Each year, we see the launch of so many exciting new headphones, including the release of all-new top-of-the-line flagships. The question of whether or not to upgrade is often an easy one. However, what happens when our favorite brand launches not one, but TWO brand new top-of-the-line headphones? Each using entirely different driver topologies, at that? Well, 2021 saw that exact scenario play out when Audeze released their two newest open-back flagship headphones, the Audeze LCD-5 alongside an all-new electrostatic headphone, called the Audeze CRBN. We, like yourselves, have been curious about how they differ from one another. So, to tackle the question of which one is better, we sat down with both and had a listen using our flagship amplifiers for planar-magnetic and electrostatic headphones.
These headphones require two entirely different forms of amplification, hence why we're using our HeadAmp GS-X mk2 Balanced Headphone Amplifier and HeadAmp Blue Hawaii Special Edition Electrostatic Headphone Amplifier, paired with a Bricasti Design M3 Direct Stream DAC as our source. We utilized direct streaming over LAN through Roon and listened to music via Qobuz. For direct comparisons, the following playlist was used:
Both LCD-5 and CRBN are beautifully manufactured and easy to wear for long periods of time. CRBN has a non-removable, hard-wired headphone cable and oval-shaped earcups, which we found to be more comfortable. However, it's more sensitive to placement and seal. The LCD-5, on the other hand, is heavier than CRBN but still lighter than its older brothers. The fit and placement do make changes to the presentation, but not to the same extent as with CRBN.
They each possess a distinct Audeze house sound, with deep and powerful lows, a dense mid-range, and just enough top-end sparkle. However, there are some slight differences between the two, which makes each one worthwhile depending on your taste in music. Overall, we appreciated the LCD-5's ability to present the grunt, snarl, and heft of heavier and more intense music. It retained amazing clarity and presented music with a real FORCE and impact, bringing a life-like realism to genres such as: heavy metal, drum & bass, and rap. CRBN on the other hand, while being more nuanced and displaying better definition and control, seemed as though it lacked a little bit of impact, in contrast. While CRBN is certainly one of the most impactful electrostatics we have heard, it doesn't quite compete with the LCD-5 in this regard.
Before getting too deep into how these two headphones differ, we’d like to take a moment to elaborate on what we look for, value, and enjoy about each of these pieces of music.
Starting with the Chili Pepper's cover of Sly and the Family Stones' "If You Want Me To Stay", we are immediately reminded of why this is one of our favorite recordings, due its sense of raw realism. What stands out in our minds about this song is the combination of explosive drums, a funky and forward bassline, and the rich intensity of the brass horns. Anthony's vocals and Slovak’s guitar remain clear and present within the mix, but ultimately, they end up taking a back seat. We were fortunate enough to have a chance to hear this very same song, performed live several times, by many passionate musicians worldwide. The most memorable performance was recently in Chicago, where it was performed at a small little dive bar, where there wasn’t much amplification present outside of a single Fender Rumble. What stands out about that performance is how closely it mirrors the feeling and sensation of listening to that record! So, when listening to this track on any play-back system, we’re looking to get that same feeling of being quite literally there in person with the band. We’re listening for extension on the hi-hats and snares, as well as bottomless dynamic contrast. We’re also listening for the bite in the brass, the punch and drive of that funky bassline, and enough clarity to distinguish the guitar riff and Anthony's playful vocal cadence.
For our tastes, we felt as though CRBN captured everything that makes this track unique, and it truly brought us back to that little dive bar. Its tonal balance and dynamic contrast were genuinely breathtaking, and the way it presented Anthony's voice was delightful. Each and every word is delivered with ample personality and quirkiness! With LCD-5, the boost to the sheer funky power presented in the bassline was enjoyable, but the tonal balance was just a bit too intimate and vocal-forward for our tastes. It added this sense of focus on each individual instrument, which made it sound as though it was being heard from within a studio, rather than being there live with the band.. This isn’t meant to imply that CRBN lacked any clarity, detail, or focus. However, its overall presentation sounds more natural and engaging for this particular piece of music.
As enjoyable as CRBN is with the Chili Peppers, listening to Archspire's "Drone Corpse Aviator" with it was a bit lackluster. Everything was there from a technical standpoint, but the presentation was over-defined and fatiguing, with a lack of impact and heft. Part of what makes this track so engaging is its BRUTAL and visceral nature. The mix creates a wall of fast-paced blast beat kicks, distorted guitar riffs, and blindingly fast complex basslines that weave in and out of slower, beautifully melodic passages. While CRBN has slightly more vivid transients and better top-end air... it's not as engaging. LCD-5, on the other hand, retains all of the same detail. However, it interweaves it appropriately within an impactful explosion of sound. It's visceral, powerful, beautifully melodic, and wicked fast. LCD-5 presents the track both technically correct and without marring the intent and emotion behind the music. In contrast, the CRBN unfortunately isn’t quite as enjoyable with this piece of music.
