Over the years Hi-Fi+ has covered a number of multi-driver-equipped, custom-fit in-ear monitors (CIEMs) from Noble Audio, including the then flagship Kaiser 10 (issue 119), the 4S (issue 127), and the Savant (issue 137). The things that draw us back to the firm’s in-ear products involve not only their traditionally high sound quality, but also a distinctive quality of cohesiveness that, I think, is born of superior driver integration. With many multi-driver CIEMs and earphones (as with some multi-driver loudspeakers) you can occasionally detect faint signs of phase shift and/or subtle voicing discontinuities that remind you there are multiple disparate drivers trying (not always with success) to create a well-integrated, ‘cut-from-whole-cloth’ sound. Noble products, however, are different in that—more so than many of their competitors—they consistently serve up a beautifully coherent and seamless sonic presentation.
Noble’s latest cohesiveness champion is a (pardon the pun) ‘cutting edge’ model called the Katana, which was announced late in July of 2016, and is offered in both CIEM and universal-fit earphone versions. Eager to hear what the Katanas could do Hi-Fi+ Editor Alan Sircom and I obtained review samples early on with Sircom receiving the universal-fit versions and me receiving a set of Katana CIEMs. And, after some discussion, we decided to join forces to create the Katana review you now have before you.
The Katana is a top-class in-ear monitor that features nine balanced armature-type drivers per earpiece, but what sets it apart is not its driver count, per se, but rather the provenance of the drivers used. For the first time in the company’s history, Noble decided not to use off-the-shelf balanced armature drivers in the Katana, but rather collaborated with the internationally famous balanced armature driver manufacturer Knowles Electronics to create a set of purpose-built drivers for its new CIEM.
Depending on whom you ask, the Katana has either taken over the throne at the top of Noble’s product range or has, at the very least, become the co-flagship model with the Kaiser 10. My personal take on the question is that the Katana has become Noble’s new king-of-the-hill, at least for the moment—an assessment borne out by the fact that Noble just recently discontinued the Kaiser 10 and announced a more Katana-like replacement model to be called the Kaiser Encore (the Encore, like the Katana, gets its own set of purpose-built Knowles drivers). The Noble website now officially lists the Katana and Kaiser Encore as identically priced co-flagship models. Prospective buyers will want to know that, whether they choose the universal- or custom-fit Katanas, the sound will be very similar, although the CIEMs do offer a noticeably higher degree of noise isolation.
The universal-fit Katanas feature earpieces CNC-machined from billet aluminium with their inner shells anodized jet black and outer fascia caps anodized in a gun metal grey colour. The outer caps are smaller and sleeker that those used in previous Noble universal-fit models, making the Katanas a bit easier to position and to wear comfortably; the earpieces sit comfortably in the fossa of the ears, held in place by the over-ear memory wires. The CIEM models, in turn, can be built in two different ways: as ‘Acrylic’ models with custom-moulded acrylic earpieces offering a plethora of customisation options, or as ‘Prestige’ models with earpieces CNC-machined from a range of beautiful and exotic solid materials.
All Katanas arrive in a watertight Pelican case, and ship with signal cables, a carry pouch, two Noble-branded wrist/amp straps, an owner’s ID card, and a cleaning tool, while the universal-fit versions also come with three sets of S/M/L silicone tips, and one set of S/M and M/L memory foam designs. Quality of build is exceptionally high, meaning that the Katana universal-fit earpieces feel far more robust and solid than the plastic earpieces most manufacturers use. The CIEM earpieces, in turn, are beautiful to look at and are moulded so as to fit just a bit deeper within the ear canal than most, meaning users will enjoy a much better than average fit and downright incredible noise isolation.
