KZ ZS3: The best budget earphone out there right now?
Today we are going to be taking a look at the ZS3, yet another excellent new earphone from the masters of bang-for-your-buck, Knowledge Zenith.
If anyone has been following the rise of budget earphones spilling out of China over the last couple years, you surely have come across Knowledge Zenith. They’re best known for offering earphones costing around 10 USD that bat well above their price point in pretty much every way; sound quality, build, materials, etc. Where they seem to stumble is on consistency and quality control, though the latter is not something I personally have had many issues with.
The ZS3 was revealed earlier this year, and followed up quickly with a mass recall due to some issues with the manufacturing process. Once working models got into peoples hands and ears, we were seeing some pretty positive reception. Their design looks almost like a custom earphone and brings a removable, recessed socket, two-pin cable to the hyper-budget market. As far as I know, and please feel free to correct me, but this was essentially unheard of in this price range at the time of release.
Many were hoping that this earphone would be the one that showed KZ was serious about stepping up their game and bringing a more premium product to the market. Does the ZS3 succeed in being more than the sum of it’s predecessors, or it is just another great earphone with features and sound quality beyond what it’s meager price tag suggests? Neither of those options sound bad to me to be honest…
The ZS3 was purchased at the full initial release price of 26 CAD from 888999 store on AliExpress. Prices have come way down since then and you can find them elsewhere for much less, such as on Gearbest for around 11 CAD at the time of this review.
I am not associated with KZ or any retailers. All opinions within this review are mine and do not represent KZ or any other entity.
A Little About Me:
Over the last couple years I decided to dive head first into the world of portable audio. After reading pretty much the entirety of IjokerI’s multi-earphone review thread and being greatly inspired, I took a chance and started writing my own reviews. Fast forward a couple years and I’ve had the opportunity to write about some great products for wonderful companies like RHA, Havi, FiiO, NarMoo, Brainwavz, and Meze. I don’t do it for money or free stuff, but because I enjoy it. If my reviews can help guide someone to an earphone that makes them happy, I’ll consider that a job well done.
The gear I use for testing is pretty basic composing of an HTC One M8 cellphone, Topping NX1 portable amplifier, and my aging Asus G73 gaming laptop paired with a Plantronics Rig USB amp. An XDuoo X3 (shout out to my cousin Rob!) has recently been added to the crew and was used for the majority of my testing. I listen primarily to various EDM sub-genres (liquid drum and bass, breakbeat, drumstep, etc.), hip hop, and classic rock. When it comes to signature preference I tend to lean towards aggressive and energetic, but I try not to limit myself to one signature only. I also tend to listen at lower than average volumes.
Enough preamble. Let us dive into the good stuff shall we?
Packaging and Accessories:
Generally KZ doesn’t do anything unique when packing their earphones. A small cardboard box usually does the trick. Sometimes they will try something different, such as with the shield-shaped case that the ED10 arrives in, or the simple yet classy rectangular prism design used for the ED9 and ATE.
This time, KZ has decided to try something new…to them. If you are familiar with VSonic you will know that they released their VSD series earphones in a very attractive little box. The entire front portion is a plastic viewing window with the left side containing a cardboard insert displaying the model name in vibrant red writing backed by geometric texturing. The right side contains the earphones nestled in a lined, foam insert. It’s very nice packaging and gave me a positive first impression.
Looking at KZ’s package for the ZS3, you will see that they took heavy inspiration from VSonic, right down to the red writing and geometric texturing. KZ’s package is much more compact, however, and the ZS3 is held securely in place with a plastic tray instead of foam. The cardboard insert also splits the window horizontally. While not necessarily unique, KZ picked something nice to emulate and executed it well.
Removing the plastic window reveals two bags, one containing the removable, two-pin cable, the other KZ’s standard small and large silicone tips. There was also to my surprise an instruction manual. Unfortunately, I speak English only. The manual is written almost entirely in Mandarin or Cantonese. It looks to be a pretty in-depth read with information on how long you can listen at certain frequencies, something other more established brands should learn to include. There are also a few diagrams peppered throughout which make up for my inability to read another language.
Build, Design, Comfort, Isolation:
Once again, KZ has lifted inspiration from another company for their housing design. This time looking to InEar and the StageDiver series. From InEar’s website site I found that the StageDiver housing was created by digitally superimposing 500 ear impressions over each other to create what amounts to the ultimate universal housing.
I’m not sure how close the ZS3’s dimensions come to matching InEar’s since I’ve never seen a StageDiver “in the flesh”, but from images they look shockingly similar and I can confirm that they are supremely comfortable. That is, as long as you seat them correctly. I found it best to use a twisting technique to maneuver them into position. This technique paired with tips that use a very soft silicone, such as Sony’s Hybrids or those from Ultimate Ears UE600, means they nearly disappear or would if it wasn’t for the ear guide. With the right tips and a good seal, the ZS3 also isolates better than average for a dynamic driver-based earphone.
The housing on my particular pair of ZS3 is made from very durable feeling plastics with an attractive matte coating. You can also pick them up with a shiny finish. You better like your earphones in black, because at this time that’s the only color to choose from. Personally I think it looks great.
The cable material is what you would expect from KZ, but is removable. This isn’t KZ’s first removable cable earphone but you would have to look pretty far back in their catalog to find another example, that being the wood-bodied R3. What differentiates KZ’s removable cable from most is that it isn’t terminated in an MMCX connector, or the other type used on the R3, but with a two-pin connector. Even better is that it is recessed into the housing making it extra stable and secure. I don’t know if KZ is using a proprietary connector or if it is going to be something that is easily replaceable, but I’m sure we will find out quickly as more people get their hands on them. The cable is equipped with a built in ear guide. Personally, I’m not a fan and would rather it not be there. On the plus side it is well-molded and keeps the cable securely behind your ear.