Any discussion of Eva Cassidy's music must first start with the focus of just how much of herself and her soul lives on through her music. Sadly, we have so little from her, given that she passed so early in life. Nonetheless, "Oh, Had I a Golden Thread" off of Nightbird is one of our favorites. She demonstrates absolute mastery over her voice and commands an impressive dynamic range. She's soft, velvety smooth, and sweet in quieter passages. However, when it’s called upon, her voice suddenly becomes intensely powerful. This composition complements her beautiful voice with airy snares and hi-hats, a warm rounded bassline, and a bluesy piano ballad. Plus, there is an added sprinkle of faint sparkly little acoustic guitar licks. However, the focus is first and foremost, always on her voice. This recording in particular preserves a slight discernable echo within the room, which you can hear in both the drum kit and her voice, with an acoustic guitar placed far back into the mix. These spatial cues help build an image of her within the space she's being recorded in, during her live performance at the Blues Alley nightclub. Given that she's no longer alive, being able to discern these details is a crucial part of this recording, and the album as a whole. For those of us who never had a chance to meet her, these recordings are our only means of being able to remember and preserve her. Truthfully, we feel that a crucial part of Hi-Fi playback, as a whole, is its ability to act as a time capsule. When recordings have the ability to preserve not just music, but also the very soul and essence of each individual featured on the recording, then that is when they truly become timeless. It is an honor to be able to get to know and remember Eva through the music that she and so many others captured and shared with all of us.
Ultimately, CRBN appears to be the clear winner here. There's a level of nuance, detail, and tonal balance that brings to life this recording and the woman herself. LCD-5, on the other hand, has passages where its rendition of the vibrato in her voice is breathtaking... however, there are other passages where it pushes the background vocalists a bit too forward, causing them to excessively overlap atop Eva's voice.
To wrap up our song-by-song comparison breakdown, we queued up one of our favorite tracks, as the grand finale. Truly, there's nothing better than hearing two favorite genres and artists come together! "Metaphor 6000" is a joint effort between Kool Keith and Nu:Tone. This track has three crucial elements:
With this track, LCD-5 is the clear winner. Its slight mid-emphasis pushes Keith's voice just a tiny bit forward, to the point where you can hear his flow and truly feel his vocal cadence. Part of what we love about Keith's voice is his pronunciation and inflection. The way in which he forms his words and interacts with the mic is a work of art. LCD-5 puts his mastery on full display, first and foremost, with deep, powerful synth basslines and crisp hi-hats behind it. CRBN, on the other hand, lacks some of that deep, powerful impact and pushes the hi-hats a bit too forward relative to Keith's voice. Unfortunately, this changes the structure of the mix for the worse, in our opinion.
In conclusion, we genuinely feel as though Audeze has two attractive options between the CRBN and LCD-5 Flagship Planar. Audeze has done an outstanding job with the release of their first electrostatic headphone. We had a hard time picking a clear winner here, and ultimately, we feel as though they are more complementary than strictly better or worse than each other, especially when used alongside a top-of-the-line playback system.
Over the years, we’ve found electrostatic headphones and their respective amplifiers to be more sensitive to back-end components. They can be underwhelming at times, especially when they don’t have a competent high resolution source behind them. Due to this, there is a higher investment cost required, in addition to requiring more careful care and attention when not in use. However, it’s an investment that yields stunning results. CRBN offers better speed and dynamic contrast, with more vivid and discernible transients, when paired with our flagship Blue Hawaii Special Edition and a high quality source like the M3. It’s a listening experience that goes above and beyond what’s possible with traditional headphones.
Users whose source chain still has room for improvement, and have an itch to upgrade in the future, will likely find LCD-5 to be the stronger contender. It has and retains its more intimate presentation, focus, improved impact, and better low-end slam when paired with our GS-X mk2 and good source like the iFi Audio ZEN Stream and ZEN DAC Signature. We’ve found that LCD-5 certainly benefits from a high quality source, however, it’s not restricted to one like CRBN. LCD-5 retains its strengths and appeal as long as you have sufficient amplification behind it. These qualities make it an excellent choice for enjoying music, movies, and gaming.
Ultimately, deciding whether to go with the CRBN or the LCD-5 boils down to what you prioritize. Do you want something more nuanced and effortlessly natural for enjoying music, such as jazz or classical, that was captured with the highest fidelity? If not, then perhaps you crave a more full bodied and authoritative all-rounder, for the enjoyment of movies and all genres of music. If listening to high fidelity music is your top priority, especially if it’s been impeccably mastered and recorded, then you can’t go wrong with CRBN. If you still want a high fidelity experience, but perhaps want something that will be a bit more suited to music of all sorts, then LCD-5 fits that bill. Just be sure to pair these with our top-of-the line amplifiers and high quality source to hear them at their absolute best!
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