Fight for the Throne: Audeze LCD-4, Meze Empyrean

Introduction

I’m crazy about music, and as a software engineer I’m fanatical about the audio equipment I use to play it. Suffice to say I’m no professional reviewer (in fact, this is my first), nor do I use my setup for mixing/studio purposes.

I decided to review these two sets of headphones, the Audeze LCD-4 and Meze Empyrean, as I can’t really justify keeping both. This review will hopefully help me to decide which to keep.

The Audeze LCD-4 is originally a 2016 model, but the drivers and ear pads were replaced last November. The Meze Empyrean was made in November this year, so both headphones are basically brand new.

All gear used in this review is owned by me and I’ve got no affiliation with any of the mentioned brands. On my Head-Fi profile there’s a little overview of equipment I’ve owned or own presently.


Specifications

Audeze LCD-4

Style: Over-ear, open-back
Driver Type: Planar magnetic
Impedance: 200 Ω
Sensitivity: 97dB
Frequency response: 5–50,000 Hz
Weight: ≈ 690 g
Retail price: $3,995

Meze Empyrean

Style: Over-ear, open-back
Driver Type: Planar magnetic (Rinaro Isodynamic Hybrid Array)
Impedance: 31,6 Ω
Sensitivity: 100dB
Frequency response: 4–110,000 Hz
Weight: ≈ 430 g
Retail price: $2,999


Customer service

This might be a little unusual to open with, but for me customer service is a very important topic when it comes to products that retail this high. I attach special value to after-sales customer service and warranty, and I suspect others do as well. Below I will comment about the customer service experience with each company involved in this review.

Audeze

I currently own the LCD-XC (Barton Pereirra edition) as well as the LCD-4 from Audeze. Both are purchased on the used market. I got my XC from Head-Fi and my LCD-4 on a trade-in at a French dealer. Both are manufactured in 2016.

I’ve had problems with the left driver in both pairs of headphones. First with my XC; the(in)famous crackling sounds of the diaphragm (and this isn’t actually acknowledged as a defect).Then with my LCD-4 I had some bass distortion on the left side, after I tried to replace the ear pads myself.

Audeze’s customer service and transferable warranty policy are simply fantastic and it’s fair to say that I’ve never experienced anything like it. For both of my Audeze headphones the drivers were replaced with the latest versions and brand new ear pads, all free of charge. An additional three years of warranty are offered on the replaced drivers. The original warranty on the headphones themselves is one year. Their support desk is very responsive and helpful too.

Meze Audio

Unfortunately, I received my brand new Empyreans with a few marks on the grill and frame. After some back and forth between my dealer, distributor and Meze Audio, I got a replacement within a few days and on top of that a 50% discount on the balanced cable I was about to purchase.

You’d say this is a fantastic solution and I was very happy, but when the second pair arrived there was once again a little mark on one of the cups. After having spoken to Meze directly I’ll get another replacement, which will arrive soon and hopefully will be perfect. Third time’s a charm, as they say.

Even though it’s a cosmetic fault, I think they need to step up their quality control, much the way Audeze did after their driver issues. If they really want to succeed in the high-end headphones market, I think it would be wise to give this area a little more consideration. I agree with Antonio Meze’s technical explanation for the marks and from an engineer’s perspective it makes perfect sense. However, from a client perspective, the nicest technical solution isn’t always the best.

Their warranty is not transferable between owners and they give one year on the headphones, including drivers. There’s a side note, as I quote Meze Audio from an email conversation:

The warranty of the drivers is something that we discussed with our partner Rinaro in depth on a number of occasions and it’s a complex debate.
They say that in theory and with normal use the warranty can be 10 years but this doesn’t include accidents and other user generated potential mishaps.
What this exactly means I cannot tell for sure so we prefer to offer 1 year warranty for the entire product, but we will support the driver failure even after the one year period.
Again, discussed in particular case by case with the client or dealer/distributor.
The ideology is to underpromise and overdeliver in case something unexpected happens. We’re still a young company and don’t have experience with what can go wrong in normal usage of the planar drivers.

Update: I’ve received my third pair just before Christmas and this pair is immaculate. It also looks like Meze adjusted their production process already as the frame looks slightly darker to me. I asked about this and this is Meze’s explanation:

The new batch of frames have a very slightly darker shade due to the fact that we increased the anodizing time and the depth from 0.008–0.012mm to 0.012–0.016mm. Although everything else was kept the same, the longer exposure time to the chemical reaction caused a very slight difference in shade. I personally prefer it and we think it’s well worth the change due to the stronger finish surface that results.

