel quite comfortable using it as a reference. Once again, in the article I explicitly compare the Deckard to the AMB and if you read it again you will find that I address these issues you bring up.

Until engineers can come up with a satisfactory technical explanation why we need 3 or 4 watts to make LCD-4s sound good while objectively that would produce unnecessary SPLs of 130 dB.... then our hobby has to have a subjective element to it.

I'm a headroom junky... my amps for high and mid-impedance headphones have to have the instantaneous power capability and power supply reserve to deliver satisfactory instantaneous peaks. So my subjective guess is that the Callia headphone amp must be starved for momentary peak power, that's all I can think, it's a power supply thing. So you can cite sine wave-based continuous tone measurements all day, but I do not consider these to be satisfactory arbiters of headphone amp sound quality. We must be measuring the wrong thing here... I need a technical amplifier expert to enter in and explain this objective-subjective discrepancy, and if possible, to supply a measurement that satisfies this dilemma. I'll copy this message and post it on my Facebook page, which a number of top-notch engineers frequent and see what they have to say.

electrokid's picture

AMB should update their info on this amp with your mods.
It would be a great killer budget solution from the sound of things.

elmura's picture

Whilst more power certainly permits higher SPL, there's another benefit: Ability to more accurately drive the loaded transducer at regular listening levels.

A more powerful amp (vs another with similar circuit design) will distort less under transient and peak loads.
Relative to cars (my other passion) if you've ever driven a torquey, large engined car, you'll find it climbs hills and overtakes with relative ease as there's plenty of reserve power

There is such a thing as too much power relative to the speakers / headphones / earphones it's driving. Usually the volume will have to be set quite low where channel imbalance and greater noise will often occur. Highly sensitive phones will highlight this

dirac28's picture

Dirac? I didn't ask a question about the amplifier ;)

Bob Katz's picture

I thought the question came from Dirac.

Hifihedgehog's picture

Thank you for the extremely insightful and detailed review that gave a very accurate view into these two headphones. I don't know if you have gotten this before but I hope you don't mind this little bit of friendly jest, seeing it is Katz's corner and all. :)


I realize you don't have access to the Utopias but I am positive someone of your expertise and renown would be able to give me an accurate response regardless. Just how much would your descriptions of the sound change from where they stand now if you were to use the most recent Meier audio crossfeed filter plug-in in foobar2000 ( http://www.foobar2000.org/components/view/foo_dsp_meiercf )? This may be fishing for a bit of very-limited scope, case specific response. However, I am unusual in that nearly ever since I started the hobby around eight or nine years ago, I have found crossfeed a bare necessity for headphones to sound natural to me and for me to get full enjoyment out of them. For the sake of science and all that jazz, if you do get the chance, I would appreciate at least your initial thoughts on one or both headphones' sound response with the addition of this Meier crossfeed plug-in in the signal chain.

Bob Katz's picture

Very cute KATZ! I've not found any of the analog crossfeed techniques to please me. There are some good digital transforms including pinnae-transforms, however, which are very promising. But I do 99% of my headphone listening to straight stereo records and my brain has already adapted :-)

Manpowre's picture

Did you really use Oppo HA-2 dac to feed the amp's for Utopia and LCD4 ?
I would really like if you could confirm this, as the HA-2 with the ESS Sabre32 chip is known to be a little bright up top. This doesnt justify the Utopia as it is already known to be a little bright up top as you also found.

Personally I would preferr that you used a proper DAC to do the review if you really used the HA-2.

Personally I own LCD4, just wanted to point out something I know and have heard myself as that specifically bright up top on Sabre chips is the main reason I reviewed Hegel DAC's with AKM chips, and landed on the Schiit Yggdrasil dac just for this bullet point alone.

My last point is that I use balanced cables from my dac to my amp and balanced to my LCD4. You did not mention any cabling, specifically XLR4 vs the big jackplug on either cans. LCD4 is known to have better soundstage with proper amplification as you pointed out, but specifically XLR4!

Bob Katz's picture

Not at all. Not for me. Using the headphone line output, not the line output but the headphone output I've fed a number of systems with the HA-2s and I would characterise them as warm, not bright. If you use the line output instead you won't have the deep bass. So impedance "matching" is important. If on the other hand you did use its headphone output and still fee they're bright then we'll have to agree to disagree. The HA-2 is one of the warmest DACs I've experienced here.

quadLZB's picture

I have the Focal Utopias, and I have to say your characterization of their flaws is right on. As time has gone on disappointment has set in. I have become acutely aware of a sort of slight but annoying "tinny" metallic quality that colors everything. These headphones actually sound a little like metal dome drivers. Gee, that's what they use. And I also don't like the boomy uncontrolled nature of the midbass. And I don't like the absence of really deep bass.

