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Must-See-Must-Hear: Ben Howard Live on KCRW

Ben Howard has become one of my favorite performers to see live and spin in the listening room. So here's 35 minutes of Ben Howard, India Bourne and Chris Bond killing it in the studio with KCRW.


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First Listen: Brainwavz XFIT XF-200 Earphones Review

brainwavz xfit xf-200 earphones

A few days after testing out the adventure-inspired Westone ADV Beta earphone, Brainwavz hit me up with the timely opportunity to give their latest earphone a test ride. Meet the new Brainwavz XFit XF-200 earphone that, as they say, is specially designed for users who engage in sports and athletic activities. What makes it special for the active audiophile? How about a compact, lightweight design; pre-molded, over-the-ear cable routing; a short cable that won't trip you up; and an assortment of accessories to keep you moving. Oh, and at $25 it probably costs less than your monthly gym dues.


The XF-200 comes in a minimalist no frills economy plastic box and inner tray that keeps packaging to a minimum. It's nothing fancy, but since you're more than likely to toss it out, who cares, right? Inside, you’ll find everything neatly packed and organized; which is probably completely opposite of how your sports bag is, but that's OK.


For $25 MSRP, you generally don't get much, but Brainwavz never fails to take care of customers by including more than they bargained for. In this instance, the XF-200 includes their familiar branded zippered hard case, Velcro cable tie, and shirt clip, a set of Comply foam ear tips, a set of bi-flange silicone ear tips, and two sets each of standard S, M, and L silicone ear tips (because you know you're going to loose one at some point).

The XF-200 is an ergonomically designed dime-sized universal IEM that's intended to sit comfortably in the ear to ensure stability during your workout. The over-the-ear cable routing takes the secure fit a step further by eliminating the chances of getting caught  up in the cable and pulling it out of your ear. With the large assortment of tips, you have several options to test in your ear for the best fit.

As with most earphones/IEMs, tip selection is critical, and I strongly encourage you to take the time to choose the ear tip that fits best—emphasis on best and not just one that “fits”—because the audio quality, comfort, and isolation improve greatly when the ideal tip is used. (For me, the bi-flange and Comply foam tips worked best and offered better sound quality, bass impact, and isolation.) The bi-flange tip seems to produce the most bass and moderate isolation, while the Comply tip offers improved comfort, isolation and bass control. The standard tips offered the least isolation and somewhat weaken the overall bass response, which ultimately brings some emphasis to the highs.

Speaking of bass, the XF-200 can hit pretty hard. Marketing speak generally over-promises and under-delivers, but I'd say Brainwavz was spot-on with their claim boasting "booming beats." Dig that live music hall sound? The XF-200 has it: Booming, emphasized bass; a touch of reverb; dark mids, and highs that can come off as recessed on some tracks. The XF-200 certainly does not have a refined, balanced "audiophile" sound (try the S0 or M1 for that at a similar price); depending on your preferences, it's either unruly or fun. I'd say it's best suited for pumping EDM and synth beats into your eardrums while you hustle up the StairMaster. And you know what? I'm fine with that, because the XF-200 does that damn well and sounds a helluva lot better than most earphones you'll find at this price. (Of note, the variety of ear tips included do impact the sonic signature, so again, try them all to see what fits and sounds best to you.)

Last, let's talk about the 3-button control built into the cable for volume, skipping tracks, pause/play, and the mic for taking phone calls. The packaging states compatibility with Apple devices and most Android devices and other doodads; your results may vary. Apparently my Droid Turbo hates all earphones with built-in remotes because just like I experienced with the Westone ADV Beta, the volume/phone call controls do not work with my Droid Turbo, but I am able to mute the mic and pause songs using the center button, so it’s not completely useless. The mic seemed to work well, as my test calls were heard loud and clear, and calls come over the XF-200 sounding quite clear as well.

Bottom Line
Brainwavz has put out another quality product with a budget price. Yeah, the sound could be more refined, but to Hell with that. We want bass, and we want it now. At least that's what I want at the gym to help drown out my racing heart beat and huffing and puffing. For $25 you're getting a nicely designed earphone with a plethora of accessories, a 2-year warranty, and an overall energetic sound. If you want more, spend more. If you want affordable, these will put your silly OEM earbuds and Skull Candy's to shame. For a no-nonsense earbud that you don't have to worry about when you're working out, grab the XF-200 and get on with your next set.

