[dropcaps]If you’re an on-the-go music lover and haven’t heard of V-MODA, you really should. It is a relatively new company (compared to the likes of renowned brands like Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, or Shure), but has climbed up the ranks very quickly as a result of stellar headphone sound and design. The team at V-MODA knows how to tune the audio presentation to really connect with listeners and get our hearts pumping. The engineers also put a large focus on quality, building the hardware like a tank and ready for your abuse.[/dropcaps]
On top of that, V-MODA’s leader, Val Kolton, consistently puts a large influence on a compelling design. He thinks headphones make a statement, like a fashion accessory, and they better look good on your head.
Up until now, most of V-MODA’s success has been attributed to on-the-head products. It’s been several years since we’ve seen attention given to fans of in-ear headphones. Well, now that has changed. Allow me to introduce the V-MODA Zn.
This isn’t just another earbud. V-MODA has taken its development experience over the years and shrunk it down to something that can stand with the rest of its lineup. These little guys were given special attention, down to the unique use of liquid Zinc metal in their construction. Let’s check out if the Zn lives up to the anticipation.
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The experience with each V-MODA product begins at the unboxing. There’s always a red strip on the on the box that you have to cut (Val Kolton describes this as a ribbon cutting ceremony). Pushing up from a slit on the bottom reveals the product presentation.
Remember how I said that the company sees headphones as fashion accessories? It feels like you’re opening the box to a piece of jewelry. The layout shows the earpieces on top, the 3-button remote, the metal y-splitter, and the other sizes of eartips.
Being a V-MODA product, there’s a lot of interesting things to talk about in the Zn’s design. The cool and striking look that the company typically devotes to its headphones wasn’t abandoned just because this is a small product.
At the same time, the Zn gets its own design signature. You won’t necessarily be able to tell at first glance that it’s made by V-MODA, but it won’t surprise you to find that out either.
Just as impressive as the edgy design is the clever use of material. The Zn’s construction is mostly plastic. And it’s not an expensive-feeling plastic either. But the design draws your attention two ways: with the use of depth and a unconventional metal – Zinc (hence the product’s name, “Zn” is the element’s abbreviation).
V-MODA advertises the exotic housing as “liquid Zinc metal”. It’s so unique in fact that the product is labeled “Limited Edition” because the alloy isn’t so easy to come by.
And it isn’t just for looks. The Zinc metal mold is the acoustic chamber for the driver. Therefore, the sound you get out of these is like no other.
Although the plastic surround isn’t at all interesting itself, V-MODA uses it cleverly for a striking presentation. The contrast of the plastic against the shiny metal alloy portrays an elegant roughness. The metal is a gem that must live encapsulated in a guardian’s clasp. Yet, despite that fate, the beauty is still able to mightily shine through and let the world know that something special lies within. Why I call it clever is because V-MODA does this to tell a story while countering the cost of the unique material.
The attention to detail continues down through the cord. There’s a reinforcing fabric weave (Kevlar) that wraps around the length of the cable. Dubbed DiamondBack, the cable is claimed to be 20x stronger than the industry standard and can withstand frequent bending like a champ.
If you’ve known V-MODA, you know durability is a big priority in its design. The Zn is no exception, the build carries a military-level MIL-STD-105 robustness standard.
And not forgetting that this is in-ear model (which moves in and out of your pocket), V-MODA also thought about the cord’s shrink-wrapping material. It has a particular substance/finish that inhibits tangles. If I haven’t been clear about it yet, V-MODA engineers the heck out of its devices.
The Zn’s sound is produced by a 8mm dynamic driver, which follows conventional speaker driver technology. A lot of high-end in-ears have moved on to balanced armature (BA) drivers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re superior. There are pros and cons to both methods. Sennheiser was another manufacturer not convinced with BA drivers for superior acoustics and stuck with a dynamic driver in its flagship in-ear, the IE 800.
Regardless, V-MODA has made sure that the sound performance is up to its high standards. Therefore, the meticulous tuning is supplemented with “limited” (made in Italy) custom-made filters between the driver and housing. V-MODA refers to the special filters as the “gatekeepers of golden acoustics”.
Generously, the Zn’s packaging also includes a leather carrying case. The flap secures via a magnetic connection.
Inside the case, you’ll find another set of eartips (clear) and ear hooks.
The eartips are easy to remove and replace. On the stem of the earpiece, there’s a notch that secures the tip in place and a metal mesh that protects the sound tube from earwax.
So V-MODA greatly thinks about design, how about functionality and comfort?
In-ear headphones are largely dependent on eartips. Not just in regard to fit, but also sound quality. If they don’t create a seal within your ear canal, you’ll miss out on detail. Eartip material also effects sound quality. Silicone tips generally promote bass more than foam, but foam tips isolate much better.
V-MODA believes it found a good compromise, with a custom silicone eartip. Dubbed BLISS (Bass Level Isolating Soft Silicone) 3.0 Fittings, it claims the best from both worlds – isolation and strong bass.
Sound-wise, I’m totally on board with this eartip. In the accessory kit, V-MODA includes a different set of eartips (clear) with thinner silicone and less impactful response. Use the black tips, they do wonders. The passive isolation isn’t as good as foam, but once you get music going, everything else is drowned out.
