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Five Budget ($50 or less) IEM Roundup: Kiwi Cadenza, KZ ZS10 Pro, QKZ x HBB, Tin T2 DLC, and Truthear x Crinacle Zero
The most affordable way to experience a high-fidelity transducer in the 21st century is a quality budget IEM (in-ear monitor).
In the very recent past, the use of IEMs was almost wholly limited to touring musicians who needed to protect their ears while hearing themselves onstage. Today, there are more IEM companies than even the most dedicated audiophile can keep track of. They’re located all over the world — from the United States to Switzerland. But the Asian market, particularly China, has become the center of the IEM explosion of recent years. This explosion has been facilitated by a cottage industry of IEM measurements and reviews, with writers like Crinacle and Procogvision, among many others, using measurement rigs (from budget to megabuck) in combination graphing tools like Squiglink to create vast databases of IEM measurements.
Given my level of obsession with headphones and speakers, I’m a relative latecomer to IEMs. For many years, I associated consumer IEMs with the uncomfortable, mediocre-sounding earbuds that used to be included with iPods and wrote off professional IEMs, with their custom ear molds, as too much trouble for too little benefit.
Two things caused me to reevaluate this ignorant view. The first was the recommendations of audiophile friends who sang the praises of many recent universal (i.e. not custom-molded) IEMs. The second was the development of high-quality portable DAC/amps compatible with iOS devices. The latter factor was particularly significant for me, since I’m still more apt to fire up my speakers or reach for my headphones when I’m in my office-cum-listening room at home. However, I’d always wanted a practical way to listen to music in bed at a quality level that didn’t feel lacking.
Now, it’s my nightly ritual to spend an hour or more in bed listening to my music collection with Roon’s app on my iPad, a portable DAC/amp, and a pair of universal IEMs. As most audiophiles probably know, this new habit saw me quickly moving from entry level IEMs to three- and four-figure ones.
But, as noted above, the thing that makes IEMs so attractive is that, at almost any price level, the cost-to-performance ratio of a good IEM exceeds that of either headphones or speakers. Intuitively, this makes sense. IEMs are, after all, much smaller than other transducers, with lower material costs.
Naturally, my IEM conversation experience made me want to proselytize to friends and acquaintances (not to mention my father and wife), and that meant finding the best IEM for normal people — the kind who, unlike crazed audiophiles, would think twice before spending $100 (let alone $500 or $1,000) on a pair of IEMs. This review, then, is the product of trying to find audiophile-quality IEMs that I could convince people not enmeshed in audiophilia to order.
Based on my discussions, I found that $50 was a dollar amount that even most reluctant folks would be willing to drop on a whim. Through research and happenstance, I landed on five different $50-ish (or below) IEM contenders. These are just five out of hundreds of budget IEMs, but they were selected based on existing measurements and reviews, which suggested that none could be immediately written off as totally incompatible with accurate sonic reproduction.
After months of auditioning, I concluded that a few were worthy recommendations, while one of the five dazzled me so much that I think it’s not just the best sub-$50 IEMs out there, but one of the best sub-$250 (or more) IEMs I’ve ever heard.
In descending order of MSRP (though it’s worth noting that several are regularly on sale for less), the five IEMs under review are:
- TinHifi T2 DLC — $59 USD MSRP (Amazon, Linsoul, TinHifi)
- Truthear x Crinacle Zero — $49 USD MSRP (Amazon, AliExpress)
- KZ ZS10 Pro — $45 USD MSRP (Amazon, Linsoul, KZ Audio)
- Kiwi Cadenza — $35 USD MSRP (Amazon, Linsoul)
- QKZ x HBB — $20 USD MSRP (Amazon, Linsoul)
TinHifi T2 DLC Overview
Based in China’s Guangdong Province, TinHifi was launched by popular IEM-centric online retailer Linsoul in 2017 with the goal of “bring[ing] Hi-Fi sound and quality to a more accessible price point.” It’s hard to argue that Tin hasn’t been successful in gaining a foothold as a formidable budget brand.
