I’ll admit this much: I’d never heard of IMR Acoustics, or its founder and owner Bob James, prior to reading about the R1 Zenith while asking Google to find me wide-soundstage IEMs.
The Zenith is, in fact, a revised and refined version of IMR’s debut effort, the R1. It shares its predecessor’s ability to switch between closed and semi-open modes with a unique rotating backplate, and retains the R1’s swappable screw-in filters that can, quite significantly, change the tone of the IEM itself.
Again, from what I’ve read (I’ve never seen or heard the R1 myself), the original R1 was a rather rough-around-the-edges first attempt that, while impressing with a large and rather odd dynamic driver made of a combination of piezo-ceramic and beryllium, was far from refined.
So what is the Zenith, what does it do differently, and is it worth taking a chance on this intriguing IEM from the one-man show that is IMR Acoustics?
Packaging and first impressions
The R1 Zenith takes the original R1 driver, improves on it, and houses it in a far more polished, well-made aluminum alloy shell that, if nothing else, looks every bit like the $500 product that it is.
Shipped in an understated matte black box that doesn’t exactly scream “luxury”, the Zenith’s packaging is as utilitarian looking as the IEM itself. Inside the box you’ll find a full-length block of dense foam with two small cutouts holding the earpieces. Two more layers of smaller foam blocks hold the eartips (a decent selection of multi-sized silicone, double flange and foam tips are included as standard), and a third block holds the array of swappable metal filters and a 3.5mm to 6.3mm adapter plug.
You also get a small, square carry case inside of which you’ll find two cables, one terminated with a gold-plated 3.5mm single-ended L-shaped plug, the other a 2.5mm L-shaped balanced plug. At this price you should expect to get a balanced cable as part of the package, so it’s good to see one included.
The cables have a rubberised sheathing that feels smooth and not too springy, although they are quite thin compared to the typically braided, teflon-sheathed cables most IEMs ship with today. Both cables are a dark grey colour - which fits in with the overall Zenith aesthetic - and seem to be well made, even though I’m personally not a fan of the two-pin connector (I’ve always found MMCX connectors to be sturdier). At least the connector plugs on the earpieces are both notched and recessed, which should prevent any accidental bending of the pins, and the cable material resists twisting or knotting.
Last but not least, a small calling card explains the differences in sound between the various filters, which I’ll cover in more detail below, and a basic user manual warns you about hearing loss and proper use of IEMs – a nice touch that I don’t often see with other products.
Overall the package in on par for a mid-tier IEM, if somewhat basic and visually understated. The earpieces are well made and beautifully machined, and the mechanism that opens and closes the backplate is fluid and smooth. The filters also look to be made of the same high quality aluminium, and are precisely machined like the earpieces they connect to (if a little sharp to the touch).
Feel and fit
Unless you’re buying a custom IEM, universal IEMs like the Zenith can be hit-or-miss, depending on the shape of your pinnae and ear canal. The Zenith, for me, takes the middle ground in terms of comfort, as in not uncomfortable but not glove-like like either. The tuning filters form the ‘nozzle’ and sit deeper in the ear than I’d like (being fairly wide as well), but not deep enough to really irritate, and any discomfort can be alleviated with the proper tip.
The shape of the housing is small enough to sit comfortably on my ears, although the protruding backplate screw means I can’t lie on my side with them, or wear beanies for that matter. They also look slightly awkward when worn, so expect to get puzzled looks and the occasional chuckle when walking around with Zeniths in your ears.
Since tips – like IEMs – are extremely user-specific, you’ll just have to experiment to find what works best for you. ‘Tip rolling’ with most IEMs is an absolute must, not only to get the best possible fit and seal, but also to change (or preserve) the sound, and the Zenith is no exception. Nothing changes the sound of an IEM more than the tips used, so keep that in mind when you’re reading my sound impressions.
As with most IEMs, I found the Dekoni Bulletz (my own, not included with the Zenith) to be the most comfortable tips with the best seal. My favourite tips, the JVC Spiral Dots, didn’t work as well with the Zenith as they do with other IEMs I’ve owned or tested, either in fit or sound, which is a shame really. The default tips that ship with the Zenith are decent enough, though not the same quality as the two I mentioned above.
Unlike most other IEMs, the R1 Zenith defies a simple description of its sound, but I’ll give it a try: big, bold and brash. Except big, bold and brash only applies to the Zenith with two, maybe three of the tuning filters. The other filters change the tuning completely, and in my opinion, change the very nature of the Zenith (and not always positively).
