- Jan 22, 2010
Note: This is a slightly condensed version of my posts on TE: Diary of my first CIEM and the Initial impressions post found later in the same thread.
Chapter 1: Beginning
Even though many of my close confidants on Head-fi had advocated getting a Custom IEM (hereinafter referred to as CIEM), I have always resisted the idea.
- The process consumes plenty of time. Between getting ear mold impressions done to the final arrival of the CIEM, 4-6 weeks would pass easily.
- It involves effort. If it involves moving away from my chair, I ain't doing it. Who would take ear mold impressions, send them to the company, wait, hope and pray that they fit you correctly and if not, rinse and repeat the whole process again?
- Even if I was ready to move off my chair, I did not think there were audiologists in India familiar with taking impressions for CIEMs.
- It is costly. The CIEM pages in company sites display only the base price. You choose shell colors, canal colors, face plate options, custom artwork and the final price is usually much more than what you had in mind.
- What if I get one, but didn't like it? Reviews for CIEMs are far and few between. We don't even get to audition universals in India. Even if there were universal demos, the sound of final CIEM often differs from that of the universal demos. So in case I do not like it, I have to sell them at a pittance compared to my original cost.
Chapter 2: The Murder of a thing called Wallet
I initially ordered the universal Noble 4 on Black Friday after reading Joker's review of Noble 4S. After placing the order, I already had buyer's remorse and contacted Noble Audio (Brannan Mason, Co-owner). Despite my bank balance showing a couple of zeroes less than where I wish it to be, I went ahead and upgraded the order from N4 universal to 4C custom by topping up through a second payment. My post purchase rationalization went as follows:
- Noble Audio do not re-shell their universals. So, even if I liked N4 to the point of wanting to own 4C/4S, I had to sell N4 and separately place an order for 4C/4S. If I could not find buyers in India, I should be prepared to do International shipping as well.
- If I like N4, I would always be cursing myself that I did not go for 4C/4S.
- I have heard a whole lot of universals. It was time I experienced something fresh and different.
- Between 4C and 4S, the choice was easy as 4S was costlier by $300 (even with the Black Friday discount, for the Wizard design, Indian costs at that time were ~ ?52K and 68K respectively). Secondly, silicone is a little hard to work with (4S offered only uncolored silicone shell), whereas acrylic allows you to play with everything under the sun (as you see in the Wizard design below).
Chapter 3: Close encounters of the Ear kind
I found out that there were a couple of hearing aid centers in Coimbatore - Hearing Aid Center and Amplifon (Formerly Beltone, whose business was bought by Amplifon in India). I ended up choosing Amplifon as one of the fellow Indian head-fiers had a good experience with them.
I went to Amplifon one lazy evening (on 5th Dec, 2013) just to talk to the Doctor. I carried printouts of the following
- Noble Audio's Ear Impression instructions
- JH Audio's Audiologist Tip Sheet
- Things to consider before getting your custom IEM impressions done.
- Average Joe's comments from Kozee thread along with the photo of his self-impressions
I purposefully did not disclose the cost of CIEMs. But, I did tell him how important it is to take impressions the same way as outlined in the sheets that I carried. It proved hard to convince him that taking so much effort for a 'cosmetic' purpose was worth his time when he could be 'saving lives'.
Of course, even after this, he went on to take impressions his usual way the next day. He asked me to keep the mouth slightly open when the impression material was injected and asked me to close the mouth soon afterwards. While pushing the cotton dam inside, he scratched a bit in the right ear. That pain went on to sustain for a few more days after this. He did take the impressions slightly past the second bend. But, this set of impressions had to be discarded.
A few things to remember here
- While you would come across posts in Head-fi stating that the 'Green' silicone (Blue being the next best) is the best material for taking ear mold impressions, it was not available here. The audiologist said that the pink material, which is the least desired usually, is the only one available. The reason they prefer the A+B based silicone material is the smoothness of the resulting ear mold impression. Impressions made using the pink material (as shown below) could be a little grainy. The good news is the final CIEM is not affected by the choice of injection material (though you may want to clarify this with the manufacturer).
