Noble Kaiser Encore: balanced bliss distilled into a soaring aerie of superlatives

Pros:  Vast soundstage with natural placement—doesn’t sound like an IEM, natural body, perfect timbre, speedy, micro-details-a-poppin

Cons: Hiss on many sources; pinholes on the small side, making aftermarket cables a bit scary; potential side effects of purchase: living with one kidney, spousal waves of wrath, incredulous friends

List price: $1850 (£1699)

Noble K10E rating

Acknowledgment

Thanks @BangkokKid, otherwise known as Brannon Mason, for sending this review unit to me in exchange for my honest opinion. Thanks @FullCircle, otherwise known as Dr. John Moulton or the Wizard, for making this piece of art and all the other magic you do.

Introduction

I’ve been watching Noble for years, mostly from the sideline, silently admiring the many creations of the Wizard in the Wizard Returns thread on HeadFi. I haven’t read every single page, but I’ve read a lot. The Noble crew mix it up nicely in the thread with a blend of honesty, courtesy, some California cool, and swagger. The many miscreants and mobile audio enthusiasts mixing it up there tell jokes and generally create a fun environment. It is one of the most interesting corners on HeadFi and part of what attracted me to the brand before I ever heard their gear.

I first heard a Noble IEM at Canjam London 2015. Brannan was manning the stand single-mannedly, as he often does. He was courteous, but had a silent confidence that made him seem a bit beyond me. So I didn’t try to make conversation—I was intimidated. I just asked to listen to the Noble 6 and the Noble Savant. The 6 didn’t do it for me—too much bass. That Savant was a black shell-o-goodness (RIP, Savant; long live the Sage). It was balanced, musical, and lovely, and this was before the new cases that make the Noble line look even more premium and poised to disown you of your coffers.

A couple months post Canjam, I started my reviewing journey, over the past year and ½ I’ve averaged 2 reviews a month while working full time and having a family life. Never think that hobbyist reviewers like myself aren’t working hard. I hoped that reviewing would give me the opportunity to hear exotic pieces of gear I’d otherwise not have the chance to hear outside of meets—a pretty limited place to audition due to time constraints and noise levels. I put in the work, joining tours, contacting manufacturers, making friends, writing reviews.

A year after my first Canjam I returned to Canjam London 2016 with business cards and tried to project confidence and, I dare say, some of that Noble thread swagger. I didn’t have it when I was at the Noble stand. Brannan is still intimidating in person. He helped me with auditions of the Kaiser 10 and the Katana. I told him that a cross between the two would be just about perfect—something less lush than the Kaiser 10 and less razor sharp than the Katana (very fittingly named). I gave him a business card, followed up, and after some patient waiting, the Noble Kaiser Encore arrived at my door over here in old blighty. Brannan never told me what he would send me to review, but I knew that something new was coming in the beginning of September. It was a very pleasant surprise to see the newly anointed King.

I’m so excited to review a headphone that I think was designed specifically with my tastes in mind (though not specifically for me, of course), a magical crossbreeding of two majestic beasts, the Kaiser 10 and the Katana. The pedigree is plenty apparent. It’s more magical than a Liger and more badass than a Pegasus. Roar and soar.

Napoleon Dynamite

Pegasus don’t give a…

Or for a reality based imaging…

Noble Kaiser 10 Aluminum Universal Noble Katana

I think it is valuable for readers to know as much about their reviewers as possible, so in the interest of full disclosure check out my about me (in the linkie).

Form & Function

The Noble Kaiser Encore comes inside two boxes, a sturdy outer box with the Noble emblem on top and a lovely inner box with black fine textured paper. Before I opened the box, I thought I was reviewing the Sage. I had a good feeling when I saw the intriguing centrally textured black grey swirls with deep glossy black embossed Noble logo and text.

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The Noble Kaiser Encore is a beautifully sculpted IEM. It is formed through the joining of two precisely CNC machined, anodized aluminum halves. The former edition had a rocket red half and a bright silver half. The Encore is more muted, dappled in blue-grey and a softer silver tone than the previous generation Kaiser 10.

The sharp contoured edges decisively sweep from the fascia toward the nozzle. Those lines meet in the imprinted logo in the centre of the fascia giving a muted starburst effect. The headphones look absolutely lovely.

