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KZ ZS5 Review - Your Entry Into Hybrid IEMs

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As I was writing this review, the various FB groups on mobile audio were active about Knowledge Zenith's (KZ) alleged manufacturing inconsistencies with the ZS5. From what I saw, looks like KZ may have skipped on quality control during production to rush the massively-hyped ZS5 into the market.
KZ ZS5 Review - Your Entry Into Hybrid IEMs
KZ ZS5 review

Yes, all that hype for a budget Chi-Fi hybrid that looked great had me looking forward to the ZS5's arrival too. So, is the ZS5 worth the hype? Read on...

Being a fanboy of hybrid IEMs, I had high hopes for Knowledge Zenith’s ZS5. Since you're reading GIZGUIDE, we'll guide you and explain and what hybrid IEMs are: hybrid IEMs use dynamic drivers (DD) for the low notes and balanced armature (BA) drivers for the middle and high frequencies. For loud, aggressive music, dynamic drivers can do a better job with the low bass notes because they allow you to "feel" the music. However, DD drivers cannot reproduce musical details as accurate as BAs. So, having both in one IEM can theoretically present a soundscape that is both powerful and detailed.

Why do I like hybrids so much? It’s because I listen to mostly rock and heavy metal - music that is like a thick wall of riffage, emotion and power. A well-implemented hybrid IEM, will give you a balanced and cohesive presentation of this "wall" and will let you experience (Yes, experience!) the music with slam, speed, details, clarity and decay. If you want to understand what I just said, audition the Fidue A91 Sirius with a well-recorded source. Make sure that your device has the power to drive the A91 though.

The promise of a budget Chi-Fi hybrid, that unashamedly copied its looks from the Campfire Audio line, heightened my interest in the ZS5. Still, my expectations were realistic. I was not expecting the ZS5 to sound like my Fidue A91 or have the same solidly-built feel of a Campfire Audio.

GIZGUIDE Pro Tip: when buying budget Chi-Fi gear, please have realistic expectations on performance and design.

KZ ZS5 Specs

Driver Units: Dual 10 mm Dynamic + 2  BAs
Impedance: 16 Ohms
Sensitivity: 106 dB
Frequency response: 20 - 20KHz
Rated Power: 10 mW
Connector: 3.5 mm L-shaped
Cable: standard 1.2 meters long made out of silicone. Tough, pliable & detachable with 2-pin connectors, built-in memory wires
In-Line Remote: Tubular metal housing with 3 buttons for volume down, pause & volume up
Price: PHP 1,400 to PHP 1,500

Disclaimer: The Knowledge Zenith ZS5 Hybrid IEM was sent to us for evaluation purposes in exchange for an honest and unbiased written review. As such, all opinions are truthful, and 110% mine alone.

Unboxing / Accessories

These being said, let’s move on. The ZS5 loaned for review was the gray variant with an inline remote control / microphone in its cable. It is packaged in a black no-frills compact yet sturdy box.

The box is topped with a clear plastic cover that lets you view the IEMs, held securely in a tray that serves as protection during transport, and presentation when purchased. 

Underneath, this tray you have your cable, a selection of soft silicone tips in S/M/L sizes plus a user’s guide. Both the silicone tips and cable are packed in a small, white plastic bag. 

Very basic and very sparse.

Build Quality / Design

The body
The body

Upon taking out the IEMs from the tray, the first thing you will notice is how light they are. The ZS5 shells are made from hard plastic, and each piece is stenciled with "R" & "L" for identification.

There are also additional markings on each shell that describe the model and the driver complement. Overall, the external build quality for the review unit is impressive and clean.

As is the case with budget Chi-Fi IEMs, I’d be very careful about dropping or banging the ZS5s against a hard surface. I had similar concerns with my VJJB N1’s lightweight plastic shells.  My N1s are still blasting away, and hopefully so will the ZS5.

Undoubtedly, they look damn good, and can certainly masquerade as high-end IEMs!

The cable is basic and utilitarianNo braiding or specialized insulation to improve durability but it does have memory wire since the IEM is worn over the ears. KZ could have made the cable sturdier and prettier but they also manufacture and sell after-market upgrade cables for the ZS5.

Comfort / Isolation

Soft tips
Soft tips

The ZS5 is worn over-the-ear, and it’s lightweight shell pretty much guarantees extended comfort. I went almost a whole day at work wearing the ZS5s and never did my ears feel the weight. Sure, there was the occasional itching but this was due to the silicone tips. I usually prefer memory foam tips because I do not itch with these but I have to run with a warmer sound signature.

Silicone tips for me elevate the highs so I use these on my dual dynamic driver VJJB N1. I have larger than usual ears, so fit and comfort are easy to achieve. Those with regular sized ears may have some comfort issues with the ZS5’s angular, and multi-cornered shell.  

