Hot on the heels of their successful ZS10 Pro model, Knowledge Zenith has released a new model dubbed “Terminator”, which we are reviewing today. Meet the KZ ZSX, a 6-driver (5BA+1DD) earphone from the Chinese manufacturing giant.
History (and prior KZ releases) has taught us those big driver counts do not guarantee a superior sound. In many cases, it merely becomes marketing material on top of a very average sonic performance. Will the Terminator take over the world or will it be banished back into the future?
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.
KZ ZSX Review
Value for money
Clarity and detail
Still rockin’ the brown KZ cable
Package and Accessories
The theme with KZ packaging for ages now is ‘If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all’. ZSX comes in the usual KZ box, complete with the plaque of honour, the legacy brown cable and 3 pairs of Starline silicone eartips. Who woulda’ thunk it?
Build Quality and Design
KZ seems to have latched onto a common theme for their shell designs of late too, “When you’re onto a good thing, stick with it.” So, once again, we see a slight variation of what seems to be the new universal KZ shells. We get an aluminium faceplate with a transparent acrylic shell.
The faceplate has a futuristic look with a series of V-shaped ridges and pointed triangular shape. “12 Hybrid” is printed on the face, reminding us that this budget IEM has a high driver count (even though there are only 6 drivers per side).
It would seem that there are 3 popular colour choices in humanity’s future and those are the available choices for your colour of ZSX shell, which include black, cyan and purple.
Comfort and Noise Isolation
For my large ears, the ZSX is a good match but it may be awkward for those with smaller ears. It’s bigger than the ZS10 Pro and protrudes out from the ears more. The nozzles reach deeper which could be good or bad, depending on your ears and preferred eartips. Personally, I can wear these all day no worries at all.
Noise isolation is pretty good and these are suitable for noisy environments and public transport. Noise leak is fairly minimal too, so you needn’t worry about that.
Finally, after all this time…Nah, just kidding! It’s the same old KZ brown cable with the stupid Y-split position (halfway down the cable). It has angled, transparent connector housings, a rubber Y-split with no chin slider and a right-angled 3.5mm plug. The quality of the cable is quite good but it will tangle very easily so be prepared to spend a minute sorting it out every time you take the earphones out of your pocket.
Gear used for testing includes the FiiO M5 and Shanling M5s as portable sources. As usual, on the desktop, I used my little friend, the FiiO K3 and fed it FLAC files from MusicBee on my Windows 10 PC. The ZSX is very easy to drive and is perfectly happy being plugged straight into a smartphone but I never leave the house without packin’ a DAP and so that’s what I was using as my source.
The ZSX has an energetic and upfront presentation. Boosted bass, engaging mids and lively treble are descriptions that come to mind. It performs above and beyond what I normally expect for a sub $100 IEM. Clarity? Got it. Tone? Got it. Instrument separation – you’d better believe it.
The ZSX bass is like quicksand. When you first step in it feels normal. Then before you know it you’re tapping your feet and up to your neck in it. I’m sure even the Avengers’ Mr Fantastic would be impressed by the reach of the ZSX’s low end.
A reasonably fast attack gives the mid-bass some snappiness and texture but the long decay is where the weight and authority come from. Despite its abundant girth, the bass doesn’t feel sluggish and maintains a good pace.
ZSX has a fairly neutral midrange until it starts to rise in the upper mids. Naturally, it gets some warmth from the bass but the lower midrange is mostly uncoloured and fairly lean. There is a boost in the upper mids that adds a little brightness and attack to guitars and percussion.
Male vocals are a touch dry and could use a little extra warmth to sound more natural but female vocals are crisp and vibrant. The leanness of the midrange notes makes for a detailed presentation and good vocal articulation.
For me, it’s the treble that has improved the most when compared to the ZS10 Pro. There’s no sign of the usual KZ steely treble timbre. It no longer sounds like someone swinging a hammer in the kitchen sink. However, it does sometimes creep forward, like those people that try to sneak in front of you when you’re standing in line at the 7-Eleven cashier.
Overall it’s a crisp and detailed treble with good tone and good extension. It’s not sibilant or harsh and the 10kHz peak adds air and clarity into the mix. This is the kind of treble that KZ should be doing more often.
The ZSX creates an average stage with more width than depth. The vocals are positioned toward the back of the stage while instruments are placed closer to the front. There isn’t much in the way of layering but because of the above-average instrument separation, the stage feels fairly spacious. Imaging and positional cues are solid for something in this price range.
KZ ZS10 Pro
The ZS10 Pro (review here) has one less balanced armature driver per side, making it 1DD+4BA. Its shells are slightly smaller and may offer a more comfortable fit for people with petite ears. In terms of sound, the ZS10 Pro very closely resembles the ZSX, almost as if it was a non-identical twin. There are, however, enough differences, in my opinion, to substantiate the existence of both.
The ZSX’s bass sounds a bit tighter to my ears, the ZS10 Pro bass is ever so slightly thicker. It might be simply due to the ZSX’s superior treble extension or difference in the shape of the housing. Throughout the midrange, both earphones are hard to pick apart but the resolution and instrument separation of the ZSX is better.
It’s in the treble where the ZSX spreads its wings and rises above the ZS10 Pro. It dips a bit more at 6-7kHz which makes it less edgy and steers further away from sibilance. After the mid-treble peak that both IEMs share, the ZS10 Pro falls off more sharply. This gives the ZSX an edge when it comes to treble extension and air. Additionally, it counterbalances the bass more making the overall tonality just a little more balanced.
I bet those of you who have the ZS10 Pro are wondering if you need to get the ZSX. In my opinion, you don’t – although I think the ZSX is better, it’s almost a sidegrade more than an upgrade and depending on personal preference you may even like the ZS10 Pro more. If, however, you were to ask me which earphone is the better one, I would tell you it’s the ZSX.
Tin Hifi T2
Clash of the budget titans going on right here. The T2 (review here) dual dynamic driver is known as the sub $100 linear king and (deservedly) has a lot of diehard fans. It has such a nice tonal balance with good bass extension and detailed sound.
It definitely has less bass quantity than the ZSX, with a near-flat response from 20Hz all the way to the lower treble. Despite having less bass quantity, the T2 sounds full-bodied and warm when you have a proper fit and seal.
Vocals and midrange instruments are forward on the T2 and sit in line with the bass and treble, a rarity in the budget arena. Vocals sound warmer and more emotional on the T2 and more articulated on the ZSX. The boosted upper midrange and lower treble of the ZSX gives it a brighter tonality.
ZSX has increased lower and middle treble making it brighter and more detailed. But listening to them side by side the T2 sounds more natural and smoother. So, if you love bass plus a clean sound and micro details, the ZSX would be the one to get and if you want a very natural and musical tone, the T2 is still the one to beat in the budget segment.
So there it is. The KZ ZSX Terminator does indeed terminate the competition in terms of price to performance. It has powerful, controlled bass, clean, articulate mids, a sparkly, detailed treble and costs less than $50. You’d better believe this IEM is here to take souls and there’s very little to stand in its way. Our best IEMs list just got a new addition, of that you can be sure. If you already have a ZS10 Pro then you have some thinking to do. If you don’t have one then you should jump on the ZSX today.