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Roll Safe: Audeze's Leather vs. Leather-free Pads

In late 2020, Audeze changed their earpads from memory foam to open-cell foam for the internal cushioning. This change brought the pads closer to the original pads the LCD-X launched with.

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In late 2020, Audeze changed their earpads from memory foam to open-cell foam for the internal cushioning. This change brought the pads closer to the original pads the LCD-X launched with.

By total coincidence, I got a chance to try the new revision of the leather-free pads on a 2021 LCD-XC, which made me curious to see how they sounded on the open backs. Luckily, a friend at Audeze was gracious enough to send a pair of Leather-free pads to test. I put both pairs through about as much testing as I reasonably could, to come to confident conclusions on differences to share with you all.

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Right off the bat: this is going to be subjective as heck. I don’t have measurement equipment, and my goals for this review were to satisfy my curiosity with some semblance of accuracy and, of course, to have fun.

Since I only have one LCD-X on hand, and Audeze pads are glued on and impossible to swap easily back and forth, I had to write down impressions between the two sets of pads while living with them one at a time for a few weeks each. Not a perfect test, not a scientific test, but I think the impressions are solid and spoiler: it seems like Audeze came to the same conclusions themselves.

Testing Setup

I used Apple Music for my music listening, and no EQ was added. The source chain used was Dangerous Music Source (DAC) into my Bryston BHA-1 (Amp), using the Audeze premium balanced cable (the black/white one) sending signal to my LCD-X.

This serves as both a test for my imperfect aural memory to retain meaningful info on differences, but also a test of how brain burn-in and pad wear over longer periods than most A/B tests can potentially affect the two signatures differently.

Let's get into it with the first difference you're likely to notice between the two.

Build/Comfort

There is a clear winner here, and it might not be what you expect.

Left = Leather, Right = Leather-free

The Leather-free pads seem more durable, are better looking, and are more comfortable overall than the Leather pads. I was surprised at first too, but it’s not even close; the Leather-free pads are stiffer around the outer rim when on your head, so they don’t “crush” as easily (meaning your ears have less chance of touching the fazors) but they are also softer/plusher feeling materially when on your head, due to a more compliant outer material. The Leather-free pads also don’t get hot as quickly as the Leather ones do in long-term use. In addition to all of this, the Leather-free pads are legitimately much cleaner and less wrinkled looking after unboxing than the Leather pads were.

The caveat here is, of course, I only had limited time with both. I don't know what they’d look like in six months, or 2-3 years for that matter.

In everything build/comfort related except potential longevity, the Leather-free pads are the clear winner. If you only care about comfort, go for the Leather-free pads, because at minimum they make it less likely that your ears will touch the fazors.

However, if sound is a huge factor (and I gather it will be for many of you), it's definitely not that simple.

Frequency Response/Tonality

It’s laudable how similar the Leather and Leather-free Audeze pads actually are. The differences I notice are quite minor in the grand scheme of things, and achieving some appreciable level of tonal consistency with such massive pads made with completely different materials deserves praise. That being said, the differences, while minor in the grand scheme of things, are certainly noticeable to me.

The Leather pads on LCD-X have a “Harman-like” tilt throughout the midrange, where there’s a gradual slope from 200Hz upward until about 1kHz, after which it recesses until about 1.5kHz where it begins to trend more steeply downward reaching 3-4dB below Harman neutral in the 2-3kHz area. It's then followed by that classic Audeze dip around 4kHz and a somewhat unpredictable treble response above this point (save for a peak that usually shows up between 10-14kHz).

Measurements of the Leather pad LCD-X (2021), courtesy of Resolve. Leather-free Audeze pad measurements on an industry standard rig do not exist, to my knowledge

The first difference I noticed here on the Leather-free pads is that the slope of the midrange has a slightly less counter-clockwise tilt overall; the rise from 200-1000Hz sounds like it's been significantly flattened.

Because planars with a good seal/coupling to the head will generally just extend flat from the midrange down to the sub bass (ideally), this lessening of the 500-1000Hz area in particular results in a woolier sounding bass presentation; the ~700Hz bump present on most Audeze LCD series headphones seems to be entirely absent here, which means the low-midrange unfortunately masks the overtones in the center and upper midrange slightly.

Above 1kHz is where the deviations become even more clear with further listening. Between 1-2kHz, it seems like the Leather-free pads have significantly more of a dip, enough to make the slight warm bias already present in the bass-to-mid transition area step over the line into problematic territory. It’s overwarmed at this point; almost everything has harmonics in this region, and thus most things suffer a loss of timbral richness and intensity here.

