Noble Kaiser 10 Earphone Review
Ten drivers? A man named Kaiser Soze? Welcome to Noble.
Noble Kaiser 10 - What is it?One aspect of the audio industry that I have always loved is that it's one of a tiny number of industries that still tolerates perfectionism at almost sensible price points. Sure, most equipment you buy in the hundreds rather than the thousands of pounds has to keep an eye on the bottom line but even here, there are flourishes of the inspired. The Aedle Valkyrie headphone doesn’t need to be made from aerospace steel and Argentinian sheep leather but it means that when you hold them, you feel they are more than a mass produced item. The Eclipse TD-M1 is an AirPlay speaker system that sounds extraordinary almost despite the laws of physics and is the result of taking a design process that by and large shouldn’t work and exhaustively solving all the issues it normally faces rather than simply introducing a compromise or two.
How far can you - or perhaps more accurately, should you - push this leeway? If we exclude the true high end from this process as a law unto itself (and equally crazy in most other luxury goods categories), when does the desire to build something as perfectly as you possibly can, start to move from ‘deeply impressive’ to ‘slightly scary?’ Some months ago, I reviewed the Sennheiser IE800 earphone that costs a significant £600. After some time spent with them, I awarded them a maximum score noting that they are objectively an almost perfect piece of equipment. If £600 buys something effectively perfect, what could possibly be the benefit of spending another £400?
This is what Californian company Noble is asking you to do with the earphone you see here. The Kaiser 10 is their new non-custom fit flagship that uses technology and experience garnered from their custom mould designs to build the ultimate universal fit earphone. The specifications (more of which later) are extraordinary but can this little earphone really be worth a thousand pounds? Ever one for some personal sacrifice, I’ve been finding out.
Noble Kaiser 10 - Design and ConnectionsAs I have expanded at length before, there are a number of different means of extracting bass from an earphone and all of them come with varying degrees of compromise. Traditionally, earphones that cost more than £200 have made use of multiple armatures but for reasons that are more accident then design, most earphones I have covered for AVForums have been single armature or other design and there haven’t been any multiple armature designs reviewed until now. As if making up for lost time, the K10 takes the multiple armature principle and runs with it.
Each housing of the Kaiser 10 features ten armature drivers. Ten, double figures, loads, describe it however you want, this is a concept so out of the ordinary as to require a bit of time to think about. These ten drivers are divided into various frequency sections by a crossover that by necessity has to be extremely compact. Trying to build a box loudspeaker that fits ten drivers into it which then goes on to sound like a single loudspeaker is a serious undertaking and the engineering required to make it work at the dimensions earphones have to work to is faintly mind boggling. Noble has some experience in this process as the custom mould version of the Kaiser 10 has been on sale for some time but even so, this is still a fairly singular piece of design.
If the resulting enclosure was the size of a squash ball, the effect would be somewhat spoiled but the Noble, while still a fairly large earphone is a perfectly sensible size and doesn’t look in any way odd when worn out and above. The custom mould version is smaller as the enclosure becomes part of the moulded fitting while the Universal has to have a standard tube where rubber housings are fitted which increases the overall dimensions but not unmanageably so. Anyone used to high end Shures or the like will find the Kaiser 10 to be a normal enough device. Why would you choose a Universal Kaiser 10 over a custom one? Well, the fit and feel of custom moulds isn’t to everyone’s taste and the wait between ordering a set and receiving your finished item is 30-40 business days which is fairly substantial. While I can’t see Noble having giant piles of the Universal ready to go, the wait for it will be substantially shorter.
In fitment terms, the Kaiser 10 is a structured in-ear meaning that the cable leaves the housing at the top and loops around the top of the ear before heading down. The ‘loop’ has a deformable extra jacket on it to help form a fixed position and broadly it works rather well. The cable itself is detachable and, as is fairly standard for high-end earphones, includes no mic or inline remotes.
