ZMF AUTEUR - REVIEW
- TONAL BALANCE / NEUTRALITY 93%
- PERFORMANCE FOR THE PRICE 89%
- SOUND FIDELITY 89%
- MUSICALITY 93%
- BUILD QUALITY 89%
- ERGONOMICS/COMFORT 82%
- As close to truly neutral as I have heard at this price tier
- Good control and bass response
- Beautiful looks
- Very scalable
ON THE FENCE
- Could stand to sound slightly more open
- Riser notches a little annoying to adjust
Teak: $1599 ($1399 pre-order)
Blackwood: $1899 ($1699 pre-order)
Special thanks to Zach Mehrbach of ZMF for sending me these for review. Over the years I have been rather pleased with the headphones that come out of the ZMF line. If any reviewer says they never have a bias then don’t believe them. They are lying to you. However, that doesn’t mean that with this review I will cover up any flaws because there are some. The Auteur costs over $1.5K and should be scrutinized. It is a high dollar product so launching it is a bold move with the existing competition.
Previously, ZMF launched the Atticus and Eikon. The Atticus became my favorite because while I like the balance of the Eikon more, the Atticus was better at timbre and handled the percussion in my favorite tracks with better nuance. I really desired for an open back version of the Atticus and Eikon to be released because they really connect me to the music. It is tough to find such musicality with performance not being sacrificed and I think that is usually the name of the game with ZMF. The Auteur is something I thought would answer that call for an open back version of my favorite closed backs. Let’s see if it did.
- IMPEDANCE: 300 OHMS
- NET WEIGHT: CHERRY 490-530 grams; Padauk 550-600 grams
- ZMF EIKON PADS
- ZMF EIKON BIOCELLULOSE DRIVER DYNAMIC HEADPHONE
- NATURAL HAND APPLIED VARNISH
- SEAHORSE SE430 OR S3 6500 CASE
- OWNERS CARD AND MANUAL
- STOCK CABLE
The Auteur is made from ZMF’s custom Biocellulose driver. This has been coined as “the world’s first open, high impedance biocellulose headphone design”. The driver features a 300ohm voice coil. The housing cups are very similar to the Atticus and Eikon cups except for they are less deep and less bulky.
***The cups are deemed open but really look like semi-open headphones with the smaller than average opening on the back where the driver is seated. The ports this time around are actually not blocked providing more air flow. Spoiler: the Auteur sounds much more open than a lot of semi-open headphones but more like 80% open back than fully open. Assumption: to keep the Auteur sounding punchy and well extended the cups seem to provide a lot more acoustic treatment than your average open back headphone, as tones are able to resonate against the wood. This aspect was brought up in a discussion in person by superbestaudiofriends.org member cskippy who has had the pleasure of listening to the Auteur with me (you can look for his forthcoming review in the forums. Once published I will link it here). As by design, and thusly, the Auteur is able to sound different depending on the wood selected but provide enough airflow to take advantage of most of the properties akin to high end open back designs. Another spoiler is that while I’d prefer it to be actually 100% open, the elements at work here sound really good together.
With the cups being less bulky and the metals used being lighter, the Auteur is much more comfortable than Eikon or Atticus. Switching from my Blackwood Eikon (yes Blackwood Eikon at 701g…my choice and I was warned) to the Teak Auteur is night and day. The Teak pair is very comfortable. I wish for just a little more clamp but I am sure tweaking the headband can give me some more of that clamp I like. They are staying on my head just fine though when I get up and play faux guitar but I got a big noggin’.
The cup cavity is definitely large enough and the pads are super comfortable. I love the way there is not really too much heat build up around my ears after a long session.
Adjusting the headband slider is very odd. Those notches catch and you have to wiggle the rods to get to the next notch. Not sure what options were in the R&D drawer and maybe it was picked for the slick looks but I prefer the smooth sliders of my Atticus and Eikon much more. It does look better to me though.
I have read various opinions of the looks on the Auteur well this section is pretty useless because pictures speak for themselves but let me just say that I love the looks of these headphones. They have a timeless design to them that looks sophisticated and industrial-like at the same time. Kind of a steam-punk twist with an eastern look to it.
- BASS EXTENSION 95%
- BASS BALANCE (ACCURACY) 99%
- LOWER MIDRANGE BALANCE 96%
- MIDRANGE PROPER BALANCE 96%
- UPPER MIDRANGE BALANCE 94%
- TREBLE BALANCE 90%
- TREBLE EXTENSION 90%
- BASS CONTROL 90%
- TONE DENSITY (TIMBRE, BODY ASIDE FROM FREQUENCY BALANCE) 89%
- MACRO DYNAMICS (SOFTS TO LOUDS) 89%
- MICRO DYNAMICS (SMALL GRADATIONS OF VOLUME) 89%
- SOUND STAGE WIDTH 86%
- SOUND STAGE DEPTH 86%
- BLACKNESS OF BACKGROUND 92%
- TONE QUALITY (REFINEMENT) 89%
*please note that in the above bar counters I use the word balance instead of presence which is a percentage of how unbiased, accurate, and neutral that aspect is. Also those aspects are totally subjective and from my point of view. Yours may differ. Also these bars and percentages are really just to give an idea of how I perceive the headphone. They are not absolute, and really just provide a visual reference of the aspects described below.
The sound signature of the Auteur is about as neutral as I have heard. I cannot think of a more neutral dynamic headphone except for maybe a modded HD650.
Well this depends on the wood. Some have already reported hearing only slight differences but I hear large ones. Similarities: They both sound dense yet fluid but not as heavy handed as my Blackwood Eikon or the Atticus. There is decent body to the timbre with a bit of wetness to the the notes that sound slightly colored in a rich and resonant way but not overly colored, sounding less wet than the Atticus and Eikon. The Auteur is more precise and a little more sharp/acute sounding than its closed counterparts. There is still a bit of that chamber like reverb going on because of the wood housing that is reminiscent of an acoustic guitar but nothing like the Atticus and Eikon. I find it to sound more colored from the timbre than than the actual frequency response.
Teak: Just a bit more crispness and edge to the notes and a little thinner sounding.
Blackwood: Heavier handed, smoother, a little more bold and weighted.
I am not really sure if the Auteur has less macro dynamics than the Eikon but they seem very similar if not for the Auteur sounding less intense but just as contrasted in dynamics. Reminder: picking the right amplifier is crucial to getting the best out of this line up. The wrong amp can make them sound a little mushy and compressed but they open up on my Aficionado and Mogwai Special Edition, sounding very punchy. On the Mogwai Special Edition they are downright potent.
Dynamic range is not as good as the HD800 but they are more punchy overall due to the frequency response. On “Jeep’s Blues” [Jazz at the Pawnshop] the trumpet plays quiet but then the band picks up and the trumpet player lets you have it. The Auteur sounds far from compressed and the contrast in level is almost as strong as it is on the HD800, just a little less so.
Very good. Especially with the Blackwoods cleaner background, nuance pops from the black really well. However, the definition of the Teak and its slightly more immediate sound make it just a little more engaging and those micro dynamics are just as easily heard making it sound a little more nimble and less soft even on the micro level. The Auteur is decently capable. It is not going to be the absolute best here or come close to dethrone the HD800 or Utopia but this section is not wanting at all. Much higher than average performance but not exceptional.
The soundstage of the Auteur is definitely a jump up from the closed back versions. It extends in width and depth much better. The size is much smaller than the HD800 and with just a about as much width as the stock HE-6. However, the imaging is very natural. The center image is very focused and the placements are very easy to hear. It is not a nebulous or artificially diffuse sounding headphone. The images are well localized and have sizable presence instead of small images like the Focal line up. Compared to the HE-6, the Auteur may not sound as open but the images are larger, and better placed with more height and depth. Planars do soundstage different than dynamics anyhow but switching from the HD800s vast soundstage I can’t really say I miss anything but the openness.
Now here is one of the areas I want more from. Actually, hmmm….. let me think. To be honest it is probably the only area sonically I want more from, sans just those last increments of resolving power found in the Utopia (and the irrational desire for the denser tones found in planars). As mentioned above in the design section[***please read], the Auteur sounds more open than most semi-open backs. A perfect example is the HP3. The Auteur sounds more open than that headphone which is truly semi-open and sounds like it. However this headphone is said to be open back and compared to even the AR-H1 there is less perceived air flow around the drivers. Cupping my hand around the cups definitely changes the sound but not nearly as drastically as doing it to something like an HD650.
Not on the level of Sennheiser 800 but better than a lot of other Top of the Line open backs. I feel like if someone was wanting more resolution than their Eikon and more apparent details then the Auteur would satisfy. Details are less masked by the standing resonances in the cups that the Eikon has and the cleaner sound allows for more details to be resolved. Good details overall and you definitely will be rewarded with more and more inner details the higher you scale.
Again this is practically as balanced and cohesive of a headphone as I have ever heard. I do not consider the HD800 neutral, nor the HD650 neutral. They both color the sound, just differently than each other. The Auteur has some colorations of it’s own but it sounds more “studio neutral” than either of them to my ears. I can’t think of a headphone save the LFF Code-X that has struck the nail on the head as hard. Now I said that I couldn’t think of a better tuned planar besides the Aeon Flow Open than the Code-X and that still stands. But now I am speaking irregardless of driver type. The Auteur sounds more neutral to me than any other headphone I can recall hearing save the Code-X and I don’t know which one is more balanced.
The Auteur reaches deep, has good control, and is fairly linear. I have seen some measurements out there already. One that has the mid bass elevated and another that has it linear. Well let me just tell you it exactly as I hear it. I find the Auteur to have decent bass extension and I personally don’t hear anything elevated above neutral to my ears. Neither do I hear it below neutral. There is no extra upper bass warming up the midrange. The mid bass has good kick but doesn’t sound that much more elevated over the sub bass.
I sometimes feel like there is a very very slight roll off in the sub bass but I didn’t hear the Auteur have any trouble with my EDM tracks. In fact, even though the bass is not as much as the Atticus, the focus is better and my electronic tracks sound more pleasant. I even prefer the bass to the Eikon on some songs which does have more bass but it is less linear. On Flying Lotus’ “The Terminator” the sub bass goes pretty low and I have heard other headphones give up there, not the Auteur. Note that this is with the Aficionado which goes deeper than my Mogwai with its choice tubes (different tubes, different results).
The HP3 is more gratifying there when it comes to sub bass rumble and this is even compared to the Eikon and Atticus. The kicks are more focused on the Auteur but just a bit but the sub bass stuff overall is better handled by the HP3 which has a harder and more pervasive rumble.
It’s easy to call a preference between the Teak and the Blackwood here. I most definitely prefer the Blackwood as it sounds a little more clear, rich, and realistic. On both, upper bass flows into the lower mids that transition into the the middle midrange with unmatched cohesion. Male vocals sound almost as equally believable as females.
This time around, ZMF designed the Auteur with a full upper midrange. If you have a recording where they mixed the vocals too hot there then you will know it with the Auteur. One example is *Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”. As a matter of fact, It just dawned on me while writing this, I will be taking the Auteur with me to studios once I get back to recording music and listening to playbacks. This release has much more upper mids than the Atticus and even more than the Eikon. Now it is right on the border of too much for me but not what I would really call shouty. Everyone has a different level of sensitivity here and I consider my ears to be a little more fatiguable here than the average person. Some of my rap tracks raise the upper mids so the voices can cut through the bass and those tracks teach me to listen at lower levels with the Auteur. Your ears may vary, just know that it is not recessed here.
Update 12-11-2017: I actually don’t find the upper midrange on the border of too much anymore but just about spot on. I found the culprits: My job had my ears fatigued in the upper midrange (talking on the phone way more than usual) and the 6SL7 Sophia tube I was using is a little forward there. The Auteur is still pretty revealing of recordings mixed too hot in the upper mids, especially on the *song mentioned above.
Vs the HD650 the Auteur is a little more flat in the middle mids with a rise after the upper mid range that makes it sound a little more peaky and stressed on the vowels in comparison where ‘I’, ‘a’ ‘eee’, and ‘ehh’ sound strongly pronounced on the Autuer. The HD650 sounds less pronounced in on the vowels and more subdued but pronunciation sounds more natural, just less clear. Just a little shy of the 650 sweet spot but still really good.
The Teak Auteur is really good as well and I doubt the differences will be as dramatic to most as I am hearing them nor as apparent as my writing style would dictate. I just find the tones a little rougher on the teak and a shade less sweet. Now there is really good hear through factor on the Auteur and if you are looking for a headphone to make recordings sound like real life or speakers than I recommend this headphone. The Eikon is more lush in the middle midrange and the Atticus is fuller in the lower mids. The Auteur is still musical, just more linear.
Well if you call it dark then I am just going to think one of the three: We are different ages, your source is dark, or you are not sensitive to treble like I am. If you are allergic to treble then you need to use the Eikon pads as your remedy. I always start of my listening sessions with the Auteur pads but as fatigue settles in I switch over to the Eikon pads to smooth over some of those spritely twinkles I hear there. The Teak wood and Auteur pads are the brightest of all configurations and I personally think it is just a shade above neutral in the treble and pushes right up on the limits of tasteful coloration without going overboard. The Eikon pads and Blackwood Auteur is almost spot on neutral to me, just less open and after an hour it is a worthy sacrifice (some openness for linearity).
Treble is crisp and never really splashy or harsh. There is just a slight amount of zing but that is usually the recordings fault and the Auteur showing what is there. The tonal balance is still what I would consider the ideal downward sloping response. Something like the Aeon Flow Closed is more sibilant and piercing in the middle treble as is the HD800 with its overly brilliant delivery.
