I know what you’re thinking. The world of IEMs is fascinating, with all the balance armature drivers, planar magnetic , litz cables, and all these fancy technical things but… you’re just not quite ready to drop a couple G’s on a pair of earphones yet. And don’t worry, we get it. We’ve all been there and we all know what that feels like. That is why we here at AA decided to write this next review – a battle comparing five of the best earphones that 99 Chinese kuai can buy.
As much as I enjoy being in Shanghai, living in China comes with a lot of stressful downsides: people hustling onto the elevator before you even get off, finding out on a weekly basis which foods to now avoid because it’s apparently made of newspaper, and your favorite bar street getting shut down because the mayor wants to get a seat in Beijing.
But China also offers a lot of advantages. Steady economic growth at around 7%, cheap labor and an ever competitive market. This has given rise to a lot of earphone manufacturers specializing in the best bang for your buck. And we mean some serious bang.
Looking around the market, we found that there are a lot of interesting models at the 99 kuai mark. We decided on these five models from five different manufacturers. In no order whatsoever they are:
Xiaomi Hybrid, Vsonic GR02 Bass Edition, Hzsound HZ-EP001, VJJB V1S, KZ ED9
Without further ado, let’s move on to the comparisons of each! You can skip to the end for the final summary, but make sure to read each section carefully for detailed reviews.
The Xiaomi Hybrid features a brushed metallic housing similar to the Dunu Titan series. Out of the 5 earphones we’ve chosen, the Xiaomi is the most handsome and premium looking out of them all. The large enclosure containing the dynamic driver has an off center nozzle that protrudes out at an ergonomic angle – the sum average of over 500 test subjects, Xiaomi boasts. The hybrid, as its name denotes, is made up of both a dynamic driver and balanced armature driver – bass and mid notes are produced by the DD, while the highs are taken care of by the BA. It also has a handsfree mic for those who need it. The fit is quite comfortable, as it has a very standard form factor (worn cable down) and is feather light. Isolation is decent, but not the best – you may have to play around with different tips for the best result.
The Xiaomi Hybrid pumps out a lot of sub-bass volume, reminiscent of the Xiaomi Pistons 2, but with much better control, resolution and depth. The bass frequency has good width, making for a very agreeable listening experience when listening to bass oriented music. It has the most robust and resolved sounding lows and mids out of the bunch for sure. The balanced armature driver which takes care of the higher frequencies is very audible – in fact, it sounds a little disconnected from the rest of the low and mid frequencies, probably as a result of the technical differences between DDs and BAs. While the highs are sharp and twinkly, the sound is thin and a little anaemic and even begins to exhibit some sibilance on female vocals.
The resolution is also acceptable for such a great price, but after focused comparison to the Vsonic GR02 and Hzsound EP001, I felt that the Xiaomi Hybrid lagged behind them ever so slightly.
Vsonic GR02 Bass Edition
The GR02 has a rather conventional round housing shape with a soft rubber/plastic attachment that extends from the top all the way to the back, which serves as a very sturdy strain relief for the cable – and excellent design for an earphone without a replaceable cable. The housing is all plastic except for a metal nozzle. The earphone has gone through several updates, with the latest version featuring what seems to be the same slightly textured “snake skin” style cable as the Sennheiser IE800. The plug and cable splitter, also made of a similar soft black plastic feel and provide sufficient strain relief for something that’s only 99kuai.
The GR02 probably has the most neutral presentation out of the lot. Its bass packs a good punch with enjoyable amounts of volume and reaching a good depth. The bass tuning sounds like it was done with a more popular crowd in mind, yet it still retains some of its audiophile oriented roots by not overdoing the bass too much. It’s solid, and reaches low, but at the same time doesn’t bleed over into the mids too much like many other cheap earphones. Impact is slightly midbass emphasized, but the low tones are audible.
The GR02 has a just north of neutral, slightly warm mid-range. Very controlled with very good clarity, vocals sound sweet, with an ever so slightly forward presentation, this is something the GR02 excels at. Continuing upward, it extends wonderfully to the highs with good positioning and superb cripness and clarity. Resolution throughout the entire frequency range is excellent – a slightly noisy and distorted mid to high end, but definitely forgivable considering its admirable job at reproducing the rest.
The Hzsound EP001 reminds me of the Dita lineup in that it’s basically a big round metallic puck that houses the large dynamic driver inside. The metallic faceplate features discreetly engraved ridges which add texture and a sense of understated quality. The cable is very supple and almost identical to the V1s. The metallic 3.5mm plug also features the same engraved texture, feels sturdy and inspires confidence. All in all a solid product with great build quality at such a price range. With its flat disc-like form factor, this is also one of the more comfortable to wear earphones in this list.
The Hzsound HZ EP001 has a very smooth textured bass response with a good amount of extension into the subbass region, but also rolls off quickly as it goes up towards the mids, giving a deep but still very tight bass response.
