disclaimer:  The Mk3Se was provided by Little Dot USA for the purpose of review.  The good folks at Little Dot USA were fans of my tube rolling articles and had noticed a comment I had made about the lack of balanced options in the budget tube amplifier segment of the market.  They thought the Mk3Se fit the bill and that I should give it a shot.  With the Mk3Se using the 6922 series of tubes, which is A.) one of the most popular tubes for pre-amps and small amplifiers and B.) a tube I had a good stock of but have not written a tube rolling article on yet, I couldn’t resist.   What follows here is the review of the Mk3se itself.  The tube rolling article is still a work in progress as I picked out no less than 24 tube varieties to try.  I’ll add a link to the end of this review when the tube rolling article becomes available.  If you have an interest in Little Dot or the MK3se, check out their new US based website.  I have no financial interest in Little Dot, nor did I receive any compensation beyond the product itself for reviewing it.

 

Unboxing / Packaging:

The MK3Se is a large unit so is packaged accordingly and the box is much more designed for transport/travel than for retail sales.  Typical Cardboard with heavy closed cell foam surround the amp itself while the cables and tubes come packed in a smaller box again with heavy foam surrounds around the tubes.   My unit made its journey from China to the US without so much as a scratch on the outer package so I think it was well handled, but I have no doubt that it would have taken fairly substantial abuse to have caused any problems to the internal unit.

 

Build/Fit:

The Mk3se is a departure from the standard MK3 in that is is a hybrid using a tube pre-amp and a solid state power amp circuit.   On the Face we have a 6.3mm Single ended female output, a balanced XLR output, the volume knob, and a blue LED power indicator in the upper right corner.  On the top of the amp we have the pre-amp tubes (6DJ8/6922) followed by a housing containing a large toroidal transformer.   The rear face has, left to right, RCA inputs (unbalanced), XLR inputs (balanced), the standard IEC C13 male connector, the fuse, and power switch.  The model shipped to me is 110V per the label and these do not have an exposed 110/220 switch so be sure to order the correct model for your area.  The bottom of the unit has two small cutouts in the baseplate that expose 4 switches used to set the gain.   With this being a fully balanced amp, you have one bank per channel with two switches per bank for a total of 4 (more on this later).   Tubes have gold plated guards around them that match the top plate and offset the black of the rest of the unit.   The unit is solid feeling in hand with good heft.  The metal shell is thick enough to have very little flex.    The unit gets good and warm in use, but not too hot to touch (other than the tubes themselves) as is common.

 

Internals:

Confession time, I did attempt to take the Mk3Se down for pictures of the internals but quickly gave up due to the complexity of the installation of parts in the case.  there appears to be 4 boards internally.  The first is the inputs at the rear left and a  power supply board at the rear right.  From the front, the main board sits beneath a daughter board that contains the tube sockets.  As previously mentioned, the transformer is of the toroidal type and is marked as a 30VA model.  With the transformer sitting immediately behind the preamp tubes, the use of a toroidal that lowers the production of magnetic fields around it is wise.  Other advantages of toroidal style transformers tend to be lower noise and higher efficiency both of which are advantages in this use case as well.

The Mk3Se uses a true balanced circuit all the way through the amp from the XLR inputs at the rear to the XLR output on the front, although one needs to be aware that use of the RCA inputs will negate this as it requires a fully balanced input.   Little Dot points out that the signal path is fully discrete, fully symmetric, and a pure class A design.  All of these things they point out are not necessarily true of competing designs as many are class AB and others have a balanced output, but not the fully parallel internal circuitry to support it fully.  The single ended inputs and outputs are provided for convenience, but for most who buy the Mk3se, the calling card is the balanced input/output capability so I suspect those may get left off a future generation of product.

Tubes are 6N11 (Chinese designation),  6N23P (Russian designation), E88CC/Ecc88 (Western European designation), or 6DJ8/6922 (US designation).  This tube has been in constant production from 1958 through today with models being made in literally every corner of the earth.   Price points range from about $10 a tube for common 6DJ8 tubes up to tubes that command several thousand dollars a pair at the top end.   Somewhere in between those two extremes there is bound to be a model that fits your needs and budget.   I chose 24 different models for my tube rolling experiment and don’t feel like I have scratched the surface of what is available for this amp.

