One thing that a decent set of earphones or headphones reveals, along with music, is the noise floor of associated equipment. Among the first things that set the PecanPi® USB - USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier from Orchard Audio apart from others is a virtually silent noise floor. Orchard Audio has a uniquely minimalist design aesthetic. Aside from the volume control knob on the front of the unit, there is absolutely nothing that indicates whether it’s powered up, on or off, the sampling rate, bit depth - nothing. We’ll return to the PecanPi® USB, later in this review.
A pioneer in bringing planar magnetic-driven headphones to the public, Audeze, has championed this technology in its products since the beginning. Once limited to audiophiles willing to wear what looked like a set of personal waffle irons on their heads, the new Audeze LCD-1 headphones, look like a normal set of dynamic phones - no annoying bling, foldable and small, and easy to transport, they are an everyman’s planar. We paired with them with the Orchard Audio PecanPi® USB - USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier, to see what they revealed about each other.
At $399, the Audeze LCD-1 Open-Back Foldable Headphones are the most affordable models in Audeze’s LC Reference Headphone Line, the next step up being the LCD-X at $1,199. At that price, the LCD-1s are within the reach of most consumers and professionals alike. An open-air design, they aren’t the best choice for noisy environments, even if Audeze mentions using them on the “top of a volcano,” a claim we have yet had the chance to test. Do we see a “road trip” in our future to Kilauea?
We have been using them for several months, for multiple uses including auditioning DACs and headphone amps, to allowing my ninety-one year-old mother to listen to election night returns on MSNBC. In fact, of all the headphones I gave her to listen with, the LCD-1s quickly became her favorites. Lightweight, with memory foam ear cups, they provide a clean, accurate sound, free of accentuated bass. The fact is that they start to blend into the landscape; you just get used to them around the house. They don’t scream anything, they just are. And that’s a good thing.
Calling a product versatile tends to imply that it is “generalist,” with no committed strengths. This isn’t the case with the LCD-1s; they are seriously flexible in terms of audio genre. We tested them with high-res streaming from Qobuz, a wide variety of genres, and originals, as well as AM/FM, DVD, Blu-ray audio, CDs, and tracks from Chesky Records. Lastly, they worked great with TV audio, which made my mom happy because she could watch “The View” at a higher volume than that preferred by the rest of the household. And that made us happy. On a serious note, they are clean, fast, responsive, comfortable, and lightweight. They are also tough. Normally, we would have been testing these in planes, trains, automobiles, subways, boats, etc. Not so in 2020, with the pandemic making a joke out of our frequent flier points, but the LCD-1s are headphones that love to travel. We are hoping that we will eventually see a closed-back version, like the beloved Oppo PM-3s, which provided a planar magnetic that could be used in a noisy environment, or some other location that doesn’t allow for any audio to bleed out, like a library.
They are made of black plastic, and the fit and finish are nice - just about what you would expect for a lower-priced headphone. They are designed for portability, and don’t exude luxury, but they are definitely well made, without the need to visually telegraph just how good they are sonically. Audeze describes the LC Reference line as “Reference Headphones for Producers and Mastering Engineers.” Audeze’s LCD Reference headphones feature the most neutral and accurate drivers ever created. Trusted by industry professionals worldwide for both transparency and seamless translation, the LCD Reference series will allow you to mix with confidence whether you’re in a professional studio, a bedroom, or on top of a volcano...”
You might expect to find the LCD-1s bit sterile, accurate, and flat, but not all that exciting, which is how most mastering phones tend to sound. Normally, when mixing or mastering, the idea is to have headphones with the least amount of bias. One key to the LCD-1’s flexibility is that they are pretty neutral, not favoring any specific genre. Where they depart from typical reference models is in that they are musical, not overemphasizing bass at the expense of midtones. But damn if they don’t pack a solid punch when needed, while resolving even the tenderest of brushes on a snare drum. There’s a good reason why so many listeners seems to have fallen in love with LCD-1s, they are just a joy to listen with. At the price, with the level of sonic accuracy and excellence, they are an unbeatable value. The wonderful opening riffs on The Black Keys “Brothers” starting with “Everlasting Light” are beautifully distorted, punchy, energetic, and quick with the LCD-1’s, on the newly Remastered 2020 Anniversary Edition.
I’ve loved Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” since the first time I heard it, and later when a student of mine gifted the CD to me, it was always in the player. Several years ago, during a CES breakfast sponsored by HD Tracks, I had the pleasure of sitting next to engineer Ryan Ulyate, who was at work on what would become “Wildflowers & All the Rest.” We talked about that project, and how they were hoping that the full set of tracks would be released, since that's how Petty always envisioned the album. Ryan had finished the original album's remastering, and was then working on the unreleased tracks, which he said were amazing. Now that the full set has been released, I was curious how they sounded, and it’s clear that he wasn’t exaggerating. Listening through the PecanPi® USB, the harmonies were believably in front of you. The nuances of Petty’s voice shining through were crystalline clear, enough to grieve for what we lost with his unexpected passing. On “California” the acoustic guitar, is front and center, and when the background vocals join Petty, each voice, even while harmonizing, is still distinctly their own. Stunning.
