ZMF AUTEUR | ZENITH PMx2 | FOCAL CLEAR

FOCAL CLEAR:  1499.99

AUDIO ZENITH PMx2: 1899.99

ZMF AUTEUR BLACKWOOD: 1899.99

INTRO

Special thanks to TSAV again for the Focal loaner. During my time reviewing the Focal Clear, I also had a loaner of the PMx2 from forum member Rigo with whom I have had the pleasure of swapping some gear with. Also, special thanks to Zach of ZMF headphones for allowing me to still use the Auteur during this time as well.

All three of these headphones are the most balanced cans I have heard that cost over a grand. They all have their strengths and weaknesses so the final winners really are just based on the aspects that I value most. I can easily see someone preferring one over the other for various different reasons. Declaring which one had the best balance is really hard so I will refrain from declaring any winners in those regards. In fact all three are very good headphones. The one I feel is really missing from this shoot out is the LFF Code-X. Unfortunately I didn’t have one at the time of this review. 

The Rig: iMac 27 inch 2015>Audirvana Plus> Rednet 3>Metrum Pavane Level 1> Eddie Current Aficionado [Sophia Princess Mesh Plates(power tubes), Bendix 2C51 or WE396A(driver), Amperex Orange Globe NOS (rectifier). Or I used the new Mogwai Special Edition [Cossor 52KU Nos (rectifier), Nos Tungsol 6550 (power), Sophia 6SL7GT or Ratheon NOS 6SL7GT(driver). The Mogwai SE was used with the 8ohm speaker taps, 32ohm jack, and 300ohm jack.

 

SOUND

TIMBRE

In my opinion the Auteur has the best timbre, it can be crisp as well as natural and full, with good presence and body but is smooth like the PMx2 yet has some of the bite the Zenith is missing. The thinness of the timbre of the Clear, while focused and acute, is a bit unnatural compared to the other two. The music never really fleshes out on the Clear to me to become realistic enough. Tone density on the Clear is pretty good though. The PMx2 can have round leading edges and were it not for its excellent realism and body, it would be overly mellow or soft sounding but the tone quality is exceptional. However, the PMx2 is exceptionally liquid and smooth with no grain or hardly any artifacts to the sound; it sounds very pure. The Auteur is very similar and while not as pure, has the most realistic tone quality. 

  • AUDIO ZENITH PMx2
  • FOCAL CLEAR
  • ZMF AUTEUR
BASS

Clear has the best sub bass solidity and focus right next to the Auteur. The Auteur can hit down low and has better sub bass focus than the PMx2 but the textures are a little less resolved in comparison which has the best textures. Bass slam is the cleanest and most focused on the Clear. It does the best with EDM as well. The Auteur sounds much better in the sub bass than the PMx2 with more solidity and focus from my Mogwai Special Edition than it does from my Aficionado. Yet that is the same amp where I feel the Clear is a bit more stubborn at slamming. Regardless of amp, the Clear is the most focused.

As far as balance goes, I would say they are all very similar in presence and balance, being just spot on in neutrality. I can’t declare a winner there. The thing about the PMx2 in regards to its bass is that it begins to loose a little focus the deeper you go even if it seems to have good extension. All three of them have pretty good bass extension to my ears. Still and so I found the Auteur to do better than the PMx2 when it came to delivering the oomph from the sub bass. When pushed, the PMx2 can deliver good rumble so this is all relative to each other.

The Zenith has really good mid bass kick. It actually sometimes has the most weighted mid bass kick of the three depending on how deep the kick is. It is very solid and tight with excellent focus but not the hardest hitting in terms of dynamics nor the tightest. The Clear sounds most precise with the Autuer not far behind. 

The Auteur is focused but has very slightly less density to the tones than the Zenith or Clear making it seem just as punchy with good dynamics but a little less hard and visceral. The Clear is very tight, punchy and focused with its mid bass delivery. All of them have a hump in the mid bass that is ever so slightly warm but very much in line with what I would call ideal in terms of balance.

  • AUDIO ZENITH PMx2
  • FOCAL CLEAR
  • ZMF AUTEUR
MIDRANGE

While I find the Clear to sound decently balanced, initially I was hearing a nasal sound to the vocals making it sound a little more wonky than the other two. Also the faster decay doesn’t do it any favors at trying to sound natural and fleshed out; something that both the Auteur and the Zenith do better at. When it comes to certain instruments though, the speed, clarity, and precision of the Clear is more fun and upbeat. Of the three though, the Auteur has does the best at making reverb trails linger in the air as tones resonate most like a live venue sounding more cohesive than the Clear and more fleshed out than the Zenith; the effect is that while it is not as forward in the middle mids, the music sounds more enveloping.

The Zenith sounds the most direct and forward with the most pleasing balance of the three. It has a stronger middle midrange than the Auteur without the nasality of the Clear. The drawback is the lack of edge on percussion and a sometimes overly direct delivery of singers where they can belt a bit too hard in direct comparison though it never bothered me. In fact that aspect sometimes captivated me as I was taken aback by the dynamic range of the Zenith. None of the three have a forward upper midrange but neither is the upper midrange on any of them too withdrawn. I think the 650 has more upper mids than all three of them. 

The Auteurs are very resolving of information as are the other two but in different ways it seems. I can hear the rasp on the voice the best on the PMx2. I can hear the individuality of the notes the best on the Clear. I can hear the reverb trails and accents the best on the Auteur. The full bodied and pure tones in the midrange of the Zenith gave me a few more goosebumps than the Auteur did because when I focused on a voice the singer was just a little stronger and more focused. The Auteur would take the same singer and make them more a part of the venue. The Clear unfortunately never once gave me those feelings nor connected me to the singer or venue, instead impressed me with its agility and speed. The Autuer midrange is a little less forward in the middle mids compared to the other two. 

  • AUDIO ZENITH PMx2
  • FOCAL CLEAR
  • ZMF AUTEUR

TREBLE

Where I feel the PMx2 excels at is in the treble definition and separation. It has good speed, delineation, timbre, and clarity. Treble notes have excellent solidity and body; the best of the lot in those regards. The Clear sounds a little bit more airy and present; the brightest of the bunch with similar qualities to the PMx2 yet just a little faster but barely less defined. I prefer the slightly darker (though not dark in and of itself) treble of the PMx2. All three of them have spot on presence, straddling either side of the line of neutrality. The Auteur has a lower treble rise that can sometimes draw attention to itself. In comparison the Clear just sounds slightly brighter overall and is less forgiving but I had no issues with its peaks. I sometimes felt the Clear lacked the extension of the Auteur. The PMx2 had zero glare or peaks that bothered me. The Teak wood Auteur has a similar amount of treble presence to the Focal Clear [shootout was done with the Blackwood]. The Auteur falls behind the other two in separation and solidity of the treble. All on its own the Auteur treble is still snappy and defined, I just find these other two exceptional. 

  • AUDIO ZENITH PMx2
  • FOCAL CLEAR
  • ZMF AUTEUR
SOUNDSTAGE

The soundstage of the PMx2 and Clear really don’t cut it for me. Obviously this is my opinion but let me explain why. They both provide good separation and the PMx2 has very good instrument placement. The PMx2 places the singer in front of you without much room in between the well separated images, but it still places them naturally in the venue space. The Clear places them in my head at times. The Auteur places the singers in front of me with good depth as well as naturally laying them out in the venue. The Clear sounds precise in separation but downright unnatural to me in the staging size as I find it to be small, with small images. The Auteur doesn’t sound as precise in decay and the separation is beaten by the Clear but the images are larger than on both in a much larger scene; add to it the wetness from the wooden cups and you have a venue feel from the Auteur that puts you ‘there’ way better than the other two. For Gaming the PMx2 will do well as will the Auteur. Not so sure about the Clear. The sheer size of soundstage is biggest on the the Auteur no question. The gains that the Clear makes in this area is that it sounds the most open back. The PMx2 and to a greater extent the Auteur could stand to have more air flow to the drivers. 

  • AUDIO ZENITH PMx2
  • FOCAL CLEAR
  • ZMF AUTEUR
MACRO DYNAMICS

The Clear wins this aspect without having to fight for it. It doesn’t hurt that it is so darned controlled and fast. Direct comparisons to the other two show the driver design at work. The Auteur is very dynamic as well but just needs a good pairing to bring it out (luckily I have that). The PMx2 I feel falls behind the other two. I don’t get as much of the usual sense of compression as I do with a lot of planars but it is still less responsive. The mid bass hump it has keeps things engaging and I find it to have much better dynamics other planars I have had here recently save the AFO. The dynamic range of the Zenith is very good though, that is why so many times I was caught off guard by a singer getting loud. I just feel like it is less responsive to hard hitting percussion and slam as the other two. 

