June 12, 2019 16 min read
Review written by Ian Dunmore (@Torq)
The ZMF Vérité is Zach Mehrbach’s latest open-back dynamic-driver headphone offering, and is the current flagship in ZMF’s range. For those not already familiar with ZMF Headphones, they entered the market offering highly-regarded wood-cup modifications to well-known headphones like the Fostex T50RP and have progressed from those modified OEM models to offering a full line-up of in-house developed headphones using drivers, chassis and headbands of their own design and build and, of course, continuing the use of artisanal quality wooden cups. You can read more about their history and origin at their website and on “The HEADPHONE Community” ZMF-thread.
I first heard the Vérité at Canjam @ RMAF 2018 - oddly enough while Zach was engaging in an impromptu live-tuning session with several other listeners - and it was in the final tuning derived there that I last heard the Vérité and which turned out to be my favorite new headphone of the whole show.
I liked what I heard at CanJam so much that I joined the pre-order for the limited-edition Vérité (50 units in Pheasantwood), as soon as it went live, and it is my personal pair, bought at full (pre-order) pricing as a normal retail customer, that I am reviewing here.
The head-lining technology with the Vérité is the all-new, proprietary, ultra-thin, vapor-deposed beryllium PEN driver. Keeping the driver thin reduces mass and improves responsiveness and acceleration, which leads to better transient response, resolution and dynamics. However, a thinner driver will be more prone to deformation in motion as it is less stiff than a thicker one, which results in more distortion. To combat this, ZMF applies a vapor-deposed layer of pure beryllium to the driver (to 20% of the actual diaphragm’s thickness), which results in an incredibly stiff driver, while preserving its light weight and thinness, but avoiding the distortion that would occur if the driver flexed under acceleration.
To improve stage and imaging, the drivers are mounted at an angle, effectively “firing back” at the ear, which results in the wave front interacting with the pinnae of the ears in a more speaker-like fashion (the classic Sennheiser HD800 owes much of its impressive stage rendering to the same approach). Side porting on the driver cups further improves the sense of openness and stage.
And Vérité is the first ZMF headphone to feature their new magnesium chassis, reducing the weight of the overall headphone by 33 grams and making the standard Vérité the lightest headphone that ZMF currently offers.
ZMF headphones are, in my opinion, works of art. For my sensibilities and tastes, and I’ll admit I’m a sucker for the combination of exotic woods, polished metal, and leather, they make the most beautiful headphones you can buy today. Expect more pictures than usual in this review!
The build-quality and solidity of the Vérité is immediately impressive. Fit and finish are excellent - there are no creaks, squeaks nor any stickiness anywhere. A nice touch, especially when it comes to changing pads, is that the cups can be rotated a full 360 degrees.
As standard, the Vérité package starts with your choice of either a locking, water-proof Seahorse hard-sided, carry case (which is ridiculously solid) or ZMF’s own “LTD Mahogany” presentation/storage box.
Inside the case you’ll find two sets of pads; “Universe”, which are the thicker, more angled, pads pre-installed on the headphones, and a second “Vérité” set of pads which are thinner and intended to give a more neutral response. A warranty/ID card, a pair of Allen-wrenches that fit the fasteners on the chassis, and the stock cable, in a termination of your choice, as well as any upgrade cables you have selected.
All ZMF headphones include a standard 5.5-foot ZMF OFC cable in your choice of either 1/4” (6.35mm) TRS plug or 4-pin XLR connections. If you specify one of the four upgrade cable options at the time of order, you will get both the upgrade cable and the standard cable.
The standard cable is a simple, but well-built and finished affair, with good flexibility, a proper molded Y-splitter and a soft, smooth, non-microphonic exterior. Since I build my own cables, I did not order an upgrade cable with my Vérité. The headphone-end connections are mini 4-pin XLR, and are both physically and electrically compatible with Audeze headphones and cables.
