January 05, 2021 6 min read
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 . . .
The ZMF Vérité Closed were dancing in the same ballroom as the top models of Focal's headphone lineup. The Vérités' basic sound reminded me a lot of my beloved Focal Clear—and even more of the Focal Stellia headphones I've auditioned at CanJams. But to my taste, the ZMF Vérité Closed headphones were more naturally focused and inherently musical than any of Focal's premier offerings.
Oh, no: I'm having a memory!
The most conspicuously lifelike, real-sounding headphones I've been privileged to audition were a pair of Sony MDR-R10s manufactured in 1989. I heard them only a few years ago, but when I did, I knew instantly: Their realism had no equal, anytime, anyplace. If recollection serves me, the R10s had closed wood cups, lambskin earpads, and biocellulose dome diaphragms. They even looked like the Vérités. But wait a minute: As I swear on the memory of my mother's voice, ZMF's new closed-back Vérités come closer to those MDR-R10s in basic sonic character than any other headphones I've auditioned. In fact, they may even exceed Sony's cult classics in their illusion of speed and transparency.
ZMF Pendant Headphone Amplifier
High-impedance headphones, like the Auteurs and Vérités, present amplifiers with a mainly resistive load, and because of that they can sound unbelievably clean, dynamic, and low-distortion with old-school single-ended tube amplifiers like ZMF's Pendant. Designed by Justin Weber of Ampandsound, the ZMF Pendant costs $1999.99, with upcharges for a custom wood chassis ($300) or a vintage tube set ($200). My review sample was equipped with the stock JJ-branded tubes, which are good-sounding but could likely be improved on by being replaced with vintage new old stock tubes. The Pendant's 12AX7/6BQ5/6CA4 tube set seems perfectly suited for this type of experimentation.
The Pendant uses a single EL84/6BQ5 pentode (per channel), connected in Ultralinear mode. It is rated at 2.5W into 8 ohms and 1.5W into 300 ohms, which, with 99dB/mW headphones, is the equivalent of putting at least 1000 watts into most box speakers.
I believe that careful "gain management" is essential to achieving optimum sound with any perfectionist headphone. To that end, the Pendant allows users to select a 12AX7 (high gain: µ = 100), 12AT7 (medium gain: µ = 60), or 12AU7 (low gain: µ = 20) as the amplifier's driver tube. When driving ZMF, Audeze, and Grado headphones, I used a 12AU7; with the HiFiMan HE6se, I used a 12AX7.
This tube-swap gain-adjust feature adds another, almost infinite, dimension to the sonic possibilities of tube rolling.
On a more practical level, the Pendant provides two switchable RCA line-level inputs and two ¼" headphone jack outputs on the front—one for typical low-Z phones and one for high-Z phones—plus an Alps volume control.
Pendant sound: I first listened to the Pendant with the 12AX7 driver, but with the Vérités, the gain was too high. With the high-Z input, instead of blackness, a modicum of low-level gurglelike noise was audible when the music wasn't playing. When I swapped in a lower-µ 12AU7, the amp relaxed considerably and became dead quiet, as well as sweeter and more flexible, rhythmwise.
The soundtrack to the 1995 film Dead Man is essentially an artistic collaboration between Jim Jarmusch, the film's director; John Hanlon, the soundtrack's producer and engineer; and Neil Young, who composed and performed the score (16/44 FLAC Vapor Records/Tidal and Qobuz). The opening track, called "Guitar Solo No.1," is a sound collage and one of my favorite deep-listening tracks. It is also a sonic marvel that the $2599 Feliks Audio Euforia OTL amplifier driving the ZMF Vérité headphones made into a dense, dark sea, teeming and pulsing with primordial life. The Feliks amp took me inside the recording, where the microdetail looked sharply focused but simultaneously diffused and shadowy, like a coral reef at night. The Vérités + Feliks amp made sensuous, vivid sound that leaned slightly toward dark and misty.
With the ZMF Pendant, that same coral-like microdetail became tangibly solid and more precisely focused. Inner detail was more evenly illuminated. The Pendant made spoken words more intelligible and images more distinctly drawn.
The Pendant seemed like the best all-purpose headphone amplifier I have used since I died and flew to heaven reviewing the $5899 Woo Audio WA5.