Today we’re checking out the least expensive earphone on the market with 8 balanced armatures (BA) per side, that I know of at least; the CCA C16.
CCA is a newcomer to the market and competes directly with brands like Knowledge Zenith (KZ), TRN, TinHIFI, among others. Using parts from KZ, they have rapidly gotten a foothold in the budget market thanks to low prices and impressive specs. Some of their gear doesn’t sound half bad either, like the C10.
The C16 is CCA’s first all-armature release and despite housing 8 Bas per side, manages to squeak in just under the 100 USD mark. Do they offer a compromised experience that is more about the number of drivers than the implementation, or are they a legitimately well-tuned budget-friendly offering?
Let us find out.
Thanks to Lillian at Linsoul for arranging a sample of the C16 for the purposes of review. The thoughts within this review are my own subjective opinions based on time spent listening to the C16. They do not represent CCA, Linsoul, or any other entity. At the time of writing the C16 was retailing for around 99 USD. You can check it out on Linsoul.com 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: 20-40,000Hz
- Impedance: 27ohms
- Sensitivity: 105dB
Packaging and Accessories:
The C16 arrives in some very KZ-esque packaging, just like the C10 before it. On the front of the exterior sheath covering a compact cardboard box is a color image of the C16’s earpieces with the cable installed. It does a good job of showing off the beefy connectors and preformed ear guides. You also find the usual CCA branding and model info, as well as information that this earphone contains 16 drivers in total, and has removable cables. Flipping to the back of the sheath you find CCA’s location and contact information as well as the earphone’s specifications.
Slipping off the sheath reveals the C16’s earpieces under a plastic cover, tucked tightly into a cardboard and foam insert. Under the insert are the accessories and documentation. In all you get:
- C10 earphones
- 0.75mm 2-pin copper cable
- “Starline” single flange ear tips (s/m/l)
Overall this is a very basic accessory kit giving you only what you need to get listening; the earphones, a cable, and some ear tips. At this price I would like to see some additional accessories, like a case or carrying bag, even if you can pick those up separately for under a dollar.
Build, Comfort, and Isolation:
The C16 is a nicely constructed product. The base shell is shared with the KZ AS10 and AS06 but modelled in a bright blue this time around. A single pinhole vent is present on the inner face relieving pressure that is common with fully sealed, all-BA earphones. The nozzle design is the same as the aforementioned KZ’s with three small protrusions replacing a traditional nozzle lip. They work well enough. At the tip of the nozzle is a fine plastic mesh protecting the drivers within from damage due to dust, dirt, earwax, and other particulates that could find their way inside. The face plate is made from zinc alloy giving the C16 some heft and a higher quality feel than other, all-plastic products. Printed neatly on each face plate is ‘CCA 8 Balanced Armature’, along with left and right indicators. Out the top of each ear piece you find 0.75mm 2-pin ports shared with past products from KZ. While I prefer the new ports KZ uses, some prefer the older version used here. If you’re in the latter camp, the C16 should work well with all those unused KZ upgrade cables you’ve got kicking around.
Speaking of cables, if you’ve used a CCA or recent KZ before, there’s nothing new going on here. The C16 is equipped with the ever familiar braided copper cable we’ve seen elsewhere. The y-split is still set way too low making the portion above the y-split subject to tangling. The left side is also about an inch longer than the right, which doesn’t really affect anything, I just find it annoying. On the plus side, the cable is flexible and not particularly noisy in terms of microphonics. The preformed ear guides feel good around the ear and keep the cable secure, so thumbs up there. The 90 degree angles jack is smooth and well rounded, but very broad and doesn’t have an extension to permit use with cell phone and DAP cases. They will get in the way and cause intermittent disconnects. The y-split is extremely well relieved above and below. Lastly, the 2-pin plugs are metal and knurled allowing a good grip, as well as coloured coded thanks to a slim band of paint on each side. Red for right, left for blue, as per the industry standard. Overall a good cable, but that y-split needs to be raised or a chin cinch added to help deal with the tangle-prone nature.
The C16’s shell is more or less the same as the AS10, AS06, and AS16 from KZ and as a result comfort is pretty good. The C16 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 as they are resurfacing a number of parking lots. The C16 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: Wide. Bore. Find them and use them. Wow do they ever make the C16 sound way more exciting that with the stock ‘Starline’ set. The low end has so much more presence, and it doesn’t lead to additional mid or treble peaks that hinder those frequencies.
