Pros: Balanced without sounding boring nor aggressive, clarity, amazing design
Cons: narrow soundstage, not going deep enough in the bass section
My adventure with Noble begun at the end of 2013. At the time, I was looking over on head fi and Tellement nomade (French reference for audiophile stuff) for an upgrade to my trustful er4pt when I stumbled upon the noble audio thread on head fi. After some research on the web and chat over Facebook with Brannan mason, one of the founders of Noble, I decided to go for the 4 drivers model, well suited for my taste (aka neutral, balanced sound). At that time, Noble were launching their universal line up, and with the nice black Friday discounts I jumped into the multi BA wagon with a pair of universal noble 4.
I enjoyed them a lot, but the more I was wearing them (too much), the more my ears were begging me to go the custom way, and that’s what I did after selling the universals in June 2014. It’s almost April 2016 by the time I’m writing this, so this could well be considered as a (very) long term review
The ordering process
One of the main thing that brought me to Noble is their design, and their Facebook page could be considered as an exhibition of their most savory and extravagant CIEM designs, mixing with taste lot of color and textures to create unique pieces, and I think it’s a point that clearly separates them of the other manufacturers. Most of those one off design are the work of the other noble founder, Wizard, a nickname he earned while showing his first creations on head fi.
In this design driven approach, Noble.com is proudly exhibiting the fine craftsmanship which defines the brand, and we can appreciate the huge range of design possibilities with a gallery displaying of all noble’s ever made
Ordering is quite straightforward, as there is only one page per categories, with a quick description of the product, some technical specifications and an ordering button taking you to a design page to choose the color of the shell and the faceplate, with premium material available (at extra charge), and even a Wizard design option, giving him carte blanche. Then you’re brought directly to paypal, and after payment, in the extension of this philosophy you’re just redirected to the ear impressions instructions with no order confirmation mail, no order number or anything else.
Then It’s time with the provided instructions to visit your favorite audiologist to take the ear impressions, and send them in a crush proof package to Noble HQ. Their turnaround time is 35 to 40 days, mine arrived on July 22
and got a mail with a picture of my finished customs on October 8
. You’re left alone between those two dates, and I’d love to see noble improve on this point with a more detailed following. There is a one-month period for refit, but thanks god mine was right the first time
I think the logical continuation is going through unboxing. You’re welcome by a simple cardboard box, hiding between some foam a (huge) pelican-like case holding the CIEM themselves and some accessories (a wax removal tool and a standard braided two pins cable with memory wire and a 45° angled plug). You’re not really overwhelmed by accessories, but the packaging is nice without being too complicated, and when I’m purchasing a product I prefer my cash to go into the product itself and not to an overly complex packaging (that will inevitably end in the trash)
Let’s now focus on the build itself. For my set I chose a smoke shell (to be able to see the drivers) and a solid black with golden logo faceplate, a combination which I find to be at the same time delicate and discreet. They served for almost two years, but they’re still looking pretty nice, having well aged considering what they’ve been through. The shell itself is perfectly formed, with no bubbles nor cracks, and the join with the plate is visible only if you’re looking closely for it, and unnoticeable by hands only, surpassing on this point a lot of models I’ve seen from UE, 1964 ears or JH audio. I found the fit to be quite nice, tight enough to prevent breaking the seal with mouth movements and comfy enough to let me wear them for several hours with little to no discomfort (but I do think that the main factor in this is the ear impression quality). I’d just love that they protrude a little less from my ears to let me sleep with them lying on my side
The cable itself is quite unexceptional, with no specific problems, but I’m not a fan of the 45° plug and the memory wire and I’ve quickly replaced it with a linum BaX, with not much changes in the sound but a huge ergonomic leap (you’ll see through future articles that I’m not a cable believer and I’m mostly judging them from an ergonomical standpoint only)
After all those material considerations let’s jump to the heart of this paper, the sound
As It’s my first article, I’d like to introduce you to my testing methodology, that I’ll try to keep the same for future reviews. I’m testing with 2 setups, playing the same flac / mp3 320 files, on one end my desktop setup with foobar2000, an ODAC (diy) and a Schiit Asgard, and on the other my portable setup, an ak 100 ii alone. My two main comparison points will be what I’m considering as reference sounding through my desktop setup, a Sennheiser HD 700 and a pair of KEF X300AW. My musical tastes include mostly indie rock, acoustic, folk and pop rock, but I’m pretty open minded on this point.
