KZ ZSN: $20 has never gone so far

Greetings,

Today we’re checking out the umpteenth Knowledge Zenith (KZ) released this year. It’s hard to get excited for a new KZ nowadays. Why? They release so many models in short periods, and there is a ton of overlap in specs and parts. Yet, somehow they continuously manage to refine, enhance, and in the end, impress. They impress me at least, this time with the ZSN.

Let’s take a look.

Disclaimer:

Thanks to Lillian with DD-Audio for sending over a complimentary sample of the ZSN for the purposes of review. The thoughts within this review are my subjective impressions and do not represent Linsoul, KZ, or any other entity. No financial incentive was provided to write this article.

At the time of writing the ZSN could be picked up for 18-19 USD, depending on if you order with a mic or not: AliExpress link

Source and Amping:

For at home use the ZSN 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 G6 or Shanling M0. The Radsone Earstudio ES100 was also used over Bluetooth connected to the G6. The ZSN is very easy to drive so an amp isn’t needed. A clean source is though, since it is quite revealing.

Personal Preferences:

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.

Specifications:

Impedance: 25ohms
Sensitivity: 104dB/mW
Frequency Response: 20-40,000Hz
Cable: 2-pin 0.75mm
Weight: 23g+/-3g

 

Packaging and Accessories:

The ZSN comes in KZ’s now familiar packaging. The white exterior sheath has a wire frame style image of the ZSN on the front with specifications and contact info for KZ on the back. Sliding the sheath off reveals a compact cardboard box with the ZSN’s ear pieces secured under a clear viewing window within a plastic, KZ-branded insert. Underneath are the rest of the accessories. In all you get:

– ZSN earphones
– 0.75mm 2-pin cable
– Single flange silicone tips (m only, preinstalled)
– “Starline” single flange silicone tips (s/m/l)
– Instruction manual

Outside of the plain single flange medium tips that come preinstalled on the ZSN, this is more or less the same kit that has come with KZs for years. I’m fine with this because their Starline tips are one of my favorites. On the other hand, it would be nice if they starting packing in a basic pouch to carry them in.

 

Build, Comfort, and Isolation:

The ZSN takes the ZST’s shell and beefs up the build quality considerably. This is probably the most premium feeling product to come out of KZ in years, and this is considering the company of their aluminum bodied earphones like the ZSA, ZS6, and BA10.

The rear half of the shell is tinted acrylic allowing you to see the drivers inside. Down near the nozzle you will find two vents, one of which for the dynamic driver has a small filter. The nozzle is a separate metal bore housing the balanced armature, protected by metal mesh. At the top of the housing protrudes KZ’s new 2-pin setup. You won’t have to worry about this one punching into the housing if you push too hard, an issue I had with one of my ZS3s, since you can clearly see the part is screwed in place. Awesome! The faceplate is now a solid hunk of metal giving the ZSN it’s weighty, premium feel. In addition to the two vents on the inside, there are three more on the backplate.

Despite all this ventilation, the ZSN’s isolation is respectable, especially if you toss on some foam tips. Sitting in the office with the ZSN in place using the preinstalled medium silicones and no music playing, my colleagues chatting nearby, keyboards, and general murmur of an office environment was dulled significantly. Same thing walking around outside on a busy street.

The cable has seen some welcome updates too, most notably as you lead up to the ear pieces. Gone is the memory wire, replaced by some flexible preformed guides. Some will undoubtedly still prefer just a bare cable but these guides work very well. Another improvement is the length above the y-split. This section has traditionally been longer than on most cables, sometimes nearly half the length of the cable. With KZ’s new braided copper cable, this meant that they were exceptionally prone to tangling. The length has been shortened considerably, which combined with the new ear guides makes it much more manageable, though it still tangles if you’re not careful. Lastly, KZ’s new 2-plugs have the pins recessed into a deep cup that wraps around the receptacles on the ear pieces. This helps protect the pins from damage. For those who are worried, your old upgrade cables will still fit, they just won’t sit flush against the housing like they do on other KZ products.