The XF-200 retails for US$25.00 and will be available on Brainwavzaudio.com, Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and other authorized Brainwavz resellers around the globe.


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First Listen: Westone ADV Beta Earphones Review

The Spirited Uncle M surprised me recently by skipping over his usual snarky audio comments with an email that was straight to the point: “Did I ever give you a pair of Westone ear buds to try and review? UM.” My answer was a simple, “Nope.” Two days later the Westone ADV Beta was waiting in my mailbox.

Into camping, hiking, biking, or climbing? Westone is likely to catch your attention if you are with the picturesque images of adventuring that adorn its “Adventure Series” earphones box. The packaging is of nice design and solid construction, on par with the likes of Brainwavz, Beyerdynamic, Shure, and others that put out premium products. Inside, you’ll find everything neatly packed, and when I say everything, I mean there’s a surprising amount of accessories crammed in.

The ADV Beta comes with just about everything you could ever need. Water-resistant rugged travel case: Check. Shirt clip: Check. Ear tips: Check times 10. Yes 10 pairs of tips of various sizes—5 foam varieties and 5 silicone jobbies. Over-the-ear adapters: Check. Zipper pull? Check. Ear wax cleaner? Yep, one of those too. That’s right, a little tool used to dig out any ear wax, or maybe dirt from your adventures, that builds up in the tips or near the driver is included. How thoughtful. Too bad they forgot a little cloth to clean that off with. Anyway, point being, you get a nice assortment of accessories that ensure good fit and performance.

As for the performance, I was pleasantly surprised. I typically struggle with earphone fit, BUT a long, narrow tip in both foam and silicone matched up with my ear canal well and I was ready to rock without too much fussing about. I suggest everyone take the time to choose the ear tip that fits best—emphasis on best and not just one that “fits”—because the audio quality, comfort, and isolation improve greatly when the ideal tip is used. (I prefer foam as it offers more comfort and better isolation than silicone.)

So far, the Westone ADV Beta actually offers my ears the best fit, comfort, and isolation from the earphones I’ve recently tested or reviewed (Brainwavz S0, M1, Blu-100). In fact, they’ll likely replace the M1 that I currently use for travel since the ADV Beta trumps it in fit and feel.

When it comes to sound quality, the ADV Beta can sound a bit lean and glassy straight out of the box depending on the playback device, but this is quickly remedied by adjusting the EQ settings on your device. A bump in the bass and mids, and mellowing out the highs, reveals a really nice listening experience that quickly becomes full-bodied with easy-on-the-ears treble. As for the soundstage, these are earphones, not custom IEMs or full-sized headphones, so the music is very much “in your head” but the better-than-expected balance and instrument separation throughout the dynamic range helps make up for that.

Westone Claims
Westone has been in the audio game for a long time, so it’s to be expected that they will put out a respectable product. The ADV Beta doesn’t necessarily disappoint, but does it live up to “audiophile” sound? Westone claims “Audiophile fidelity” from the ADV Beta’s “Proprietary Extended Range 6.5mm Micro Driver with PST™ (Precision Surface Tuning)” that “delivers sonic accuracy with extended bass.” As I mentioned before, your results will vary. Straight out of the box I think the ADV Beta falls short of such claims, but when you EQ to your taste, you can get a much better performance and push the bass without any annoying buzzing distortion. Are there better options with better fidelity for similar MSRP prices? Probably, but the people interested in these are going to be more concerned with durability and affordable replacement costs over stunning sound in a package that can’t handle the elements an active lifestyle promises.

Some neat and unique features of the ADV Beta include a detachable AWACS reflective cable for visibility in low light; weather-resistant construction to defeat puddles, rain, and sweat; adapters that route the cable up and over your ear for better stability when you’re on the move; and, a swiveling body made from zinc and aluminum for both strength and enhanced fit depending on how you like your cable to fall and the earphone to angle into your ear canal.

Of note, the cable does have a remote/mic built in, but your functionality may vary. The packaging states compatibility with Apple devices, but not Android. I found that the volume/phone call controls do not work with my Droid Turbo, but I am able to mute the mic and skip/pause songs using the center button, so it’s not completely useless to Android users. My only other gripe with the cable is that it is prone to those annoying sounds that happen when it bumps and rubs against your face and clothes. I recommend using the shirt clip to help remedy this, but completely eliminating it is unlikely.

Bottom Line
Westone has created an interesting product here for the outdoorsy/athletic person that wants good sound and durability at an affordable price. For the $50 you can pick these up for, I think the value is good considering the build quality, fit, and accessories included. Obviously, the build and sound quality is far superior to OEM and cheap consumer earbuds, but a proper EQ is needed to really shine with your device. Out of 5 stars, I’d probably give these a 3. I’d like the cable remote to be Android compatible and a better SQ experience without EQ tweaks, but I still like these enough to put them into use.


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First Listen: Shure SRH1540 Premium Closed-Back Headphones Review

After two years of listening to Shure’s SRH840 headphone nearly every workday, I decided it was finally time for an upgrade. Not so much because the SRH840 isn’t a good headphone (you can read my review here), but more because I wanted something different.

My workspace, where I use an ALO Audio Island DAC/amp to drive my music daily, calls for closed-back headphones. I had the Fostex TH600 in my collection, but its sonic signature never quite satisfied me. The TH600’s sub-bass is beyond fun, the sense of space is great, it’s quite comfortable, but the deeply recessed mids left a lot to be desired for my musical tastes and the resultant emphasis on the bass and treble regions could get overpowering after hours of listening. So it was out. Actually, it’s gone (sold).

So the search for a SRH840 and TH600 replacement began with a few points in mind: Something light, respectable looking, a shade more detailed, rich mids and maybe just a hint more sub-bass extension and definition if possible. I actually thoroughly enjoyed the sound of the SRH840 over the years, so I didn’t want to abandon it entirely. Logically, I looked to Shure’s offerings to see what the next step in the line might be, and that’s where the SRH1540 falls in.

Shure describes the SRH1540 as its “premium closed-back headphone,” featuring “an expansive soundstage with clear, extended highs and warm bass.” The description fit the bill, Tyll’s review on Inner Fidelity helped solidify my confidence in its performance and having the sound signature I was looking for, so I decided to pick up the SRH1540 without ever demoing it beforehand.

It was a risky decision. It’s not a headphone I see suggested frequently or talked about often on forums, and I’ve actually only seen it in person once before at AXPONA in Chicago. With a typical retail price of $499, it’s not exactly a headphone one should gamble on. Thankfully, my bet paid off (mostly).

The Sound
I’ll dare say it—if you could take hints of the Shure SRH840, Fostex TH600 and Sennheiser HD650 and meld them together, you might just come up with the SRH1540. It’s an interesting and enjoyable soundscape if you like headphones with an intimately warm tonality.

Much like the SRH840 and HD650, the SR1540 maintains a clean, rich midrange that projects vocalists of all varieties well. These are the mids the TH600 severely lacks, and if it had them, I would have likely kept that headphone, but I digress. Mids are where I think Shure shines. I find the midrange smooth and full-bodied with enough texture to really get my ears engaged in the music. If you’re coming straight from the SRH840, you may find the SRH1540 to be a touch cooler as it has less of a hump towards the bass and in the upper ranges. Compared to the HD650, I personally always sensed some grain and edginess in its clarity, I think the SRH1540 just delivers better here, albeit with a slightly different tone.

Moving deeper into the bass region, the SRH1540 delivers weighty bass with ease. Sub-bass is an area the SRH840 lacked and left me wanting for more as it placed a greater emphasis on a mid-bass hump that bled into the mids. While it’s undeniable that there’s a bass hump on the SRH1540, it transitions smoothly from sub- to mid-bass and then into the midrange in a way that sounds more natural and doesn’t overemphasize its presence. I’d say the bass extension and impact of the TH600 is superior, but the SRH1540 is more pleasing and fuller sounding than the SRH840 and it handles the transitions much better than the TH600 where the mids simply fall out of the bottom resulting in bass bloat. Basically, it’s a solid middle ground between the two, and I can live with that.

One thing I can’t live with is peaky, edgy treble—especially in a headphone that I rely on to get me through the workday. The SRH840 didn’t have that; it’s dark and relaxed, and that’s part of why I liked it so much. But at the same time, the soundstage closes in when there isn’t enough sparkle. So here again, the SRH1540 strikes a nice balance between the darker SRH840 and the brighter TH600. The SRH1540 has pleasing, grain-free treble that isn’t fatiguing like an AKG or Beyerdynamic, but offers enough details so that you aren’t missing any zip. With slightly more presence and extension than the SRH840, the SRH1540 sounds more open and spacious, albeit, the TH600 easily outpaces both in presenting a 3D soundstage. Again, it’s a compromise, but one that won’t stop me from fully enjoying this headphone.

Overall, I really like the SRH1540. It takes what I liked about the sound of its SRH840 sibling and does it better in just about every way. Better bass. More balanced mids. Smooth, detailed highs. Greater sense of space and instrument separation. If you like the SRH840, you’ll likely love the SRH1540, except for its price, but we’ll get to that later.

The Fit
Fit and comfort were my biggest motivators for abandoning the SRH840 as my daily driver headphone. If you follow my blog or Instagram, you’ll know that I took great strides to modify the obscenely heavy SRH840 headband (possibly an over exaggeration) and find ear pads that provided better heat dissipation, comfort and overall performance (Brainwavz HM5 angled pads, please). While my tweaks certainly kept me happy for quite a while, I wasn’t contented enough.

I can confidently say that the SRH1540 takes the comfort level up several notches. The SRH1540 has a sleek modern design that maintains a similar overall shape as the SRH840 but trades in the heavy molded plastics and oversize headband for slimmed down aluminum and flashy carbon fiber bits. While you lose the ability to fold the headphones for transportation, you gain looks and weight savings (a claimed 286g versus my SRH840 that weighed in at 376g pre-mods and 324g post-mods). This puts the SRH1540 in the same weight class as the HD650 and TH600.

The headband in stock form is a step up from the SRH840. It features a similar shape, but is reduced in size and features a center cutout to keep the weight and contact points down. The padding is minimal, but so far it seems sufficient enough. In time I may add an additional pad or wool wrap as I did with my HiFiMan HE-500 and Audeze LCD-X, but I don’t see an immediate need for it. Also, the headband is quite flexible allowing it to be flexed a bit to relieve clamping force. I haven’t had an issue here, but others with larger heads may as all Shure headphones maintain a firm grasp on one’s noggin.

Finally, we get down to the ear pads. The SRH1540 features a thick perforated Alcantara ear pad that is satisfyingly comfortable. It’s a substantial step up from the thinner pleather and velour ear pads that come with the SRH840 and SRH940. Noise isolation doesn’t seem as good as the SRH840, but I don’t have an accurate way of measuring that. Heat doesn’t seem to build up as much with this ear pad either. Pads are also easily replaceable.

Overall, the SRH1540 is a light, comfortable and stylish headphone that fits well and seals out noise fairly well.

The Gripes
As much as I like the SRH1540, I do have some issues with it. For starters, the price is excessive in my opinion. I don’t really have any qualms about the performance, looks or comfort, but at $499 new, I guess I expected it to feel more robust or something. At its full retail price, I am hard-pressed to recommend this headphone to everyone, but at $300-375 for used and open-box models, I find it to be a much better value.

Accessories wise, the SRH1540 comes with an extra set of pads, a ¼” adapter, a hard travel case and two detachable cables. Here’s the silly part; the cables are both identical 6-foot straight cables. Why? Come on Shure. Give us a short cable for mobile use and give us a 10-footer to use in our listening rooms, duh. The cables also feel cheap. In comparison to the 10-foot coiled cable on the SRH840, the SRH1540’s feels thinner, seems more microphonic and kinks easily. It's also dual-sided versus the SRH840’s single-sided design.

My final minor gripe is that the yokes don’t rotate horizontally like they do on the SRH840. This isn’t much of an issue if you plan to use the stock pads, but I really liked the performance of the Brainwavz HM5 angled ear pads on the SRH840. I tried them on the SRH1540, but it’s not possible to get a good seal with them because the ear cup cannot twist to align with your head.

