It was the throes of winter in Chendgu, China when John Moulton first decided to build a pair of headphones by hand, using his own bathroom as a headquarters. Moulton, a doctorate of audiology and ex-pat, talks about the project like it was a cosmic obligation — a duty to his fellow audio enthusiasts. He earlier had cracked open a pair of $100 Shure E3s, exploring their innards with disgust and determination. “I thought, ‘That’s it?’ I can do this. And I can make a prettier shell. And I can put more effort into it.”
Armed with years of experience working on hearing aids and with easy access to the fine woods of the region, Moulton’s first product was both functional and beautiful. “I was following the CIEM [custom in-ear monitor] scene, if you will, and I saw an injustice going on,” Moulton said. “It’s hard to justify spending $1,100 for something that looks like a wad of bubble gum.”
In contrast with the rest of the industry’s prevailing pale blues, washed out reds and bland clears, the faceplates on Moulton’s first handmade in-ears were coated with materials like Amboyna burl and Siamese rosewood — dark brown, smooth and brilliant like the trim on a luxury sedan interior. He produced a first batch of headphones and, on September 4, 2011, posted photos to Head-Fi, a taste-making, influential and scrutinizing forum and website for audiophiles.
Eleven pages of positive comments followed Moulton’s post, with users officially dubbing him “The Wizard,” and dozens of “orders” flowing in for a business that didn’t yet exist. Many pressed Moulton to start a company. “I have given it some thought,” Moulton, under the user name FullCircle, wrote back modestly. “Getting a company to ‘take off’ is a huge endeavor and it requires a lot of money. I am not saying it will ‘never’ happen, but there are a lot of mountains to climb before it could happen.” Four years later, Noble Audio is thriving.
The company’s flagship offering is the Kaiser 10U, a universal-fit, aluminum-covered in-ear monitor named for the 10 balanced armature drivers (read: little vibrating things that cause sound) that populate each earbud. To give this some context, the standard-issue Apple earbud has just one, and the top-of-the-line offering from headphone mainstay Ultimate Ears has six — two for treble, two for mids, and two for bass. Headphone drivers, like car horsepower, do not always offer superior performance with increasing number, but in the Kaiser 10Us they give a balanced, expansive and rich in-ear monitor deserving of any superlative. The company makes 30 Kaiser 10Us a day by hand, which sell out almost instantly (Japan is their biggest consumer, the US is fifth).
Yet the story is not whether these $1,600 headphones are good — of course they are, they cost the same as a fully-loaded laptop. Rather, the story is how something as ubiquitous as an in-ear headphone can be scaled up to this price, and why, in fact, that price may actually be justified.
Listening to music on the Kaiser 10Us is a singular activity, the tunes are not just an ambient distraction from the banal task of Swiffer sweeping the kitchen.
More than a small handful of consumers spend three months’ mortgage on a timepiece, a couple G’s on a jacket or $900 on shoes, and headphones, especially ones as artful as the Kaiser 10Us, deserve to have their place in the pantheon of fine products. When I ask Moulton how he would respond to a customer criticizing the price, his answer is assured and firm, almost like he’s surprised I asked the question. “Whoever says that is obviously not a person that is understanding of the industry,” Moutlon said. “It’s like saying a Volkswagen is every bit as good as a Porsche and it gets you from A to B. Well, obviously, you’re not a car enthusiast.”
The crispy white noise in Sufjan Stevens’ “Fourth of July,” the rattling snares in Alabama Shakes’ “Gemini,” the softly landing piano hammers in Tobias Jesso Jr.’s “Can’t Stop Thinking About You” — all are lost sounds for most headphones. But listening to music on the Kaiser 10Us is a singular activity; the tunes are not just an ambient distraction from the banal task of Swiffer sweeping the kitchen. In testing them, I found myself searching through my catalog of music, listening to classic records as sport, adjusting my playback preferences to achieve the highest possible fidelity. The bass in Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown” nearly had me cross-eyed and the fluttering guitar in Blake Mills’ “If I’m Unworthy” casually traversed my vestibulocochlear nerve. I could feel John Coltrane’s sheets of sound on “A Love Supreme Pt. I.”; Bjork’s morbid suicidal musings on “Hyperballad” had never felt more poignant.
Eventually, I just closed my eyes. One sense was taking up all my physiological bandwidth.
The few weeks before, as Moulton and I were finishing our conversation, he turned similarly introspective and rueful. We had graduated from tech specs to personal talk, and he began reminiscing on the risky entrepreneurship of starting Noble. He admitted it was all he had — an American abroad with a fresh idea and just an army of online supporters thousands of miles away. “I fear this imploding,” he said. “I fear failure. I truly do something I love. If I have to go back to audiology, I’m just getting a paycheck.” Commodifying a passion feels short-sighted, maybe shallow. It’s not about the large price; for Moulton it is about achieving the best audio the ear can experience, and for that, cost should never be an object.