ZMF Eikon

ZMF Eikon

It’s been a year since I started writing/filming reviews, and it all began with the ZMF Vibro Mk. I in cornflower blue. I found the sound very fun, found the bass ports interesting and thought they looked splendid and unique for headphones – my first wooden ones. However, I did take issue with the sound a bit, finding the treble too rolled off for my taste and pairing with my Schiit Asgard 2 too stuffy, necessitating that I buy the less warm Magni 2.

However, unbeknownst to me and most others, ZMF CEO Zach Mehrbach was already working on fully in-house headphone designs that would not rely on the Fostex T50RP drivers – and the faults that come with them. Announced in the fall of 2016, the ZMF Atticus and Eikon immediately caught my attention as I was curious where Zach was taking the house sound that I’d liked in the past – free from having to modify others’ constructions.

February 2017, I receive a ZMF Eikon in Padauk wood – the current top-of-the-line/flagship model that ZMF has to offer. Armed with knowledge of previously having the Vibro Mk. I, a ZMF Ori in cherry and another in cocobolo – I unboxed the headphone with anticipation of where it goes from there.

Build Quality, Features & Comfort

At this point, I don’t see a wooden-cup ZMF headphone ever being an effortlessly feather-light affair – my cocobolo Ori was especially quite heavy. That being said, the weight of the Eikon was a surprise to me as it only felt slightly heavier than my Focal Elear. I have worn it for long, long listening sessions and have not felt fatigued by the weight at all – and I am someone who felt encumbered by the likes of the Hifiman HE-500. Weight distribution is also quite excellent, and I have come to realize that the buffalo strap on the Eikon performs better than having a ZMF Pilot Pad would have on this specific headband.

The new Eikon pads adorn this headphone, which are quite a bit leaner than the old ZMF lambskin, cowhide and protein pads that I had on my Ori. Not only that, but these provide an excellent seal – which was one of my complaints about the Ori and the old pads. Because of the seal, there is no leakage and isolation is actually quite excellent. It is almost too good, for I have not heard the doorbell ring with this headphone on before – leading me to not adorn it until I get the day’s expected mail at least. Despite the isolation and seal being quite stellar, the clamp is not immense but just where it should be to prevent the headphones from falling off your head. Only if you lean very far back will this budge, otherwise it will stay in place quite well without applying immense pressure on your cranium.

And despite it being so well isolated, this is not a headphone that I would recommend that you wear in public. Reasons for this go beyond its price or the equipment needed to drive it (a portable amplifier) – but for aesthetic reasons as it is a very wide headphone when worn. While I am saying that they look a little goofy when worn, I would not change a single thing aesthetically because this is the nicest looking wooden headphone that I have ever seen. Opting for the Padauk version, its pores and reddish colour come alive in good lighting to make the Eikon seem like it has two large strawberries attached to each side. I am not a wood enthusiast, which Zach just might be (read the blog on the ZMF site about wood), but I would not have it any other way. A plastic or aluminium Eikon? No thank you. If I had to wager a guess, I would say that other wood Eikons will be made in the future – other than the cherry ($1300) and the padauk ($1400) available now, but we will have to wait and see.

And, due to the wood and sturdy materials, the Eikon just feels like it is built to last. My only complaint with the build is that the sliders are, while being much more to my liking than the T50RP ones, tough to adjust – but I can see why they need to be in order to prevent moving from where they are set. There are no incremental adjustments either, so you will have to eyeball it or adjust by feel. Just in case it wasn’t obvious, these are not foldable headphones that can collapse to fit a small bag.

300 ohms is a big number, the same as the Sennheiser HD600/650/800 which aren’t easily driven headphones – with the HD800’s bass impedance being especially high and thus needing more juice to bring out. However, the Eikon drives both easily and more evenly – sounding quite good out of my portable amp setup. These don’t require a lot to get loud, but you definitely should not under-power them for obvious reasons. Utilising bio-cellulose drivers, the Eikon is the first headphone I know of, that is high-impedance, that do so.

This Eikon’s gimbals and frame are gunmetal, while the Atticus’ are black. At two points, underneath and on one of the sides, on the headband is the ZMF logo embossed. The other side of the headband features the letters E and A embossed for the Eikon and Atticus respectively.

Finally, the Eikon uses the same connectors as all other ZMF headphones – 4pin mini-XLR that are also used by Audeze.

Sound

I would not classify the Fostex T50RP drivers that Zach built his company on, and continues to do so as they are still modified and sold, as massively flawed or redundant compared to his in-house dynamic-driver productions. But, as Dan Clark from MrSpeakers (who also started by modifying T50RPs for sale before venturing off into his own from-scratch designs) told me at the 2016 London Can Jam – there’s only so much you can expand onto someone else’s architecture. From the first few songs that I listened to with the Eikon, it was abundantly clear that at least one flaw with the T50RP based Vibro and Ori had been addressed – if not several.

First of all, some context must be given so that it can be understood why the Eikon is such a departure from ZMF’s previous offerings. The ZMF Vibro is a warm and mid-bassy headphone, even with all bass-reducing ports inserted, and the Ori was quite warm despite being a much more nuanced experience than the Vibro. However, it lacked micro-detail and treble extension – which wasn’t choked or especially lacking to me but still sounded hard and rough. What I really liked was the luscious midrange and its sub-bass extension – injecting music with a fun sound full of character. When I compared a cherry Ori and one having cocobolo cups, I found that the former had more “magic” in its lower mids - making acoustic guitars sound especially rich and lifelike. It also had a wider soundstage and a more resonant sound than the cocobolo – which basically dove deeper in sub-bass and had a more linear sound throughout. However, it had lost that supreme pairing with acoustic guitars – something I didn’t quite understand could be possible based merely on wood type. Looking back, I realized that because I purchased both used and as Zach did custom tuning for some customers – I may have ended up with a cherry Ori with more lower mid presence but lighter in the bass performance, tuned to the needs of the original buyer.

I am very, very glad that Zach does not do that anymore. The ZMF dynamic flagships are both standardized drivers and the only changes you will hear will be because of the wooden earcup type – which should be quite minor all things considered. Anyways, the reason I am glad such customization is no longer offered is because it gives ZMF the ability to produce all units with as closely-matched sound quality and performance as possible. I feel that Zach foresaw the need to offer two options in doing this, hence the Eikon and Atticus being quite distinct, as each headphone will appeal more to certain listeners than the other.

The soundstage of the Eikon does not feel lacking to me, despite being the closed headphone that it is. It is slightly wider sounding, to my ears, than the Sennheiser HD650 and Focal Elear – and especially wider than the Focal Utopia. Vocal harmonies and percussion especially fill out a listening experience well, with separation being quite stellar with both clarity and the ability to produce nuanced instrumentals.

The bass of the Eikon is strong in the sub-bass region, and most importantly – it is clean and textured too. While the low frequencies of the Fostex TH-X00 impressed me, the headphone felt bloated at times (understandably, as it is a bass-head can) while the Eikon is simply disciplined – but able to be pushed with the right song/genre pairing to be an awesome experience for those who enjoy their bass.

The textured and clean sub-bass makes way to a similar mid-bass region, but one that is almost muted compared to other ZMF headphones that I have heard before. This is definitely intentional, as the Atticus is quite the opposite (more on that later), and it reminds me a bit of the Hifiman HE-500’s transition from the bass to the midrange – being well extended down low but transitioning cleanly without any sense of bloat.

The lower-midrange has strong presence and body, excellent for acoustic guitars (Zach’s favourite instrument evident from how he tunes his headphones) and male vocals. Like the mid-bass, the lower-midrange is just so remarkably clean and pronounced. However, I would not call the experience especially “lush” (that’s more akin to the Atticus’ tuning), as it maintains a level of restraint and emphasis on texture instead of being overly warm or liquid.

The midrange itself is joyous. Once again, it is not attempting an especially warm and forwarded sound, but it is a rich and enjoyable experience for a different reason than the previous ZMF headphones (and the Atticus) are. This has to do with the texture and detail in the mids, very apparent with all manners of instruments that utilize that frequency region. Listening to The Battle of Evermore by Led Zeppelin especially highlights the abundance of detail and accurate tonality in the midrange. Jimmy Page’s mandolin sounds incredibly live, as does the acoustic guitar on the other track. The listening experience is not overwhelmed by any perceived lack of space in the mix or presentation, with instruments and vocals sitting where they should in harmonious but well-separated manner.

