Influential YouTube reviewer DMS accuses KZ of offering to pay for a review.
Douglas Stephens (DMS) is a popular YouTube headphone audio reviewer currently working with Headphones.com. In a recent (Aug 13, 2023) video entitled “They’re trying to PAY reviewers (KZ Krilla[sic]),” he calls out the Knowledge Zenith (KZ) company for approaching him with a financial incentive to review their latest ultra-budget IEM, the Krila.
The DMS Video
“Claiming to have the best IEM under a thousand dollars but offering to pay reviewers a thousand dollars to cover it.”
“I think paid reviews are pretty scummy, and not only that, it’s kind of against YouTube’s terms of service. And after telling them to go shove it where the sun doesn’t shine and putting them on blasts on Twitter for trying to pay reviewers to do reviews…”
“KZ decided not only to push the moral envelope but to straight up tear it open. It really just pisses me off, so here is my message to KZ: do better.” – DMS
The concern is, of course, that ‘paid for’ reviews inherently can’t be trusted. Is the reviewer simply a shill for the company, and the review is little more than an advertisement in disguise? This is a common concern raised in online forums.
The Krila Controversy
Part of the reason that these issues tend to gain momentum and spiral is the unapologetic tone that KZ representatives take on social media. Rather than accepting and professionally addressing the concerns, the official KZ response is often adversarial, further fueling the fire.
KZ stated their official social media email is [email protected] and asked for evidence proving that DMS received the offer from this official source.
Fair enough. But it didn’t stop there.
In the post, KZ goes on to call out other ‘famous influencers’ as being on the payroll of IEM brands. “Take the influencer named Crin***… for their collaborations, a commission of 15% of the product’s retail price is a standard requirement… These so-called ‘influencers’ simply squander the money you provide.”
It would be refreshing to see KZ take the higher ground and simply speak towards their merits rather than retaliating and engaging with seemingly knee-jerk inflammatory responses.
In the comments under KZ’s post, when questioned, they responded with “for hater, they don’t care what’s the truth, they just share the post, enjoy drama, and spread the hatred everywhere, and call for boycott the brand.”
Is it enough that there is no official proof that the request to DMS came directly from KZ? Would a court of law convict KZ? How about the court of popular opinion?
TRUTHEAR Joins the Fight
TRUTHEAR, another Chinese-based IEM manufacturer and a direct competitor to KZ, weighed in as well after KZ criticized the TRUTHEAR x Crinacle Zero in their response.
KZ and Controversy
KZ is no stranger to controversy. We covered the ‘fake multi-driver IEM scandal’ in depth just last year. And since then, it has begun to feel like it’s just one KZ drama after another.
This is not the first time that KZ has tangled with influential headphone reviewers on Youtube. After partnering with Crinacle (Corin Ako) to produce the KZ x Crinacle CRN, Delta Fyre, known for his IEM teardowns, questioned if the EST driver in the CRN was functional on Reddit and Facebook.
This subsequently led Crinacle to boycott KZ publicly, going so far as removing KZ IEMs from his lists and refusing future reviews.
Another influential YouTube reviewer, Hawaii Bad Boy (HBB) of Bad Guy Good Audio Reviews (BGGAR), also collaborated with KZ to produce the DQ6S. HBB released a video addressing the concerns after unsuccessfully waiting for KZ to make an official response.
“That I didn’t discover that these are not actually doing anything, I’ll say sorry for, but I didn’t imagine I’m going to have to check each driver independently and individually…
This set should be taken down and not for sale. End of story… this is false advertising is what this is… fraud… to say that something is one thing and to actually be knowingly delivering another thing… and I’m a part of that.” – HBB
More recently, it was discovered that there were batch differences on another HBB collaboration KZ PR2, with some early units sent to reviewers having a mesh cover over the driver and later models sold to consumers missing the cover – significantly impacting the sound.
Can Reviewers Be Trusted?
In my experience, I haven’t run into it, but others I work with have. In discussing this issue, one of my fellow Headphonesty reviewers informed me that they declined when offered $100 for a written review in the past.
Headphonesty makes money via advertising and not from the manufacturer or provider of the headphone products we review. We pride ourselves on honesty (it’s in our name, after all) and report all the good and bad we run into.
We have no interest in being anything but truthful and helpful to our readers.
The fact is, this goes for all the reviewers I’ve had the chance to interact with. We reviewers got into this because we love the music and associated gear – not for a misguided attempt to get rich. I relate to DMS’ outrage and his concerns in the video. We all should.
Some companies do provide their products for review, but the understanding must always be that the reviewer is free from influence. That being said, the accusation of asking for a paid review is a serious one that crosses the line between independent reviewers and the companies interested in selling their products.
Admittedly, this line is sometimes blurry. Is it ok if a reviewer keeps a product after a review? Does this influence the review? Is the line crossed when the reviewer is paid directly by the manufacturer? What about if the review isn’t positive? How about reviews with affiliate links? Are collaborations ok?
These are all issues we need to decide for ourselves. Reviewers and review sites must make enough money to survive. Companies need to advertise and sell products. Knowing who you can trust for honest, independent recommendations is essential.
The Cost of Bad Press
Is KZ a scrappy underdog company that is being unfairly maligned by influencers and reviewers? Or are they unapologetically trying to get away with anything they can to help drive sales?
The truth is, we don’t know for sure.
You’ll see lots of speculation and will likely reach for the popcorn when you see that KZ has engaged in the post war. Looking in from the outside, the drama can be seen as a fun diversion. From inside the review segment of the industry, it’s frustrating to see things like this happen.
Is there really no such thing as bad press? If people are talking about the brand, does it ultimately help drive sales despite negative buzz? I guess we will find out as the next chapter in this developing drama unfolds.
August 17, 2023
Tyvan Lam, a KZ representative involved in the above posts and replies, posted an update on Facebook outlining his concerns with Crinacle, including a screenshot of their conversation when negotiating a collaboration.
Tyvan also contacted me directly to express these concerns.
August 16, 2023
DMS released an update video, stating that he’s been in contact with KZ, and they have assured him that he was contacted by a third-party distributor rather than directly by the company. They confirmed to him that they do not support paid reviews and that internal communication has occurred so this does not happen again in the future.
KZ released an official statement detailing their position on the issue.