KZ AS10: *Slow Clap*
Today we’re checking out the new AS10 from Knowledge Zenith (KZ).
KZ has been dominating the hyper-budget market for years now, partly due to raw saturation, but also because many of their products are straight up good and worth your attention. With the ZST, their first hybrid, KZ upped their game. Since then, they’ve delved deeper into the hybrid market releasing various models with a variety of driver configurations and in the process have seen themselves rise out of the hyper budget realm and up against more established competition.
The release of the AS10 sees a couple firsts for the brand. First off, it’s their first pure balanced armature model. Like the ZS10, it features five drivers per side. Unlike the ZS10, inside each ear piece is a 3D printed structure which houses the drivers, guiding sound to two individual outputs visible in the base of each nozzle, protected from dust and ear wax by a sheer filter.
The AS10 is also their most expensive model to date, firmly removing them from their roots in the sub-20 USD realm. It is worth taking a chance on the AS10? Absolutely.
Thanks to Lillian at DD Audio for sending over a sample of the AS10 for the purposes of review. The thoughts within are my own and do not represent KZ, DD Audio, or any other entity. There was no financial incentive provided to write this review. You can scoop up a set here;
Source and Amping:
For at home use the AS10 was powered by a TEAC HA-501 desktop amp with my Asus FX53V laptop sourcing music. For portable use it was paired with an LG G5, Shanling M1, HiFiMan MegaMini, or HiFi E.T. MA8. The AS10 is very easy to drive so an amp isn’t needed. A clean source is though, as it is very revealing. For example, it highlights all the electronic interference my G5 displays when interacting with the device.
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 in my headphones I generally lean towards slightly warm with elevated treble and sub-bass, an even and natural mid-range response, with reduced mid-bass. The HiFiMan RE800, Brainwavz B400, and thinksound On2 offer examples of signatures I enjoy. I generally listen at very low volumes, so keep this in mind when reading my thoughts on how an earphone sounds.
- Drivers: 5 balanced armatures, per side
- Frequency Response: 20-22,000Hz
- Sensitivity: 106dB
- Impedance: 32ohms
Packaging and Accessories:
The AS10 shows an evolution in KZ’s packaging, though it’s not one I’m fully on board with. The new matte black cardboard box is large, borne only with only the KZ logo written in a contrasting glossy font. On the bottom are a couple stickers, one showing the model and variant (cyan, no mic) and the other provides KZ’s address and contact information.
Opening the lid you find a dense cardboard plate glued to the back. On it is the KZ logo and the statement, “Don’t forget. The original intension is use headphones to enjoy music.” It’s a good message and reminds you to stay grounded. Inside the box the AS10’s ear pieces are set within a large foam insert, left and right printed in large white font underneath. Further down is a wide metal plate engrave with the KZ logo, the AS10 model designation, and notification that they feature 10 balanced armatures in English and Chinese characters. This metal plate is actually pretty cool and is my favorite part of the new packaging.
Lifting out the foam insert you find a small bag containing the small and large “Starline” tips (medium come pre-installed) and another bag holding the cable. There is also a QA certificate to appease those worried about KZ’s quality control, a surprisingly detailed manual, and a warranty card for the AS10’s one year warranty. How easy that will be to use for those outside of the Asia Pacific region I have no idea, but if my past experiences with dozen of reliable earphones from the brand is any indication, you won’t need it.
Going back to my initial statement, why am I not on board with this new packaging? Well, it feels wasteful. The AS10 has the same accessory kit you get with every other KZ. Tips and a cable. They could shrink this down to half the size, keep the nice metal plate which is befitting of what is currently KZ’s most costly but still affordable earphone, and the experience would be just as nice but more friendly to the environment. I love me some cool packaging but there needs to be a reason for it. In the end, cool but unnecessary.
Build, Comfort, and Isolation:
The AS10’s design falls in line with some of KZs other recent releases in the ES4 and ZS10. It features the same all-plastic build with clear faceplate showing off the crossover chip beneath. The rear portion of the housing is solid black, preventing you from seeing the inner workings. Not that you would have been able to anyway since the drivers are encased in a separate, 3D-printed chamber. Aesthetically it looks quite nice. Fit and finish is quite good too with everything slotting together neatly.
