Saturday, 3 December 2016

Massdrop x Noble X Universal IEM Earphone Review by mark2410

Massdrop x Noble X Universal IEM Earphone Review by mark2410

Thanks to Massdrop for the loaner.

First Impressions:  Now my experience previously with Noble have been a bit limited.  I heard some back at Canjam London and I wasn’t exactly blown away with them.  In my brief notes I did more than once suggest I may not be getting a great fit.  So with these from the peeps at Massdrop, at such a slashed price I’m a little bit anxious.  Might they be brilliant for that price or might I find that I wasn’t having fit issues, that Noble’s and I just aren’t meant for each other?  Anyway the package eventually arrived after the ever helpful people at Fedex proved that while getting things halfway round the world isn’t an issue but actually showing up rather than just claiming you have, yet mysteriously didn’t leave a card, was.  Hmm yeah funny how when a company claims they tried to deliver and you weren’t in, when you were, somehow it’s the one time they don’t leave a card.  Funny that isn’t it Fedex?  Once I had them in my hand, with their little plastic case.  Hmm a pretty looking little case but on opening it up it’s all a little snug in there no?  Must grab that crazy xDuoo metal thing I was playing with the other week.  The shells that Noble are using are for cost reasons ones they already have developed, so while only 2 drivers in there they are really big IEM’s.  Tbh I’m fine with that, I mean there is nothing wrong with the shells so why waste money on something so trivial.  Though a bigger case might have been nice, maybe.  Ahh well it’s not like you can’t buy ones.  Still they are pretty nice looking things.  Nothing magical but nice.

Finding some foamy tips that were on my desk and then in the ears.  Hmm.  Well these aren’t bass monsters that’s for sure, though I have been using one lately.  Nice mid-range, something granular in there, and the extension on both ends seems a little diminutive.  Nice, clean vocally something not quite Shure like but yet Shure is flashing up in my brain.  Lots of clarity and pith, got a little punchy heart in there somewhere too.  Treble is rather polite in the upper ranges but upper mids are nicely pronounced.  I can see much Tori Amos and Susan Wong in my near future.

Source: FiiO E7/E9 combo, Hisoundaudio Studio V 3rd Anv., HiFiMAN HM-650, 1G Ipod Shuffle, Nexus 5 and Graham Slee Solo Ultra Linear. 

Lows:  Interesting.  They are pretty clean, it’s actually a little bit of fresh air to get some good old fashioned BA bass on the go from all these hybrids these days.  BA’s I know don’t please everyone with their lesser amount of air movement but I’ve always been a little bit of a fan.  It’s all so clean and unencumbered.  It feel like it could move so much faster than a flabby slow dynamic.  Of course some dynamics are great but they never quite have the same limitlessly fast agility of a good BA.  There is a politeness and accuracy to them I find so pleasing.  It may have become a little unfashionable of late with dynamic BA hybrids being all the rage but I like it.  No softening no yielding.  It is precisely the amount it means to be when it means to be with the pace it means to have.  In my favourite sort of vocal fests, such as Des’ree’s “Proud to be a Dread” the bass line is an accompaniment.  Her vocals, and her rather fun lyrics are supposed to be the star of the show and the bass produced here ensures that.  I know that many will want more, mostly more in quantity but more aggression and more bombast too.  These are about being gently and politely accurate for the most part.  Now if you do want to push them, throw in some bass heavy stuff it is a little more inclined to punch than it is to sustain a vigorous low.  It’ll give a hearty little thump but it’s not where it’s at its best.

These are about moderate, pleasing and accurate bass that doesn’t ever want to command the centre stage position.  It’s much more happy when its low piano notes or a low cello than it is with synthetic overblown lows.

Mids:  This is where they do their best.  Rather a moderately mid centric sound too.  Not entirely so but with the polite bass and the upper treble tamed the mids really have the most space in which to really explore matters and show off.  They can swoop and soar with a grand degree of skill.  They are really most excellent.  Flicking back and forth with a few things they do come across as having a better breadth to them than other mid focused things like the SE530.  Still for all their accomplishments there don’t quite have that gloriously buttery creamy Shure hyper fluidity.  These sound the more realistic and I know the Shure’s are over done but damn they are good.  These are the on paper, more realistic and thus I feel like I can’t fault them for it.  They aren’t just captivating me the way I like best and loosing myself into them.  Detail wise they again, I can’t really fault them.  They aren’t the most detailed ever, they are a tiny bit glossed over in their presentation but they would be easily capable enough to be used as monitors for vocals.  Listening to “Papa Can You Hear Me” several times I’m very happy saying that the mids are of a superb quality.  Not the most mesmerising mids, nor the most beautifully fluid but at their US$250 price tag I have no complaints and the de have a better sense of breadth than the likes of the SE530 can muster.

