There’s an old saying that my father likes to use occasionally, and the G-rated version goes like this:
“Like trying to put 10lbs of stuff in a 5lb bag” – sounds inelegant, I know, but those who actually accomplish these feats elegantly are thought of as superhuman Wizards.
Of late, there has been a trend in the IEM market to put as many drivers into the device as possible. This is understandable, as it not only allows the designers more flexibility to tailor the response of the monitor, but it also allows the individual drivers to work in their linear range more easily. Theory suggests that – by splitting up the work that the monitor has to do between multiple drivers, each with their own limited operating band – greater overall fidelity, lower distortion, and higher sensitivity will be in evidence.
But we all know how Theory and Practice can sometimes diverge, and it is in the expert implementation of these ideas that the men are separated from the boys, the gold from the dross. Again, it takes a peculiar talent to not only combine these elements practically, but to do it in a way that is musically satisfying and worthy of the asking price. That’s why Noble has as its resident Wizard an audiologist with an obsession for music and high performance audio: Dr. John Moulton – aka, “Wizard”
In the case of the Kaiser 10 Universal*, Noble is bringing to the fore an already highly-regarded design that was once only available as a custom IEM. Will the K10 Universal deserve the same praise that was dressed upon the original Kaiser 10? Noble’s Brannan Mason sent a pair to H.G central for us to evaluate.
*(“Kaiser” for their in-house craftsman, “Kaiser Soze” … and “10” for the number of balanced armature receivers inside each earpiece)
IN THE BEGINNING (or in 1996)…
My fascination with IEMs began almost two decades ago thanks to Tyll Hertsens hooking me up with a set of Etymotic ER4s, which I purchased from his legendary Headroom™ corporation – arguably the Prime Mover when it comes to the audiophile obsession with all things headphones. My Stax Lambda Pros were great for listening, but ahead of me I had a recording obligation for which these open-backed monitors wouldn’t suffice. I would be recording the Moscow Symphony Orchestra in a live performance at the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, and also in their rehearsals at MosFilm Studios – and it was in rehearsals especially that I needed extreme isolation from outside sounds, as I would be monitoring the recording from the headphone output of a 1st Generation Nagra-D recorder, while situated directly in front of the orchestra. The Ety ER4s was the right tool for that peculiar job – Tyll’s advice was right on the money. Although we had some uniquely “Russian” challenges during the trip, excellent monitoring was not one of them (remind me to tell you about a lame dog, a pot of tea, ‘The Father of Russian Second Hand” – and a bottle of invisible vodka that set the world a-spinning).
Of course, this was at a time when portable audio was still a Discman or a Sony portable DAT recorder (both of which I had pressed into personal service), and also a time when a single balanced-armature receiver was all you could get. Etymotic were the only ones producing IEMs with balanced armature receivers – which makes sense, since both the technology and the company itself had roots in the general audiology world. Their first model for high-fidelity music reproduction was the original ER4, released in 1991, and apparently counts as the first implementation of a balanced armature receiver used in an earphone intended purely for the enjoyment of music. In fact, my ER4s IEMs lasted me a goodly number of years until they actually wound up getting lost. I replaced them a few years back with another single-receiver monitor, this time from Phonak – another audiological heavyweight – and was inadvertently sacrificed to a boxer-puppy named Daisy-Lee, who apparently had a craving for earwax-flavored goodies.
IF ONE IS GOOD, MORE IS BETTER! (?)
Flash-forward a whole bunch of years, and we find ourselves in an age of multi-driver IEMs, and competition seems to be ramping up like a nuclear arms race. First there were two, then three, then – kapow. I think that a portion of the multi-driver justification is obvious: overall increase in sensitivity, some driver specialization to extract more information and impact, lower distortion … the same arguments used for decades with regard to loudspeaker design. But with these may come some other, unintended consequences just as with loudspeaker design: wave interference between drivers and phase alignment issues, to name two of the more prevalent bugaboos that might be applicable in these situations. So, as intimated in the opening of this article, one cannot simply throw together a bunch of receivers haphazardly and expect a reasonable or decent outcome. Complexity increases several-fold as you add more and different drivers to the mix, and so it takes an ever-increasing level of expertise and, perhaps, a touch of artistry to ensure that one doesn’t complicate oneself into a concrete wall at 100mph.
