Noble Kaiser K10 – Custom In-Ear Monitor

A while back, after spending a little time with the Shure SE846, I decided to part with my Unique Melody Miracle custom IEMs. In time I came to regret not having a custom-molded IEM in my collection so I began considering a replacement. Somewhere around that time I also had the chance to try the Noble PR universal IEM which, although not to my sonic tastes, showed a degree of tuning expertise that instantly intrigued me – the PR managed to deliver a crisp, super-clean, treble-focussed sound without harshness or sibilance – a huge feat in my experience. With Noble firmly on my radar and a clear sense of the type of sonic presentation I wanted, I started to consider their other offerings and decided eventually on the Kaiser 10 CIEM.

Before I get into the normal format, I wanted to say that the K10 is the first earphone / headphone that has ever left me wanting more… I’ll let you read on to see what that really means…

Overview

Noble hardcaseIn the world of personal audio, the ultimate sound experience generally comes from custom molded in-ear monitors (CIEMs). In recent times, top of the line (TOTL) CIEMs have gone from 3-6 balanced armatures per side to 10 and even 12 BAs per side. The Kaiser 10 is an example of a 10 driver CIEM and has 10 individual drivers in each ear-piece – a pretty awesome piece of spatial design, but also a challenge of epic proportions when it comes to ensuring that all of those drivers are delivering their frequencies in time with and in support of the other drivers in each ear piece.

One of the largest challenges of any multi-driver setup (including speakers) is to have each driver deliver its optimum frequencies without interfering with the frequencies coming from the other drivers. A speaker manufacturer faces challenges with 2-3 drivers so imagine what happens when you get 10!! Add to that the challenge of placing the drivers at slightly different distances from the sound outlets and the possible timing / phase challenges this presents and getting everything right to the level expected of a flagship CIEM becomes a daunting prospect.

To read the rest of this review, please head over to the new Passion for Sound site – it’s sexier and will have more great content coming very soon!

 

Unique Melody Miracles

The Unique Melody Miracles are a custom-moulded in-ear-monitor (or CIEM). There are many manufacturers making CIEMs – some cheaper, some more expensive. The Miracles are the top-of-the-line option from Unique Melody. I chose the Miracles after much research into these other options:

  • JH Audio JH13
  • JH Audio JH16
  • Heir 8.A

Deciding to buy custom in-ears is a big decision. They’re expensive (but completely worth it), take a while to make, require a trip to an audiologist, and have lower resale value due to their custom-moulded nature. There’s also the chance that they won’t fit properly the first time around. For any lover of music, custom IEMs are a very worthwhile investment, but one that you need to make knowing the process that awaits…

Overview

Miracle boxThe UM Miracles are a 6-driver, 3-way design meaning that they use a total of 6 individual speaker units (called balanced armatures) inside each earpiece. The 6 drivers are combined in a 3-way configuration meaning that they are paired up to produce bass, mid-range, and treble (2 per frequency range). They are designed to produce a fairly neutral sound (i.e. no specific emphasis on any frequency range). Specifications are:

  • Frequency range: 18 Hz – 19 kHz
  • Impedance: 15.9 ohm
  • Sensitivity: 114 dB SPL

PresentationThey arrive in a beautiful package and with a hard case, metal warranty card, and glass cube paperweight. It’s an impressive presentation. Admittedly, I don’t think many people will find use for the paperweight, but it’s beautiful and you can always just leave it in the box. Mine’s serving as a weight on the base of my headphone stand so it’s both purposeful and beautiful. The Miracles are supplied with the same cable as most other CIEMs on the market, the Westone Epic cable. It’s thin and supple with a nice right-angled jack to connect to your source units. Although not a world-beater by any stretch, it’s a perfectly serviceable cable, but there may be some longevity issues due to it’s thin design from what I have heard.

The Process

Miracles0011 When you order any CIEMs there are a few steps to go through regardless of which brand and model you choose. For this part of the review, I am referring to all brands and models, not just the Miracles.

