Noble Audio 5C, Switch, and Fabulous Kaiser 10 Custom IEMs Page 2

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Noble 5C ($950)
The first Noble model up for review is the 5C with the Switch option. By their naming conventions, that translates to a 5 driver design custom molded in acrylic. A universal model (Noble 5) is also available, as is a custom version using a silicone shell (5S). All variations use the same drivers in a 3-way crossover configuration with dual mids and highs paired with a single low frequency driver. This is the same setup used by Westone in their ES5 but don't take that to mean they sound anything alike—that's akin to assuming any two sets of headphones using 40mm drivers must sound identical. Which of course is easily disproved by comparing Sony's MDR-V6 to their MDR-XB500. Both models use 40mm drivers and yet sound wildly different.

The Noble 5C goes for $950 which does put it squarely in competition with the ES5. Noble says the 5C was designed to closely emulate the sound signature of the 8 driver Noble 8C model in a more affordable package. There's also the issue of shell size—some folks with smaller ears simply don't have enough room to accommodate all 8 of those drivers, so the 5C is might be a workable alternative for them.

The Noble 8C is an excellent CIEM which I reviewed over at Head-Fi.org and thoroughly enjoy. It takes the Wall of Fame-worthy 8.A design and expands upon it, resulting in a more balanced approach. The thing is, some people might not be looking for the increased maturity level of that evolutionary design. The extra high frequency information makes for a more even handed signature, but some people might prefer that original laid back, visceral response. This brings to mind the original Audeze LCD-2 as compared to later models—while many agreed with the idea of making them more well rounded in the later revisions, some felt the original magic was missing, and therefore preferred the shelved down, more bass heavy original model. I'd say those are exactly the people Noble is reaching out to with the 5C.

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The Gut Punch
Noble knows the 5C is not at all a neutral, balanced sounding IEM. They describe it as having "deep, thick, layered bass and highs that never fatigue". I'd say that's a fairly accurate description though it maybe doesn't go far enough. We're talking subterranean bass impact that shakes the foundations, combined with a nicely detailed top end that is indeed fairly smooth. You fancy yourself a basshead? This CIEM should absolutely be on your radar.

Yes, the Noble 5C is definitely far from neutral, but it's a coloration that I tend to enjoy much of the time. Bass is positively massive. It extends high enough in the spectrum to where it isn't limited strictly to sub-bass. This puts a definite warm tilt to everything you play—saxophones or male vocals have a bit of "honk" to them which makes the 5C not ideally suited for certain genres. If Chet Baker and Sinatra are your thing then you might look elsewhere.

The flip side of that coin is other genres which work fabulously. Specifically, anything with a focus on big bass. I confess I don't like the term "EDM", and frankly a lot of music shoved into that category is garbage. Sometimes nailing down the differences between EDM subcategories is like asking some long-haired, Darkthrone-shirt-wearing bass player to explain the intricacies of black metal versus death metal. That is to say—it's a losing proposition. Your time might be better spent just listening and deciding for yourself what you enjoy. I got a literal kick out of using the 5C with my "best of" playlists for Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Massive attack, Stanton Warriors, and Pendulum. I did more laid back stuff like Aphex Twin and Emancipator, tried the soundtracks from both Tron Legacy and the original Tron, and even went through my Kraftwerk: Der Katalog box set (in the original German, natürlich). The 5C offers a sumptuous listening experience with this type of material, with a large, well defined soundstage and seemingly limitless extension on the low end.

The 5C's strengths are not just limited to electronic music. On the 24-bit/88.2kHz release of "Sho' 'Nuff" by George "Wild Child" Butler, the added warmth almost gives the impression of hearing it live in a smallish, crowded venue, the imperfect acoustics resulting in flawed but spectacular sound. This recording is very clear but the percussion does seem a bit thin to my ears, which takes away some of the realism—if you've ever been in the room with a real drummer in action, you'll know how much energy and impact there should be. The 5C brings this out quite well. Is it neutral? No. Accurate to the original recording? Not really. But is it convincing? To my ears, yes.

"Georgia on my Mind" as sung by Mari Nakamoto, from a First Impression Music XRCD complilation, is a simple track consisting of vocals backed up by a fat bass line—which needs no additional assistance. The 5C does an excellent job with vocal tone, but does sort of overwhelm with the bass. The result is probably closer to what the bass player himself would hear as opposed to an audience member who gets a more balanced sound. It's an interesting presentation and I can't really decide if I love it or hate it. One thing's for sure—I will never confuse this for any of my other CIEMs from other brands. The 5C definitely stands out in a crowd. My pal Scot Hull from Part Time Audiophile seems to agree—see this post where he tries the whole lineup and declares "this would be the one I would recommend as the best bang for the buck." He was talking about the universal demo versions but the point remains—some people will absolutely love these things.

