First Listen: Noble Audio Kaiser 10 (K10) custom-fit in-ear monitors
At AXPONA 2014 I experienced a ‘new-to-me/ discovery when I was introduced to Noble Audio (not to be confused with the great in-wall loudspeaker manufacturer Noble Fidelity) and Brannan Mason, one of the co-owners of the San Diego, CA-based firm. Noble Audio is a manufacturer of very high-quality universal-fit and custom-fit in-ear monitors that have a developed a quite substantial and passionate following among enthusiasts at Head-Fi (www.headfi.org). Even though I am many years older than Brannan Masson is, I quickly came to suspect that—when it comes to in-ear transducers—we might be kindred spirits.
I sensed this because, from the very outset, Brannan demonstrated an obsession with product quality (something I heartily applaud), and because he had a keen understanding that while there is a time and place to seek out high-accuracy ‘monitoring’ or ‘reference’-type transducers, there can also be a place for products that—while not strictly neutral in their voicing—nevertheless provide fantastically seductive and engrossing listening experiences (and hey, don’t we all need more of those?). As Brannan pointed out, Noble Audio stands ready, willing, and able to supply models that can suit either need.
I must confess, too, that I was influenced by Brannan’s plucky decision to demonstrate his firm’s products powered solely by an entire fleet of Chord Hugo portable amp/DACs—devices that as many of you already know we at Hi-Fi+ greatly admire. Granted, Noble Audio is a successful reseller of the Chord product, but even so it does certain take a certain level of dedication to set up a display table with six or seven IEM listening stations, all of them driven by Hugos.
As I took notes, Brannan gave a sort of verbal ‘walking tour’ of the Noble product line and then he invited me to review a set of the firm’s flagship Kaiser 10 CIEM (CIEM is Noble’s abbreviation for ustom-fit n-ar onitors). The K10s, as they are known, sell for $1599 per pair, though prices can vary depending upon the finishes chosen—up to and including options for exotic, one-off earpiece artwork designs prepared specifically to suit the owner’s preferences.
Let me come right out and say it: the K10 has by far the most elaborate driver array of any custom-fit monitor I’ve ever sampled, and I’ve tried quite a few. Specifically, it provides a 4-way array comprised of (no, that’s not a typo) balanced armature-type drivers per earpiece, configured as follows:
- Two precision tuned bass drivers,
- Two precision tuned mid frequency drivers,
- Two precision tuned mid/high frequency drivers,
- Two precision tuned high frequency drivers, and
- Two precision tuned super-high frequency drivers.
Nominal impedance is <35 Ohms and the firm otherwise publishes no specifications on frequency response, sensitivity, weight, or on the CIEM’s cable structure, other than to say that the K10 comes with a ‘detachable cable with industry standard two-pin configuration’.
Ah, but if you listen to online chatter regarding the Kaiser 10, you will quickly discern that it has a wide and passionate following among in-ear headphonistas and is widely thought to be a very special product indeed.
Brannan pointed out that the K10 is not, please note, one of his firm’s ‘accuracy über alles’ monitoring-grade CIEMs. Rather, the K10 was designed, as Brannan put it, “by ear first and graph second” where the aim was to “create a balanced-sounding flagship-caliber CIEM that people of diverse musical tastes and backgrounds would enjoy listening to.”
The K10 was also designed to be a pretty darned magnificent piece of eye-candy, too, as one of Noble’s specialities is the ability to create a vast array of custom art treatments for its CIEMs. Naturally, the more exotic the design you choose, the more expensive its implementation might be, but the options are essentially endless. If you can imagine it, Noble can build it.
For my review set ot K10s, Brannan invited me to check out and choose from among some of the exotic artwork designs previously created by Noble co-owner John (the ‘Wizard’) Moulton, and I must say that Moulton’s work is truly spectacular. For my pair of K10, I chose an available Moulton/Wizard design that features translucent teal green acrylic earpieces that give the illusion of having been infused with small nuggets of pure gold. The completed CIEMs look absolutely phenomenal (photos don’t entirely do them justice) and have, as a finishing touch, my name (‘C. Martens’) etched in gold cursive script on one earpiece with the signature of the ‘Wizard’ on the other. The beauty of the Noble approach is that you can, if you wish, let your imagination run free as you choose an art scheme to suit your taste (or, as in my case, to indulge an admittedly child-like sense of whimsy). Again, if you can imagine it, Noble can build it.
One very important point to note is that Noble offers a system whereby a current Noble owner might sell his pre-owned CIEMs to a third-party who would in turn be able to take advantage of a special Noble service through which new custom earpieces would (for a fee) be crafted and fitted with the original CIEM’s drive units and crossover components–essentially re-manufacturing the CIEM to create a perfect fit for the new owner. To my knowledge, no other CIEM maker offers such a re-manufacturing service to facilitate sales of pre-owned CIEMs.
In passing, I should point out that not only are the K10 earpieces lovely to look at, but they are also wonderfully comfortable to wear—arguably the most comfortable acrylic-bodied CIEM earpieces I’ve ever experienced. Even though the K10 earpieces are a bit larger than most (those ten driver per side have got to go somewhere, after all), they don’t feel bulky at all and they also offer shockingly good noise isolation.
How do the K10s sound? I’m still early on in the listening process and will be working toward a formal Hi-Fi+ review for the future, but at this early stage I would summarize my initial findings with just two powerful words: Total Immersion.
What I mean by the term “Total Immersion” is a tricky thing to describe, but I would say that the K10s, more so than virtually any other CIEMs I’ve tried thus far, take you outside of your normal, analytical, critical audiophile mindset and instead take you to a wonderfully liberating listening space where you are just, plain in music. Imagine, if you will, finding a hot tub located in a tropical paradise, then filling that tub with your favourite music instead of with water, and then chucking yourself in. “Ahhh,” you might think (as I certainly did), “ the stuff.”
Is the K10 accurate, in terms of strict, follow-the-rulebook, tonal neutrality? No, it is not (although I’m told some owners do use their K10s as monitoring references).
Will you care? The answer depends a good bit on whether you can set aside preconceived notions about what audiophiles are ‘supposed’ to like and instead just go with the flow. If you can do that, there’s a pretty good chance you will love some of the other special sonic qualities the K10 has on offer, which are:
- Very, very high sensitivity (no power-related amplifier problems here),
- Killer dynamics (transient sounds can be breathtakingly powerful and incisive at times),
- Stunning spatial imaging (no, the K10s don’t image like loudspeakers do, but they offer a very compelling alternative in the form of imaging that effortlessly stretches from far outside one side of your head, through the middle, and then far on out the other side),
- Deep, complex, richly layered bass, and
- Detailed and extended yet smoother-than-smooth highs.
I’ll have much more to say about the K10’s sound and the particulars of its voicing when I craft my full-on Hi-Fi+ review, but for now let me just observe that the Kaiser 10 (named for Noble master craftsman Kaiser Soze) is one of the most joyously immersive audio products I’ve run across in a long, long time.
Stay tuned for the upcoming Hi-Fi+ review and in the meantime remember that while high-end audio is serious business, it is also supposed to bring us moments of pure, unalloyed joy.
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