Most headphones on the market use a “traditional” driver technology referred to as dynamic drivers. These are much the same as the speakers you see in your stereo system or car with a cone of some sort driven by a coil of wire inside a magnet structure. In the past, planar magnetic technology was a fringe product in the headphone world, but over recent years this technology that was once nearly abandoned has enjoyed a resurgence to create some of the finest headphones on the planet. I’m going to talk about 2 of them here…
The LCD-2 was first released around 2010 and marked the first headphone from Audeze and the first really well-known planar magnetic headphone of the current generation. The LCD-2 has since undergone multiple revisions to tweak and improve on the sound and comfort. My pair are a December 2013 model which were made shortly before the most recent upgrade known as the Fazor. For the sake of comparisons to your tastes in music, the December 2013 version of the LCD-2 brings more treble energy and detail than its predecessors, but it’s still a warm / smooth sounding headphone compared with similarities to the HD650 (although I believe the LCD-2 is noticeably better than the HD650).
- Frequency response: 5 – 20,000 Hz
- Impedance: 70 ohms
- Efficiency: 93 dB / 1mW
- Weight: 600g
- Cable: detachable, twin entry cable using 4-pin mini XLR plugs
- Price: from approx $1000 (USD)
Those specs might seem normal at first glance, but 2 of the biggest considerations with planar headphones is their relatively low sensitivity and their relatively high weight. I’ll discuss both factors in more detail as the comparison continues, but next, let’s introduce the alternative.
HiFiMan have an extensive range of planar magnetic headphones which culminates in their flagship HE-6, however the HE-6 is a demanding headphone to drive and is therefore prohibitive to some potential buyers (like me) because of the need for a dedicated amplifier just for the HE-6s. There is no doubt that the HE-6 is an outstanding headphone, but the HE-500 seems to be (in my experience) the more common option for people seeking a high quality planar headphone. The HE-500 is just about to be discontinued for a new and, by all accounts, quite different sounding headphone called the HE-560, but I imagine it will still be readily available on second-hand markets for years to come so I thought it was worth discussing here.
- Frequency response: 15 – 50,000 Hz
- Impedance: 38 ohms
- Efficiency: 89 dB / 1mW
- Weight: 502g
- Cable: detachable, twin entry cable using screw-on coaxial connector
- Price: from approx $600 (USD)
You’ll notice immediately that the HE-500 costs nearly half the price of the LCDs, so do they belong in the same article? Read on to find out…
Design & Build Quality
In very general terms, both of these headphones have a similar design style in that they feature large, round cups – larger than most dynamic style headphones. After the initial, obvious size and shape they become more different than similar. The LCD-2s are built with beautiful rosewood or bamboo cups (mine are bamboo) with the rosewood version being slightly more expensive and heavier. The HE-500s are housed in a glossy grey housing made of plastic (I think). Both headphones offer padded leather headbands with the LCD-2 feeling higher quality, softer and more padded.
The pads of the headphones are an area of significant difference between the two headphones with the LCD-2s coming with either super-soft leather pads or vegan (i.e. non-animal product) micro-suede pads. Both options from Audeze are angled pads which are thicker at the back (behind the ear) to better direct the sound and improve imaging. For this comparison review I am using the leather pads supplied with my LCD-2s.
The HE-500 comes with 2 sets of pads, both of which are flat or non-angled. HiFiMan provides a velour set and a leather set with a foam insert. I have chosen to use the velour set on mine because they sound slightly more open and balanced than the leather option.
To look at both headphones, I believe both look like quality offerings, but with the Audeze LCD-2 looking significantly more refined and luxurious. Both are solid, well put together and robust so there’s no question of quality and longevity, just design aesthetics and that’s a very subjective realm where your tastes and mine could very well differ.
The HE-500 comes with a metal grille backed by fabric and the grille is recognised as a detractor from the HE-500’s sound quality (there’s even an article about this where HiFiMan acknowledged that removing the grille improves the sound). Many HE-500 owners choose to replace the grille with less restrictive options and while it’s important to note that this could void warranty, it’s a simple and reversible process that can be completed with just a few dollars and an hour or so.
