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 earphones 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!
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.
It has been said that the ATR is the ultimate version of the ATE and I agree 100%. Their signature and capabilities are 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.*
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.
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.
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/
The ZS5 is a model that caused quite a bit of dissension on release. If you’re aware of the existence of Campfire Audio, an American manufacturer of some much-loved premium earphones like the Andromeda, the ZS5 might look familiar. It’s a little too heavily inspired by Campfire’s distinctive designs. That said, borrowing is not something KZ is a stranger to. Go back and check out Parts 1 and 2 and familiarize yourself with Audio Technica’s legacy earphones and you’ll see what I mean. Regardless, the ZS5 is nicely constructed out of thick, durable plastics with good fit and finish. Despite the angular design, I found it quite comfortable though the nozzle is too short and the lack of a lip makes tip rolling a challenge.
In terms of sound, going back to the ZS5 now I must say that is is aging quite well. Prominent, detailed treble free of the sharpness inherent to KZ’s aluminum-shelled follow up, the ZS6. Slightly recessed but clear mids that are fairly accurate tonally. Bass is the only area where they falter, simply because it lacks punch and comes across soft and lacking texture.
Overall still an excellent buy at the prices they go for. Oh yeah, and if you like to brag about specs they’re a quad-hybrid with two balanced armatures and two dynamic drivers per side (2+2 hybrid), and even toss in some 0.75mm two-pin cables should you want to swap out the sticky stock cable for something a little more upscale.
You can find my full review of this instant budget classic here.
Like the ZS5 before it, the ZS6 is a quad-driver hybrid with a Campfire Audio inspired design. Unlike the ZS5, the ZS6 ups the ante with a gorgeously crafted aluminum shell. Ergonomics are about the same as the ZS5, if not slightly better due to some revised angles.
In terms of sound, the ZS6 hold a lot of “bests” in the KZ lineup. Clarity and detail are step above all others, as are imaging, layering, and separation. These qualities are a big step up from most earphones you’ll find in this price range. Compared to the ZS5, the ZS6 brings the mids and evens them out and adds in the texture and impact the ZS5 was lacking.
Treble is where the ZS6 is going to be hit or miss for most as it gets some serious emphasis and can be quite sharp though I personally found it fine given I’m not particularly sensitive to peaky treble. You can perform some basic mods to tone it down, such as removing the protective grill and installing some absorbing foam. I did end up “modding” mine by laying some HiFiMan RE400 fabric grills on top of the stock grills. The change is minor, but it takes the sharpest edge of the treble.
If you’re looking for an over performing budget earphone and aren’t afraid of some enthusiastic treble or modding, the ZS6 is well worth a look.
In my opinion, the ZSR is KZ’s best hybrid to date having the most mature tune of the bunch. It’s two balanced armatures and single dynamic per side (2+1 hybrid) are nearly as detailed as the ZS6 but without the polarizing treble, it’s mids are thicker, more forward, and more natural than any other KZ hybrid, and though it has a bit of a mid-bass focus, it’s bass digs DEEEEEP into sub regions. It is very ZS3-like in the low end though with more texture than the ZS3 but less than the ZS6. These are amazing for media consumption, such as movies and gaming. The cavernous sound stage certainly doesn’t hurt either.
Build quality is good using similar plastics to the ATR, though fit and finish on mine could be better. While I normally like KZ’s use of cursive writing to denote left and right channels, the printing on the ZSR looks out of place. And it’s printed upside down. Comfort is stellar with a custom-like design similar to the iBasso IT03 and ZS3, though keep in mind the oversized, 6mm wide nozzles that will very likely cause issues for fit with those with small ear canals. 6mm nozzles are usually reserved for earphones with tip-mounted drivers in my experience, so seeing it here was a bit of a surprise.
Overall a very well-crafted budget earphone and in my opinion, a must-have for any fan of Knowledge Zenith or anyone that simply wants a product that gives you good value for your dollar.
You can find my full review of this well-tuned hybrid here.
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!