Flagship Custom In-Ear Monitor Round-Up: Ultimate Ears, JH Audio and Noble Audio
When I first tuned into personal audio, it was with a boldly yellow Sony Walkman. I’m pretty sure it was waterproof, and I’m pretty sure I never tested that feature out — but I remember thinking could have, and that was what was important. And cool.
I remember the “headphones” that came with them — they were glued to my ears for the better part of three years. They were yellow, too, and slipped into my ears sideways. That was neat — and new. They were light. Really light. They made sounds.
The sound quality was, in a word, horrible — but who cared? Sounded better than the crap headphones my Mom brought home from … wherever she got them from. But I didn’t care. I loved that Walkman.
I have no idea what happened to it. I moved, I suppose. I eventually bought a car. And that was the end of that.
It wasn’t until my first white click-wheel iPod, some 20 years later, that I returned to “portable audio” with anything approaching real interest. Ah, the iPod. That thing was amazing. Let’s take a moment to bask in its glory.
In October of 2001, it seemed as if Apple was pretty much done as a company. The Towers had come down a month before, everyone was still in shock, but that wasn’t what causing the stock to trade at less than $7 a share. Steve Jobs had been re-hired some four years earlier, but aside from the who-cares iTunes software launched almost a year prior, nothing seemed to be happening and no one really cared. Okay, I never really cared. We were still a year away from OSX, which is when I finally started paying attention to Apple’s computers. But then the iPod came out. And everything changed. I remember seeing a friend’s, fiddling with it, and thinking, “I really ought to go buy some stock.” Coulda, woulda, shoulda.
But about the earbuds. Those things sucked just as hard as the headphones with my old Walkman, and were even less easy to keep comfortably in my apparently dainty ears. I did it anyway — because iPod, helloooo — and even started getting some over-the-counter headphones to use with my little white wonder. Nothing special, but they helped considerably. But not enough to make me really care.
It’s hard to believe that my first iPod was purchased some 13 years ago. Harder still to look at my new iPhone 6 Plus and trace it back to the wonderfully chunky little white toy. But I think Jobs would be appalled to know that it’s been almost a decade since I’ve used any Apple device as a mobile music source, except perhaps under duress.
The earbuds and the sound quality of the player kinda ganged up on my sensibilities, squashed them flat, and I just gave up. Sometime around back then, I bought some NAD electronics instead and wired up my first “big stereo”. That was an eye-opener. Ten years later, I call the successor to that system “My Big Rig”, and it has vacuum tubes, a dedicated computer, and a friggin’ turntable. It kicks enough ass to sideline the entire Redskin offense, though, now that I think about it, that might not be saying a whole lot. Anyway, my stereo is awesome. I love it and I fire it up every day. Okay, maybe not. It’s more like once a week. I’m busy, what can I say.
Which is why, maybe-perhaps, I was ready for Canjam in 2013 to give me a smack upside the noggin’. And as a result, over the next year, I had the opportunity to swing through a long stretch of head-fi’s best. Things have changed. And that, my friends, is a very good thing.
After that Canjam, custom in-ear monitors were near the top of my list. I blame Audio-Head‘s Brian Hunter for this, though I’m still a bit fuzzy on the particulars. It’s enough that his face floats around in my minds eye whenever I think about it, though, and he’s clearly deserving of blame generally. More seriously, I think he said something along the lines of “there’s not a lot of folks talking about IEMs”, so I must have figured I’d look into it.
My first stop on the train was to Ultimate Ears.
Ultimate Ears UE 18Pro
At some point, I ran across the review of the Ultimate Ears UE 18 Pro on Stereophile. I’m pretty sure I didn’t dwell on it because I wasn’t interested in the segment at all at the time, but I do remember that the upshot was a high-water mark for Stereophile and for IEMs in general, and that was pretty exciting. No, it wasn’t until after I’d heard every product in the UE lineup that I went back to article to see if I was remembering correctly.
At RMAF in 2013, I found myself in front of Christian Tanimoto at the Ultimate Ears table. I’d been doing the booth-by-booth, and UE was just next on the list, so I sat myself down. It probably had everything to do with Christian’s easy demeanor and overall friendliness, but I found myself sitting through a 30 minute walk-through of the entire product line.
We started with the 4 Pro and skipped quickly through the 5 and the 7, before landing [smack!] on the Reference Monitor ($999). The sound of each of these models varied in subtle ways, but the RM was quite remarkable.
