Disclamer: ZMF contacted us a while ago and asked if we were interested in doing a review. We’re in no other way related to ZMF.
After getting blown away by MrSpeaker’s Alpha Dog, it was hard to get impressed with the build quality of Zachary Merbach’s ZMF headphones. When I received the first pair of review samples, the paint work unfortunately was very amateurish and it clearly lacked QC inspection as I found marks of finger prints on the glossy spray-painted surface. Auch! I complained to Zachary and he sent me another set of headphones where there were no issues with the paint job at all. There is a truckload of pictures at the end of the article.
I can tell ZMF is passionate about their custom headphones but overall it seems that the skill level is still lower than the almost flawless (finish of the) Alpha Dogs. The headphones are comfortable and the extra-thick headband feels very comfortable. The Alpha Dog still wins in terms of ear pads quality but overall the ZMF headphones fit my head better. The overall verdict however is that the ZMF looks unashamedly DIY with almost no hints of efforts to make a professional looking build.
Enough with the exterior and aesthetic comments, now let’s go into the sound quality. These headphones are tuned in a totally different direction than any of MrSpeaker’s offerings, either the Mad Dog or Alpha Dog. MrSpeakers’ are definitely more linear and more recording-studio approved. The ZMFs, on the other hand, take a more mid-centric, warmer direction. Almost very early roll off points on the top treble and low bass though in exchange of the more limited frequency presentation, the ZMF has a punchier mid bass which if you want to turn a blind eye to recording quality (i.e Pop, mainstream stuff), is easily the safer one to listen to. There is never a moment of peaky treble as almost anything above 5-6K is toned down. The first moment I listened to the ZMFs from the Alpha Dog, the impression was it sounded very muffled and with a strong mid bass bump. Once I went past the initial getting used to period, the ZMFs became enjoyable in their own warm, smooth sounding and full kind of a way. I do miss the extension on the bass which I get on MrSpeakers’ headphones but every time I start toe tapping to the punchier bass section, I tell myself that I can live with this kind of a bass too.
You don’t get the sensation of a spacious airy sound that you do get with the Alpha Dog, but on the other hand the background remains clean with instruments well separated. So, the traits of the planar driver are still preserved here. However talking about planar drivers, keep in mind that Fostex’s T50RP is quite an old driver and with its size and dimension, would never compete with the sort of bass punch and impact that you can get with say a Hifiman HE-400.
So to recap, even though I was sent two different headphones with slightly different configurations, and also alternating between the single ended and balanced (RSA 4-pin) cables, the ZMFs certainly don’t try to emulate MrSpeakers’ tuning. Whenever I move to the Alpha Dog (and even with the lower end Mad Dog, latest version), MrSpeaker’s offerings sound far more clearer, more detailed, and with a more “proper” top and bottom frequency extension. However, even with my Alpha Dog tuned to boost the bass levels, it sounded thinner than any of the ZMF configurations. The ZMFs do sound more muffled, but whenever my playlist starts to stray to pop recordings, I do appreciate the darkness that the ZMFs brings as it just sounds more relaxed and smoother on the top end. The Alpha Dog sounds more spacious and airy, but the ZMFs maintain a cleaner background and separation. There are some reverbs on the midrange of the ZMFs which often obscure the vocals presence, but apparently the ZMFs are not about clarity or linearity. If you’ve listened to Aurisonic’s ASG-1, the ZMFs are a bit like that.
I was a little bit shocked when I first listened to the ZMF headphones, but within a few hours my ears got used to the presentation, and now despite the Alpha Dog’s superior technicalities, my dark loving ears seem to match ZMF’s offerings better for certain musical types. Of course this is not a headphone for everybody as not everyone has the same dark loving ears as I do.
The ZMF Headphones can be bought directly from their website and they cost between $249 and $699.