I would like to thank Audeze for providing the LCDi4 in exchange for my honest opinion.
Audeze has claimed their position in the upper echelon of the headphone industry, which is quite remarkable considering the relatively brief timespan in which they forged their reputation. Their landmark LCD-2 headphone not only swiftly stole the hearts of a large following, but managed to evolve into a universal reference point for smooth, natural sound. When asked what kind of sound you like, “I’m an Audeze kind of guy” is considered an appropriate response, especially when used as counterpart for the brighter, more analytically-oriented HD800.
All of their headphones of course solely uses planar technology, which comes with its own set of advantages. For instance, as their drivers consist of an ultra-thin diaphragm, it allows them to provide a rapidly quick transient response; i.e., the ability to follow dynamic changes in the music with high precision, as well as offering high transparency. And of course, the renowned planar bass by itself has become a primary reason for Audeze’s loyal fanbase.
Audeze’s increasing experience with planar technology drove them to a new challenge: fitting a planar driver into an in-ear format – an LCD headphone in ‘fun-size’, if you will. An ambitious project, resulting in some long overdue innovation in the in-ear market. Even so, resizing the driver came with challenges of its own, especially when tuning the sound. Traditional BA designs consist of specific drivers that are chosen for their sonic properties, and subsequently linked together with a crossover to achieve the desired sound.
But due to the i4’s novel technology, the tuning process, and following end result, was a little bit different. Specifically, the i4 wasn’t tuned for either low distortion or a certain signature, but to simply optimize the performance of the driver. For instance, by varying the width of the traces in the diaphragm, Audeze managed to achieve a uniform electro-magnetic force across the diaphragm, which is deemed important for absolute control and a linear response.
So in a way, the signature followed from its physical design, rather than the other way around. In addition, an over-ear headphone uses human anatomy (the curvature of the outer ear) to boost the midrange frequencies, which is not possible with an in-ear design. Therefore, Audeze experimented with the shape of the ear port and size of the opening, as well as different materials for the golden mesh, while using using wave guides inside the sound port to fine tune the sound. But they also sought out an alternative angle: providing DSP correction via plugin or their Cipher cable to modify the frequency response without using EQ.
The i4 is a unique piece of equipment; not only due to its planar driver, but its open-back design. One could argue it’s equal parts ‘clip-on headphone’, in-ear monitor, and more generally speaking: technological gadget. Its quirky over-ear design and matte black plastic with golden indents has a retro look, which seems to resemble an ode to how people in the 80’s imagined products in the future would look like; at least, that’s my personal interpretation of it. The design certainly has its appeal, although it might not be universally acclaimed.
This returns in its usability. While the i4’s project the sound in the inner ear, the outer shells containing the driver are placed against the ear. Audeze provides a selection of different hooks to keep them in place, which are easy and practical to use. Despite their size, the overall body does not feel heavy while wearing, although it might take some time to adjust the angle of the nozzle. But the most striking difference with a contemporary in-ear follows from its open-back design, which allows ambient sound to flow freely through its open port.
As a result, the i4 is exceptionally susceptible to outside noise, especially when compared to the tight seal of custom in-ears. Admittedly, I was initially taken aback when walking outside while listening, although I later started to appreciate the way the ambient sound grounds you in the surrounding. However, it should be noted that the i4 is probably best used indoors to fully be enveloped in the music.