You may think on first glance that there is no nozzle filter but look inside and you’ll see it recessed within. The mesh is quite fine allowing you to see the two sound channel outputs, likely one for bass, the other for mids and treble. At the end of the nozzle, you notice the lack of a lip for holding tips on. In its place are three small angled protrusions which work just as well. The 0.75 mm 2-pin receptors are the same as those used on the ZS10 and other KZ’s, so you have lots of other cables available to you should you wish to upgrade.
Speaking of cables, the AS10 features KZs new and seemingly now standard braided copper cable. Cable noise and memory are minimal, but due to the length above the y-split and lack of chin cinch, it’s pretty easy to tangle unless you wrap and store it neatly. I like this cable and think it’s a pretty decent inclusion, though they really need to get on adding a chin cinch.
The AS10’s shell size sits right between the ZS10 and ES4, though it’s not as deep as either giving it a much lower profile. This combined with light weight plastics and decent ergonomics makes it a comfortable earphone, pending you’re using the right tips. Like the ZS10, the AS10’s fit and comfort is somewhat tip dependent. The stock set is fine, but for me at least, they extended a little too far. My ears work best with shallow fit designs, so a tip that plays to this helps a lot. In my case, it was EarNiNE’s medium silicone tips from the EN120.
Isolation is alright, but nothing to write home about, especially if you’re used to the sort of passive noise attenuation you usually get from all-BA earphones. Unlike most, there is a single pin hole vent in the housing which faces the ear. It helps relieve pressure upon insertion but also serves to let in outside noise. Without music playing, I can hear myself typing and cars driving by through the open window to my right. Add in some music at my normally low volume, and most of that goes away. This would be good for travel, but you’ll likely have to increase volume a bit to compensate for some outside noise bleeding in.
Tips: I ditched the stock tips and rolled with EarNiNE’s single flange medium silicones because they were more comfortable than the stock tips, provided a consistently good seal, and kept the same sound signature as the stock tips. The below sound impressions were performed with these tips as a result. Spinfit CP100’s were my go-to for the ZS10, but here they felt a little too long and as such caused minor discomfort. They also boosted mid-bass a little bit, throwing off the low end balance slightly. Wide bore tips like those from JVC brought out the treble quite a bit giving the AS10 some extra sparkle and energy up top. Not really needed in my opinion as the stock tune and resulting balance is already excellent. I didn’t bother trying foams simply because Spintfits already increased bass, and foams tend to have the same effect.
The AS10 is KZ’s first go at an all-balanced armature product. Given the somewhat hit and miss nature of their hybrid earphones up to now, and that the use of dynamic drivers has pretty much always been their bread and butter, I had pretty low expectations. Of course I wanted it to be good, but it would contain their first bass-focused armature. I was expecting something very mid and treble heavy with a weedy, unsatisfying low end. Thankfully, that’s not the AS10 at all. Since their bass tailored BA driver is the new kid on the block, let’s start with the low end.
The AS10’s bass driver can kick. Seriously. It doesn’t hit sub-bass notes quite as well as say, the ZS10, but that earphone has a big dynamic handling bass. Despite this, the AS10’s BA moves nearly as much air, with better impact, speed, and overall agility. It’s upper and mid-bass regions are dialed in too, keeping bleed from being an issue. Throwing on Kavinski’s “Solli” for the first time, I was expecting silence in the opening moments, yet the reverberating sub-bass line was very much present. Out of my other BA-only earphones, only the B400 comes close to hanging with the AS10 on this track, though it still doesn’t provide the same sense of rumble. It’s very textured and detailed too, as evidenced when running through The Prodigy’s “The Day is My Enemy”, an album full of grungy, low-fi bass that comes across quite muddy through something with an overly smooth and untextured low end. The AS10’s bass levels certainly aren’t going to please a bass head, but those who enjoy a slightly elevated and well controlled low end will be very happy with what the AS10 is doing. For their first time using a balanced armature for the bass, KZ absolutely nailed it.
Heading into the mid-range, the AS10 takes on a more balanced approach than you might be accustomed to from the brand. Gone is the traditional v-shaped sound from, well, pretty much everything in their modern lineup. The mid-range is very prominent, easily going toe-to-toe with the highs and lows. Sibilance is kept in check as well, only rearing it’s ugly head when it’s present in the track, such as on The Crystal Method’s “Grace feat. LeAnn Rimes”. Male and female vocals are both full bodied with a touch of warmth. I found them equally engaging with the AS10 not feeling more or less suited to one or the other, unlike most earphones. The clarity in vocals is pretty impressive too. On Gorillaz’ “To Binge feat. Little Dragon”, you can easily hear the subtle clicks and snaps of saliva while she sings. Compare that track through the Shozy Hibki MKII. Those nuances are still present but are being smoothed over to the point of being difficult to locate. Timbre is handled well but is still slightly off, similar to how I feel about the Campfire Audio Polaris, with instruments sounding a touch lighter than they should.
