If you're a film buff you're likely already familiar with the concept of an "Auteur". It's an informal title used in reference to an artist who has full creative control – the equivalent to "authorship" of a film. It's usually associated with greats like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. Their influence can be felt at every level of a film and their fingerprint is unmistakable.
As a graduate film student and later a teacher at Chicago's Columbia College, ZMF's Zach Mehrbach grew an appreciation for the artistry and nuance that makes these celebrated auteurs unique and special. But along with that growing appreciation, he was also growing something else: student loan debt. To make a little extra cash on the side, Mehrbach stared selling hand-modded Fostex T50RP headphones, a venture that was far more successful than he ever anticipated. As his little side project continued to grow and grow into a full-time job, ZMF, which once stood for Zach Mehrbach Films, transformed into ZMF Headphones.
Still, the concept of the Auteur stuck with Mehrbach. After introducing his first fully original designs, the Eikon and Atticus, he wanted to push the boundaries of what his proprietary dynamic drivers could do. He began experimenting with the biocellulose drivers used in the Eikon and eventually came up with an open backed design that he felt was oozing with potential. He had a vision for a headphone that would allow the listener to be the "Auteur" of their own sound – offering a set of pads that would give listeners a fairly neutral presentation and another set that would offer them a warmer, more "classic ZMF" sound.
And this is how the ZMF Auteur was born. At launch, the headphone is being offered in Teak ($1,599), which will be it's stock wood going forward, and Limited Edition Blackwood ($1,899). Both models are being offered with at $200 preorder discount, bringing the prices to $1,399 and $1,699, respectively. Preorders will also include both sets of pads: the more neutral Auteur pads and the darker perforated Eikon pads. After launch, orders will include one set of pads of the buyer's choice.
Which set of pads one prefers will be entirely subjective. Of the two, I had a distinct preference for the more open sounding Auteur pads, so from here on out, it should be noted that all my impressions were captured using those on the Blackwood model. Comparatively, the perforated Eikon pads have about 2.5dB more presence on all the frequencies below 800Hz, but they also sound a bit more closed in. For my tastes, I found the Auteur pads to be more neutral, more open and more technically proficient overall.
With that out of the way, we can move on to talking about the sound, which is absolutely stellar.
Tonally, this headphone is an absolutely phenomenal performer. I wouldn't consider it to be entirely colorless in terms of transparency, but it isn't far off, and all of the coloration falls pretty firmly into the "warm and musical" side of the equation for a positive end result. When evaluating the headphone, it quickly became apparent that it was a true jack-of-all-trades. So I compared the Auteur extensively with a number of headphones that I consider to be benchmark performers in select sonic areas, and the Auteur ran the gauntlet with impressive form in pretty much every category.
The Unstoppable Force And The Immovable
Foundational bass presence around the 40 to 65 Hz is especially visceral – these frequencies include the fundamental notes in the lower half of bottom octave of the bass guitar. This area is exceptionally well defined and punchy. Having spent a decade or so standing in front of a bass cabinet 3-5 nights a week, the realistic portrayal of this part of the frequency response is something I'm particularly attuned to, and there are really only a tiny handful of headphones that nail it just right. If you want to hear a bass line with exceptional clarity and separation, this is definitely the headphone to grab.
The deepest sub-bass frequencies between 20 to 40 Hz are slightly less emphasized than the aforementioned region (no doubt due to the open nature of the headphone) but are still very present and incredibly satisfying. The Auteur quickly became my go-to headphone for EDM, industrial and hip-hop tracks for its ability to reach down low and rumble when the track called for it.
A little higher up the frequency range, the midbass is warm, clean and equally slamtastic. Percussive sounds have a lot of pop – particularly kick drums, palm-muted guitars, and slaps on the bass. More tonal sounds like low guitar notes and male vocals have a certain full-bodied robustness to them, but manage to stay nimble without becoming wooly, allowing the Auteur to flow absolutely effortlessly into the midrange without any blurring or overlap. It's a sound with lots of muscle and no fat: thick but quick like a planar, with a lot of visceral dynamic texture. It's a combination that makes the Auteur especially well-suited for genres like hard rock and heavy metal, where the headphone can really cut loose and show its stuff.
