Moondrop is a Chinese IEM manufacturer with a long list of successful products under its sleeve. In this review, I’m looking at the latest release, the Moondrop KATO. The KATO is a single dynamic driver IEM and retails for $189.
Disclaimer: This sample was provided by Shenzhen Audio for the purpose of an honest review. All observations and opinions here are my own based on my experience with the product.
Lovely stock cable
Natural and accurate timbre
Soundstage, imaging and resolution
Could use more treble energy
Stock eartips are quite small
Driver: 10mm-ULT dynamic driver
Diaphragm: the 3rd generation DLC composite diaphragm
Socket: 0.78-2Pin sunken design
Housing: MIM stainless steel
Nozzle: stainless steel *2, brass *2
Cable plug: 3.5mm stereo single-ended plug
Frequency response range: 10Hz-45kHz (IEC61094, Free Field)
Effective frequency response range: 20Hz-20kHz (IEC60318-4, -3dB)
KATO comes in a fairly substantial and robust box. It’s wrapped in a white cardboard sleeve with the obligatory waifu on the front. On the back of the sleeve is a list of specifications as well as a frequency response graph and exploded diagram of the IEM.
The actual box has a double lid that opens in the middle to reveal a thick black card with a silver line diagram on it. Underneath the card is where we find all the goodness inside which includes:
Moondrop KATO IEM
Detachable SPC cable
Aluminium plate with alternate nozzle filters
Fabric carring pouch
Faux leather carrying case
3x pairs of silicone eartips
3x pairs of foam eartips
This is the first time I’ve seen the new Moondrop “Spring” silicone eartips. I was terribly disappointed to see they’re too small for my ears because they look and feel excellent. The included carrying pouch is too small to hold the earpieces and cable comfortably but will comfortably hold the earpieces alone to keep them protected during transport or storage.
KATO’s exterior shell design is a familiar one as it’s very similar to the KXXS, Starfield and Aria. This time, however, the faceted MIM (Metal Injection Moulding) crafted stainless steel shells hearken back to the polished surface aesthetic of the KXXS. It makes sense considering KATO is essentially an updated KXXS. The hand-grinded surface looks fantastic but it is, of course, prone to attracting fingerprints.
The shells have a nice heft to them, giving them a premium feel without being overly heavy. There are two vents on the inner side of the shell: one towards the top and another near the base of the nozzle. Speaking of the nozzles, there are 2 sets that also act as interchangeable tuning filters. One set is stainless steel and the other is brass.
The 0.78mm 2-pin sockets are sunken into the shell, which helps prevent the pins from bending and can increase the longevity of the cable.
It’s on the inside where this IEM has had the most significant changes: Internally, KATO sports a 3rd-generation 10mm ULT (Ultra Linear Technology) driver with a Diamond-like carbon (DLC) diaphragm. DLC drivers are coveted for their light weight, rigidity, low distortion and acoustic performance.
Just like the previous models, KATO’s shells are fairly small and comfortable. They fit naturally in my ears without causing any hotspots and I can happily wear them for extended periods. Passive noise isolation is about average, blocking out a moderate amount of external noise.
The included cable is twisted 4-strand silver-plated copper (SPC ). Transparent connector housings at the top are accompanied by a polished aluminium chin slider, Y-split and straight 3.5mm plug. The cable handles wonderfully: there’s no microphonics and it feels very strong and high-quality but is still supple and smooth.
KATO is tuned closely to the VDSF (Virtual Diffuse Sound Field) target which is their own interpretation of the Harman response target. It’s a fairly linear response with some emphasis on the bass, upper mids and lower treble which makes for an engaging and detailed yet smooth sound.
KATO’s sound is just warm enough to sound natural while still maintaining good clarity, detail retrieval and a reasonably large soundstage. In terms of source pairing, KATO is an efficient IEM and will work with pretty much any source, even straight out of a smartphone.
There are 2 sets of tuning nozzles included with KATO: one is stainless steel and the other brass. The difference in sound is subtle but the main differences are the brass nozzle sounds a tad richer with a little extra fullness in the core midrange and a subtle lift in the upper midrange.