I’ll go through the following sections:
Sources and pairing
I think that flat is the right word to define the presentation of the noble 4. There’s nothing they bring upfront to the detriment of other parts of the frequency spectrum, and with this sound bias they’re not “wowing” headphones (what could be quite underwhelming at first sight). But nonetheless, digging a little deeper into the listening let us see that those are pretty capable
The highs are crisp and very detailed with a good but not excessive extension, preventing from the fatiguing listening of the most analytical headphones (yes, I’m looking at you ER4)
The trebles could be considered as one of the strong point, really clear but warm at the same time, making effortlessly a lifelike rendering of voices, mostly in acoustic tracks, and except in real life, I’ve never heard such a beautiful representation of Robert Francis voice.
Finally, bass is tight and well defined, connecting perfectly to the lower end of the mids, and is really precise without sounding to thin, a common problem for neutral sounding headphones. The bass extension to the sub bass is one of the weak point, as they’re stopping a bit early for my taste, but I think it’s the tradeoff for the balanced reached across the rest of the spectrum. Cause I’ve trying bot universal and custom revisions; I can tell you that the area is the most improved by the custom fit
Let’s continue with the other weak point of those CIEM, and that’s the soundstage. Even if I wasn’t expecting an open back-like sound stage, I was quite disappointed with the narrowness of this one as there’s little to no air between sound sources. This is fine when listening to an acoustic track with a singer and 2 instrument, but when It’s getting more complicated than that you’re getting quite lost in the localization
So to wrap up the sound “alone” section, the 4C manage to stay at the same time really balanced and musical, avoiding the 2 common mistake associated with flat sound response, which are 1° being completely boring and lose all sense of musicality and 2° to be aggressive sounding and by the way really fatiguing when listening to them for an extended period of time
Sources and pairing
The 4c are some of the most hiss sensitive earphones I’ve had the occasion to try. I do think too that I’m really hiss sensitive too, so mileage with this may vary (some friends weren’t bothered at all with this issue at the time I got them to try the universal model).
To talk in terms of equipment, the hiss scale should be: Huawei nexus 6p (too much to be enjoyable in a noiseless environment) > Ibasso DX50 > nexus 5 (2013 edition) > iPad mini 4 > AK 100 ii = AK jr = desktop setup (dead silent)
So, you can deduct from what I’ve just wrote that I’m mostly using them with the AK 100 ii on the go. The addition of an external amp definitely ramps up the dynamics, and I’ll try to get an IEM specific amp (like the ALO rx or something from RSA) to tell you guys about the sound
I’ll try for all my future review to compare the audio stuff to stick to a reference pair, as the goal is to have a guideline between all of future reviews (and I hope there’ll be many) : the HD700. Yes that does imply to compare an IEM to open back headphones, but I’d like everyone reading this review to be able to have an idea of what I’m hearing by knowing how one the most popular pair of “audiophile grade” headphones on earth sounds like, so let’s go:
The 4Cs’ high are more defined, crispier and much more separated from the other parts of the frequency spectrum, but the HD700s’ are smoother and are transitioning way better with the mids while staying well defined (but not as much) at the same time
The mids are known as a strong point of the HD700, and I’d like to make a strong statement by saying that the 4Cs’ are neck to neck with those, with at the same time nice definition and real smoothness, with a beautiful rendering of voices (especially male ones). But they’re presented quite differently, cause the HD700 are really pushing the midrange forward by a noticeable margin, whereas in the 4C it’s at the same level as the other parts of the spectrum.
