January 17, 2023
4.57 x 3.43 x 1.85 in
It doesn’t feel all that long ago that the audiophile world bore witness to extreme multi-driver setups in earphones.
I can still clearly remember the hype around the JH Audio JH16 Pro that was released back in 2014 — a $1,200 engineering marvel that was able to cram 8 balanced armature drivers in each earphone (for a total of 16 drivers, hence the name).
Nine years have passed since then, and as with a lot of technologies, the costs of designing and making new earphones have gone down dramatically over the years.
It’s even gotten to the point where KZ, a well-known Chinese maker of budget earphones, has somehow managed to pull off a similar feat while pricing their earphones at just $80.
This earphone is the KZ ZAR and is the subject of our review for today.
More drivers don’t make better earphones—the eight drivers in the ZAR is an example
The KZ ZAR is an $80 earphone that packs a whopping eight drivers in a 7+1 configuration.
Unfortunately, its sound signature doesn’t quite let these drivers shine, instead opting for a generic bass-boosted U-shaped signature that’s hard to like.
- Headphone Type: Closed-back in-ear monitor
- Driver Type: 1x dynamic driver + 7x balanced armature hybrid
- Frequency Response: 20-40,000 Hz
- Sensitivity: 109 dB
- Impedance: 16 Ohms
What’s in the Box?
- KZ ZAR earphones
- 3 x or pairs of eartips (S, M, L)
Stuff I like
- Decent U-shaped sound signature
- Secure custom-like fit
- Fancy included cable
Stuff I like less
- Housings can feel too “full” in the ears
- No accessories
- Treble gets smothered at times
Overview and History
The ZAR is KZ’s new flagship model for the Z series of earphones, which has prices that go as far down as the ZST at $15.
Like much of KZ’s offerings, exactly what separates earphones from one series to the other isn’t clear.
What we do know is that the ZAR is a hybrid design that has 1 dynamic driver for the bass and 7 balanced armature drivers that share the rest of the frequency range.
This driver setup isn’t new to KZ — they’ve already done this with the ZAS and ZAX. That makes the ZAR a new generation of sorts but I don’t have the other two yet for a direct comparison.
Now, I’ll go ahead and admit that I’m not the biggest fan of KZ earphones.
They’re quite popular among audiophiles for providing a very wide range of designs at inconceivably low prices. However, part of how KZ achieves this is by cutting corners on things like quality control, which I would think is quite important when you’re selling electronics like earphones.
Indeed, a chunk of KZ customers often end up getting earphones that die within days to months assuming they aren’t already dead on arrival.
Most people have kind of accepted this as part of the “KZ experience” so to speak. But then there’s the issue of the earphones themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had positive experiences with some of their earphones before (the EDX is a particular highlight).
But between receiving several duds and just being generally unimpressed with some of their models, I’ll say I am going into this review with fairly low expectations.
For an earphone of this price, the KZ ZAR comes in a more premium presentation, similar to the ZAS and ZAX.
It’s still a small box, but one that’s wrapped in glossy black print on matte black paper.
It generally looks quite nice, save for the bright white sticker on the side that lists product information and kind of breaks the illusion.
The accessories are also similarly underwhelming.
While KZ isn’t known for offering many accessories in the first place, it should be reasonable to expect an $80 earphone to at least come with more than just three pairs of eartips.
Now, one can forgive KZ for this approach.
Skimping on accessories supposedly gives them more room in their bill of materials to focus on the earphones themselves.
And we can indeed see this in action with the KZ ZAR.
Besides the earphones themselves, quite a bit of effort was allocated to the included cable. With 8 silver-plated copper strands braided together, the cable supposedly offers optimal data transmission and the best sound quality.
I personally can’t really tell a difference between using it and the cable from the $10 KZ EDX but at the very least, the ZAR’s cable looks cool and feels well-made. I’m personally not a fan of the rather loose braiding, though.
The housings of the ZAR are also worth a look. Made entirely of plastic, they don’t come off as premium but at least feel solidly put together.
The use of transparent black for the housings help shows off the ZAR’s 8 drivers crowding around the nozzle, which is both nice to look at and covers KZ’s bases by showing that they do indeed have 8 drivers in there.
Fit and Comfort
The key detail to notice with the KZ ZAR’s design, though, is in how their shape fits the ear.
Like most other earphones, the ZAR is patterned after the ear-filling CIEM style. Unlike others, though, the ZAR’s massive driver count basically locks them into this design in order to get everything to fit in the first place.
The ZAR’s housing shape is highly contoured with the intent of really filling your ear’s concha.
As someone with relatively average ears in terms of both size and shape, the design works quite well. The earphones stay firmly in the ears and really feel like they’re filling that outer ear space.
Now, exactly how many different ears this will fit isn’t something I can answer in my review. But at least in my case, the ZAR manages to fit pretty comfortably with the included eartips in medium.
For the longest time, I’ve always assumed pure neutrality to be the audiophile ideal. A sound that was perfectly uncolored, I thought, would be able to present the music in the best possible way.
As it turns out, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Those who call themselves audiophiles apparently prefer a warmer sound with boosted bass and a smoother treble response with less edge. And it’s this sound that the KZ ZAR is patterned after.
Described by the manufacturer as having a U-shaped sound signature, the KZ ZAR definitely offers ample low end for most genres of music.
Bass impacts are given a lot of extra weight, and the boost also lets bass notes continue to cut through the mix as it goes down to the sub-bass range.
Kan Sano’s “Stars In Your Eyes” is a song that opens with very strong bass from a combo of the kick drum and bass guitar.
As much as the bass head of a younger me would’ve appreciated this bass power, my current tastes would beg to disagree.
The low end of the ZAR doesn’t quite have the restraint I’d like, becoming too overbearing with this specific track and smothering a lot of the other frequencies, especially the treble.
KZ describes the ZAR as being tuned to a U-shaped sound signature.
With this in mind, we can expect the midrange to be pushed back a little bit as the bass is given more room to fill the soundscape.
This is definitely true with songs that have a lot of bass information in them, like Daft Punk’s “Doin’ It Right“, where Panda Bear’s vocals are drowned out with every hit of the song’s 808.
But give the song a bit more balance, and the KZ ZAR is able to respond in kind.
Songs like “Notre Dame Est” by Anomalie keep the piano and synth melodies in the spotlight while the drums stay pared back with a bit of a highpass filter over it.
When given the room to breathe, the KZ ZAR’s midrange shines through quite well with a warm, mellow presentation that’s easy on the ears, if a bit affected by some bleed coming in from the bass.
For most of my time spent listening to and taking my notes on the KZ ZAR, my mind has been fixated on the idea that the ZAR has a tuning designed “for audiophiles”, and I couldn’t really understand why.
It was only as I noted down their treble response that I came to an epiphany — audiophiles don’t like neutral sound.
Okay, obviously this doesn’t apply to all audiophiles and you can definitely count me in the “neutral preference” camp.
But it does apply to the kind of listener that most people tend to associate with the word “audiophile” — the ones that have a preference for vintage gear and have the budget to afford them.
I can describe the ZAR’s treble as being crisp but mellow.
There’s enough of it still there to keep instruments and vocals sounding complete, but it’s dulled down deliberately to curb sibilance and sharpness.
“Limasawa Street” from Ben&Ben features cymbals that are mixed with a lot of room reverb, with it normally being bright but pushed backward in the mix. The ZAR’s treble response further dulls the already softened edge of the cymbals, giving the songs in this album a warm and almost dark tilt.
Meanwhile, songs with a brighter mix like Smallpools’ “Dreaming” are softened down to relative balance. It’s not a bad arrangement for the most part, but the ZAR’s boosted bass response does come back in force and overpowers the rest of the sound a bit.
It’s a bit unfair to expect much from the KZ ZAR, especially since IEMs just don’t have much to offer by design.
As someone who uses open-back headphones regularly, the soundstage of the ZAR is definitely on the small side. But in the context of IEMs, it’s not all that bad thanks to dome’s decent width and imaging ability.
I’d have liked a bit more depth to the soundstage, but doing this likely would make the bass even more overwhelming than it already is.
Despite being a mostly budget brand, KZ has broken out with higher-end models before, with their AS16 being the most expensive at $120.
While the KZ ZAR is a decent chunk cheaper at $80, its value is similarly very hit or miss depending on what you like.
Just about all of the ZAR’s bill of materials has been allocated to the 16 drivers that KZ had to cram into this earphone for whatever reason.
And with a package that has practically nothing else in it, all of its value lives and dies on the merits of its sound.
The KZ ZAR is quite competent in terms of its detail and technical ability and has a lot to offer for those that like this specific sound signature.
To get to that point, though, you’d need to actually like the ZAR’s “audiophile” sound signature in the first place. And that sound just doesn’t quite land it for me.
Now I want to make it clear — there’s nothing inherently wrong with a U-shaped sound signature. It’s perfectly decent and there are definitely people that will like it.
But for an earphone that has crammed 8 drivers on each side, I feel that tuning the ZAR in that warm, dulled-down style kind of squanders all of the supposed extra headroom that you could get from having as many drivers as it does.
It really doesn’t help that there’s not much else in the box to make the whole thing less important.
At least the cable feels nice.
This post was last updated on 2023-11-28 / Some images from Amazon Product API & some links may be affiliate links which may earn us a commission from purchases.