Of course, I was expecting that. I’d been told, pretty much point-blank, that this was the model to get. You know, if I were a reviewer. Because? Because it’s “so neutral“. Because that’s not just a great thing — that is the only thing. Neutrality! It’s what’s for dinner. The sound was everything I was told it would be. It was, in a word, excellent. It had great extension and clarity — it was about as “reference” as you could ask for. When I looked up “neutral” and “in-ear monitor” in the dictionary, the UERM was staring back at me.
But … well, I wasn’t exactly bowled over with excitement.
I think Christian saw this on my face pretty much right away — and encouraged me to express what it was I was struggling with. It was hard to articulate it without sounding mean, but I honestly didn’t think the UERM was all that interesting as a monitor. Good? Absolutely. On that day at that place with that source and that material, however, it was a little un-involving.
So, Christian wired me up with the 18 Pro. It’s got six drivers per side, which is different (the UERM “only” has three per side), and it appears to be tuned with a rather fulsome low-end. Compared to the UERM, the top end was a little sweet (where “sweet” = “a bit rolled off”), but nothing egregious and, if anything, I was able to crank a little harder on the Happiness Knob because of this completely non-fatiguing presentation. What I gave up in air and detail retrieval, I got back in spades in the “everything else”.
To me, on that day at that place with that source and that material, the whole presentation was just what I was looking for. It just sounded right. So, I got ’em. Christian shot a bunch of goo into my ears and six weeks later, I had my own pair.
The video has the meat of the review, so I won’t do more than recap here, except to offer this — my initial impressions were borne out over the long-term. Compared to the UERM, which I’ve since acquired also, the UE 18 Pro is a very easy-to-listen-to in-ear, with splendiferous bass response, rich mids, and a non-fatiguing overall presentation.
Unpacking that a bit, the midrange seems a little forward. Not good, not bad, just a tad more. With most of my tunes, it was subtle and enjoyable. The bass response on the UE 18 Pro is much more full through the lowest registers — think “adding a subwoofer” and you’d be where I’m at, in the land of mental metaphors. Said another way, the bass response of UE 18 Pro is obviously elevated from neutral, and while that carries over into the mid-bass, neither range gets sloppy or overly muddy or carried away. It’s a subtle lift (less so, the lower you go) from the mids on down, but an altogether harmonious one. I can see the bass response being very popular with folks into Lorde, or really anything current. I was digging heavily into Jem, myself, but EDM fans will love this sonic signature.
In short, I love the 18 Pro — and it remains my most source-friendly IEM.
I say that because portable audio tends to be either bright or bass-challenged. I’m not sure why. But it isn’t until you hit a product like the Astell&Kern AK120 Mk 2, the Chord Hugo, or the Astell&Kern AK240 that it becomes clear that the UE 18 Pro is missing anything or doing anything less than being awesome.
But with those very-high-end DACs and players, the UERM has noticeably more air and sparkle — and it’s a good thing and not a problem. In fact, with those sources — and as I’m writing this, I’m listening to an AK240 player — the UERM shows exactly why head-fi’ers are so thrilled with it. It has, by far and hands down, the absolute best detail retrieval of any IEM I’ve yet heard. It’s astonishing. Turning that around to some less able players, that über clarity is not so much of a help. And then there’s the mid-to-bass response; being flat-neutral doesn’t help when the electronics are failing to fill in the sonic picture with any real depth and tonal color. The result tends to be thin and that, quite frankly, is boring and quickly fatiguing. This is exactly where I prefer the fuller, meatier sound of the UE 18 Pro, for those devices — and for that kind of music!
This was the IEM that had me thinking of Classic Rock. Kansas with “Carry On, Wayward Son”, The Cult with “Sanctuary”, Billy Idol with “Eyes Without a Face”. Oh, yeah. Carrying that notion forward to players, the the UE 18 Pro also adds a bit of welcome meat — think, again, Astell&Kern. There’s a “Pro” setting on the EQ for those AK devices that can clean up the output significantly, and I’ve found that this presentation tends to be the least muddled and most extended — and it’s the UE 18 Pro that takes that linear presentation and does the most boogy-woogy with it. Conversely, I think the natural warmth of the Calyx M digital player tends to line up really well with the neutrality of the UERM a bit better — here, the UE 18 Pro is just gilding the lily, as it were.
