Cons: Voided warranty
Sound might not be completely true to the original
The Katana is an IEM that's been around for some time now, and by this point any regular review is a bit of an overkill given the sheer quantity of articles that have already been written on it
That is why I am taking a completely different angle on it, and in a way I'm reviewing an entirely different product - a universal Noble Katana, that has been sent to ItsFit for a re-shell into a custom.
Before we get started, a few disclaimers:
1. The Katana that I'm reviewing might not have the original Noble Katana sound - given my ear shape, ItsFit have had to change some of the internal tubes (I have really narrow ear canals). Not only that, the ItsFit Katana might have a different depth of insertion in comparison to the Noble Katana, as well as a number of other small differences that can add up to a completely different experience
2. By sending the Katana to ItsFit to be re-shelled, you're voiding the warranty, and agreeing that Noble no longer has anything to do with the IEM. Even if some part of the IEM is defective from the very start, the moment a third party opens it up, that's your warranty gone.
With that out of the way, let us get started
First and foremost - who are ItsFit? They are a Vietnamese company that has recently joined the IEM game (you might know them for their Fusion), and have taken Head-Fi by a storm. I have spent countless hours chatting about audio with their owner, Nguyen, and my purchase experience with them has been nothing short of outstanding.
I tend to have a really hard time picking designs, so the concept was changed multiple times since the re-shell discussion began. ItsFit were extremely accommodating and helpful throughout the process. There was an issue when I sent my Katana to Vietnam, but Nguyen was able to get it through customs successfully, a big thank you for which.
I paid for all the options available pretty much - heritage design and rush order. Pretty glad that I did that since my Katana was done in under 5 days as of arrival, and returned to me in a little under a week.
For the design, I picked their heritage "magma" option, in dark purple transparent shells and a white pattern. Here are some of the images that Nguyen sent me:
Now, I'm no stranger to a good custom design, as I've spent countless hours with VE, 64Audio, Empire and ItsFit to get them looks just right, but I have to admit, this is by far the finest custom artwork I have ever seen on an IEM.
Fast forward 2 days, and DHL delivered my brand new ItsFit Katana, and the design was just as stunning in person as it was on those photos ItsFit sent me.
The build quality is nothing short of excellent. I haven't owned Noble customs, but ItsFit have been able to surpass the Noble universals in one specific area - the sockets. Truth be told, it's not too difficult to have better sockets than Noble, but that's a story for another time (Noble doesn't guarantee that cables that aren't made by Noble will fit in their sockets).
If you are of those cable rolling lunatics like myself, I cannot recommend the ItsFit re-shell enough. Their sockets are comfortably among the finest I've ever used. Every single cable I own fits in there like it was built for the IEM, pure audiophile cable-rolling bliss.
The rest of the built is on point, it feels solid and premium - fit is perfect, no complaints to be had. Design, as covered already, is jaw-dropping.
To try and get back to the essence of this hobby, it's time to cover the sound, and how the re-shell has affected it. It is definitely worth mentioning that I never did manage to achieve a good seal with the universal Katana, so the net result was that it sounded quite rolled off on both ends, only really able to perform the midrange well. Technicalities were mediocre at best, but now that I've tried it as a custom, I can say that that was attributable to seal above all else.
The first thing that struck me was how beautiful and spectacular the treble is. It is clean, very present and forward, but also with that sparkle that sets apart bad from good treble. It can be a bit much for some, but given the sheer quality, I would not want it to be any less. It reminds me of some ways of the Khan's treble (in terms of quantity), but the Khan's dryness really killed my enjoyment when listening to it. The custom Katana feels like a straight up upgrade.
The midrange I'd say has remained the same - that midrange that the Katana is famous for. A mini Elysium of sorts, wonderful detail, focus and elegance. Subbass has noticeably improved, but that I can't say is due to anything other than the seal, and midbass has remained the same - light and complementary to the rest of the sound signature.
The improvement in technicalities is similar to the improvement in treble. Much wider soundstage, much more detail, much better texture. More of everything, and not just more, but also much better. This is an effect I have observed quite consistently when going from universal to custom though (due to ear anatomy I suppose), so I can't really credit ItsFit for that, but rather the depth of insertion and seal above all else.
On the topic of pairings, I personally like the Katana with pure silver cables. It adds some clarity, treble quantity and sparkle that I appreciate in almost every piece of gear that I own. Might be more specific to my preferences though, as opposed to being the fully optimal cable pairing. A pure copper cable might be a good idea to add some warmth if you happen to find it too bright.
Would I recommend the re-shell? Cautiously.
