Pros - Smooth across the spectrum yet remains highly detailed.
Cons - Expensive. Treble may be a touch hot for some people.
This is a duo review written by Eu Jin Ong (@ejong7) and Andre Moore (@shiorisekine). The main body of the review are general comments on the product that are agreed upon by both sides. Personal opinions on the product by each reviewer are stated in separate dialogues, indicated either by EJ (Eu Jin) or AM (Andre Moore). For this review, EJ will be reviewing the IEM in its custom format, while AM will be reviewing the IEM in its universal format.
EJ: The Katana unit was provided by Noble Audio free of charge in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Brannan, Sunny and the rest of the Noble Audio team who helped me arrange and deliver the unit from start to finish, including the ear impressions needed. Special thanks to Gisele from Aid2Hearing who made my ear impressions.
AM: The Katana unit was provided by Noble Audio free of charge in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank Brannan who helped arrange the unit for me and had it quickly shipped out.
Since their introduction in October 2013, Noble Audio, led by Dr.John Moulton (@FullCircle on Head-Fi, also known as the Wizard) and Brannan Mason (@bangkokkid), has made a strong statement on the custom in-ear monitor (CIEM) market, previously dominated by companies of audio legend such as Ultimate Ears and Westone. With each addition to its well respected line-up, one which underwent a complete refresh in March 2016, that excels in both the aesthetics and performance, they continue to make their mark in the industry, and have since etch their name as one of the few names that first come to mind when people speak of IEMs.
Within their stable of IEMs, the one that is most well-known is perhaps the Kaiser 10 (K10), which has also been recently updated to the new K10 Encore (K10E). Intended to be a highly musical piece paired with unrivalled smoothness, it won over many fans, as proven by its 28 5-star reviews on Head-Fi at the time of submission. However, many fans of the Wizard’s work had called for a piece from Noble that was more reference in tuning, yet able to share if not surpasses the K10’s status as the flagship from Noble. After almost 3 years, the team from Noble finally answered those calls, releasing the Katana.
With its name inspired by the Japanese katana, famously used by samurais of ancient and feudal Japan, as a way of paying homage to the Japanese IEM market which serves as a major part of Noble’s business, the Katana is Noble’s answer in an industry where every other company is aiming at releasing its own reference piece. So will the Katana come and be the knife at a gun fight? Or will it slash away all of its foes and reign supreme? Read on to find out.
INFO & SPECIFICATIONS
The Katana represent a first in the Noble line-up, where it’s the first 9 driver model coming from the company, 1 less than the K10. Make no mistake though; there are no pulling punches for the Katana from Noble, as they have decided to up the ante by making it the first piece from their company to use their brand new proprietary balanced armature drivers, supplied by Knowles, and name it as a co-flagship alongside the K10. It uses the updated Noble universal form factor and geometry in the form of aluminium housings that were precisely machined, but is not the same exact housing that are used in the other models. In fact, the universal housing is actually specifically made for Katana to be pillow friendly, an attribute held so important in the design consideration that the driver count was also taken into account, as explained by the Wizard himself (credits to the source of the Youtube video we linked).
Not much else could be covered here as Noble, as they traditionally do, did not release other specifications revolving the piece, perhaps to protect the intellectual property they own revolving the product itself. Therefore, the official numbers in regards to the Katana’s design specifications, such as its impedance rating, crossover structure and frequency range are not available to the public.
EJ: As my Katanas are custom, they would fit differently than the universal one. I personally wouldn’t find my unit to be pillow friendly, but I think it’s due to the shape of my ears as my CIEMs tend to lean towards a larger size. So, your mileage may vary, at least for customs.
Since the specifications weren’t given, I would comment about them based on my own experience. I found the isolation from the unit to be similar with my Empire Ears Zeus-R and my Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered (UERR), so I estimate it to be capable of isolating up to -26db of surrounding noise, give or take. It slots in between the Zeus-R and the UERR in terms of input sensitivity, as I found it easier to drive than my UERR but harder to drive than my Zeus-R. But fret not, as I was capable of driving it to my usual listening levels through my Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge easily.
AM: The fit on the Universal Katana is above the rest of the universal IEMs that I have tried. This is perhaps due to the smooth edges of its body; hence it doesn't really poke my ear. For my case, I can use them while lying down as long as I am lying on my back. It is however not applicable for me when I am lying down sideways as I find them to protrude a little, just enough for it to be not as comfortable for me because it presses the IEM awkwardly onto my ear on the side I am lying on.
The isolation, while not to the standard of my custom fit UERR, was still very good especially for a universal. If the UERR had an isolation of -26dbs, I would estimate the isolation I experienced from the Universal Katana to be about -18dbs. I had no issues driving the Katana, which was much easier to drive than my UERRs, even on my iPhone.
The Katana, in either universal or custom format, starts at $1850, a price it shares with the co-flagship, the K10E. Do keep in mind that, for a custom format, that would mean a barebones IEM design at its base price. If you wish to pursue a design that is made specifically for you by the Wizard himself, or get one that is similar to his past designs, additional fees will be charged. The Katana, along with the K10E, are only available in acrylic, and not silicone for the usual custom format. It is also available in the Prestige format, which is custom formatted pieces but made with more exotic materials such as speciality woods and even honeycombs, starting at $2850.
EJ: The Katana does not come cheap, and probably will be out of reach for many at the price, yet this particular price range seems to be norm for flagship IEMs right now. I had hope that Noble would have kept the SLA option for pieces like the Katana, to drive the price lower for people who were after the performance at the cost of its aesthetics, but that option seems like it has been phased out by Noble. I can’t blame Noble for setting up the price to be that high as there is a need to cover its manufacturing cost, especially since they used their own proprietary drivers that probably drive the cost up, but felt it’s a shame that less people would be able to own a piece because of the price.
ACCESSORIES & OPTIONS
EJ: The delivery box from Noble that I received, which includes a Pelican 1010 case, sheathed with a sleeve emblazoned with the Noble logo, which houses my IEMs and some other goodies inside.
AM: This was the delivery box that I received from Noble. It has the same content as the one sent out with the customs and an additional metal plate that houses an assortment of tips.
The Katana arrives in medium to large sized box, sealed around with Noble logo emblazoned tape, which was well padded inside to protect your product. Inside, you will find a Pelican 1010 case, sheathed with a Noble sleeve made with cardboard, which houses your IEMs. Within the Pelican case, you can find the IEM pouch that contains your IEMs and a couple of Noble amp bands.
AM: For the universal, I received multiple sets of tips inside, including silicone and foam options. Each came in 3 sizes and held on a metal plate, so everyone should have little to no difficulty finding a pair of tips that fit them.
EJ: The extra container on the side was packed with a Noble round case, which is not part of the order package and is only available as a separate purchase.
EJ: The Pelican case contains a card that has my contact details, some Noble amp bands and the IEM pouch which has my Katana.
EJ: As I personally prefer to carry my IEMs around in a smaller case, I asked for Brannan to send me a Noble round case along with my IEMs. The round case came in a padded container strapped to my order box, and is made of plastic. It is pretty small in size, smaller than the ones I found provided by Ultimate Ears or JH Audio, which makes it extremely portable. However, with its smaller size, people with bigger IEMs, especially CIEMs made for large ears might struggle with it a little, as I found myself barely able to fit my own piece. I don’t think you would have any issues if you were to use it with universal units, but do keep in mind that it’ll most probably not fit your IEMs with custom cables. It is sturdy enough to make myself be comfortable with putting it into my backpack, but do not expect it to be void of scratches or continue to be pristine in nature after a couple uses. All and all it is a nice case, but perhaps it should be slightly bigger to allow people to fit their custom cables, while maintaining its portability factor over the Pelican case.
Within the Pelican case for my custom unit, there is a card that details my name, phone number and email, which is a nice touch and could potentially get your unit back to you if you lost it and it was found by a kind soul. The details, except my name, are removed for obvious reasons.
The Katana uses the standard 2-pin connector that is used by brands such as Vision Ears and Empire Ears, with the unit coming in the standard Noble cable. The cable is about 50’’ long, and the y-splitter has a Noble logo on it. Generally, custom cables made with the 2-pin connector should fit with your Katana, unless if it was design for use with UE pieces.
EJ: I personally would have love for the Katana to come with a nice cable made from a reputable cable company, but I completely understand the choice at helps lower the cost for the consumers. If you believe in cable magic and wish to upgrade the stock cable, you could venture on another odyssey of its own or you could stick with the supplied cable and you would still be able to obtain the sonic experience that Noble intended on.
As the review units received by the both of us are in different formats, please refer to individual comments about the exact format that you wish to get more info about, or read both. The comments do not reflect the opinion of the other reviewer on the same format, i.e. EJ’s comments about the custom format may not be shared by AM, and vice versa.
