I`ve always had a bit of a sweet spot for wooden iems. The JVC FX-800`s are one of my favourite sounding earphones of all time, and I regret selling them to this day. Shozy are no longer an obscure name in the audio landscape. Like Fiio and Dunu, they are a Chinese company that have proven time and again that every hit they create isn`t a fluke but a carefully designed piece of equipment. Following the hit Alien DAP and the very distinguished Cygnus earbud, the Zero is Shozy`s latest creation. It`s an in-ear earphone with a very modest RRP of $50 USD that claims game-changing performance. Do the Zero`s deliver? *Spoiler* They do!
I would like to thank Shozy very much for sending me a review unit in exchange for my honest opinion. I am not in any way affiliated with Shozy and will be as objective about the Zero as possible.
About Me – Some background, Gear of choice, Preferences and Biases
I generally prefer a slight v-shape to my sound, but still closer to neutral. I like a lot of detail and clarity, but can appreciate a smooth, laid back sound such as that on the X10`s. I prefer a more neutral midrange within a relatively tight tolerance, but I`m probably more forgiving of brightness over darkness. I`m not particularly treble sensitive and can tolerate large amounts without fatigue, though too much ruins the enjoyment. If I use a different eartip/pad/cover during the review I will note that and describe the sound changes.
Since these are a pre-production unit, all I received was a postal pouch containing the Zero`s and three pairs of tips. The retail units will have more finalized packaging of course, in addition to a semi-hard carry case like the Cygnus. Usually I would ask for more ear tips, but much like the PFE232, the stock tips contribute greatly to the tonality of the earphones.
The stock tips looked flimsy at first sight, but they are well cut and fit snugly. Medium fit me perfectly and their grippy texture formed a strong sealed.
Coming back to the tip dependency issue, I did try using the Zero`s with JVC Spiral Dots but both fit and sound were compromised. The sound became darker and a little more congested. Since the Zero is already on the darker side, I decided to use the stock tips during this review.
Stock large – medium – small with medium Spinfits underneath
The accessory set with the Zero is totally adequate and well-considered. Shozy could include a shirt clip to reduce microphonics, but they are easily come by on the internet (a pack of 30 cost me about $7).
I feel that wooden products aren`t well captured in photos, especially something as well finished as the Zero. The unique grain, texture and finish of every piece are something that can only be experienced in the hand, or in this instance, the ear. From online pictures, the Shozy Zero`s looked suspiciously similar to the Marley Smile Jamaica, a popular earphone, but not one I found particularly standout in either sound or aesthetic design.
In person, the Zero`s are much nicer, and certainly leagues above the Marleys. Whilst they aren`t as visually striking as the sculpted and chromed JVC FX range, they have an understated and clean design that still presents confidently.
The charming cherry wood housings are well-mated to an aluminium front face and nozzle making for a lightweight yet solid construction. The wood is well finished with a nice, dense grain that looks fantastic and feels great in the ear. It`s a classy and elegant dark brown, well complimented by the gloss black aluminium face. Although I have a pre-production unit, my Zero looks great with none of the issues mentioned by other reviewers. Both earpieces are the same colour and the grain is similar, but runs in different directions. The y-split and plug are the same colour as well. If the finish is this good on a pre-production, I wouldn`t expect anything less than perfection from the retail units shipping later this month. It`s nice to note that Shozy utilizes less than a fifth of the wood chosen in the housings of retail units.
The earbuds themselves are average in size, I doubt many will have troubles getting a good fit. They can be hard to position at first, but stay comfortably in place afterwards. The strain-reliefs are positioned quite far back for deeper insertion. I would have preferred a slightly angled nozzle though. Speaking of the nozzle, there is a small cutout in the nozzle for acoustic design, Shozy stressed that this was not a manufacturing error but a purposeful design choice. Not sure what impact it has on the sound but it doesn`t affect seal or isolation.
The housings are smooth with no sharp edges. They are thus quite comfortable, even after a few hours, forming no hot spots in my use. On account of their fully sealed design and light cable, the earphones don`t budge at all even when walking, stair climbing, etc, but jogging will dislodge them eventually. Luckily, whilst wearing them about, there is barely any wind noise on account of their smoothly sculpted design, they also don`t stick out from the ears too much, though I wouldn`t sleep with them.
Isolation is good, the earphones are sealed and have a modest insertion depth. It isolates slightly less than the smaller RE400 and a lot less than monitor style earphones but it`s enough for public transport and much better than anything vented or shallow fitting.
The cable does look quite interesting with a smoke sheathing that reveals the tri-colour channel and ground wires snaking underneath. It is of the typical rubbery variety, a bit tacky, but also very soft and tangle resistant on account of the internal braid of sorts. It`s of adequate thickness and the lightweight makes for long-term comfort and stability.
The cable is well relieved at the earpieces and plug but not at the y-split. These are the main areas of stress and the earphones seem well built; cable longevity should not be too much of an issue. Despite the traditional, cable-down fitment, microphonics aren`t too distracting. The cable doesn`t contact the face too often on account of distanced strain-reliefs and when the cable does contact something, the volume isn`t bad at all. They can be easily run over the ear for reduced microphonics and more stability, the cable has plenty of length and is supple enough to conform without too much issue.
One design element that is particularly nice is the wooden y-split and plug. Both are low profile and engraved with “Shozy” and “Zero” for identification. They are similarly well built, the jack is gold-plated and although it is off the straight variety, it is small enough not to cause any strain during pocket-use. The Zero`s could do with a chin-slider and the plug could also be textured. It might ruin the clean look but I found the plug difficult to remove at times.
Upon insertion, I did notice very prevalent driver flex. This produced slight crackle at times and I do worry about driver longevity. A very small vent would help tone down bass a bit, decrease driver flex and improve soundstage though it will compromise the seal which is already difficult at times and the isolation which is just enough when outdoors.
The Zero`s demonstrate that sometimes simplicity is key. They are maturely styled and ergonomically designed. On account of their smooth housings, the Zero`s are comfortable, stable and not too microphonic for a cable-down earphone. They could do with a remote, a chin slider and a right-angle or textured plug, but overall they are versatile and well designed. Honestly an amazing attempt for Shozy`s first earphone.
Shozy claims that the Zero`s “feature modern tech qualities while fusing the old analogue tuning into a simple and elegant design”. Regardless of some translation issues, I found this to be accurate on the most part; the Zero`s are quite analogue sounding, not distorted, not rolled off, but smooth, non-fatiguing and detailed, a very good combination. The Zero is a v-shaped earphone with a moderately boosted mid and upper bass response that avoids excessive bloom or bloat. The midrange isn`t overly warmed as a result and the upper midrange actually sounds quite clean. They are on the darker side of neutral but maintain decent balance nonetheless. Highs are well accentuated, not too thin or harsh but still energetic with plenty of air and extension. While far from neutral, they are superbly sculpted and far more balanced than any consumer earphone. The upper bass response might be too much for some, but the neutral sub-bass and moderate mid bass prevent boom and midrange spill. The Zero`s offer a much stronger audio performance than the cheaper Xiaomi Piston 3`s, the similarly priced Klipsch S4`s and the more expensive Shure se215`s, all highly regarded models in their respective price classes. The Zero`s are even comparable to the very best in the $100 price range and some well performing $200 earphones too. They compare well to the renowned Hifiman RE-400`s for example; whilst I doubt the Zero`s more sculpted signature will not be met with such universal praise, quality wise, the Zero`s are shockingly similar. The bassy sound signature may even be more accessible than Hifiman`s offerings. The same goes for earphones such as the Klipsch X10/11/12, which actually have quite a similar sound, the Zero, at half the price, offers similar and at times superior quality.
A prime reason for the Zero`s proficiency is its focus on soundstage, which is pretty standout in this price range. Usually earphones below $100 and plenty far above have a very intimate sound, but the Zero has impressive space, especially for a sealed in-ear. Although I don`t personally believe in burn-in, in this case there was no denying that it made a difference. I was lucky enough to have access to both a burnt-in pre-production sample and a brand new set, giving me the chance to compare the changes in sound with burn-in. To be honest, I liked the Zero`s as soon as I got them, I listened for a decent dozen hours or so then ran orchestral and classical through my Nano for another 100 hours as requested by Shozy. Swapping between the burnt-in Zero and the brand new one, there was an immediate difference. The burnt-in set had a lot more balance and clarity to the sound. In addition, the bass response was much tighter and far cleaner. The darkness had also cleared up a bit, but the earphones sounded clear to begin with. In addition, the more level mids resulted in less thickness to male vocals and female vocals lost that raspy, thin sound, perfect! The soundstage, however, was perhaps most improved. The new Zero`s had average width and good depth. Quite a strange presentation but it avoided congestion. After 150 hours (probably didn`t need this much), the earphones underwent a metamorphosis. The soundstage width grew remarkably and depth improved too. The soundstage is now more rounded and quite large in scale. Instruments are well separated, not to the extent of vented iems like the Dunu Titan 1, but it`s one of the stronger presentations under $200, maybe even the broadest sealed in-ear in this price range. Instrument placement was a bit off, the Zero tended to push sounds to the side more than directly in front, but overall it`s a coherent and easy to listen to sound.
The Zero have a decent 94dB (at 1kHz) sensitivity sensitivity and a low impedance of 32 ohms. Despite this, they get quite loud from mostly any portable source and I didn`t notice any output impedance issues unlike most BA earphones I test. The Zero also doesn`t pick up hiss easily which is a big plus when using them with my HTC M8. They sounded dynamic and clean from my Nano and M8 but had a better sound-staging and detail retrieval from my Fiio e17K. Portable use is very practical with the Zero.
The sub-bass extension is very good, better than the single armature Klipsch X10 and slightly superior to the RE-400 for instance, only slightly rolling off at the very lowest frequencies. The sub-bass response is actually slightly lifted from neutral, but still close to it. As such, it is tight and punchy, keeping up with the fastest of bass lines. The mid-bass hump is in between that of the W30 and X10, not overly done but granting the bass a nice full impression. The upper-bass is where most discerning listeners will have problems. The upper bass response has a bit too much emphasis and even bloom at times, but it is also what gives the Zero`s their analogue character. Even so, the Zero`s could do with a few dB less in this region, the Klipsch X10`s pursue a similar warm, analogue sound, but have a higher emphasis on mid-bass over upper-bass, producing a cleaner overall sound at the cost of bass bloat (which the Zero`s keep to a minimum).
So the bass response of the Zero`s is boosted for sure, granting them with a lot of slam, and given the quantity, remarkable punch and tightness to the sub-bass. The whole bass spectrum remains very textured, losing that last bit of detail only due to the upper bass bloom. With most genre`s of music, the bass response is very enjoyable, not boomy at all and avoiding too much midrange spillage.
Although the larger upper bass hump does warm the mids, they generally sound quite clean and clear. In fact the bass doesn`t overpower the midrange unless the song is poorly mastered. The mids are recessed but quite even without peaks. Despite this, the mids aren`t the smoothest I`ve heard, but are lathered with detail and clarity instead, somewhat raw like the Westone W30`s and JVC FX800`s. They are slightly dark but retrieve plenty of micro-detail, far more than the Klipsch X10`s and similar, if less aggressively, to the Hifiman RE400`s. I feel that dark can be seen as a negative term, that is definitely not the case, it is purely tonality. Another way of describing the sound of the Zero`s is natural, organic and analogue.
There is still plenty of upper midrange presence and the sound has a lot of clarity. Vocals are on the thinner side, but can hardly be considered thin overall. They never sound raspy of tinny and are well represented when combined with the large sense of space. In fact I would say that the Zero`s are more revealing and clear over warm and dark. The midrange performance of the Zero is fantastic for the price.
