The thing that makes or breaks a set of earphones is its fit. Without a good seal, earphones can't properly reproduce bass, and without long-term comfort, they can't get into your ears in the first place. So why does Noble Audio, the company I regard as the best creator of in-ear headphones, suck so bad at making tips for them?
When I reviewed Noble’s K10s, I said they were astoundingly good, but I could never get a perfect fit — not even with eleven different sets of eartips provided — and so they ultimately sounded a little bass-light to me. Then I heard them with a custom fitting specific to my ears and was floored by their bass response. Exact same hardware, but the proper fit made all the difference. I'm not alone in finding this, either, as many other Noble customers have reported a similar struggle to find a good fit without going custom.
This summer Noble introduced an even more expensive flagship headphone than the K10 with the $1,850 Katana. That eye-watering price, carrying an extra 0 more than most people would spend on earphones, makes the Katana a thing of mostly academic interest, but the product itself illustrates my point about the neglect of fit.
On my first listen of the Katana, I quickly found a musical spot where they wowed me by playing back a favorite track with more impact and precision than I'd previously heard. So I knew they were good, but I was also conscious of the fact that they were kind of falling out of my ears. If the pictures don't give it away, the Katanas are big and hefty things.
Whatever, I thought, maybe I'll have better luck with that multiplicity of Noble tips this time around. Noble has three different types of silicone tips, one of them double-flanged, and two sizes of foam tips, but none of them seem a suitable match for the comparatively heavy earphones they’re bundled with.
I tried and retried every single one of those 11 tip pairs, but my ears rejected them all and so I was left disappointed and frustrated. I knew I had exceptional audio hardware in my possession, but I had no practical way to plug its alleged awesomeness into my bloodstream.
And then I started digging through every old pair of earphones still in my possession and trying their neglected tips on the uncooperative Nobles. My first finding was that there's a relatively standard nozzle size that most earphones stick to: I was able to easily interchange tips between Sony, Nocs, and HTC buds. But the Katanas, in all their opulence, also have a fatter nozzle, housing three separate bores producing sound from no less than nine speakers per ear. So I was about ready to give up until, at the very bottom of my old earbud box, I found a pair of RHA MA600is. They too had an enlarged nozzle and thus more accommodating silicone tips, which I tried as a last resort.
The Noble Katanas with those RHA tips were instantly transparent, giving me the music without any of the veiling effects I'd previously heard with worse-fitting options (most of which were Noble’s own). That's when the Katanas very clearly, pun intended, separated themselves from my pile of good but unexceptional earphones. Like the K10s before them, the Katanas have superb spatial imaging, though they somehow resolve even more detail in every song. Other people who've heard both earphones tend to find the Katana pair more analytical and less thrilling, but I'm a fan of its leaner sound — which is just a different way to enjoy the hell out of my music.
Companies can and should do better
My hacky Noble-RHA combo still has a downside in that it doesn't isolate external noise very well. So it's all kinds of awesome at home but not the first pair I’d want to use while commuting on the tube. This sort of compromise could be tolerable with a pair of disposably priced earphones, but for the luxury-class Katanas, it’s unacceptable.
In fairness to Noble, other manufacturers have exhibited similar oversight — I’m thinking of Logitech’s $399 UE900s and the $250 Beoplay H5, both of which fail, in my experience, at the most basic task of fitting comfortably in the ear. Still, for the purposes of encouraging companies to correct their ways and do better, I can't let Noble off the hook here. The company should either sell only custom in-ears or it should figure out better universal-fit tips. I'm far from an isolated case, and given Noble's pricing, this is an issue that should have been rectified already. If an $80 pair of RHA buds can defeat the poor-fit dragon, then the $1,850 Katana must surely be able to slay the beast just as well.