Pros: Intoxicating low frequency response combined with even handed mids and highs - extremely detailed but completely non-fatiguing
Cons: May have too much bass for some people who don't like that sort of thing
The Heir Audio 8.A was (and is) one of my all time favorite CIEMs. A flagship design with 8 drivers per side. A pile of 5 star reviews at HeadFi. A coveted spot on the Wall of Fame at InnerFidelity. How do you top something like that? The answer comes in the form of the Noble 8C ($1299). Wizard describes it as having a slight increase in high frequency response, while still maintaining the buttery smooth mids and textured lows of the original Heir 8.A model. I could probably stop right here because that pretty much nails it.
Much (digital) ink has been spilled about the Heir 8.A and the rich, creamy sound it produces. It remains one of my all time favorites of the headphone land, regardless of style or price. And yet here comes the Noble 8C to make it even better. How is that possible? Well, I didn't really think the 8.A needed any tweaking at all. Once you wrapped your brain around the bold low frequency presentation, ultra analog sounding mids, and highs controlled with a vice-grip, the 8.A was really something special. Yet I did hear some feedback from a few users hoping for just a tad more presence with vocals, and just a hint of added air or sparkle up top. It wasn't uncommon for folks to send me messages asking about aftermarket cables to tease out that last bit of performance. I never really had complaints in that area but I could see their point - and I did find myself gravitating towards aftermarket cables such as the Toxic Cables Silver Poison or the 93spec from 93 East (both of which are silver based). So when Wizard told me about his changes made in the Noble 8C I was very curious to hear how it played out.
In a nutshell, I'd say the Heir 8.A is analogous to the original Audeze LCD-2, while the Noble 8C is like the newer LCD-2 rev 2. That means less "shelved" top end, more extension, and consequently a more balanced presentation overall. But don't get the wrong idea - the 8C remains rich and creamy, with massive bass response that takes no guff from any other basshead IEM. Even the Unique Melody Merlin, with its dynamic driver dedicated to lows, does not manage to pound harder than the Noble 8C. Keep in mind I'm talking quality bass here. Sure, you can find models out there with more rolled off treble, sloppy mids, and huge pounding bass, which give the impression of having bigger bass just my virtue of their sound signature. But as far as actual quality lows, I can't think of anything that beats the 8C. Even the Unique Melody Platform Pure 6 system with the bass boost feature does not pull it off - it sounds great in standard form but is less bassy than the 8C, and adding the bass boost makes the quality drop considerably.
So, the bass is astonishing. But the 8.A already had that. What's new here? This time around the presentation is more balanced, less tilted towards being warm and smooth. It's still smooth but the top end has more bite, more air, more presence from the vocal range on up. This means singers take a more forward stance in the mix, and things like brass or guitar also come through more prominently. It still has that huge soundstage which is among the most expansive I've yet heard from a custom in-ear monitor. And it remains somewhat forgiving compared to the 4C or the JH13 or the Unique Melody models. In that aspect the 8C is more like the Westone ES5 - which happens to be one of my absolute favorite CIEMs. They both sound absolutely killer with high-quality tracks, but even modest recordings come off really well thanks to their somewhat forgiving nature and smoothness up top. It's a delicate balance - how to capture fine detail but not push it in your face and highlight every flaw in the process? If the Etymotic house sound is on one end of the spectrum, I'd place the Heir 8.A on the other, with the Westone ES5 and Noble 8C straddling the middle.
Let's talk about that comparison a bit more, because I think it's a good one. The ES5, an extremely good CIEM, doesn't have as much bass kick as the 8C. It's got excellent extension but I feel the 8C has better texture down there. It does more to create the illusion of actual, visceral bass impact. The 8C, while seeming to have a slight reduction in midbass warmth compared to the Heir 8.A, still has more midbass presence than the ES5. Not too much midbass in my opinion, but just enough to make recordings sound slightly "bigger" and more authoritative than it otherwise might. Midrange is very close between these two - the ES5 seems very slightly more midrange focused, but not necessarily more forward. I think it's really a byproduct of the superior bass texture, the midbass, and the top end extension of the 8C, where the ES5 has less of those which causes the midrange to really stand out. I hear a little more sparkle with the 8C but the two are still quite similar in their overall choice of tuning. That said, I do think the Noble is the overall superior CIEM - it's maybe a little more colored, but neither one is really aiming for true neutrality in the first place. So it's like the 8C beats the ES5 at its own game. Which is extremely impressive in my book.
