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

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.

COMMENTS
Bob Katz's picture

I didn't see a wide range of variance among the listeners in this review. There was concensus on the sonic differences, just a variance in interpretation of the importance of those differences. In other words, while Paige was more inclined to the Focal than the other listeners (for certain purposes), she still agreed as to the nature of the difference in sonics between the two headphones.

tony's picture

Ok,

The charts show a horror story. I'm expecting Focal to step-up, making me worry about Focal's support, hmmm.

Thanks for writing back,

Tony in Michigan

elmura's picture

I question the accuracy of the comparison when such different amplifiers are being used. An accurate comparison requires a level playing field. From source through to amp.

Bob Katz's picture

Hi guys. First of all, I made it clear in this and the previous episode that we carefully compared the Deckard against the AMB and they are effectively sister amplifiers, at least down to almost the sub bass range. So the amplifier is not, in my not so humble opinion, the cause of the differences.

Secondly, there are some VERY strong all acoustic recordings in the listening set. For example, "You Lied" is a purist audiophile all acoustic performance without amplification. There are natural sources including vocal at a distance from a stereo pair in a natural room ambience, and unamplified acoustic upright bass. There are other tracks of that sort, so acoustic sources were well represented in the gist of tracks used. No puzzle here: Be careful not to be seduced by the bright side :-). Bright, thin, and no bass is not better. Furthermore, given my ears, do you really think I would include an amplifier for audition that was not quite neutral tonally?

Nevertheless, there's more to discuss and some surprises in the next episodes with some sweeter-sounding amplifiers, but the Focal headphone is long gone so those of you who are stuck on it for some reason will not have it for comparison unless you want to send it down to me here for a new comparison with an even sweeter amplifier. Assuming it's not a bandaid, and in this case I don't think the new amplifier that I've got for testing is a bandaid. It could mollify the Focal, but you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. And I'm not a fan of using bandaids to "repair' tonal issues that shouldn't exist in the first place.... I stand by the judgments of the Focal Utopia which was supplied to me.

tony's picture

I'll accept your summary and keep it in the back of my mind that you had a bad sample of product.

You may have simply pulled the curtain back on a Manufacturing / Design problem. If I'm Focal I'd be all over this result, unless....

So:
I'm staying on this exciting report series.

Tony in Michigan

Rthomas's picture

Dear Bob,

Thanks for arranging this amazing test with a panel of audio professionals who know what they should be hearing. Please ignore the marketing brainwashed people from Headfi who cannot comprehend the fact that two amps can sound the same and that you don’t need a $4000+ amp to ‘’properly’’ drive a high efficiency headphone.

They are currently busy discussing the merits of various $1500 to $3000 silver-gold cables, 1000 hour burn in times for the Utopias and of course for the cables and amps as well. Its better we leave them to it!

MRC01's picture

Bob, I got the same impression - observations were surprisingly consistent, even if they were expressed in different words and led to different preferences.

That's an important distinction: preferences are different from observations. Well-trained and experienced listeners are more likely to agree on observations than preferences. One thing I liked about this comparison is it was observation-focused, even though preferences were expressed.

quangtan's picture

I want to have it . Like a boss. camera wifi

JVG's picture

This was an interesting but frustrating read overall. I love the format of having multiple experienced listeners weigh in on the same comparison, and there is no such thing as unanimity of opinion, so I think everyone should relax a bit about the fact that Tyll and Bob have such different takes on these two headphones. It shouldn't be that surprising. That being said, the value of this multi-review and of Bob's personal review are undercut by what---I'm sorry, Bob---is a very flawed method of comparison and arrogant communication of the results.

The comparison is flawed for many reasons, first and foremost by the absurd and counterproductive idea of judging headphones against the "reference" of one specific speaker setup in one specific room. First of all, and most obviously, headphones are not speakers. The whole methodology is torpedoed by this false equivalence. Headphones and speakers have different strengths and weaknesses, different use cases, and their sound is perceived completely differently. Large multi-driver speaker systems interacting with room acoustics and traveling through large volumes of air to get to the listener are different than small single drivers strapped to your head and firing directly into your ears. I love speakers and headphones, but I couldn't possibly care less which headphones sound more like some particular pair of speakers. I care about which is the better headphone. Furthermore, even if we accept the headphone-speaker equivalency, the way you talk about your speaker rig, Bob, as if it is some objectively perfect and neutral reference against which all the world's sound reproduction devices can be measured, is, again, absurd on its face. I'm sure it is an amazingly good, well tuned rig, but it is but one of many amazingly good, well-tuned rigs belonging to countless other very talented and experienced audio professionals and enthusiasts around the world, all of which will incorporate different gear and exhibit countless differences in frequency response, timbral characteristics, room acoustics, and subjective personal preference. Which one is right? None---there is no such thing. So if you want to say the LCD-4s sound more like your speakers than the Utopias do, fine. But it simply does not follow that the LCD-4s are therefore the better headphones. The fact that all of these listeners' impressions were poisoned from the beginning by first listening to these tracks on that speaker system as the reference against which to compare the headphones means that the rest is of little value. Especially if the Audezes and the speakers had similar frequency response. We all know how easy it is for the brain to latch on to a certain balance, making another significantly different balance sound terribly wrong until the brain then adjusts to the new one. If these listeners got used to the speakers, and then tested one headphone with a very similar balance and another with a very different balance, the result is predictable. Combine that with a pre-existing conscious or subconscious expectation bias based on Bob's prior opinion, and it's even more so.

