Knowledge Zenith: A great place to begin your audiophile journey (Pt. 3)

Greetings!

After a slight delay, we return with part three of my look at Knowledge Zenith.

Today we will be covering their ATx, HDx, and Zx series earphone which contain some of their best models in my opinion. Micro-drivers, dual-drivers, hybrids, Audio Technica ‘inspired’ designs, you’ll find it all here.

Enough wasting time, let’s get started!


ate
ATE (1st Gen)

The ATE was released last year to a mostly positive reception and has since become one of the most recommended and popular KZs out there. It has also received a number of modifications and revisions. My comments will be based on the release version.

I found the ATE to offer an uncharacteristically mid-focused sound with rolled off treble and bass. They have some of the tightest and smoothest treble of any KZ, yet maintain excellent detail and clarity. Bass is thumpy and quick, but the lack of extension and sub-bass emphasis keeps it in check. It also lacks a bit of detail. Very non-fatiguing. Their mid-range is lush and fully fleshed out. Natural, warm, detailed, it wraps you up and cuddles you. Excellent stuff here. The ATE also stands out because of it’s massive soundstage, good imaging, and accuracy in instrument placement; not usually strengths of budget earphones.

The ATE is undoubtedly one of the best KZs but I feel their newest revision, the ATR, has made it redundant in the lineup.


atr
ATR

It has been said that the ATR is the ultimate version of the ATE and I agree 100%. Their signature and capabilities and nearly identical but the ATR has received some minor tweaks here and there that take it to the next level.

Build quality on the housings is improved with the addition of a proper nozzle lip. This has made it easier to pair them with a wider variety of tips that help improve their sound and fit. Two additional vents have been added to the housing which I feel has made them sound slightly more open at the cost of even worse isolation.

Treble and bass extension has been improved and breathes some much needed life into a signature that could occasionally sound a bit stale. Treble was also given a touch more presence making the ATR more lively and less mid-range heavy. All these slight adjustments culminate into an outstanding earphone and the final step in KZ’s ATx line.


hd9
HD9

It would be easy to dismiss the HD9 as yet another ATE revision, but you’d be wrong. They certainly have their similarities, but the HD9 really is it’s own beast.

The HD9’s housing is very similar to that of the ATx line, but with a shorter, thicker nozzle and revised back plate. I found them equally comfortable, though I prefer the HD9’s build as it has a proper, and very good, strain relief where the cable enters the ear pieces.

Sound quality is great and something unique in KZ’s lineup. Treble is similar in presentation to the ATR but comes across more crisp, a quality that helps give the HD9 their unique sound. Detail and clarity are good for a budget earphone and up there with KZ’s best. The HD9’s midrange is their specialty, pushed forward, wonderfully detailed, but slightly unnatural . Bass presentation overall takes a step back with the HD9. Flowing out of the midrange into mid-bass regions, there is a large dip. Things pick up again heading into sub-bass regions. Soundstage isn’t as expansive at the ATE/ATR due to the pushed up midrange, but it’s still quite good.

As a result of the recessed mid-bass, I find it takes time to become acclimatized to this tuning. It’s worth it though, especially if you listen to music where vocals are the priority.


hds1
HDS1

Micro-drivers for the win! The HDS1 is a good one too. Crammed inside that tiny, extremely comfortable little aluminum housing is a well-tuned, 6mm micro-driver that brings to KZ’s lineup one of the most balanced and neutral signatures.

Treble is well-extended and nicely detailed without being too sharp or prickly, though it can run a bit dry on some recordings. The mid-range on the HDS1 is slightly forward in my opinion, and as a result soundstage is smaller than I expected from a semi-open back earphone. It’s not congested by any means, but it does give off a more intimate presentation putting you close to the artist. They sing at you, not to you. For the most part bass is well controlled and pleasant without ever being overpowering, though mid-bass frequencies have a bit more presence than I would prefer. It’s plentiful enough for bass heavy beats, but polite enough to keep the HDS1 from ever sounding like a bass-heavy earphone.

The HDS1 is pretty much a no-brainer, especially given it’s often one of the least expensive models. The only area I would like to see improvement in is perceived durability. I haven’t had issues with my pair yet, but the overly thin, somewhat sticky cable and poor housing strain relief are not confidence inspiring.

Check out my full review here: http://www.head-fi.org/products/binmer-tm-kz-hds1-mini-metal-diy-headset-hd-dynamic-pronunciation-ear-headphones-silver/reviews/14974


hds2
HDS2

I had really high hopes for these when they first started showing up, and for good reason. They were (and still are) KZ’s first tip-mounted, micro-driver earphone since the Micro Ring, and “borrow” Yamaha’s EPH-100 housing. What could go wrong? A lot apparently.

They use the same mediocre cable as the HDS1 and really sound uninspired. Overly mid-bassy, lacking detail, rolled off treble, veiled mids. These were a huge disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think they’re terrible as they do have some merits, those being great imaging and a surprisingly large soundstage.

