I've favorably reviewed a bunch of Noble Audio headphones over the years, including some really expensive ones, so when I heard the company's most affordable model -- the Massdrop x Noble X -- I wanted to try a pair ASAP.
The best part? For a limited time these audiophile-grade in-ear headphones are half price at $250. That price converts to about £191 and AU$338.
The Noble X's sculpted midnight-blue aluminum faceplates are made in California, and final headphone assembly is also done in California. The Noble X features two made-in-the-US, balanced armature drivers, one for bass, and the other for mid and high frequencies. Impedance is rated at 30 ohms.
The headphones come with a detachable braided, 50-inch (127 cm) long cable, and for $40/£31/AU54 extra you can order a Lightning cable for use with iPhones. (Noble usually charges $80/£62/AU108 for the Lightning cable.) I listened with the standard and Lightning cables, and preferred the sound of the standard cable. The Lightning cable was softer and mellower sounding, which I admit some buyers might prefer. If you have an iPhone 7, which doesn't have a 3.5mm headphone jack, don't worry about the difference between the two cables. You might also consider writing to Apple asking them to reinstate the 3.5mm headphone jack on future iPhones.
I did the bulk of my listening with the X plugged into my iPhone 6S with the standard cable, and immediately felt at home with the Noble sound I know so well. Noble headphones excel in transparency, and the Noble X didn't disappoint. Listening to mandolinist Chris Thile's and pianist Brad Mehldau's new album, the Noble X totally nailed Thile's nimble-fingered sound while maintaining Mehldau's touch on the keys. Their playing feels spontaneous, like they're just winging it, and the X really put me in touch with their performances. They may be in-ear headphones, but they didn't cram the sound inside my skull.
To test the Noble X's bass potency, I went for Matthew Dear's "DJ Kicks" bottom-heavy tunes. What I like about this recording's sound is its bass textures, the bass is plenty deep, but nuanced and the X gets the shading just right.
Max Richter's "Recomposed: Vivaldi's The Four Seasons" that sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly revamps the original Vivaldi masterpiece was a joy over the X. Somehow the real chamber strings and synthesized sounds never clashed, and the 'X just lets them be. Switching over to another of my favorite in-ears in the X's price range, the 1More Quad Driver, that one made more, but less well-defined bass. In fact, the Quad Driver's sound was less clear, less exciting, but that headphone was easier to listen to with harsh, over-compressed recording like Austin, Texas pop rockers Spoon's latest album, "Hot Thoughts." Their songs are just as good as ever, but like most recent Spoon albums, the sound grates on the ears with the X.
The Massdrop Noble X will appeal to audiophiles on a budget who prize transparency and natural tone over fat bass and trumped-up highs. It's a "get 'em while they last" offering on Massdrop, this drop is limited to 510 headphones and 175 Lightning cables (three units per individual).