Today we’re checking out something that has become something of a rarity is recent years; a sub-5 USD product that doesn’t suck. In this case, it’s a new hyper budget earbud from the venerable KB EAR, the Stellar.
KB EAR, and to a lesser extent their subbrand Tri, have seen a pretty meteoric rise to recognition over the last couple years due to an aggressive publicity push by sponsoring Head-fi and pulling in community tuners to provide feedback and discuss their gear in various online groups. Not to mention getting their products into the hands of nearly every established, newcomer, and unknown reviewer they could. This tactic seems to have worked quite well for them. That said, their products are actually usually quite competent so all the excitement being generated isn’t just to make a quick buck and move along. It gets people to buy something that’s actually worth their time and money and benefits future products, something I can’t say for the countless brands that have cropped up and disappeared after a short-lived hit or two.
KB EAR’s newest is a bit of an oddity since it’s an earbud. This isn’t a format that is particularly mainstream nor popular, and hasn’t been since the 80s and 90s. While there is a die hard community supporting and surrounding them, earbuds are still quite niche with a cloud of distrust that hangs over them thanks to decades of crappy, pack in earbuds included with cheap consumer electronics. I personally attribute Venture Electronics (VE) with their Monk to pretty much single-handedly reviving interest in earbuds. They were extremely affordable at 5 USD, utilized a shell familiar to anyone that has been into portable audio within the last 20 years, and most importantly, sounded pretty darn excellent. Their followup, the Monk+, is a solid earbud, but in my opinion doesn’t hold a candle to the previous iteration.
With the Stellar, KB EAR is following VE’s original formula pretty much to the T, but coming in at an even lower price. Impressive right? Sure is. Let’s take a closer look.
What I Hear Upon first listen, I was pleased to hear the Stellar was tuned with a more well-rounded tune than is usually the case with earbuds. Thanks to the lack of seal, they tend to air towards a mid-focus with rolled off treble and a reserved low end, to put it politely. I totally get why in-ears have become the norm, if not only because of the increase in low end. That said, I don’t think the Stellar sacrifices much at all as a result of being an ear bud.
Foams: I often use earbuds with full foams because it increases the low end and improves comfort. The Stellar is one of the few that I prefer to use bare. Full foams thicken the sound too much for my preference, make the low end a little bloated, and significantly hinder detail and clarity, particularly in the mids. Donut foams are certainly an improvement and do little to affect clarity while aiding in providing a low end bump and improved comfort, but I still prefer the tuning balance when going foam free. Your mileage may vary.
The Stellar’s treble extends fairly well with a solid balance in the presence and brilliance regions, though lower treble does see some skew towards that region. As a result, tracks are adequately detailed with cymbals and chimes displaying some shimmer and sparkle with a very slight, dull edge, as noticed on King Crimson’s live rendition of “Cat Food”. Emphasis is restrained enough to keep the Stellar from crossing over into harsh territory, which is a plus considering the driver here is reasonably quick. Notes strike and fade fairly quickly, though at higher volumes I did notice some distortion and muddying of the sound. Still, for the price you can’t complain too much. This thing thwomps the vast majority of similarly priced products from mainstream manufacturers.
The midrange is usually where ear buds excel, and the Stellar is no exception. Vocals sit, for the most part, in line with the rest of the track. Female vocalists get a slight push though, as noticed using the Stellar with Big Grams’ “Born To Shine” and “Run For Your Life” or Missy Elliot’s “Lose Control” and Skrillex’s “Squad Out” where Fat Man Scoop’s always hype vocals sit just a hint too far back in each mix. Notes are well weighted without coming across overly thick or slightly thin, and are reasonably clear and detailed. Using full foams hinders these qualities quite a bit, so I’d avoid using full foams unless absolutely necessary. Timbre is excellent as is expected from a dynamic driver. Everything sounds as it should without any dryness or metallic qualities creeping in.
Using earbuds with anything bassy is often a disappointing experience. Since they just sit in your outer ear with no seal, the low end typically lacks emphasis, rolls off early, and ends up being tertiary to the listening experience. The Stellar manages to avoid this for the most part. While there is noticeable roll off in sub-bass regions, as noticed with Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” and Kavinski’s “Solli”, you do still experience a tickle of rumble. Midbass picks up the slack with just the right emphasis to avoid adding bloat of excess warmth. It is especially satisfying with synth-wave tracks, like GUNSHIP’s “Fly For Your Life” where the bassline retains plenty of impact and carries the track appropriately. Modern pop is handled just fine too with Tame Impala’s “The Less I Know The Better” sounding full and luscious through the Stellar.
Like most earbuds, the Stellar provides a spacious sound more akin to a closed-back headphone than an in-ear. Stage width is satisfying with sounds transmitting off into the distance quite effectively. Depth is a little less noticeable giving the Stellar a sound that is more broad and wide than rounded off. Imaging is quite competent with smooth, nuanced channel-to-channel transitions. Not quite as tight and well-controlled as an iem, but still plenty workable. Tracks sound well-layering and individual effects properly separated. Congestion only creeps in at high volumes on busy tracks, such as in the final moments of King Crimson’s “Starless and Bible Black”. If you’re used to earbuds, the Stellar isn’t doing anything new or unexpected, though iem users might be impressed.
