Knowledge Zenith: A great place to begin your audiophile journey (Pt. 3)
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 sound stage 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.
*I found this model received some silent updates over time. The beefy 2-pin connector was replaced with the standard 0.75mm they’re using on everything now. The plastics were downgraded resulting in a lighter, cheaper feeling earphone. The two newer versions I have also added in a mild treble boost giving them more treble energy than my original model. While the original wasn’t necessarily to my tastes at the time, I’ve grown to really appreciate it’s smooth, warm sound. The current versions are more well-rounded which I thought I would like more, but that hasn’t been the case.*
ZS3E impressions to be added soon. Quick and dirty is that is is a combination of the ZS3 and ZS4 with the latter’s massive bass, the former’s mids, and a treble region that sits somewhere between the two. It’s a rock solid bass cannon.
The ZS3 was probably my top budget earphone at the time it came out and was exceptionally popular among the budget community. The ZS4 is much of the same, but with some critical changes.
First, while it looks nearly the same, I found KZ decreased the quality of plastics in the ZSx lineup over time. My original ZS3 feels much more expensive and solid than the current ZS3 which feels slightly better than the ZS4. The ZS4 is hilariously light. Flicking it with your fingernail results in some seriously thin, chintzy sounding plastic. It’s not all bad though. KZ dropped added a lipped nozzle so you won’t have to worry as much about tips falling off or getting stuck in your ear. Ergonomics are otherwise the same as the ZS3. Top notch comfort and outstanding isolation abound. Oh yeah, and they come with a really flimsy and thin version of KZ’s ‘Starline’ tips which I found really weird. They’re not bad to use, thankfully.
Unlike the ZS3 which featured a single dynamic, the ZS4 goes the hybrid route tossing a single armature into the mix for a 1+1 setup. If you enjoyed the ZS3 but found it a little lacking in the treble regions, the ZS4 will be right up your alley. It’s got more detail, sparkle, and better extension which also results in a larger, more airy sound stage, and the ZS3 was no slouch there. Bass extends even better on the ZS4 easily giving off a sub-woofer style feel that you get from older models like the original ZS1. It’s pretty damn awesome with EDM. The mid-range doesn’t stand out as much here as it did on the ZS3 thanks to the treble from the added armature, but otherwise it is just fine. If you like v-shaped tunes, the ZS4 is a very good example of the breed.
You can check out my full review here.
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.
While the ZS7 is visually in the same vein as the ZS5 and ZS6, and shares it’s choice of materials (aluminum) with the ZS6, it ditches the 2+2 hybrid setup in favour of four balanced armatures and one dynamic driver. At first I was not a fan of this earphone finding it impossibly bassy. Turns out that was just the crappy XDuoo Nano D3 DAP I paired it with. For whatever reason, they have a weird interaction. Once paired with a good DAP, anything but the D3, it turns out the ZS7 is still somewhat bassy but actually quite impressive.
It’s basically a ZS10 Pro in a different shell with more sub-bass and a softer treble response. Sound stage falls behind the older ZS5/ZS6 models, but still provides a good sense of air and with better technicals. The ZS7 is pretty wicked with electronic, hip hop, and any other genre that benefits from a hefty bass line. I also appreciate the treble since it is detailed, but not as aggressive as we’re used to from KZ hybrids. The mids are oddly satisfying too with a more more natural tone and timbre than we’ve received from the vast majority of the brands hybrid offerings. This is one that has really grown on me over the months and it comes highly recommended.
The ZS10 was a big deal when it first arrived. It had five drivers (4 armatures, 1 dynamic), a massive crossover on display, and the highest price a KZ had commanded at the time. I for one was totally on board since, well, I was already a brand fan boy and I really enjoyed a number of their hybrids up to that point.
Once in hand the ZS10 proved to be a chubby thing with a massive shell. Still, the Shozy Hibiki used a very similar shell design and is even thicker despite housings only a single dynamic. Very few people complained about the girth of that thing, so I can’t rag on the ZS10 too much. Still, despite the size I found it quite comfortable. Build was also just fine with nice plastics and good fit and finish. Some more recent releases like the ZSN are a step up though, so it would be nice to see KZ refresh the ZS10 to match the ZSN in quality. That’ll never happen though.
While it is a bass-forward earphone, the low end is my least favorite part of the ZS10’s presentation. It extends well and can certainly carry a tune, it just comes across a bit too soft and smooth, bloated even. The mid-range is my favorite aspect. With an upper mid bump it gives vocals good presence and detail with succumbing to sibilance. I especially enjoy them with the style of female vocals common in drum and bass. Treble is smooth and rife with clarity but aren’t overly emphasized. Some say the ZS10 is bright but that statement escapes me completely. This thing is mellow and bassy with great clarity and versatility. One of the better modern KZ’s for sure in my opinion.
Full review here should you wish to take a gander.
The ZS10 Pro is a worthy addition to KZ’s lineup. It ditches the original ZS10 shell which was a bit ungainly and replaces it with the ZSN’s more ergonomic design. Gone is the see-through faceplate which has been replaced with a stylish stainless steel piece adorned with a design similar to that found on the ZSN. It looks expensive, and it feels expensive. But it’s not.
