Today we’re checking out Knowledge Zenith’s (KZ) newest release to carry the title of brand flagship, the AS16.
Ever since the release of the ZST a few short years ago, balanced armatures (BA) have been used in the vast majority of their products. With the release of 2018’s armature only AS10, they once again entered uncharted grounds for the brand. Instead of a simple single armature release, the AS10 featured five armatures per side. I was especially impressed with their 22955 low range armature as it provided some of the most satisfying BA-bass I’ve heard. Shortly after the AS10 dropped, the more premium, metal-bodied BA10 showed up featuring the same driver layout. The release of the AS06 saw a return to the AS10’s body, but with a more modest triple armature layout and a return to KZ’s bread and butter, v-shaped sound. With the AS16, KZ has upper their driver game with eight armatures per side, 16 total.
That’s a lot of drivers for not a lot of money, though it does bring KZ firmly into the sub 150 USD market which is less forgiving. How does the AS16 sound and does it compare with similarly priced gear? Let’s find out.
A huge thanks to Lillian with Linsoul Audio for arranging a sample of the AS16 for the purposes of review. The thoughts here are my own subjective opinions based on time listening to the AS16. They do not represent KZ, Linsoul, or any other entity. At the time of writing the AS16 was retailing for around 125 USD. You can it out here on their main site or their AliExpress store, DD Audio;
I listen primarily to various EDM sub-genres (liquid drum and bass, breakbeat, drumstep, etc.), hip hop, and classic rock. My preferences for earphone tuning are quite relaxed and as such their is no one signature I look for. The HiFiMAN RE800, Brainwavz B400, and Massdrop x MeeAudio Planamic are examples of earphones with wildly varied signatures that are enjoyable for different reasons. I generally listen at very low volumes, so keep this in mind when perusing my thoughts on how an earphone sounds.
@home: TEAC HA-501 with Shanling M0 or ZiShan DSD playing source duty.
Mobile: Periodic Audio Nickel with Shanling M0, or, straight out of a ZiShan DSD
- Driver: 8 balanced armatures
- Frequency Response: 20-22,000Hz
- Impedance: 32ohms
- Sensitivity: 106dB
Packaging and Accessories:
The package for the AS16 is the same as that introduced with the AS06. It is virtually identical to the AS10’s, but much more compact and less wasteful. The same glossy KZ logo can be found on the lid while the back contains a couple stickers with model info and contact information for KZ. The lid is still weighted with a dense cardboard plate containing the following slogan that I love; “Don’t forget. The original intention is to use headphones to enjoy music.” KZ kept the cool metal plaque they introduced with their other armature based models, but of course it is tailored to the AS16. While it doesn’t add any real value to the package, it does serve to elevate the armature lineup as the most premium of products in KZ’s dense catalogue. Lifting out the foam insert the AS16’s earpieces are nestled within, you find the accessories beneath. In all you get:
- AS16 earphones
- 0.75mm 2-pin cable
- Single flange silicone ear tips (s/m/l)
- Instruction manual
- Warranty card
This is the same accessory kit KZ has been including with their products since they started integrating removable cables into their designs. While I think this is fine, if not only because their ‘Starline’ tips are some of the best in the business (in my opinion), I get why some are getting tired of a lack of extras, like a simple carrying case. They’re not expensive and with the AS16 breaching the 100 USD barrier, KZ should start thinking about including more.
Build, Comfort, and Isolation:
The AS16 uses the same half-moon style housing we’ve seen before on the AS10 and AS06, but here it features a hefty zinc alloy face plate, metal nozzles, and higher quality, transparent black acrylics allowing you to peer inside and admire the tidy driver layout and 3D printed driver enclosure. All of this gives the AS16 some serious heft and a premium feel unlike any pretty much any other KZ I’ve held before, and I’ve tens of individual models to use as a reference point. Neatly printed on each face plate is Left or Right in stylish cursive, along with the statement “Professional HIFI” and “8 Balanced Armature”. On the buttocks of each ear piece is the model number and the statement “Higher order acoustics”, also neatly printed. Protruding out the top of each ear piece is the new 0.75mm 2-pin connection port introduced with the original ZSN. Further adding to the well-thought out, high quality designs KZ has been releasing lately, the plug is not simply glued in place, but screwed making it more durable and secure than what the vast majority of brands bring to their customers, regardless off the price of the product. This is a beautifully built product, one that “more legitimate, hobby-grade” brands should look at and take inspiration from. They can do a lot better, and products like the AS16 are proof.
