Happy Accidents will happen (time and again). The entry-level IEM buyer doesn’t just hope for them, s/he depends on them. With so many lesser-known brands, notably from China, launching new models by the dozen, and daily, not even the most dedicated Head-Fi reader and/or full-time reviewer could keep abreast of developments.
For this porta-fi fiend splitting his time with two-channel gear, chance encounters with possible giant killers is often left to spare time, browsing comments sections and social media feeds. Needle, meet haystack.
Facebook is how I came to learn of the Xiaomi Pistons and the VE Monk; in the latter case, stumbling upon Venture Electronics’ CEO complaining about another brand’s (allegedly unprofessional) conduct. Both models’ bargain basement pricing combined with Amazon availability lower the risk when taking a punt just to find out how they sound.
And so it went with the KZ ATE IEM: a €16 Amazon.de purchase that started life as a low risk spend and ended as a real find.
KZ (‘Knowledge Zenith’) was founded ten years ago in Shenzhen by one Keith Yue, ex-Audio Technica, and the classically trained Zen Li. That’s a big tick for musical ear and engineering pedigree.
The ATE IEM isn’t KZ’s only IEM – not by a long shot – but they are available with or without a single button in-line microphone. The smoked plastic earpiece, made from a scratch-resistant resin, houses an 8mm dynamic driver that says hello to smartphone, DAP or DAC with a nominal impedance of 16 Ohms.
The following video expands on the introduction and provides the context for the words that follow:
Use to soundtrack walkabouts in and around Berlin and Oslo, the ATE’s superbly extended treble allowed me to metaphorically climb inside Jon Hopkins’ Immunity for an immensely spacious and dynamically charged listening experience where the bass went allllll the way down (unlike the VE earbuds) and didn’t suffer the textural and shape smearing of the Xiaomi Pistons.
Comparisons? It’s not a review without them. Driven by an AudioQuest DragonFly Red, the bargain basement ATE runs rings around both the RHA 650/750 Wireless in terms of headstage size and top-to-bottom clarity and also ace the Lightning-connected 1more Dual Driver on vocal transparency and treble extension. The KZ play it wide and clear so that I can more easily enjoy Peter Buck playing his mandolin and Rickenbacker at the edges of Robyn Hitchcock’s Goodnight Oslo.
Keeping one eye on sobriety, the KZ ATE can’t match Campfire Audio Andromeda’s deep detail dive, kick-ass dynamics or the Portlandians’ more organic take on Conor Oberst’s Ruminations. For the entry-leveller stepping up from the earphones supplied with his/her smartphone, the KZ bring the hallelujah!
Let that sink in for a moment: the Campfire flagship sell for ~€1100, the KZ for €16 – half that from KZ’s official Gearbest store. With a cost multiplier of 70 we note one heck of a steep diminishing return on the Andromeda, thus making Ken Ball’s sonic wizardry and killer industrial design a tougher sell. Applying that same 70x multiplier to Pioneer’s (Andrew Jones-designed) BS-SP22-LR (US$129) in the loudspeaker world, we arrive within a spit of a US$9K loudspeaker.
My single gripe is that the ATE’s rubber-sheathed OFC cable means they tie themselves in knots after only minimal time stashed in a coat pocket.
The lesson learned? KZ have joined VE and Xiaomi in keeping high-end IEM manufacturers honest. Don’t be fooled by the price or even those who would tell you that there’s no way a €16 can sound good. They can – and they do. Wallop.
Further information: KZ ATE