Review of Little Dot MKV Dual Mono Solid State Headphone Amplifier
Review equipment listing:
Creative Zen Vision (First Version)
Microsoft Zune 80
ASUS Notebook A8JS w/HD Audio
PC Computer: X-Fi Extreme Music with I/O Drive
Zero 24/192 DAC/Head Amp/Pre-Amp
Sennheiser HD-580 (300 ohms)
Sennheiser HD-600 (300 ohms)
Sennheiser HD-650 (300 ohms)
Pioneer SPEC Series System
DBXII-128 Noise Reduction Unit
Technics RS-1700 Reel to Reel
Out of box experience:
My new Little-Dot MKV shipped on Tuesday the 25th and received it on the following Monday! The box was in great shape and I started un-boxing it immediately. The MKV was cradled in preformed poly-foam inserts that span the entire inside of the box. The distance from the unit to the inside of the box was 3 inches. The contents of the box were; the MKV, a good quality retail RCA to RCA patch cord, a ¼ headphone adapter, a standard power cord and the English user’s manual. I was impressed that the shipping box was of stronger construction, due undoubtedly to the increased weight of the MKV. The dual nature of the MKV does indeed make it weigh more. Grunt, Grunt!! Holding the MKV in both hands, I gave its exterior a closer look. I am totally impressed with the fit and finish of the MKV. The black aluminum case combined with the brushed aluminum face and black back plate, makes for a strong unit that will stand up to stacking without any problems. Some might call the design industrial, but the elegant pre-formed lines running down its length, adds just the right touch to this design. I would call it more modern and tech, than industrial.
Dual-Mono design with two Independent amplifiers, Dual-supply transformers, Dual rectifiers, Double filtering, Bi-symmetric regulators
MCU for source input switching, ON/OFF protection and stand-by control
Premium Vishay-Dale resistors, Matu****a filter capacitors, WIMA coupling capacitors, ALPS-27 Potentiometer, Van Den Hul/American CMC RCA input jacks, OMRON relay
A built in transient voltage suppression diode, to shunt off voltage spikes.
10 Hz - 100 KHz (-0.5dB)
THD+N: 0.05% (100mW @ 300 ohm, 1 KHz)
Suitable Headphone Impedance: 32 - 600 ohms (See note at end of review)
300 ohms: 187mW
32 ohms: 500mW
DC Offset: R/L +/- 3mV
Metric: 300mm (length) by 210mm (width) by 60mm (height)
English: 11.8 inches (length) by 8.26 inches (width) by 2.36 inches (height)
Weight: 3.5 kg or 7.71 lbs
Available in either 120VAC or 220VAC
Average Power Usage: 12 watts
Impressions on initial power up:
The MKV has me very excited. I’ve been looking for a solid state headphone amplifier for some time, to use with my vintage Pioneer SPEC equipment. I was also looking for one that would allow me to hookup additional sources without disconnecting it from the SPEC equipment. When I saw the MKV up on the Little-Tube.com forum, I about fell out of my chair! Many who have vintage stereo equipment are in the same “looking for” situation I was in.
I looked through the owner’s manual first, and then carefully put the MKV under my MKIVse tube amplifier. They look so great together! Same style and size face plate, and the same beautiful black case. I hooked up input number 1 to the “record out” on tape two of my SPEC1 pre-amplifier and then I hooked up my Zero DAC/Amp to input number 2. I have a generous sized and heavily insulated coax cable, which I ran across the room from the Zero DAC/Amp to my computer’s Creative X-Fi Music I/O drive output. The idea here was to check out how the MKV would work with older solid state equipment, all analog, then to see how it performs with lossless files from my PC. I was so pleased that the MV has a power button on the front panel! As soon as I plugged in the power cord, a red LED on the front panel lit up showing the MKV in stand-by mode. I plugged in my HD-650s and pressed the power button (same as stand-by) and the red LED changed to a blue color! Cool! I pressed the button for input 2 and clicked play on the PC. I ran the volume knob on the MKV up to the 10:00 position and the music started. I was truly floored! I sat there in my chair for the entire length of the album I selected, just not believing what I heard. Not the warm, liquid, buttery sounds associated with tube amps, I was hearing clean, exacting, full frequency sound with outstanding dynamics! There was incredible accuracy on each note, with just the right amount of attack and fade. No matter how much I tried to find the usual “needs burn in time” deficiencies, they were not there. I put on an older rip of Heart, Little-Queen. The silence in some parts of their music will reveal noise very easily, and the clarity of the vocals is also very revealing. I sat in bewilderment, as the silent parts were dead silent and the vocals sent shivers down my spine. How beautiful the vocals sound.
