Audeze’s newest open-backed headphones were designed with the help of mix legend Manny Marroquin.
Time was when audio engineers were backroom boffins who stayed out of the public eye. Not any more. In a world where there are few salaried studio jobs, it’s not enough to be good at the craft. Today’s successful engineers are minor celebrities who have built their own brands. When they’re not making hit records, they’re teaching the rest of us how to do it, developing plug‑ins with their name on and even opening restaurants.
Manny Marroquin is a perfect example. Not only is he a brilliant mixer whose name is on countless hit tracks, but he’s also as close to being a household name as any engineer. There are Manny Marroquin plug‑ins and Manny Marroquin mixing courses. A YouTube search on his name brings up thousands of videos. And, yes, he has his own restaurant in LA. As if that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, he is also Head of Professional Products at headphone manufacturers Audeze.
The first product to issue from this partnership is the MM‑500 open‑backed headphones, and it’s clear that Marroquin has been deeply involved in their design. He has, apparently, been an Audeze user for many years, and has provided feedback on many previous pairs. All of that feedback and experience has now been distilled into a new model, intended as the mixing headphones Manny Marroquin always wanted but has, until now, been unable to buy!
The name Audeze should be familiar to readers from previous reviews, but in case it isn’t, a quick recap might be in order. Audeze headphones are the brainchild of Dr Drag Colich, who has devoted much effort to improving planar magnetic drivers. These have been around since the ’70s, but in the past, their good qualities — low distortion and extended low‑frequency response — were often counterbalanced by drawbacks such as low sensitivity and poor high‑frequency response. Thanks in no small part to Dr Colich’s research, these limitations have largely been overcome, and flagship Audeze headphones such as the LCD‑X offer a truly sumptuous listening experience. Manny Marroquin is a fan, and so am I.
So why the need for a new model intended for mixing? It seems that there have been three main concerns in the development of the MM‑500: one ergonomic, one sonic and one economic. As anyone who’s ever tried the LCD‑Xs will know, they are among the largest headphones on the market and also some of the weightiest. I’ve always found them pretty comfortable to wear, thanks to their wide headband and deep ear cushions, but there’s no denying that 612g can burden your head during an extended mixing session. And sonically, although the LCD‑Xs have a deep bass and a dynamic response that most moving‑coil headphones would die for, they can sometimes feel a bit too relaxed further up the spectrum for mixing purposes. If a source has a problem with sibilance or hiss or upper‑midrange sharpness, you can certainly hear it, but it might not be as present and forward as it is on other headphones.
Reportedly, these ergonomic and sonic concerns have been addressed in Audeze’s current flagship model, the LCD‑5. But that’s where the economic concern comes in. The LCD‑X and many other Audeze models are already well into four figures, price‑wise, and the LCD‑5 is several times as costly again, currently retailing at $4500. That’s simply more than most of us have to spend on a pair of headphones, no matter how good they are. With the MM‑500, then, it seems that Audeze and Manny Marroquin have tried to create something that has the same positive qualities for the mix engineer, but at a somewhat more manageable cost.
You know that a pair of headphones is intended for the professional market when it arrives without any means of hooking it up to a mini‑jack socket, and it’s immediately obvious that the MM‑500s mean business. They come in a fitted hardcase made of something impressively tough, and the headphones themselves are smart without being blingy. The overall design is similar to that of most LCD models, with hinges allowing the circular earcups to rotate up and down. Notched circular poles mate with holes in the headband, securely maintaining your chosen height setting while allowing free rotation in the horizontal plane. A tough braided cable attaches to the base of both earcups using mini‑XLR connectors, and terminates in a fixed quarter‑inch jack at the other end.
Like most of Audeze’s headphones, the MM‑500 is an open‑backed design, and although the earcups themselves are circular and symmetrical, the replaceable cushions are deeper at the back than at the front, meaning that the drivers fire into the ear at a slight backwards angle. The diameter of the earcups is noticeably smaller than on the LCD‑X, and the difference in weight is also evident, but in both cases this is a matter of degree. Compare the MM‑500 to almost any moving‑coil headphones, and they will still appear bulky and heavy! Like the LCD‑X, though, I personally found them very comfortable for long‑term use: more so, in fact, than some comparative featherweights from the moving‑coil realm.
The planar magnetic transducers used in the MM‑500 and the LCD‑5 are both 90mm in diameter, around 15 percent smaller than the 106mm designs used in the LCD‑X and related models. In the LCD‑5, this reduction in size is accompanied by a fairly substantial drop in sensitivity, from the 103dB/mW of the LCD‑X to a mere 90. The MM‑500s, however, are only 3dB less sensitive than the LCD‑X. All of the LCD models have relatively low input impedance, and at 18Ω, the MM‑500s are no exception. What this means in practice is that they should be easy to drive from pretty much any source, though you’d hope that anyone spending this much on a pair of headphones wouldn’t be listening exclusively on a cheap laptop or tablet.
It’s immediately obvious that the voicing of the MM‑500s differs somewhat from the ‘classic’ LCD sound.
I haven’t tried the LCD‑5, but I was able to compare the MM‑500 directly to Audeze’s LCD‑MX4, which is the more upmarket sibling of the LCD‑X, as well as various other open‑backed headphones. It’s immediately obvious that the voicing of the MM‑500 differs somewhat from the ‘classic’ LCD sound. The same strengths are apparent, most notably the effortlessly extended bass, the clarity and the uniquely punchy presentation of drums and other percussive sources. But what’s gone is the relaxed quality, that hint of softness in the treble and upper midrange. When I’ve mixed using the LCD‑X and MX4, I’ve sometimes ended up pushing this part of the spectrum too hard, because it’s almost as if there is too much headroom there. If you’re not disciplined about A/B’ing with known references, you can miss the things that will make your mix sound harsh or strained on lesser systems.
In contrast, the MM‑500s are more forward in the upper midrange, and subjectively brighter. I still wouldn’t call them bright in absolute terms, though, and such brightness as they possess has a different character from the 10kHz airiness you get in many moving‑coil models, being more focused in the upper midrange. Achieving a good high‑frequency response from a planar headphone is a considerably technical challenge, and some other models I’ve tried have met this challenge only at the expense of unevenness in this area. That’s not at all the case with the MM‑500. A good test for this sort of thing is the original mono mix of the Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’. On some headphones, the tambourine hits are rendered as piercing bursts of noise. On the MM‑500, they sound like tambourine hits. More than that, in fact: you can follow every swish and slap of the instrument, as though it was being played right in front of you.
To see whether the pudding would deliver the proof, I used the MM‑500 to audition and then tweak some mixes that I had originally done on speakers, deliberately avoiding cross‑referencing other headphones or monitors. When I’ve tried this approach with other headphones, I’ve quite often been led astray, ending up with mixes that were obviously skew‑whiff when played back on a familiar system. Not so with the MM‑500: pretty much every change I made still seemed like a good idea when I fired up my speakers again. And, of course, no review process for these headphones would be complete without listening to a few Manny Marroquin mixes on them. I can report that they sound sensational — but you don’t need a £$1600 pair of headphones to tell you that! If you do invest in the MM‑500s, though, I think you can be confident that they will be a genuinely useful tool in helping you produce sensational mixes of your own.
A superb pair of headphones designed specifically for mixing, with a somewhat more forward sound than Audeze’s LCD‑X.