I don’t normally believe in burn-in for IEMs, but let the Zeniths warm up on some test tarcks for a couple of days before giving them a serious listen. I tried different filter combinations, eventually choosing the black filter not only because it’s the default (and presumably the one Bob used to tune the Zenith), but because I think it brings out the positives of the Zenith’s sound. As such, all the impressions below are based on the black filter, which is described as having “maximum attack with powerful impactful bass, rich mids and controlled highs”.
The other four offer more than mere variations on a theme; some make the Zenith sound like a totally different IEM. For example, the pink filter is supposed to drop the bass a touch without affecting mids or highs (although it does because of the balance shift); the blue filter is said to be “beautifully balanced across the range, natural and airy” (or, in my experience, quite dull and somewhat shrill); the orange filter rolls off the highs, and the less said about the copper filter the better.
As a source I used the 2.5mm balanced cable and a FiiO M11 DAP, which has power to spare to drive the harder-to-drive-than-usual Zenith, and a neutral but musical sound that works well with most IEMs. My songlist included, but wasn’t limited to:
· Crush by Meiko (Playing Favorites)
· Shark Fin Blues by Missy Higgins (Oz)
· Cathedrals by Heidi Talbot (In Love + Light)
· Hello Again by Neil Diamond (The Jazz Singer)
· The Waking Edge by Jethro Tull (Crest of a Knave)
· Viices by Made in Heights (Made in Heights)
· The Saltwater Room by Owl City (Ocean Eyes)
· Doin’ It right by Daft Punk (Random Access Memories)
· Winter 1 by Max Richter (Recomposed by Max Richter)
· Four Minutes by Roger Waters (Radio K.A.O.S)
· The Tide Is Turning by Roger Waters (Radio K.A.O.S)
· Bijou by Queen (Innuendo)
· The Story by Brandi Carlile (The Story)
· My Immortal (Band Version) by Evanescence (My Immortal)
· Love Bites by Def Leppard (Hysteria)
· Hey You by Pink Floyd (The Wall)
The standout spec of the Zenith is its massive 14mm dynamic driver, made from a combination of piezo-ceramic and beryllium metal. This is the first time I’ve seen ceramic drivers in an IEM, since ceramic is notoriously difficult to control and is thus usually limited to higher-end desktop speakers driven by very powerful amps. You could say Bob took a real gamble with this driver, but it’s paid off in at least one aspect: bass.
Not only does the Zenith deliver the biggest, most bombastic bass response I’ve heard in an IEM, it’s even bigger than most headphones, basshead cans included. The bass isn’t just big, it’s also fairly detailed, has decent speed for a large dynamic driver (thanks to the Beryllium diaphragm), and extends lower than a villain’s basement, delivering jaw-shaking rumble when called upon (and sometimes even when not). So big is the bass that when anything tries to get in the way of the lows on a track, it gets squashed.
There’s a part in Heidi Talbot’s soaring hymn ‘Cathedrals’ (0:50) that showcases just how big Zenith’s bass can be. Yes, it overwhelms the mids, almost floods the vocals, but it’s absolutely delicious, especially if you’re a bass addict. Similarly, at the 2:00 mark of Missy Higgins’s ‘Shark Fin Blues’, the sudden rumble takes the song to another level, putting you in a big wide cavern with Missy while the walls and ceiling shake all around you.
The Zenith is made for big bass and bass-driven tracks, and while I’m not a huge EDM fan, fans of ‘the drop’ will never feel short changed here. More nuanced electronica, like almost any track on Daft Punk’s glorious ‘Random Access Memories’, is highly rewarding as well, as is drum and guitar driven rock like Def Leppard.
Playing ‘Love Bites’ off Def Leppard’s ‘Hysteria’, the impact and visceral punch of the drums in the intro is palpable, almost better than I’ve ever heard (or felt) from full-size speakers. I’d go as far as to say these are among the best Def Leppard IEMs I’ve heard, purely for their bass impact, something that can’t be said for some of the better-known IEMs on the market (I’m looking at you, Andromeda).
Pink Floyd fan? If so then you’ll know how easy it is to get the Floyd to sound good, given the impeccable mastering on their albums, but how difficult it is to make them sound great. I wouldn’t say the Zenith aces Floyd, but it renders the drums on The Wall’s ‘Hey You’ so realistically, they’re worth a listen just to hear them on that track.
