The resurgence of “high end” high impedance earbuds in recent years has greatly interested me. I love earbuds—I use them more than almost any IEM I’ve ever owned. Their form factor works well for my ears and for portable use, I often like to be able to hear my surroundings. I usually have a pair of VE Monks in my bag because they fit nearly perfectly in my ears and thus, hear adequate bass presence and I actually really like their mid-forward presentation. The Venture Electronics (VE for short) Zen 2.0 is the company’s flagship earbud, costing thirty times the entry level Monk that’s widely praised for its decent sound for very cheap $5USD price. Naturally, it’s unrealistic to expect the Zen 2.0 to be several times better than the Monk, but I’ve always been curious as to how much better the Zen 2.0 is than the Monk.
The Zen 2.0 (henceforth, “Zen”) comes with a denim softshell case, a multitude of foams (none of which I actually used because they seemed to further veil the sound), and a free pair of Monks. The cable feels similarly rubbery to the Monks, but has a transparent shielding with attractive red wire underneath. The shells seem to be the same as the Monks’, comparing side-by-side. It’s mildly disappointing the extra $144 the Zens cost over the Monk doesn’t yield a nicer shell, but housing acoustics may be the reason for the use of this particular shell.
The annoying thing about the Zen is that they’re a rather strange load to drive at 320 ohms, but their high 108dB/mW sensitivity should theoretically balance the high impedance. I usually listen at around 80dB and out of the Apple Lightning dongle, I was one or two clicks from max volume. For reference, I usually have the VE Monk about six clicks from max, the Master and Dynamic MH40 at about five clicks from max, and the Oppo PM2 is two or three clicks from max. An amp is recommended for the Zen. VE sent me this Zen with a Runabout Plus amp, but it sounds so goddamn bad that I haven’t bothered using it with the Zen for more than a couple minutes. So, I’ve used it almost exclusively with my Krell KSA-5 Klone, which is beyond overkill, but it’s the only solid state amp I currently have on hand to fairly evaluate the Zen.
The Zen has a surprising amount of low end, but it seems to be focused on the midbass. Unsurprisingly, there isn’t much subbass to speak of due to the form factor, but there’s more midbass than I’d expect from an earbud, but it sounds undefined and muddy—it vaguely reminds me of the Philips SHP9500’s bass in that it is present, but doesn’t really have impact and instead sounds wooly.
The midrange is probably the most disappointing aspect of the Zen to me. It’s incredibly uneven. I hear a few peaks. I hear one at around 2kHz that creates a bit of shout, another one around 3.5-4kHz that creates a rather plasticky tone, and another spike at around 5k (I believe it’s actually a dip-spike, which makes it much more obvious) that creates a nasal tone. They’re particularly strange-sounding. Tonally, I can’t say the Zens resemble anything close to another headphone or, especially, reality.
Treble isn’t significantly better either. Immediately, they severely lack air so they sound stuffy and closed-in, which contrasts their surprisingly expansive staging—I found it to be wider than many closed over ear headphones. They also have a noticeable low treble dip which makes them sound dull, which makes the rollercoaster midrange even more prominent. Detail is fairly decent, arguably competing with something around the NVX XPT-100’s level but their muted sound signature requires me to really listen intently to extract that detail.
Maybe I’m missing something, but I just don’t get the Zen. It’s not a sound signature that, to be frank, makes sense. In theory, their dark sound would make them a relaxing listen, but their midrange is so off base that it’s distracting, and listening to music with the Zen is almost a chore. In addition, the Zen appears to like power. I briefly tried the Zen out of a Hifiman HM650 with balanced card and it did sound noticeably better than out of an Apple dongle, but they still sounded more congested than out of my Klone, so the convenience of earbuds is also lost. Ultimately, the Zen’s unique sound signature may work well for some, but overall, I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if someone told me they prefer the Monk over the Zen despite their inferior technical ability. I know I sure do.