Pros: Lush mids and versatile vocal presentation, natural, dense and textured timbre, Bass slam and texture, Tonal balance, great accessories and packaging, nice construction-design
Cons: Poor imaging, average resolution, lack of air, bass and treble roll off, lack fo attack snap, lack of transparency, lack of sparkle, overly forwards sounding, saturated layering, not very competitive for its price range
SOUND VALUE: 7.5/10
DUNU doesn’t need an intro, they are among the first Chinese audiophile earphones company and have been around for more than 10 years. But it was only about a year ago that they make a serious comeback with numerous IEM offerings. While DUNU seems to have a house sound and confident tuning vision, perhaps they overproduce earphones and don’t take enough time in refining the tuning they have in hand.
Today I will review one of their last single-DD flagship, the ZEN. The driver of the ZEN is based on the PVD driver technology developed in 2018 for the LUNA pure beryllium driver DD but uses a mix of magnesium-alloy for their diaphragm with the help of nanoDLC technology. As well, it has a special bass-reflex back driver venting acoustic chamber tech to improve air control and resonance. I can go on about other high-end tech implementations but simply put, it’s very similar to Luna in terms of whole acoustic conception apart the very (nano)material used for building the diaphragm.
PACKAGING is very fancy and very generous in accessories, as expected with a flagship IEM of this price. You have an 8cores OCC silver-plated modular cable with its 3 types of jacks included (3.5mm se, 2.5 and 4.4 balanced). The cable is very nice but a bit weighty and i’m not a fan of its ear hook. The tonality is a bit brightish too, which is perhaps not the best pairing for the ZEN. You have a big blue false leather carrying case, a thick carrying pouch, all types of ear tips thinkable (10 pairs including memory foam tips), a 1/4” jack another, and even a dual 3.5mm jack oh and a cable older of decent quality.
CONSTRUCTION is all black metal, beautifully machinised with interesting nuance in details. It’s elegant looking yet sturdy. It doesn’t seem to be easily scratchable which is a big plus at this price range. MMCX connectors are solidly built and promise high durability. The size is small enough but weighty which explains the need for ear hook to help stabilize the fit. In term of comfort, it’s extremely similar to LUNA but heavier, it’s good but you don’t forget you have them in ears like with ear-shaped plastic UIEM.
CRITICAL SOUND IMPRESSIONS
(Gear used: SMSL SU-9+SH-9, Ibasso DX90, Xduoo X20, Audirect Beam2, Tempotec HD Pro)
The TONALITY of the ZEN isn’t calm and meditative as its name might suggest, but thumpy, lush, and energic and just a hint bright to permit timbre texturing boost. It’s a thick gently brighten W shape signature with extra boost in mid-bass, well rounded upper mids-lower treble boost and some extra highs presence boost. Lush, weighty and vivid all a the same level, the ZEN has a balanced liveliness and is zen in its lack of sibilance or notable harshness.
The BASS is emphasized in texture and mid-bass weight, with a realist tone and dry lower sub-bass presentation. The slam is thumpy and chunky, separation is average as well as speed but transition embraces lower mids instead of bleeding on it, keeping its place back of the vocal. Balance is good though not very clean or articulated in micro-dynamic. Kick drum lack a bit of air for natural decay so we can say the bass is a hint boomy due to lack of elastic flexibility. Still, I was surprised by how well presented were electric bass line as it seems the ZEN extract a better bass line that have texture, so depending on which between sub and kick has more texture it will put it in front of the other. Simply put, the bass have more texture and weight than extension and transparency, so pure sub tone will be overshadowed by more textured instruments.
MIDS are the best part of the ZEN as well as the most focused, presence and body is pushed forwards as well as texture even if vocal avoids any sibilance. It isn’t very open or clean, but it’s wide, lush and immersive. Both male and female vocal are full-bodied and realistic in tone. The macro-resolution is favored over micro-details and well-imaged nuances. You can’t dig for long in the mids because the ZEN seem to push more forwards certain instrument, especially vocal, violin and piano, and due to lack of transparency and clean black background as well as lack of attack edge, separation of the instruments can feel too compressed.
TREBLE seems mostly focus on instrument texture and it fastly rolls off after 10khz so it lacks air, sparkle, and decay as well as micro-details. For a 700$ IEM, highs are rather underwhelming because while it add a bit of brightness to the ZEN tonality, it doesn’t add attack snap enough and doesn’t cover the whole spectrum. This is the type of half-baked treble that will extract a part of the percussions and let others in the shadow, same for micro-details, so it creates a bit of unbalance and tend to hook you with an intriguing part of the sound which will be hit or miss depending of music complexity. For electronic, I find the sound too compressed which makes some micro-details feel ”sticken” on a thick tapestry of sound. Yeah, the ZEN treble cruelly lacks air, extension, and accuracy.
