Pros: Warm, smooth and fatigue-free
Sturdy cables and strain reliefs
Perfect candidate for silicone earhooks
Cons: Warm signature (not for the those seeking micro-details)
Stock is depleting quickly
For those of you that don't know, there is a quiet storm taking place in the IEM (and Audio Gear) market which we hobbyists affectionately refer to as Chi-Fi (Chinese Fidelity). In essence, the sound quality of audio gear coming from some Chinese manufacturers (Knowledge Zenith, Fiio, Monoprice, Shanling and others) is improving and progressing at a quickening pace. Some brands deserve as much attention as the established brands, if for no other reason than the value proposition in a global economic downturn where one typically receives less for their hard earned cash. In the midst of an unavoidable global economic upheaval, Knowledge Zenith is one manufacturer that consistently offers exceptional value for your hard earned cash and the KZ ATR is evidence enough that the changes in the world of audio gear are reaching a feverish pitch. It's not because IEMs like the ATR outperform the higher tier IEMs; let me be clear here, they do not. Without putting too fine a point on things I'll say that Knowledge Zenith's very reason for existing is to ensure that you don't have to fork over a mortgage payment in order to acquire a good set of in-ear monitors.
Note: I am currently posting reviews of several Knowledge Zenith models that should have been listed here on Head-Fi long ago, if for no other reason than to have a thorough list of KZ earphones that your ears and your wallet should be acquainted with. Feel free to pour through said reviews to get a better description of each Knowledge Zenith in-ear monitor to find the one that might cater more to your preferences.
I tend to prefer a relatively neutral sound signature with a slight emphasis in both bass and lower treble, which is basically a mild "U" shaped sound signature where midrange frequencies are left intact and unaffected. I find that an absolute neutral sound signature usually lacks enough energy for the genres I enjoy most, which are Classic Trance and Progressive (early Tiesto, Markus Schulz, Otello, DT8 Project), Chill Out, Breakbeat (Hybrid & Burufunk Remixes) and 80's & 90's (New Order, Secession, The Cure, Siouxie & The Banshees, Depeche Mode). Sure I listen to Verve Remixed, Sade, Bach, Ella Fitzgerald and everything in between, but as of late the bulk of my listening pleasure is focused on the aforementioned genres.
Take note when you read IEM reviews that when the reviewer gives his/her opinion regarding the sound that there are many factors that shape the final sound an IEM delivers to one's ear.
Those factors include:
1 - Shape & size of reviewer's ear canals. (shallow/deep, wide/narrow)
2 - Shape & size of eartips (round/cone, single, double or triple flange)
3 - Materials of eartips (silicone/foam)
4 - Shape of IEM (and/or angle of nozzle) can cause fitment issues for some.
5 - Source (quality of DAC in smartphone, laptop, digital audio player)
6 - Source (power rating) is it amplified/unamplified.
7 - The IEM itself (driver flex/trapping air in canal causing muffled sound.
8 - The Reviewers ability to hear all frequency ranges (age plays a factor).
Most consumers are unaware of how much weight each of these factors hold in rendering a final verdict. This is why there is such a wide variance in not only ratings, but the description of an IEMs sound. An unaware consumer purchases a perfectly fine IEM but has difficulty keeping the IEM in the ear or he/she does not satisfactorily seal the ear canal with the included silicone eartips (this is a common occurrence) and the consumer summarily dismisses the IEM as sub par. Another consumer purchases the same IEM but experiences a perfect fit and seal and has nothing but praise for the same IEM. Sealing the ear canals AND HAVING THE EARTIP FIRMLY AFFIXED to the IEM nozzle is the only proper way to use in-ear monitors. I can think of no audio equipment that is subjected to such praise or ridicule as the in-ear monitor. As if that's not enough, there is no "one-size-fits-all" when it comes to IEM eartips.
Materials (silicone/foam) have different dampening effects on final sound.
Shape of the eartips (olive-shaped, cone-shaped or other-shaped) can have different dampening effects on final sound based on how much space is between the IEM nozzle and your eardrum and how well the eartip has sealed the ear canal.
The aperture of the eartip's opening (wide-bore/narrow-bore) will have dampening effects on the final sound.