The LCD-1s performs at their dynamic best when paired with a capable headphone amplifier, and they paired beautifully with the PecanPi® USB DAC/Headphone Amp from Orchard Audio. The PecanPi line came to our attention via word of mouth from other reviewers, who kept asking if we had heard their gear yet. And, we hadn’t. PecanPi hadn’t been to many of the headphone listening events, so I chatted up owner Leonid (Leo) Ayzenshtat.
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, one thing that a decent set of earphones and headphones reveal is the noise floor of associated equipment. Accordingly, one of the first things that set the PecanPi® USB - USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier apart from others is their virtually silent noise floor. Orchard Audio has a uniquely minimalist design aesthetic. Apart from the volume control knob on the front of the unit, there is absolutely nothing that indicates whether it’s powered up, on or off, the sampling rate, or bit depth.
How good is the PecanPi® USB? It's very, very good, so good that it’s easy to forget that it’s even on. When I talked with Leonid (Leo) Ayzenshtat, the owner, engineer, and chief bottle washer who makes everything in his one-man shop, he said that he doesn't feel he possess special hearing, so his designs are 100% driven by test data, design goals and specs. While I am not sure if knowing that changes anything, I did find it interesting, and the unit does sound really good. He is a believer in the premise that if a feature isn’t related to the design goal and purpose for a product, then you should leave it off. Why add complexity and possible denigration of the audio output if you don’t have to? I asked, why not even a power LED, or sampling rate indicators? He then asked me, do they contribute to the audio? My answer was no, so to his mind, they aren’t needed.
Thinking about the way Ayzenshtat designs, without relying on his ears, but rather his engineering prowess, reminds me a bit of Oppo, now a “gone too soon, legendary brand,” which had no idea that their players sounded anything special. They concentrated on best-of-class video processing, which was the design goal, and built what they thought was a nice analog output stage. Much to their surprise, Oppo players suddenly became the Holy Grail for their audio quality and low cost. Subsequent designs improved on that, but it's interesting that the Oppo’s superlative, audiophile-level analog audio stage was never an original design goal. The goal was a well-designed, solidly engineered analog output stage, to support the improved video quality. But somehow, in the process, they created a world-class output stage. Go figure. And that made me think of Ayzenshtat.
When we reviewed the OPPO UDP-205 Blu-ray Disc player, considered the ultimate Oppo player, we noted that users have control over DAC filters, similar to the Oppo Sonica DAC. In our testing, any differences from changing those filter settings, were virtually impossible to ascertain in listening tests. I think that, for the most part, DAC discussions should be about synergy, not the chips in use, but rather about how a component interfaces to the rest of your system, coupled with a large dose of what's hip and in fashion. So, our advice is not to fret about it. Just play the music.
If you have a high-end system with magical and expensive bits all over it, then maybe you might be able to demonstrate differences between the chipset used in a DAC. Certainly good headphones, going directly to the DAC, or integrated into the DAC as a headphone amp, can reveal tiny and sublime differences, but again, we have found the differences as seriously subtle, so, it's never been a “wow, I can really hear Ringo's dandruff hit the cymbals” kind of moment. Most of the time, it’s a question of how musical it sounds, which is utterly subjective. And, since the vast majority of DAC chips use similar tech and math, what's left is analog. There are examples of DACs that approach the match in a different way, with supposedly improved or at least different performance. What I'm trying to say that, I wasn't worried about what chips Ayzenshtat utilized, all that mattered was the sound, which was wonderful.
Think of it like processing a RAW file in Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom vs. Capture One. Both are best in class, but because camera profiles are generated differently in each app, with different rendering, they can provide visually different results with the same file. But, the clearly visible differences in how those apps interpret a RAW file, are vastly less subtle than what we encounter with a well-designed DAC up against another well-designed DAC.
Back to photography: for RAW files which app is better? Well, it's complicated. Returning to the audio synergy question, both apps fit into the larger ecosystem in different ways. Lightroom is a primary component of the Adobe workflow, and has a robust digital asset management tool, while CaptureOne does integrate, but not natively, so it’s much more limited in that aspect. But many users swear by CaptureOne’s rendering of digital photos. We found that Ayzenshtat's design was much the same, it is a potent, not very picky, source of musical energy.
For us, I think that these easily observable visual changes are vastly less subtle than what we encounter with a decent well-designed DAC, either as a standalone with headphone amp, or as part of a larger workflow, going to a preamp, then amp, then speakers, with different cables, etc.
