Knowledge Zenith: A great place to begin your audiophile journey (Pt. 1)
Today we are going to be starting our journey into the world of Knowledge Zenith (KZ).
I first dove into the vast sea of hyper-budget products a many years ago with the KZ Micro Ring, a tip-mounted micro-driver earphone, and the EDse which at the time was the new top dog taking on Xiaomi’s Piston 2.0 with great success. Since then my collection has grown and now contains 41 unique KZ products. Now is a good time to put in my disclaimer;
I am not associated with KZ in any way and am simply a fan of the brand who appreciates the variety and value their products bring to the market. With the exception of some of their more recent releases, I have purchased the vast majority of these products myself. Others were samples provided by various retailers, or loaned to me by fellow enthusiasts. KZs are getting more expensive, redundant, and with the frequency at which they release new models now I can’t afford to buy them all, nor do I want to. All comments within this article are my opinions based on how I hear these earphones through my sources and with my music. I cannot guarantee what you receive will sound exactly as I hear it, or that changes have not been made due to production variances, quality control, etc.
Why am I writing this article? I feel that KZ products can really help the budding audiophile get into the hobby inexpensively, find out what sound they like, and use these earphones as a leaping off point to bigger and better products. There is a dizzying array of sound signatures out there and KZ covers a good number of them. They’re also perfect for someone that wants a good, inexpensive earphone, or even something nice to gift to friends or family. Many KZ’s look, sound, and feel much more expensive than they really are.
Over the years my sources have changed drastically. I am currently using the following for most of my testing; LG G6, TEAC HA-501, Shanling M0 and M1, ZiShan DSD, HiFiMAN MegaMini, Periodic Audio Nickel, and the HiFi E.T. MA8. Some other sources find their way into the rotation at times as well, but those are my mains.
You may notice that my descriptions of each earphone are quite brief. This article is not intended for those who are already deeply invested in the portable audio hobby, but for those starting out. With that in mind, please note that A) I don’t have the experience and knowledge to write an article that is in-depth enough to please a hard-core audiophile, and B) that’s not the target audience of these products anyway. They’re not “giant-killers” and are simply awesome value for your money.
Since we will be looking at 41 different earphones, this will be broken up into multiple sections. This first post will start off slow, covering a number of KZ’s older and discontinued products. If you are familiar with Audio Technica’s earphones, some of these may look familiar. Many of KZ’s early models were heavy “inspired” by Audio Technica’s designs, a trend they move away from with future products…for the most part. Next we will look at the ED series (and the ES4). After that, the ATx, HDx, and Zx series of earphones. A new section has been added for their balanced armature only models, the AS06, AS10, and BA10. My final post will wrap thing up with my favorites and recommendations.
Keep in mind these are not reviews, just brief impressions of each model I own. If I’ve written a review, those will be linked accordingly. Parts 2, 3, 4, and 5 are linked at the bottom of the page should you want to check out more modern releases, and those I actually recommend buying.
Let us kick things off shall we?
The R3 was an interesting early product from KZ. It utilized a wooden housing and featured a very high quality removable cable with DC connector.
It still looks great, feels durable, fits well, and from a visual perspective sets the standard of looking the part of a significantly more expensive product, something future KZ products continue to do quite well. My pair does suffer from debilitating flex in the left driver, somewhat avoided through the use of a pair of UE600 foam tips, as seen above.
Upon first listen, you can tell they are an older KZ product, lacking refinement everywhere but in the bass. They offer up some unbelievably deep and smooth bass and have a decently spacious soundstage. Moving up the register you hear a lack of refinement and run into grainy, harsh upper-mids and treble prone to sibilance. You never really run into issues with instruments or sounds blending together, or with vocals being overshadowed by bass, but they’re not the most pleasant listen due to a somewhat metallic edge.
While I wish there was more to say, they just don’t offer up much when put head-to-head against their newer siblings. They would be a nice product for KZ enthusiasts like myself to add to their collection, but they fall short otherwise.
Similar to the later ZS1 and ZN1 Mini, the DT5 brings to the table some monster bass through the use of dual dynamic drivers. It leans more towards the ZN1 Mini’s presentation and is quite similar. I run mine with foam ear tips which warms up the signature and further accentuates the bass. Might as well go all the way with it right? Silicone tips will certainly be preferred by most since they allow the DT5’s perfectly solid treble extension to shine.
Soundstage on the DT5, while not as large as the Z series earphones, is still pretty impressive for such an inexpensive earphone. These housings are very heavy though, and could definitely be used as a weapon in a pinch. Despite the weight, they’re surprisingly comfortable worn cable-down, but even better worn cable-up which reduces microphonics.
The RX is another older KZ model but I get the feeling this one was updated to bring the sound more in line with recent offerings.
The RX brings forth a warm, smooth sound not unlike the ED3c. Bass, treble and mid-range are all nearly identical, with the RX coming across a little less warm, and with a touch more energy and detail. It wouldn’t shock me to find they used the same driver, with differences being netted out due to the housings.
Speaking of the housing, the RX looks pretty awesome with KZ written on a copper plate on the back, and a large vent on top that looks like a microphone intake. The front of the housings are ergonomically sloped, making them one of the more comfortable models in the lineup. The cable is great, being the same one found on the Micro Ring. Here, however, it is properly relieved leading into the housings.
The RX is something I could see many of you enjoying. The combination of a well-rounded, easy to listen to sound, unique design, and great comfort make them quite appealing. This one is still available and deserves a place in everyone’s collection.
