The Ultra Cheap IEM Thread

Ziigaat Nuo


TLDR version on YouTube: TDLR - Ziigaat Nuo

The Ziigaat Nuo have been sent to me by Linsoul for me to try out and share my opinions in this review. No special requests have been made and, as always, I will do my best to be as unbiased as possible.

You can find a link to the Ziigaat Nuo via Linsoul by visiting the version of this review published on my blog. As always, it is a non-affiliate link.

To avoid being repetetive in my reviews, you can find all the info about how I create the reviews, equipment used, how I receive the products and how to interpret my reviews by visiting: About my reviews


Intro…

Anyone who follows the budget segment of IEMs will have noticed that suddenly Ziigaat is appearing in a lot of posts and conversations. While the brand name may be new, they have actually been around for quite a while, producing IEMs for other brands that are more commonly known in the IEM world.

Recently they brought out a few models under their own brand name and have made quite some noise on the scene, in a good way. As always, it is possible that a lot of the excitement is part of the FOTM but, even so, it can’t be denied that they have built themselves a good name in a very short time period.

The Nuo, which is the model I have here today, is a 10mm LCP dynamic driver that has been designed in house by them, showing that they are not just grabbing a driver and printing a shell for it. The Nuo is also priced at a very low 20€, which places it well inside what I consider the ultra-budget range (sub 50€).

So how does it fare against some of the other very capable sets at this price? Well, I guess that is what we are here to find out.


Presentation…

If you are looking for a beautiful and elegant presentation, well, this is not one of those cases. The outer sleeve of the box reminds be of a blank VHS from the 80s, which is not necessarily a bad thing, just that it is not going to win any prizes here.

The contents are ground breaking either, containing the IEMs, a simple black cable and 3 sets of simple black silicone tips. Even the included documentation, in other words the warranty card, is just a small piece of paper printed on both sides.

But none of this is a complaint! With a budget of 20€ (well, a lot less than that at cost price), I certainly don’t expect, or want, them to spend it on things that are not connected to the sound performance.


Build and aesthetics…

Moving on to the IEMs, there is nothing really flashy going on here either. Using simple black semi- translucid shells, with plain black face placetes that show the Ziigaat logo on one side and “ZiiPluse Series NUO” on the other, both in white, they are not offensive but do not look like the cost more than they do either.

The cable follows the same strategy, a simple rubber black twist that turns to single after the split, is fitted with metal connectors and hardware, along with a plastic chin slider. Again, nothing that stands out.

What I will say is that they are extremely light and they are also very comfortable in my ears. The included tips are nothing special but work well with the IEMs, lending to an overall “simple but works” set up.


Sound…

All tracks mentioned are clickable links that allow you to open the reference track in the streaming service of your choice (YouTube, Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify, etc.)

Now we get to the good part, the sound that these IEMs can give us for just 20€. The may have a bit of an emphasis on the higher ranges on occasions but in general they are pretty well balanced and stay very clean throughout the whole spectrum.

Here is the usual look at the graph of their frequency response in comparison to my usual preference as reference:


Starting off from the bottom, there is not a huge amount of rumble although the subbass is present. There is a lot of cleanliness in the lower ranges, subbass and midbass, which may give the sensation that there is less bass than there actually is, however, when tracks hit hard in those lower ranges, the NUO don’t hold back.

With my obligatory “Chameleon” test, there is no huge wall of subbass, yet you can still appreciate the notes that are hitting down low, they are just clean and articulate, and that runs into the midbass also.

Listening to “Long After You’re Gone”, there is body to the guitar, along with a sensation of punch when the body is tapped, yet it is clean. In fact, they remind me a lot of the 7Hz Zero (the originals) in the way that the low end is presented, just with a slight movement of focus from the subbass to the midbass.

There is no fatigue from the midbass, with the electric guitar of “Crazy” having that low end reverb which is easily appreciated yet not overpowering. The midbass and the mids in general are possibly the most impressive part about the NUO. Not due to quantity but quality in this price range.

The mids do not seem to be scooped out or miss anything at all, with male and female vocals sounding very articulate yet natural. The detail in these ranges is also very impressive for a set of 20€ IEMs, with things like the electronic bass of “No Sanctuary Here” sounding impressive and punchy but not taking away from the natural sound of actual bass guitars.

As we move through the upper mids, they again remind me a lot of the 7Hz Zero, a set that I really like the upper mid tuning of. Things are nice and upfront but not overly harsh, not taking away the spotlight from those lower ranges, presenting a nice balance to my ears.

As we move into the treble areas, here is where things are not quite how I would like them to be. There is a nice sensation of air and extension yet it is a little peaky, giving a bit of a synthetic touch to some tracks and overly emphasizing sibilance on other tracks such as “Hope Is A Dangerous Thing”.

Depending on the music of choice, this can lead to some fatigue. If the songs are already mixed towards the brighter side of things then the upper ranges can be overly ephasized and can lead to them becoming tiring over longer sessions.

As I said, detail is very respectable in the lower and mid ranges, with it being also pretty decent in the higher ranges also, just with the risk of coinciding with certain peaks that can give it a bit of a fake feel, again, depending on the music chosen.

I wouldn’t say that these have a very large soundstage yet they do manage to provide a sensation of space between layers with tracks like “Strange Fruit”. Here the vocals are very close together but don’t seem to be standing on one another, keeping a nice separation between those vocal layers.


Conclusion…

There really are some amazing sets of IEMs available in the ultra budget range and I think that the Ziigaat NUO certainly deserve to share a table with them. I can’t say that they are the best 20€ IEMs that I have ever heard but that is definitely down to personal preference and not due to clear performance issues between the sets.