The Katana went from one of my least listened to IEMs, to one of my most used ones. I absolutely love what ItsFit have done with it, and could not be happier that I took the risk.
The reason why it isn't getting a glowing recommendation from me is the fact that you are voiding the warranty, and possibly altering the true nature of the IEM. If you are fine with that however, I don't see why not take the plunge. Would heavily recommend getting a cheap used Katana for example, and sending it in for a re-shell.
Pros: Outstanding Noble Audio TOTL sound with one of a kind artwork.
Additional cost of one of a kind art is not prohibitive.
Clarity and detail in sound. Very good soundstage.
Joyful sub bass.
And the one of a kind art is extremely special.
Cons: TOTL In Ear Monitors are expensive.
Possible increased wait time with high demand.
La Joie de Vivre"The Divine Series"
One Hundred and Twelve Seconds of Joy
My mind is the stage
February 12, 1964: The Philharmonic Hall. The Miles Davis Quintet
“All Blues” from the live Miles Davis album “My Funny Valentine.”
Recording starts with Miles Davis snapping the beat on his fingers. He is center stage three steps back from front of stage and two steps left of center. At the same time a page of sheet music is turned Center stage left. Ron Carter on bass takes the beat stage left three steps further back than Miles Davis. Tony Williams (age 19) on drums stage right 8 steps back from front of stage enters using a brush. Herbie Hancock (age 23) enters in on piano stage left. Hancock is further left than Carter and a step or two further from the stage than Carter. George Coleman on Tenor Sax (soon to be replaced by Wayne Shorter) begins to play further stage right same distance from the front of stage as Miles. Miles begins to play still center stage a few steps to the left. He is playing Trumpet using a Harmon Mute. Tony Williams taps on his cymbals. The quintet plays slow and smooth together until 1 minute 12 seconds into the song at which time Miles takes off his Harmon Mute and lays it down on a stool. Miles goes into a fast solo with Coleman going quiet and the other three holding on for dear life.
I do not know if a video exists of the performance. The above paragraph describes what I hear and feel in the stage of my mind while listening to the Katana. I have owned 22 In Ear Monitors in the last two years. Only with the Katana do I hear that song with so much detail and with so much stage presence.
The Art of Joy
There are the regular universal Noble Audio IEMs. There are also the Wizard Universal Noble Audio IEMs. The Wizard versions are created by John Moulton (a.k.a The Wizard). John is the founder of Noble Audio. He hand carves the faceplate using exotic and very distinctive materials in order to make the Wizard versions.
John’s wife’s name is Joy (now you know where this is going and where the title of each section comes from). Years ago, John was moving some boxes around and one of the boxes contained nail salon equipment. It turns out that in Joy’s younger years she would offer nail salon services across the street from a local college in Thailand. Joy’s sisters would sell Thai tea and other beverages next to her table. Years later Joy opened up a nail salon and eventually she asked John if she could help apply art to Noble Universal products. There you have it, the origin of the Wizard/Joy Collaboration.
The Wizard/Joy collaborative universal involves John fastening and hand carving the face plate of the IEM. Joy then applies her art. John then finishes the build e.g. sanding and lacquer. It takes 12 hours from start to finish to make a Wizard/Joy collaborative IEM. 4 hours of which is Joy applying the art work. The one I have and every picture I have seen of one is unique and stunning in their beauty!
The cost of the Wizard is regular retail plus $100. The Wizard/Joy is regular retail plus $200. My specific faceplate consists of Mother of Pearl and Gold Leaf. Have I said stunning yet!
Ode to Joy, I mean Ode to Self
John is an Audiologist by trade. I am a Speech-Language Pathologist by trade. Our training gives us something in common, and that would be the importance of sound. I have always been obsessed with sound. In 1980 at age 14 I started my first paying job. I cleaned part of an office building. I spent all of my very first check on a Sony CFS-10. I still have it and it is still in mint condition. Below is a picture of my CFS-10.
The Wizard/Joy Collaboration Katana "Divine Series"
The Katana retails for $1850.
The Wizard/Joy Collaboration is an additional $200
The Katana consists of 9 Balanced Armature Receivers (BA)
The stock cable is a quality SPC Tinsel cable with pull length of 150 lbs.
The monitor comes with the expected appropriate variety of tips, a Pelican 110 case and cleaning tool. The packaging is high end in nature.
I would like to thank John for providing this IEM for review purposes. I have no affiliation to Noble Audio nor is there any financial incentive to write this review.
