Audeze LCD-i3 Review - A forward-thinking planar IEM
Review unit provided on loan for evaluation by headphones.com and “The HEADPHONE Community” Preview Program.
The Audeze LCD-i3 is an open-back planar magnetic IEM, and if that sounds impracticable it’s because it is. Other companies have tried to put planar magnetic tech into traditional closed-shell IEMS to varying degrees of success, but it seems like there are inherent design challenges that come from closing the shell on planar transducers. While they manage to have fairly good technical performance, they are often shrill and harsh sounding with unnatural elevations between 3-5khz. Audeze’s answer to this challenge is to simply make the IEM an open back. Immediately this defeats the traditional purpose of an IEM - at least for me. However if you treat the i3 as a portable open back headphone instead, then maybe there’s something interesting there.
On top of that, Audeze have been leading the charge on adding EQ plugins and digital signal processing (DSP) to their IEMs in the form of their ‘Cipher’ cables, and in my opinion this is an interesting statement. Effectively this means that there’s a certain tuning that they land on from an engineering perspective, and then a separate different tuning they achieve through the use of a digital cable. To me this is a unique and forward-thinking concept. There are going to be those of us who are comfortable using EQ for most if not all headphones, but the majority of listeners just want the equipment they buy to sound good. If that’s doable simply by pushing a button or using a specific digital cable with DSP in it, then it makes the often cumbersome step towards improved tonality that much more accessible.
Style - In-Ear, Semi-Open
Transducer Type - Planar Magnetic
Magnet Type - Neodymium N50
Transducer Size - 30mm
Maximum Power Handling - 500mW RMS
Maximum - SPL >130dB
THD - <0.1% @ 100dB
Impedance - 20 Ohms
Sensitivity - 110 DB/1mW (At Drum Reference Point)
Minimum Power Requirement - >50mW
FLAC Library, TIDAL (HiFi and Master) - iFi iDSD Micro Black Label -> LCD-i3
TIDAL (HiFi and Master) -> V30 -> Bluetooth Cipher Cable -> LCD-i3
Design, Build & Comfort
Lately I’ve been enjoying the new Tool album Fear Inoculum, but beyond that I listened to my usual jazz albums from GoGo Penguin, Tingval Trio, Michael Wollny, and Julian Lage. For my sibilance test I use Patricia Barber’s Code Cool.
As mentioned, the i3 is an open back, and that means that sounds leaks both in and out. It’s not on the same level as fully open back headphones for sound leaking out, but quite a bit does leak in. This means that it may be suitable for an office environment depending on the ambient noise, but not so much for taking on the bus or the train. I found I quite enjoyed walking around outside with the i3 - especially out in nature, but on the street near where I live the amount of sound leaking in was quite distracting. Suffice to say that for me, one of the primary reasons to use IEMs in general is completely removed.
The i3 uses a 30mm transducer that makes use of a Neodymium N50 grade magnet, which is housed by a plastic shell that sits outside the ear. Overall the i3 feels solid and well constructed. The shell is distinctly larger than traditional IEMs, however the i3 earpiece is also relatively light for its size. The nozzle that fits inside the ear is considerably larger and thicker than many traditional IEMs, and this causes problems for trying to measure it - but the nozzle size isn’t actually a problem for comfort. Audeze provides a number of silicone tips of varying sizes, but if you have specific tips in mind that you’d like to use, take note that they need to be compatible with the larger nozzle. In fact, it’s not clear to me how the i3 performs with foam tips because nothing from my existing collection of tips fit.
For comfort, the i3 is a bit awkward to use at first, but after understanding the hook system a bit better it was possible for me to get a good fit. The i3 still isn’t as comfortable as many of the Campfire IEMs like the Andromeda because of the large shell that sits outside the ear, but it’s reasonably comfortable once they’re in a position to create a seal. Audeze has also provided two flange pieces that fits between the shell and the ear rather than behind the ear like the hook. I didn’t find this as useful on its own because it kept falling out, but it is also possible to use them both in conjunction with one another.
Perhaps one of the most interesting thing about the i3 is the Cipher DSP that Audeze has included in the form of two digital cables. One uses a Lightning connector and the other is a Bluetooth module. Audeze also includes an additional 3.5mm connector but because this is an analog cable (not like the other two), it doesn’t include the DSP. This means if you want to use the i3 the way Audeze intends, you’d have to either use the Lightning connector with an Apple device or the Bluetooth module (or find some way of rigging the Lightning connector to work with your device). I personally don’t own an Apple device and so I ended up evaluating the i3 with both the 3.5mm cable and the bluetooth module.
