Headphones have a funny way of dividing themselves into categories based on things other than sound quality. Planning to take them on sweaty workouts? You should get wireless earbuds, which are small and portable. Looking to work from home without the tiny tots in your life screaming into your morning emails? Try something with noise-canceling tech. Playing video games? You’ll want something with a built-in mic.
But what if all you care about is the best possible sound? For that, you’ll want the Audeze LCD-1, a $400 pair of planar magnetic headphones that bring expensive, audiophile-grade sound within the realm of possibility for the middle class. If you’re missing the live sounds of your favorite bands, and you don’t have the budget to spring for a fancy speaker system and all the associated accessories, the LCD-1 are the next best thing. You can plug them straight into your laptop too, no fancy headphone amp required.
Most headphones use something akin to a piston to create sound. Magnets pull on a coil attached to a diaphragm, creating sound in a way that’s similar to traditional speakers. Planar magnetic headphones, however, place two strong magnets on either side of an ultrathin diaphragm that vibrates to create sound. They’re pricier to manufacture and typically require more amplifier power to provide the same volume, but they’re favored by audiophiles for their flatter overall frequency response and deeper bass.
Open-backed headphones like the LCD-1 aren’t sealed off from the outside world, so they don’t make your ears feel as isolated as traditional, closed-back headphones. Add to that the planar magnetic drivers, which typically create a bit more of a vivid soundstage than audiophile-grade dynamic driver headphones, and you feel super immersed in the music.
Up until a few years ago, you’d have to drop close to $1,000 on open-backed, planar headphones like these. A comfortable, foldable model that could be driven by most laptops and cellphones (with a relevant adapter) was, as far as I’m aware, unheard of.
Audeze can make affordable planar magnetic headphones because it has made much more expensive pairs before (at least, that’s one of the reasons). The company has long been considered by audiophile nerds (anyone that routinely browses the r/headphones subreddit) to be among the best in the business.
Much of the high-end tech and manufacturing process has trickled down into the LCD-1, which are some of the most affordable headphones Audeze has ever sold. They’re made in the same California facility as their bigger brothers, with the same excellent low-impedance driver technology on-board. Unlike other planar headphones, these can be powered by most normal laptops, tablets, and phones (usually, you need a separate headphone amp).
Lightweight, Heavyweight Sound
What really makes the LCD-1 stand apart to me—and why I prefer them over the larger, more expensive models from Audeze—is the weight.
At 250 grams, they’re so light! The LCD-1 feel like a “normal” pair of headphones on your head. You don’t have to brace for neck pain or top-of-head pain like you do with other planar models (a problem so common there’s a running joke on Reddit about people using suspension ropes to support the headphones). I used to only pull out my planar drivers to listen to special albums. Now, I plug in the LCD-1 in the morning and forget they’re there until lunchtime.
To achieve this weight, the headphones are made of relatively lightweight plastic. I wouldn’t call them flimsy, but these foldable over-ears should definitely be placed in the included hard case if you’re putting them in a backpack or carry on, whenever we can go anywhere again.
Audeze hasn’t been lauded for its construction over the years, but it is known as a company with exceptional customer service. As long as you’re careful, the LCD-1 should last many years of use. I recommend a cheap headphone stand to ensure they never fall off your desk.
For years, I was convinced nobody could make a better sounding pair of sub-$500 headphones than the Sennheiser HD-6XX, a special collaboration between the German audio brand and Drop that I still maintain are amazing.
The LCD-1 sound better, with anything, anywhere. I tested them using Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, and a record player. I used them as reference headphones when recording. I even kept them plugged in when playing video games like Grand Theft Auto Online (91.1 The Lowdown, the soul station narrated by Pam Grier, is the only choice for any self-respecting criminal, and it sounded better than ever).
They’re energetic, they’re clear, and they have a massive soundstage that makes you feel like a tiny band is surrounding your ears. It’s not totally flat or sterile sound, either. I often found myself dancing at my desk like an idiot, propelled into motion by the tight, vibrant sounds of some Vulfpeck song or the like.
They have indescribable magic, and they make you want to share. I’ve thrust them on the head of everyone in my quarantine bubble, exclaiming, “You just have to hear these.”
As someone who gets shipped a never-ending supply of the coolest and most expensive gadgets on the planet, I’m convinced that stuff is useless unless it gives you a memorable experience. Experiencing new things makes us happier than buying new stuff. If you love music and are looking to get as close as you can to audiophile-grade listening without selling plasma, these are the new standard.
Yes, they’re expensive compared to the competition in our Best Wireless Headphones guide. But for $400, you can get 99 percent of the experience you’d previously get for thousands.