Design – decide on the colours and inserts you want for the tips, shells, and faceplates of your CIEMs. Most CIEM manufacturer sites have designer pages to help you choose. This is a big decision because once it’s done, you can’t change it without the time and expense of remoulding (basically having them remade f rom scratch). It’s a good idea to check around on forums and different manufacturers’ sites for images of CIEMs to see what looks good to you.

Impressions – next you’re off to the audiologist for them to take moulds of your ear canals and outer ear. This step takes about 30 minutes and is a little weird-feeling, but pretty straight forward.

Important note!!! When having your impressions taken, be sure to stay completely still and looking straight ahead (you might want to choose a spot on the wall to stare at for the whole time). Different companies recommend different mouth positions (i.e. open, closed, wide open, open & closed) so you may find variation in the instructions. Many audiologists will have bite blocks you can use to hold your mouth still in an open position. I found for the Miracles that a bit block around 1.5cm thick worked best.  Importantly, the audiologist may forget to instruct you thoroughly so make sure you remind yourself of the steps provided by your CIEM company and stick to them or it could be a painful wait as you send your brand new CIEMs back to be redone.

Waiting – Once you send your completed impressions / moulds to the CIEM manufacturer, you’re in for a bit of a wait. It varies between manufacturers, but is always multiple weeks. In some cases though it can extend out to 6+ weeks so be prepared. It is a long time to be waiting for something so special to you, but it’s completely worth it.

2012-12-07 16.34.22Receiving – The day does come eventually after what seems like forever. You open the packaging and excitedly try to put your new toys in your ears. Please note that a couple of things happen at this time:

  1. They feel weird, difficult and uncomfortable to put in at first – this passes as you get more practiced
  2. They feel weird and possibly a little uncomfortable even when they’re properly inserted – this will settle down in most cases. Allow a couple of weeks or at least some extended listening sessions for your ears to adjust to having a foreign object inside the canal
  3. There is a chance they won’t fit properly and that the seal will be incomplete or will break easily. Don’t decide immediately while everything feels new and strange. Let your ears get used to the sensation and fit before deciding to return them for a refit because it’s another big decision that may require another trip to the audiologist and another long wait.

Hopefully, they fit first time around and you can just get on with enjoying them! When they do fit, here’s what you can expect from the Miracles. From here on, I am talking only about the Miracles and your experiences with other CIEMs may vary dramatically depending on the brand and model.

Build Quality & Design

The Miracles are made by Unique Melody, one of the more prominent custom manufacturers in the market along with Ultimate Ears (UE), Heir Audio and JH Audio to name a few. The Miracles are beautifully made and well finished. There are a pair of tiny dimples in the faceplate of my left earpiece, but they’re only visible under the right lighting and at a certain angle so really not worth worrying about. All-in-all the Miracles arrive beautifully finished and without any bubbles, cracks, seams, or any other significant flaws in the acrylic. They feel sturdy and solid.

FacesAs you can see from the images, I chose to get red and blue shells (right and left respectively) with purple faceplates on both. I asked for the silver Unique Melody insert which is a free addition, and I had them keep the tips clear. There is absolutely no benefit with the clear tips and in hindsight I have no idea why I did this!? It’s not bad, but serves no purpose and doesn’t look any better – maybe I just wanted to maximise my customisation…

Metal tubeDepending on the colours chosen, you can see the wiring and drivers inside the shells as well as the small metal pipe in the bass tube (see image to right). This can be cool, but realistically there’s not a lot to see.

Other than seeing your choice of colours and inserts come to life, the design is quite straightforward. It’s an exact replica of the space inside your ear canal and outer ear moulded in acrylic and with a bunch of miniature drivers inside. I’m not suggesting it’s an easy achievement from Unique Melody – there’s a lot of design and technology built into a small space, but the end result is a solid, moulded piece of acrylic that’s deceptively simple on the outside.