The C16 is a surprisingly balanced earphone. Treble is well extended and only slightly emphasized. Cymbals, chimes, etc. display some shimmer and sparkle thanks to a fair upper treble spike, but not enough to be overly aggressive as noticed on Skindred’s “Get It Now”. Low treble could see a mild boost to help improve clarity, something I feel isn’t a strength of the C16. Micro details are routinely smoothed over and lost in favour of a inoffensive sound. The presentation is in general fairly spacious and clean.
The mid-range is reasonably well forward keeping vocals, guitars, etc. from blending into the mix. I find the tune especially flattering to deeper female vocalists (ex. Cher), and higher male vocalists (ex. Matthew Bellamy) due to the weight and presence they carry. Acoustic guitars sound excellent as heard on Porcupine Tree’s “Baby Dream in Cellophane”, as do the chugging electric guitar riffs on Havok’s “Covering Fire”. The problem is a lack of micro detail letting what should be defined notes meld slightly. It ends up dulling what should be exciting passages.
The C16’s low end is it’s strongest aspect to my ears, but still lacks in some areas. Mid-bass is quick and punchy with some solid slam, but as you dig into sub-bass regions the roll-off is noticeable and not unlike what you experience with single, full-range armatures. As a result, bass reliant tracks like Kavinski’s “Solli” lack character, while more mid-bassy tracks like Jidenna’s “Long Live The Chief” fare just fine. Texturing is better here than through the mids and treble, thankfully. Now, I must remind that I listen as very low volumes. As I’ve noticed on a few earphones using KZ’s 22955 low range armature, it tends to “wake up” at higher volumes. That is no different here. If you listen at louder volumes, you’ll have a better experience than I did.
The C16 sets listeners fairly close to the performance but does a good job tossing sounds off into the distance when needed. It’s still fairly intimate though, so I wouldn’t put it much beyond average. That said, imaging is tight and well controlled with clean channel transitions and no vague areas or dead zones. Layering and separation are good too which combined with the width and depth available keeps the C16 from becoming congested during busy tracks.
Overall I find the C16 a solid listen, though not without some qualms. I don’t find them particularly detailed which wouldn’t be an issue if they were very smooth and organic, but they’re not. At least not in the treble. It’s not harsh, but it’s not smooth either. Regardless, I like what CCA has done here. They clearly had a vision in mind when tuning the C16 and the resulting product is coherent and competent making it a good all-rounder across a wide variety of genres.
FiiO FA1 (99.00 USD): The C16 has a slightly darker, more mid-bassy sound. Treble on the FA1 is slightly more emphasized and doesn’t extend as well but is tighter and more controlled. There is more air between notes as well giving it an evenly broad and deep sound stage. The FA1’s mid-range is more forward and articulate with cleaner but leaner vocals. Timbre is slightly more realistic as well. The C16 has the low end advantage with more mid-bass impact and grunt. Sub-bass extension is alright on both, but still nothing to write home about. I find the FA1 more detailed through the mids and treble with the C16 providing more texture and information in the low end.
The FA1 is the best built 3D printed earphone I have yet come across. That said, while I think it is significantly more attractive than the C16 thanks to it’s more tasteful design and subtle use of the colour blue, it is no better built. Both have outstanding fit and finish and are constructed without any notable flaws. Cables are another story and the FiiO’s is the better tale. It is winder versus the C16’s braid, but feels more durable and is much less prone to tangling above the y-split. Both use preformed ear guides though I prefer what CCA uses as it is softer and more flexible while holding the cable just as secure around the ear. Fit easily goes to the FA1 thanks to it’s more ergonomic shape, lighter weight, and smaller size. It isolates better too thanks to a fully sealed shell.
Overall both are good performers but the FA1’s single balanced armature sounds more natural and coherent, not to mention more detailed in the mids and treble when compared to the C16 and it’s plethora of drivers. The only area the C16 has a clear advantage is in the low end, and even that isn’t by a wide margin.
KZ AS16 (125.00 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 bass is similarly underwhelming, treble 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.
While the C16 isn’t the best product in it’s price range, I would consider it a competitive product and a somewhat technical achievement. An eight armature earphone for under 100 USD that doesn’t sound like an incoherent piece of excrement, doesn’t sacrifice on build quality, and arguably sounds better than it’s flagship cousin from Knowledge Zenith? Yeah, I’d definitely consider than an achievement. It sounds good, if not a little lacking in the detail department, is comfortable, and isolates well enough to be used in noisy areas. I would like to see CCA differentiate themselves from their parent company a bit more since the KZ influence is strong in all aspects, but as is, the spinoff brand has the better flagship.
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)