For headphones, the difference between open and closed back configurations is one born out of necessity. For the most part open back headphones typically sound well…more open. Often described as more spacious and natural sounding, the less “in-your-head” open-back tech is usually the preferred headphone of the audiophile.
But this openness isn’t always the most feasible path to sonic utility. Recording studios headphones need to keep a quiet background while in the recording booth, and you don’t want to be the guy on public transit who thinks its ok to involuntarily share his whole playlist with his fellow travelers. So the closed-back headphone remains a common fixture within the personal audio ranks. The planar magnetic headphone company Audeze has ground out a special place in the head-fi community with its open-back LCD-2 & LCD-3 model headphones. Fast, detailed and responsive, the company’s original lineup is now complemented by another go ‘round with the recent “X” series.
Audeze set out to create a new driver for a closed-back product (now called the XC) but after a few rounds of R&D, found that the driver they had created sounded pretty good all by itself. They used the same driver in an open back configuration they call the “X”. Thus the X-series was born. Priced just under the flagship LCD-3 ($2k) the X rings in at $1,699 with the XC a $100 more at $1,799. Now with a closed variation studios, DJs and silent commuters alike could all partake in the sweet sonic juice that Audeze has built a reputation around.
Today we take a closer look at the XC closed-back offering. The size and shape are all the same familiar fully circular, around the ear, wedge pad implementation as the LCD-2 and 3. Unfortunately the weight is nearly the same as well. The XC weighs in at a hefty 650g. That’s 102g more than the LCD-3. The takeaway is that this headphone is not really considered to be a fully mobile piece of headgear, its more of a sit-at-home-and-fully-appreciate-the-high-end-sound type of headphone. The good news is that this is one of the very few drawbacks to these headphones. The planar magnetic technology used to drive the sound in these headphones uses quite a few neodymium magnets to get the thin membrane moving. These magnets are somewhat weighty in portability terms. Now, how heavy are they in application? You could wear them out and about. I’ve definitely seen wilder headphones in public, but you might find them a bit cumbersome as an acoustic complement to your morning jog. Any listening session where you find yourself sitting will be appropriate. The clamping pressure of the review pair I received was substantial, but from my experience this can vary quite a bit from headphone to headphone, even from band to band (Audeze offers varying headband options on their site). A well worn-in pair often loosens up a bit over time. As with the LCD line, the construct of the band harness, ear cups and driver housing are all top-flight materials and feel very sturdy in the hand. The wood backs unique to the XC have a very satisfying wood finish to them that really stand out as quality craftsmanship. Cables can be connected to the drivers via mini 3-pin XLR connections that not only allow for balanced configurations, but are unusually helpful for connecting after-market and DIY wire. Not that you would ever need to, the XC actually comes with both a single ended and 4-pin balanced cables right out of the box.
Closed-back headphones present a few, but impactful design hurdles to overcome that their open-back counterparts don’t have to contend with. Among other things, the resonate frequencies of the backing material can cause unwanted effects in playback. Additionally, designers have to find a way to deal with the reflection of sound off of the backing material so it doesn’t interfere or dilute the original signal from driver to ear. In execution I usually find closed-back headphones share some similar sonic fabric that is different from open, just like In-Ear Monitors sound much different than over-the-ear. Quite often the lack of “openness” can manifest itself in a very direct sound in the bass and treble frequencies. Like the difference you might hear from someone talking to you through a cardboard paper tube as opposed to normal speech through open air. Bass frequencies especially can sound very immediate. Bass lovers may very much prefer this sensation. Alternately, high frequencies need to be carefully caressed to avoid too much sharpness and lack of “air”.
The XC excels at the thing audiophiles love most. Detail, speed, and a flat frequency response are all appropriately checked as you make your way through your favorite tracks. The fast response of the diaphragm grinds out every last pixel of detail from the source. Listening to Dire Straits Sultans of Swing provided an inspirational response from the formidable XC. Crisp vocals landed right where they should amongst the bouncing bass and melodic guitar. Relative dynamics are simply outstanding and provide plenty of life and natural energy to the track. The bass presentation was clear, but yet still carried plenty of punch and weight. It is by no means bass heavy, but rather fairly balanced with a little closed-back kick.
It isn’t hard to pick out the similarities to the LCD-3. Both carry a comparable sonic feel and staging in addition to delivering very similar levels of transparency. The frequency response between the two did diverge a bit around the upper mids/lower treble where a slight bump was noticeable from the XC. For a closed-back headphone the XC is extremely easy to listen to. The delivery as a whole isn’t fatiguing over long listening sessions and is quite versatile across a wide array of musical genres. The headphone itself manages to find a nice, professional balance filled with as clean response without having to resort to the “fun” sound/EQ of so many lesser headphones currently peppering the market. That’s not to say the XC isn’t fun, it just doesn’t need to turn to cheap frequency tricks in order to pull off quality sound. The treble isn’t overly bright, crispy or artifact laden. It does a very good job of reaching up and out without straining. Cymbals shimmer with solid energy and spatial awareness.
Audeze presented a very unique idea at the Rocky Mountain AudioFest this year. Attendees got a chance to listen to a DAC/AMP prototype the company is working on that augments the sound based upon frequency/phase responses from a single individual headphone, a custom build from end-to-end. Each amplifier is matched to the single headphone, the one they had on display was attached and balanced to a pair of XCs. The result was something very special, not just from a sense of frequency balance, but also very controlled soundstage and instrument separation/placement. Hopefully that new product will make it to market soon. Just this quick glimpse into the possibilities of customization for this hobby lets us know that Audeze isn’t done yet, and perhaps they are just getting started.
The XC’s attention to detail is undeniable. While the technical restrictions of being a closed-back design may prevent it from overtaking the Audeze flagship in terms of air and openness, the level of quality, tonal balance and transparency all let you know that it is indeed a flagship headphone in its own right. Those looking for the best close-back headphone on the market won’t have to look very far to find value in the XC. Highly recommended.