KZ ZAX: 8 Drivers For Under 100 Bucks?!

Greetings!

Today we’re checking out one of KZ’s newest releases, the ZAX.

Knowledge Zenith, the mother of all budget brands, has been slowly but steadily moving themselves upscale ever since the release of their first hybrid, the ZST. The ZAX is part of their newest crop of X-branded releases and has some pretty eye-watering specs that we could never have imagined being present in a sub-100 earphone just a few short years ago. Silver-plated, braided, removable 2-pin cable, 8 driver hybrid setup with a dual-magnet dynamic, open back, and a high quality, low profile, metal and acrylic build. It all looks very, very impressive, at least to someone that has been reviewing products for the better part of a decade. Newbies to the hobby have it good right now, jumping in at a time where the vast majority of releases are quite competent and generally quite affordable.

While the ZAX certainly looks good and impresses on paper, does it hold up in the real world as a daily driver? Yes, yes it does. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

What I Hear There is a sense of familiarity to the ZAX, though enough change from the typical KZ formula is present to make it a worthy entry. More refined drivers and a more prominent midrange work wonders.

Bass is a little loose and bloomy, suggesting the driver was not intended to be used with an open back design. Still sounds good, just not as tight as it could. Extension is quite impressive giving the low end plenty of visceral feedback. A midbass hump is noticeable and provides plenty of slam on drops. Texture is smooth but doesn’t filter out detail and information enough to be a detriment. The dual magnet driver is also reasonably quick and able to handle rapid transitions fairly well. Unfortunately the looseness present hinders performance leading to mild congestion on particularly busy bass lines.

The midrange of the ZAX is more forward than on prior KZ hybrids giving vocals plenty of presence amid the heavy bass. I found tonality and timbre to be another step in the right direction for the brand. Still a hint bright, but nothing I found particularly distracting. Sibilance is also kept in check, unlike another recent release that ended up bring quite the disappointment, the ZSN Pro X. Where the ZAX really steps up here is in terms of detail which is quite plentiful. This is one of those uncommon earphones that can be both traditionally entertaining (big bass, bright treble), while offering up analytic qualities that can satisfy those looking to analyze lyrics and fine details while they listen.

Treble out of the ZAX is boosted with a presence region bias. This helps drive the detail forward presentation of the ZAX while giving cymbals, chimes, etc. a pleasant amount of shimmer. I haven’t been finding it as overbearing and fatiguing as some other recent releases from competing brands, such as the Blon BL-05 or FiiO FH1s. Notes attack and decay quickly with a clean, tight presentation leaving the ZAX in good standing once tracks get particularly busy and congested. King Crimson’s “Starless and Bible Black” is reproduced wonderfully out of the thing.

I had high hopes for the ZAX’s sound stage, so colour me disappointed when the open back design didn’t deliver. Instead of a wide open, deep stage, it sounds quite normal. Sounds are tossed effectively enough into the distance and I’m reasonably well immersed into whatever I’m listening to, or the game I’m playing, I was just hoping for more. Instead, the open back design only seems to produce negatives like the aforementioned loose bass, as well as reduced isolation. On the plus side, imaging is pretty good with nuanced channel-to-channel movement that is competitive with others in the price range. Instrument layering and separation is also a plus, though the wily low end does hinder things somewhat when heavy bass is present.

Overall I quite like the ZAX and find it to be one of KZ’s better, more interesting releases of late. If the low end was tighter and the open back design provided some benefit, it would be more impressive.