Teak vs Blackwood
Teak: More crispness and edge due to a perceived raise in the lower to middle treble. A little more airy and very slightly more open sounding. Slightly more immediate. Snares sound a little more crisp and because the definition region is more highlighted, some voices have more perceived texture or rasp.
Blackwood: Smooth and very natural timbre. Even though they measure the same in the midrange the Blackwood has better body, very slightly more clarity in the middle mids, and sounds cleaner. The blackwood is slightly more black in background and a little more punchy in the bass while the Teak is more punchy in the treble.
Auteur pads vs Eikon pads
Auteur pads: More open and airy. Just a little more clarity as well due to the brighter sound that these provide. The bass is less warm.
Eikon pads: Sounds less open, if you find the Auteur needs to sound more open then the Eikon pads make things a little worse. These pads can help smooth out some of that treble while not masking any details. A little dull sounding compared to the Auteur pads.
ZMF Auteur vs Klipsch Heritage HP3 (Biocellulose vs Biocellulose)
HP3: A little less clear. Sounds less open and also much less spacious with a deep soundstage but slightly stuffy imaging in comparison. The HP3 transients are sharper and have very good bite and crispness from the drivers ability and boosted treble. The bass rumbles better and goes deeper on the HP3. More v-shaped and less natural in the midrange but not far from neutral. Equal macro-dynamics and micro-dynamics. Less resolving of ambient cues. More affordable though and overall, its technical performance is not far behind so its value is just a little better. Were it not for the Auteur sounding much better balanced and a little more open, then the HP3 would be better competition.
Auteur: More natural and realistic with vocals. Better airflow and imaging. The Auteur can sound a little sharp at times in the treble but not like the HP3. The HP3 is v-shaped done right and the Auteur is straight up ‘sound‘ done right. It is a little less aggressive than the HP3 and easier to listen to for long sessions. The Auteur is more expensive but overall is the better headphone. Swapping them makes it instantly evident that the HP3 can’t deliver the recording intentions as truthfully and imparts more of its own flavor. The Auteur has more focused kick drums but the sub bass is not as dense at its fundamental core.
The Auteur was wonderful out of my Aficionado and Mogwai Special Edition. Perhaps my review is so positive because of such pairings. I really like both of my amps and the only solid state amp I got to try it on was the Pro iCan and Milo. I much prefer the Auteur on tubes. But I am admittedly biased there and my tube amps are not lush or thick sounding anyhow. The 300ohm output of my Mogwai special edition provided lots of fun by elevating the bass response a bit and making the Auteur a bit aggressive with potent slam. The Aficionado expanded the soundstage and made the reverb trails of instruments more audible.
The Auteur is fairly easy to power otherwise. The Pro iCan while clear, didn’t handle the bass with as much authority as the others nor did the Milo produce the amount of realism as my tube amps but I didn’t expect them to.
The way I write my reviews is usually without a lot of enthusiasm. I just desire to tell it like it is. Now let me be blunt here. If you can find a better balanced headphone out there, I’d like to hear it. I place my bets on the Auteur. Hey I don’t mind losing a challenge, I am sure using superlatives and making such a claim is unhealthy. I am only asking to be embarrassed, I get it. I have not heard the LCD-4 so perhaps that one may be up to the task. Here is the thing, something can be more flat but the solid foundation of the bass isn’t overdone, the midrange is even, and the treble presence pretty much close to neutral.
Maybe the LFF Code-X or a modded HD650 can do it but otherwise for my personal idea on what uncolored sounds like, I have to say the Auteur comes the closest when it comes to frequency response. The Utopia is a better headphone and it does sound more clear, open, and resolving but it is not linear with its slightly rolled bass and emphasized treble. Also the Utopia bass sounds out of place compared to the rest of the headphone and its images are small. The Auteur is just easier to get along with and is more cohesive in my opinion.
Again, it is not as good as the Utopia overall and if I had the choice of one of the other handed to me for free I would pick he Utopia, listen to it for a while, sell it and buy the more affordable Auteur with some Nos tubes to spend the remaining change.
Now let me say something. People, myself included, use phrases like ‘neutral but musical’. Let’s stop that none sense. If it is neutral (uncolored) and the song is musical then the musicality of the song should be able to come through in all of its colors…bottom line. Sure, headphones have their limitations but this can proves that it is possible. I’d rather the timbre be colored than the frequency response.
Now maybe someone else can come up with something more agreeable after this headphone. However, with what is out there at the time of this review, this Auteur is definitely Redphiled.