Sound quality is excellent with a typically KZ mild v-shape to it. Clarity is top notch at this price point, backed by a low end that digs very deep and provides a very visceral experience. Mids are slightly recessed but remain clear and detailed, and most importantly free of sibilance. Treble is elevated and quick with a brightness that will turn off some, as always. Overall an easy recommendation when it comes to their modern lineup.
Can check out the full review here.
At the time, the ZSR was 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 sound stage 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 sound stage 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.
In the past I said “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.” While the ZST is still a good product, KZ has done an amazing job refining their use of balanced armatures. The next earphone we are covering one ups the ZST more or less obsolete. It still has price going for it though and can routinely be found for around 10 USD. At that price it is certainly still worth checking out.
The ZSN is a doozy of a release from KZ and in my opinion nullifies any need to consider the ZST, unless of course a 10 USD hybrid sounds appealing. At that price, the ZST is still a good buy, but recent KZ hybrids, like the ZSN, definitely highlight the ZST’s age.
First up, the build quality is fantastic. The use of a dense acrylic with a metal (probably an aluminum alloy) faceplate makes for an earphone that feels weighty and way more expensive than the 20 bucks it commands. The ZSN also introduced two new cable features. First are the updated 2-pin connectors which are shared with QDC. Next are the new performed ear guides, a welcome move away from the memory wire they were sticking on everything. Don’t get me wrong, I thought KZ memory wire was much more effective than the majority found throughout the industry. It actually held the shape you set it to. Even so, preformed ear guides all the way. The rest of the cable is good too using the braided design they introduced with the AS10. I’ll always have a soft spot for their old cables, but I can’t deny their current cable is a big step up for most buyers.
Sound is another standout area for the ZSN, a sentiment echoed by the community. Because I’m so busy reviewing new products, I hardly have time to spend listening to past favorites. Tossing the ZSN back in while writing this was a joy and I found myself absentmindedly running through half of an hour long EDM mix, lost in the experience. The ZSN continues what KZ has been doing with every release; tinkering and refining. While it is still somewhat warm with emphasized extremes, the mid-range is brought more forward and has a weightier, larger presence than on most older KZs. It also has a breathy texture to it, especially with female vocals. It’s reminiscent of the armatures designed in house by EarNiNE. Bass is typical KZ, digging exceptionally deep with good control and plenty of texture. While the treble is still emphasized, it’s not as peaky as some other models using the same drivers and seems to be resonating well with those who are less treble tolerant. Add to all that a well separated and reasonably spacious sound stage and you have yourself a very competitive earphone.
Feel free to check out the full review if interested.
The ZSN Pro doesn’t do anything the ZSN doesn’t in terms of build, save for replacing the aluminum faceplate for a heavy, thicker, zinc alloy one. I personally think it looks plasticy and cheap, even though it certainly doesn’t feel it. Other than that, the rest of the build is the same and as such is outstanding.
In terms of sound the ZSN Pro is a misstep. It takes the outstanding ZSN’s signature, dials in more treble, extra bass, some midrange sibilance, and calls it a day. Not my favorite of the bunch. It’s not a bad choice by any means though, especially considering how inexpensive it is. It’s just not worth of the Pro moniker. The ZSN is the more balanced of the two and doesn’t make any sacrifices to do it.
Feel free to check out the full review here.
Looking like a baby ZS6, the ZSA certainly peaked some interest when it was first released. I think that interest was warranted as it is one of my favorite KZ’s to date, even if it has two notable faults that hold it back.
As you may have noticed, it looks like the ZS6 but rounded off. It’s about half the size though, and way smaller than you might anticipate from pictures. The build quality is outstanding and puts to shame products costing a hell of lot more. It’s aluminum shells are absolutely flawless. It introduced a new connector type too, however, it was one that isn’t particularly compatible with the rest of the KZ lineup. While the ZSA is extremely comfortable, ergonomics are odd and might result in a fit comes across as quite unstable. I said it best in my review;
“Fit and stability, however, might be slightly awkward depending on the shape of your outer ear. With the ZSA, the nozzle protrudes out and away, quite far from the body of the earphone. This is due to the way the face of the inner side tapers out towards the nozzle. This means that when they’re inserted into your ear, there really isn’t much supporting the ZSA beyond the ear tip and the memory wire, if you’ve got it bent in a way that it clasps your ear. “
Sound quality is a standout in my opinion. Treble is well extended with outstanding control and tons of detail. This is some of my favorite treble from the brand. Bass is well balanced with about even mid- and sub-bass emphasis and little to no bleed into the midrange. It rolls off earlier than I personally prefer, and as such doesn’t offer up a ton of visceral feelback. Not one for bassheads in my opinion, and instead is more for those looking towards texture and speed. The mid-range is slightly warm and lean with clear vocals, though it could stand to be more forward. I never found it wanting for clarity or cohesion, it’s just too quiet at times. I found it most notable with background vocals. While the sound stage is firmly average, imaging precision is well-above the norm leading to some great experiences if using them for gaming.
The full review can be found here.
Impressions will be up soon, but don’t hold your breath. This thing is terrible. It’s muddy, has poor end to end extension, and is just a lifeless disappointment. Avoid at all costs. If you like the look and form factor though, I highly recommend picking up it’s QKZ cousin, the KD8. Better plastics, a nicer cable, and a really clean, well-balanced sound. Plus it’s super cheap and can be found for around only 10 USD, often much less.
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!