Little Dot mk3 se ($429): My first LD, and it’s quite nice

Little Dot mk3 se: My first LD, and it’s quite nice

Pros: Just like I thought an LD would sound, excellent all around
LD build
Class A
Fully balanced
Tube rolling!
Price
Diminutive size

Cons: Balanced source gives best output
Requires tube rolling to find best balance
Stock tubes are good, but think of the possibilities!

Little Dot mk3 se ($429): My first LD, and it’s quite nice

*In my haste I thought this review was posted already…it wasn’t, so here it is. I do thank @Wiljen & Little Dot for the use of this very fine amp, it was my first listen to an LD amp, and hopefully not my last!

Cheers.


Little Dot mk3 se site

Introit:

Offered the chance to review the LD mk3 se on the heels of the wonderful quartet of LD IEM’s, I offered my humble services. On loan from @Wiljen, I am thankful that LD offered me the chance as well to review one of their tube amps. I almost purchased one some time ago, and have always looked at them with respect, especially after reading reviews of their wares. Will included many tubes with which to try, but I would be remiss if I even attempted the kind of review he is legendary for…as such I will report on the stock tubes, his vaunted Tesla tubes (they are indeed superb!!!) and another of mid-fi ilk. This to me is the fun in such a review (when afforded the time). Tube rolling is but another benefit of going this route, and after doing so with my XDuoo TA-30, this should be fun.

I thank Little Dot US for the opportunity to continue the relationship with the mk3 and look forward to providing an honest review of the product. I also thank Will for the offering, and value this working relationship like a fine friendship. He is an excellent gentleman, who also knows what the heck he is talking about. His reviews are superb in their honest assessment and have garnered much attention worldwide. I want to be like him when I grow up. Thanks, Will.

Specs/interesting info:

Little Dot MK III SE is a hybrid and fully balanced amplifier, you can think of it as the ultimate upgrade for MK III series. It uses 6N11 as its preamp tubes (6922/ECC88, etc);

Transistor part runs on a fully discrete, fully symmetry, and pure class A circuit design;

The machine is balanced, and it has 3 pin XLR balanced input and 4-pin XLR output, and it also has an RCA input, 6.35 output. Very delicate two-layer oxidation on chassis, and a gold-plated tube rack.


The input terminals:

Balance: XLR 3 pins x2
Unbalanced: RCA x2



The output terminal:

Balance: XLR 4 pins x1
Unbalanced: 6.35 mm x1

Input impedance:10K ohm
Distortion degree:0.001%(1000 hz)(output: 2v RMS)
SNR:95dB
Frequency response:5 hz-100 KHZ(1 dB)

Output power:

2.5W (32 ohm)
1.8W (120 ohm)
0.8W (300 ohm)
Adapter headphone impedance:32 ohm-600 ohm


Magnification:

Gain = HIGH:9
Gain = LOW:4.5
The power consumption:30 VA



In The Box:

  • Little Dot mk3 se unit
  • Power cord
  • Stock tubes



Gear Used/Compared:

XDuoo TA-30 ($710)
Yulong DA-Art Aquila II ($700)

Cayin N6 mk2
Shanling M6 Pro
MacBook Pro

ZMF Eikon
Audeze LCD-3
Dunu Luna
Verum Audio Verum 1
VModa M-100 Master (as part of that review)
Others as warranted



Songlist:

Joey Alexander-Warna album and others
Mark Knopfler-Laughs And Jokes And Drinks And Smokes
Santana w/ Mana- Corazon Espinado
twenty one pilots album, Trench
Tedeschi Trucks Band
Big Head Todd & The Monsters-Beautiful World
Mark Knopfler-Down The Road Wherever
Elton John-yep, still good, still cool
Tidal MQA



Unboxing:

Nothing out of the ordinary, and the whole unit is packed well, as one would expect from a manufacturer. Everything is protected well and arrived with no damage. Not much to say here other than that.

Build/Fit/Finish:

As a purveyor of fine tube amps, Little Dot extends into the in-ear monitor venue as well. See my blog and HeadFi for reviews of all four. The focus here though, is the amp. And as stated above, I have almost purchased one in the past and have had a great appreciation for their products as witnessed from other reviews. I currently play Tidal MQA through Will’s TESLA tubes, and the ZMF Eikon to write this part. I do find the TESLA’s provide better clarity, and almost “get rid of” the tube-like sound. But that is for below.

