ZMF Bokeh : Detailed Look

This is the second installment of my 2024 look at the ZMF Closed-Back Headphones Series. The initial article reviewed the ZMF Bokeh, ZMF Atrium Closed and the ZMF Caldera Closed with initial impressions using the default pads. This specific article will take a deeper dive into the ZMF Bokeh and tuning changes with pad swaps.

Recap of the ZMF Bokeh Initial Impressions:

The new ZMF Bokeh is their lightweight and easier to drive semi-portable solution to something a lot of users have asked for -- a smaller ZMF headphone. It's not small. It's still just as large other ZMF products, and contains a 50mm dynamic driver that is typically used on non-portable headphones. But, it does feel lighter than some of their other products (still heavier than a typical headphone), and much easier to drive off any source available to you.

Another big change is the change from the mini-XLR connectors to the smaller and lighter-weight 3.5mm connectors that are more standard across the headphones industry. This makes cable replacement and transportation easier. 

The standard Bokeh at the time of this is the Black Limba wood, and its fairly lightweight and a nice natural looker. The demo unit I have has a wood-tan color with dark streaks and kind of a mahogany-like wood appearance but with much more variation. It's a cool looking wood. The demo unit weighs about 490 grams without cables.

The Bokeh is a warm and balanced headphone that is perhaps a tad dark. It's very much ZMF-House sounding but not quite as resolving as some of their flagship products. At first, it reminded me some what of the ZMF Verite, where the upper-mids have a slight suck-out when I first listened to Maeta's Cool Cat, and like my time owning the Verite, I grew to enjoy the laid back presentation.

What the Bokeh has over the Verite is more bass levels, albeit, no where near as fast and resolving as the Beryllium drivers that made that headphone special. I'll discuss it a little more in the next section, but the Bokeh is the Atrium, but less exciting, and less resolving, but also a lot more forgiving. 

My first impressions are that I do dig the Bokeh. While I am not sure it's any major sonic improvement over the Emu Teak or Fostex TH-610 series. The Bokeh has a similar tonality and resolution to these, but with improved soundstage openness. But, while these Foster-based headphones are a similarly semi-open closed-back, but even lighter-weight and half the cost, the Bokeh has a much, much more premium design and quality to it. It has all the hardware of the other ZMF headphones for the most part, so you know it'll last and be durable.

Pad Swapping

ZMF sent me a lot of pads. I had six additional pads above the default pads that come with the Bokeh, and they were primarily the Caldera-based pads. These ranged from thick to thin, suede to lambskin and different types of perforations. The default pad is the Thin Caldera Hybrid pad, which is labeled ZMF Bokeh Hybrid on my graphs.

In my graphs below, following key should be used to translate what type of pads are what:

LS - Lambskin
Hybrid - Lambskin exterior and top and suede interior
TP - Top only Perforated
TSP - Top and Side Perforated
Thin - Thin style pad
Thick - Thicker style pad

I am just going to share this chart here with all the pads measured and tested in one. It's quite busy, so if you want to look at them yourself, you can check out my measurements at 

For this specific exercise of finding my favorite pads for the Bokeh, I am mainly going to narrow my focus down to the Thin Pads. Why?

Thick vs Thin vs Perforation

The thicker pads tended to make things a tad brighter, mostly due to lower bass quantity and slightly elevated low treble, although opens up the soundstage quite a bit. But that said, if I was a Bokeh user, I want to keep it as compact as possible to make it transportable and to keep the weight distribution well-balanced for my head. I also tended to like the sound of the thin pads the most.

One other thing to keep in mind is that the more perforations on the pad, the less bass quantity and impact there is. It provides more breathability and more open soundstage though, but at the cost of bass levels. We see that in the differences in the Top only perforated pads against the Top and Side perforated pads. Not shown here are the Ultra pads, which have perforations all around, and those completely jettison the bass response on these closed-backs.

Thin Pads Comparison

In my listening tests between the default Bokeh Hybrid pads versus the Thin Lambskin Top Perforated and Thin Suede Top Perforated pads, I decided to listen to a couple tracks and compare my listening impressions:  GoGo Penguin's Time Lapse City, an electronic-like jazz track from the Manchester trio, Maeta's Cool Cat, a soulful new R&B track, and the time and tested Fleetwood Mac's Dreams.

I listened to each track in a row on the specific pad configuration and wrote each impression independently and at different times. This was to try to remove bias of comparing pad to pad directly and immediately. 

Caldera Hybrid Thin Pads (Default):

Time-Lapse City sounds quite good on these pads. It's a jazz piece, and for those types of songs, I prefer a neutral-ish presentation, but with a slightly elevated low-end and in this specific band, a tamer treble, due to the intense attack the drummer does on every one of their tracks, where there's just a constant break-beat-style with lots of cymbal strikes. With the hybrid pads, this is very well controlled, but also natural sounding and I don't feel like I lose the essence of the song at all.

