It has been awhile since the last time I reviewed a pair of headphones in sub $20 price range that made me go wow! straight from the box. When it comes to budget headphones, the first thing people notice is a low price, then maybe a cool design, and a final comment with “for the price it sounds good”. The first pair of a budget headphones that broke the ground for me with an impressive sound came from Xiaomi (Pistons). Now, raising the bar to a new level by lowering the price and offering a decent build quality, eye catchy design, and a surprisingly good sound tuning – I want to share with you in this overview about some of the latest releases from Knowledge Zenith (KZ): ATE, ED9, ED10, HDS1, ED3C, ZN1, and ZS1.
KZ ED9 ($13-$15).
Arrived in a small plastic box, it had a very basic artwork and a detailed spec on the back. Under the cover I found a nice display presentation with a foam cutout and ED9 inside of it. Though it was minimalistic, for such low price KZ actually included a set of 3 hybrid eartips (S/M/L, hybrid design with a red core) and a set of 2 filters. Yes, hard to believe but this design accommodates replaceable metal nozzle-filters that screw into the shell of headphones. And as a bonus there was an extra pair of hybrid eartips used as a “holder” for 2nd set of filters.
Starting with a cable, this is something you wouldn’t expect from a “budget” IEM. It has a quality gold plated L-shaped connector with a nice strain relief. The multi-colored twisted wires are inside of a clear rubbery shielding which is soft and easy to manage without getting tangled too much. Y-splitter is small and rubbery with a nice strain relief around all 3 points of wire connection. Right side of the wire also has inline remote control with universal multi-function single button and mic right next to it. You don’t have to worry about compatibility of volume control (Android vs iOS) since those buttons are not present, but a single click Play/Pause/Call works flawlessly, and double-click skips to the next song with my Note 4.
The wire goes to a metal chrome plated shell and has a nice strain relief at the attachment as well. As you can see, a lot of thought went into the cable design and durability of every joint connection. The shell itself is very slick and has a little bit of weight to it. Considering that and the fact that you can only wear it wire down, you do need to pair it up with a set of eartips that give you not only the best seal but also a grip to hold these IEMs securely inside of your ears. The shell itself has multiple air vents including a pinhole next to the attached wire, the other one at the base of the nozzle filter, and two large wire mesh covered ports on the back of the shell. Combined, all this contributes to an open airy wide soundstage and at the same time a mediocre isolation. Also, top of each earpiece has a clearly spelled Left/Right marking. Microphonics effect was noticeable when cable brushed against my shirt, but it wasn’t too bad.
When it comes to a sound, let me reassure you that included two pairs of filters are not a gimmick. When you look closer, they have a very distinct design, a slight difference in length and finish (faded brass – neutral, shiny gold – bassy), and shiny gold nozzle-filter even has a foam insert filter. A difference was very noticeable between these two filters that definitely contributed to shaping of a sound signature. Moving forward, I will refer to “bronze” and “gold” in order to distinguish which filter I was using in my listening setup.
ED9 (bronze) has a neutral sound with slightly mid-forward signature. Overall it’s bright and detailed sound with a wide airy soundstage that also has a nice depth to it. Bass is neutral, tight, and punchy, with a good extension and characteristics of being able to hear it instead of feeling it. Mids are clear and bright, slightly forward which could be an artifact of my perception. I would also say that mids are a bit on a thin side, almost close to analytical in nature, but not harsh. Treble is crisp and bright, and with a nice extension.
ED9 (gold) has a more balanced sound with an enhanced low end. It still has a wide soundstage, but not as airy due to decreased level of brightness/sparkle. Low end now gets a nice sub-bass extension accompanied by a strong punchy mid-bass. Mids transform themselves with a little more body and feel a bit pushed back behind low end, but not in a recessed way. Lower mids are still on a thinner side, but upper mids are warmer and smoother. As a consequence of that, they lose some of the details in comparison to bronze filter, but do remain clear. Treble is crisp and bright, and has a nice extension though a bit attenuated in comparison to a setup with a bronze filter.
KZ ATE ($13-$15).
In the exactly same shaped small box as ED9, ATE arrived with the same cover artwork but the cover itself was transparent revealing a pair of silver colored ATEs in a foam cutout display setting. Also similarly to ED9, the back of the box had a detailed spec. Included accessories had 2 pairs of basic silicone eartips (M/L) and a pair of foam eartips (M). Here sound is “fixed” without any removable/replaceable filters like with ED9.
Moving on to a design and starting with a cable, it was consistent with both EDSE and ED9 models. It has a quality gold plated L-shaped connector with a nice strain relief. The multi-colored twisted wires are inside of a clear rubbery shielding which is soft and easy to manage without getting tangled too much. Y-splitter is small and rubbery with a nice strain relief on the common side of wire connection. Right side of wire also has inline remote control with universal multi-function single button and mic on the opposite side. You don’t have to worry about compatibility of volume control (Android vs iOS) since those buttons are not present, but a single click Play/Pause/Call works flawlessly, and double-click skips to the next song with my Note 4.