All this comes together to provide a comfortable wearing experience. The weight is spread evenly throughout the ear. The soft, flexible ear guides wrap smoothly around the ear and do not cause any discomfort. There are no sharp edges or rough spots that would cause issues. The only thing that might be an issue for some is size, since the ZSN is bigger than your average barrel-shaped earphone.

 

Sound:

The ZSN continues KZs slow and steady movement in offering improved performance on each new release while maintaining an affordable price. It maintains their hybrid house sound which is a warm, v-shaped signature with a bright upper range. Unlike a number of their other releases, the ZSN reduces warmth to direct your attention to detail and clarity.

Treble is emphasized with excellent extension, up to Hi-Res worthy 40K if you believe the specs. While there is decent shimmer and sparkle to the presentation, I suspect the lower treble regions get more emphasis than upper due to a very mild harshness that is present on some tracks, like the cymbals on Aesop Rock’s “Kirby”. Either way, there is a fair bit of space and air to the upper ranges. It certainly helps with the ZSNs impressive channel to channel imaging accuracy and separation, and highlights that there is more width than depth to the sound stage.

The mid-range is a little more forward than I’m use to from KZ’s hybrids, such as the ZSA, giving vocalists lots of presence. As is normal for the 30095 balanced armature KZ has installed in the ZSN, mild sibilance is present. I didn’t find it overly intrusive, unlike other budget hybrids or KZs own ED15 which competes in a similar price bracket. As much as I love the bass on that model, the sibilance can be quite extreme. I found timbre a touch on the breathy side and not quite as accurate as a number of other recent releases from KZ, like the BA-only AS10 and BA10, or the ZSA. It is an improvement over some older models though, like the ZST and ZS6.

Bass is lovely with great extension and a satisfying balance between mid- and sub-bass. It is nice and quick with impressive double bass articulation as heard on Havok’s “D.O.A”. Decay is snappy with just the right amount of decay on lingering notes. It doesn’t have the impact of some other models in the lineup, instead displaying a more subtle and mature tune.

IMG_5059

Select Comparisons:

KZ ZST: The ZST was KZs first hybrid and is still one of the best. How do you improve on hyper-budget near-perfection? Do the same thing but better. Shells are essentially the same but with the ZSN featuring improved materials, fit and finish, and the new 2-pin connectors. The ZSN somehow offers improved isolation better despite a trillion little vents everywhere.

The ZSN has the same mild v-shaped signature of the ZST but refines the sound further. Treble is smoother and more precise with improved detail and control. There is also a touch more emphasis giving the ZSN some shimmer lacking in the ZST. The ZSN’s mids are slightly more forward with extra clarity. Timbre is more accurate. Bass is quicker and more articulate with improved depth. The ZSN has a slightly more intimate sound stage as a result of it’s more forward mids. Imaging, layering, and separation are all better on the ZSN though. The most notable difference is the detail and clarity. Just toss on some speed metal and the ZSN sounds significantly more crisp with individual instruments and effects being easier to follow. They’re similar, but the ZSN clearly plays in a different league.

TFZ Series 2: The Series 2 is one of the lower end offerings in TFZ’s lineup and has garnered quite the fan base, myself included. It too shares basically the same shell as the ZSN, but with cheaper plastics and less impressive construction. The 2-pin cable systems are very similar.

Sound is very similar too. The TFZ’s bass is a bit more authoritative giving chugging basslines more impact. Drivers in both earphones are extremely quick and nimble, though I found the ZSN slightly faster giving it the edge in micro-detail and separation. The TFZ has a deeper stage giving track layers more space to breath. Treble in the ZSN has just a little more sparkle to it, and I found it sounded more accurate in the mids and timbre where the TFZ came across a little dry. Overall I find the ZSN’s technical performance and more natural timbre to give it an edge over the Series 2. Plus, the build quality is miles better.

TRN V80: The V80’s all metal shells certainly feel tough but it doesn’t look or feel anywhere near as premium as the ZSN. KZ’s ear guides also feel more substantial, and their new 2-pin system much more durable. TRN’s pins are completely unsupported so there is nothing to stop them from snapping if something bends the cable side to side. Ergonomics are better too, though the V80 isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. Dunu did a good job designing that shell.

