I’m always a little wary when it comes to more reference focused IEMs, and particularly so when vocals are emphasized. I tend to prefer a little more fun and musicality, and am also sensitive to upper-mids, where vocals live. Taking all that into consideration, when I heard that Noble’s latest IEM was initially designed for stage vocal monitoring, I wasn’t first in line to check it out. Despite not being first in line, I got a chance to demo it at CanJam Chicago, and after that I couldn’t wait to get one for review. If you’re feeling a little skeptical, read on, and see if it might actually be just the IEM you were looking for.
Build and Design
The build is simple and leans more towards the utilitarian side of things than towards the gorgeous designs of Noble’s flagship IEMs. Stage 3 is very compact and lightweight with an all-black resin shell, with the Noble Logo on the left shell and “Stage 3” emblazoned on the right. Inside you get a simple three driver hybrid, with one dynamic driver for the bass, and two balanced armatures for the mids and highs. I found them to be a very comfortable, easy fit, but might recommend going up one size over your usual with silicone tips to ensure a more secure fit.
Another highlight of Stage 3 is that it introduces us to Noble’s new standard cable. The updated cable is similar to their classic cable, with an 8-core copper loadout, and about the same weight and heft, but the new version has a bronze sheen to it rather than black. And more importantly, they’ve switched to a modular termination system. The modular system features 3.5mm, 4.4mm, and 2.5mm options in the box, with each snapping on and off easily.
At its core, Stage 3 is a reference tool, but that doesn’t mean that it lacks heart in its presentation. When the 64 Audio U12t/A12t was released, it became an instant favorite among both audiophiles and music industry professionals because it managed to deliver all of the detail, accuracy, and precision that professionals needed, and delivered it in a fun, engaging way. Something that’s easy to forget is that while musicians need a strong reference for the stage, they also want to enjoy hearing the music as they play it. Stage 3 gets this, with a crisp, clear, highly detailed presentation, that doesn’t lose the emotion of the music.
The bass is accurate and linear, and feels natural and accurate. The delivery is generally tight, but it doesn’t lack for deep extension or a solid physical punch when that’s what’s in the recording. The bass is also pretty sensitive to the source. Where it might feel more bass-lite plugged into a 3.5mm Apple dongle, it receives a lot more heft with the balanced connection on a DAP.
Mids provide great detail and strong timbre, with a continuing focus on the natural delivery of music. Vocals – particularly in the female and upper male ranges – are up close and personal, and slightly emphasized. Some might find that singers in the sort of “famously bad” category like Bob Dylan, or very nasally like Liam Gallagher of Oasis get a little too up close in the stereo image, but otherwise vocals don’t feel overwhelming in the mix, nor is there noticeable sibilance.
Treble demonstrates fast, resolving execution and good extension, but rolls off slightly in the upper end. Stage 3 does have some tuning similarities to some of Noble’s top end IEMs, like the Viking Ragnar, but it lacks that famous Noble treble spike, instead offering strong fundamentals and good balance in the tuning of the upper end.
The soundstage gives you a clear three dimensional presentation, but isn’t particularly large. What really stands out is the imaging, where you have excellent separation and strong holographic sensation in the placement of instruments and voices. Stage 3 probably has the best imaging that I’ve heard under $1000.
For testing, we primarily stuck with DAPs and ultra portable DACs. The iBasso DX170 was probably my favorite as I felt it accentuated the best characteristics of Stage 3, rather than dialing them back. But if you’re concerned about vocals being too far forward, the Astell&Kern SR35 felt like it relaxed the vocals a touch, as did the iFi GO bar. The Questyle M15 was another strong pick that felt just a hair smoother in the treble, and presented a slightly narrower soundstage than the DX170.
On Elvis Costello’s “She,” the vocals are front and center, with a rich, detailed presentation, and – while usually you’re interested in the high notes – Stage 3 expertly handles the low notes too, delivering the full vocal range with richness and character. The rest of the band is set slightly back, creating the impression of Costello out in front of the stage, flanked by strings on stage left and brass on the right, with the piano, bass, and drums directly behind him. The dynamics are captured well, both in the vocals, and in the instrumentation, with the band starting with a gentle piano, and ending up with a full band and orchestra by the climax of the song.
