Today we’re going to be checking out Knowledge Zenith’s (KZ) newest budget wonder, the ZS5.
KZ is pretty well known for their budget-minded models that pack excellent sound quality in a very affordable package. The ZS5 is no different. Correct me if I’m wrong but at this time the ZS5 is, by far, the least expensive 2+2 hybrid on the market. For 30 USD you get two dynamic drivers (DD) plus two balanced armature (BA) drivers, per side, along with a removable 0.75 mm two pin cable. I still don’t understand how KZ manages to keep the price as low as they do when they pack this much punch into their earphones. Such value, much yes.
Let’s take a closer look at them, shall we?
The grey ZS5 was purchased from Penon Audio at a discounted rate for the purposes of review. The blue ZS5 was purchased on AliExpress for around 50 CAD. There is no financial incentive for writing this review, and all thoughts and opinions within are my own. They do not represent KZ, Penon Audio, or any other entity.
At the time of this review the ZS5 retailed through Penon Audio for 30.00 USD; https://penonaudio.com/KZ-ZST-In-Ear-Earphones
My Gear and I:
I’m a 30 year old professional working for what is currently the largest luxury hotel chain on the planet. I have a background in Psychology which probably explains my somewhat dry writing style. My entry into the world of portable audio was due primarily to a lack of space for a full-sized stereo system during my university years, and truly began with the venerable JVC HA-FXT90. After reading pretty much the entirety of IjokerI’s multi-earphone review thread, reviews from other established writers, and thus being greatly inspired, I took a chance and started writing my own.
Fast forward a couple years and I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to write about products for wonderful companies like HiFiMan, RHA, Accutone, ADVANCED, NarMoo, Mixcder, Brainwavz, Meze and many more. I don’t do it for money or free stuff, but because this is my hobby and I enjoy it. If my reviews can help guide someone to a product that makes them happy, I’ll consider that a job well done and payment enough.
Gear used for testing was an XDuoo X3, Shanling M1, HiFi E.T. MA8, and my aging Asus G73 gaming laptop. A TEAC HA-501 headphone amp was recently added to the collection. I listen primarily to various EDM sub-genres (liquid drum and bass, breakbeat, drumstep, etc.), hip hop, and classic rock. While I enjoy a variety of signatures I generally lean towards slightly warm with elevated treble and sub-bass, an even mid-range response, and reduced mid-bass. Lately I’ve been enjoying more mellow and relaxed products with a bass tilt. Two of my favorite in-ears, the Echobox Finder X1[i] with grey filters installed and the Fischer Audio Dubliz Enhanced are good examples of my preferred signatures.
Packaging and Accessories:
KZ has been steadily improving their packaging, making large strides with their more recent releases. Instead of a small, bland, lightly branded cardboard box, the ZS5’s presentation while still quite basic, is much more mature.
The matte black box they arrive in fits nicely in your hand, with the ZS5 on display through the plastic viewing window that composes the entirety of the front of the package. There isn’t really anything noteworthy, unless you want to get a chuckle from the interesting English translations;
“Perseverance origin from love. As audiophile, we commitment to reappear the touching melody to everyone.”
“Powerful bass and sensitive sound details bring wonderful delight of aural.”
“Honorific customer, thank you for choose the KZ headphones to experience the acclaimed HiFi audio.” – It is my pleasure, I say to that.
Lifting out the viewing window and removing the plastic tray in which the ZS5’s removable earpieces are securely nestled, you find the manual, cable, and spare “Starline” ear tips (s/l, m preinstalled). I have to give KZ bonus credit for the manual which contains a fair bit of useful information; in-depth safety advice, how to choose the best ear tips, microphone function, burn-in recommendation (5 minutes), and how to get the best quality sound out of the product. It’s very comprehensive but would benefit greatly from improved translations. I can figure out what they’re getting at, but that extra bit of polish would go a long way, especially as they gain popularity in primarily English speaking countries.
As I have found myself saying quite a bit lately, it’s a basic but pleasant unboxing experience. The only immediate area of improvement I can think of is in the quality of their translations in the manual and on the box. Maybe they could dive into including some sort of carrying pouch or hard case too. A 30 USD 2+2 hybrid is something special, and their awesome hard case would be a welcome inclusion.
Build, Comfort, and Isolation:
The ZS5 has come under a lot of flak online for the gaps between the two sections that join to form each earpiece. I think people are overlooking that these gaps hide three massive vents and are an intentional and perfectly functional aspect of their reasonably complicated but borrowed *cough* Campfire Audio *cough* design. With the two ZS5’s I have on hand, the fit and finish is consistent, free of sharp edges or sloppy mold lines. In my opinion their build is excellent and tolerances for fit and finish impressive.
Comfort is going to be a bit of a mixed bag and quite personal. Thankfully, the ZS5 is relatively cheap so it’s not like you’re spending 600 USD to find out if this odd, angular shape works with your ears. For me personally, I find the design very comfortable. The light weight and shallow fit means they perch comfortably in my outer ear without causing any unpleasant hot spots. KZ’s excellent “Starline” tips combined with good memory wire implementation (which actually holds it’s shape) keep them stable and secure in my ears.
Due to those three massive vents, I found isolation on the ZS5 to be pretty abysmal. Without any music playing, they’re not much better than popping in a pair of iems without a tip installed. I can hold conversations with people with ease, listen to videos at my normal listening volumes, etc. Get some music going and things improve, but they still isolate well below average. Throw on some foam tips and average dynamic driver levels of isolation are almost attainable. Great earphone, but don’t buy to successfully block out your surroundings.
To upgrade the cable or not?:
When you order the ZS5, you’ll notice there is the option to upgrade to their silver-plated cable for only 7.00 USD more. It’s a decent cable, but if I were to buy this earphone again I would give it a pass. Why?
– No perceptible change to sound quality. Forum-goers spout that the cable makes the ZS5 more detailed, clear, and airy. Sorry, but I can’t agree. I paired it with both ZS5s, hearing nothing new over the stock cable. I also used a splitter so I could swap between them at will. After hours of listening? Nothing. No perceptible difference.
– After a day of use, waves developed in the cable above the y-split that won’t go away. Not an issue with the stock cable.
– It simply doesn’t feel as durable as the stock cable, even if it has better strain relief at the jack and y-split.
On the plus side;
– cable noise is minimal
– memory is low (minus the waviness)
– it is very flexible
– it lacks the stickiness of the stock cable
– if aesthetics are important, it looks more impressive
That said, I do like the stock cable’s angular styling at the jack and y-split. It seems heavily inspired by VSonic’s updated cables on their VSD series earphones and looks great. In the end the silver cable certainly isn’t bad, but for me isn’t worth the extra cost. It feels like a lateral move which to me doesn’t warrant replacing the regular cable which has proven itself over and over in one form or another on many of the 29 KZ models I own. I would have no issues recommending it as a replacement to a broken stock cable, however.
10 mm low frequency driver x 2
6.4 mm medium frequency driver x 2
30095 Balanced Armature driver x 2
Custom 1205 Balanced Armature driver x 2
Frequency response: 20-20000Hz
Plug: 3.5mm, 90 degree angled
Earphone interface: 2 pin, 0.75 mm
Tips: The stock, pre-installed medium ‘Starline’ tips are all I need on most earphones, and the ZS5 is no different. I tried tips from JVC, Sony, and Ultimate Ears, but always came back to the stock. Best fit and best sound. Done.
Amping/Source: Feed the ZS5 quality files from a quality source and you’ll be treated to a better experience. Seems logical, but it is quite apparent. From my phone it sounds fine. From my TEAC HA-501 they sound amazing. Larger, detailed, and with more umph.
The Blue and Silver ZS5 sound identical. Just an FYI for those that were wondering.
The ZS5 comes across as a veritable “Best Of Knowledge Zenith”. It takes what I consider KZ’s most well-known and popular tuning, the slightly warm and bright sound of the ED series, mashes it with the ZS3’s amazing mid-range and robust low end, and throws in the ZST’s outstanding detail, clarity, and separation for good measure. The end result is the most versatile and capable KZ yet.
The ZS5’s treble is clean and crisp, if not a touch dry just like the ZST. Extension is great with no perceptible roll off to my ears. It’s not splashy or loose, just precise and accurate. It will certainly comes across as overly bright to the treble sensitive, but to my ears it helps emphasize the excellent detail you get up there.
Moving into the mid-range, while slightly set back when compared to the treble and bass it’s still well defined and isn’t drown out or overshadowed by the other frequencies. While the ZS5 handles male vocals well, they can come across a bit hard and unnatural. As a result, I found myself drawn to their presentation with female vocals which have some extra warmth and intimacy to them.
The ZS5’s low end shows excellent extension, rolling off smoothly as it dips into the deepest ranges. It’s presentation is somewhat soft and lacks punch, but it’s reasonably quick and works well with most tracks. Best of all, it isn’t fatiguing.
Sound stage is the only area where the ZS5 is truly average in my opinion. I’m not hearing the massive presentation others have touted. BUT, I’m right on board with their impressive imaging, separation, and layering which bests the ZST, my previous benchmark for technical prowess from KZ. Even at high(ish) volumes and with busy tracks the ZS5 keeps it’s composure and each element of the track remains clearly defined.
Overall the ZS5 is a good sounding earphone. It has a versatile, if somewhat bright signature with technical abilities that wouldn’t be out of place on more expensive products.
ZS3 (~15.00 USD): The ZS3 places a greater emphasis on the mid-range and low end. I find it’s warmer, more colored presentation a touch more natural than the ZS5’s colder presentation. Swapping between the two highlights the ZS5’s much more impressive treble extension, and the ZS3’s punchier, more extended bass. Their mid-ranges are quite comparable with the ZS5 pulling a touch more detail. Sound stage I’d have to give to the ZS3, but just barely. I prefer the ZS3’s signature, but respect the ZS5’s technical prowess and capabilities.
ZST (19.90 USD): The ZST portrays larger sound stage with a less intimate presentation that is immediately noticeable to my ears. I prefer the ZST’s lower mid-range over the ZS5, but move to the upper mid-range and the ZST’s imbalance is very noticeable. Imaging, layering, and separation are all notably improved on the ZS5. This allows them to feel open and spacious despite a smaller stage. They’re more natural than the ZST too with a sense of warmth and refinement the ZST is missing.
Audbos K3 (119.00 USD): The K3 and ZS5 are pretty close in tune and overall sound quality with the K3 taking the proverbial trophy. It’s a smoother, more powerful and more refined experience with improvements in most every category. The ZS5 bests it only in overall balance due to it’s a prominent mid-range. However, while when listening to the two back-to-back the K3 shows itself to be the more mature earphone, the ZS5 comes close enough to make you think twice about whether it is worth dropping the extra 89 USD that earphone commands.
If you were worried the ZS5 wouldn’t live up to the hype, you can rest easy. It’s an excellent earphone that in my opinion makes it hard to justify dropping up to 100 USD on something else, because that’s pretty much what you’ll have to do to beat the sound quality on tap. That is unless you already own the ZS3 and ZST. While the ZS5 improves on both of those models, it comes across redundant if you already own them.
Without a doubt the ZS5 will cause dissension among those that really detest borrowed (or stolen if you prefer that term) designs. That practice isn’t new for KZ and you’re probably not their target audience anyway (don’t mistake that as me saying such practices are acceptable). Plus, you can almost argue it’s like adverting for Campfire Audio. Do you really think someone is going to cross shop the two brands?
Get past the design and what you have is a well-built 2+2 hybrid with great features and stellar sound quality. They don’t cost much and the choice to use a fairly standard 0.75mm removable 2-pin cable with readily available replacements means it’s not a pointless feature. The ZS5 has bang-for-your-buck written all over it. Well, actually it has “dynamic x2 armature x2” written all over it, but you get what I mean. Just buy one and see for yourself.
Thanks for reading!
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
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