I don’t really have a verdict — there’s a clear appeal for each presentation, and just as clear, a target audience. If I were making recommendations, I think most audiophiles will prefer the UE 18 Pro, because it sounds more interesting even if that means it’s a bit colored. I also know that most of the gear these folks will tend to find and rely on will also line up more favorably to the UE 18 Pro’s warm, generous sonic signature.
Personal audio experts may prefer the UERM — but they may do so, in part, because of the recommendation made by top Head-Fi’ers. In my personal experience, this could be a mistake, but there are far worse ones to make. I’ll also offer that I know quite a few audiophiles (and Head-Fi’ers) that really do cotton to a faster, more detailed sound — for them, the UERM is a no-brainer.
Jerry Harvey JH Audio Sirens Series Roxanne
The Roxannes, from JH Audio (starting at $1,649), were the second set of custom IEMs I ever got into my ears, and the difference between this and the Ultimate Ears UE 18 Pro was immediately apparent. The Roxannes sound huge. But let me back up a step.
Brian Hunter introduced me to Jerry Harvey at RMAF 2013, and Brian was absolutely right — Jerry’s is a great guy. I have the suspicion that he’s older than me, like significantly older, but he’s way more fit, certainly more tatted up, and just so much cooler than I am that it makes me itch a little just to be near him. I jest. But what I’m not kidding about is how nice he is — five minutes after shaking my hand, he was stuffing some universal demos of his new flagship IEMs into my ears. 5 minutes after that, he was arranging to have a set sent to me. Like I’m gonna argue with Jerry friggin’ Harvey? Ha. Not happening.
I eventually got my pair this past January, and I’ve been showing them off ever since. Because they are pretty. Mine came with the signature carbon-fiber shell (and travel case!), and they look totally boss. And with 12 drivers per side, arranged in an innovative “quad armature” arrangement, the Roxanne wins the
“how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” “how many drivers you can stuff into a shell” argument. Pretty — and techie. I love that kind of combo.
While the triple array of four drivers sounds like it would be “the thing” about the Roxannes — and it is bizarre and wonderful, to be sure — but there is something even more curious about the design. The bass response is tunable.
About 6″ up from the plug is a little lozenge thingie that has a pair of tiny, recessed dials. I kinda want to say they’re potentiometers, but whatever, the way it works is this — turn them to the right for more bass, and left for less. I think the default setting on the dial is something like 10 o’clock, with zero being at about 7. With the default setting, I found the Roxannes to be very fulsome — even more than the UE 18 Pros, but the fullness extends clearly up through the mid-bass.
Turning the dial to the right, to the 1 o’clock position for example, to my ear makes the entire presentation thick and slow and muddled. I can’t imagine cranking it over further — as it was, it showed me an extra dose of chestiness, especially in male vocals, which I heard while using these on the road and binge-watching episodes of Supernatural, but with instruments, this usually translates as “presence” and “aura”. Cranking it down helps bring the signature more inline with merely bass-centric.
I turned mine down to 9 for a more UERM-like bass response, and 10 for something that challenges the UE 18 Pro. Either way, I was pretty content with the signature. According to JH Audio, there’s a total of about ±15dB of bass response to play with here, but in my experience, less is probably more. That said, if you’re an EDM fan, I can imagine that this may well be the most insane in-ear you’ve ever come across. The sound is crazy-full and can be totally intense. Got any Boards of Canada? Deadmau5? Heck, any Nine Inch Nails? I do. And this is the IEM I took to that party.
Once I had the bass set-to-taste, I found the presentation of the Roxanne just a bit forward through the mids (like the UE 18 Pro), with this sense of bigness, that is, a sense of grand scale. I liken it to the big Aida from Sonus Faber — this in-ear just sounds larger than the others in this shootout. Maybe it’s all those drivers?
Detail, like tone, is not a single thing, at least to my mind. There’s a sense of high-end detail — shimmer/sheen of brass, the sense of spaciousness and airiness, the ringing tones and overtones, all that — that was about “average” for headphones; compared to a neutral standard like the UERM, the treble presented as a little soft, a step back from the apparent linearity of the UERM (and to a lesser extent, the UE 18 Pro). But moving down to mid-range detail, for stuff buried in your mix, like background conversations, lip-smacking, and what not, the Roxannes are just excellent. Again, the mids are bit forward, so this isn’t all that weird.
