Review written by @Precogvision
You know, my first real IEM was a Noble Audio IEM - the Massdrop Noble X. I have some good and bad memories about that IEM; needless to say that Noble Audio has always been a brand that’s fascinated me. They’ve made a name for themselves with their stunning, handmade faceplates, but they don’t seem to get quite the same recognition for their IEM’s actual sonic qualities; the Noble X is an excellent case study (that I won’t delve into) as to why. But it wouldn’t be fair of me to characterize a brand based on just one of their IEMs, and I’ve always wondered how their flagships stacked up. Enter the Kaiser Encore, the most recent iteration of Noble Audio’s much acclaimed K10 line-up. Does it have what it takes to propel Noble into more than “just a pretty face” status?
This unit was kindly loaned for review by Headphones.com. At the end of the review period it will be returned; as always, what follows are my honest thoughts and opinions to the best of my ability.
Source and Driveability
- All critical listening was done off of an iBasso DX160 with lossless FLAC files. The included silicon tips and stock cable were used.
- I had no issues driving the Encore. As with most BA IEMs, it’s fairly sensitive and you might notice a faint hissing depending on your source.
- My genres of preference include the following: K-Pop/J-Pop, Country music, EDM, and instrumental scores.
The Encore arrives in a large cardboard box with foam slots inside for the accessories. And as for included accessories, there’s quite a few:
- Pelican 1010 case
- Plastic hockey-puck case
- A variety of tips
- Sticker and business card
- Carabiner for the Pelican case
- 0.78mm 2-pin Noble cable
- Microfiber cloth and baggie
Overall quality of the accessories doesn’t scream top-notch, particularly the hockey-puck case considering most manufacturers are making theirs out of aluminum. I believe both the hockey-puck case and the included cable are also the exact same ones that came with my (much cheaper) Massdrop Noble X. The Pelican 1010 is a nice touch, though, and to my knowledge it's sort of the de-facto carry case for more expensive IEMs.
As for the Encore themselves, they are built very nicely. Noble clearly is putting in some serious effort into the actual construction. You’ll note that the shell is a two-piece design; however, there are small ridges milled throughout. The ridges on both sides line up with one another seamlessly - that’s always a good indication of build quality. The same holds true for the logo engraving on the faceplate, it's well-defined and there are no surface inconsistencies. As the shells are constructed of aluminum, there’s also some decent heft which lends itself to the perception of quality.
I had no issues with fit using the included tips. Isolation is average. The Encore features Noble’s signature shell ergonomics which might not be the most ideal for everyone; it doesn’t contour to the ear too well, and tends to stick out a bit. Of course, fit is 100% subjective to the end user and all that good stuff applies.
Frequency response taken off of an IEC-711 clone; measurement is raw, matched at 1kHz, and there is a resonance peak at 8kHz.
Disclaimer: If you’ve read my reviews before, then you probably know that I like to take a more critical approach. This allows you, the reader, to more effectively calibrate your expectations of a product even if you have the exact opposite preferences of my own. Still, if you don’t hear the flaws that I hear, well, that can only be for the better! I don’t necessarily encourage seeking out said flaws or trying to find an issue with something that you’re happy with.
That in mind, let’s address the Encore’s two most glaring issues, 1) BA timbre and 2) a 6kHz treble peak. To the extent of the former the Encore is, shall we say, the whole shebang. Translation: It’s a mess. I’ve heard few IEMs with transients so weightless, thin, and razor sharp. In the midrange, this presents itself with an unpleasant sibilance to the leading edge and decay of many syllables; the transients are anemic, too quick for their own good. This is helped in no part by the upper-midrange tilt. The Encore also surpasses the oft-used descriptor “plasticky” and firmly seats itself in “metallic” territory in the treble.
And right, let’s not forget that 6kHz treble peak. It is nasty. Cymbals have a distinctive spikiness to them (I’m reminded of a porcupine posed to strike), and stick impact is drawn out with far too much forwardness, frequently bordering on straight-up screechy. Something you’ll hear me talk about quite often is macrodynamics; BA IEMs have a tendency to sound “flat”. I struggle to describe the Encore in this regard; it’s most definitely compressed with an upward skew, but I don’t think dynamic contrast is half-bad. The main issue is that said contrast exacerbates the treble peak; the Encore is far too loud (quite literally) for its own good. Quiet-to-loud sections become moderately loud-to-peaky sections, and abrupt transitions are often jarring in the wrong way. I’m not a very loud listener - I rarely break 75db - yet I constantly find myself having to throttle back the volume on the Encore.
