Today we’re going to have a group test of five different KZ earphones. Which ones are the right one for you? Let’s dive in and see.
For some of you that may not be familiar with KZ or Knowledge Zenith, it is a young Chinese brand that offers good sounding earphones on a tight budget. Now, I must say that historically I was not a big fan of the brand – if you ask why, it’s because they were often too analytical and too bright sounding for my taste. But today, I have 5 different models in a hope to find the one worth praising. So let’s see what we have here – there’s ES4, ZSA, ZSN, ZS10 and ZS6 and this is also a rough order of their prices. They’re all pretty much dirt cheap compared to any Sennhiesers, Beyerdynamics etc. ranging from $15 for ES4 to $35 for ZS10 and ZS6. But don’t let this low price turn you away – just bare with me a little bit longer. And when we’re done talking about these, I’ll also bring in SoundMAGIC E10s and Sennheiser CX300 for comparison sake.
First we test ES4 model here. This one is meant for bass and V shaped sound lovers. The bass hits hard and deep, mids are recessed and highs are pronounced. This balance will provide a fun sound but vocals will be thin and bright. Good thing is it’s not bloated and muddled mess you would typically expect from such a cheap earphones. On the contrary, bass is blown up but it’s reasonably controlled and fast, it’s overall clarity and sound-stage separation is pretty good, better then let’s say SoundMAGIC E10s or Sennheiser CX 300 II… that are both pricier models. Playing with EQ a little bit can help bring the brightness or the bass level down a bit but it just can’t make vocals sound full and lifelike. So overall, I would say this is a very nice, clean and punchy sound for bass-heads. They’re not so much for someone who would like to hear a neutral sounding vocals and instruments.
Next in the line are ZSA and they are somewhat different. They come in smaller size and in metal finish that I like. Soundwise, the overall clarity, separation and soundstage are comparable to ES4. Clarity is quite good for the price but they can still get overwhelmed by busy tracks. The frequency balance is a bit different, the bass is deep and present but it’s not overwhelming in any way. The lack of midrange strikes again and vocals lack juice and fluidity. Highs are even more pronounced making these very bright and harsh sounding to my ear. If you heard ZS5, these have very similar balance, the one I don’t particularly like. Nothing sounds like this in the real world, people are not hissing snakes so they shouldn’t sound like that. And if I use EQ to lower highs I can get rid of that brightness but mids and vocals still sound kind of lifeless, dry and tiny. I have to say that I didn’t really enjoy listening to my music through them.
Now this is an interesting beast. It’s usually just a buck or two more expensive than the previous two, but in terms of clarity, soundstage and instrument separation they are on the next level. ZSN can resolve busier tracks with ease and make sense in situations where previous two models would simply sound muffled. This model have quite neutral bass line that’s not too strong or too weak. Even more surprising – there’s a decent midrange too which is more fluid and juicier than I ever heard on KZ model before. Vocals are more physically present, and not just some tiny squeaky things in the background. That said they are still on the analytical side of things and not as full as you can hear on Sennheisers for example. Highs are clean and clear but there is a strong emphasis on the higher register.
To explain how that actually sounds, it’s like somebody turned strong lights. Just try to imagine those being acoustic lights so everything sounds very pronounced and bright. It may impress you at first, but it’s unrealistic. It’s like using a football field lightning in your home, or in a coffee shop. It sure is bright and you can sure see everything clearly but it’s just not natural and you can’t relax under it.
Fortunately enough, when I applied some simple EQ to it, what I was left with was a pretty good sound. Few dB shaved off from the area around 10 kHz should do the trick. You still have that great separation and clarity. Bass is deep but not overwhelming, mids are decently neutral and clear but not highs were not overpowering anymore.
Going past the sound, they are finished with some aluminum details, have fancy grills here… and overall look and feel is much more premium than the price would suggest.
Next we have ZS10 which are plasticy and look like ES4 but even more bulky. I had trouble keeping them in place in my ears sometimes. Sound-wise they are actually very similar sounding to great ZSN. We have good bass control, decent amount of mids, but this time highs are not that overwhelming right out of the box. So without using any EQ these are the most neutral sounding of them all. However, I do feel that ZSN have the slight advantage in overall liveliness. When mentioned EQ is applied to solve theirs overly forward highs, I keep preferring them to ZS10. I like this model very much, but I don’t see a good reason why would you spend almost twice the amount of money over ZSN.
And at last we have ZS6 here which are very clear and clean sounding pair of earphones with really good separation. I feel that they pull ahead slightly in-front of ZS10 in that regard. Their overall balance however is again similar to ZSA – mids are too thin and highs are too bright. Playing with EQ I could fix some of that but I still couldn’t make vocals sound full and juicy. While I respect theirs much better separation and organization compared to ZSA – no vocal or instrument in real world sounds this thin and dry and that’s all I have to say about that.
They’re very nicely built and belong in a group of smaller models so they could fit in most ears – but the same is true for ZSNs. They also sound more natural and cost less, so I can’t see any real reason to ever choose these over ZSNs.
So let’s sum it up. Judging the clarity and soundstage – ZSN, ZS6 and ZS10 are in a class of their own – while ES4 and ZSA are more muffled and cluttered in comparison. But looking at the overall sound balance – ZSA and ZS6 are overly thin and bright. I can’t recommend them unless you actually enjoy dry and artificially high pitched sounds. I’m not here to judge… But for the rest of you these are better avoided.
The fun V shaped sounding ES4 might be a good choice for bass-heads. It’s not my cup of tea but I wouldn’t blame you if you go for it. I know many people prefer some extra sauce and added flavor. They are kind of bulky so have that in mind. ZS10 are even bulkier,, so be aware of that because they might not fit your ears that well. That said they sound cleaner than ES4… and better balanced too, they’re probably providing the most natural sound out of the box of all models on this test. They are a really nice sounding pair that could have won today… but they didn’t because of the ZSNs. The smaller ones, the metal premium feel finish ones… they’re also cheaper than ZS10 but matching and even maybe slightly surpassing them in overall clarity and presence. Emphasized highs are easy to fix so these were the biggest surprise for me today.
I had two more famous in-ear models at hand. SoundMAGIC E10s that just can’t compare – they sound bloated, muffled and not as present compared to ZSNs, and same goes for old but legendary Sennheiser CX 300 II. They do have heavenly full and silky vocals but other than that they’re a bloated cluttered mess compared to ZSN. Both of these models were good in their time and I was very happy with them. But today they were completely outmatched by a healthy margin by a15 bucks KZ ZSNs.
What else can I say, it’s a good time to be an earphone buyer on a budget, enjoy it.