The headphones come with a ton of accessories crammed into the Pelican 1010 case. There are four varieties of ear tips in three sizes and I found them all to work very well. I preferred the ‘blue’ tips sonically, but found that I had the most firm and consistent fit was with the foam tips. The foam tips are the best foam tips I’ve encountered. They grip extremely well in the warmth of your ear and the smooth outer shell seems easier to keep from getting grubby. There was little difference sonically between the different tips, but I’m sure that without going to outside tips, you’ll find a tip that you like in the package. I tried my Spinfits—normally my go to tip—and went back to the Noble ‘blue’ silicones tips.

Functionally, there are a couple ‘rough edges’ to note. The anodized surface is not as hard as the edges of the design. The edges are strong, so you’ll want to keep the earpieces from rubbing against each-other or other metal. These headphones require more careful handling than a pair of custom Encores would need. The rewards for this quirk of the aluminum shell and anodized finish is the ability to try the headphones, buy and walk out in the same day; and the ability to share them. I can tell you, it is an absolute joy to watch people’s eyes light up when they hear their music in a whole new way. It is one of the greatest joys of the hobby. It is the reason why local meets with your friends like the upcoming UK HeadFi Meet in Milton Keynes are so much fun. I hope to be sharing the Kaiser Encores for a long time into the future.

I also found that the pinholes on the IEMs are on the tighter side. Noble recommends avoiding switching cables, as this can result in stretching of the sockets. There are a lot of 2-pin manufacturers, and there is a lot of variance in tolerance control. It isn’t likely that any one headphone will have a perfectly snug fit with all cables, so this problem is far from unique to Noble. I recommend being careful and not trying to force a cable to fit that is resistant to insertion. Be gentle when attaching the cable to the shell, don’t force something that doesn’t fit right as you may loosen the pinholes. Unless you can test out a bunch of cables on a shop unit, resist the temptation to partner your Noble IEMs with a room laden with exotic cables.

KaiserEncoreEffectAudioAresII+

Audio Quality

The Encore is special. They are absolute speed and detail monsters. They aren’t as warm as the K10UA as some have observed and from memory they don’t have the massive soundstage of the Katana (don’t have either on hand, so memory may be biased). Vibro Labs coined a phrase to describe their new MAYA flagship: ideal neutral. I think that is actually what is happening here. These have a nice natural timbre with a superbly layered and lifelike presentation. They have a little extra body in the mids and a bit extra treble energy and shimmer. The extra mid body gives these soul. The treble shimmers and sparkles but doesn’t spike. There is great focus and air, but no harshness. Treble notes linger exactly as they should. Light percussion strikes are light, sustained notes sustain, everything sounds startlingly realistic. Bass is full and lustrous. On 9Bach – Llywnog and Led Zeppelin – D’yer Ma’ker the bass guitar licks are satisfyingly groovy with perfect attack and decay—never dry, never woolly. I just love the tight little hits. Perfect attack and decay on that bass note. I loved them so much I had to rip a friend away from his book to share. He didn’t mind one bit. I had never used D’yer Ma’ker as a test track, but when the Encore ripped out such good bass guitar licks I had to add it to my playlist immediately. Oh, that space around the drum hit. Yes. On Why – Strawberries, the bass drops deep while still nailing the xylophone percussion elements and the high synth, piano and chimes. The complex arrangement of this track is flawlessly portrayed. Listening to Camera Obscura was just achingly good, Lloyd, I’m not ready to be heartbroken—I hope these get to stay around for a bit.

There are other in-ears with bigger soundstage from oBravo, but these are no slouch at all in that element, cost less, have a more customizable sound (aftermarket cables, non-comply tips), and aren’t Halloween costume garish hangin’ out of your ears. The in-ears from oBravo are nice, but why must I be made to look like Frankenstein’s monster?

One really impressive thing for me about the soundstage was that it has an arc to it. It’s like being in the front row, with the concert speakers hanging with just a little bit of curvature to their sound plane. It’s a live kind of experience. Many IEMs put you in the center of the stage, I feel more like I’m just at the edge of it. Soon I’ll be leaping off and surfing back. Catch me. I need my head for listening to the Encore’s some more.