The original T2 IEM received largely positive reviews and established itself as an easy recommendation for those looking for a good $50 IEM. In fact, the T2 was one of the first IEMs I purchased and, while it’s not without its flaws, it has been one of my go-to recommendations for IEM-curious friends.
The T2 DLC is billed as an upgraded version of the T2, featuring “a fourth generation DLC composite diaphragm and 10mm DLC flagship dynamic driver that has been enhanced and optimized…. Furthermore, Japanese imported CCAW ultra lightweight voice coil adds richer details and higher sensitivity.”
The DLC is spec’d at a 32-ohm impedance and 111 dB sensitivity.
Physically, the brushed aluminum T2 DLC looks classier and sturdier than its price point might suggest. However, the combination of its sharp edges, wide and lipped nozzle, and earbud-esque form factor make comfort one of the DLC’s weaknesses. That said, it’s certainly not an aggressively uncomfortable IEM, and the included foam tips are dense enough to cushion the nozzle. The connector for the DLC is of the common flush-mounted two-pin type, though with the added perk of obvious color coding.
Understandably given its MSRP, the DLC’s packaging and accessories are modest, though relatively noteworthy for this price point. While the DLC doesn’t come with a traditional case, the included faux leather-lined flip-top box is certainly good enough to serve as one in a pinch. The DLC’s eight-core silver, two-pin cable is the nicest of the five IEMs being reviewed by a wide margin. The T2 DLC also comes with a bevy of relatively unexciting silicone tips. However, it also includes Tin’s aforementioned light blue memory foam tips. These tips are part of what made me love the original T2, and I’ve ordered extra pairs to use with other IEMs. (In fact, the blue Tin foam tips were some of my favorites for use on the other IEMs reviewed here. But more on that later.) Like the DLC’s cable, these memory foam tips are the best tips included with any of the IEMs reviewed here.
Truthear x Crinacle Zero Overview
There’s not much information online about the heretofore unknown Truthear brand. However, well-known IEM mega-reviewer Crinacle has partnered with the company to create the Zero, a dual dynamic driver IEM.
Tuned to closely align with the Harman consumer preference-derived IEM frequency response curve, the Zero has been greeted with a largely positive reception. Indeed, some have been almost rapturous, with one popular reviewer hailing the Zero as one of the best IEMs money can buy and concluding, “Go and buy one of these! I don't care if you don't listen to IEMs normally. You want this IEM so you know what correct tonality is, when you listen with other transducers such as headphones and speakers. Think of it as the tuning fork that a musician uses! This IEM needs to be in your arsenal.”
The Zero’s impedance is spec’d at 10 ohms and its sensitivity at 117.5 dB.
Physically, the Zero’s shells are black resin with a swirling cosmic blue face. Both visually and tactilely, it’s a beautiful IEM. Like the T2 DLC, the Zero’s nozzle is relatively wide an includes a lip to keep tips from slipping off. However, I’d classify the Zero as a comfortable IEM thanks to its smooth edges and more traditional IEM shape. The Zero’s connectors are the recessed two-pin variety, which tend to provide more solid connections than their flush-mounted counterparts, though at the cost of plentiful aftermarket options.
The Zero comes in an anime-adorned box and includes a downright bizarre “sexy” anime standup. Inside the box are a solid array of accessories. The Zero includes a soft, button-snap carrying pouch, which unfortunately doesn’t offer much protection, but is better than nothing. Also included are six pairs of decent silicone tips and one pair of above-average foam tips. (Please Truthear, can we trade that anime standup for another set of foam tips or a better case?)
KZ ZS10 Pro Overview
KZ (short for Knowledge Zenith) is, according to the company’s site, “the brand name under which the Guangdong-based Shenzhen Yuan Ze Electronics Co. operates [and] was founded in 2008, making it a legacy brand by Chi-Fi standards. The founders are Keith Yue, a former Audio-Technica engineer, and Zen Li, a Western-trained classical musician.”
The ZS10 Pro features four balanced armature drivers and one dynamic driver. According to KZ, “Compared with the traditional unit dynamic headphones, KZ ZS10 PRO has more independent high-frequency unit combinations, independent mid and high-frequency unit combinations, and full-band powerful sound quality output.”
