Noontec Zoro-II On-ear Portable Stereo Headphone review

Discussion in 'Headphone Reviews' started by dalethorn, Jan 20, 2015.

  1. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

    Joined:
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    1,611
    Location:
    Charleston South Carolina
    Youtube review: http://youtu.be/Bn1nwEt9pSs

    Photos:
    http://dalethorn.com/Photos/Leica_Dlux/Headphone_Noontec_Zoro2_01.jpg
    http://dalethorn.com/Photos/Audioforge/Noontec_Zoro2.jpg

    Sources: iPhone6+ with Portaphile Micro/PA2V2/Decware Zen Head amps using the LOD, various computers using Microstreamer/Beyer A200p/v-moda Verza DAC/amps.

    Review notes: My first impressions of the sound of the Noontec Zoro-II (Zoro2) are based on direct comparisons to other headphones - the v-moda M100 and XS, the FAD Pandora VI and IV, the Beyerdynamic T1 and T90, the AKG K812 and K712, and notes that I've accumulated from many prior reviews. I'll describe how I relate to the Zoro2 (i.e. my personal tastes and how I use the headphone) only after covering all of the objective issues.

    Most reviewers expect low-cost headphones to have less fidelity than higher-price headphones, one reason being that the low cost of manufacturing doesn't allow the kind of detailed quality control in driver matching etc. to guarantee that the sound will be exactly the same (or close to it) from sample to sample. A second consideration for reviewers is the time invested in making the review, in hopes that the headphones the customers purchase sound the same as what the review describes. I haven't heard the original Zoro (or Zoro HD), but I was curious as to whether Noontec could maintain a consistent level of quality in a headphone half the price of the Beats Solo2, which seems to me to be the most likely target competition. A long story short: they did it.

    In many of my reviews I've used the Audioforge equalizer out of necessity, since many of those headphones have steep treble rolloffs, or less often, excessive treble brightness. In the Zoro2's case, we have only the small plus or minus 5 db variances that are found in even some of the highest-priced headphones, therefore I needn't comment further on EQ settings (although I do them anyway just to try to quantify the headphone's 'signature'). Out of the box**, the Zoro2 sounds great. I can't say how it compares to other $100 headphones, since I don't know of any other $100 headphones that have this level of sound quality, unless those other sub-$100 headphones are being discounted as not selling or as discontinued items. However, since I suspect that the design aim is to compete with the Beats Solo2 and other similar brands and models up to $200, I can say that the Zoro2 is very comparable.

    **Some of the very low-cost headphones I've had change quite a bit during the burn-in process, but the Zoro2 sound has changed very little.

    The Zoro2's treble** is a little soft (below 'neutral'), but good enough for most critical listening, unless you have perfect pitch or require the full harmonic detail that's typical of the best open-back headphones. I wanted to determine how the Zoro2 handles very loud and complex music passages, like what I hear in some of my versions of Beethoven's 9th symphony, where the orchestra and chorus are going full-tilt at the same time. The Zoro2 performs well above its price point in this regard, with good separation of instruments and voices. One thing that reviewers mention frequently with small closed headphones is the 'constricted' sound coloration they usually have. I can't say whether the Zoro2 is entirely free of that, but it's not something that stands out to me, and that's also better than expected for this type of headphone.

    **The Zoro2's on-ear design and earpads conform to my ears properly, getting a seal that preserves the bass response well, but I've noticed that if I put the earpads against hair instead of directly on my ears, some of that bass will escape and the headphone can sound brighter as a result. Different use cases and preferences will determine how users judge the sound, but I'd advise customers to avoid putting the earpads over hair, since the best response in my opinion is with the pads directly on the ears.

    Isolation is less than what I've experienced with some of my closed on-ear headphones, but where I hang out most days about 100 yards from a busy freeway, the isolation is enough to keep the noise well below the music level. I'm good with the isolation then, but the leakage is even better news - it's low enough that the Zoro2 should be playable at reasonable volumes in libraries, in quiet offices, and on public transport. The Zoro2 is probably average in weight for a small on-ear headphone, which is to say it's pretty light. The clamping force is also average I think, and that means it becomes comfortable very quickly, and stays securely in place with activity that doesn't involve rapid head movements.