The two drivers handling the AS10’s upper ranges are probably the weakest aspect of it’s sound in my opinion, lacking the same level of refinement found elsewhere. This is a bit of a bummer given how lush and smooth the ZSA handled treble with it’s single armature. Thankfully, the AS10 isn’t bright like the ZSA with treble emphasis sitting just slightly above the ZS10. The lower treble is smartly emphasis, helping out greatly with overall resolution and detail without being harsh. The upper treble gives cymbals and other effects some shimmer, but not to the point of being overly sharp and causing fatigue like the TRN V80 or Kinera SEED.
Sound stage is an area where I feel the AS10 excels. It is large and open with a fairly even roundness to it. The presentation does a stellar job of moving sounds forward and back, side to side, taking on a very layered and well-separated approach. There was never a time it felt congested or if the track was too busy to keep instruments in line. One of the benefits of using multiple drivers in my opinion.
Select Comparisons: Volumes matched with Dayton Audio iMM-6
Havi B3 Pro I: The B3 Pro I is an entry level audiophile staple. That probably won’t be changing anytime soon. The AS10 is much more forward and aggressive than the smooth, laid back B3 Pro I. The AS10 is slightly more detailed, but also less smooth, particularly in the treble. The B3 Pro’s mid-range is warmer and leaner, but naturally toned with more accurate timbre. The AS10’s bass is only of the only superior aspects in my opinion. While it is more elevated which may not be to everyone’s taste, it is notably more textured and better controlled while still providing more physical feedback from the lower bass regions. When it comes to sound stage the B3 Pro I has few equals. The AS10 puts up a good fight and presents with greater depth but slightly less width. I found the Pro I’s imaging and separation very similar, with the AS10 providing a more layered presentation thanks to its added depth. Both are made from nice plastics, but I have to give the nod to the AS10 since the B3 Pro I’s have a habit of crumbling apart for reasons unknown. Comfort goes to the AS10 too as it requires less finagling to find a secure fit. When it comes down to it, I really enjoy them both. For balanced and relaxing, I go to the Pro I. For balanced and energetic, I pick up the AS10.
KZ ZS10: The AS10 is flat out better than the ZS10 in my opinion, just not in every circumstance. The AS10 has more balance everywhere which highlights the ZS10’s slight upper treble, upper mid-range, and mid-/upper bass peaks. Even with those peaks, the ZS10 is the smoother, warmer, and more relaxed sounding earphone. Imaging, layering, and separation is very similar between the two, though I’d give the AS10 the edge as it feel more precise. Sound stage on the ZS10 comes across a little more airy, but doesn’t toss effects quite as far as the AS10, nor is it as wide sounding. They’re both quite pleasant in this regard either way. Build is equally good. I find the ZS10 fits my ears a little better, but overall they’re pretty similar in terms of comfort and fit. The AS10 should be better for most given they are slightly smaller.
Tin Audio T2: T2 is brighter with a leaner presentation that focuses more on mids and treble. Upper treble on the T2 has more energy and gives it a bit of tizziness not present in the AS10. Mids are similarly emphasized with the AS10 having more body and warmth. Bass doesn’t have as much presence or impact on the T2, and rolls off earlier. The T2’s leaner signature does a great job highlighting the detail it outputs, but listening to the two back-to-back you see this isn’t offering any real advantage and that the AS10 pulls more micro-details. AS10 has a more forward presentation yet with greater sound stage depth and width. Imaging is similarly great, with the AS10 pulling ahead in separation and especially layering. Build and material quality goes to the T2, though I find the AS10 more comfortable and better isolating. Overall I find the AS10 more balanced and entertaining as a result of it’s strong low end and weightier sound, with better technical performance to boot. That said, the T2’s more sparkly, lean signature better lines up with what you’d think of as a traditional audiophile signature and is uniquely special among it’s sub-50 USD peers.
