Noble Audio 5C, Switch, and Fabulous Kaiser 10 Custom IEMs

If you haven't yet seen our InnerFidelity roundup of top custom in-ear monitors, I urge you to take some time and read it through. It will catch you up on the ins-and-outs of the category as well as give you a good look at the various options on the market. You'll see which ones we liked, which ones we loved, and which ones were interesting but fell short of earning a recommendation for whatever reason. Note that those models weren't usually "bad" overall. Some were outshined by another in the group that had a similar character but did it a little better. Others had a very specific sound signature that was appealing yet limiting as to what music or sonic preferences it would mesh with. And some just didn't quite add up in terms of value for money. Overall I'd say it was a rather strong field though—almost certainly better than what you'd get by rounding up the top offerings in the full-size headphone category, where a number of models sound downright poor.

The winners of that shootout, and current proud members of the Wall of Fame: the JH13pro FreqPhase from Jerry Harvey Audio, Westone's ES5, the Heir Audio 8.A, and Unique Melody's Miracle. Ranging from $950 to $1299, these are serious audio tools for the music lover and quite possibly the professional as well. Each one gives its own unique flavor and brings something to the table that the others can't quite match. Any one of them is likely to bring a big smile to your face, and owning two of them (one neutral set and one more colored/fun model) makes for an endgame, desert-island type setup that covers all the bases.

Thing is, there's a ton of movement in this segment. Where Sennheiser and beyerdynamic might update their flagship headphone once or twice a decade, the custom IEM companies have a lot more room to grow. For starters, they get to bypass many of the challenges of full size headphone design—cups, slider mechanisms, headbands, pads, aesthetic concerns, etc—just due to the very nature of being custom molded in-ear monitors. The entire focus is therefore shifted to internal components like drivers, crossover, and sound tubes. They all pretty much use the same few choices of material (acrylic or silicone) as well as the same cabling system. So there's just less to worry about externally. It's also a younger market which means more room for innovation—this stuff hasn't been around for all that long, so it's still being figured out. For those reasons (and probably half a dozen more) we tend to see more new companies popping up, as well as more frequent refreshes in the lineups of existing brands. This includes the flagship models as well as the budget stuff. So, with our ToTL Madness article having established something of a consensus on our collective favorites, I think it's important to cover some of the new developments as they come to market. Fellow InnerFidelity scribe Nate Maher recently did just that with his roundup of entry level models, and came away with some really great options to choose from on the more affordable side of the spectrum.

Noble is Born
A fairly new development in the segment is the launch of Noble Audio. Doctor (of Audiology) John Moulton—nicknamed The Wizard for his design magic—was a cofounder of Heir Audio and designer of the 8.A which we enjoyed so much. In a situation somewhat reminiscent of the Ultimate Ears/Jerry Harvey split from years back, Dr. Moulton left his original company to form a new one called Noble Audio. Noble has been going strong for almost a year now, steadily releasing new models and building a rather enthusiastic fanbase. I own several of the Noble models and figured it was about time they get some attention here at InnerFidelity.

Noble has one of the most broad portfolios in the entire industry. They do custom IEMs ranging from 3 drivers to 10 drivers (IEMs driver count is always listed on a per side basis). Pricing starts at $350 and climbs as high as $1599. They use the traditional acrylic shells but also offer several models with silicone shells. Then there's the universal line which features injection molded ABS plastic shells. When other custom IEM companies offer universal versions (still not all that common at this point), most will hand build each set just as they would with their custom versions. Noble contends their method gives advantages in durability, consistency, and quality control, and though it did cost them a sizable investment to get the process going, they feel it was worth it. Lastly, Noble offers an option they call "Switch" which is really unique—I'll discuss it further on the next page.

One thing Wizard is known for is amazing aesthetics. You want hand carved wooden faceplates? Carbon fiber inlays? Or something custom that you've never seen done on a CIEM? Take a look at some more Noble designs and you'll see all manner of creative designs. Other CIEM companies now do fancy stuff like wood faceplates but I contend A) few, if any, can match what Noble is doing, and B) the whole trend was spurred on by Dr. Moulton in the first place. Before he came on the scene a few years back, we weren't seeing anything near this level of customization. Would other brands have eventually figured this stuff out on their own? No doubt. I just think The Wizard came in with his artistry and put everyone else on notice, which really accelerated the process.

Noble Audio
19 W Carrillo St
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
(805) 886-5255

steaxauce's picture

Good to hear a stamp of approval on the K10. It sounds like they may be up my alley, whereas the 5C, on the other hand, definitely wouldn't be.