At 10 drivers per ear the potential complications were many, but Wizard has already trodden this path and proved his mettle. The K10 Universal is ostensibly the same as its forebear, the K10 Custom – save for the chassis – and the K10 Custom has had no shortage of fawning and flowery prose dedicated in its honor. Will the more austere “Universal” chassis be as worthy of celebration?
I was anxious to know for myself, and gladly pressed the K10-U into service.
Portable: Level 1
One of my favorite things to do is listen to Pandora or Spotify while at my workbench. It helps to pass the hours, and on days that I need a little extra boost I can call up some high-energy music to give me the kick in the pants that I need to get going. This could be anything from Tech-House, DubStep, Disco (EDM, etc), to lively Gypsy Jazz, to big bands – especially latin big bands. I tend to plug in to my iPhone instead of a portable player on most days (such as the Astell&Kern AK120 II that I have in for review right now) so that I don’t miss any phone calls, so sensitivity will be an issue given the iPhone’s so-so output. PRAT (Pace, rhythm, and timing) is key to being able to enjoy this music, and when it comes to EDM – bass. Big, tight, deep, powerful bass. Just as in life – if things get flippity-flappity in the nether regions, it’s kind of a turn-off.
The K10 Universal did not disappoint at all in the PRAT department, and was mostly really good when it came to controlling deep bass. It’s got a nice little boost down there, and it doesn’t really seem to leak up into the midbass – which is a good thing, because when that happens things can tend to get a little soft and fuzzy. Listening to tracks from artists such as Akkord, Phonat, Gorillaz, Aphex Twin, Daft Punk, Deadmau5, Trentmöller, and even a couple of the more aggressive tracks on Brian Eno’s album, “Small Craft on a Milk Sea” (check out ‘Flint March’) – my daily work-soundtrack could keep me jammin’ for hours.
Though this is clearly not traditional “audiophile” territory, it is a big part of my workday ritual and important to me. More than a few of my headphonista-friends do like I do and enjoy a good streaming session, and I tend to think of the headphone enthusiasm as being less about chasing traditional audiophile unicorns and more about really getting into all kinds of music – not just audiophile-approved female vocal tracks. So much of the music that I love to listen to wasn’t recorded with audiophiles in mind (and that’s also why it just doesn’t pay to buy high-resolution versions of some of these albums). There are exceptions, of course – but the ones I know about begin to cross streams with ambient/experimental/environmental music.
Portable: Level 2
Given that the low-frequency control wasn’t quite as solid as I was hoping for with just the iPhone output, I pressed my trusty HeadAmp “Pico” into service. I’ll tell you this much: this little box has never let me down before, and it wasn’t going to start now. The extra gronk was just the thing to bring the iPhone’s streamer-performance up from really good to Fuck Yeah! While the K10’s seemed reasonably sensitive, and should be given their plurality of drivers, the extra headroom afforded by the Pico was a dose of the kind of control that I crave when I’m listening to music with infrasonic content. Furthermore, the Pico seemed to help the iPhone/K10 combo resolve space a bit better, which was a little surprising in that the Pico is just an “analog” amplifier – it’s not as if there is more actual information being resolved … but controlling the bass, and perhaps lowering the noise floor a little, seems to have had the effect of increasing apparent resolution.
Take, for example, Murcof’s 2002 album, “Martes” – a favorite of mine ever since OMA’s Jonathan Weiss turned me on the vinyl. File under “IDM” – or, “Intelligent Dance Music” – the Electronic Music World’s version of Math Rock, I guess, only much easier to listen to for extended periods of time. Luckily, I can get a stream of Martes through Spotify, and when I just want to escape into a surrogate world of subconscious ambient illusion … “Martes” does the trick for me. And while I *much* prefer listening to the vinyl from a qualitative standpoint, I can’t say that I mind the convenience of listening to the stream. It’s not nearly the same experience as listening to the vinyl – but it’s far from unpleasant. I can just kick back in my chair in front of my workbench, crank the volume up a tick or two, and drown in the music. It’s like a power-nap, only much better.
Giving the iPhone/K10 setup a little more horsepower worked wonders, promoting this already good combo to a real level-up, and crafting “Martes” into an inner-space wonderland.
High-Res: Level 3 (Achievement Unlocked!)