  • AUDIO ZENITH PMx2
  • FOCAL CLEAR
  • ZMF AUTEUR
MICRO DYNAMICS

The Auteur has very good micro dynamics. I cannot declare a winner between the Clear and the Auteur. I used my test tracks over and over and they seemed to be neck and neck. I sometimes felt like the Auteur was slightly behind the Clear but didn’t know if it was just the speed, separation, or quicker decay of the Clear. The thing about the Auteur is that nuance seems a little more meaty and full because of the timbre of the headphone. The Clear pushes those contrasts back a bit and makes the smaller nuances even smaller than the Auteur does. They sound more crisp but tiny on the Clear while the Auteur gives them a bit more presence. I still call it a tie but I am just trying to explain how they sound as opposed to each other. The Zenith falls behind the other two slightly but is still pretty good. Were I to throw the HD650 in here then the PMx2 would fall behind the 650 as well in this section.

  • AUDIO ZENITH PMx2
  • FOCAL CLEAR
  • ZMF AUTEUR
BUSY PASSAGES/TRANSIENTS

The treble is usually the frequency range that suffers the most in busy passages and the  Clear handles floods of instruments the best. They all do good at crescendos in different ways. The Auteur spreads the sounds out so they don’t get cluttered but it’s transient response in the treble doesn’t keep from blending like the other two because of its longer decay and the fact that its tones aren’t as dense in the treble as the other two. The PMx2 handles treble separation effortlessly and has solid treble timbre. The Clear has some of the treble separation the PMx2 does, but it has the most all around control of transients giving the instruments very good attack no matter what is going on. The quick decay of the transients on the Clear makes those busy passages delightful as the sounds snap in and out of the mix with e-stat like action. The PMx2 has some good speed too and is right behind the Clear with transient attacks and quick decays in the treble. 

  • AUDIO ZENITH PMx2
  • FOCAL CLEAR
  • ZMF AUTEUR
CLARITY/TRANSPARENCY

The Clear wins here. The Auteur sounds less clean than the other two but still has about equal clarity with the PMx2 except that it is not as black in background. To help understand, the Yggdrasil sounds as clear or clearer than my Pavane but the Pavane has a blacker background and sounds less hazy. The same thing is going on here. The PMx2 has a really black background as does the Clear; they have less reverberations from the cups than the Auteur which gives its background a more grey feel to it. However, they are all very clear headphones and sometimes the PMx2 sounds a little less clear than the others in the bass and sometimes the treble since it is not as present as the Clear but the midrange clarity of the PMx2 is exceptional. I give them a tie on clarity with the Clear a step ahead. 

  • AUDIO ZENITH PMx2
  • FOCAL CLEAR
  • ZMF AUTEUR

CONCLUSION

For the majority of this review period I had the PMx2 as a preference over the Clear. It just has that midrange magic and liquid soul that is awesome. The Auteur ended up being my overall pick at the end of most sessions because it combined enough of my wants (slam, midrange magic, and soundstage) to be my desert island pick. However, in the end, the control, openness, dynamics, and decent tonality of the Clear won me over from the Zenith. The soundstage and slightly wonky midrange of the Clear hold it back from being my desert island headphone but boy does it come close to being one of my favorite headphones of all times making the 650 get no head time. I think that if people were looking for true HD650 upgrades then these three should be top choice.

My preferences have the Auteur as the winner based on my priorities because I feel like it is better balanced than the Clear in the midrange and sounds more natural. The Auteur being the most cohesive headphone I have heard above a grand still stands after this shootout. Also the Auteur places me ‘there’ better than the other two which means a lot to me.

The Clear is the best value at 1499 though, especially given its design and accessories. In all fairness, despite my preference for the Auteur, by merit the Clear is on the same level. 

The Zenith is special and is an exceptionally well balanced headphone but after having it here for a long time I just ended up reaching for the other two more often. 

MERIT:

  • FOCAL CLEAR
  • ZMF AUTEUR
  • AUDIO ZENITH PMx2

Reviewers Preference:

  • FOCAL CLEAR
  • ZMF AUTEUR
  • AUDIO ZENITH PMx2
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