Moving up from there I encountered something different which I haven’t seen in any other IEMs I tested in the past. Placed about 120mm down from earpieces, each side of the cable has a small weighted down golden capsule. With ATE having over-ear fit only and without a cable cinch due to an inline remote, these little inline weights serve a purpose of keeping the wire down behind your ears. I’m not suggesting they are like two heavy anchors, they are actually light but with just enough weight to keep the wire down from swinging as you walk or move around.
Attached to the shell, cable has a nice strain relief and connects to a round metal cross-etched ring with a color marking to distinguish Right (red) vs Left (black) sides. The shell also has L/R letter marking but in case if it going to wear off, you can always rely on the color coded metal ring piece where cable enters the shell. The shape of the shell has a VERY close resemblance to IM50 IEMs, which also makes me wonder about a model name of “ATE” to signify this “AT” similarity? But make no mistake – it’s not the exact copy, just a resemblance in shape. The shell itself is all plastic and very lightweight, and with security of over ear wire fit – you have a little more eartip choices since you are no longer required to use the biggest one to keep these IEMs in your ears. There is also a pinhole air vent at the bottom of the nozzle, coincidentally in the same spot as IM50.
When it comes to a sound, ATE doesn’t use any sound shaping filters but it will require some tip rolling to get the most out of these headphones. Coincidentally, I found the best sound for me to be with ED9 hybrid eartips, and as a matter of fact didn’t have to use the largest size.
In more details, I found KZ ATE to have a balanced smooth sound signature with an enhanced low end performance. It has a tight bass with a nice slam, in particularly a powerful sub-bass rumble with a fast punchy mid-bass. Mids have a full body sound with warm lower mids and detailed smooth upper mids, though they slightly pushed back. I absolutely love the organic nature of the vocals delivery, both male and female, so smooth and so intimate. Treble is detailed but not too bright or crisp, and it has a moderate extension. Soundstage is more intimate with an average width though above average depth.
KZ ED10 ($13-$14).
ED10 arrived in a shield-shaped box like ATE black edition, a nice compact packaging. At the same time even so packaging box looks cool, it doesn’t make a convenient storage case, so perhaps in the future KZ can redesign it considering they don’t provide anything for storage as part of the accessories package. The only thing you get is 3 sets of eartips, M/L with small bore opening, and a large hybrid eartip with a blue core. That one was actually my favorite set of tips since it offered the best fit due to its springy cap, and wide bore opening worked quite well to tame down the low end and open up higher frequencies (more about it later).
For those familiar with other previously mentioned KZ models, the cable design is not going to be a surprise. You are looking at the same right-angle 3.5mm gold plated plug with an excellent strain relief. Cable jacket has a translucent design where you can easily see bi-color wires, and it’s soft, a bit rubbery, and flexible. Y-splitter is compact, rubbery, and has great strain relief on all 3 sides. Featured in-line universal remote with mic and a single button play/pause/call operation was slightly different from previous models, having a bright red button to see it easier, and it also has a good strain relief.
Attachment to the shell is secure and with a good strain relief as well. Considering how KZ sometime likes to “copy” some other popular designs, here I couldn’t help but notice a strong resemblance with Ostry KC06x series. Obviously, we are not dealing with a titanium shell, but the finish and even the shape from the nozzle side has a lot of resemblance to Ostrys. The insertion is not too deep, shells don’t stick out too much, and they are very comfortable with both wire down or wire up fit, even to the point where I can fall asleep on a pillow while wearing these. Also, microphonics effect was not that bad.
With two vents, one by the base of the nozzle and another one toward the back of the shell, you will not have to worry about driver flex, but at the same time isolation was not bad either. I don’t know exactly what material it was made out of, but I really like the smooth finish of ED10. My only gripe was cursive handwriting font used on each shell to spell out Left and Right instead of a more clear and easier to read L/R letter marking. Other than that, I really like the design and the fit.
When it comes to a sound signature, KZ ED10 has a v-shaped smooth clear sound with an enhanced bass (strong sub-bass and mid-bass region). Their soundstage has an average width and above average depth.
In more details, low end has a nice deep rounded sub-bass and fast punchy mid-bass. The balance between sub- and mid- is skewed a little more toward sub-bass, but it’s still under control without muddying a sound. There is a little bit of mid-bass spillage into the lower mids but it’s not excessive and only adds to the warmth of a sound. Lower mids are warm and smooth with a nice body, upper mids are clear and smooth, but not super detailed. Upper mids are a little recessed, but not hidden too far behind bass and treble. Vocals sound warm and organic. Treble has a polite quantity, smooth, not too crisp or harsh, definitely non-fatigue and great for extended listening.