Hzsound has a very pleasant mid presentation which is smooth and warm, but still a bit recessed and suffering from slight mid bass bleed. However, the texture is very good, with an ample soundstage and depth not usually found in this price range. There’s a little more focus on mid to mid-high clarity rather than a full bodied sound of the low-mids frequencies. The highs are one of my favourites out of the 5 earphones – not too shrill nor too recessed, they transition smoothly and naturally from the mids.
The VJJB V1s has a half transparent housing, the front showing off its dual dynamic drivers set in a gold colored fixture with the gold extending out into the nozzle. The back half is a plastic grey chrome with the logo “VJJB” printed on an embossed emblem. The cable is an upgraded silicon like material compared to the older V1. The cable looks nice in its smoky grey color but does suffer from quite a bit of microphonics and tangle issues. The Y splitter and plug are both stylish and sturdy in matte black. The overall aesthetic is very handsome and doesn’t look cheap with a half transparent housing showing the drivers and a decent cable. Despite an unconventional looking form factor, the fit is actually very comfortable, its vertical form lying flush with the ear’s cymba and cavum recess.
Once you put VJJB V1S into you ears, you’ll immediately be able to tell that it has a very warm tuning. There’s much more emphasis on a warm, dark sound that doesn’t stop until around the upper mids. It has a very thick mid bass presentation, with good amounts of bass volume, owing to its dual dynamic driver design. This is something I would recommend to someone who enjoys a slightly more full and lush bass sound.
The V1s has very lush, engaging mids with good detail retrieval. Vocals sound very thick and full bodied with quite a bit of warmth from the low end. It’s just a tad bit recessed but overall still enjoyable and engaging. The highs are probably where the V1S are weakest at – the high end rolls off hard, and as a result things like violins and cymbals sound rather muffled. Vocals also lack that extra bit of air that sets the best IEMs apart.
The overall resolution of its sound is very average, with a slight veil and graininess throughout, but this is something that you shouldn’t be surprised to hear at this price range.
I had problems with getting a very snug fit with the KZ ED9 – although it looks like it would be an easy fit as the design is basically just a straight tube, the long metal nozzle is actually somewhat wide and did not inspire a sense of confidence that it would be held in my ears securely. Perhaps it also has to do with how long the housing is – around 2cm long, it noticeably sticks out from my ears, somewhat like Sony’s XBA line.
The ED9 is a bit of an enigma. It comes with two replaceable nozzles, one bass oriented and one balanced. The bass nozzle tuning makes for an incredibly bloated listening experience with bass bleeding straight into the mids. The balanced nozzle makes for a much more balanced listening experience, still bassy nonetheless, but not as full bodied anymore. I decided to go with the balanced nozzle for this review, as I believe it showcases the ED9’s strengths at the mids and highs more.
The ED9 is the most mids and high focused out of the lot. Its bass is very neutral – there’s sufficient mid-bass impact, but don’t go for the ED9 if you’re going to listen to bass heavy music like EDM or hip hop since you’re not going to get a sense of satisfying deep sub-bass rumble here. However, its mids and highs exhibit quite an agreeable sense of wide soundstage and openness unlike the others. Vocals are placed front and centre, with good detail retrieval and resolution in this range. An excellent choice for more indie bass light music with emphasis on clean guitars and female vocals.
And the winner of this battle is….
It’s been very interesting and fun to try out all these great earphones at this extremely bang-for-buck price range of 99kuai. It was very difficult to make a final call as to how I’d rank all them as they all have their own strengths, but I had to make a decision in the end.
The Vsonic GR02 is my choice for the first Battle of 99Kuai. It’s exceptional resolution, neutrally tuned sound signature showcasing restraint especially in its low frequencies in the face of all the bass heavy competition that is so popular nowadays, is something I would recommend to anyone who is interested in audio, where they are just dipping their toes into the audiophile world or merely want to settle for something a little better than the crappy earphones that came with their smartphone.
I was very conflicted as to the second place choice. Between the Hzsound EP001 and the Xiaomi Hybrids, it was hard to pick between the former, which has a clean, very easy going, neutral sound while the latter has a bass heavy sound more typically favoured by the average customer yet exhibits some strengths in the highs. I ended up giving it to the Xiaomi – I’m just too much of a sucker for strong, solid bass.
In fourth and fifth place are KZ ED9 and VJJB V1S, respectively. I struggled very hard but gave fourth to the KZ ED9 in the end because of its excellent mid-high presentation, while VJJB V1S was too dark, grainy, and muffled sounding overall for my liking and only excelled at having a strong, boomy bass.
At the end of the day, all of these are amazing deals for just 99kuai, and in my humble opinion, all of them offer affordable yet big leaps in sonic improvement from your run of the mill smartphone earbuds. I highly recommend anyone who cares for their music to invest in these great bang for your buck Chinese budget earphones.