A while back, after spending a little time with the Shure SE846, I decided to part with my Unique Melody Miracle custom IEMs. In time I came to regret not having a custom-molded IEM in my collection so I began considering a replacement. Somewhere around that time I also had the chance to try the Noble PR universal IEM which, although not to my sonic tastes, showed a degree of tuning expertise that instantly intrigued me – the PR managed to deliver a crisp, super-clean, treble-focussed sound without harshness or sibilance – a huge feat in my experience. With Noble firmly on my radar and a clear sense of the type of sonic presentation I wanted, I started to consider their other offerings and decided eventually on the Kaiser 10 CIEM.
Before I get into the normal format, I wanted to say that the K10 is the first earphone / headphone that has ever left me wanting more… I’ll let you read on to see what that really means…
In the world of personal audio, the ultimate sound experience generally comes from custom molded in-ear monitors (CIEMs). In recent times, top of the line (TOTL) CIEMs have gone from 3-6 balanced armatures per side to 10 and even 12 BAs per side. The Kaiser 10 is an example of a 10 driver CIEM and has 10 individual drivers in each ear-piece – a pretty awesome piece of spatial design, but also a challenge of epic proportions when it comes to ensuring that all of those drivers are delivering their frequencies in time with and in support of the other drivers in each ear piece.
One of the largest challenges of any multi-driver setup (including speakers) is to have each driver deliver its optimum frequencies without interfering with the frequencies coming from the other drivers. A speaker manufacturer faces challenges with 2-3 drivers so imagine what happens when you get 10!! Add to that the challenge of placing the drivers at slightly different distances from the sound outlets and the possible timing / phase challenges this presents and getting everything right to the level expected of a flagship CIEM becomes a daunting prospect.
Not much is published about the Kaiser 10’s specs, but what we do know is that they have / are:
- 10 drivers per side
- 4-way design (e.g. bass, mid, lower treble, higher treble) – the exact arrangement isn’t specified by Noble, but this example is a guess based on the Noble website info
- Approx. 35 ohm impedance
- 4-wire braided cable (silver plated copper) with 3.5mm plug and industry standard 2-pin earpiece connectors
The Kaiser 10 is named after a mysterious team member at Noble known as Kaiser Soze. The design has apparently been in the works (or maybe even on the shelf / back-burner) for a number of years, but was recently brought to life by Dr John Moulton, Kaiser Soze and the team at Noble.
At $1599 USD, it’s a serious investment into an audio device so it needs to perform at a level suitable for the pinnacle of this hobby – they’re big shoes to fill…
The Custom Process
I won’t spend much time describing this process because there’s a lot of info out there about what’s involved in the process of buying custom in-ears (including some info in my UM Miracle review and this video), but I would like to briefly highlight the process and where Noble might differ slightly.
- Decide on the brand and model you want to buy – sometimes without even hearing them
- Get instructions from the manufacturer about how to get your ear impressions taken (different brands like the impressions done differently)
- Go to a good audiologist, one who does impressions regularly, and get them to fill your ears with goo (temporarily)
- Send your impressions to the manufacturer
- Wait some more
- Try to forget you ordered customs
- Wait some more
- Receive your customs and hopefully enjoy a perfect fit first time around (if you read my Miracle review you’ll see that this doesn’t always happen)
So, you see, ordering a set of customs is as much an exercise in delayed gratification and the taking of calculated risks as it is an exercise in purchasing audio excellence. It’s 100% worth the effort though if you choose right, and that’s a function of knowing what you like and don’t like before you pull the trigger. For example, I knew as I purchased the K10s that I wanted a CIEM that was resolving and detailed, but not analyitcal – I wanted musicality and realism first and foremost. I wanted to feel like I was sitting at a live performance or recording every time I put these in my ears.
How Noble Differs
Most CIEM companies allow some degree of customisation in terms of colour choice and artwork for your CIEM shell and faceplates. Noble offer this with even more options than most brands, but they also offer a whole different level known as Wizard designs.
Dr John Moulton has earned the moniker, The Wizard, because of his amazing aesthetic designs on CIEMs. To see some examples of these, take a look at Noble’s Instagram feed. When you order a Noble CIEM you have the choice to pay $200 extra and have a “Wizard re-print” which is a recreation of a past design, or you can $400 and have a unique design crafted for you by The Wizard . You can offer some preferences (e.g. blingy, conservative, lots of blue, something quirky, etc.) or you can just kick back and let The Wizard work his magic. Personally I went somewhere in between because I discovered that Dr Moulton could work with some stones so I hunted down a stone / crystal with significance to me and asked for it to be incorporated in a design of his choosing, but something not too flashy. The results, as you’ll see, are astounding and beautiful!
The level of customisation at no extra charge for a set of K10s is industry-leading in my experience and the option to go to the “Wizard design” level is great for those who love something unique and amazing. There is even a Prestige range which is essentially a K10 set inside a shell made using high-tech machining that allows the use of solid pieces of wood or other materials and can even result in some wood / acrylic hybrids that look spectacular. You pay a mighty premium, but the result is visually jaw-dropping.
Delivery, Packaging & Accessories
So far we’ve been on a high note so I’m a little sad to say that there is at least one fly in the ointment…
Receiving your K10s could be an underwhelming experience to some. I was blown away by how fast they arrived after being dispatched from the factory in China, but upon opening the cardboard box, things were a little less impressive.
Other than foam packaging, inside the cardboard box was a pelican-style hard case inside a Noble-branded cardboard sleeve. After removing the plastic sleeve, the hard case displayed a Noble badge and my name branded into the plastic of the case. It’s utilitarian and basic which can be a bit of a let down when buying a premium product. Putting our consumer needs aside for a moment though, Noble gives you everything you need and nothing you don’t. When it comes to customs, you don’t really need the sexy packaging to keep for resale because they’re not generally not worth reselling. I think Noble’s packaging approach is perfectly fine, but it might not meet your default expectations so please go in with your eyes open – you won’t be getting a sexy, silk-lined box with crystal paper weight and metal owners card. You will however be getting some seriously sexy CIEMs though so there’s that…
Upon opening the Noble hard case you’ll be greeted by your new CIEMs, a high quality, lightweight braided cable (the black one in the pics) with angled 3.5mm jack, two black Noble elastic bands, a plastic ownership card, and a standard CIEM cleaning brush. Nothing special, but once again everything you need and nothing you don’t.
The cable is similar to the Westone Epic cable, but offers 4 independent strands braided together into a tight, but flexible braid. The rubber bands are your standard type band for strapping together a portable audio brick, and the cleaning tool is the same one as I’ve seen everywhere else.
As you can see in the picture above, the top of the lid gets a few indentations from the CIEMs when you store them because the case is just big enough for the CIEM shells, but I don’t ever get the feeling that there’s pressure placed on the CIEMs when closing (although I am also always very careful and gentle).
Build Quality & Fit
I had lots of troubles when I bought my first customs, the UM Miracles, but I learned from that experience and was very careful to keep my head super still during the ear impression process. Even with the perfect impressions (second time around), my Miracles were never quite perfect and used to break the seal when I made certain movements so I expected a similar experience with the K10s and was OK with that idea so long as the seal breakages were no worse than the Miracles.
As it turns out, my expectations from a custom fit were set way too low coming from the Miracles. The K10s fit like a glove and fill my ears perfectly in all areas – both inside the canals, but also where they sit in the outer section of the ear. Until trying the K10s, I didn’t know what a quality custom fit was really all about. I can eat, walk, tilt my head, yawn, and all sorts of other things without disrupting the seal created by the K10s – they’re perfect!
In addition to the perfect seal and comfort from the K10s, they are impeccably finished and beautifully polished. The thin layer of crystal placed in each faceplate is enclosed in a flawless bubble of clear acrylic which is polished to a glass-like sheen and creates a depth that you can just gaze into – the pictures don’t do it justice.
