Who are you? Do you like your IEM’s to sound musical, bass heavy, warm or smooth? Or, do you like your best IEM’s to sound crystal clear, neutral or possible reference like in their sound?
Up until a few months ago, Noble Audio would argue that they had the answer to the first part with the Kaiser K10 or even the new Encore.
For a few years now this has been their calling card, their top dog and flagship IEM by which many a happy audiophile has put down the best part of $1800 to enjoy.
Yet the second question seemed to fall more neatly into their more modest but excellent value neutral Savanna or at a pinch possibly the old Savant. Well, that’s all about to change now with the release of their new $1850 “Co-TOTL” 9-driver IEM, the Katana.
What Is The Pitch?
For those into all things Japanese or at least a passing interest in weaponry will recognize the Katana as the legendary blade of choice for the Samurai class. The pitch here in using the Katana as the title is to evoke the concept of the precision tool, the clean cutting ability of the weapon combined with the well-respected craftsmanship of the both the blade and the swordsmith.
Noble view the Katana thus as a truly ‘reference’ flagship IEM with a more balanced approach that exhibits similar qualities of control and precision rather than pure musicality and smoothness of the Kaiser. This is something different, something for the neutral heads, those that crave detail but not too much coloration.
This is also Noble’s first 9 driver IEM. Yup, it is one less than the K10 but the days of more drivers equal better sound should be consigned to the marketing dustbin, it simply does not pan out like that anymore. Companies are increasingly doing more with less and the Katana is the first such example from Noble of this different approach. 9 BA drivers are unusual but not unheard of. AAW recently released the W900 also with a similar 9-driver count.
A Big BA Driver
BA drivers have evolved and not all are equal. Noble specifically state that these drivers are customary and certainly if you can spot some of the early release clear shell custom pictures of the Katana you will see that one driver is certainly a lot bigger than the rest. If you are thinking a 9-driver all-BA design will come in bass light, think again, Noble’s insertion of that larger BA driver means the Katana should hit hard enough to satisfy those who want a realistic but pleasing bass signature.
The Katana Wizard edition is quite different in aesthetics to the universal aluminum edition though geometrically it is similar to the Katana aluminum edition. In fact, at the time of writing, the Wizard version is not available for sale yet on the Noble website. When it does, expect to pay somewhere around $2000 for it as there is usually a small markup for those beautiful handcrafted plates John uses in the build process.
Wizard editions are always notable for their unique faceplate designs. They are hand picked by The Wizard himself to add a dash of pop, color or whatever you want to call it to their existing lineup and usually sell pretty quick. They draw heavily from Noble’s eye-catching blend of unusual woods used for their custom designs.
For the Katana, Noble have used a Spalted Tamarind sapwood which is a beautiful exotic wood often found laying on the forest floor and native to many tropical regions. The rotting effect on Tamarind creates the spalted look that varies from piece to piece so each face plate on the Katana Wizard will be entirely unique. The grain is striking, wavy and very eye catching with a texture and level of durability that makes it excellent for turning, glue work and excellent polishing results.
The bottom half of the Katana Wizard Edition is composed of the same ABS plastic materials used on the new Classic line except with a speckled paint finish. The entire body, plate and all, is sealed with a hand lacquered finish to give it a smooth finish and additional durability. To finish, there is a handwritten ‘Katana Wizard” etched in white on the side of the right driver ABS housing.
The Katana Wizard Edition follows the classic universal legacy form factor that Noble used before the new Aluminum edition lineup was released. The ABS plastic design though has identical geometry to the Katana aluminum edition but it feels lighter, especially with the lower profile faceplate of the Katana Wizard shaving a few mm off the overall depth of the shell.
It is also ridiculously small for a 9-driver IEM, especially considering the enhanced size of the BA driver for the low end. It is actually smaller than the Savanna aluminum edition when placed side by side and the Savanna only has 4 drivers. How on earth Noble managed to squeeze 9 drivers into this shell is beyond me.
It does have a very solid feel to it though despite the ABS housing. You can definitely tell the weighted difference between the two units with a slightly ‘hollowed-out’ feel on the Savanna shell compared to the denser Katana.
The Katana is a classic 2 pin termination as with all the Noble IEM creations and comes fitted with an SPC tinsel cable approximately 1.2m in length and in a braided configuration. The cable is terminated with a straight 3.5mm stereo gold plated jack and features an aluminum y-split tube as well as a more understated plastic chin strap tube.
You can detach and cable swap with the Katana which I actually recommend you do demo a few because there are some notable changes in the tonality with different cables.
Each two pin termination at the top has a short heat shrink memory wire coating for a more deliberate fit around your ear. The shrink wrap memory wire coating is low profile and should not present any issues to those who wear glasses. It is not terribly memory retentive, you cannot shape it to your liking, rather it holds a fairly fixed shape but it is fairly flexible to adjust to most ears.
Comfort & Seal
The Wizard designs have always fit me really well and the Katana is no different. Of course, your mileage may vary as we all have different ears but the foam tips using the stock over the ear cable was perhaps the most comfortable.
The units themselves sat rock solid in my ear even during heavy-duty head or body movement with no slippage or movement detected. If there is one clear advantage the Katana Wizard edition has over the aluminum its the form factor in your ear. These sit more flush with less sticking out than the aluminum editions such as the Savanna.
Passive noise isolation was excellent as always with the foam tips and slightly less so with the silicone tips. The silicone tips porous nature also seemed to suck out a bit of body and texture in the tone of the Katana which the foam tips kept locked in.
