ZMF headphones: The Darker Fostex Mod

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.

 

Outside

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.
Sound

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

ZMF headphones: The Darker Fostex Mod
4.5 (90%) 2 vote[s]

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36 Comments

  • Reply May 15, 2014

    dalethorn

    This is surprising. I had a ZMF and Mad Dog in-house for a few days, and even though they sounded different, the ZMF never sounded muffled. And I have a closet full of muffled headphones.

    • Reply May 15, 2014

      L.

      Mike said it gave him the impression of being muffled. he also said “more muffled”. But more muffled doesn’t explicitly mean it is sounding muffled in my eyes euh ears.

  • Reply May 15, 2014

    L.

    If I’m not mistaken Nathan will also be reviewing the ZMF over the next few months. I can’t wait to read what he thinks of them

    • Reply May 15, 2014

      dalethorn

      They have so many customization options – I hope when Nathan gets his sample it’s the one official ZMF sound.

      • Reply May 15, 2014

        L.

        Mayne nathan can do the vibro!

  • Reply May 15, 2014

    GrizzlybEast

    Nice review!!! I think it describes it pretty well.

    A couple of things worth mentioning
    – The bass extension in reach is very deep jut not as strong as the MD 3.2.

    – Coming from the Alpha Dog definitely will make them sound muffled as that, IMO, is the less fair comparison as the ZMFxVibro to the AD. Wait till you hear that!!! The ZMF still has more reverb than the MD 3.2 but is both are in a class under the AD and ZMFxVibro.

    I do like both very much though, Actually all of these mods because they excel differently at different songs

    Granted the AD will still have less resonance than almost any closed back and sounds open in that regards like as if the cups disappear. But the ZxV is the most punchy with a clearer sound than the ZMF’s reviewed here. The AD was made to compete with a much higher class than the ZMF was and the 599 vs 249

    • Reply May 15, 2014

      L.

      That seems fair indeed. Thanks for posting

  • Reply May 15, 2014

    theo oldenburg

    Zach is offering also the new ZMF x Vibro, a collaboration with Vibro Labs.
    They have wooden cups.

    • Reply May 15, 2014

      L.

      I saw that. They look good

    • Reply May 16, 2014

      ohm image

      They are quite nice, actually. HFN will be reviewing them later. I feel that they offer a truly interesting option to the high-quality mod market.

  • Reply May 17, 2014

    tigim101

    Could you specify which version and options your review samples had? ZMF v1 or v2, whether or not it had the ZMF rewire and which cable used? And whether or not there was a significant difference between them?

  • Reply May 21, 2014

    Cole Sawyer

    Zach’s last name is spelled “Mehrbach,” also, strange to compare it to a competing model twice the price in the first sentence. Additionally, you didn’t detail which of Zach’s products you were reviewing, referring to it as “the ZMFs,” leading the reader to assume your review pair was representative of his entire product line. I expect better work from Headfonia.

    • Reply May 21, 2014

      dalethorn

      In fairness to the reviewer, the ZMF was supplied with cosmetic problems, which I would automatically suspect might indicate other problems. And I was loaned a ZMF which I like, so I checked out his website and frankly, the options are a little confusing. I didn’t review this, but if I did I’d want some assurance from the vendor that what I reviewed was a specific model and was stable so anyone who ordered it would get the same thing. I’m sure as Zach’s business grows he’ll nail down all of those issues, but in the meantime vendors have to be especially attentive to the samples they send out for review (or to anybody at all).

    • Reply May 26, 2014

      GrizzlybEast

      To be honest I agree^ with the above comment even though it was blunt.

      The version dale heard was v2 which has a slightly looser bass, though more, it’s less focused than the v.1. The v.1 is a little darker but cleaner sounding and less forward with less of an upper midrange emphasis. The v.1 bass is tighter than the md 3.2 which is about the same as the v.2 but with more impact.
      (FYI)

  • Reply May 21, 2014

    meh

    hope future review include more picture like this 🙂

    • Reply May 21, 2014

      L.

