The Z-buds have elements of good and bad design. For example, their case is more rugged than what we typically see, but their in-line accessories could allow the internal wires to twist up easily.
In terms of audio quality, it had very low distortion levels, but its frequency response was a bit erratic. It also had some issues with tracking.
Welcome to the Z-buds!
Let's start with a closer look at the ear buds and make this a proper effictio. The buds have the traditional mesh at the tip of their nozzles, which helps shield them from ear debris. Also, note the relatively small area the sleeve have to hang onto. We found they tended to dislodge easily.
Those cord guard-looking bits on the buds' undersides are actually hard plastic. The real cord guard is the cable casing itself, which should protect your wires fine on its own. The holes on the back of the ear buds give them a semi-open design. This translates into poorer isolation and leakage control than the average set of in-ears.
The cables are longer than the average pair of in-ears.
Partway down is the remote & mic, which is located on the left channel's cable. The remote and mic are on opposite sides of the same pendant.
After a stretch, the left and right channels meet at a junction that has three movable beads. Use these to manage the neck split.
Further down the cable, you'll find the volume control and finally, the plug itself.
In the Z-buds' triangular package, you'll find the headphones, six sets of sleeves for different sizes and shapes of ears, and a carrying pouch.
The main source of the Z-buds' durability issues, both good and bad, is its cable casing. For starters, the fabric coating is more durable than the soft plastic/rubber that's typically used. It can double as a cord guard since it'll help prevent the headphones' innards from bending in on themselves too tightly. The casing does create a bit of a weakness at the in-line accessory, however, because it doesn't bind to them. You can therefore spin the remote & mic around and around independent of the casing, twisting the internal wires. This is bad news, especially if you tend to ball up your headphones and shove them in a pocket when they're not in use.
Other than the casing joys/woes, there are a handful of minor points. The pin-hole open backs might be hard to clean should something get inside them. The sleeves aren't tethered onto the ear buds well, especially the foam set. Be careful any time they're not in your ears, because it doesn't take a lot to pop them off.
We're a bit torn on the aesthetics for the Z-buds. The ear buds don't have any real design to them, but this is a relatively minor complaint given how small they are. In-ears tend to either be white (iPod!) or black (not iPod!), so we really appreciate the splash of color. Conversely, the thickness of the cable looks a bit awkward, especially with the symmetrical form factor (shaped like a Y, as opposed to an asymmetrical design where one side is slung around the back of your neck).
All things considered, we're on the fence about the Z-buds. They're not beautiful, but they're not ugly either, which is the status quo for in-ears.
The Z-buds definitely have a dynamic frequency response. The bass gets boosted quite a bit, much more so in the right channel than the left, oddly enough. We tried different positions but got the same results each time. At about the 2kHz mark, the channels get in sync and remain that way until after 10kHz.
The major issues we see here are the dramatic shifts in emphasis towards the high-end. From about 4kHz and up, emphasis shifts pretty rapidly. It decreases by about 30dB, then jumps 25dB before dropping another 30.
What does this mean? For starters, the headphones could sound boomy; the high bass response means that bass parts of music may sound overly exaggerated. It looks like vocals should be strong for the most part. Also, the lack of emphasis at 7kHz might make drums sound a bit weak.
There's an adjustable neck split of sorts: Zagg slid three plastic beads onto the cable. It does the trick without creating a lot of resistance on the line, but looks out of place.
The Z-buds end up with an average amount of customization options, but we really would've liked to see some size differentiation.
According to the Z-buds advertising, they sport a 'Premium length, tangle-free cord.' Since the Z-buds are 4 feet, 9 inches, we're guessing 'premium' means 'longer than average.' If you like a longer cord on your in-ears, the Z-buds are the premium choice. If you want the average length so you don't have extra slack in your pocket, then the Z-buds are a bit awkward.
As mentioned above, the Z-buds have a slightly longer cord than average, making them a bit less portable than most in-ears. Of course, since they're in-ears they're still very portable.
The three beads on the Z-buds cable can also help manage the cord a bit by keeping the left and right channels together. This works in theory, but in practice the beads seem to slide around a bit. Sometimes they cause more trouble than they solve: they create loops, which promote tangling.
The Z-buds also come with a felt pouch, which is marginally helpful if you don't have a pocket to shove the headphones into.
Typically most in-ears will have removable sleeves for their ear buds. A select few include disposable wax nozzle guards. The Z-buds are the first we've reviewed that allow for a degree of disassembly. This is a great feature, since it lets you get at the trouble spots: the remote & mic and the volume control.