Packaging

Audeze LCD-4

The LCD-4 arrives in the same recognisable flight case as the other LCD models. It’s very robust, practical and it looks nice. Inside is a pair of gloves (I wonder how many people actually use these gloves), a manual, an owners certificate and a 2.5m long baby blue cable, terminated in 6.35mm. From what I understand you can ask for a different termination upon purchase, free of charge.

Meze Empyrean

The Empyrean arrives in a flight case too, but less bulky and more stylish. Inside is an extra pair of ear pads (microsuede), an owners certificate and a 3m long (black) cable terminated in 6.35mm. Upon purchase you can choose a 3.5mm termination instead of the 6.35mm jack, but balanced is an upgrade you need to pay for.

However if you already own a balanced cable with mini‐XLR jacks (like Audeze or ZMF headphones), feel free to use this cable with the Empyrean.

Build quality and design

Audeze LCD-4

The LCD-4 comes by default with a high quality carbon leather headband and premium leather ear pads. I’d have preferred the leather-free ear pads, but for other reasons than quality. The wooden cups, chrome grill and chrome connectors look very solid and premium too.

The ear pads are glued on the cups and there’s a spacer between them and the pads to prevent the build up of air pressure, which can cause a driver failure (the diaphragm can rupture).

Because of these spacers it’s impossible to replace the ear pads yourself, and Audeze therefore recommend replacement with them if you need new ones.

I really like the LCD models in general, but the LCD-4 feels very exotic and deviant in comparison, but then, it is a flagship. The headphones, at first glance, are beautifully designed. But look closer and the spacers become a bit of an eyesore; more so, a design flaw. The first models didn’t have the spacers, but after numerous driver failures Audeze had to come up with a solution.

Meze Empyrean

Like the LCD-4 the Empyrean also has a high quality carbon leather headband. The frame is built out of a single piece of aluminium, and the Empyrean comes by default with two sets of replaceable ear pads: premium leather and one pair of microsuede. It’s extremely easy to swap pads and both of them look premium and are built of high quality materials.

Not only do the Empyreans have a unique driver developed by Rinaro, but also a unique design with amazing details; such as the CNC milled grill. The pictures speak for themselves and I think the Empyrean is the most beautifully designed pair of headphones I’ve ever seen.

On the Empyrean product page, they explain the technology and design very well. Definitely worth having a look and I recommend it too.


Comfort

Audeze LCD-4

The headband looks like a suspension headband, but it doesn’t suspend at all — at least not on my head. After suffering for a while and struggling with the weight, I decided to shorten the leather strap to achieve suspension and remove the hotspots. This worked out well, and now I’m able to wear the headphones for hours in a row without any discomfort. The weight of the headphones doesn’t bother me at all now either.

The clamping force is perfect, although I wouldn’t recommend head-banging with these as they will probably fall of your head! I think this is more due to the weight than lack of clamping force.

Usually when I use my headphones I don’t wear glasses, but when I do while using the LCD-4, I don’t have any comfort issues either.

In the past I’ve had some headphones (Audeze LCD-2, Sony MDR-Z1R) where my left ear was touching the drivers (I think this might say more about my weird left ear than anything else), but I don’t have these issues with the LCD-4. In fact the Audeze ear pads are very comfortable.

Meze Empyrean

Compared to the LCD-4, the Empyrean isn’t heavy at all. On top of that, the suspension headband is very well designed and doesn’t cause any hotspots like the LCD-4.

I’ve had some clamping force issues with Meze’s 99 Classics, but the clamping force of the Empyreans is beyond perfect. Even though it feels similar to the clamping force of the LCD-4, some head-banging wouldn’t dislodge these headphones — I highly recommend to any metal fans among us!

Both ear pads are extremely comfortable, but the microsuede are the more comfortable to me.

As with the LCD-4, I didn’t have issues wearing my glasses while using the Empyreans. Same goes for my ears, they do not touch the drivers.

The Empyrean is definitely the most comfortable pair of headphones I’ve ever owned.


Sound

I’m a big fan of vinyl and CDs, but I’m also a big fan of Tidal. To keep it easy, I’ve used Tidal as a source for this review.

I’ve used a Chord Qutest and Violectric HPA-V281 as the solid state setup. For my tube setup I’ve used an Icon Audio HP8 MKII (with Jensen capacitors, a matched pair of Shuguang Treasure CV181-Z tubes and a NOS Mullard ECC83/12AX7 Long Plate F92 tube) and Mytek Brooklyn DAC (not the plus version).

