by Joshua Emmons
I don’t envy Noble Audio in their crusade to convert the world to IEMs. First, people intuitively believe big sound comes from big drivers, and unless you’re doing it wrong, IEMs will always be physically diminutive in size. Then, a quick informal survey of my IEM-hating friends shows discomfort as being their number-one turn off. How can you spread the good word if you can’t even get people to try them on? Finally, many (myself most definitely included) find things you stick in your ear about as appealing to handle (or even talk about) as items wedged between your toes on a hot, sweaty day.
That’s a lot of obstacles for Noble to overcome. Lucky for all of us, they have a plan.
How do you make a small device make a big sound? Part of the solution is to bring it as close to the ear as possible, of course. But once you’re in the ear, it’s also necessary to understand how the ear works — not just how something sounds, but how it sounds to the ear. And for that you’re going to want an audiologist. Hopefully with a background in hearing aids. Which thankfully Noble has.
Their innovative designs cram up to ten (!) drivers into a small IEM with 4-way crossover. This dedicates drivers to lows, mids, highs, and ultra-highs, and I can say first-hand that the result is detailed, expressive, and, thanks to their audiological wizardry, larger than life. The lows are full and lush, the highs clear and ringing. I literally can’t believe I’m not wearing full-sized cans.
I want more.
But if you have weirdly-shaped ears like mine, it doesn’t matter how good IEMs sound if you can only wear them for short bursts without pain. This is where the custom fit Noble is famous for comes into play.
When you order a pair of Noble’s custom in-ear monitors (CIEMs), you actually visit an audiologist and have them inject your ear canal with silicon to create an impression. Not unlike impressions of your teeth made at the dentist, these molds can be used to craft form-fitting prosthetics that rest naturally along your body without tugging, pulling, or digging in to the delicate bits.
But this process is, for obvious reasons, hard to demo. Sure, I’ve found any number of deliriously happy testimonials from converts on the usual message boards, but the thought of shelling out $400–$1600 for IEMs that I’m not sure will feel right is still daunting to me.
Noble has two points to offer up as encouragement. First, if I find my CIEMs to be uncomfortable, I can send them back within 30 days for a free refit. Second, if I decide I just don’t like them at all, I can always sell them.
“How?” I ask. “They’d be custom molded to fit my individual ears!” Well, it turns out Noble also offers an “Ownership Transfer Program”. If I sell my CIEMs to someone else (or buy some from someone else, used), they can be sent to Noble with new impressions and be refit for a nominal $250 fee.
One advantage of a custom fit is you can get good in-ear isolation without using one of those silicone “christmas tree” tips that seem specifically designed to scoop out ear wax and make me vomit.
So let’s talk about that elephant in the room for a moment: I think ears, as a concept, are gross. Things that go in-ears and come out again are super-extra-ultra-gross. Little black plastic things that collect wax in their seams then sit in a case where dust and hair and bugs get stuck until they get shoved into and out of ears again? I’m beyond the capacity for speech.
But Noble’s CIEMs aren’t like that. First, they’re like little seamless acrylic sculptures. When I ask how to clean them, I’m essentially told, “Wipe them with a wetnap.” If I’m going to put something in my ear, I want to be smooth, polished, and easily disinfectable.
Then secondly, and perhaps more importantly, these things are beautiful. Not “modern industrial design” beautiful, either. I mean, like, “amazing custom works of art” beautiful.
Again, this is to demo because Noble doesn’t bring many CIEMs with them to their table. But if you browse even a little of their online “lookbook” you’ll know what I mean. Noble’s taken an object I frankly find slightly repulsive and turned it into, no joke, an object of desire.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s way more incredible than packing 10 drivers into an IEM.
So I’m clearly sold, but there’s actually a final conundrum for me. Now that I’m convinced I need to toss my earbuds for a pair of CIEMs, a lot of my bud-friendly devices — particularly wearables like the Apple Watch — are moving bluetooth-only.
It shouldn’t surprise me at this point that Noble has thought of this and has an answer. It’s called the BTS and it’s shipping this month.
With the BTS, Noble is adopting a modular solution to wireless. It essentially allows you to add bluetooth to any of their IEMs — or anything with a standard headphone jack, for that matter.
It’s a tiny (about the size of two Tootsie Rolls) clip-on bluetooth dongle with a mic and transport buttons included. Plug your headphones in, pair it to your device, and you’re ready to rock out while you work out.
It’s a marvelous little dongle that pairs easily with my watch, and sounds great over the Noble 5s I’m testing. At $99, it’s a no-brainer if you’re looking to take your IEMs wireless.
- Noble 3/3C: $350/$450
- Noble 4/4C: $450/$699
- Noble 5/5C: $650/$950
- Noble 6/6C: $999/$1,099
- Noble 8C: $1,299
- Noble K10: $1,599
- Noble BTS: $99