Other flaws have already been noted by others. The different amps driving the headphones is one, but I agree this is of only minor consequence and wouldn't account for hugely significant differences compared to the difference between the headphones. (Though the arrogant remark about how we should all simply accept your decree that the two amps are basically identical---based on....I don't know what exactly---doesn't help.) Much more significant is the almost complete lack of evaluation of anything beyond frequency response and tonal balance. I won't waste time explaining why this is such a huge failing of this comparison. Especially since we are talking about two completely different driver technologies.

Also very significant and previously mentioned is the lack of variety in musical material and the omission of classical music. This is important to me not only because that is my most frequently listened-to genre, but also because it offers the purest timbral reference coupled with a full and complete frequency range. The latter is especially important. It is much easier to evaluate and be bothered by tuning, frequency response, and timbral weirdness/non-linearities/holes when you have similar acoustic, unmanipulated instruments covering the whole range from the lowest notes of a string bass to the highest notes of a violin. Recordings that have bigger gaps between instrumental ranges and timbres and less complete coverage of the range much more easily hide these things.

Finally, your constant, not-so-subtle implications that your experience and expertise makes your rig and your subjective impressions infallible and that you don't care what the non Grammy-winning-mixing-engineers hear because they don't have your golden ears, do nothing but display hubris and a lack of recognition of the infinitely variable and subjective nature of this sort of thing. Let's start with the fact that Tyll thinks the complete opposite of what you think about these two headphones. He is not a recording professional, true. But frankly, it's obvious from your respective writings that he has exponentially more experience listening to and evaluating and comparing hi-fi headphones than you do. You are both experts, but you have different expertise. So whose opinion is more expert? Neither. You'll notice that he does not deliver his opinions as if they were handed down immaculately from on high and brook no disagreement. No one can argue that they are MORE qualified than Tyll to evaluate a pair of headphones, and yet he makes it clear that he respects conflicting opinions and recognizes the fundamentally subjective nature of this exercise. (He even PUBLISHED a rebuttal of his findings by the manufacturer of the headphones he reviewed negatively---an incredible display of open-mindedness and confidence that a conflicting opinion does not make his own any less valid.) Your lack of that understanding and your clear attitude that you are right and anyone who disagrees is wrong, including Tyll (even suggesting that if only he would come listen to your "perfect" speaker rig he would see the light and the error of his ways), makes you less credible, not more.

Where do I stand on the comparison? Nowhere. I've never heard the LCD-4. I'd love to, and when I have a chance, I hope that they are everything you say they are. I'm always happy when the bar is raised. And whether I end up agreeing or not, I believe that you honestly hold the opinion that you do, and that you are entitled to that opinion and that it is just as valid as the opinion of any other experienced listener.

I do own the Utopias, as well as the LCD-3s, the HD800s, HD650s, TH-X00 Ebonys, and several other lesser headphones. And I've owned many, many other models over the 15 years I've spent listening seriously to headphones. All I can say is that in my opinion, the Utopias are the best headphones I've heard overall. They are not perfect. They are slightly bright, they have a narrow band of slightly unnatural timbre in the upper mids, they could use a slight bump in the lower mids, and they have a smallish soundstage. And they are overpriced, as is pretty much any headphone in this price range. But as a complete package, they are the best I've heard. They do so much so very well, and so few things wrong.