Going back to the benchmark, I want to re-emphasize the thing that really stands out is how the Auteur is able to deliver so much low frequency power and performance without coming across as overly colored. While low frequency separation, detail, dynamics and slam where all a bit better on the much pricier Abyss AB-1266, the bass felt somewhat unnaturally boosted relative to the Auteur, which was pushing only slightly less air without as much coloration. Switching back, the Auteur always felt much more neutral in terms of tuning. In the end, I found them similarly satisfying subjectively, and was ultimately able to pick bass lines out of the mix with pretty much equal effort from both headphones. If you've ever spent time with the juggernaut that is the AB-1266, you'd know that's really saying something.
The Art of Balance
I've always appreciated the silky naturalness of the Atticus vocal presentation. The midrange is fairly colored on the warm side, but it delivers vocals with a smoky and sultry sense of romanticism that is matched by very few headphones. It's not a technical marvel, but its intimacy and humanity make it something special. It's not hi-tech, hi-def, hi-res quad-rate DSD... it's vinyl, man! And while that magic hasn't gone away, I'm inclined to say that the new Auteur is better, both objectively and subjectively.
For starters, it is more linear, which opens it up to a wider audience and a wider variety of music. It has a more resolved and refined transient edge on the front and crisper decay on the back. There is more musical information inside each note. But at the same time, the incredible natural ease of the Atticus is there. The emotion and the humanity are preserved. There was always a bit of a controversy about which was better: the crisp and resolving Eikon or the relaxed and musical Atticus. Well, taking the resolving capability of the Eikon driver and opening up the cup to eliminate some reflections seems to offer the best of both worlds.
I compared the Auteur's performance on vocals, pianos and strings across several tracks, and I found it to be more natural, musical and emotionally involving than the Atticus, which surprised me quite a bit. While the Auteur maintained the Atticus's sultry and intimate liquid flow, there was an added sweetness in the upper midrange and a little extra sparkle in the treble that offered a sense of lift and energy to the presentation. Pianos had more immediacy and guitar leads popped out with more sizzle and edge, yet there wasn't any rough hardness to the sound.
Compared to the venerable Sennheiser HD800, I found Auteur wasn't quite as transparent and linear, but more fun, engaging and musical. While top-quality recordings seemed to favor the Sennheiser's ability to truly make the headphone disappear, the Auteur was much more forgiving of less-than-perfect source material, making just about any track I threw at it sound at or near its best.
Adding the Atticus back into the mix, trading off between the three showed an obvious gap. The two open headphones offered more energy, resolve and sparkle than the Atticus; while the two ZMFs added more romanticism, forgiveness, intimacy and musicality relative to the Sennheiser. The Auteur sat squarely in the middle of the Venn diagram in this exercise – which isn't to paint it as the best of the three – just the most balanced in terms of its presentation, further cementing its value as an all-rounder.
Air And Space
To give it the acid test, I fed the Auteur one of my go-to tracks for sibilance testing, "I Remember" off of Deadmau5's Random Album Title via 256kbps mp3. It's an average quality mp3 file and the track is very much what I would consider an average quality pop music production – it's not a broken recording, but not audiophile grade either. The female vocal is fairly compressed with a relatively steady stream of "F"'s, "S"'s, and "T"'s, which aren't inherently strident on their own, but they will set off a hot-treble set-up like a fire alarm.
Likewise, if those notes aren't pushing right up against the border of sibilance, it is easy to tell if the treble has been unnaturally rolled back on a headphone, and it might not sparkle when it has to. I've run this same test on hundreds of headphones, and the Auteur passed this test with flying colors. It offered just enough sparkle that the potentially sibilant consonants were just kissing the edge without becoming harsh. Right in the proverbial Goldilocks zone, if you will.