SOUNDSTAGE isn’t particularly spacious and dangerously lacks deepness, but it has good average wideness and doesn’t feel stocked in your head. Presentation is similar to stereo desktop speaker at a short distance of the listener with a sub in the middle that soil the air.
IMAGING is poor for this price range and you will have a hard time trying to pin-point instrument placement. Layers of sound are stick together closely so it lack space between instrument in any direction axes. To me, that’s the biggest drawback of the ZEN and proof of average technicalities for this price range.
If I go out of critical listening mode as well as the price bracket of the ZEN, i enjoy them a lot, but as soon as I try to dig more into the sound I am underwhelmed about resolution, accuracy and attack speed.
I tend to enjoy the ZEN more with pop music like soul&rap than savant music like classical&jazz. Bassy vocal-centric music can sound really good, should it be IAMDDB, Pip Millet or Charlotte Day Wilson, slow bassy music pair well with the ZEN. I was surprised to enjoy some rock too due to the well-articulated and textured electric bass line. For classical, the lack of upper mids bite makes the violin attack not well define and the cello lack fundamental sub-bass extension to sound rightly bodied, so this isn’t an audiophile experience we get with the ZEN, more a fun, lush and lively niche audio enthusiast tuning.
Sidenotes: The ZEN is easy to drive and do not scale up with powerful amping, it benefit mostly from clean detailed source due to its slightly hollow resolution. Ear tips inflict a little on sound rendering too but wide bore ear tips (like KZ Starlines) tend to open the soundstage slightly.
VS AUNE JASPER (300$)
Firstly let’s begin by saying the ZEN are way easier to drive with 16ohm of impedance and 112db of sensitivity VS 32ohm-102db for the JASPER.
Secondly, the tonality of ZEN is more thumpy forwards V to W shape while JASPER is more relaxed U to W shape.
When I go from ZEN to JASPER, I need some readjustment time, as if they were sounding a bit dark and too laid back…but this isn’t the case at all. It’s just that ZEN aren’t THAT zen and quite forwards, punchy and vivid, yet with a hint of warmth to thicken timbre.
So, this is where they differ the most: in attack dynamic. Depending of your tonal balance preference, we can say ZEN is more aggressive and shouty while Jasper is too laid back and lean in mids. Choose your poison.
The JASPER has a better fuller BASS extension, more sub to mid bass emphasis while DUNU is more mid to high bass punchy. Kick is a bit more lean-dull with JASPER while thicker punchier with DUNU. Here is a rumbly slam (Jasper) against thumpy punch (Zen). At the end, Jasper bass is cleaner and less prompt to lower mids bleed. Listening to Jazz, the acoustic bass sound right with the Jasper- full in extension and rumble, while it feels a bit thumpy with the Zen, as if through a rolled-off amp.
MIDS are more lively and forwards with the ZEN, they are lusher and more textured and well bit brighter but nicely warmed by bass transition. Transparency and accuracy go to the Jasper though, even if yes, they are leaner and more relaxed in attack. Both have good vocal body and presence, timbre being smoother with Jasper and even less forward in upper mids. Strangely, even if sub-bass is more boosted than the ZEN, the Jasper mids are cleaner and airier with higher resolution, piano sound less thick but crisper and more transparent with just enough weight to make an impact with more natural decay than ZEN.
TREBLE is where i can judge the JASPER as being superior, firstly in terms of extension up to 20khz vs roll off after 10khz for the ZEN, secondly in terms of control-snap-decay and AIR because this is how you got AIR with IEM, by having fully extended highs. Sure, Jasper highs are less textured and crunchy due to less boosted mid-treble part, as well, lower highs have less bite so violin might sound more energic but not as natural as Jasper nonetheless.
SOUNDSTAGE is notably deeper with the Jasper, as well as wider but less tall. Its more holographic in rendering too.
IMAGING is cleaner and more accurate with the Jasper due to better layering transparency VS thick textured layers of the ZEN. Silence do exist with the Jasper, not so much between the instrument of the ZEN.
TIMBRE is more organic-natural-clean and subtle in nuance with JASPER and more textured-saturated-thick with the ZEN.
Honestly, i would love to keep both, because these IEM cover different moods. For fascinating long listening, I’ll choose the Jasper, if i wanna headbang and get lush energic sound i’ll go with the Zen. One thing sure…the ZEN have an anachronical name for what it delivers cause it freakin wake you up!
