Venture Electronics Zen 2.0

Venture Electronics Zen 2.0

Background

When was the last time you used a pair of earbuds? Perhaps you use your Apple Earpods at work to remain inconspicuous, or maybe you are one of the many who have purchased the VE Monk out of curiosity and adhere to that. I have reviewed the latter before and added my declaration of its stellar sound quality for a low price to the many, many impressions that have made their way online in the past year or so. I consider the Monks to be a great marketing tool along with being a great product, it generates interests in the capabilities of Venture Electronics and their engineering.

Why did we all leave earbuds? I remember my own reasoning. I had equated the mediocre sound quality of earbuds with my Sony Walkman from the 1990s, when I had used cheap Sony and Panasonic ones. They emitted sound, and my younger self was happy with that. I abandoned earbuds for good when I bought my first Sennheiser PX-100 and Sennheiser CX95 and never looked back.

The Monks changed that earlier this year, in a big way. The soundstage, the quality of the mids and the clarity sold to me the potential of earbuds again. I eyed the Zen, priced at $148 on AliExpress in its basic form, and wondered what could be achieved. As the meme from the film Inception went, I had to go deeper.

Specifications

Plug Type: L Bending

Communication: Wired

Connectors: 3.5mm

Resistance: 320Ω

Frequency Response Range: 8-25000Hz

Line Length: 1.2m

Sensitivity: 120±5dB

Build & Features

The Zen is comprised of the same exact shell in use by the Asura 2.0 and the Monk Plus. It is made of a transparent plastic casing with the drivers clearly visible underneath. The main visible attribute separating the three earbuds is that the Zen has a transparent cable with the red wiring showing underneath – whereas the other two have the standard black rubber wire. I appreciate that the cable is as sturdy as that of the original monk, thick (double) in length and not abrasive to the touch. I find that it does not tangle easily, which is always a big plus with smaller earphones and earbuds.

Beyond that, I would describe the design as “no thrills.” I have neutral feelings towards the earbuds themselves when it comes to aesthetics, simply because it is not advertising any sense of design and because it is not dictating audience perception due to its looks. To the untrained eye, these look like sturdy but cheap earbuds and that is that. Make no mistake, the Zen’s casing and appearance is not for the followers of headphone porn, but rather simply just a shell for the wonders lying inside. These wonders and characteristics cannot be merely gazed upon, but have to be heard to be believed.

The VE Zen 2.0 Black Edition however is a slightly different affair. It consists of the same earbud shell and casing design but with a vastly different (braided) cable and, depending on your choice, termination. According to the listing on AliExpress, the default model of the Black Edition terminated in a 3.5mm straight plug from Oyaide. Other options are 2.5mm balanced, 3.5mm balanced, XLR Neutrik and a 3.5mm in an L-shape. The cable itself is a Cardas Golden Selection AWG 26.5 and any of these configurations will cost $358. Based on appearance alone, the Black Edition has a significantly more premium look to my basic Zen. Beyond appearance, I cannot comment because I have not had the chance to hear one.

I have heard of some experiencing slight fit and comfort issues with the size of the casings that Venture Electronics use. I personally do not face many problems, but I do admit that they benefit from the addition of foam for in-ear traction. However, this is not quite feasible for the VE Zen for reasons I will mention later on in this review. Essentially, if you do not get an optimal fit then you will not obtain the optimal sound – the full potential of the Zen. I am confident that this will fit most people however.

Sound

It can be safely said that most of us here share the goal of obtaining a quality of audio that satisfies our needs. The spectrum for this is vast, with those happily discovering and using the likes of the Audio-Technica M-50X to those searching far and wide for their favourite amplifier for a Sennheiser HD800. It continues into the land of electrostatics and DAC/AMP systems as large as video-cassette players stacked on top of one another. Our experience, as well as my own, may have caused us to disregard some products – if not downright scoff at others. I admitted earlier that I was biased against earbuds until I heard the VE Monk, but now I have another conundrum. It is hard for me to view the VE Zen 2.0 as an earbud.

This will doubtlessly sound ridiculous. If it looks like an earbud, feels like an earbud, has the same length cable as a standard earbud, can be used as a lasso to capture cockroaches like a standard earbud and can be stepped on by your clumsy feet if you aren’t careful (destroying them forever with a sickening crunching sound) then of course they are an earbud right? Well, yes and no. Yes it has all the physical characteristics of an earbud, but it does not sound like one – at least to me.

Another strange claim, an earbud that does not sound like an earbud. I will seek to explain this by simply saying that this sounds like a full-sized pair of open headphones. I had no notion that sound like this could be achieved in the confines of an inexpensive plastic earbud shell, and I was shocked on first listen. There is a body to the sound that does not sound unnatural or forced in any sense. It effortlessly reproduces music as a full-sized can would, but without the band around your head.

The bass of the Zen is very controlled and disciplined, but present enough to add a good punch and warmth to music. It does not extend incredibly low, but does delve deep enough to be satisfying for most genres of music. Instruments like 1980s synth bass sound just as they should on the Zen, as well as kick drums in rock music. The warmth of the bass and lower mids also lends to the lifelike recreation of acoustic guitar recordings, one of my favourite aspects to listen for when I listen to a new headphone/earphone/earbud. EDM and electropop music will not shine on the Zen however, it does not provide the sub-bass required to make those genres sound whole. For literally anything else, you can turn to this comfortably.

It should be noted the Zen is less flexible than the other earbuds by Venture Electronics. Where I could modify my Monk Plus with two foams as well as a ring, any material placed on the Zen will drastically alter the sound – often to the point of stuffiness. The Zen, with its body and warmth, is tuned specifically for naked use. I found that even the usage of the earhooks impacted the optimal fit a bit, although that could be just for my ear shape. Bottom line is, if you want to experience the Zen with all of its strengths, don’t cover it up with even the thinnest of foam.

The mids are the highlight. They are what you will reach over to pick these up for. They are also the aspect that is most like a full sized set of cans, and ones which from my memory sound like the Sennheiser HD600. They are warm and sweet. They have a lot in common with the mids of the original Monk, although not as forwarded and far more articulate and detailed. It would be strange to just simply say that vocals shine on the Zen, but they do. It would also be odd to say that instruments, particularly guitars, shine on the Zen – but they do and in abundance. Make no mistake, the original Monk, Monk Plus and Asura 2.0 all have impeccable midrange representation, but they all pale in comparison to the sheer juicy steak that is the Zen 2.0. To hear such a natural, clear and full-bodied sound from an earbud is an incredible achievement in audio engineering and design.

The treble is never sibilant but does well with intricate cymbal patterns. There is some air, although not as much as the Asura 2.0 with its brighter sound signature. I find it to be a satisfactory level of detail, extension and comfort – quite similar to the treble of the Meze 99 Classics in terms of how it doesn’t fail to impress nor does it cross the line.

The soundstage is vast and the imaging is spot on, although slightly less immediate than the Monk Plus. I’m chalking this down to the warmer nature of the Zen. Listening to binaural recordings on the Zen sounds lifelike and satisfactory. The soundstage is similar to the other earbuds in VE’s range, which I am guessing has to do with the shell design. Live recordings sound truly live and panning instruments in recordings go from 0 to 100 effortlessly and clearly.

Overall, this is what you are paying for. The sound has to be heard to be believed. This is problematic because of the ordering process, through AliExpress and Venture Electronics own website, and its long ship time. If you get the chance to demo these (at a meet or through an acquaintance), absolutely do so. I invited a friend over to try them out, a long time user of the original Monk and now the Monk Plus, and he absolutely confirmed the jump in quality from the $5 wonder to the $148 juggernaut.

Amping

320 ohms. That is the impedance of the VE Zen. This is another thing I would have never thought necessary or possible a year ago, the idea of needing an amplifier for earbuds. The Zen is quite hungry and can benefit from some clean amping. Plugged directly into my phone yielded nothing satisfactory in both quality and volume. Plugged into my friend’s Ibasso DX90 proved to be a far better fit, with some amping taking place to bring out the power of the Zen. An actual amp is absolutely necessary however, and I tried all three of mine with it.

Schiit Magni 2

Added volume and drive to the sound, as it should, but felt like it was a touch too harsh in nature. The snare in songs had a thudding sound to it for some reason.

Cavalli Liquid Carbon

Great sound quality, but a sense of colour that cannot be shaken due to the amp’s own warm sound signature. Also lessened the shimmering detail in the mids and treble a slight amount compared to the third option.

VE RunAbout Plus

It makes sense the VE’s own amplifier, in a portable size, is far beyond being adept at powering their highest-end earbud. It is a happy medium between the sweetness and warmth of the Liquid Carbon and the neutrality and bite of the Magni 2. On top of that, its small form factor and battery-powered option makes it a great addition to portable setups. The thought of the Zen in public might seem counterproductive due to its very open and sound-leaking nature, but it is still an enticing thought – made possible by the RunAbout Plus.

Conclusion

Once again, my eyes have been opened by a product sold by Venture Electronics. First I had learned to love earbuds again, but now I have been purely amazed. Whatever small disadvantages that the Zen has do not hold a candle to the level of sound quality achieved through such a small and easily-overlooked physical design. I could recommend this to anyone, as long as they have an amp, and look forward to what the company concocts next.

As for the overall design itself, the KISS Principle comes to mind: “Keep it simple, stupid.” It is with that mindset that the Zen shines.

 

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Song Impressions

Equipment used: Foobar200 WASAPI Event > Schiit Wyrd > Schiit Gungnir USB Ver. 2 > Venture Electronics RunAbout Plus.

All tracks in lossless FLAC in at least 16/44.1

Aerosmith – Dream On (2012 Remaster)

Great benefit of the soundstage from the get-go, with the guitar tracks separated clearly with the string section squarely in the middle. Vocals have a lot of weight to them. Drums have impact and bass is clear and present.

a-ha – Take On Me

Besides how great the 80s synths and vocals sound, I always listen for the subtle acoustic guitar playing in the background. It has come out well with theZMF Omni and the Meze 99 Classic, and now with the Zen too.

Black Sabbath – Planet Caravan

Soundstage and imaging galore with the percussion parts comfortably panning from channel to channel while the clarity of the vocals, guitar (on the right channel) and bassline continue on.

Prince – Controversy

A song that showcases punchy sound signatures in audio gear as it marches along at a steady pace. The clarity is such that the guitar on the right channel and the “oomph” vocal sample that repeats is clear and lifelike.

Chris Isaak – Wicked Game

A natural warm sound representation of a delicate and subdued track, instrumental wise. The clean guitar layers perfectly on top of the acoustic guitar as Isaak croons on. I fully appreciate how the slight “this world is gonna break your heart” female backing vocal line is clearer than most gear I have tested.

Clint Mansell – Lux Aeterna

There is more of a low-end to the string section than on the Monk Plus, giving it the body I described in my review. The overall presentation of the song sounds more cinematic in nature.

Coldplay – Clocks

Vocals and guitars are audible on top of the repeating piano riff, with every little sound flourish represented accurately. Martin’s harmonization is natural and clear too.

Eminem – Without Me

While the instruments and vocals sound great, I can’t help but feel like something is missing with the bassline and drums, lacking the rap-loving impact that headphones like the TH-X00 have. That is not a fair comparison however, and the soundstage really aids as the layering of the rap tracks can be clearly heard.

Fleetwood Mac – Dreams

Warmth and body infuse this track, with the cymbal hit on the right side moving just slightly more toward the right than most headphones I have. Vocals are extremely clear, bass is clear and with body and the acoustic guitar is lifelike. Vocal harmonies gel effortlessly.

Metallica – The Unforgiven

The incredible production on this track shines with the likes of the VE Zen. Every guitar note is just so clear, with the low end control of the Zen aiding the chugging guitars greatly too. All while the drums thunder on and James Hetfield’s vocal growls on.

Lana Del Ray – Summertime Sadness

First impression was how incredible the string section sounded. This is a cinematic track in both instrumental and vocal performance, and the Zen does incredibly well with it. The vast soundstage also aids the wall-of-sound production.

Led Zeppelin – The Battle of Evermore

The intro creeps up in a lifelike manner, as if someone was slowly turning up the volume of a live setting. The layered guitars and mandolins are represented greatly by the Zen, as is Robert Plant’s vocal work.

Marcin Przybyłowicz – The Fields of Ard Skellig

The Celtic vocals blossom over a mandolin and delicate instrumental, making this peaceful piece shine on the Zen. Nothing feels lacking, with the soundstage separating all instruments properly.

Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody

Complex vocal harmonies? No problem for the Zen at all. Everything sounds balanced and pleasing, particularly the famous middle section – panning expertly with the vast soundstage.

Ramin Djawadi – Light of the Seven

This haunting track is well served by the Zen, with the piano and string section ringing clearly. The choir vocals that come in as the song builds up is clear, transitioning into the cinematic sound that the Zen handles so well.

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