Detail Retrieval - 9/10
The LCD i3 does impressively well for detail retrieval - especially for its price. While it’s difficult to compare between planar and BA driver IEMs because they have such a distinctly different sound, I find that the i3 does exceptionally well for both overall detail retrieval and individual detail intervals. While I have a hard time saying it outperforms the Andromeda by any noticeable margin, I consider it to be in the same category.
Speed & Dynamics - 9.5/10
It doesn’t get better than this for IEMs at this price. The primary competition from both balanced armature and planar IEMs, namely the Campfire Andromeda and the RHA CL2 Planar have a hard time stacking up to the i3 when it comes to speed and dynamics, especially in the bass. While this isn’t an over ear Audeze, the bass is extremely tight, punchy, and well controlled - sounding excellent for kick drums or anything that needs to hit with solid impact. In fact that’s consistently been my primary complaint with BA IEMs, namely that while they generally perform quite well, the bass is never as tight and articulate as I’ve come to enjoy with fast over ear headphones. The i3 is a confident step in the right direction.
Stage & Imaging - 8.5/10
Another welcome surprise with the i3 is that the stage is exceptional. Admittedly when it comes to IEMs I don’t expect all that much for stage. You can only do so much with the given space limitations, and the same is true for closed back headphones as well. But that’s one of the areas where Audeze’s planar IEMs are able to cheat a bit. They don’t have the same limitations and as a result they have a remarkable open and airy quality to them. The stage itself is also massive, way larger than I’m used to with IEMs in general, and I find it even larger than that of the Andromeda. Unfortunately the i3’s imaging suffers a bit due to less than ideal channel matching - however some of this is also not unheard of for planar tech in general.
Timbre - 9/10
Normally the planar timbre is often considered to be less appealing than the timbre from dynamic driver headphones. But within the context of an IEM, this is actually a welcome change from the usual multi-BA driver offerings, where the timbre has what I can only describe as a metallic smearing to it. The i3 by contrast has a distinctly ‘planar’ sound to it that puts it in the same realm as a few of the higher end dynamic driver IEMs that have a more natural sound to them as well. To put it another way, the planar timbre sounds to me like tones are perfectly plucked, rather than pushed or forced towards me.
Before evaluating the tuning, it should be mentioned that due to the thickness of the nozzle, it was a challenge to get a consistent measurement for the i3. The nozzle would protrude through the eartip causing extra energy for frequencies that may not actually sound like they have that energy when using the IEM. For this reason, I don’t find the frequency response measurement to be particularly valuable with the i3, with one exception - and it has to do with the Cipher DSP. The measurements shown here are strictly to be taken as a comparison between the i3 with the 3.5mm cable and the i3 with the Bluetooth Cipher connector. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to test the Lightning Cipher cable.
Frequency response for the i3 with the 3.5mm connector (no Cipher DSP). Measurements done using the MiniDSP EARS rig, which is not to be taken as an industry standard measurement system.
The i3’s tonality should really be evaluated as two separate tunings. The default tuning of the i3 with the 3.5mm cable is slightly on the bright side. It’s clearly well extended in the bass and measures quite flat up until the lower treble, where the MiniDSP EARS rig shows a bit of a dip at 5khz, and then a dramatic elevation. While this may look a bit similar to a Beyerdynamic peak, it thankfully doesn’t sound particularly sibilant for most recordings. This is likely because the top of the elevation shows up a bit beyond the consonant range and closer to 10khz.
This is also where the measurements showed a bit of variance depending on the nozzle positioning, and from my subjective impression it doesn’t sound as dramatically bright as this graph shows, but rather just with a bit of zing up top with an exceptional amount of ‘air’ above 10khz. So the 3.5mm connection shows that the i3 at the very least is extremely well extended on both ends of the frequency spectrum, with a few oddities in the treble. I find that the dip in the lower treble does cause the i3 to sound a bit hollow and withdrawn for certain tracks - or in other words not as “filled in” as I prefer. I’m hesitant to lay the blame at 5khz as is shown by the measurement because this could just be a feature of the rig. Nonetheless, the default tonality leaves a bit to be desired when it comes to the treble, but overall it’s still reasonably cohesive, even with the extra brightness up top.
Score - 6.5/10
Frequency response for the i3 with the Bluetooth module with the Cipher DSP. Measurements done using the MiniDSP EARS rig, which is not to be taken as an industry standard measurement system.
For all of the variant measurement results due to the IEM’s position and nozzle protrusion, the one thing I can be confident of is the difference between the 3.5mm connector and the default tuning of the Bluetooth module, where the positioning wasn’t altered and only the cable was swapped.
