In the world of high performance personal audio there can be no more ‘personal’ a product than a fine set of custom-fit in-ear monitors (often abbreviated as ‘CIEMs’). I say this because CIEMs are the only transducers I can think of that are purpose built to address the listening requirements of just one person: you.
As most of you already know, CIEMs are different to universal-fit earphones in that their earpieces are custom-shaped to fit the exact contours of a specific user’s ear canals and outer ears (or pinnae, to use the proper technical term). When executed well, CIEMs provide an extraordinarily precise and comfortable fit, plus an extremely high degree of isolation from external noise. What is more, CIEM earpieces have sufficient internal volume to accommodate surprisingly sophisticated driver arrays that can provide sublime sound quality.
All of this raises a key question: who are today’s best makers of top-tier CIEMs? There are a number of reputable manufacturers in the field, but one that has attracted considerable attention from Hi-Fi+ is the Santa Barbara, California-based firm Noble Audio. We have looked at several Noble CIEMs in the past (the flagship Kaiser 10 reviewed in issue 119, and the neutrally-voiced 4S as reviewed in issue 127). Here, however, we will audition Noble’s newest model, the Savant, which the firm says is arguably the most, “…balanced in-ear monitor (that Noble co-founder and chief designer Dr John Moulton) has designed thus far…”
To explain the comment about balance in context, let me point out that the Kaiser 10 is a very revealing CIEM possessed of deliberately euphonic voicing that adds both a touch of bass lift and a subtle degree of treble roll-off; it offers a luxuriant and downright enchanting sound, but not necessarily neutral voicing. By comparison, Noble’s 4S (which has since been lightly revised to become Noble’s present-day Savanna S model) does strive to provide dead-neutral, what-you-hear-is-what-you-get, monitoring-orientated voicing. The concept behind the new Savant is to seek out a delightful, Goldilocks-like, just-right voicing curve that combines much of the accuracy, detail, and revealing character of the Savanna S with a good measure of the engaging warmth and sheer bass authority of the Kaiser 10. In short, Savant aims to be a best-of-two-worlds design.
Noble Audio has elected to provide very little information on the driver array used in the Savant, although I am told the array is a relatively simple one—at least as compared to the firm’s Kaiser 10 model, which employs no less than ten (!) balanced armature-type drivers per earpiece. But even so the Savant’s sound is, says company co-founder Brannan Mason, every bit as nuanced and sophisticated as that of the flagship model. In fact, many listeners might prefer the sound of the Savant to that of any other Noble model. Noble isn’t being coy in withholding technical information on the driver arrays used in its present models; rather, it hopes to re-direct our attention away from arguably fruitless exercises in ‘driver counting’ and to focus on what really matters: namely, sound quality. As always, the proof comes in the listening.
Potential customers will want to know that the Savant is offered in three basic configurations: as a universal-fit earphone (priced at a very reasonable £420), as a comparatively affordable SLA-series CIEM equipped with 3D printed earpieces (priced at £835), or as a premium-grade CIEM equipped with the firm’s distinctive Prestige-series earpieces (priced at £1,115 and up, depending on the earpiece materials and finishes chosen). At present, Noble offers the Prestige option only for its two top models: the Kaiser 10 and the Savant. Our Savant review samples were built as Prestige models with earpieces fashioned from a gorgeous, stabilised exotic hardwood known as “Snakewood”.
A bit more detail on the Prestige construction process is in order as the process is different to any other construction method I have encountered in the CIEM world. Noble describes its Prestige construction approach in this way: “Instead of beginning with a liquid medium traditionally used to create CIEMs, Prestige pieces are crafted entirely from solid art mediums such as exotic wood and other aesthetically stimulating materials.”
The Prestige construction process is elaborate and labour intensive. First, Noble creates a traditional (but temporary) set of custom acrylic earpieces that are precision scanned to gather machining data used by a CNC machine for the actual earpiece carving process—a process that takes up to 30 hours per earpiece. Then, the interiors of the Prestige earpieces are hollowed-out by hand to make room for driver arrays, sound output bore tubes, signal cable connectors, and so forth. Finally end caps made of the same materials as the earpiece bodies are cut to size, shaped, fitted, and polished to a brilliant shine.
Our Prestige-series Savants offered an unusually good fit that provided terrific noise isolation making for an extremely intimate listening experience, and here is what that listening experience revealed.
First, the Savant, much like the Noble Kaiser 10 and 4S models, provides exceptionally smooth and coherent driver integration—an area where Noble seems to excel vis-à-vis their competitors. The upshot of this is that, through the Savants, soundstages are presented in an uncommonly expansive and well-defined way, with remarkable continuity, meaning that soundscapes stretch from the far left to the far right with absolutely no gaps and no rough, uneven, or threadbare spots in between. As a result, one has the uncanny sense of being immersed in large and internally self-consistent acoustic spaces of the recording engineer’s creation. In this regard, I consider the Savant to be second to none.
Next, there is the matter of tonal balance. Whether listening to classical, jazz, rock, or pop, I found the Savant consistently hewed to a sonically captivating ‘middle path’, neither sounding too soft, syrupy, or dark, nor sounding overly stiff, analytical, or clinical. In short, Savant offered tonal balance that was quite neutral from the upper bass region on up, but that provided a discreet, judicious touch of bass lift that worked in a complementary way with virtually all types of music. Low frequencies are rock solid, but never overblown.
If this ‘judicious touch of bass lift’ comment sounds like audiophile heresy, bear in mind that CIEMs, unlike loudspeakers, do not enjoy bass reinforcement via the mechanism of ‘room gain’. Thus, given that most records are mastered for playback through loudspeakers, one might argue that a small degree of bass elevation can actually make the perceived sound of CIEMs more accurate (or at least more true to the sound of neutrally-voiced loudspeakers as played in typical rooms), even if that sounds like a contradiction in terms.
Third, the Savant offers unusually high resolution and very good sensitivity, which equates to qualities of nuance and dynamic expressiveness. As I listened to the Savant, one recurrent thought I had was that these CIEMs afford a sumptuously detailed listening experience more like the presentation one might hear from superb, full-size, top-tier headphones rather than from typical in-ear devices (even very good ones). It’s this broad, expansive, immersive quality that enables the Savant to surprise and delight listeners, over and over again.
The key, I think, is that the Savant lets you hear inner details in recordings and both large and small scale elements of dynamic expression, in a way that completely belies the CIEM’s diminutive size. Your mind grasps that you are listening through palm-size devices, but your ears (and emotions) react as if you have suddenly been immersed in much larger, and typically quite believable, acoustic spaces.
Good examples of these qualities in action can be heard on the track ‘Who Will Comfort Me’ from Melody Gardot’s My One and Only Thrill [Verve, CD]. On this track, the Savants capture the acoustics of the recording space while deftly tracing the subtlest of inflections in Gardot’s voice. As a result, her vocals sound not so much like “great hi-fi” (although that term certainly applies), but rather more like sitting in on the studio session and hearing Gardot sing from just a few feet away (the quality of intimacy is most impressive). But an even more telling moment arrives near the end of the track, when Gardot suddenly breaks into infectious laughter. The Savants do a fine job of capturing the “as recorded” sound of Gardot’s laugh, but more importantly they also capture the spontaneous sense of mirth behind the laugh. With the Savant, as with other great transducers, the ability to convey emotional content is key.
Is the Savant a true top-tier heavyweight? In a word, yes. I found the Savant was fully competitive with top models from firms such as JH Audio, Ultimate Ears, and Westone. But what sets the Savant apart from its competitors are its uncanny cohesiveness, detail, dynamics, and the rare ability to pull listeners out of their ‘heads’ and into the music. For these reasons and more, the Savant has now become one of my preferred, go-to, in-ear references.
Type: Multi-driver custom-fit in-ear monitor, featuring Prestige-series earpiece machined from exotic solid materials (review samples made of ‘Snakewood’)
Driver complement: Not specified
Frequency response: Not specified. Noble says Savant is, “a detail oriented IEM with a solid low-end and clean highs.”
Impedance: Not specified
Sensitivity: Noble says the Savant is, “sensitive enough for use with smartphones as well as portable amps and DAPs”
Weight: Varies with earpiece materials chosen
Accessories: Detachable signal cable with industry standard two-pin connectors (0.78mm diameter), cleaning tool/brush, velvet carry bag, Noble‑branded elastic carry straps, a carabiner clip, a Pelican watertight hardshell case, a Noble owner’s ID card, and a Noble Prestige-branded outer jack for the Pelican case.
Prices: Savant Classic (universal fit model): £420
Savant SLA (CIEM with 3D-printed earpieces): £835
Savant Prestige (CIEM with exotic Prestige-series earpieces): £1,115 and up, depending on earpiece materials chosen.
Note: Noble offers a special Ownership Transfer Service where, for a $250 fee, it will re-manufacture Noble CIEMs for a second-hand purchaser.
Manufactured by: Noble Audio
Tel: +1 (805) 886-5255
UK URL: www.nobleaudio.co.uk
Read Next From ReviewSee all
Warwick Acoustics BRAVURA electrostatic headphone system
Warwick Acoustics original electrostatic headphone now comes with more than a spot of Bravura!
- Alan Sircom
- May 2022