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.
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.
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.
Frequency Response: 20-40,000Hz
Cable: 2-pin 0.75mm
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.
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.
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.
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!
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
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)