“A studio is an absolute labyrinth of possibilities — this is why records take so long to make because there are millions of permutations of things you can do. The most useful thing you can do is to get rid of some of those options before you start.”
That’s Brian Eno on how near-infinite possibilities can stifle creativity in the studio. For an IEM manufacturer, creative restrictions come built into the product’s design. Each earpiece must fit inside the auditory canal. That means no more than a single dynamic driver.
For a multiple driver design the IEM manufacturer turns to the smaller, more efficient balance armature type, largely sourced from the two major game players Knowles and Sunion. In this video, Karl Cartwright of Westone gives an easily digestible, teacher-style explanation of how BA drivers work. For a slicker overview, see a Knowles-produced video here.
More isn’t always better. Like its single driver cousin in loudspeaker land, a single BA-d IEM requires no crossover filter network and more readily channels an undeniable purity that a technically superior multi-driver solution might struggle to match.
The limitation of the single BA design is bandwidth; each driver can manage a only specific portion of the frequency range. That means compromises on treble or bass. Multi-driver solutions allow for superior frequency extension and more flexible voicing.
The broadly accepted maximum number of BA drivers to comfortably fit into an IEM ear-shell is presently pegged at twelve. So if you’re in the increasingly crowded IEM business, how to make your IEM line stand out from the competition?
For Noble Audio, it’s not just a game of high-end SQ but also look and feel. The Santa Barbara HQ-d company occupied the biggest booth by far at CanJam SoCal 2016 and could be seen touting their all-new universal IEM line whose colourful two-part construction makes its own introductions.
Essentially an extension of the Kaiser 10U’s overhaul introduced at the Fujiya Avic headphone festival in Tokyo last year, gone are the acrylic shells of yore, replaced by “high-grade aluminium end-caps” and “composite bodies”, all of which are “hand-assembled in the USA”, according to co-owner Brannan Mason.
Mason talks to my CanJam camera here:
New materials necessitated re-voicing (by other co-owner Dr John Moulton) and, in some cases, renaming. Noble’s new universal range now tumbles down as follows:
At the entry level we have Trident (US$399), a 3 x BA but given the smallest of nudges in the bass and top end. Next up the ladder, Savanna (US$499): a 4 x BA and aimed squarely at nailing the transparency and avidity of acoustic music.
Listen to bass heavy music like trap and dubstep? You’ll wanna consider the 5 x BA Dulce Bass (US$699). Dulce is
Italian Latin for ‘sweet’. Top of the line but below the Kaiser 10U sits another all-rounder: the 6 x BA Django (US$999).
Custom options exist for acrylic, silicon and 3D printed versions for most of these new models but expect to stump up a few extra hundred bucks for the privilege.
However, piggy in the middle is also odd one out. The Savant (US$599) has been knocking around in Noble’s range for a year already with the number of BA drivers remaining undisclosed by the manufacturer and voiced as a multi-genre all-rounder.
This is where aesthetic considerations head skyward. Savant joins the Kaiser 10 as part of the company’s “showy flourish” – Prestige. Instead of being injection moulded or 3D-printed, Noble’s Prestige finishes are crafted from solid blocks of material. Take a flick through their look-book or click to Noble’s Instagram and tell me these aren’t some of the most visually arresting IEMs in the world today. Stifled creativity just doesn’t get a look in.
Contrary to a coupla interviewees in this Knowles video, it’s not only sound that matters. Headphones are a form of audio clothing. Earphones are worn like jewellery. From the new universal range to Prestige finishes, it’s screamingly obvious that the look and feel of IEMs matters just as much as their sound to this Californian company. That makes them very much – and quite literally – the ones to watch in the IEM world.
Further information: Noble Audio