Custom EJ: The ear impressions that were made by Gisele from Aid2Hearing for my Katana review unit.
EJ: Brannan was kind enough to offer me the choice between a universal format and a custom format review unit of the Katana. Upon knowing that my preference was for a custom Katana, he quickly arranged a session for me with Gisele from Aid2Hearing to obtain my ear impressions.
EJ: Beautiful photos that were first sent to me before my IEMs were shipped out. The photos were taken (I presume) from the Noble studio.
EJ: My own photos to show the finish on the actual IEM piece. To me, it looks even better in real life than in the studio photos.
EJ: As mentioned above, my ear impressions were taken and sent to Noble’s office in Santa Barbara, California as inspections for the impressions made are conducted there prior to being sent to their lab facilities in China. Upon receipt of the impressions at their labs, it takes about 30-40 business days, or 6-8 weeks to complete your IEMs. I found the timeline given to be accurate, as I got my piece roughly 2 months after my impressions reached their labs. I have no experience about the rush option from Noble, so I would refrain from commenting about that, but they estimate that it would take approximately 6-8 days upon receipt to complete the piece. This timeline is probably longer than most other companies, as the common build time is around a month, or perhaps shorter than that, which could potentially pose a problem for new Noble customers who would’ve hope for an earlier delivery date. A bit of patience is certainly needed if you were to be interested to have a piece crafted for you by Noble.
Regardless, I found the end result to be particularly spectacular. First, let’s talk about the fit. The fit, albeit not as seamless as the one I found with my UERR, I found it to be very comfortable. So comfortable, I wore it to sleep with no issues during a ride back to my hometown that took a few hours. Do bear in mind that my impressions were done in the ‘open mouth’ position, accomplished by using a bite block, as per recommended by Noble on their website. Having no idea prior to its completion on how it would look like, I was totally amazed by the finish of the entire piece, with its carbon composite faceplate that changes its tint depending on the lighting of the environment paired beautiful with a bubble-less shell that has a colour that is pretty hard to describe. From the studio photos taken by Noble, it looks like a glossy black finish. However, upon inspection by my own eyes at natural lighting, it has hues or hints of dark purple inside. It is not clear, so I wasn’t able to check out the internals but at certain angles and light intensity the insides could be vaguely visible.
This brings me to the faceplate and shell options from Noble, where all I could say is that there are endless possibilities. I was given the privilege to have a piece done in the ‘Wizard Design’, in which you could give direction to the Wizard himself who would conjure up his own imagination and interpretation of the story you would like to tell from your IEM finish. You could also opt for the ‘Wizard Reprint’, in which an approximation of finish that was previously done by the Wizard could be obtained, however it would not be reproduced to the exact finish. Do note the products of both options are final, but you could potentially discuss it with the Noble team if the finish does not meet your expectations. You could also opt to design your own look for your IEMs, where you could pick from many options ranging from aluminium to exotic woods as your faceplates, and select from a limited selection of colours for your shell. Don’t forget that there is also the Prestige version of the Katana, which would considerably drive up the price of your IEMs, but would open up more options for your finish.
For those who would like to know the direction I gave for my unit, I asked for a piece that would have a stealthy look but not over the top. I wanted it to be classy and elegant, but do not want glitter or the colour yellow to be on it. You be the judge if the piece fulfilled my vision. One thing for sure though, it’s not yellow.
AM: Photos of the Katana Universal as obtained from the Noble Audio website.
AM: My own photos to of the Katana Universal. These photos pales in comparison to the ones taken by Noble, but I can attest that the actual unit looks similar if not even better than the one from the Noble pictures.
AM: For the Universal Katana, it was once backlogged for a few weeks due to the initial demand when it was first released, but now should ship out within 24 hours of your order provided that Noble has them in stock.
As mentioned in a previous section, the Universal Katana is made of specifically machined aluminium, but what differentiates it from the rest of the line is not only its size but also its texture. The Katana has a body that it’s textured similarly to the diamond shaped hand wrap design of the actual Katana blades. However, it does not affect the comfort while wearing the IEMs at all. In fact, I found the fit on the Katana, and even the rest of the Noble line, to be the best in terms of universals, and don’t feel that they cause any ear fatigue on my side. I am usually able to wear my Katana for at least 2 or 3 hours before they start to slightly weigh down on me due to my sensitive left ear canal, but that is already an amazing period of time to begin with.
SOUND QUALITY Evaluation Process EJ: Continuing the review procedure that I have previously used, the Katana was burned in for about 200 hours before critically listening sessions were made. This will keep it in line with the other pieces that I have previously reviewed. The tracks used for my listening sessions are files that are either FLAC/ALAC from a wide variety of genres except metal. The following is a list of source gear that I used during the review of the Katana:
Calyx M player
AM: I did my listening sessions with FLAC/ALAC as well as Tidal for certain albums. I listened to a wide variety of genres including the genre that that was skipped by EJ which was metal. The gear involved in the test was:
iPhone 6S Plus
Cavalli Audio Liquid Carbon 2.0
Initial Impressions EJ: I first heard the Katana, in its universal format, at CanJam London 2016. I had previously listened to the K10 at several different occasions, and although I thought it was a nice piece of gear, I always knew that it was not for me. Not that it was has any deficiency in technical capabilities, it was the warm, laid-back nature of the sound that made me conclude that it probably wouldn’t suit my tastes.
Upon first listen, I could immediately tell that it has succeeded in its aim of producing a more ‘reference’ sound. It was more detailed, more treble heavy than the K10 (to me), but still retain the smoothness that Noble is famous for across its IEMs. Its mids, although not as euphonic as the one I found from my pair of Zeus-R, has enough lushness for me to bring the best of my vocal heavy music. The bass was more controlled than the K10, but felt like it didn’t lose its impact, as it maintains its presence in the face of my bassier tracks, yet disappears when a less bassy track is played.
I am pleased to find that the performance on my custom piece is at least on par if not better than the universal one I heard previously. The bass impact is tighter than before, which I attributed to better fit. I thought it was as revealing as the universal piece, and its smoothness was making me a fan.
AM: My first time hearing the Katana was at the Noble event held in Playa Vista, CA a couple of weeks after its initial launch at the Tokyo headphone show. Going in I was excited to get a chance to hear the new Noble co-flagship, and I was not disappointed.
I made sure to listen and compare to the Noble K10 when I first got a chance to sit down and listen to the Katana. While I wasn’t too fond with the K10, the Katana proved to be everything that I have ever wanted from the Noble team. The sound is smooth, neutral with a little bump up on the treble but always able to stay musical.
Sound Signature EJ: The Katana blends in well with the current trend of IEMs achieving for a reference sound signature, in which it is tuned towards neutrality but has a slight bump at the treble. This is probably the first within the Noble family that I consider having more treble in the overall spectrum, something that I do not find even in the Noble Savanna and the now discontinued Noble Savant, two that were touted as the more balanced pieces within the family. To differentiate itself from the rest of the pack, the Katana offers what to me is the smoothest version of the reference sound signature, at least for the IEMs that I have tried. This completely complies with what I feel is the Noble house sound, in which regardless of the tuning in mind for a specific piece, it will always maintain a form of smoothness.
To my surprise, the bass on the Katana is perhaps the property that is closest to neutral for me within its overall audio spectrum. It is just a slight touch north of neutral, so slight that you’ll miss it if you didn’t focus on it. The sub bass I get from the piece has enough impact to keep my satisfied, but it’ll probably not be enough to please people who prefer a little more weight and punch, especially people who identify themselves as bass heads. The bass itself is full and rich that has this velvety like texture to it, which more evidently presents itself when you listen to tones from classical instruments that reside around this area of the spectrum, such as tubas and French horns. So this allow it to perform better with more acoustic or classical forms of bass, but less so with the electronic sort of bass that is currently popular though it still performs admirably for it. This is not to say that the extension of the lower end on the Katana is subpar as I found it to be very well extended and very detailed.
Smoothness reigns supreme in the Katana’s mids presentation. However, I wouldn’t say it’s completely flat in this category, as I found the mids to be just a touch laid back than flat, creating an image that the source of the midrange sound took just one step back, away from the microphone. Even with the slightly laid back tuning, I still found the mids to be heavily detailed yet never sibilant, and it does come out sounding pretty lush and natural though not on the level that I would call euphonic. So for tracks focusing heavily on vocals around the midrange area, it performs superbly for the more relaxing genre’s such as jazz, but slightly underperform when it comes to more aggressive genres like mainstream pop. This is not to say that it’s bad with vocal based pop, more of saying that it does those genres well, just that it performs better with old school vocal tracks. It also excels when dealing with musical instruments such as the acoustic guitar and the multitude of saxophones, where it comes out rich and full-bodied, making it very easy on the ear.
