- Feb 21, 2007
The Wizard is back! For those in the know, there was never much doubt. It just didn't seem possible for someone with such a passion for his craft to stay away from the custom IEM game. But let's start from the beginning for the benefit of those who are just now arriving at this saga everyone else can skip ahead). The Wizard is a nickname given to Dr. John Moulton, Audiologist and IEM hobbyist. Note here I'm using the term "hobbyist" in the same way as I would for Nelson Pass or Danny Richie or Tyll Hertsens - whether it's amplifiers, speakers, or headphones, these guys just love their particular field. They may at one time or another be engaged in a commercial venture regarding said category, but let's not kid ourselves - these guys would be involved regardless, even if it meant simply tinkering on the side for fun. The Wizard hasn't been involved in the scene for as long as those three, but he has made quite a mark in the last few years, and intends to be involved for the long haul.
Anyway, Dr. John Moulton was a practicing Audiologist for years, who also happened to love music. He examined the available in-ear monitors from Shure and Etymotic and the various others over the years, and decided it might be fun to use principals from his day job to make his own custom molded IEMs. After much trial and error, examining commercial models to see what he liked and what he didn't, Moulton eventually came to a place where he felt confident in the sound he could create. But he didn't stop there - the Wizard nickname came from the exquisite custom wood faceplates he made, hand carved with painstaking detail. Sounds like no big deal when viewed through the lens of history, but you have to realize: at the time, there wasn't much happening in that area. The best one could usually get for faceplate decoration would be custom artwork, usually engraved or sometimes printed in decent colors. I don't want to say Wizard started this whole new trend but I don't recall anyone else prior to him using exotic wood faceplates, nor any of the subsequent materials such as gold/silver foil, computer PCBs, colored carbon fiber, wood inlays, gold nugget or powder, etc. Wizard truly strived to make each CIEM a unique creation, and it seems to have raised the bar for custom IEM makers across the board. If it sounds like I'm heaping a lot of praise on him, it's because he deserves it. Jerry Harvey and the fellas at Westone, along with Michael Santucci (Sensaphonics), all deserve much credit for getting this whole custom IEM idea off the ground back in the day. In a similar fashion, John Moulton deserves credit as a pioneer of customization and aesthetic design. Would others have figured this stuff out eventually? Probably, to some degree anyway. But Moulton sped it along rather quickly.
What started as a hobby eventually turned into a business opportunity, and Heir Audio was born. Moulton and some business partners appeared to have a good run and the brand rose to prominence rather quickly. Something happened along the way which is not really my place to discuss, but suffice to say the Wizard parted ways with the company he had founded. It happens all the time in business and speculating as to the reasons is not really the point. Sometimes, strife brings good things for all involved - think Ultimate Ears and Jerry Harvey for example. Wizard has been quiet for a while but diligently working in the background coming up with new and improved models, training a new team (he brought some of the old team with him), building partnerships with distributors, and waiting for the right moment to launch. The time is now, the brand is Noble Audio.
Noble Audio launches today with a full line of models ranging from triple driver entry level to ten driver(!!!) flagship. Universal models will follow shortly, and I predict those will make a big splash - I spent some time with a prototype 6 driver universal model and it made my mouth water. But let me keep focused because there's a lot to cover here. The custom models I've been using for the past few months are the Noble 4C and 8C - the C standing for custom, obviously. No mere retreads of the existing Heir 4.A and 8.A, the Wizard has tweaked each design to improve it in some way. So the driver complement may be similar or even identical, but other aspects of the crossover or dampers or sound tubes are changed for the better. Knowles Acoustics, manufacturer of the balanced armature drivers used by Noble and most other IEM companies, was heavily involved in the process. Just as a large DAC manufacturer like Texas Instruments has Application Engineers on staff to help clients get the most out of their products, so too does Knowles assist IEM designers in achieving their design goals. In addition to the newly refreshed internal characteristics, external flair is definitely in full effect here - this is the Wizard, remember? I can only imagine what else he has up his sleeve, but for now let's focus on the two models I have on hand. In the interest of brevity I'm just going to launch right in.
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.
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 website and 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!