The easiest way for you to experience the different effects I am discussing is to take your current on-ear earphones or over-ear earphones, pick a song full of energy, put the earphones on and let them sit naturally over or on your ears. Listen to the music for two minutes. After two minutes, using your hands, slightly press the headphones closer to your eardrums. Notice the change in the sound. Is there more/less bass? Is there more/less treble? Did the vocals slightly slip forward/back?
Consider that on-ear and over-ear headphones have a driver that sits approximately 1 1/2 inches to 2 inches from your eardrums and by pressing the headphones 1/4" closer to your eardrums the sound changed. Now consider that an IEM driver sits anywhere from 3/4" to 1/4" from your eardrums and the slightest changes (angle, depth, shape, material) can have up to three times more of an effect due to the proximity of the IEM to the eardrum.
For this reason, I think it is wise to invest a nominal dollar amount on different eartips to find an eartip that works well for your particular ear's anatomy. This way you experience everything the earphone tuner intended for you to experience. Some IEM manufacturers supply multiple sizes (S/M/L) and/or materials (silicone/foam) of eartips to increase the odds that the consumer achieves a satisfactory seal, but even this is not foolproof. If this information holds any interest for you, there are a plethora of aftermarket eartip brands to look into, such as "JVC Spiral Dots", "Spinfits", "Comply Foam Eartips" or "Znari Foam Eartips", "Creative Aurvana" and others. If you really want to fine tune things, then you might find yourself doing what I do, which is scouring Amazon for inexpensive earphones that appear to have silicone eartips that have a shape that typically work well with my ear's anatomy.
The Knowledge Zenith ATR:
Knowledge Zenith's (KZ's) newest offerings, for the most part, have been well-received hybrid in-ear monitors that reside in the sub-$50 price bracket. Offerings such as their ZSR, ZS6 and ZST have garnered an inordinate amount of attention due to their phenomenal price-to-performance ratio.
The KZ ATR's quiet accomplishments seem to have gotten lost amidst all the excitement and jibber-jabber about KZ's aforementioned hybrid offerings, so I thought it would be wise to revisit one of the most excellent offerings for the audio enthusiast or budget-conscious consumer.
The KZ ATR is an IEM with an over-the-ear cable design which is exceptionally comfortable and they pair very well with a good set of silicone earhooks. In fact, with the earhooks you see in the photos the ATR remains in the position I originally set it at despite any vigorous movements.
I own all three models of Knowledge Zenith's AT series. Those models include the original KZ ATE (translucent brown), the KZ ATE-S (translucent brown) and the newer KZ ATR (glossy black). For the past couple of years the ATE has been one of Knowledge Zenith's top sellers, as well it should be. The KZ ATE-S is more genre specific and therefore has enjoyed what seems to be a slow and rising interest as the "other" ATE, but the newer ATR is, in my opinion, what the ATE should have been all along. In short, it's an upgrade to both it's predecessors.
The original ATE is a legend in its own time. It's not because the ATE will outperform higher tier IEMs, it doesn't. The wonder of the original ATE is that it seems to have an analogue warmth to it that just draws you into yesteryear's tube amp-like experience with your cherished oldies but goodies and even your best acoustic and jazz. At the moment, that's the best way I can put into words why so many love the ATE.
I "like" the original ATE. In fact, I have two pairs, but the ATR is more refined and has better extension and definition across the frequency ranges. As I am writing this review I am listening to the TIME/LIFE Best of the 70's collection. I've been switching back and forth between the ATE and ATR and truth be told, my ATE is likely to see very little action in the future. When I think back to my review of the original ATE, all of the things that I stated that made the ATE "not" my preferred sound signature have been hereby rectified. The rolled off treble of the ATE is now a comfortable laid back sense of detail on the ATR. While the original ATE had a slightly veiled or dark tone to the midrange this ATR has a warm, rich and detailed midrange that removes the veil but retains the well judged tonality so vocals and/or strings keep their natural timbre.
If you own the KZ ATR, now would be a great time to plug them in and experience what I attempt to put into words for the uninformed. If you do not own the KZ ATR then perhaps now would be a good time to order a set so you can play along before the ATR goes out of production.