As referenced above, the treble is perhaps the most prominent in quantity, making the sound to be termed off as bright. Like its lower end, the treble on the piece is well extended and comes out very clean and clear. It sounds crisp, proven by the brilliant shimmering sound I get from the cymbals in my music, and with its amazing resolving ability the music from my piece is always highly detailed. Yet, even with the bright nature of the sound smacking you with details left and right, it still maintain its identity as a smooth criminal, effortlessly casting its musical magic. This is perhaps, no, definitely the smoothest treble I’ve experience from a reference type IEM that I have heard long term, and it even rivals my full size cans in that regard, so you can be sure to put terms like cold, analytical and piercing to the back of your mind. So maybe saying that the sound is smacking you with details is an incorrect statement, rather its served to you on a platter for you to receive at your leisure.
Even with an unusual, if not rare, driver configuration, the Noble team has succeeded in making it sound as a cohesive unit, a fast one in fact. The soundstage, conceivably one of the widest and deepest within the Noble stable, may not create the same sensation that would immediately impress someone, but was sufficient wide and deep enough to create a sense of airiness in the space, just not significantly better than most of its competitors. When I listen to the Katana, I always imagine that I’m listening in one of those old school bars with live music taped using black and white film, albeit a large one. It’s a slightly more constricted space when compared to a place like an open air stadium, but with its fantastic layering and separation qualities, it creates this sort of realism in my music that is not easy to find.
AM: The Noble Katana is to me one of the most musically neutral sounding IEMs I have ever had a chance to hear. Like EJ, I felt that it was just a little north of neutral, which tells me that the universals should sound very similar to the customs, so kudos to Noble for getting that part nailed.
The bass on the Katana universals is simply phenomenal. To me, the bass is very well detailed, punchy enough and extends fairly deep yet doesn't really bleed into the mids. This makes the bass easily the smoothest I have heard on an IEM and something that I feel you can only really get from top of the line headphones. The sub bass on the Katana is probably the best out of everything I own; it even kicks my HE-500’s ass in this department, with a very deep and rich-creamy textured sound.
As EJ said above, the Katana is the king of smooth mids. However, the mids did not sound laid back at all for me, and I found it to be very present comparatively with the rest of the frequency spectrum. When I was listening to Metal, Rock or more vocal based music like Pop or Hip-Hop, the mids never feel repressed or further away from the rest of the music. Guitars on the Katana are so hypnotizing, even electric guitars sound silky smooth to me, never getting too harsh or distorted. I would also agree with EJ that, much like its low end, the mids are very full bodied and heavily detailed as well.
When I first listened to the Katana, I thought the highs were immaculate. I thought they were the best that I would ever get out of IEMs. While they remain my favourite IEMs for highs, I have to say although they aren’t perfect; I still love them through their imperfections. The highs on the Katana have a bit of an edge to them, and are probably the most detailed out of any IEM that I have ever own or heard. However, I did have certain moments while listening to heavy metal felt the highs from the Katana had a bite to it, which I, weirdly enough, love but know that there would be people out there that wouldn’t like that. So while this might not be the smoothest treble I have heard, an honour I reserve for the UERR, the highs on the Katana are still my favourite from just about anything from the headphone world, be it IEMs or full size headphones.
If I had never been introduced to the UERR, I would have said the Noble Katana has the best details in an IEM I have ever heard. Regardless, the Katana is the most open sounding IEM I know and have some of the most expansive soundstage I have yet heard in personal audio. I do agree with EJ that the Katana provides a soundstage that creates a form of airiness around it, which gives me the same sense of realism I got from the UERR. The Katana also has a strong sense of instrument separation and layering, making the sound just that much more open.
Comparisons (EJ) EJ: The IEMs I used for the comparison part of this review, clockwise starting from top left: Noble Audio Katana (Custom), Empire Ear Zeus-R (Custom), JH Audio Roxanne Universal (Generation 1) and the Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered (UERR).
EJ: I used my custom Empire Ears Zeus-R, custom UERR as well as my JH Audio Roxanne Universal (Generation 1) for the comparisons.
Empire Ears Zeus-R Empire Ears Zeus-R vs. Noble Audio Katana
EJ: In terms of their sound signature direction, the Zeus-R and the Katana are both aimed at a similar one in which it approaches the ‘reference’ type of sound, but their approach towards it is individually unique. Whereas the Zeus-R is a reference monitor with an elevated midrange within its own spectrum, Katana conforms to a more common reference monitor sound with its boosted treble, something that the Zeus-R still have but is less pronounced due to its mids. I felt that the Katana has the edge (no pun intended) over the Zeus-R in terms of delivering a smoother sound but Zeus-R is the winner in terms of bringing the details from my music, especially on the treble. On the mids, the Zeus-R, with its more forward yet luscious mids takes the bag for me in terms of a more euphonic presentation. The Katana was just a tad laidback in the mids for my taste but is smoother and more rounded, which makes the vocals be presented in an effortless manner. As for the bass, the Zeus-R will have a little more punch and impact but the Katana has the better extension and detail, probably because it was easier for me to pick them apart with less but sufficient impact, which probably tilted me towards giving the Katana the nod in this department. I feel that it’s very hard to go wrong with either choice, and since the price is rather close (for the units I have), it comes down to music you listen to that you want presented under a reference tuning. I felt that with the Katana, its smoother sound lends a better experience when listening to more classical and instrumental music, while at the same time allow it to be the one that is less fatiguing between the two. With the Zeus-R, I felt that it is perhaps more suited for the current mainstream music with its extra rumble at the bottom end and its euphonic mids, and would be the one I go to if I would like to feel my music a little more.
EJ: When compared to the UERR, in my book a truly neutral monitor, it was made even more apparent to me that the Katana, while ‘reference’ sounding, is not completely neutral, rather it has a comparatively elevated treble presence. However, both share a smoothness that makes the sound easy on the ears, with the Katana at times being the smoother of the two. In both the treble and the bass, the Katana was more detailed and has better extension, with superior bass impact to boot. With the mids, the Katana was more resolving yet felt smoother at the same time. In fact, I felt that the Katana was overall the more resolving one, and has both the wider and deeper soundstage, but the UERR is better when the discussion is limited to purely instrument separation. For me, this fits well with the tuning in mind for both pieces, in which the Katana was tuned towards audiophiles that prefer a slight lift in the upper end while the UERR was tuned to be a mastering unit that is also capable of showing a musical presentation for consumers who are aiming for a sound that is neutral and revealing. However, something very important to consider is the price difference between the two units, with the Katana roughly doubles the price of the UERR, even before the alterations to the aesthetics of either unit is decided, which makes the UERR a major winner in the price to performance ratio bracket. In my opinion, the UERR is a highly worthy competitor, and I would definitely be satisfied to have it as my daily driver. Having said that, if the cost is not an issue, and since I do not work as a mastering or music engineer, I would lean towards getting a Katana to use as my daily driver because of its resolution and tuning that is more appealing towards my current taste.
EJ: For everyone’s reference, the bass port on my Roxanne’s are set to the minimum on both sides, which is my preferred setting for the piece. Both the Katana and the Roxannes are detailed, resolving pieces but the two does not share a similar tuning. The Katana is a more reference sounding piece while the Roxannes was tuned towards a warmer and perhaps more fun sound. With the bass, I found there was about roughly the same quantity, which says a lot about the bass coming from the Roxannes since the Katana I have are customs which would help with bass response. However, the Katana comes through with better detail and extension at the lower. In terms of the mids, both are tuned towards a smooth but resolving sound, with the Katana having the edge on both the smoothness and resolution. In comparison, the Roxannes just sound a tad bit veiled or muffled, which it does not in general. The Katana is also better at the upper end, being more crisp, more detailed and clearer than the one I found on the Roxannes. The Roxannes I found truly shine against the Katana when the soundstage and separation were compared. Even though the one I had was a universal, I found that the soundstage is just as wide and deep if not a step up from the Katana. I also felt that picking out the individual placing of instruments was pretty straightforward and on par with the Katana. For me, the Roxannes excel at presenting live music in a more realistic manner, and did well in genres that I feel pairs well with warmer sounding equipment such as rock. The Katana, being crisper with the treble and smoother on the mids, are more suitable for genres like pop, so choosing between the two really comes down to the music you favour. I shall not compare the pricing and the value of the performance of the two pieces as my Roxannes has since been obsolete and the price value is no longer valid.
Comparisons (AM) AM: The IEMs I used for my comparisons are my Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered (UERR) and my Ultimate Ears 18 Pro (18). One thing that I do have to note is that both my UE IEMs are customs, which allows them to have a better fit on my ears, thus sealing better than the Katana.
Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered AM: When comparing these two IEMs, the honour of which IEM I leave the house with comes down to preference and my mood. Both IEMs set out to do the same thing, in which it exerts a reference sound; however the UERR is more neutral reference sound while the Katana is more of a fun reference sound. The Katana has a sharper treble while the treble on the UERR is way more laid back. As stated in a previous review, I would rather use the Katana for most of my listening sessions as I enjoy the treble of the Katana over the treble of the UERR plus the overall presentation of the Katana which pushes the detail through as I enjoy my music. The Katana does fall short to the UERRs when it comes to details and overall neutrality, probably due to the bump I felt in its treble and bass.
Ultimate Ear 18 Pro AM: To me, the UE18 and the Noble Katana are on two opposite sides of the audio spectrum. The UE18 is warmer in sound, and is not as detailed as the Katana. For my current taste, I felt that the Katana would definitely edge the 18 in terms of being more likely to be grabbed out of the house. As the Katana is cleaner and more detailed sounding than the 18s, this makes it more enjoyable for me. I do think that bassheads would enjoy the 18s more than the Katana as the 18s have a much stronger low end comparatively.
CONCLUSION EJ: As more time is spent listening to the Katana, I begin to have a better understanding about the idea behind its name and how it relates to its tuning direction. Although the word ‘Katana’ does not necessarily keep in line with the general naming theme of the Noble IEMs, not like there was a real obvious trend going on in the first place, it definitely earns its name. Like the blade, the Noble Katana is built with impeccable craftsmanship and has the ability to cut through the veils of your music, producing a clean and clear finish. However, it does not ever sound ‘sharp’, where it has this buttery smoothness to its sound signature that is unmatched by the current crop of competitors, especially when compared to the reference sounding pieces. This smoothness, found across its entire sonic spectrum, paired with its amazing resolution ability, made it an IEM that is very easy to listen to but never fails to show case the details available from your music.
Ironically, like the blade in which it got its namesake, the Katana excels better in close combat, in which I feel that it performs better with music that was recorded or conveyed in a more intimate or enclosed space, but suffers slightly when the music calls for a wider and deeper soundstage, such as recordings from a live concert album played in a large stadium or arena. I would also had hoped that the mids was just brought slightly forward to make it sound a little more balanced, though how it would affect the smooth Noble house sound is beyond me. Lastly, since it’s a flagship product, it has a price tag that would probably be out of the budget for most, which would make it hard for people who appreciate the sound signature but do not have the resources necessary to fund it.
This is definitely my favourite Noble product so far, but I somehow feel that it is just the start of the new evolution for the company. As they have shown through the Katana, Noble constantly find new ways to up their game, and perhaps with their new proprietary drivers they could even bring their current line further up a notch. They have already started to improve some of their previous units with these drivers, including the K10 that was updated into the K10E and the Savant that was updated into the Sage. I wouldn’t be surprised if Noble had planned to update its entire line with these drivers in the near future. Until then, I shall patiently await the news while slashing away through my music with the Katana.
AM: The Noble Katana has become my go to IEM to take out and about with. It isolates well enough that I can use it on the bus and not have any problems with outside noise. It is also a detailed and fun sounding IEM.
Does it live up to its billing as a co-flagship alongside the K10 when it was first announced? Yes, yes it does. Even before the K10E was officially announced and released, I had guessed that the K10 would be updated just because the Katana felt like it was leagues ahead of its older compatriot. To be honest, I have yet to hear the K10E, nor the Sage, but the Katana alone has made me excited about what is to come in the future from Noble.
So is the Noble Katana a cut above the rest? Yes, the Katana is in my opinion the best IEM that Noble has in their line-up that I have heard so far, which includes everything except the two products using the new proprietary drivers is mentioned previously. The Katana has a musically neutral sound signature that just makes it the IEM I naturally gravitate to when I leave the house.
Pros - Unmatched shimmering highs, crisp and clear midrange, precise and refined low end, versatility, clarity
Cons - May not be the best choice for a bass head or someone looking for a warmer sound signature
Note: I have previously reviewed the K10 from Noble, where I covered much of Noble’s history and order process. For this reason, I will use some of the portions of that review that pertain to Noble as a company, not the Katana specifically, in this review.
For years, Noble Audio has been considered one of the top producers of in ear monitors, both custom and universal, for the audiophile in all of us. Noble’s breakout success came in October of 2013 when they released the K10. The K10 quickly reached icon status, becoming one of the most successful and well-loved monitors the market has ever seen. The K10 is truly an incredible product, and my review on it can be found here. Noble has only grown since then, and I was very excited this past summer when I heard about their new complementary flagship, the Katana. I thought the K10 was very close to perfection, so I was very excited to get my hands on a Katana and see how they compare. Today, the Katana sits alongside the Kaiser Encore (The K10’s successor) as one of two complementary flagships.
Some Info on Noble:
In the world of custom in ear monitors, the majority of companies are tailored to performers who are using IEM’s as their stage monitoring solution. These products need to sound good and perform reliably under heavy stress, making them a favorite for audiophiles as well as performers. Noble is one of the few companies that is making products primarily tailored toward audiophiles, and I would argue they are the most established company with this business model and so far have the most refined experience tailored to that market. They set themselves apart from the competition with their exquisite Wizard and Prestige designs, and the process is personal from start to finish.
Some Info on Katana:
The Katana features 9 proprietary Noble drivers. Noble compares the sound of this IEM to the sword it’s named after, known for being “the perfect combination of balance, artistic beauty, and sharpness in its cutting edge.” Noble further describes the Katana as being quick and versatile. Additionally, Noble says the Katana bears an extended and airy top-end, lush midrange, and impactful low-end. This is very high praise for Noble’s new flagship, so it will be very interesting to see how it sounds in practice.
The Katana costs $1850 in its base, custom variety, and that price can quickly round $2,000 with the inclusion of any Wizard or Prestige design. This puts it in a nice position in the flagship market where it is around the middle of all the price points.
As far as impressions go, the customer is responsible for seeing a local audiologist, having ear impressions made, and sending them off to Noble’s offices in California. Noble does have an online monitor designer where the customer can pick from the standard options: faceplate colors, designs, specialty materials, etc. However, Noble has 2 special design options: A Wizard design, and a Prestige design. Personally, my monitor represents a Wizard design.
As far as Wizard designs go, the customer can choose either a reprint of a Wizard design they already like for a lower cost, or they can have an original design created for them. If a Wizard design is selected, the customer is asked some basic questions about what they might be looking for, but for the most part, creative control is handed over to “The Wizard,” and there is endless anticipation until the email from Noble providing professional pictures of the final product comes. A Prestige model is similar to a Wizard design, but the monitor is crafted out of some specialty material instead of the standard acrylic. Personally, my monitors took just over 8 weeks to build from the time my impressions were received.
My monitors came packaged very securely in a very luxurious presentation box. Unboxing further, I found a Pelican 1010 case, inside of which were my monitors safely contained in a Noble pouch made out of a very nice, soft material. Also inside the case were the cleaning tool and my ownership information card. In the box, Noble also includes bands for stacking devices and some Noble stickers. It was a very nice touch to have Noble send a Pelican 1010 case, since I find it the perfect size for IEMs, and it is tough, water resistant, and secure.
Of course, design is an area where Noble sets themselves apart from everyone. I am perfectly comfortable making that statement. Of all of the IEM’s I have handled, I have yet to hold one where the beauty, craftsmanship, quality, and overall feel could either match, or even begin to surpass Noble.
Let’s start with the cosmetic side of things. Noble’s “Wizard” and “Prestige” designs are arguably their most recognizable and well-known feature, and that is for good reason. Getting a CIEM is a very personal process, and the way these designs are done with Noble is amazing. Simply give some details on what you’re looking for, and let the magic happen. Around 8 weeks later, the email with the final pictures come, and everything you hoped for becomes reality.
With these monitors, I really wasn’t picky. I said I wanted something with some color, and something where the left and right sides differed. That was about it. Of course, if you’re looking for something specific; by all means, make it known. However, there is a certain magic behind not really having any idea what the result would look like. As expected, I was stunned. The right monitor features a slightly opaque orange, with white swirl in the faceplate. The left features the same but with a sky blue, which especially reminds me of a cloudy sky. Silver/gold nugget is found in the faceplates, and it really completes a bright, fun looking monitor. In pictures they may look a bit simple, but in person, the way the colors shimmer is just perfect. Plus, the way Noble created symmetry while also accomplishing my request of different colors is very impressive.
Enough talk, let’s see them!
First, Noble's studio pictures:
And some of my own:
I can’t stress enough how much value these designs add to the monitor. I know, people assume that sound is really all that matters. However, the almost hyperbolic degree that Noble takes gorgeous designs truly does make a difference. Sound means a lot, but when people go out to spend this much money on audio, design matters. Sennheiser makes their headphones look like something from a spaceship. Audeze makes headphones that appear to be carved straight from a tree. These things matter, and Noble proves that a product being a small IEM is no excuse to lack beauty. I get more enjoyment out of my Katana than I do out of something that for my tastes sounds better, but isn’t as aesthetically pleasing. Why? Looking at them makes me smile. I suspect many will read this and think that design couldn’t possibly mean as much as I am suggesting, but I sternly argue otherwise. Most can agree that in the TOTL market, the differences that make one product better than another are rather small. For that reason, a product being a work of art along with a powerful audio source can add that level of value.