Noble Katana universal-fit earphones
Welcome to Katana Club. The first rule of Katana Club is: you do not use the wrong ear-tips. The second rule of Katana Club is: you DO NOT use the wrong ear-tips! OK, so I’m no Tyler Durden, this is not Fight Club, and I’m not about to advocate the way of the nihilistic pugilist as the path to righteousness just yet, but the use of the right ear-tips is so intrinsic and important to the end result of the standard fit Katanas, it’s the difference between good sound and ‘wow!’ sound. It’s also an exercise in good bass management. It’s worth your while to spend some time experimenting here.
The demands placed on the correct use of ear-tips is entirely understandable: the nine proprietary drivers inside the gourd-shaped chassis are precisely aligned and the more accurate the fit, the closer the off-the-shelf model gets to the performance of its custom-fit brethren. As the nozzle of the Katana is larger than most, changing tips was a slower process than usual, and the options beyond Noble’s own are relatively limited. Eventually, I settled on the blue/black narrow bore silicone tips supplied by Noble.
When suitably tipped, the Katana is a truly remarkable performer. The coherence across the whole frequency range – already something of a Noble trademark – is even better than previous editions, presumably thanks to those custom-made drivers. This makes the Katana sound like it is using a single driver, but without the frequency and phase limitations that would incur. The Katana sets a new target for manufacturers to produce a product with this grade of seamlessness from low bass to the highest treble, and after spending an hour in their company, going back to ‘mere’ audio is almost always a step backwards. The Katana manages to be incisive and enjoyable at the same time: a rare treat.
The Katana has its limitations, but they are more in line with performance goals rather than product shortcomings. The Katana is a more deft and subtle performer in the bass than many, and this comes at the expense of ultimate bass slam and dynamics. Or rather, it trades a possible emphasis on bass heft for texture, grace, and subtlety in the lower registers, and if your musical tastes aren’t solely geared toward dub reggae and organ music, you’ll probably find yourself liking the Katana. Cleverly, Noble gives you the choice at this flagship grade: Katana for speed and uncoloured neutrality, Kaiser for impact and bass dynamics.
I’ve been using a pair of Noble Kaiser 10 CIEMs for some time: both the K10 and the Katana are perfect on-the-move partners with Chord’s mighty Mojo. The Kaiser 10s are the best things I’ve ever put into my ears. Or rather, were. The Katana—even though not designed specifically for my ears—has comfortably eclipsed the pinnacle of the previous generation in almost every way, except for the K10’s depth and power in the bottom end. And the replacement to the Kaiser 10 adds the performance of the Katana and the potent bass of the K10. Choose wisely… this might just be the best sound you’ll hear from any audio system.
Noble Katana custom-fit in-ear monitors
During my tests I ran the Katana CIEMs from a Questyle QP1R digital audio player and used a battery of challenging test tracks that I also auditioned through three other Noble CIEMs: the 4S, the Savant, and the Kaiser 10. After all the dust had settled, I was left to confront one simple fact: while past Noble models were very, very good, the new Katana with purpose-built Knowles drivers is superior in virtually every way. Specifically, it seems to offer better resolution, a more grain-free presentation, greater transient speed and control, tauter and more crisply defined bass, and superior dynamic range and agility.
I largely agree with Alan’s comments on the sound of the Katana vs. the Kaiser 10, although unlike Alan I actually preferred the Katana’s low end. While the K10 does have a bit more bottom-end weight and gravitas, I thought the Katana could go every bit as deep, but with greater control, pitch definition, and transient ‘snap’. I suspect if you compared the response curves of the K10 and the Katana, the Katana would have fractionally less low bass, noticeably less enriched mid-bass, and somewhat more elevated upper mids and highs—changes that I think make the Katana the more accurate transducer of the two (though this does not mean the Katana sounds ‘lean’ by any stretch of the imagination).
