Back in March, I extolled the benefits of spending $449 on Audeze SINE with Lightning cable headphones and upgrading your portable music experience. I argued that for fans searching for more from their music, upgrading to premium headphones would provide more detail in sound compared to out-of-the-box white Apple Earpods. I still stand by that story.
But many readers pointed out that SINE are traditional on-ear headphones that are not as conducive to commuting as say a pair of Apple Earpods. Quiet honestly, they're right: traditional headphones are not for everyone, especially those that don't want to look like they're in a recording studio. Thankfully, there are options in the world of earbuds and in-ear headphones. One can easily walk into a shop and pickup a variety of impressive earbuds to elevate their music - the Sennheiser Momentum ($99) and Etymotic MC5 ($65) come to mind as two good options, and they're likely a good fit for most.
But we can go further - much, much further - up the audiophile chain to achieve outstanding audio clarity and personal fit within the in-ear form factor. Enter the world of custom-molded, in-ear headphones (also known as in-ear monitors or IEM for short) that are specifically made for your ears and your sound; a world that moves the bar not only in audio detail but price. Welcome to the world of $2,000 in-ear headphones.
I admit, it's a helluva a leap going from $99 to $2,000. Justifying a leap this wide comes with its own set of issues: how much more detail will $2k IEMs give a listener compared to typical store-bought earbuds, and, are you ready to balance your finances in order to invest in them. Truth is, if you're willing to spend $2k on in-ear headphones you're looking for more.
Our test model are the custom-molded acrylic $2,099 Noble Kaiser Encore IEMS. At the heart of the Noble Kaiser Encore are proprietary balanced-armature drivers - 10 per side - that offers a wide soundstage and clarity not found in typical store-bought earbuds. Those looking for non-molded inserts will be happy to know that Noble also offers a universal-fit version of the Kaiser Encores (with various bid sizes) for $1,850, but if you're already this high up the chain, I would highly recommend going the custom-molded route for only a few hundo more.1
Getting into a pair of Noble's custom-molded IEMs starts with a visit to the doctor's office.
The most personal aspect of Noble custom IEMs is the fitting itself. Since no two ear canals are the same, you'll need to visit a licensed audiologist to make impressions of your canals. Noble booked me an appointment at Musicians Hearing Solutions, a New York-based company that consults with a wide variety of clientele, including some very famous musicians, in deciding on the best approach for devices built for audio enthusiasts and those seeking hearing help and protection. My appointment with Dr. Elvera Bader at MHS delivered a comprehensive hearing test along with the impressions Noble would need to mold my inserts to a perfect fit. The fitting itself was very straightforward: Dr. Bader prepared a compound that when inserted via syringe into my ear canal hardened into a strange form that mimicked my ear canals. Packaged into a small box, MHS shipped them off to Noble for final preparation. In case you're wondering, here's what it takes to make impressions.
Within two month's time, my custom pair of Noble Kaiser Encore IEMs arrived in my choice color of clear acrylic. The photos tell the story here: the clear finish allows for all internal components to remain visible, including the core drivers that power the Kaiser Encores. It's like a dissected look into the device that will transform how you hear music. The mini Pelican case your Noble in-ears arrive in is a fantastic touch that plays into the consideration they take in protecting your investment.
By definition, custom-molded, in-ear headphones fit perfectly in one's ear, and these are no different. The fit is snug and seals out exterior atmosphere exceptionally well. Deep channel placement of the in-ears allows for the drivers to push sound directly to the ear drum; the effect is best described as "in your ear," and less so "over" like traditional headphones would perform. Compared to traditional earbuds, custom Nobles feel amazing on wear with little to no fatigue after hours of use.
I tested my Kaiser Encores using two setups: 1. Apple iPhone 7 with Lightning to 3.5mm Headphone Adapter + Tidal HiFi and 2. Meridian Prime desktop Amplifier + DAC with Tidal HiFi desktop. My test tracks included:Beck's "Lost Cause," Broken Social Scene's "Cause=Time," Coldplay's "Talk," Daft Punk's "Touch," Fucked Up's "Year Of The Pig," Jay-Z's "The Story of O.J.," Lil Uzi Vert "XO TOUR Llif3," and The Beatles "Tomorrow Never Knows."
The Kaiser Encores revealed fine on the iPhone 7 but showed real clarity when paired with the desktop amplifier. Ripples in "Touch" bounced well across the soundstage; bass hits in "XO TOUR Llif3" were impacting and forward. The most dramatic of definition came from "Tomorrow Never Knows" where layers of tape loop opened wide and tambourines shimmered.
In a word, I found the custom-molded Noble Kaiser Encores revealing and most importantly comfortable to wear for long periods. At $2k, I would expect nothing less.
1. For those looking for even more customization options like exotic woods or 24k gold housings, check out Noble's Prestige series where $3,150 will house your IEMS in rare Amboyna Burl woods direct from Burma!