Monthly Archives: March 2017

Review: Audeze LCD-2 (2016)

What? Another LCD-2 Review? Why? Here’s the background.

I got a second pair to use at work, again from the Headphone folks in Montana. I’ve owned this headphone since 2014 and already reviewed it twice: once when I first got them, again later when I EQed them. Audeze never rests and is constantly improving their products. But they don’t change the model numbers. The LCD-2 has gone through several variants with names the community invented because Audeze didn’t see fit to name them:

  • LCD-2.1: the original version – creamy sound, smooth linear mids with rolled off treble
  • LCD-2.2: same linear mids, improved treble response, yet still on the warm side of neutral
  • LCD-2F 2014: introduction of Fazor, improved detail and transient response, but some people report the treble sounds wonky
  • LCD-2F 2016: lighter re-tuned drivers, further improved transient response

The 2016 LCD-2 is similar to the 2014 overall, with excellent reference quality sound. Since I linked the prior reviews above, here I’ll describe only the differences. Compared to the 2014, the 2016 LCD-2 has:

  • Bass: cleaner, tighter, faster but neither attenuated nor amplified. This is hard to imagine because the 2014 bass was excellent to begin with. Somehow they improved it.
  • High Treble (9+ kHz): cleaner, faster and slightly amplified. A good recording of castanets shows the 2014 was already excellent, but the 2016 is even better. Treble is shelved up a touch and brighter compared to the 2014, but the 2016 is not bright sounding.
  • Mids: different – described below

Comparing the midrange is more complex and takes more than a few words. The 2014 midrange is incredibly smooth and natural and has a slight presence emphasis compared to the 2016. This presence is subtle and to put it in perspective, the Sennheiser HD-600 (a great headphone in its own right) has far more presence sounding boxy or nasal in comparison. I like the 2014 mid presence on small ensemble acoustic music; it brings out the natural timbres of acoustic instruments and voices. But with large ensemble works and big complex music, this presence becomes a slight glare that veils the music. The 2016 lacks this presence, yet it also lacks the glare that comes with it on big complex music. The 2016 still voices acoustic instruments in a natural, realistic way – it’s not midrange suck-out like some headphones have.

So when it comes to the midrange, both do extremely well, yet I prefer the 2014 for small ensemble acoustic music and the 2016 for bigger more complex music.

Overall, the 2016 is better than the 2014 in many ways, but not in every way. The 2016 is more open, faster and more resolving – all good. Yet the 2014 has a special intimacy and realism to the midrange voicing of small ensemble acoustic music.

Note: I contacted Audeze and for $400 they will upgrade any model of LCD-2 to the latest version, which includes new ear pads of your choice and return shipping. I’m leaning toward upgrading my 2014… but haven’t yet decided. If the 2016 was better in every way, I would. But the decision isn’t that easy.

Alternatives

In my experience, planar magnetics wipe the floor with conventional drivers in terms of overall sound quality – both in headphones and in speakers – so I limited my search to them.

I auditioned the HiFi Man HE-500 a few years ago. It was a great headphone but had a weird midrange response that didn’t voice acoustic instruments properly. I looked at other HiFi Man models but none of them have the truly linear frequency response I’m looking for.

I gave the Focal Elear serious thought. Sure, it’s a conventional driver. But it had such rave reviews I considered it. Yet it also had some decidedly non-rave reviews and the specifications showed non-linear frequency response, transient ringing and higher distortion. No thanks.

Finally I decided to keep it simple. I like my LCD-2 so much, why not first try the latest version? If I didn’t like it I could always return it and move on to something else. I found a pair from Headroom, the headphone folks in Montana, that was an open box, so I got a lower price, yet new with full warranty. I’ve been a customer of theirs since 1999 because they are knowledgeable, honest and have a generous 30-day try-return policy.

Review: JDS Labs Element

The Element

See here for background.

It’s a headphone DAC+amp – details here. Since I care about function over form, I saved $50 buying a b-stock version new from JDS. It’s small & light, simple to use and beautiful in appearance. The cosmetic glitches that made it b-stock are truly cosmetic and slight; you won’t notice unless you’re a perfectionist. Inputs are USB and analog unbalanced RCA, so it can be DAC+Amp or just an amp.

The Element comes with an external wall-wart type power supply and a USB cable. The power supply is unusual: a wall-wart style AC-AC whose output is 16 VAC at 1 Amp. That’s 16 Watts for a 1 watt amp – so far so good!

My description of the sound is brief because there’s not much to describe. If you’ve ever heard a well designed and built top quality solid state amp, that’s what the Element sounds like. Spec-wise (curious readers will find specs at the above link) it’s as good or better as anything you will find at any price. And I mean any price – even into the multi-kilobuck range.