Compared To A Peer (volumes matched with Dayton iMM-6)

Shozy Form 1.1 (74.99 USD): Both earphones are plenty bassy with a mid-bass focus, though less so on the 1.1. Shozy’s entry sounds a bit more linear when moving from sub to mid and upper bass regions. The ZAX provides more texture and a more visceral experience, but lacks the control of the 1.1. As a result it doesn’t handle rapid bass notes as well. The ZAX’s mids are more forward with a leaner, cooler presentation to them. Detail goes to the ZAX, but the 1.1 is more natural with a more accurate timbre, though the ZAX is still quite decent, especially compared to older KZ hybrids. Treble on both is quite energetic with the Form 1.1 having a more even presentation with no real bias towards brilliance or presence regions. The ZAX on the other hand is similarly emphasized in the lower treble, with less energy up top. The Form 1.1 provides just as much detail and even more air between notes, despite running with a much less exciting 1+1 hybrid setup. When it comes to sound stage, the Form 1.1 sounds wider with a similar depth. Imaging quality on the 1.1 is more accurate while the ZAX offers more competent layering and separation qualities. Overall, I prefer the Form 1.1, but not by a huge margin.

BGVP DMS (159.00 USD): Bass has a similarly boosted, smooth, feel. DMS is a bit less midbassy. You also get less texture and impact/visceral feedback from the DMS. KZ is less well controlled. DMS’ midrange is more recessed, though this does help give the presentation a better impression of space. At the same time it sounds less natural and there is a slight hollowness that isn’t heard in the KZ. The ZAX is more detailed too. Treble out of the KZ is a bit more aggressive and forward with additional energy in the brilliance region. It sounds more complete, but is also more fatiguing. The ZAX also improves upon the DMS in terms of overall detail and texturing in the treble as well. Sound stage is clearly in the DMS’ camp feeling notably wider and mildly deeper. Imaging, layering, and separation qualities are all similarly good, though I’ll give the ZAX the edge. Overall I much prefer the ZAX which can basically replace the DMS for me in more aspects. The nice sound stage is about all I’ll miss from the DMS.

In The Ear The ZAX uses the same high quality acrylic shell as a number of recent KZ models and as such feels like a more upscale device than the low price tag (for the number of drivers + feature set) would suggest. The new face plate design, which is very much open as you can see when holding the ZAX up to the light, is still metal and both looks and feels excellent in the hand. I still think KZ makes some of the nicest built earphones on the market, particularly in the budget realms. Further adding to the quality construction is the protruding 2-pin setup which is secured in place internally via compact screws, as visible through the clear acrylic body. Also visible through the shells is the plethora of drivers KZ somehow managed to cram into a shell originally designed for a simple 1+1 hybrid setup. 6 tiny armatures surround a 10mm dynamic with one more nestled comfortably within the nozzle. Equally minuscule channels are visible guiding sound from each armature to where sound can be experienced by the listener. I have a feeling they stuck with a familiar shell and selected clear acrylic to avoid a repeat of the “fake driver” fiasco that occurred when an original ZS5 was, uh….“carefully” dissected by a salty Youtuber.

Moving onto the cable, we see the same excellent upgraded offering that comes with the ZSN Pro X and ZST X. The sheath is thicker, more plush, and less prone to tangling above the y-split than past cables included by the brand. The silver-plated wiring within has a nice sheen to it too. It looks and feels quite nice. The hardware falls into the “same old, same old” category though. The VSonic inspired y-split and jack carry over from the ZSN Pro, as do the excellent preformed ear guides. Overall a great stock cable and worthy of the ZAX.

Comfort is outstanding. This earpiece has been a staple for a few different brands with mild tweaks being made to the nozzle angle and quality of the plastics. As with other KZ models that use it, like the ZSN, ZSN Pro X, ZST, ZS10 Pro, etc. , it fits perfectly with little to no effort required to get and maintain a good seal. The preformed guides hold the cable securely around the ear resulting in an earphone that is stable under pretty extreme movement. If you have teensy ears or they’re a particularly odd shape you might have issues with fit and comfort, but I expect basically everyone else to find these a pleasant product to wear.

Isolation is pretty poor, and for that we can blame the open back design. With music playing, I can still hear happenings around me. Taking the ZAX out for my nightly stroll results in the sound of cars passing by cutting through pretty clearly. You can compensate with MOAR VOLUME!!! and somewhat with foam tips, but even so, these are best used indoors or somewhat calm areas. On the plus side, they don’t bleed much sound out, so the leakage issues seem to be one-way only.