For the bass section, the 4Cs’ are really punchy, tight and precise, while HD700’s got a way more enveloping bass, without being blurry or undefined, and is extending way more in the sub-bass territory
Finally, soundstage isn’t even a match, cause it’s in the open back’s own nature to have a wide one, and if this category HD700s are some of the best.
I was expecting the 4C to sound way harsher and fatiguing in order to stay neutral as a lot of other products I’ve tried, but at the end they achieved to be really neutral and at the same time musical, and at the end I think they could be a wonderful add the collection of any audiophile looking to enjoy his library in a neutral nonetheless enjoyable way. But if you’ve got the chance to listen to some, let yourself pass over the “not wowing” first experience and I really think you’ll enjoy those a lot over time if you’re a clarity lover.
PS : this is the first (english) paper i’ve ever wrote, so all comments and criticisms are welcome !
Pros: Flat tuning with no dips in the frequency response makes this perfect for people who want a neutral sounding CIEM; Clarity is very good.
Cons: If you don't want a flat tuning? Those who travel may wish for extra bass to balance train/plane engine roar.
Synopsis: The Noble Audio 4C is a custom-fit in-ear monitor (ciem) characterized by a flat tuning with no peaks or dips from the lower bass to the lower treble range. This upgraded tuning eliminates the dip in frequency response found in the older model. The bass, while not boosted at all, has excellent extension , the mids are clear and the treble is flat until a lift in the upper range which adds a sense of clarity and air to the sound. The tuning is excellent for acoustic, classical, folk, jazz, and rock genres and generally for audiophiles looking for a flat, accurate sound. Those who prefer bass-heavy earphones and music genres as well as those who listen primarily while travelling may wish for a tuning with more bass quantity for their dubstep or to balance train/plane engine roar.
I’ll be reviewing a sample provided by Noble.
Dr. John Moulton and the team at Noble Audio
Dr. John Moulton, known as The Wizard, needs no introduction but I will say that Dr. Moulton has assembled a highly experienced team of experienced engineers to form Noble Audio. Noble is set up very wisely: By giving each of his team a share in the company, they can really put their hearts into what they do and everyone will reap the benefits of their hard work and talent. John has assured that Noble is built to last for years to come, just like his earphones.
The Noble Audio Line at NobleAudio.com :
Noble Audio will carry a full line of custom fit in-ear monitors (ciems) and universal fit in-ear monitors (iems). The high-end iems will be rolling out soon, but for now let’s look at the ciems available:
Kaiser 10, this is the all-new 10-driver flagship. Here is my review of the Kaiser. Here’s a review by the scholar and gentleman, Sorensiim.
8C, this is the re-tuned and updated version of Dr. Moulton’s earlier 8-driver. He says it adds clarity and treble presence to his older tuning. Here’s a review of the Noble 8C by the professional reviewer and full-time nice guy, project86.
5C, this is John’s 5-driver custom. It’s the same as his earlier 5-driver universal, now in custom form. He describes it as having a bassy signature similar to his older 8-driver. This model will be available in both acrylic and silicone shells. The silicone shells are innovative in that they allow for a custom faceplate!
4C, this is the re-tuned and updated version of his earlier 4-driver. You’re reading a review of it right now! You can look at project86’s 8C review for his thoughts on the 4C as well. A review of the 4S—the silicone shelled version—by |joker| will be coming soon as well.
3C, this is all-new, totally re-designed 3-driver with some special, new drivers from Knowles (the foremost designer and manufacturer of balanced armature drivers). Dr. Moulton says it’s tuned for a v-shaped, fun signature. It’s available in both acrylic and silicone shells. Yes, the silicone shells can have a custom faceplate.
One thing I always like to mention is that with any ciem from anywhere, ever, is that this is a product designed to fit your unique ears. Fit is absolutely vital to the sound quality and isolation and comfort. You get that all-important fit by having an audiologist make an impression and this is what the audio company has to work with. Don’t try to go cheap with this! Work with audiologists who have experience making impressions for musicians and audiophiles and not only with hearing aids which require a much less precise fit. Even with the best audiologist, you may not get a perfect fit the first time, that’s the nature of ciems. Again, this is true with any company, anywhere, ever. So, it’s important to consider not only the product, but the customer service when it comes to ciems.