The cable is the same copper-braided unit they’ve been including with a number of their products lately. It’s a nice cable that is quite flexible, even in cold weather, and resistant to microphonics. The y-split is still set way too low, however, leading to easy tangling if you store them hastily. KZ is continuing to remove their memory wire, replacing it with the excellent preformed ear guides first seen on the ZSN. The new ear guides are present on the AS16’s cable, and they are fantastic. While KZ does memory wire better than most, with preformed guides as good as these I won’t miss it when they phase it out completely. The rest of the hardware is classic KZ with the y-split and 90 degree angled jack featuring the same chunky, Vsonic inspired styling we’ve seen before. Overall I quite like this cable, but the tossing in the BA10’s higher quality cable would have been a better choice. It’s thicker, more premium, and a better match for the AS16’s quality materials and workmanship.
Comfort is pretty good. The AS16 is heavier than your average plastic bodied iem, but it doesn’t do anything to hinder fit. Neither do all the smooth curves and rounded edges. All this combined with the nicely formed ear guides leads to something I can wear for quite a while without experiencing discomfort.
Isolation is pretty good, and reminiscent of the experience provided by the AS06. Right now we have a butt ton of construction going on in the area as they are resurfacing a number of parking lots. The AS16 effectively dulls the constant rumbling going on outside, even without any music playing. These should be fine for those planning to take them on the bus or subway.
Tips: Since the AS16 is quite bright, small bore tips (ex. Sony Hybrids) are the way to go imo. Medium bore tips with a soft core (ex. Spintfit CP100) are also satisfactory. They soak up some of the treble and raise the bass, however slightly. Wide bore tips (ex. JVC) and the stock “Starlines” which have a stiff core exacerbate the already elevated treble and make the AS16 uncomfortably bright.
The AS16 has a decidedly mid and treble-centric signature with a very light bass response.
Treble is well extended but also significantly elevated. Trevle heads might get a kick out of this one. Thankfully the quality of the treble is good so you’re not stuck with a product that is both bright and harsh. Notes have good definition and decay rapidly. It all comes across very detailed, crisp, and well controlled, just quite bright. Chimes and cymbals hit with almost too much authority and get tiring very quickly. This presentation certainly seems better suited to low volumes as a result.
The midrange is quite prominent with an upper mid emphasis that keeps vocals in the forefront. Timbre takes another step in the right direction and sounds fairly accurate, something KZ has been improving generation to generation with their products that incorporate armatures. Detail here is impressive too with the AS16 taking on an analytic quality. You can really pick apart vocals and instruments thanks to the wealth of information on offer. Vocals density and weight is surprisingly fine despite the lack of mid-bass to pump it up.
Bass overall is a bit of a letdown. KZ has been on a roll with their 22955 low range armature with each earphone using it having deep, impactful bass that doesn’t give up the ghost on speed and control. While the bass here is textured and snappy, emphasis is lacking at the low volumes needed to manage the treble which serves to make said treble ever more prominent. As you raise the volume the low range driver begins to “wake up” and take on more presence, but so does the treble. I haven’t been able to find a happy medium without resorting to EQ. Bass extension is satisfactory but rolls off earlier than I like. The AS16’s low end simply lacks impact and presence in the overall tune reducing this earphone’s genre versatility.
Sound stage is excellent thanks to all that upper treble energy. Sounds have a ton of room to play around with leading to lots of moments where I removed the earphones thinking I heard my wife calling or the cats getting into trouble. Width and depth are excellent and on games like World of Tanks, the resulting reverb of a cannon round fades way off into the distance. It’s pretty sweet. Imaging is sharp and accurate with the plethora of drivers crammed into this thing keeping tracks layered and well separated.
Overall I have mixed feelings about the AS16’s presentation. On one hand I appreciate the clarity and detail. On the other, the sharp treble gets tiring. The comparatively weak low end just doesn’t have the presence needed to counter it. That said, running the AS16 through a powerful source like the Periodic Audio Nickel or my HA-501 desktop amp with the damping factor set to low helps significantly to balance out the signature when compared to running the AS16 straight out of a phone or DAP. I strongly recommend amping it if you have the option to see how your experiences are affected, but in my experience amping is pretty much necessary despite being an easy to drive earphone.
KZ ZS10 Pro (45.00 USD): The ZS10 Pro is a five driver hybrid and it’s obvious. The difference in bass quantity and presentation is probably the first thing you’ll notice when comparing it to the AS16. It’s deeper and more visceral providing a level of slam to bass notes the AS16 could only dream of. Sure it’s a little less textured and not quite as quick, but I’ll accept the trade off for the physical feedback. AS16’s mids are more forward, detailed, and more coherent. It’s clearly the superior product in this aspect. Treble on the AS16 is sharper and more prominent. I appreciate the extra detail and clarity on offer over the ZS10 pro, but it gets tiring and overstays its welcome. Sound stage is wider and deeper on the AS16 while also setting the listening slightly further from the performance. It feels more natural than the ZS10 Pro.
