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Hearing is believing: Noble Audio 4 in-ear headphones

The Audiophiliac spends quality time with an extraordinarily high performance in-ear headphone.

Noble 4C custom-fit headphone (left), Noble 4 universal-fit headphone (right) Noble Audio

The Noble Audio 4 in-ear headphones' clarity is way ahead of anything sold near its price. Its transparency, dynamic life and treble extension and detailing are extraordinary. Beyond the sound there are a few other noteworthy things that distinguish Noble from other high-end in-ear headphone makers like Westone, Ultimate Ears and Jerry Harvey Audio.

First, Noble offers custom-molded to your ears and universal-fit versions of all their headphones, the competitors don't. Second, Noble doesn't cater to the pro market or musicians, their primary customer base is audiophiles, Ultimate Ears and Jerry Harvey sell to audiophiles and pros. For this review I auditioned the Noble 4 universal-fit model, which sells for $450, £300 or AU$585. Noble's universal-fit in-ear headphone prices start at $350, £225 or AU$450 for the Noble 3. The custom versions are about a third more expensive than the universal-fit models.

The Noble 4 universal-fit and 4C custom headphones both use four balanced armature drivers -- two low-frequency drivers, one midrange and one treble driver -- in each earpiece. The company claims the two models sound the same, but the custom may do a better job blocking external noise and make deeper bass. In preparation for buying a custom headphone you need to visit an audiologist who can make "impressions" of your ear canals, fees range from $50 to $100 in the US. If all of that sounds like a hassle, go for the universal-fit headphones. Impedance is rated at 30 Ohms for the 4 and 4C models, and the cables are user-replaceable. In addition to the standard braided headphone cable, Noble offers an optional Ultra-Thin cable that I found more comfortable to wear. I really liked the skinny cable, but it's probably much easier to break than the standard cable.

So far so good, but the Noble 4 isn't for bass heads -- that's not to say there's no bass, it's there, but it's not pumped up or full. Definition is superb, so acoustic basses sound realistic; switching over to Ultimate Ears UE900 headphones (which also use four balanced armature drivers) the sound turns dark and the plumper bass balance shifts the emphasis down, which sweetens the sound. Clarity suffers, returning to the Noble 4 brings it all back with sharper focus. That headphone also scored ahead of my custom UE4 in-ears.

Reggae from the Upsetters' album "Dub Triptych" was a lot of fun. The band's rhythm section was nimble and tight, and the grooves felt great. Bass may be lean, but I didn't care, everything else was so good!

As I spent time with the Noble 4 it started to remind me of my Zu Druid V speakers. They share an immediacy that brings back more of live music's presence. Acoustic guitars sound natural on the Noble 4, and cymbals and percussion instruments shimmer and sparkle as they do in real life. Audiophile CDs from MA Recordings amply demonstrate the Noble 4's performance lead over the competition -- there's a tactile, you-can-almost-touch-the-instruments aspect to the sound. After wearing the Noble 4 for a while, other headphones sound thick and congested.

You can have too much of a good thing when the Noble 4's uber clarity reveals too much sonic crud when you play poorly recorded or mastered music, because you'll really hear how nasty it is. Recordings that sound gritty on Sennheiser Momentum headphones will tear your ears off with the Noble 4s. Play the good stuff -- Radiohead, Aphex Twin or the "Gravity" soundtrack -- and you won't question the Noble 4's superiority over comparably priced in-ear headphones.

Along with the ravishing detail comes spectacular imaging. This headphone's razor sharp, but spacious image focus isn't confined to the space between your ears. It spreads out wide. All of my listening tests up to this point were conducted with my trusty iPod Classic, switching over to the Sony PHA 3 portable digital converter/headphone amp just made all that's good about the Noble 4's sound even better. Clarity bumped up, instruments and voices were richer, but the Noble 4's bass was still far behind the Ultimate Ears UE900 'phones.

Summing up, the Noble 4 is ideal for listeners craving high-resolution sound, but folks who prefer more bass punch won't be satisfied. Of course, Noble makes bassier models, like the Noble 6 ($999, £630, AU$1,290), and I might try and get that one in for review later this year.