Fit

Being custom moulded, the Miracles (or any CIEM) should fit beautifully and comfortably, but it’s possible that the moulds made by your audiologist could be imperfect. If that’s the case, you may have an experience like I did at first where the seal breaks on one (or both) sides during certain movements. For me, the seal on the right would break anytime I looked down (e.g. to read a book or look at my laptop), or if I tilted my head to the right (e.g. leaning against the wall of the train while trying to relax listening to music). It can be very off-putting and take you straight out of the music.

The good news is that a good mould will result in an incredibly comfortable CIEM. Now that they’re fixed and fitting properly, I can easily wear the Miracles for hours on end with no discomfort. Along with comfort, the perfect fit and seal means that, once the music is playing, the rest of the world disappears – isolation of sound is extreme. Loud sounds like alarms, announcements on trains / in airports are still audible, but background noise just ceases to exist.

Service

I’m writing this now so as not to leave a bad “after-taste” at the end of the review. The service I received from UM Australia (aka ACustoms) ranged from exceptional to really poor. Communication was inconsistent and sometimes inaccurate, and the first proposed solution to a fit issue I had resulted in a 4-5 week wait (from memory) with no joy at the end and another 6-7 week wait after that. I can’t speak to the reasons for the inconsistencies and there may be short-term issues, but it has definitely left me feeling like I won’t use their services again which is a shame because individually, everyone but 1 person I dealt with was really friendly and helpful in terms of their attitudes. It’s just a shame that their systems and processes seem to let down the overall experience. What makes it even more of a shame is how truly brilliant the product is. It’s a prestige, top-end item that fulfils all that it promises and deserves to be supported with an equivalent standard of customer service.

Sound

Shells & Tips - bottomIn the end this is what really matters and the Miracles do not disappoint! First impressions of these are that they deliver perfect sound across the entire frequency range. There’s plenty of detail without any fatiguing sibilance or harshness. There’s plenty of bass without any excess rumble or flab, and the midrange is solid and present without becoming thick and creamy or too dry and raspy.

Pairing

The Miracles, like most multiple balanced armature IEMs are a bit picky about the device they’re paired with. Combined with a great source with low output impedance (<1 ohm ideally), they really sing, but you may find a slight loss of bass and increase in top-end when used with non-ideal devices. For example, I find they don’t pair perfectly with my desktop amp (Audio-gd NFB-5.2), iPod, or mobile phone, but are great with my portable amp (Tralucent T1). I’m still undecided about how well they pair with my USB DAC, the AudioQuest Dragonfly because on paper they are a match, but I hear a little bit of harshness when paired directly with the Dragonfly (i.e. not via an amplifier).

Bass

The bass from the Miracles is a revelation. It’s solid, full and punchy – much more so than I ever expected from an earphone. The Miracles manage to be punchy and tight while also having all the body and rumble you could need unless you’re a major basshead. Of course, as I’ve already touched on, this will depend on the source driving them. A poor pairing will strip the bass out of the Miracles, but that’s on the source, not the Miracles. They are absolutely up to the task of producing any bass I’ve ever heard in a recording and I’m yet to be disappointed by them when paired with the right source.

Mids

Miracles0009The mids of the Miracles are subtle in a good way. With the stock cable (more on that later), the mids are well-placed and present, but not emphasised or forward like some high-end IEMs (e.g. Shure SE535). Vocals and instrumentals won’t jump out at you or get lost behind the rest of the music – they’re just there, right where they should be.

Those coming from very warm, lush earphones or headphones may find the Miracles a bit lean at first, but to me they are just beautifully balanced rather than lean or analytical.

Highs

The highs on the Miracles are quite surprising. There’s nice brightness and oodles of detail, but it never seems to get harsh. Even with poor recordings, the Miracle seems to present the music tastefully and never hacks up your eardrums with sibilance and harshness. Yes, they will absolutely shine a light on any shortcomings in the recording, but they’re not ruthless like other headphones I’ve tried.

Presentation

This is where the Miracles really shine. So far they do everything exactly as I expected, but it’s their presentation that really blows me away again and again.