The V80’s dual dynamics are both quicker and more impactful with excellent separation, texture and clarity. The ZSN is close, but not quite as good. The V80’s mids are slightly less forward and much leaner, though not as detailed. Same goes for the treble which is less well controlled and splashier than I prefer. ZSN has a larger sound stage with more accurate imaging. Separation and layering are slightly ahead on the V80. In summary, V80 has better bass but the ZSN is better nearly everywhere else. In my opinion, TRN still has a ways to go with their BA implementation before they catch KZ in the treble and mids.

 

Final Thoughts:

The budget earphone market is a very congested and redundant place right now. There are tons of cheap hybrids and both single and multi-dynamic earphones from both new and established brands alike releasing every day, or at least it feels like it. Thankfully, we have KZ.

I’ve been trudging around the budget Chi-fi scene for years now and own, have owned, or have tried literally dozens of earphones in the ZSN’s price range. I still don’t think there is any company out there that truly challenges KZ in this segment, and the ZSN further supports that. While KZ hasn’t been lighting up the scene quite like they used to, at least not for the reasons you’d want (see ZS6 and Campfire Audio), they’re consistent in the quality of each release. You know you’re very likely to get something that is at least sounds decent and is always worth the price. With the ZSN you get a stunning looking piece of equipment with build quality that wouldn’t be out of place heading well over 100 bucks. The sound quality is outstanding too, leaving like-priced products from Geek Wold, TRN, UiiSii, Remax, and others lagging behind. In my opinion of course.

The ZSN is one of the easiest, condition free recommendations I have had the opportunity to suggest in quite a while now. If you simply want a great sounding, comfortable, well-built headphone that turns heads and costs next to nothing, you can save yourself the hassle of researching. Just get the ZSN. You’re welcome.

Thanks for reading!

– B9Scrambler

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Some Test Tunes:

Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid (Album)

Hail Mary Mallon – Are You Going to Eat That? (Album)

King Crimson – Lark’s Tongues in Aspic (Album)

King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black (Track)

Supertramp – Crime of the Century (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 Bonet) (Album)

Michael Jackson – Thriller (Album)

The Crystal Method – Grace (feat. LeAnn Rimes) (Track)

Jidenna – Long Live the Chief (Track)

Skrillex – Ragga Bomb (Track)

Big Grams – Run for Your Life (Track)

Funkadelic – Maggot Brain (Track)

Aesop Rock – Fishtales (Track)

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25 Comments

  1. Koko

    I found the world of KZ recently and ordered ATE model soon after. I thoroughly enjoyed the sound, but have great difficulties trying to cope with the tangled cables. Not suitable at all – super sticky feeling and never ending frustration, like I’m trying to solve the hardest puzzle while un-tangle them every time I’m using them. I used ROCK Zircon before that, but ATEs are way better sound-wise for me.
    Unfortunately, I couldn’t replace their cables, therefore I want to buy a new KZ model. I’m reading nice reviews about ZSN, ES4 and ZSA, obviously I’m aiming in KZ “less than $20 range”. How do you compare the 3 models in terms of comfortability and sound? Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. B9Scrambler

      Hi Koko. ES4 will be more relaxed like the ATE, but I personally find it congested. ZSA is really nicely built with tons of detail but the mids could be more forward and fit seems to be really hit or miss. Not uncomfortable but just kind of awkward. ZSN is the best all-rounder but being a KZ hybrid I always worry treble is going to be bothersome. I rarely have trouble with brighter earphones since I like that signature, but others tend to find treble that I enjoy sharp. Could be the same with the ZSN. While I greatly prefer the ZSN and ZSA over the ES4, I’d suggest the ES4, ZSN, then ZSA in that order.

      Like

      1. Koko

        Thank you for the quick reply. To be honest I caught myself liking the bright treble much when I’m listening to music. I would consider your KZ countdown list, but will exclude ZSA from it due to the lack of comfortability. Having looked at their shape I found that ZSN are a bit smaller than ES4 and would fit better. Soundwise, after reading some reviews, I would not go wrong with either of the two. Thanks again.

        Like

  2. TMCraze

    I saw mention of the ES4 here in the comments section. So I was wondering what your opinion on it would be compared to the ZSN.