I get the feeling that the Roxanne just isn’t tuned for a Hi-Fi kind of sound; this tuning is really about layers of tone and sonic dimensionality than about zippy speed or biting attack. If you’re a fan of Neal Peart, this is where percussion meets your skull — did I mention that the sound can be intense? And when in doubt, you can just dial that bass response up to eleven.
A wrinkle — the impedance of this in-ear is also the lowest of the bunch, at 15Ω. This may be fine, it may not be fine — it really depends on your sources. If they’re higher-than-average, you might get a softness in the frequency extremes. I have nothing to offer here, and there’s really nothing you can do about it; I’m just offering a note of caution — keep it in mind before rendering a judgement.
I think the Roxanne is a really interesting IEM — and the ability to custom-tune the response to best-match the material and/or the mood of the user is incredibly powerful. The sound is also incredibly powerful. A big presentation, with full and rich textures throughout the audio band equal an excellent tool that’s still a lot of fun to listen to and use. Hard to argue with that value proposition.
Noble Audio Kaiser K-10
I met Brannan Mason, the absurdly buff and young front man for Noble Audio at AXPONA this year, after Brannan reached out to me. He’d been posting the designs from his partner, Wizard (aka, Dr John Moulton), on his Facebook feed and apparently I’d slapped about a bazillion “Likes” all over them. I have personal space issues, I guess. Anyway, instead of a restraining order, he offered to send me a set of his company’s universal in-ears for review and whatnot. Surprised and pleased, I also
might have probably mentioned that I was getting flagship customs from two of his main competitors. He hit that bait so hard the phone rattled in my hand, and sure enough, I found him in Chicago with a set of fancy new 10-drivers/side Wizard-designed Kaisers.
Now, by now Noble is probably a much higher-profile audiophile-approved company than they were even six months ago, due in no small part to the fact that Brannan is such an affable chap and has also managed to hit just about every major head-fi and Hi-Fi show this year. The spread he lays out is simple, but comprehensive. $350 for a set of universal IEMs that will take your earbuds out back and kung fu them to death really isn’t all that much on the audiophile scale of things, and one look at the quality of the product Brannan and team are showing off and you kinda get why the prices are what they are.
Now, the K-10 is at the opposite end of the spectrum from “entry-level”. At $1,599, you would expect that. What you get with that is … well, it’s a lot.
Those 10 drivers are actually five sets of balanced-armature devices — this is a 4-way design, with two bass drivers, two mid-range drivers, two mid/high drivers, two “tweeters” and two “super tweeters”.
I will offer that I have absolutely no idea how the hell they stuffed that much stuff into that stuff. I think they’re pulling our legs, to be honest. Between the K-10 and the Roxannes, I spent far too much time scratching my head, wondering how in Heaven’s name they managed to do it. I mean, seriously. “Hello? Yeah, this is Physics. WTF?” Anyway.
It was interesting that this IEM showed up last of the set. I say that because those other IEMs really did provide a beautiful foil to evaluate it. Here’s the nutshell.
The K-10 has more extension “up top” than either the Roxanne or the UE 18 Pro. This translated to best-in-class separation, air, and detail retrieval. It also did not tip over into “bright” or “edgy” or “zingy” — the up-highs were very sweet (where “sweet” = “gorgeously textured and finely nuanced”). Compared with my barometer, the UERM, the K-10 is voiced more gently up top, perhaps with longer-term listening in mind, and the treble is backed off a touch. Think: “non-fatiguing” and you’re where I want you to be.
In the mids, the K-10 sounds more neutral than the UE 18 Pro or the Roxanne, and seems more in line with the UERM. It “fits” in the sense that there is a natural coherence, top-to-bottom, that does not call attention to itself. That’s an important point, because at some point the entire exercise of analyzing a sound signature gets absurd, and that started happening with the K-10 pretty much immediately. My first impression of an over-arching sense of coherence — that’s the one that sticks out and stays with me. The mids have depth, texture, and roundness … just like the upper mids and treble. It’s all of a single piece.
The bass response, to my mind, splits the difference between the two Ultimate Ears IEMs, with the voicing tending toward the “fuller” sound of the 18 Pro than the leaner/more-neutral sound of the UERM. To my ear, this is a very welcome thing — again, I was having a great time with Lorde and Jem, and the bass in no way tripped over either itself or mucked up the higher registers, think “full without bloat”, “impactful without mud”. I really do like the UERM, but in the down-low, the fun kinda thins out for my taste, even if that’s “accurate”. Like the gentle hand taken with the treble, a gentle counter-weighting to the bass seems to be happening with the K-10. It’s not too much. Never unwelcome. Just a bit more juice in the caboose, and that’s exactly the way I like it.