Compared To A Peer
VE Monk+ (~5 USD): I was hella disappointed in the Monk+ when I purchased mine back in the day. The original Monk was less harsh in the highs, had smoother mids, a fuller, better extended low end, and in general sounded like a more refined, expensive product, and that’s after ignoring the reduction in build quality on the Monk+. The + was still a great bud for the price, but I’ve been holding out for a proper monk replacement ever since. The Stellar is just that and a comparison to the Monk+ feels much the same as comparing it to it’s predecessor. The Monk+ is brighter than the Stellar with a thinner sounding midrange, less textured bass, and a grainier, less refined presentation overall. The Monk+ has a better sound stage though, offering some additional depth and width to the presentation, but that’s about all I’d say it has going for it over the Stellar.
FiiO EM3 (discontinued): The EM3 has significantly more rolled off highs and lacks the same level of energy and upper end clarity. The midrange of the EM3 is thicker and more rich with a level of clarity that is similar to the Stellar when it has dense, full foams in place. With both bare and foam-free, the Stellar still has the clarity and coherence edge. Timbre is equally good on each. Bass on each is about equally rolled off with the EM3’s midbass being notably thicker and more prominent giving it a warmer presentation. This thickness is exacerbated by a slower, less well-controlled driver. The EM3’s sound stage isn’t as wide but shows better depth and as a result sounds more well-rounded, but slightly smaller in general. The Stellar images better and improves upon the EM3 with better instrument separation and track layering. The Stellar is clearly the better performer to my ears thanks to it’s more balanced tune and improved technical ability.
In The Ear Since the Stellar uses Sennheiser’s MX500 shell, there’s nothing special to note here. The plastics used are of good quality, residing somewhere between the beautifully formed, dense plastic of the original VE Monk and the somewhat chinzy feeling Monk +. Fit and finish sits between the two as well with the original Monk having cleaner lines and more heft to it than the Stellar. Compared to the Monk+, the Stellar’s opacity is cleaner and molding lines smoother and less rough. The Monk+ has a cooler logo though thanks to it’s 8-bit style font.
The Stellar’s cable is nothing we haven’t seen before either. It is a very standard dual strand unit with a plain black sheath. The straight jack is extremely small and decently well relieved, while the y-split is a small hunk of rubber that limits how far down users can pull apart the two strands of the cable. Strain relief is absent leading into the ear pieces, as seems to be the standard for ear buds. While the cable is a hint on the thin side, I appreciate how light and flexible it is, and how well it resists tangling. Very little noise transmits up to the ear when in use too, though I did occasionally notice it rubbing against my shirt or jacket. It’s kind of refreshing using a classic cable like this when most products feature some over-the-top braided option that looks awesome but can be annoying to actually use.
Isolation is non-existent. It’s an earbud. A lack of isolation is quite possibly one of the reasons why you buy an earbud. Hearing the world around you can be a good thing, particularly when you’re out and about in a busy city where it is important to be able to hear some nut bar blazing towards a red light they’re planning to “ignore”.
In The Box KB EAR is keeping the unboxing experience appropriately barren for a sub-5 USD earphone. You get the earbuds with a single set of foams tucked in a ziplock bag, protected by a small, featureless, cardboard box. And that’s it. Fans of such basic unboxing experiences have got some wet dream material for ’em in this one.
Final Thoughts If I were to rate products on this site, I’d give the Stellar whatever the maximum score would be. Not because it’s perfect, but because it’s a sub-5 USD earbud that provides listeners with a genuinely wonderful audio experience at an ungodly low price. The amount of value and enjoyment to be had from something like this is unquestionable, especially when you consider the average North American spends near the cost of this product, or more, on a coffee on their commute to work in the morning.
KB EAR’s Stellar is well built, has a nice cable, offers a quality tune with decent technical ability, and costs next to nothing. Fans of a barren unboxing experience will be satisfied. Those hunting for a bargain will be satisfied. Someone looking for a cheap daily driver that sounds good and they don’t have to worry about will be satisfied. The Stellar is everything good about portable audio, just like the VE Monk before it, and everyone should have one.
Fantastic job KB EAR. I hope you expand your earbud portfolio, because the Stellar is just that, and makes me excited for a follow up.
Thanks for reading!
Disclaimer A big thanks to Doona from Miss Audio for reaching out to see if I would be interested in checking out the Stellar and sending one over for review. The thoughts within this review are my subjective impressions and do not represent KB EAR, Miss Audio, or any other entity. You can scoop up a set for yourself here: www.aliexpress.com/item/1005001353955370.html
- Frequency Response: 20Hz – 20,000Hz
- Impedance: 30 ohms
- Sensitivity: 115dB +/- 3dB
- Driver: 15.4mm dynamic
Gear Used For Testing LG Q70, Earstudio HUD100, Earmen Sparrow, Asus FX53V
Some Test Tunes
Supertramp – Crime of the Century
Slipknot – Vol 3 (The Subliminal Verses)
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid
King Crimson – Lark’s Tongues in Aspic
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black
Infected Mushroom – Legend of the Black Shawarma
The Prodigy – The Day is My Enemy
Steely Dan – The Royal Scam
Porcupine Tree – Stupid Dreams