Many of my non-audiophile friends and neighbours who have interest in high-performance universal earphones are astonished to learn just how expensive top-tier models can really be. After all, top-of-the-range offerings from firms such as 64 Audio, JH Audio, Noble Audio, Ultimate Ears, and Westone all carry hefty, four-figure price tags, which is simply more than many would-be enthusiasts are prepared to spend. What, then, can individuals with proverbial ‘champagne tastes and beer budgets’ do to satisfy their cravings for earphones offering excellence at down-low prices? One possible answer is for them to explore options made available through Massdrop.
For those of you unfamiliar with the name, Massdrop is an e-commerce company and website that was established in 2012 and which offers what amounts to a mass buying service for several classes of niche products that appeal to Massdrop’s various enthusiast ‘communities’. The most relevant products for our readers are probably those associated with Massdrop’s ‘Audiophile’ community, though there are at present 20 well-established communities for members to choose from. Membership to Massdrop is free.
Here’s how the Massdrop mass buying service works. Massdrop’s actively polls its community members to learn what products would be of particular interest. Then, Massdrop approaches manufacturers of the products in question to see if a bargain can be struck for a one-time, high-volume purchase of the desired products. If so, Massdrop arranges a ‘Drop’ where the product is offered to members at a significantly discounted price vis-à-vis its normal suggested retail price, but typically for a limited time only and with only a limited number of units available. The one and only catch is that there usually will be a waiting period of weeks or even months between ‘Drop’ purchases and actual product deliveries, but—for those willing to be patient—there are legitimate bargains to be had.
(In case you’re wondering, Massdrop makes its money by arranging ‘Drop’ pricing so that Massdrop will realise a small amount of profit on each ‘Drop’ sale made, which seems only fair since it’s Massdrop’s infrastructure and negotiating expertise that have made the special ‘Drop’ offer possible in the first place.)
An even more interesting twist in the process is that Massdrop does not always negotiate special ‘Drop’ deals for existing product models; instead, Massdrop sometimes collaborates with manufacturers to create special, Massdrop-only products that will be of particular interest to community members. One such made-for-Massdrop product that has caught our attention is the ‘Massdrop by Noble X’ universal-fit earphone (normally written as ‘Massdrop x Noble X’), which typically carries a ‘Drop’ price of $249.99. The Noble X (as I’ll call it for the remainder of this review) is a high-quality, two-way, dual-bore, universal-fit earphone fitted with two USA-made balanced armature-type drivers. The earphone is designed by Noble Audio co-founder Dr John Moulton (known throughout the high-end headphone community as the ‘Wizard’) and takes as its design inspiration the well-loved but now discontinued Noble Savant earphone (reviewed in Hi-Fi+ issue 137) as well as the present day Noble Savanna and Django earphones. Significantly, though, the Noble X is less than half the price of even the least expensive of those three reference models.
Physically, the Noble X follows the general construction pattern of Noble’s other ‘Classic Series’ earphones, which means that the Noble X earpiece consists of an inner section moulded from metallic charcoal-grey ABS thermoplastic with outer caps made of CNC machined aluminium. In keeping with past Noble practice, the outer caps are anodised with their own model-specific colour—in this case a delicious shade of deep midnight blue. There are, though, some subtle visual differentiators for the Noble X in that its end-caps are surfaced with counter-opposing semi-circular swirls (whereas normal Noble Classic models have dimpled surfaces somewhat reminiscent of the textures of golf balls). In turn, the sides of the Noble X end-caps are carved with distinctive knurled, basket-weave-like surfaces that are reassuringly easy to grip. Like all Noble universal-fit earphones, the Noble X is set-up for use with detachable, user-replaceable signal cables that are fitted, on the earphone ends, with industry-standard two-pin connectors.
On the inside, the Noble X features dual proprietary, USA-made balanced armature-type drivers, though astute readers will note that Noble does not claim to use the purpose-built, Noble-designed, and Knowles-made drivers used in Noble’s more costly models. As a nod toward cost-savings, the Noble X comes with a significantly less elaborate set of accessories than the premium-price Noble offerings. Accessories include a 50-inch detachable signal cable with two-pin earphone connectors and a 3.5mm TRS plug, two pairs of single-flange ear tips (sizes M and L), two pairs of Noble foam ear tips (size M and L), one pair of double-flange silicone ear tips, a cleaning tool, a Noble warranty tag, and a hard shell carrying case that looks much like a translucent jar for cosmetic products with a screw-on metal lid.
