IEMs are the undiscovered country of the audiophile hobby. There are countless “earbuds” out there and prices cover an insanely wide gamut. While there’s a ton of junk out there, it seems at every price point you’ll find IEMs that sound good and fit well. Which brings us to the somewhat famous KZ ATE ($12), an IEM from China that has caused a stir by offering sound quality that has been likened to models that cost a lot more.
Some weeks ago, I got into an ill-advised debate on Facebook with someone who posted an enthusiastic mini-review of the KZ ATE, and had also ordered 1More’s much lauded triple-driver headphones based on my suggestion. I had fallen into the trap of dismissing a product because of its price because my brain was not ready to accept the reality that buying into what one might call the “audiophile experience” now costs only $12 on Amazon.
The person I was talking with insisted the KZ ATE was clearly and obviously superior to the 1More triple-drivers. The notion drove me crazy and, in typical Facebook fashion, I denied it was possible without any evidence. Then, having realized that I should not be debating the fidelity of IEMs I have not heard, I placed an order for the KZ ATEs, opting for the version with a built-in microphone for $12.99 (that’s right, the mic options costs a whopping ninety nine cents more). After all, we’re talking $13, so it’s something anyone can try on a whim.
Now that I have a pair of KZ ATEs, I know that the price/performance bar for personal audio has been moved—significantly—by these IEMs. It’s absurd that you can plug these into your phone, queue up some good quality streaming tracks, and genuinely hear audio fidelity that was once reserved for headphones costing hundreds of dollars.
These IEMS feature an over-ear cord design and have small weights that balance them for extra comfort. I found I got a good seal and that they stayed put, even if I was active.
No money was wasted on the plastic packaging, or on getting a good English translation for the manual. But that would all be money wasted, who keeps fancy boxes around? Personally, I’d prefer not to pay too much for something I am going to throw away. Anyhow, the manual suggests a 5-minute “burn-in” to ensure the diaphragm plays smoothly. Regardless of one’s feelings about driver burn-in or break-in, five minutes seemed reasonable so I played a seven-minute music track before putting them on.
The existing KZ ATE reviews all mention that along with well-balanced treble, these earphones deliver in the bass department. I like to test these claims with sine waves and got schooled in a new reality: You can have clean bass right on down to “the bottom” i.e. 20 Hz, without giving up detail in the mids and highs. In the past, if such a claim were made for $13 earphones I’d have called it a joke. Now I know it’s just a fact: reproducing 20 Hz to 20 kHz costs well under 20 bucks. Plus, these IEMs can belt out the deep stuff with the volume turned up, so if you buy ’em please don’t hurt your hearing.
Now comes the more interesting question, what do I think of the KZ ATEs versus the $95 1More triple-drivers? Or 1More’s $195 quad-driver IEMs, which I also reviewed and liked? And for that matter, how do these single-driver IEMs compare to the $300 Periodic Audio Be, which are also a single-driver design but use Beryllium and cost 20 times more?
The long story short here is that, depending on your taste in presentation, the KZ ATEs are more ear-pleasing than either 1More model. And what that preference comes down to is whether you like the sprinkling of “boom and sizzle” that the KZ ATEs possess, versus the more neutral 1More sound. Plus, the KZs were at least as comfortable as the iMores.
As for the comparison to Periodic Audio, none of the aforementioned headphones could match the Be IEMs. But, I found the juxtaposition of KZ, 1More and Periodic to be interesting. I had a sense the Periodic Be earphones deliver the smooth and balanced sound of the 1Mores, along with the dynamic impact of the KZ ATEs, but they were better at both tasks, and also basically better at everything else.
Ultimately, this review is a bit of a mea culpa. While I do think 1More’s IEMs sound great, and the all-metal build quality is better than the Plastic KZ ATEs, the reality is the KZ ATEs have a presentation I find eminently listenable and arguably superior to what 1More delivers with its IEMs.
When you are listening to $13 earphones, every exceptional moment where you hear some audiophile-worthy aspect of audio reproduction is icing on the cake. And when I was listening the the KZ ATEs, I felt like I was a kid at a birthday party, focused only on the anticipated sugar rush.
I don’t know how a hardcore audiophile who are into classical music would feel about the KZ ATEs, but I do know that I was unable to find a genre I enjoy that these earphones did not present in an eminently listenable manner.
Punchy, well-produced recordings came across the best. For example, Anastasis by Dead Can Dance is impeccable and delivers a full gamut of real instruments and vocals that sounded grand, enveloping and seductive through the KZ ATEs. Nothing to quality here, just a performance that leaves me scratching my head and wondering if anyone on a tight bughet but with audiophile tastes should pay more for “earbuds” knowing that these exist. I’d have to argue “no.”
Datsik’s new EP, Master of Shadows, is a cathartic dubstep trip full of energetic, pulsating waveforms, searing synths and blasting bass. The KZs showed they mean business, delivering texture and detail that I have never before associated with a “bargain” product.
Horsie by Twilight Circus Dub Sound System is a swirling psychedelic reggae dub journey that came through with all its layers intact. The KZ ATE IEMs had a field day with the eccentric and deep bass plus effects, they have a “live” sound to ’em that’s always absent from “cheap” headphones.
If I take price out of the equation and simply ponder which earphones I’d grab for a train trip to Manhattan, the Periodic Be IEMs remain my top choice. However, if you took those away, I’d have to go with the KZ ATE IEMs over the 1Mores. After all, you can buy six pairs of KZ ATEs for the price of one pair of 1More triple-drivers, which is insane and puts to rest any concern over durability.
And that’s the rub, not only are the KZ ATEs good-sounding, they are comfortable (to my ears anyhow) and while made of plastic, they neither look nor feel “cheap.” The cord is flexible and of good quality, and the microphone works. It’s really hard to complain about what you get here for only $1, especially given that a cellphone is all you need to drive them to safe but satisfying output levels.
Can you get more if you pay more? Sure. Just know that when it comes to IEMs, the law of diminishing returns kicks in at $13 on Amazon. All I can say is that if you are curious about how good cheap earphones can be, these are the ones to try. If you’re on a tight budget and love music, KZ ATE IEMs are recommended.