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Stunning clarity: Noble Savant in-ear headphones

Some headphones knock you over with mega bass, others hush the outside world. Noble headphones are the kings of clarity.

Noble Savant in-ear headphones Noble

The Noble Savant universal-fit headphone's sound compares with or exceeds some of the best and much more expensive custom molded headphones. The Savant sound has an open, spacious quality that's rare for in-ear headphones, which tend to keep the soundstage inside your noggin. The Savant doesn't.

My review sample, finished in rather plain looking black plastic didn't look like a $599 headphone, but the user-replaceable braided cables definitely had an upscale feel. No matter, it's the sound that counts, and the Savant's is truly exceptional.

Noble's Brannan Mason tells me Savant is selling briskly in Japan, and sales of all of his headphones far exceed their numbers here in the US. That makes sense, the Japanese audiophile headphone market is huge, a lot bigger than ours. Japanese audiophiles have always been a passionate bunch.

Curiously, Noble doesn't supply much technical info about the Savant, other than its impedance, which is rated at 30 ohms. Noble isn't so tight-lipped about its other headphones, they list the number and types of drivers fitted to each earpiece, with the Savant that number is a secret. The Savant's braided headphone cables seem very durable and they're user-replaceable; Noble also offers a wireless aptX Bluetooth system for the Savant, and it has a mic and smartphone controls.

An example of what a custom Noble headphone can look like. Noble

There's a generous assortment of tips and a rugged carry case to protect the headphones. Speaking of protection, Noble's two-year warranty is twice as long as the average for all types of high-end headphones.

The Savant's big draws are clarity, detail resolution and that wide-open soundstage. Bass is likewise precise and very clear, but if you're seeking visceral, high-impact, head-rattling bass the Savant will disappoint. The bass sounds accurate, but most headphones have tipped up bass and added oomph; the Savant does not.

The Savant's strengths are best appreciated with good quality recordings, over-compressed and harsh sounding MP3s sounded compressed and harsh. Ah, but when I played Antonio Sanchez' drum solos on the "Birdman" soundtrack the Savant delivered the goods. The tom-tom drums solidity and power were incredibly natural, each beat was clear as can be; and cymbal crashes sounded like the real thing.

Late last year when I reviewed the Noble 4 headphone, I came to much the same conclusion and said, "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." For the Savant review I didn't have the Noble 4 on hand to do direct comparisons, but the sound had much the same effect on me.

I did have a NuForce Primo 8 in-ear, which I also praised for its neutrality last year, but with my Aphex Twin and Amon Tobin electronica albums the Savant was clearly more detailed and spatially larger. The Primo 8 is no slouch, but it loses texture, dynamic contrasts, and the subtle, ambient details that the Savant effortlessly revealed in the mixes. Sorry to repeat myself, but the Savant is just significantly clearer than other comparably priced headphones.

One caveat: the Savant's exquisite detail is best appreciated while listening in fairly quiet environments; on the NYC subway and buses the Savant's talents made little difference. Its ability to block external noise was no better or worse than most in-ear designs.

The universal fit Savant I reviewed sells for $599 in the US, and it's also available as a custom-fit version with prices starting at $1,599. In the UK, it's £399 for the universal and £1,050 for the custom model; Savant's Australia pricing runs AU$899 for the universal and AU$2,379 for the custom version. Noble's other universal-fit in-ear headphone prices start at $350, £225 or AU$450 for the Noble 3.

Custom Noble in-ears are individually crafted from exotic woods and other "aesthetically stimulating" materials; most other brands' customs are molded acrylic plastic. There's far more hand labor and much higher priced material costs in Noble custom headphones, and that accounts for the substantial price differential between universal and custom fit Noble headphones.