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.