    I’m currently waiting on my ES4 pair to arrive as going from a ton of reviews I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s pretty neutral. Would you agree with this? If not, what would you recommend?

    Thanks for answering my admittedly basic questions. I’m still kinda new to being an audiophile.

    Like

    1. B9Scrambler

      Personally, I vastly prefer the ZSN. ES4’s sound stage is slightly congested and mids veiled. Comes across as a neutered ZS10 to my ears. It’s not bad by any means, but not one of the better of KZ’s current crop. I wouldn’t call it neutral either. Well-balanced, sure, but not neutral. Too much treble and bass for that. They definitely have their fans though, so take my comments lightly. I generally prefer something with more treble energy so it’s tune immediately puts it on the back foot for me. It is a model I generally recommend for someone that wants to try a KZ with less treble. Out of everything in KZ’s current lineup, my personal favs are probably the ZSA, ZSN, and BA10. ZSR too if I’m in the mood for a bombastic sound.

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      1. TMCraze

        Thank you for your response! I gladly appreciate it!

        In your opinion then, what would you consider as neutral? Or U shaped really? Something that wouldn’t break the bank too hard would be preferable, but I’ll keep a more expensive recommendation in mind if you do recommend one.

        Many thanks again!

        Like

      2. B9Scrambler

        The closest I own to true neutral, and my two fav iems, are the Brainwavz B400 (sub $200) and Astrotec Delphinus 5 ($500). More affordable options would be the Tin Audio T2 (original, NOT the Pro version with is a treble cannon), TinAudio T1 (bit of a bass lean), Tenhz P4 Pro (slight mid focus), KZ BA10 (u-shaped), Brainwavz B100 (treble lean) Brainwavz B150 (mid-centric, rolled off at either end). Hard to find something that’s actually neutral.

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  3. Matt Byrum (@mcbyrum)

    Are any of the KZ IEMs up to the ZS10/AS10 better for videos/shows/streams/gaming? I am trying to decide on a pair to add a bluetooth cable to for all sorts of audio. Also, do you find any of the KZs to be drastically more comfortable than others? I wear my current earbuds for most of the day. Thanks!

    Like

    1. B9Scrambler

      Hi Matt. Thanks for the questions. Sorry for the delayed reply as I took some time away from the hobby. ZSR is worth a look for sure. Nice sound stage, good mids, and great bass for movies/gaming. It has a pretty big nozzle though (6mm) so keep that in mind if you usually wear small ear tips. Other than that, it has the same sort of semi-custom type shell as the ZS3. Fit and isolation are great imo. ED16 is similarly tuned but with less bass and more treble sparkle. I prefer the ZSR, but the ED16 is very good too. Most KZ’s newer models are on the larger side, but if comfort is key you can’t go wrong with the ZSN or ED16. If you prefer something with a more traditional shape you can’t go wrong with the ED9 or EDR1/ED2 which are killer for the price. Hope this helps!

      Like

      1. Matt Byrum (@mcbyrum)

        Thanks for the help. Do you have any recommendations for just starting a bluetooth setup? Now I am also torn between getting a DAP and trying out one of the BT cables. I am considering upping my budget to ~$150 for the IEMs as well if that has any effect and looking at DAPs in the $100 range. I am no audiophile so the improved sound quality of a proper DAP will be mostly lost on me but not having to worry about connector types on future IEMs seems nice. Also, on connector types, I feel like I have read more negative things on MMCX than 2-pin connectors so I was focusing more on 2-pins. You seem to have used quite a bit of both, would the connector type sway you one way or the other? Thanks again for all the help and great content.

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      2. B9Scrambler

        Haven’t really used too many Bluetooth cables, but those from TRN seem to be getting good reception on the Head-fi forums. Radsone ES100 is an awesome Bluetooth receiver if that’s a route you’d be interested in. I use mine near daily. A cheaper option would be the FiiO uBTR which sounds really nice as well. Don’t have a ton of experience with DAPs but the Shanling M0 has been really nice to use. Inexpensive at 109 USD, has tons of features (most of which I never use, lol), and quite clean sounding. Can probably find a sale somewhere since we’re coming up to XMas and get it for less.

