Noble Audio Kaiser 10

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The world of personal audio is an infinitely varied and fascinating one. Whether you’re buying speakers, cables, or headphones, you can spend anywhere from five bucks to tens of thousands. Today I’m going to address the latter end of that spectrum with the $1,600 Noble Audio Kaiser 10 in-ear monitors (IEMs). These are precious little pieces of handcrafted engineering from a boutique Californian outfit that specializes in making high-end and bespoke in-ear headphones.

Noble Audio is only a few years old, but it already has a committed following and a strong reputation that puts it alongside Ultimate Ears, JH Audio, and Westone as a maker of high-quality IEMs. Each of these companies has products nudging close to and past the $1,000 mark — and basic market economics would suggest that they provide enough value to justify the expense. I made it my task to try and define that value while testing the universal-fit Kaiser 10 (there are also custom-fit and design options).

What do you get from Noble Audio that you couldn’t get anywhere else? The Kaiser 10 offers two very good answers: a unique system of 10 balanced-armature drivers in each headphone (hence the name) and a two-tone machined aluminum construction by local metalwork specialists Neal Feay. I’ll break down the benefits of each one in turn, but let me assure you that neither is mere marketing fluff.

The Kaiser 10s look, feel, and sound gorgeous.

Typical headphones have just one dynamic driver per cup. Balanced armature driverswork in a different way that makes them better suited for in-ear use, though they cost more and usually require multi-driver setups to reproduce the full range from deep bass to high treble. With 10 on each side, Noble Audio makes sure that there’s no shortage of frequency response from the K10s. On paper, it seems like opulent overkill, but in person, it sounds just right. These headphones reveal the tiniest of details and nuances in my music, and it’s all thanks to that elaborate system.

Listening to the K10s, I found myself visualizing the instruments being played. I wasn’t just hearing the note, I was hearing how it was being played — whether it was the hit of a mallet on a marimba or the strumming of a guitar string. In one particular song I’ve listened to for years, Baauer’s “One Touch,” I discovered undulations in the bassline — the low notes would subtly go up and down in frequency — which I’d never previously been aware of. I wasn’t looking for that detail, just like I wasn’t trying to envision a marimba (hell, I had to look up the instrument’s name after hearing it): the K10s just surface the intricacy in each recording in a way that others don’t.

My standard test for how deep a headphone’s bass goes is Jamie XX’s “Gosh, which starts off with a delightful sub-bass rumble. The Kaiser 10 passed with flying colors, going right down into the purring region without losing any of its precision. It’s almost shocking how good and plentiful the bass is from a set of earphones this size. Bass in headphones is rather like bokeh with cameras in that the bigger the equipment, the better the effect. Noble Audio pretty much shrugs that conventional wisdom off. The K10’s sound balance is also very good and coherent, which shouldn’t be taken for granted with all those drivers firing inside the enclosure.

Listening to the K10s, I found myself visualizing the instruments being played. I wasn’t just hearing the note, I was hearing how it was being played — whether it was the hit of a mallet on a marimba or the strumming of a guitar string. In one particular song I’ve listened to for years, Baauer’s “One Touch,” I discovered undulations in the bassline — the low notes would subtly go up and down in frequency — which I’d never previously been aware of. I wasn’t looking for that detail, just like I wasn’t trying to envision a marimba (hell, I had to look up the instrument’s name after hearing it): the K10s just surface the intricacy in each recording in a way that others don’t.

My standard test for how deep a headphone’s bass goes is Jamie XX’s “Gosh, which starts off with a delightful sub-bass rumble. The Kaiser 10 passed with flying colors, going right down into the purring region without losing any of its precision. It’s almost shocking how good and plentiful the bass is from a set of earphones this size. Bass in headphones is rather like bokeh with cameras in that the bigger the equipment, the better the effect. Noble Audio pretty much shrugs that conventional wisdom off. The K10’s sound balance is also very good and coherent, which shouldn’t be taken for granted with all those drivers firing inside the enclosure.

THIS IS AS GOOD AS IN-EAR HEADPHONES GET

There’s really no faulting the sound of the Kaiser 10s. Treble extension is every bit as good as on the low end, and imaging — the positioning of instruments across the sound stage in your mind — is impeccable. If you want to know whether the sound and hardware engineering of these headphones is worth $1,600, my answer is a categorical yes. They make me intimately familiar with my music in a whole new way. That does mean they also expose bad recordings, making them sound extra awful, but that’s a small price to pay for their overall excellence. The premise of the Kaiser 10s is uncompromisingly good and precise sound and they deliver just that.

The other big reason for wanting to own the K10s is that, well, they are beautiful. Just when I thought the whole machined-aluminum thing was growing stale with every smartphone manufacturer now issuing a device built that way, in comes this red-accented pair of acoustic marvels. The Noble Audio crown sits atop a rock-solid aluminum shell that is gently ridged around the sides and feels like it could last a lifetime. Wearing these is rather like putting on a pair of brightly colored socks with your regular staid business suit — a bit of colorful flair that’s only occasionally noticed.

Practicality is probably the biggest shortcoming of the Kaiser 10s. They are relatively light and comfortable to wear for high-end IEMs, but they’re still bulkier than your typical ear buds. If you’re looking for earphones that just disappear into the ear, try the Klipsch X20isinstead. They don’t sound as good, but you can wear them in a wider set of circumstances and situations than the K10s.

Even with 12 pairs of ear tips in the Noble Audio box, I couldn’t quite find a perfect fit and seal with the K10s. Very good, yes, but perfect, no. This leads me to encourage anyone considering these headphones to go the custom route: have an image of your ear canals made and Noble will design the shape specifically for your ears. And the designs on offer are no less strikingthan the universal-fit variant. In either case, you’ll get a very nice, tangle-free braided cable that feels super durable and can be detached if it ever needs replacing.

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