In a world full of fake news, spin, obfuscation, and brazen lies, where facts are mutable and doubt seeps into the crevices of life like rainwater, only one thing is certain: the earphone industry is a racket. A very big racket.
KZ-ATE Hi-Fi Earphones
Hi-fi sound for peanuts. In the cutthroat Chinese audio market, the KZ-ATE buries the price-to-performance needle. The company behind this Chi-Fi jewel delivers the sonic goods without scrimping on design, build quality, or packaging.
Don’t be an audiophile ingrate. At under $14 (with free shipping), there’s nothing to complain about.
Global sales for audio headgear hit over $13 billion last year. That’s a lot of cheddar. A lot of frayed wires too—compared to other stereo hardware, most earphones have an absurdly short lifespan. Planned obsolescence is the business model here: thin wire insulation and Y-splitters break, solder joints fail, even drivers blow (probably). Handle with care, use an umbrella, get lucky, and your earplugs might last nine months. Might. That’s why frugal audiophiles steer clear of pricy IEMs. Like buying wine, the idea is to find value without cost.
But what is the dollar sweet spot for decent earphones? The conventional audio wisdom used to be that you had to drop $100 to enjoy legit dynamic range and detail. But thanks to factory automation, ingenious engineering, and cheap overseas parts and labor, the magic number keeps dropping. Not so long ago, $50 was the new retail benchmark. Of course, that was before hundreds of small Chinese companies disrupted the highly lucrative big brand earphone market by flooding it with surprisingly good and ridiculously inexpensive product. Tight-fisted audiophiles rejoiced.
WIRED first explored the “Chi-Fi” phenomenon back in 2015 when we sampled the Mrice E300, a sub-$20 bud that didn’t disappoint. The latest infatuation among budget sound hounds is the KZ-ATE, a Chi-Fi sleeper that costs even less than the E300—they’re listed on Amazon for $14. Does this poor man’s IEM live up to all the five-star reviews? Skeptics and trolls, start your engines.
How is it possible that you can buy a solid earphones for the same price as a trip to the boba tea joint? Because even though manufacturing costs in China have surged recently (30 percent, actually, so much that factories are moving from the bustling eastern provinces to low-rent Western and Central China and southeast Asia) making stuff there is still dirt-cheap. In my research, I found that the cost to produce a quality earphone like the KZ-ATE, including the packaging, is about $5. In fact, you can regularly find KZ-ATE sets with old colorways on eBay for around that price.
Like H&M, Chi-Fi product lines are constantly in flux. New models are launched and old ones discontinued at an accelerated pace. With a retail price of under $15, everyone from manufacturer to reseller is making a profit. Not a Beats-level profit, but enough yuan to keep the boat afloat.
KZ, the brand name under which the Guangdong-based Shenzhen Yuanze Electronics Co. operates, was founded in 2008, making it a legacy brand by Chi-Fi standards. The founders are Keith Yue, a former Audio-Technica engineer, and Zen Li, a Western-trained classical musician. (The name KZ isn’t just a nod to the founders’ initials, but is also short for “Knowledge Zenith.”) The company offers an impressive range of low-priced earphones that crib the form-factor from many moderately priced earphones offered by the mainstream brands. The KZ-ATE, for instance, is a dead ringer for the $55 Audio-Technica ATH-IM50 in-ear monitor.
Build and Comfort
Putting aside the pseudoscience and typos in their ad copy, the KZ boys pride themselves on their materials and build quality. That 32-strand low capacitance-oxygen-free copper (LC-OFC) cord, for instance, is the same one found on Ultimate Ears’ fancy Pro series. The other thing that sets the KZ-ATE apart from most Chi-Fi is what headphone forum geeks call “strain relief.” These are the subtle but vital design features that minimize the stress exerted on the cable. They prolong the life of the earphone by staving off the inevitable damage caused by the tugs and snags of daily life. From the springy “wrap” at the base of the 90-degree jack, to those two bouncy “boots” attached to the Y-splitter, to the knurled metal collars that actually extend into the smoky translucent housing, the KZ-ATE aces the strain relief test. These IEMs are supposed to be worn with the wire wrapped over the ear, anchorman style. The cord may be oxygen-free, but it’s pretty light and slightly gummy. Chi-Fi ingenuity: tiny cord weights, placed a few inches below each earpiece, lend some heft to the cord and prevent it from tangling.
