The big day has arrived!
After years of neglect and abuse, plus a few more years of watching my high-end gear being auctioned off on eBay, the time had finally arrived (see my featured article The Awakening). My handy FedEx app just told me that my first piece of audio gear was on the truck, and out for delivery. Have any finer words ever been spoken? I submit to you, no they have not.
Today boys and girls I will receive my first piece of high-end audio gear in six years. Specifically, Noble Audio 3 ($350) IEM's as reviewed here (insert angelic choir sound here). Yep, my first piece of audio gear in six years and they're ear buds! Small in-ear monitors, teeny tiny speakers, that you shove into each side head opening. Well, that's what I thought just two short months ago.
Two months ago I had bit of a Spiritual Awakening (see article link above) and mention this again so that you might take the time to read it, and realize why this was the most logical first purchase towards restoring my audio system. You see, up until two months ago the only time I allowed myself time to listen to music was at the gym; and the experience was awful! No, I don't mean going to the gym was awful (for a man of my age, going to the gym is an awful and humiliating experience). Yes, I love the yoga pants craze and do tend to position myself in the row of elliptical machines, which are rather conveniently located a few rows back from the stair climbers. But I digress.
What I mean to say is that the hour or so spent listening to music at the gym with my iPod and the best ear buds I could buy was a horrible and fatiguing experience. Then along came Creative Director Steven R. Rochlin and our site's Enjoy the Music.com Facebook page. Steven was casually extolling the virtues of his shiny new Noble Kaiser 10 CIEM's, so I clicked on the link to find out what the heck he was talking about? What's an IEM? What's a CEIM and why do they look so weird? The 'C' stands for custom, as in a set of in-ear monitors that are custom made to fit your ear perfectly from a set of impressions made by an audiologist.
After an hour perusing their website, and talking to Steven, I was hooked! I was so frustrated with all of the other earphones and earbuds that have been previous auditioned. Thus was ready to try something better. I was ready to try, buy and review the Noble Audio's Noble 3 IEMs. Since I'm new to the world of IEMs, this review is more of a recap of my experience. Have never used IEM's before and feel this will make my review more honest and non-biased, but will leave that up to you.
So, What's The Deal?
The Noble 3 IEMs arrived in a sturdy box with stiff foam packing. Underneath the foam is a small black plastic anvil-like case. The strong little case reminded me of the highly durable flight cases we used to pack our musical instruments in back in the day. Good start! Opening the case (packed tightly inside), you will find stickers with the Wizard signature, a nice selection of tips of different sizes and materials: soft silicon, foam and rubber. There is also a cleaning tool and small felt pouch. Beneath it all are the prized Noble 3 IEM and detachable cable. Hmmm, no directions? Some of you are laughing. OK, probably most of you are who have been using IEMs, yet as a newbie was expecting for $350 to at least have some owner's manual or a set of instructions on how to use and clean these little jewels.
Let me reiterate, I'm new to all of this and so am now looking staring at two remarkably small plastic pods, which I'm sure go in my ear... but not quite sure what to do with all these tips? Are they different? Yes, I assume so. Some are softer than the others, yet specifically curious how are they different. A simple description would have gone a long way. I just needed a little bit of information to explain what $350 got me in this little black box. Am a little impatient, I must admit, but have been looking forward to listening to these IEMs so a little information would get me to where I wanted to be right now! I know some of you might be wondering if I need toaster instructions for a Pop-Tart (no), but a quick overview of how and what are Noble 3 IEMs and the accessories included in the box wouldn't hurt. Fortunately, I found a brief description about the enclosed tips on another website and that's all I really needed.
I opted for the softest tips (the red silicon tips) and carefully maneuvered them on to the tip of my Noble 3 IEMs. I later learned that your tip selection is critical to your enjoyment, comfort and total experience of any universal fit IEM. Google IEM tips and see the vast array of selections that await you. The Noble 3s come with a detachable cable constructed of four braided wires. Two pin connectors on one end that insert into the IEM and your average black 3.5mm connector on the other. I recommend a small plastic wire strain relief for cable support.
First, some real word of advice for you IEM newbies: Take your time and try multiple different tips including various brands, materials and sizes! After 30 minutes, I ended up with a 'small' softest tip in my right ear, and a medium sized soft tip in my left. Yep, my ear canals are different sizes so pay attention. Great, so I've got that going for me. Once properly fitted into my ears I was ready to play some music!
