AXPONA 2017: ZMF Headphones appeal to your ears, brain, soul

I first met Zach and Bevin Mehrbach four years ago at AXPONA as the young couple was just getting going with their new brand, ZMF Headphones.

I was in Chicago on my first assignment for Part-Time Audiophile and, not knowing any better, was trying to demo everything in the Westin O’Hare hotel. This included spending a couple of hours right before the show closed auditioning products in the EarGear Expo.

I checked out all the hotly tipped brands and then spied an unfamiliar name: ZMF. The solid-wood enclosures looked cool, though, and the mini-XLR plugs were intriguing. So, I grabbed a chair and put a set on. The extra-thick ear cushions cradled my head like a couple of soft pillows. A good start.

Then the music began to play — Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” — and I was immediately smitten. I had just listened to a selection of the best, most-written-about headphones in the world and these hand-crafted cans from a tiny company were doing more than holding their own. Indeed, after hearing the ZMFs handle a few more cuts, they easily were my favorites.

That’s why I smiled seeing Zach and Bevin at AXPONA 2017. Their once-modest entrepreneurial venture has thrived. The pair has worked through several iterations of their custom designs and has built a following.

Impressed, I sat down to hear their latest flagship, the Eikon ($1,299 in cherry, $1,399 in padauk), driven by Linear Tube Audio’s MicroZOTL amp. There also were several other amps on hand.

Although the original model (ZMF X Vibro) I heard in 2014 was a closed-back (also wood) design that used a Fostex driver, the new Eikon features different materials.

“The other driver sounded good, but I wanted to try biocellulose, so I started testing drivers from different suppliers,” Zach told me. “I found one I liked. It was more neutral and very fast.”

Mehrbach installed a bigger magnet and crafted a different wood enclosure — this one with small slots near its outer edge. The holes give the Eikon the best attributes of sealed-back and open-air headphones, Mehrbach believes, especially in soundstaging and high-frequency air. He calls the Eikon a “sealed, vented” design.

I tested the Eikon with several tracks. First up was REM’s “Driver 8” from Fables of the Reconstruction. Michael Stipe’s vocals, placed higher in the mix than on the band’s first few albums, were so clear and focused I almost could understand the enigmatic lyrics. Peter Buck’s guitars, never better than on this album, had the perfect bell-like chime, and Bill Berry’s propulsive drums showed why he was so missed after retirement.

Switching to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Sprit” demonstrated the Eikon could handle grunge-rock as well it did jangle-rock. The guitars were crunchy, but clearly defined and not assaultive, while Kurt Cobain’s unhinged scream was breathtakingly rendered.

On both cuts, the Eikon provided impressive macro- and micro-dynamics. The new cans, just as the older ZMF X Vibro (which is still available), pulled off the difficult trick of being both immediate and refined. As “Teen Spirit” shifted from its “soft” verse to its “loud” chorus, if anything I just wanted to turn up the volume more — always a good sign.

“I tweaked the response curve to have a slight downslope,” Zach explained. “It adds a little warmth. That’s what I like.”

Somehow Mehrbach accomplished that without making his headphones come off as dull or lacking in air.

Speaking of air, Mehrbach may be on to something with those narrow slots in his attractive wood enclosures. These headphones gave me the widest, most real-world soundstage I’ve heard from a pair of cans.

There was none of that “all in the center of your head” presentation typical of many sealed models, nor was there a sense your music was getting too mixed up with external noises.

Instead, the sound was closer to listening to a great set of floor-standing speakers from the ideal sweet spot. Even so, the Eikon still achieves 26 decibels of noise reduction.

In addition to the Eikon, Mehrbach also makes the Atticus ($999 in cherry, $1,099 in padauk). The latter headphone uses a thermoplastic-elastomer membrane. It comes close to the flagship, lacking only a bit of speed and having a slight mid-bass emphasis.

No matter which model, Mehrbach’s overall design and super-plush, around-the-ear cushions are the epitome of comfort. Combined with the relaxed — but detailed — presentation, these are ’phones you could wear in marathon listening sessions. The ZMFs likely would keep you up late for plenty of those, encouraging you to play “one more track.”

Construction of the ZMF headphones is first-rate, Mehrbach gets a few parts from outside sources, but his products are all assembled (including hand-sanding and finishing) in the couple’s home base of Chicago. Even Bevin can be found occasionally hand-twisting the high-purity copper wire.

The ’phones, which can be customized, are made to order. The word about ZMF is getting out to such an extent that there’s a six- to eight-week wait.

Is it worth it, in this world of instant gratification? I can only answer that question with another: Is this a rave review? I can’t wait to get a pair in my house for a long-term audition. I have a strong feeling they won’t be going back.

AXPONA coverage generously provided by NOBLE AUDIO.