- Though it is generally said that acrylic CIEMs require open mouth impressions and silicone CIEMs require closed mouth impressions, it would be futile to assume so. Custom Art, for example, recommends open mouth impressions similar to how I describe below, whereas Minerva requires closed mouth impressions. Unless it's a silicone based CIEM (in which case you are better off clarifying this with the manufacturer), open mouth impressions should be done.
- One of the important components for taking open mouth impressions is the bite block. But, I am told that in India, no one uses a bite block (understandable as hearing aid impressions do not require open mouth impressions). So we need to improvise.
- Since most audiologists are used to taking ear mold impressions for hearing aids, they must be politely talked into taking impressions for CIEMs in a different way. For instance, this discarded set of impressions did not have enough information in the outer area where drivers are placed.
They only charged me the consultation fee of ?300 since they did not know how else to charge me. Depending on the city, the charges may vary.
Later that night, I took photos of my impressions and sent them to Noble Audio. Brannan gave a detailed reply pointing out locations where ear mold impressions were not good enough and what needs to be done to rectify them. He also gave me some guidelines to follow when taking impressions.
Chapter 4: Raid of the Impression material
I fixed another appointment on 9th Dec, 2013 and took a printout of Brannan's E-mail. This time, I did things correctly.
- The audiologist quickly understood what he needed to do. He had flattened the outer ear impression. That part was not required for hearing aids, but it is essential information for CIEMs since drivers would be placed there.
- I took a bunch of tissues to use as 'bite block'. From Brannan's mail, an open mouth impression is best taken with the mouth open to the extent of index finger and middle finger placed vertically like a finger gun. You can use any (combination of) object(s) that match this height, which you won't mind keeping inside your mouth for 10 mins or more. For e.g., A 35ml Shampoo bottle might work, but I am more allergic to plastic than paper.
- One problem that is likely to surface when keeping the mouth open is drooling. In my case, the tissue 'bite block' absorbed the drool. But I won't recommend this to everyone. One issue with having a mix of paper and drool in your mouth for 5+ minutes? You may have little pieces of it stuck to the tongue after the impression was removed
- It is a bit painful when the cotton dam gets pushed beyond the first bend, especially when it gets past the second bend. But, try your best not to move (unless you wish to damage ear drums).
- It is best to keep still when the impression material is being cured. As a precaution, my audiologist asked me to 'bite' the 'block' even before the cotton dam was pushed. After the injection of the impression material, it takes 4-7 minutes to cure fully (depends on the material). So, it is best to sit in a comfortable position before giving the go ahead signal to the audiologist. Because once you sit, you are supposed to sit still like a statue. I do not know if moving your arm or leg will affect the final outcome, but better to be safe than sorry.
- The 'still' posture must be a close approximation of how you would use your IEMs in general. Do not tilt the head up or down (unless that is your normal listening posture). A slightly different head orientation could break the seal on loosely fitted CIEMs. I normally walk a lot when listening to music and usually sit in a slightly reclined position with legs stretched, but with head still upright (when I am working on the PC/laptop). I tried to strike a balance between the two.
- My audiologist took one set of impressions, was not satisfied with it and discarded it. The second set of impressions came out well.
- Since my right ear already had some pain from last time, the pain worsened after this.
- Since the ears were so clean and free of wax, the audiologist asked me to safeguard from water entering the ears over the next 3-4 days. But, I managed to do precisely that on the second day during bath, which resulted in a severe pain that gradually subsided only four days later. Turns out that since there was no wax to protect, the thin membrane of the ear drum might have torn or damaged. I still wonder how deaf I am in the right ear!
- I got crush proof cases from Amplifon itself without being charged. But any plastic case that can safely handle the catching and throwing practice of the courier companies along the way should suffice.
- The full session may last anywhere between 20 and 30 minutes, depending on the audiologist. In this case, as there were two sets of impressions, it lasted close to 45-50 mins (I think).
Chapter 5: Exporting Ugliness
Silicone won't lose shape that quickly (I accidentally dropped mine on the table from say, half a foot) and would last sometime (a little more than a month? I forget), so there should not be any major issues unless your packing is pretty careless. Even with proper protection added, it is highly unlikely that your volumetric weight would exceed the basic 500 gms.
