KZ ZEX Pro / Crinacle CRN Review

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 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:

Sound Impressions

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.

Battle with the BLON

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?!

Final Thoughts

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.


To find the KZ CRN, check out the links below!

KZ brand store:

5% Discount code: TIMZEXPRO 

View the product ratings on Antdroid's IEM Ranking List and/or Antdroid's Headphone Ranking List