Listening to the Animals as Leaders album, Joy of Motion on these is bliss. Not a single transient smeared, not a single detail missed. Micro micro micro detailed. They are also revealing of the reduced dynamic range of the track, as instruments don’t have a ton of depth in the stage. The depth in the sound is clearly artificial in its creation, much in the way that electronic music creates stage depth when there is no stage. This does not take away from the accomplishment of the Kaiser Encore, as even within this limited stage on the track there are a ton of elements, and the Encore misses none of them and portrays them all with absolute clarity.

They are definitely a step up from my UERR, the big question is always whether the step up is worth it to you? The resolution is higher on the Encore, more defined edges, more precise location. I’ve also found that I like them more with the Effect Audio Ares II+. There can be some treble fatigue for me with the stock cable, but the big copper cable from Effect Audio smooths the peaks a little. No detail lost, just eliminating some fatigue. The only problem with the Effect Audio Ares II+ is its sheer mass, it feels heavy on the ear and my sensitive ear skin gets irritated after a while wearing it.

I only had a brief comparison between the Katana and the old Noble K10UA and I thought the Katana was more airy and more precise, but a bit sharp–like it’s name. The Noble K10UA was full and lovely, with robust body. I preferred it. The Encore to me has a bit of both, kind of a perfect in between sandwich of awesome. The Encore is the muffaleta of headphones, full and delicious with lots of tasty detail and complexity, but without the gut-busting heaviness. Pass the olive and carrot salad. Yum.

Matchability

The Noble Encore has low impedance in its curve. I don’t know what impedance the bass is at, but I know that when I play it out of the RHA DACAMP L1 balanced output with an adapter, the sound gets messed up and wrong. It lacks soul and dynamism. It is bloody wrong. The Encore also hisses on many sources. It hisses on the DX50, the LH Labs GO2A, the HiFiMAN SuperMini, the HiFiMAN MegaMini, the Echobox Explorer, and my phone. It doesn’t hiss on the Aune M1S either in balanced or single-ended; the iFi Micro iDSD Black Label, and the Cayin i5 passed with flying colours too. I am more sensitive to hiss than some others, so you may not have the experience that I have had. Or you could just get a player known to not cause hiss with very sensitive IEMs like the Noble Encore.

Crap, Damien Rice just came on. Grown-ass man tears a flowin’.

Headphone Comparisons

Because I compare a lot of intersections of gear, I’ve decided that it is about time I keep a volume matching database. As the Aune M1S is still my best sounding player, I have used it for comparisons. First, a little bit about methodology:

  • I’ve got an SPL meter, I’ve got a DIY coupler,
  • I’ve got a white noise track from Ayre Acoustics, when I combine these I get volume matching,
  • I press the IEM onto my coupler firmly,
  • I generally use foam for measurement and silicone for listening (foam seals better on the coupler),
  • For the UERR I find that they sound louder than universals if I use matched volume, so I’ve dropped the volume 2dB on the UERR—it seems to work.
  • I don’t use pure tones for volume matching because that doesn’t make any sense.

We already know from frequency charts that headphones don’t have the same response at different frequency values, using noise eliminates potential biased matching due to frequency response mismatches between headphones. I use white noise because it is has equal intensity at all frequencies. Listening to white noise will also tell you if your headphone isn’t neutral, the noise definitely sounds different with a very coloured headphone like the RHA CL1 than it does with a neutral IEM like the UERR or mostly neutral IEM like the Noble ENCORE. For the base comparison I used only stock cables.

Headphone Cable SE/Balanced Gain Volume SPL
UERR Stock SE Middle 78 76.2
UERR Stock 2.5mm Balanced Balanced Middle 66 76.4
Noble Encore Stock SE Low 79 78
Noble Encore Effect Audio Ares II+, with SE adaptor SE Low 75 78.2
Noble Encore Effect Audio Ares II+ Balanced Low 59 78.2
Unique Melody Miracle Stock SE Low 81 78
Unique Melody Miracle Stock SE Middle 66 78.2

In my UERR review, I did some comparisons against the CL1 and the Noble Encore. For this review, the CL1 has been omitted as it just wasn’t competitive, and new tracks used for comparing the headphones. For this comparison, I’ve picked out Why – Strawberries for bass and treble presentation and extension, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra performing Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra Allegro for loads of percussive complexity, Clark Terry – Silly Samba for the sweet binaural Jazz stage and good variety of instruments, and Led Zeppelin – D’yer Ma’ker—you know why. Picking out more tracks for quick comparison is just too time consuming.