The NUO give far more than anyone would have ever guessed possible from a set of 20€ IEMs not long ago, and even now, when there are multiple sets of great IEMs at this price point, they are still up there amongst the best.

I think some people may find them a little tiring if their music selection doesn’t do well with the focus towards the upper ranges, but again, that is going to be due to personal preference (in music and tuning) and not because the IEMs are not worthy of their price point.

There is a reason why Ziigaat is getting a lot of mention lately and the NUO are another part of that reason.


As always, this review is also available in Spanish, both on my blog (www.achoreviews.com) and on YouTube (www.youtube.com/achoreviews)

All FR measurements of IEMs can be viewed and compared on achoreviews.squig.link

All isolation measurements of IEMs can be found on achoreviews.squig.link/isolation

7 Likes

How do we pronounce that name?

2 Likes

I had my attempt at it in the TLDR video :joy:

My guess is Zee-Gat but I really have no idea!

4 Likes

Kiwi Ears Forteza


TLDR version on YouTube: TDLR - Kiwi Ears Forteza

The Kiwi Ears Forteza have been sent to me by Linsoul in exchange for the publication of this review. Linsoul have not made any comments or requests and I will do my usual best to be as unbiased as possible in this review.

You can find a link to the Forteza via Linsoul by visiting the version of this review published on my blog.

As always, it is a non-affiliate link.

To avoid being repetitive in my reviews, you can find all the info about how I create the reviews, equipment used, how I receive the products and how to interpret my reviews by visiting: About my reviews


Intro…

It’s no secret that I am a big fan of some of the Kiwi Ears models. The 2023 Acho Awards resulted in both the Cadenza and the Quintet being my top pick for the Sub 50€ and the Sub 500€ respectively. I also reviewed the Quartet and the Orchestra Lite last year and, while they may not have been amongst my top picks, they are still decent IEMs.

The Forteza is a new release from the brand, coming in just outside the ultra budget category at a little over 50€, that feature a dual dynamic drive paired with a single balanced armature driver. These are distributed, according to the spec, as using a DD for the bass, the other DD for the mids and the BA for the “high-mid”, which I am guessing refers to upper mids and treble.

The tuning of the Forteza is quite a bit different from previous models I have reviewed but I’ll get to that in just a moment, let’s first take a look at the overall package.


Presentation…

One look at the box identifies this as a Kiwi Ears product without a doubt. All of their boxes are very similar and in the case of the Forteza, it is even more similar than others. I say this because, to my amusement, one side of the Forteza outer sleeve claims it is a Kiwi Ears Quintet :grinning: Obviously when redesigning the packaging, someone forgot to update the model name on that side.

Removing the outer sleeve reveals the usual black box with the silver Kiwi logo, inside of which we find the IEMs on the top layer and a storage case below containing the accessories.

The accessories are the case (of course), the cable, 9x sets of tips in three different types and the usual user manual. These are exactly the same contents as we got with the Orchestra Lite (although that included a little tool for changing the dip switches) and the Quartet (although the cable was different in the Quartet), so I really don’t think we can complain about the same contents at a quarter of the price point.


Build and Aesthetics…

I have to say that Kiwi make some very nice resin shells. The Quintet had a simpler aluminum faceplate but the other models have all feature a kind of swirled finish that I really am a fan of. Here, instead of the swirled design, they have opted for a two tone sparkle design that I am also very fond of. The version I have received is what the refer to as “purple”, yet I think it was designed for FC Barcelona fans as I would call it “blau-grana” (the colours of the team). While I am not one for sparkly attention seeking finished, I have to say that I do like it, it seems to be tastefully done and, while sparkly, doesn’t really demand attention.

The build and shape of the IEMs matches those of other models yet maybe the lightest of them all (I should really put them on a scale before saying that, but that’s the impression I get from memory). This means I have no issue with the fit or comfort.

The included cable is the same as the one included with the Cadenza, which is not exactly a high end cable but it does its job and I cant really complain here either. The hardware is metal and the cable itself is a simple black, so there really isn’t much to say about it.


Sound…

All tracks mentioned are clickable links that allow you to open the reference track in the streaming service of your choice (YouTube, Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify, etc.)

As I said a moment ago, the tuning of the Forteza is different to that of other Kiwi models I have tried previously. Before getting into it, let’s take a look at the graph, with my preference target as a reference and with the Cadenza as a comparison:


Starting off with the subbass, there isn’t really much more than on the Cadenza, or the Quintet for that matter, however, there is a lot more focus on the lower notes. The subbass is quite prominent to say the least. With my usual test of “Chameleon”, the track starts out quite calmly, with just a few bass hits here and there, which makes you think, this is quite calm and collected. Then the first rumbling bars come in and you start thinking, hmmm, this is quite a lot of bass. Then more bass kicks in, then some more, and suddenly you have this wall of rumble that, if it was a subwoofer, would quickly empty any shelves in the room.

While the subbass doesn’t do a bad job of keeping the pace, it is noticeable that things aren’t quite as clean as they would be with less. There were actually parts of the track where the subbass became very fatiguing for me, which is not usually the case, I am usually fatigued by midbass and not subbass.

If we switch to “Crazy” which is actually my test for mdbass fatigue, the fatigue actually goes away. This is because the upper part of the midbass actually falls away and, as the reverb of this track is located in those ranges, things seem a lot cleaner.

Heading back to something a little more electronic, such as “Shot Me Down”, the bass comes across as much cleaner with more controlled bass hits, being quite impressive in this matter. Again, this is due to the focus of the lower ranges being moved towards the lowest of notes and with tracks that don’t have a lot of rumbling subbass, this can be quite beneficial.