The Joy of the Katana Signature
My introduction paragraph of “One Hundred and Twelve Seconds of Joy” inferentially defines the Katana sound signature. A Katana is the name of a traditionally made Japanese sword. Katana is therefore the perfect name for this monitor. Here are a few of the notes I jotted down over the last month of intensively listening to the Katana: it cuts through the music; guitar strings are being plucked in my ear; cutting reference signature; I can hear every detail of the song; I can pick out each instrument in space; the attack of each instrument is noteworthy and well separated in space; acoustic guitar bliss; detail, detail, detail; clarity, clarity, clarity; not sterile; not neutral boring.
The bass of the Katana has something special going on. There is a sub bass visceral feeling happening. The sub bass gives the impression of movement of air like with a monitor with a dynamic driver. I know with a BA there is no movement of air but it literally feels like it. The mid bass is present but not the star. The sub bass is the star. The mids are not recessed. The vocals have a timbre that is correct. The vocals are on the same plane as the highs and lows. The treble is very detailed and present. Maybe the treble is a little elevated but along with loving sub bass I do love my treble. The Katana treble is not fatiguing at all. I have a hard time with V shaped monitors because I quickly get fatigued by the bass and treble. The Legend X comes to mind or the Rhapsodio Zombie. I get a lot of pleasure out of them but after 5 minutes I need a cigar, a shower, and a nap. I can go on with the Katana for hours without fatigue.
Now onto tip rolling. I once tried to get a custom monitor. My ear canal is so large that they used an elephant to create my mold since the size was the same. With the Katana I do get a light seal. Usually that is a disadvantage and causes a decrease in bass. When I do push them in further there is not a change in sound like other monitors when the seal is too light. The advantage is for longer sessions there is never any pain from too tight of seal.
La alegría de las comparaciones
Very short comparisons of the Katana with:
Campfire Audio Andromeda S
The Katana has the sub bass. The Andromeda S has the mid bass. The Andromeda S has an even sparklier treble. The mids of the two are very similar. With the Katana the instruments have a stronger attack. Instruments with the Andromeda S have a slower attack. It is almost like they have a very fast reverb/glow to them. That fast reverb/glow of the instrument attack is my definition of the Campfire Audio BA sound. The timbre with the Katana is more natural. With the Katana the instruments are front row vs. third row with Andromeda S.
I loved my Andromeda S but I sold it after an extensive comparison with the Katana. The Andromeda S sound is different from the Katana but in my mind too redundant of a signature with the Katana to keep it.
Campfire Audio Solaris
BA sub bass of the Katana vs. the DD mid bass of the Solaris. Both have special treble. The Katana mids do have a better timbre. I cannot comment much otherwise on the Solaris mids. I am still figuring them out. When I compare the Katana to the Solaris what comes to mind for me are the ZMF closed back headphones. The Katana is analogous to the ZMF Eikon with a touch of ZMF Auteur. The Solaris (with a dose of Rhapsodio Solar) is analogous to the ZMF Atticus.
The Eden is the Dynamic Driver sister of the 9 BA Katana. Otherwise the sound signatures have a lot in common despite the classic DD vs. BA differences. I do not see myself ever ridding of the Katana nor the Eden.
Katana and Solar both have 9 Balanced Armatures. And that is all they have in common. The Solar is special for a quickie fun time but not to spend an evening with.
The ultimate in neutral. Great to have around for a reality check just like my aunt Myrtle. The perfect IEM for A/B testing. It forces the brain to highlight the other IEMs sound signature.
Chameleon Cable Joy
If you do not cable roll or do not believe in cable rolling please skip this section. Your life and wallet will be better off. If you are fool enough to still be reading this section I would like to clue you into one of the most surprising assets of the Katana. I know John is not a cable roller and would have never created the Katana to be a cable chameleon but that is the little secret.
The Katana is by far the most transparent IEM when it comes to cable rolling. The sound changes distinctively based on the cable. I have never experienced such a difference in sound when trying different cables. I personally prefer the Katana with a warmer cable. The Katana already has enough Clarity and detail. A warm cable adds warmth but still keeps the clarity and detail.
I must state that the stock cable is all that is needed and a cable in my mind is the least important piece in the chain. But those that have gone off the deep end will thoroughly enjoy the chameleonness of the Katana.
A Bilan Joyeux
Now onto my final thoughts on the Wizard/Joy Collaboration Katana. When learning a language there is the phenomenon of how over time being exposed to the language it seems like the language slows down. It seems like over time someone is turning a dial and everyone is speaking slower. The Katana does that for me. It slows down the instruments so that each one is heard separately in space with more detail and clarity. The Wizard/Joy Collaboration Katana adds a one of a kindness to your IEM. For a relatively minimal added cost you have an IEM with an stunning artistic Joyous touch!