The specs on the PecanPi® USB - USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier include the following:
Dynamic Range (DNR): 125dB
Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise (THD+N): -110dB or 0.0003%
Output Voltage: 5Vrms (+16.2dBu)
Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR): 124dB (A-weighted)Residual Noise: 1.6uV (A-weighted) Dynamic Range (DNR): 122dB
Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise (THD+N): -110dB or 0.0003%
Output Voltage: 2.5Vrms (+10.2dBu)
Balanced Headphone Output
Power into 32Ω: 1.56W peak
Power into 150Ω: 333mW peak
Power into 300Ω: 167mW peak
Power into 600Ω: 83.5mW peak
Damping Factor: > 210
Regular Headphone Output
Power into 16Ω: 781mW peak
Power into 32Ω: 390mW peak
Power into 150Ω: 83.5mW peak
Power into 300Ω: 41.6mW peak
Damping Factor: > 230
Sampling Rates: PCM up to 192kHz
Bit Rates: Up to 24-bit
Formats: Supports all formats. DSD is converted to PCM before playback.
Dual flagship Burr-Brown PCM1794As in monaural mode
True balanced dual differential output stages
Uses OPA1612s, Low Noise Panasonic Resistors, Proprietary filtering topology
One interesting design quirk is that the unit only has one set of headphone outputs, which are balanced XLR jacks. Want to listen to non-balanced phones? Just use the included XLR to RCA & Stereo Mini-Phone Jack adapters. In keeping with Ayzenshtat’s design philosophy, no need to clutter up the circuit board with separate outputs, minimize casework, and save costs while reducing crosstalk and freeing up space for other components. The Audeze LCD-1 is rated at 99 dB/1mW (at Drum Reference Point) with an impedance of 16Ω. The PecanPi® USB is rated at 781mW peak at 16Ω, using the headphone adapter. Balanced output is higher, as per the chart above.
Since we started working with it, Orchard revamped the unit, now christened the PecanPi® USB/SPDIF, and unsurprisingly, it now has a SPDIF jack, and two dedicated RCA output jacks for your headphones via an included 6-inch 3.5mm Headphone Cable/Adapter. The XLR to RCA adapters are no longer included, as the cable can just plug directly into the new output jacks. And aside from the SPDIF capability, Ayzenshtat assured me that every other spec is unchanged. I kind of wished they would continue making both models, as the new SPDIF model is priced higher than the original USB-only model, but sadly, the USB model is no more. In fact, there isn’t even a reference to it on the site, aside from reviews. This also means that the plethora of positive reviews the original design received may also apply to the new model, since nothing really changed in terms of specs and design.
In use, the PecanPi® USB powered the Audeze LCD-1s to a high output level, although I found I need to increase the volume coming out of the music player software, using Amarra 4 Luxe, and Decibel 1.35, so perhaps a high/low gain switch might make sense in the future. The case is a solid, somewhat generic utilitarian design. The logo and name are screened onto the front side in white, providing a nice contrast with the black case. The only control is via the distinctive large volume control knob in the center. And that’s it. Personally, I like things such as a power indicator, and a sampling and bitrates indicator. Indicators have been useful when checking on and confirming the data that is being sent to the DAC.
Most playback software lets you know the bitrates and bit depth, but not all do, and neither do all provide feedback of decoding. The Qobuz app chooses the highest possible quality file, based on the output device. Play a 24/96 file on your Mac laptop’s DAC, and the quality is automatically knocked down to the 16/44.1 capability of your laptop. You can see that happen in the Qobuz app, but it would be nice to confirm on the DAC. I do understand Ayzenshtat’s passion for designs with absolutely nothing extra on the circuit board that doesn’t directly contribute to the audio. Since LEDs don’t add to the audio quality, why have them? I get it, but I still want them.
The PecanPi® USB combines absolute silence with effortless dynamic range, and amplification. There is no sense of grain or grit, no matter how hard the unit is driven, even at full volume, nor is there any distortion, drift, crosstalk, or lack of musicality. We tested it with a variety of phones and IEMs, and in all cases it was a superbly musical, and invisible product. At no time could any of us discern an “Orchard Audio Sound” as it just got out of the way and let you feel the music. Maybe the lack of sampling and bit depth indicators helps you in that regard, in thinking and relating to the music, and not the technology. It handles most formats, converts DSD to PCM, and it didn’t hiccup, no matter which source file I threw at it. There is no way to alter the DAC filters, but as mentioned before, it’s not something we’re in interested in. Paraphrasing Henry Ford, you can get the PecanPi® USB in any color as long as it’s black.