Now, while these two issues don’t fly for me, I think I can see what Noble was going for. The treble spike boosts perceived detail, and the trade-off of those razor-thin midrange transients is that the Encore has excellent resolution. But oh boy, you’re going to kill me for saying this: I think the Encore is perfectly resolving in its own right without these “gimmicks” (mostly with reference to the treble spike). To this effect, you’d be hard-pressed to knock the Encore from a pure technical standpoint. Layering is well-above average on the Encore, as are positional cues, and staging approaches the sonic wall while not quite breaking it.
Overall tonality - taking the treble peak out of the equation - isn’t particularly bad either. Bass has a strong mid-bass emphasis complementing the quicker attack and almost non-existent decay, and it slams harder than I would’ve expected given that the Encore is a BA IEM. Really, I’d much rather have a BA IEM that plays to its strengths rather than one that slaps on a sub-bass shelf only for it to rumble lacklusterly. The midrange can sound a bit scooped with more of an upper-midrange emphasis, but nothing really to complain much about. For those who like this type of “referency,” details-in-your-face sound, this really is not a bad tuning. But...again, the treble. Ultimately, the Encore is an IEM that I think is shackled by its egregious treble peak, and the Encore’s tonality will likely lend itself to a love-it-or-hate-it thing with most listeners.
- 64 Audio U12t: The U12t takes on a more laidback tonality with a sub-bass emphasis, linear midrange, and then a treble that peaks more in the highest frequencies (16-17kHz). It largely manages to circumvent a lot of the issues I’ve noted on the Kaiser Encore, more specifically BA timbre. The bass response is also distinctive of the best BA bass there is. Of course, one might find the U12t’s upper-treble peak likewise fatiguing, but the U12t’s got true detail, not the perception of detail. And make no mistake: It’s every bit as resolving as the Encore, if not a good deal more, despite its laidback tonality. The U12t will appeal to those who want something slick and resolving; the Encore to those who enjoy a more in-your-face tuning.
- Campfire Andromeda 2020: Probably one of the most popular, full-BA IEMs. The Andro 2020 has a similar tonality to the U12t, but carries some more lower-midrange weight; the bass shelf doesn’t level off as quickly. The treble response is smooth, inoffensive, and extends superbly relative to the Encore’s. Intangibly it matches the Encore for resolving capability, and it takes a clean lead in imaging (on the holographic and diffusal fronts). Timbre-wise, it’s fairly clean too, managing to circumvent those edgy transients I noted on the Encore.
- Empire Ears Hero: Here’s an interesting comparison. The Hero’s a more V-shaped tuning, but it’s got a similar treble emphasis to the Encore. I wasn’t a fan of said emphasis, and it’s tamer than the Encore’s at that - guess you know why I’m likewise not a fan of the Encore, but I digress. The Hero’s a hybrid so you get some juicy, real dynamic slam and a much more sub-bass oriented bass shelf. The Hero’s rise to the upper-midrange is a bit more aggressive; the same, edgy transient behavior that the Encore exhibits is present. For the general technical works, I do think the Encore has an edge. However, the Hero is surprisingly dynamic, and I think it’s a suitable, cheaper alternative for those who enjoy a more sizzly treble.
- Moondrop Blessing 2: Now, you might be wondering...why am I comparing a $320 IEM to an $1850 IEM? The answer is to make a point. The Moondrop Blessing 2 is quite honestly tuned a good deal better than the Encore in the most “objective” sense possible. For one, the treble is much more linear, and for another, a lot of that excessive midbass has been cleaned up giving more distinction to the lower-midrange. Sure, you might take issue with the upper-midrange emphasis and thinner notes...but the Encore has them as well, so it’s a moot point.
And then we get to the intangibles - oh, what’s that? My bad, the kicker. The Blessing 2 trades blows with the Encore for resolving capability and imaging, which I would argue are the Encore’s greatest strengths. Does it quite match or beat the Encore here? I’m inclined to say no, especially not in sheer resolution. But then factor in dynamics; the Moondrop Blessing 2 has excellent macrodynamics that belie its price-point. And it’s close - far, far closer than it should be.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The IEM segment of the audio hobby moves very quickly. So why mince words? It’s fairly clear to this reviewer that the Encore hasn’t stood the test of time from a pure sonic-quality standpoint. Recall that the Encore is a refinement of a much older design, the original K10. It’s simply not competitive by today’s standards.
As usual, I feel the need to disclaim that the Encore is by no means bad. Sound is only half the story when you’re plugging this much into an IEM after all. Most people want something that turns heads, distinguishes them from the crowd; that’s exactly what the Encore is. And you know what? That’s not the worst thing ever. Noble Audio is clearly putting a lot of work into the shell designs of their IEMs, paying homage to the “functional art” aspect of the hobby; I can respect that. If they could refine their sound game to the same extent, I think they could really be onto something. And to be fair, it does seem like they’ve put out some new models (the Sultan and Zephyr) that hold potential.
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