For this comparison I am using the HE-500 with no grille attached as it creates the most natural and open sound from these headphones. Leaving the headphones grille-free could potentially lead to dust / particles entering the driver, but has been reported by many users to be safe over the long terms so this is a question of your personal preferences towards risk and reward.
I won’t get into detail about the supplied cables other than to say that the LCD-2s come with a flat, ribbon style cable which is OK, but not special and the HE-500s come with a silver-plated copper cable that is a bit stiff and shows kinks and bends over time, but is equally as serviceable as the LCD-2 cable. Unfortunately neither headphone really excels in the cable department, but thankfully both offer interchangeable cables which is great!
The LCD-2 uses a 4-pin mini-XLR connector for its cable which is excellent for DIYers because 4-pin XLR connectors are generally readily available from electronics stores. With only 2 wires (positive and negative / ground), the choice of the 4-pin connector is strange, but not a negative in any way.
The HE-500 uses a coaxial style screw connector and HiFiMan are kind enough to include a pair of connectors in the box so you can make your own cables straight away if you want to. The reason I am discussing this in detail is that these considerations are important to anyone wanting to upgrade their cables or to drive their headphones with a balanced output. With both the LCD-2 and HE-500 you can either reterminate the existing cables or make your own quickly and easily. For my purposes I have reterminated the HE-500 cable because I find their coaxial connectors a bit fiddly to work with and I have made a brand new cable for the LCD-2s.
Even though I have created balanced cabling options for both headphones, this comparison is conducted using an unbalanced output for both headphones. For all comparisons I am using the Bottlehead S.E.X. amp which offers 2W of power per channel and can comfortably drive both headphones to their peak performance.
Because this is a comparison rather than an individual review, I will address sound quality in 3 broad categories of signature, detail retrieval and staging / imaging.
The LCD-2 is known as a warm headphone and although later revisions such as mine have improved treble and upper-mid response, they are still warmer than neutral, but that’s where their magic lies. The LCD-2 manages to be simultaneously warm and detailed in much the same way as the Sennheiser HD650 only better. The LCD-2 doesn’t sound slow or thick to my ears, but smooth and relaxed – not to be confused with boring. There are neither hints of veil or harshness when listening to the LCD-2s. Vocals and instruments are clear and present, but not over-emphasised in relation to the rest of the spectrum. Finally, as you might expect if you’ve experienced planars before, the bass from the LCD-2s is truly magnificent with depth and punch delivered in equal measure. The bass extends deep, hits hard and does all this without ever influencing the other frequencies.
Overall I would describe the HE-500s as slightly warm, but not as warm as the LCD-2s. They have a less prominent midrange, but don’t lack for vocal and instrumental reproduction. Rather, I’d say that the mids are perceived differently because of the HE-500’s extra treble energy in relation to the LCD-2.
Now that we’re talking treble I should share the observation that may cause some conflict. I personally feel that the HE-500 treble carries a very slight dryness or grain that can make it slightly edgy at times. The HE-500s aren’t hot in the treble by any means and in fact are probably right on the money in terms of the amount of treble they deliver, but I find the treble to be a little harsh on some tracks where other, bright headphones manage to navigate the treble with more energy, but less fatigue. I’m talking subtleties here so it’s not a big deal, but it is a significant factor in my overall perception of the HE-500s.
Note: the choice of grille material and the use of a fabric backing for the grille can significantly alter the treble on the HE-500s with the grille-free approach being the smoothest and cleanest I have found. The stock grilles have noticeable ringing in the upper mids and also slightly harsher treble in my opinion – most likely due to reflected sound and ringing.
So, mids are slightly less emphasised than the LCD-2s and the treble has just the right amount of energy, but also a very slight harshness. So what about the bass?
The bass from the HE-500 is slightly punchier than the LCD-2s around the mid-bass region, but is therefore less linear. I think both actually extend similarly deep, but the LCD-2 seems to go deeper because there’s no bump in the bass halfway down. As to which is better? I don’t think I could say because they are both outstanding although different.
So which headphone’s signature do I prefer?
Honestly, I can’t really split them. They are both completely enjoyable signatures with different pros and cons. Both are well-balanced in their own ways with the LCD-2s perfectly achieving a warm, but clean sound and the HE-500s achieving a balanced and energetic sound without hot treble or sucked-out mids. This is a personal taste decision if ever there was one.
The retrieval of details is an interesting differentiation for these headphones because you’d expect the slightly brighter HE-500s to have an edge on one hand, but might also think that the extra sensitivity of the LCD-2s would give them an edge in the more subtle elements of a recording. The truth is that they both do a very good job of illuminating the details in your favourite tracks, but I believe the LCD-2s have a slight edge.
Where the LCD-2s creep ahead is the sense of space they create for each individual sound. They don’t throw a huge soundstage as I’ll discuss shortly, but somehow they create a blacker background and blanker canvas for the music so details are cleanly etched into time and space and are easier to discern as a result. The biggest achievement of the LCD-2s is their ability to create this incredible sense of detail while still sounding natural, warm and musical – it’s very impressive.
The HE-500s aren’t a slouch on details by any stretch and are an incredibly proficient headphone for their price, but just don’t quite reach the level of the LCD-2s which truly perform at a flagship level in this area.
Staging & Imaging
The staging and imaging of these 2 headphones is probably the most significant difference in terms of more objective measures than sound signature which is such a question of personal taste. While both headphones create a good soundstage and the HE-500 creates a slightly larger sounding space for the instruments, I can’t help but rate the LCD-2s significant winners in the staging and imaging department.
Let’s start with the HE-500 – it’s no slouch on staging and imaging with a nice clean presentation of each instrument and a fairly wide stage that can extend slightly beyond the sides of the head. It doesn’t project very far forwards, but enough to provide some sense of space. I think the part that holds me back slightly from really applauding the HE-500’s presentation is that the stage starts out wide and spacious at each side, but seems to almost compress slightly in the middle so the overall sonic picture doesn’t strike me as completely natural and realistic. I’ve created a very rough graphical representation of what I hear from the HE-500s to hopefully make it a bit clearer.
The LCD-2 offers a different approach by creating a stage that is quite ordinary in size stretching only from ear to ear, but with a perfect shape the extends proportionately forwards in relation to its width – more of an oval shape. This results in a natural and realistic sounding stage for your music and audio, but is only the first part of the puzzle.
Remember earlier I said that the LCD-2 seems to somehow have a darker background for the music? This same trait means that every sound, every instrument, and every voice is carved out in it’s very own space. Despite the stage being narrower than the HE-500, the sense of space from the LCD-2s is significantly greater – everything feels so separate (in a good way) while maintaining a perfectly cohesive and natural presentation. The HE-500 on the other hand can feel a little like a wall of sound where everything sounds good, but still sounds like a recording. Somehow the LCD-2s make it all sound real even though it’s trapped inside your head.
I thought when I first got the LCD-2s that the small stage size was going to be a deal breaker for me, but it is such a non-issue because the stage feels so spacious even though it’s small. The result of this sense of space and separation between instruments is razor sharp imaging. It is SO easy to place exactly where each sound is coming from when using the LCD-2s – they are carved out in space and time as clearly as if you could look at them. I don’t find the same to be true with the HE-500s.
I wasn’t really sure where to discuss the topic of note weight so I’m throwing it here as its own sub-point. What I mean by ‘note weight’ is the impact and density of sounds compared to how they might sound and feel when played by a real instrument in a live setting. I would rate both of these headphones highly in this area as they create an excellent sense of realism and weight to all range of sounds. The HE-500s may be one of the best headphones I’ve heard at conveying the true sound and weight of a piano . When it comes to tracks featuring pianos, the HE-500s are a step ahead of both the LCD-2s and the beyerdynamic T1s which is no small feat.