Moving into the midrange, there is quite a noticeable dip in the center of the mids, following that slope down that starts halfway through the midbass region and doesn’t really come back until around 1kHz. This moves the focus both towards the subbass and also the higher ranges.

The upper mids a just a little too hot for my tastes, with a slight hint of harshness on female vocals, such as Daniella Andrade, but it is above this range where things get even spicier to my ears. There is a double peak, just below 3kHz and just above 4kHz which is not quite as painful as a peak in the 5kHz range for me but is still a little harsh to my ears.

Vocals, especially female vocals, can come across as rather thin and brittle, with a bit of nasal touch to them. Depending on the specific singer and, more importantly the actual word and tone, things can be a little brutal in these ranges.

As we move into the treble, things don’t get much better I’m afraid. While I have heard other Kiwi Ears sets that use BA for the treble, or even all BA for the full range, the Forteza seems to bring some of that metallic texture that reminds me of other BA implementations from other brands in the past. The treble can again be a little thin and harsh, with a sensation of air and detail that is overshadowed by that metallic texture and overall brittleness to the higher ranges.


Conclusion…

I’m afraid that the Forteza are not joining my list of great products from Kiwi. I do think that they are great looking but unfortunately the tuning is not something that I find enjoyable. As always, everyone has their own tastes and I am just one opinion but the overall presentation of sound from these headphones reminds me of things that were coming across my desk some years ago.

They are a very nice looking set of IEMs, with a very good price point, but I feel that they are not up to the usual standard of Kiwi IEMs as far as sound and performance goes, which is a shame, as it’s no secret that I am a fan of the brand.


As always, this review is also available in Spanish, both on my blog (www.achoreviews.com) and on YouTube (www.youtube.com/achoreviews)

All FR measurements of IEMs can be viewed and compared on achoreviews.squig.link

All isolation measurements of IEMs can be found on achoreviews.squig.link/isolation

7 Likes

I recently received a review unit of the new CCA Trio 3DD IEM. Currently testing, review coming soon.

4 Likes

Tipsy x EPZ Star and One


TLDR version on YouTube: TDLR - Tipsy x EPZ Star & One

Not long ago, I reviewed a couple of sets of IEMs by a brand called EPZ (the Q5 and G10). While I thought they were trying hard, I said that I just wasn’t a fan of the tuning, mainly due to the 5kHz peak.

Rather than getting upset and telling me my opinions are wrong (like some other brands have done in the past), their reply was “Thanks for your honest review. We have a new set, I think you will like these” and proceeded to ship them to me.

That is the only comment that EPZ have made about these IEMs, therefore, as always, I will attempt to be as unbiased as humanly possible in this review.

The IEMs, called the Star & One are actually a collaboration between EPZ and Tipsy, another brand that I have reviewed in the past, and can be found on the EPZ Aliexpress store here (to which I will leave a link in the version of this review published on my blog)

As with all links I publish, it is a non-affiliate link.

To avoid being repetitive in my reviews, you can find all the info about how I create the reviews, equipment used, how I receive the products and how to interpret my reviews by visiting: About my reviews


Intro…

I am not really sure who has done what with these IEMs. In other words, I don’t know who has been responsible for which part such as tuning, design etc. On the box is says manufactured by Shenzen Jiuzhou Electronics and issuing by both the same company and Tipsy. I actually gave up trying to decipher who mad what quite some time ago.

What I can say is that it sells (at the time of putting together this review) for just under 80€ on the official EPZ Aliexpress store, although the MSRP is shown as being 109.92€ on the same store. They feature a 10mm dynamic driver and are shown as having 64 Ohm impedance (at 1kHz) and a sensitivity of 112dBVrms. So they are a little higher in impedance than we usually find but as also pretty sensitive, meaning they don’t need too much power.

Other than that, I can’t really tell you much more about them as I really don’t know.


Presentation…

The packaging is a simple black box that shows most of the details in Chinese, although there are translations to English below. While it does say Tipsy x EPZ on the front (in very small text), the only mention of the model is amongst the specs on the back. I am guessing that the larger chinese text on the front is the model but I am just guessing here.

Removing the lid of the box reveals a card with more text in Chinese, with an english translation that reads “Star & One - Providing escort for live streaming”. Once again I think we are faced with a sentence that is probably much more relevant in its original language.

Underneath this card we find the IEMs, with the cable attached (although detachable) in a foam cutout. Under the foam, we get a small drawstring bag and a couple of extra sets of tips (3 sets in total).

That is not really a lot of content for a set of 80€ but, as always, I am more interested in what is put into the IEMs themselves.


Build and aesthetics…

The IEMs are a generically shaped set of resin IEMs, with a multicoloured pattern on the face plates. One side shows the EPZ logo in silver, with the other showing the Tipsy logo, also in silver. This generic shape and build means that they should work well for the majority of people as far as size, weight and comfort is concerned.

However, I did find that I had to opt for the small size of included and push them deep, tips due to the medium (my usual choice on this style of IEM) and large losing a seal too easily. Even with the smallest size, I found that if I moved my head too much I would lose bass quickly. This is obviously solved with other tips but I prefer to use included tips for reviews where possible.

The aesthetics are pleasant with the pattern being in rather subdued colours rather than bright and shouty ones. This leads to a set of IEMs that have a nice design up close, not too boring, but do not really stand out from a distance. Obviously this is going to be a personal thing but I don’t have any complains with the looks.

