When I reviewed the $100 a pair 1More in-ears for Home Theater Review I thought I had found the least expensive high-performance in ear that could be a "gateway" to better sound for "the masses." I was wrong. The 1More, despite its many virtues, is still too expensive to be an entry point to high-performance audio for your typical smartphone owner. But what about an earphone that cost only $15 and produced decent sound? Now THAT would be a true "gateway" offering. Until very recently such an earphone simply did not exist.
The idea of a $15 in-ear that sounded decent was a concept that in the past I would have discounted with a simple, "yeah, sure..." but then I came upon the Beteran KZ ATE KZ-ATE Dynamic Balanced Armature IEMS. I don't remember how I originally "discovered" these in-ears, but I bought a pair on a whim after reading their description and the feedback on Amazon. They arrived a few days later - landed cost $14.90 via Amazon Prime.
And what arrived exactly? The Beteran KZ ATE KZ-ATE Dynamic Balanced Armature IEMS came in a teardrop shaped grey plastic box which had the IEM's specifications listed on the back. Color - transparent black, plug type - 3.5mm, weight - 24 g, impedance - 18 ohms, frequency - 15 - 26,000Hz. The specifications don't list sensitivity, but the Amazon page does - 104 dB/1mw with a maximum recommended input of 10 mw.
Although the headline description in Amazon calls the Beteran KZ ATE KZ-ATE Dynamic Balanced Armature IEMS "balanced armature" when I examined the driver motor through the IEM's smoked black enclosure it appears to be a single, mid-sized, dynamic driver, not a sealed balanced driver motor. I could have taken the unit apart to make sure, but why trash a perfectly good pair of in-ears?
Other features include "MMCX standard" connections. This doesn't mean the cable is removable, but that the connection uses a standard hardware configuration for a permanent termination. The cable itself is constructed of a KEVLAR fiber material that has very low microphonic tendencies and should hold up to abuse well. This model does not have any smartphone controls, but there is another version available for slightly more that has controls.
The Beteran KZ ATE KZ-ATE Dynamic Balanced Armature IEMS comes with three sets of tips - two silicone and one foam. I tried them all and liked the foam best, but I found a third-party pair of silicone tips in my tips box that I preferred to any of the supplied tips. Using an around the ears cable arrangement I found the ATE KZ were as comfortable as the $1000 Astell & Kern AK T8ie.
And how do the Beteran KZ ATE KZ-ATE Dynamic Balanced Armature IEMS sound? They produce a good-sized soundstage with fairly precise imaging. The harmonic balance is on the dark side of neutral with a pronounced bass, smooth midrange and somewhat recessed treble. Their balance reminded me of the AudioQuest NightHawk headphones - a bit dark, but extremely musical. Since the KZ ATE use a single full-range driver they lack any kind of crossover so there were no audible phase issues in the crossover region because there is no crossover region.
I posted about the Beteran KZ ATE KZ-ATE on my personal Facebook page about a month ago. Quite a few of my FB friends took the plunge and on my recommendation bought a pair. Here are a some of the comments (in a few cases some names have been expurgated to protect the innocent) - "Bought 3 and am very pleased. At first listen there seemed to be a slight bump at the low end and a little HF sparkle but nothing crazy or distracting. They're terrific at creating space around each instrument and voice. Can't wait to listen more. They hammer my $59 XXXXr iems." This same writer wrote this follow-up, "one week later and I'm still impressed after listening to a wider range of music. They track dynamic range like a high end headphone so be careful with certain recordings...they'll lift you out of your seat."
Another FB friend wrote, "I like the way they isolate outside noise ... They sound great with all kinds of music especially jazz. Once I got them to fit right using the large supply tips they worked great. For the money you can't go wrong." And another, "Holy crap! I'm frankly stunned at how good these sound. Thanks for the heads up!"
One last quote from an industry friend who designs great loudspeakers, "So....I like them a lot. I do have a problem with getting them to fit comfortably. I don't like silicon tips, but the supplied foam tips are not so easy to keep in. When I get them fitted well, I love the sound. Good bass, very open midrange, and non aggressive sound."
After my own initial purchase I went back and bought a couple more pairs - one pair for the gym and the others as give away's. My local mail carrier always has a pair of earbuds on, so I'm reserving one pair as a holiday gift for him. I think I'll also put a pair in the holiday gift bags of some of my nieces and nephews. My goal is to banish earbuds from their consciousness.
And if you need or want a pair of "throwaway" in-ear monitors I suggest you try the Beteran KZ ATE KZ-ATE Dynamic Balanced Armature IEMS. You, too, will be very pleasantly surprised by how much earphone you can buy...for $15...