Zach, Please May We Have Some More:
Have your tried a ZMF Headphone yet? If the answer was no then you have to look at yourself and seriously ask why not. The original Master Model didn’t end up on our Pride of Place for no reason. The two sound tunings leave it catering for everyone and the price is not steep at all. If it is too expensive though well they now have a ZMF Classic model. Recently though they have given us a few more reasons to get one of their products with the release of two more products, first the ZMFxVibro and then the Blackwood. For those of you who like me loved the great value and musicality of the original ZMFs but still craved something faster, more detailed and just generally a bit higher end, this was the news we wanted. In case you didn’t know, ZMF Headphones is Zach Mehrbach’s vision of how the Fostex T50RP should sound through a variety of models. For a more in depth background the give my Master Model review a read.
Options, Keeping The Price Down:
Starting at $499 and $699 for the Vibro and Blackwood respectively the new stuff going on with both models is incredible. It is worth mentioning that the new ZMF pricing no longer includes a cable. Because they feature dual 3 pin XLRs configured like Audeze cans, if you already have an Audeze cable or two you can save a few bucks and not get a cable or not have to pay for one if you had your eyes set on an aftermarket cable, from say Double Helix Cables. If you do want a cable though you can get a Canare one for $50, ZMF’s very own braided hybrid OCC cable for $100 or the two for a discounted $129. You can have them terminated however you like, single ended, balanced, whatever you fancy. You can also add the epic Seahorse case for $35 (your mad not to, I have two now and love them). For the Vibro you get to choose how you have the wood finished and for an extra $60 you get the Burst finish, I will steal Zach of ZMFs explanation of this as my Vibro don’t have the effect.
The burst finish features an ebony stain, which gives way to a “burst” of your choice of stain color in the center of the ZMF x Vibro wood cup. Influenced by golden age acoustic instruments, the “burst” finish is a thing of beauty.
You can also choose between getting the super padded pilot pad headband or the buffalo leather headband. I find both great but I am leaning to preferring the leather headband as it allows my head to breathe a little better and I feel less suffocated.
Above – Pilot Pad Below – Leather Headband
Why So Special?
Let’s start with what the ZMFxVibro was all about. When Zach designed the original Master Model, it was clear that there were some limitations. One of the stand out things was the stock housing. There is only so much damping you can put inside to tune the driver and get rid of unwanted resonances. A new housing was in order and it has been done before, some time ago there was a commercial Fostex T50RP mod by a guy named Smeggy Thunderpants who used wooden cups (although he has since disappeared off the face of earth, I think Zach is here to stay) and more recently Mr.Speakers has used 3D printed cups. Zach decided on wooden cups and sought out the help of Vibro Labs who specialize in wooden Grado cups among other things. Together they designed a wooden cup that has ideal properties sonically for the T50RP driver as well as looking hella good. They use a cherry wood and I said previously you could choose from a range of stains for the cherry and they have 9 stock options but if none of them are to your taste then I know Zach can cater for that as well. My Vibros have a vintage maple look and it is clean and rather simple showing of the woods natural pattern and while the purple burst design does look real sweet, I like the more simple design. You can also choose the slider colour and this goes for the Blackwood as well. All 5 of the options look and feel real slick.
One of the main differences with the Blackwood is the wood used; not so surprisingly enough it uses an African Blackwood. This is one of the hardest woods in the world and stays very stiff at all times leading to great dampening abilities. This allows these headphones to be tuned faster and more neutral. Although Zach doesn’t talk too much about it, the Blackwood also has had its driver physically modified but that’s all I know. It is apparent as well not just in the sound because this needs more juice to drive than any of my other 3 ZMFs.
Both the models share some pretty cool new innovations; the first one is that they now use Double Helix Cables OCC Litz Pure Copper for the Zpex rewiring (from driver to 3pin XLR connectors on the housings). I had mentioned both companies to each other during my chats with Zach and Peter (DHC) and I am glad they eventually found each other. I know I need to get a complement4 cable on my ZMFs bad as Peter says it’s sensational and I will take his word on that because the best cable I have yet to try on both these ZMF models is a DHC Molecule SE 8 braid cable.
The second new thing is something that the wooden cups have allowed and that is bass tuning. At the bottom of the wooden cups there are 3 little ports that can be filled in with tiny plastic plugs the headphone come shipped with. The more vents open the more air the driver can move and the bigger bass reproduction. Starting with all 3 plugs in, apparently with every plug you remove you gain about 1.5dB of bass but I have found the first plug makes the biggest difference and the 2nd and 3rd are a little less but still obvious. I have found 2 plugs in to be my preference on both these headphones. It is great though as it rids you of that hard decision between the V1 and V2 tuning of the master model and just lets you pick your own bass preference. While the plugs are easy to insert and remove, they are tiny and easy to lose, they have also fallen out a few times without me noticing, which is a pain.
Finally these both use the genuine lambskin Mr.Speakers Alpha Pads. It is nice to see the two competitors being friendly and Zach recognising what Dan is doing at Mr.Speakers to a point he is actually using his pads. I am grateful of this has the pads are amazing, super comfy and they must help the sound as well as they angle the drivers towards your ears.