I will split this up into 2 sub-sections. Comfort based on Noble’s actual crafting from the ear impressions, and comfort because of the monitor in general.
Regarding Noble’s construction, their CIEM lab does a superb job. I used the same set of impressions for both my K10 and Katana, and I feel like I got a precise, comparable fit on both. Everything fits into place perfectly. Since I’ve found Noble’s IEM’s take up more ear space than others I have tried, this is very important. When executed properly, I find it leads to a better fit overall. However, the more ear the monitor covers, the more precise the fit must be. Noble’s precision is top notch. I strongly urge people to make sure their audiologist is familiar with CIEM fittings, and make sure it is done correctly. I have forced mine to redo impressions for me several times–it’s worth it. A good audiologist should understand.
I was very pleased with the comfort of the monitor in general. While my K10 fits very well, I definitely noticed how much heft it had to it. It’s a big monitor, and it takes up a lot of real estate. For this reason, it was inevitable that it could become a bit fatiguing. In my experience, the Katana feels a bit smaller and lighter than the K10. This means that I can wear it a little bit longer, and physical fatigue has never crossed my mind in my auditioning so far. With a good fit, I don’t forsee any problems with someone who plans to keep these in for hours on end.
Just a quick note on the cable: Noble does a very good job with their cables. It’s aesthetic, unobtrusive, and the memory wire stays well without being uncomfortable or obtrusive. Microphonics are very low, and Noble now includes a nice metal ring over the cable at the Y-split. It’s a little thing, but it feels very high quality and is a nice add.
Because of how large Noble’s monitors are, and how much of the physical ear they take up, their isolation is the best I have ever heard. When any of Noble’s custom fit monitors go in, the entire world goes away, and no matter how noisy the environment, it’s just music.
I used a variety of sources with the Katana. My primary sources were the AK100ii, Chord Mojo, and Questyle QP1R. I also did some testing out of my phone and Fiio X3ii to see how it pairs with some more affordable sources. I found the Katana to be pretty source-versatile, and while it certainly sounded best out of my better equipment, listening out of my phone was not a problem at all. One thing I did notice was that because of the clarity in the high end, they are not the most forgiving to a poorly recorded track.
Introduction to Sound:
Similar to other Noble monitors I’ve heard, the characteristics of the Katana include fun, versatile, pleasurable, and smooth. They have a sound signature very different from what I’ve become accustomed to. Many companies seem to follow the V, or have a stronger emphasis in the low and mid range. To me, the Katana has more emphasis on the highs. In a way, it almost sounds like the inverse of the K10. I feel the K10’s strength falls in the low and mid range. I find the Katana’s strength falls in the high and mid range. However, I want to stress that the Katana isn’t an extremely bright monitor; it’s actually not far from neutral. I said the K10 was pretty neutral leaning a bit toward the warm side of things, and the Katana follows this description in an inverse pattern. It’s not all that far from neutral, but it does lean a bit on the bright side.
Despite having such different characteristics than the K10, the Katana maintains one of its best features of being musical and versatile. Rap songs with a lot of bass still sound fun with booming bass just like how they should. Balanced songs sound just right. Songs with a lot in the high end… well, they’re like nothing I’ve ever heard. Regardless of which Noble flagship you look at, you’ll get a monitor that’s versatile and sounds fantastic. However, one monitor specializes in its highs, and the other in its lows. It’s all personal preference.
Just because the Katana falls on the brighter side of things, that doesn’t mean that the lows are neglected. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, and I’m quite baffled at how Noble balanced them in. The lows are a bit more distant than a bass-heavy monitor, as is to be expected, but they still carry a weight with them. They’re not as apparent, but they’re just as powerful.
Because the lows are toned back, they don’t unnecessarily come out of nowhere and overpower the music, but when that bass is appropriate and called for, it is there with the utmost presence. I have been very pleased with Noble’s bass-heavy monitors and how much the bass felt like a true subwoofer moving air. Katana feels the same way. It’s still an unbelievably strong bass machine that delivers precise, accurate sound–it’s just turned down a bit.
The refined lows of the Katana are something I haven’t heard quite like this in an IEM, and it’s a really nice change. I like my bass, so I would never complain about a bass-heavy monitor, but hearing a different signature really lets me appreciate music in a different way than I have been.
For a few specifics, I always love listening to some of my favorite rap songs to determine how a monitor reacts to bass when it's appropriate. Drake’s music is some one of my favorite to test this since he certainly incorporates a lot of bass. His song “Know Yourself” had all of the bass hits that I expected. They were present and hit hard enough, just not at the level a true basshead might be looking for. The Life of Pablo by Kanye followed in a similar fashion, and songs like “Waves” and “Famous” didn’t leave me asking for more.
Though the Katana’s signature pulls back on the low end a bit, I don’t find that it really pulls back on the midrange. The midrange is my favorite part of music, so I’m very sensitive when it leaves me with less than what I like. The K10 was one of my favorite monitors I have ever heard in the midrange due to its presence and clarity, and the Katana maintains this characteristic. Vocals are as crisp as can be, and they are detailed to the extent that if a vocalist's throat vibrated a bit more than normal on one note, you’ll be the first to know.
The midrange is clear, precise, loud, and present. It doesn’t overpower anything else, but the vocals are front and center, and I have always thought that’s how it should be. Naturally, an emphasis on highs will be a bit less aggressive than an emphasis on lows, leaving more room for the midrange. Because of this, the mids really have an opportunity to open up and show what those proprietary balanced armature drivers can do.
I’m happy to report that they are capable of reproducing vocals as if the artist is right there. I love listening to SACD’s of Bob Dylan and Alison Krauss to really test the mids on monitors. It really is incredible how realistic their voices sounded. In fact, it was so realistic that when I listened to a song that has an emotional connection to me personally, the Katana served as a perfect device to elicit that emotion in me. This is a very important quality to me when listening to music, and I’m very pleased the Katana accomplished it. There is absolutely no level of mud detracting from the clarity of the mids, something I hear on many monitors and get frustrated with. I type this as I listen to an acoustic song on the Katana, and I must say–they are just perfect.
Well, we’ve arrived at the star of the show–the highs! They really are a marvel to behold here. The last time I heard a monitor that I felt truly emphasized the high end was with my Shure SE846 with white filters. I was very excited to listen to another monitor that had high-end emphasis.
In my initial listening, I realized that I had forgotten how much I loved good highs. Usually I do my testing for treble with audiophile test tracks since it’s easier for me to isolate those instruments. However, well before specifically analyzing the highs was on my mind, I was blown away. They were too good for me not to notice. The first song I listened to out of the Katana was “Ophelia” by The Lumineers. That song isn’t too instrumentally crowded, with mainly just vocals, a piano, and some percussion. I was struck when I heard what I think is a tambourine or some sort of cymbal, because it was absolutely unbelievable. The clarity was beyond belief, and the extension lasted all the way until the last vibration. It was very easy for me to focus on that sound, and hear every detail. Frequently, highs tend to just roll off and blend into the sound. That’s not always a bad thing, since extended highs can become harsh, but Noble did something magical with the Katana’s highs.
The highs are in no way shrill, harsh, or off putting. They’re as soft and luscious as if they were carefully rolled off, but based on the clarity and extension of them, I wouldn’t call them rolled off at all. They’re extensive, shimmery, beautiful, and clear. The Katana has the best treble of any monitor I have ever heard. Noble really accomplished treble like nothing I have ever heard, and it was executed flawlessly.
To conclude everything I said above, the Katana is a relatively balanced monitor that leans toward being bright. It doesn’t lean extensively, and for that reason, I don’t think many people would be left disappointed with the toned down bass. Simply put, everything is done very well, but the treble is done best. That said, Noble has been very careful to not let the outstanding treble lead to suffering mids or lows. All too often I hear a monitor with one incredible feature, and the rest of the sound just seems like it was neglected. That is not the case with the Katana. The entire sound signature is a perfectly sharpened Katana sword, but the treble is the perfect, sharp point at the tip.
Clarity is probably the Katana’s strongest feature, and I would say it has better clarity than the K10. This is probably because of the crisp, detailed highs, but it really is a result of the entire sound signature. What impressed me most about the lows was how clear and defined they were despite being toned down a bit. As I said earlier, I live for the mids, so I’m very sensitive to a lack of clarity there. The Katana didn’t disappoint me at all. Generally, I cannot criticize the Katana in any sense for its clarity.
