Sunday, July 16, 2017

KZ ATE: Price-tag Predator

Intro




TL;DR: The KZ ATE sings loud and proud for such a cheap IEM. Despite that, they're one of the most aggressive sounding IEMs I've come across, for better or for worse.

Chinese manufacturer KZ is to headphones what Oppo or Huawei means to cellphones – cheap, of a decent quality, and Chinese. KZ was one of the first who came into the audiophile market riding the wave of distributor-sellers bridging the gap between Eastern manufacturers and Western consumers. They have seen become a staple recommendation for audiophiles with not much cash to burn, offering sound quality of much higher value than what their price tags would suggest.

This week we will be taking a look at one of the older, but still highly recommended KZ models – the ATE. My experience with the KZ ED9 was not a very good first impression (it had channel imbalance issues straight out of the box), so now, let's find out if maybe I simply got off on the wrong foot.

(Disclaimer: the product in review was received free of charge from George at Gearbest.com in exchange for my honest opinion. Please take the following with a grain of salt and always try before you buy.)



== Aesthetics ==

Packaging, Accessories




The KZ ATE arrives in a diminutive box displaying the earphones in question. Inside there's not much to speak of – two extra pairs of silicone eartips to augment the included medium foam eartips and an instruction manual written in the most admirable attempt at English one would expect from a purely Chinese manufacturer. I guess you'd be looking for more, but considering their sub-$15 price, I doubt you'll find anything.


Design, Build, Microphonics




The overall design of the ATE seems to be modelled after the Audio-Technica IM series – a line of studio and stage-grade IEMs which are an order of magnitude more expensive. In fact, many times during their initial release hype, they have been touted as the "Budget IM50", referring to the Audio-Technica earphones.

Upon further inspection, they do seem to be quite well designed. Their cable, which seems to be identical to that of the ED9 I reviewed previously, makes an appearance here. Knowing the cable tends to shift out of place when the earphone is worn around the ear, KZ added gold-coloured weights some length down from the earpieces. Granted, it's not as flush of a design choice as, say, a moulded ear hook, but it gets the job done. By far its only weakness design-wise would be the short cable strain reliefs on the earpieces and the lack of a cable cinch, but otherwise, for this price, they're much better than you'd expect.


Fit, Comfort, Isolation



As expected of its stage IEM design, the ATE provided excellent fit and isolation characteristics. The earphones stayed securely in my ears even during physical activity, although I wouldn't say the same for their cable (for this, I would suggest a shirt clip). My only gripe here, though, is their comfort – the sheer bulk of the earphones prevent them from fitting flush in my ears, and those with smaller ears will definitely see this as a bigger issue. Smooth sailing here, nonetheless.


== Sound ==

Specs


Headphone Type
Closed-back in-ear monitor
Driver Type
Single dynamic driver (unknown size)
Frequency Response
N/A
Max. Input Power
N/A
Sensitivity
N/A
Impedance
16 ohms
Cable
N/A
Connector
3.5mm (1/8") gold-plated right-angle connector
Accessories
1x set black foam eartips (M)
2x sets grey silicone eartips (S/L)
Instruction manual


Equipment, Burn-in


The source devices used for this review are a fifth-generation iPod Touch and an iPad Air 2. The test tracks I use for my assessments are of various genres ranging from classical to electronica, with the audio file formats varying from 256 Kbps AAC to 24-bit FLAC. Some of these test tracks will be linked to in the sound assessments to demonstrate certain points. The eartips used are the stock foam eartips that come attached on the earphones out of the box.

Prior to the assessment I listened to the KZ ATE for at least 40 hours to get more accustomed to the sound – otherwise known as "brain burn-in" – to dispel any "changes" to the sound after a certain amount of time. No changes were noted over the review period.


Sound Quality



Bass:
For those not new to the Chinese budget IEM scene, you'll have already known of the ATE's reputation as a stellar basshead IEM. Well, this review will be no more than another affirmation of that. By far the ATE has one of the most prodigious bass responses I've heard in an IEM at this price. I have long passed the point on my road to the best sound where bass was the single most important thing to me. That time may be gone, but when I put on the ATE, I hear not much beyond waves of basshead nostalgia fill my ears. And it put a bigger smile on my face than I'd like to admit.

It's loud, it's proud, it's overbearing, and it's not afraid to show it (Haywyre – Sculpted, Dichotomy (Soft Mix); Unlike Pluto – Someone New). Its power and aggressiveness rivals the most bass-heavy earphones in my collection, while its speed and sub-bass extension establishes a level of bass quality that you will very rarely see in an IEM of this price. Ferocious, intense, and invigorating, the ATE is an exemplary basshead IEM.