I wasted a whole day (11th Dec, 2013) searching for a cost effective, non-Indian post solution. Indian Post was kept as the last resort, since there was always a chance for delay, damages and lost packages when it comes to EMS.
DHL was too costly at ?3600. Aramex wasn't sure whether they could send ear mold impressions. Fortunately, I found that DTDC has a tie-up with DHL. While DTDC can ship documents to International locations, non-documents (like this one) to select International locations are sent out via DHL. The first advantage is that once the local hub of DTDC hands it over to DHL, the entire thing is handled by DHL, meaning you can avail full fledged tracking. The second advantage is the lower cost. For the same package which would cost ?3600 directly through DHL, DTDC quotes ~ ?1600 ( a bit more, a bit less depending on the destination).
Usually, they ask for ID Proof and an 'invoice' or an official letter from a hospital in case this has anything to do with medical reasons. Declaration letters (stating that these are samples and have no commercial value) are pass though (I tried that, but it was rejected). I found it incredibly stupid to sell my ear mold impressions to Chinese for a paltry sum of ?100 by spending a further ?1600 . I also kept close-up photographs of my ear mold impressions so that the customs officials get disgusted and allow this mini-monstrosity to be 'exported' without asking further questions.
I sent them on 14th and my ear impressions reached Nancy Lee at Chengdu on 18th afternoon.
Chapter 6: Buyer's Remorse
Since there was a dearth of information about Noble 4 / 4C / 4S, I feared if I had chosen the wrong CIEM. I was more worried about the bass. I simply didn't want something that resembled RE272 or SE535, which lacked in bass quantity. The rest of the spectrum seemed alright to me. After my exchange with Joker and some assuring impressions about the universal Noble 4, I became more and more confident about my choice.
Chapter 7: So near, yet so far
I got a mail confirming that my 4C has been built on the 14th Jan, 2014. I waited and waited for my tracking number, but it did not come. Instead, I got a mail from Brannan that said
I am writing to inform you that on Monday, January 13th, Chinese authorities searched our CIEM facility after receiving a tip we were conducting illegal business activities. While we operate in strict adherence to the law and the allegations against us are undoubtedly false, authorities confiscated several sets of ear mold impressions and completed CIEMs to help augment their investigation.
Unfortunately, your CIEMs and ear mold impressions were among those taken. It is unclear if/when these items will be returned to us and in what condition they will be in.
We have confirmed that the source of the tip is a competitor. We are extremely disappointed this company has decided to compete not on the basis of quality, innovation, and customer service, but rather petty and cowardly attacks.
They promised to expedite the build process of those of us whose CIEMs and/or ear impressions were lost. I was initially asked to send a new set of ear mold impressions to their US office. But, a couple of hours later, my ear mold impressions were found in their China facility. They began work immediately.
Chapter 8: A Surprise!
I was mentally prepared to wait till end January in the best case and Mid March in the worst case for my 4C (due to Chinese New Year holidays in between). In the afternoon, I was really surprised to receive a mail from Nancy that my Noble 4C is ready. They recovered my ear mold impressions only on 16th afternoon, meaning they built my 4C within 5-6 days. Every raid affected customer got a rush order style build without the burden of an additional $300! It was quite unbelievable. Kudos to Noble Audio!
In-Ear version of Pygmalion
These ugly things
....in the right, skillful hands can turn into.....
In case you are wondering, my notes to Noble were quite simple - Nothing shiny, Nothing too dark, Stay away from Pink, but design something under-stated and calmer to look at. It's a unique design (at the time of writing), with translucent shell and face plate with a silver Mystic Swirl design, a Wizard first.
Chapter 9: That Sinking feeling
The day began well on 23rd Jan, with a mail carrying my UPS tracking number. I was ecstatic. If traveling to Chengdu and back was cheaper than a Lakh of rupees and 60 hours traveling time, I'd have gone there and collected it myself. But I had to brace myself for a wait till Monday at the very least.
We are normally conditioned to expect Chinese cos to declare articles at lower values to escape the dreaded Indian customs. But I wanted to know the exact declaration amount so that I could be ready for it. I wasn't anywhere near prepared to hear $485.40 as the declared value. Turns out Noble Audio usually declares full (or near full) value for all the CIEMs from China as required by Chinese law and this is a lenient customer friendly declaration from their point of view. That was out of the blue and I wasn't prepared mentally or monetarily for this.