What they fail to offer is the same value as other KZ earphones. They come across as being more about style than substance. I think they’re in line sonically with mainstream 10 USD offerings from Skullcandy and the like, but those are earphones KZ usually dominates with ease.

They look good, but sound mediocre. Not really worth dropping your cash on since there are many other options that do the same type of sound with much greater competence.


hds3
HDS3

After the disappointment of the HDS2, I was pleased to see that KZ was going back to the basic HDS1 design with the third installment in this lineup. They feature the same basic housing design, but this time in chrome and with EDse elements tossed in. In addition to that, they ditched the thin sticky cable for a traditional black, rubberized cable, and replaced the y-split with an inline mic module. These were all really welcome changes.

While the HDS3 fails to live up to the original in terms of sound quality, they’re not anywhere as bad as the HDS2. The HDS3 tosses aside the 1’s balanced, neutral-ish sound in favor of a more standard v-shaped signature. Treble has good energy and presence, bass hits hard, yet the midrange retains a decent presence. Where the HDS3 falls short is in refinement. They come across quite rough and grainy, nowhere near as refined as other similarly tuned KZ’s like the ED10 or EDse.

Taken alone they’re alright and make for a decent companion, but play them side-by-side with their peers and they don’t cut the mustard.

*At release there were some serious QA issues with the HDS3, with many buyers receiving faulty units. This quelled interest very quickly. I’m assuming this was addressed with later batches as they’re still readily available for purchase online. They may have also improved sound quality over the example I cover here.*


zs1
ZS1

The venerable ZS1, lovingly coined “Lord Bass” in my original review; you can read that here. Among all KZs, the ZS1 is the only that fully opens its arms to the warm embrace of serious bass.

The ZS1 is a dual driver, dual chamber earphone. The 8mm covers bass frequencies while the 6mm covers everything else. KZ tossed in a nice little crossover but stuck it to the rear of the tweeter for whatever reason, thereby reducing its presence. The ZS1 is warm, semi-open and has an above average soundstage. What they don’t offer is a typical audiophile signature.

KZ’s ZS1 pummels your eardrums with relentless bass. While it does occasionally overpower other frequencies, it does not interfere and distort them. Use an equalizer to dumb down the bass a bit and you’ll find that the ZS1 offers up creamy mids and surprisingly detailed treble. Now turn off the eq and listen to the ZS1 as it should be heard.

I originally found the memory wire a hindrance but have grown to love it. It keeps the earphone perched comfortably in my outer ear and as a result I can wear them for pretty much as long as I want without any discomfort.


zn1-mini
ZN1 Mini

The ZN1 Mini looks pretty similar to the ZS1 doesn’t it? 8mm bass driver? Check. 6mm for everything else? Check. Same housing? Check. That’s where the similarities end. The ZN1 Mini ditches the ZS1’s crossover and evens out the sound.

While the ZN1 Mini is technically the better earphone, it dials down the sub-bass too much in my opinion, at least when compared to the ZS1. Yes, treble and mids are brought forward and detail is improved a touch, but this seems to be at the expense of the silky refinement of the ZS1. Soundstage is probably the most cavernous of all KZs, and is pretty darn impressive for a $10 product. While still a bassy earphone the ZN1 Mini is even more conducive to eqing than the ZS1. If you want to change something, you probably can.

The cable is much thicker and notably more durable. Perusing the KZ thread and other areas of the forums you might see it referred to as a ‘garden hose’. An apt description if I must say. The cable is definitely on the short side and would be well-served with a few extra inches of material. The thickness also makes it a little unwieldy when worn behind the ear, though this can be addressed by some simple ear guides (as shown above). Any negatives are outweighed by the confidence of longevity and durability this cable gives you.


zs3
ZS3

A new era for KZ cropped up with the ZS3. They feature a removable two-pin cable, a custom-like design, yet maintain the quality sound and low price you would expect from a KZ.

Treble is clear and tight, though it could use a bit more sparkle and is a bit too smooth for my preferences. The mid-range and soundstage are probably the ZS3s most accomplished aspects, topping the ATE/ATR. Vocals and instruments have excellent presence, sounding natural and detailed. On a technical level the ZS3’s bass 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.

This is easily one of their best models, hands down. The cool design and extra features make the great sound that much sweeter.

You can check out my full review here: https://b9scrambler.wordpress.com/2016/09/03/kz-zs3-the-best-budget-earphone-out-there-right-now/


zst
ZST

The ZST is one heck of an earphone, hence why I saved it for last. At the time of writing this post, it was KZ’s newest release and first foray into the use of Balanced Armatures.

The ZST has a pretty impressive feature list;

  • 1+1 hybrid using a balanced armature and dynamic driver
  • removable cable
  • decent inline microphone
  • KZ’s new “Starline” tips
  • a custom-look, universal fit design
  • under 20 USD price tag

I would probably describe them as having a w-shaped signature with excellent extension on both ends and a prominent midrange backed by a ton of energy. Their mid- and sub-bass balance is well-tuned, though they are a little bright. This is something I think they could have dialed down just a touch, though on the plus side it makes for an entertaining listen and highlights the detail this thing can pull out of a track. Their treble presentation is a little unnatural, but that’s not uncommon for budget BAs and it’s better than other budget hybrids in this area.