Once again, the Noble is not a better choice than the Heir version, 100% of the time. I love what the Wizard did with the 8.A and I'd be a fool if I tried to downplay its brilliance now. Remember when the Audeze LCD-2 came out and reviewers kept saying "Now this is how real treble should sound - most other headphones are overdoing it!" Eventually some people came out and admitted they found the LCD-2 a bit dark, at least with some music and on some systems. When the revised model came out, reviewers had a hard time justifying the tweaks which brought out more treble extension. If the original was "right" then was this new version wrong? It's a tough thing when you paint yourself into a corner like that. For my part, I do like the LCD-2 rev 2 more, though I appreciate the original and can understand why it remains a favorite for some users. Same deal with the Heir 8.A - the Noble 8C is the more complete package, the more balanced design overall, without losing the magic of the original. But some people may still prefer the warmer, smoother Heir 8.A sound, and there's nothing wrong with that. For me, personally, I gotta say the 8C is my new favorite CIEM. Period. I like it better, overall, than my ES5, my JH13 FP, my UM Merlin, my Heir 8.A and even my Heir 6.A Limited Edition. That doesn't mean these don't each have their area where they shine brighter, and each one is an extremely good CIEM in its own right. But the 8C just hits the spot for these ears. I've got an HD800 sitting here, an LCD-2 (the newest version), a Stax SR-007, beyerdynamic T1, Smeggy Thunderpants, HiFiMAN HE500 and HE-6, the list goes on.... and guess what I've been reaching for first these days? The Noble 8C is just wildly impressive on so many levels. Is it just the new toy syndrome? To some degree it might be, but since I've "gone pro" writing for InnerFidelity (and now Part Time Audiophile as well) I've pretty much gotten over the whole concept of liking stuff when it first shows up. If anything, I treat each new arrival as something of a chore - it's gotta really be good for the price to justify any listening time around here, and the 8C has been getting quite a bit. That should tell you something.
And we can't forget the looks. Yikes, these things are amazing! Mine have what Wizard calls "Mystic Swirl" which is really hard to describe. Opaque, vaguely purplish with swirly accents, the closest analogy I can think of is an expensive bowling ball. And the faceplate has what appears to be red foil inlays in the shape of the Noble crown logo. I'm certain I am butchering this description so please look at my pics, as humble as they are, for a better idea. They are truly stunning.
Let's talk about a few other things. First off, options. You can go to the Noble Audio websiteand see the various options, from the entry level 3C at $450 to the Kaiser 10 at $1599 which has - you guessed it - 10 drivers per side. I'm curious about that beast but I'm so happy with the 8C, I really can't imagine things being any better. Maybe I'll find out some day. Anyway, selecting a model lets one see about pricing for various cosmetic options. The Wizard Design option is $300 and I have yet to hear a disappointing tale from letting the Wizard take the reigns. Or, just pick the wood faceplate or carbon fiber or whatever else you want and design it yourself. Interestingly, if you select the Kaiser 10 or 8C and start adding options, the price doesn't change. That's because those models come with everything included, short of Wizard Design, inlays, or rush orders. So while $1299 or $1599 is certainly a lot of money, it's more reasonable than you might initially think. It's not hard to start with a $950 5C and push the price up close to the $1299 8C once some options are added. At that point it probably makes sense to go 8C since the options are already part of the price. Pretty clever right?
You may have noticed something else when navigating - the Universal section isn't quite ready yet, but click on the Custom section and what pops up? A choice between acrylic and silicone designs. Yes, for the first time (that I know of) Wizard is doing silicone. There are three models - triple driver, quad, and 5 driver flagship, all with silicone shells. It appears Wizard is using a layer of acrylic for the faceplate which enables far more customization than usual. The body itself has to be "clear" (which, for silicone IEMs, is not the same type of "clear" as their acrylic counterparts), but the faceplate can have carbon fiber or wood or engraved art. It's not quite the same level of customization options as the acrylic line, but it's better than any other brand I've seen. Good stuff.
As you can see in the pics, I used a wide variety of gear to test these CIEMs. From portable use to home use, I've got enough gear to choke a mule, and the Noble stuff seemed to do well across the board. My comparison setup for the Heir versus Noble standoff was the Resonessence Labs Invicta, a high-end DAC which features a builtin dual headphone amp section. Both CIEMs can be used at once, with independent volume trim (which ended up not being necessary), and I even used identical Magnus 1 cables to keep things fair. There's not quite any way to quickly A/B CIEMs since the removal/insertion takes a few seconds, but this is about the best way I can think of to do it. When I'm not doing comparisons, I sometimes run the 8C with in balanced mode. Driven by both headphone amp sections via a special Charleston Cable Company 8-wire adapter, fed to a balanced Toxic Cables Silver Widow, this is truly a reference level setup. Especially when I use the built in SD card playback system to play DSD files. Yummy.
But enough about my system - the focus here is on Noble Audio. I want to congratulate the Wizard for bouncing back from what must have been a tough ride. I was skeptical as to how he might improve his already excellent designs, but I have to admit - he has outdone himself once again. With a strong supporting cast, a co-owner in the USA who can handle logistics, and universal models coming down the pike soon, it's hard not to get excited about this new company. Other reviews should be coming in today as well and if they are anything like mine, this is going to be huge. Congrats Wizard and company!