The definition of Auteur according to dictionary.com is:
“a filmmaker whose personal influence and artistic control over a movie are so great that the filmmaker is regarded as the author of the movie.”
And on Auteur Theory from Brittanica.com:
“The auteur theory, which was derived largely from Astruc’s elucidation of the concept of caméra-stylo (“camera-pen”), holds that the director, who oversees all audio and visual elements of the motion picture, is more to be considered the “author” of the movie than is the writer of the screenplay. In other words, such fundamental visual elements as camera placement, blocking, lighting, and scene length, rather than plot line, convey the message of the film. Supporters of the auteur theory further contend that the most cinematically successful films will bear the unmistakable personal stamp of the director.”
The word literally translates to “author” in French. Its also the name of ZMF’s newest headphone creation directed by none other than up-and-comer Zach Mehrbach himself. Before entering the market with Fostex T50RP mods, Zach was a film professor in his former life so it only makes since that his artistic pen would play heavy on every aspect of the new flagship piece. He hasn’t fully abandoned either the aesthetic style nor the wood-focused base material of his previous efforts, but rather opted for further refinement of both his developmental process and the product endpoint.
The outside appearance of the Auteur is fairly refined itself. The slotted earcup is now highlighted by a stain glass inspired punched metal grill in the center. Depending on how twisted your interpretation is, one might see both mickey mouse ears and/or coffins within the elaborate design of rectangles, circles and diamonds. A more real world takeaway is that outside leak isn’t too overbearing. The headphone is definitely an open back design and can be heard from across a quiet room, but some buffer is offered on the opposing side. The 482g weight of the Auteur is slightly more than Mr.Speakers Ether Flow (391g) but still much less than the Audeze LCD-4 we had on hand (706g). These measurements were taken with the kitchen’s food scale w/o cables attached, so take them with a grain of salt (as some might have been left on the scale by accident). The overall size is just a bit bigger as well, but still fits on and about the head with firm but comfortable pressure.
The headphones ships with two pairs of easily swappable ear pads, one with a slightly more narrow opening than the other. Both options were cozy against the head with their perforated, leather texture and allow for plenty of internal cavity space for large ears. Zach says that because lambskin varies slightly, the hand sewn pads are matched pairs for each headphone to ensure accurate frequency response from ear to ear. Each earcup terminates in the same 3 pin mini XLR jack that appears on the Audeze LCD line of headphones and can be easily swapped out for other less standardized options. The gimbal system that connects the ear cups to the headband is a little larger than some of the competition, but appears more than up to the job for holding and spinning. Both drivers are capable vertical and horizontal rotation through the suspension system. Two parts are utilized for the headband, the piece that lays on the head is constructed of lambskin leather which is finished on both sides and stamped with ZMF logo. The outside edge provides caliper pressure and is also covered in leather and stamped with a ZMF logo on the right side and a lower case “a” on the left. Its classy, looks the part and goes a long way to help justify the upper end price of the package.
Included accessories are bountiful and incorporate the previously mentioned set of extra Eikon ear pads, a solid foam-padded “S3 6500” carrying case, balanced and SE headphone cables, and a wood owners card displaying the serial number and creation date of the headphone. That covers a lot of bases, giving the whole unboxing experience a very full and bespoke touch to it. While many would assume given the asking price that these commodities are a given in this luxury bracket, they are always absentee surprises on occasion – even with some of the more popular brands. Zach also sells his own “aftermarket” cables direct on his site, both for the Auteur and for other popular brands of headphones. The headphones reviewed were the standard Teak color which retail for $1,599, but Zach will also be releasing a series of different woods for the earcups under separate limited edition runs.The launch wood was African Blackwood ($1,899) and came with the option for a separate wood presentation case in place of the airtight carrying container, but the run has already likely come to completion by the time this review airs. Our experience with different woods on the exact same headphone have yielded certain discernable differences between the subjects, but it is worth mentioning that at the time of review it was impossible to say if those differences could be attributed to the wood material itself, a QA mishap, or any other number of variables that could make their way into the sound of a headphone by design or otherwise. Still, like a dedicated tuberoller, different is good, welcome and rarely met with a closed mind (unless the change is particularly distorted/broken for some reason).