Their soundstage is impressively large for a budget product, besting even the ZS1/ZN1 Mini and ATE/ATR models. What I find most impressive about this earphone is how that soundstage is used. They layer sound unlike any other KZ and provide even more accurate stereo imaging. If you enjoy gaming with earphones and don’t want to spend a ton, these are actually a pretty solid option.

If you’re only going to buy one KZ, this is probably the one to get. It’s easily the most technically competent of everything I’ve covered, it has a signature that works well with a variety of genres, and their sound is something I can see being enjoyed by most listeners.


That’s all for today folks! To clean things up, my next post will go over my personal favorites and which KZ’s I recommend spending your hard earned dollar on. You can bet the ZST will be on both of those lists.

Thanks for reading, and be sure to comment!

– B9Scrambler

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 4

8 comments

  1. I still don’t know what to think about ZST. I have no idea whether mine are crap. Clarity is astounding but the bass feels incredibly rolled off. I have ZS1, ZS3 and and the difference in bass is remarkable. I don’t know. Maybe the pair I got is bad. 😦

    Although, I still keep a pair of Rock Zircon in my bag just in case. I love those a lot too, have you had a chance to try them? They should be in the 15-dollar range.

    Like

    • Hey Martin,

      Thanks for the comment! These are very inexpensive products and while I haven’t run into many QC issues myself, others have. Yours could be a dud as the three pairs I’ve tested (own two + tried a fellow Head-fi’ers pair) are all quite bassy.

      If you haven’t already spent time testing different tips, definitely give that a go. The first thing to suffer from a poor seal is bass which could explain the early roll-off. I usually use medium tips but had to change to large with the ZST. Maybe you’re in the same situation and need a size larger than normal? The ZST should be similar to the ZS3 in regards to bass quantity.

      I haven’t tried the Zircon’s but they’ve been on my radar since they first showed up. From the descriptions I have a number of earphones with the same general signature so I’ve never really felt the need to pick them up.

      Like

  2. Thank you for writing such an extensive review of KZ earphones. I came across the KZ brand by accident and as a poor student who cannot afford expensive audiophile headphones, these immediately caught my eye.

    So, I am hoping that you can help me in picking up my first KZ earphones. I mainly listen to chillout trance, post-rock and trap music. So, I do like bass, but it need not be overpowering. I also need a mic.

    From your review, I am considering buying either ZST or ZS3. You can also suggest other KZ earphones. I am leaning towards ZST because I’ve never tried BA earphones before. But I heard these lack bass (when compared to ZS3) and have piercing highs, that can make them too harsh for listening to them for a long time. Is that true? I also heard that the detachable cable detaches too easily with a little pull. Did you face a similar issue? I might like the bassy ZS3s but I don’t know if the bass can be too overpowering.

    Thank you.

    Like

    • Hi Jay. Thanks for the comments and feedback! It’s appreciated.

      The ZS3 would be a good model to start with, as it’s bass presence falls just short of being overpowering. I found the ZST to be boosted in the bass. Not a ton, but they’re certainly not lacking.

      The two ZSTs and one ZS3 I own have no issues with the cable being loose. Very tight connections actually. Obviously that’s not going to be the case for everyone (see Head-fi for example), but my experiences have been good. If you constantly detach the cables that will cause them to loosen up over time as well. Best to avoid unplugging them unless necessary.

      Alternatives to the ZS3 if you want something even more cost effective and more traditionally shaped; ED3c/m or the RX. ED10 would be my personal pick, but it does run a little on the bright side. Not to the extent of the ZST though. It’s great with EDM and the extra treble helps with rock genres imo.

      Hope this is helpful!

      – B9

      Like

  3. Thank you very much! I am planning to order ED10 from amazon. I like how ED10 has a traditional design and I think they fit well for my intended purpose – I am planning to use these everyday when I go to college. The design of ZS3 looks a little weird and I am not sure if I will like them. But I will definitely order ZS3 & ZST in the future. I believe KZ makes some of the best bang for buck earphones these days.

    I want to ask your opinion regarding the 2 versions of the ZSTs. Some reviewers are saying that the newer colorful version of the ZST has been tuned a bit differently and sounds even better when compared to the original ZST. Is that true? Also, do I need an amp to extract the full power of the ZSTs?

    Like

    • Hi Jay. You are very welcome. Since I only have the carbon-design ZST I can’t comment on any difference between it and the colorful version. Maybe I’ll pick those up at some point and update my thoughts 🙂

      I don’t think the ZST needs amping at all. It’s easy to drive and sounds fine from any of the sources I’ve got; HTC One M8, PS Vita, Asus G73, Motorola Moto G 1st Gen (little bright with this one though), Samsung Nexus S, PS4 controller, etc. etc. I like it filtered through a warmer source which helps take the edge off the treble.

      Like

  4. I ordered ED10 and looking forward to it. I will also order ZST & probably ZS3 in the near future. Thank you very much for your advice, really appreciate it!

    Like

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