Yes, yes, please. Would love to read what you both have to say about the Monarch MKII…
I like how Ant’s justification to sell stuff is to buy more stuff
Editor’s Note: This is the second review of these KZ IEMs on Audio Discourse! The first one posted earlier was by Precogvision, and this one is by Antdroid.
If you’re reading reviews of IEMs here on Audio Discourse, then you probably have heard of Crinacle (from In-Ear Fidelity fame) as well. He’s one of the premier voices on the internet for IEM reviews, measurements, and information, and has taken on several collaborations with manufacturers as of late. I’ve had the opportunity to review all of them to date and have been mostly happy to hear the results. The latest announcements from Crinacle’s collaborations include a new Fiio IEM unit, which will be arriving at my doorstep in the coming days, and this special release from Knowledge Zenith.
Yes, that’s right! KZ. The infamous brand of super budget IEMs that garner a lot of hype with varying degrees of success. Some of their units are solid offerings for their price points, and some are pretty mediocre, and it’s almost always a guessing game of how well one will turn out. But with Crinacle helping the tuning on this set, there’s a good chance it’ll turn out well. So let’s dive into this!
First off, there’s a twist. KZ actually released the collaboration previously under the name ZEX Pro, the follow-up to their ZEX IEM from a year ago. The ZEX Pro was released without the fanfare and prior to the announcement of the collaborative effort to see how it would be received free of any bias from “tuned by Crinacle.” Just a couple weeks ago, Crinacle announced that the ZEX Pro was in fact a collaboration effort and the IEM with his “face” on it would be called the KZ x Crinacle CRN.
These two units are sold for $38 USD and can be found on various stores that carry KZ including Amazon.com and through KZ directly (link at the bottom with coupon code!). Both units were sent to me by KZ directly for review.
The only difference between the two units is literally that Crinacle “face” on the side of the CRN unit, where the ZEX Pro has no decal. They both otherwise come in a rose gold or black finish, with tranlucent inner shell, a clear/silver cable, and a small set of tips in a tiny shipping box. I received both the CRN and the ZEX Pro versions and can confidently say they are exactly the same unit with measurements to back it up here:
The ZEX Pro/CRN has a warm-ish tuning, with a sub-bass emphasis, and a generally tame mid-range and low treble. There’s a tad bit of excess sparkle in the treble range, and overall it lacks upper treble extension, which is not uncommon for something in this price range. Tuning is not really the problem with this IEM, as it’s done mostly well, and the expertise of Crinacle really shows, as this is one of the more balanced KZ releases I’ve tried.
But just because it’s got Crinacle’s name on it, does not mean it lacks flaws. I’ve never shied away from talking about my personal preferences and pros and cons of any IEMs and Crinacle’s line-up in the past has had their fair takes as well. The Fearless Dawn was well-tuned, but really lacked any sense of dynamics, soundstage, imaging, and general technical performance for the price it commanded, and the Blessing 2 Dusk had the same fit and discomfort issues of the large Moondrop Blessing 2 standard shell that I really disliked.
The ZEX Pro/CRN’s biggest flaw, in my opinion, is that it tries to be a bass-driven IEM, but I feel it falters here. It doesn’t hit hard enough, and it’s bass range is quite soft and rounded. It lacks a dynamic flair that makes me feel the bass, whether you’re talking about slam, punch, or rumble. It just feels tamed down and lacking resolution. Of course, on the resolution front, this is $38 so I can’t have too much heartache over that.
When I compared it to the newest CCA CRA, which was also sent to me along with the ZEX Pro, I immediately felt the bass performance of the CRA was quite a bit better than the ZEX Pro, and at half the price. So part of my judgement is directly tied to its cheaper sibling.
The other area I felt that the ZEX Pro/CRN didn’t hit home right was the mid-range. On paper (in this case, graph paper…), the mids are look fantastic in that FR graph above. It aligns directly with my preference target, but in reality, it sounds wonky. I didn’t feel strangeness when I listened to deep male vocal music such as country and rock singers, but my first impressions of the CRN were with a variety of female vocalists: namely, Alison Krauss, The Wailin’ Jennys, Kacey Musgraves, Jorja Smith, and Jenn Champion.
All of these vocalist had the same reproduced flaws on the CRN. Mainly, this was a compressed and grainy sound that also sounded a little disjointed, where at times they sounded quite forward and at other times, distant. I never could quite find a track where I felt the CRN really shined for vocals in general, but that was a tad disappointing. The mid-range just didn’t sound as I was expecting.
Now that said, the overall tonal balance of the CRN isn’t bad. It actually goes well with the instrumental piano jazz music that I listen to the most lately, and outside the lack of bass emphasis that I felt was strangely tame, I thought that ZEX Pro/CRN did well here. There was a good smoothness to this genre that didn’t have any shrilling highs or oddities. Unfortunately, drums do sound muted, dull, and lacking crispness due to the tailed-off treble, and this makes the overall staging a bit small.
I’m asking a lot here for $38, so I caveat it with that. It doesn’t beat it home as a killer above its price point, but, for its price point, it does quite well compared to its competition, and let’s explore that a little more.