Overall though, the win goes once again to the LCD-2 because of its ability to be almost as good as the HE-500s with pianos and slightly better on all other instruments, especially vocals and guitars. The midrange of the LCD-2s has just the right amount of attack and note weight to make everything sound and feel so real. The extra treble energy and speed helps the HE-500 when it comes to pianos, but leaves them feeling slightly light or perhaps a touch too fast for some other sounds and textures.
The Power Myth
Planar magnetic headphones are known to be less efficient than dynamic driver headphones and often require specific amplifiers to do them justice, however, if you’re considering a planar headphone, don’t get caught in the power myth trap. Headphones like the HE-500 and LCD-2 run very comfortably with a headphone amp delivering around 1 watt of good quality power. Some will tell you that you need a speaker amplifier for planars, but the physics and my own subjective testing says otherwise.
A planar headphone driven with insufficient power will sound thin and possibly a bit harsh, but that doesn’t mean that the more power you give them, the better they’ll sound. Once you reach sufficient power it becomes about the quality of that power, not how much power you have.
According to pure maths, a pair of LCD-2s should only need about 400mW per channel to create 120dB of sound and that’s hearing-loss territory. A pair of HE-500s needs 1.25 watts to reach the same volume, but can reach 115dB (significantly quieter, but still rock concert territory and able to cause hearing loss with long-term exposure) with that same 400mW. So as you can see from the numbers, crazy power outputs aren’t necessary. You want more than 400mW on hand to allow for momentary peaks in the music (also sometimes referred to as transients) and to not be working your amplifier at 100%, but an amplifier with about 1W of good clean power is plenty for most planars (except the likes of the HE-500’s bigger brother, the HE-6).
Summary & Recommendations
So, you’re looking to buy a planar headphone… First of all, great idea! They are a wonderful style of headphone and deliver a style sound that I have never heard from a dynamic headphone. That’s not to say they are better than dynamics, just different and therefore worth experiencing. The next question then is which one is for you? As always that’s a very subjective decision, but I would sum it up as follows:
Reasons to buy HE-500s
- The price tag on the LCD-2 is just too high – fair enough because it may be difficult to justify the large leap in price for the comparatively small leap in performance, but don’t forget to look for second-hand options like mine where you can get all that performance for far less dough
- You love listening to piano music – classical, jazz, popular… doesn’t matter – the HE-500 is really special when it comes to piano reproduction
- You like to modify gear – there is a huge community of HE modifiers out there with lots of ideas on pad modifications, grille modifications, and even some more subtle damping mods
- You like your treble as much or more than your bass – the HE-500s aren’t bright, but they’re detailed enough and have sufficient extension for those who might otherwise find headphones like the LCD-2s or HD650s too mellow
Reasons to buy LCD-2s
- You love realism in your music – look no further – I think the LCD-2s are one of the most realistic sounding headphones I’ve heard in terms of weight and imaging and I’d highly recommend them to anyone looking for a natural and realistic sounding headphone (except perhaps for classical lovers where the intimate soundstage may be a little too intimate to sound realistic for large orchestral works)
- You like a sexy / luxurious headphone as much as a good sounding one – there’s no doubt that the LCD-2s are beautifully made and crafted and leave most others behind in terms of their luxurious wood and leather aesthetics – sure there are great looking metal and plastic ‘phones out there, but there’s just something about wood and leather…
- You just want the best you can get – overall I believe the LCD-2s are the better overall headphone of these two – sure the HE-500 has a couple of advantages with piano and large orchestral works, but I almost always reach for the LCD-2s before I reach for the HE-500s just because the LCD-2s are so good
With the HE-500s being retired soon (or right now perhaps) to be replaced by the HE-560 and HE-400i, be sure to check those out on their own merits because they are quite different to the HE-500. Also note that there are many different versions of the LCD-2 and the sound has changed over the years (although not drastically – they have always been warm, just slightly less so now). I completed these comparisons with a December 2013 model of the LCD-2s so be sure to check out the specific model you’re considering before buying because it may vary slightly from mine in terms of sound and presentation.
All-in-all I encourage you to try planars at least once – they are wonderful and there are plenty of flavours out there now to suit lovers of dark, neutral and bright presentations so do yourself a favour and check them out!