I believe specs are useful but they don’t tell the full final story. Absolutely black quiet background: no audible noise at any gain or volume setting. Stark neutral frequency response, all measured distortion (THD, IMD, noise, etc.) at -100 dB or lower. The sound is smooth yet detailed with no edge or grain. It sounds exactly like whatever you’re playing. My first impression was to call this sound reference quality, but a side-by-side comparison with my Oppo HA-1 and Corda Jazz took it down a notch. All are clean and neutral, but the HA-1 and Jazz have a richness in the bass and sweetness to the mids and highs that the Element lacks. This difference is subtle, I hear it only on high quality recordings with my Audeze LCD-2 headphones. It disappears with Sennheiser HD-580s. I don’t believe this is euphonic distortion; the HA-1 and Jazz are honest neutral amps, nothing like the tubuliciuos sound of a great SET amp. Some people call the Element “dry” and I believe this is what they mean. It’s clean and neutral, yet it lacks the last bit of refinement.

The volume knob is big, sits top center, moves easily and smoothly and has a wide range – over 270* of rotation. It’s nicely linear and extremely well balanced L-R.

The Element’s USB DAC can accept up to 96 KHz – 24 bit. When listening to this digital source the amp has considerably less gain. I found this was caused by software mixer settings; after correcting the Element’s DAC and analog levels had about the same level. I used the Element’s low gain setting with my LCD-2 and HD-580 headphones, and it had plenty of unused range to the volume knob.

The Element has unbalanced analog line level RCA inputs and outputs and can be used as a pure analog amp. If you plug in an RCA input it bypasses the DAC. When powered off, the Element powers off the headphone output but is still “on” internally, routing the line level input to the analog output. When turned on, it powers up the headphone output and powers off the line level output. This gives the Element great flexibility as an in-line device and headphone amp.

The Element’s DAC does not run in async mode; it relies on your computer to clock the data. JDS claims this has no audible drawbacks, but my experience belied these claims. I heard occasional tics or brief drop-outs, suggesting that it was re-syncing slight clock differences. These were seemingly random, not reproducible when backing up and replaying. This might not happen with other computers. Driving the Element from the same computer in pure analog mode eliminated this issue. By “pure analog mode” I mean: instead of feeding the Element’s DAC from USB, I installed a high quality sound card and fed the Element the analog unbalanced line level output. This bypasses the Element’s DAC entirely.

I have one minor quibble with the Element – the build quality is good, but not quite excellent. The connectors aren’t the rock solid Neutrik et.al. you get on true audiophile amps, and doesn’t give the satisfying thunk those provide when you connect & disconnect. It has me plugging in the headphones & other connectors with care. The volume knob is very smooth and satisfying to use (and it’s a top quality Alps pot), but it has a bit of give when you push gently on it and the instructions say not to lift the amp by the volume knob – despite the amp being small & light. Overall, the Element is well built yet not the solid brick military build quality of top-tier professional and audiophile equipment. I suppose JDS had to find cost savings somewhere, and they seem to have made the right choices. It does have a solid warranty you can use if something breaks or flakes out on you.

Overall, thumbs-up for the JDS Labs Element. It is a complete DAC+amp, semi-portable by turning any computer into an audio source, with enough clean power to drive just about any headphone on the planet. It has excellent sound quality, though just a bit short of absolute reference quality. It’s fantastic the level of engineering, sound quality, and output power you get for the price.

Background: JDS Labs Element & Audeze LCD-2 2016

Background

I spend a lot of time at work and wanted a reference quality headphone rig to match my home system. Technology is constantly improving, reducing the price of reference quality audio every year. I still love my LCD-2 headphones, so they were at the top of my list yet I was open to trying any new headphones released since then. I wasn’t going to get another Oppo HA-1, which I used in my home system. It’s too bulky and has way more features than I need, and at work I use the computer as an audio source. I have a great computer audio system at home too, using a Juli@ sound card and Corda Jazz amp. I’d consider getting another just like it, but first wanted to check out what alternatives might have recently appeared.

If you’re using a computer as the audio source, you need two things:

  • A high quality D-A converter to get a line level analog signal.
  • A high quality headphone amp to amplify that signal and drive headphones.

A sound card does the first – but it’s not portable and only works with desktops (not laptops). Now, all computers can stream audio files out a USB port to an external DAC. This is portable and works with any computer – desktop or laptop. With the right configuration (adaptive or async), the external DAC clocks the bits and jitter is not an issue.

Given my preference for no-nonsense engineering over audiophile mystique, I quickly found JDS Labs, aka some guys in Illinois building well-engineered and built headphone audio gear on a budget. They started by producing a little amp called the O2, an open source design released into the wild by NwAvGuy. Prior to JDS, this was only available as a kit, and lots of headphone audiophiles don’t have the skills to build it. Perhaps they should – no Jedi’s training is complete until he builds his own light sabre – but that’s a different subject.