Shells & Tips - sideThe Miracles manage to create a large, deep, and tall soundstage between your ears which stretches from ear to ear and from the top of your head down to your jaw. I am often blown away when I feel a guitar strumming in one ear – yes, I said feel, not hear. Somehow, they present not just sound, but texture and sensations which are rarely experienced when listening to earphones, let alone headphones.

Instrument placement is perfect – clean, separate, and unforced. You don’t have to think about where instruments are placed, you just know. The experience is similar to my first “wow” moment with the Shure SE535s and yet so much better. It’s like you can mentally walk around between the band members and explore the stage with them. It only gets better with a change of cable…

Summary (Part 1)

For around $1000 you expect a massive amount from these little nuggets of acrylic and I think you’d be hard-pressed to be disappointed. Unless you have very specific tastes in sound signature (i.e. you like gobs of bass or an extremely lean, analytical experience) the Miracles should tick all the boxes.

If you’re buying them, be sure of a few things:

  1. You have the patience to wait
  2. You have a source or amp with <1 ohm output impedance
  3. You’re ready to disappear from the world for a while as you get completely absorbed in music you thought you already knew like the back of your hand

There are other great CIEMs out there, and the new JH13 packs some recent technology which may actually make it better than the Miracle while being comparable in sound signature so do your research before buying, but rest assured if you settle on the Miracles – they are an epic audio experience in a very small, extremely comfortable package.

Cable Changes

The detachable cable of the Miracles means that you can easily swap the stock cable for a massive range of custom options made of all different exotic metals and combinations. The socket used on the Miracles is common to most CIEM brands so it’s easy to find alternatives. Do be aware though that the Miracles use a recessed socket and not all cables will fit the recess even though they may use the same 2-pin design. Just double-check before laying down your dough.

Miracles0013So far I’ve tried a couple of different cables with the Miracles, a silver cable which I think was from Chris_Himself from Headphonelounge (on Head-Fi.org). I bought it second hand so I am not completely sure. The sound with the silver cable was good, but brightened the signature of the Miracles more than I like. Some people would love it, but it wasn’t for me.

I bought the silver cable while I was waiting for the beast pictured to the right. It’s the DHC Symbiote SE Litz from Double Helix Cables and it’s an amazing piece of cable engineering, so much so that I’ll be doing a dedicated review of it soon.

In terms of its impact on the sound, the Symbiote SE Litz delivers essentially the same signature as the stock cable, but somehow does everything better. Every sound is smoother, cleaner, fuller, more detailed and better. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I can’t describe it any better. There’s no individual element of the sound which jumps out to me, but everything is undeniably better.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the impact those improvements have on the listening experience. After swapping to the DHC cable, I was listening to the same tracks I always have on my portable player (a selection of my favourites list of around 4000 tracks, all of which I know well) and noticed that I was listening to and hearing the lyrics of songs I’d never really paid attention to before.

It’s not like the DHC cable emphasised the midrange to make vocals more prominent – it just made everything so coherent and organic that it became like sitting at a live gig or recording session where all of the individual sounds came together perfectly and naturally making it easy to hear everything and take in the entire musical canvas.

The DHC cables require a significant outlay and there are a couple of pointers I’ll cover in the separate review (mainly the large size of the stock plug). They also have a long lead time because they’re handmade to order, but I am extremely comfortable recommending the Symbiote SE Litz cable with the Miracles as one of the most perfect pairings I’ve ever experienced. It won’t wow you upfront like the brightness and detail of silver cables might, but will continuously improve your listening experience and keep the Miracles silky, smooth, detailed, and incredible.

Summary (Part 2)

I’m really excited to continue using the Miracle + Symbiote combination and look forward to hearing my music in all new ways as I keep sifting through my collection. In future I’ll be trying some other CIEMs I think, but will be amazed to find anything more than subtle, incremental changes to performance. For now, I am comfortable saying that the Miracles + Symbiote are the greatest personal audio experience I have found so far (i.e. better than any headphones I’ve used as yet). The fact that you can take them anywhere you go is a massive bonus.