Once again we see a lower treble recession, however the default tuning of the i3 with the supplied Bluetooth module is quite a bit more balanced than with the 3.5mm connector. I also enjoy the extra bass focus, and again there’s no lack of extension on either side. Thankfully the treble is a bit more well-controlled with the Bluetooth module, but not at the cost of extension or air energy. Interestingly the 2khz bump showed up for all of my measurements as well, and so this may be a decent place to make adjustments, along with the lower treble dip that still comes through audibly in my subjective experience of the i3.
Overall I don’t mind this tuning even if it isn’t totally what I’m looking for. When it comes to IEMs, my evaluations are initially anchored to whether or not they suffer from any kind of roll-off - either in the highs or in the lows - because I find this to be both extremely noticeable and also very difficult to fix. While strong marks in these areas don’t excuse flaws throughout the rest of the frequency response, problems in these areas are often the first to jump out at me and determine if it’s even worth it to get used to the tonality. With the i3 I can confidently say that it is worth it, especially with the Cipher modules.
The use of a digital cable for DSP purposes is also perhaps the most interesting thing about this IEM. In general I’m not a fan of using EQ with IEMs on the go because it’s always a bit cumbersome (not to mention far less precise). However with the i3, EQ is somewhat built into the concept of the IEM, to the point where it not only responds well to it, but it’s also easy to do. Moreover, given that this is an open back IEM, I find that it’s not unreasonable to expect the listener to be in environments where applying a bit of EQ is more doable.
Score - 8.5/10
RHA CL2 Planar - The other planar IEM that originally came in at a similar price is a closed shell offering from RHA. While the detail and speed of the CL2 are excellent, along with the bass extension, this IEM has a horrible peak between 3-5khz that makes everything sound like a tin can full of marbles being thrown down a stairwell. The i3 beats this IEM in every way and has a more agreeable tonality. I’ve noticed that other attempts at making a closed back planar IEM have also resulted in unpleasant elevations in the 3-5khz range as well, and interestingly that’s exactly where I hear a bit of a dip for the i3. While Audeze have clearly solved the challenge of that region by making it open back, I wonder if there’s a middle ground to be explored with a semi-open design.
Campfire Audio Andromeda - The i3 is one of the few IEMs that I consider to be a better technical performer than the Andromeda. The Andromeda still has a more agreeable tonality, with better balance in general, but the i3’s speed, dynamics, timbre, and to some extend soundstage were all superior to my ear. I do find that the Andromeda has better channel matching, and so the imaging is better on the Campfire IEM, but detail retrieval capability is very close for both.
Campfire Audio Vega - The Vega performs similarly to the Andromeda, however the V-shaped tonality makes it less appreciated by traditional audiophiles, myself included. However it does still do well on the detail retrieval front, and has excellent bass extension. If you’re looking for a more V-shaped option that’s more practical for real world situations like on a train or a bus, the Vega would be my choice over both the Andromeda and the i3, but in ideal environments I would go with either of the other two.
Campfire Audio Atlas - This IEM is way too V-shaped for me and I do prefer the tonality of the i3 over the Atlas. But the i3 does have to concede technical performance to the Atlas - where even though it’s a bass monster, you do get some incredible bass detail and dynamics as well. The Atlas is also quite a bit more expensive though.
As I mentioned in this review, the concept of EQ is built into the LCD-i3. And while some of us are willing to tweak things with a variety of software, it’s completely understandable that many of us don’t want to have to do any of that to be able to enjoy their expensive audio purchase. To that end, Audeze has made EQ extremely accessible with the LCD-i3 (and their other products that use digital signal processing) to the point where we likely don’t even realize it’s being applied.
Some might find this approach somewhat annoying, and there’s a part of me that appreciates the traditional approach that says we should strive to tune headphones and IEMs perfectly through the improvement and tweaking of physical properties rather than ‘fixing’ the tonality after the fact with DSP or EQ. But if that limitation means sacrificing technical performance in a “here’s what this thing can do” sense - focusing less on tonality at the engineering level - or incurring additional engineering challenges that eliminate the possibility of groundbreaking products like the LCD-i3 from reaching the market, then I’m all in favor of the DSP approach.
In fact, while the default tuning isn’t exactly what I’m after, my hunch is that the average person will really enjoy the i3 with the Cipher modules. And from my perspective, this absolutely is a benchmark IEM when it comes to technical performance. Add to that the fact that my issues with tonality are entirely alleviated by making EQ that much more accessible - anywhere - and I have to say that I thoroughly recommend the LCD-i3… that is of course, if you’re okay with the completely ridiculous deal-breaking concept of an open back IEM.
Overall Score: 8.5/10
You can also check out my video review here: