ZMF Ori (Formerly Omni)
Ask yourself this question, what do you seek from a pair of headphones? Now I know this may seem like a strange question, as most of you probably have multiple pairs for different purposes – but what draws you to your favourite pair?
Is it neutrality? I’d guess you absolutely love the likes of the Sennheiser HD600 then.
Is it accurate imaging, a huge soundstage and an analytical and revealing sound? Well then the Sennheiser HD800S must be what you seek.
You can see where I’m going with this, and I’m only using Sennheiser products as an example because of how well known they are. I’m well aware that there are many factors that go into the enjoyment of your favourite pair of headphones, no matter what they are. But let me tell you about what makes this particular pair of headphones stand out for me, and why they are a good fit for my needs.
A little background first. ZMF stands for “Zach Modified Fostex,” and was founded a few years ago by Zach Mehrbach, a resident of Chicago who has always had an affinity for the artistic re-purposing of wood. On his blog, found on zmfheadphones.com, he claims that this started with an appreciation for baseball bats – a sport he played a lot of as a kid. Later in life, he fancied himself a bit of a luthier and took to making acoustic guitars with various tonewood. This is important because the concept of tonewood is central to acoustic guitars. I myself have two for their different sound, an all mahogany one for its deeper and richer sound and a spruce one for its brighter tone. Over time and experience, guitarists swear by certain woods – just like how some in this community swear by certain headphones. Some like exotic woods like koa and the ever elusive (and hard to obtain legally) Brazilian rosewood.
From my understanding, there was a fad of modifying the Fostex T50RP headphone a few years ago – when the likes of ZMF and MrSpeakers started doing so commercially. Zach’s approach went back to his love for wood and tonewood. However, he didn’t start like that. The original ZMF mods had repainted OEM cups at most. It wasn’t until the introduction of the ZMF x Vibro that he decided to add the element of wooden cups to further shape the sound. With cups made of soft cherry wood, the Vibro was the first time the man used something other than the stock earcups.
When I first plugged in my ZMF Vibro Mk. I earlier this year, I was taken aback by the sheer amount of bass – despite having two ports in to tame it somewhat. This was my introduction to the ZMF house sound. The bass was strong but didn’t extend incredibly low, rather it stayed in the mid-bass region where it blended with the strong mids to create a unique sound that I hadn’t heard before in a pair of headphones. It was delightful for some genres but didn’t suit others much at all because of the rolled off treble. It should be noted that ZMF now sells the Vibro Mk. II, which is said to have better bass and treble extension than the Mk. I that I have experience with.
After some time with the Vibro, I began to dream big and turned my attention to the Ori – waiting for an opportunity that would allow me to grab one. Fast forward a while, and I’m listening to one now – in cherry wood just like my Vibro.
Now keep in mind that this is ZMF’s flagship model. This is the culmination of all the effort in tuning and experimentation that Zach has put in since he started his company a few years ago – one in which he seems to do most of the work alone and to order (hence the somewhat long order lead time of 4-6 weeks). This is a personal, boutique touch that is far more customized than factory made headphones, not that there is anything inherently wrong with mass production – it meets demands just fine. However, I’m fairly sure ZMF isn’t even Zach’s main occupation – rather a hobby that grew in popularity and reputation that he must probably devote most of his free time to now. Customer service with Zach is also stellar as he's happy to answer any questions you may have and custom tune your order to suit personal tastes.
This flagship model on my head right now isn’t even the most expensive or "unique" offering. The Ori Cherry and Walnut are priced $100 under the Blackwood and exotic tonewoods that appear in limited number from time to time. Each wood lends to the overall tonality in subtle ways. I would like to steal ZMF’s own description of the various (and currently available) wood options:
- Blackwood: Small Pores, Extreme Density, Smooth timbre. Quick/fast transients. A dark resolving sound with OOMPH.
- African Padauk: Large Pores, Medium/Hard Density. A "do it all" wood that doesn't disappoint, with classy, bold looks to boot.
- Cherry: Medium Pores, Softer Wood. Romantic and resolving presentation. A touch of bloom and warmth for that "je ne sais qois" that you need in your life. Large headstage.
- Purple Heart: A VERY dense wood with small pores. Very smooth. Lush mids, fast decay and a touch of shimmer in the high highs.
- Bocote: Small/Medium Pores, High Density. Bocote has a very nice oomph that is super natural because of the added wood pore size over blackwood. Very resolving and musical.
- Ormosia Henryi: Small pores, high density. Also referred to as Yellow Rosewood, Ormosia Henryii is dense and has a similar albeit lighter tonality to Bocote with its small pores.
- Bubinga: Medium/Large pores, medium/high density. Bubinga is hard with speed and deftness, but has great stage, impact and extension as well.
- Cocobolo: Medium Pores, Medium/High Density. Cocobolo is the perfect sonic middle ground, hard enough for good speed but still isn't an immensely heavy wood.
As I waited for the cherry Ori to reach me, a long and arduous process that I’m sure anyone with any sense of anticipation is familiar with, I tried to picture what Zach meant by “lifelike instrument timbre.” I listened to acoustic recordings on my Vibro and felt that its reproduction of instruments was quite accurate – just a bit hampered by the fully closed aspect of it and the rolled off treble preventing the shrill but somehow satisfying squeaks as fingers glide over fretboards. A friend of mine already had the Ori blackwood and sang praises of how incredible, yet heavy, it was. Upon long last, I got mine and plugged it in. These felt lighter than my Vibro, which took me by surprise.
Straight off the bat, I will tell you that ZMF headphones are in no ways bright. Both the Vibro and the Ori share a warm sound signature. The product line is said to be “musically tuned” and doesn’t claim to be the highest resolution or analytical cans around – which they aren’t. However, that isn’t what I wanted from it. What I did obtain, and enjoy, was primarily a deep sub-bass sound that I hadn’t heard any other headphones reach yet. I was surprised just how leaps and bounds beyond the Vibro it was in this regard. For the first time, I was able to hear Cliff Burton’s bass work quite clearly in the mix inMetallica’s legendary Ride The Lightning and Master of Puppets albums. The bass took centre stage of any recording I threw at it in the most satisfying fashion.
The mids sound a lot more natural than my Vibro Mk. I but are in no way neutral. Both headphones have forwarded mids, but on the Ori it sounds very appropriate because of the semi-open design and quite large soundstage – larger than the Vibro (of course) and even my open Hifiman HE-400i. There is a lot of effortless separation in the mids, with vocal layering piling on clearly and majestically. Listening to Michael Jackson’s discography reveals a lot of this attribute as he was a big proponent of layering ad libs jumping from channel to channel. A song like “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” really shows off the capabilities of the Ori in its reproduction of instruments, particularly because all of the percussion instruments. Yes, this is indeed a very accurate reproducer of instrument timbre. I’m constantly amazed by how real it makes acoustic guitars sound in songs, given that they’re well recorded. Hell, it makes my own recordings playing my acoustics sound better than I’ve ever heard them – and I only recorded in my room with a MXL 990 condenser microphone. If you listen to the “Hell Freezes Over” live recording of the Eagles playing Hotel California in 1992 (a bit stereotypical I know) you’ll be amazed by how natural it sounds. The Vibro did a good job here, but the Ori trumps it because of the wider soundstage and more natural mids.
The Ori also has the ability, that I haven't come across before, of dragging the acoustic guitar track in a song to the front so it becomes more noticeable. I had no idea that most songs in Green Day's American Idiot album had an acoustic guitar track mimicking the distorted guitars to lend a percussive sound throughout the recording. It was only with the Ori that I truly noticed this for the first time since I heard the album for the first time in 2004.
A make or break aspect with this headphone for many of you will be how you perceive the treble. Like the Vibro, it's a bit rolled off to avoid any sort of sibilance - but it extends far further. Cymbals have no problem being heard clearly in a mix. Despite this, this makes the Ori slightly unforgiving in the sense that if the source recording isn’t a certain degree of well-mastered and mixed, it will sound quite muddy. The Vibro was even more unforgiving in this regard, while the Ori is actually a very good pair for all the genres that I’ve thrown at it – but bad apples in sound production can dampen its capabilities.
As with all T50RP mods, the Ori is power hungry. Luckily for my wallet, it sounds incredible being amped from my Schiit Asgard 2 or Magni 2 – both delivering 1.0W at 50 ohms. The Vibro would sound way too stuffy with my Asgard 2, itself a warm and slightly coloured amp, but the Ori sounded just fine. However, I prefer the more neutral and transparent sound of the Magni 2 paired with it. This being said, a tinge of “what if?” and upgradetitis is afflicting me slowly as I turn my gaze towards more powerful offerings like the Cavalli Liquid Carbon and the Schiit Lyr 2 to drive these. I have read in many reviews that the T50RP mods, and particularly the Ori, scale very well and I wish to hear it for myself.
The cherry wood Ori (with lambskin and cowhide earpads, more on that later) also don’t seem to be able to compete with my HE400i in terms of speed and punchiness, but that is entirely to be expected. For those seeking those characteristics, look to the blackwood Ori. This is a more laid back headphone that can still punch hard though. I hear absolutely no problems listening to EDM and electronic pop. Quite the opposite really, I feel the sub-bass and the cinematic mid-bass gives me a great listening experience.