I find ZMF’s flagship to be supremely comfortable. I can, and often do, wear them all day with no issues at all. Clamping pressure is moderate, not being nearly as tight as, say, an HD650 or HD58X, and not quite as soft as the HD800S, and this can be adjusted by bending the headband if needed.
At first glance the leather-covered, foam-padded, metal headband looks a bit odd, with its central peak, but combined with the broad leather suspension strap, it does an excellent job of distributing the weight of the headphones across one’s head. I have never run into issues with hotspots with any ZMF headphone and the Vérité is no exception.
The rich, soft, supple leather pads, especially the “Universe” pads, are quite luxurious, provide an easy and reliable seal, and feel fantastic (other pads are available, will fit many other headphones with a similar, elastic-ring, attachment). Only the lambskin pads on the Utopia are softer and more supple. I find no build up of heat even after hours of continuous listening.
Despite all the wood and metal on display here, the standard Vérité actually comes in at the same weight as the Focal Stellia, and are lighter than the Utopia.
The Vérité possess some traits that are typical of Zach’s headphones, and which are, I believe, a major factor in why people gravitate towards them so strongly. Specifically, their delivery is slightly warm with some extra tonal “richness”, with a very solid bass foundation, clear and present mid-range, and a little extra sparkle on the top-end - all presented with oodles of detail and texture. They are not only more neutral than the other ZMF headphones I’ve heard, particularly with the Vérité pads installed, but they are the most resolving and detailed as well, while remaining definitively “ZMF”. This is a combination that I find seductive, engaging and highly enjoyable. In the four months since I received my set, these have received a disproportionate amount of my listening time, and quickly established themselves as not only my favorite of Zach’s creations, but one of my favorite headphones ever.
The fundamental tonality here is slightly warm and rich but otherwise largely neutral. This shifts with the pads that are installed, and the differences between the “Universe” (fatter, angled, and pre-installed) pads and the namesake-“Vérité” (thinner and flatter) pads is very obvious, with the “Universe” pads offering a more profound bass delivery (impact and presence) and a little more higher-frequency energy.
Timbre here has a natural “rightness” to it. The texture of piano notes, whether played gently, or hammered into discordancy, is portrayed both clearly and realistically; more so than with most cans I’ve found. Rendering of wood-bodied instruments is similarly spot-on in terms of texture, decay, and general “feel”. Brass retains its bite without being emphasized and more enthusiastic cymbal strikes remain brassy and don’t stray into steeliness. Snares and hi-hats are sharp and fast, while the bigger percussive elements, yet the slower reverberative decay of the skin on a kettledrum is also beautifully rendered and easy to follow.
As the Vérité ship with both “Universe” and “Vérité” pads, I measured both. The differences between them are more audible than they look in the following frequency-response plots. What is more interesting, to me, is that the dips and crests visible in these plots do not result in the presentation that I would expect; in actual listening they’re more even (which could be down to artifacts of my measurement rig).
This first plot uses HEQ compensation, which attempts to normalize the response against the Harman Target Response. The following one is using a custom compensation that comes closer to what I personally hear when listening to them:
Details on my measurements can be found here. Please note that these are for the Pheasantwood version of the Vérité and that does affect the sound (and hence the measurements). As I get the opportunity, I will measure other versions and post comparisons in “The HEADPHONE Community” thread for these cans.
Substantial, fast, articulate, well delineated, taut, punchy and present are all words that come to mind even within just a few minutes of putting these headphones on. It’s more present with the “Universe” pads, if not necessarily higher in level, but I don’t find it at all intrusive and it transitions cleanly into the mid-range (a little more so with the “Vérité” pads, but you have to compare them to notice).
I found these did as thoroughly convincing job listening to bass-heavy EDM as they managed with the free-form pizzicato of the double-bass (with all it’s texture and nuance intact). And if electronic music is “not your thing” and you really want to get a sense for the low-end delivery, tone and precision the Vérité render in the lowest registers, then you’ll find a more-present-than-the-plot-suggests sub-bass performance with Felix Hell’s “Organ Sensation” or a number of tracks on Jean Guilloui’s “Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Stravinksy: Three Dances from Petrouchka”.
The bass here is something I would consider to be a “Goldilocks” thing (i.e. “just right”). It is at a more realistic level than either the Utopia (which I find benefits from a little boost) and the Stellia (which is more elevated), while maintaining the same level of articulation, detail, and texture and coupling it with a little more slam. I wouldn’t say it’s “faster” in the bass than the two Focals that it most closely resembles, but it is right there with them and can run the gamut from controlled to explosive with a startling immediacy.
The slight added tonal richness the ZMF cans bring to music is most evident in the mid-range. Voices have a hint more substance, plucked-strings are a hair sweeter, mournful brass notes ring with a little less sparsity. None of this detracts from mid-range coherence or realism. You can, perhaps, best liken it to the shifts that occur between different concert halls more than any overt delta in the raw presentation of individual musical elements.
The highly resolving nature of the Vérité is plainly on display here, with high-nuanced vocal inflections fully exposed and readily audible (something sometimes glossed over by lesser cans, and that is generally more in evidence with very-fast, very-stiff driver-equipped cans).
Perhaps the best way I can convey the mid-range presentation here is in its liquidity. I don’t mean this in the typical terms used to describe the sound of, say, a 300B-based tube amplifier. But “liquid” is still the best term I can muster. This is where “the music lives”, and the Vérité do it full justice and without overt editorialization.
High-frequency response is fully extended and allows the Vérité to maintain excellent top-end detail and deliver a vivid sense of space and air as appropriate to the source material. It is almost TOTL IEM-like at times. There can be, here and there, a little extra “zing” than is strictly natural, but it is very modest and instead of being distracting or annoying or “bright”, it just seems to add more depth/range to the presentation. At no point has this been distracting, which is something I could not say with, for example, the Sony MDR-Z1R (yes, I know they’re closed back).
The occasional treble-excesses of the Focal Utopia are more pronounced than with these ZMF cans. Where the Utopia can become aggressive or mildly fatiguing with extended listening to music with lots of treble energy and, particularly, higher-pitched/more sibilance-prone female vocals, such as Julia Fordham’s self-titular release, or much of Heart’s mid-life discography, the Vérité tones things down just enough to remain engaging and non-fatiguing, for long sessions.
There might be a tad more “romance” here than in a studio-neutral setting. But, first and foremost, music should be enjoyed and not dissected. You can do both with Zach’s current flagship, but its predilection is definitely towards enjoyment.
There are no two ways about it, the resolution and detail rendered by the Vérité are excellent; easily the best in the ZMF line-up, and competitive with the likes of Focal’s Utopia or Sennheiser’s HD800S. Where cans like the Eikon, or some of the similarly-(to Vérité)-priced planar cans, sometimes give the impression that there is some, minor, smoothing of detail and low-level dynamic information, there is no such sense with the flagship cans. You can easily pick apart large-scale orchestral works or complex electronic tracking and focus in on a given element.
Running the Vérité directly form the headphone output on a Chord DAVE, and comparing to other headphones with state-of-the-art resolution, shows no acts of omission being committed here. And this is actually a fabulous pairing - allowing the raw technical performance of the DAVE to shine through while adding just a hint of richness.
But it doesn’t take Chord’s flagship to make these things sing … I’ve spent plenty of time soaking up the “outdoors” on my deck, with other sources/amps, including the Hugo 2,Sony NM-WM1Z and theCayin N8 … all of which deliver superlative results here.
Rapid, staccato, elements, especially with percussion, demonstrates excellent transient performance with the leading edges of notes and strikes being both ultra-fast and precise, with no sense of overshoot. Decay is natural and not abbreviated nor, I would say, exaggerated. This makes for excellent clarity and delineation, and a very clean presentation that further enhances the ability of the Vérité to render detail. The quick-fire start-stop introduction to the titular track of the “Die Another Day” soundtrack, establishes a baseline for excellent control, and moving into something faster still, such as “Drum Warfare” (David Felysian, “Elimination”) provides a very direct example of the speed, control and articulation on offer here as well as showcasing the impact and power these cans so readily convey.