The treble between 5 and 10kHz seems remarkably similar between the two, with the Leather-free pads having a slight reduction around the classic 5-6kHz Audeze peak whereas the Leather pads are a little sharper there. The treble 10kHz upward, however, presents much differently between the two. The Leather pads definitely have the classic Audeze upper-treble peak, but the Leather-free pads have a significantly bigger peak here, which also seems shifted higher in frequency (around 13kHz while the peak on the Leather pads seems closer to 10.5kHz) The treble also seems to have a much more diffuse and soft presentation. This leads to the character being “wispier” on the Leather-free pads but simultaneously more sibilant and bothersome.

The sum-total effect of these differences is most present on things that token a large part of the frequency response, with acoustic guitars and vocals likely having the most telltale signs right out of the gate. On the Leather-free pads, the reedy overtones of acoustic guitar are recessed enough for the guitars to sound obviously V-shaped, characterized by a boomy and poorly-controlled fundamental region, hollow and sucked out textural harmonics, near-nonexistent pick attack, over-emphasized string buzz and clatter, and frankly ridiculous amounts of air and silk, making it a simultaneously overly breathy yet problematically warm presentation for acoustic guitar.

Left: Leather, Right: Leather-free

Conversely, the Leather pads seem to have a much more sensible relationship between frequency areas across the board. This means acoustic guitars sound much more “correct” in both tonality and imaging. The pick attack is actually there. The piano-like midrange resonances are there and existing in a much more harmonious relationship with the warmth below and sizzle above. As mentioned prior, the lower-treble on the Leather pads is slightly more annoying and sharp sounding on acoustic guitar, possibly due to the upper treble peak being in a different spot, altering the balance. In short, I find the Leather pads to be the best choice for any guitar—electric or acoustic—full stop, due to a more coherent midrange presentation.

On female vocals, I actually don’t mind the slight warmer tilt of the Leather-free pads, as it can make their voices a little less strident and clenched sounding compared to the Leather pads. Male vocals, on the other hand, don't play nearly as nicely and sound much too tubby and lispy.

However, due to the nature of the treble of both of these pads (and planar headphones in general), I find vocals to be quite unnatural regardless of pad choice. There's just too much air, and paired with the lack of upper midrange intelligibility, the character with either pad is often impossible to ignore for all of the wrong reasons.

Coming back around to instruments, drums are another instance where I feel the Leather pads beat the Leather-free ones handily. The sharpness afforded by the leaner overall midrange tonality really helps the transients of drums, regardless of size/tuning, to have more thwack and tactility. The Leather pads sound more coherent in both attack and decay (and I’ll touch on this more in the dynamics section).

Bowed strings, woodwinds, and brass also sound better on the Leather pads, where again the more coherent midrange tuning is no doubt responsible for the overtones sounding more natural and less bereft of their almost scratchy texture and richness.

It’s prudent to mention that with all of this comparison, neither pad complement is what I’d call an ideal tuning for the instruments or voices on any of my music. Are they passable at times, sometimes even good sounding? Sure. Is it anywhere near as well tuned as a Sennheiser HD600, Aurorus Borealis, or Focal Utopia? No. They’re both dark in the upper midrange with poorly controlled treble... and you’ll likely end up EQing whatever pad complement you decide on.

That all being said, the more dramatic deviations at play here are in the realm of the technical, and that’s where preference is gonna start making one a clear choice over the other for people. For now it should be no surprise: I prefer the tuning of the Leather pads.

Timbre

There’s one stark difference between the two that is worth mentioning to begin the technical discussion, and I hinted at it earlier: the Leather-free pads are noticeably soft sounding compared to the Leather pads. On the Leather-free pads, it sounds like the edges of voices and instruments are diffused, or even heavily feathered.

This leads to the presentation as a whole kind of stepping over the line from an Audeze presentation into sounding a little more like a Hifiman… Which kind of makes sense when you consider that in terms of frequency response, the Leather-free pads boost the >10kHz air while dipping the ~1-2kHz area relative to the Leather pads.

In addition, the Leather-free pads also seem to have a problem with decay in the midrange being fenestrated; it seems like the trailing ends of notes are either poked full of holes or simply breaking apart into nothing, which leaves things sounding truncated in a weirdly translucent and ephemeral way… which is also reminiscent of a lot of the Hifiman headphones I’ve heard.

The Leather pads overall offer a timbre that is possibly too sharp in the lower-treble for some, but the decay and tuning overall is more coherent than the Leather-free alternative, though still far from perfect.

To that point: in terms of naturalness in decay and timbral realism… neither pad sounds very good. If you want a more diffuse presentation, go for the Leather-free pads, and if you want a moderately less diffuse presentation, opt for leather... but even the leather is pretty soft and feathery compared to most dynamic driver headphones.