The ZS10 Pro’s impedance is spec’d at 30 ohms and its sensitivity at 111 dB.
Physically, the ZS10 Pro is a relatively stylish IEM for the price, especially if you like a slightly “modern industrial” vibe for your ear gear. The faceplate of the shell is aluminum or steel, depending on the specific model. The metal has three L-shaped groves cut into it, and the faceplate, grooves, or both can be had in various combinations of silver, black, gold, blue and pink. The rear of the shell is made of clear resin, which allows for a glimpse of the internals. The lipped metal nozzle is perforated in a vaguely showerhead-like pattern, while the connectors are the slot/socket two-pin style.
ZS10 Pro’s accessories are rather unimpressive, though not necessarily disappointing at this price point. The included plastic-coated wire cable feels relatively cheap, but it’s certainly not the worst cable I’ve seen. The three pairs of included tips are of the average-quality silicone variety. It doesn’t come with a case, and the package box is too flimsy to serve as one (but it least it doesn’t have any erotic anime on it).
Kiwi Cadenza Overview
Kiwi Ears is a new entrant into the Chinese IEM market. “With musicians and studio engineers particularly in mind, we [at Kiwi Ears] are on an uncompromising quest to produce the finest professional In-Ear Monitors that will reveal every nuance in your music and performance,” reads the company’s description on Linsoul’s site. “Never settling for mediocre, our small team of dedicated engineers handcrafts each unit so that you can worry less about what’s in your ears and focus more on the sounds you are making.”
The $35 Cadenza is only the second offering from Kiwi. It boasts a single 10mm beryllium dynamic driver. According to the company, “The Cadenza has been acoustically tuned to produce a balanced sound signature characteristic of modern audiophile standards. This was achieved through a custom designed housing structure which was 3D printed to fit the 10mm Beryllium driver. The bass has been adjusted to retain the defining character of beryllium drivers, with resounding impact force and attack speed.” Like the Truthear Zero, the Cadenza as billed as adhering to the Harman preference curve, at least in part. “[W]ith a quicker bass decay, the mids are able to remain natural and free of muddyness or bloat,” the company continues. “The mids sound rich and lush, and incredibly detailed, thanks to the speed of the beryllium driver. The treble response reflects a Harman-reference standard style, with a natural curvature that sounds natural and free of fatigue, but still full of micro-details and full of air.”
The Cadenza’s impedance is spec’d at 32 ohms and its sensitivity at 110 dB.
Physically, the Kiwi Ears is pleasant but unassuming. Its molded resin shell is smooth and comfortable. Its faceplate features sparkling swirls available in four colors: purple, blue, red, and green. The nozzle is relatively wide with a hefty lip to hold onto tips and terminates in a mesh screen. (Interestingly, some promotional photos show the Cadenza with a metal nozzle, while other show a one-piece body with a resin nozzle. Both Cadenzas I purchased have the latter, and based on user photos online, that seems to be the reality for the production models.) The Cadenza’s connectors are of the flush-mounted two-pin variety, which makes for easy aftermarket matching.
The Cadenza’s accessories are sparse, but above average for the price. The included plastic-coated twisted wire cable is smoother, less microphonic, and generally more expensive feeling than the one included with the ZS10 Pro. In fact, I’d say it’s slightly better than the one included with the Truthear Zero and falls only a bit behind the T2 DLC’s cable. The Cadenza comes with a bevy of silicone tips, but they’re of low quality and have openings that are too small to slip easily over the Cadenza’s nozzle. In other words, aftermarket tips are almost a must. No case is included, but the packaging box is relatively solid and could serve as a cheap case in a pinch. (More later on my solutions for both tips and case.)
QKZ x HBB Overview
QKZ is a Chinese IEM company based in the Bao’an District, and it also has offices in Madrid, Spain. According to the company’s site, QKZ stands for “Quality Know[n] for Zero Defect,” and it focuses on the budget IEM market, specifically.