The small size of the earpieces means the entire housings will go into your ears. My only complaint is that to remove them, it’s easiest to pull from the cord. This isn’t ideal; cord attachments are generally a vulnerability (the Zn’s earpieces are not removable from the cable). But I’m confident in V-MODA’s construction.
My only other concern was that the largest included eartip was just barely enough for me to get an appropriate seal. But this is a “your milage may vary” thing. My ear canal’s aren’t the smallest. However, I know that other manufacturers include a wider variety of sizes, so I would recommend V-MODA to follow suit.
In addition to my previous praise about the Zn’s cord, I also want to gladly mention that the length is considerable. Skimped length is often a complaint with headphones, but that isn’t a problem whatsoever here. The total length from earpiece to plug is 46″ (13″ from earpiece to y-splitter, and then 33″ to plug).
Zinc metal on the y-splitter is a very nice touch (subtly flashy). Having had a pair of Sennheiser CX985 before, I was initially worried. The weight of the metal on the CX985 gave my earpieces an annoying downward pull. Fortunately, the metal V-MODA chose is really light, feels like it’s not even there.
From the split, on the right cord, there’s a 3-button remote with a microphone on the back. The Zn is offered in two different models, solely because of the separation between Android and Apple. Unfortunately, Apple wins out here. Full functionality of the 3-button remote only works for Apple devices. Rather than prepare a separate 3-button remote for Android, V-MODA only removed the buttons that didn’t work (volume up and down) and made a one-button variant of the Zn. You can still use the 3-button model on an Android phone (that is the review unit I was given in fact), but the volume buttons won’t work. In other words, V-MODA only made a separate one-button remote variant purely for aesthetics. Being a writer for an Android site, I predictably recommend V-MODA to give Android devices equal attention in the future :)
Pressing the center button play/pauses music, while holding it activates the open mic feature of the device it’s connected to (i.e. Siri or Google Now). You can of course also use it to pick up incoming calls.
Val Kolton is a big proponent of using headphones when you exercise. Therefore, an included accessory is an attachable earhook for cord stability when moving around a lot. This also helps a ton with cable microphonics if that’s a common concern in your lifestyle.
*For my sound trials, I used the LG V10 (HiFi SABRE 9018 DAC setting) and Tidal HiFi music samples.
Let’s get to the real testimony of this review – the sound. I’m going to start at the best aspect and then descend downward.
I cannot praise the low-end reproduction of these earphones enough. The bass detail and depth is simply amazing. It is a staggering feat for earphones to reproduce such a weighty bass response. It actually bests many full headphones I’ve heard. The moment you don the Zn and turn the tunes on, the impact of the entire low-end range strikes you. It’s emotional, expansive, and game-changing. The awe leaves me searching for an explanation to its magic. The acoustic walls of the Zinc housing are probably part of the answer, but I think the eartips are also complicit to the audio genius.
But the superb bass is not the only feat. The soundstage presentation is right behind it. Here, I look to the custom tuning filters for the explanation, which are said to control the airflow mechanics. The ambient reach of the acoustics feels physics-defying. I hear the placement and distance of instruments like no other earphone has allowed before. It is incredible.
The treble to me is an interesting animal. Detail is certainly captured, and the Zn can definitely reach far to surface the little nuances. But it’s not the cleanest reproduction I’ve heard, and sometimes I get little peaks of sibilance in higher-pitched instruments. Also, the transition between mid and high frequencies isn’t seamless – which leads to the next part of the discussion.
V-MODA’s front-runner headphone has long been the Crossfade M-100 over-ears, which follows a V-shaped sound signature. “V-shaped” means that the midrange frequencies are recessed to an extent in favor for a prominence of bass and treble. The Zn follows suit but I find the dynamic difference a bit more disruptive than with the M-100.
It may have to do with a compromise to get the favored frequencies shining, but the presence of the mids is average to me. Vocals sound like they’re at the dead center of your head and don’t exhibit the airy-ness that is adored from other sounds. The laid-back nature also makes vocals less intimate. Also, any melodies in that region (i.e. guitar riffs) are not as impactful and full as I feel they should be.
That doesn’t mean that the mids are bad whatsoever. They are detailed, clear, and accurate. It’s a relative comparison. V-MODA set the bar very high with other elements of the sound, I’m just saying that the mids don’t reach that voluminous level.
Part of that criticism stems from having owned V-MODA’s XS on-ears (which proceeded the M-100). The XS have a neutral sound signature and more lush mids. I would’ve liked to see this progression continue.
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Through everything that’s been said, I ultimately hope you’ve captured my excitement. The attention to detail in every regard to an in-ear headphone is impeccable with the Zn. After going years without a strong in-ear offering, I am not only glad that V-MODA finally delivered, but love that it is one of the best earphones that money can now buy.
Even in spite of owning considerably higher costing earphones, the Zn’s bass reproduction blows me away. The impact is tremendous. If you’re any kind of bass-head but also value detail and other nuances in your music, you will fall in love these earphones.
Are they perfect? No. Would I recommend them to an analytical, reference-sound seeker? No. But that is not V-MODA’s goal. The goal is to extract details out of the sound that induce heart-pumping emotion.
The fact of the matter is that when I sit to listen to music, I keep wanting to reach for the Zn out of my set of earphones, and I don’t want to take them off. That enjoyment exemplifies what personal music listening is all about. I sincerely hope that the Zn can resonate loudly enough into the awareness of general audio lovers. You need to hear this.