This is a problem I’ve found with pretty much any planar transducer out there, even the well-tuned ones. They all seem to have this incongruity of character where they present small details and gradations of volume very clearly, to the point of being perceived as more detailed, but the trailing ends of tones all seem to paradoxically trail off in an unnaturally quick way, which leads to them sounding incapable of delivering accurate tonal decay. This brings me to…

Dynamics

The psychoacoustic phenomenon we call “dynamics” is best discussed (if not definitively explained) through analysis of what we call “the envelope,” or the transient peak of a sound.

In my Aurorus Borealis vs. Focal Elex writeup, I mentioned that the Focal headphones have a subjective sense of dynamic envelope overshoot:

It seems that after a certain threshold higher in the volume range, the gradation of volume increase gets steeper and more dramatic, so an instrument or voice can end up leaving the space of coherence with the rest of the mix by suddenly jumping too high in volume and becoming fatiguing. The same seems to be true in the lower end of the volume range on the Focals, where the volume drops more steeply past a certain threshold, leaving the trailing ends of tones sometimes sounding like they're chopped off.

This behavior is akin to a plugin in the mix engineer's toolkit called an “expander,” which uses dynamic range expansion to work the opposite way of a compressor, increasing dynamic range. Expansion is the tech behind most noise gate and transient shaper plugins, for example, where it can take an input and increase volume over a threshold (and conversely, decrease volume below a threshold). This is the best analogy I have to convey what I hear that makes Focal headphones seem so dynamic. They are incredibly dynamic feeling, but in a way that may ultimately seem unrealistic, overhyped, and somewhat homogeneously dramatic to some.

The LCD-Xs I'm testing, regardless of pad choice (and planar headphones in general, save for one or two), seem to have the opposite problem. Near the top of their range, it sounds like after a certain threshold, the gradation of volume increase lessens and they compress downward, which leads to feeling like there's a lack of dynamism and explosiveness. Near the bottom of their range, they seem to compress upward which leads to a sense of additional low-level detail. Again, while this might not be objectively what is happening, this is my subjective/psychoacoustic unpacking of the sound as I hear it, and the only way I can convey to readers how I hear this quality presenting itself.

This particular aspect of planar headphones may in fact be perfect for a lot of users. Many listeners index very heavily for a sense of detail and microdynamic clarity. Many like to listen for long periods without fatigue as well. I could see people who care deeply about either (or both) finding a place in their regular rotation for a nice planar headphone...

But not me. I’ve never found this quality to be realistic or enjoyable, personally. I'd much rather own a punchy headphone with a more natural timbral presentation (with perhaps middling detail or resolution), instead of owning something that's exceptionally revealing of low-level detail, but less punchy and less natural.

Unfortunately, the choices do seem to be somewhat binary between these types of presentation based on driver type, with dynamic drivers being the former, and planar/electrostatic being the latter (with the notable exceptions to this binary being Hifiman's original HE6 and Audeze's LCD-4).

The latter type of character imparts too much homogeneity to the presentation for me, compressing the perceived range of both amplitude and timbral dynamics. That alone is a character I can't personally abide as being "high resolution."

So with that being said: For my taste, neither pad complement have natural decay, neither hit especially hard, neither have the sense of weight behind moving mass that makes big or small swings of volume feel impactful, explosive, engaging, jarring, realistic etc.

However, the Leather-free pads are clearly worse here than the Leather pads. While both share huge problems in the realm of decay, the Leather-free pads also have a massive problem with attack being poked full of holes; they're noticeably softer and more diffuse than the Leather pads. Whatever meager impact the LCD-X I have on hand can muster on its best day is summarily undone completely by the Leather-free pads. While the Leather pads surely have a more punchy and incisive attack transient, the rest of the envelope (specifically the decay) is when both pairs of pads show themselves to be incapable of saving what is ultimately an underperforming headphone in the realm of envelope dynamics (slam/punch).

In the realm of microdynamics, I give a slight edge to the Leather-free pads, which bring small gradations of volume forward a smidge more. This is possibly due to the upper treble emphasis, or the fact that the softness of the high-volume elements contributes to the lower-volume elements becoming relatively more audible. That being said, the two are largely the same here and the differences I notice in this realm are likely mostly attributable to tuning differences.

For macrodynamics, they trade mediocre blows. The extra sub-400Hz emphasis on the Leather-free pads can make things sound marginally bigger/beefier, which can assist this sense slightly. However, it never gets to the point of approaching a real sensation of monolithic size or lumbering movement on either pad.