Quantity wise while the X’s could be called middy they are only a bit so.  They are not really all that middy but its more that they don’t do the V shaped boosted bass and treble that is so commonly found.  Thus these will be relatively middy to most listeners more typical fare.  These are tuned for proper grownups who want a properly balanced product that allows them to hear everything and net just dazzling treble and thumping bass.

Treble:  I’ve really already told you, the treble is not all that pronounced.  The detail levels are very good as you would expect from an item at this sort of quality level.  The things is it’s done properly and the treble from their BA drivers are sculpted in such a way as they don’t linearly ascend and then do what BA’s do.  Get edgy and hard.  Here they are in a gently decay before rolling off more quickly.  These are proper monitor tuning so that you could listen to them all day long and not suffer from listening fatigue.  For me the level is just about perfect and along with its rather good details levels I feel are just about spot on.  Now if you are perhaps a little more err, mature, and your hearing range in perhaps no longer quite what it once was then you may find that the subtlety of the treble isn’t what you need.  It’s overall soft and easy, much more about delicate refinement than it is about hurling detail at you.  These are very gentle, easy going, easy on the ear.

Quantity wise this presentation is going to mean that if you slap on very treble heavy stuff, things that will normally ravage your ears will be tamed.  It will be mollified to more gentle style.  Not quite scotch by a roaring fine mellow but they certainly are more at home with more gentle pieces than with dazzelfests.

Soundstage:  For being a BA they are unusually well sized.  Maybe it’s that big enclosure they sit in at work?  Either way they sound very atypically big for a BA based IEM.  They sound big, well distanced, spacious and with a nice amount of air too.  It’s a bit uncommon for a BA but whatever they have done to make it happen, it works and give a very pleasing soundscape.

Fit:  Super easy.  Now I don’t know why I had issues with the previous Nobles, maybe it was just that I needed foamy tips?  When I tried these I went to foamy ones right away and then I had no issues at all.  Easy, shove in and done.  The only thing of note is that they sit relatively shallow, what with their very large housings so you have to go to big tips and they do sit a little shallow for my tastes.  Still with the ear hooks they were plenty stable enough.

Comfort:  Great.  Like I say they sat shallow but otherwise perfect.  Physically they were great and their acoustic balance meant they went ever aurally fatiguing either.  So I could and did wear them for hours and hours with no issues at all.

Cable:  So this cable is some new, fancy something special cable from Noble.  Well so I’m told but as I don’t have any Nobles in my stable of IEM’s I don’t have any to compare to.  lol, yeah so it’s something special apparently.  Now it is a pretty nice cable. The ear guides work fine and they are removable.  The cable is a thin braided affair and it’s very flexible in use.  I look and it’s reminding me of something but I can’t quite think what.  Anyway, cable it’s nice.  The Y splitter and jack and fine too, nothing super special but eminently functional.

Microphonics:  In normal usage I didn’t really get any.  There is a chin slider there too if you have issues but unless I tapped the cable with my fingers then I never got any in use.  Being the shape that they are you really have to wear them up and if you wear things up they are normally pretty good.  I think it’s probably helped by the guides being pretty short.

Isolation:  Very good.  They aren’t the very best because the do sit a bit shallow but they are BA based and sealed.  So while they are a bit so so as Balance Armature IEM’s go they are better than pretty much every dynamic in existence.  If iso matters to you this is the sort of thing you want over a hybrid that has to be open for the dynamic.  These will do for bus, out and about and while not my ideal choice for Tube or flight’s they would do just fine.  That of course means that if you are using, even with no music playing liable to get yourself run over if you’re near traffic and not making use of your eyes. 

Aesthetics:  Hmm. Nice. I rather like the blue colour of the outer and the Noble patterned outer is pleasant.  Nothing I’d say is super gorgeous or anything but nothing about it is visually offensive either.  Nice but nothing special.