Technical specs are as follows:   Input impedance is listed as 10K Ω with an SNR of 95 dB but the impressive numbers are 0.001% distortion (measured at 1kHz at 2V RMS) and a claimed frequency response of 5Hz to 100kHz (1dB).    Output power is quite good as welll with 2.5 Watts into 32Ω or 0.8 Watts into a 300Ω load.     The unit has 2 gain settings with 2 pairs of switches on the base of the unit. With all 4 switches in the on position (default) the unit is on low gain with a factor of 4.5:1.   With all four switches in the off position, the unit is put in high gain mode with a 9:1 gain ratio.   Unlike some other models, the one  on / one off positions are not discussed or recommended.

Sound:

Sound characteristics are difficult to nail down for most amplifiers and this is particularly true of tube amplifiers where the contribution of the tube itself can change the signature pretty dramatically.  For the sake of this analysis, I used only the tubes the Mk3se shipped with, and only after 100 hours of burn in time.  Remember that these notes can and will change with different tubes.  I’m still working through my 24 tube sampling of available types and brands and hope to have more posted on that by the end of August.

 

Bass:

The MK3se has plenty of power when called upon and can deliver Bass that is both deep and heavy when needed.   While not quite as potent as something like the Ta-30, I didn’t have any issue with driving even the He6 (on high gain) and bass was still well rendered with no loss in impact even with high impedance (600Ω) or low sensitivity headphones.    I don’t feel that the Amp does anything to accentuate the low end and overall, bass is linear through the mid bass and even into the lower mids.

 

Mids:

We expect a tube amp to be well “Tubey” with somewhat warm and syrupy mids.  The Mk3se stops short of this with the stock tubes and while it does have a touch of warmth to the mids, it isn’t what I would define as syrupy at all.   True mids have good texture and detail and feel just very slightly ahead of the lower mids in the mix.   There is a very definite upper mid/ lower treble emphasis (entirely tube as it goes away when swapped).  This brings vocals to the front, but can be a bit too much for my ear.

 

Treble:

The lift present in the upper mids is also seen in the lower treble and here what becomes pronounced is a bit of grain to the treble.  Again, this is the tube and not inherent to the amp but with stock 6N11 tubes, expect to have a little unevenness and some grain in the upper ranges that keeps it from sounding completely clean.   Extension is good and they do have some air at the top, but tube rolling goes a long way to improve the treble.  (Without giving away too much, try the Tesla 6922).

 

Soundstage/Imaging:

I have always thought the job of a good amplifier is to stay out of the way and let the headphone deliver.  I intentionally paired the Mk3Se to the HD800, the Ananda, the He6, and the Beyer T1 all of which are known for their stage dimensions.   The HD800 delivered the massive stage they are known for and imaging was spot on as well,   The Ananda had a few struggles with the treble of the 6N11 but improved with tube swaps, the He6 did what I know it should, and the T1 did was also.   I won’t claim the amp itself has great stage, but it does seem to do all the right things to let headphones that have great stage really shine.

 

Thoughts / Conclusion:

Fully balanced tube amps are a rarity in the budget space, so when the opportunity arrived to try this one, I jumped at it and I am really glad I did.  The Little Dot MK3Se is a big departure from the previous Mk3 as it is hybrid with tube pre-amp and solid state power amp segments.  The SE is much more closely related to the MK3+ and the LD H1 and while the shell is pure Mk3+ the internals are more closely related to the H1 with its fully balanced circuitry design.   On top of that, the 6922 is one of the most prolific tubes out there so there is little chance of supplies running low anytime soon.   Genelex,  and Reflector both produce 6922 tubes currently in Russia, and the Shuguang plant in China produces a 6922 as well.   Supplies of old stock US and European made tubes are quite good with every possible maker and budget represented.    I found some fantastic options at very reasonable price tags in my experimentation.      In order to do its best work, the SE does need to be paired with a balanced DAC.  With the Grace S-DAC balanced being sold for $150 and the SMSL Su-8v2 for slightly over $200, it doesn’t take all that much to get into a full balanced system these days.  For a bit more  the Topping D90 is a top performer and still when paired with the SE would keep total spend under $1500 or so.    If you don’t have balanced gear, you can still use the SE with the provided RCA inputs.  This gives a new user a way to buy an amp today to use with their existing gear, and then grow into it as budget is available.       I think  the Mk3Se offers a lot for the price tag and as balanced dacs drop from the stratosphere into territory more of us can afford, it only makes sense to make an amp to take full advantage of it.  The Mk3Se does, you should try one out if you get the chance, its a great little amp.