Kinera IDUN: As with the T2, the IDUN is brighter and leaner sounding with less bass emphasis. The IDUN’s extra treble emphasis makes it more sparkly and energetic, but also more fatiguing than the AS10. It is also more sibilant, extending consonants beyond their intended end point. The IDUN’s mid-range isn’t as well balanced with less lower mid emphasis. It’s also less well weighted, giving vocals a fairly lean presentation. While I don’t mind this and in many cases enjoy a lean mid-range when done well (Astrotec Lyra Collection for example), many cite this as a negative so take this part how you will. I personally have nothing against the IDUN’s mids and enjoy them a lot as is. I was never impressed with the IDUN’s low end and found the AS10’s bass is more textured, faster, more impactful, and with more sub-bass feedback. I find the AS10’s sound stage larger overall, but the IDUN’s imaging, layering and separation is about on par. When it comes to build and ergonomics, there is no comparison. IDUN all the way. Overall, I found the AS10 the more balanced, well-rounded, and entertaining of the two, but lacking the refinement expected of costlier products.
Brainwavz B400: The B400 is fairly neutral with some added emphasis in the low end. It’s also my favorite earphone, well, second favorite now that the Astrotec Delphinus 5 is on the market. The AS10, despite costing less than half as much, certainly gives it a run for it’s money. It’s nearly as detailed as the B400 with it’s high quality, quad Knowles armatures, but does so with a touch of grain not present in Brainwavz’s offering. Overall clarity is slightly less too. The AS10 simply lacks that extra layer of refinement. When it comes to tuning balance the AS10 drives up the low end a couple dB and adds in a little more treble energy, something that will be welcome for those that found the B400 lacking in the upper ranges. Both are very detailed and about on par when it comes to speed and control. The B400 sounds more accurate in terms of timbre and tone, befitting of it’s neutral tune. The AS10 sounds a little more energetic and gripping. When it comes to sound stage and the qualities that go with it, the AS10 puts up a much better fight than it has any right to. The B400 still comes across more spacious with greater depth to it’s layering and separation, but the AS10 isn’t far off. When it comes to build they trade blows. The B400’s cables are nicer, but the 3D printed housings leave a bit to be desired and I’d rather the AS10’s dense plastics. The B400 is more comfortable though, and offers up improved passive isolation.
Knowledge Zenith is the poster child of a brand that people love to hate. Kind of like Beats, but for budget gear that nearly anyone can afford. Some of it is certainly warranted without a doubt. KZ has made it a habit over the years to borrow designs from others, though this is common practice in the industry (doesn’t make it right). They have also overloaded the budget market with a hilariously expansive lineup of similar products that potential customers have to either purchase to understand, or learn about through videos or by rooting through pages and pages of dense forum conversation. This year alone they’ve released the ZSA, ZSR, ZS10, ED15, AS10, and the ED4. I probably missed a couple, and there are even more to come before the year is up.
Despite their issues, KZ is a brand that had kept my interest through the years as I’ve moved up the ladder, experiencing better and better gear. With the exception of the AS10 reviewed today, I have bought at least one of each and every unique model in my possession, over 30 of them at this point. Why would I do that? I could have saved that money and bought a top of the line product from a respected brand, maybe two. Sorry, but that’s not me. I prefer to experience a variety of signatures and products, and KZ give me that freedom. They’ve got micro-drivers, dual dynamics, 1+1 hybrids, 2+2 hybrids, plastic bodied earphones, aluminum earphones, earphones with fixed or removable cables, products with tuning filters, and even more variety where that came from.
The AS10 just adds to this already teeming lineup, but stands out as something truly new, different, and extremely capable. Sure, it’s not as refined as other earphones crammed with balanced armatures, but it’s also a fraction of the price and unlike some other KZ products (ZS5 anyone?), doesn’t feel like we’re beta testing it for them. It looks great, sounds amazing, and is more than enough earphone for most while retaining an affordable price.
Thanks for reading!
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Some Test Tunes:
Aesop Rock – Skelethon (Album)
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (Album)
Elton John – Yellow Golden Brick Road (Album)
King Crimson – Lark’s Tongues in Aspic (Album)
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black (Track)
Supertramp – Crime of the Century (Album)
Infected Mushroom – Converting Vegetarians (Album)
Infected Mushroom – Legend of the Black Shawarma (Album)
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach (Album)
Massive Attack – Mezzanine (Album)
Fleetwood Mac – Rumors (Album)
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels (Album)
The Prodigy – The Day is My Enemy (Album)
Tobacco – F****d Up Friends (Album)
Felt – Felt 2 (A Tribute to Lisa Bone) (Album)