I haven't heard the LCD-4s, but I would expect that you have pinpointed the qualities of those "cans" just as accurately as you have the Utopias. So I may just have to get the LCD-4s.

Beagle's picture

Very well written, very informative. Nice details on two obviously different representations of high-end headphone sound. Nice that you used the Dynaudio as a reference so as not to lose your footing.

hanshopf's picture

I am a disappointed owner of the Utopias since September and am going to sell them. After reading your very insightful article I went to a shop here in Berlin and listened to the LCD-4 versus the Utopia an my rig and my music which I had brought with me. I was shocked how different their Utopia sounded to my own model, which I know intimately by now! They had more bass than mine and lesser treble. In a title I had listened to literally hundreds of times EQ-ing my Utopia at home I immediately found that the nasty glare in the trumpets was gone. They were shining really beautifully. I bought my Utopia in late September. The shop's model was from mid-November. Product variances or new tuning? I guess they just have not tight enough quality controls.
In contrast the LCD-4 they had in the shop sounded muddy, with bloomy sub bass and a lack of energy in the upper mids. Quality control?
I am quite sure I would prefer YOUR LCD-4 to MY Utopia, dear Bob. But due to product variances it might also be the other way round. Wow!! ;)

hanshopf's picture

The shop's LCD-4 was from mid 2016. It really did not sound accurate to my ears. I found it didn't even sound "fun" or "involving". Anyway, I learned my lesson and am aware now that I do not necessarily get the sound I had listened to before in the shop due to seemingly inacceptable product variances (for this money one should expect a flawless product I think.)

Bob Katz's picture

Product variances.... Maybe I need a new sample of the Focal. Maybe you need a new sample of the LCD-4 :-(. Make sure you are auditioning the 200 ohm model with a powerful amp.

hanshopf's picture

Today I exchanged my Utopias. The alternate one sounds definitely better (clean and beautiful in the highs, not harsh like the other Utopia I had). And this all happened thanks to your review, which made me have a listen to LCD-4 - and in the end find a better pair of Utopias (against a surprisingly dull specimen of LCD-4 (even the shop's LCD-2 with new drivers sounded more coherent to my ears). So, in the end I am happy not to have to sell my Utopias anymore. :) And I very much like your thinking and writing. It's really inspiring! It's great that Tyll made you part of this forum.

24bitbob's picture

Hi Bob,

A wonderful article, and one where the very hard work in setting the whole thing up has to be acknowledged. Thank you.

As I read your comments I could almost see your toes tapping as you reflected on the sound of the LCD-4. Whatever the objective analysis of a system, listening to music must come down to the pleasure derived. The "toe tap" test. Your joy, in doing what must have been a very arduous series of tests, was infectious. I'm sure many who have bought the Focal headphones will be tapping their toes too. that's what makes this whole endeavour worth the chase.

Thank you.


tony's picture

I just had a brief look at those Amps and their modules, very interesting stuff.

You navigate an interesting world, they only have one guy in the US ( Co ) and one place in Eu. How on earth did you find them?
Somehow they have a relationship with my lovely Elecrocompaniet.

Tony in Michigan

valius55's picture

this is not OK to compare two very expensive headphones with different (one of them custom build !!!) relatively cheap amps. I also think it is not OK to compare LCD-4 with Utopia, which is , as it seems, not in perfect working order and needs corrections. This could not be a fair comparison.. I also think two components from same company very often will sound better (Audeze LCD---Deckard) than two others form different manufacturers , especially in headphone hi -fi. To feed worlds best headphones through a 300 USD dac is also bad idea ..And finally I think I can feel in your review litte of pressure of the 4000 ..:) But I l liked your review very much , thank you , Bob ! Reading you is always a plesure !

MRC01's picture

I found this highly interesting and educational because my situation is similar to Bob's yet at a more pedestrian level: Magnepan 3.6 in a tuned listening room with light digital EQ, versus 2014 LCD-2 fazors. My impression of the overall character of the differences of good speakers vs headphones mirrors Bob's. Yes, the best speakers are comparable to the best headphones. It's like having several children: you love them all but in slightly different ways.

I find that a mild parametric EQ, +3 dB @ 4600 Hz, Q=0.67 alleviates the LCD-2 mid / treble dip and makes them more neutral with voicing overall similar to the Magnepans which in the tuned room with mild EQ are within 2 dB of the "flat" target curve at the listener position. With most high quality recordings the Magnepans win by a smidge in overall realism and satisfaction but not every time. Each sounds fantastic in its own similar yet slightly different way and I enjoy both immensely.