With a more modern pop production, like Olivia Rodrigo’s “driver’s license,” Stage 3 pulls the stage a bit wider, and provides strong separation with the more synthetic sounds. Going from a song like “She” driven by acoustic instruments, to songs like “driver’s license” driven by beats, loops, and samples, and pieced together by a producer, Stage 3 helps you feel that more profound sense of separation between instruments that never occupied the same space together. Vocally, there’s a highly personal sense to the presentation: you can feel the mix of anger and sorrow – and a bit of ennui – in the delivery of the lyrics, and catch that little bit of breath and vocal dynamic that’s often more characteristic of highly resolving IEMs at 3-4x the price of Stage 3.
Mujo’s Togushi Park is filled with slow, chilled-out beats that evoke a sense of nostalgia, seeming more focused on creating a state of mind than on the individual notes. The first thing that struck me was how well Stage 3 delivered the deep resounding bass that’s so central to the genre. I expected – and received – clean delivery of analog synths and vibes (that is the Vibe electric piano, not just, like, the vibes), but when you add in the deep bass, you end up with an immersive experience that engulfs the listener in a warm, inviting soundscape.
Comparison: Sennheiser IE600
While the HD600 and HD800 series headphones strive for a higher degree of accuracy in their presentation, Sennheiser’s IE series has always been a bit more fun: delivering powerful bass and dynamics rather than reference tunings. IE600, though, brings their IEM lineup a bit closer to the neutral sound of HD600 series headphones. As a comparison, on one side you get the Stage 3 – a reference IEM that still delivers heart and emotion – and the IE600 – an IEM from a “consumer”-tuned line that’s taken a swerve back towards a reference sound.
Internally, IE600 uses a single dynamic driver, rather than the hybrid design of Stage 3, so you’re going to expect a bit more power and impact in the delivery. You do get that, but while many single DD IEMs attenuate the mids and treble to let the bass take over, IE600 does provide a more complete balanced sound. In the overall tonal balance though, Stage 3 is closer to a Harman Neutral tuning, while IE600 is clearly “bass-boosted.”
The vocal delivery is interesting between the two, because IE600 also provides some emphasis that’s particularly noticeable in female vocals. IE600’s emphasis is a little further up in the vocal range than Stage 3, so it doesn’t have the same sort of richness in male vocals, but it captures the breath and dynamics of female vocals very well. The downside of this is that it’s slightly more prone to sibilance than Stage 3.
In the soundstage and imaging, IE600’s soundstage feels wider than Stage 3, but less three-dimensional. Stage 3 also provides a cleaner sense of separation and a more holographic feeling in the imaging. There are times when IE600 does really shine with a more cohesive feeling sound, and there’s some give and take between the stronger detail and separation of Stage 3 vs the more organic, cohesive sound of IE600.
With genres like techno and lo-fi in particular, IE600’s organic feeling let me sink deeper into the groove, while Stage 3 was more concerned with making me stand at attention for each detail. With jazz and rock, it felt to be very much down to preference and mood – or even the specific recording. Am I feeling more immersed when I can clearly visualize each member of the band, or more immersed when the music is hitting harder with more energy? For classical and orchestral music, I found that Stage 3 was stronger with more traditional classical music on account of its stronger imaging and more three dimensional stage, while IE600’s bass presentation brought out aspects of modern soundtrack type recordings – like Hans Zimmer’s Inception score – that didn’t shine as brightly on Stage 3.
The tuning might not wow those looking for something more fun, but it’s a real head-turner if you want either a stage IEM that will help you really engage with the music – without going for a custom – or put a high value on accuracy and transparency in your listening. For me, the balance between the detail and emotion, and between technical pro-audio performance and musicality is nearly perfect, making Stage 3 an all around top pick for IEMs under $1000.