For the portable setup I’ve used a Chord Hugo 2.

Audeze LCD-4

I believe that the LCD-4 in general is a warm pair of headphones with a laid back sound. The bass is the best I’ve ever heard in a set of headphones, amazingly accurate and with so much slam. Perfect.

Although the mids are very smooth and detailed, I do think there is a lack of air. The treble seems slightly too relaxed, but this works just fine for me. To try and give some context, I find the treble of the HD800s overly piercing.

The soundstage is very intimate, but definitely has depth and instrumental separation is very good.

The LCD-4 is probably one of the most power-hungry headphones available on the market, and very difficult to drive. Therefore I believe the amplifier choice is limited if you really want to push them to what they’re capable of.

Chord Qutest + Violectric V281

Thanks to the power of the V281, you get the exceptional bass of the LCD-4 that you wouldn’t get with less powerful amps. Good dynamics, details and very musical — I could listen for hours to this pairing without any fatigue.

Mytek Brooklyn DAC + Icon Audio HP8 MKII

The HP8 doesn’t have enough power to let the LCD-4 really shine, you can notice this especially in the lower end. There’s no slam and punch in the bass. The mids and treble become a slightly more crispy and present though, thanks to the tubes. Although I still enjoy the LCD-4 with this pairing, it doesn’t match the V281 in my opinion.

Chord Hugo2

Even though many people think the Hugo2 is not powerful enough to drive the LCD-4, I actually think it does it very well. Of course there’s a big improvement when listening over the V281, but still I enjoy this pairing. Plenty of dynamics, details and musicality.

Meze Empyrean

I find it very difficult to describe the Empyrean. They play every song perfectly, and have what feels like a real ease to adapt. For these reasons, I like to compare this pair of headphones to a chameleon.

It’s like they alter to the music, letting you hear the music just as the artist intended. It’s all so effortless, and they very much remind me of the sound of Harbeth speakers.

I wouldn’t describe them necessary as warm or laid back, but neither would I describe them as neutral. However, I do think they lean more towards a neutral tone than a warm one. With the leather pads we tip even more towards neutral; with the microsuede pads you’ll get that bit more warmth.

The bass isn’t as exceptional and slamming as the LCD-4, but it’s good — very good. The mids are crispy and very airy. The LCD-4 has the best bass I’ve ever heard, but the Empyrean easily gives the best vocals I’ve ever heard. The treble is sparkly and precise, but never harsh. It does have some kind of smoothness, but definitely nowhere near as creamy as the LCD-4.

The soundstage and instrumental separation are phenomenal. The soundstage is not as huge as for example the HD800s, but definitely big and deep.

I feel like the Empyrean again just adapts to every pairing, and is very easy to drive. Therefore the amplifier choice is huge and I’m already excited to read about pairing from other owners in the near future.

Chord Qutest + Violectric V281

I really like this pairing. Very enjoyable, good dynamics and details. The bass is fast, accurate and plenty of punch. Definitely no fatigue at all and very musical.

Mytek Brooklyn DAC + Icon Audio HP8 MKII

I was expecting to very much like this pairing, but it didn’t meet my expectations. The bass is good and the mids are exceptional, but the treble became a bit too harsh and I certainly didn’t take to it as much as with the V281.

Chord Hugo2

This pairing is ridiculously good. This is the pairing I heard the Empyreans with for the first time, at Canjam London 2018, and this is still my favourite. I always thought the filters of the Hugo2 didn’t do that much, but with the Empyreans I can hear significant differences.

Crossfeed is fun to play with as well with this pair of headphones. I didn’t expect this pairing to sound better than the V281 to be honest. It’s background is dead silent, great dynamics and details. Very enjoyable and I could listen to this pairing all day.


Conclusion

I find it very difficult to compare these headphones, as they’re both very different.

I was secretly hoping to keep the Empyrean and sell the LCD-4, but after this review, I’m forced to keep them both.

The LCD-4, in my view, is the king, and rules from the top for good reason. They hold their own against new-market challengers and it proves once again how unique and beautiful this pair of headphones is. Having said that, the Empyrean brings an equal might to the table, though they present completely differently - could they be our queen?

Whatever the case, both pairs of headphones are surely worth keeping, and I’m happy to make the room for two seats for both to lead.

Audeze LCD-4

Pros

  • Better and transferable warranty policy
  • Exceptional bass

Cons

  • Hard to drive
  • Glued ear pads

Meze Empyrean

Pros

  • Easy to drive
  • Extremely comfortable
  • Clever replaceable ear pads

Cons

  • No transferable warranty policy