To be clear, the ATR sound signature tends to be warm as opposed to analytical and bright. The ATR's warm presentation is the result of rolling off the upper-treble while the lower-treble assumes the task of bringing forth details to keep the presentation fatigue-free. The newer crop of KZ in-ear monitors are more resolving due to the presence of balanced armatures, but if you're looking for a fatigue-free sound signature for extended listening sessions then the ATR might be right up your alley. The ATR's warm presentation lacks the micro-detail and sparkle found in my ZS6 but I appreciate the ATR's ability to keep things from getting too hot. While listening to The Cure's "Close to me" the lower-treble comes through clean and clear whereas the micro-details in the upper-treble are smoothed over and kept at bay . But let's test a track that has enough action up top to draw your attention away from the rest of the track from time to time. Typically, I'd go with something from Michael Jackson's Thriller album, but let's do something a little different. Let's listen to Toni Braxton's "He wasn't man enough". The amount of energy in the upper-treble region, on occasion, is enough to pull your attention away from the body of the track. I want to find out if fatigue will set in early on due to said treble energy present in the track. In addition, there is more than enough energy present up top in Chris Coco and Cathy Battistessa's "Starlight" to keep the track fluid and alive.
The midrange on the ATR is warm and smooth with sufficient weight in both male and female vocals. From time to time or on certain recordings the midrange can seem slightly recessed, but only slightly. I'd say the presentation sits right at the threshold, or better yet, the fine line that separates neutral from recessed. Note the vocals and the many instruments that are presented in Al Stewart's "Year Of The Cat" and pay close attention to their well-judged positioning and timbre, particularly the guitars and saxophone. You'll hear precisely what I mean regarding the "fine line" on presentation because James Taylor's vocals almost seem forward, almost. Then there is the richness in the vocals of Portishead's "Roads".
The ratio of sub-bass to mid-bass (40/60) on the ATE seems to be perfectly balanced (50/50) with much better control on the ATR. While technically the soundstage is the same, the better extension in the highs seem to put more air or space between the instruments and the imaging brings everything into focus for a very natural presentation as if you are in a smoke-filled , back-alley live performance with just enough bodies in the room to absorb the sound reflection but not so crowded with bodies that the concert comes across as muffled and distant. The mid-bass and sub-bass presentation is measured with a 50/50 ratio that can easily do justice to a whole host of EDM tracks like Delerium's "After All" and Jonas and Jennifer's "Fall To Pieces". Note the mid-bass presentation found in Morcheeba's "Blindfold"; a song I could listen to over and over and over and....
KZ in-ear's typically have imaging that is well above average for their price-point. Of the twenty-some-odd KZ's I own I can't think of one model that falls short in the imaging department and the ATR is no exception. I can pinpoint the location of each and every instrument with precision. Couple great imaging to the ATR's above average soundstage and you might say that the ATR is one of the best bang-for-buck propositions in the marketplace. Listen to Delerium's "After All" again, but this time listen for imaging and you'll be able to place each instrument in your mind's imaginary stage. Then proceed to the following tracks and be amazed at what a $9 IEM can do in 2018.
The bottom line is that the ATR is somewhat of a hidden gem if you're looking for an inexpensive and fatigue-free set of beater IEMs that won't shortchange you on sound reproduction. A good set of multi-BA and/or hybrid IEMs will definitely outperform the ATR in resolution, separation, layering and dynamics but sometimes hybrids don't fare so well in the coherence department because information tends to get lost at crossover points and sometimes multi-BA's lack the richness and depth of a well tuned single dynamic driver.....
.....but that's the trade-off with single dynamic vs hybrids sometimes isn't it?
Resolution or coherency. An analytical presentation or a laidback presentation.
Resolution vs. coherency don't have to be mutually exclusive, but I find it to be the case more often than not at the sub-$50 price-point.
Well....at $9 the ATR brings you the latter on both accounts (coherency with a decent helping of resolution carefully packaged for a laidback presentation). Like most of Knowledge Zenith's old skool in-ear's, when the ATR is no longer available for purchase it will be sorely missed by those familiar with its capabilities at prices that can only be described as comically low. I really couldn't give them a higher recommendation if I tried.
Note: It has been reported by a reputable Head-Fi member that the ATR and the newest ATE have a similar (if not identical) sound signature. I don't know if KZ Acoustics has subsequently replaced the original 8.2mm ABS Dynamic Driver with a retuned ATE copper driver
ATR (ABS Dynamic Driver)
ATE (Copper Dynamic Driver)
......but this review is how I hear the ATR that I own.
Feel free to check back every once in a while to see which old skool KZ in-ear monitor will be uploaded next
visit B9's blog (fellow head-fi member) at the following link to learn about other KZ in-ear monitors that might suit your tastes and/or needs: