What are we testing?
This is a three way test of the Aedle ODS-1, Noble Trident and RHA CL1 Ceramic earphones. It is an unavoidable fact of our existence that many of us need to spend more time out commuting than we do enjoying our own home equipment. While it might seem strange to spend a significant sum of money on something as small as a pair of earphones, the truth of the matter is that you will spend more time listening to them than you will equipment you might have spent considerably more on.
There’s no shortage of choice either. Premium earphones used to be a fairly niche category but there are now dozens of models to choose from. Why have these three particular models been chosen? The first reason is that they all – at the time of writing at least – cost around £350/$525, making for a usefully level playing field. This is a price point where you should still be able to connect your earphones directly to a smartphone or tablet if you want to but still also be able to appreciate the benefit of an external DAC or dedicated audio player.
The second reason is that these models all employ a different driver arrangement to one another which should make for a more interesting comparison than would be the case if three identical designs were selected. As such we have hybrid dynamic and armature design versus triple armature versus dual dynamic. There are also key variations in materials used and design philosophies employed so this should make for an interesting comparison not just of three specific models but also some general design approaches.
The three earphones have been used with a few different sources, principally the Meridan Explorer 2, Chord Mojo (both connected to a Lenovo T560 ThinkPad), a Pioneer XDP-100R portable player and a Motorola G4 smartphone. Material used has included lossless and high res FLAC and AIFF, DSD, Spotify and Tidal including Tidal Masters via the Meridian.
By the time you are spending £350 on a pair of earphones, you should expect a few parts of their performance to be a given. They should be capable of achieving near total isolation from the outside world. The entire audible frequency range should be smooth and even and they should be able to generate a believable sense of soundstage. The good news is that all three pairs of earphones can do this – what is interesting is how differently they go about achieving such things. So let’s see what we’ve got.
All three models in the test comfortably meet the basic standards described in the methodology but there are some intriguing differences that need to be taken into account and that will shape your purchasing decisions. The fitment of remote and mic on the Aedle means that it is comfortably the easiest to live with real world and the mic works perfectly well for making and receiving calls. At the other end of the scale, the RHA’s insensitivity means that unless you have a very burly headphone amp to hand, the exceptional qualities that they possess are not going to make themselves felt. Additionally, their cable feels rather burly. The Noble sits somewhere between these two positions. It’s easier to drive and live with but it can’t take a call in the manner that the Aedle can and that woven cable is on a never-ending mission to tangle up.
There is also some variation to how these models handle quality extremes. Once again, the Aedle is the earphone that is happiest to forgive low bitrate material. That smooth and refined presentation holds up well as quality drops and they also work well if you need them to handle a little film and TV work. The downside to this big, friendly presentation is that the ODS-1 doesn’t respond to high quality material as positively as the other two designs here – it stays good but doesn’t always give you the full taste of what is there.
The RHA by contrast excels as the quality increases. High-res audio and carefully recorded material shines on the CL1 Ceramic in a way that has you hunting out the better corners of your music collection. The RHA remains composed with less high quality material but beyond a certain point – a point where the Aedle is still fairly happy – the RHA starts to get a little ruthless. This is partly affected by the need to use more powerful (and with it, usually revealing) equipment to drive them.
The Noble is closer to the RHA than the Aedle in terms of its handling of material. It excels with higher sample rates and sounds superb with high quality recordings. As quality drops it can sound a little thin and edgy though. Ultimately, all of these models sound fine with Spotify Premium or Apple Music for example but the RHA and Noble will thank you for going to Tidal or beyond.
Group Test Winner
Choosing between these three models is not easy because in part, I could live with any of them. Partnered with any degree of care and attention, the level of performance that they offer is exceptional. In many ways, the Aedle ODS-1 is the most accessible when it comes to getting the most from it. It is easy to drive, actually functions with smartphones rather than simply connects to them and as an object, they are exquisite. The RHA by contrast is demanding of partnering equipment and won’t flatter poor recordings but it has abilities that are exceptional judged at any price, not simply £350/$525.
This leaves the Noble as the balance between these two points. It sounds fabulous, can be driven effectively from a phone while still benefitting from more expensive equipment and it works happily at home and on the move. This might be Noble’s entry level but for most of us, it represents all the earphone we’ll ever need.