Coming in a fairly low-profile state, the biggest aspect is the transformer “box” at the back. The box is not distracting in the least and compliments the industrial aspect from the early 1900’s look of the front end what with the tubes. One comes to expect a tube amp to look the part, as that can be part of the appeal. As such, the LD does not disappoint. Sparsed in a gold base plate, the tubes are definitely highlighted, setting off the top. This does break up the silver faceplate and goes well with the gold and black above. I was not sure about using the gold at first, but it has slowly grown on me. The only change I might make is to tone the volume knob down, as it seems a bit out of place with the size scale. But, when paired with an XLR-plugged headphone, they complement each other nicely. What do I know…? Also, on the front is a 6.35mm jack. Most have plug options to fit the mk3, and adaptors galore.

The rounded shape of the hull makes for an interesting retro look, which when put all together makes for a nice desktop piece to show off. On the back you have an analog RCA connection, and balanced XLR connections for running a true balanced set up. This will be addressed when I get to the source part with the Shanling M6 Pro. But when I played it initially it was quite good. Overall build quality is what you would expect from a premium brand and on par with their more expensive lot. This may have a “budget” price but does not come across that way in build. There are also four “switches” on the bottom with which to change from low to high gain. This is either an all-on or all-off aspect as mixing is not recommended. I ran the switches in the
“off position” the whole time, which denotes high gain. Power was good when combined with the Tidal volume and MBP volume. Or in the case of a DAP, line-out.


Technicals:

While I could try to espouse all of the technical aspects of the mk3, I would refer you to Will’s excellent review instead. I could try, but would pale in comparison, so I bow to his expertise. I shall try to exude confidence in other aspects instead. Suffice to know that the mk3 is a fully balanced hybrid amp, which means the tubes have a purpose as does the solid-state part. But, since the amp can be fully balanced, the hybrid part comes across as the best of both worlds. The amp part itself is true Class-A, which does provide for excellent sound and can show its true worth in fully balanced mode.

Since the tubes are the pre-amp section and the solid-state amp, tuning the input can lead to a much different sound coming out. That is where the fun can be for those who like to tube roll. As stated, I will only use the stock along with the TESLA and another mid-grade tub for analysis.

Sound:

Starting with the TESLA tubes after ensuring the stock tubes worked, I wanted to see what could be considered TOTL of the tub e lineup. And I must admit the clarity wrought from the Tesla’s is stunning. These are truly phenomenal tubes and should be considered if you can afford it. They are not cheap, and I am ever thankful that Will sent them. I care for these like a babe swaddled in a soft blanket, carefully. Detail retrieval is on par with other excellent tube offerings and if you go with a tube amp, you should look for these. I find no grit in the sound but do note that the sound emanating from the top end can become tedious to me. Maybe I am just not used to this much crispness from a tube amp. This also draws quickly how tough it can be to ascertain the sound of a tube amp. Tube rolling can only do so much, and cheap tube amps simply cannot compete. But when you reach this level, how much the tube actually increases the sound quality is very much subjective to me. Starting with an excellent amp such as this the increase is notable, but when you already start with a good amp it may take finer ears than mine to note the true difference. Think lipstick on a pig for the cheap amps, and new tires for this price and up. Performance is indeed increased, but how you tailor that increase is purely up to you. I’m not sure that came across well enough but think diminishing returns and that leans towards what I scribe.

I will also note here that the unit does not get nearly as hot as the XDuoo TA-30 either. The TA could seriously be used to heat a small apartment in NYC should the need arise. Slightly warm would be how the unit feels to the touch. Good to know that not all tube amps feel like a nuclear reactor core…

On Jethro Tull’s excellent BBS Session of Stormy Monday, you can clearly hear his breaths (which yes are always there…), and lips pursed to the flute make for a wonderful listen. I would note that the sound here seems a bit too clean for the song, but no matter; for the quality is such that you are here for the detail and it is stunning.

Switching to the Shanling M6 Pro using an XLR cable, which ends in 2.5bal, the LD was transformed. Setting the volume to LO, I carefully queued Big Head Todd’s Crazy Mary. The mk3 definitely shines in full balanced operation as witnessed by my ears. Deep, rich bass pervaded my ears, and I did find myself lowering the volume after a time to accommodate that sensory implosion of sound. Vocals from this full balanced come across as rich as well. Detail retrieval is excellent as well. That crispness of sound can come across as almost sibilant using the TESLA on songs such as Blurryface, but it isn’t. The song is set that way, so once again retrieval is accurate and clean.

Lindsay Stirling’s Hold My Heart is as succinct and crisp as it should be. There is no hiding whatsoever, and that crisp detailed son g comes across without being antiseptic. Deep, rich bass permeates the senses as you listen, and that trademark Audeze rendering of the bass makes for quite the intoxicating listen.