From reading your reviews I get the sense that we agree on what the ideal headphone should sound like. Where we seem to differ wildly is on what kinds of deviations from ideal are the most offensive. I find most dark, mid-bass heavy, soft-sounding headphones to be very boring, whereas a more forward-than-neutral sound is less of a problem. Examples: I thought the SRH840 was very dull, but didn't have any trouble living with the SRH940. The UE6000 made your wall of fame at $199, but I got a refurbished pair post-discontinuation for $40 and still found them so dull and boring that I regretted the purchase--even at that price. My current go-to headphone is the Focal Spirit Pro, which I prefer to all of the above. I also have an SRH1540, and while they beat the Focal in some respects, I find them to be a little bit wonky in some ways.

In spite of our differences in preferences, though, I feel I generally have a good idea of what a headphone will sound like and whether I'll like it after reading one of your reviews, which is great.

I have a couple of questions, if you find time to answer. First, if you had to choose between the K10 and JH13 and were required to toss the other out, which would you keep? (This is basically the dilemma I face.) Do the "Freqphase" JH13 still have a major advantage in clarity?

The other question is about JH's new "flagship", the Roxanne, which I haven't heard you talk about. Can you comment at all on how they fit into the lineup?

steaxauce's picture

Well, that's a little embarrassing. I assumed you were Tyll. You can ignore my comments about our relative preferences as I'm not really familiar with yours. Thanks anyway for the excellent review, and I'd still be interested in any thoughts you have on the above two questions.

John Grandberg's picture

No problem. I'm glad my writing is decent enough to be mistaken for Tyll's. I really enjoyed the Focal Spirit Pro so we're on the same page in that regard.

Personally, if forced to choose I'd take the Noble as my only CIEM. However, based on what you've told me I think the JH13 FP might be more up your alley. They don't necessary have "more" clarity but there's a more deliberate focus on upper midrange and highs. The K10 contains similar amounts of "information" but is more relaxed about it.

I haven't personally heard the Roxanne yet and I'm not sure if Tyll had a chance yet either. It will definitely be investigated at some point down the road.... it's just hard to keep up with all the new releases in this area.

steaxauce's picture

John, thanks for the reply. In general the signature you describe in the JH13 sounds more up my alley, but it's hard to know for sure. I still have a few months to decide; maybe I can get my hands on some universals to listen to in the meantime. Thanks for your thoughts, and, when you get to try out a Roxanne, I'll be interested to see if they unseat the JH13!

GNagus's picture

I suppose this is as good of a place to ask this question as any:

Why is it just the IEM headphones that utilise crossovers and multi-driver configurations? Can't full range sound be achieved using one single driver?

Furthermore, why don't full size headphones use multiple drivers and crossovers?

John Grandberg's picture

From the early days, IEMs generally used balanced armature drivers, and those were originally designed for the hearing aid market. They were never really intended for true full range reproduction of complex music at higher volumes.

If you look for example at the measurement page for the classic Etymotic ER4 which uses a single BA driver run "full range", you'll notice a significant increase in THD+N when measured at 100dB versus 90dB. Now look at a Shure SE535 or an Ultimate Ears TF10 (both multi-driver designs), and see how they maintain their composure far better as the volume increases.

If you google the data sheet for the Knowles ED29689 driver (which is used in the Etymotic ER4) you'll see their frequency response chart shows a steep drop off starting at just 5kHz. By 7kHz they are -30dB down relative to 1kHz. Obviously Etymotic is getting a lot more extension out of that driver, but still..... something's gotta give.

Now, IEMs with dynamic drivers are more comfortable going full range with just the one driver on board. Not to say they always sound as good as multi-BA designs.... some do, some don't. And some brands use two or even three dynamic drivers in their designs. And some even go hybrid. It's complicated and there are benefits and drawbacks to every design.

As for full sized headphones, that's a question better left for Tyll to answer. Final Audio Design has a large sealed model using a combo of dynamic and balanced armature drivers. It sounds pretty bad to my ears but I don't know if that's due to the multi-driver setup just their choice of tuning.

alexnishi's picture

Hi John,

How would you compare these 5C to the UM Merlin, being both bass oriented CIEMs, with similar price tags?

John Grandberg's picture

The Merlin, while definitely having large bass and a somewhat relaxed sound compared to its Miracle sibling, is still not as warm as the 5C. Merlin is sharper in the upper mids and more impactful with low bass. 5C is smoother up top and therefore more forgiving. It also has a lot more midbass energy.

I think Merlin is probably better suited as an all-arounder for bass lovers, while 5C is more of a dedicated basshead model, if that makes any sense.

alexnishi's picture

Have you heard the Mentor? Do you know how does it compare to the Merlin?

John Grandberg's picture
I haven't had the time to investigate several notable new CIEMs that really deserve some attention. Among those are the Mentor, the JH Roxanne, and the Westone ES60. I hope to make time for that soon but don't really have a time frame thus far.