Noble Audio 5C, Switch, and Fabulous Kaiser 10 Custom IEMs Page 3

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Noble Kaiser 10 ($1599)
The trend in custom IEMs points towards ever increasing driver count. Back in the day, Ultimate Ears had the UE10pro which used a whopping three drivers per side in a 2-way configuration. Westone had the ES3 which was triple driver design with a 3-way crossover (a driver each for lows, mids, and highs), but it was voiced with a midrange bump and really more suitable for musicians than audiophiles. Their ES3x came later with a focus on listening. Things escalated from there—notable models in the progression include the Ultimate Ears UE11pro (quad drivers), JH Audio JH13pro (6 drivers), and John Moulton's own 8 driver design. By now it's fairly commonplace for most custom IEM companies to have a 6 driver or even an 8 driver design occupying the top slot.

Does more drivers always equal better sound? Not necessarily. Westone's Wall of Fame-worthy ES5 has a "mere" 5 drivers per side yet remains one of my favorite CIEMs at any price. The 1964 Ears V3, winner of Nate Maher's recent budget CIEM shootout, is also a favorite of mine—despite the relatively modest driver count. I don't quite consider it top tier on a technical level but the sound signature is right up my alley, so I use it more frequently than some of my other, higher-end models. Note the triple-driver Noble 3C tied the dual-driver JH Audio JH5 for second place in that roundup. It seems that finding a signature you love takes precedence over pure numbers, and some designers are able to do more with less.

Still, a higher driver count usually tends to result in better sound. More often than not, in my experience. More drivers equals more complexity to the build and more chance to screw up the sound, so I'd like to think most designers aren't just padding the numbers—that seems rather shortsighted. In my view, every good company doing custom IEMs should cover both ends: really good dual or triple driver models for reasonable prices, and some exotic flagship model with a higher driver count. Omitting either side limits their reach in this highly competitive space.

The Flagship
I already mentioned the Noble 8C, and I do recommend that model highly. But it's not the top offering from Noble. That honor goes to the Kaiser 10 ($1599) which uses—you guessed it—10 drivers per side. The arrangement is as follows: dual bass drivers, a pair for mids, another pair covering the mid/high transition, a pair dedicated to highs, and one more pair for "super-high" frequencies. Sounds like something that could easily become a train wreck in the wrong hands, but thankfully Dr. Moulton has the skills to pull off this complex design. Looking inside my translucent shells, I see practically every bit of space stuffed full of drivers and carefully arranged wiring. I can only imagine how long it takes to build each set; just the soldering alone must take ages.

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The Kaiser 10, or K10 for short, is so packed full of drivers that some folks won't be able to handle it. All those drivers plus the wiring, sound tubes and crossover components add up to an extremely full shell. As such the K10 may not be suitable for people with smaller ears. Noble seems to do a lot of business in Asia (a population with generally smaller ears) and I don't hear many rejection stories but it's something to keep in mind. It also means the K10 is not eligible to be paired with the Switch option.

Again, I need to reiterate the build quality and aesthetic features offered by Noble. Users can design their own look with choices like carbon fiber, wood, and brushed aluminum faceplates. The list of customization is extensive and I'm really oversimplifying here—check out the Noble website for some further ideas. Most of these range from $50 to $100 but a few cost more, such as the $300 wood inlay option (understandable when considering the craftsmanship involved). Noble distinguishes their flagship K10 by throwing in most any option you want without extra charge—the exception being that expensive wood inlay.

I got my Kaiser 10 with the special "Wizard Design" option. For an extra $400, Wizard will do a completely custom design using whatever theme you suggest (or random, if you prefer). The possibilities here are vast—custom color mixtures, unique faceplates, all manner of crazy stuff. In this case I ended up with a relatively subtle design—a deep, rich merlot-colored shell with a sort of "star view" on the faceplate. It's like gazing into the night sky, and my pictures just don't adequately capture the beauty involved. It's really something. Contrast this with my 5C which plays off the same theme but uses a brighter and lighter red, with a faceplate that I'm calling "spiral galaxy" for obvious reasons. It's more like a deep space view from the Hubble where details and patterns are more easily discerned compared to the view from Earth. I have yet to hear from someone disappointed by their Wizard Design theme. There's also plenty of solid or translucent colors to choose from if one desired a more simple look.

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The Sound and the Fury
The Kaiser 10 sounds to me like a perfect culmination of its predecessors. I hear shades of the old 8.A for dynamics, the 8C for that rich, creamy midrange, and even Dr. Moulton's ultra-rare 6.A Limited Edition for low end texture and refinement. The K10 has a more neutral sound than the prior flagship models but still isn't what I'd call a completely neutral CIEM—there remains a slight warm tilt to it, just a hair on the "musical" side of things. Think LCD-3 rather than HD800, and I mean that in the best possible way.

You might read about the driver array and assume the top end would be bright—a logical assumption with more than half of the drivers being dedicated to upper-midrange and highs. And yet, the K10 has one of the most delicately balanced treble presentations I've ever encountered. Let's be clear—it's not at all rolled off or dark, but rather very smooth and controlled. Extension rivals that of my JH13pro FreqPhase (itself a Wall of Fame model) but is slightly less "in your face". Cymbals have the requisit impact and energy to sound highly convincing. The thoroughly lifelike decay and spot-on timbre helps easily distinguish the sustained shimmer of a crash cymbal from the rapid bite of a splash cymbal. As I sit here listening to Jacques Loussier's 1996 Telarc release "Plays Bach" via the Astell&Kern AK240, it's hard to imagine the experience getting much better.

Which brings me to another important point—the K10 scales better than any CIEM I've ever heard. It sounds quite respectable out of a Sansa Clip+, an iDevice, or even my lowly Moto G Android phone. The treble presentation is such that it doesn't ruthlessly expose mediocre sources, making it more palatable than other contenders like the JH13 or Unique Melody Miracle when used in that context.

I then switch to a more premium DAP like the Fiio X5 and clearly hear the K10's performance boost. Ditto the move to Calyx M, solo AK240, and AK240 feeding a Chord Hugo. I also use it at home with the Aurender X100L music server, Audiophilleo 1 with PurePower, Resonessence Labs Invicta Mirus, and Violectric V281—roughly $12,000 worth of gear before cables or power conditioning—and the K10 just keeps on scaling higher. It's a gift that keeps on giving, yet manages to keep a sort of casual attitude about the whole affair—it's quite happy to be paired with an iPhone if that's all you have at the moment.

Let's talk pricing for a second. I look at the $1599 price tag on this CIEM and realize it won't be for everyone. There are some very competent models from other brands selling for hundreds less—I'd also encourage you to check out Noble's own 4C at $699 for a great all around performer. The nature of Summit-Fi gear is that the value doesn't track in a linear fashion; that last bit of performance tends to cost far more than everything preceding it. Still, when I consider the $1499 Sennheiser HD800 or the $1945 Audeze LCD-3, I find the Kaiser 10 easily measuring up in terms of performance per dollar spent. And if we consider expensive "also-ran" models like the $1399 beyerdynamic T1 and $1695 Grado PS-1000, then the Kaiser 10 starts to look like a downright bargain.

Comparisons
It may be illustrative to compare the K10 to current Wall of Fame CIEMs. The obvious contender, and a good place to start, is the Heir Audio 8.A from the same designer. As much as I love the 8.A for its rich, warm presentation, it just doesn't stack up very well in direct comparison. I find that the K10 has "just enough" bass emphasis and top end smoothness for most any situation, making the 8.A seem a bit overdone. The thick, lush sound of the 8.A is closer to the Noble 5C in that it doesn't have universal appeal—there are times where it absolutely works, and other times less so. I enjoy the 8.A enough to overlook that aspect and can easily build a system catering to its strengths, so I was happy to place it on the Wall of Fame.... but now I feel the K10 is worthy of superseding it. Especially since Heir Audio in its current form is something of an unknown—the key players have all moved on to form Noble Audio.

JH Audio's JH13pro FreqPhase is still one of my top recommendations. It's the type of CIEM that just blows you away on first listen and doesn't stop impressing as time goes by. The K10 has a very different presentation—it's somewhat warmer, smoother, and more thick without going too far in that direction. I like the speed and clarity of the JH13 and prefer it for some genres like classical and metal where a more in-your-face signature is called for. This is not to imply the K10 is lethargic; if anything the JH13 might sometimes have too much of this attribute. I find the K10 more natural sounding with jazz, blues, classic rock, and various other genres. In any case, these two CIEMs are both top examples of their particular sound signature, and both bring something unique to the table.

The Westone ES5 remains an excellent CIEM but is no longer a current model. The lineup now culminates with the 6-driver ES60, while ES50 takes second fiddle if judged by price and driver count. I've heard chatter claiming the ES50 is just an ES5 with a different cable connection, yet some have claimed to hear improvements in the sound; it's never been conclusively settled one way or the other. Either way, the "Westone ES5" technically no longer exists and thus should be retired from the Wall. The good news? Noble's K10 captures much of the ES5 spirit while expanding on its technicalities. As I browse my fellow contributor's opinions on the ES5, it occurs to me how well these descriptions fit the Kaiser 10 perhaps better than they do the Westone. I do hope we get to explore Westone's latest offerings soon but in the meantime I think the K10 is a worthy replacement. This is probably the only CIEM I've heard which makes my ES5 sound thin and boring by direct comparison. I've always admired how the ES5 does tonality but compared to the K10 it comes off as being somewhat artificial. This was surprising to me but I came to the same conclusion time after time. Whether playing a pure tone such as Yo-Yo Ma's cello or a massively busy work such as Mahler's Symphony No. 8 (nicknamed "Symphony of a Thousand"), I found myself thinking the same thing. Outdoing the ES5 at his own game is an immense accomplishment.

Conclusion
So there you have it—Noble Audio's stunning Kaiser 10 most definitely deserves a spot on our Wall of Fame. It has a brilliant yet nonchalant character which keeps me coming back for more. Factor in the remarkable build quality and customization options, and we end up with a CIEM worthy of replacing not one but two of my former favorites. Of all my in-ear monitors—scratch that, of all my headphones in general—the Kaiser 10 is the one I find myself reaching for most often these days; for portable use but also for dedicated listening at home. I'd say that speaks very highly of what Noble Audio has achieved with this flagship design. Well done.

Postscript
Just as I'm about to submit this write-up, Noble comes out with some big news—the K10 is now available in universal form. The universal version ships in early November and goes for the same $1599 price. It must have taken some serious wizardry to pack all those drivers into a compact universal shell, and it's big news for people who don't want to fuss with ear impressions.

Resources
Noble Audio home page and product pages for Custom Acrylic IEMs and Switch (in its generic form).
Head-Fi.org reviews for the Noble 6 and Kaiser 10.

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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