Large dynamic shifts are handled with aplomb, but micro-dynamic resolution are also well tended to and easily resolved. Be it wavering shifts in pressure holding a string, the emotion-stirred low level tremor or reverberation in a performer’s voice, or subtle shifts in the decay of a drum-skin, all are audible in a way that adds depth and realism to the overall performance and helps these cans deliver a very engaging and emotional connection to a piece.
Stage width here falls somewhere between the Focal Stellia and the Sennheiser HD800S, which makes it notably wider than the Utopia, with the “Universe” pads rendering a wider stage vs. “Vérité”, as well as adding a sense of depth and a slightly less up-front positioning. Sometimes with the “Universe” pads sounds appear to come from beyond the confines of ones head/ears (this was most notable with Holly Cole’s “Train Song”), and while the stage isn’t as deep vs. the HD800S or something like the Abyss AB-1266 Phi CC, it adds a dimensionality that is quite welcome and not especially common with headphones - even at the flagship level.
With “Mining for Gold”, the entry point to “The Trinity Session” (Cowboy Junkies), the flagship ZMF cans render the air and space of the venue, with all of its openness, reverberations and echoes, in a particularly vivid manner. It is quite palpable and convincing.
To further explore the dimensionality of the Vérité, I spent some time with “Dr. Chesky’s Sensational, Fantastic and Simply Amazing Binarual Sound Show”. This is one of the more viscerally “3D” headphone experiences I’ve had, and one has to look to more expensive, specialty, units to get a similar portrayal. “Outside the head” and “can easily position in 3-dimensional space” effects are plentiful with this album and the beryllium ZMFs. Indeed, in the “Right Channel ID Test”, as Dr. Chesky walks down and towards you, you are treated to the very definite audio-imagery of him getting closer, both laterally and in terms of depth.
In short, this is among the best handlings of stage and imaging I’ve heard from a headphone.
I’ll make comparisons with a few, notable, competitive headphones here. In the four months of listening time I have on the Vérité, and in comparison to my relatively broad stable of solid headphones, I’ve certainly covered more listening ground than I am here - so feel free to ask for other comparisons/specifics here.
The ZMF Vérité fall very close to the Utopia in terms of overall performance while delivering what is probably a more broadly agreeable tonality. Utopia can be a bit lean in the bass and are occasionally excitable in the treble vs. the more even response of the ZMF can. While Utopia remain the most overall technically-capable and resolving dynamic headphone I’ve heard, and just bests the ZMF cans in terms of micro-dynamics, raw detail retrieval and ultimate speed, Zach’s cans are within a point or two of matching them … while retaining a deliciously organic and rich signature and a notably more spacious, dimensional and vivid stage.
The Stellia, while a closed-back headphone, are the closest direct comparison in Focal’s line to the Vérité, at least in terms of price/performance. Resolution/detail is pretty much identical, with the ZMF can having a more neutral, if slightly richer, overall signature. The Focal’s have a very slight edge in their ability to resolve micro-dynamic nuances. Timbre between the two is very close, with the Focal’s elevated bass-level having the effect of adding a tad more presence and verve to double-bass and pipe-organ, but is also a bit less realistic for it.
I found the Ether 2 to have a notably darker presentation than most cans in its class, and certainly more so than the main point of comparison here. Actual tonality seemed very even, but still “dark”. My general experience has been that good dynamic cans are somewhat better at micro-dynamic resolution than even flagship planars, and the ZMF cans were no exception here.
The Ether 2 have a bit more impact, slam and better bottom-octave linearity for bass-heavy tracks, but the ZMF offer more texture and improved articulation. Though if you’re big on pipe-organ music, and it’s accompanying splurge of natural sub-bass, the Ether 2 will deliver a tad better in that regard … even if it’s at the cost of the overall tone of the instrument and micro-texture in the reverberation of the pipes.
The HD800S pulls ahead in stage/imaging and can deliver a bit more impact (true of it vs. the Utopia too) - probably due to the larger driver, and maybe a hair more resolution, but the ZMF can is simply a more engaging and enjoyable listen.
If I wanted to sit down and pick-apart a major orchestral production, then I would choose the Sennheiser. But when I want to enjoy and be emotionally engaged in, that same recording … then I would reach for the Vérité. Which is most of the time.
Also, I’m in the camp that prefers an unmodified HD800S over the original HD800, even if the HD800 in question has the SDR modification. Though to be fair, there may not be a more resolving headphone for what you’d pay, today, for an SDR modified HD800.
The “Vérité” pads are more true-to-life and more closely approach actual neutrality. The “Universe” pads result in a more spacious and engaging rendering, with a bit more low-frequency presence than is strictly natural. Overall, for losing myself in music, my guilty-pleasure is to listen to the Vérité with the “Universe” pads installed. You get both in the box, so making a determination for yourself is easy.
I will be trying all of the available pad options in the near future, though comments on such will likely be on “The HEADPHONE Community” thread rather than an update to this review.
Vérité rapidly established itself as one of the most enjoyable sets of cans I have had the pleasure of listening to. It is unfailingly engaging, no matter what genre I feed it. And, while not perfectly neutral in its tuning, nor uncolored in its delivery, it scores over most other flagship headphones in that its departures from neutral are almost uncannily towards the desirable.
Yet this is achieved without sacrificing resolution/detail or dynamics and without resulting in shifts in the tone of instruments that wind up harming the coherence of a piece.
At this point, I can best describe the ZMF Vérité as “the everyman’s flagship headphone”.
Which means, in real terms, while some other flagship cans may edge ahead in limited individual technicalities (and where that’s the case, it’s really not by much), these are what I consider the best overall flagship for enjoying music - and do so at a more approachable price-point that the most immediate competition.
You can pair these with a tonally neutral amplifier and source and still be enveloped in a rich, musical, experience, without it seeming overtly altered or colored. At the same time, a quick switch of the pads, and you can nudge the sound back to something closer to reference. Maybe not close enough that these would be what I’d choose to use when assessing an amplifier or DAC’s native tonality, but not that far off, either.
As a tool for simply enjoying music, I am hard pressed to name any other headphone own, or that I’ve heard, that fits better.
Their tuning is such that they address the most commonly lamented facets of other flagships, such as the slightly lean bottom end, and occasionally excitable upper-treble of the Utopia, the slightly elevated bass and V-shaped signature on the Stellia, or the sometimes dry/clinical presentation of the HD800S, without giving up the ghost on other technicalities.
At some point in the not-so-distant future, we’ll be heading off on a grand tour of the world, living in a dozen or more countries, and making extended says in many more until we can no longer manage the travel. This will, in many cases, mean being limited to just one pair of headphones and a transportable source/amp.
If I had to choose that headphone today, then it would be ZMF’s Vérité accompanying me …
That I can get superlative, top-of-the-line results with the Vérité out of a fully-portable unit such as the Cayin N8 DAP, makes for a formidable transportable (I wouldn’t use either on a plane, train, or bus) solution, and not be left wanting for more of, well, anything, is remarkable to me.
In general, I think the highest praise a reviewer can give any product is to actually buy the unit under review. I had already done that (and at full price - for the tin-foil-hat-brigade). But to underline how much I love these headphones, when I saw the Ziricote versions I wound up buying a 2nd pair for the office. And to put that in perspective, the only other cans I’ve owned two pairs of at the same time are Focal’s Utopia and Sennheiser’s venerable HD650.
I won’t opine on “value” - this is a $2,500 headphone after all, and everyone is in a different place in that regard - but I will say that “Those who can, should.”
Needless to say, if you’re looking at high-end open-back headphones, the ZMF Vérité should definitely be on your audition list!
- Ian Dunmore (@Torq)
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