Noble Audio has recently stepped into the spotlight of personal audio with their wide range of universal and custom In-Ear Monitors. Founded by designer John Moulton (nicknamed the Wizard) and Brannan Mason, the company was only officially formed in 4Q of last year but has already caused quite a splash in the online forums and C/IEM market. I had a chance to dialog with both John and Brannan on their newest venture and their thoughts on design. Welcome Noble Audio!
What first sparked your interest in audio?
John: I was around 8 years old, my father bought a home audio system, “Fisher” was the brand. Back in those days real veneer was used (not wood scotch tape) and I would sit and caress those cabinets. They had 12-inch subs with “tone control.” It was the “bomb” for me. He also brought home a nice quality Toshiba turntable (pre-ban era—there was a time when Toshiba could not import into America, as they was some scuffle about selling plans for a silent submarine screw, and some how Toshiba was involved). So that was pretty much what sparked it, the beauty of wood, the emotions that music could stir. Our television was broken for many years and it just sat in the living room, so we relied on the stereo for entertainment. Later on, I was installing car stereos – even before I could drive. I pretty much loved all things audio. I even worked at stereo shops for free, when allowed to.
Brannan: I grew up playing various instruments, piano first and then saxophone for many years later on. Around the time I started playing alto-sax, I picked up a set of turntables and began exploring popular music such as hip-hop and EDM as a DJ. I think that studying music in a traditional sense sparked my interest in music, however performing as a DJ sparked my interest in audio. Audio can be defined as a reproduction of sound and a DJ, at the most rudimentary level, reproduces sounds.
What made you want to get into the audio industry? Why IEMs?
John: My wife stepped on her Bluetooth earpiece for her phone. I looked at it, took it to the hearing aid lab (where I worked) and made a custom earpiece such that it would lock into her ear. I thought that was fairly easy. So I pulled out an old Shure E3 of mine that fit horribly, opened it, and discovered what was inside. I thought, “That’s it? I can do better than that!”
What is the history behind Noble as a company?
John: The history is very long, spanning at least 7 years. I was in Thailand learning all I could about CIEMs, building, breaking them down, and building again. I started using wood for faceplates as I didn’t have a laser engraver or a decal printer. (Thailand has an abundance of beautiful hard woods). I met Brannan at a restaurant in Bangkok; he was just a spark of a kid at the time. I could tell he was extremely smart, great with computers and absolutely loved music/audio gear. We had common interests. I really wanted to start a CIEM/IEM company, I had already written the web content, had photos of my work for a “gallery” and had a product line designed. I subsequently joined an associate of mine in China to open a CIEM/IEM company, as I essentially had a “turn key” operation ready. The first 20 sets of CIEMs were built on the floor in a cold bathroom. (It was winter time and it gets really cold in Chengdu, China) The orders kept coming in, and I was over-whelmed. Eventually Kaiser Soze came in, and shortly there after his good friend dB Cooper joined as well. (Praise the Gods) Orders kept coming, we needed more staff, and Nancy came and joined as well. She managed production and customer service along with a lot other things. Echo, a very behind the scenes person managed stock, purchasing, shipping, customs and legal affairs. Brannan and I had always kept in contact, and Brannan had started an “international sourcing” company. Essentially if you wanted something done or purchased, he would make it happen. So eventually the idea of him becoming an agent for me came to the table. I said, “I think it will be a train wreck, but if you want to try, that is fine with me.” Well he proved me wrong! He did a great job, and works I dare say as hard as me. Eventually after a lot of broken promises, the entire core of the original team decided it was time to strike out on our own. Every one left, including our European agent and a good many of the distributors. It was a mutiny that has probably never been seen before on this scale for a company in this industry. We had others that wanted to join as well, but could not due to contractual obligations. As we were planning out the departure, the name “Noble” just popped into my head, it sounded good to me, had a nice “ring” to it, and in some respects represented the DIRECTION, I always wanted to go. I was raised in a family that believed in preserving integrity, believed in working hard, and believed in quality work. My father would often say, “If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right.” I was raised in a family that had a lot of “Noble” attributes, and I wanted the company I ran to have those attributes as well.
Brannan: I met John in Bangkok many years ago and at the time he was building CIEMs under the moniker Full Circle (hence John’s username on Head-Fi). We started seeing each other around regularly and once John learned of my background in music, he offered to build me some CIEMs. I took him up on his offer and that’s how it all began. Fast forward several years, John moved to China to pursue building CIEMs as a business and he reached out for help facilitating things in North America. We had quite a run for about a year and a half, but one thing led to another and John decided it was time to start anew. Since John brought me in, I wasn’t going to stick around without him so I left as well to begin work on Noble.
Where did the nickname “Wizard” come from?
John: It really came from a forum member on Head-Fi.org. While I was in Thailand, practicing and learning how to build CIEMs, I would post a finished CIEM in the DIY section of Head-Fi. A forum member accused me of working for a prominent CIEM company, essentially being a “shill” for them. A forum member replied (and I paraphrase) “[Dr. John] has been practicing his Wizardry with CIEMs for a long while now…” So “Wizard” was born from that, I just started using the name from that point on.
What sets Noble Audio apart from the rest of the IEM market?
Brannan: I think Noble sets itself apart in different ways to different people. For instance, there are people who value customer service that is available 24/7. We do this better than anybody else with John in Thailand, Nancy in China, Paul in the UK, and myself in the US. Then there are people who value build quality, fit, and finish above all else. We’re known for building some of the physically finest IEMs in the world. If sound is the most important aspect, we happen to make some of the best sounding IEMs too. Ultimately, I think what sets us apart is our ability to meet lots requirements at a very high level.
