KZ ZS10: Five Driver Flop

Not too long ago, an earphone design arms race reached a fever pitch. This race challenged IEM designers to cram as many drivers (speaker units) as they could into a single earpiece. This resulted in such incredible earphones as the JH Audio JH16 (with 8 drivers per side) and the Noble Kaiser 10 (with 10 drivers per side). That arms race has since waned, but it has no doubt cemented the idea that more drivers equal better performance.

The question is, why would you need so many drivers in a pair of earphones? The principle behind that is similar to why some cars have V12 engines. Simply put, a larger number of units each doing a fraction of the workload can do the work more efficiently. As a result, V12 engines produce more power and 10-driver earphones sound better. However, such setups have more operating parts, which increases complexity and, in turn, the price – hence why the Ferrari GTC4Lusso and the Kaiser 10 are so expensive.

But what if they don't have to be? This week, we're having a look at the KZ ZS10, the Chinese brand's latest attempt to cram a bunch of drivers into earphones that cost no more than $50. With 5 drivers per side, the ZS10 also happens to be their most complex and most expensive earphone yet at around 45 dollars. Will their efforts pay off in the end, or will this be "just another" KZ?

TL;DRYes, you can get a 5-driver earphone for $50. It doesn’t mean it’ll be a good one, though.

(Full Disclosure: The ZS10 was sent out to me by free of charge in exchange for this review, and to advertise a sale on their website. The purchase link for the earphones is an affiliate link; however, this link was provided by Gearbest and therefore, I will earn no commission from any sales made through said link. The earphones were tested for about a couple weeks.)

KZ was never one to butter up first impressions, instead letting the earphones speak for themselves. This can be seen quite clearly in the packaging for their older earphones like the ED9 and the ATE. And no, they didn't do it to pursue some sort of minimalist aesthetic – it's just basic, cheap packaging.

I will say, however, that the ZS10 looks a bit better. With its little transparent display case, it definitely outclasses its predecessors in the packaging department. Despite this, though, you can still tell that KZ kept its packaging budget very tight: the box print looks pretty cheap, and you only get two extra pairs of eartips as 'accessories'. Having reviewed two of their earphones in the past, this is no surprise to me, but it's still a bummer.

The earphones themselves, though, look great. The translucent housings are sculpted like multi-driver earphones priced in the hundreds of dollars, giving you a peek of the five drivers inside. The outward 'face' of the earphones place the ZS10's crossover circuit on full display, showing you all of the bits that keep the five drivers working in unison. I would have loved to see a clear plastic version of the ZS10 so we could better see all of its internals; regardless, you can definitely tell that KZ put some effort into its design. That said, they're not perfect. The housings, for instance, are bulky and cumbersome, which makes them uncomfortable for those with smaller ear canals. Their cable, while decent, is not very confidence-inspiring and feels pretty cheap.

Knowing how many corners have been cut to cram one dynamic and four balanced armature drivers into each earpiece, have their efforts paid off? I want to think so, but the end result is a bit underwhelming. Its bass has good extension, although it doesn't really punch hard enough and can sound a bit muddy at times; their midrange is nice and clear but is otherwise unremarkable; and their treble is alright in general but lacks a bit of snap.

Yes, that really is all you get with the ZS10.

All in all, it sounds quite good. On paper, it sounds quite good. However, I do have one major problem with the ZS10: it sounds very disengaging. Despite their enjoyable sound signature, the ZS10 can't envelop you in the music it plays. I feel like this could be attributed to its rather lacklustre soundstage. It lacks the space and air to allow each of the five drivers to sing freely, leaving you without that immersive feel. The symphonic instrumentation of Gareth Coker's Fleeing Kuro, the aggressive synthesisers of Haywyre's Sculpted and M2U's Myosotis, the soothing vibes of Meine Meinung's Colorful – all of them just feel lacking through the ZS10.

I have always seen KZ as the kind of manufacturer that proves why jokes about Chinese-made products are still around. Their products are often rough, cobbled-together pieces that cut as many corners as possible to make their earphones as cheap as possible. And at times you get some earphones like the ED9 and the ATE that sound good yet are priced ridiculously low. The ZS10, however, is not priced ridiculously low. Sure, compared to other earphones with five drivers per earpiece it definitely is cheap, but $50 dollars is still a lot of money. For that price, you could get an earphone with all of the bells and whistles you want and all of the sound you need – without needing to cram 5 tiny speakers and a crossover circuit. It's like choosing between a sensible family sedan with a small inline-four and a kit car with a V10 but no air conditioning, no windows, or even doors.

And who would want to buy one of those?

Packaging, Accessories
You get a box and two pairs of eartips. That’s it.
Design, Build, Microphonics
It should last a while. Feels cheap, though.
Fit, Comfort, Isolation
Works as intended, although the housings may be too bulky for some ears.
Has good impact and extension but is a bit muddy.
Smooth and clear, but a bit bland.
Good, but lacks snap.
A bit cramped, killing the immersive aspect of the music.
Other Media
Should do fine.
EQ Response
Responds well to EQ, but can’t fix the lack of immersion.
For around $50, a lot of better earphones can be had – and they don’t need 5 drivers per earpiece.
Yes, you can get a 5-driver earphone for $50. It doesn’t mean it’ll be a good one, though.

Thanks for taking time out of your day to read another of my reviews, and thanks to Gearbest for sending out the ZS10 to review. If you’re at all interested in buying these earphones for yourself, you can buy them at right now. I guess I should also have to let you know about their Mid-Year Sale, which will end on July 9th, 2018, so if you want some deals on Chinese-brand gadgets that you probably can’t get through Amazon, click on this link here. But why would you do that?

Until next time, have a good one!

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