Summing It Up
All told, the Noble 5C is more of a blunt instrument than a sonic scalpel. I don't mean that as an insult—a baseball bat is a blunt instrument too, and is sometimes the right tool for the job. Other situations call for something more delicate, in which case an alternative would be preferred. If Noble made all their products with a similar signature then I'd be a little concerned. But they don't—others in the line are the V-shaped 3C and the neutral 4C. As such I think the 5C fills a somewhat underrepresented niche among higher-end custom IEMs. If the JH16pro won't scratch your impact itch, the Noble 5C may be your last hope. I don't quite feel comfortable giving the 5C a blanket recommendation because I recognize it won't work for everyone. Yet in some cases this is absolutely the right way to go, and I'm glad it exists to fill that void.

The Switch
But wait—what about the Switch option I mentioned earlier? It's a really unique offering that, to my knowledge, nobody else has ever done. For an extra $275 Noble can add an additional IEM inside your shell, activated by a switch on the faceplate. Two entirely separate IEMs in the same shell? Yep, in addition to the 5C drivers and crossover components, the Switch option adds a completely different single driver IEM design, with a signal path that stays separate until it merges at the sound tube.

This is kind of a big deal and now that I've experienced it, I'm actually surprised nobody thought of it sooner. Lime Ears and M-Fidelity (formerly known as Starkey) both have models which allow deactivation of certain drivers in order to give the option, for example, of a bass heavy or bass light signature. That's interesting in and of itself but somewhat limited in scope. The Noble Switch is a full blown, dedicated design separate from the main IEM which makes it entirely unique in the IEM world. It can only be added to their 3C, 4C, or 5C models—go higher than that and there's not enough room in the shell for all those drivers. Switch is also available in two separate universal IEM models if custom molding isn't your style.

Noble refers to the Switch mode single driver design as the R configuration. The "R" is for "Reference" and is described as being fast, resolving, and somewhat analytical. Think Etymotic, minus the brain-ticklingly deep insertion requirement. The actual switch itself goes on the faceplate and feels quite robust—apparently it's a tried and true component used in hearing aid applications. Switching back and forth, you'll immediately hear the difference no matter which Noble model you started with, and may even need to adjust your volume with each flip of the switch. Realistically, once you get over the novelty of switching back and forth all the time, you'll probably stick with one configuration or the other for each listening session.

Of the three different Noble CIEMs eligible for the Switch add-on, the 5C offers by far the biggest contrast in sound signatures. The R configuration offers extremely tight, clean sound, very studio monitor like in presentation. Contrast that to the 5C which is anything but neutral, and you basically have polar opposites—especially in terms of low frequency response. It's so different as to be somewhat jarring. I'd start with the 5C and become used to its bombastic impact and silky-smooth midrange, and then flick the switch to find..... a sharp, cold, sterile sound. It seemed so thin as to have virtually no bass at all. And the soundstage, such as it is with in-ear monitors, collapsed to become very up front and intimate. My first impression was that I'd never enjoy this type of sound.

Fast forward about 10 minutes worth of listening, and I'd find myself loving the R configuration for its (sometimes brutal) honesty, breathtaking clarity, and even its tight, accurate bass reproduction. And then I'd engage the 5C and.... huh? This is an overdone mess. How did I ever enjoy this? It sounds like a caricature, like a low impedance headphone overdamped by extremely high output impedance. Where's my detail? Why is everything so spread out? And why is that bass always booming? I could never live with a sound like this. But then 10 minutes later...... It's amazing how much the brain adapts after a little time spent listening.

Before taking delivery of this CIEM, I would have assumed the 5C was the main attraction, and the Switch was merely a novelty add-on to showcase the concept. Little did I know that I would actually end up using it more than the 5C itself. I've never quite been in love with the Etymotic ER4S because the comfort aspect just killed it for me. Although I enjoyed the sound quite a bit, I just couldn't stomach using them for more than a short time. The R configuration has the obvious edge in comfort and interestingly enough even seems to outperform the ER4S by a small degree. It feels slightly thicker, less brittle, while remaining true to the neutral core signature. This may simply be a matter of me getting a better fit, as I'm just much more comfortable with custom molded IEMs these days.

Either way, I'm hooked on the Switch option. The R configuration itself has a lot to offer, and the concept in general seems pretty exciting. The 5C is very specific in what sorts of music it works with therefore is not typically my first choice when I'm heading out the door. But, with the Switch available, it becomes a hugely versatile CIEM that I can use with most anything I want to play. Each sound compliments the other and the result is one compelling CIEM. Hats off to The Wizard for successfully implementing this unique idea.

COMPANY INFO
Noble Audio
19 W Carrillo St
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
contact@nobleaudio.com
(805) 886-5255
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
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.
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