What is your viewpoint on external amplifiers for IEMs? Any benefits or recommendations for your IEMs?
Brannan: I like the idea of an external amplifier, I use one with my DAP. A good amp to me adds that finishing touch to the music and gives you more control from a volume standpoint. However, if you are starting out, I would suggest spending your money on IEMs and a proper source (DAP or DAC depending on your listening environment) as opposed to an amp. An amp isn’t going to transform poorly mastered recordings or make second-rate IEMs sing; you don’t need an amp to drive the vast majority of IEMs like you do headphones or speakers. I am not entirely convinced that amps at the IEM level are much more than an accessory.
What is the ultimate goal for the “Noble” sound? What does “Noble” sound like?
John: That is a tricky, subjective question. There is a science and an art to it (and a lot of trial and error), but ultimately most of this rests on my shoulders. I build something that I would like to hear. If I like it, then the design gets passed around, and if the team members like it, then it goes into production.
Brannan: Nobody can articulate what Noble objectively sounds like, but I will say that each of our configurations sound different. Whether there is some sort of underlying characteristic that is shared amongst all of the configurations, that is up for the listener to decide, but we truly like everything we offer. John will design a configuration and we’ll listen to it, a small set of people whose opinions we respect will take a listen, and then we’ll bring it to the masses. Rarely do things turn out the way we expect. It is really tough to design IEMs to meet specific preconceived criteria, but if doesn’t sound good to us it won’t see the light of day.
How does the implementation of more drivers (per frequency group) influence the overall sound?
John: Honestly that is a very difficult question to answer. Something of a mantra concerning the physics of sound in audiology was, “You change one thing, you change everything.” One thing you will see in marketing jargon is “Increased controlled bass, that doesn’t influence the highs…” or things along those lines. That is a lot of hocus pocus, as if you understand bass, and the phenomenon of “upward spread of masking” bass will impact highs. Anyhow, that is a tangent. Your question was how does the implementation of more drivers influence the over all sound. Well lets get back to bass, bass is necessary, if it wasn’t for bass the drum would not exist as we know it, and neither would the bass guitar. If a single driver IEM can not realistically produce bass due to the physical limitations of the driver, then it would be appropriate to introduce a driver into the mix that can do so. Long story short, multiple drivers, when done well, can add more texture, more life, and more realism to the music.
Many IEM manufactures implement BA (balanced armature) drivers similar to the ones found in your products. What have you found to be the advantages of this type of driver? Do you have any plans for a dynamic driver?
John: I like BA drivers mainly because that is what I was exposed to as an audiology student, and even before that. What a lot of folks don’t know about the “Wizard” is that I come from a family of Audiologists. My father also has a Doctorate in Speech and Hearing Sciences, so I was around hearing aids since the days of diapers. I spent a lot of time in hearing aid labs growing up, so I use what I am most familiar with. Beyond that, the laws of physics state that it takes more energy to set an object with a larger mass into motion, it also requires more time/energy to stop a large mass object. (Train versus a car) Keeping this logic into perspective, BAs has a smaller mass than a dynamic driver, so what we find is BAs respond faster, “attack and release” would be the audiology term. Some people feel that faster response results in superior sound quality; I happen to feel the same way. That being said, Dynamic Drivers are much cheaper than Balanced Armature drivers, so from a profits perspective dynamic drivers are a superior driver.
You offer your custom IEMs in both Acrylic and Silicone, any major differences or advantages between the two materials?
Brannan: There’s more potential for customization with acrylic, while silicone offers increased isolation. We are restricted in the number of drivers we can house in silicone due to decreased amount of interior space as a result of the thicker shell. Both materials have their advantages and disadvantages.
John: From a comfort perspective, it could go both ways. Some people may not like the added isolation, some people may like the malleability and texture silicone offers.
Would you say that high quality is more affordable today or you have to pay premium price for best components and sound?
John: In the IEM industry, I would not say quality is becoming more affordable. The trouble is, the drivers are expensive. There are essentially two manufactures of balanced armature drivers, I would imagine a lack of competition helps to keep the prices high. The other issue is that the drivers are hand assembled; they are not just “shot out” of a machine. So from a parts perspective, prices are high. From a shipping perspective, shipping is high. Due to the nature of custom products as they are “one off” products, shipping really can’t be done in bulk.
Brannan: I believe in the audiophile space the price of true quality is increasing as a result of the glut of expensive crappy products flooding the market. Simply put, high prices are attractive to manufacturers and if something mediocre sounding is actively being purchased for $500, then the folks with the stuff that sounds great are going to charge at least $500 (granted, there are always exceptions). In Q1 2013, sales of premium headphones (priced $100 or more) grew 25 percent from the year previous and accounted for 95 percent of the revenue growth in the entire headphone market. Naturally, companies will start selling higher priced products, however this does not necessarily equate to better sound as one might expect. 85% of purchasers during the same period considered sound quality to be an extremely or very important feature when buying headphones, seven points lower than the previous year. While this is may not mark the beginning of a trend, sound quality is beginning to take a back seat to features that have very little to do with sound yet people are spending more than ever. When increased numbers of people in the market are making decisions on the basis of whether or not headphones have microphones, in line play controls, or noise cancelling it is a little disheartening to those that care about sound quality.
Any parting thoughts for our readers?
Brannan: We are constantly being praised or admired for our work, but make no mistake that we would not be able to do what we do without the support of our listeners. At the end of the day, there are significant costs to running a business like this and our listeners afford us the opportunity to keep pushing forward.