A few years ago, JDS started building their own designs, which took the O2 to another level in performance and higher power output enabling them to be used with a wider variety of inefficient power hungry headphones like the HiFi Man HE-6. Yet even JDS’s new gear was built to solid engineering specifications without any audiophile nonsense and reasonably priced.

Long story short, I got a second pair of LCD-2 headphones and a JDS Element to drive them, which is a headphone amp combined with a USB DAC. I compared this amp to my HA-1 and Corda Jazz, which is stiff competition.

I posted my reviews of the Element and 2016 LCD-2 separately.

HRTF

HRTF is Head Related Transfer Function. It describes how you perceive sound. Every person perceives sound differently because the individual shape of your head, ears, nasal & mouth cavity, etc. all affect how the sound reaches your ears. In short: different people listening to the same thing, hear it differently.

What most HRTFs have in common is the range from 2 – 5 kHz is amplified by 15 dB or more. The ear’s resonance is typically +17 dB at 2.7 kHz. That is a huge non-linearity. Here is a typical HRTF curve from Tyll Herstens at Inner Fidelity.

Another way to think about this: Suppose you’re standing at the seashore listening to waves crashing on the beach. That sound is similar to white noise: it has roughly equal energy across a wide frequency range. The sound you actually perceive, however, is 10 – 20 dB louder in the 2 -5 kHz range because those frequencies were amplified (or frequencies outside that range attenuated) by your head, ears, ear canals before it hit your eardrums.

You can easily test how the size & shape of your head & ears affects sound. While listening to music on speakers, gently push your ears forward or open your mouth really wide. The sound changes. And that only gives a small taste of what the real differences are – imagine how much more different it might be if you could change the size & shape of your head, ears, etc.! That different sound you hear would be what another person hears normally.

The astute reader will wonder – if this variation is due to individual variance in body size & shape, how can it be measured? The answer is simple. Take 2 tiny microphones small enough to fit inside your ear canal. Position them in the open air and use them to record sound. Now build a fake life-size human head using materials that approximate the density & reflectivity of human tissue and skin, and insert these same mics deep into the ear canals, facing outward. Now measure the same sound again. The difference between the two recordings is the HRTF of your dummy head.

Every person has an individual HRTF and the variance from person to person is significant. Since headphones bypass the HRTF, in order to sound natural they must have a frequency response that matches the HRTF. Put differently, a headphone with flat frequency response would sound quite dull, down 15+ db in the 2 – 5 kHz range.

This doesn’t apply to loudspeakers. If a speaker has objectively flat FR, every person will perceive that however they perceive natural sounds. Speakers don’t have to reproduce the HRTF because the sound comes from a distant source and your HRTF transforms it when it hits your body. Headphones play sounds directly into your ears, bypassing your body, head and HRTF.

This means there is an absolute reference FR for speakers: perfectly flat. But there is no absolute reference FR for headphones. A headphone has to mimic the HRTF which is different for every person. The best a well-engineered headphone can do is mimic the most common or average HRTF across the population. Each individual will be a little different.

Thus, different people will disagree on what headphone has the most natural FR reproducing sounds most realistically. For example, the Sennheiser HD-800 has a big response rise around 5 – 7 kHz. For me personally, it’s artificially bright, almost skull-jarring. But for others it may sound natural. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Audeze LCD-2 has a dip from 2 – 9 kHz (its raw response has a rise, but it rises a bit less than the typical HRTF does). For me personally, it sounds natural and realistic. My HRTF probably lifts this frequency range less than average. But for others this headphone sounds dull.

LineageOS is Alive!

Last night I installed LineageOS 14.1 on my Galaxy Note 8 tablet.

I’ve been running CM 13 on this tablet for the past year or so and it works great – stability, performance, battery life. But the last build was Christmas Eve 2016, then Cyanogenmod died. I’ve been watching CM relaunch as LineageOS. They now have a home site and are running weekly builds for many devices. The Galaxy Note 8 happens to be one of these devices – with more to come.

The installation procedure is the same as CM. First, install TWRP recovery. You should do this no matter what build you’re running, even stock, because it has great features like full backup & restore. There are plenty of install guides. I had it installed already. Then, install LineageOS:

  • LineageOS Zip
  • Open Gapps Zip – use version 7.1 for LineageOS 14.1.
  • SuperSU Zip (if you want root)

The root ZIP provided by LineageOS did not work – TWRP had an error trying to install it. I used SuperSU instead, and it worked perfectly.

I’m still restoring backups & such, but first impression is that LineageOS 14.1 seems solid and fast. I’ll report back later after I get some time to use it.