I’m repeating this from my Kaiser review verbatim, but I’d like to add that having a great fit is even more important with the Noble 4C and ciems like it that have a flat sound. The reason is that the bass isn’t boosted and a perfect fit is vital to get the bass that is there in its proper amount. A more bassy-earphone might be able to get away with some poor fit-induced loss of low-end, but a flatter tuned ciem won’t.
Noble Audio may be a new company, but everyone in it has a long experience in high-end portable audio and ciems. They really know how to give excellent customer service. I’ve worked with John for several years now with a few of his earlier ciems and I can say that I’ve had great experiences and I’ve talked to others who have as well. You’ll be in good hands.
Noble will have representatives in the U.S. for American customers and a representative in the U.K. for customers in the E.U. Of course, for folks in S.E. Asia, shipping can come direct from China. Noble Audio is on top of things from the start.
The Noble 4C:
This is a 4 driver design, with 2 drivers for the low-end, one for midrange and one for treble.
I’ll be reviewing a review sample set.
These are some professional pictures by Darrin Fong. My set has mother-of-pearl faceplates. These pictures are much better than I could take, but I will say that this set looks even better in real life!
Here's a silicone shell 4S for head-fi reviewer |joker|:
Here’s another set of Noble 4C with a feather in the faceplate! That’s a first. Look at Noble Audio’s facebook page for examples of what Noble can do in terms of colors and special faceplate designs.
One of the first things to know about the sound is that the Noble 4C is a re-tuning of Dr. Moulton’s earlier 4-driver design. Dr. Moulton’s earlier generation of a flat-tuned 4-driver generated a lot of attention, some of it very positive, some not quite as positive, and then there were a few very negative reviews. The negative feelings, for those who had them, centered around a dip in the frequency response around 4khz. Obviously, it’s something that some didn’t notice and others noticed a lot.
You should be aware that the new Noble 4C has been re-tuned to explicitly address some of the critiques of these older designs.
The new Noble 4C’s tuning removes entirely the dip in the frequency response.
I’ve been listening mostly out of an Apex Glacier amp paired with my trusty 5.5th gen ipod.
Sensitivity: The Noble 4C runs nicely straight out of my 5.5th gen ipod. I think people running from an anemic source might lose that last full measure of extension and detail the 4C has to offer, so amping would be a good idea then.
Tuning: The Noble 4C has a flat tuning that extends very well into the sub-bass range all the way through the bass and all the way through the midrange up into the treble, where there’s the first obvious rise at around 5k. Proponents of a flat tuning often say that it’s the most true to the recording as it’s not giving or taking anything from what the recording has to offer. The Noble 4C sounds balanced through the majority of its range and the rise at 5k serves to give a slightly heightened sense of clarity and brightness. It’s a clean sound with no excess warmth or richness added in, but rather a sense of accuracy. Those of you who want this sort of sound will have found your slice of heaven here and those who are looking for a bassier, warmer or darker sound will need to look elsewhere. I find this tuning does very well with classical, jazz and acoustic music genres as well as rock, for example. Not so much for dubstep!
One thing I’d like to add is that the Noble 4C has a nice timbre—the realistic reproduction of vocal and instrumental sounds. Cymbals do nicely with the 4C.
Imaging and Soundstage: The Noble 4C does well with imaging, but I would say it doesn’t match the Kaiser 10 in this regard. The soundstage feels quite spacious but the instruments themselves are placed a bit more intimately overall than top-tier ciems.
Bass: The bass extension of the Noble 4C is really quite excellent. There’s no roll-off, but rather a flat extension down to the lowest of lows. However, there’s no boost, either. It’s a clean, clear, tight, controlled bass that can punch when called on by the recording. It’s really quite enjoyable and it fits the overall tuning perfectly. In a quiet room, those who like flat tunings will find there’s plenty of thump for them. I could use a bit more down below for added naturalness, but people who are familiar with my reviews know my preferences are for bassier tunings—and I often listen on the go where added bass helps to counter plane/train engine roar.
