Table of Contents
Who said good sound needed to be expensive?
Nobody thought it could happen. Nobody thought it would be made reality. A steadfast meme in the community, never taken seriously every time it was brought up.
And yet, here we are.
Now the final price barrier has been blown wide open: sub-$50. A product built in collaboration with one of the most famous budget IEM manufacturers proving that you don’t need to pay for tuning. One of the very rare few IEMs in its price bracket wherein one could truly describe as “balanced”.
Chifi enthusiasts, eat your heart out.
Like all the other previous Behind the Scenes posts on my collaborations, I’ll have to remind all readers that this article is not a review. More an informative #Ad, if you will.
Driver configuration: Magnetostatic + BA + DD hybrid
Q: What exactly is the CRN?
A: To simplify, the CRN (or as it was initially called, the ZEX Pro) is an attempt to bring my style of tuning to an even bigger audience by pushing prices down as low as possible.
Q: Does the ZEX Pro have the same tuning as the CRN?
A: Yes, internally the ZEX Pro is exactly the same as the CRN. The CRN rebrand is simply making it official.
Q: What’s the difference between the CRN and the ZEX Pro?
A: The CRN comes with the IEF logo printed at the top of the IEM shell, along with more collaboration-specific packaging. Per above, there isn’t (or shouldn’t be) any difference in sound.
Q: Where can I try a demo unit?
A: There are no exclusivity contracts for the CRN, so demo units should be available at your local KZ distributors/retailers if they choose to carry it.
Q: What would be your ranking of the CRN?
Q: Is the CRN KZ’s best IEM?
A: See answer above.
Q: Why wasn’t the ZEX Pro sold as the CRN from the start?
A: Well, uh…
The Social Experiment
One elephant in the room: the ZEX Pro is tuned radically different compared to KZ’s usual IEMs.
The average KZ fan would typically expect the standard KZ tuning with a new release, that is to say the usual deep V-shaped response that emphasises basslines and percussions. Whereas the kind of balanced, somewhat U-shaped tuning of the ZEX Pro is essentially a massive shakeup in terms of sound signature, and so the risk of the existing fanbase rejecting it would be considerably high.
Effectively, the ZEX Pro would be the proving ground for two big things:
- KZ doesn’t need the big V-shaped signature for their products to be received well
- Whether or not the ZEX Pro can stand on the merits of my tuning alone, without the “clout” of my name.
And so the ZEX Pro was released, then disguised as the average standalone KZ product, with review units sent out as well to basically test the waters of a largely unexplored market. And how was the reaction?
Early testers immediately caught on to the new tuning, and comments like “I can’t believe this is KZ” were fairly common. And once measurers like Paul Wasabi, Super* Review, and Bad Guy Good Audio Reviews started to publish their graphs, that’s when the hype train really took off.
And so with the “market test” being largely a success, there really wasn’t any point hiding anymore. Beyond the few-thousand ZEX Pros now already in the hands of happy owners, no more will be manufactured anymore in favour of the newer CRN rebrands.
Shouldn’t be too confusing, though. CRN is ZEX Pro, and ZEX Pro is CRN. Easy peasy.
The ZEXy Comparison
I’m sure that given the CRN’s original name, the evitable question surrounding its similarities (or lack thereof) with the ZEX would eventually crop up. So let’s just get that out of the way.
Simply put: the CRN is completely different. To the point where if you like one, the chances of you liking the other would be slim to none.
To an existing ZEX fan, the biggest difference would probably be in the overall bass/lower-mid response. Those who are used to the ZEX’s tonality would likely be thrown off by the CRN’s more neutral midrange, perhaps describing it as too “thin” or “sterile”.
Which admittedly, wouldn’t be too far from the truth given the ZEX as a reference point. The ZEX is far thicker sounding in comparison to the CRN, and far less coloured as well. Don’t think anyone would argue against that.
(Of course on the flipside, if you’re someone who’s used to my style of tuning (or IEF Neutral), the ZEX would then probably sound closer to my impressions of them.)
Then again, the ZEX and CRN are both pretty big deviations from KZ’s usual deep-V house sound so you wouldn’t be getting your standard KZ tuning either way.
And yes, speaking of tuning…
The CRN. Not to toot my own horn, but you’d have to admit that’s a beauty of a tune.
With how low the retail price is, the CRN is an exercise in specialisation. That is to say, a pure 100% focus in tuning above all else, and an attempt to being the price bracket leader in that regard. As I’ve mentioned in the past: you don’t have to pay for tuning. And I guess now it’s time for me to prove it.
Here we take a look at my own proprietary “IEF Neutral Target” (for IEMs):
Note that this is my neutral target, but most would know my thoughts on neutrality: it’s boring. At any case, according to my own experiences it takes quite a bit more bass boost in an IEM relative to headphones and speakers to get the same perceived bass response, so obviously the CRN will get some extra oomph in the low-end, much like all my previous collaborations.
And when it comes to bass, you all know I preach the word of “sub”. Concentrate the bass power from 150-200Hz down, and ensure that it will never ever bleed into the mids. The placement of the bass shelf is a fine balance in itself; too high and you get muddiness and warm colouration, but too low and you lose the sense of weight behind the bass.
Roughly 6dB emphasis is the sweet spot for the bass to be “safe” for most listeners I feel, as was the philosophy in tuning the Dusk. A bass emphasis that is fun, controlled, yet does not break the illusion of balance, and would ideally suit the tastes of more people than not. Neither for bassheads nor those craving a flat sound, but rather the people-pleaser middle ground.
But that’s just the bass, what about the rest of the spectrum?
The IEF Neutral Target is a lot more conservative in the pinna gain region (1-6kHz) compared to traditional Diffuse Field or even Harman. Just enough upper midrange for clarity, but not to the point of invoking shoutiness and glare like the aforementioned targets.
Again, the purpose behind the CRN’s tuning is to have things sound balanced with a small bass tilt, and so avoiding the typical pitfalls of the standard V-shaped tunings that plague cheaper sets.
One could say that the CRN is the taster for a more balanced tuning that is common in more expensive sets but rare to come by in budget IEMs. By all means, use it as a litmus test to see if you’re one who’d enjoy such a signature. If you don’t, you’ve successfully narrowed down your criteria anyways. And if you do…
Support me on Patreon to get access to tentative ranks, the exclusive “Clubhouse” Discord server and/or access to the Premium Graph Comparison Tool! With current efforts to measure more headphones, those in the exclusive Patreon Discord server get to see those measurements first before anybody else.
My usual thanks to all my current supporters and shoutouts to my big money boys: