I’ve gotten into custom in-ear monitors lately, as an alternative to headphones. You know. Because of the “do”. Those headphone headbands are always mucking about with my finely coiffed curls. And the cumbersome earpieces are forever blunting my Steve Rochlin impressions by cocking my sunglasses all askew. Most uncouth. Anyway, CIEMs are pretty sweet for all that.
A couple of other things. First, yes, the whole thing has a history derived in seemingly equal parts from pro-audio and from hearing-aid, which really might not be all that different if you think about it. But I digress. Anyway, the newest in CIEM designs leverage multi-way designs with several different drivers. By being played so close to the ear, some natural benefits for high-sensitivity come in — that is, you can drive them to insanity with even that crappy output on your Android phone, not that anyone actually has one of those, but you take my point. Even a crappy phone (ahem) can work just fine with an IEM.
Customs get a couple of other benefits — they’re “tuned” to your own, very specific and most personal listening apparatus. Yes, I’m talking about your ears. A so-called “universal” IEM is what you’d get with some silicone tips that you squeeze and squish into your ear canal just-so. And then readjust and readjust again, just to ensure that the earpieces aren’t falling out or the drivers are firing into the wrong part of your wax-filled canals (blecch). With a custom, all the distances and positions are understood, fixed, and optimized — this is the most customized sound you’re ever likely to hear.
A lot of folks are making IEMs these days. Noble Audio, however, is new. And they are the prettiest kids on the block — and it isn’t even close.
I’ve been following Noble on Facebook for several months now, gawking at the radiant swirls of color that they seem to so effortlessly pull together. Gold fleck. Real wood. Every color under the rainbow and a few that have no right to any rainbow, anywhere. Crazy ass shit. Swirls, and bolts, and lines and and and and. Yeah. It’s like that.
The lineup from Noble is rather robust for a company that’s only been “out” for less than a year. There are over a dozen models, or variations of them, depending on what level of audio awesomeness you’re willing to explore. First choice is whether you’re interested in a Universal fit or a Custom one. Choose the latter, and you now can choose what the body of the casing is going to be, acrylic (pretty standard in the industry) or silicone (for a different, more pliant, fit). Prices in this custom line start at $450 for the 3c, a three-driver-per-side rig (prices for universals are little less), and range all the way up to the $1,699 Kaiser 10, a 10-driver-per-side custom.
Yes, 10 drivers is a lot. But set up in a 4-way with dual-drivers handling each of the five frequency ranges, the work load gets spread fairly evenly. I received a pair of these K-10s review, and I have to say that out-of-the-box, the sound is just startlingly great. Gimme a few more weeks to put some hours on them (and figure out how to photograph them — my shots from the show suck and completely fail to capture some of the wonderful structural detail) and I’ll have more to share, but right now it’s really easy to say that they sound as good as they look. And they look fantastic.
Some new bits at AXPONA include the introduction of the Universal Switch line. The FR (which uses silver screws) and the PR (which uses brass screws) are two-setting universal IEMs that allows you to, at the flick of a switch, completely change the sonic signature of the IEM. The FR (F=Full, R=Reference) flips between “full” and “analytical/fast”. The PR (P=Pure, R=Reference) flips between “transparent” and “analytical”. I think this is pretty nifty — it’s a quick and easy way to get a change-up without actually having to get new IEMs. Obviously, a trial is what you’d want do here before picking one, but since they’re universals, that’s pretty easy to manage. Just gotta track down Noble’s co-owner Brannan Mason. Price for either option is $699.
Also in the booth was the $2,395 Hugo from Chord Electronics. This is a USB-based headphone amp/DAC about the size of one of those monster phones from Samsung. It’s got the trademark Chord window so you can see the glowing electronics, and a thumb wheel/button for volume. High resolution audio up to and including DXD and double-DSD are supported. There are some analog outputs, too (like you care) and it also supports Bluetooth AptX. Nifty little box, but this is a rapidly growing segment, and at this price, we’re kinda outside the borders of where head-fi tends to play.
Oh, and yes, obviously I plugged my K-10s into the Chord and took a tour. Sound was pretty good — with extension and openness. Nothing particularly stood out. Even played quiet. And that’s when I started paying attention, to be honest. Portable amp/DAC combos don’t usually sound this good when played quiet. Hmmm. I think this little bugger deserves more attention than I’m able to give it here, but color me curious. Reviews seem a bit sparse on the ground at the moment, but hopefully we’ll see some soon. Maybe even here?