VS DUNU DK2001 (300$)
What hit me first is how the DK2001 sounds cleaner-smoother with more accurate imaging. After, it’s how the ZEN bass is more thick and punchy as well as more forwards and brighter with mids. The type of ”dynamic attack” is very different with both, one being 1DD+2BA (DK2001) and other single ”Nano-DLC” DD (ZEN). TONALITY is similar in balance but brighter V to W shape with ZEN and more neutral to W shape with DK2001. The Dynamic of balance is more vivid and thumpy with the ZEN.
BASS is more extended and rumbly with DK2001, less textured and more transparent. It has less slam than ZEN and it’s less boosted in mid-low. Separation from mids is better layered but doesn’t add body to male vocal like the ZEN. Sub-bass is thinner dryer with ZEN but the overall bass attack is faster punchier. For example, cello sounds cleaner-better and more bodied with DK2001 while kick drum and synth-bass sound fuller-better with ZEN.
MIDS are notably more forwards with the ZEN, they are more bodied and weighty in presence, brighter and more textured, less transparent and layered than DK2001. You have more sound info with the DK2001 and sounds layers are better separated-articulated. It’ smoother, yet better resolved and articulate but not as weighty as the ZEN. Acoustic instruments sound harsher-grainier and less natural with the ZEN than DK2001; violin, cello, piano, sax lack decay and air as well as well-shaped transparent definition compared to DK2001 even if the ZEN have tighter attack edge.
TREBLE is where the ZEN feels less capable than DK2001 because though its chunkier-crunchier-edgier and more texture-axed it do not extend as far and effortlessly as DK2001. ZEN has more vivid highs, especially in the 8khz section so snare and cymbals are more energic. DK2001 has a leaner more extended treble so we have more micro-details and crisper resolution. Overall highs presentation is more delicate and airy with the DK2001 making it more zen sounding than the….ZEN.
TIMBRE is denser, richer and more textured with the ZEN and thinner more transparent and organic with the DK2001.
SOUNDSTAGE is wider taller with the ZEN, acting like a wide and closely layered sound tapestry, while the DK2001 have a more holographic and deep spatiality. IMAGING is clearly superior with the DK2001 both in layering and instrument placement accuracy.
I can’t convince myself that the DK2001 isn’t superior both technically and tonally than the ZEN, even if 400$ cheaper due to higher resolution and precision in imaging accuracy. As well, the whole sound is cleaner and smoother compared to a badly named ZEN that has a more energic W shape dynamic. Being sensible to well-controled bass extension, the ZEN feel overly rolled off for my taste compared to the DK2001. Even the vocal which force their charm with emphasis presence lack the relaxing smoothness and transparency of DK2001 to permit a complete immersion, not just an in-your-face mysticism. All in all, the ZEN confirms i’m really in love with my DK2001 and do well to suggest them as being good value 300$ IEM.
VS DITA AUDIO FEALTY (around 1K$)
These 2 don’t have similar tonality, FEALTY being more vivid neutral and emphasised on treble.
What hit first is how bigger airier is the soundstage of fealty and well, how resolution and imaging are more clean and accurate too.
But that’s about it, timbre is thinner, colder and less natural. BASS is lighter and lacking in body and slam compared to ZEN.
MIDS are brighter, thinner, and more prompt to sibilance, but vocal as well as other instruments are better extracted-separated.
TREBLE while being brighter, more extended, and snappy is overly boosted and less well balanced than the ZEN.
Perhaps the ZEN is inferior in rough technicalities, but at least it have a musicality to enjoy compared to the stone-cold treble obsess FEALTY.
VS NF AUDIO NM2+ (180$)
While I was listening to the ZEN, a little voice in me tell me it sound similar to the NM2+ and indeed, tonal balance-wise they are near identical with the exception of some more upper mids bite that make the sound a bit more agressive in its W shape approach.
Let just say the NM2+ is a less refined ZEN ,with slightly inferior technicalities so it can’t deal as well with fast busy tracks and have less organicaly layered sound space. Timbre is less full and lush too. Price is 520$ less too.
Their no doubt the ZEN is superior in tonality and technicality, but in a very subtle way, which doesn’t justify at all the price difference. It’s really scaling up in low sound value tonal pattern here because both these IEM aren’t good value (even if the NM2+ is OK for it’s price range).
Though the ZEN is very pleasant to listen to for a short period of time, it fails to offer an immersive sound experience that you would contemplate for hours and hours because it makes you discover intricate nuance in your music.
Though fun and safely tuned, the ZEN can’t compete with IEM in its price range in terms of technicalities which are underwhelming in terms of resolution, accuracy, micro-dynamic, and clarity. Both bass and treble being rolled off, the ZEN will not please those addicted to clean airy sparkly high or fully naturally extended low.
Unless you are all about densely textured timbre, thick lush vocal, and thumpy slam, I think buying the Dunu DK2001 is a wiser choice due to its more versatile tuning and competent technicalities for 400$ less.