With the included silicone tips, isolation was just about average. If you want more isolation, I’d recommend swapping to memory foam or double-flange tips.

Performance

Very capable performance
Very capable performance

After unboxing the ZS5, I paired it with my old reliable 160 GB iPod Classic. Despite having a number of other modern and more detailed sounding DAPs at my disposal, I often come back to my iPod Classic because I love the organic sound of its Wolfson DAC. 

Since we had a hybrid for testing, I felt that an organic sound was the way to go. I selected Opeth's "Pale Communion" as my first album to listen to, and found myself totally underwhelmed by the ZS5. 

It sounded too cramped, and snappy (snappy like Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich's snare drum sound on the Justice album), at times congested, sibilant and with a soundstage that was too narrow.  Still, the details and fluid bass tones immediately caught my attention.

Being a hardcore believer in burning-in, IEMs, cans & speakers, I left the ZS5 plugged into my work audio system playing at a constant 12 to 15% volume level. My patience was sonically rewarded after about a hundred hours. Starting fresh with the same album at 320 kbps on my iPod, the first thing I noticed was that the ZS5's soundstage opened up just enough to make instrument and vocal placement better defined.

The details and bass tones that I first noticed were still present but this time they punched through with increased accuracy and authority. An even more pleasant surprise was the appearance of decent sub-bass.

Good tuning work by KZ on the dynamic drivers!

I kept on going back to the track "Voice of Treason". Propelled by a slow, basic drum beat, this 8 minute progressive metal-jazz hybrid is a skull-crusher on my attitude-driven VJJB N1.

However, with the details and fluidity of the ZS5, the song morphs into a cerebral, multi-layered technical composition. The ZS5 gave an excellent aural snapshot of Opeth's dexterity in combining bluesy vocals, smooth Arabic guitar tones and jazz-inspired drumming into an epic progressive metal masterpiece.

You could actually hear the guitarist's left hand sliding over the strings as he moves to mute some notes.

Not bad for a budget Chi-Fi IEM!

Since I always test IEMs with movies, I enlisted the ZS5 for binge watching duties for all 8 episodes of American Gods Season 1. As expected, the ZS5's propensity for sibilance was more evident with dialogue. Still, the ZS5's ability to convey sound effects (both on-screen and off-screen) as well as soundtrack music (particularly the techno-goth-tribal-industrial mash-up theme music of the opening credits), was an immersive and non-fatiguing experience.
      
Dialogue sibilance aside, the ZS5s did quite well with layered sound. During one particular scene in Episode 8, the character Shadow Moon was conversing with Jesus Christ who was sitting on top of the water in an indoor pool.  The ZS5 gave a nice accurate spatial sense of the room where the conversation was taking place, down to the echoes and the minute splashes of pool water. I watched the series on a laptop so the narrow soundstage of the ZS5 was exact for the 13-inch screen.

For heavier and faster (yet by no means less complicated) material, I cued Elueveitie's "Everything Remains As It Never Was" just to see if I could trip-up the ZS5. The band's folk-death metal hybrid is always a challenge for audio reproduction due to the contrasting musical elements; death metal growling doubling with melodic female operatic vocals, heavy, epic guitar riffs with bagpipes, whistles and violins.

There were some brief moments when ZS5 lost control in the mids and bass on the heavier "Kingdom Come Undone" but I expected this to happen because of the ZS5's narrow soundstage.  If the soundstage was tuned say 20% wider it would have been better.  Still, it's not a deal-breaker.  It makes perfect sense to me why KZ went for this narrow tuning because the ZS5 is targeted towards a mobile user-where the listening environment is noisy, and the screen (when watching videos) is small.

From my experience, the ZS5 can benefit from a cable upgrade. I'd recommend a 4-core OFC cable to tame some of the sibilance, and tighten up the low-end even more.  The additional weight of a 4-core cable is a small compromise in exchange for a sturdier, better looking IEM and improving the sonics.

Verdict

All these being said, the ZS5 is most definitely well-worth its asking price. It may not be an overachiever like the Monks but you're getting what you pay for, and a little more. It is an excellent introduction to the sonic benefits of a hybrid IEM.

Budget Chi-Fi brands like KZ have yet to reach the audio and production sophistication of Chinese brands like Fidue, but they are great stepping stones to higher-end audio by allowing you to experience and understand the technologies available in the market. You can then decide what works best for you. Because if you really are passionate about audio, you should be moving up the audio chain.

Since we are GIZGUIDE, I hope to write a couple of short articles soon to guide you as you move up your personal audio ladder.

Build / Design - 4.5
Comfort / Isolation - 4
Sound - 4.25
Average - 4.25 / 5

I welcome your questions, comments and suggestions, email me at: sheepdog2112@gmail.com.
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