It’s DIY Time:
Now with the original two I got the fact these were DIY headphones really showed, the pain job was a little patchy, so were the removable cable connectors and even the terminations on the cable a little weird. I got over it quickly when I listened to them but I know it could be a little off putting. These seem so much better done, a much cleaner and more professional product. Yes there are little reminders this is one talented guy making the headphones on his own but it shows much less this time. The wood is finished just great, not a patch in sight (although the finish isn’t quite to the level of a Fostex TH900 or what I have on some CIEMs) and the connectors are flush, well on the Blackwood anyway, they still hang out a little on the Vibro and have them small o-rings round them which I would rather be flush. Josh being ever critical found a miniscule tear in one of the Vibro’s pads and I still think the cables can have some better heatshrink work but across the board, Zach has upped his game.
The build of these is great. The wood is sturdy, the headband is what comes stock with the T50RP and is made for studio use, nice and flexible. The headband options are replaceable if something was to happen and the same goes for cable.
The included cable is a bit less up my street. The cable actually feels identical to a strawberry lace; yes I am talking about the candy. The braid is loose and as I have already said, the heatsrhink is messy and the edges jagged. The cable is fairly floppy and flexible, which I like but this also leads to it tangling easy. Soundwise it is much more likeable though and pairs well with the ZMFs, has a clean sound and doesn’t add to much to the sound and certainly doesn’t take anything away, I prefer it with the headphones to the warmer but softer sounding Effect Audio Thor Copper (also an 8 braid) and also too the Nocturnal Audio Hybrid cable I have. It doesn’t sound near as spacious or detailed as my DHC Molecule SE though, which is also built much, MUCH better.
Top – DHC Molecule SE Bottom – ZMF Hybrid
Also while these are bulky and not the most inconspicuous can in the world, I use them portably because they are closed, comfy and isolate more than enough for my liking.
That Sounds Pretty Woody To Me:
When you listen to ZMF Headphones you realise just how capable both Zach and the T50RP driver are. The Blackwood especially as it really distances its self to how the Master Model and Vibro sound. In the meantime while still clearly difference, the Vibro sounds more like my first two on steroids. While there is a 200USD price difference between the Vibro and Blackwood, he doesn’t try and convince anyone that there is a better choice, they are just different tunings and will suit different people. I whole-heartedly agree.
Something I have found is how natural the Vibros sounds, like this was how the T50RP was always meant to sound, the wooden housing and Zach’s magic dust at one with the driver. That being said the Blackwood feels just a little but pushed with how it sounds, like it has taken on a sound signature a little but unknown to it. Just being harder to driver hints this at me and so does the fact it is a little hard sounding, it just doesn’t flow as easily as the Vibro. That doesn’t stop my loving it though, the sound signature of the Blackwood is so far up my street, it is the most linear product ZMF have done and also the most technically advanced. I tell you what the product description on the website does a real good job of describing the sound of these product and so does all Zach’s other explanations, no marketing crap, just honesty. The Vibro has a forward, bold and smooth sound with a strong mid-bass, forward airy vocals and a generally thicker sound. The Blackwood is neautral with an elevated sub-bass. The treble is very well extended and the sound is fast but also thinner compared to the Vibro.
Let’s Have Some Fun – Vibro:
Vibro expands to what we become to love with ZMF the first time round. A truly musical sound that just loves whatever source file you throw at it. It loves the great recorded stuff (but what doesn’t) but doesn’t trash the poor recordings, I enjoy this with my entire music collection and that’s why they get so much ear time.
The low focus is on the mid-bass, its boosted and weighty and transits well into the lower midrange where the sound is still full but not quite as boosted. Nothing is over bearing though these aren’t bassy headphones like the Apollo Audio Lab X1. They have a fairly similar quantity of bass as the Fostex TH900 but are nowhere near as lost in the midrange. That’s what I like, everyone can enjoy some bass but if it results in a distant midrange, well I am staying well away, it limits the enjoyment to EDM and that’s not really for me, unless I’m out out! Well that’s not what ZMF are about; they throw in a lush midrange to compliment that powerful bass and maybe that’s why ZMF always hit off with me.
Now all this being said they are thick and never the fastest headphone. I wouldn’t say they lack detail but they aren’t the last say in it but never once do I find myself caring about that, I’m just living the music. Treble is smooth and easy, and overall laid back, over than for a little sparkle peak at around 10kHz. It lets Vibro highlight the shimmers you get from a shaker or snare drum nice and easy while the rest of the treble prevents fatigue or sibilance. I quite enjoy this as it leaves them less dark than the original models but the treble up until 10kHz is certainly the most easy going region of these headphones. It is not the most coherent treble if being picky; it seems to waver a little.
In reality the mids goes pretty evenly all the way until the upper midrange. Only as you move into the treble do things sit back a little, until then, it is damn balanced. I do find that while the midrange is even, the upper midrange, female vocals and the likes, have some more decay giving them a slight prominence to my ears. Because of this I did find male vocals to sometimes feel just a bit loose but mainly in comparison to how focussed they sound with female vocals.
The soundstage is nothing to wow over if you were to compare to the HD800 or even the Blackwood but when you realise it is closed back and how much more accurate the imaging is to the likes of the Oppo PM-2 you realise it is an impressive feat. It is fairly compact but gets out of your head in all dimensions and has a solid centre image and placement.
Maybe a little dark, these headphones are just so smooth, coherent and lovable.
The Straight Guy – Blackwood:
From reading my reviews of the last ZMF model and even what I have had to about the Vibro I wouldn’t moan at your for believing that to be my chosen type of sound but if you know me better, you know that is not the case. I can love it, that’s for sure but my most used open back is the reference Sennheiser HD800. I like neutrality. Well how glad I am the Zach decided this was the sort of approach he was going for with the Blackwood. Not so much a HD800 but certainly more neutral than he had ever attempted before.
To start with the only part of the bass that is boosted is them deep regions. The mid-bass seems perfectly in line with the midrange now. It is punchy, tight and controlled. The speed of the bass is not something I come to expect from a planar and I don’t even find it that warm although it far from weak. The sub-bass however has taken a boost over the other ZMF’s. Its skull crushing, I don’t even want to guess at what frequency it gets down too. That being said it does sometimes sound a bit overdone and odd considering that it seemingly comes out of nowhere after the mid-bass. However in a song that is all about deep bass such as Recess by Skrillex or Lindisfarne by James Blake it really does sound special, other headphones just seem empty and weak due to the lack of air they move.
The midrange isn’t near as thick as the Vibro, or as forward and in your face. Everything in this headphone is almost as step back from the Vibro. Instead you get intense focus and better speed. Vocals don’t sound as bold and instruments don’t have the same warmth to them but I love the better sense of detail and just how crisp and precise everything is. There is less decay fore sure and what you will prefer really will become preference. However it does leave the Blackwood as the more technically efficient headphone.
The midrange is also much more balanced, tonally everything is spot on, female vocals have grace and male vocals warmth and assertion. Timbre is also very nice with force and meaning.
The treble is smart. By far the brightest ZMF to date and the only one that is far from being a dark headphone. I think the only stand out frequency with this headphone is the sub-bass. While being the brightest of the ZMFs range, the treble is rendered the best, no nulls or peak, just extended treble that has great air.
The soundstage is a little wider than the Vibro as well, airier and also very precise. It is funny because seated next to the Beyerdynamic T5p and Vibro. You have the T5p that is super wide with no depth. The Vibro that is more compact but as much depth as width. I find the Blackwood seats in the middle, not as deep and enveloping as the Vibro but wider and at the same time deeper than the T5p, but again, not as wide. Not bad compromises at all.
This headphone is me all over, I am in awe how fast it is, how detailed and how it still throws in a few bits of the other ZMFs I love even if it is quite a departure in general. I cant believe how well executed everything is, so tight, so held together.
Which One is For You?
That is the question indeed because I know that both have something different to offer. One thing is for sure that these need to be considered. I have the similarly priced Oppo PM-2 on hand and it is trounced by both of these, technically, musically, I don’t see what the PM-2 can offer back. It sounds small, muddled and boring in comparison, this just summarises how good the ZMFs are.
That being said the Blackwood is technically better than Vibro, faster, airier and better detail retrieval. On the flip side the Vibro is more forward and the music surrounds you better, it grabs you and holds you close. It is warmer, more exciting and has a better relationship with music.
The Vibro has more mid-bass but less sub-bass and also less treble. That being said the Blackwood has technically better treble. That being said I prefer the bass on the Vibro, the mid-bass and sub-bass are more coherent and work better as a unit. The Blackwood may have less mid-bass decay, less presence and better realism but it just doesn’t work as well with the sub-bass.
In the midrange Vibro have more character, they are bolder and right up close but they seem a bit sloppier in comparison to Blackwood. But moving from Vibro to Blackwood, while adjusting they feel a little shrunken, then the detail flows through and you understand the Blackwood.
Maybe this will sway you in one direction but I think for those who want a huge forward and bodied sound go for the Vibro, for those that want speed, transparency and balance go for Blackwood. I would choose Blackwood, I think Josh would pick Vibro. These two certainly have bigger differences than the original V1 and V2 tunings of Master Model and should be an easier decision. But is there ever an easy decision in this game?
They’ve Done It Again:
Yet again, I am left with a huge grin and a little bit of confusion how Zach pulls this genius off. The prices are amazing for the sound you get, even if not quite as amazeballs as the original Master Model. These do of course justify the price increase and I love the improvements in build even if still not perfect with them being DIY showing. I think of you have between 200 and 800 pounds to spend on a closed headphone then this should be one of your main priorities and less you need something that folds and has a smaller profile. I would Pride of Place but don’t want a ZMF domination on there so instead they have our Good Buy award, because they 100% are.