While I already talked briefly about the CCA CRA in comparison here, I’ll have another set of impressions on that new IEM in a future article. I do want to quickly discuss a comparison to another equally priced IEM and previous king of this price range: The Blon BL-03.
The BL-03 had quite a hype around it that was fairly justified given its budget price, metal housing, and generally pleasant tonality. How does it stack up against this new KZ ZEX Pro/CRN?
Well, I find the CRN to out-perform it in a number of areas.
The BLON’s small shell and shallow fit cause a number of issues for me. First, I could never get it to feel secure in my ears, and because of that, it was easily losing seal. Secondly, the included cable is horrible in just about every way, making it not only a tangled mess to unwind, but also adding to the fit issues.
The ZEX Pro/CRN, on the other hand, has a more traditional shell and fits wonderfully despite the cable being almost as bad and easily tangled.
As far as tuning goes, the BL-03 has more bass emphasis and can seem like its quite bloated compared to the more balanced tonality of the ZEX Pro/CRN. The BL-03 also sounds a little more shrilly and shouty in the 1-3KHz range, and becomes quite a problem for me when listening to piano music, especially when keys are struck with might. Both have similar treble responses with missing upper-treble extension, though I feel like the overall mid-range to treble transition is better on the KZ.
In terms of technical performance, this probably goes to the KZ again. The BL-03 has an even mushier bass response that bleeds more into the mids, despite the mids of the ZEX Pro/CRN having the issues I stated above. The soundstage on both are small, and comparable, and imaging chops are just slightly better on the KZ, with also a slight advantage on resolution and clarity.
All in all, I think the KZ ZEX Pro/CRN is the winner of this battle, and can potentially be crowned the next budget king in this under $50 price category… perhaps, until I review the CCA CRA?!
The CRN is a good solid addition to the under $50 market and easily can be put in the top or near top of the bracket in terms of tuning and overall enjoyment. I do find it lacking in some technical areas with lacking a bit of soul and character, but that is can be dismissed partly due to its limited constraints and pricing.
Once upon a time there were three little IEMs named Barcelona, Provence, and Shangri-La. They had built their homes with materials found in their land: sets of dynamic drivers and various balanced armatures.
The first little IEM, Barcelona, was the smallest and youngest and he could only pick up 1 DD and 1 BA to build his shell with.
The middle-IEM, Provence, had a little more money and strength, and decided to build his shell out of 1 DD and 2 BAs.
The oldest and wisest IEM, Shangri-La, went all-out and built his shell out of 1 DD and a whopping 4 BAs! His shell was well guarded, but could it stop the big bad wolf from blowing his shell down with a poor review?
This article will take a look at Fearless Audio’s latest batch of IEM: The Barcelona ($118), the Provence ($138) and the Shangri-La ($228). I received all three of these together from Linsoul for review and I’ll be talking about all three together here. There’s a few reasons for that.
First, they are all the same brand and came out at the same time.
Secondly, they all look very similarly, including the same box, accessories, fit, styles, and even sound.
Thirdly, again, they all sound very similarly mediocre.
This is going to be an article of mostly complaints, so I’ll start with some thing good about them first. I think these three IEMs fit nicely in my ears and also look pleasant and are light weight. They aren’t the best built IEMs out there, but they at least look stylish and attractive.
The cable is nice to look at, but they are very thick, stiff, and generally very uncomfortable to use. It’s a silver color with heavy aluminum splitter and chin strap. The extra size and metal design gives it a premium feel and appearance, but I don’t find this very utilitarian in practice since my frustrations using it severely outweigh outwardly appearances.
The Fearless trio here all have a very similar V-shaped sound signature with variations on how they handle the lower treble region. They all have bass boosts, slightly recess mid-ranges that all generally sound the same.
The Barcelona sounds the darkest of the three with the most compression and bluntness of all. The Provence is the most balanced of the three with a smoother sound overall, and the Shangri-La presents the brightest sound, to the point where I find it obnoxious. This perhaps gives it more perceived clarity, and hence the title of the most expensive of the bunch, but I don’t really think it technically performs better than the other three.
In reality, all three of these perform very similarly outside their small tuning differences. I found them all to have similar faults that other Fearless IEMs I’ve tried have had, even at the highest tier, the Fearless Dawn. That is, these IEMs lack much in terms of staging and depth, and often sound very bland and sterile. Lifeless comes to mind at times. There’s a general sense of compressed dynamics as well, which makes Fearless IEMs actually very smooth and somewhat ethereal in a sense, but really lacking any soul.
That’s all present here, and I don’t think there is a significant difference between the lower priced Barcelona or the higher priced Shangri-La. They all have the same fundamental flaws, which is worsened by just a boring and overly generic sound signature.
Wow, didn’t expect to see the score of Monarch is so high. Would love to see the inclusion of Monarch mk2.
I just received th Monarch II and also another Monarch 1 set, so I’ll be adding them to the ranking soon. My first impressions of them are that they sound pretty good with certain music, but the upper mid-range does come in a little hot and can be a bit fatiguing much like the original Monarch does. It’s a very forward presentation, but still has good bass dynamics and punch. I haven’t had a lot of ear time on them since I’ve got them since I have a half dozen other IEMs in the queue right now, including two more Crinacle collabs.