The upper-midrange of the Eikon distinguishes it from other headphones that I have in my collection currently (Sennheiser HD800, Focal Elear and ZMF Atticus). Female vocals soar on this headphone, with strength and body that show the emphasis in tuning. If I had to choose a frequency where the Eikon was slightly tilted, in the midrange as a whole, I would actually say it is the upper realm on this headphone. Both acoustic guitar twangs and shrieking guitar solos sound lifelike and impactful, cutting through the mix as a whole to announce the Eikon’s ability to dig out the detail in a region that sometimes is buried underneath others in hectic songs and mixes. There is no sense of congestion, once again, and both vocals and instruments in this region are especially able to breathe.

Treble is a frequency that I had an on/off relationship with in ZMF headphones of the past. The Vibro Mk. I felt too rolled off to my ears, and the Ori extended further but still felt kneecapped by certain warmly mixed genres that needed more air. Without the snap of a strong treble presence, snare drums and cymbals alike did not feel as impactful as they should have. Not only that, but the T50RP drivers have a scratchy treble profile with all the mods that I have heard based on it – a slightly unnaturally hard sense.

Going in-house, ZMF were able to add both resolving treble extension and impact – as well as giving the headphone a speedy and dynamic character. Far from being laid back, the Eikon’s treble is actually a bit peaked in the 5k region and will probably feel bright to some paired with certain gear – with certain genres. In the quest to make the EIkon a musical-reference hybrid, Zach gave the headphone the ability to reproduce treble in a manner simply not heard before in ZMF headphones (the Atticus shares some characteristics, but is far more relaxed) – it sounds natural and not artificial. The ability of cymbals to ring out so clearly in mixes that have so much going on attests to this, but also the feeling that there is just so much more impact in each instrument’s recorded second. It honestly rivals the Focal Utopia in how “awake” it sounds, with dynamics galore.

However, there is a downside to this for some. If you are attracted to the laid back nature of the Audeze LCD-2 or the smooth buttery sound of the Hifiman HE-1000, the ZMF Eikon will sound far too active for your tastes. Foreseeing this, Zach gave the fans of such headphones the ZMF Atticus instead – for the Eikon was going to be a statement and a stark departure from his earlier work. Keeping with the goal of being more of a reference headphone than others in the line-up, the overall sound of the Eikon is not especially lush, but rather drier than the aforementioned headphones (except the HD800). It is quick, very much so in the transients, and there is no romantic lingering or decay that gives some headphones a sense of soft reverb that blankets the audio. Rather, the Eikon is energetic and punchy reference done right – but its sound is more modifiable than you’d think.

Pairings

The ZMF Eikon is quite revealing of both source gear and mixing quality. I am fortunate that I was able to pair it with several DACs and amplifiers to get a sense of what it was able to do. It was quite apparent that the ZMF flagship was not as forgiving as the Focal Elear and Utopia – headphones that blanket source gear quite well.

This is not to say that it is a picky headphone necessarily. It does not mimic the Sennheiser HD800’s ability to just sound plain awful, to my ears, from some amplifiers. However, these are the pairings that I have been able to listen to at length:

Schiit Gungnir Multibit DAC (connected via SPDIF) > Audio-GD NFB-28

Out of the gear that I own currently, this is probably my favourite pairing. The effortlessly organic/natural manner of the Gungnir Multibit/Gumby’s of pushing detail is a fine pairing for the Eikon as it adds such strengths to its own. The choosing of the Audio-GD NFB-28 amp section is because I feel that, while it is not incredibly impressive or jaw-dropping in its own right – it is remarkably neutral and a good canvas for the DAC and headphone to paint a sonic impression on. It also has tight control of the punchy Eikon bass.

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Schiit Gungnir Multibit DAC (connected via SPDIF) > Cavalli Liquid Carbon (First Run)

This felt a little tricky to me at first, with the Liquid Carbon’s warmth and syrupy nature (my favourite pairing for the HD800 among my gear) feeling like it was holding back the capabilities of the Eikon. That was an exaggerated first impression, however, and the pairing actually adds its own flavour for what the Eikon is capable of. The Liquid Carbon brings the sound characteristics more in line with ZMF headphones of the past, except retaining quite a bit of the Eikon’s own flair.

