Gramophone Dreams #35: ZMF & Hagerman headphone amplifiers & ZMF headphones

Almost a year ago, a headphone pal loaned me the Zach Mehrbach–designed ZMF Auteur LTD headphones. He said, "Herb, see if you like these." I took them home and right away thought, Wow, these headphones really disappear!

Nothing about their sound attracted my attention. The only thing I noticed, casually, was how relaxed and unbelievably transparent they were.

When my friend asked how I liked them, I said they reminded me of the AudioQuest NightOwls, except more detailed and transparent.

ZMF Auteur Ltd
The zebrawood Auteur LTDs I auditioned weigh 490–530gm, cost $1699, are very sensitive (97dB/mW), and offer high impedance (300 ohms). A non-LTD version, in ambrosia maple, is also available. Both versions come in a beautiful hardwood box with two sets of earpads, allowing owners to "author" the sound by choosing either the standard, perforated Auteur pads—which, according to Mehrbach, "enhance the neutrality" of the headphones—or they can use the Eikon pads "for a warmer sound quality." During my months of casual listening, I never even tried the Eikon pads. Why? Because the Auteur pads generated one of the most delectable midranges I have experienced, and I saw no reason to change. When, for the sake of this review, I finally tried the Eikon pads, I found they emphasized the bass enough to slightly obscure that luscious midrange.

The test track I used to confirm this judgment was "Yaponske Kino" (Japanese Movie) from the Dakh Daughters' album Air (16/44.1 FLAC, self-released/Tidal; also available as a FLAC download at Bandcamp). "Yaponske Kino" opens with a close-miked plucked acoustic bass followed by a whispering vocal, this followed in turn by notes from the middle register of a piano. After that comes a bowed bass and a chorus. This track made differences between the earpads easy to identify.

During my extended auditions, I studied the Auteur headphones' sonic character using four different headphone amps: the $399 Schiit Audio Jotunheim, the $649 Hagerman Audio Labs Tuba (reviewed below), ZMF's own $1999 Pendant (reviewed below), and the $1999 Feliks Euforia (reviewed in GD31). With all four amplifiers, the Auteur rendered diverse recordings at what I consider to be the highest levels of audio verity, exceeded only by the preternatural resolving powers of the HiFiMan Susvara, the Abyss AB-1266 Phi, and now, the closed version of ZMF's new Vérité headphones, which are named, simply, the Vérité Closed ($2499 and up).

ZMF Vérité Closed
One humid August night, I was lying on my bed with the window open, drifting and dreaming to the voice of Indian classical singer Pandit Pran Nath (Lord of the Drone) from his album Sings Ragas Bheempalasi & Puriyaa Dhanaashree – Palace Theatre – Paris 1972 – Volume II (16/44 FLAC Sri Moonshine Music/Tidal and Qobuz). In the midst of my meditations, I began to notice how completely the Auteur LTD headphones revealed the hypertextured tones of Pran Nath's carefully structured vocalizations, how actively the Auteur's "tonal completeness" was enriching my reverie—how the Auteur's ability to deliver wide-spectrum harmonics made single strikes on the tabla into the complete works of poetry they were intended to be.


And then I thought: Now I must call Zach Mehrbach at ZMF to ask if I could review the Auteurs.

Zach told me the Auteurs were old news—that ZMF's latest offering, a closed-back version of the Vérité, would be more interesting to me and my readers. I asked him then (as I do all speaker designers), "What amplifier did you use to voice these?" He said he was into Justin Weber's Ampandsound amplifiers. I said I was, too. Zach told me he and Justin had collaborated on an amplifier design that was "perfectly suited to drive all ZMF headphones." The amp was called Pendant, it was built by Justin Weber, and it sported a red ZMF logo on its top plate.


A month later, I found myself listening once again to Pandit Pran Nath—this time through the Vérité Closed, powered by the ZMF Pendant amplifier, which costs $1999.99 alone, or $3999.99 bundled with the Vérités. I was smiling because, with the Vérités, Pandit Pran Nath sounded considerably more solid, bright, real, dynamic, and well-defined than he did through the Auteurs—which now, by comparison, sounded slightly misty. The Vérités sounded very different, and much more exciting, than the Auteurs.

The Vérité Closed headphones, which are made of MonkeyPod wood, weigh 35gm less than the Auteurs (455gm vs 490gm) because their headband chassis is made of magnesium. (The Auteurs' chassis is made of aluminum, although magnesium is available as an extra-cost option.) At 99dB/mW, the Vérités are 2dB more sensitive than the Auteurs but present the same 300 ohm impedance. The chief difference between these two ZMF headphones (apart from the fact that the Vérité Closed is, well, closed) is that, instead of the Auteurs' biocellulose diaphragms, the 50mm Vérité Closed headphones use an "ultra-thin" polyethylene naphthalate driver with a vapor-deposited beryllium coating. Both diaphragms use a rubber surround. Inside the Vérités, the drivers are recessed slightly angled and attached to their wood frame on a flange that's only 1.5mm thick. Zach claims this slight modification from the flat mounting in the Auteur adds a bit of three-dimensionality to the Vérités' sound.

