Dunu ZEN: Immerse Yourself

Greetings!

Today we’re checking out the ZEN, Dunu’s entry into what has become a very competitive, upper mid-range market.

Like Dunu’s flagship Luna, the ZEN moves away from the hybrid and armature-only configurations that have become quite popular in recent years. This doesn’t mean it’s a simple product. The 13.5mm dynamic used in the ZEN utilizes technology derived from the Luna. The wide, cone-shaped dome of the ZEN’s diaphragm is made from pressed aluminum-magnesium alloy with the addition of an amorphous carbon coating to fill in any imperfections. This further improves overall stiffness. Also borrowed from the Luna’s driver design is the attachment of the voice coil to the bottom edge of the dome which serves to further enhance pistonic motion; the driver moves as one unit without any flex or bending which would throw it out of phase and cause distortion.

Paired with the Luna-derived driver structure is a new magnet system. The magnet is milled on a CNC lathe with a ring-like shape permitting greater than 1.8 T (Tesla) of magnetic field strength. To put that into perspective, the average strength of an MRI magnet is 1.5 T. It’s no surprise that you can easily use one earpiece to lift the other, or push it across a surface if lined up correctly.

Dunu is calling the combination of these two technologies ECLIPSE. Why that? Well as they explained to me, there are a couple lines of thought that went into this name. Eclipses are far from trivial events, and the driver itself resembles that of the appearance of a total eclipse; the dome is the blacked out moon, and the surround the ring of light from the hidden sun peeking around the edge. Additionally, they wanted a name that toyed with the idea of surpassing the LUNA. Luna is Italian (and Spanish) for Moon. To eclipse is to surpass… you get the idea.

So we’ve got a high tech driver and a ridiculously powerful magnet with a clever naming convention for the two combined technologies. Are there any other tricks the ZEN has up it’s sleeve? I’m glad you asked, because yes, yes it does. If you’re familiar with the DK-4001 or their limited release 17th anniversary model, you might have heard of ACIS, or Air Control Impedance System. This spiral-shaped bass reflex port aids in achieving excellent sub-bass response without a loss of control. I haven’t been lucky enough to hear either the DK-4001 or the 17th anniversary model, but the low end of the ZEN has a characteristic to it that I’ve only experienced on a select handful of other earphones and it’s pretty awesome.

The ZEN has been with me for the last few months with listening intermingled among a handful of other premium products, some of which cost as much as, or more than double, the ZEN’s 699.99 USD asking price. Despite this the ZEN has held my attention because, spoiler, it is a very good earphone. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

What I Hear

Tips: I didn’t find tip rolling on the ZEN to have nearly as strong an affect as on other earphones, so my tip selection came down to comfort more than anything. You may experience differently. Of all tested tips, the included Sony Hybrids in medium sizing were my top choice. I used them on the DK-3001 Pro which ergonomically is very similar, so when I saw they were included with the ZEN I was quite pleased. The other single flange options were fine, but thanks to their use of a stiffer silicone lacked the plush comfort of the Sony tips. JVC’s stock wide bore tips were also very comfortable, but I found they broke seal every once in a while. Spinfit CP100 and CP145 were also good, but the insertion depth was a little more than I like. Sennheiser bi-flange wide bore tips were another solid option. They sealed well and rarely required adjustment, but comfort wasn’t quite as high as the included Sony Hybrids. Since I liked the hybrids the most, those were used for the following listening impressions.

Amping/Balanced: I don’t find the Zen particularly difficult to drive or get up to volume thanks to fairly standard impedance and sensitivity ratings. It does however scale beautifully when run balanced. Staging qualities improve and it provides a better controlled and more refined experience overall. If you have the option to run it balanced, do so.

Since I find the Zen’s bass to be absolutely phenomenal and very addictive, let us start there. Extension is outstanding with deep notes holding strong well past where I can no longer hear them and instead just feel the pulsing of the drivers. It easily hangs with bass-focused products like as the Campfire Audio Vega and Astrotec Pheonix in this regard. Where it one-ups both of those stellar performers (Phoenix to a lesser extent) is in texture and detail. The Zen’s low end is packed with detail and has this enticing growl to it, especially on the sort of extended notes that sink or extend endlessly on drum and bass tracks, like Ownglow’s “Back To You” and “Renaissance” from Culture Shock. In fact, this is probably my favourite earphone for drum and bass. It’s got the punch, flawless control and just the right amount of speed while being completely rife with information in a way that few products can match. It also helps that the move from sub- to upper-bass regions is fairly linear without a significant skew of bias towards any one spot. I globbing love it.

The midrange is very enjoyable as well, even if I don’t find it the most accurate or natural sounding thing I’ve ever heard. That’s not to say the Zen is way off base, because it isn’t, it just doesn’t quite reach the high bar set by some competitors like FiiO’s FA9 or more budget oriented models like the Etymotic ER2SE. While I hear a much needed hint of warmth, there is a dryness to the presentation that provides most of it’s character, something I found most evident in music that relies on real instruments vs. purely electronic effects or heavily altered instruments. Personally I’m a fan of this as it is something that I’ve enjoyed in a more exaggerated sense from the in-house designed balanced armatures from Sony and EarNINE. Vocals are sibilance free even on albums with a very hot vocal mastering, such as Aesop Rock’s ‘Spirit World Field Guide’. Through most iems and headphones I find it nearly unlistenable. With the Zen I can enjoy Aes’ newest masterpiece on the go.

Treble seems to be a bit of a point of contention among the community, but it sounds good to me. I hear a presence region bias with a small upper treble lift that gives the Zen just a bit of sparkle. It injects tons of detail and fantastic clarity into the overall signature. Where a lot of earphones get their energy from various treble peaks, namely 7k and/or 10k, the Zen leaves its treble in more of a support role thanks to the way things transfer relatively linearly in from the upper mids, peak lightly around 8k, then smoothly and subtly roll off. The killer bass and prominent mid range are where the excitement comes from. Extension is good enough to complete the sound experience without drawing attention away from where the Zen excels, or causing fatigue thanks to a level of aggression that overstays its welcome. Notes are extremely tight and well-weighted with enough spacing and airiness to avoid congestion. No splashiness here at any point, something that can quickly ruin my enjoyment of any audio product.

When it comes to staging size the Zen doesn’t stand out among it’s peers. Vocals have a reasonably intimate default position just inside the ear with everything else spreading out from there in a satisfactory way. Width is a little more apparent than depth but for the most part the Zen provides a well-rounded stage. Imaging on the other hand is an area where the Zen is a boss. Channel-to-channel transitions are extremely nuanced and precise. It is a breeze to accurately track sweeping effects, place instruments in live recordings, and become fully immersed in binaural novelty tracks, like those where you get a haircut or those specifically designed to test staging accuracy like those found on the ‘STAX The Space – Sound – CD, Dummy Head Recording’ test album. The Zen also does a very good job of layering track elements and places them an in appropriately dynamic way. There is none of the wall-of-sound effect I experienced on the original Campfire Audio Polaris for example. Instrument separation is less competent, at least when running the Zen single-ended. I found on busy tracks like King Crimson’s “Starless and Bible Black”, the chaos wasn’t as defined as I would like. Running the Zen balanced rectified this and tightened basically every performance metric up.

Overall this is one of the most pleasant general listening earphones I’ve used, with it excelling most in drum and bass and other electronic genres. The way bass in particular is presented I find very unique and engaging with a level of texture and control that is near unmatched.

Compared to a Peer (volumes matched with Dayton iMM-6)

FiiO FA9 [Tuning switches set to 1:OFF 2:ON 3:OFF] (599.99 USD): Where the ZEN makes due with one {advanced} dynamic driver, the FA9 features six balanced armatures backed by a crossover-based tuning system. It also contains an 80.6mm long sound tube for the bass drivers. Like Dunu’s ACIS tech, it is used to enhance the overall quality of the low end. It does a great job too. I’m not normally a fan of how Knowles drivers do bass, but in the FA9 the 31618 driver provides very decent sub-bass response with nice texturing. The Zen’s bass is considerably more enticing though. It doesn’t give up anything in terms of speed or control while providing a ton more texture, visceral feedback, and punch in the initial attack. I found it quite a bit more versatile, especially since quantity is quite similar between the two. Leading into the midrange I found the Zen to have a more forward, intimate presentation with a cooler sound and leaner note weight. It provides a bit more detail, but it comes at the expense of timbre which isn’t quite as natural as the FA9. The Zen transfers smoothly and with fair linearity from the upper mids into the presence region where I find the treble gets its character and most of the attention. It gives the presentation impressive clarity and detail that easily rivals the FA9’s multi driver setup. Texture falls well into the Zen’s favour though compared to the FA9’s smoothed over feel. The FA9’s sharper peak at 7k gives it the edge in airiness and sparkle. Things swing back into the Zen’s favour when considering attack and decay qualities which are more aggressive and just as well controlled. Sound stage size goes to the FA9 which is wider and deeper. The Zen’s forward mids place vocals firmly inside the outer ear while on the FA9 they’re just outside. Imaging is smoother and more nuanced on the Zen, with the difference exaggerated by the more intimate staging. I also found the Zen to come across more layered and more realistically place instruments. Separation goes to the FA9. Note that you can improve staging qualities on the Zen by running them balanced. This is one of the few times where I notice a difference with a balanced output and additional power. Staging size doesn’t see much of an increase, but imaging, layering, and instrument separation all take a step forward with improved definition. The Zen is an EDM beast when going balanced.