The cable is a thin whitish silver single core that is rather basic but does its job and doesn’t feel terrible. There is a bit of a rubbery finish to the outside coating but nothing that leads me to complain about it. The TRS connector is metal, as is the divider, while the 2 pin connectors are transparent. Note that these connectors are the type that are recessed into the connector, in other words, the connector sticks out from the IEM. This is not really an issue but is something to consider if you plan on changing the cable.


Sound…

All tracks mentioned are clickable links that allow you to open the reference track in the streaming service of your choice (YouTube, Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify, etc.)

As I mentioned in the intro, my issue with the previous 2x EPZ models I tried were the peaks at around 5kHz. Now, with the Star & One, it is true that the peak is no longer at 5kHz, it has moved down slightly, but only slightly.

In fact, the measurements of the 3 models are very similar in the upper midrange and lower treble, except for some slight variations in exactly where the rises and dips happen and to what extent.

As a picture is worth a thousand words, here is a graph of the Star & One in comparison to both of the previous models I reviewed and with my usual preference target also for reference:


As I just said, the overall shape of the measurements is very similar between all three, with some slight changes to where, and by how much, the presence curves change. However, a small change can make a big difference.

Starting off with the low ranges, we can see above that these are the set that has most presence in the bass areas. For me personally there was already enough present on the G10 but I know that I am a minority in this regard.

The important thing is more about quality than quantity. If we take my usual “Chameleon” test track and skip to the part where bass is layered upon bass upon bass, it stays remarkably decent. With an emphasis that is focused more towards the subbass than the midbass, this helps the sound from becoming overly bloated and while it is not the best subbass I have ever heard, it does a very good job of maintaining composure even with “Chameleon”.

The midbass, due to the roll off as it enters the mids, stays clean and clear, however, due to the 2.5kHz presence (which I will get to soon), it does make the Star & One feel like it is missing bass on tracks that do not have much presence in the sub 150Hz realm. This is the case with my usual fatigue test track, “Crazy”, where the midbass is actually a little to absent for my preferences, with the focus on the upper mids of Daniella’s voice.

This is a recuring theme with a lot of instrumental music that doesn’t have a lot of subbass and lower midbass, as it becomes a little thin in the low end and emphasizes the upper mids, making things a little harsh. As soon as we head back to something with more presence in the lower note, such as “Bury a Friend”, the balance is restored much better.

The midrange doesn’t actually dip any more than it did on the previous models I reviewed, however, as there is more presence in the lows and upper mids, it does make the V shaped recess in the mids a little more present. This can work well for certain electronic music but I find simpler tracks, or pop in general, comes across as overly focused on the upper mids.

The fact is that the upper mids, around the 2.5kHz mark, are overly boosted. Where we have a lot of subbass to counteract, then this is not quite as noticeable, however, as soon as we move into more vocal centric tracks, like a lot of the music I like to listen to, then things become rather harsh and thin. Even with “Crazy”, which I normally mention in relation to midbass (as I did in this review), can become rather overpowering in these ranges.

The excess at 2.5kHz is followed by another small peak around 4.5kHz and, while this does avoid the suffering I have with a specific 5kHz peak, it doesn’t help with that harshness that I just mentioned. This is mostly noticeable with female vocals, although brass instruments can also become overpowering, such as in “Diamonds On The Soles of her Shoes”.

The upper treble does extend but at the same time it is in the shadow of that upper midrange / lower treble, and while it is also a little peaky, it is not terrible when isolated, it just suffers from that build up in the regions below.


Conclusion…

I asked EPZ for a set of IEMs that avoided the 5kHz peak and to be fair, these do not have that specific 5kHz peak. However, what they do have is a very prominent V shape between the subbass and the upper mids, meaning that they are not something that fits with my personal musical preferences.

When listening to music with a decent amount of sub and lower midbass in the recording, then these come across as fairly decent IEMs, however, when swapping over to something more acoustical or vocal centric, then they sound like a completely different set.

If I had to pick one of the three models I have reviewed from the brand, based solely on sound, then I think I would opt for the Q5. Yes, it has that peak at 5kHz that I find irritating but I know that most people don’t suffer from this same exact issue. I feel that more people will suffer with the tuning of the Star & One than they would with the Q5, as I think the Q5 is more balanced overall.

If you are a fan of V shaped tuning and listen mostly to EDM or anything with a large subbass content, then these might be worth a try. If you are more into the instruments and vocals side of things, then I think that these may come across as too harsh from most people.


As always, this review is also available in Spanish, both on my blog (www.achoreviews.com) and on YouTube (www.youtube.com/achoreviews)

All FR measurements of IEMs can be viewed and compared on achoreviews.squig.link

All isolation measurements of IEMs can be found on achoreviews.squig.link/isolation

7 Likes

I’d like to see you review the TinHIFI T2 MK II sometime in the near future.

1 Like

That’s one that they haven’t sent me. I could borrow it but by the time I get around to trying it and reviewing it, they will probably be on MK4 :grin:

Yeah, they are releasing a lot of versions of it. First, the T2+, then the T2 EVO, T2 DLC, and now the T2 MK II. It was their biggest hit, so they are milking that cow for everything it’s worth.

CCA Trio
Kate, the social media representative from KZ, contacted inviting me to test the new Trio IEM from CCA.

CCA (Clear Concept Audio) is a sister company of KZ (Knowledge Zenith). The company produces parallel models to KZ as well as original designs. Among its most successful models are the CRA, C16, CKX and the new Rhapsody. The Trio is its latest design featuring three 8mm dynamic drivers and four tuning switches and retails for around $40.

The Trio comes in the familiar CCA/KZ small white box with a monochrome image of the IEMs on the front, the CCA logo at the top and the model name “CCA Trio” below, along with a description of the product in English and Chinese. The specifications and company information are printed on the rear of the box.

Sliding the box open reveals the IEMs in a plastic tray below which the accessories are stored below a cardboard flap.

The contents comprise:

● CCA Trio IEMs
● Silver plated 2-pin cable
● Three pairs of “Starline” tips (S, M, L)
● One pair foam tips (M) pre-fitted
● Tuning switch lever
● Documentation

The IEMs are very well made and have a similar build to the recent KZ Castor and Krila models with a metal faceplate and clear resin body allowing a view of the components within. The earpieces are fairly bulky with a good weight to them. The Trio’s glossy black faceplate is attractively contoured and bears the model name in a gold script font. There are three diagonal vents for the dynamic drivers and channel identification is provided on the top of the unit next to the clear plastic 2-pin sockets. The four tuning switches are mounted on the rear of the unit.

Internally, there are three 8mm dynamic drivers fitted in a 3D printed housing, separated by a three-way crossover network covering the sub-bass, bass and midrange/treble.

The supplied cable is a silver-plated copper type with a clear sheath, clear plastic QDC connectors and a 90° angled white plastic plug and is 1.2m long. Channel identification is provided but is a little difficult to read. The ear guides are rather stiff but do result in a secure and comfortable fit and the cable is less prone to tangling than previous CCA/KZ designs, although there is still no chin slider provided.

Tuning Switches
The tuning switches on the earpieces provide a variety of tuning options. Switch 1 increases bass by one level, switches 1 & 2 together increase bass by two levels. Switch 3 increases midrange and treble by one level and switches 3 & 4 together increase midrange and treble by two levels.

The principal source was an Xduoo X20 DAP. A Hidizs AP80 Pro X, a digital radio and a smartphone were also employed. The stock cable and medium Starline tips were used and a burn-in period of 100 hours was allowed to settle down the components. For the purpose of testing, all switches were set to “off”. Thus configured, a good fit, seal and isolation were obtained. Sensitivity was slightly lower than average with a somewhat higher volume level than normal needed for the best results.

Sound Quality
From the very beginning, the Trio displayed a natural timbre and a well-balanced tonality which adapted well to a variety of genres. No particular frequency range was overemphasised and the overall profile was on the warm side of neutral. There was a good sense of weight in the bass with fine resolution and texture whilst the midrange was open, spacious and natural. The treble was clean and nicely extended with no undue harshness and there was plenty of detail. Staging was expansive in all three dimensions with the height particularly noticeable. The overall impression was warm, inviting and musical.

Bass
The bass produced by the Trio was rich, full-bodied and weighty. There was good timbre and texture and excellent extension with a natural decay. Sub bass dug deep with a healthy rumble and mid bass provided a satisfying kick whilst speed and transient attack were on point.

“Dusk” by Franz Waxman is a piece from the score of the psychological thriller
“Night unto Night”. In the recording by the
Hollywood Bowl Orchestra under John Mauceri, a mysterious and spooky introduction leads into an impassioned part for strings with an emotive violin solo. After a brief quotation of the theme, a dynamic and powerful interlude follows featuring a large percussion section in which the bass drum features prominently. The Trio reproduced this impressively with an incisive initial strike and rebound of the skin while the natural decay merged seamlessly into the hall ambience. The piece ends with a romantic epilogue representing the victory of love over conflict in which the basses and cellos displayed a warm and rich tonality.

Jonn Serrie is an American synthesist best known for his space and planetarium music. “The flow of Time’s Arrow” appears on his album “Thousand Star”. Delicate high frequency effects and melodic synth patches introduce the track. A gently descending theme is supported by sub-bass tones and lush chordal accompaniment and the weight and depth produced by the Trio really set the scene for an imaginary space journey populated by twinkling electronic percussion and crystalline elements. The deep bass foundation possessed a rich, full texture which was perfect for this kind of material.

Midrange
Following on from the bass, the Trio’s midrange emerged from the low frequency region with just a touch of extra warmth which added an attractive bloom to cellos, bassoons and male vocals. The timbre throughout the range was natural and the upper mids were a touch brighter, giving instruments and female vocals some character and projection. There was plenty of detail on offer and little evidence of recession. Separation and layering were of a high standard and there was a good balance between the musical and technical.

“Reverie” is a track from Bruce Mitchell’s New Age album, “Earth Heal”. It is a romantic solo piano piece in the classical style and is beautifully recorded and performed. On the Trio, the timbre of the piano was very realistic with sustain and overtones authentically reproduced and crisp transients adding a little spice to the proceedings and helping to bring the performance to life. The contrast between the flowing melodic sections and the more dynamic and percussive passages was notable and the whole piece gelled together in a musically satisfying fashion.

Holst’s “Moorside Suite” for brass band was composed in 1928. In the recording by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band under Elgar Howarth, the Trio showed its capabilities with a natural timbre to all the instruments ranging from the smooth tones of the trombones and tuba to the more incisive sounds of the trumpets and cornets where there was a real bite and shimmer. The lively folk-inspired melodies were delivered with verve and excitement and the rhythmic qualities of the faster passages came over wonderfully well with the separation in the choral sections handled adeptly and the percussion in the final movement displaying good transient attack.

Treble
The treble flowed seamlessly from the upper midrange without too much “pinna gain”, resulting in a gentle transition. The tonality was clean and smooth with good extension and a natural timbre commensurate with a competent dynamic driver. Detail retrieval was above average and there was a good deal of subtlety in the presentation. Separation was also of a high standard with a similar level of resolution. The overall impression was musical but still possessing good technical ability.

