Noble Audio 5C, Switch, and Fabulous Kaiser 10 Custom IEMs
If you haven't yet seen our InnerFidelity roundup of top custom in-ear monitors, I urge you to take some time and read it through. It will catch you up on the ins-and-outs of the category as well as give you a good look at the various options on the market. You'll see which ones we liked, which ones we loved, and which ones were interesting but fell short of earning a recommendation for whatever reason. Note that those models weren't usually "bad" overall. Some were outshined by another in the group that had a similar character but did it a little better. Others had a very specific sound signature that was appealing yet limiting as to what music or sonic preferences it would mesh with. And some just didn't quite add up in terms of value for money. Overall I'd say it was a rather strong field thoughalmost certainly better than what you'd get by rounding up the top offerings in the full-size headphone category, where a number of models sound downright poor.
The winners of that shootout, and current proud members of the Wall of Fame: the JH13pro FreqPhase from Jerry Harvey Audio, Westone's ES5, the Heir Audio 8.A, and Unique Melody's Miracle. Ranging from $950 to $1299, these are serious audio tools for the music lover and quite possibly the professional as well. Each one gives its own unique flavor and brings something to the table that the others can't quite match. Any one of them is likely to bring a big smile to your face, and owning two of them (one neutral set and one more colored/fun model) makes for an endgame, desert-island type setup that covers all the bases.
Thing is, there's a ton of movement in this segment. Where Sennheiser and beyerdynamic might update their flagship headphone once or twice a decade, the custom IEM companies have a lot more room to grow. For starters, they get to bypass many of the challenges of full size headphone designcups, slider mechanisms, headbands, pads, aesthetic concerns, etcjust due to the very nature of being custom molded in-ear monitors. The entire focus is therefore shifted to internal components like drivers, crossover, and sound tubes. They all pretty much use the same few choices of material (acrylic or silicone) as well as the same cabling system. So there's just less to worry about externally. It's also a younger market which means more room for innovationthis stuff hasn't been around for all that long, so it's still being figured out. For those reasons (and probably half a dozen more) we tend to see more new companies popping up, as well as more frequent refreshes in the lineups of existing brands. This includes the flagship models as well as the budget stuff. So, with our ToTL Madness article having established something of a consensus on our collective favorites, I think it's important to cover some of the new developments as they come to market. Fellow InnerFidelity scribe Nate Maher recently did just that with his roundup of entry level models, and came away with some really great options to choose from on the more affordable side of the spectrum.
Noble is Born
A fairly new development in the segment is the launch of Noble Audio. Doctor (of Audiology) John Moultonnicknamed The Wizard for his design magicwas a cofounder of Heir Audio and designer of the 8.A which we enjoyed so much. In a situation somewhat reminiscent of the Ultimate Ears/Jerry Harvey split from years back, Dr. Moulton left his original company to form a new one called Noble Audio. Noble has been going strong for almost a year now, steadily releasing new models and building a rather enthusiastic fanbase. I own several of the Noble models and figured it was about time they get some attention here at InnerFidelity.
Noble has one of the most broad portfolios in the entire industry. They do custom IEMs ranging from 3 drivers to 10 drivers (IEMs driver count is always listed on a per side basis). Pricing starts at $350 and climbs as high as $1599. They use the traditional acrylic shells but also offer several models with silicone shells. Then there's the universal line which features injection molded ABS plastic shells. When other custom IEM companies offer universal versions (still not all that common at this point), most will hand build each set just as they would with their custom versions. Noble contends their method gives advantages in durability, consistency, and quality control, and though it did cost them a sizable investment to get the process going, they feel it was worth it. Lastly, Noble offers an option they call "Switch" which is really uniqueI'll discuss it further on the next page.
One thing Wizard is known for is amazing aesthetics. You want hand carved wooden faceplates? Carbon fiber inlays? Or something custom that you've never seen done on a CIEM? Take a look at some more Noble designs and you'll see all manner of creative designs. Other CIEM companies now do fancy stuff like wood faceplates but I contend A) few, if any, can match what Noble is doing, and B) the whole trend was spurred on by Dr. Moulton in the first place. Before he came on the scene a few years back, we weren't seeing anything near this level of customization. Would other brands have eventually figured this stuff out on their own? No doubt. I just think The Wizard came in with his artistry and put everyone else on notice, which really accelerated the process.