Audio Heaven
HWM Singapore|August 2018

Are you finally ready to make the jump and invest in a pair of end-game planar magnetic headphones? We rounded up the best for a listen.

Kenny Yeo

With its all-black aluminum frame and unorthodox design, the AB-1266 Phi CC looks more like a torture device and wearing it is unlike any other headphone too. At the top of the frame is a joint that lets users widen the headphone and allows the ear cups to be rotated front and back. To wear, pull the ear cups apart until it fits your head, then put it on and adjust the ear cups until you create a tight enough seal. It may be an elegant design, but unfortunately, it wears as uncomfortable as it looks. I found the clamping force to be a bit overbearing and the leather headband, which is suspended by thick rubber bands, to be over-damped, so it feels as if there is something pushing down on the top of my head. It also doesn’t help that the headphone weighs a significant 620g.

With the new AB-1266 Phi CC, Skubinski sought to create a more accurate driver by altering the trace pattern in the diaphragm. In addition, the new drivers are a tiny bit more sensitive with an impedance of 42 ohms (four less) and a sensitivity rating of 88 dB/mW (3dB more). However, don’t think you can get away with a limp amplifier, even with these new drivers, the AB-1266 Phi CC demands a beefy amplifier to sound its best.

This is evidenced by the cable that Abyss provides with the headphones. While most headphone makers bundle single-ended cables, Abyss provides a 4-pin XLR balanced cable with theirs - a sign that this headphone requires serious power. The cables are custom-made by JPS Labs and they are really unwieldy. There’s no Y-connector and the left and right channels are split immediately from the 4-pin XLR Neutrik plug and they get tangled quite easily too. They are comparatively stiff and don’t drape as nicely as some of the other cables here. Insofar as ergonomics and comfort are concerned, the AB-1266 Phi CC is not as accomplished as its rivals.

The AB-1266 Phi CC was designed to sound like good loudspeakers in a dedicated listening room and for the most parts, they do. The sound is expansive and the sound stage is one of the widest of the headphones assembled here. Imaging is good too and you can clearly make out the position of instruments in the mix. Also excellent is the bass response, which is typical of planar magnetics, but the AB-1266 Phi CC renders them excellently and with so much authority that they almost appear tangible. However, the overall tonality is uneven. The mids are forward but have a hollow quality to them, causing vocals to lack foundation and sound breathy. The upper mids to treble has too much energy, causing snare drums, cymbals, and the like to have a crinkly and sizzling sound.

If it reads like the AB-1266 Phi CC sounds bad, it doesn’t. Its sound stage is impressive and its imaging abilities are second to none. Its speed, clarity, and bass performance are also exemplary. But in this company of world-class headphones, its less than ideal tonality and other shortcomings are amplified and glaring. Audio is as much about design as it is about performance and Audeze’s LCD headphones have always stood out for their stunning looks and superlative build quality. The LCD-4 features a striking chrome grille on the outside of the ear cups, while the ear cups themselves are lined with exquisitely finished Macassar Ebony wood that is said to be 30 years old. The ear pads are lined with leather and are amongst the thickest we have seen. They are deeply beveled to create a better seal and are incredibly plush. Though they are heavy at 600g, the carbon fiber suspension-style headband ensures even weight distribution so I didn’t find them uncomfortable to wear even for long periods of time.

As befits a flagship-class headphone, the LCD-4 is chock-full of Audeze’s latest innovations. It has Fazor elements, which is Audeze’s term for wave guides designed to smooth the sound as it passes from the diaphragm, through the magnets, and into the ears. It also has Double Fluxor Arrays, a specially designed configuration of magnets that yields incredibly high magnetic density. This is matched with ultra-thin nano-scale diaphragms with Uniforce voice coils. These are diaphragms with variable traces to compensate for varying magnetic density in the magnet array. All these technologies are aimed at creating a driver that is extremely well-controlled and low in distortion.

The LCD-4 is smartly accessorized. It comes in a large shock and waterproof carrying case and comes with a very nice braided 2.5-meter long single-ended cable that terminates in a 6.35mm plug. It is soft, pliable, and drapes nicely. Balanced cables are sold separately but I thought the single-ended cable did a good enough job as long as you have a fairly powerful amplifier. According to Audeze, an amplifier with an output between one to four watts is recommended.

While earlier LCD headphones were noted for their dark sound signature, recent revisions have gravitated toward a more neutral and even tone. Still, the LCD-4 retains the awesome bass response they’ve been known for. Bass extends incredibly deep and is amazingly textured and clean. The mid range is crystalline, buttery smooth, and present, which gives vocals and guitars a lush and almost gooey presentation. Past LCD headphones were slightly rolled offin the treble, but the LCD-4 sounds far more neutral. As a result, the LCD-4 is brighter than its predecessors. Treble is clear and non-fatiguing, but there is some unevenness that makes it sound unnatural. There also seems to be some elevation in the treble, causing a bit of harshness on some tracks.

Objectively, I do not regard the LCD-4 as the most technically competent headphone, but its signature is so alluring and easy to listen to that I think a lot of music lovers won’t mind. It excels in all modern genres of music but struggles with classical and some forms of instrumentals because of its less than ideal treble presentation. Still, the upside to this is that treble sensitive folks should find this headphone very pleasing. The Final D8000 is the company’s newest flagship and first ever planar magnetic headphone. It comes neatly packed in a nicely decorated box with what seems to be faux crocodile leather. Inside, there is a custom-designed machined aluminum headphone stand and two cables. The shorter 1.5-meter long cable terminates in a 3.5mm plug, while the longer 3-meter cable terminates in a 6.35mm plug. The cables are heavy and bulky, but at least they are soft and don’t tangle easily.

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