The Starter ZMF
Pros: Cheaper ZMF
Really gorgeous build
Really good overall sound
Not as heavy as a RAD-0
Cons: Muddy/recessed highs
Some muddiness in the mids
Bass is missing QUANTITY
Wood can chip – somewhat flawed design
Stock cable is meh
Note: I have a new review format coming up soon after the DUNU SA6, I will try and update my old reviews to somewhat of the new format.
Up for review today is the gorgeous ZMF Aeolus in Sapele wood (Aeolus.) The Aeolus is one of the slightly older models from ZMF, not the Verite, or Caldera, but still a really fantastic headphone in its own right. This is the open-back version of the Atticus with TPE membrane drivers. Their impedance is 300 Ohms with a sensitivity of ~97dB/mW and they weigh in at ~445g. You can order them with the usual ZMF options, magnesium or aluminum chassis, Grill and Rod colors, cable terminations, what kind of box you want them to come in, etc. You can add upgrade cables, choose your termination, pick different pads, pick the headband material, and fly out to watch it be made (I’m kidding about that one, but it would be pretty cool.)
I got this one used from another Head-Fier in a trade, so I got to pick NONE of that, but mine came well-appointed with the Wood box, a Norne cable, a neat leather baggy thingy, and that’s about it. So, given the popularity of ZMF headphones, how does the baby brother of the Verite Open sound? To use the words of Rawk0r, the guy I got them from: “they feel like a warm hug.” On with the review!
Build Quality / Comfort:
The Aeolus has really good build quality and feels like a premium product. The unboxing, even on a used pair, was really cool with the wooden box and purple velour padding makes you feel like you just bought a premium product. Dare I say it makes you feel like royalty? Sure, why not – the next thing you’ll notice is the squishy padding on the headband and the beautiful wood on the earcups. Mine came with a tiny chip missing from the spot where a screw keeps the ear cups from rotating too far – a little bit of a design flaw there. That’s about it though, everything else looks good, even on a used pair. Keep in mind that ZMFs are known for losing color on the rods if you get the magnesium chassis and rods since they’re painted. It’s perfectly normal, though I find it to be kind of tacky – others think it gives it style to see the silver color popping through (some people think patina’d cars look good too – to each their own.) Mine is aluminum, which doesn’t have that problem, so it still looks good, but it weighs 35g more (oh noooo – the weight, the crushing weight!)
Moving on to comfort, these are actually pretty light feeling. Having owned the Rosson RAD-0 (600g+), the Aeolus feels just about perfect on the head. There is a comfy set of earpads on them that applies just the right amount of pressure and there are no hotspots to speak of. This is a really comfy headset despite not being as light as the Ether 2 (<300G.) That’s mostly thanks to the squishy padding, which feels like memory foam, and which is thicker than a LOT of padding that comes with some headphones (or just a piece of leather.) So, yes, very comfortable and the cable doesn’t add enough weight to be uncomfortable (stock or Norne.) The stock cable is pretty bad and mine came in 6.35mm. The stock cable is also very microphonic, though lighter than the Norne Drausk.
Just a quick note on the Norne Drausk cable: This thing is the CHONKIEST cable I’ve ever seen, held, used, etc. It is an absolute beast and it is 16 strands, and yes it’s heavy. I don’t even think they make this thing anymore since I only see 8 strand ones on their site. Pretty cool, though it has some memory retention – it’s XLR4 so I’ll be using it for the below test.
Sound / Source / Comparisons:
Looking at Crinacle’s frequency response chart, the Aeolus have almost no sub-bass or mid-bass. The mids should come through decently, especially with the hump at 1k. The rest of the tuning after 1k follows the 2018 Harman target pretty closely. These are a very different tuning compared to my JM Audio XTC-Open (XTC-O) which I will be using to compare to these. The XTC-O has significantly more bass and lowered highs compared to the Aeolus. More to come on that comparison below.
I will be driving both headphones from my Cocktail Audio HA500H DAC/AMP with TUUUBESSS! Oh, it has a solid-state also – I’ll also be using that, but I don’t have a good Tenacious D reference for that. I’ll be using the high impedance setting, even though the HA500H drives these just fine on low. I will be playing music from Tidal HiFi with MQA enabled – the HA500H decodes MQA on board (such a cool DAC/AMP.) The HA500H drives these at 37/100 on high gain with a balanced 4-pin XLR connection compared to the 27/100 the XTC-O takes.
As usual, I don’t like breaking down headphones solely by frequency range since every song has bass, mids, and highs (and I can’t tell the difference between vocals at 1900 Hz and 2100 Hz.) So, I will start with bass-heavy songs, then move to mids-focused and lastly highs-focused songs, then break down each song by how all the pieces are presented. You can find my Tidal test tracks playlist in my signature if you want to compare them to your headphones.