The HBB model takes its name from popular reviewer Hawaiian Bad Boy, who collaborated with QKZ on the design. Like the Cadenza, the HBB uses a single 10mm dynamic driver. In the case of the HBB, thought, it’s titanium-coated, rather than beryllium. It’s is billed as providing “detailed, accurate sound that is different from any other product in the market.”
The HBB’s impedance is spec’d at 22 ohms and its sensitivity at 115 dB.
Physically, the HBB features a resin shell with an aluminum faceplate displaying the company’s logo and some marble-ish styling. While it’s certainly the most generic looking of the bunch, it isn’t terrible for the price. The gold-colored metal nozzle has a ridged lip and is terminated in a mesh screen. The HBB’s connectors are the same slot/socket two-pin style used on the ZS10 pro.
The less said about the HBB’s accessories, the better. (Though it’s not as if a buyer should expect much with a $20 IEM.) The HBB comes with a stiff and somewhat rough plastic cable, a few pairs of floppy silicone tips, and a flimsy box.
Measurements of all of these IEMs can be found elsewhere, and potential buyers are always encouraged to consult multiple data points rather than trusting any one measurement. However, I wanted to present my own comparative measurements of all of the IEMs under review.
These measurements were taken with my MiniDSP EARS fixture. I calibrated my EARS with an IEM-adjusted version of Marv from SBAF’s compensation curve, where a perceptually flat frequency response is represented by a flat line. It’s also worth noting that because the EARS don’t have a properly modeled ear canal, doing IEM measurements with it can be tricky. My strategy was to try to get a consistent insertion depth across all of the IEMs and to take repeated measurements until the results were repeatable and presented each IEM in the most favorable light.
With that said, here are the results:
This graph above aligns all of the IEMs at 500 Hz, which is the usual standard. However, I don’t think that always represents the subjective listening experience, especially when — as is the case with this group of IEMs — there’s substantial tuning variation above and below.
If one instead wonders how these IEMs would sound were the listener to try to achieve a given bass response at 100 Hz, the spread would instead look like the below:
How about an upper midrange target, like 1 kHz?
It’s difficult to say which of the above is the “right” way to display these headphones.
I tend to try to get a sufficient amount of bass when first putting in an IEM. However, if the IEM is bright-leaning, I might reach a level of upper mids or lower treble that’s simply too grating for me to continue raising the volume.
Of the graphs above, the graph normalized to 100 Hz probably comes closest to my subjective experience of each IEM. But I’d say the graph below, which is normalized to 200 Hz, might come even closer to what I heard in these IEMs:
Simply put, when there’s substantial variation in the frequency responses of the IEMs under consideration, even level matching — something that’s essential for accurate comparative listening — becomes difficult. Level-matching using a 500 Hz tone versus a 1 kHz tone, for example, would produce different results.
That’s why pink noise tends to be the best method of level-matching for comparing equipment. Using pink noise, I made the Kiwi Cadenza my baseline IEM (at the EARS’ recommended 84 dB), then measured the other IEMs’ deviations:
- 82 dB — Truthear x Crinacle Zero
- 84 dB — Kiwi Cadenza
- 85 dB — TinHifi T2 DLC
- 89 dB — QKZ x HBB
- 91 dB — KZ ZS10 Pro
This provides a good sense of how sensitive each IEM is, and also provided me with the information I needed to properly level-match the IEMs when auditioning them. In practice, though, I sometimes found myself wanting to turn up or down certain IEMs based on their frequency response.
I listened to these five IEMs off-and-on for over a month using a variety of sources. Critical evaluations were done with my Benchmark HPA4, which allows for precise volume adjustment. However, since most of my IEM listening takes place away from the HPA4, I also listened to each with the Chord Mojo2 and iFi Go Bar (both of which will be reviewed separately).
Given the uneven quality of the tips included with each IEM, I used tips that subjectively presented each IEM in the best light. For foam, my favorite tips are the Comply T-series. For silicone, my favorite are Spinfit W1. Given that those two options are almost as expensive as the cheapest IEM under review here, I also used the more budget-friendly Tin foam tips mentioned above, and they’re a good choice for all of the IEMs under review.
While I normally describe differences across several tracks, the large number of IEMs under consideration here makes that somewhat unwieldy. Instead, I want to focus on one representative track, then provide some general thoughts.