Midrange: It’s very clean and this adds to the sense of clarity the 4C gives. While the absolute detail retrieval may be second to much more expensive, top-tier ciems, the 4C really nails giving you a “window-on-the-music” sort of accurate sound. It sounds as if nothing has been added to your music and nothing taken away. You may want something added in terms of warmth if you want that sort of sound, but people looking for clean and clear will find it here.
Treble: The 4C’s treble is interesting. The lower treble is part of the broad flat tuning that covers the bass and midrange. That lift at 5k adds to perceived clarity and gives some added excitement to cymbals and violins. The flipside of this is that, while it passed my sibilance prone test tracks without a problem, I do feel that the Noble 4C isn’t going to take any harshness away from tracks that already have it. So, you may find that listening to poorly mastered, harsh tracks is more easy with darkly tuned earphones than the brighter 4C. The flat tuning below 5k doesn’t continue above it and I get a sense of some dips after the rise at 5k, although the “air” (which audio engineers define around 10k) is good. Treble extension isn’t as good as the Kaiser 10, which simply has more drivers to devote to the high-end.
Conclusion: The Noble 4C is a very well done middle-tier custom in-ear monitor with a sound that will appeal to everyone who wants a flat, accurate sound with an extra dose of clarity and brightness in the treble. To those who want and enjoy best hearing the music just as it is in the recording, the 4C is a good match. People looking for extra bass and warmth, those who like a darkly tuned earphone and those who listen to bassy music on their urban commute may wish to look at a different earphone.
Pros: Sounds like a junior version of the JH13 FreqPhase! Mostly neutral with slightly exciting highs and more bass impact than an Etymotic type
Cons: As with any IEM, some people may prefer a different sound signature - but for what it is (a generally neutral IEM), the Noble 4C is superb
4C The Noble 4C ($699) is a quad driver design in the same vein as the Heir 4.A, which means a three way crossover, dual low frequency drivers, and separate drivers for mids and highs. I still have my 4.A and still enjoy the heck out of it, as a mostly neutral, but slightly forgiving model with very broad appeal. But I gotta say the Noble 4C is probably better for most people. Those who remember how much I enjoyed the 4.A will know how big of a statement this is. Why? You may recall some complaint about the 4.A having a rather potent "dip" in the response centered around 4kHz. This was measured in the 4.Ai which was the universal model, and I have to say I did hear that fairly prominently. I never thought it was the deal breaker that some made it out to be - in fact that was not even my biggest complaint about that particular model. My custom 4.A doesn't have nearly as obvious of a dip - if it's there, it's very slight. It could be my ears glossing it over but I'm inclined to think otherwise since I did hear it in the universal model. Regardless, Wizard tweaked things in the Noble 4C to account for this 4kHz dip, so depending on your perspective the frequency response will now be flat, or (comparatively) slightly boosted in my case. A quick word about aesthetics. As usual, Wizard has done an amazing job. My 4C is done in a great dark purple color, very slightly translucent but hard to see inside due to the color depth. It's got some type of gold threads or something in the faceplate, very very cool looking and unique. The effect is better in real life, and my amateur hour photography simply does not do it justice. Despite not having any complaints about my Heir 4.A, I really do enjoy the Noble variant a bit more. Note that we aren't talking about a massive difference - they are both cut from the same cloth, but the focus is somewhat shifted here. The new sound is something I might describe as a junior version of the JH13 FreqPhase - mostly neutral with just a bit of added energy or excitement, making the experience rather engaging as a whole. The Noble 4C has very nice bass performance that lies somewhere between true neutral and the slightly more robust impact found in the JH13. The more expensive JH13 seems to have more sub-bass impact which is welcome, but the 4C isn't too far behind. I'm not sure what Wizard did to tweak the bass, or if perhaps it's a byproduct of the general tuning on this new model, but it seems to draw slightly more attention to itself this time around. Not a lot mind you - this still isn't a bass monster. It has more impact and perceived extension than the Etymotic ER4 models though, and more than the Heir audio Tzar350 if anyone is familiar with that unique sounding model. Compared to the Heir 4.A I feel like the Noble 4C is very slightly more textured and robust in the lows. For all I know this could come down to standard variation between drivers, but that's how I hear it. The main change from 4.A to 4C seems to be detail. Where the 4.A was slightly on the forgiving side at times, the 4C is more ravishingly detailed. By that I mean it comes across as having more sparkle, more "bite", in those upper registers. Just like the JH13, this results in a more exciting, involving presentation which really grabs your attention and refuses to let go. Note that this is not to be confused with "brightness", which is not a word I'd choose to describe the 4C at all. I never get a sense of things sounding shrill, and rarely do I get sibilance that isn't already there in the track. Much like the JH13, the 4C prefers good recordings but is not ultra-picky about it. I can still enjoy average quality stuff such as the New Amsterdams, Jimmy Eat World, Murder by Death, and that sort of thing. Yet when I play some really well done music - Reference Recordings, JVC XRCD releases, MFSL - the Noble 4C really scales well. Truly poor recordings - Death Magnetic and Californication and the like - are practically unlistenable experiences. Which is unfortunate, but pretty much how it should be given a transparent headphone. So if you tend to listen to a lot of newer, highly compressed, radio-friendly stuff, these may not be a good choice at all... though I can't imagine you'd buy this nice of a CIEM if that was all you intended to play. Speaking of scaling well, the 4C is excellent for home use with high end equipment. Not that I don't enjoy it on the go, mind you, but with a highly resolving IEM such as this, better gear pays dividends. I start with something simple - iPad, Sansa Clip+, and the result is reasonably enjoyable. Nothing amazing, but pretty good. Switch to an older (and better sounding) iPod 5.5g and running an LOD to various portable amps, the Noble 4C responds accordingly. Go all the way up to the HiFi ET MA9 (an obscure but killer sounding high-end DAP from China) or the iHiFi 960 feeding digital out to a Leckerton UHA-6S mkII, and the 4C definitely reaches a higher level. At this stage the 4C is notably superior to all the budget oriented customs in my collection. Yes, it's more expensive than the $400 or $500 dual/triple driver models, but it's worth it if you have the gear to take full advantage. At home, the 4C just continues to impress. The 30 ohm impedance and moderate sensitivity (for an IEM) mean it doesn't require much power at all. The only real limitations here are the same as most other IEMs - a low output impedance is essential, and some powerful amps have too much gain or noise. Nothing unique about the 4C in this regard. I use it straight from my Anedio D2 or Resonessence Invicta with fantastic results. The Yulong D100 mkII does a great job, especially for a reasonably affordable device. My Violectric V200 is also amazing - despite being a very powerful amp, the noise floor is practically non-existent, especially with the pre-gain switches turned down low. The other more potent (and mostly Class A) amps in my collection don't do as well though. Yulong's A18, the Auralic Taurus mkII, and the Questyle CMA800 all have moderate hash or hiss thanks to their higher gain, so none of them is really ideal. My favorite though, in terms of real word scenario and matching what a typical consumer would probably use, is the Resonessence Labs Concero HP. Straight from a MacBook Air over USB, this brilliant little DAC/amp has loads of resolution and plenty of musicality to make the 4C a highly satisfying listen. At under $1600 for the whole shebang (not including the Mac of course) this combo approaches the best I've heard for a "reasonable" price. A very impressive combo that I can recommend highly enough. So is the Noble 4C always better than the Heir 4.A in every circumstance? No, I wouldn't go that far. The Heir is still a great CIEM and has its own charm. Those who might prefer a less energetic presentation might do well to stick with the original model. As I mentioned, the Noble 4C is something like a junior version of the JH13 FP, while the Heir 4.A is very similar to the Frogbeats C4 if that comparison helps anyone. They both have merit. That being said, I prefer the Noble model in most cases.