I spent a better part of the week refreshing the UPS page every half an hour with no fruitful results to speak of. Due to the Chinese New Year rush, they spent five days with Chinese and Hongkong Customs. It was in the loving embrace of Mumbai customs for another day. I was charged about 30% of declared value and the total amount I needed to pay, including UPS clearance charge and applicable taxes, came to ~ ?9200.
Once it left Mumbai, tracking updates stopped. Since UPS did not have an office at Coimbatore, they hand it over to their agent, DelEx, at Chennai. DelEx then transports it via Surface the next day morning to Coimbatore and it reaches here that night. Just when I thought I would finally have them delivered, I was informed that DelEx do not have service in my locality and hence they would route it through Professional Couriers. Of course, Professional was to deliver it only on Monday, which spoiled my weekend plans. My 4C has been so near, yet so far that it frustrated me no end.
Chapter 10: The End
Noble 4C is the first IEM in a long, long time to genuinely excite me. I would know answers to several questions first hand like "Do they fit me right?", "How different or better are customs compared to universals?", "Could this be the one IEM to rule them all?" etc., etc., Since it was almost in my hands, only to be taken away by Chinese authorities, the pain of waiting is much more aggravated this time around.
Fortunately, since mine was a COD due to the duty, DelEx had no choice, but to deliver it on 1st February at 5 PM.
Bonus Section: The Aftermath
Chapter A: Soundless
I must admit that I am more relieved than excited to get my 4C. I was eager to check the contents of the package to see if everything was intact. The Pelican case with the Noble logo was kind of hard to open the first time. After seeing the photo, I had raised my expectations of being floored by the looks of my CIEM. It wasn't so. Contrary to my imagination of brownish tinge with rainbows inside, the translucent face plate with silver mystic swirl and the red wires inside looked more grayish in the sun light. The build quality and the finish was very good though.
It took me quite a while to get the insertion right the first time and I required a slightly more energetic attempt to remove them. The acrylic shells were an unwanted intrusion into my ears. My brain signaled that it feared the suction like feeling inside the ears. Poor little brain! Some companies ship them with ear lubricants. But if they do not, as in this case, the shells will need natural lubrication from ear wax over a period of time, something we all have in abundant supply (yuck!).
Now, all my fears slowly subsided one by one. The fit felt quite good. The seal was great. Isolation was better than with any of my universals. Etymotic (also called Ear-rapic by fond lovers of it's deep insertion with triple flanges) HF2 and Shure SE535 have given me good isolation. But, my asymmetrical ears and weird canal shapes get a notch more isolation from 4C. The ambient sound bleed was very less. Finally, a way to exclude the whole world when playing music. Barring a very slight reminder that the damn world still exists outside of me when music was not playing, I did not hear much. I surely won't be using them outside or in circumstances which require either quick removal from ears / my attention at a moment's notice.
Next set of tests were to walk a bit, talk a bit, chew a bit - everything to see if the seal remains intact. 4C passed these tests with flying colors, barring the last. That was more my fault. My ear canals expand and contract wildly when I move my jaws or even swallow water. So, food and 4C won't mix together in my case.
Chapter B: Sound Bytes
- Audiophiles are hereby requested not to chase me with torches around the world. I may misuse and murder your beloved audiophile lingo and can most times mean something else entirely. I am also at liberty to take a U-turn on these impressions.
- I had not used any IEM in the past 10 days and I did not use any other IEM during this listening session. So, I will be a little more careful when using adjectives. 4C may turn out to be better or worse than I describe after actual comparisons.
- No DSD, 24/192, Diana Kralls, Hotel Californias were harmed during this listening session.
My original plan was to try and use it with my Rockboxed Clip+ for a brief while and then test it with my other sources like Leckerton UHA6S MKI and DacMini CX. But, in the end, I was more interested in listening to music (of the metal and non-metal variety) than to interrupt by connecting it to other sources.
My listening volume for the session ranged from -43dB to -38dB depending on the recording.
My initial listening with any IEM always reveals one or more 'flaws' - be it lacking in bass extension, a 5 Khz spike, brightness to make it sound more 'detailed'. But after 10-15 minutes with 4C, I could not find any huge flaw that jumped straight at me.