At this point, I’m pretty excited with what I have heard so far. I want desperately to test the MKV with other music. Ow, here it is, one of the most difficult albums to amplify correctly and have it sound good, Rush, 2112. It has built in distortions that I’m not even sure there is a name for. I clicked play and let the entire album play. There are passages in this album where the vocal amp used during recording will hum ever so softly, and it takes a seriously dynamic amplifier to hear it with headphones. Not only did I hear it where I expected it to be, but I heard it in places I didn’t know about! That my friends, says a lot about the accuracy and dynamics of the MKV. I decided that I would let the MKV run some albums through and put some time on the clock before listening any further.
Impressions after 48 hour burn-in:
Quality solid state amplifiers all have one thing in common; they are not very forgiving if your source music has any issues. This was easily proven by playing a compressed MP3 at 192kbps. Yuck! I will not do that again! Too much detail is lost that you should be hearing! 320kbps’s are somewhat better, but lossless is the way to go with the MKV.
At this point, I could tell that the MKV is opening up just a little. The absolute separation between channels sounds even more so and the sound stage is more defined. My HD-650s have never sounded so good! One thing I haven’t mentioned is the bass. Powerful, deep and tight bass. Everything from the lowest kick, to the bass guitar solos, sounds impressive and non-fatiguing. Only solid state can give you this caliber of accuracy without being overdone. Now I’m itching to listen to some reel tapes and trying to decide when I should do that. I think I’ll give the MKV a couple more days of music first. Now, where did I put that Zoot Allures album?
Impressions at 100 hours:
Purity. That is the word I’m looking for. Accuracy is a good word too, but purity leaves no doubt in my mind, and that is where I’m at with the MKV. This review has taken me longer to complete than any other I have done. The outstanding performance of the MKV is very difficult to describe to a readership that is very familiar with tube amplifiers. So, I will try hard to get my meaning across the best way I know how.
To get you thinking about purity, let’s take vocals as an example. A good tube amplifier will make vocals sound silky smooth, warm and almost seductive sometimes. A good solid state amplifier will make vocals sound like you are standing right in front of the person singing and you hear every little detail of the sound they create, every breathe they take, the sound that is modified by the singer’s nose, the saliva keeping the vocal cords wet, the sheer beauty of the presentation of the voice! Bass is another example. While great tube amps try to keep bass tight and not sound sloppy, great solid state amps will reveal the separation of bass notes to such an exacting point, that you know what made them, whether it was the synthesizer, bass drum or bass guitar, you can even hear all three with distinction if they play a note at the same time. No mixing due to inaccuracy or merging due to timing. Purity of each individual note; made by each individual source. This is what the MKV has done for my music.
From my past experiences with solid state, I knew such purity was possible and that is why I have the SPEC equipment. Now it is time to test the analog equipment with the MKV. I spooled up a reel of mixed music, mostly easy listening. Pressing play on my Technics 1700, then pressing the input 1 on the MKV and put on my HD-650s. Even though my analog system has less dynamic range (specification wise), it is no slouch when it comes to dynamics. It sounds wonderful and very much the same as when I listen to it with my SPEC4 amplifier running my Cerwin-Vega S-1s. I am so pleased!! This is what I’ve been hoping to find for a very long time! The total combination of accuracy and richness, without any of the digital difficulties to overcome.
I switched between my three Sennheiser headphones, and all three excel with the MKV. I wasn’t ready for this. Where did the “veil” go? How can a property disappear? Or did it? Purity has almost eliminated the “veil” of the HD-650s. The differences between the three models of headphones are more about flavor now, not sonic changes. This has truly made me musically emotional and I’m going to give the MKV a few more hours to see if it is done maturing.
Impressions at 124 hours:
The MKV is indeed done maturing. It probably was prior to the 100 hour mark, I just hadn’t noticed. I looked through my collection of Master Tapes I have made at 15ips. I found one that was processed with my DBXII-128, noise reduction unit. I spooled it up and started listening to Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy. Now I am really impressed! The ever present tape hiss is gone, the dynamic range is even better and the background is silent. Here is where the MKV really excels. The hard work done by the recording engineer of this album shows through extremely well. I haven’t heard this album in some time and I’m just jamming! The entire spectrum is so dynamic, crystal clear and pure. I truly had forgotten just how much I like this kind of solid state sound.
Back in the 1970s, for the home audiophile, headphones were more of a tool to assist with dubbing tapes or editing. By the summer of 1979, the amount of headphones on the market must have doubled. I actually had a pair of Technics headphones that looked real cool, but they were heavy, uncomfortable and the sound was mediocre at best. They were the best $100 could get you though and I treasured them. I always wished that I could get a headphone to sound like my system did. Now, thanks to the MKV and Sennheiser, my wish has come true.
