Audeze, based out of Orange County, is an audio company with a very particular focus. Not concerned with speakers or amps or earbuds, it instead focus on a headphones, and ones of a very specific kind. Its cans use planar magnetic drivers (as opposed to conventional dynamic drivers), in order to achieve a greater range of sound than other approaches can match. The result? “Extremely low levels of distortion and very high-fidelity over the entire frequency range,” according to Sankar Thiagasamudram, the co-founder & CEO. “It’s a very clean-sounding headphone.”
The problem with planar headphones, and why you may have never used a pair, is not about their sound quality but their price, historically reaching well up into the quadruple digits, and accordingly reserved for the sound engineers and well-off audiophiles. But in the past two years, Audeze has released two pairs of planar magnetic headphones that crawl in just under the $400 mark. Its Mobius ($399) and LCD-1 ($399), designed for gaming and hi-fi respectively, use the same planar magnetic technology that is in Audeze’s flagship headphones that cost almost ten times as much, the LCD-4 ($3,995).
The thing that makes planar cans so expensive is, you guessed it, their signature magnetic field.
Dynamic headphones, the kind you probably own, send an audio signal through a coiled wire. This, in the presence of a magnet, creates a magnetic field which moves the coil, and the speaker diaphragm it is attached to, back and forth. This is how your conventional Bose, Sony or Beats headphones play music.
Planar magnetic headphones work similarly to dynamic headphones but instead of a coiled wire, they use an incredibly thin film that spreads across the entire speaker diaphragm. When the audio signal goes through this film, it reacts similarly to magnets, causing the film and speaker diaphragm to move.
The difference, however, is in how much movement happens. “It’s not just driving the soil and large coil, it’s driving across the entire surface of the diaphragm,” said Thiagasamudram. Because the film has a larger surface area, planar magnetic drivers require two larger magnets (instead of just one small one) on either side of the diaphragm.
Planar headphones are not by any means the best headphones you can buy. That honor belongs to even more expensive and sophisticated electrostatic headphones. But the even higher price and the need for extra equipment has left electrostatics squarely in the far enthusiast real for now.
“The advantage of planar magnetic [headphones] is that you plug it into almost anything,” explains Thiagasamudram. “You can plug it into a traditional headphone jack and you don’t have to have a special amplifier.” With electrostatic headphones, you need a special high-voltage amplifier, which in addition to adding a (substantial) extra cost, it also means electrostatic headphones aren’t portable.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that planar tech is new, but the very opposite is true. Headphones that operate on the principle have been around in some form since the 1920s. But Audeze’s triumph isn’t inventing the form, but rather perfecting it. It has turned to modern manufacturing techniques so that it can cast and make its own films. “Instead of chemical etching we used lasers, for example,” explained Thiagasamudram. This has enabled Audeze to make its films extremely small, thin and durable. This is important because the thinner the film, the faster the diaphragm moves, creating a cleaner sound. Audeze also developed its own variety of magnets specifically for this usecase.
The Audeze Mobius gaming headset.To keep the prices low, the LCD-1 and Mobius have plastic earcups instead of wood like in the company’s more expensive flagship and reference lines. The plastic housing doesn’t affect sound quality, says Thiagasamudram, but affects the weight, comfort and look of the headphones. The rest comes down to automation and mass production. “Over the last two years we’ve automated the driver assembly here in Orange County, so now every 18 seconds we can make a driver,” Thiagasamudram said. The company makes and assembles every LCD-1 headphone in California. The Mobius headphone, which has a lot more built-in electronics to make it play nice with gaming hardware, is assembled in China.
As far as how Audeze’s new LCD-1 and Mobius headphones, Thiagasamudram says that there’s a lot of trickle-down from their higher-end headphones. It uses similar types of film and the same types of magnets. They’re not going to sound quite as good as its really high-end headphones, of course, as a lot comes down to the thickness of the film. Thinner films are better because they move the diaphragm faster, but they’re also more difficult and expensive to make. But if you appreciate good sound, the LCD-1 promise to be a noticeable upgrade from the standard pair of over-ears you’ve been listening to for the past few years.