The shell of my CIEMs is a translucent, deep purple which is equally well crafted and polished. You can’t see much through the shell due to the dark colour, but what you can see is neat and well-arranged in terms of both drivers and wiring.
The Noble crown logo is printed onto each shell (in a turquoise colour in my case) and The Wizard’s signature is printed onto the faceplate of just one CIEM.
Noble uses the industry standard 2-pin connector which is flush mounted (not recessed like my UM Miracles were). At first I was disappointed to read that Noble used flush mounts (I hadn’t seen it), but seeing how well the socket is built into the shell of the K10s makes me realise the reason for the decision. With a recessed socket, the acrylic “walls” where the cord / plug inserts are a weak point and can look a bit shabby, but with the flush sockets, it all looks sturdy, solid and beautifully finished.
As with any audio gear, this is the part that really matters. We’ve already established the immense challenge of getting 10 drivers, or 20 if you count both sides, to truly sing as one and the expectations from a $1600 earphone are understandably high so I think I was holding my breath a little when I first inserted the K10s in my ears and pressed play on my FiiO X5…
…the result was underwhelming…
Yes, I was honestly not impressed. “Sure, they’re good” I thought, “but they’re not $1600 good”. In my mind I was comparing them to my recently acquired Shure SE846 and could honestly have been quite happy with just the SE846 and $1600 back in my pocket.
If you’ve read other reviews of the K10, you might be asking yourself right now “What’s wrong with this guy’s ears?” Everyone else raves about these earphones so what was I hearing (or not hearing)?
I had this sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t hearing the best of the K10s. Something told me that they had a lot more to give so I started playing with different sources and discovered the true cause of my disappointment – not the K10s, but the source I was feeding them with.
Quality of Source
What I have come to love (very quickly) about the K10s is that they sound good from any source I’ve tried – they’re not at all fussy about the source and won’t berate you with sibilance or shoddy frequency responses even if you plug them into a sub-par smartphone. However, you don’t buy the K10 to have them sound good, you buy the K10 to have them knock your socks off, and for that you need a quality source.
Let me clarify, the K10s will sound good with everything, but their performance will be restricted by a lesser source more than any other headphone / earphone I have ever experienced. When I said earlier that the K10 left me wanting more, what I meant was that they left me wanting more from my sources so I could really hear just what these little gems were capable of, and boy did they reward me!
The FiiO X5 is a very good source and worth every penny. With every other IEM / headphone I own, I felt like I was listening to a world-class setup (when combined with my E12DIY amp), but somehow, the K10s were whispering in my ear when I was using the X5 stack – they were saying, “We could do more, you know.” I’m so glad I listened to that “whisper” and switched over to the Shozy Alien as my source as well as changing op amps in the E12DIY amp to maximise the sound for the K10s. Changing sources unleashed the magic of the K10s, namely their incredible ability to create a spacious, accurate soundstage with the greatest coherency of sound I have heard from anything short of perhaps Audeze LCD-2s or Sennheiser HD800s, but I’ll return to that comparison a little later.
The reason I have spent a bit of time discussing sources here is that I have read a number of discussions comparing the SE846 and Noble Kaiser 10 with people saying that the K10 isn’t really much better. My experiences have me thinking that people with this experience perhaps haven’t had the benefit of a top quality source. After a great universal earphone like the SE846 stops improving with different sources, a world class CIEM like the K10 still has more to give. (For the record, I still love the SE846)
The bass from the K10 is perfect – yes, perfect.
I raved about the bass from the SE846’s in my review of those, but the K10 takes it one step further, in my opinion. The K10s offer a shade less quantity of bass overall, but provide even better quality, clarity and texture in the bass than the SE846. The K10s actually dig a little bit deeper, but aren’t quite as full in the mid-bass region.
The bass from the K10s is deep and thunderous when the recording calls for it, but the bass is perfectly balanced with the rest of the sound spectrum. I would describe the K10s as having neutral bass from a ‘perception point-of view’. In other words, while a frequency response chart of the K10s might show a lift in the bass region, my perception of the bass from the K10s matches very closely with what a live recording sounds like. In that respect, the K10s and SE846s are very similar with the SE846 having just a touch more overall bass energy, particularly in the mid-bass.