Pachelbel’s “Canon in D major” is a much-recorded work but has rarely received such an elegant rendition as in the version by the Jean-Francois Paillard Orchestra on Erato. Taken at a slow tempo, it brings out the stateliness of the melody and allows the detail of the counterpoint to be appreciated. The tonality of the strings, the separation of the ensemble and the detail of the harpsichord continuo were all attractively portrayed by the Trio with a clean delivery and plenty of space between the instruments. The balance in the performance was nicely judged and the excellent resolution and extension in the treble brought out the harmonic qualities of the violins convincingly.

German multi-instrumentalist Georg Deuter has produced many albums in the New Age genre. His compilation album “Sands of Time” was released in 1991. From it, “Alchemy” features fast-paced intricate rhythms inspired by Eastern music. Bells, acoustic and electronic percussion combine to produce a hypnotic effect filled out with a subtly changing synthesiser accompaniment overlaid with woodwind and chanting. The Trio managed to present all this as a coherent whole while enabling the individual strands to be followed clearly. The delicacy and detail of the high frequency sounds were adeptly portrayed with sparkle and precision, remaining smooth and totally lacking in harshness while at the same time maintaining a musical quality.

Soundstage
The staging was one of the more impressive aspects of the Trio’s performance with a notable height and above average width and depth. Movement within the stage was clearly presented and both layering and separation were of a high standard. Crucially, the Trio reproduced the staging faithfully according to what was in each recording rather than exaggerating it.

“Leeward Sail” is a piece from the album “Dolphin Smiles” by Steve Kindler and Teja Bell. It begins with acoustic guitar high in the centre of the image accompanied by keyboards on the left and strings on the right. An impactful kick drum is added and then the melody is introduced by Teja Bell’s guitar and Steve Kindler’s violin playing simultaneously, producing a distinctive sound. The Trio reproduced this accurately, retaining the characteristics and the positioning of the two instruments while retaining the effect. Later the two soloists play separately in a kind of dialogue, which was very effective. The stage was filled in a notably three-dimensional fashion and the ambience of the recording studio was conveyed very realistically with excellent separation and layering.

Charles Dutoit’s series of recordings with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra on Decca is legendary and his version of Holst’s “Planets Suite” is a fine example. Throughout the piece, the atmosphere at St Eustache, Montreal was conveyed authentically and the locations of the various orchestral sections were accurately delineated. The front to back perspective was particularly well realised and the interplay of the woodwind and strings was in perfect balance. The varying timbres of the different instruments as they successively shared the melody were clearly differentiated and the impression of each soloist occupying their own space was another outstanding feature.

Comparisons
KZ Krila
The Krila is a recent design from the company and is a dual hybrid IEM employing a 10mm dynamic driver, the second generation Xun unit, and the latest iteration of the well-known 30095 balanced armature. Like the Trio it has four tuning switches. It is well made with a metal faceplate and resin body and has a similar cable to the Trio. The Krila was set with all switches off.

The Krila has a V-shaped profile. Its detail retrieval is crisp and immediate and different in timbre from the Trio, which is to be expected with a BA, rather than a dynamic driver, handling the high frequencies. It is technically competent and the treble is similarly extended but brighter, with a less natural timbre and sometimes a little overemphasised. The midrange is nicely contoured but has a more noticeable rise in the upper region compared to the Trio. In the bass, the Krila’s Xun driver is subtly different with good weight, rumble and impact, and is a touch tighter in its delivery. The Trio is warmer here and perhaps loses just a little bit in definition. Soundstage on both models is of a similar extent with the Krila’s brighter top end giving the impression of more detail and the Trio excelling in space and atmosphere and feeling more natural.

KZ Castor
The Castor employs two dynamic drivers in a stacked configuration. Bass duties are handled by a 10mm unit dealing with the frequency range up to 200 Hz while the midrange and upper frequencies are covered by an 8mm driver. It is very well made with an alloy faceplate and resin body. As with the Krila and Trio, all tuning switches were set to the off position.

The profile follows the Harman curve, a generally V-shaped frequency response, but the midrange is only slightly recessed. The treble is brighter than neutral and, like the Krila above, sometimes becomes rather emphasised. The Trio is more neutral with a smoother treble but with no loss of detail and is more extended than the Castor. The Castor’s bass is a little more coloured, with a small amount of bass bleed, which is absent in the Trio, possibly due to the separation of the two units dedicated to the bass. In the midrange, the two are fairly similar with nothing much to separate them, except for the upper region which has a touch more pinna gain making it somewhat brighter. Soundstaging in both models is broadly similar with the slight increase in brightness on the Castor flattening the perspective by a small degree.

KZ PR3
The new PR3 features an upgraded 13.2 mm Planar unit with a “Nano-level” silver plated membrane and electronic filter tuning. The cable is a silver plated OFC type with a 2-pin 0.75mm connector and a gold plated 90° angled 3.5mm plug.
The PR3 is a semi-open design with a clear resin body. The gunmetal coloured alloy faceplate has a grille of diagonal parallel strips, three gold hex bolts.

The PR3 has a well-balanced, neutral profile with a clean and precise bass, an expressive midrange possessing good timbre and an energetic, bright treble showing excellent detail and extension. The soundstage is spacious with good layering and separation making it easy to follow individual strands in the music. The volume needs to be set somewhat higher than normal, which is often the case with planar drivers.