The bass is similar to the previous models (KXXS, Starfield and Aria) with a slight boost in the lower frequencies and a fairly linear transition between the sub-bass and mid-bass. This gives it ample punch and impact, providing rhythmic drive and underlying warmth.
KATO’s DLC dynamic driver has good speed and control, so there’s minimal bass bleed and interference with the midrange. The sub-bass has sufficient physical impact and a deep, tight rumble. Mid-bass notes have plentiful slam and force without any bloat or masking of the mids.
Listening to Gogo Penguin’s “Transient State”, the kick drum thumps with authority and each note of the double bass is clearly audible. Yet the treble remains crisp and upfront while the piano sounds clear and vibrant.
KATO has a very natural sounding midrange. It’s imbued with just the right amount of warmth to sound lifelike while keeping the size of vocal and instrument notes compact enough to preserve instrument separation. The clarity is good, thanks in part to the treble extension and tidiness of the bass.
Instruments and vocals, both male and female, have an accurate timbre and organic richness. KATO’s midrange is opulent without being thick. While it’s not the most spacious, it’s what we would normally refer to as being quite musical. But at the same time, it’s a clean, clear midrange.
Listening to “The Shadow Side” by Leprous, the vocals are fairly upfront and full-bodied. The string instruments sound somewhat warm but still fairly airy. Electric guitars sound smoothed and lack a little bite or grit but still have ample texture.
The treble is one of my favourite aspects of KATO’s sound. Although it’s not the most energetic or exciting, it’s crisp and airy. Perhaps the best thing about the treble though is the timbre. Treble notes sound accurate and spacious while maintaining good density.
KATO has a laid back treble presentation but the lift in the upper region and the overall extension add air and a hint of sparkle. The clarity of the percussion in Porcupine Tree’s “Moonloop (Coda)” is refreshing yet it’s very smooth and free of sibilance.
Here lies another of KATO’s strengths. The soundstage isn’t particularly large but the instrument separation and spacing are very good. The speed of the driver helps to keep a black background, strengthening imaging and the overall resolution. Regarding its dimensions, the stage is only slightly wider than it is deep. But there’s a lot of quality and layers in that space in front of the listener. It might not be the largest of soundstages but the quality of KATO’s stage is among the best in its class.
Moondrop KXXS ($189)
The KXXS is the direct predecessor to KATO. Its tonality is slightly leaner and cooler in comparison. KXXS has less body in the midrange, making the bass feel more prominent. Bass notes have slightly better definition on the KXXS but not as much weight as KATO.
KXXS midrange has a smaller note size and a cooler tone. This makes it feel more spacious but in comparison, KATO has additional body and sounds more natural due to a little extra warmth. KXXS treble sounds a bit more forward because of the thinner midrange. This gives it an airier feel and while the stage might be slightly larger, KATO matches it in imaging and soundstage quality.
iBasso IT01s ($199)
The iBasso IT01s also has a single DLC dynamic driver. It’s got similar sub-bass and mid-bass quantity as KATO. But its bass notes have faster attack and greater definition, resulting in more slam and impact. IT01s has a little more fullness in its lower midrange but this is offset by having more treble energy. The result is a midrange that sounds slightly recessed compared to KATO but has more vocal articulation and faster transients.
The 5kHz peak gives IT01s better definition on percussion instruments and additional clarity throughout the midrange. The iBasso has extra treble energy giving it a slight advantage in detail retrieval but at the same time, making it brighter and not as smooth as KATO. ITO1s soundstage is a little bigger but the quality of the stage is similar with both IEMs.
Well, they’ve done it again. The Moondrop KATO is among the best single dynamic driver IEMs under $200. In fact, it’s one of the best in its price range regardless of driver configuration. The build quality and comfort are excellent and the included accessories are a good mix of quality and quantity.
As far as the audio quality is concerned, I believe KATO is an improvement overall on its predecessor the KXXS. It maintains most of the latter’s characteristics while at the same time sounding richer and more natural. Moondrop continues to refine its house sound with each iteration and KATO is the latest IEM to earn a spot on my best IEMs list. Recommended.