Build Quality:  Noble have a rather good reputation when it comes to construction.  Nothing really about these has given me cause to question that but neither was I blown away.  It’s a quality, expensive product so you expect it to be well made don’t you.  It is.

Amped/Unamped:  Well, they want power.  No no, they want all of the power.  They want all of the power and then even more power.  They were easily at their best when running out of the Solo Ultra Linear.  Even the FiiO E7/E9 combo wasn’t cutting it with them.  I don’t know why as it wasn’t a volume issue as even the phones could drive them plenty loud, yet they couldn’t eek the best audio quality out of them.  Colder also helped clean them up, so the Studio worked better than the big HM650 but I was really a little surprised.  They really don’t need power to get loud, they actually were really easy to drive loud, very very easy yet they didn’t perform at their best unless hooked up to the big Solo.  Not something you see often, I mean the big amp usually does give the best audio quality which is why it’s there after all but even jumping down to the E7/E9 combo and they were noticeably not as great.  All the while they were super easy to drive to stupid loud.  I don’t know exactly what the root of this was, maybe it’s an impedance thing, the E9 I think has some additional impedance in its output so maybe that was it?  I really don’t know.  So my suggestion would be do amp them, amp them well and if possible make it a cooler, dryer amp to make the best of them.

Value:  Well once you’re in this level of quality value starts to go a little bit out the window.  I mean the audio difference in quality between something at US$250 and US$500 is really rather small.  Diminishing returns begins to kick in hard once you get past about £100 so value starts to have less meaning.  Now they are listed as having an RRP of US$500 but as I understand these are a special, design made my Noble for Massdrop so I don’t know if they will ever be sold at $500.  Now I know also that these have been made with audio quality in mind specifically and to do it cheaply.  So things like the housing, fora dual BA, yeah it’s huge.  It doesn’t need to be but as Noble pointed out this is a design they have tested and know works so why waste money redesigning a new one when a major concern is cost?  You don’t, it’s stupid to waste money on things like that.  This is aimed at Headfi peeps, hard core audio fans that care about the audio and the cost, things like looks and housing size just aren’t important.  My sort of people.  So to my peeps I answer are these good value?  Well yes.  You’ll get a proper quality product with high levels of detail and an excellent balance.  It’s not to say you can’t find things more to your tastes especially if you want something flavoured but there are very evenly handed and with a hair middy presentation with moderate extensions on either end.  It’s a highly grown up product at a not quite so grown up price.

Conclusion:  These are good, very good.  I like them very much and yet I don’t love them.  Having been playing with the SE530 and the SE420 these are more like the 420 in the character.  The 530 is a hyper middy, hyper liquidy over done but gorgeous sounding mid-range.  These are more like the everything on paper, more realistic 420.    These do last better on the bottom end and they have a much more expansive soundstage than the 420 making these the much more enjoyable.  There are enjoyable, the 420 is a bland and boring as things get at times.  These are more grand more spacious and that bottom does have a little more grunt in it.  It’s also quite notable what that bit of space can do too.  There is a more live, airy something to everything.

Down side wise, well the housing rather big sound that could be a problem for some.  Its real potential down side is that it’s not exciting.  I can see some coming to a product like the X and they see US$20 earphones and think oh, well its RRP is US$500 so it must have all of da everything.  It doesn’t.  It is not bombastic in the bass, it is not scintillating in the treble.  It’s a comfortable, highly capable and mostly evenly balanced product.  It hasn’t got bags of drama inside it, it’s going to be too boring for some.  It is a grown up, monitor like, easy going detailed and lacking in flavour.

So would I / should you buy one?  Me, yes.  This sort of sound signature is very much me.  Great mids with neither extreme bass nor extreme treble.  It’s so easy and gentle on the ear.  Plenty of detail but it hasn’t some overcompensating issue where it feels it must hurl it at your face.  I hate that, attention seeking, screaming hyperactive child.  I like things more like this.  Clean, simple, elegant, confident in its own abilities where you may casually take or leave whatever detail level you wish.  Something soothing and easy on the ear.  Something where Barbara can belt out songs to her dead father.  “Papa Can You Hear Me” is the perfect song for these.  Such acoustic simplicity, scale, purity, delicate, gently beautiful.  There is a soul, a joy, a sadness, a passion lurking just beneath their mild mannered sensibilities.  Something aching yet deep yet somehow light and airy all at once.

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