The track I selected is “America” from the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab's CD of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends. Produced and engineered by the legendary Roy Halee, “America” is a complex production, with low lows, high highs, and wide dynamic swings. A good transducer should be able to separate the mix’s interwoven elements — such as the duo’s layered harmonies — without making the dramatic percussion too boomy or Simon’s somewhat sibilant vocals too harsh. The MFSL mastering of Bookends dates from the company’s GAIN system era, as described in my TBVO on Muddy Waters’s Folk Singer, and is perhaps the best digital version of “America.”
Let’s take these IEMs in order of sensitivity, starting with the lauded Truthear x Crinacle Zero. Regardless of source, I encountered little hiss with the Zero, which is perhaps to be expected given their relatively low sensitivity. Sonically, the first thing that struck me about the Zero’s presentation of “America” was extreme, grating sibilance on Simon’s voice far beyond what I’d encountered even with relatively bright transducers like the Focal Utopia. The “Kathy I’m lost” line, for example, was almost painful. This exaggerated treble extended to other elements in the mix, such as the cymbals, which sounded far too sharp. My urge was always to turn down the volume when listening to the Zero, even if I was listening at the level that pink noise suggested was necessary to equal the other IEMs in consideration. This, in part, is why I feel that the graph normalized to 200 Hz might best reflect my subjective evaluation of the IEMs, since it shows the Zero with much more energy across the upper midrange and lower treble than any of the other IEMs. The Zero’s bass was authoritative, though it felt a little sluggish. The fared better in terms of technicalities like soundstage, separation, and laying. However, it was hard to appreciate those strengths given the Zero’s strange tuning.
Turning to the Kiwi Cadenza, things improved dramatically. Like the Zero, the Cadenza exhibited no hiss regardless of source, but required sufficient power to sound its best. Beyond that, the two shared little in common. The Cadenza’s tonal balance sounds closest to neutral of all the IEMs under consideration. Simon’s vocals still had perhaps a little too much sibilance compared to neutral headphones like the Sennheiser HD6XX or speakers like the KEF Reference 1. However, the Cadenza’s deviation from neutrality in this area is nitpicking, in that it’s not far off from the presentation of the aforementioned Utopia. The Cadenza’s bass is authoritative and nimble, with none of the Zero’s tubby lethargy. I could discern every inflection in Joe Osborn’s churning bassline during the complex buildup to the chorus in “America.” This fact hints at what really impressed me about the Cadenza: its technical performance. It projects a wide soundstage with good depth and does a superb job of allowing the listener to pick apart the various components of the mix, even during busy passages. Through the Cadenza, I could hear the individual vocal overdubs in the hummed intro and separate Simon’s voice from Garfunkel’s in the verses. Instead of blending together in a mass, the strings, background vocals, and cymbal crashes, during the chorus were all easily discernable.
Next up is the TinHifi T2 DLC. It, too, exhibited no hiss. However, it seemed much harder to drive than its specs suggest. In part, this might have to do with its tonal balance. In contrast to the Zero, where I found myself reaching to turn the level-matched volume down, I wanted to turn the volume up on the T2 DLC. That may be because it’s the most subdued listen of the bunch. Simon’s lead vocal exhibited a fair amount of sibilance through the DLC. However, I felt that many small details in the treble were missing. The shaker in the right channel, for example, seemed fuzzy compared to the Cadenza’s crisp, natural rendering. At the other end of the spectrum, I felt that the bass was lacking relative to the amount of treble the DLC put out. Hal Blaine’s floor tom hits didn’t have much thunder, and Osborn’s bass sounds a little thin. Both the lack of bass and paucity of apparent detail made me want to raise the volume level beyond what my level matching told me was equivalent to the other IEMs. In term of soundstage, the DLC projected a relatively flat field, which made it harder to separate the nuances of Halee’s mix. Overall, the DLC’s weaknesses aren’t catastrophic. It just lacks the tonal balance and technical acuity of the Cadenza.
