KZ ZSA first impressions, $25 IEM shootout

$25 IEM shootout pre-amble

One of the coolest phenomenons in audio right now is the big improvements moving forward in the budget sector. $100 headphones can and do compete with $400 headphones, and $25 headphones sometimes compete with $200 headphones. It’s a great time to be an audiophile, even if your budget isn’t as large as you’d like it to be.

In this $25 IEM shootout series I’ll post a new set of impressions every Wednesday until I’ve done them all. Then I’ll select my top 3 from the list. After I’ve selected my top 3, I’ll do a post ranking the remaining units and giving them our trademark visual ratings. Finally, a post will compare the top 3 IEMs under $25 that I have in my possession. If any manufacturers want to send additional under $25 units that they think might rank before I’ve done my ranking posts, I’ll add them in.

Here are our contestants:

Acknowledgment

The KZ ZSA was supplied by Linsoul for the purpose of this shootout. I have not been compensated for this review. The views here are my own.

Unboxing, ergonomics and build quality

So, first things first, the packaging on KZ products has definitely improved with the use of white box with a design sketch as an outer box. The inside is basically the same as previous KZ super-budget incarnations. That is to say, it’s a blown plastic insert. The ZST, had a plastic sleeve, but what you see below is what you got in the packaging. I think the addition of the heavy card sleeve is a big improvement to the meagre unboxing experience.

Inside the box you get a double-twist copper cable. It uses KZ’s 0.75mm pins, and has a memory wire earguide. I prefer pre-formed earguides made from heatshrink, but this is an excellent cable in the price range. The few things I’d improve:

  1. Aforementioned memory wire could be upgraded to pre-formed earguide
  2. The y-split is way too low, it’s almost at my waist. I’m 5’8″, but my legs are short, so the y-split will be too low on most people. The y-split should be no lower than the sternum. This placement of the y-split makes the cable very tangle prone.
  3. I’d like to have a cable wrap included. It’s a small thing that makes a big difference on maintaining headphones. That’s just a niggle.

Like most IEMs under $50, the KZ ZSA do not come with a case. They come with the cable, and 3 sets of cat-butt ear-tips. The cat-butt eartips use an overhard plastic that doesn’t mould well in the ear. They provide mediocre seal and comfort. This KZ signature item needs to go. They are unpleasant to look at, and sub-optimal to wear. These ‘star’ tips are not stars. I’ve been using them with Spinfit tips.

The housing on the KZ ZSA is good-looking and fits well. The metal shell is small, and relatively ergonomic with a very light weight in the ear. A little bit of contouring behind the nozzle would improve the range of ear shapes that these will fit. They fit me fine. The female end for the 2-pin detachable cable has a KZ-specific recessed design. The design protects the delicate pins from breaking by having a plastic cuff take any strain. For an under $25 IEM, the build quality on these is absolutely exceptional.

Versus the old KZ ZST, the ZSA is much smaller and feels more durable. The plastic on the KZ ZST and ED12 always felt fragile to me. I think I could step on the KZ ZSA and have them survive. I don’t think the ZST would make it.

Sound Quality

I’ve listened to these for about 30-40 hours but didn’t do any official burn-in. They sounded pretty great right out of the box.

The KZ ZSA is ace on sound quality.

  • Bass on Massive Attack – Angel (16-44) kicks and rumbles with power. I like bass with menace. These deliver in spades.
  • The soundstage is big for $25, it’s big for $200. The stage width is excellent and there is a good deal of height. It’s probably due to the part open aluminum shell.
  • The mids are clean and true to Macy Gray’s voice on Annabelle (24-192, binaural). The big stand-up bass is big, but has a touch extra rasp on it, which is probably due to slightly uneven emphasis in the mids. It’s minor.
  • On The Beats, Man – Babies’ Broken Beaks (16-44) the bass hits like a sledgehammer in a strongman competition. The space in the stage is super-impressive.
  • The sound quality on these beats so many more expensive headphones. Cray cray good.
  • If something comes from a vinyl or otherwise fuzzy source, the ZSA will emphasize it, and it might bother you, so if your library is mostly vinyl rips, you might not dig this sound.
  • Damn these suckas are groovy. The fun-factor on these just makes me want to dance on Beck – Beercan (16-44)
  • Great stage depth on Charles Mingus – Better Git It In Your Soul (24-88). Each instrument has distinctive presence in the stage, for the most part. The bass is elevated and so has a slightly larger presence that overlaps other instruments just because the volume is turned up.
  • Stage width is killing it on Queen – Bicycle Race (DSD64). Freddie’s voice are clarion call clear. These are f’in awesome.
  • The sound is a bit in your face, so might be fatiguing for some.

I demoed these to a co-worker who knows that I review headphones and IEMs from $25 to $6000 and I asked him how much he thought they cost. His guess was silly, but is demonstrative all the same: he said $500. These are absolutely killer for $25. Buy them for all your friends. Buy them for your enemies and have more friends. Buy them for your Mom. Just buy them already.

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