In The Box The ZAX arrives in the same compact, slightly more upscale packaging as the AS06. A glossy KZ logo can be found on the lid while the left panel 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 included with the AS10 and BA10, though now it is tailored to the ZAX. While it doesn’t add any real value to the package, it does serve to elevate the earphones that utilize this packaging style as the most premium of products in KZ’s dense catalogue.

Lifting out the foam insert the ZAX’s earpieces are nestled into, I noticed that the earpieces were situated left on the left, right on the right, with small cutouts in the cardboard insert below to make room for the nozzles with medium tips installed. Past versions of this packaging had the left earpiece on the right, right on the left, which is more visually appealing in my humble opinion, and didn’t require additional cutouts to accommodate the nozzles. But alas, some of KZ’s stronger skeptics took the previous design to mean they didn’t know left from right. It seems KZ gave in to please the heathens. Beneath the foam insert you find the accessories beneath. In all you get:

  • ZAX 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, such as a simple carrying case. They’re not expensive and would add to the already great value. No matter how you look at it, this is a nice unboxing experience with a fairly barren accessory kit that provides only what you need to get going and little else beyond that.

Final Thoughts While Knowledge Zenith seems to have moved away from the unpredictable and creative nature that I fell in love with in their pre-ZST days, those qualities have been replaced with consistency and quality. The ZAX doesn’t really bring much new to the table in terms of general tuning. It again just iterates and improves upon past hybrid offerings with more refined, capable drivers, and greatly improved detail and clarity. Unfortunately, the decision to go open back has not really benefited the ZAX at all, leaving the low end feeling loose and slightly uncontrolled. This is particularly unfortunate given the stellar low end performance of the much more affordable EDX and ZST X models. That looseness, and an averagely sized but still competent sound stage are about my only complaints surrounding the sound. The amount of detail and impressive clarity on offer makes up for it, as does the pushed up midrange which is a refreshing alteration to what is otherwise a fairly typical KZ sound.

The outstanding build quality of the ZAX continues KZ’s tradition of shaming the competition. High quality plastics, nicely formed metal face plates, clean internal construction. It’s all there, and it looks great. It fits beautifully too, nestling snugly into the ear with a level of stability I have come to expect from earphones using this style of shell. The new cable is also a plus thanks to a noticeable bump in thickness, along with a softer, more plush and tangle resistant sheath. The only thing missing is a new accessory kit. You still only get a basic tip set and the cable. No carrying case or other frills. I’m looking forward to the day when KZ goes all out with the included extras.

Overall, I quite like what KZ has done here. I’ve been getting tired of their same-old same-old hybrid releases that just rehash the same thing time and time again. While there are elements of this in the ZAX, enough is new and different for it to be refreshing to an old fan of the brand. KZ is back on my radar.

Thanks for reading!

– B9

Disclaimer Thanks to OPA Audio Store for reaching out and offering a sample of the ZAX for review. The thoughts within this review are my own subjective opinions based on time spent listening to the ZAX. They do not represent OPA, KZ, or any other entity. At the time of writing the ZAX was retaining for around 85 USD/117 CAD, depending on the colour and selected cable setup (mic or no mic). You can snag a set for yourself here: https://www.aliexpress.com/item/1005001353584911.html

Specifications

  • Drivers: 10mm dual-magnet 10mm dynamic + 7 balanced armatures
  • Impedance: 24 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 113 dB/mW
  • Frequency Response: 10-40,000Hz
  • Cable: 0.75mm 2-pin, braided, silver-plated

Gear Used For Testing LG Q70, FiiO BTR3K, Earstudio HUD100, Earmen TR-Amp, Asus FX53V, TEAC HA-501, ADC Sound Shaper Two Mk II

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
Fleetwood Mac – Rumors
Tobacco – F****d Up Friends

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