It’s been a little while since I’ve sat down and attempted to write my thoughts down like this, so bear with me as I attempt to find my voice again. Moving house is a whole thing and a half. Though this has at least given me time to really get said thoughts in line in ways, I hope I make sense to the average reader and more familiar audio enthusiast alike.
This review is more than anything going to be aimed at people to whom the Moondrop Aria is a familiarity, and are now curious what, if anything, the next step up from the same company could be. As such much of what I’ll be writing will involve callbacks and comparisons to the Aria. This is both because it makes it easier to quantify what I’m hearing particularly in the subjective sense, and also because quite frankly it’s what I have on hand.
I’d like to be able to offer more personal firsthand insight into the IEM space around the budgets of what I’m able to own and/or listen to for a meaningful period of time but we can only work with what we have, and to try and offer anything more than what I have would just be plain dishonest.
So this review isn’t an insight into the budget space that KATO occupies and I’d highly encourage further exploration if you desire more information in that regard. Ask around the communities, check out some audio focused Discord servers, ask some people who have owned these items, etc.
That preamble out of the way
Let’s talk about KATO.
My setup is a little different from my previous review. I’m now for the purposes of review, running my IEM out of a Samsung Galaxy S9 headphone jack using UAPP to playback local files. A mix of FLAC and 320kbps MP3 files.
As a disclaimer I have with all the products I own thus far, the KATO was purchased with my own money and I have been using them alongside my Galaxy Buds 2 as my regular portable listening option whenever outside of the house or doing chores where headphones would be impractical.
As ever, graphs are sourced from the ever useful and well kept archive of frequency response measurements found at crinacle.com
KATO, for anyone coming from Aria, or perhaps Starfield, or even potentially KXXS, will look familiar at a glance. To say Moondrop have stuck close to what is familiar and what works is perhaps an understatement. A tuning I’d consider on the bass-forward side, but tastefully so.
It’s not an uncommon sentiment among the community that the KXXS, Starfield, and Aria are very comparable in terms of sound and even more intangible and subjective performance. Perhaps some minor differences in imaging and soundstage (which are things I tend not to pay much consideration to personally, especially in IEMs) but ultimately all similar enough that Starfield and KXXS were made obsolete as Aria came along.
KATO is different enough from Aria, an improvement enough from Aria, that I’m comfortable in calling it a legitimate upgrade. A positive iteration. It would seem Moondrop feel the same as the KATO is positioned to be a true direct KXXS successor. It’s in the name, after all; KXXS Advanced Technology Optimized
That said, from a listener’s perspective, KATO is not a revolution. It will still be familiar. It still carries a very familiar tuning. It’s no doubt quite safe. A sentiment I’ve expressed previously about the Aria itself.
But there have been a few notable evolutions…
The low end, though tuned similarly to Aria, has notably more control. Where Aria’s bass has a tendency to overstay, to produce a soft rumble that practically nullifies any sense of impact, the KATO shows more restraint. It hits, and it knows when to quit. Not what I would call slammy, but certainly more controlled than the KATO’s more affordable predecessor.
As for the high end, it’s pleasant. As pleasant as I find Aria’s with definite refinement. If you’re looking for more presence here, more upper-mids or treble, you won’t find that. You will however find a little more clarity, a better sense of dynamics, and as I’m about to explain, an overall nicer timbre presentation.
There’s a much improved texture and timbre present throughout. Is KATO a timbre king? No. Well… Maybe in its budget range among IEM for all I know. But speaking in direct comparison I’ve now begun finding it difficult not to take note of how smoothed over Aria sounds in comparison. It lacks texture, and therefore it sounds a little plastic to my ear now. Not offensive, just not particularly impressive. Where KATO lets you really feel the texture of the instruments being played, the snap of drums, the pluck and decay of strings, it’s… Familiar to anyone who has experience with a well tuned and well implemented dynamic driver. IEMs may never live up to headphones, certainly not speakers, but going from my HD580 to my KATO whenever I need to step away from my PC has proven to be less of a disappointing experience than it was when I had to move to Aria. At least when it came to listening to classic rock, folk, any genres really that have a strong presence of strings, drums, and vocals.
Or I suppose you could call it the tl;dr that the title of the review more or less spoils, that will be written under the assumption that some people are gonna skip to the end anyway.
The KATO is an iteration. An improvement on what came before, and at a price range that has become a great deal more competitive since I first purchased my KATO at the beginning of March 2022.
As a step up from Aria? I can speak favorably of KATO. Whether it be mild alterations in the tuning, or perhaps a true improvement in the tech behind the dynamic driver used in the KATO which does differ from Aria, Starfield, and KXXS, KATO does stand above in places that do matter to me.
Does it stand out among the competition though? I honestly can’t say.
In only four months it feels like this price point now has a considerable lineup of genuine competitors, the Timeless and the S12 to name two that currently occupy a wave of ‘planar hype’ in the IEM space right now. Items I’ve been wanting to try but simply can’t justify the cost of right now. Especially after having just moved to a new house.
A sentiment that I suppose extends to even the more budget ranges of the IEM space, but that’s something to talk about another time. Maybe in the near future. A roundup of sub-$30 IEM is definitely something I could see myself doing if the fancy strikes.
For now, thanks for checking out a young hobbyist writing about her still all things considered fairly recent venture into the Audio hobby.