*Edit: @vapman over on Head-fi.org has noted that the ZS3 uses a standard TF13/Sennheiser two-pin format. Good to know it is not proprietary. Thanks for clarifying buddy!*
The inline microphone I can say sounds the best of any KZ has used before, at least of those I’ve tried. There is a bit of background hiss and it can be sibilant if you raise your voice, but for the most part it performs far beyond what I’ve come to expect from such a low-end product.
While the design isn’t entirely unique, it is comfortable, well-built, and the removable cable is a welcome addition if it isn’t proprietary.
Tips: The stock tips on the ZS3 just didn’t work for me as it was too easy to lose a good seal. After playing around a bit, I found a few options that worked particularly well. Wide bore tips such as those from Ultimate Ear’s UE600 softened the bass and let out the treble making the ZS3 brighter and more energetic. These are my preferred tips. Sony’s Hybrids sounded basically the same as the stock tip, keeping the treble soft and the bass explosive, but I was able to get and hold a good seal much more consistently. The tips from the Mixcder ANC-G5 also worked really well with the ZS3 boosting treble a touch and lessening bass presence a bit, but not to the extend of UEs tips.
Amping/Source Matching: The ZS3 worked just fine with the HTC One M8 and XDuoo X3, but I did prefer them filtered through the Topping NX1. It removed some of the warmth and color the M8 and X3 brought to the table, making the ZS3 more balanced. I don’t think amping is required as the ZS3 is pretty easy to drive, but if you amp has a particular sound or signature there is a good bet the ZS3 will pick it up. It’s overall sound seems to be easily effected by the source device.
KZ is known for offering up great sound at very low prices. The ZS3 is no different and while it isn’t the huge leap forward I was hoping for, they’re probably the best KZ to date.
The ZS3 comes across to me as a mixture of many of my favorite past KZs. Treble is clear and tight, though it could use a bit more sparkle and is a little too smooth for my preferences. Compared to the EDR2 the ZS3 is lacking in detail and clarity, but is without a doubt easier on the ears. It toes a fine line between being dull and overemphasized, and I suspect would be just right for most listeners.
The midrange is probably the ZS3s most accomplished aspect, topping KZ’s own ATE. Vocals and instruments have excellent presence, sounding natural and detailed. I absolutely adore the way female vocals are presented. Warm and inviting, and slightly more forward than male vocals, they pull you in and delicately caress your ears. Give Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’ or ‘Send My Love’ a go and you’ll see what I mean. Outstanding midrange here.
Bass on the ZS3 is a bit of a mixed bag for me personally, but not because it’s poorly done. On a technical level it is more or less outstanding; excellent extension, well balanced, surprisingly quick, and awesomely punchy (especially at high volumes). It’s even got lots of texture. My issue is that the ZS3 can be overly bassy, something I was hoping KZ would avoid this time around. They’re not bass-head earphones, but can be bass cannons when called upon. Kavinsky, known for his retro 80s style has changed things up a bit taking a more traditional EDM approach with some of his 2016 releases. Give his track Solli a go. The sub-bass line in the opening moments really shows off the ZS3’s low end capabilities.
The ZS3’s party piece to go along with their engaging midrange is a monster of a soundstage, besting even the ZS1 and ZN1 mini which offered some of the most spacious sound you could get in this price range. They give you an honest sense of space that combined with great imaging and instrument placement enables you to become enveloped in your music, movie, or whatever form of media you’re listening to at the time.
What all the above leads up to is an earphone that sounds pretty impressive. Smooth treble, stunning midrange, and a low end that can thump with some serious authority.
Mi In-Ear Headphones (14.99 USD): Better known here in North America as the Piston 3.0, these two have more in common than you would expect. Their overall signature is very similar with the ZS3 having better extension at both ends, a more forward midrange, a much larger and more airy soundstage with improve imaging, and greater refinement across the board. I would consider them a direct upgrade to the 3.0.
Accutone Pavo (51.00 USD): The Pavo offers more sparkle and energy than the ZS3 due to a more emphasized treble region. It is also more detailed through the midrange, though the ZS3 is more forward. The ZS3 digs deeper into sub-bass regions than the Pavo, but fall just short in offering up the same levels of detail. While the Pavo falls more in line with my personal preferences, the ZS3 is a more fun listen resulting from their greater mid-bass presence and the extra punch this brings.
Brainwavz S5 (99.50 USD): I found the S5 to be exceptionally smooth and mellow; almost neutral if it wasn’t for an overly recessed midrange. The S5 and ZS3’s midranges sound very similar with KZ’s mids being notably more forward. Treble on the S5 is slightly more emphasized and detailed, while bass on the ZS3 is way more punchy, detailed, and exciting. The ZS3 has a more spacious soundstage, but the S5’s improved separation and detail makes up for this deficit. The S5 is overall the more accomplished earphone, as I would expect from a near 90 USD price difference. That said, the ZS3 brings a level of musicality to it’s sound that the S5 is missing and is again the most entertaining listen in most circumstances.
What can I say other than KZ has done it again, releasing what is arguably their best earphone yet. The ZS3 has a great design, uses quality materials, sings with a well-rounded sound signature, and offers features that belie their price tag. Their sound quality pretty easy competes with or bests more expensive products.
While they’re not my favorite KZ (that title is shared with the ANV and EDR2), they’re probably the one that would resonate best with a wide range of listeners as they impress on many levels. Unless KZ has really stepped up their game with the newly released ED12 that I still need to hear, or someone else swoops in with a doozy of a hyper-budget earphone, the ZS3 is certainly one of the best deals out there.
Thanks for reading!
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