No doubt there are better products and combinations to be found out there, but I really can’t see it coming for the same money or less. If you’re looking to spend $1000-2000 on a great portable (or even home) earphone solution, these are a great option. The Miracles alone are around $1000 depending on the design options you choose and you can always choose to add the cable later for that extra little upgrade. The cable I bought was a big outlay, but worth every cent. Keep your eye out for the review…

Audioquest DragonFly

If you’re like me and primarily use a laptop computer, you’ll know the trials of extracting great sound from your computer. In my case, the onboard sound is actually quite good, but it’s not exceptional and I like exceptional.

At home, the sound processing is handled by my Audio-gd NFB-5.2. On the road I used to use the Creative X-Fi HD USB, but as good as the X-Fi is, I had a couple of needs that it couldn’t quite meet. Firstly, it required a separate lead to connect so I ended up with boxes and cables everywhere. Secondly, it struggled to effectively drive my low-impedance IEMs like the Shure SE535 LEs and now my Unique Melody Miracles (review coming soon).

After much hunting, I finally found a DAC that I thought would meet all my needs. Does it? Read on to find out…

Overview

The DragonFly is a DAC and headphone amp created in the form factor of a full-size USB thumb drive. That means it is about 3-4cm long, around 1cm thick, and about 1.5cm wide. At that size I wouldn’t have expected particularly strong performance, but other reviews I read suggested otherwise.

The DF’s general specs are very competitive:

  • Sample rates:  44.1kHz – 96kHz
  • Minimum HP impedance:  12 ohms
  • Maximum power:  150mW

I was excited to see the 12 ohm minimum rating for the headphone impedance as it suggested that my 15.9 ohm UM Miracles would pair well with the Dragonfly. We’ll get to that shortly…

Design

DF with lightThe design of the DragonFly is simply brilliant. It’s tiny, requires no USB cables, feels solid and high quality, and works flawlessly in general terms. I was particularly pleased to note that it’s small enough to not obscure adjacent USB ports.The chassis of the dragonfly is coated in a nice soft-touch black paint and overall it feels very high quality.

A fun (and useful) feature of the DragonFly is its LED indicator light. The indicator lights up in different colours depending on the status of the sound feed and the sample rate being used. It’s red when there is no activity and then turns to green (44.1kHz), blue (48kHz), Yellow (88.2kHz), or magenta (96kHz). It’s kind of fun to see the light change between different tracks at different sample rates and it’s useful to see if your settings are correct (i.e. if you play a high sample rate track and the light stays green, you know you’re settings are causing the system to down-sample your music).

If I had to find one fault with the design of the DragonFly it’d be the separate cap. So far I’ve kept hold of it, but I can see it being lost far too easily and wonder if it would have been possible to have it somehow stay attached to the body of the DragonFly (e.g. with a short string so it hangs free when not in use, but doesn’t get lost). It’s a tiny gripe, but it would prevent having to be quite so careful to place the cap in the bag every time I uncork the DAC.

Functionality

The DragonFly works without any special drivers which is a nice plus in my eyes. I’ve tried it with ASIO4ALL and with WASAPI and it works perfectly with both. I’ve settled on WASAPI because it’s easier in my setup, but there is no significant difference I could find between the 2. Regardless of the output drivers, the DF also handles all supported sample rates equally well with no hiccups.

DF PackagingAnother nice piece of functionality with the DF is that it’s happy driving moderate impedance IEMs like the Re272s and V-Sonic GR07s as well as high impedance cans like the HD650s, but it can also be paired with a separate amp using the DF’s 3.5mm jack as a line-out. To do this, Audioquest recommend turning the computer / DF volume to full, but I’ve found it can be used perfectly well as a variable line-out.

When pairing with amplifiers like the Tralucent T1, which has very high gain, the variable output of the DF is a godsend. You can reign in the volume on the DF so you can use a better range of attenuation on the amplifier’s volume pot.

