• December 8, 2021

Audeze LCD-1 Review: The Best Headphones Under $500

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.

Planar What?

Photograph: Audeze

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.

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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.

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