      These were sent to us by ZMF. We usually are more fans of the dark sort of pics 😉

      • Reply May 21, 2014

        meh

        hey L, i came across an old post here the fidelia and FHX
        any other alternative than this(other than foobar)? im on window not os x

        • Reply May 22, 2014

          L.

          I just use Foobar, have used it for years. you could look at Jriver

          • Reply May 22, 2014

            Dave Ulrich

            I use Jriver. I like it.

      • Reply May 21, 2014

        meh

        im sorry if this question offend headfonia or anyone, did u try the FHX urself, is it real or mostly gimmick?

  • Reply May 22, 2014

    Fabio_Rocks

    I got the ZMF v2 and instead of buying an headphone it was an experience for me. The buying process was a tremendous fun. You really can customize every aspect of the headphone. I got a very long mail exchange with Zack (about 20 mails!) and He is really a fantastic guy to deal with, always responsive and customer satisfaction oriented!

    A quick note to all the option you can choose from:

    – Just for start, you got a simple choose: The ZMF v1 is supposed to sound like an Hifiman he500. The ZMF v2 is similar sound signature, just a bit of bass boost centered on 65 HZ.
    -At this point if you got the most expensive one you can have a rejack (gold 3.5 or miniXLR)
    -Zpex option: basically Zack can rewire the connection between the driver and the jack with the cable you choose. There are 4 options actually and every one change the sound a bit.

    -You can choose the pads: Brainwavz hm5, Shure 1540 Alcantara and even the Alpha pads.

    -You can get colored sliders, and custom paint job for the cups.

    Zack builds every set by hand, they are airbrushed so He is clear that every set can have some SLIGHTLY imperfection because he is not a machine.

    My set was a Glossy Black with a custom braided copper cable and was flawless, nothing really I can complain.

    About the sound quality:

    The ZMF is basically a 250$ headphone. If you buy all the options you can easily go up to 399$ but they are mostly cosmetic. So the comparison with the Alpha Dog that is a 599$ headphone is really an unfair one. Sadly Mike seems just covered the ZMF in a very marginal way without going deep.

    I still think Mike’s sound observation are spot on, just too extreme. I can hear the same warm-thick sound, with midrange emphasis and relaxed treble. They are still warm than the HD 650. Zack says this clearly before you buy, so you can’t go wrong.

    To me, the main point is, if you stay under the 300$ mark the ZMF are really hard to beat!

    They got a wonderful sense of realism, fantastic instrument separation, the planar sound, that I did not find in many dynamic headphone.

    I am lucky to own the “AMAZING T51P” as L. call here on headfonia and my ZMF blows them completely out to the water. Different type of headphone, similar price.

    At the end I would love they have a bit more sparkle on the top end, but I can be happy even now 🙂

    I am no way affiliated to ZMF, I just like a lot my ZMF and even on head-fi there is no one complaining about the paint quality and sound quality, so this review leaves me a bit cold.

    • Reply May 22, 2014

      dalethorn

      I agree with most of this. The ZMF I had along with the Mad Dog (I borrowed both) – the ZMF sounded a little brighter I thought, but not significantly lower in fidelity than the Mad Dog. What even an experienced user would need I think (if I can count myself among the experienced) is something to shorten the 20 email trail into a list that can be selected from and purchased the same day. As good as Zach is, I doubt he can afford the time for 20 emails and discussion with the average customer.

      • Reply May 22, 2014

        Fabio_Rocks

        The 20 mails were written in a period of one month. There was 5-7 emails before the order to build the ZMF closer to my sound signature of preference, and the rest during the waiting time. I changed my mind many times about the cable, pads etc… Zach was nice enough to answer to all my questions. Plus He sent me many photos update about his working progress. As you said Dale, there are many options and can be a little confusing, to me it was part of the fun!

    • Reply May 22, 2014

      L.

      Nathan will be reviewing some of the ZMF soon, let’s see what he thinks. And thanks for posting

      In the end I think Mike’s sound description is correct, it’s just a bit more extreme. Is it wrong to compare it to the AD? Not to me, they both are simple fostex mods…

      • Reply May 22, 2014

        Fabio_Rocks

        You’re welcome L.