The real test would be full-resolution and high-resolution, though. Anyone considering the expense of the K10 is not simply seeking a bop-around-town IEM, they’re looking for some deep satisfaction, and chances are they’ll be using them in a high performance desktop situation or with a high-resolution portable player. During my evaluation period with the K10-U I also had on hand one of Astell&Kern’s AK120 II players for review. I loaded up a king’s-ransom worth of my favorite albums via my desktop system, an iMac running Amarra through a Geek Out 450 – which also serves as my hi-rez desktop listening station. Between the iMac/Amarra/GeekOut and the AK120 II I was able to determine quite a bit about the K10’s high-performance aspirations and achievements, and here is where I’ll spill a little more (virtual) ink on the subject.
Noble K10 U and the new Prestige
Digging out my beloved high-resolution version of Será Una Noche’s “La Segunda” (MA Recordings) is always among the first things I do when I want to get a quick performance-snapshot of a piece of gear. “La Roca” is the track I go to, in short, because it has so many performance elements mixed together that it serves this peculiar purpose.
The album was recorded, like all MA Recordings, in an acoustically-rich environment that lends the kind of natural ambient space around the musicians that MA Recordings is known for. This track is an extraordinary combination of textures, harmonics, micro and macro dynamics, and hyper-rich tonality all occupying an acoustically reverberant space. All of the instruments were recorded in real time, in real space, with nothing but two omni-microphones. In essence – as “purist” as things tend to get in our world, save for actually being there for the live event.
Through both the AK 120 II and the Geek Out 450, the K10’s were superlative, especially when it came to the immersive sense of space in all directions. The sensitivity with which the acoustic space reflects the various tones and impacts of the instruments is apparent when listening through the K10’s, although not quite to the extent that some of the best electrostatic and planar-magnetic ‘phones seem to portray. I felt as if there was the slightest dip in the high frequencies, mostly around the area affecting harmonics and air, and not so much that these things seemed missing or even muted. A little boost of volume brought the harmonics and air back out of the background, but overall I’d say that the K10’s high frequency performance is a touch on the polite side.
The midrange is luscious, inviting, seductive, spine-tingling, heart-wrenching. The whole extended midrange band, from upper bass through lower treble, seems about as good as it gets from any IEM I have ever heard, and gives a few ‘stats and planars a run for their money. Aside from the immersion factor, which is itself peerless, the ability of the K10 to finely parse complicated texture is incredible. Bowed cello, harmonica, bandoneón, and bass clarinet are all richly textured instruments that have monstrous output in the midband, and these textures came through with an effortlessness that I usually associate with big planar transducers. A similar consideration holds true when it comes to the impact of the bass drum – tight, tuneful, and yet subterranean when the music called for it. I’m not accustomed to having my cake and eating it, too, when it comes to IEM listening – but I’ve begun to really grok why multi-receiver IEMs have become so popular. I never heard this kind of control and extension from my single-driver Etymotics or Phonaks.
The gorgeousness of the midrange suggested that I take a trip down memory lane and play tracks from my hi-res version of the Joe Pass/Ella Fitzgerald duet-album, “Easy Living” – a 24/88.2k download from HDTracks. Joe Pass is, by far, my favorite guitarist and Ella … her voice is the original “audiophile female vocal” as far as I’m concerned, and has yet to be equaled in its beauty, range, and expressiveness. The combination of Pass’ guitar and Ella’s voice is a delightful drink of midrange magic from start to finish, and the K10’s let all the radiant beauty of this album shine through. Although there is some added reverb evident in the mix, it’s not necessarily the most atmospheric of albums – nor should it be. It’s just a simple, beautiful recording of two artists who are, quite possibly, the apotheoses of their respective disciplines.
“Yeah – but can they rock?”
My go-to tracks for rock remain selections from Red Hot Chili Peppers (Blood Sugar Sex Magick), Pearl Jam (Ten), Stone Temple Pilots (Thank You), Arctic Monkeys (Favourite Worst Nightmare), Audioslave (Audioslave), The Mars Volta (Amputecture, Frances the Mute, Scabdates, Deloused in the Comatorium), Shellac (Action Park, Excellent Italian Greyhound, Terraform), System of a Down (Toxicity), as well as some amazing Japanese doom-drone from Boris (and some of their collaborations with the likes of Merzbow and Sunn 0))) …
The answer is: It depends on the recording.
This has more to do with the horrible compressor-abuse characteristic of the Loudness War than it has anything to do with the reproduction chain. When the recording isn’t completely plagued with compressor-abuse, the K10’s rock like nobody’s business – RHCP’s “Suck My Kiss” is full frontal badassness, as is System of a Down’s “Prison Song”. The K10s rock the motherf#?$ing sh*t out of all of Toxicity. When the recording warrants it, the temptation to crank it up to dangerous levels is hard to resist. The K10’s have no problem eviscerating your head, should you choose to crank things up to 11.