UERR

The bass on Dy’er Ma’ker is taut and well-defined on the UERR and the Encore with a little bit more decay on the Encore giving a bit more natural presentation. The treble is more satisfying on the Encore with nicer sounding cymbals and hi-hat. Instrument separation is a bit better and the sound just has a more whole feel to it. The overall sound is a bit more natural on the Encore, but both of these do a fantastic job with D’yer Ma’ker.

The mids on the Encore are airier than the UERR, which I found really helped on Silly Samba’s horns. Both the UERR and the Encore do an excellent job with the piano and chimes in the treble of Strawberries. There treble is a bit faster and more delicate on the Encore. Both have fantastic layering. Piano has a little more body on the UERR.

The depth of stage on the UERR is a little greater, but the Encore has a more natural feel to the instrumentation. I think I prefer both the Miracle and the Encore on presentation of the percussion orchestra. Both keep up with the speed of the percussive elements and maintain excellent imaging. The UERR has a little bit larger image, but the Encore has a bit more lifelike image. I tested increasing the volume on the UERR a little bit, and it still had the a bit deeper presentation. The Encore dealt with a greater concentration of instruments slightly better with more focused sound.

Verdict: Noble Kaiser Encore. More airy mids, more pleasing bass decay, and the delicacy of the treble really do it for me. It is worth noting that the UERR cost about 40% less than the Encore. An individual’s willingness to pay for the marginal, but imminently noticeable differences in performance will vary by the individual.

Unique Melody Miracle

A funny and surprising thing happened when I was testing the Unique Melody Miracle V2. I tried it on low gain on the Aune M1S and found that overall the Miracle V2 came across as laconic with a biit of a veiled effect. In comparison to the Encore it was diffuse in the bass (though still extending well), smooth and soft in the treble while retaining some good sparkle on Strawberries and Silly Samba, with smooth mids. The sound never challenged me, it was relaxing, but in need of some energy. On D’yer Ma’ker the bass edges, the defining characteristic of the song were soft and vocals sounded tame.

On the percussion orchestra piece, the race was tighter between the two IEMs. Both did an excellent job of depicting many simultaneous instruments in space with excellent separation and definition on the percussion orchestra and Silly Samba. Neither lose the mix of instruments and placements at all. You can definitely track every instrument. The Encore had a more focused attack and decay in the bass, which I preferred.

The Encore was airy with excellent extension in both the bass and treble. Bass body was full, not thick, with appropriate weight in the deep bass notes of Strawberries. D’yer Ma’ker’s bass guitar sounded real and lifelike. The soft edges of the Miracle gave way to firm well rounded bass with perfectly defined attack and decay on the Encore. D’yer Ma’ker sounds better on the Encore than anything else I’ve tried.

Now something special happened when I upped the gain on the M1S for the Unique Melody Miracle, it filled out and lost some of the softness that I observed, there was more energy, but it remained a smooth and easy-going signature. The Miracle V2 is great for long fatigueless listening sessions. The Miracle v2 isn’t as focused as the Encore, and doesn’t have as much stage depth, but it is a very satisfying listen. When adequately amped, the Miracle v2 is outputting firm bass with a bit more quantity than the Encore, but it isn’t outputting with the same quality. Bass texture, attack and decay are all more accurate to my ears. The Encore wins on depth and height, and has a slight edge (could be expectation bias) on width. The depth and height advantages are definite.

The Miracle V2 has a bit better isolation due to it’s pseudo-custom shell shape. I found that this shape also helped me with fit.  The bores on the Kaiser Encore are protected with a thin plastic around the edges. This should help keep the headphones operating at peak form for longer with lower maintenance. The Miracle v2 has two large offset bores that are difficult to keep clean. I would prefer that these have a sonically transparent screen over them. Over time the Noble tips get slippery and the insertion depth can make them slide a little bit, affecting the bass quantity. My advice is to clean the tips using alcohol wipes. When I did this the tips regained their nice firm grip. The plastic shell of the V2 is more pocketable as they won’t scratch themselves or other items. I find I like to put my IEMs in my blazer or jacket pocket when I’m getting on or off transit or when someone wants to talk to me, so pocketability is a good feature.