The addition of the Tesla tubes shows that a mid-fi tube amp can most definitely provide stellar sound and one with excellent character as well. The delicate parts of My God from Jethro Tull come across as tantalizing and anticipatory for the next note. Then the dirty sound of Ian Anderson’s voice, come along changing everything. His flute play is second to none, and he can float between litly and dirty on single note. This song defines that and as such the mk3 provides the platform with which to judge that sound. That is all one can ask.

Changing back to the stock tubes, detail is lost of course, and a certain “grit” comes about, but not a bad one. Call it the “not so clean” aspect of cheaper stock tubes. While it is good to use the stock tubes for burning in the unit, most likely this will come about as you await your order of GE/RCA/Mullard tubes from any number of vendors. Start with the stock, then move on to any number until you find your favorite and stick to it. Or change on a whim, after all it is pretty easy and good tubes do not cost that much.

Soundstage/Separation/Etc:

A good amp allows the headphone of choice to shine, and the mk3 se is no different. The Audeze LCD-3 are known for vibrant, tight bass response as well as a pretty decent soundstage. Wider than your head, with excellent height and depth as well, you want the amp to aid in presenting that large venue. And here the mk3 se does exactly that. Without bother either. The trio of the LCD-3, mk3 se and M6P using the Tesla tubes was fabulous to listen to and can certainly keep your interest for long periods. The stock tubes are no slouch either, so it will be worth keeping them around, even if you do end up rolling tubes.


Comparison:

I have one other tube amp in that same category, the excellent XDuoo TA-30. Since I also have the Yulong DA-Art Aquila II in as well and it is the same price as the LD, a good comparison would merit mentioning this as well.

The first thing I notice is how powerful the XDuoo TA-30 ($710) is. Not that the LD is less powerful, but the TA-30 just comes at you hard. Similar in set up, but without the fully balanced mode like the LD, the XDuoo is a very fine unit, which you can also tube roll on. I currently have a set of Mullard ECC82 tubes along with a Sylvania 5931. Again, through Will’s advice I tube rolled until I found an acceptable set up. I was thoroughly happy with a set of RCA tubes in place of the Mullard’s, but once I heard that luscious warmth emoting from the pair, I have not changed back. It is here that the XDuoo may pull ahead a bit, since it has three tubes instead of two. But it does not have a fully balanced option, coming with BT and an optical set up instead. No matter, for using either one I do not miss what they do not respectively have.

I will state that the clarity wrought from the Tesla tubes on the LD are sublime and may just do the same thing for the XDuoo. I did not try to swap. For the extra price, you get BT and an optical connection as well as multiple filter options. If you like to fiddle, then the XDuoo may be the choice. If you value simplicity and straight forward sound, then the LD may be the better choice. Especially when the price difference may indeed get you close to a set of the Tesla tubes (or you can get really good Mullard’s instead). Will is very lucky to have both.

The Yulong DA-Art Aquila II ($700) is part of another fine Andy Kong tour (superb gent with which to work). As I am the first in line, the unit is brand spanking new, and I am using this comparison to “get used to” the critter and learn the functionality of it. Coming with many options, I shall try to accommodate you with a valid comparison. Easy to set up with more connecting options, the Yulong immediately gives the user a clear representation of the sound. There is no tube sound here, it’s all solid state. Able to provide enough power for discerning listeners though, the Aquila II provides a nice vibrant sound to the party.

I found the sound refreshing while not being to buoyant. There is no lilt here, just pure sound with the ability to change filters as needed. Once you get used to the volume knob controlling EVERYTHING on the front you can quickly maneuver between “menus.” With plenty of power as well, the Yulong competes well with the other two here. That said, it is really hard to pass up the tube rolling option, especially once you have found what is essentially called the Holy Grail of tubes in the Tesla. I wonder if there is a way to squeeze that in… Nevertheless, the Yulong is a fine unit, which would also look good on your desktop and can provide quality sound while doing so.

Conclusion:

As others have mentioned, doing an article on a tube amp can be not necessarily tedious, but with some trepidation. Judging differences at this price essentially comes down to tube rolling and features present in each amp. Here while the XDuoo provides more connectivity options, it is not fully balanced, nor does it provide a balanced option with which to listen. But you do not miss it, much like you do not miss the connectivity options through the LD. Especially when the cost savings may be the true worth of the LD mk3 se. It is affordable, and with the savings, you can get other tubes if necessary, for the cost of other options full units. That is a really hard option to pass.

I thank Wiljen for the use of the Little Dot mk3 se, and to Little Dot for allowing the unit to come west of the Mississippi. It is a fine unit, and based upon LD’s other options, is worth a serious look.

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