Bob Katz's picture

Zoom in some more and it doesn't look so bad :-) Then listen.... most of the peaks are not short transients but more throbbing bass lines, which seem to benefit from a bit of peak limiting to add the punch. Sharp, short transients are not what the Bombay Dub mix is about.

Barryb5's picture


Interesting to note your subjective ratings of mids/presence etc. However, how prescient are you of the inevitable roll-off due to presbycusis? Indeed, excepting the chance that you may be an anomaly where hearing is concerned, accuracy circa 8k and upwards is surely a young folks game, who typically have notably flatter audiograms etc. Perhaps you eq to compensate for such shortfalls, or inevitable changes rather.

kind regards...

Bob Katz's picture

Objectively, my ears show some rolloff, but it's pretty linear. I've treated them well over the years and I don't have the 3 kHz dip that many older people have from abuse. There is also a form of adaptation that seems to occur. I will quit reviewing or mastering as soon as any of my clients or colleagues discover that I'm pushing 20k or 3k or 5k or any of those frequencies beyond their own younger perceptions. I often have younger interns sitting in the mastering room with me and I'll quiz them, "Do you think we need more (less) highs? And so far, knock on wood, not a single one has given me an indication that my ears are in trouble. On the contrary, many times my trained ears reveal and find things in the material that their untrained and inexperienced ears do not detect!

I used to have super hearing when i was in my 20's. I was bothered by the horizontal oscillators of TV sets and the 19 kHz tones of burglar alarms in stores. But not anymore. Admittedly! However, I work the 27 kHz shelving filter on one of my equalizers, that has a gentle slope that reaches down towards 12 kHz, and I find and judge whether 0.5 dB boost at 27 kHz shelving is significant or not and continue to make those judgments in mastering today. I'm not pretending I can hear 27 kHz, not! I haven't tested my hearing in a few years and I fear what the latest tests will show objectively, but my personal thought is that as long as I can continue to hear the difference of 0 dB or +0.5 dB shelf at 27 kHz, I must be still all right.

MRC01's picture

Presbycusis is real and I've wondered the same question, but 8 kHz sounds like a low threshold to me - of course depending on your age and how well you've taken care of your ears over the years.

Technology has made this easier to measure than it has been in the past. At age 49 my hearing rolls off about 14.5 kHz, my upper limit was 19 kHz 30 years ago.

However, perception is more than just hardware; the software is a big part of it. Hearing differences has a lot to do with training, experience and sensitivity in bass through midrange. Problems in the extreme top end often have passband side effects you don't need bat ears to hear if you know what to listen for. Many of us are audiophiles with lots of experience, but as a professional with a long career I think Bob has more of this than most of us do.

MRC01's picture

PS according to Tyll's measurements, the FR curve of the LCD-4 is similar to the LCD-2 Fazors. Both have the same smooth linear dip in the upper mids to treble between 2k and 9k, which makes up part of Audeze's house sound. Bob, I wonder if you've tried EQ on the LCD-4 to correct this or the other anomalies you mentioned in the review.

To me, this dip puts the Audeze cans on the warm side of neutral and I prefer to correct it with gentle EQ. Yet HRTF is individual so others might perceive it as "pefect".

Bob Katz's picture

You've read my mind.... Assuming that Tyll's LCD-4 sample is similar to mine (which given variations in manufacturing is doubtful) there is no question in my mind that the LCD-4 is a distinct high frequency improvement over the -2, -3 or -X. A significant improvement. My equalization attempts to make up for the loss of air frequencies and mid treble in an LCD-x have not succeeded. My disfavor with the -X has increased. But the -4 is a completely different animal, with a far more electrostatic-like extension than any of the previous LCD models. At least the unit which I have in front of me :-). As a result I have come up with an amazing eq for the LCD-4 and another for my Stax that.... well, I'm getting ahead of myself. You[ll have to wait for Episode 15 for the grand finale of this shootout.

MRC01's picture

That is surprising. The LCD-X is one of the best headphones I've ever heard. It sounded faster and more neutral than the -2 or -3. The only -X flaw I observed was being a smidge too bright, emphasis of overtones over fundamentals in the voicing of natural acoustic instruments. The -2 is not as detailed or fast as the -X, but its voicing sounds more natural to me.

You were keen on the -X for a while. The -4 must be out of this world! I await episodes 14 and 15 with baited breath.

TWM's picture

I'm surprised that there is little or no mention of Tyll's earlier review of the LCD-4. He did not much like it. Later, he reviewed the Utopia and liked it a lot. I have zero problems with channel balance or brightness on my Utopias, purchased in late December 2016. For Tyll's LCD-4 review, see: http://www.innerfidelity.com/content/technologically-impressive-lcd-4-pl...