My personal judge of when an IEM has a good soundstage is when it transcends its category in openness and airiness to sound more like a full size open back headphone. A lower quality IEM sounds like an IEM, and the sound stays narrow and just in the ear canal. An exceptional IEM fills your entire head with music, immersing you in the sound, and if you close your eyes you feel like you’re right there. The Katana fully accomplishes this. It seems even a bit more open and airy to me than the K10, and the extended treble really helps with that. If I put on a good track, close my eyes, and just listen–I get fully lost. The soundstage is wide open and full, and it is lovely.
Noble K10: This is probably the big comparison everyone is interested in. Overall, both of these monitors are fantastic, and they are quite similar in their performance, with differences in their sound signature. As I’ve said earlier, the idea that they are inverses of each other is a very good description for me. However, I’ll go into a bit more detail with this comparison.
Highs: It was quite obvious to me after switching to the K10 from the Katana that the highs were much more heavily blended into the background and smoothed out. They still sounded clear and wonderful, but it isn’t the intense shimmering presence the Katana had.
Mids: The midsection was sort of an interesting comparison. In overall presence in the soundstage, I actually found the Katana had more presence in the mid range than the K10. However, I find the mids were a bit more deep and luscious in the K10. This is likely due to the fact that there is more in the low end overall, which allows those deep rumbles of male voice especially to come through. The midrange is very strong on both, but I think the Katana would be better for lighter, female voices, and the K10 would do best for deeper, male voices.
Lows: The lows are certainly more present and boomy in the K10. I am quite fond of the bass on both models, but it is presented very differently. Listening to “6 Foot 7 Foot” which has very strong bass, the K10 really lets the bass riffs control the song and be the star of the show. The Katana takes things much more carefully, and while the bass is powerful, it sounds tied with the midrange.
Overall, I really like both monitors. In overall performance and clarity, I think they are on very similar levels. However, they do have some key differences, and which one is the better choice is very subjective. Personally, it really depends on the genre of music. For me, rap will be best out of K10, but acoustic really shines with Katana.
Noble Kaiser Encore: I have yet to hear the Kaiser Encore, though I should have one in the near future, and I will update this thread with comparisons when I do.
JH Layla: The Layla is an absolutely incredible monitor, and to this day I consider the best I have ever heard due to the fact that it is truly incredible throughout the entire soundstage, and the signature is adjustable. For my comparison I tried the bass at several different levels to really just test performance.
The bass on the Layla is incredible and strong, and it can be made very loud or very faint depending on what the user wants, so the factor of how strong it is doesn't really apply. Toning the bass down to around where it is on the Katana lead me to hear quite similar bass performance. The Layla seems to carry a bit more weight and rumble with its bass even while turned down, while the Katana really keeps it controlled.
In the mids, I sense pretty similar characteristics overall, but to my ears, the Layla has midrange characteristics similar to the K10 where they are very full and luscious due to all the low-end potential, and they are not quite as strong with female voices. My preference really floats between the two depending on the artist and how high or low their voice is, so this is a toss up. I tend to think the Layla can generally pull away by the width of a hair in clarity and performance, but that really comes down to the tiniest details.
For the high end, both Layla and Katana have crystal clear, extended detail, and I think their performance is just about equal. However, Layla lacks that intense presence of the high end on the Katana that is impossible to miss. This presence on the Katana really helps it stand out as something special. On the Layla, they are a bit more hidden in the background, while maintaining that same clarity. Overall, this really comes down to personal preference. If you’re looking for fun coming from the low end, the Layla is going to win that battle, but if your fun comes from the highs, the Katana wins with its overall presentation.
CustomArt Harmony 8.2: When I reviewed it, my favorite feature of the Harmony 8.2 was its midrange. The mids seem a bit more distant on the 8.2 than they are on Katana, and I find another scenario where the Katana outperforms 8.2 in the upper midrange, and the 8.2 has a slightly more favorable presentation for me in the lower mids. However, I would generally give this to the Katana for overall presentation and clarity. In the lows, I actually find they have pretty similar signatures, though I sense more power and precision from Katana. For the highs, both perform quite well with deep extension, but Katana just sounds clearer and fuller to me. In price, the Katana is a somewhat small step above the 8.2, and I think this is reflected in their sound. They both perform exceptionally, but the Katana just sounds more musical and well-rounded for my tastes. In strict objective performance and clarity, I think Katana has an edge as well.
Ultimate Ears UE18 Pro: The UE18 has much more presence in the low end than the Katana, and they have very different sound signatures. Generally speaking, the emphasis on the UE18 falls in the bass, and it has pretty gentle highs. The low end is very strong on the UE18, and more present than the Katana, but it lacks that precise sharpness that the Katana has. The midrange of both is quite similar, but I find Katana a bit more detailed and clear. The high end isn’t much of a comparison, and Katana takes an easy win in presence, clarity, extension, and detail.
Wrapping Things Up:
Obviously, I’ve had a lot of praise for the Katana. It is versatile, beautiful, and sounds amazing. It is marked by the most shimmery highs I have ever heard, luscious mids full of detail, and precise, refined bass that doesn’t overpower anything. Its name suits it perfectly. It is a sharp, powerful weapon in anyone’s audio arsenal, and it is so precisely designed, that it cuts as smooth as butter. The Katana is one of the best monitors I have ever heard, and for anyone searching for a monitor with an emphasis on the high end while maintaining versatility and clarity throughout the entire soundstage, I can’t think of any monitor to recommend more. It is a top-notch competitor in the TOTL market, and a perfect complement to the Kaiser series.
I really cannot think of a place where I can strictly fault the Katana. It has no apologies or secrets about what it is trying to be, and it does exactly what it claims to. The Katana isn’t right for everyone, and that’s okay. However, for its sound signature, it nears perfection. On paper, I wouldn’t think Katana’s characteristics are too representative of my tastes, but it does what it does in such a way that anyone can appreciate it no matter their taste. In fact, the Katana is so good that it convinced me to change my own.
Noble has craftsmanship, presentation, and accessories nailed–it is their identity. Combine that with such an incredible, unique, versatile sound, and the result is a 5 star, flagship product.
Pros - Incredible combination of detail and musicality, Extension and transients, Meticulous design, Excellent co-flagship option along with Noble K10
Cons - TOTL asking price (worth it if you can swing it), Unforgiving with poor recordings/sources, Not for those looking for warm and smooth sound
At the time this review was written, the Noble Katana Universal was listed for sale on Noble Audio’s website. Here is a link to their listing of the product:
The greatest thing about this hobby is that the art of manufacturing great sounding earphones continues to evolve. From the top of the line multi-driver manufacturers down to the "bang for your buck" budget builders, the quality you can get at each price improves as time and technology advances.
Many of us start out in this hobby by dipping our toes in the waters of budget audio gear. Hearing some great sounding earphones at cheap prices raises the curiosity factor when it comes to the elite in-ear monitor brands. I remember thinking to myself “If these sound really awesome for one hundred dollars, I can only imagine what the earphones over a thousand must be like!” They say curiosity kills the cat, but when spending money on audio gear it can kill your wallet before you can ever afford to buy the cat in the first place!
In my time in this hobby, I’ve broken audio enthusiasts down into two types:
#1. There are those who have an established price limit to spend on gear, then spent the rest of their time in this hobby wishing for or wondering if it would be worth it to spend the extra cash on a pair of top of the line earphones.
#2. There are those who have the resources and patience to dabble in high end gear. Most who fall into this group will keep their funds reserved, and go to audio shows or partake in review and demo tours to sample the best gear money can buy. They will try sampling several items, ready to pull the trigger and go balls out when they feel they’ve found the earphone they must own.
To be honest, I understand both philosophies. Being a huge fan and reviewer, my journey started out trying to find the best budget gear money can buy, thinking that If I buy the most popular earphones that are discussed in the budget threads I will find my “end game” earphone at a great price. I had a ton of fun doing this, and I made a lot of friends along the way. I found my preferred sound signature, and even started writing reviews during this time. However, "end game" earphones weren't discovered.
I also learned some things during the process of being a budget shopper. First off, budget brands can sound downright awesome for their price. Secondly, following the budget threads can be just as, if not more expensive than previously mentioned category #2. Third, the term “end game” is a myth. You can chase the dragon and you may get really close, but if you continue to read up on new products and go to shows you will see new products are released regularly and also getting better over time. This prevents seasoned veterans in audio gear (whether it be budget or top of the line) from saying that there is a general consensus for the world's best anything that is audio related. Stuff we thought was amazing a couple years ago has often time been eclipsed several times by new products at the same price range. At the same time, there are some products that stay relevant for years.
As my time reviewing has evolved, my main objective has always been to treat each review opportunity like I’m telling my friends about whatever earphone I’m covering. This approach has progressively opened the door to cover more and more premium products. Between the reviews and going to shows I’ve heard the top of the line earphones that used to spark my curiosity, pulling back the curtain of high end audio. Although I wasn't whisked away to another dimension of sound, the quality and presentation of much of this expensive gear is fabulous.
I now understand the law of diminishing returns, and the fact that in this hobby we pay a lot for minor upgrades in sound quality. With top of the line gear, a two thousand dollar earphone isn’t necessarily twenty times better than a hundred dollar pair. However, some of the products at the highest price points offer a level of refinement and quality that might not catch the proverbial “end game” dragon, but it will get you close enough to pet it for a while!
For the last two years since I first heard them at the 2014 Axpona audio show in Chicago, I have had aspirations to one day own the Noble K10U. Simply put, it’s to this day arguably the greatest sounding earphones on the planet. My wishlist was reconsidered earlier this year when Noble announced the release of their co-flagship named “Katana.”
Just like most high end earphone announcements, I was instantly curious to hear it and find out what these were all about. I reached out to Noble to see if they would be willing to offer a loaner for review. Today I have the honor and pleasure of sharing the good news of the Katana, and also compare it to it’s flagship companion the K10U which was borrowed by a fellow Head-Fier.
Here’s a statement from Noble about the Katana:
“Considered by many to have the perfect combination of balance, artistic beauty, and sharpness in its cutting edge, the Katana sword is by all accounts a precision instrument. As a tribute to the exclusivity and craftsmanship of the finest examples, Wizard’s latest design bears the name Katana.
Popularized due to its tremendous speed and versatility, Katana features proprietary Noble drivers throughout in a unique 9-driver per side configuration. With an extended top-end that generates airiness and outstanding imaging, Katana’s balance and control are the mark of a master that continues to refine his craft. Combined with a lush mid-range, impactful low-end, and Noble’s signature coherency, Katana is a serious tool in anyone’s arsenal.”
I was given a free loaner of the Katana in exchange for my honest opinion and review. I am in no way affiliated with Noble Audio. I would like to take this time to personally thank Brannan for the opportunity to experience and review their new co-flagship product.
I AM NOT a numbers and graphs audiophile or sound engineer. Personal audio enthusiast? Absolutely! Headphone junkie? Possibly…
There’s something about quality DAPs, DACs, Amplifiers and Earphones that intrigues me. I want to hear any earphone that looks promising, in hopes that I can share my impressions with enthusiasts and help them find the audio product they’re looking for. My Head-Fi profile has a list of audio products ranked from favorite to least favorite. For me, this hobby is more about getting great price to performance ratio from a product, and having a variety of different gear to mix and match. With personal audio gear, we tend to pay a lot of money for minor upgrades. One thing I’ve learned over the last few years is that just because a headphone has a higher price tag, it doesn’t mean that it has superior build and sound quality.
I’m always looking for great audio at a great price. I’m after headphones and IEMs that give me the “WOW” factor. I can appreciate different builds and sound signatures as long as they are solidly built, with ergonomics and sound that is pleasing to my ears. It’s my pleasure to share my experiences with audio products and make recommendations based on gear I have owned and used.
Katana comes in the customary premium black box seen in their previous models. The front of the box features the Noble logo printed in a gloss finish.
The back of the box displays a sticker with the serial number, name of the model and a brief description.
Opening the box, I’m greeted with a black pelican case, some stickers and a velvet drawstring bag. For those who don’t know, Pelican cases are airtight when snapped shut.
The Pelican Case opens to reveal the earphones and accessories. There are a lot of goodies stuffed in this case.
Removing the earphones from the packaging, the immediate impression is that of luxury. The cable and housings are premium. Underneath this bag is a metal plate which holds the Katana tip assortment.
Specifications and Accessories Specifications *9 proprietary balanced-armature drivers per side *Updated Noble universal form factor and geometry featuring creative precision machined aluminum housings *Sensitive enough for use with smartphones as well as portable amps and DAPs *Hand-assembled and matched *Detachable cable with industry standard 2-pin configuration (0.78 mm diameter)
The first thing I thought when I heard the Katana had nine drivers was that the housings would be on the larger side of average. That isn’t the case at all. I have no idea how Noble got nine drivers in this housing. Although the housing is not small, they aren’t what I would consider bulky, and their ergonomic shape provides a nice fit.
The housings are made of machined aluminum and have lots of detail and patterns, creating a very nice visual effect. I will be honest, I far prefer the black and organic gold finishes over the colors used with the other variations in the Noble lineup. The look is sleek and sophisticated, and should appeal to those who want a high end appearance.
The Katana nozzle is in line with the rest of the product line. The nozzle has a fairly standard width and length making tip rolling easy to do. There are three ports at the end of the nozzle, identical to the K10U
Cable, Y-Split, Cable Jack, Strain Reliefs
Katana comes with a fairly rugged black braided cable. A four strand braid leads up to a metal jacketed Y-split, and branches off in to two twisted cables that lead to each channel. A clear plastic chin/neck slider is installed on the cable and works well to secure the Katana fit. Each channel has a two pin connection that plugs into a recessed notch of the housing. The fitting is solid and secure. Each side has a couple inches of memory wire to help secure the over-ear fit. Although I am not normally a fan of memory wire, in this case it works well and is very comfortable and easy to use. The jack is a straight 3.5 mm gold plated jack with a black metal jacketing.
The included cable doesn’t have a microphone and remote. To be honest, when spending as much as the asking price for the Katana, I would have hoped for a second cable option with a microphone and remote. Even still, if you are interested in this option an aftermarket cable with mic/remote can be purchased separately. There are a ton of options to pick from in today’s market.
Ergonomics, Fit and Microphonics, Isolation
Having reviewed Nobles older shelled N6, I was curious how these would fit compared to the old version of shells. From the pictures I saw, I wasn’t sure if Noble has traded in comfort for style. I’m glad to say that’s not the case. The Katana is a great fitting earphone, especially once you find the right tip.
The all aluminum shell is not overly bulky. For those who are curious, the Katana comes in at a slightly smaller shell than the K10U. I would say it’s average in terms of bulk compared to other earphones.
Katana has a basic over the ear fit. Getting a great fit is a matter of finding the tip that works best for you, popping them in your ears and securing them in place with the cable’s memory wire. With a good sealing tip, isolation is excellent for a universal in-ear monitor. Microphonics are minimal thanks to the over-ear fit and chin/neck slider.
NOTE: Tip selection plays a huge part in how the Katana will sound. Experiment not only with the included tips, experimenting with other tips will also change the way these earphones sound. I really enjoyed the way Katana sounded with JVC Spiral Dot tips, but at the end of the day the included blue/black silicone tips rendered the best sound quality. For this reason I will be using them for the sound portion of the review.
I did my demo with my usual gear. I used an LG-V10 for smartphone use, and either my Shanling H3 or iBasso DX80 DAP/Bushmaster D14 DAC/Amp for high fidelity portable use. For desktop use, I used my Toshiba Satellite Laptop in combination with a ifi micro iDSD playing at 32/192 kHz. I tested them with several other sources as well. I used Google Music in its highest download quality (320 KBPS), and also streamed FLAC via Tidal streaming service. I also used purchased and downloaded tracks in MP3, FLAC, WAV and DSD. I make sure that any gear I test has sufficient playtime before writing a review.
I used my usual same songs for testing gear:
“Limit to your love” by James Blake (bass speed, punch, response)
“Doin’ it Right” by Daft Punk (sub bass)
“Get lucky” by Daft Punk (bass to midrange transition resolution, male vocals)
“Madness” by Muse (soundstage, separation)
“Some nights” by Fun (soundstage and male vocals)
“The soundmaker” by Rodrigo y Gabriela (texture and imaging)
“Bassically” by Tei Shi (bass to midrange resolution, female vocals)
“Skinny Love” performed by Birdie (female vocals, acoustic playback)
“One” by Ed Sheeran (male vocals, acoustic playback)
“Outlands” from the Tron Legacy Soundtrack (symphonic presentation, imaging)
“Sultans of swing” by Dire Straits (detail, separation, balance)
“And Justic for All” by Metallica (driver distortion, treble response, rock playback)
“Ten thousand fists” by Disturbed (driver distortion, treble response, rock playback)
Note: Other tracks were used, but the listed songs were primarily used to assess and break down the gear’s response.
Katana falls in line with other in-ear monitors in terms of sensitivity. With more powerful powerful sources you will get a slight audible background hiss. This is no different than just about any high end multiple armature earphone out there. I was able to eliminate the audible background noise with higher output power devices with a device from iFi called the iEMatch. Here is a link if you are interested:
Katana will work with your Android or Iphone and make your streaming music sound really decent. They have incredible resolution that gives you every detail in your music whether it be good or bad. With this being said, know that these earphones will do low quality sources, poor recordings and low bitrate files no justice. Their incredible detail and extension will butcher low bitrate music through a cheap source. My guess is that anyone who purchases the Katana will most likely have a high quality source, or at least a modern smartphone to use them with. If that is the case you should have no problem getting great performance from the Katana.