The basic sound signature of Noble 4C is 'neutral'. But I have heard a variety of IEMs, somewhat differing in signature, described as 'neutral'. So, let me just describe it in terms I understand. Restating, Noble 4C is a wonderfully balanced IEM. I have heard many IEMs that fit the balanced description, but they have a slight emphasis either in the bass or upper mids or lower treble. Noble 4C, as far as I've heard, does not seem to favor any range over the other. The resulting sound is very smooth without annoying peaks and deep cut valleys.
The bass, thankfully has no mid-bass hump that plagues most of the IEMs. The bass extension is good, though the lowest regions do not produce much of an impact. The bass has healthy quantity and so far, has felt natural. The bass quantity feels just about right as it manages to produce the information in the bass region more than adequately (including 'rumbling' in a mild manner) without sounding anemic like RE272, flat but uninspiring like SE535CL, enhanced and thick like TF10 or SM3 v1 or for that matter, gargantuan like FX700. While the two low frequency drivers of Noble 4C produce a fast, clean sounding bass, it still does not match the great combination of details, delicacy, speed and impact of my favorite IEM in the bass region, Sony EX1000.
The Mid range of 4C has a neutral tone with excellent clarity and transparency. It is not forward, recessed or anything of that sort. It carries a healthy note weight, that produces a body which is not thin (RE0), lean (DBA-02) or thick (SM3). The vocals felt natural for the most part, though most of my listening session, barring the odd interruption from Eva Cassidy, was centered around growls rather than singing
Treble is pretty smooth and detailed carrying an adequate amount of sparkle. It felt much better than the warmer sounding, but non-sparkling RE-400, but did not have the exciting sparkle of say, RE272. Thankfully, it also stays clear of the metallic timbre that plagues CK10 and TF10.
The clarity of 4C is something that could set it apart. While I have not done my comparisons to be sure, it feels clearer across the spectrum compared to how I remember my familiar tracks with IEMs like CK10. The sound stage has good width and depth, though I cannot put any inch measurements until I have gone back and compared them with other IEMs. The presentation is spacious with excellent layering.
With my familiar Opeth tracks, many of my IEMs tend to sound congested with the heavy DR-5 passages. But with 4C, the separation and layering was so effortless that I did not feel it was congested at all. I don't know about you. But, to me, the true test of an IEM is whether it makes me listen to things I otherwise would not. With Primitive Man's brutal, heavy album 'Scorn', I have not ventured beyond 3 minutes with any of my IEMs. But, I went past the second track with 4C.
What impression would be complete without some audiophile regular expressions thrown in? I did hear things I've never heard before with 4C. It sounds so clean and clear that I could focus on certain nuances I've not noticed that well before.
Chapter C: Blurb on Back page
I don't yet know the answer to questions like 'Are Customs better than Universals?'. It would be ridiculous to attempt an answer based on one custom IEM and about 15? 20? (may be more, I lose count every time ) universals I currently have in my possession. But, I can surely say that 4C, on account of having least negatives for my tastes would be certainly near the top of my heap, if not the very top. Despite the ups and downs of this story, I do feel that the whole effort was quite fruitful in the end.
This was no small amount of money (at least for me), but most of it went towards customization of the IEM. The re-sale value is far less, considering that I have to take into account that the buyer would need to pay $200 + his own set of options to effect an Ownership Transfer. So, the 'value for money' aspect of 4C is in my view, is not worth considering.
But, is it 'worth' it? I don't know the answer yet. When I switched from my 29" Panasonic CRT straight to Sony 46HX925, I wasn't sure either. But, over a period of time, I have derived enough use and pleasure from it. So, I do not think back on the cost incurred (even though it remains the costliest electronic product around). Likewise, if 4C serves me well in the coming months and I remain more satisfied than dissatisfied, then I'd say I have 'derived' my money's worth.
Chapter D: Fine Print in small letters
During the length of the session, sound kept cutting off randomly in the left. Just pushing the cable and adjusting the memory wire to a certain position always brought it back to life. Even with one ear and half the music, 4C was interesting at times . A PM is all it took. My replacement cable has already started it's journey from Noble Audio.