Apart from slightly lifted bass to create that realistic, live sound, the K10s have the purest bass I’ve heard from an earphone and easily rival full-size headphones with their bass performance. As is my normal practice, I fired up my favourites playlist to listen to while I wrote this review and on Michael McDonald’s song, I Want You, the bass guitar sounded extraordinary. It was clear, present and audibly defined within the overall performance, but still a completely coherent part of the performance.
The bass from the K10s sounds effortless, the same way it sounds coming straight from the instrument playing it live. Noble use two huge bass drivers in the design of the K10 and you can hear the ease with which these jumbo balanced armatures handle the challenge of creating subtle, textured, and sustained bass notes. The bass is endlessly clear, clean and textured no matter what you throw at it. Rumbling bass sends quivers into your eardrums while tight, punchy bass notes snap and crack with energy and impact – no matter where a recording sits on the continuum of speed, power, and grace, the K10’s bass drivers take it all in their stride and create a completely believable experience.
The mid-range from the K10 is a little drier than something like the SE846, but it’s still weighty and realistic. Despite an overall warmth in the sound of the K10s, the mid-range never comes across lush or creamy, but it also never strays into cold, analytical sterility. No, the K10 walks a very fine line to create an accurate, reference quality mid-range that is also immensely enjoyable for long, long sessions of listening.
Both male and female vocals have plenty of realism, texture and clarity. The mids aren’t placed in a spotlight like the SE846 or FitEar TG!334, but they’re definitely good enough to attract your attention without needing to be highlighted in the tuning of the earphones.
Every instrument you hear through the K10s sounds real – they just sound right. Whether it’s a violin, a guitar, a cello, or a drum, the K10 provides just the right balance of attack and decay to sound real and lifelike – as if the instrument is hovering somewhere inside (or just outside) your head. It’s quite uncanny how lifelike the sounds coming out these little acrylic shells are. In fact, I regularly hear something from the K10s that I think has to be a real sound from the outside world, but then I remember how extremely good the isolation of outside noise is with the K10s and realise that it was a sound in the recording.
I’m listening to It’s a Hard World by Supertramp right now and the vocals, trumpet, cymbal strikes and guitars are beguiling – more please!
Descriptions of the K10’s treble still elude me – even after many weeks. Listening to music with the K10s (I haven’t tried a frequency sweep) has me often thinking that the treble is a little rolled off, but then I hear air and details in the music that can only be conveyed with excellent treble extension. I can only make 2 conclusions about the treble from the K10s without getting into objective measures which aren’t necessarily indicative of the subjective enjoyment so here go my subjective conclusions:
- The treble is a touch lower in intensity than the mids and bass, but it is fully extended
- The treble is perfect
Yes, I said the “P” word again, but you’ll have to get used to that when discussing the K10s I expect.
The treble from the K10s is smooth, but don’t mistake that for smoothed-over because it certainly isn’t. What’s amazing about the K10s is the way they convey all of the details, but never get edgy, even on shabby recordings. You’ll hear that it’s a shabby recording, but your ears won’t be bleeding from knife-like treble spikes. This was the most impressive thing to me when I reviewed the Noble PRs and it seems that Dr Moulton has treble tuning down to a fine art based on this repeat performance with the K10s.
By now a new track was on from my playlist – My Man’s Gone Now by Miles Davis and Gil Evans – and it showcased nicely how beautifully balanced and refined the K10s’ treble is. I could hear each brush on the drums, right down to the individual textural differences of each stroke, and I could hear when the recording levels of the brass section got a bit hot and distorted at the edges, but the whole thing still sounded wonderful. It’s like the K10s are the zen masters of earphones – they don’t judge anything in the music, they just accept it as it is. The K10s won’t chastise your ears for listening to a poor recording, they’ll just honestly let you know that there’s an issue here and an issue there, but without any drama or judgement. Just like a zen master, the sound from the K10s “just is”.
EDIT 16th December 2014: I’ve come back to address the topic of treble a second time around because I think it’s difficult to capture the K10’s treble qualities in verbal descriptions. After thinking on this review overnight I felt like I needed to better clarify and describe the treble with some more concrete comparisons. I returned to the SE846 with both the blue and white filters and I also compared the K10’s treble to the HD800. The results are a clearer picture of why the K10s sound so wonderful. Where the SE846 (blue filter) rolls off a little too soon for those who want air and space in the sound, the K10’s treble continues to extend up into the higher registers where the subtlest of cues reside. Unlike the SE846 (white filter) though, this treble doesn’t seem like it includes any spikes – it is smooth and so can sound rolled-off at first, but if you compare it to a rolled off ‘phone you will hear a distinct difference and realise that the K10 has all the information, just without any spikes.
Comparing next to the HD800s, the HD800s initially sound a bit brighter and more detailed in the treble, but further listening shows that they have a slight emphasis in the mid treble (around 6 kHz according to various graphs), but not any significant extension beyond what the K10s offer. In other words, the K10s have all the information in the full treble spectrum, but none of it is emphasised so coming from a ‘phone with any treble lift (HD800, T1, FIDUE A83, etc.) you might find the K10 to sound a bit too smooth, but it’s all there – I promise – and it’s the lack of emphasis that allows the K10s to be so marvelously revealing and transparent, and yet completely non-fatiguing.
Imaging and Staging
I might never have declared this outright before, but staging and imaging are my top priority in audio gear because that’s where the magic happens. If you get everything else right, but the image is flat and/or narrow then you’ve achieved nothing more than reproducing a recording. Create a lifelike sense of space and image though and you’re now recreating music that sounds realistic with an atmosphere / ambiance that is magical – that’s a miracle!
You’ve probably guessed from my lyrical opening to this section that the K10s are just as adept at imaging and staging as they are at everything else. Well, that’s almost true…
I should have held back before on the use of the “P” word because if the bass, mids and treble from the K10s are perfect then I’m not sure how to describe the imaging qualities they create because the overall result is even better! The imaging from the K10s is spectacular – better than anything else I have heard, including the masters of imaging themselves, the HD800s. The K10s don’t quite match the HD800s for size of stage, but in terms of clarity of image and general sense of space around instruments they could be twins. In some ways I actually find the placement and precision of the K10s to be slightly better than the HD800s, possibly due to the fact that the K10s deliver the sound straight to the ear canal without any chance of unwanted resonance and reflections around the outer ear and side of the head.
With the K10s, every instrument in the auditory landscape is perfectly placed and perfectly connected within the overall auditory picture. The coherence achieved from these two sets of ten drivers is simply breath-taking. It’s very easy to forget that you’re listening to a recording via a set of earphones when you’re using the K10s – it’s more like a tiny band has found its way to a live performance inside your frontal lobe.
Size-wise, the stage projected by the K10s extends beyond each ear by about 1cm or so and projects forward into the forehead to create an oval-shaped space with no real gaps or holes. The stage isn’t huge from the K10s, but it is incredibly spacious – like a tardis. Every instrument is clearly separate and distinct from every other instrument, but not in a disembodied way – it’s hard to describe. The overall sonic picture is 100% coherent – everything fits together seamlessly – and yet, at the same time, you can clearly hear each instrument on it’s own. This is what I love most about the K10s. They don’t try to sound extraordinary by highlighting anything. Instead, they just present everything with precision and honesty and let you hear what you want to hear – it’s all there for you to take in as a whole or to focus on piece-by-piece – it’s up to you.
Coming from the outstanding SE846, I was keen to really compare these two as some of the best offerings on the market. Keep in mind that I am using a universal SE846 (not available as a custom, but there are silicon sleeves available which essentially turn the SE846 into a custom). For both earphones I am using high quality, copper litz cables and an identical source so the following comments are based solely on the performance and characteristics of the earphones themselves without the influence of different cables or sources.
The SE846s really hold their own in this comparison, especially when you consider that you can pick them up for around half the price of the K10s. The bass from both earphones is imposing and powerful, but I was surprised to hear that the K10s actually created an even deeper, stronger sense of rumble and texture on one of my test tracks – A Thousand Years by Sting. Of course, tip choice with a universal earphone can change the quantity of bass so it’s possible that they could be equals on quantity, but the textural quality won’t really change with tips and that gives an edge to the K10s.
The overall tuning of the bass is slightly different between the SE846 and K10 with the SE846 having more mid-bass impact and power than the K10s. As to which is better, that’s up to your personal tastes, but I prefer the more open sound created by the K10s with their slightly lifted sub-bass and closer-to-neutral mid-bass.
The mid-range and treble set these 2 apart a little more than the bass. The SE846 offers the more beguiling and seductive mid-range presentation and are truly world class in that regard. The K10 is no slouch in this department either, but is less liquid and lush than the SE846. Once again, this will be a case of preference and it’s important to recognise that you can’t affect one part of the frequency response without it significantly altering the overall presentation – for instance, in isolation I prefer the mid-range from the SE846, but if those same mids were added to the K10 it would completely destroy the magical balance struck by the K10’s tuning. If you want lush mids, you have to sacrifice in other areas.
The treble is really where the greatest differentiation lies in my opinion. The SE846 has an edge to the treble that holds it back from being truly perfect. As I said in my review of the SE846, it is so close to perfection that it doesn’t really matter, but if I’m doing a comparison of two awesome earphones it’s always going to come down to the little things and the SE846 just can’t match the K10’s proficiency and refinement in the treble. The SE846 does have the ability to be tuned using its filters, but the treble is never as good as the K10 and always has a slight edge to it that can flare up on some recordings. While the K10s don’t sound quite as airy as the SE846 in its most “trebley” setup, there is never any sense of darkness or thickness to the sound and its effortless refinement is just so enjoyable. To my ears, the treble from the K10s sits somewhere between the blue and white filters on the SE846.
The K10 also has a delicacy and refinement to its sound that the SE846 just can’t quite match and this brings with it the coherency and realism I spoke about earlier in the staging and imaging section.
To summarise my experiences I’d say that the SE846 and K10 are both amazing and deserving of flagship / TOTL status as universals and customs respectively. If money, resale value and the ability to share the sound with others is no object then the K10 is a clear winner on the grounds of better texture in the sound, sharper imaging, and more refined treble, but it’s not a smack-down. This is a hard-fought win; a score of 18-21 in a game of pick-up (first to 21 wins). If you have limited funds for an earphone purchase or you highly value the benefits of a universal then the SE846 might be a better option.
To my ears, the Kaiser 10 is hands-down the better earphone, but the SE846 is a proud runner-up.
Note: The K10 is available as a universal, but I can’t comment directly on the sound of it and would be amazed if it can match the amazing comfort of the SE846.
This is an earphone that is so perfectly balanced in it’s sound and design / build that it truly disappears and leaves you with nothing but the music and a smile. Not lacking in anything and not showcasing anything, the K10 really is the zen master of CIEMs and “just is” as it honestly and accurately conveys every sound, every nuance, and every emotion of the music without judgement and without opinion. While other earphones might strip away the bass to show you more details, or emphasise the mids to create more emotions, the K10 lets each track speak for itself and it has the full range of frequencies covered so skillfully that it convey whatever message the artist was trying to convey. Thunderous power through to fragile delicacy, the K10s have it covered, but not altered.
The Kaiser 10 is quite unique in that it’s completely happy with a basic source, but has endless potential to deliver when given the right setup. There’s no punishment for using your phone, but there are endless rewards for treating it to a great DAP or DAC and amp.
If you have the funds and want the best, I have no hesitation in recommending the Noble Kaiser 10, and having heard the Noble PR and now the Noble K10 I would highly recommend any potential CIEM buyers to head straight over to www.nobleaudio.com to see what they have to offer. Even if the K10 isn’t for you, the quality, attention to detail and masterful tuning I’ve seen so far from Noble tells me they’re easily a manufacturer of choice in the current CIEM market.