I've been excitedly awaiting for these headphones to arrive in my mailbox for a long time. An almost $200 pair of earbuds? Terminated in 4-pin XLR? They're an inherently crazy idea, and I could hardly wait to see how Lee at Venture Electronics had executed them.
Well, I finally got them, and I've had them intermittently in my ears for about a month, up to the time of writing this. I must admit, and this will be expanded upon over the course of this review, that these aren't the misstep that I (in full candor) partially expected them to be. I didn't have a conception of how a headphone in this exact market placement could succeed.
Lee claims, in the page for the Zen 2.0, that these, "put the sound of a full-sized headphone into this shell." I wouldn't go quite that far, but VE has done a commendable job at packing a lot of quality sound into a very restrictive form-factor and implementation style.
Fit and Form
I didn't receive the full, retail packaging for these headphones, but I'd like to note what that constitutes here, as I feel it is relevant. With a $166 purchase of the Zen 2.0, the buyer receives the headphones, a semi-hard shell, zippered carrying case, a standard Monk Ex-Pack, 2 pairs of the Monk+, and a pair of the "darth" version of the Monk+. The accessory headphone certainly don't account for the cost of the Zen, but I feel their inclusion is appreciable, as it shows that Lee is really trying to make this purchase worth it for his buyers, beyond just the sonic performance of the Zen (to which we'll get soon).
What I did receive was the headphones and the aforementioned case. I've worked with Lee in the past, so I'm sure he is aware that I have no need for more earbud sleeves, as I already have a couple Ex-Packs and at least one Monk+ lying around. The zippered case is the same that I received with the Asura 2.0s, and it works just as well, although I feel the case is less necessary with this, specific configuration of the headphones.
Aside from that, construction is very good, and reflective of what I've seen in the past. Very few, if any, noticeable machining errors, a fairly normal, slightly microphonic cable, and (in this, specific case) a solid, 4-pin XLR termination at the amp-end. There is also a little choke, which brings up the cables from the Y-splitter closer to the user's chin. One note with that is that the thing is hard to adjust. I almost un-sleeved the cable in attempt, but eventually, carefully got it up to where I'd like it.
Just as with prior reviews of Venture Electronic's earbuds, I'll quote below my commentary on the foam sleeves, and what configuration I used for this review.
"I'd like to make an aside about the foam covers. 4 of the 32 that I received were the type that have a hole on both sides, not covering the center of the earbud. The rest were the standard type that cover the entire head of the earbud. I found that the aforementioned 4 were the perfect balance of increased bass and increased ability to stay in my ears. With the better seal that these covers allow, they do bump up the mid-bass a bit, the full covers slightly more than the partial covers. The rest of this review, particularly the sound section, will speak to my experience using the partial covers."
As final commentary in this section, referring to driving these headphones, they are not easy. They have a 320 Ω impedance and a relatively high sensitivity of 108 dB/mW. Even though their sensitivity is relatively high, they still are far from easy to drive - I ran them mainly out of my HP-1 on the middle gain stage. They can be powered out of a phone or portable player, but I was maxing out my Pixel and getting close to lining out my AK Jr in order to get to an acceptable volume.
These are an advancement of the mid-centric, warm, pleasurable sound signature that I've heard in every Venture Electronics headphone that I've yet tried. These are a step up in detail, in soundstage, and in overall finesse from my past experiences, though, and those differences were noticeable from the moment I put them into my ears. The sound signature lacks sub-bass, sheerly as a consequence of the chosen form-factor, but their mid-bass efforts are respectable when considering the implementation style. The mids lean towards lush, noticeably, but don't lack detail and reality in their conveyance. The treble extends airily, without much noticeable peakiness or sibilance. I'll expand on all these points in their individual sections, though.
The soundstage is, admittedly, impressive. They don't rival something like the iSine 20s (in a similar form-factor) or the HD 700 (in a very different form-factor), but radial extension, imaging, and staging all are much better than I usually see in any type of in-ear. Isolation is near-nonexistent, which is to be expected. I feel bad for so frequently referencing the interplay of their function and their form-factor, but it is particularly and uniquely relevant for these (and all of Venture Electronic's headphones).
Songs used: Drum Machine by Big Grams feat. Skrillex, Three Ralphs by DJ Shadow, and Lose Control by Glass Animals feat. Joey Bada$$
This is certainly the definitive weak point of this headphone, but that is somewhat unavoidable. The mid-bass has some satisfying depth and sheer volume, but slam and punch are lacking. Sub-bass is extant, but more of a tone than it is a rumble, the latter which I prefer, personally. In general, I think that this sound signature segment is characterized by good tone and texture control, but a lack of impact. If the volume is kicked up a bit above what I'd normally recommend, a fair modicum of impact can be achieved, and in that case, the headphones become pretty competent with modern hip-hop. But, I can't always be pushing those volume levels, regrettably. The level of perceived punch is also dependent on how the sound engineer chose to approach their impacts; if the focus for impacts was in the mid-bass, the effect will be significantly better portrayed by these headphones than if the impacts are placed in the sub-bass.
Key descriptors: controlled, accurate, and uninspiring
Songs used: Scarlet Town by Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau, Carry On by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Giorgio by Moroder by Daft Punk
Moving from low to high, these are my favorite part of these headphones. I spend most of my time with the cuttingly accurate Kaiser Encores in my ears when I'm out and about, and these were a nice respite, in a way. These lean fairly heavily towards lush (as opposed to lean), but without sacrificing fidelity to source. Vocals of both genders come across with good inflection, texture, and accuracy, but still with a little warm lilt. Instrument impacts (particularly piano notes) are noticeably rounded, but not so much so that it becomes aggravating or unrealistic. This range was best characterized for me as pleasant and engaging.
Key descriptors: engaging, warm, and ensconcing
Songs used: Ageispolis by Apex Twin, Because I'm Me by The Avalanches, and Viol by Gesaffelstein
The treble is characterized by its airiness and extension. This range adds a true sense of space to a very large soundstage that would certainly be smaller without it. The accuracy in this range helps to counter a little bit of the rounding that I saw in the mids, as cymbals in particular retain their unique tang and sizzle, with good fidelity. Lee left me with very little to complain about in this section, aside from the very rare run-in with sibilance, most often in tracks that I have mentally marked for their propensity for that.
Key descriptors: smooth, airy, and extended
I expected to leave this review feeling resoundingly negatively towards these headphones, or at best, confused at their position in the market. That is, however, not the case. For mid-lovers and fans of lush-leaning headphones, these are the ticket in their form-factor. The delicate staging is a unique plus, only shared by the very high-end of normal IEMs and other special market offerings, like the iSine series. My personal gripe is the bass impact issue, which may or may not be relevant to anyone reading this, as that's sheerly a matter of preference, and how the music that you listen to is mixed and mastered.
If I haven't hit home this point enough in the course of my review, I would be remiss not to explicitly mention that these will be desktop headphones, for almost all users. Very powerful portable players with an exemplary amp section could do justice to them, but anything short of that outside fo the desktop form-factor simply won't have enough (or clean enough) power to drive these to their potential. But, if you fit the qualifiers that I mention directly above, and you have the system for these, I think they are certainly worth a shot.
These headphones were provided to me by Venture Electronics. I am not being paid by anyone to write this review, to endorse the product reviewed, or for the content that I put in the review.
These headphones were powered by an Astell&Kern AK Junior, a Google Pixel, a Neurochrome HP-1, and by whatever soundcard is in the motherboard of my computer.
I have had these headphones for about a month, and I have put about 30 hours of analytical listening through them during that period.