For all I know, once I hear the LCD-4, I might agree that they are better. But if they share, in any way, the general character of the LCD-3s, I will not. There are things I love about the LCD-3---the strong, textured, even bass, and the very linear and natural response from the subbass to the low mids, for example. But in my opinion, they are deeply flawed headphones. The upper mids and low treble are extremely suppressed, and worse, in addition to being far too low in level, those regions are extremely muffled sounding, missing all the overtones and killing the timbre. The effect of this is that orchestral music sounds almost comically unnatural and wrong. (Some other types of music don't show this issue very clearly and can sound very good. It just depends. This is why the music selection for this comparison troubles me.) In addition, the high treble then suddenly comes out of nowhere, and sort of ends up sounding like distortion because it often consists of the high overtones of notes whose fundamentals are super low in the mix. Also, they sound extremely congested in busy, loud passages, which kills the energy and momentum of the music in these moments. Reading between the lines of Tyll's review, it sounds like these basic issues are still there in the LCD-4. As if the good aspects are even better but the bad aspects aren't completely fixed. Nothing about the measurements, or many other people's impressions compared to what they thought of the LCD-3, seem to indicate otherwise. Again, you obviously feel differently, and I haven't heard them, so I have no opinion. Just explaining why I feel the way I do about the Utopias and another Audeze headphone.

I've been a musician since I was 6 years old. I know what this music sounds like up close. I now work in the classical music industry in New York, and I attend performances by the world's best musicians multiple times a week. I know what this music sounds like as an audience member. When I put on a pair of headphones and listen to this type of music, I know whether it sounds right or not, to my ears, based on my experience. If your ears and your experience tell you something different, I'm not going to tell you you're wrong. But neither will I be told that I'm wrong. Rather, I'll ask what you think and why, and see what we agree on and where we have to agree to disagree.

Thank you for bringing another expert viewpoint to this website, but I'd encourage you to learn from how Tyll has made it such a good place for people to get informed, useful, balanced information in the first place. The forums have enough of the "people who like X and not Y headphone are idiots/shills/deaf" crowd who only deal in black and white, us vs them. We don't need it here.

daveemac's picture

Hi Bob

Thanks for sharing your tilt EQ suggestions for Oppo PM-3.

I've not yet been able to find an iOS EQ app that has tilt. Are you aware of any?

If not, what non-tilt EQ would you suggest for devices where tilt is unavailable?

Thanks,
Dave

Scientist1's picture

$4,000 headphones are retarded.

Dub-Yeah's picture

After reading the first few paragraphs of the first article (The Katz comparison) I had kinda dismissed this whole experiment out of hand. I think it was pretty clear from the onset that Mr. Katz has a pretty strong affinity for the Audeze brand. And that affinity, even if acknowledged (which I'm not sure it ever was), is pretty hard to set aside when attempting to make an objective assessment.I would've been very surprised had he not found in favor of the LCD4.

All those tribal components of human nature, brand loyalty, and pride of ownership are strong enough for us to wrap "FORD" or "CHEVY" or PITTSBURGH STEELERS into our identity. They exert influence on us, whether we like it or not.

I had compared the Elear and the LCD2 and the Elear was in a different league than the LCD2. The LCD2 sounded anemic and lifeless in comparison. I figured Bob would gush about the LCD4 but I expected his roster of listeners to favor the Focal, assuming (WRONGLY) that the top shelf units from Focal and Audeze would compare similarly to their smaller siblings.

Apparently not. Instead Bob's roster of listeners seem to support his findings regarding the flagship models. I guess you can't judge a book by its cover.

The LCD4 may sound extraordinary, but I do think bringing it to market in the same basic chassis as the LCD2 and LCD3 makes the steep jump in price tough to swallow.

The carbon fiber headband looks tacky (to me), and because it is the same basic design with the same acoustics with the same cup volume, and overall shape, you're talking about an ADDITIONAL $2,0000 for just the new driver, since everything else is pretty much equal. That same criticism can be directed at Focal... The Utopia has the same driver configuration as the Elear, with more exotic materials and some carbon fiber thrown in.

I don't see a whole lot of value in that. I suppose if they did glitz up the LCD4 and change the chassis I'd be complaining about that too. That you're paying $2,000 for aesthetics. In some ways I suppose its more honest.

And I guess what has bothered me about this whole thing is it normalizes the price point.

Articles like this lend credence to these $4k and $5k specimens like there is value to be had. It makes inroads towards normalizing this trend. And I don't see these specimens as providing value to the market. I see them more as companies testing pricing thresholds. Can we get away with this?

If one company is able to move some units at $4k, 6 months later there are a half dozen more asking $3500 to $5k.

I see it as an aberration, unscrupulous pricing that outta be challenged or pushed back against.

If Sony can apply all the engineering and R&D assets they have at their disposal and bring a bonafide flagship to market for less than half the cost of these. WTF?

Sennheiser is one of the oldest and most storied headphone manufacturer in the world... And their (consumer) flagship is 1/3 the cost of these. WTF?

I appreciate that Bob and his team feel that the LCD4 is offering State of the Art sound. I just think $4k is too much for a headphone... And I don't want it to become normal.
I don't want to get to a point where $500 gets you "plastic entry level" and I think these $4k monsters are pushing it that direction.

Anyway, no offense, as I said, it got me thinking and that is better than most things on the internet these days.

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