For those who think the Ori is too warm, there are options to modify your experience. Zach himself, in the Head-fi thread for the Omni, gives advice to those wishing to do this. Underneath the pads are two dampening materials – a small square foam pad and a thinner round foam sheet pad. They cover the driver and can be removed or changed around (my personal favourite is having the square foam piece diagonally placed on the square driver magnets. Basically, the more that he driver magnets are showing – the more the sound will brighten. However, the trade-off is the strong bass so keep that in mind.
Speaking of earpads, Zach provides two pairs of them in each purchase of the Ori. There are three options: lambskin, cowhide and protein pads.
The cowhide are coarse and tough sons-of-bitches. They require a long time to break in and can get quite hot. They are also the thickest of the three because they contract the least, leading to a larger soundstage and deeper bass. Make no mistake, taming these is a commitment you must make (unless you use a leather conditioner to help you out - Zach recommends products by Blue Magic) if you want to get the perfect seal with them. Also keep in mind how warm these can get, especially in humid summer heat without air conditioning.
The protein pads, on the other hand, utilize a different foam than the lambskin and cowhide and have a linear sound that shares a lot with my HE400i. This is the “fastest” pairing, with more punch and speed and least amount of mid-bass. For this reason, I find this an ideal pairing for metal because, while it lessens the sub-bass a tad, it lets the distorted guitars bite harder and the cymbals appear louder. Those wanting a less overall warm sound can also look into the protein pads to assist this preference. While these advantages exist for a reason, the Ori loses its overall ZMF sound a bit with these and I would only use these situationaly. Thankfully, the earpad switching process is pretty simple.
The middle of the pack option is the lambskin. It is softer than the cowhide and still has a lot of bass the former contains. Best of both worlds really. I find this preferable for most situations.
Made of protein leather, the pilot pad headband covers up the FOSTEX logo present on the rubber headband and gives a clean and premium look to the overall presentation. It’s also very soft and comfortable. I much prefer it to the other option, the buffalo leather strap pictured below.
Another reason the soundstage is such a pleasant surprise to me is because these are still semi-closed after all. They provide a really good amount of sound isolation. I currently live in a somewhat noisy flat, depending on whether or not a certain flatmate decides to blast his music on his Harmon Kardon Soundstick III's. It overpowers my HE400i, but the Ori blocks it out - as does the Vibro but the soundstage isn't nearly as wide.
As I said earlier, the Ori is quite customizable depending on what earpads are being used and what dampening material is put on the driver. My current favourite setup is cowhide pads the white square foam piece on the driver - essentially removing the grey circle foam piece.
The weight of the Ori is something I have read a lot of comments on. As is the case with most planar magnetics, (my HE400i is unique in its lightness) they are quite heavy headphones. However, the cherry Ori is quite a bit lighter than the blackwood – according to my friend who compared them to his. This makes sense, blackwood is a hard and heavy wood while the cherry is soft and light. I don’t feel the weight as a bother because of the pilot pad and comfortable earpads causing a good seal on my ears. I’ve worn my Ori for many hours on end and don’t feel any fatigue. However, your mileage may vary regarding this.
If you are a fan of how polished and refined wood can look, you will doubtlessly love the Ori. I was in awe of some of the photos that I managed to take of mine, it had a statuesque beauty that I hadn’t seen in a pair of headphones that I’d owned before. I now know why headphone porn is a thing, and indeed I’ve made my contribution to the phenomenon over on r/headphoneporn. The Ori transcends the looks of a mere pair of headphones, they look like a heirloom you want to buy a good stand for. It isn’t hard to imagine it catching the eye of visitors and becoming a conversation piece. It’s artisan woodworking, plain and simple. Some of the limited edition tonewood options, like cocobolo, are simply breathtaking.
The name of the game for the Ori is fun. I neither know nor care how it measures in graphs as I only know how it sounds to my ears – the most pleasing sound I’ve ever owned. I know they aren’t for everyone, but I’m fairly sure everyone can take some aspect of them to heart in an impressed fashion. The sub-bass is incredible, the soundstage is wide, the mids are natural and lifelike, the treble is never sibilant and it all bundles into a beautiful looking set of headphones you would be glad to own. I applauded Zach earlier for his work with the Vibro when I reviewed it, but now I absolutely and eagerly expect what he comes up with next. I don’t know if he’ll stick to modifying T50RPs, despite the company name, or make his own from-scratch pair. That’s something we’ll all know at a later date.
Or he could just finish up his orders, including the 25 rust-stained zebrawood Vibro Mk. II’s that were sold out in a little over an hour on Massdropyesterday, and close up shop to work on his next wood-based hobby. Maybe designer birdhouses. Who knows? I bet they’d look wonderful regardless.