Hi, there fam. Today we review the KZ AS16, the latest earphone and new flagship model from KZ (Knowledge Zenith). It has an impressive 8 balanced armatures per side and is currently the most expensive IEM in the KZ product lineup. It’s also one that I would not recommend. Read on to find out why.
This sample was provided for the purpose of an honest review. All observations and opinions here are my own based on my experience with the product.
Clarity, instrument separation
Improved build quality
Bright and fatiguing
Sub-bass roll off
Same performance as CCA C16 with higher price
Package and Accessories
Unboxing the KZ AS16 begins like any other upper-tier KZ earphones i.e. with a plain black box that has a simple KZ logo on the front. Opening the front flap reveals the earphones seated in a black foam insert. The KZ plaque is present again too, which is a bit useless but I still get a kick out of it; I’m sure collectors love them. Everything else is the standard KZ bundle. Let’s break down the box contents:
KZ AS16 earphones
Detachable 2-pin cable
3 pairs of silicone “Starline” eartips
User manual and warranty card
Build Quality and Design
The KZ AS16 is KZ’s latest flagship and physically it feels like a step up from their other models, perhaps with the exception of the BA10. The metal faceplates have a kind of scale design with left and right markings printed in a cursive font.
The housings feel slightly larger than the ZSN or ZS10 Pro and are, in fact, identical in shape as the AS06 and AS10. KZ has just replaced the clear plastic faceplate with a zinc alloy one and upgraded the thinner plastic shells to a transparent acrylic.
The shells are made from a smoky, transparent resin that gives you a good view of the 8 internal balanced armature drivers. There is a single vent towards the rear of the inner shell. The nozzles are gold-coloured aluminium and have a good ridge to ensure your eartips stay firmly in place.
A silver-coloured metal grill covers the nozzle opening to keep any ear wax at bay. Once again we see the same socketed 2-pin sockets seen on other recent models. Overall, the build quality feels great and I find the earpieces look quite handsome too.
Comfort and Noise Isolation
The earphone housings are a little bigger than average which might possibly be problematic for those with smaller ears. If you have tried the KZ AS06 or AS10 then you will already know whether the AS16 will be a good fit for you.
I had no issues with the older models and so the AS16 feels great in my ears. Actually, for some reason the fit feels more stable than the AS10, even though they’re have the same shape.
Noise isolation is above average and with the AS16 in my ears, the outside world becomes something I can only see but not hear. These are a great earphone for noisy environments as they will block most everything out. Noise leak is also not something you will need to worry about.
The included cable is the standard KZ brown copper version with pre-formed ear guides. At the top are the socketed 2-pin connectors in a transparent plastic housing. After the pre-formed ear guides you’ll come to a chunky rubber Y-split which is placed wayyy down the cable and is on a mission to make your cable a tangled mess at every opportunity.
The cable terminates in a right-angled rubber 3.5 mm plug. Overall, it’s a decent quality cable and one we’re very familiar with. However, seeing that this is KZ’s new flagship model it would have been great to see a nicer cable bundled with it.
Gear used for testing includes the FiiO M6 and Earstudio ES100 as my portable sources. On the desktop, I plugged into my Arcam irDAC-II and fed it FLAC files from Foobar2000 on my Windows PC. At 32Ω, the KZ AS16 has a slightly higher than average impedance for an IEM of this class but it’s still easy to drive and doesn’t require extra amplification. However, I would recommend pairing it with as warm a source as possible.
The AS16 has a bright tonality, almost like a reverse L-shaped response. It is very light on bass and focuses on the upper midrange and lower treble. The clarity is above average, plus it produces a very detailed sound but it is thin and bright by nature and more analytical than it is musical.
AS16’s bass is exceptional in quality but it is placed so far behind the high frequencies that it feels disproportionate and sometimes inadequate. It’s a light and fast bass with good texture and punch but it carries very little impact or weight.
The AS16’s sub-bass rolls off heavily below 60Hz. As a result, things like bass guitars or synth basses are barely audible with certain recordings and it can feel as though there is something missing, sort of like a sandwich without the bread. Take “Timebends” by Long Distance Calling for example. The bass guitar almost doesn’t exist when listening with the AS16.
Mid-bass has a little more presence and really nice properties. It’s textured, it’s fast and has a natural decay but again, it gets lost behind the upper midrange. I wouldn’t change the character of the bass at all, but I just wish there were a little more of it for tonal balance.
The AS16 has a fairly neutral core midrange with good clarity and fast transients. Midrange notes are on the thinner side but still have sufficient body. There is a clear emphasis on the upper midrange which sits in line with the treble and in front of the bass.
Vocals sound natural and have good density but male voices do not have much body. Male vocals are very clear and textured and female vocals have plenty of gusto and vibrancy. Female vocals are also very forward in the mix, rising up above all other sounds. Instruments have an accurate timbre but notes are thin and lack underlying warmth or richness.
The upper mids are pushed well forward and the fast transients along with note thinness result in a very staccato sound that is full of detail but has a very fast decay.
AS16’s treble is pushed up in line with the upper midrange. It’s crisp and detailed but the lack of a counterbalancing bass can make it feel quite bright. Thankfully, the treble is not strident but it won’t mask any recorded sibilance and at higher volume, it can get sharp and tiring pretty quickly.
The quality of the treble is good and this is absolutely vital for this type of tuning. With a lesser calibre treble, this could easily have been a hot mess but to KZ’s credit, it is simply a brighter sounding earphone.
What struck me first of all about the AS16’s soundstage was its above average width. However, the stage is very shallow and lacks any real depth. It’s as though the music is spread out on a wide, flat plane. Vocals are up close and instruments occupy space to the left and right of them only and not around them.
Thanks to the thinness of the notes and fast decay the instrument separation is very good but there’s little in the way of layering. Stereo imaging is good from left to right but there’s not much space in front of the listener.
The ZS10 Pro has far more bass quantity, especially in the sub-bass region. Sub-bass rumbles deep and hard compared to the AS16 which puts forth just a slight hum. Mid-bass has more weight and impact but also exhibits some bass bleed which the AS16 does not.
The AS16’s midrange is more forward giving vocals more prominence but at the same time making the sound tinnier and fatiguing. The ZS10 Pro has a more even treble and while it’s not as detailed as the AS16 it is slightly smoother on the ears.
ZS10 Pro’s stage has extra depth and roundness compared to the wider but more 2-dimensional presentation of the AS16.
The C16 looks like it was a precursor to the AS16 both in a physical and sonic sense. It shares the exact same faceplate with a subtly different texture and it shares the exact same shell except it is opaque instead of transparent.
It has even less bass than the AS16 but the difference is marginal. It also has a little extra body in the lower midrange making male vocals ever so slightly richer and more rounded. In the high frequencies the C16 is a shade tamer but when the attenuated bass is taken into account things even out and these 2 IEMs end up sounding almost the same.
That is to say, they’re both detailed but bright and lacking fullness. I’m not really impressed with either model, to be frank. By reducing the bass and increasing the upper mids and treble the detail is increased but the resolution is still average and musicality is traded in place of thinness. However, some people will like this type of presentation and I’m okay with that.
Considering how very close these are in their presentation, build and technical ability, the CCA C16 offers better value, coming in at around $30 less.
The KZ AS16 is an earphone that boasts good clarity, instrument separation and speed. It has a build quality that is on par with other IEMs in the same bracket. The sound signature works well for certain genres, primarily acoustic music but it’s not much of an all-rounder.
Because it is so similar to the CCA C16 I can’t see why anyone would buy this instead at a higher price. As such, while this is a decent IEM it is not one that I would recommend.