Pros: Versatility, both configurations sound fantastic, detail, imagery, clarity
Cons: Discussed in review
The FR is a review sample sent from Noble Audio. The reviewer was compensated in the form of a ridiculously cool and form-fitting Noble Audio shirt.
Despite humans having only a single pair of ears, many an audio enthusiast reading this review likely has more than one pair of headphones or IEMs. I myself am guilty of this. If pressed by family and friends as to my reasoning behind the madness, I point to a human fault I possess: whimsiness.
Sometimes I'm in a mood for a more analytical sound and want to strain to hear all of the little nuances in a well-recorded song – when this is the case, I reach for my modded HD 800s. Other times, I just want to bob my head and rock my body to a fun song - here, I generally take my Senn 598s / Fostex TH-600s off the racks. For music listening outside my residence, I take a pair of CIEMs on the go.
The desire for versatility is the cause of substantial time and costs that I’ve sunk into the hobby trying out a variety of fun and reference sound signatures. My story has a happy ending, as I eventually worked out my own personal preferences and now only keep a smattering of gear that closely suit my tastes. Unfortunately, this particular road might not be a viable option for everyone – with all of the headgear already out there and the recent explosive growth of new companies and products, it can be a daunting and expensive task for those newer to the hobby that lack easy access to a large brick and mortar store and/or well-established audio community.
Enter the Noble Audio FR, with an innovative approach to the problem. The Noble Audio FR offers two different sound signatures in a single product:
F(ull Range) – A U-shaped fun presentation for those people that enjoy a splash of liveliness and colour in their music
R(eference) – Clear and detailed, this sound signature is for those who like to hear the music reproduced as-is
The FR comes packed in a standard IEM case with 12 sets of eartips, 4 styles in sizes S, M and L. The product itself is slightly glossy and looks modest and understated in a jet black color. The Noble Audio logo can be seen etched onto the IEMs and looks incredibly sleek. The cable is the standard Noble Audio cable, which is excellent in terms of flexibility and does not tangle. You also get 2 Noble bands to strap your equipment with, and a Noble Ownership card where you can write your information down should you ever lose the IEMs with the case.
Technical Information about the Noble FR
The first question I had after listening to the FR is, “How does it work?” So I reached out to Noble Audio and received some interesting information to share.
Toggling the switch produces a drastically different sound without any time delay. I played around with the switches incessantly during the review process. A simple flick of my thumb or index finger is enough to change between the configurations; whether I decide to change halfway through a song or between albums, it’s an easily accessible toggle and rapidly becomes a second nature motion. I’ve been informed that the switch comes from the hearing aid world, repurposed for use in an IEM. The switch feels durable and is just the right length – too much longer and I’d worry about the possibility of the piece snapping off, too much shorter and it might have resulted in a clumsy fumbling of fingers between settings.
The switch itself is an A/B switch that, when toggled, acts as a relay between two independent clusters of components (crossover network + corresponding drivers). The FR is technically a 3 driver BA IEM; however, two of the drivers are used exclusively by the F configuration, whereas the other driver is used only by the R configuration.
I’m told that the hardest part of the creation of the FR was the soldering involved, which I can certainly believe after seeing and hearing the IEM firsthand!
On the F, the R and the Sound
I’ve owned and demoed a good amount of TOTL IEMs out there but struggled to find one without nagging downsides significant enough to prevent me from having a blissful listening experience. When I first heard the FR from Noble at the recent SoCal Head-Fi meet, both configurations made a positive impression on me but I hesitated to pass judgment before spending more time with them.
Now that I’ve had the chance to listen to them in both real world and ideal settings with my own music, I have to say Noble did a smashingly good job.
Sources and Conditions
I paired the FR with the AK240, the iPhone 5, and through my Macbook Pro through an Audioquest Dragonfly. I used the FR while at home in quiet settings, at work, outside in noisy conditions, and while flying.
The Full Range is extremely pleasant to listen to, and is a fun signature done right. The right areas are accentuated without being overdone. The lower end receives a bump that makes head-bopping a given but doesn’t muddy the sound signature, the treble has a touch of added shimmer that adds brightness without causing fatigue. However, what makes the Full Range captivating is the vocals, which come across as amazingly lush. The intimacy and sweetness make the Full Range an intoxicating listen. Most importantly, nothing comes across as overly offensive or unbearable, whether in the form of excessive bass or shrieky treble. I could, and have, listened to these IEMs for hours without needing a break. Noble really tried to appeal to the whole range of listeners out there with their tuning, and I certainly commend them on their successful efforts.
But this wouldn’t be a review without discussing some of the weaknesses as well. The Full Range is a very intimate listen, but this comes at the expense of soundstage and imagery. I can compare it to being in the first row of a concert –you hear the big picture loud and clear and it’s a lot of fun, but you lose out on the placement of individual instruments due to the noise. Also, when I say I can listen to the Full Range tuning for hours on end, those hours are generally spent on albums where vocals are the star, accompanied only by acoustic guitars or other simple instruments. For complex albums with a lot going on, I feel the Full Range is a bit too rich for my tastes.
The Reference sound signature is true to its name. The R configuration comes across as very natural; lows, mids and highs, the right dosage of each make it easy on the ears. Vocals don’t lose the sweetness the Full-Range setting offers, and guitars and other instruments present in the midrange sound very lifelike. There are no significant peaks in the bass or treble that I hear, and the overall presentation sounds very involving and is an engaging listen. The neutral sound the Reference offers is by no means a boring one.
And now here’s where the FR has a leg-up on the other offerings out there – the Reference configuration complements the Full Range nicely as it is strong in the areas of weaknesses I just mentioned. I had fully expected myself to prefer and to use the Full Range setting for the vast majority of my songs, and this was certainly the case for the first few days. After comparisons with my CIEM on songs I’m intimately familiar with, I found that where the universal IEM was lacking in soundstage depth and lower end slam (as expected in head-to-head against a custom), it made up for in the details, the imagery, and the clarity it possesses.
Details – The Reference does a great job of revealing the finer points in a song – Focusing on specific instruments strike me as audible and clear, even during passages of complex songs.
Imagery – I use this to describe the perceived placement of the listener. The Reference performs very well, as the whole range of instruments comes across sounding centered and distance-appropriate.
Clarity – Separation of instruments and vocals is excellent, particularly decay in the mid-bass. This allows complex passages of music to come across without sounding smeared or fuzzy. This strength of the Reference configuration is among the best I’ve heard in my experiences to-date as compared to both headphone and IEM products.
I’d actually go so far as to say that out of all of the IEMs I’ve heard, the Reference configuration on the FR is the one that best suits my tastes. It plays well with every genre I threw at it, and I’ve yet to find a significant nitpick that would contribute to a less-than-blissful listening experience.
The FR offers a high degree of versatility and fully checks off on all of the boxes I’d expect a TOTL IEM to. I find myself using the Reference configuration on the majority of the albums I listen to, especially when my surroundings are relatively quiet. For vocal-centric songs, when I’m out and about and need a bass bump, or even when I just feel in the mood that day for a fun twist, the Full Range setting delivers. It’s amazing to think that all it takes to meet my whimsy needs is the simple flick of a switch. Both configurations are a welcome addition to my IEM collection, and the fact that they came bundled in one convenient price and product is just the icing on top of the cake. Bon Appétit!