    The Zoro2 is an ideal portable headphone in the sense that it can be pulled off the head when not in use, and worn around the neck with no comfort issues for most people. This is important to me, because even though the Zoro2 does come with a nice durable carry bag, I like to be able to go places without having to deal with a bag or case - just put the headphone around my neck and drive to work, then set the headphone down somewhere on the desk. The range of adjustment for different head sizes is OK - about 3/4 inch on each side, where my average size head fits in the middle of that range. The cable is single-entry and detachable, and it's the flat-ribbon type that has a good durable thickness and doesn't add noticeable weight. The plug that goes into the earcup is a standard 3.5 mm plug, so I'd guess that any generic cable with 3.5 mm stereo plugs on both ends could be used with this headphone. According to Noontec, the control button on the cable will answer a phone call and also terminate the call.

    In previous reviews I've included the following music examples with comments about how the headphones sound with each track. My suggestion is instead of reading each one as an absolute unto itself, you could compare my notes here to those other reviews and see how the Zoro2 compares with each individual track.
     
  2. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

    Joined:
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    1,611
    Location:
    Charleston South Carolina
    Noontec Zoro II review part 2 - music samples

    Animotion - Obsession (1980's New Wave/Techno): The upper bass synth has excellent detail and tone, and both male and female vocals sound natural without favoring either. The Zoro2 plays this very well.

    Bauhaus - Bela Lugosi's Dead (~1980): Strong midrange sound effects - this is a good worst-case test for resonant-type sounds in the most sensitive midrange area. Handled perfectly by the Zoro2.

    Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Excellent overall sound. Of special note here are the bass impacts beginning around 10:30 of the fourth movement. Those impacts are soft and well in the background, but you can really feel some of the weight they carry with the Zoro2.

    Black Sabbath - Iron Man (Classic Rock): Very good instrumental detail and the vocal sounds very natural. As with most classic rock tracks, there is very little or no deep bass. The Zoro2 plays this music smoothly, and the lack of deep bass doesn't unbalance the treble.

    Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Great sound quality - this is a good test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled extremely well by the Zoro2.

    Cantus - Danny Boy (Traditional/Male Choral/Acapella): The Zoro2 plays the voices with enough low end warmth and weight to sound very natural, yet there is no added emphasis of the lower register of the male voices on this track.

    Cath Carroll - Moves Like You (1980's New Wave/Techno): This track's percussion and voice are crisp and well-balanced, and there's a good sense of space or soundstage around the voices and instruments. The Zoro2 reproduces the space and detail very well.

    Catherine Wheel - Black Metallic (~1991): Goth with industrial overtones - I like this since it's a great music composition and the sound effects are smoothly integrated into the mix. This may sound distorted or mushy with some headphones, but the Zoro2 renders the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.

    Chris Isaak - Wicked Game (Pop/Rock): The Zoro2 plays this high treble energy recording very smoothly - the voice and instruments are very detailed but not edgy - very musical in fact.

    Chromatics - I'm On Fire (Synth-Pop, female lead): This track has a good amount of space around the voice and instruments, making for a very pleasant stereo image. The voice is excellent, and the tambourine is clearly recognizable.

    David Hazeltine - Fur Elise (Jazz): A very high-quality recording from HDTracks. The Zoro2 reproduces the instruments smoothly with a spacious ambiance. The wire-brush-on-cymbal harmonics are normally very extended and detailed, but the Zoro2 needs some treble boost to get the full upper-harmonics effect

    Grieg (Beecham-Royal Philharmonic) - Peer Gynt-Solveig's Lullaby (Classical): This very old (late 1950's) stereo recording must have been made on the most expensive gear in the world, since the overall sound quality and especially Ilse Hollweg's amazing voice are as close to "being there" as I've heard with some of the better classical recordings made since the year 2000. The Zoro2 plays this music perfectly.

    Hans Zimmer - Dark Knight-Aggressive Expansion (Soundtrack): The percussion in this track hits really hard, and the bass tones beginning around 0:45 have the ultra-deep "shuddery" kind of sound and feel that indicates a very deep bass, although the strength of those bass notes is less than what I hear with the more expensive closed-back headphones. The Zoro2 plays this music extremely well.

    Heaven 17 - Let Me Go (1980's New Wave/Techno): The bass instrument (guitar?) has excellent detail, and the voices and ambiance have a "you are there" quality that's uncommon in early 1980's pop music. The Zoro2 plays this track perfectly.