A concern with solid state amplifiers was whether or not it was built with enough reserve power on tap to handle extended long, deep bass notes. When you hear folks talk about having enough “headroom”, this is what they are usually talking about. A poorly designed solid state amplifier will get sucked down by those lower sustained bass notes (or other dynamic notes), and those notes will drop in intensity quickly, when there isn’t enough reserve power to sustain them. With the MKV’s dual mono design, there is plenty of reserve power on tap. No matter how hard I tried, I could not use up the “headroom” that was built in by design!
I wanted to test the MKV with some portable devices, so I tried both the Zune80 and the Creative Vision. As long as I was playing tracks that were lossless, the sound was fantastic. I listened to classical, jazz, hard rock and a few tracks like Frank Zappa. The extra clarity of the Zune80 verses the Vision really did show up with the MKV. I could play the same track on each unit and the Zune80’s would always sound better.
With lossless files playing, I was amazed at the precision presentation brought about by the MKV. Channel separation of this magnitude is very rare to hear. Dynamics, dynamics, dynamics! The softest of soft, then wham! The loudest of loud! The bass guitar running scales up and down from lower mids to ultra deep bass and hearing every single movement in total clarity! Listening to drums on the MKV is very special! That drummer just hit the low tom on his right side, but I can hear if he hit it dead center, or closer to the rim! Cymbal rides keeping pace for the music are also special. You can hear which cymbal, where at on the cymbal, and how much emphasis is being exerted on which stroke of the cymbal. This is the kind of solid state accuracy I was after!
The MKV is an exceptional sounding solid state headphone amplifier. As long as you have a clean source and great headphones, you will love the detail and purity you hear. If tubes are not on your purchasing menu, the MKV is the headphone amplifier to have. If you are already a fan of solid state, then the MKV is absolutely worth acquiring. You can just ask yourself, “When was the last time I saw a dual mono based solid state headphone amplifier for $299?” Within minutes, the bargain alarm will go off in your head and you’ll be looking at the pictures of it on the Little-Tube.com site.
I always knew in the back of my mind that my Sennheiser headphones would work well with Solid State. As I tried to explain the differences between the three headphones on paper, I realized that the differences were not that important. What was important was that all three have the ability to reproduce that “purity” sound from the MKV. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say that any high-end headphones that perform on a similar level to the Sennheisers, will work wonderfully with the MKV.
I know that some readers will be disappointed that I didn’t compare the MKV to one of the other Little-Dot tube amplifiers. I’m sure solid state lovers would have liked this too! What I am willing to say about this topic, is very simple and gets right to the fabric of the matter. They were never meant to be compared to each other! If anything, they were meant to complement each other! Just imagine the same music being played by both disciplines (tube and solid state) and each giving you a different emotional response to that music. This is the best way to describe the difference.
Another question I expect readers to have would be; does the MKV perform at a level equal or better than a balanced headphone amp? There is no way for me to know this and I wouldn’t want to speculate that comparison. I will tell you that the MKV has exceeded my expectations in every single way imaginable. The dual mono design undoubtedly gives the MKV a performance edge against its competition, which already costs much more than the MKV does! The MKV is all about high quality through superior design and craftsmanship, while maintaining a price point that allows everyone to get their hands on some real “top of the line” solid state technology. What a perfect companion for my MKIVse tube headphone amplifier! My music the way I want it to be, when I want it to be!
Solid State headphone amplifiers are not for everyone. Some will find the accuracy displeasing and prefer tube amplifiers, and that is OK! It is not a fault, or design problem or anything to do with the MKV or solid state as a whole. It is simply due to personal taste. We’ve all got that bug!
Another solid state property that must be paid attention too, is its non-forgiving nature. If your source is lacking, so will be the outcome. Tube based amplifiers are far more forgiving because they add to the source signal. Compressed audio that is not near the level of lossless will indeed sound poorly, because some of the original source is missing, and you will hear it. I just wanted everyone to know this.
I searched the MKV on the outside for something I could identify as a negative. There just wasn’t anything to be found. When I took the MKV apart, I was absolutely impressed with the layout and quality of the internals! Nothing negative to report on the inside, hidden away from view. This is a very professional design indeed!
Little-Dot has created yet another winner in their MK series of headphone amplifiers. This is the first solid state headphone amplifier I have heard about, that is a dual mono design and is available to us at a bargain price point. Congratulations are in order to Sword Yang, David Z.P. and the Little-Dot crew. Your MKV has made this reviewer excited about solid state all over again. I am proud to call myself an owner of the MKV.
LD MKV owner and
Audiophile since 1977
Note: As time goes by, I’ll update the forum with my additional impressions of the MKV.
2 Pictures of the stock MKV with MKIVse on top
2 Pictures of the MKV with MKIVse on top, with Gold Knobs!
Note: Reports of amp hiss from headphones that have lower impedance (under 64 ohms) have been reported. The use of impedance adapters and grounding solutions can clear this up. Readers are cautioned about this issue. It is safe to say, higher impedance headphones result in totally black background and are there by recommended. YMMV.