The highs are presented very well on the Zero`s, extended and slightly accentuated. They have good body and very impressive detail retrieval, light-years ahead of the Xiaomi Pistons 3`s, Klipsch S4`s and X10`s. There is sparkle and abundant air, cymbals sound textured, lively and realistic in tone. The RE400s have similar treble quality, but are more recessed so depending on preference you may prefer either. Like the VE Monk+ I recently reviewed, the slightly dark tone of the midrange gives the treble more isolation, sounding more separated and clear as a result. Whilst it isnt as infinitely resolving as my Sennheiser ie800`s, the treble performance is no doubt one of the strongest under $100.
Shozy released a somewhat joking post not too long ago stating how the Zero could rival earphones 10x it`s price. Whilst I didn`t find them to best my Westone W30`s, a standout in the $400 price range, I doubt anything around $100-200 will sound much better, just tonally different. For example, I have added quite a bit of comparison to the Hifiman RE400, an earphone that itself is said to challenge gear 5x it`s price and found them to perform shockingly similar. Less standout performers such as the Klipsch X10`s (still tonally brilliant) are bested by Zero whilst earphone in the Zero`s price range are embarrassed completely.
So whilst other reviewers stated that no part of these earphones are particularly standout, I would argue that no part is particularly lacking either. They are very well rounded. All aspects of the sound are strong in quality, the build is nice, they are very visually pleasing and work well from any source. If you like a bassy, warm, analogue sound, then you`ll be challenged to find a better in-ear under $150.
Accessories – 7/10, Ample but not standout. A semi-hard case and three pairs of tips are adequate for the price, but a shirt clip and a few extra tips would be nice.
Design – 9.5/10, Small, comfortable over extended periods of time, the rose wood housings are a delight. Isolation is good and the fit is easy and stable. Microphonics aren`t bad for a cable down but still noticeable. The cable I`m less enthusiastic about, it`s a little tacky, but no where near as bad as that on the Mrz Tomahawk. There`s also no chin slider and the jack is a little hard to remove. But overall, the Zero is well thought out and a pleasure to use.
Bass – 7/10, Similar to the Klipsch X10`s but a little more extended. Nice and tight, punchy and agile sub-bass response combined with a full mid-bass response. The upper bass is over emphasized producing bloom and some loss of detail. Great texture and detail regardless.
Mids – 7.75/10, A little warm and a little dark, the mids are still quite balanced if a little recessed compared to the bass and treble. The midrange is resolving with great clarity and detail. The biggest issue is probably to do with the lengthy burn-in. I`m really nitpicking, but the Zero`s midrange is a very strong performer only after a few hundred hours.
Highs – 7.5/10, Extended and airy with good texture and detail retrieval. Not as detailed as the W30, ie800 and other higher end earphones but it doesnt have to be, theyre $50! Lacking the last bit of extension and crispness, but still impressive.
Soundstage, Imaging and Separation – 8/10, Very, very impressive for the price. THe soundstage brings the sound together and the Zero really nails the spacing and coordination of the sound. With plenty of width and depth, instruments are well separated and imaging is similarly impressive. The vented ie800s sound cleaner and positioning is better while earbuds have even more space, but the sealed Zeros perform fantastically.
Value – 9.5/10, Very good performance/value ratio, does it challenge earphones 10x its price? No, and I really don`t think an earphone should be advertised based upon price range comparisons. Regardless, the Zero is an good performer in general and almost unbeatable under $100.
Verdict – 9/10, I was very excited to receive the Zero and expected great things from the beginning. I tried not to read too many other reviews and go in fresh. The fact that they met and even exceeded my high expectations is quite a feat, especially rare with me, I`m quite cynical. The Zeros don`t challenge earphones 10x their price but get shockingly close. With an improved cable and some more tuning, the Zero would decimate the under $400 range of earphones. I would recommend toning down the upper bass and leveling out the midrange, but the drastic differences between the burnt-in Zero and the “fresh” set make me think twice. Perhaps the Zero will become even more neutral, I`m not sure but even as my set currently are, the Zero is a standout.
*As an experiment Im going to burn in the new set as well and report any changes, I`ll see if they change like my current Zero has. The differences are very pronounced.
*Update: I`ve posted the very interesting burn-in results here