 

Pros:   Power to spare, very good dac performance, clean sound, tube rolling options abound.

Cons:  requires balanced source to offer best output, requires tube rolling to find best balance.

 


disclaimer: I requested the ibasso IT00 for review from iBasso.  I had previously purchased the IT01, 01s, and 03 for review and had heard that the IT00 might eclipse the IT01 in the sound quality department so was more than a little interested to try it out.  IBasso kindly provided the IT00 for purposes of this review.   I have no financial interest in IBasso or any of their resellers, nor have any of those had any input in this review.   If you are interested in the IT00, visit the IBasso Website or follow them on Facebook.  The IT00 can be purchased directly from the IBasso website.

 

Unboxing / Packaging:

Those familiar with Ibasso products will recognize the packaging immediately.  A white slipcover with picture and name on front and specs on reverse covers the standard blue understated box inside.   Lifting the top reveals the warranty card and beneath that the earpieces in the upper section of the foam surround and the soft clam shell case in the lower portion.  Inside the clam shell you will find the cable, 9 pairs of various silicone tips, and a set of replacement nozzle filters.  Let me state right up front, these are not tuning filters and swapping them wont alter the sound unless the original pair is pretty clogged up, still its a nice idea to provide these with a budget product like the IT00.   The cable does have a velcro tie as well which is another nice touch.   About the only thing missing in the kit is a shirt clip and honestly I have a drawer full as I very rarely use them so it won’t be missed in my case, but some may be more upset over the omission.

 

Build/Fit:

Shells on the IT00 are white polymer with aluminum nozzles.  The faceplate has ibasso IT00 in small black print on the lower edge while the inner shell has an L/R indicator on the top edge over the nozzles.   Shape is quasi semi-circular with the curve fitting against the rear of the ear and the flat housing the mmcx connector at top front.  Size and thickness are both about average with the IT00 riding partially in and partially on the ear.  Nozzles have a removable screen for replacement or cleaning if/when they get dirty.  This screen also doubles as the lip retention device as it is slightly larger than the nozzle body and has knurling to improve retention.     There are two vents on the under side of the shell, one immediately adjacent to the nozzle and the other at the rear edge of the inner face.  Nozzles exit the lowest point of the shell with a distinct forward rake similar to the it01 and it01s that precede it.  I found comfort to be very good with no rough edges or fatigue from long term wear, but did find isolation to be limited at best as they sit fairly shallow and do not obstruct the ear canal very solidly.

 

Internals:

Inside the shell, the IT00 relies on a single 10mm dynamic driver to do its work, but almost every aspect of this driver has been tuned and customized by iBasso.    The driver utilizes a customized  high flux magnet, dual Helmholtz resonators surrounding the magnet to improve bass, and a 5um multi-layer graphene diaphragm for enhanced stiffness, lower distortion, and enhanced speed.   Nominal impedance is listed as 16Ω with a sensitivity of 106 dB/mW.    Those numbers suggest the IT00 should work well from lower powered sources and I found it to work quite well from a phone, but to scale considerably with higher quality sources as well.

 

Cable:

The provided cable is listed as oxygen free copper and is a double twist pattern in black casement from the 90º 3.5mm jack up to the splitter.  Fixtures are all polished metal with a black gloss finish.  A chin slider (rubber bead style) rests neatly on top of the splitter.   Twisted pairs run from the splitter to the earhooks and mmcx connectors at the north end.  The mmcx connectors are also gloss black with L/R markings on the sides and red/blue rings around the actual connector for easy indexing.  Earpieces also have a large L/R labeled immediately above the nozzles for quick reference.     The cable is fairly pliable but does have some tendency to tangle so the addition of the cable tie is welcome as it helps (but does not eliminate) the tangles.

