Unboxing / Packaging:
The ZSN comes in the same white slipcover box that we have all grown familiar with from KZ. Inside the slipcover you have the clear plastic top which shows off the earpieces in the standard black plastic tray. Under the tray the extra tips (S&L – medium is pre-installed), cable, and instructions are hiding. For whatever reason, I always have the desire to grab a set of markers and color in the earpieces on the front of the box to match the earpieces. I suspect all this would accomplish is to show off my lack of artistic talent.
For those familiar with the Kz product line, the ZsN is very much an updated ZsT. I say this not only because the shells are very similar in shape and size, but because the driver configuration is very similar. The ZsN uses metal faceplates and nozzles as opposed to the ZsT’s plastic versions. The faceplate has 3 vents in it with a 4th vent on the inside of the shell immediately over the dynamic driver. Nozzles appear to be brass with a large lip for holding tips firmly and adequate length for fairly deep insertion of tips into the ear canal. The metal components are well fitted to the plastic with no obvious gaps or glued areas. The faceplates are beveled and well polished with no sharp edges anywhere. One cannot talk about the build without mentioning the connectors. While I like the design in some ways (it protects the pins and is less likely to get bent), it is basically a proprietary modification of the standard bi-pin connector that means you either buy cables from Kz or you have some work cut out to modify either the connector or the cable to fit. I experimented some with putting a 2.5mm balanced jack on the Kz cable and it is possible to do so (although the jack may well cost you more than the ZsN did to start with). Hopefully KZ will come out with a balanced cable for this style connection soon and this will be a non-issue, but for now, know that you have to use the provided cable or be up for some DIY to make others work. Isolation is average as the ZsN sits in the ear and insertion is deep enough to block a good bit of external sound but the ports allow some sound in.
The ZsN uses a 10mm titanium coated diaphragm dynamic driver that KZ lists as developed and tuned in house along with their customized 30095 balanced armature that has become a mainstay of their recent product line. The impedance is listed as 25Ω with a sensitivity of 104dB making the ZsN a fairly easy earphone to drive from smartphones or tablets. Titanium coated dynamics have a reputation for needing some time to burn-in so the ZsN may sound somewhat different after 100 hours or so than it did new out of the box. (I know this is like talking politics as some insist burn-in doesn’t exist while others swear by it. I think the truth is somewhere between the extremes).
As previously mentioned, the cable is the subject of some controversy. It is well made with a 4 strand braid below the splitter and twisted pair above it. The splitter itself continues the odd trend of being way too low on the cable and no chin-slider is provided. This makes the cable entirely more tangle prone than it should be and would be easily cured by moving the splitter about 8 inches further up the cable toward the earpieces. (If anyone at KZ is listening, please, please, please move the splitter up!). The Jack is the standard 3.5mm TRS 90º connector standard on all KZ cables these days. The other end of the cable sports pre-formed earhooks with clear hooded bi-pin connectors. My sample does not have the mic, but that option exists for those who prefer one.
Sub-bass is good in both depth and quantity with good quickness and decay too. It does not have as much rumble of some other Kz models (Zs6) but instead exhibits better control over what it does have. Mid-bass is well controlled as well and is slightly forward of the sub-bass but again not nearly as much as some other Kz models. Bleed is minimal and provides a little warmth to the signature but without obscuring details. The thing I appreciate most about the mid-bass on the ZsN is the texture and control. This is a first for Kz.
If there is one thing the KZ house signature is known for, it isn’t mids. Imagine my surprise when not only does the ZsN have mids, the lower mids are actually mildly forward and the presence region gives vocals a bit of a lift as well. The lower mids manage good clarity even with some minimal bass bleed while the true mids drop back to near neutral level without feeling greatly recessed or distant. Upper mids begin to climb forward and give vocals a bit of extra push which is nice but at times can make them feel somewhat unnatural in the process. While the mids are definitely improved over the ZsT, some recent models are a bit more natural sounding (As10, ES4)
Treble extension is good and treble is pushed mildly forward as well which gives a nice sense of air at the top end, but the 30095 driver used does have some tendency toward sibilance and that is still on display in the ZsN. Cymbals are sharp and well rendered but are borderline metallic sounding and tracks that have a tendency to be sibilant will almost certainly display it when played on the ZsN. Overall, the treble would have to be described as moderately aggressive as compared to the Zs6 which would be outright aggressive to most listeners.
Soundstage / Imaging:
The ZsN exhibits good layering and imaging with enough space between instruments and very little tendency to get crowded as tracks get busy. This is admirable in a 2 driver design as many 4 and 5 driver models dont have the imaging accuracy displayed by the ZsN. Soundstage is much wider than it is deep probably due to the arrangement of the vents on the shell. It can be described as sitting 10 rows back from a stage that is 40 feet wide and 10 feet deep.
ZsT: Well seeing as the ZsN could be thought of as the ZsT v2, the obvious question is did they improve it? The answer is, “it depends”. Shells are essentially the same with a slight edge going to the ZsN with its metal faceplate. Isolation is a bit better on the ZsN (somewhat surprisingly). Both share a similar V signature but the ZsN has better control and is a bit smoother than the ZsT.
ES4: To me this is the closest model to the ZsN when looking at the KZ line. Both have good bass thump while maintaining good control and both have mids unlike a lot of the Kz line. The differences are primarily in the upper registers where the ZsN is a bit better extended but the ES4 is slightly more polite.
Yinyoo V2: The ZsN has a bit better low end extension than the V2 while the V2 is a bit better controlled with a bit better texture in the mids. The V2 is avoids stridency at all costs while the ZsN is a bit sharper around the edges.
BQEYZ KB1: Similar sub-bass but mid-bass is more forward on the KB1 and mids are more recessed on the KB1 when compared to the ZsN. The KB1 has an overly polite treble and lacks extension compared to the ZsN which has better high-end extension but is a bit more harsh and aggressive.
Thoughts / Conclusion:
The sub-$20 market has gotten awfully crowded lately and KZ alone has been responsible for a good bit of that with no less than 7 models currently listed on their website in that category. Many of these models overlap to a point that makes me question whether we need one more. Having said that, the ZsN is in many ways a departure from the norm for KZ. They stepped up their game when it comes to shells and cables and produced a product that looks and feels more expensive than it is. Then they tuned it to be more controlled and better behaved than previous generations of Kz. This shows KZ is learning and improving and gives me hope that we will see even better offerings next year. The ZsN represents one of the 3 best efforts of KZ to date in my estimation (Zs5v1 and AS10) and despite a treble that could still be described as slightly hot, is a big step in the right direction. For awhile there it looked like KZ might be losing its stranglehold on the sub-$20 market, the ZsN once again claims that territory for KZ.