Compared to the Trio, the PR3 has a cleaner and brighter quality with a quicker response and decay which gives it a slightly different timbre. It is superior in technicalities, especially in the treble which is very extended and detailed. The Trio is warmer in nature with a more natural timbre but lacks the immediacy of the PR3. Both have a generally neutral midrange but the Trio derives some warmth from its mid-bass whereas the PR3 with more of a sub-bass focus is cleaner in this region. The Trio has a stronger bass presence which is more satisfying but the PR3 has better speed in the low frequencies. The clean and open nature of the PR3 results in an impressive staging which is more precise than that of the Trio. The Trio is easier to drive with the PR3 needing substantially more power to give of its best. In many ways the Trio and PR3 are complementary, each having its considerable merits.

Conclusion
The more recent releases from CCA and KZ have shown a marked improvement in timbre compared to the older models. Gone is the deep V shaping with dominant bass, recessed mids and sometimes aggressive treble with the tuning now more inspired by the Harman curve. The Trio is a good example of that.

Building on a solid bass foundation with a natural timbre and decay, there is a largely neutral midrange which is smooth in character. The treble is clean, smooth and extended with a high level of detail and the soundstage is expansive. There is a satisfying musicality to the presentation. These impressions are based on the switches all in the “off” position and using them will result in different profiles. In general, they will make the final sound increasingly V shaped as they are engaged, thus providing a choice of tonalities.

Well made and comfortable to wear, the Trio ticks all the boxes and performs at a significantly higher level than would be expected at the price and I consider it to be the finest model from CCA I have heard. It is highly recommended.

Purchase link:






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Any comparisons to anything besides other KZ products, including more popular brands and models in this price range? Truthear? 7Hz? Ziiggat?

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Sorry, I do not have any of those brands.

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NiceHCK F1 Pro


TLDR version on YouTube: TDLR - NiceHCK F1 Pro

The F1 Pro have been sent to me directly from NiceHCK for me to try them out and share my opinions in this review. NiceHCK have not made any requests regarding the review and I will do my best, as usual, to be as unbiased as possible.

You can find the F1 Pro on the official NiceHCK store on AliExpress, to which I will leave a non-affiliate link on my blog.

You can also find them on Amazon and other online retailers.

To avoid being repetitive in my reviews, you can find all the info about how I create the reviews, equipment used, how I receive the products and how to interpret my reviews by visiting: About my reviews


Intro…

NiceHCK are by no means a new brand in the IEM world and although I have never actually reviewed any of their items on Acho Reviews, I have been using their cables for a long time. In fact, my first aftermarket cable purchase was from NiceHCK.

In the realm of their IEMs, I seem to remember trying out at least one of their models but I really can’t remember what model it was and I can find no reference to it in my notes or on Acho Reviews, so I guess I never spoke about it.

The F1 Pro is a set of planar IEMs that, I believe, was released either at the beginning of this year or the end of last, so it is quite a new model. They did have a model called the F1 (without the pro) previously, that was also a planar IEM but that one seems to be discontinued.

Anyhow, the F1 Pro uses a 14.2mm planar driver, stated as a new generation, with a 16 Ohm impedance and a sensitivity of 104dB. With a price of around 110€ on the official NiceHCK Aliexpress store, I have also seen it available on other sites for slightly less, just under 100€. This, in my opinion, places it just inside the sub 100€ category.

One thing I want to mention is that NiceHCK sent me two sets of IEMs, the F1 Pro and the DB2, along with an additional aftermarket cable, the Cyan Cable, which is also available to be purchased as a set together with the F1 Pro, adding around 50€ to the total price (in the case of 4.4 balanced, which is what I have received).

I will mention more on the cable in a second but just to note that I have focused this review on using the stock included cable, not the Cyan. I am someone who believes that the major factor for purchasing an aftermarket cable is aesthetics and comfort, as sound differences are only really a factor in certain extreme cases. As both aesthetics and comfort are personal preferences, that is something that is obviously going to be more dependent on what you prefer than what I prefer.


Presentation…

The F1 Pro arrive in a rather large blue box with orange text that states the brand, the model and not much more. On one side it does show that it is the 4.4 balanced version but that is the extent of the outer packaging. It is very simple and, in my opinion, the simplicity makes it fairly elegant, as far as a cardboard sleeve goes.

Removing the outer purple sleeve, it reveals a white box with the NiceHCK logo in blue and nothing else, keeping up with the simplicity here also.

Inside the main box, we find the IEMs sitting in white cutouts at the top, with a smaller white box below containing the accessories.

The included accessories are a branded semi rigid storage/transport case, of a decent size, the stock cable, a velcro cable tie and 12 sets of silicone tips, in 3 different styles and sizes. I have to say that I find the accessories to be more than adequate for a set of planar IEMs at his price and it is nice to see such a selection of tips included. I found that I opted for the transparent tips with the white core.


Build and aesthetics…

The IEMs have a teardrop shape to them, very similar in size and shape to the Tanchjim Ola, which makes them one of the smallest alternatives as far as planar IEMs go. The shells are completely made of metal, in a light blue aluminium to be exact, with just a small gold accent to them where the faceplate rises slightly to accommodate the connector.

There are no markings or logos on the faceplate, although the make and model are marked on the side with the same gold coloured letters, and I find them to be very pleasing aesthetically.

The shape is comfortable and, although they are not the lightest of IEMs due to the full metal construction, they are by no means heavy. I have worn them for many hours and not had any discomfort other than the usual sensation of having IEMs in my ears for long periods of time.

The included cable a white rubber coated double twist with metal hardware that works fine and is comfortable enough. The rubber coating is not my favourite texture but I really don’t have any complaints with the included cable.