If there’s bass in your track, the Zenith will brandish it bigger and bolder than you’ve probably heard it before. If it gets too much, you can always switch to the pink filter to turn it down a notch, or open up the backplate to diffuse the sound slightly and widen the stage. If you’re really not much of a bass fan I’d give the blue filter a try, but be warned – all that magic I spoke of above will be gone, and you’ll be left with a poor imitation of what this unique driver is capable of.
On the other hand, if you like what you hear and want more of the same, don’t be tempted by the ‘maximum bass’ copper filter. To my ears it makes the Zenith sound thick and one-toned, with bass overwhelming just about every other frequency. It’s not even a case of ‘too much of a good thing’, it’s just too much.
The Zenith’s midrange is a complete mystery to me. I get that with bass as big and aggressive as it has, something’s got to give. But where I’d normally just say the bass bleeds all over the mids and call it a day, with the Zenith it’s not so simple.
Meiko’s ‘Playing Favorites’ album, released by Chesky Records and recorded in Chesky’s iconic single-microphone binaural style, is a perfect example of what I mean. On the track ‘Crush’ (a brilliant cover of the original, by the way), Meiko’s impressive vocal range doesn’t seem to be altogether there. I know how that sounds, but believe me there’s no other way to describe it. It’s as if part of her lower octaves just aren’t being conveyed (and yes, I did try this with a few different IEMs, and only the Zenith made her sound as ‘odd’ as she does here).
Compounding the ‘problem’ is that the instruments on either side of the room are brought far too forward into the mix, and given the Zenith’s flat soundstage (more on this later), they sound oddly separate from the vocals. This track – and album in general – is possibly an anomaly, especially since it’s recorded differently to many others. But it did highlight for me the fact that the Zenith’s mids are doing something strange.
The Zenith’s mids can be at the same time very fluid and engaging, and at others grainy and slightly jarring. In Neil Diamond’s tear-jerking rendition of ‘Hello Again’, his gravelly voice is almost perfectly rendered, alongside a clear and realistic piano. But switch to Queen’s ‘Bijou’ and the glare in Freddy’s usually pristine voice is too bright to the point of being distracting. I’d call it ‘shouty’ but it’s not shouty in the way that I know shouty can be. The vocals aren’t thrust at you all at once – parts of the vocal are a bit recessed, while others, like the edges of higher notes, are too forward, almost shrill. Recessed and forward vocals in the same track? Better believe it!
When they’re good, the mids, on the whole, are very good. They’re not the last word in resolution, even for dynamic drivers, but they’re not dull and flat either. Pianos and guitars are vivid, if sometimes sharp. Timbre is better than decent, and vocals are generally clear, but can also be thin, especially on poorer recordings. Depending on your music, you’ll either hear the Zenith as euphonic and engaging, or come away from listening sessions slightly fatigued.
I’ve read some reviews calling the Zenith ‘bright’, and I get why, but ‘bright’ isn’t necessarily bad. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve heard great extended treble before (FiiO’s FH7 and Campfire Audio’s Andromeda are good examples), so I know the difference between good ‘bright’ and blowtorch ‘bright’, and the Zenith can, at times, be the latter. Somewhere along the treble graph there’s a peak or two that will leave your ears waving a white flag.
This is not the treble you want for Mozart or Vivaldi. Listening to Max Richter’s re-imagining of Vivaldi’s ‘Winter 1’, the strings are sharp and shiny, but unnaturally so, with very little texture or decay. The booming bass at 1:28 is expected but stands out in its richness compared to the brittle presentation of the strings. Overall the Zenith lacks the cohesion, subtlety and depth to accurately convey the sonic complexity of this piece, and I’d wager most similar pieces of classical music, at least with the black filter.
However, with the right tips (foamies mainly), the worst of the Zenith’s treble rashness can be mitigated. The orange filter will also roll off some of the highs for you. But the best antidote to crazy treble is not listening to music with crazy treble, or music that’s so poorly recorded you have to wonder why anyone would want to put their name to it. The Zenith will do little to hide the flaws in a track, often magnifying them, so bring on the sibilance if you dare, because you’ll hear it in astonishing detail.
Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh (excuse the pun). The Zenith, especially with the black filter, makes no excuses for being a balls-to-the-wall IEM. Everything it does is unapologetically bold, so it’s probably naïve of me to expect the treble to be any different. Metalheads and those that love guitar-driven hard rock will likely rejoice with all the screeching going on. There’s a lid for every pot, as they say.