Pros: Neutral sound with boosted bass. Clear, crisp mids and highs. Great resolution and layering.
Cons: Less forgiving on bad recordings. Not the most fun, bombastic sound, but overall is still musical.
Shortly after my acquisition of the Noble Kaiser 10 (K10), the California-based marque announced the Katana, a new design featuring 9 custom drivers per side and promises a different tuning signature. In this review, I hope to depict Katana in its own light, and not so much compare it too heavily to its royal sibling, which now sits alongside it as co-flagships of the house of Noble.
Owing to its novel assembly structure using proprietary drivers and the lesser driver count than the K10, the shells of the Katana are resultantly more demure and fits my ears more snugly and comfortably than my K10 CIEMs. It feels substantially more compact, with the much reduced form factor making for a more pleasurable usage experience over time. The lighter weight also means it is less susceptible to movement or being dislodged, with the two pin connectors sitting more flush to the undersides of the shells due to the improved stability, showing the gold of the pins in the gaps much less. That of course means it gives you more peace of mind since the threat of one side coming loose and falling straight into the arms of drainage openings is drastically alleviated.
If I had to describe Katana in one word, it would be ‘pristine’. Katana sounds like Noble’s closest attempt to making a neutral monitor, whilst maintaining the classic house sound the company is known for. What immediately jumped out at me was just how sharp and incisive the upper mids and treble are. Vocals are boosted to have a transparent, ethereal quality with plenty of air (but not soaring high like the Campfire Audio Andromeda), with sibilance being more pronounced than the K10 but controlled well enough to not go overboard, just shy of the borderline. The upper-mids and highs make themselves known, producing razor sharp detail retrieval and clarity. Resolution aside, the natural gains in layer separation and soundstage accompanies the more concise and taut bass. Compared to its flagship stablemate, the Katana is cleaner, clearer, without any obvious bass boom, but is still able to sound musical and versatile. What you do lose in thunderous rumble and bombastic fun is gained back in the gracefully elevated upper range, and after awhile, you get the impression that the Katana is more about being a mellifluous blade that navigates through your music with subtle deft rather than making a big, bold statement.
One area that is glaringly prevalent is the precision at which Katana cuts into every layer of a track. A good amount of merciful warmth that the K10 utilized to mask imperfections is exiled here. Katana shows less clemency to mediocre recordings as a whole, and leans much more towards the analytical side of things. The refreshing, lighter-bodied signature brought welcome relief to me after weeks of K10 and Vega usage, although some jazz numbers with infectious double bass warmth is now less cozy and drenched in honey.
It would be understandable if all this would lead one to think that Katana is now in icy-cold Elsa territory, but this could not be further from the truth. All this detail and transparency did not come at the price of the coherency and musicality that Noble is renowned for, nor does the bass show any sign of having been axed despite the disposition of the sound signature. It merely takes on a leaner form, with all the politeness and cleanness balanced armatures tend to exhibit. It is among this dogmatic orderliness that some might find the bass too rigid and lacking soul, but alas, the detail rendering is stupendous, and the bright character does not turn me off nearly as much as I thought it would. It is clear that bass was not a primary design emphasis, but although the quantity is not a highlight, the articulation and textures at the low end are not neglected, and deep bass impacts still hit hard. This uncolored linearity and balance goes a long way in ensuring that the Katana is a much less fatiguing listen for prolonged sessions.
Technically, it is easy to see the three years of progression that Noble has made since they took the audiophile world by storm with the original K10. Three years later, they ventured into another part of the audio spectrum whilst preserving all the signature core competencies the company is known for – to resounding success. Physical upgrades meant that the Katana is more portable and usable than ever with increased comfort and a size advantage, and the sound is a brilliant mix of crystal clarity, neutrality and linear musicality. Being a basshead and a lover of warmer sound signatures, I must confess that as a matter of personal taste, something along the lines of the K10 does satisfy me more, but this is not to take anything away from what Noble has achieved with the Katana. More importantly, it means that folks who have always found the K10’s bass too strong and the sound too colored, now have a home in the Katana.
Measurements, taken with the Vibro Veritas show a decent amount of bass, but one with a obvious roll-off towards the subbass. A dip in the mids, followed by a boost to the midhigh presence frequencies around 1-2kHz followed by peaks in the high frequencies gives the Katana is characteristic incisive mid and high frequency detail and clarity.