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Christmas Gift Guide
Headphones

The sweet-sounding ZMF Blackwood headphones

Some high-end headphones are all about maximizing detail and resolution, the ZMF Blackwood goes in the other direction, toward music.

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ZMF Blackwood headphones ZMF

I met ZMF's Zach Mehrbach at a local Head-Fi headphone club meeting a while back, and I knew it would only be a matter of time before I'd review one of his headphones. The time has come today, and it's his flagship, the Blackwood. The solid blackwood ear cups, actually African Blackwood, are gorgeous, and when you hold these 'phones in your hands you definitely know they weren't made in some giant Chinese factory that pumps out plastic headphones by the container load. No, the ZMF Blackwood is for folks seeking a more personal connection with the guy who builds and fine-tunes every headphone he sells. That's one of the things I love most about high-end audio, customers might have access to the designers or the company's owners. The feedback loop between customers and designers is rarely that direct with other tech products. If you have a question, go ahead and ring the guy who makes the headphones, that's so cool! I doubt you can do the same with your camera or smartphone.

Not only that, if a ZMF customer would be happier with a slight change to the sound of their headphones all they need to do is ask, then send it back to Mehrbach, and he will personally tweak the sound for free. That takes customer service to a whole different level than what's available from Beats or Sennheiser.

Mehrbach went to film school, and started making acoustic guitars and banjos because he enjoys working with wood, which eventually led to modifying headphones. He likened crafting a film to assembling preproduction elements into a coherent whole, and with headphones you're putting together and modifying parts to make something that sounds good. Mehrbach has made some films, but ZMF is doing really well, so films are taking a back seat to headphones. He started ZMF two years ago, and he's now selling so many he'll probably have to hire a few people to keep up with demand.

ZMF headphones use Fostex T50RP planar magnetic drivers, and a few other parts from that headphone, but the ZMF sound is significantly revamped and more refined than the T50RP headphone. All ZMF headphones are fully tested and measured before they leave the factory.

When comparing the Blackwood with other high-end, closed-back headphones like the Audeze EL-8 and Sony MDR-Z7, it's easy to hear the Blackwood sounds more "relaxed" than the others, there's less detail, but to my ears the Blackwood's midrange sound is more life-like. The Blackwood also feels more substantially built, the thickly padded headband and ear cushions, covered with real cowhide leather feel great. The Blackwood's user-replaceable cables have mini-XLR connectors in the ear cups. I did try the Blackwood with my iPod Classic, and it was fine, but at home, with my Schiit Lyr 2 headphone amplifier the sound was so much better.

Listening to the new, heavily produced My Morning Jacket album, "The Waterfall," the sound was cold and thin over the Audeze EL-8 headphone, the Blackwood tamed the brightness just enough to let me enjoy the music. There's a sweetness to the Blackwood sound that tips the balance just enough to take the edge off harsh, over-compressed recordings. Aphex Twin's electronica textures had a more substantial foundation with the Blackwood, but the EL-8 was livelier, clearer, and more vibrant. There's no decisive winner here, but the EL-8 is the more transparent headphone. You just have to decide if that's what you want, or would you prefer living with a headphone like the Blackwood that makes less than stellar, harsh sounding recordings easier to listen to.

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ZMF Blackwood headphones ZMF

The Sony MDR-Z7 headphones are in the running too, they're also on the sweet, but detailed side of neutral, so I was curious how they'd fair. The Blackwoods were again warmer/richer, but once I stopped comparing I never felt the Blackwood was too soft or mellow, it made a regular habit of making the most out of the music. There's a rare musicality to the sound, so I kept coming back for more. It's very comfortable to wear for extended periods of time.

So sure, if you crave high-resolution sound the Blackwood isn't for you, go for the Audeze EL-8, or better yet, the Stax SR-207 electrostatic headphones. They're all exceptional, it's just a matter of zeroing in on the headphone that best suits your taste.

ZMF ships world wide, the Blackwoods sell for $699 in the US, £450 in the UK, and AU$883 in Australia. The company doesn't have an inventory of ready-to-ship headphones, each one is made to order. Currently, all ZMF headphones are full-size, closed-back designs, but a "semi-open back" model may debut this summer.

ZMF headphones come with a one-year warranty, and a 14-day return policy (worldwide).