That’s It, That’s All
To sum it up, the SRH1540 is a headphone that you can wear all day. It looks good. It feels good. And most importantly, it sounds good. This is a fun headphone to listen to. It offers great bass, warm mids, and detailed highs that are nicely balanced. If you get the SRH1540 at the right price, you really can’t go wrong.


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AXPONA Chicago 2015 Photoblog: Woo Audio, Auralic, Audeze, ZMF Headphones, Noble Audio

This was my first-ever trip to AXPONA and it may be my last. As much as I love new gear, shows like this are simply overwhelming. Combining the sheer amount of product and demo rooms to look at with the crowds, noise, and exorbitant prices, I found myself wanting to look at less and less. It's also nearly impossible to seriously listen to any open or semi-open headphone at a show like this. Perhaps I'm just not a true audiophile.

Nevertheless, here are a few photos from the brands that I had good chats with. I found Noble Audio's line of IEMs to be especially impressive. The Auralic gear is simply awesome. Woo Audio amps, regardless if the sound is for you or not, are gorgeously built. Audeze cans may be heavy, but they sound wonderful. Chicago headphone builder ZMF Headphones was in attendance with a nice booth. If you own or plan to own a pair of ZMF cans, you need a Decware amp, no questions asked it is the best combination. The Abyss headphones are a joke. I don't care what is said about them in the media. I really wanted to get a good listen on the new HiFiMan HE-1000, but there was always someone at the listening station, and the Ear Gear room was quite loud anyway. I can say, however, that they look amazing in person. I've had bad experiences with HiFiMan, but it looks like they really reinvented themselves with that headphone.


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Inside ZMF Headphones and the x Vibro

Tucked away in a corner room, in a non-descript Chicago apartment, the barefooted and bearded Zach Mehrbach works away with scissors and soldering irons, spools of hook up wires and stacks of t50rp drivers, and a host of other tools of his trade. He is the main man behind ZMF Headphones, an easy-going guy that simply loves good sound.

Hand assembled and made to order, Zach prides himself on being a “small shop” headphone builder that caters to his clients’ auditory demands (within reason of course). With the world of high-end headphones seemingly growing every day, Zach is setting himself apart by focusing his attention solely on creating custom orthodynamic headphones based around the ever-popular Fostex t50rp driver and enclosure. While that sounds simple enough, he has spent years extensively researching, testing, tweaking and retuning his modifications to nail down what he considers to be a truly naturalistic audiophile-grade sound that’s “musical, engaging, and above all addictive.”

Originally just a hi-fi enthusiast and headphone modder like many of us, Zach officially took things to the next level when he formed ZMF Headphones in early 2013. Although a relative newcomer to the market, Zach has worked through some early growing pains to rapidly establish a solid following in the audiophile/head-fi world, trusted reviewers sing praise for his creations, and he himself is increasingly making the tradeshow rounds, further building his brand and reinforcing the reputation his personality and customer service have already earned him.

ZMF Headphones now has four models: The Classic, Master Model, and tunable wood-cupped x Vibro and flagship Blackwood. They span a variety of price points and offer a staggering variety of custom looks, fits and tuning options that allows for a truly unique headphone to be created.

Regardless of the headphone model chosen, ZMF Headphones’ house sound is resolute on being smooth, articulate, punchy and never sibilant.

In this sense, ZMF Headphones aims at offering a closed-back alternative—or companion—to the many open-back orthodynamic headphones on the market, but with a unique touch of course. Zach’s design is intended to blend the benefits of both dynamic drivers and orthos. As he says, “I have set out to tune ZMF headphones with the engaging qualities of dynamic drivers, yet with the encompassing precision, accuracy and timbre that is often associated with planar magnetic headphones. [By] providing an above average soundstage, a perfect engaging mid-range, life-like bass and smooth highs, users get a headphone that can be listened to for hours on end.”

Some may find that too good to be true, but part of the ZMF Headphones value proposition is that if you don’t like the sound, you can send your headphones back for a free retune based on your wants or needs. This is actually how I ended up spending part of my weekend hanging out in Zach’s apartment and ZMF Headphones headquarters.