The higher treble has good air to it, easily surpassing most of my headphones, but didn't sound quite as free and open as the benchmark Sennheiser HD800. Compared to headphones with denser sound signatures like the Atticus and HiFiMAN HE-500, the Auteur sounded a more extended and open.
Digging a little more into the soundscape, I referenced Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer's collaborative bluegrass masterpiece The Goat Rodeo Sessions. The musicians imaged nicely throughout a performance space that seemed to extend just a little outside the physical borders of the headphone in a nicely shaped orb around my head. The depth layering here is especially good compared to most headphones, with an exceptionally strong center stage. The musicians project out a reasonably good distance in front of you and there is excellent delineation between various degrees of depth on the stage.
The width and height of the soundscape fell behind the benchmark HD800, but I certainly wouldn't call it a weak point. Switching between the two didn't feel like as big of a gap as some other headphones, as the Auteur offered equally good depth projection and an instant boost in musicality.
In most cases, I didn't really miss the additional space offered by the HD800 because the continuity of the stage shape was a little better on the Auteur, being more "o"-shaped, as opposed to the Sennheiser's more "D"-shaped stage (which some people consider to be artificially wide). At the end of the day, I think this will come down to a subjective preference for a lot of people: classical music fans will likely still prefer their HD800, while other folks will be more split on the size vs. shape issue. I don't have a subjective preference for either one over the other.
Breaking Out The Microscope
The Sennheiser HD800/800S has a stronger emphasis on ambient microdetails from the recording space, given the large amount of air between the instruments. I'm not sure that the Auteur really has any less resolution in terms of those microdetails, but they are less emphasized simply due to the additional warmth and more intimate soundscape. If you like this microscopic plankton to be more forward in the sound, you will likely prefer the Sennheiser. If you tend to care more about the macro aspects of the music and would like to explore those ambient details at your own leisure, you'll probably prefer the Auteur.
Inner resolution is even closer between the three, with really strong insight into the unique nuances of individual instruments. It's not going to resolve down to the sub-atomic level of a Stax SR-009 or a Focal Utopia, but it's pretty much exactly what I would expect from a headphone in the $1,500 to $2,000 range... which is still a heck of a lot of resolution. Given the Auteur's ultra strong sense of musicality, this made for an undeniably potent emotional delivery. I definitely had to back off some violin music a couple times to prevent any man tears from dropping onto my precious Glenn OTL tube amplifier.
The Auteurs microdynamics are great as well, capturing very fine textural volume changes with aplomb. Overall, it's just a really, really exciting and colorful headphone to listen to, and most headphones I compared it to came off as sounding a little flat on both the micro and macro level, in comparison.
A No-Compromise Musical Flagship
As an all-rounder, I feel like it is probably roughly on par with the similarly-priced Sennheiser HD800S and MrSpeakers Ether Flow Open, and the right choice will come down to a subjective preference. Those who favor a more diffuse and open presentation will likely gravitate toward the HD800S, those who want a more warm and musical presentation will gravitate toward the Auteur, and those who want a slightly more straightforward, down-the-middle presentation will probably favor the Ether Flow Open. Between the three, I'm not sure there is a wrong choice.
Musical presentation is much more subjective, and I don't want to over-editorialize that. But just to add a little perspective, a couple of years ago there was a ton of chatter in the HD800 versus Audeze LCD-2 / LCD-3 argument – the HD800 was the more "technical" choice where the Audeze headphones were more musical. If you could have inserted the ZMF Auteur into the equation back then, I think it would have saved a lot of audiophiles a lot of sleepless nights deciding about which way they wanted to go.
At the end of the day, the ZMF Auteur is an absolutely wonderful sounding piece of equipment. Given its excellent performance and its gorgeous hand-crafted looks, I feel this is a headphone that would be a welcome addition to any collection. If you're looking for a headphone that can be fun and sweet sounding, without sacrificing balance or resolution, this is an absolute must-audition.
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