The C56R is a surprisingly mellow listen with very restrained, un-KZ-like treble. They are lacking in overall detail, but don’t sound veiled or muffled. Mids are slightly recessed and not really a strength, but this again lends to their relaxed nature. Bass is a little sluggish and could use more texture. There is a focus more on mid-bass than sub-bass which I’m not a fan of.
Build quality is good with a mix of metal and plastic housings. Those of you whom detest KZs recent cable selections will go ape for these. The cable is standard black rubber. No stickyness, acceptable microphonics, and low memory. The straight jack is also tiny and well-relieved. I have a hard time seeing it interfering with any cellphone cases. Isolation is also not bad considering their shallow fit and fairly large vents. They are two rectangular vents on both the top and bottom of the housings. I bet these would be a cinch to pull apart if someone was interested. Strain reliefs are great at the jack and housings but the y-split is old-school G.K./KZ offering limited relief, same as is found on the Micro Ring.
Overall they’re not a stunning earphone that will set the budget iem world on fire, especially when compared to something like the ED9 or EDR2. That said, they have a place as an enjoyable background listening earphone, such as when you’re studying, reading a book, walking around town, etc. They have a very inoffensive, relaxing signature that does nothing overly well, but nothing terrible either.
The C56R isn’t great and there are better KZs out there, but they are still a decent listen despite their age. I’d say these are mostly for KZ enthusiasts who want to hear some of their older offerings.
Unfortunately my DS arrived with a partially functioning right driver, and since they were discontinued at the time I bought them I was never able to replace them with a fully functioning pair. I’ll cover what I can.
Build quality is probably the least impressive of any KZ I own. The cable is very stiff, plasticky, and microphonic as hell. It’s a horrible cable. The straight jack is quite nice though. All-metal with a very effective strain relief. The housings continue the trend of looking and feeling cheap. They’re large but they weigh next to nothing. This does help with comfort though, as the DS pretty much disappears once in your ear.
From what I can gather listening with the left earpiece only, the DS leans quite heavily on a thumpy mid-bass presence with smooth, rolled off treble and a muffled midrange. I know that doesn’t sound like a good thing, but they’re actually quite listenable. It’s too bad I’ll probably never get to hear a working pair, as I think they would have been half-decent. Oh well.
This is a very comfortable and decently built earphone saddled with some pretty weird tuning, a sound which they would return to years later in the ED12. Since the CM9 isn’t really worth your time, I’ll keep this short and copy the description from my original shootout.
“I’ll be blunt, these are the worst of the KZ products I have tried. I have no idea what’s wrong with them, but they sound very, very wrong. They have a great soundstage and ridiculous sub-bass, but that’s about all I can give them credit for.
The housing is decently built, but despite being metal feels plastic and frail. The cable is a very generic item, nowhere near the quality of KZ’s other cables.
For some reason their bass is explosive and in-your-face, while both mids and treble are recessed and hollow. Aggressive burn-in and wide bore tips help to bring them forward a bit, but there is still this odd dissociation between bass and everything else. It’s akin to what I would expect from a (very) poorly tuned dual driver, or standing next to a subwoofer with the primary speakers facing the wrong direction. This was quite a disappointment as it took four attempts to actually get a pair. Oh well. At least they work. *shrug*”
The ANV was interesting in that opinions seemed to fall into the ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ categories. This may have been due to there being at least two different models, visually indistinguishable from each other. Since I have been lucky enough to own both versions, I can attest to there being a difference between the original model and the later 2014 version.
The ANV is a splitting image of the Audio Technica CKW1000ANV sans wooden button on the backside. Fortunately, this means they look quite good, with beautifully flowing lines. Next to more traditional barrel shaped earphones, I find them quite dashing. The cable is a little oldschool but is thick, durable, and tangle-resistant. They are well relieved both at the slightly chunky straight jack and housings. The y-split is exceptionally compact and breaks apart into a well-hidden chin slider.
The original model was much like the R3 with edgy, sibilance prone treble. They were quite balanced with a bass-lite attitude and forward mids. The later 2014 version that I currently own cleans up the spiky treble and adds a much needed dose of upper end sparkle and sub-bass without sacrificing their reasonably balanced sound. Despite using a large 14mm driver, bass is very quick and not overpowering. Sound is dispersed across a wide, yet forward soundstage that I wish offered more depth. I run them with large Sony Hybrids and a filter mod which further smooths out the upper registers.
It saddens me to know this model is no longer available and was discontinued. It was easily one of KZ’s best and most unique offerings.
The Micro Ring is yet another older KZ model , unique among its siblings for it’s use of a tip-mounted, 6mm micro driver. They are amply vented: open backed with five vents along the top of the housing. Despite this, they isolate acceptably.
The cable is slender but durable, poorly relieved at both the housings and y-split. It is excellently relieved at the jack. The 90 degree angled jack used here makes an appearance on many future KZ products.
The Micro Ring is well balanced with a bit of a bass boost, taking on a warmer, darker sound. It brings to the table detailed treble, a deep soundstage, good instrument separation, punchy mid-bass, and very capable sub-bass. Their natural sounding vocals, both male and female, are of particular note. Some earphones sound a little thin, some run with a thick meaty sound. The Micro Ring sits right in-between, offering up just the right amount of weight.
Overall the Micro Ring is a classic KZ. While it doesn’t present itself with the same technical prowess as some of the newer models, it definitely has it’s own unique charm and place in any KZ fan’s collection if you can find one. This little gem was also discontinued couple years back.
That’s all for today my friends. Please feel free to comment and discuss these and any other models you have heard.
Until next time, thanks for reading!