ZMF Verite Review Part 1: A Tale of Two Headphones – The Closed Back Contender

Zach and Bevin Mehrbach are the dynamic duo behind ZMF Headphones, a company that’s been around for many years, and which has seen some incredible success and growth more recently.

I actually first met Zach and Bev when I was just 13, when Zach was still a Luthier and Professor at Columbia, and ZMF was just a side project taking up a closet in a modest South Side Chicago apartment. At that time I was a kid just discovering head-fi and the wild west of the newly birthed headphone movement.

I can still clearly recall the smell of VOCs in the makeshift paint-booth next to the living room, and the slight anxiety we all get when meeting strangers off the internet for the first time. I needn’t have worried though, I recently saw Zach and Bev on a trip back to Chicago and we had a good laugh recollecting the unusual but fun experience and how much has changed since then. Namely, they’ve moved from ZMF being a side-project started at the request of a cousin, to being a full-time venture with several employees.

What’s more, they’ve expanded their stable of headphones, and now they primarily work with their own designs, built completely from the ground up, rather than one based off T50RP modifications. When Zach offered to send me their latest in-house dynamic offering, the Verite, I jumped at the chance. I was quite surprised when he I received not one, but two boxes.

Beautiful, artisanal casework.

Upon opening them, I discovered two headphone cases, a chunky black pelican case with the red ZMF logo emblazoned on the front, looking for all the world like a James Bond doomsday-plot device, and an even larger wooden case with ZMF Headphones engraved on the front. Two headphones? Surely not... but what else could it be? Which to open first? I felt like I was picking between Morpheus’ blue and red pill. I decided to open up the wooden box first, and inside found the recently released Verite Closed nestled in plush velvet. Moving on to the Pelican case, the unexpected surprise turned out not to be Plutonium from the USSR, but a pair of the open-back Verite.

I was originally planning on comparing both headphones in a single review, but as I listened to them, I realized they were both distinctly different and excellent enough to merit their own respective reviews, with a final comparison between after that. Since the Verite Closed was the newer headphone, I decided to write about it first, and so the stage is set for a tale of two excellent ZMF headphones.

Beginning with the Verite Closed, I was delighted when I lifted the headphone out the box for the very first time and held it in my hands. It was just so light compared to what I was used to from ZMF. See, Verite uses a ZMF proprietary Beryllium-coated PEN driver, and a magnesium chassis for both light weight and lack of resonance, and the wood is a South American Monkeypod, which ZMF states is also lighter weight and higher density than many similar woods.

The emphasis on lighter weight and more efficient materials is big for ZMF, and in the past they’ve had some rather heavy headphones, simply due to the nature of the very solid, thick wood they use in their cups. The Closed back Verite’s Magnesium chassis and wood selection have obviously paid off as the headphones are noticeably lighter than other ZMF headphones I’ve listened to, and this is the closed version. In the words of Gordon Ramsay, brilliant.

ZMF was also nice enough to include one of their custom cables, the Verite Silver cable, which comes in a very snazzy leather carrying pouch. The termination was very handily balanced, with a supplied TRS adapter, which meant I could test it on the full suite of headphone amps available to me. Other accessories include additional pads and some very minimal documentation such as a certificate of authenticity. All-in-all a very classy product. You can tell everything has seen the loving hand of a craftsperson, and it just feels like a bespoke product in a really understated way that reminds me more of Savile Row than Madison Avenue, more Patek Phillippe than Rolex.

Comfort on the head is also quite luxurious in feel – the big poofy pads ZMF is well known for are a treat on the ears that surpass even Beyerdynamic’s soft velour. These are not headphones that totally disappear feel-wise, but, rather, represent a culmination of comfort and design in my experience with ZMF headphones. The suspension head strap, soft pads and all-out efforts to make the headphone as light as possible have really paid off here. I can comfortably wear the Verite Closed for several hours without issue, though it doesn’t unseat my comfort king, which is the Dan Clark Audio Ether 2, simply because it does have more noticeable weight.

Classic ZMF comfort in the larger, soft ear cups.

Moving on to the real important bit - the sound. The Verite uses a 300 ohm dynamic driver, and I’ve noted that the last few low-impedance planar magnetic headphones I’ve reviewed had remarkably consistent frequency responses and response characteristics regardless of the amplifier they were plugged into. This is not the case with the Verite, which is quite sensitive. As a bit of a joke I plugged it into a phone and was surprised when I got very listenable levels out of my iPhone. Amp matching with nicer gear made it clear that despite being pretty sensitive, the Verite likes a good deal of the right kind of power.

One of the most noticeable strengths of this headphone is it’s dynamic capability, bass hits and full orchestras sound thunderous with the right amp, and the tuning is closer to neutral than any ZMF headphone I’ve previously heard, with a much more present treble and midrange than some of the darker ZMF offerings. I found in the numerous pairings I tried that two things really stuck out: with the wrong amp the Verite was both dull and lacking in dynamics as compared to a good pairing, where dynamics were huge and the presence region and treble were crystal clear and never fatiguing.

Poofy and comfy.

Pairings that I thought worked quite well were often Class A or tube amps that put out a high degree of power, or solid state amps with a warmer, softer sound. This surprised me somewhat, as I was expecting the opposite – that a headphone with a little extra bass and midrange warmth might actually be better suited to low impedance, slightly more forward solid state amps. This was not the case for my tastes, and I suspect the Verite is quite sensitive to specific output impedance and tonal and transient characteristic. Amplifiers with gentle slew characteristics and some harmonic richness really shone when paired with the Verite.

When driven correctly the Verite has a sub-bass shelf, only mildly elevated mid-bass, which flattens out in the mids, and then a slightly rising response up to the low treble and upper mids before shelving down just a touch in the very uppermost treble. This almost gives a ‘V-shaped’ tuning, while still being in the direction of the Harman-curve-esque tuning many manufacturers seem to be converging on. The very middle point of the frequency range, right about 500Hz, has a really minuscule little dip that I could only detect when actively eq’ing, and never when actively listening.

Transients are very accurate on the Verite Closed, in a way that many headphones and even speakers don’t achieve, to my ears at least. There is a kind of ‘white noise’ sound when transients are too sharp that overloads the ear and simply registers to me as harshness. It’s the downfall of many pieces of audio gear that I otherwise like, and the Verite passes this test with flying colors. Somehow, it balances dynamic contrast and high amounts of detail with a transient characteristic that is never harsh, even at really high listening levels.

The dynamics and detail are interesting as well, with the dynamic contrast of the Verite being very high but not immediately apparent. The best way I can describe it is that the contrast between soft and loud is very high, but the transition between those two is very gradual and smooth. Sounds don’t jump out in contrast to each other, but rather integrate seamlessly. This is phenomenal for acoustic music and really well-recorded music with tons of inner-detail. It also means that it doesn’t accomplish detail through brightness, and more mainstream recordings which have been dynamically-squashed and clipped don’t sound totally awful even when you can hear obvious distortion, such as with bands like London Grammar or KT Tunstall’s Eye to the Telescope album.

A Top-Five favorite for Over-Ear Closed Back.

For me this is emblematic of the ZMF approach, tuning a headphone that really sounds great with music, and tweaking it by ear. The frequency response isn’t perfectly neutral, but that little bit of ZMF ‘sculpting’ in the midrange is just to die for when it comes to actually listening to music. There are a lot of headphones I could mix on in a pinch but don’t particularly enjoy listening to. There are not a lot of headphones I couldn’t mix on but love listening to – the ZMF is one of them. Maybe the only one. Because, ultimately, as enthusiasts we buy headphones so that we can enjoy listening to them, and I had more intimate, moving, and tear-inducing moments with the Verite Closed than I have had with any other headphone this year, and not just with my good recordings, but my bad ones too. The Verite Closed is definitely in my top five favorite headphones of all time, and a strong contender for ‘Desert Island’ transducer. This is unequivocally the kind of experience a headphone costing $2,500 USD should be providing.

With that in mind, I’ll tackle the Verite Open back next. The Verite Closed was a tremendous experience, and the bar has been set high. Stay tuned to see how they match up.

Specs

  • Silk-Wood (albizia) OR Current LTD Wood
  • Frequency Response: Approximately 10 Hz to 25 KHZ
  • Impedance: 300 Ohms
  • Sensitivity: 97 dB/mW
  • Warranty: Lifetime for Driver, 2 years parts and mechanical
  • Weight (est.): 430g (silk wood)
  • Pads: Verite and Universe Pads (perf)
  • Case: ZMF LTD Wood Case Stock Cable: 1 x OFC & 1 x ZMF Stock

COMPANY INFO
ZMF Headphones

COMMENTS
struts's picture

Thank you for an entertaining read. Unfortunately I am no materials scientist so please could you explain how the wood can be both "lighter weight and higher density". Surely it would have to be, well, just smaller?

Interestingly "monkey pod" is a colloquial name for several different woods around the world, but afaik not for albizia (see specs) which is a completely different genus of mimosoideae. Is the manufacturer getting its facts a bit mixed up?

Grover Neville's picture

On this topic I’ll defer to ZMF - their website mentions specific properties of the various woods and I’m no expert on the specific materials science of woods, sorry!

Albizia is the Open Back Stock wood, Monkeypod is listed as the closed back stock wood.

norb's picture

Hi! How would you compare the VC to the Focal Stellia? It´s kind of strange you mentioned it with no sentence, because I guess there are not few who would like to know how they compare. Thanks!

Grover Neville's picture

I refrained from commenting because I no longer have the Stellia on hand, but from memory here is what I’d say.

The Stellia is very much a harman curve type tuning, with much more forward upper mids and treble clarity. It’s a brighter, cleaner sounding headphone, while the ZMF is recessed in the upper mids and has more bass. The ZMF has a warmer sound, and is much tonally richer and has quite a bit more punch. I find both to be amp picky in different directions - the Stellia sounds thin and unpleasant on tube amps. It sounds best on high powered solid state, but still has a kind of sharpness to transients. The ZMF is not so sharp on transients and sounds great on higher impedance and tube gear, with a fast but somewhat gentler presentation. At its worst the ZMF sounds inoffensive but a bit boring, at its best it is musically engaging like few others, just super sweet and detailed. The Stellia at its worst is both murky and bright, at its best its crystal clear and balanced... almost to the point of being a bit boring. For pro work the Stellia is a clear winner. For consumer listening, I find the ZMF a much more pleasant listen and much more flattering to a wide variety of source material.

Todd R's picture

So what amps DID work well with these headphones?

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