Earphones are not comfortable. Anyone who says differently is either an earphone salesman or self-medicating. Inserting a piece of plastic into the ear and the ear canal is not a pleasant sensation. Granted, some buds are more comfortable to wear than others. And, as far as chunky IEM-style earphones go, the KZ-ATE is fairly innocuous. The casual observer may think you’re rocking double hearing aids, but that’s a small price to pay for big sound. Think of it as practice for assisted living. Three pairs of tips are included: one foam, two silicone. The large silicone tips provide a far better fit, and were used for this review. Savvy audiophiles will swap them out for triple flanges. Their malleable shape provides a superior seal, increasing sound isolation and “comfort.”
The idea that IEM geeks actually mod out their Chi-Fi gear to make it sound better and last longer is as comical as it is impressive. These guys aren’t doing bush league tweaks like “tip rolling” (switching out ear tips to alter the sound signature) and “heat shrink wraps” (to beef up cable connections). Think of serious maker chops, with routers and nano-tweezers. Look at this magnificent audio wizard who, in his unending quest for a wider and deeper soundstage, has transformed his closed-back KZ-ATE into an open-back KZ-ATE. Grinding down brass nozzles, subbing in memory wire, tuning breathing holes, removing mesh grills. This Head-Fi forum member, who goes by the handle NewWaveAudio, summed up the fruits of his labor: “You will be amazed how much micro-detail and clarity ATE can actually provide while maintaining its smooth & airy midrange, adding tightness and clarity to bass and clearing up highs while still staying ‘sweet & buttery.’”
Sweet & Buttery
The $3,750 Obravo EAMT-1 C is a ridiculously over-engineered hi-res IEM favored by spendthrift audiophiles. The $0.59 goBulk EA1 is a ridiculously under-engineered lo-res disposable bud favored by miserly airlines. Somewhere between these two endpoints on the earphone continuum is the KZ-ATE.
After sampling a wide variety of reference recordings through this humble Chi-Fi bud (320 kbps, sans Steely Dan), it’s obvious they’re sonically closer to the EAMT-1C than the EA1. This isn’t to suggest there aren’t some $75 earphones out there that would give the KZ-ATE a battle in an A-B shootout. Some would even win, but it wouldn’t be by a lot. And this isn’t to suggest that there aren’t some other 15-buck IEMs shipping out of Shenzhen that sound better either. Maybe there are, but good luck finding those needles in the Chi-Fi haystack.
What can be said, without hesitation or doubt, is that the KZ-ATE sounds better than it has any right to. Whether the cost is $5 on eBay or $14 through Amazon Prime, this is the kind of impulse purchase anyone can live with. Old school audiophiles who smoke pipes and fetishize vinyl would call the earphones “musical.” Which means that it is, to quote Mr. NewWaveAudio, “sweet and buttery.” You won’t subject your ears to fatigue during long listening sessions, and all three frequency ranges (sub-bass is an urban myth) are distinct and well represented. If you enjoy a smooth, warm, evenly balanced sound that crosses over to multiple music genres with ease, these will do the trick.
None of the usual sonic flaws associated with cheap buds—sibilance, shrill highs, muffled bass, and the like—are evident. Granted, the low end could be a bit tighter. Also, the cable is gummy, prone to tangles, and has a hint of microphonics, but that’s just audiophile nitpicking. This headset isn’t about soundstage, presence and frequency extension. It’s about the democratization of hi-fi. Why should unpaid interns and Uber drivers have to listen to their Spotify playlists through pathetic OEM smart phone buds? Order a dozen units before the Chinese economy tanks and the cheap headphone market goes belly-up.