The Kaiser also “feels” like it’s the most dynamic of the bunch. When listening to orchestral classical music — yes, it happens — I found the K-10 to provide a massive canvas, with extreme competence swinging from quiet to shattering and back again. Likewise, I was very impressed with low-level listening, as it was clear and articulate. It just so happens that not everything I listen to is shockingly thunderous, and sometimes, I like a little melancholy. It’s like good caramel; there’s just this slight bitterness in the day that brings out the other colors that much more brightly. So, flipping from Copland to Miles and then to Zoe Keating happens. In the same playlist, even. Bring in the big-vocals, like Chris Jones, Natalie Merchant and Greg Brown, line ’em all up, and wallow. Oh, my, yes.
I spent one cross-country flight flipping through a jazz kick with Keith Jarrett and Miles Davis, and while the former nearly put me to sleep, the latter had my mind racing in circles. Tone and timbre are what make the instruments feel so fleshed out, so tactile, and while some transducers in this space really seem unable to help themselves filling with what feels like over saturation, the K-10 was mostly notable in what it didn’t do. It didn’t get in the way. At all. Ever. This was the closest to an open-window that I’ve yet heard in the portable space.
In short, I’m a fan. After spending six months with these guys, I’m even more of a fan; in my calculus, Noble has a real winner here.
Unless a device has an actual flaw, it’s hard to say “this is the best” without a whole laundry list of caveats along for the ride. That’s the case here. Of the three flagship custom IEMs I’m looking at (four, if you count the UERM), all three have distinct sonic pleasures and will probably appeal to different audiences for that reason. Lemme break it down.
The Roxannes are the most distinctive sounding of the bunch. They have the most junk in the trunk, and they’re unapologetic about it. They’re voiced big, and they clearly love that voicing. It does great work with electronica and with anything with a real beat or meat. In fact, they’re kinda stunning this way. If you’re a bass-head and looking at custom in-ears, this is your Huckleberry, full stop.
Of the set, the UE 18 Pro is probably the easiest to recommend to just about anybody getting into this segment. It’s fun. It’s easy to listen to. It pairs well with most modern high-end electronics, and sins in all the right ways to make those electronics sound better than they are. The bass is big, the mids are warm and forward, and the treble is non-fatiguing. There’s really very little to not like. It’s the least expensive, too, which helps.
On the other hand, if you’re a more demanding listener, the K-10 is the most “audiophile” of the bunch, and yes, that’s a good thing. Like an extremely well-tuned loudspeaker, the K-10 makes itself completely invisible to the overall experience. It doesn’t intrude. It doesn’t overwhelm. The music is open, airy and dynamic, with rock-solid and flex-your-head bass. With the K-10, there really is “just the music”. While it may not be truly neutral, that is, it does have a voicing, it’s the most consistently pleasing I’ve run across and the best match when my sources were absolutely top-notch. This “laid back” presentation may not appeal to those looking for something more overt or in-your-face, and for those listeners, the other two may be a better fit. As always, your mileage may vary.
The way I’ve written survey is pretty open-ended; I was trying to figure out what each product was and who it’d appeal to, and then judge that product on those merits. In that light, all three are pretty amazing. For all that they target a similar price point and sit at a similar height — that is, the top of their respective vendor’s totem pole — all turned out to be very different. Will your preference differ? Maybe. Will I be insulted? Ha! No.
Given my preferences and my tools, the best of the set was the Noble Kaiser K-10. It just tickled my fancy a bit harder than the other two, lined up best with my expectations — and then exceeded them by more than a little. That’s worthy of an Editor’s Choice award.
In an odd bit of serendipity, contributor John Grandberg recently posted his review of the K-10 on InnerFidelity. Check that out for a different take.
Whether or not you agree with either of us is interesting, but you’re really going to need to check them out yourself. Which brings me to the last bit of serendipity — there’s now a couple of ways to do that.
Have you heard of Canjam?
There’s two of them next year (one in March in LA; another in October in Denver), and chances are, all three vendors will be there. So, if you’re in the market for a new kick-ass IEM, make some plans to get off your couch. Your ears will thank you. This will probably be the single best time to do your own taste-test — but if you do, then you really have to tell us what you think!