I can’t say whether the Katana works better with warm or cold, colored or neutral sources. I was able to enjoy them with either one. What I can say is they will rock with a low powered source the likes of most A&K players, the Fiio X7, my LG V10 and so on. Use your best music files with your best low powered portable source and you will be blown away by the Katana’s ability to be detailed, extended and musical all at the same time. Of all the gear I have at home, I enjoyed the Katana with my Fiio X7 while listening to FLAC and DSD files.
Katana is a perfect name for this in-ear monitor. To my ears, Noble has taken elements from it’s co-flagship and added a slightly more airy and extended presentation. The Katana takes a razor sharp response and adds enough low end oomph, musicality and sparkle to make your listening experience special. I have a good feeling that as time goes on, conversations about what the best earphones on the planet are, the Katana will be included in these discussions.
Katana isn’t easy to classify. I can’t say it necessarily falls into a particular group of sound signature. Instead I’ll say they are like a perfectly cooked meal. You aren’t going to dislike the Katana sound because something is missing, because in terms of presentation you get the full palate. If you are going to say the Katana isn’t for you it’s probably going to be a preference thing. To my ears, there’s just the right amount of each frequency to make it a great and complete sounding earphone. The Katana has natural, sophisticated and musical sound all at the same time. I am seldom times able to group all of these three words together when describing an in-ear monitor.
The Katana bass is north of what I consider neutral, albeit not significantly boosted. Early impressions I read from others stated that they were on the lighter side in terms of bass. That isn’t the case. I hear a dynamic and responsive bass line that packs plenty of impact for armature drivers.
While listening to Daft Punk’s “Doin’ it Right,” Katana was able to handle the song’s visceral bass line with ease. Tone was great, and attack and decay were more in lines with that of dynamic driver earphones. Mid-bass tones may be a touch more forward than sub bass tones, but not significant enough to say it was noticeable outside of critical listening. You won’t feel like sub bass is lacking.
Mid-bass is slightly forward, uber responsive and non-intrusive to the rest of Katana’s sound. You get a very natural and impactful punch from kick drums and bass guitars sound very natural. During James Blake’s “Limit to your love” you can get a greater appreciation for just how responsive and accurate the Katana bass is. Long story short, the Katana bass is entertaining and engaging without crossing into basshead territory.
Midrange on the Katana is somewhat unique. Considering the slightly forward tuning of the bass, you would assume that there would be a carry over of this into a very rich and lush lower mid-range. That doesn’t seem to be the case. The lower mid-range is very natural, but not as full and textured as the mid-bass tuning. At the same time, the transition from mid-bass to lower midrange doesn’t seem to be skewed to my ears. It’s really unique in this sense, and the perception I get is that the lower midrange is very airy, natural and detailed. While in one sense there could be more weight to some instruments and voices, the trade of is a unique and incredible sense of instrument placement and separation of sounds. I really enjoy this a lot and find myself appreciating this more and more as I listen to them.
Upper midrange is engaging and slightly forward. Vocals and upper mid-range sounds have a nice bite to them. Although an already goosebump inducing performance, Sia’s piano version of “Chandelier” literally put chills down my spine when listening to it through the Katana. There’s a unique level of airiness and dynamic textural thing going on in the mid-range that makes female vocals sound spectacular. Jam band, acoustic, and rock genres make good use of this element as well.
Treble is extended and natural to my ears. One thing to note is that Katana gives you the higher frequencies and doesn’t segregate the stuff that some manufacturers remove when tuning their earphones. I consider this to be more of a “true to recording” type of approach.
While some may try and say that these are bright are harsh, I would be inclined to argue this. With higher quality sources, files and listening to them a listening volume that is healthy, that isn’t the case whatsoever. Even still, at louder volumes the Katana is very true to the recording.
When measuring them, it doesn’t have a huge dip in tuning from the 5-9 kHz range like many other earphone manufacturers are doing so often these days. To be honest, after experimenting with tips, sources and doing comparisons, the Katana high frequency response is one of the more natural responses I’ve heard in an in-ear monitor. Although sometimes you might get a crisp pronunciation of the letter S or T, the organic nature and elite level of detail and separation makes up for it many times over. During the most complex music passages of Disturbed’s “Ten Thousand Fists” the Katana handled the upper frequencies with a level of clarity and separation I’ve seldom heard in an in-ear monitor. Is the Katana for those who are incredibly sensitive to higher frequencies? The answer is no, but for everyone else they will be great.
Soundstage and Imaging
Excellent extension at both ends of the sound spectrum makes the Katana soundstage elite. Although not the best I’ve heard, Katana’s soundstage is excellent. The superior clarity and separation of sounds allows me to say that imaging is very good. With acoustic music and tracks with echoing, the clarity gives you an incredible sense of space and instrument placement.
Comparisons Noble K10U ($1650 USD on Noble’s website)
The K10U is the now sharing the title of flagship with the Katana. The K10U has been one of the summit tops in the realm of in-ear monitors for quite some time. Now that Katana has come along, I guess you could call them “twin peaks.”
Comparing the two, the sounds aren’t that far off. Although different, there isn’t a sense that things have been radically redesigned. It’s really hard to break it down into each category of sound, it’s more of an overall feel kind of thing where I can tell a difference between the two.
If I had to put the difference into words, Katana seems to have taken the K10U and stretched the sound out just a touch. The K10U sounds more musical, a touch thicker in the lower midrange and just a touch less extended at higher frequencies. The Katana sounds a touch leaner and airier at lower midrange frequencies, and a bit more extended at higher frequencies. The K10U is a slightly richer, more dynamic and forgiving sounding version of the Katana, while the Katana is a slightly leaner, more natural, airier and more extended upper frequency tuning version of the K10U.
If you are a K10 or K10U owner and are looking to upgrade, consider the differences and ask yourself if this would be an improvement. If I had to pick one or the other it would be really tough. I might pick the Katana because of how good they sound with high res sources and files. That, and the fact that they have a slightly smaller housing and nice color scheme. To my ears, the Katana is capable of sounding more natural and impressive with the right source.
In terms of build quality, they are pretty much identical. The Katana has a slightly smaller and less bulky housing. Accessories is pretty much a draw.
Campfire Audio Andromeda ($1099 USD on ALO Audio’s website)
Andromeda broke onto the scene earlier this year and made a huge splash. They are an incredible sounding five driver earphone that has won the ears of just about anyone who has listened to them.
Comparing the two, the Andromeda seems to be the bassier of the two, and also seems to have a more visceral and aggressive sub-bass rumble that impacts the other frequencies. In terms of midrange, Katana has a cleaner and more detailed presentation, while the Andromeda has a slightly more musical and dynamic presentation. In terms of treble, Andromeda is smoother and less detailed than the crisper and slightly cleaner treble of the Katana. In terms of soundstage, I give it a draw. Some things I notice bouncing back and forth between the two, the Katana sounds cleaner, more detailed and refined, while the Andromeda sounds slightly more musical, bassy fun for modern genres of music.
Build goes to the Katana. Their shell is better designed and more comfortable to wear. I also prefer the two pin connection of the Katana over the MMCX connection of the Andromeda (although I do prefer the stock cable of Andromeda).
Both earphones are incredible, but this comes down to what you prefer. If you want a more natural, clinical and “accurate” music presentation, go for the Katana. If you want a slightly bassier and more musical tuning while still maintaining a good amount of clarity detail, go for the Andromeda.
The Katana is definitely worthy of flagship status. It has an incredible ability to give you a sense of detail, musicality and extension that is rarely done all at the same time. If you want an “everything all at once” kind of sound, these earphone these are something you should definitely consider.
The Katana will not be for everyone. Their top of the line quality comes with a top of the line asking price. Are they worth the price? If you can afford them, absolutely. If you only have two grand to spend on audio gear and don’t have a high quality source (or at least a modern smartphone) to push them, you might want to hold off until you get that situated. Those who listen to modern genres of music at really loud volumes, these probably aren’t meant for you. For those who want to take maximize the Hi-Res files they have stored on their high quality (and low powered) DAP, these are right up your alley.
Noble is a company that two years ago I could only imagine how good their best earphones are. Now that I’ve had the pleasure of listening to them, I can say that their flagships are everything I could have hoped for. They bring a level of fidelity that must be heard to understand.
When rating a product I have to take all criteria into account (including price). The Katana gets an easy five stars for sound, five stars for build, design and fit. If there’s anything I would feel inclined to deduct a half star for, it would either be the price, or the fact that there is not a microphone option to come with the package. Considering this is a luxury product, I’ll leave that up to you to deduct a half star or more from my rating, because I’m giving them a five star review. They are designed and geared for guys like me, and are one of the products that are raising the bar of personal audio products.