The ZMF x Vibro

Having read many good things about the ZMF x Vibro, I decided to give it a try for myself, picking up a used pair off of Head-Fi.org. They arrived with walnut wood cups, Alpha Pads, buffalo leather headband and Zach’s OCC copper/silver hybrid balanced cable. I popped them on and ran them through some laps on my Woo Audio WA6-SE, ALO Audio Island and Pan Am, Sudgen Headmaster and Yulong DA8. While the x Vibro had plenty of nice characteristics, I ultimately felt that I was left wanting for more; they just seemed a bit too dark, laid back, and even a touch thin at times to my ears, especially when coming from the Sennheiser HD650 that synergizes so well with the WA6-SE, the main amp in my setup. When I posted this statement on a Head-Fi thread, Zach spotted it, messaged me directly, and set out to deliver some top notch customer service.

As Zach explained in his message, the pair that I had purchased was actually one of his early builds. Since then, he has further refined his design, materials and tuning, meaning the pair I had wasn’t quite up to snuff with his current offerings. The cure: Zach had me over (we live within a short drive of each other) to “update” my used x Vibro, something he’s been trying to do to the few older production models still floating around whenever he spots them.

So while I hung out, Zach worked away and then kindly presented me with my “new” x Vibro. Using his measurement software and testing devices, he showed me how his changes improved the frequency response and left the drivers matched to within roughly 1 db of each other. “The better the left and right channels are matched in a headphone, the better it will sound,” he explained. “All ZMF headphones go through rigorous burn in and testing before being sent to the end user.”

So how does a current spec x Vibro sound? Much better and pretty darn good. When Zach writes his product descriptions, he pretty much tells it like it is. I suppose this is part of his craft; he can’t really afford to sensationalize or be misleading when he’s so actively involved and accessible in the headphone community.

But to get on with it, the x Vibro is a smooth operator. Coming from a Beyerdynamic, Grado or Sennheiser headphone to these, you’ll likely be thrown off by the very different tone and response, but as your ears settle into the ZMF sound, you’ll start to notice just how resolving it can be.

Throughout the entire frequency range I detect no harshness, no grit, just free-flowing music. The tonal balance is what I personally consider to still be on the darkish side, with a boost in the mid-bass, descending treble response and a mellow mannerism overall that saves your ears from fatigue while still delivering a sufficient amount of clarity.

Of the headphones I’ve had in my collection, I liken the x Vibro most to the HiFiMan HE-500 when it comes to tone, although, from memory (I sold my HE-500), I think the x Vibro may actually have more engaging mids (more present vocals) and a touch smoother presentation overall. Separation is quite nice with these. The damping and tuning seems to allow you to really pick out each instrument and focus on it, and there’s a nice layering to the sound, especially with high-resolution recordings. For being a closed-back headphone, the soundstaging of the x Vibro is surprisingly good. While the x Vibro has three bass ports on each cup that can be plugged or left open, Zach recommended leaving them open and that is how I also ended up enjoying the x Vibro the most. Plugged, I found the bass could come off a touch cool, but unplugged, the sub- and mid-bass bleeds into the prominent midrange to give these a lusher, more fulfilling sound.

What I personally find most challenging about the x Vibro is how dependent it is on having strong synergy with the amp it is paired to. An amp that pumps out a strong current into a 50 ohm load is definitely desirable. For example, the x Vibro paired with the Woo Audio WA6-SE is underwhelming for me. With my ALO Pan Am switched to high gain it sounds pretty good. On the ALO Island it’s decent… certainly good enough for at the office. With the Sugden Headmaster, the x Vibro begins to show some real meat. But when matched with the Decware Zen Taboo, purposely designed for planar headphones, the x Vibro absolutely sings; it’s like a completely different headphone. My point here is that amp matching is critical if you want to get the most out of the x Vibro, otherwise you likely stand to be disappointed. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is a valid point to consider before making a purchase.

All in all, Zach is a standup guy crafting some pretty nice custom headphones under the ZMF Headphones label. He truly stands behind his products, so if you haven’t already, check out ZMF Headphones.

Now here’s a look behind the scenes….

ZMF Headphones headquarters

Zach making upgrades to my x Vibro

Drivers being matched for a large order

Carbon enclosures in different stages of assembly

Custom colors for the ZMF Classic

Zach in his listening chair

ZMF x Vibro in Cherry

ZMF Classic

ZMF x Vibro in Walnut


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