Newer folk, quirk-rock, and latter-day Southern art-rock benefit from the K10’s balance of attributes, as well. Fleet Foxes (Fleet Foxes, Sun Giant), to Sufjian Stevens (Seven Swans), to Father John Misty (Fear Fun), Duquette Johnston (Rabbit Runs a Destiny) were all immensely enjoyable while listening through the K10 Universal IEMs. Fleet Foxes were especially fun listening, as they’re known for their massive vocal harmonies and reverby productions … luscious midrange + über-spaciousness = Fleet Foxes.
I’ve saved the best for last, though. Sometimes I need to be gently brought back down and caressed into peaceful reverie – and that means atmospheric, immersive recordings that take me on an inner journey. For spaciousness, MA Recordings aside (MA means “space” in Japanese, after all), I turn to enviro-ambient artists like Robert Rich and Brian Eno, among others. My favorite Robert Rich album remains “Echo of Small Things” – and this excerpt from Bill Binkelman’s review sums it up better than I ever could:
“.. Echo of Small Things takes Rich’s talent for crafting evocative atmospheric ambient tone poems to an almost dizzying level. The integration of assorted environmental sounds (someone walking, the happy gurgling of a baby, nocturnal creatures, rain, wind and thunder) with constantly evolving layers of assorted electro organic musical elements is so flawless, so perfect, and so involving that I always found myself entirely absorbed in the recording, even when I didn’t want to be …”
Whenever I really want to make the world go away, I retreat into this recording and I am at peace. It’s an enveloping listening experience that cradles the spirit and sends it on a gentle journey of found-sounds, environmental atmospheres, and perfectly restrained composition. The K10’s brought me right inside that abstract surrogate-space, and here you’ve got what I consider to be the one thing that the K10 does extremely well – possibly better than any other IEM or headphone I’ve yet heard: It has the unequaled ability to stitch together an organically complete illusion such that it is easy to forget that this is all artifice and machinery. It’s that magic-carpet ride, the voyage to inner space, the waking-dream that this kind of music can provide when you’ve got the right combination of elements converging, and the K10’s have proven to be exemplary in this circumstance.
At $1,600/pair the K10 Universal IEMs are not necessarily for the casual enthusiast. That’s a serious price and these are serious instruments for listening to music. They’re not necessarily for the clinical, critical listener concerned with being able to hear if there are polyps beginning to form on Rebecca Pidgeon’s vocal cords. They seem balanced a bit more smoothly, gently reserved in the upper regions and nicely extended in the low frequency band, with tight control and deep, dark goodness when it’s in the recording. Mids are seductive and juicy, and I don’t mean that to suggest they are overblown or too saturated. They’re ripe, not overripe – and that’s exactly what I want out of any transducer. Ripe is right.
They can handle just about any kind of music you throw at them, but their special superpower seems to be immersive spaciousness and, if you’re like me, that’s one of the best superpowers one could hope for. It’s especially enchanting when listening to experimental electronic music, as with the examples of Murcof and Robert Rich, and they certainly are a top-notch choice if your favorite flavors run toward the EDM, Dubstep, Disco side of the universe – but that is not to pigeonhole these IEMs at all. They seem to do everything really well, and they just happen to do a few special things spectacularly well.
Whether or not you choose to go with the K10 Universal or the K10 Custom is something you’ll have to determine for yourself. Some folks like the custom-molded models for best isolation of outside noises, but sometimes they can make your ear canals a little too warm – and, for some, that’s a bit of a deal breaker. I think Wizard and the team at Noble recognized this, which is why they decided to express their flagship model in a Universal IEM as well.
Brannan tells me that they have begin taking pre-orders for the K10-U and delivery of production units will begin on November 1st so if you’re ready to play in the deep end of the pool, consider auditioning the K10 Universal. Be forewarned: they’re addicting enough to make you want to dip into the college fund.
Who needs college, anyway?
What did Frank Zappa say? “If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.”
Libraries are free.
10 balanced armature drivers per side
2 precision tuned bass drivers
2 precision tuned mid frequency drivers
2 precision tuned mid/high frequency drivers
2 precision tuned high frequency drivers
2 precision tuned super-high frequency drivers
Impedance < 35
Detachable cable w/ industry standard 2-pin configuration