It is a wetter and warmer experience, but a nice pairing for many genres of music that would benefit from such – the sort that may sound too bright or shrill as they are mixed in an unbalanced fashion. However, I can’t say that I prefer it over the NFB-28’s more transparent amp – but I definitely turn to it if I want to soften the edge for a while.

 Schiit Gungnir Multibit DAC (connected via SPDIF) > iFi Pro iCan

While I did not own the Pro iCan, I had it in my possession for almost a month as a review unit. I spent ample time using the Eikon with it, and found that solid state mode was comparable to the NFB-28’s own powerful amplifier. The tube mode, while not starkly different, gave a slightly wetter sound to the Eikon without adding any discernible warmth – so I preferred that. Also, the XBASS hardware bass boost function was able to be cranked on the Eikon, making the powerful sub-bass reproduction remain clean while making the headphone rumble on my head. Really interesting pairing.

Audio-GD NFB-28 DAC/Amp Combo

While I do like this all-in-one as a pairing for the ZMF Atticus, with the Eikon it felt too dry to me – with too much emphasis in the upper range for my liking. I enjoy the dynamics and impact of the Eikon, and how much it “breathes” as a headphone without reaching excessive sibilance – but I did not much like how the SABRE DAC implementation of the NFB-28 pushes it too far in this regard.

This is, however, a matter of personal taste. If you want to experience the full dynamic and snappy nature of the Eikon – the Audio-GD DAC/amplifier combination will give you that…but to me it is too much of a good thing and treads over the delicate balance that I prefer personally.

By comparison, the Gumby is able to present a superb amount of detail without trying to push the Eikon too far into brighter territory.

Thoughts on Pairing Overall

The Eikon is a great headphone to take to meets and events where there are lots of audio chains to sample as it will undoubtedly be changed in some manner from any strong options present. It is also the first headphone that has made me desire an OTL tube amplifier, something that even the HD800 did not make me want as I was satisfied with how the Liquid Carbon brought its sound to where I wanted it. Zach, when he is at meets, brings along a selection of OTL amps for others to sample the ZMF headphones.

The slightly dry nature of the Eikon makes me want to seek out something with a more romantic sound presentation, without losing any of the headphones detail and resolve.

Genre Pairing

In my review of the ZMF Vibro Mk. I, I found that it didn’t play nice with my Schiit Asgard 2 (itself a bit of a warm and hazy amplifier) and even when I found a more neutral solution – it didn’t gel with certain genres of music. These genres were generally too warmly mixed, old Led Zeppelin records come to mind, so dynamics became especially muted and the presentation became a bit muddy. Over time, as I tried two ZMF Oris, I found myself reaching for the HD800 whenever I wanted to listen to classic rock – not because they were as treble-rolled as the Vibro Mk. I (they weren’t) but rather because they were still not the most ideal pairings compared to Sennheiser’s brighter and more resolving headphone.

Now that I have the Eikon, I still have to give the edge in such genres to the HD800 but the gap has become quite slim indeed. In fact, if the guitars used in the classic rock tracks are acoustic, then the Eikon firmly wins the trade as its tonality with such instruments is simply incredible. I only prefer the HD800 for the genre now if the entire experience is driven by classic-electric instruments, as the Sennheiser is able to present those quite excellently. Strings benefit immensely from the Eikon’s presentation of air, which despite not being immense in amount is still quite textured.

Pop genres, specifically upbeat electro-pop music, have the tendency to be mixed a little bright – with vocals being filtered so that they sit cleanly above the beat. The NFB-28 and Eikon especially did not appeal to me with this genre, which I would much rather listen to with the Gumby + Liquid Carbon – owing to the headphone’s ability to morph with gear into a smoother experience.