The general build quality is - as you might expect - very good. The Noble doesn’t feel as solid as the Sennheiser because the housings are larger and the cable arrangement is less compact but they still have a sense that someone has invested considerable time and effort in their construction. That ‘someone’ is important too because the Kaiser is hand finished rather than machine built. One of those people might be the person that the Kaiser is named after. The designer is a man - and I’m not making this up - who goes by the name of Kaiser Soze. The website is unclear on whether this is startling coincidence or whether the chap happens to really like The Usual Suspects.
Noble Kaiser 10 - AccessoriesThe Noble is supplied with a hard shell carry case that can only accurately be described as a small toolbox. This is rugged, lockable, spacious… and massive. While if affords excellent protection to the Kaiser 10, it is simply too big to use with pockets unless you happen to be dean of a university or Pennywise the Clown. For those of us that make use of the manbag, this isn’t an issue but something to take into account if you are reliant wholly on pockets.
As you might expect, Noble has supplied their flagship with every single bung, dome and tree that you could reasonably expect and I found getting a comfortable fit to be easy enough. The actual business of securing a decent fit is nowhere near as arduous as some other in-ear designs and the looped fit means that the Noble tends to stay where is should once you have fitted it. I’ve no idea if this is something that will be included in non-review samples but the review pair also turned up with some Noble stickers - which was nice.
Ten, double figures, loads, describe it however you want, this is a concept so out of the ordinary as to require a bit of time to think about.
Noble Kaiser 10 - Any drawbacks?I’m not going to berate the Noble for having no mic or remote. At this price point, most of the competition don’t have them either and many of the devices that the Kaiser will be connected to have no ability to respond to the commands. My main point of ire is directed at the cable. I am sure that the woven design helps performance and has been deliberately chosen but the Noble will tangle under literally any circumstances and untangling it is a thankless, slow and miserable task. After spending some time with the Kaiser 10, I’m convinced you could leave them stretched flat in a locked room for ten minutes and come back to find them tangled up.
If you feel that the Kaiser 10 doesn’t have the visual pull that a four figure earphone should have though, I have some better news. The custom mould Kaiser 10 is available in a variety of startling custom finishes and it is unclear at the moment but it might be possible to get the Universal in the same way. If you’ve always wanted earphones in gold aerospace aluminium, this might be the pair for you.
Noble Kaiser 10 - How did we test them?The Noble has been tested in the standard processes used for earphones. This has meant being connected to a Lenovo T530 ThinkPad with and without Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS, Furutech ADL Cruise and Chord Hugo Headphone amps. They have also been tested with a Google Nexus 5, iPad 3 and a Naim SUPERNAIT2 integrated amp. Material used has included lossless and high res FLAC, Spotify and Grooveshark as well as internet radio, general web material and on demand services from Netflix, the BBC and Sky.
Noble Kaiser 10 - Performance with MusicThe first and most important aspect of the Noble’s performance is that at no stage does it ever sound like there are twenty drivers in total at work making the sound you hear. I have devoted a slightly sad amount of time trying to discern any of the crossover points that these drivers use and I simply cannot pin any of them down with any accuracy. The Noble sounds every bit as coherent as the single driver Sennheiser does. It also has truly exceptional frequency extension. The 24-bit version of Aphex Twin is a marvellous piece of mastering and the bass of the splendidly titled minipops 67 [120.2] is truly enormous. It has a physical presence within the ear canal - something very few earphones and certainly no armature based one I’ve tested has achieved before. At the same time the bass itself is lightning fast, perfectly integrated with the rest of the frequency response and wonderfully detailed.
And that frequency response is eye popping. From what feels like single figures, all the way to the upper registers of my hearing, the Noble is perfectly even and as smooth as Leslie Phillips drinking linctus. The really clever bit is that this refinement never comes at the expense of the detail and power that some recordings need. Listening The Gravedigger’s Song by the Mark Lanegan Band and Lanegan’s vocals are just perfect. The texture that suggests he starts each day with a pack of twenty and a sandpaper sandwich are presented with absolute clarity while the track thunders away behind him. At no stage during my time with them has the Kaiser 10 been wrongfooted by anything I’ve thrown their way.