In terms of functionality, there’s really nothing lacking in the DragonFly – it does what it does flawlessly in terms of straight-forward functionality.

Sound Quality

Where the rubber meets the road… a DAC and amp is only ever as good as it sounds and the DragonFly sounds very good, but perhaps not as exceptional as I’d hoped. I think my expectations were a touch unfair though so read on and I’ll explain in full.

In terms of basic sound quality, the DragonFly is excellent. It creates plenty of space in the soundstage, good placement of the sound image and nice response across all frequencies without any hint of colouration.

I’ve tested it with a number of devices including:

  • IEMs ranging from 15.9 ohms to 50 ohms
  • Headphones ranging from 32 ohms to 300 ohms
  • Active speakers
  • Portable amplifier

In all but one case, the DragonFly sounded great. Perhaps not quite as good as the Audio-gd NFB-5.2, but that’s to be expected when comparing a USB powered device to a mains powered device.

Line-Out Performance

The DragonFly works extremely well as a simple DAC with line-out. The sound provided to active speakers or a separate amplifier is clean, spacious and sweet. Being able to use the computer’s volume control as a variable line-out is a definite bonus too.

Headphone Performance

The output power of the DragonFly is simply amazing! The Creative X-Fi HD USB was just able to drive the 75 ohm Utrasone HFI-680s to a good listening level, but was underwhelming with the Sennheiser HD650s. The DragonFly manages to drive the HD650s to full listening volumes while still having plenty of room to spare in the volume adjustment range.

Of course, it doesn’t have quite the dynamics of a mains powered desktop amp, but you can’t expect that from USB power. As it stands, it’s the best USB powered device I’ve heard when driving power-hungry headphones.

IEM Performance

If you thought there was a “but” coming, you’re unfortunately right. The DragonFly maintains sweet sound on the 20 ohm Re272s and 50 ohm GR07s, but sounds a bit harsh with the 15.9 ohm Unique Melody Miracles.

DF BoxI expected better performance at low impedance due to the 12 ohm minimum rating published on the DragonFly’s box, but while it probably can handle 12 ohms, it won’t be with optimum sound quality.

I found a massive jump in sound quality by feeding the DragonFly’s line-out into the Tralucent T1 amp* before passing it onto the Miracles. You’d expect some improvement with a dedicated amplifier, but this jump was too great to be the amp’s prowess alone. To my ears, the DragonFly just doesn’t pair well with loads below about 20 ohms. That’s a shame to be sure, but given the distinct lack of a USB DAC/amp with 16 ohm prowess (from what I’ve seen and heard so far), I have resigned myself to using the DragonFly with the T1 if I want to listen to the Miracles from my laptop. For everything else, a direct connection to the DragonFly provides outstanding quality sound for a USB device.

* Obviously, the power of an amplifier isn’t required for low impedance IEMs like the Miracles, but a good amplifier will offer better control over the transducers in a low impedance IEM setup and will therefore provide better, smoother sound.

Interestingly, measurements conducted by Stereophile.com show the DragonFly has very low output impedance (around 0.65 ohms) which would normally indicate a good match with devices in the 16 ohm range so I am not entirely sure why the DragonFly doesn’t excel with the Miracles.

Summary

All-in-all the DragonFly is a brilliant piece of kit. For it’s size it is unbelievably powerful and sounds fantastic. It offers all of the processing features of more expensive desktop DACs (except support for 192kHz sample rates which few if any USB devices offer) at a relatively low price and with incredible portability.

At around $200-250 depending on your location, the DragonFly is fantastic value and its portability and compact design make it a winner in my book. It won’t outperform top-end DACs or separate, dedicated amps, but it’s the combination of size, functionality and very good performance that makes this a worthwhile purchase.

Perhaps don’t buy it to directly drive low impedance IEMs, but do buy it to connect to higher impedance ear / headphones, active speakers, and amplifiers.