With the Vérité powered by the ZMF Pendant amp, I again played the Dakh Daughters' "Yaponske Kino." This time, it startled me: Bass is not really a "Herb thing"—I am more into highly tactile midranges. But on "Yaponske Kino," the Vérités were hammering out some tight, strong, loud (!) acoustic bass, which I thought was overpowering the Daughters' vocal nuance. I ran immediately to the ZMF's wood box, wherein I found the Auteur earpads.

I'd rather change car tires than earpads, but after replacing the Vérités' stock Universe pads with the Auteur pads, the seven Dakh Daughters became relaxed and natural again—maybe a little too relaxed and natural.

With the Universe earpads, bass was tighter and more powerful than I could remember experiencing with any headphones. Piano and plucked-bass notes exhibited a very distinct leading edge, followed by an unusually solid note-center, followed by a trailing edge that I perceived as mildly attenuated—not blurred or disappeared, but slightly shortened and reduced in energy. Bass dominated and slightly swamped the midrange, which in turn seemed recessed compared to the Vérités' top octaves. When I told Zach what I experienced, he recommended I try a third pad, called the Vérité, which might be "more neutral" and fall somewhere in between the two sets I already had. The Vérité pads looked about 2mm shallower, but the diameter of their internal cavity was greater—presumably to maintain equal cupping volumes in all three sets.

It took me a while to grasp that ZMF makes six different headphones and six different earpads. Each earpad may be ordered in lambskin, cowhide, vegan suede, or protein "leather." This adds up to a lot of pad possibilities. The ZMF website helped me understand all this.

Bass was emphasized less with the Vérité pads, but it was perfectly tight and tuneful. Octave-to-octave energy balance was now extremely good. The midrange came up and brought the presence region with it. The 1–8kHz octaves were exquisitely detailed and wide open.

In my view, these earpad differences are both a curse and a blessing. Obviously, having these choices gives the Vérité user a chance to fine-tune ZMF's products to suit their taste. But for me, they added an anxiety-producing layer of uncertainty to the reviewing experience.

I had considered Sony MDR-Z1Rs to be the best closed-back headphones in my studio, but in a direct comparison, the ZMF Vérités were unquestionably more open, more transparent, and higher in resolution than my beloved Sonys. In fact . . .

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The Manley Absolute tube headphone amp ($4,500, reviewed by Inner/Fidelity and Hi-Fi News) should work well with high impedance headphones like ZMF, top models from Sennheiser and Focal etc. ........... That Manley has various options including multiple adjustable negative feed-back options :-) ..........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

After reviewing the Manley headphone amp, Ken Kessler (HFN) said 'Absolute?, absolutely' :-) .........

JRT's picture

Monoprice Monolith THX AAA 887 (product 39359) is $399.99, plays cleanly with load invariant flat response (for most usual headphone load impedances).

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Manley has tubes ...... Lots of glorious tubes ..... and, gorgeous, fantastic and stunning looks :-) .......

ASR reviewed that Monoprice headphone amp ......amirm should try the Manley with his HD-650 ....... He may not go back to the Monoprice :-) .......

JRT's picture

On badly flawed recordings, it might be useful to change the sound. On well recorded material, I would prefer to avoid adding crap that doesn't belong in the mix.

If you want to spend thousands on a device that changes the sound by including euphonic distortion, then get something well designed for that purpose such as the mastering version of the Manley Massive Passive. It can be run without filters to add the sound of the tube amplifier section (as Bob Ludwig has advocated) to mask "digititis" (poorly engineered digital processing in the recorded material), or parametric equalization filters can be also be applied if useful. The adjustable parametric EQ might be more especially useful with headphones. Note that the Massive Passive is not truly parametric as adjustments do interact.

The signal is pro-level differential on balanced impedance interconnection, so should be utilized in a setup that likewise utilizes that.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

We discussed this before ........ That Massive Passive can give regular consumers massive nervous break-down ....... We can use less expensive and less complicated external parametric or graphic EQ, which can give us very satisfying results :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Well established companies like Sonarworks provide EQ software for headphones ...... Dirac has recently announced that they are gonna offer EQ software for headphones :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The $2,500, ZMF Verite deserves nothing less than the Manley Absolute :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

That 'Yaponske Kino' sounds kinda like 'bad guy' by Billie Eilish :-) .......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

HR could compare the ZMF Verite with the Sennheiser HD-820 closed back headphones ($2,400) :-) .......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

It would be interesting to compare the analog disc of that Canteloube album by Natania Davrath with CD-res and/or Hi-Res digital recording :-) .........