Detail/Resolution

The differences here are likely entirely up to differences in tuning as well. It’s the same headphone, just with different pads. That being said, both pad choices are a mixed bag.

The Leather-free pads have slightly more audibility for low-volume cues in the treble, where it has a little bit more raw amplitude. The Leather-free pads also fuzz up foreground elements slightly, compressing the overall distribution of intelligibility and making the smaller background elements overall more audible, at the expense of the foreground clarity and resolve.

The Leather pads have better audibility for similarly small cues in the midrange, as well as a better sense of textural resolve overall. The character of these small elements and cues has more overtone richness and color, as well as more variation in the presentation of timbral dynamics.

Soundstage/Imaging

The farthest parts of the stage on the Leather-free pads sound a little more distant due to the 1-2kHz dip, but also significantly hazier and less distinct. Some may call this a bigger stage, and I’d grant that. However, I find the imaging here much less precise than on the Leather pads, which shares the same problem of front-left and front-right stage not being well integrated, but the haze isn’t nearly as big a problem.

That being said, something the Audeze headphones (and large planar transducers in general) are quite good at is presenting the images as being very physically tall, and both pads do very well in that regard. However, my problem with this aspect of planar headphones that have provided this sense of tallness is that they always portray the physical volume and sheer height to the images, without presenting the weight and density such an image would have.

If you want your Audeze to stage further, perhaps you should go for the Leather-free pads. But such a choice would remind me of the immortal words of a good friend:

“I don’t want it to sound better, I want it to sound worse but farther away.”

On Pad Wear

This is something I wanted to comment on as a little sidenote, and I don’t have much to say other than Audeze pads on the whole tend to sound a lot better in the midrange with wear, at the immediate expense of comfort. Something tells me it could be the decrease in distance between the driver and your ear causing the area around ~2kHz to increase as distance lessens (think of what minimal distance does for Grado or Koss on-ear headphones), but it could also be something completely different. In general though, I find that with a decent amount of wear, the ear gain between 2 and 4kHz gets a noticeable and appreciable lift, while the treble seems to smooth out a bit altogether.

Is it worth purposely wearing in your pads? Probably not. Comfort already isn’t great on these headphones for a lot of people. Adding sharp metal triangles (fazors) touching your ears to the list of already uncomfortable quirks about them isn’t exactly something I’d recommend to most people. However, if you have small ears or ears that sit very close to your head, it might be worth a shot as the improvements are definitely noticeable in either Leather or Leather-free configurations.

Conclusions

I cannot recommend the Leather-free pads for the LCD-X nor any open-backed 106mm LCD series headphone for sound quality. The LCD series already tend to be kind of sleepily tuned apart from the new LCD-5, and pushing it in an even softer direction seems like a bad idea (unless you want to turn it into a significantly worse tuned Hifiman-type presentation). The tuning suffers slightly with the Leather-free pads vs. the Leather, and the technicalities with Leather-free pads seem to be an even more noticeable loss across the board.

However, this doesn't mean the Leather-free pads are worthless.

My first time hearing Audeze’s Leather-free pads was, as previously mentioned, on the 2021 LCD-XC at a store in NYC. This LCD-XC apparently came stock with the Leather-free pads.

While it was (for an Audeze) a pretty uncharacteristically thin sounding midrange and treble presentation, it wasn’t as bad as the other 2021 LCD-XC I’d heard with Leather pads. In fact, something seemed to work pretty darn well within that flavor, which is what got me interested in the Leather-free pads in the first place. On the pair with Leather pads, the midrange was noticeably thinner and more harsh, to the point of being possibly the most annoyingly thin midrange I’d ever heard, at least until I’d heard the Meze Liric at CanJam NYC this year.

So while I can't recommend the leather-free pads for an open back Audeze... if you have an LCD-XC, it’s likely that the Leather-free pads will give you the best experience due to the slight clockwise tilt throughout the midrange, especially the 1-2kHz de-emphasis. The Leather pad equipped LCD-XC is relentlessly sharp, thin, and strident, and the Leather-free pads will likely balance that out slightly and make for a slightly more normal sounding headphone, at the expense of unfortunately boosting an already ridiculous air region.

However for the LCD-X, it seemed to just poke holes, soften things, and cause other problems for a headphone that doesn’t really have the well-roundedness to allow for any more flaws.

Overall, this was a fun experiment and I think I learned a lot about why Audeze may have sent out some XCs with the Leather-free pads, and seemingly always sends out the open LCDs with Leather. Looks like Audeze and I came to the same conclusions... even though I didn’t have the rigs or the squigs to back my testing up.

Hopefully you find this useful, I certainly had tons of fun writing it. Thanks for reading!

-listener

listener

Published 8 days ago

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