More surprising is the sensitivity of the Kaiser 10. I had figured in a slightly lazy sort of way that so many drivers and their attendant crossover would need a fair amount of power but this isn’t the case and you can use the Noble successfully on the end of the weedy headphone amp of the Nexus 5 and still get something of the sheer ability that these earphones have to handle scale. While they work on the end of devices of this nature, there is no question that the Noble is happier on the end of a higher quality headphone output though. The DacMagic XS manages to open out the performance and give a little boost to the weight of bass and low notes. By the time you wheel out the Furutech ADL Cruise or Chord Hugo (the latter taking your notional total portable rig outlay to a hair raising £2,400), the Noble is showing all the attributes that high end headphones like Oppo’s PM-1 are doing - only the Noble leaks no noise and (unless you’ve chosen a more ghetto fabulous finish) attracts no attention while you do so.
Effectively, like the Sennheiser, the Noble needs to be judged as competitive with full size headphones because it produces a performance that is completely free of any limitations of scale, detail or sheer authority. The way that they handle Craig Armstrong’s Its Nearly Tomorrow isn’t good for an earphone or even good for a headphone, it is a performance that any speaker of virtually any dimensions would be proud to claim at its own. With decent mastering and sampling rates, the Noble is capable of performance that would see many stereo speakers getting very dusty through lack of use. Recording quality matters though because while the Noble is happy enough with 320kbps Spotify, anything less than this starts to sound thin and can become actively strident if you push the levels too high. This impacts the ability of the Kaiser 10 to act as an all-rounder but I suspect that Noble has probably done their homework here and figured that the intersection of people who are willing to drop a grand on a pair of earphones and then choose to listen to double figure bitrate internet radio stations is probably fairly low.
The Noble is perfectly even and as smooth as Leslie Phillips drinking linctus
Noble Kaiser 10 - Performance with Film and TVThe ability of the Noble to produce a performance that has all the scale and realism of a well sorted full size speaker pays dividends with video material too. Anything that needs a little bit of room to breathe is treated to a performance that is far removed from what you might believe an earphone can do. Ender’s Game on Netflix is reproduced with the scale and expanse of the soundtrack completely intact. The final battle sounds - and feels - absolutely enormous and the Kaiser 10 is able to generate a believable sense of surround which is an ability sufficiently unusual in an earphone to be worthy of comment. Reasonable quality on demand streams like iPlayer, 4OD and Sky Go are treated well by the Noble and while I’m not completely sure if there is a subset of the high end earphone market that comprises cinephiles on the go, the same abilities that make the Noble so good with music are present and correct for film as well.
- Astounding sound quality
- Impressively sensitive
- Well built
- Horrible cable
- Huge carry case
- High price
Noble Kaiser 10 Earphone ReviewThroughout the review process, it has been impossible to avoid making comparisons to the Sennheiser IE800 as the only earphone at a remotely commensurate price that has passed through the AVForums review process and the only one at any price to wear a perfect score. After some extended thought, I’m forced to resort to car analogies to try and make sense of where these two models sit in the grand scheme of things. The Sennheiser should retain its perfect score having spent some time with the Noble. The IE800 is like a BMW M3. It is utterly practical in the rear world and can be asked to do the most mundane tasks without ever complaining. It is then capable of truly astonishing performance when asked. It is beautifully finished and comes with the best carry case of any earphone.
The Noble is by contrast a supercar. Things like the tangletastic cord and giant carry case are going to be nothing more than annoying when you board a train at dark O’clock in the morning to commute somewhere. They can be merciless with compressed material and unless you go crazy with the finish options they are merely well built rather than actively beautiful. In a way though, none of this matters because if you listen to pair where any attention has been paid to the partnering equipment, sooner or later a piece of music that you know and love will come on. When it does, the way that the Kaiser 10 performs is so utterly spectacular, you won’t really care if the cord was made of barbed wire and they had to be stored inside of a live rat. The Noble Kaiser 10 Universal does not score a perfect 10 but you should be under no illusion that these may be the finest sounding universal earphones you can buy.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £1,000.00
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