Verdict: Noble Kaiser Encore, due to better technical capabilities in space, and more refined bass. If sound is your main thing, then you can’t do much better than the Kaiser Encore. On aesthetics, the Kaiser Encore wins easily. On ergonomics, the Miracle v2 is a bit better. The Miracle v2 will be a better value for many.

The Spoils

To the victor go the spoils. In this little armatures race, the Noble Encore takes top place, but those looking for a better ‘value’ at the top end may wish to consider either of the competitors in this mini-shootout. In the end, the victor here is me, as I’ve gotten to spend so much quality time with these wonderful headphones.

Cable Musings

The Noble cable is a good one, but whilst reviewing the ENCORE I won an Effect Audio Ares II+ IEM cable. If the Noble has one weakness it is that the treble can become fatiguing on some tracks. In my experience, the Ares II+ helped with this. The Effect Audio Ares II+ is also a balanced cable, and while the Encore doesn’t need extra power, I find that the Aune M1S balanced out has better technical performance than the single-ended output. The Kaiser Encore is fully capable of showing this subtle difference between the two outputs.

My daily driver set-up is as follows:

Aune M1S (balanced)Effect Audio Ares II+Noble Kaiser Encore

Specifications

All Noble IEMs on official Noble Audio sites provide little information about the measured characteristics about their IEMs. I can tell from listening that the Kaiser Encore is very sensitive, and it does hiss on lesser pieces of gear. I would also guess that the impedance is very low. I’ve been told under 30, but I’d guess well under 30 for the Encore. I’ll not hazard my guess and I haven’t measured.

I’m lucky to have a superior DAP in the Aune M1S that doesn’t hiss one bit. I have noted that audible distortion occurs on a 4.4Ω but not at 2.2Ω. The rule of eight (your output impedance should be 1/8th your headphones impedance) likely gives us some clues as to what the impedance is on the Kaiser Encore, but we don’t have a specific value. All I can advise is you want your output impedance below 1Ω, as I’ve had hiss on 1Ω output impedances.

Specifications
Price $1850 (£1699)
Drivers 10 BA, configuration unknown
Shell Anodized CNC-machined aluminum
Accessories Cleaning tool, Noble Wizard sticker, Pelican 1010, Noble branded gear bands, ‘Blue’ silicone tips (S/M/L), ‘Red’ silicone tips (S/M/L), coreless foam tips (S/M/L), biflange silicone tips (S/M/L), stainless steel tip holder, Noble warranty card, velvet pouch
Warranty 2 years

Conclusions

The Noble Kaiser Encore is simply the best in-ear headphone I have had the privilege of listening to. It has excellent extension in the bass and treble with natural bass decay and fast and realistic treble. The soundstage is big with beautiful instrument placement. The mids are airy, but not arid. The whole sound is natural and evocative of live music, not recorded music. I love these headphones and I think you will too.

The Noble Kaiser Encore Universal IEMs are not without limitations. The metal edges can be a hazard. This can be solved by getting one of the Wizard’s brilliantly beautiful custom designs, but you won’t be able to share the sound with your incredulous non-audiophie buddies. Treble can cause fatigue during long listening sessions with the stock cable if you are sensitive to this, which I am. The Kaiser Encore hisses with many sources. Whilst it can most certainly sound excellent out of an iPhone, you’ll want a really clean source to avoid hiss. The biggest negative for many will be price.

For many, $1850 (£1699) will be out of their reach or considered exhorbitant, and there are options that give you 80 to 90% of the Noble Kaiser Encore’s performance for around $1000, but I think you will know the difference once you’ve compared. I think they are worth it. It is up to each individual buyer to decide what they are willing to pay for the ever diminishing returns at the top of the price scale. There are certainly more expensive headphones than the Kaiser Encore, and if you are hunting for an IEM in this range, you would be doing yourself a great disservice if you didn’t try the Kaiser Encore before buying something in this price range and above.

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