Combined with the Audeze LCD-1 headphones, you have an audiophile-quality system, at an affordable price. We compared the PecanPi® USB to a variety of sources, including the new Earman Sparrow DAC/Headphone Amp, and Earman TR3 DAC/Headphone Amp, along with our reference units, the Mytek Brooklyn DAC+, and the Oppo HA-1 DAC/Headphone amp. When not using the Qobuz desktop app, we used Amarra 4 Luxe, a highly regarded audiophile music player.
Similar to the generosity of Qobuz and Chesky Records, Universal Music was kind enough to send us the recently released restoration of “Goats Head Soup” by the Rolling Stones, and Elton John’s recently released “Jewel Box.”
How did the system sound? After a break-in period of a week of 24-hour-a-day music pumping through them, the Audeze LCD-1s settled in for good, with a bit of brightness tamed down, and a bass response that allowed for a solid punchy bass, but not muddied by spillover. There are conditions where the phones flirted with sibilance, but that required a realty hot mix. "Goats Head Soup" was amongst the most poorly recorded and mixed albums of the Stone’s discography. The recent anniversary release is more properly considered a restoration then just a deluxe treatment. The soon to be released “Jewel Box” by Elton John is a remastered box set that contains a highly personal set of tracks that range from rarities to B Sides, and much more. It’s a fascinating collection, one that John compiled and supervised himself, that represents his view of his body of work vs. the hits. For both collections, the Audeze LCD-1 and PecanPi® USB, revealed the sparkling new remastering for both titles. Together, the synergy was capable of revealing detailed nuances, in a sweet and open way.
Studio Electrophonique – “I Don’t Think I Love You Anymore” is a lovely 2:50 minute piece of audio bliss, by a young “angel faced” songwriter and performer by the name of James Leesley. He recorded himself solo, with a tape machine, late at night, so as not to upset his neighbor’s newborn. The ambience of taping at night in the dark was there, in just enough measure, to make this a song of love at the edge of loss, achingly alive.
“100 Years Ago” from the newly restored “Goats Head Soup” by the Rolling Stones, comes across as powerfully punchy, with Billy Preston’s funk electric piano punctuating both the percussion and melody lines with a great sense of musicality and energy. It’s always been a bit of an outlier for the Stones, with what seems like the crafting of two different songs into one, and it sounds better then it ever has. “Winter” one of the albums better ballads, has a warm feeling during this time of political instability.
Using the Pecan Pi USB, the strings are believable, and the musicality is smooth and atmospheric. “Angie,” the breakout hit from the album, is as strange a song to follow the legendary “Exile on Main Street” as exists in the Stone’s catalog. The ache in Jagger’s voice is palpable, even if that clarity makes you wonder if the song is a bit of a send up of its own genre. Richards said that he wrote it about his daughter Angie, and although I’ve always thought that it was too saccharine for my tastes - the strings sound lush and the mix comes through clear and accurate, a testament to the Pecan Pi USB
The Audeze LCD-1 Planar Magnetic Headphones are an affordable and portable entry in the Audeze ecosystem.The audio quality and usability are first-rate, and after months of putting them to the test in various types of weather, jogging with a cell phone, to high-res music files with state-of-the-art DACs and amplifiers, they acquit themselves quite nicely, are easy and enjoyable to listen to and at the price are a solidly good buy. Made in the USA, the Audeze LCD-1 Planar Magnetic Headphones come highly recommended.
One of the most enjoyable DAC/Headphone Amplifiers we have ever used, the Orchard Audio’s PecanPi® USB - USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier is a fantastic unit, competing with far more expensive DACs, without breaking the bank. Made in the USA, Orchard Audio’s PecanPi® USB - USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier come highly recommended.
Harris Fogel and Frank Schramm, with editorial input from Nancy Burlan, posted 12/9/2020, updated 1/5/2020
For more information on the Audeze LCD-1 Open-Back Foldable Headphones visit: https://www.audeze.com/collections/lcd-reference-collection/products/lcd-1
For information on the PecanPi® USB - USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier visit https://orchardaudio.com/pecanpi-usb
For more information on Qobuz visit: https://www.qobuz.com/us-en/discover
For more information on Chesky Records visit: http://www.chesky.com/
To learn more about Sonic Solutions Amarra 4 Luxe software visit: http://sonicstudio.com/amarra/amarra4.php
To learn more about True Balanced™ Premier SE Analog Interconnects by Pangea Audio visit: https://www.pangeaaudio.com/Pangea-Audio-Premier-SE-Balanced-Interconnec...
To learn more about the Mytek Brooklyn DAC+ visit: https://mytekdigital.com/hifi/products/brooklyn/
To learn more about Dekoni Audio Nuggets Headphone Headband Pressure Relief Pads visit: https://dekoniaudio.com/product/dekoni-audio-nuggets-headphone-headband-...
To learn more about the EarMen TR-Amp visit: https://earmen-shop.com/products/tr-amp