Throwing the QKZ x HBB into the mix provided an interesting comparison with the T2 DLC. Both the QKZ x HBB’s weaknesses and strengths are very different from the DLC’s. On the plus side, the HBB is incredible easy to drive. Despite this, it doesn’t exhibit much hiss, which can be an issue when using the Mojo2 with sensitive IEMs. Immediately, I was struck by the QKZ x HBB’s odd tuning. It has far too much bass for my tastes, and that bass is somewhat amorphous and flabby. When combined with its relatively low level of energy in the midrange and lower treble, the HBB clearly tilts to warm side of things. However, the real issue is that the treble sounds even more uneven than the measurements suggest. Taken together, the HBB’s tuning provides Blaine’s floor tom with plenty of thump, while rendering his snare both boxy and lacking snap. That said, my sense is that the HBB is a more technically able IEM than the DLC. It separates the elements of the mix much better than the Tin does, despite the HBB’s uneven frequency response. Likewise, the aforementioned shaker in the right channel regains the realism that it lost through the DLC.
The final entrant into this budget IEM showdown is the KZ ZS10 Pro. By far the easiest to drive of the bunch, the ZS10 Pro reveals a bit of hiss through the Mojo2, but not enough to make something like iFi’s IEMatch a necessity. The tonal balance of the ZS10 Pro leans towards a “fun” V-shape, with more emphasis on the bass and treble than on the midrange. This isn’t my preferred tuning, and a few of the telltale traits of a “scooped” or “hollow” frequency response were apparent. For example, acoustic guitars tended to lack a little body and vocals tends to focus on the mouth at the expense of the chest. However, the ZS10 Pro pulls off the somewhat antiseptic hi-fi tuning fairly tastefully, especially for the price. In part this is because the ZS10 Pro’s treble is surprisingly smooth — perhaps the smoothest of the bunch. So, while I did hear more sibilance on Simon’s vocal than I considered to be neutral, it seemed to be subjectively less grating than on some of the other IEMs under review. Likewise, the ZS10 Pro resolved the fine details of the mix well. It’s not as strong on this count as the superb Cadenza — in part because of the ZS10 Pro’s relatively flat soundstage — but it may be the second-best IEM of those under review on a technical level.
Where does this leave us?
There’s no question that the Kiwi Cadenza is the star of this review. If anything, that’s a gross understatement. At a minimum, the Cadenza goes toe-to-toe with critically lauded IEMs in the $200 to $250 range, such as the Moondrop Kato and the 7Hz Timeless. In fact, I’m not so sure that I clearly prefer either the Kato or the Timeless to Cadenza. The Kato’s tuning is very close to the Cadenza’s, but I’m not sure that it resolves much better than the Cadenza. The Timeless definitely resolves better the Cadenza, but its tuning isn’t quite as good. Factoring in accessories, the Timeless’s cable is the best of the bunch, and both the Kato and the Timeless come with a case and decent tips. However, one can easily compliment the $35 Cadenza with Tin’s $9 memory foam tips and a basic $8 Risetech IEM case (whose color, incidentally, can be matched to the Cadenza’s). For $55, that’s a package that competes with IEM’s four times the price.
Among the other IEMs, the KZ ZS10 Pro is worth highlighting. Its high sensitivity makes it a great choice for less powerful sources, such as the jacks on laptops and smartphones. It also has the second-best balance of tuning and technicalities after the Cadenza.
Beyond the Cadenza and KZ ZS10 Pro, it’s tough to rank the other entrants. All have their pros and cons. If pressed, I’d probably rank the QKZ x HBB third. Its tuning is far from perfect, but it’s not terrible. Moreover, it has above-average technicalities, especially for $20. That leaves the two most expensive IEMs in this collection — the TinHifi T2 DLC and the Truthear x Crinacle Zero — at the bottom of the pile.
All told, the Cadenza is now my go-to budget IEM recommendation. I’ve already bought a couple of pairs of the Cadenza (with matching-color Risetech cases for myself). However, I always listen to my IEMs with an external DAC/amp. For those who use lower-power sources, the KZ ZS10 Pro is an excellent choice, even if it can’t compete with the Cadenza’s sound quality. After all, for $35, what can?
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.
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