Headphones always give me a feeling of rapture when they're built correctly. They are able to reproduce music without the need to tune a room or place speakers in the ideal location. Unfortunately, with the increasing popularity of portable audio devices, the number of truly audiophile quality headphones is lower than in the past. They are slowly fading to those mass-market parodies, which give a fraction of the performance, albeit for a fraction of the cost. Luckily, a few months ago the chance arose to do a review on a pair from ZMF Headphones. The ZMF x Vibro headphone reviewed here represents the next step in evolution by ZMF. ZMF's x Vibro headphone feature exotic wood cups that are custom produced and tuned to allow for a beautiful luster. They also provide a more satisfying and engaging sound than their previous headphones according to the company.
ZMF Headphones are handmade and made to order. The company allows the consumer to customize not only the wood, but also the type of wood stain, type of wiring, and even the finish on the headphones themselves. Furthermore, the wiring options are not only external, but internal as well. ZMF headphones has partnered with Double Helix cables to provide internal wiring choices. Although beyond the scope of this review, it should be noted here that each of these changes is liable to have some effect on the intrinsic playback characteristics. They might not be huge, but you should check with the manufacturer to make sure you know before ordering your headphones. There is a basic description of the changes listed on ZMF Headphones' website as well.
Although the review itself specifically pertains to the cherry wood cup version with the buffalo leather headband, the first set I received had the pilot band. As noted above, there was not a large variation in playback between the two, but there was some. It was not enough to require a serious comparison since, in my opinion, both were quite similar.
Playback System &
Headphone Comfort Assessment
With that said, the iPod used in this review was able to power the ZMF headphones on its own and without the need for additional amplification. There was some decrease in performance naturally. This was not an option chosen for this review; therefore, it is not something that has much detail. Instead, during the review I used a Ray Samuels F-35, The Lightning, portable balanced amplifier nearly exclusively. This allowed for not only a balanced connection to the headphones, but suitable and far more stable amplification device. Additionally, while not auditioned with other headphones in this review, the Ray Samuels F-35 portable amplifier represents one of the best examples of performance, price and portability on the market today. With that in mind, the amplifier and iPod connected to the ZMF x Vibro Headphones via an optional cable. The cable, again not the subject of the review, was well made and fit well with both the amplifier and headphones alike. Once attached, the 200 or so hours on break in consisted of different musical selections that allowed the headphones time to become fully conditioned. This same time allowed a chance to evaluate the headphone comfort.
Overall, my impressions of the headphone from a purely ergonomic and comfort level was well above average. They were not incredibly light headphones and they had a solid feel plus the placement was simple. The ability to slide the ear cups into position and, more importantly, to retain their placement added to the overall experience. Finally, the Alpha pads did a great job both from a comfort and noise isolation prospective. Perhaps my only subtle complaint, if it would be after a lengthy period, is that the ear cups became somewhat warm. This is a complaint with many headphones and certainly more a personal statement. However, if you are planning to do more than just listening, you might want to consider a more open configuration.
Classical music is represents one of the hardest genre to reproduce with cohesive and synergistic fidelity. Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra's performance of Holst's The Planets, can humble any system's ability to portray the performance without losing a fair amount of the detail. It seemed the ZMF headphones did struggle slightly to create a truly flawless reproduction of incredibly energetic selections such as Mars, The Bringer of War. This was caused by their inability to resolve the energetic and louder passages without losing inner and subtle details. At lower volume's this was certainly less evident, but still somewhat present.
However, while the detail overwhelmed the headphones ability to resolve minor details, the upside was the overall presentation was both impressive and refined. Certainly, the sound seemed rich and engaging without tending towards either a loss of upper or lower range frequencies. The headphones do come with the ability to tune the bass response to one's own preferences and this fine-tuning can ultimately make a huge difference in the consumer's experience.
Rock was my second choice in evaluating the ZMF headphones. Perhaps my favorite album to achieve this is Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. The re-released version goes quite a bit further than the original CD version by capturing both the louder and quieter, more subtle passages. Unlike with the classical selection, the headphones did substantially better. They might have lacked some of the extreme detail you would find in only the finest playback equipment, yet they more than made up for it in character. They gave the music a wonderfully neutral tonality, which served to create one of the best experiences I have personally enjoyed with headphones in sometime. Certainly, there was no real want for any particular element within the playback, but rather an overall feeling of cohesive musical envelopment. Once again, fine-tuning with the bass ports did slightly change the bass response and volume, which added more refinement.
The review ended with Barbara Streisand's Live in Concert 2006. This compilation of 31 songs is easily one of the most telling albums in terms of overall soundstage in my mind. Streisand's voice is often times difficult to reproduce without losing so much character and definition; it loses some of the majesty that makes it timeless and unique. Of all the selections in this review, this one perhaps gave the best indication of how uniquely; remarkable the headphones can be with the right mix of music. Although I would stop short of saying this was the most impressive playback of this album, it certainly was in the top five. Once again some of the most subtle details were slightly lost in the more powerful passages, but overall, the headphones were exceptionally effective of creating wonderful warmth and an enveloping beautiful tapestry of sounds that nearly took my breath away.
Conclusion And Final Thoughts
Concisely, if you are looking for a distinctive and unique pair of headphones at a great price that perform extremely well, especially for their price, these are definitely worth putting on your short list for audition. Additionally, if you are looking to get the most out of your investment, you would do well to consider the F-35, which is The Lightning portable headphone amplifier manufactured by Ray Samuels Audio as well. The balanced design works perfectly with the ZMF headphones and at $549 they represent a definite bargain plus they complement the headphones exceptionally well.