My testing rig is very basic at this point and perhaps like many others reading this review. Since the original purpose of buying the Noble 3 IEMs was for portable listening (i.e. the gym), I will start with an Apple IPod Classic. As for music, will be using an Apple Mac with Meridian Explorer USB DAC and Audirvana Plus software. Am currently reviewing iFi Audio's Retro Stereo 50 (all-in-one tube stereo system) and matching Retro LS3.5 speaker so that will be considered my hi-end test rig. Music will range from very low quality 192kbps MP3 files to Hi-Res Audio FLAC 24-bit/96kHz and DSD64 files.
Let's Talk Specs
Getting back to the Noble 3, this three-way design has an impedance of less than 30 Ohms, comes with an industry standard two-pin detachable cable and silver pentalobe screws. If you're like me, that should tell you very little about how they sound. So, how do they sound?
Sweet Sounds Singing In My Ears
Since I have begun preparations for converting my daughter bedroom back to its intended format, a dedicated listening Room, I've been downloading my favorite albums in high-resolution from HD Tracks and Acoustic Sounds Super HiRez. DSD and FLAC downloads aren't cheap, yet are worth it for the much-improved sound quality they deliver over Apple, Amazon and others low-fi MP3. The remainder of this audition includes sources that are via WAV and MP3 files. All told, I have about fifteen songs I consistently play while auditioning new equipment.
My first listening session lasted two and a half hours. Previously, I haven't been able to wear any headphones for more than ninety minutes. After which, my ears and mind were fatigued and agitated. When I finally removed the Noble 3s I couldn't stop smiling. I smiled so much that my wife was glaring art me with suspicion. Through the course of several days, listening sessions ranged from Sam Smith "In the Lonely Hour" to Pink "The Truth About Love" and Billy Joel "The Stranger". Ok, also threw in some AC/DC "Live" to satisfy the rocker in me. Selection after selection, the same results; Clear and balanced. Passing from sub-bass to highs, the musical image remained intact and balanced. Mid-bass and sub-bass were not as deep as I would have liked (most notable on Laurie Anderson's "Gravity's Angel; a prime test for any subwoofer), but they didn't flatten or bottom out. They just "rolled off".
Midrange is where the heart of the Noble 3 IEMs live. That is why, for me, they were such a welcome relief from other headphones. You see, or should I says hear, other headphones tried so hard to deliver bass at the sacrifice to the far more critical mids and highs. After listening to countless "bass buster" headphones I longed for a more balanced listening experience. It's like that crazy girlfriend you had in college. She was fun for a while, yet the drama got old. You longed for a nice date... with no police involved(!).
Simply put, the Noble 3's have a nice, tight, and controlled sound. Lyrics are clean and not muffled. Highs are well presented with a very fast attack and long delay were consistent throughout the highs as appropriate within the music. The midrange is clearly the Noble 3s playground, as they are a bit more pronounced in any mix. The lows are solid, but you don't get the subwoofer oomph that you know are there. Midway through my testing I purchased a set of Comply Foam Isolation Plus Tx-500 replacement tips. I wanted a better fit than I was getting as sweat was causing my right ear IEM to slip out at the gym. These spring-foam tips were recommended, too. The result? Instant bass boost! My soft ear-tips were very comfortable, but didn't provide much isolation from extraneous sounds. The Comply Foam Isolation Plus tips damped the external sound and transformed my head into a real soundstage. Tips matter folks!
Are the Noble 3 IEMs the be-all end-all best entry-level IEM's you can buy? I don't know, yet they are the first and only universal fit IEM's I have ever listened to... and the last. This site's Creative Director, and longtime musician and audiophile Steven R. Rochlin, loves his set of Noble Prestige K10 custom fit IEMs and he has heard a wide variety of IEMs. You see, I was so taken with the Noble 3 that I ordered my first pair of custom fit IEM (CIEM) from Noble Audio about six weeks ago. I went with the Noble 8C ($1299) as pictured above and they are truly stunning both visually and sound-wise. I wanted more of everything... and I got it! So, what happened to my eight week old Noble 3? Well, the wife is enjoying them at the moment, yet I keep catching her looking at my cool new Noble 8Cs! Hmmm...