 

Tips:

The IT00 comes with 3 different styles of tips that I define as wide bore black,  wide bore white, and narrow bore black.  All are silicone and all share similar construction other than bore diameter.  I traded tips around several times while listening and impact is subtle to the treble but more notable in the lows by ear, kind of the exact opposite of what the FR shows in my comparison below.  I chose to use the black narrow bore tips for my review notes as they gave the most neutral signature of the three for me.  As always, your mileage may vary. 

 

Sound:

Bass:

Sub-bass is elevated on the IT00 with good rumble when called upon, is fast enough to avoid getting muddy, and has good extension.  Like the models before it, the IT00 isn’t for those seeking a perfectly neutral reference as the bass is big even at lower volumes.  It isnt lose or sloppy, but it is prominent.    There is some mild bleed and decay is a touch slower than attack, the combination of which adds a little warmth to the sound.   The IT00 is a good option for movie watchers on cell phone as it doesn’t take a ton to drive it and get those deep rumbles and booms as cars slam into each other or bombs go off on-screen.

 

Mids:

As previously mentioned, lower-mids are colored by a bit of bleed and warmth, but retain good clarity in spite of it.  Lower vocals are a touch thin so the extra warmth is welcomed.   The IT00 does seem to give up a little detail in favor of a smoother presentation and the mids are where, to my ear, that is most evident.   Guitar growl is good, but edges are not quite as ragged as perhaps they would be in real life.   Acoustic guitar timbre is a bit better as it tends to be less aggressive in its presentation anyway.  Strings are well voiced, although I found the higher strings lacked that last bit of energy needed to really sound natural.    Vocals are a step in front of the instrumentation with good clarity and the ability to cut through even heavy/complex passages.

 

Treble:

FR charts will show a mild climb in the upper mids/ lower treble but honestly it is gradual enough that it doesn’t listen like a big V and doesn’t feel particularly treble forward.  Lower treble does have good energy and detail is good but again that smoothing is in effect.  Snare rattle is slightly blunted on the attack but finishes well, and cymbals lack any hint of metallic click to them, but again fall a hair short of lifelike due to the tuning.  I found no tendency to stridency or sibilance and even tracks that are inherently somewhat harsh were generally cleaned up slightly and a little more palatable as a result.  This is probably a great tuning for entry level as it is very source forgiving, but it wont please those looking to get massive detail retrieval.  Extension is good with it easily reaching past the limits of my hearing.  Air and sparkle are quite good for an iem at this price point.

 

Soundstage / Imaging:

Stage on the IT00 is wider than deep with some height, but it stops a bit short of feeling 3D.  Seating the orchestra is fairly straight forward as well with no large anomalies.  Instrument separation is good, but not spectacular and this is one place the IT00 falls just shy of the IT01s in my estimation.    Movements around the stage are easily tracked but at times placements are more area than spot in nature.   There is some compression as well as tracks get overly complex and a tendency to thicken particularly the mid-bass as a result.

 

Comparisons:

Well we have to start off with its siblings so first up, how does the 00 compare to the 01 and 01s.

IBasso IT01 – this is the one that started the line and while the two share some similarities,  there are some distinct differences as well.  Shells were a bit more polished and upscale on the 01, while they look a bit more mass production on the 01.   The cable was a bit higher end looking on the 01 as well with heavier strands and the copper visible through the clear casing.   I also think the 01 cable was a bit less tangle prone.    Sound wise, bass is bigger on the 01 and cleaner on the 00, Mids are a bit fuller on the 00 as well as being a bit tighter, and treble is more polite on the 00 while the 01 is brighter and a bit more lively up top.   Overall, the 00 is smoother, warmer, a bit relaxed, and better balanced than the 01.  In this case 0 > 1.

IBasso IT01s –   Build notes from the 01 compare still hold true here so no need to repeat.  Sound wise, the 01s and 00 are more like fraternal twins.  While they share a lot of common DNA, they have definite personality differences.   The similarities between the 01s and 00 are a shared tonality and  similar mids.  The big differences is the 01s is a bit brighter up top, more detailed, and has slightly less boost in the mid-bass.  Stage is larger on the 01s as well and while still not perfectly dimensioned, it comes closer to depth equaling width.