The Bass-test song today will be David Guetta’s “I’m Good (Blue)” since it is still one of the best mid-bass/sub-bass test songs I’ve encountered. I am using these in the tube-off setting so that there are no inconsistencies or extra warmth. The mid-bass/sub-bass depth is definitely missing from the intro of this song. You get some decent impact from the intro bass drums, but it doesn’t have anywhere near what you’ll find on the XTC-O, Sony MDR-Z1R, or even the Sennheiser HD820. The Sub-bass isn’t missing, but there’s so little of it, you could easily miss it. These are very mids and somewhat high-focused headphones – that’s not a bad thing, but it is something you need to know if you’re looking for a basshead set of headphones.
The mid-synths and high-synths come in cleanly and somewhere around the middle/front of the soundstage. These don’t have the soundstage of some other headphones (HD820), but they have the more forward mids that I enjoy. Instrument separation is good with solid layering allowing you to tell each instrument apart. It can get a little muddy from time to time, but these are still some of ZMFs cheapest headphones (not counting the T50rp haha.) The XTC-Os have much better mid/sub-bass depth and rumble with even more impact than the Aeolus. The mids are even more forward with a similar soundstage. Despite there being more bass on the XTC-O, it doesn’t overwhelm the music and the detail is better – this is partly due to the beryllium drivers on my XTC-O. XTC-O wins the bass test.
My mids-test song today is The Summer Set’s “Figure Me Out.” This song has piano, vocals, drums, guitars, etc. The piano sounds further back with the vocals in the middle on the Aeolus. On the XTC-O, the vocals and piano are more forward. This provides the Aeolus with the impression of a larger soundstage, though instrument separation is similar. We get a little more of the muddiness on this song that I heard on “I’m Good (Blue.)” The hi-hats come in clearly most of the time on the Aeolus unless the singer is singing loudly. Guitars sound good as well, but there is still some overall muddiness and mixing of the music where it becomes a blur or sound instead of individual instruments. The XTC-O sounds better with the tube on for this song, but that would be cheating, so I won’t use it – as previously mentioned, we get a more forward representation of the mids. The bass is FAR more present unsurprisingly and there is better instrument separation. The hi-hats and cymbals come in cleanly on the XTC-O with more overall detail and none of the muddiness you get from the baby ZMF. My preference here is a smaller soundstage, more pronounced mids, and better detail/separation, so the XTC-O wins on this one.
Moving on to the highs-test songs, the first is the sharpness/sibilance test with Panic! At The Disco’s “High Hopes.” I’ve rarely heard the horns in the intro of this song ever sound bad on anything, but the low horns can disappear on some headphones. The Aeolus doesn’t have that problem – the low register horns can be heard, though they’re not as pronounced as I’d like. The soundstage here is really good again, not mind-blowingly large, but medium/medium-large. The mids are more recessed in the soundstage again, but I only hear a very small amount of sibilance – not enough to distract from the song negatively unless you’re really trying to listen for it. The snares can be heard clearly, and I have no issues with a lack of detail or muddiness on this song. The XTC-O hits those low notes even more clearly than the Aeolus in the intro. The mids sound only slightly more forward on this song than the Aeolus – both have a similar soundstage on this song. The ZTC-O has a little more sibilance/sharpness on this song too, but both are about comparable. The snares sound more natural on the Aeolus, but it’s really close. I’d barely give the win to the Aeolus on this round.
To test the highs above 3k Hz, I’ll be using Dream Theater’s “The Alien” to look for the hi-hats and cymbal separation from the rest of the music. On the Aeolus, they’re there, but so blended in that I can hardly hear them, even while trying to hear them. It’s all one big blur of noise with no separation between hits. The drums sound good but don’t have the XTC-O’s impact. The guitar solos sound good if a bit distant. The XTC-O has far better drums in the intro, more impact, and more presence. The bass guitars can be heard more clearly as well. The cymbals and snares come in more clearly on the XTC-O, though they can’t compete with the FAudio Mezzo LE IEM for highs here. The guitar solos also sound better on the XTC-O with a better balance and more body to the guitar. The XTC-O wins this round.
The Aeolus is a gorgeous and comfortable set of headphones with great padding and solid build quality. If you want that wood piece to make a statement, these are great. If you want your introduction to ZMF and you don’t need/want a ton of bass response, I don’t think you can do better than these. That said, the XTC-O is a better all-around headphone and it’s cheaper too. Now, that’s only with the Beryllium driver on the XTC-O, I haven’t heard the biowool, which may have a similar sound signature to the Aeolus – also, they’re cheaper and have a slightly more robust build quality. Since I rank the XTC-O at/near the top of my Over-ear headphones, the Aeolus coming so closely is an impressive feat and they are a recommended buy.
|Ear Pads / Tips||1|