How does the Noble X sound? If pressed for a capsule description I’d say the Noble X offers a very well balanced frequency response with a terrific quality of even-tempered, natural, and organic warmth. This latter quality is born I think, of a gentle and broad touch of mid-bass warmth, coupled with natural-sounding mids, plus highs that, while not recessed or rolled-off, are extremely smooth in character. Taken together, these qualities make for an earphone that works well with almost all types of music and that can be driven successfully by everything from smartphones and tablets on up to high-quality digital audio players (DAPs) and headphone amp/DACs.
To appreciate the top-end smoothness and clarity the Noble X has on offer, try listening to violinist Hillary Hahn’s recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending [Deutsche Grammophon, 16/44.1], paying very close attention to the upper register harmonics of Hahn’s violin and also to the sounds of her bowing changes. What you will discover is that all the expected high-frequency content is present and accounted for, but with a wonderfully gracious and even-handed presentation that stands in pleasant contrast to the sorts of screechy, over-heated, and hyper-spotlighted highs that some ostensibly ‘detailed’ earphones produce. While the latter devices might seem impressive for the first five or ten seconds of listening, they tend to shift in one’s perceptions from ‘impressive’ to ‘oppressive’ over the longer haul. By comparison, the Noble X’s become more satisfying the longer you listen because their naturalism is authentic and geared for longer-term satisfaction.
To appreciate my comments on the Noble X’s broad and gentle touch of mid-bass warmth, let me recommend trying the Noble X’s on the exotic track ‘Ghazali’ from bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons’ Oriental Bass [Enja, 16/44.1]. The song is performed on a distinctive five-string acoustic bass (normal acoustic basses have only four strings) and serves as a sumptuous showcase highlighting not only the instrument’s surprisingly broad tonal range, but also the many timbres and moods that—in Garcia-Fons’ capable hands—it is capable of revealing. Many earphones have trouble capturing the sheer weight and gravitas of bass instruments as well as their timbral complexity, but the Noble X is a happy exception to the rule. Its light touch of mid-bass lift reveals the depth and the rich earthiness of low-frequency instruments, yet without making them sound exaggerated or overly forward within the mix. While some purists might wish for a leaner, more pluperfect, linear sound (which the Noble Savanna offers, since its frequency response is said to be as flat as, well, Savanna flatlands), my estimate is that many would prefer the Noble X’s low-end, especially for use in imperfect real-world environments where low-frequency noise may be present.
To give you some idea of just how good the Noble X is, let me provide a brief anecdote. Recently I demonstrated a collection of high-quality earphones for a colleague, starting with the Noble X at the low end of the price spectrum and ranging on up to a model in the $2,000 range. After listening to (and enjoying) all the earphones on hand, my colleague drew a deep breath and said, “All performance factors considered, I think my favourite of the bunch is that one,” as he pointed toward the Noble X. That the Noble X can compete with models many times its price is a testament to the sheer musical value it represents for its modest price. Highly recommended.
A Brief Word on Massdrop Product ‘Drops’:
Massdrop product ‘Drops’ are typically active only for fairly short periods of time, with pricing attractive enough that ‘Drops’ routinely sell out. But don’t despair; when a product ‘Drop’ proves highly successful Massdrop typically shows the ‘Drop’ as having ended, but also provides a sidebar where prospective customers can click to indicate requests for a future repeat ‘Drop’ for the same product. As this is written, Massdrop’s latest Noble X ‘Drop’ has just sold out (and did so in only a few days), but there are already hundreds of requests for a repeat Noble X ‘Drop’. Just bear in mind that when repeat ‘Drops’ do come along, users should plan on making their purchase decisions quickly.
Type: Two-way, dual-bore, universal-fit earphone
Driver complement: Two proprietary balanced armature-type drivers sourced from a US manufacturer
Frequency Response: 15Hz–20kHz
Impedance: 30 Ohms
Sensitivity: Not specified
Accessories: A 50-inch detachable signal cable with 2-pin earphone connectors and a 3.5mm TRS plug, two pairs of single-flange ear tips (sizes M and L), two pairs of Noble foam ear tips (size M and L), one pair of double-flange silicone ear tips, a cleaning tool, a Noble warranty tag, and a hard shell carrying ‘jar’.
Price: Typical Massdrop ‘Drop’ price is $249
Optional: For an additional $40, the Noble X can be ordered with a signal cable terminated with an Apple-type Lightning connector in addition to the standard 3.5mm plug
Manufacturer: Noble Audio
Worldwide Distribution for this model: Massdrop Inc.