The other stuff
I mentioned earlier that I found the Zenith while searching for an IEM with a wide soundstage (being the HD800 addict that I am), and in this regard the Zenith doesn’t disappoint. As a ‘semi’ open IEM it does well in adding air to most tracks, although it still has the typical ‘in-your-head’ sound of most IEMs. Stage width is impressive, with some sound emanating well beyond your ears, but what it has in width it lacks in depth. I’d compare the Zenith’s stage to an oblong pancake – wide at the extremes, but almost paper thin.
Owl City’s ‘The Saltwater Room’ is sweet, melodic electronica pop, with both male and female vocals and range of instruments and effects. It has a wide and lush presentation that, with great headphones, you can almost walk around and explore. Unfortunately, the stage of the Zenith is shallow, and all you have for relief is the above average width. That means many of the effects crowd the middle of the stage and overwhelm the vocals, and are themselves overwhelmed by the instruments that are almost always pushed forward louder than the vocals. This track needs subtlety in its delivery and the Zenith is anything but subtle.
On most tracks imaging is decent, and instrument separation is fair (unless there are too many instruments playing at the same time). On spartan tracks like Made in Heights’s ‘Viices’, instruments and effects lend themselves to the Zenith’s clean and punchy presentation, and the vocals, not crowded by instruments, are distinct and sweet. If this is your type of music, the Zenith has plenty to offer.
Brandi Carlile’s ‘The Story’ is another great example of what the Zenith does very well. Brandi has such a complex, textured voice that it takes great control to render it properly. Zenith almost gets there…and then the drums hit at 0:53 and the guitars at 0:58 and you forget about Brandi and just lose yourself in the melee. That can be good or bad, depending on how you like your alt-country-folksy-rocky music. I’ll give it this, Zenith renders The Story with bags of emotion. It’s all in-your-face and extreme, but your feet will be tapping and your ears will be ringing and you’ll know you’ve been listening to a seriously potent IEM.
Breaking the Zenith’s sound into small, digestible descriptions is almost impossible. Give me five songs and five filters, and I’ll give you a dozen different impressions. That means the Zenith is always likely to do something right, some of the time, and I found plenty to enjoy with it while flicking through my music library.
This is a headbanger’s perfect IEM. It looks like something forged on a Mad Max movie set, with rubbery, snake-like cables and muted colouring adding to its steampunk allure. It’s not an IEM I would choose to kick back on the sofa and relax with a glass of wine, but give me a reckless road race and I’ll pop these babies in for maximum adrenaline.
For the asking price the Zenith isn’t cheap, and although the package is decent and the quality of materials and workmanship top-notch, the value really depends on what you want from your IEMs, and what music you’re planning to use them with. I wouldn’t want the Zenith as my only IEM, because even with its array of filters and tip options, there’s no neutral in its gearbox. Even the flattest (blue) filter is not as linear or refined when compared to multi-driver IEMs that have better resolution and finesse.
If you love your bass, and I mean really loveyour bass, the Zenith is well worth the investment, if only to hear what two miniature metal and ceramic drivers are actually capable of. It outdoes my HD800 (easily) and Auteur with the sheer size of its bass, and while the quality is nowhere near that of the desktop headphones, the quantity and control is nothing short of impressive.
It’s a pity the same can’t be said for the mids and treble, which canbe good – excellent in fact – but too often err on the wrong side of strident. However, if you’re not particularly sensitive to glare in your upper mids, and enjoy the occasional grating guitar, this may not be factor.
The Zenith is only the second of IMR’s fledgling lineup, and as such is a very commendable effort in a market generally dominated by safe, inoffensive IEMs. While not perfect, it’s clearly a step up from the debut R1, and has already found a loyal and passionate following among head-fi enthusiasts, and for good reason. It’s better suited to some genres – like trance, EDM, hip-hop, rock – but that’s not to say you won’t find it enjoyable with other genres too. What it lacks in finesse and refinement it certainly makes up in heart.
One thing’s for sure, once you’ve heard a Zenith you’ll know all about it!
Up next for IMR is a fully-open IEM called the R2 Aten, with an even bigger driver and a choice of five bass filters and six treble nozzles. Expect it to be a real sonic medusa, and I wish Bob the best as he continues to swim against the tide in search of his perfect sound. If I’m fortunate enough to get a pair, I’ll be sure to come back here and tell you all about it.