Midrange:
But what's pretty neat about the ATE is that it's not entirely a one-trick-pony. Believe it or not, the midrange is actually quite clear, and although the bass does affect it as evidenced by its warm tone, the ATE maintains clarity, bass-heavy recording or otherwise (MACINTOSH PLUS – リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー; HOME – Resonance; Elijah Who – polaroids).


Treble:
The treble rounds out the ATE’s aggressive V-shaped sound signature with its crisp, bright treble. At times, it does get a bit fatiguing (Desiigner – Panda), but it definitely gets the job done. Beyond that I’ve no complaints.


Soundstage / Presentation:
The ATE's soundstage is, in my opinion, the weakest link in its otherwise solid sound signature. Whether it is due to the superb ambient isolation, the recording, or both, the ATE sounds very closed-in and restricted in its projection of space. This, coupled with its forward sound signature, equates to an overall fatiguing experience. Of course, that's not to say the ATE is bad by any means – in fact, I'm picking at straws here trying to find something not so positive to say about these earphones.



Genre Proficiency:
Being an aggressive, bass-heavy IEM, one would practically expect the ATE to perform best with electronic genres and worst with mellow acoustic genres – and you would not be wrong in expecting such. However, as I've found, the ATEs actually sound best with hard rock, metal, and similarly aggressive genres (Megadeth – Hangar 18, Holy Wars...the Punishment Due; Iron Maiden – The Trooper). The ATE's combination of ferocious, speedy bass and an uncannily clear midrange makes them more than suited for the growling guitars and rumbling drums of those genres.


Eartips:
Using the included silicone eartips on the ATE mellows out the sound slightly, adding a bit more midrange clarity and smoothing out the intensity of both bass and treble. In my opinion I find this setup better than the foam tips I tested the KZ with for this review, but despite that, I did not find the improvement to be significant enough that it changes the sound entirely.


Summary:
The ATE is a dangerous one. It's got a fast, bright treble, clear, weighty midrange, and a bass performance that is so far unrivalled in my collection. It's one of the most aggressive sound signatures I've heard, and as such, a very divisive and specialised sound signature.

Other Media


The KZ ATE's bass-focused sound signature will prove you well with both games and movies, but their lacklustre detail and closed-in soundstage will detract from the immersion that non-music media needs so desperately.


EQ Response




With a reduction in the bass response, one can coerce a lighter, more balanced sound signature from the otherwise heavy, intense ATE. They respond to EQ quite well, even taking up a bass boost without much trouble.


Value


So far my overall tone of the ATE has been not entirely positive. This is because of the point I shall make here. The KZ ATE is, for the low, low price of $10 dollars, absolutely brilliant. Its bass performance has so much raw power and aggression that it alone is more than worth the price of admission. Couple that with an admirable midrange and treble response and you have a very interesting earphone in your hands.

Comparison



Versus KZ ED9 (~$15):
The KZ ED9 was a very promising budget IEM, with its filter feature a key component of its success. I wasn't much of a fan of the IEM in my review, however, although this is mostly due to the fact that the one I got was defective. Nonetheless, the ED9 was a pretty good IEM, which is why they butt heads with the ATE without much indication of who is winning.

With the bass filters on, the ED9 matches the ATE in sound signature, but that's where the similarities end. The ATE simply edges its relative out with more intensity throughout the frequency range. The ED9, however, sounds smoother and less aggressive. It really comes down to personal preference in this matchup, depending on how intense you want your music to sound. Overall, though, the ED9's two filter selections do make it the better overall choice since you have a bit more flexibility with the sound signature without using an EQ.

== Conclusion ==




The KZ ATE is a predator of an IEM. It seems unassuming price-wise, but its rather eye-catching design will make you raise some suspicions. It is only when you put them on and press "Play" that the ATE pounces at you with raw, untamed aggression. With its swift yet prodigious bass and admirable clarity, the ATE is by far one of the most exciting IEMs I've listened to. And to think, all this for a measly 10 dollars.

Nonetheless, the ATE does have some drawbacks. Its intense sound signature clearly is not for every type of listener, and I wouldn't even think of mentioning this when someone asks for a budget IEM for acoustic, jazz, or other similar genres. But it does have its merits, and it will certainly find favour with the metalhead or raver in you.

Category
Score
Packaging, Accessories
6.5/10
Design, Build, Microphonics
8.5/10
Fit, Comfort, Isolation
7.5/10
Bass
8.5/10
Midrange
8/10
Treble
7/10
Presentation
6/10
Gaming, Movies
7/10
EQ Response
8/10
Value
9/10
Total
7.6/10


Post-Review Notes

I would like to extend my gratitude to George at Gearbest.com for sending out the KZ ATE featured in this review. If you like my review please leave a like below, and if you’re interested in having a KZ ATE for yourself, a link to the Gearbest store page can be found here. Otherwise, if you want it or have it, do write up a comment and let me know what you think about them.

This has been thatBeatsguy, and I’ll see you in the next one!

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