The Z-buds don't require batteries to operate. Since batteries throw a lifespan into the equation, they're annoying. We therefore award points to headphones that don't use batteries.
Remote & Mic
The remote and mic will let you take phone calls, or issue simple commands to a media player. The control pendant is also located at a good height.
The volume control functions and we like it's placement...in theory. The dial turns too easily, however, which led to our pockets dictating the volume of our playback more than we did. We wish the dial was a bit tougher to turn, or that it had some kind of lock implemented.
The Z-buds and Apple headphones are about the same in terms of durability and aesthetics.
The Apple headphones have a much more even frequency response overall. Both headphones get somewhat erratic towards the 10kHz mark.
This Z-buds' graph is what a distortion graph should look like. The Apple headphones' graph looks like someone pulled the paper away as we were drawing it. If you're looking for low distortion, don't get in-ears that balance outside your ear and just kind of point towards it.
The Z-buds are less balanced than the Apple headphones.
This is another obvious comparison. The Z-buds block some outside sounds. The Apple headphones don't.
While we thought both headphones were close in terms of overall comfort, they have very different fits. The Z-buds fit inside your ear canal. With some sleeves they fit deeply into your ear. If you think this sounds uncomfortable, chances are it will be, so you should stick to the other sleeves. If you just want things to stay out of your ears entirely, the Apple headphones are a better choice.
The Z-buds are a decent upgrade for packaged in Apple headphones. They provide a remote & mic as well as a volume control, plus better overall audio quality. They also have the advantage of actually fitting in your ear, which should help them stay in place.
Both sets of headphones are pretty plain. The MM 50 iPs have a classy design to them that may or may not be visible while you're wearing them, and the Z-buds have a colorful cord. The MM 50 iPs have a weird Achilles Heel situation at their plug, while the Z-buds have the potential for internal wire twist-ups. We think the Z-buds are probably slightly more durable overall, even though the way their in-line accessories are manufactured makes them seem a bit cheap.
The Z-buds' frequency response is like an exaggerated version of the MM 50 iPs' response. Both have a boost in the bass, although the Z-buds don't have their channels quite in sync.
Neither channel shows much distortion.
The MM 50 iPs have much more even tracking.
The MM 50 iPs can block out a slightly more noise overall; the higher the green line in the graph below, the more sound is blocked.
We thought the MM 50 iPs were a pretty comfortable pair of headphones from the get-go. If you're used to in-canal headphones, or you use the Z-buds' soft plastic sleeves, the headphones will be comfort equivalents.
The Z-buds don't have the audio quality or isolation of the MM 50 iPs, but the differences aren't staggering. The Z-buds, in theory, should be cheaper than the MM 50 iPs, making them about the same value. Since the MM 50 iPs have been out so long, however, their price has dropped dramatically. Overall, the MM 50 iPs are the better headphones.
We thought the Turbines had a bit more aesthetic flair, but have a slightly less durable design overall. They lack good cord protection, and if anything gets in the grooves on the back, it'd be a pain to clean out.
Similar frequency response graphs here, only the Z-buds have more extreme shifts.
Though the Turbines have more distortion overall, it wouldn't bother most listeners.
The Turbines' tracking is more even overall.
The Turbines block out significantly more noise after the 1kHz mark.
The Turbines and Z-Buds are of equal comfort overall. The one problem we had with the Turbines was they slowly dislodged over time.
Although the Turbines have style, the Z-buds end up having similar audio quality for a smaller investment.
The Shure headphones are far, far more durable than the Z-buds. They have a modular cord, meaning you can replace the lower half of the cord easily. It also means you can add in-line accessories, like a remote and mic or volume switch.
The Z-buds and SE115s have the same overall trends in their frequency response.
Neither set of headphones suffer from distortion.
The SE115s have a more even tracking result.
The SE115s isolate far better than the Z-buds.
We thought both headphones were approximately the same level of comfort. Both have a good array of sleeves to choose from.
While they performed about as well on our audio quality tests, if you're looking for durability or isolation, the Shure headphones are your best bet. The Z-buds, on the other hand, are a better option for those on a budget.
The Z-buds performed well on our performance tests, but their construction doesn't inspire much confidence. They have semi-open backs, which is an odd design choice for a pair of in-ears. They're probably not the best idea for a commute, since they don't isolate as well as many other in-ears. The volume control is a nice feature, but seems to be poorly implemented. The cable is also a bit longer than average, which may or may not be a good thing.
Despite its flaws and odd design choices, the Z-buds still offer decent audio quality for their price.
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