World Premiere Review!
Since the release of the Focal Utopia back in 2016, the personal audio community has more than a passing curiosity about Beryllium drivers. Brands like Periodic Audio and Campfire Audio have dipped their toes into the fray and experimented with it in some excellent sub $1000 releases (the $299 Periodic Be and the $799 Campfire Cascade), to name a couple, but no one has really launched another ultra-endgame flagship with a different take on what beryllium drivers can do.
That all changes with the release of the ZMF Vérité over ear open back headphones ($2,499).
ZMF owner Zach Mehrbach researched the technology originally when he launched his first dynamic driver headphones, Atticus and Eikon in 2016. While he was intrigued by the blistering speed delivered by ultra-stiff beryllium drivers, he felt most of the options he tried also had a bit of a metallic hue and a somewhat strident "sheen" to their tonality. Combined with the high cost of beryllium, he thought it best to move in a different direction.
About a year later, in 2017, Mehrbach's engineering partners suggested he try a slightly different take on the technology: a PEN (polyethylene naphthalate) driver coated with vapor-deposed beryllium. Mehrbach's interest was perked, and began investing in research and development to push the technology. After several iterations, he came away with a driver he felt was teeming with potential. A driver that could combine the speed of beryllium with the organic tonality he demands form all of his headphones.
In crafting the final Vérité, he started with the driver in an Auteur shell and asked himself what needed to change to get the best out of the driver. Vérité's cups maintain a version of the compound curve geometry found in Auteur, Eikon and Atticus – an angled geometry that borrows sonic principles from the design of a full-size concert hall – but Vérité is the most open version of that design yet.
Coming from Auteur, Vérité's cup adds venting in several areas, with an entirely new golden-ratio-inspired grille, five vents on the face of the cup, and thirteen more vents strategically placed around the perimeter of the cup. Mehrbach also moved the driver a bit farther away from the ear relative to Auteur and angled it toward the ear about 30 degrees, to help ensure a more spacious, three-dimensional sound than any of his other headphones have delivered before.
Vérité comes with two sets of pads, the Vérité pads and the ZMF Universe pads, allowing listeners to tweak the sound very slightly to align with their preferences. The Vérité pads offer a slightly more linear sound, while the Universe pads add more weight in the bass and low treble, and give a slightly greater sense of space and depth. I usually preferred the slightly more linear Vérité pads, so most of my observations below are captured with them.
Without further ado, let's get to the sound.
A Flagship Of A Different Color
While the expectation here is naturally a somewhat neutral signature, ZMF bucks that trend entirely and does its own thing with a warm and fun musical signature. The bass is punchy and elevated while the upper midrange isn't pushed up in your face, as people have pretty much come to expect from a hyper-detailed headphone. All-in-all, it's a bit off the beaten path – sort of splitting the difference halfway between the slightly warm take on neutral from ZMF's previous flagship Auteur and the bassier, more v-shaped, dynamic and resolving signature of the Abyss AB-1266.
While non-neutral headphones tend to draw a more divided opinion from the community, the end result here is quite impressive and often times ends up sounding a little more like a killer set of speakers in a good room than a headphone in many ways.
Breaking down the frequency response, the curve is a bit of a slow and steady downward slope, starting with an especially robust bass response. Bass is definitely elevated a bit above neutral, particularly in the midbass, and packs an immensely satisfying visceral punch.
Sub-bass has full extension down to 20Hz, but there is a fairly noticeable roll off in level between 30Hz and 20Hz. The bass continues to ramp up volume from 30Hz to its peak around 60Hz with a little more gradual slope. There is nice presence here overall, particularly from 40-60Hz giving a solid sense of rumble for most hip-hop and EDM tracks, though tracks where the bass is centered a little lower in the 20-30Hz region will present in an little more neutral fashion.
The midbass from 60Hz on up is extra beefy, giving basslines a lot of weight and really lending a warm coloration to the headphone overall. To my ears, it sounds like this area is elevated by about 3-4db relative to neutral. This bit of elevation gives the headphone a fun character, particularly with rock and metal tracks, which gain a bit of punch in the kick drums and low fundamentals on top of the already stellar macrodynamics.
The warmth continues through the lower mids giving vocals and instruments a lot of weight. As we move into the central midrange, the frequency response flattens out until about 2kHz or so and then the very top of the midrange slopes down a little bit in the presence region between 2kHz and 4kHz.
I wouldn't characterize the upper midrange as deeply recessed, but compared to ZMF's previous flagship Auteur, sounds like female vocals seemed a little more distant due to Vérité having a little less presence in the upper harmonics to really "burn through" the mix. Conversely, shaving a couple of dB out of this region makes the headphone sound less fatiguing overall and sort of invites the listener to turn it up and rock out, which really allows the headphone's spectacular dynamics to shine.
The Vérité's treble is outstanding in terms of pure performance. Frequency plots show good energy in the lower treble around 6kHz, a bit of a dip in the mid treble centered at about 8kHz and then excellent high treble air from 10kHz on up. My ears tend to agree. Adding a little 2dB peak at 8kHz in my Roon EQ settings seemed to make things a bit flatter up top through the mid treble. However, like the presence region an octave below it, scaling back a couple of dBs in a more sensitive region gives the listener a little less fatigue at higher volumes and over longer listening sessions. Ultimately, it will be up to the individual listener as to whether this coloration is preferable or not.
Resolution through this treble region is absolutely top notch. It's hard to grasp in a vacuum, but direct comparison against the Auteur and Sennheiser HD800 showed a sizeable gap in resolution whenever I stepped up to the Vérité. Cymbals went from ambiguous splashes of treble to refined instruments each with their own unique timbre. Jumping up another level to the Abyss AB-1266 ($5,499 Deluxe Edition), Vérité hung very, very close in terms of overall resolution, coming in just behind the Abyss. But here's where that aforementioned mid treble dip comes into play – the treble was less fatiguing on the Vérité compared to the Abyss and the sounds came through more easily without drifting into sibilance. Of the four headphones compared here, I found the Vérité's treble to be the most likeable by a fairly wide margin.
Top Flight Performance
On the back end, the cups play a key role in the decay properties. Mehrbach experimented with several types of wood here to really give the Verite the type of signature he wanted. He ultimately settled on silk wood for the stock model, a softer wood with a nice romantic decay, and the harder pheasantwood for the limited edition, which will be a bit faster and clearer with harder hitting bass. Ultimately, this is always an area where ZMFs shine, as the natural wood and clever chamber geometry always come off as super musical, and it's a huge reason why the brand has grown the ultra loyal following it has.
Another area where Vérité is truly elite is in the dynamics. The headphone presents musical texture absolutely effortlessly in both a macrodynamic and microdynamic sense. On one end, drums pulse and pound with authority that is almost larger than life. On the other, the microscopic volume difference between a couple of rapid keystrokes or guitar plucks is clear as day, capturing the most subtle nuances of the original performance. Switching from the HD800 or Auteur was like switching from a standard 1080P HDTV to a 4K HDTV with high dynamic range. Everything gained a richer sense of color and depth I didn't know I was even missing.
Comparisons between the three headphones also revealed the Vérité's soundscape to be impressively large, sort of splitting the difference between the HD800 and the Auteur, perhaps even leaning a little toward the larger HD800. Verite sort of surprised me in this regard, due to the warmth and intimacy of the sound signature and cohesiveness of the stage, but once I started putting it head-to-head with other headphones the larger size became pretty apparent.
In spite of the size, I wouldn't call Vérité the most open sounding headphone I have heard. Sounds from the HD800 and Hifiman HE-1000se ($3,499) seemed to come out of thin air a little bit more than they did on Vérité. Vérité is more like hearing the performance in a finely tuned concert venue than a wide-open space. I believe a good part of this is just the nature of the tuning, due to the extra midbass and somewhat chilled out upper mids and treble.
It didn't bother me much overall, and playing around with my EQ settings seemed to open things up a bit. Subjectively, I felt it was a bit of a wash swapping between a more neutral EQ and Vérité's more euphonic stock tuning. While neutralizing the sound with EQ made Vérité sound more open, the stock tuning was a bit more fun. If the biggest knock on a headphone is "it sounds like you're hearing the music in a finely tuned concert venue", you know you're talking about a pretty special piece of gear.
I wouldn't quite say this is a headphone for everyone, as some people will be a little bothered by the way it drifts away from strict neutrality and others will want something that has a more open and airy vibe like the Focal Utopia, HiFiMAN HE1000se or Stax SR-009. That's perfectly understandable.
While Vérité does put a bit of its own signature on the music, after extended listening sessions I felt like it was definitely a worthy one, as it is both exciting and won't tire you out. This is a headphone you can really crank up and rock out to, or dial in a nice medium volume and listen to it for hours on end. As listening companions go, it's hard to get much better.
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