 

Now on to the competition:  I tried to gather the best current sellers with single dynamic drivers (or close) and similar price points and came up with the KBear Diamond, the BGVP Zero, and the Moondrop Starfield that fit the bill.

 

KBear Diamond   – both have single dynamic drivers,  both have similar shell shapes, both have similar price points and both are packaged with similar bundles.  These couldn’t get more directly aligned at the same market.  Shells on the Diamond are slightly larger and heavier due to their metal construction vs the 00’s polymer shells.  Cables are a wash with both being acceptable and neither spectacular.  Sound wise,  the 00 has more sub-bass quantity, and slightly better overall bass quality when compared to the diamond.  Mids are more recessed on the Diamond as well and a bit thinner compared to the 00.  While mids are more forward on the 00, they have a touch more clarity on the diamond.  At the top end, the diamond has a much larger upper-mid/lower treble push giving the diamond a more V shape and the 00 a more neutral listen in comparison.   This is a double edged sword as the diamond can have more detail in the treble, but also can get a bit bright at times.  The treble sensitive will likely prefer the 00 for that reason alone.

 

BGVP Zero  – The Zero is a bit more of a departure in that it is a hybrid with both a dynamic driver and an electrostatic but it otherwise fits the bill here.  Kit is similar, shape is similar, cost is within a few dollars of each other, and both are definitely gunning for your dollar right now.   The BGVP is thinner front to back and slightly taller than the 00 so while the 00 sits on the ear, the Zero sits mainly in it.   Sound wise, the Zero is much more mid-bass oriented and a larger V shape by far than the 00.  The Zero does show off more top end with its eletrostat and has a more detailed treble but is also considerably brighter than the 00 which may put some people off.   The mids are better on the 00 vs the Zero with better clarity and a more natural tonality as well.   These two share almost nothing in signature so personal preference will decide the choice.

 

Moondrop Starfield – This has been the darling of the <$100 market of late (deservedly or not depending on who you ask) so without doubt the question will come up as to how the 00 compares.  Shells are roughly the same size with the starfield being slightly heavier with its metal vs the 00 polymer shell.   Cables are about the same with neither feeling particularly special.   Bass is more extended on the 00 and a touch faster to my ear, particularly on decay where the starfield has a bit more lingering decay and a bit smoother sound if less textured as a result, the 00 has more clarity in the low end.   Both have good mids with the Starfield having slightly better lower mids  but a bigger upper-mid push and vocals stand out more.  The 00 has slightly thinner lower-mids  but female vocals more inline with the rest of the instrumentation and a bit more detail than the starfield can muster.   The IT00 has more top end extension but a thinner less emphasized presentation than the starfield which has more lower treble emphasis.  Stage is wider on the 00 but deeper on the starfield so that will come down to personal preference as neither is perfectly dimensioned.

 

Thoughts / Conclusion:

I’ll have to admit a bit of confusion as I write this and if you stop and do the math, I think you’ll understand why.  The IT00 is cheaper than the 01, rivals the o1s in many respects in sound quality, has a premium kit but is billed as entry level, has really good bass impact but is not heavy or dark, has good detail but is fairly laid-back.  You can see where the confusion comes in, right?  The good news is that identity crisis only benefits the consumer as you get all those things mentioned for entry level money.    So yet another quandary comes up, 0 is greater than 1 at least in this case.  To my ear the IT00 has the highest cost/performance ratio of any of the Ibasso in-ears to date (I’ve owned or tried, it00, it01, it01s, it03, and it04).   At $69 it makes a compelling argument as one of the best budget offerings available to date and is highly recommended for those looking to take that first step into better audio.  It is forgiving of poor source material and at the same time brings enough detail to the mix to please seasoned audiophiles.   I had declared the Starfield as a potential product of the year candidate earlier in the year, turns out Ibasso may well have something to say about that as the IT00 makes a compelling argument for taking its throne.   You owe this one an audition, if nothing else to show just how good budget audio has gotten, it will surprise many and please even more.