    Hugo Audiophile - 15-16 (Electronic): I'm not sure what the 15-16 stands for - perhaps track numbers from a CD album. The deep-bass tones that start around 33-34 seconds into the track reproduce very well with the Zoro2. This is a great recording for evaluating whether a headphone's bass will be sufficient for most environments, since for many headphones that have a weaker bass, the deep bass gets absorbed and mostly lost when the environment contains a lot of low-frequency energy.

    Jimmy Smith - Basin Street Blues (early 60's): This track has several loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don't sound clean and musical with some headphones. The Zoro2 provides very good reproduction. Listen particularly to the second crescendo at 15 seconds in for best-case detail. I'd like to emphasize that these crescendos are probably the worst-case test I have for instrument separation and detail, and the Zoro2 does those very well.

    Kellogg Auditorium, Battle Creek Michigan, Aeolian-Skinner Organ (1933) - Pedal, 32', Resultant, Arpeggio: This 16 hz organ pedal tone differs from other music tones in that you won't "hear" the tone - you'll only feel it. Although most music tones have harmonics (including this one), the harmonics from this tone will be too weak to provide any "feel", so whatever you actually hear would not be part of the fundamental 16 hz tone. There are ~30 hz sounds in the outdoor environment in big cities, generated by large trucks, buses, and subway trains, and they have a quality of "rumble" that's similar to some deep-bass tones found in music. This 16 hz organ tone is easily distinguished from those sounds when compared on a headphone that has good undistorted response at 16 hz. The Zoro2 plays this with enough detail that you can hear/feel the 16 cycle per second "beats" of the fundamental tone.

    Mantovani - Sunrise Sunset (Easy Listening, ca. 1972): A master musician and conductor who specialized in light classics and orchestral pop music, Mantovani's accomplishments were overshadowed by music critics who couldn't tolerate the notion of "light classics" or "semi-classical" music, even when those recordings were no threat to the classical music genres. In any case the later Mantovani recordings from the mid-1960's through mid-1970's had the advantage of being mixed for much better hi-fi systems than those which the music critics possessed at the start of the Long Playing (LP) record cycle. Here in 2015, at least some of those digital remasters have improved the sound further, although it's not always the case. This track as played on the Zoro2 is a perfect example of the sheer musicality lurking in those later recordings, and is highly recommended for soundstage, instrumental tone, and musical balance.

    Michael Tilson Thomas - Rhapsody In Blue (20th Century Classic): Great sound and soundstage, and terrific piano playing and tone. There are some very deep bass impacts starting around 38 seconds into the 17:24 length track, and the weight of those impacts is very subtle with the Zoro2.

    Pinback - Non Photo Blue (Pop-Rock): Crispy sound with "crunchy guitars and bashing drums" - the Zoro2 renders this music as perfectly as I've heard an energetic pop-rock recording played with any headphone.

    Porcupine Tree - Trains (Pop-Rock): This track opens with some nicely-detailed string sounds and a forward-sounding male voice with a higher-than-average register. There are a series of "clip-clop" effects starting at 3:19 that should sound like they were made with wooden blocks of some kind. The Zoro2 reproduces that sound effect perfectly.

    Richard Strauss (Mester-Pasadena) - Also Sprach Zarathustra (opening) (Classical): The granddaddy of bass is in the opening 1:50 of this recording, and I've heard it only once on a large and expensive loudspeaker system in Cleveland. For most people, that experience would be indistinguishable from being in a fairly strong earthquake. The Zoro2 conveys that experience to some extent, but with less impact than the better full-size headphones. The tympani also have good impact here.

    Scarlatti-Kipnis - Sonata in E Major K381 (Classical, Harpsichord): The harpsichord here is fairly bright and detailed, and the Zoro2 renders the tones and transients very well.

    Tiger Okoshi - Bootsman's Little House (Jazz): The trumpet here is recorded fairly close up and is somewhat bright with a significant "bite". The Zoro2's reproduction is near-perfect, and the close-miked piano is also a treat. For comparison, I have several Maynard Ferguson tracks that feature a similarly strong trumpet with lots of brassy bite.

    Trombone Shorty - Backatown (Jazz-Funk): The deep bass impacts here are strong and work extremely well with the horns and other instruments. The Zoro2 delivers the impacts with moderate weight and very good detail, and the horns have the kind of bite that gives them a wonderfully realistic sound.
     

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