        I’ve had more issues with MMCX than 2-pin but connector type wouldn’t really sway my decision since I rarely detach the cables. In favor of MMCX, you have more after market options available if you need to replace it, and it’s more standardized. 2-pin has a ton of different sizes and plug shapes, and if they’re not keyed it’s easy to plug them in backwards. I find it’s more reliable overall though and imo is the better connector type.

        Hope this is helpful and not too confusing!

        – B9

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  4. Guru

    How do these compare to the KZ ZS6? Especially the soundstage & shimmer. Is the sibilance of the ZS6 gone?

    I’m totally in love with the KZ ZS6. If somehow I were to remove the sibilance, they would be perfect. I tried every mod from head-fi but couldn’t reduce the sibilance without effecting other parts of the sound.

    Should I get these or the AS10 or get the i-basso IT 01?
    Being in India, I can only purchase from Chinese sites.
    Thanks in advance.

    Like

    1. B9Scrambler

      Hi Guru. I think the ZS6 is better on a technical level, i.e. layering, separation, sound stage, etc. ZSN shows off more shimmer as it’s treble peak seems a little higher up in the frequency range. Sibilance is still present in fringe cases, but in general it’s been managed a lot better than on the ZS6. I haven’t tried the IT01 so I can’t comment on it unfortunately. The AS10 is a great iem though so that gets an easy rec from me. ZSN, AS10, and ED9 are kinda my go to KZ recommendations right now. ES4 and ZS10 for the treble sensitive.

      Not sure if this is helpful, but there ya go, haha.

      – B9

      Like

  5. Twski

    How does it compare to the V80 in bass *quantity*? I think the ZSN has a tad more, right? Currently trying to decide between the two for 11/11 sale.

    Also, did you ever listen to the Revonext QT2?

    Thanks man, keep it up!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. B9Scrambler

      Sorry for the late reply. Hope you got something good during 11.11. To answer your question, I think the V80 is pretty bassy. ZSN not as much. V80 can kick it pretty hard when the song demands. Haven’t heard the QT2 unfortunately. Seems like a quality piece though.

      Like

  6. Sbanana

    Will the TRN Bt3 bluetooth wire fit the ZSN? I heard it’s good for the ZST. I’m not sure whether the 2 pin interface is the same on the ZSN as the ZST?
    I was nearly about to buy the ZST before I read your article. Or if there is an even better bluetooth wire to pair with the ZSN i’d love your opinion. Thanks!

    Like

    1. B9Scrambler

      Hello. It should fit, it just won’t sit flush like it would on the ZST. Haven’t really tried a ton of Bluetooth wires. Kinda gung-ho for the Radsone ES100 module lately anyway. It’s around 100 USD but it sounds amazing.

      Like

      1. Sbanana

        Thanks for the reply. if it doesn’t sit flush maybe that would be annoying / would be prone to falling out? i definitely want to use (an ideally sub $20) bluetooth wire during workouts so i’m just trying to figure this last detail out before i hit buy. i’m not an audiophile and just want one bluetooth capable sub $30 IEM set that’s a good all rounder. What would you recommend I try? thanks again!

        Like

      2. B9Scrambler

        I don’t think it would fall out, but it wouldn’t look right and likely would be easier to damage. Probably safe to go with one of the newer aptX KZ or TRN cables and get something like the ZS4, ZSA, V20, or maybe even the Auglamour R8.

        Like

  7. Isaac Abraham

    have you listened to the soundmagic e10? it is selling for a similar price, and ive seen several reviews saying it has sound quality equivalant to $100 headphones, how would you compare these two? I can’t seem to decide which one to buy.

    Like

    1. B9Scrambler

      Hi Isaac. I haven’t heard the E10 but from what I see around the web is that it is currently outclassed by more recent releases in the same price range. I’m sure that if it breaks it’s probably a lot easier to replace via warranty vs. a KZ (good luck…). That might sway you if warranties factor into your purchase. For me personally, I’d get the KZ but then again, I clearly enjoy their products so I’ve got some bias.

      Like

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