The additional Cyan Cable that was included is a quadruple twist in a light blue colour, almost turquoise, which is much nicer to the touch than the included cable, due to it being fabric covered rather than rubber. It is thicker than the stock cable but not to the point of being overly bulky like some other cables that are more towards being a rope rather than an IEM cable. Personally I do like the Cyan Cable more than the stock cable but as far as functionality, there is nothing wrong with the included cable. Therefore, personal preferences will of course be the deciding factor here.


Sound…

All tracks mentioned are clickable links that allow you to open the reference track in the streaming service of your choice (YouTube, Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify, etc.)

I usually don’t include comparisons in my reviews, or very rarely at least, as I structure my reviews in a way that makes them easy to cross reference with other IEMs that I have reviewed, or at least that is my aim.

In this case, it is impossible for me to not mention what has been one of my favourite planar IEMs and most certainly the most used of my planar IEMs, the Letshuoer S12. I really enjoy the sound signature of the S12 and, while it isn’t perfect, it is something that I used daily for a very long time and I still grab it now.

Why am I mentioning the S12?

Well, it’s priced very similarly and is also on the smaller side of planar IEMs (although the F1 Pro is a little more compact). It is also made of metal but, most importantly, the sound signature of the F1 Pro is very similar to the S12, almost identical in fact, except for just a few minor tweaks.

Here is the graph of the NiceHCK F1 Pro in comparison to my usual preference target for reference:


And here is the F1 Pro in comparison to the Letshuoer S12:


Even to those who do not read measurements, or don’t care about them, can easily see that there is a lot of similarity between the two. I am not going to go into depth comparing them, I will just review the F1 Pro on its own merits but… Spoiler alert… I prefer the F1 Pro to my beloved S12.

So, on with the review and my usual starting point which is the subbass and “Chameleon”. Here we are greeted with what I find to be a very clean and well performing subbass. There is plenty of rumble to appreciate what this track is all about but it does not feel bloated or out of control. Many times the excessive subbass will mix with excessive midbass and start to feel overly loose, yet here the F1 Pro do a very respectable job of keeping things in their place.

Moving over to “Royals” by Lorde, the clarity of the subbass is even more noticeable, where the rumble is there but it allows that “grit” of the subbass in this track to show. The same can be said with “No Sanctuary Here”, where the subbass is impressive yet not overpowering, even when paired with a good amount of midbass.

Moving to the midbass and my “Crazy” fatigue test, things are nicely presented, giving me no sensation of fatigue nor bloat in the midbass or lower mids. Things are again very well controlled in the midbass and lower mids, avoiding any muddyness while still having plenty of body for the low end of guitars and male vocals etc.

The whole midrange is nicely balanced, without the low end masking any of the details an performance throughout this range, allowing vocals to have very natural presentation, along my my usual preferences in acoustic instruments.

As we climb into the upper mids, here is where my preference for the F1 Pro over the S12 is most apparent, with these ranges being slightly less forward than on the S12. There is still enough presence for vocals and upper ranged chords to have plenty of clarity and not get lost, yet they are just slightly less sharp then on the S12.

Beth’s voice in my usual harshness test, “Don’t You Worry Child”, still has it’s natural harshness to it but is never uncomfortable like it can be on so many other sets. On the S12 it wasn’t overly uncomfortable but it is much more pleasant (or less unpleasant) on the F1 Pro.

The brass instruments on “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” are not overpowering in the upper mids either, although there is a little bit of harshness as we enter the upper ranges. We can find some sibilance in Paul Simon’s voice on ocasions (although nowhere near as bad as on some other sets) and things like cymbals and high hats can have a bit too much brilliance to them.

This is due to the fact that there is a peak in the upper ranges that can can interact with certain sounds, such as the hi-hats in “Still D.R.E” and make them just a little too harsh.

For my usual sibilance tests, “Code Cool” does place the S’s and T’s of Patricia Barber a little over what I would consider neutral (maybe a +2 or +3 on my unscientific scale of -12 to +12). The same can be said about Lana Del Rey in the opening lines of “Hope is a Dangerous thing”.

Details on the F1 Pro are impressive throughout the whole range, with just that peak in the upper ranges sometimes coinciding with certain details and making them a little more “artificial” sounding. This is a shame because there are plenty of details already there, so this peak is not really adding anything, just detracting a little when it coincides.

As far as sound stage, they are fairly decent. I would place them slightly above average for IEMs, although I wouldn’t go as far as to say they are very wide. There is a nice sensation of rear left depth on that guitar in “La Luna” but there is not really a huge space from left to right in general.


Conclusion…

I have no doubt that these are my preferred planar IEMs under the 100€ mark. In fact, they are good planar IEMs regardless of price. They have managed to unseat the S12, stealing their place in the “quick grab” case, where they have been for almost 2 years. That says something about what I think of these IEMs.

In general, there is only really one thing that I can fault to not give them a perfect score for their price bracket and that is the peak in the upper ranges. It’s not always noticeable, depending on the track and music, but when it does appear, it is very noticeable.

This adds some sibilance and also give that slight harshness to the upper ranges of a sound presentation that is otherwise very very good.

In other words, are they perfect? No. But I can’t think of any planar IEMs (or IEMs in general) that are and certainly not in the 100€ range. These are a very good set of IEMs and are certainly worthy of the price they sit at.


As with all my reviews, this is also available in Spanish both on my blog (www.achoreviews.com) and on YouTube (www.youtube.com/achoreviews)

All FR measurements of IEMs can be viewed and compared on achoreviews.squig.link

All isolation measurements of IEMs can be found on achoreviews.squig.link/isolation

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