The Atticus, HE-500 and other headphones with a smooth and liquid midrange may inject so much body into the vocals in songs – which the Eikon holds off slightly on doing to maintain a level of overall balance. However, the Eikon excels at vocal texture, making this a premier choice for those who enjoy unorthodox voices and singing styles. Every rasp, yelp, hiccup, growl and scream has lifelike grit and impact well represented – while on these other headphones they would lose some of their edge.

Headphone Comparisons

Sennheiser HD800

Sennheiser’s former flagship is a listening experience that boasts extremely wide soundstage, precise imaging and the abundance of air. However, it is hard (to my ears) to pair with several pieces of gear due to its treble spike, which even when tamed by a Superdupont Resonator mod can be too harsh with some pairings. This is why the Gumby + Liquid Carbon combination has been my go-to for this headphone.

As mentioned before, I do believe that the HD800 edges out the Eikon in some aspects. It is slightly more resolving, for one, and has better synergy with orchestral music – as well as warmer classic rock. It also, because of its soundstage and imaging, wins in binaural recordings.

What the Eikon, however, bests the HD800 at is pretty much anything else – to my ears. The tonality of the ZMF headphone oozes with texture and has a live sound, particularly in the midrange – where the HD800 is a bit more recessed. I much prefer listening to vocals on the Eikon, as they have more presence than on the Sennheiser while maintaining texture and body. The Eikon is also more adept at reproducing female vocals than the HD800 too, which is slightly dipped in the upper-midrange and can sound thin or distant at times.

Most headphones I try have at least one instrument that they excel at, and keeping with the ZMF tradition – the Eikon excels with acoustic guitars. However, instead of just being good with strummed guitar tracks – it presents the glisteningly sharp nature of a plucked acoustic guitar string in far more realistic fashion than the HD800. Because of this excellent pairing, even a binaural recording like Ottmar Liebert & Luna Negra’s acoustic guitar-driven Up Close album fares far better on the Eikon than on the HD800.

The Eikon also has the sub-bass reach that, while the HD800 is technically no slouch in this regard, can be audibly heard due to Zach’s tuning – while the Sennheiser is a bit muted by comparison. This makes the ZMF can excellent, along with its other strengths, for hip-hop music – a genre that the HD800 can barely touch in my opinion. You have the deep sub-bass rumble, the clear and present midrange for the rapping itself and the treble extension for any synths and cymbal patterns in the beat – making this the best headphone I have owned yet for the genre. Even the Fostex TH-X00, which I enjoyed previously with hip-hop, can’t match the discipline of the Eikon’s reproduction – with its bass feeling bloated and sluggish by comparison.

Focal Elear

Right off the bat, the Elear loses in soundstage width to the Eikon – albeit slightly. The Eikon is also able to retain its clarity at high volumes, unlike the Elear which is more suitable for moderate to moderately-loud listening and falls apart a bit when cranked.

However, the Elear is able to retain especially great synergy with two instruments: pianos and distorted guitars. Due to its shouty midrange, the Focal headphone presents guitar distortion very realistically – not at all smoothed but rather as jagged and aggressive as it should be. Pianos, also, sound like they have more realistic depth to them than any other headphone I have heard – besides the Utopia which do both these instruments even better.

While the Elear certainly has some good bass extension, it is more mid-bass focused while the Eikon is quite restricted in that specific area – letting its rumble transition cleanly to the lower-midrange. Needless to say, the Eikon is supreme in the isolation department, as the Elear is very much an open headphone. The Eikon also has the upper-midrange presence that the Elear is quite dipped in, making female vocals perform better on it. However, due to the aggressive midrange and 10k treble leap of the Elear – it simply chugs and crashes well in hard rock and metal music and is my go-to headphone for such genres. Both headphones are very dynamic sounding, but the presentation of the Eikon is far more refined while the Elear manages to do so by being a bit bombastic – which I can see as a disadvantage for some enthusiasts.

The Elear is easier to drive than the Eikon, but the sensitive nature of the ZMFs do not make this a huge victory for the Focal Headphone. Overall, the Elear was my favourite headphone that I bought in 2016 and the Eikon is looking to be my favourite in 2017 – and yes it has unseated the Elear in my personal ranking.

 ZMF Atticus

The Atticus is the Eikon’s brother who likes to party. Switching between the two takes a small adjustment time for my ears due to how different they are, and both absolutely nail what I imagine Zach was going for. Where the Eikon is a refined experience that blends dynamics, fun and a reference sound – the Atticus is unabashedly warm, bassy and smooth in the midrange.

The bass thump and slam on the Atticus is far more audible than the Eikon, and while the mid-bass is tuned to be louder – the sub-bass extension is not as far-reaching as the latter’s. The midrange of the Atticus has some romantic bloom, resonance and that slight reverb that I enjoyed with my Cherry Ori back in the day – making its midrange a smooth and absorbing experience for listening to vocals. However, the transition between the lower to mid frequencies on the Atticus is not spaced out quite as cleanly as the Eikon’s – making the Atticus a headphone that can sound too warm out of my Cavalli Liquid Carbon. It benefits more from neutral or bright source/amps, but I have heard from Zach that he really likes OTL tube amplifiers paired with it too – something I have yet to try.

The Atticus reminds me actually of the ZMF Vibro, but a far stronger and more refined version that separates itself from issues with the Fostex T50RP driver’s treble issues. It is indeed more laid back than the Eikon, and never sibilant while being slightly rolled off – but it still has plenty of snap for a warmly tuned headphone. While I really like both headphones, I have to give the edge to the Eikon for being a more technically proficient and impressive headphone and a departure from what ZMF have done before. Despite that, the Atticus is a worthy continuation and tightening of their prior sound – and one that I really prefer for electropop as it is quite forgiving of brighter genres of music.

Focal Utopia

I’ll just announce this first, the Utopia is a headphone that still sits atop the throne of dynamic driver headphones as a whole – but at $4000 it shows how the $1300-1400 Eikon is such an overachiever for its price range.

Both headphones have a dynamic sound, but the Utopia edges out the Eikon a bit in this regard – but not by an amount that you can really be all that picky about. It, like the Elear, is also able to reproduce the sound of pianos and distorted guitars in a more realistic fashion than the Eikon – but both lack the sub-bass extension of the ZMF headphone. The Focals are also not as revealing of source as the Eikon, meaning that you will only go so far with different pairings whereas the price of the Utopia will get you the Eikon + an impressive audio chain that gels with it.

Every sentence that is written in this section speaks for the fact that I am comparing vastly different price-ranges – and that is astounding to me at least. Yes, the Utopia is an incredible piece of technology that has been a game changer for all summit-fi headphones – but the Eikon is a game changer for closed-back headphones. Both, in my opinion, are trailblazers at vastly different price points – and I could easily see both being in the same collection (if one has the means) as they complement each other quite well.  

 Conclusion

While I absolutely enjoy writing reviews, I especially appreciate when I come across something that isn’t just merely good but inspiring as well. The ZMF Eikon is, to use a tired term, a summit-fi headphone that rivals others several times its own price – while besting many. It has sound technicalities, oodles detail, maintains the ZMF punchy and fun characteristic while introducing something so new and fresh to the line-up.

On a personal level, it is astounding to me that I was comparing the cherry and cocobolo Ori last summer while Zach was working behind-the-scenes on this headphone – being announced in the fall with pre-orders starting in late 2016. The pre-order was a successful event, and at the time of writing he and his crew are still filling the many orders that were received. I know people who are excited to receive their Eikon, and they damn well should be because this headphone is a game changer for the high-end closed headphone market.

Ultimately, my favourite thing about the Eikon is that it scales so well with your audio chain – taking on characteristics while retaining what makes itself great. I can be in the mood for a dynamic experience and utilise the Audio-GD NFB-28 amplifier, or I can be in the mood for a slightly more laid-back approach and plug it into my Cavalli Liquid Carbon – and both experiences sound exceptional.

For this to be the first in-house flagship for ZMF Headphones is a strong statement about the direction and striving for quality under its roof. If you get the opportunity to sample this at a local meet, if not a Can Jam event, I implore that you do so. It might just be the experience you need to change your opinion of closed headphones, if you are someone who swears by open-aire options.

The Eikon offers a resolving sound that cannot be denied, dynamics that feel alert and alive and plenty of detail presented in a natural manner. If ZMF had any doubters before, this will be the headphone to convert them and introduce new fans to the company’s products.

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