        Dan Clark from Mr. Speaker said that with the stock T50rp you are limited by the cups. The big step up in sound quality is when you try different size cups, this is why He invented the Alpha Dog. He is very confident about his job and as an acoustic engineer I don’t have a point for not trust him! I don’t think any of the modded t50rp can come close to the pure sound quality of the Alpha dog.

        So ZMF vs Alpha Dog, apart the huge price difference, I think they only share the same driver, similarities stops here.

        ZMFxVIBRO is the direct shot against the Alpha Dog, and the one I would like to see some comparison.

        • Reply May 22, 2014

          L.

          We will have that soon!

          btw. aren’t bigger cups always better? I know george agrees 😉

    • Reply August 31, 2014

      rob

      The price/options/perceived sound signature of the v2 so far, sound like a home run to me.

    • Reply October 10, 2014

      Batman

      I just got a set of ZMF Master v2, and the sound is anything BUT warm or thick. My ears are in critical condition after the sibilant pounding they have taken from just about everything i throw at them. I use a Centrance DACport and a WA7; the DACport sounded the best, and WA& was just plain boring and flat sounding. The problem is that in order to listen to them i have to cut at 16kHz by -3db just to make them tolerable, and then i loose some texture in the high end along with a bit of air.

      Not a happy camper…my 2 cents.

      I’m going to sell these. Most disappointing purchase ever.

      • Reply October 10, 2014

        Fabio_Rocks

        My hearing stops at 15.500 Hz, I can’t hear the peak you’re talking about. Are you with the Shure 1540 pads? They are brighter than the Brainwavz HM5. Another option maybe Zack tuned them a bit brighter to address the criticism of the Mike’s review (just guessing) Anyway your best bet (maybe you already done this) is to shot Zack an email and seek some help, He is very helpful!
        Or maybe it’s not your cup of tea… I never liked the hd650 for example and many peoples loves them. My Zmf v2 is warmer than the hd 650 and sure a lot of bass.

        • Reply October 10, 2014

          Batman

          So i contacted Zach and he told me that i can get a free retune, first I’m going to lock them in their Seahorse box with one lock undone-trying to muffle the noise-and run a pink noise loop for 20-50 hours. He told me he didn’t really have time to burn these in, so i figure i’ll give that shot first. This way when he tunes them, if thats still needed, the drivers won’t relax and be too warm.
          All said Zach has been great to work with so far.

      • Reply October 10, 2014

        dalethorn

        That’s very interesting. There are very few headphones I’ve had that have strong output at 16 khz – maybe 3 out of 100. And the Alpha Dog would be down 30 db at 16 khz.

        • Reply October 10, 2014

          Batman

          Using Audirvana, with the Apple Core Audio 10 Band EQ i was able to trim certain freq.’s; the 16kHz range, which is obviously a bit wider than just 16kHz, was where i found heaps of sibilance. I spoke with Zach and he assumed me that no anomalies were present during testing.
          I tried both WAV and 160kbps mp3’s and the result across the board whether it was hiphop, house, techies, techno, jungle or dubstep was that sibilance up top.
          So far i’m 10 hours in to my burn-in session. I’ll give it to the end of the day and take another listen.

          • Reply October 10, 2014

            dalethorn

            It sure seems peculiar to me. I tested a ZMF and Mad Dog, and purchased an Alpha Dog. None of those had significant output at 16 khz. For me, strong output there usually gives the sensation of bacon frying in the background – not so much sibilance, just that subtle crispy sound that can be annoying. It would be interesting to know how a ZMF Fostex mod can have strong response at 16 khz without excess emphasis below 11-12 khz.

            • Reply October 10, 2014

              Batman

              i trimed a bit around 8 and 10 as well, but the most profound change was at 16kHz.
              Mmmmmmm bacon. Please Dale never, bring up the sound of almighty bacon as a negative.
              If these made audio bacon i don’t think i’d have any complaints at all.

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