In order to get the full picture on the Auteur it is important to know that the transducers are constructed of a slightly different material than most other $1k+ headphones. They are a dynamic breed (as apposed to planar or electrostatic tech) but made of bio cellulose material (as opposed to the mylar or some form of metal). The use of bio cellulose as a driver material is by no means new to the field but has been gaining significant popularity in over ear headphones as well and options in in-ear models.
When it comes down to the sonics of the wooden beast, the headphone is best summarized by two ideas, a wide soundstage and intimate vocals. From initial impressions to long term listening sessions the Auteur projects the location of instruments further out to the left and right than most headphones, good headphones and even great headphones. Other nick pickings will also ask for soundstage depth a.k.a. the psychoacoustic translation of distance in front of the head, which (from memory) still may belong to the Focal Utopia, but side-to-side eccentricities are firmly planted with this ZMF creation. The constant play of both female and male vocals are somewhat inverted however, as the tonal texture and essences of each appear intimate and delightfully accessible within the soundscape. The balance of the frequency range for the headphone is right where it should be given the intended audience and fared very well against both the MrSpeakers Ether Flow and Audeze LCD-4 we had on hand. While neither of these headphones are exact copies of each other in this regard, both manage to find a common thread closer to neutral than most main stream or even $300 area cans. There is a slight emphasis in the vocals from high mids to low highs (follow me here?) that gives the Auteur a little bit more presence in that area than either the Ether Flow or LCD-4. The guitars on Cat Steven’s original recording of Wild World cut through the clutter with clear and coherent delivery from transducer to ear. The overall tapestry is pleasant, with ample detail retrieval on par or better than the asking price.
Cymbals shine without a top-heavy pre fabricated construction. Nothing about the sound lays flat, with the aforementioned intimacy leading the charge to brighter and happier days. There is a consistency to the approach, which provides control to the high end along with detail. As with most differing approaches, the bio cellulous driver proved to separate itself a little in the low frequencies. For most generic rock listeners this is perhaps best personified by the relationship between bass guitar and bass drum. The planar punch (for both LCD-4 and Ether) in this region help establish a little extra bump in the rump of that area, giving the bass drum a slight emphasis over the bass guitar on tracks like Bob Marley’s Is This Love. For the Auteur the emphasis is on the bass guitar, but only marginally so (and by comparison to the other two planars). Tracks like Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes by Paul Simon provide even counter balance for the Auteur in this department, along with good clarity between the two complex, competing low-end instruments. This mild accentuation (like comparing top end digital components) is subtle at best and miles away from the bass head delta that exists along much of the mainstream headphone approach.
The thousand foot look from above is very “Even Steven” down the frequency fountain and provides a good shot at the standard set by the very high end of the headphone curve as it now stands, and well should for its nearly $2k price tag. With all these race ready talking points, it might be worth pointing out again that the items that make these headphones unique within the space is the XXL wide spacing, evident from the first moment on attaches them to the head to the hard A/B comparisons against the immediate competition. The percussive shakers on either side of Diamonds main verse just manage trick the mind in a clever ruse of realism in increasingly delightful manner. In many ways the Auteur splits the difference between the Ether Flow and LCD-4. The treble is more noticeable from the Audeze’s revealing mid signature but yet not quite the same as the Ether either. Those same shakers are not quite as pronounced as on the Flows, but can be found surrounding the head at a greater distance.
The Auteur from ZMF headphones would make a great addition to any connoisseur’s collection. They deliver on what’s necessary to perform at this level of play, but still stand out in ways that are very unique unto itself, just like the biocellulose material that makes up the driver. The wide soundstage creates a very favorable psychoacoustic phenomenon that isn’t captured by everyone, and the intimacy of the vocal range is both equal parts revealing and comforting. Like a few others before him, Zach’s vision of what a headphone could be was born from listening to, observing and living the personal audio enthusiast mindset and his headphones clearly reflect some of this sacred essence. This isn’t so much an outsiders hopeful shot to please the board of directors, it’s much more a community man’s way of saying “thank you” to audio, well done.
More info: http://www.zmfheadphones.com