In terms of build, the ZS10 Pro is one of the best products KZ has released and while the AS16 is no slouch by any metric, ZS10 Pro gets the nod. While you might not like the mirror finish of the polished steel faceplates, they ooze quality and feel exceptionally premium. The rest of the materials are the same (metal nozzles, quality acrylics, cable and 2-pin system). Comfort is also superior on the ZS10 Pro thanks to it’s smaller size and shapely housings that better conform to the outer ear.
While I prefer the ZS10 Pro, these two are different enough to be complimentary as opposed to competition. If you prefer a warmer, bassier sound, the ZS10 Pro is a steal. If you like a brighter, more mid-range heavy sound, the AS16 will give you the better experience.
CCA C16 (99.00 USD): Both earphones house 8 drivers per side and come from the same company so I would expect performance to be similar, and it is. C16 is the better tuned product to my ears thanks to a more balanced tune that is quite easy on the ears. While the C16’s sub-bass is similarly underwhelming, treble is dialed down to be more in line with the rest of signature so no particular aspect stands out. The AS16 is more clear, a fair bit more detailed, and has a better sound stage, but the aggressive treble counters this in a way that is negative and not flattering.
When it comes to build the two are very similar, though the AS16 is the better of the two. First, the AS16 simply looks more premium with it’s transparent shells, metal nozzles, and Fidue A85 Firgo inspired face plates versus the C16’s bright blue plastics. Both give the impression of more expensive products when held thanks to their weight and impression of density. Cable quality is the same with what is considered better coming down to which 2-pin connector you prefer. Personally, I like the AS16’s more. Looks better and is compatible with a wider variety of 3rd party cables, even if they’ll fit awkwardly.
When it comes down to it, the C16 has a more well-rounded tunes with the AS16 looks and feels better. Tune trumps look though, so the C16 gets my vote, even if by only a small margin.
Tenhz P4 Pro (120.00 USD): The P4 Pro shares a similar signature with the AS16 in that they both have a treble and mid focused sound with a very reserved low end. The P4 Pro is slightly more mid-focused with less upper treble energy giving it a sound that is slightly more dry. Both have a pleasing, forward midrange that provides a good vocals experience, though I’ll give the edge to the P4 Pro as it sounds a touch more natural. Sound stage on the AS16 is wider and deeper and does a better job of enveloping the listener. I find the AS16’s treble cleaner sounding with a more crisp and controlled note presentation. Bass on both is pretty average with good texture and speed but extension that dips earlier than I would like. KZ did a good job mimicking Knowles’ 22955 driver. I wish they copied themselves instead and straight up ported over the BA10’s low end tuning.
In terms of build I’ll have to give it to KZ. It looks and feels more premium and I prefer their cable and the 2-pin system. Don’t get me wrong, the P4 Pro is wonderfully built, it’s just a little to plain. Some spice is nice, and the AS16 has it. You may feel differently and that’s cool too. P4 Pro is more comfortable since it takes on an ergonomic, ear hugging shape. Isolation is better too.
When it comes down to it, I like the P4 Pro more. While their tunes are similar, the P4 Pro is more balanced and lacks the treble brightness. It’s less fatiguing and about as technically capable while also being more comfortable.
I appreciate KZ’s ambition in bringing to market a gorgeous 8 BA earphone and trying to move their brand slightly more upscale. At 125 USD the AS16 moves KZ out of the budget realm and directly into a slightly less competitive, but also much less forgiving market. In the AS16’s favour, the level of detail and clarity on offer is impressive. The updated shell with it’s tidy driver layout and 3D printed insert looks fantastic. It’s all quite visually stunning and feels fantastic in the hand.
However, while the visual appeal is all that and then some, the AS16 is simply too bright and fatiguing to be enjoyable for more than short listening stints. And at this price, the accessory kit they’ve included with nearly every product of theirs no longer makes the cut. For a little bit less, the B200 from Brainwavz gives you an excellent case, two cables, two complete sets of silicone tips, a set of Comply foams, among other things. With the A15 Pro from Whizzer you get a pleather carrying case, a metal tip holder, a cleaning tool, and a slew of different styles of tips. While I accept that the driver layout KZ went with means sacrifices must be made elsewhere to meet a specific price point, one look at the CCA C16 and it’s identical accessory kit shows there was some wiggle room here.
While I don’t always agree with KZ’s sometimes questionable business practices, they’ve almost always provided customers with products that were amazing bang for the buck. There is a reason why their products are usually recommend to those just starting off in the hobby. Find a signature you like, then move on to bigger and better things. The AS16 doesn’t offer amazing bang for the buck. It looks great and sounds fine, but others in this price range sound just as good or better while offering more for your money. If you like a bright sounding earphone I’m sure you’ll enjoy the AS16, but, if you just want an 8 BA earphone without spending triple or quadruple digits, go for the CCA C16 instead. Or forgo a few drivers and get the Tenhz P4 Pro. There are lots of other great options out there.
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)