With Maeta's Cool Cat, the hybrid thin pads had an intimate and somewhat small soundstage. It was like being in a small venue, and sitting close to the stage. This really accentuates Maeta's beautiful vocals, and the strums of the bass guitar quite well. In terms of general tonality, it's warm, with a definitely elevated low-end, and a very neutral sounding mid-range and lower treble. The slight recession in the upper-midrange helps keep her vocals in check and not overly suffocating.

Stevie Nick's vocals are forward in the presentation, as are some of the cymbal and hi-hat hits. There's a decent-sized soundstage here, but it does have a bit of a sharp attack at times which I think can be a little fatiguing. The general overall sound is neutral, but warmer low-end.

Thin Lambskin Caldera Pads:

On GoGo Penguin's Time-Lapse City, the Bokeh presents a nicely staged and warm rendition of the track. There's a nice level of bass that has good resolution, the drum hits with light impact. The piano keys are smooth and don't sound forward, and this is likely due to the recessed upper mids, which really help tame down that down and makes this headphone a very fatigue-free listening. There cymbal attacks are rather muted compared to what I am used to which also helps with the fatigueless listening, but it still is present and has great harmonics.

I really like how this song sounds with the default pads.

With Maeta's Cool Cat, the kick drum and synthesizers have a nice level of bass quantity to them that makes them sound both natural and full, but does not necessarily have the impact levels that would make a club track sound like you're at a club, but rather it sounds more refined and realistic. Maeta's vocal range is on display here, and it sounds very intimate and forward, but does not have any level of sibilance at all, and you can thank the darker treble tuning with the default pads for this. 

Again, I really like how this song is presented with these pads. There's just a nice balance here that I really enjoy.

On Dreams, the forever looping hi-hats and snare drums have a good tempo to them that is constantly present, but isn't too fatiguing as it could be on some other headphones. Having the darker treble with these pads probably helps some here. Stevie Nick's vocals are slightly recessed and in the background a bit which I prefer, as it creates a bigger soundstage. 

In general, the Bokeh with these default pads is a good match for this track as well.

Thin Suede Caldera Pads:

On GoGo Penguin's Time-Lapse City, the presentation is quite smooth with these suede thin pads. The impact of the drums, which are mainly snares and cymbals, is lower than I would like. It seems the dynamics are tamed down a bit making everything evenly leveled, instead of a high dynamic response. While this has its advantages for some music, I don't particularly like it for this electronic-sounding jazz trio.

With the thin suede pads, Maeta's vocals come across the most clear of the pad materials I heard. In addition, this pad has strong impactful bass, and accentuated highs. It's almost a bit of a V-Shaped sound, although graph-wise, it may not look that way. What is not as easy to see is that that while the bass is lower in quantity on the measured graph, the treble is actually lower than the hybrids, making the bass ratio actually higher. Generally, the suede pads sound very smooth despite the impactful bass, and I do find these pads to be fairly neutral.

On Dreams, the suede pads provide a very neutral sound presentation to this Fleetwood Mac track, and surprisingly not fatiguing. There's a subtle smoothness to the presentation that reduces the harmonics of the constant hi-hats and snares and keeps everything from being a fatiguing nightmare. Nick's vocals are forward, but not overbearing, and generally I like the presentation of this track with these pads. There's low impact on the kick drums and bass guitars, but its still present -- just not as impactful as on the default pads.

Thin Hybrid (Top Left) - Thin Lambskin (Top Right) - Thin Suede (Bottom)

Comparison Thoughts

All three of these options provided me slightly different and enjoyable listening experiences. I thought the Thin Suede pads gave both the smoothest and also the most neutral sound of the pad choices I tested in greater detail. This one is also very comfortable to wear for the longest period of time.

With the lambskin thin pads, the bass quantity was the most filled-in and had the most impact of the bunch. It was less fatiguing than the suedes, and had less sharper edges, but also more resonant harmonics too.

Finally, the default pads were the darkest tuned, but also the most relaxing and perhaps my most enjoyable set of the three. I found this to have the most natural sound of all the pads for my jazz and soul music, although I probably put it behind the lambskin thin pads for Fleetwood Mac's Dreams.

In general, I found all three of these to be wonderful sounding with the Bokeh, and honestly I really like this headphone a lot. It's great for a long casual listening session with its warm, but refined sound. My initial impressions compared it to the Foster-based TH600 series headphones, but when I pulled them both out and listened, I prefer the smoother sound of the Bokeh over it, although the Fostex headphone was significantly lighter and more comfortable for long periods of time for me.

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