Accessories & Packaging
Noble continue with the Pelican 1010 hard case which is slightly larger and deeper than the older Otterbox 1000. It is the same one that they used for the previous Wizard I reviewed, the Savant. This one has space, plenty of it, in fact for a few cables, the Katana itself and a rather swish, perfect fitting silver aluminum tray of tips.
In the previous range, the tips were stuffed into plastic bags. It was functional but hardly a presentational delight. They were challenging to use out and about and took me ages to find the right tip.
In the Katana package, you get their new and rather excellent metal tip tray. If you have used RHA IEMs before it is along those lines only this one feels a little bit sassier and designed to show off the wide tip selection Noble have thrown into the box. It also fits the bottom of the Pelican 1010 like a glove so you can take it out and about and switch tips depending on your mood very easily.
For reference, the included tips are, as always, pretty comprehensive and one of the best to date in a universal IEM offering. They include:
Three double flange silicone in small, medium and large fitting
Two foam tips in medium and large fitting (no silicone spine)
Three hybrid red stems in small, medium and large fitting (slightly springy tip)
Three hybrid blue stems in small, medium and large fitting (slightly softer tip)
The rest of the package consists of your serial number/warranty card, a soft velvet pouch as an alternative to the larger hard case and a cleaning brush with a magnetized tip. You also receive a metal carabiner for the hard case that allows you to attach the hard case to something like a belt or backpack loop as well as two rubber branded straps for stacking sources and amps.
Tonally the Katana is probably their most reference offering to date but at the same time, this is not a flat studio type referencing IEM. Boring is definitely one word you could not prescribe to the Katana because true to Noble sensibilities there are some boosts and tweaks here and there to emphasize the incredible clarity and spaciousness that this IEM can produce as well as retain a little bit of needed musicality.
For those coming from the K10 and by all accounts from what I have heard on the K10u in various listening sessions, this is a major swing away from that thicker, smoother musical performance. The presentation this time has an uptick north of neutral for its upper mids and treble performance whilst as the same time keeping the mids incredibly smooth and balanced and injecting a more tactile bass that hits, and hits hard at that, only when it is needed.
The imaging and clarity on the Katana are world class for a closed IEM. Staging is big and very spacious sounding particularly in the mids and highs where you have a wonderfully airy and very articulate top end performance. Big doesn’t mean vague though as in the cases of some IEMs tuned with a mids dip to create a perception of distance without the technicalities to back it up. Spatial cues are finely nuanced and clearly heard on this IEM. The Katana can literally turn on a dime it has that much control on how it delivers the detail.
I remember listening to the RHA CL1 a while back and thinking that the clarity was good and the control was excellent also but in the case of the Katana you get it right across the FR and not just in certain areas. The Katana just never feels as forced as the CL1 in trying to give the perception of micro detail. It also delivers it with a far more pleasing and accurate timbre, and it is by far one of the best universal closed back IEM’s I have heard for string performances.
The Katana low end really benefits from that slightly larger bespoke BA driver Noble have used (the 9th). It really does not sound like a generic BA bass performance and more like a very finely tuned and coherent hybrid with excellent depth. There is a slight bump in the Katana low end that produces some pleasing body, particularly the sub-bass power and presence which is clear and well defined.
I do not find the mid-bass overly emphasized actually. In fact, it sounds quite linear or slightly dropping off from the sub-bass-to-bass levels towards the lower mids which really only serves to enhance instrumental clarity that bit more. The decay is also a touch longer than most ‘off the shelf’ BA designs, sounding more like a dynamic low end than a traditional BA IEM.
In a way, it reminds me of the A91 from Fidue which uses a dynamic driver in a hybrid config to get some great low-end extension and power but the Katana large BA just sounds that bit tighter and pacier.
Open, spacious with bags of detail and superb imaging and instrumental placement. Yet, at the same time, the Katana is not overly forward and uneven sounding. This is a smooth sounding and balanced presentation but the beauty of the mids on this IEM is the space it allows for both instrument and vocal performance to breathe.
Vocal presence may have a slight uptick in energy also but not enough to pull the whole staging too forward and skewing instrumental placement to the point where it loses impact or sounds vague.
Instrumental timbre on the Katana is accurate to clean with a slight emphasis on the upper harmonics on its attack but its impressively controlled. This is also one of those rare IEMs where the fundamental frequency and harmonics can remain at their peak loudness without causing any undue sibilance or generally an unpleasant sounding quality in its note decay. It’s quick to hit and pretty quick to release but the sustain control and length is excellent.
The Katana treble is airy, articulate and very well extended. Noble have tuned the Katana to give as much room as possible for the treble response to shine. Yet at the same time, the treble is not forced or overly boosted so whilst it has plenty of energy and sparkle it is not tizzy or simply too hot to handle. I think that is the critical distinction between other IEM’s out there that simply sound bright or sibilant and the Katana which sounds clear and detailed.
There is a sustained boost post 3-4k but it is not a peaky boost more of a gradual increase, plateau and decline with some nice minor boosting around 11-12k to get that hi-fidelity type top end in the final octave. I really cannot detect any roll off to mask any potential treble deficiencies in these drivers and it one of the big contributing factors to the Katana’s airy quality at the very top end.
One remark I do have to make was the level of enjoyment increased markedly with the foam tips for certain sources. The foam tips for me didn’t kill the extension or detail that the silicone tips provided, rather the treble had a little bit more body and slightly less bite in the attack. This combination releases the brakes on the Katana for source tracks with a full throttle energetic treble performance.