In terms of build I think both represent the best of their respective material and design choices with equally good fit and finish, so I won’t say one betters the other. If you prefer metal, you’ll prefer the Zen. Likewise for the FA9 if you prefer acrylic. The FA9’s design is eye catching, the 3D printing accurate and neat, and ergonomics fantastic for a big earphone. The sealed design can lead to pressure build up though, and that can cause discomfort. Not a problem on the well ventilated Zen. When it comes to cables I prefer the lighter, more flexible sheathing of FiiO’s inclusion. It doesn’t have a Quick-Switch equivalent though, so whatever termination you get you’re stuck with.

Overall I find the two complimentary. The FA9 provides a smoother, more spacious, but less impactful sound. The Zen I find a lot more exciting thanks to the impressive bass presentation and overall texture. It’s also more comfortable for me thanks to the smaller shell and vented design. Both are compelling options for their respective price points and target audiences.

HiFiMAN RE800 Gold (699.00 USD): The RE800’s heavy focus on upper mids and treble gives it a neutral-bright signature that appeals more to those that enjoy track analysis and detail. Upper treble on the RE800 is quite a bit more prominent than on the Zen leaving the presentation notably thinner, more airy, and sparkly. Notes are also presented with more aggression and energy, but without the same level of control as you find in the Dunu. Whereas I can listen to the Zen comfortably at slightly higher than normal volumes, the RE800’s brightness inevitably leads to fatigue. Treble sensitive listeners should avoid the RE800. Dropping into the mids the Zen has a thicker presentation while nearly equalling the HiFiMAN’s excellent detail. The RE800 provides more warmth though, giving it the more natural vocal and instrument presentation to my ears. The Zen has a dry edge that keeps it from sounding quite right. Bass is where the two see another great divide. While quantity is similar, the RE800’s smaller driver suffers from sub-bass drop off and lacks the same physical rumble on the deepest notes. It also provides a smoother sound, though this comes at the expense of texture and slam which the Zen has in abundance, all while sounding no less refined. The Zen’s bass simply kicks @$$. Sound stage and related qualities are where the RE800 regains my attention. The stage is wider, deeper, with a less intimate default vocal positioning. Imaging is just as impressive and nuanced with the lean note presentation helping it match or exceed the Zen’s track layering and instrument separation.

When it comes to build the Zen walks all over the RE800. While HiFiMAN selected excellent materials, like gold-plated brass for the earpieces and silver-plated copper for the cable, they skipped out on making it look and feel as premium as the price would suggest, along with other short cuts. The cable is fixed with poor strain relief and hastily applied electrical tape covering the solder-points with the 3.5mm jack’s removable sleeve. Admittedly this was addressed on a later revision, though they used bulky plugs that didn’t mesh with the impressively compact design. The attractive gold-plating on my set is also rubbing off where the housing touches the ear. Where the Dunu feels extremely solid with thoughtful design in every area, the RE800 is this odd mixture of aspects of varying quality and attention to detail.

Overall I much prefer using the Zen. I don’t worry about damaging the cable, the bass quality is addictive, it’s not as fatiguing, and it’s technical qualities are nearly as good. I will instead pick up the RE800 on those rare occasions where I want some extra detail and more natural timbre, such as on live instrumental recordings.

In The Ear I have yet to meet a Dunu that wasn’t thoughtfully built and ergonomically sound. The ZEN does nothing to challenge this experience as the design follows closely in the footsteps of the Luna and DK3001 Pro, among other models in their lineup. To keep costs reasonable while maintaining durability and a premium feel, the ZEN’s shells are made from CNC milled stainless steel. Moving from Campfire Audio’s Vega and Dorado 2020 to the ZEN, I was quite surprised as how similar in hand the ZEN feels to those ceramic bodied products. Fit and finish is quite good. The seams that connect the three main components making up each shell (face plate, main body, nozzle) are visible but gaps are basically non-existent and everything lines up flawlessly. The glossy paint job is evenly applied with a look that is easy on the eyes and doesn’t draw too much attention to itself. It’s a bit of a fingerprint magnet though, something that shouldn’t come as a surprise given Dunu includes a micro fibre cloth to keep it polished to a glistening sheen. The vent on the face of the earphone, in place to accommodate Dunu’s Air Control Impedance System (ACIS), is the primary design element, blending naturally into the overall design below the horizontally oriented MMCX port protrusions. Yeah, the ZEN looks great with materials and construction quality that meets expectations set by the nearly 700 USD price tag.

The wearing experience of the ZEN is sublime. I was somewhat surprised to find that it was quite a bit thicker and larger in diameter than it’s Luna and DK-3001 Pro cousins. Like the Luna it features a single dynamic driver instead of the five driver hybrid setup of the Pro so you’d think it would end up being quite compact. Regardless, it is still a fairly small unit, just bigger than anticipated. In the end it doesn’t matter as the ZEN was just a nice to wear as other Dunu products. The sculpted interior ensures there are no hard edges to cause hot spots. Weight distribution, something that is quite important on a weighty product like the ZEN, is excellent thanks to the low profile, cable-over-ear design and natural nozzle angle of around 70 degrees. The one thing hindering this slightly is the weight of the cable, but we’ll come back to that in the next paragraph. The nozzles themselves are a very standard diameter of 5mm. This combined with prominent nozzle lips means you can toss on the vast majority of standard tips, from Sony hybrids to Spintfit CP145s to JVC wide bores, and they’ll all fit fine and stay securely attached. I’ve noticed a recent trend towards longer, more slender nozzles, or on 3D printed acrylic earphones an absence of nozzle lips, both of which hinder tip compatibility and the potential to find a setup that is comfortably ideal. I’m glad Dunu has avoided these trends with the ZEN, creating something with comfort that matches the branding.

While it is absolutely a high quality piece of kit with some awesome features like Dunu’s Quick-Switch modular plug system and Catch-Hold MMCX connectors, the cable is a bit too beefy in my opinion. My experience with it is reminiscent of my times with the Penon BS1 Official and BGVP DM6. Both of those products had nice ergonomics but were saddled with cables that were too stiff and too heavy, throwing off the overall balance and reducing comfort. While the ZEN’s cable is much more usable and doesn’t hinder things to the same extremes, I would have preferred a lighter more flexible option. The 149.99 USD LYRE cable that came with the DK-3001 Pro is, in my opinion, a perfect pairing with the ZEN. If you can work it into your budget, I highly recommend picking it up alongside the ZEN. You don’t give up the Quick-Switch system which means it’ll work with the various plugs included with the ZEN, and the added flexibility and lower weight result in a better mobile experience. It doesn’t look as nice, though that might be a positive if you want to fly under the radar.

Passive noise isolation of the ZEN is actually quite good, performing nearly identically in my experience to the DK-3001 Pro. I had no issues listening to music at my usual low volumes when grocery shopping or buying a coffee at the local and extremely noisy Tim Hortons. Voices and ambient noise still comes through of course, but it is all significantly dulled. There’s no way I could hold a conversation with someone with the ZEN in place. If you need some extra isolation, use the included foam tips or turn to a third party option like Comply’s Isolation T-Series of foam tips.

Overall I have nothing to complain about when it comes to the way thr ZEN is built and how it feels to wear. Standards for fit, finish, and material quality are extremely high, comfort is stellar, and isolation is quite good. If you have issues with the weight and flexibility of the included cable, Dunu’s own LYRE is a perfect alternative.

In The Box The presentation for the ZEN’s packaging is exceptionally clean and mature. On the front of the matte black exterior sheath you find the model name set in the centre with ZEN garden-like layered circles in the upper right and lower left corners. The use of gold for these features contrasts beautifully with the dark background. On the rear of the sheath you find typical details like specifications, product features, and contact information for the brand. Sliding off the sheath reveals a textured black cardboard box with Dunu branding recessed in glossy black writing, centred on the magnetically sealed lid. Lifting the lid reveals a strip of rice paper with DESIGNED BY DUNU printed in glossy silver. Removing the sheet you find a dense foam insert with the ZEN’s earpieces and neatly coiled cable safely tucked within individual cutouts. Lifting this foam insert via two conveniently placed ribbons uncovers a slew of accessories. Down the left are the various included termination options for the Quick-Switch modular cable system. Centred is a plastic case containing two of the four sets of included tips. To the right is another cardboard holding the carrying case in which the rest of the accessories are stored. In all you get:

  • Dunu ZEN earphones
  • Leatherette carrying case
  • 8 core, high-purity monocrystalline silver-plated copper Litz cable
  • 3 plug connectors; 4.4 mm TRRRS Balanced, 3.5 mm TRS Single-Ended, 2.5 mm TRRS Balanced
  • Sony-hybrid style tips (s/m/l)
  • Dunu-branded translucent blue-grey single flange tips (s/m/l)
  • White single flange tips (s/m/l)
  • Foam tips with wax guard (m)
  • Cleaning brush
  • 1/4” adapter
  • Airplane adapter
  • Cable clip
  • Cleaning cloth
  • Mesh earpiece bag

Overall a very pleasant and premium unboxing experience packed to the brim with extras. If you aren’t the kind of buyer to keep your packaging, there isn’t a lot of material to recycle. If you do keep your packaging, it’s nice enough to put on display. The accessory kit is extremely comprehensive with a ton of extras, most of which are genuinely useful, such as the case. The materials are visually and physically appealing with a durable, chunky metal zipper that is unlikely to fail. It is also not so large as to require an oversized pocket to carry. If I am to level a complaint at any aspect of this unboxing, it would be towards the included tips. The Sony Hybrids are a top tier inclusion and my preferred set with the ZEN, so they can stay. The blue-grey and white tips are similar enough to be redundant though. One of the sets could have been swapped out for bi- or tri-flange tips catering to those that prefer the extra insertion depth and isolation increase a multi-flange tip provides.

IMG_0430

Final Thoughts When it comes to trickle down technology, the consumer wins. The Zen is a perfect example of this. It features technologies from their flagship products like the Luna’s driver structure and the DK-4001’s ACIS bass reflex port. Their developments to the magnet that is part of the ECLIPSE system has resulted in truly impressive driver control and speed. Innovative features like their Quick-Switch modular cable system are present. The stainless steel shells are extremely durable. Ergonomics have been refined and improved over the DK-3001 Pro resulting in a very comfortable fit despite the Zen being quite heavy. They didn’t skimp on accessories either, giving buyers pretty much everything they’ll need in the box, except multi-flange tips. That’s a bit of an oversight in my opinion, but one that is easily rectified.

They also tuned it extremely well. The Zen is unbelievably detailed and textured with some of the most engaging bass I’ve heard to date. The midrange isn’t the most natural sounding, but again, the detail and clarity is truly impressive and completely free of sibilance. The treble is very tight and well controlled, though maybe not sparkly or well-extended enough for the most demanding of listeners. The sound stage is fairly average, but it’s backed by near class leading technical qualities. It all combines into a very entertaining, technically capable earphone that is fairly versatile, though I think it excels best with electronic music.

Overall I am very impressed with the Zen and have no issues recommending it. It’s going to be one of my benchmarks at this price range moving forward. Excellent work Dunu!

Thanks for reading!

– B9

Disclaimer A huge thanks to Dunu for reaching out to see if I would be interested in reviewing the ZEN, and for arranging a sample. I also appreciate their patience in letting me take my time to use the ZEN as a daily driver to share my experiences with the community. The thoughts within this review are my subjective opinions and do not represent Dunu or any other entity. At the time of writing the ZEN was retailing for 699.99 USD: https://www.dunu-topsound.com/ZEN

Specifications

  • Frequency Response: 5 Hz – 40 kHz
  • Sensitivity: 112 ± 1 dB at 1 kHz
  • Impedance: 16 Ω at 1 kHz
  • Total Harmonic Distortion: < 0.2% at 1 kHz
  • Driver Diaphragm: Magnesium-Aluminum alloy dome with nanoporous amorphous carbon coating (nanoDLC) and fully independent suspension surround
  • Magnet Assembly: > 1.8 T External Ring-Type Neodymium Magnet
  • Housing Material: 316 Stainless Steel with Patented Air Control Impedance System (ACIS)
  • Cable Length: 1.2 ± 0.1 m
  • Material: 8 Core, High-Purity Monocrystalline Silver-Plated Copper Litz Wire, Concentrically Arranged
  • Cable Connector: Patented Catch-Hold® MMCX Connector
  • Plug Connector: Patented DUNU Quick-Switch Modular Plug System; includes 4.4 mm TRRRS Balanced, 3.5 mm TRS Single-Ended, and 2.5 mm TRRS Balanced plugs

Gear Used For Testing LG Q70, Earmen Sparrow, Earmen TR-Amp, Asus FX53V, TEAC HA-501

Some Test Tunes

Supertramp – Crime of the Century

Slipknot – Vol 3 (The Subliminal Verses)

Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid

King Crimson – Lark’s Tongues in Aspic

King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black

Infected Mushroom – Legend of the Black Shawarma

The Prodigy – The Day is My Enemy

Steely Dan – The Royal Scam

Porcupine Tree – Stupid Dreams

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