Two tracks I tried highlighted the Katana’s superiority for me. The first was the O-Zone Percussion Group’s ‘Jazz Variants’ from La Bamba [Klavier, 16/44.1], which is a familiar but also very challenging demo piece frequently heard at audio shows. The O-Zone Percussion Group is a brilliant percussion ensemble featuring everything from a full-size bass drum on up to the smallest and most delicate of high percussion instruments, and everything in between. When bass drum strikes come along, some earphones wilt because they are unable to produce the sheer volumes of bass energy required, while others produce a big and powerful but indistinct ‘Thwooomp’ and call the job done. With the Katana, however, you initially hear a sharp, incisive ‘Thwack!’ as the drum head is first struck, followed a split-second later by a subterranean ‘Boom!’ as the note develops full strength; then, finally, you hear shuddering waves of low-frequency energy as the note reverberates within the recording space and gradually decays. It’s a night/day difference that underscores the Katana’s richer and more sophisticated sound.
Similarly, when high percussion or melodic percussion instruments (think xylophones, glockenspiels, tubular bells and the like) are brought into play, the Katana again delivers a significantly more complete and complex rendition of the tonal colours and transient characteristics of the instruments than its earlier generation Noble brethren do. It’s as if the Katana takes everything likeable about the Noble sound and multiplies it by about 1.2 (which in high-end audio terms is quite a lot).
Second, I was simply enchanted by the sound of the Katana on ‘Nublado’ (the word means ‘cloudy’ or ‘storm clouds’) as performed by Sera Una Noche [Será Una Noche, MA Recordings, 16/44.1], an ensemble of Latin musicians led by Argentine percussionist Santiago Vasquez. ‘Nublado’ is a sultry, jazz-inflected tango that was recorded in the interior of a small church and that features sumptuous instrumentation, including clarinets and flutes, cello, guitar, bandoneon (a type of concertina), and percussion. As the track unfolds, these instruments appear in various combinations, taking turns both in solo roles and as rhythmic engines that drive the tango forward. The result, through the Katana, is a veritable cornucopia of rich textures, timbres, and tonalities—each rendered with purity and polish, no matter how densely layered the recording becomes. The same track also yields satisfying results on other CIEMs and earphones, but I found that whenever I returned to the Katanas I not only became immediately aware of their heightened levels of performance, but in fact had the almost eerie sensation that I was actually listening to an altogether different and better recording of the same song! At the end of the day, it’s this sense of hearing the best each recording has to offer that makes the Katanas so worthwhile.
For Editor Alan Sircom and for me Noble Audio’s Katana has become a go-to in-ear reference; they are superb transducers that allow us to take the joys of high-end audio with us whenever we travel, whether going across London or jetting from continent to continent. If you want to hear some of the best sound available from any modern in-ear monitor, do give the Katana a careful listen—and while you’re at it check out the Katana’s just-announced stable mate, the Kaiser Encore.
Type: Universal-fit earphone with machined aluminium earpieces; or custom-fit in-ear monitors with earpieces that can moulded from acrylic (“Acrylic” models), or machined from exotic solid materials (“Prestige” models)
Driver Complement: Nine purpose-built balanced armature-type drivers developed with Knowles Electronics
Sensitivity: Noble says the Katana is, “Sensitive enough for use with smartphones and portable audio devices.”
Accessories: Detachable cable with industry standard 2-pin configuration (078mm diameter), Noble-branded wrist/amp straps, velvet carry pouch, combination cleaning tool/brush, watertight Pelican 1010 Micro Case, carabineer clip, Noble owner’s ID card, and—for the universal fit model—three sets of S/M/L silicone tips, and one set of S/M and M/L memory foam designs
Price: Universal-fit: £1,699/$1,850
Custom-fit, Acrylic: Starting at £1,699/$1,850
Custom-fit, Prestige (machined from exotic solids): £1,999/ $2,850
Note: Noble Audio offers a special Ownership Transfer Service (OTS) for the second owners of any Acrylic-series Noble CIEM, where for a fee of $250 Noble will re-craft the earpieces of the CIEM to fit the ears of a new, second owner.
Manufacturer: Noble Audio
Tel: +1 (805) 886-5255
UK URL: www.nobleaudio.co.uk
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