I am not a fan of KZ, or Knowledge Zenith for the more proper brand name. Back in the early days of KZ (I think it was about a couple of years ago, or so), I did remember when I was just starting in the hobby and they did have a couple of models that seems to be pretty successful, the KZ ATE and ED9. I liked both, albeit the bass of the ATE was slightly muddy while ED9’s build could have used a bit of improvement, but boy was I happy back then (ignorance is a bliss I guess) as the best I had back then was my old, trusty ATH IM70. KZ’s formula then was a success; these models may not necessarily be the best there is in the market but they are cheap and offers a much-improved tonality compared to those that I normally get from my phones’ packaging. Shortly after, KZ came up with the ZS3 and ZST which, admittedly, are a pretty good upgrade from the ATE (ZST having a good run even up to this point, being one of the most preferred choices in the entry-level category amongst enthusiasts these days).
Fast forward nowadays, I got quite disappointed with some of their offerings, particularly the ZS5 and ZS6 (ZS5 even got controversial at some point, while ZS6 was waaaaayyy too bass-heavy for my taste, leaving the mids dipped far too much) as I find them deviating a bit from their old style of offering a decent amount of details from their IEMs (my apologies to the ZS5 and ZS6 fans out there). It felt like KZ capitalized on the incorrect notion (in my opinion) that the sound quality is directly proportional to the number of drivers an IEM has.
After those two, I kinda lost interest with KZ because of the aforementioned reasons, plus coupling it with the fact that tons more came out from other brands that seem to compete fairly well than the famed brand. A whole slew of brands tried their luck slugging it out with these 2 models from KZ, and I will have to say that given these alternatives unless KZ decides to improve on these gripes, I saw no reason to get back to the said brand.
However, I was offered a couple of new KZ models by my usual China-Fi benefactor, the ZSA and the AS10, so I thought, what the heck, why not give these a try. Fairly enough, I did somehow find myself listening to the ZSA a lot longer, of which in my opinion, somehow followed the path that KZ took with the ZST.
So for today, allow me to introduce to you the KZ ZSA.
As mentioned, while I do not favor the ZS5 and ZS6 (with ZS5 obviously copying the shell design of another brand/model), I did appreciate the fact that they improved on the material they used with these models compared to how ZS3 was built. The case is the same with the ZSA, only that somehow KZ did try to be a bit original with the design. I guess this is the biggest plus for the ZSA.
Apart from the material used, I liked how durable the ZSA seems to look like. Yes, ZS5 and even ZS6 does look pretty durable to me, but again given the more unique design of the shells, the ZSA has somehow established an originality unlike the mentioned IEMs.
KZ also decided to up their game with the cable that came along the ZSA, using a braided copper cable which adds a bit more flair to the entire thing. The box also comes with a user guide and a warranty card which I think is pretty nifty. It also comes with a set of 3 pairs of silicon ear tips of varying sizes, however, I thought that given the ZSA’s price, it could have come with more options for the tips.
KZ also has gone quite far when it comes to packaging from the ZST/ZS3 days; the packaging now offers a bit more of a premium look, making it especially nice to unbox the ZSA.
Overall, I will have to laud KZ for turning things around when it comes to the build. They did go out of their way rethinking how to build the ZSA, of which is already a reason enough to give KZ another chance.
KZ ZSA’s sound signature is quite reminiscent to the brand’s house sound; typically v-shaped, with an emphasis to either low or high end. One thing I noticed though is the aggression found on the lower frequencies, with a relatively tighter mid-bass compared to ZS6 and a sparkly yet smoother treble compared to either ZST and ZS5. By the looks of it, this is another IEM that will appeal to new enthusiasts who would normally not be bothered by as many details as seasoned enthusiasts do.
Let’s take this baby for a spin, shall we?
Craving (James Bay, Chaos and the Calm)
While I admit that the sound of the ZSA is an improvement to the ZS6, it still carries quite a robust amount of bass, starting off with the sub-bass all the way to the mid-bass. I think this will be another favorite for enthusiasts who are into such amounts of bass as the ZSA can definitely deliver the bass in such quantity. Thankfully though, mid-bass is quite clean and doesn’t show as much bleeding as the ZS6. Guitars sounded decent with the ZSA, not exactly recessed but can be heard properly with some level of distinction. Soundstage isn’t exactly incredible so you would wonder if the vents on the shell actually are functional to the earpieces.
Rewind (Ilaydaen, Digressions)
The track seems to conform with the ZSA when paired with Centrance HiFi-M8. Somehow the bass was suppressed or probably neutralized ever so slightly, with mids being a bit more forward compared to when it was paired to the Pono Player in the earlier track. Bass sounded full and rich, with the trebles and mids sounding sufficiently satisfying for an IEM of this price point.
Full Circle (Movements, Feel Something)
I kind of disliked how much bass the Hifiman HM-901S allowed when paired with the ZSA. It kind of felt a bit too much for me, with the bass sounding too dominant that it kind of shadowed the mids. It’s not exactly muddy, but kind of takes the attention away from the mids. Trebles are sufficient, the higher notes were hit with enough distinction and without rolling off. Mids are okay, as I said, but seems to be shadowed over by the bass. Not bad sounding, but kind of takes away the natural sound of the source.
Sound is good in the aspect that it offered a decent amount of improvement from ZS5 and ZS6, but perhaps I am swayed by my preference as I am not a big fan of lows-heavy tonality. Considering other enthusiasts, it might appeal to them especially for those who prefers this sound signature.
I am taking up on a personal note on my gripes for the ZSA, but like the ZS6, I still find it to be too bass heavy for my taste. I am perfectly fine with a healthy dose of bass but not as much as what ZSA offers. Also, I was hoping that the vents on the earpieces actually serve a purpose, however, it doesn’t seem so. Considering the size of the vents, it would have been able to offer a significantly better soundstage, of which I didn’t find in the ZSA.
Cable is decent, but could have been better. KZ could have even upped the ante for the IEM by using an SPC cable, of which I didn’t try with this review. I am just assuming that the SPC might be able to somehow negate the bass a bit, although I am not sure. My only point is that as much as the one included in the ZSA’s packaging is an improvement from the previous ones used by KZ, I still think it has some room for improvement.
So was the KZ ZSA able to change my mind and bring me back to KZ’s arms like how it was during the ZST era? I will have to admit that there indeed were some significant improvement on the design and the tuning, but the challenge is up to KZ now. While it did create a niche to the newbie and budget market, I think it still is about time for KZ to up their game, and to be honest, what they did with ZSA is just the least that I expect from them. I strongly believe they can still do a heck lot better.
Don’t get me wrong though, for less than $20, I think I can categorize the ZSA as a very good IEM, considering how much better I liked it compared to the ZS5 and ZS6 (both roughly are priced twice than the ZSA). Perhaps I will just call it the right step for KZ to take if they are to solidify their status as the brand to go for budget and newbie friendly IEMs.
***Special thanks again to Lillian for the review sampler. You may check her store on this link for your budget-friendly audio needs: https://bit.ly/2xxAnNL.