This bean has been rattling around in my can for several months, pretty much ever since I took the belly-flop into personal audio. Everyone in “the community” talks about “neutrality” as if it’s a target, a desired goal, some kind of audio nirvana.
Too bad no one can agree on what the term actually means. If you’ll allow me to be frank, I’ve given up trying to keep up or even map that term onto anything meaningful. The problem is that it appears to mean something different to everyone that uses it, which then means it means nothing at all. Which makes it as useful as a bucket full of doodoo. QED.
What really kicked things over for me was getting fitted out for some custom in-ear monitors at RMAF. I asked three of my headphone-savvy peers what IEM I ought to get, you know, for a reference. All three converged pretty quickly on “just the right one”, so I went over to that booth, sat down, and got the demo. That neutral reference? Not neutral. At least in the sense where “neutral” = “performance is linear across the spectrum, with no serious deviations” kind of way, either. Worse, it was boring as hell. I mean, I thought it was outright anemic on both ends of the spectrum and the all-important mid range was flat and kind of dull. But … yeah. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s them. Maybe the English language no longer requires mapping back to reality for semantic relevancy. Maybe cats and dogs actually love each other, and not just as breakfast food. Maybe.
I am reminded of this experience every time someone recommends diving into the forums to see what the consensus is around any particular product. My recommendation? Have a care. There is absolutely no substitute for trying it out yourself. Neutrality? Bah. What I want is something that sounds great.
Which is why I sat my a** down at the Noble Audio table in the Headphonium 2 ballroom, and went through every bleedin’ one of their universals, just to see what was what.
Brannan Mason is absurdly young and equally absurdly trim. He tells me that he used to be a total lard-o, but one day just decided to not be, and after six months of getting his flabby rear quarters kicked by a Stair Master, no longer was on the receiving end of the punishment stick. “I crushed that [bleeping] machine,” he says in a way that makes me think he thinks a fat old guy like me ought to be considering the same course of action. Like I said, Brannan is a young punk.
But his brand, Noble Audio, is the real deal. They make both in-ear custom and universal-fit “monitors” for primarily audiophile audiences with one notable twist — they’re gorgeous. I have no idea why no one else in the industry is copying them, but anyone that can do gold flake, wood inserts, or the sheer variety of color and pattern that a Noble Audio product routinely shows is gonna make bank.
I asked Brannan to start me off at the bottom of the line and work my way up. My favorite stop on the universal lineup was, unequivocally, the Noble 5. This in-ear was fun, with articulation and impact in the bass and a completely non-fatiguing top-end, and still plenty of detail. At $650 for universal fit and $950 for custom, this would be the one I would recommend as the best bang for the buck. It’s a 3-way design, with 5 balanced-armature drivers, and quite frankly, it beats the tar out of most headphones I’ve heard.
The most glaring and obvious exception was the Noble flagship, the Kaiser 10. At $1,599 for the set, expectations are quite high. Full disclosure: I have a pair of these custom-only monitors for my upcoming “IEM Flagship” review, and at the risk of spilling the beans, they’re just dynamite. Stay tuned.
I’m really happy to see a new audio brand bring quality of sound together with quality of craftsmanship, with more than a little style thrown into the mix. Sounds like a winner to me. If you can, catch them at a show and do your own walk-through. As I’m learning, there’s a sound for every ear.