ngoshawk

Headphoneus Supremus
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

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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.


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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
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Wiljen

Headphoneus Supremus
The Little Dot Mk3Se - Fully balanced on a budget!
Pros: Solid build, Class A, Fully Balanced, clean sound, tube rolling options abound.
Cons: Price, requires balanced source to offer best output, requires tube rolling to find best balance.
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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.
wgkwgk
wgkwgk
"se" in the name of a balanced amp?
Wiljen
Wiljen
yeah, probably not the best choice of names, pretty sure it was to denote Special Edition to differentiate it from the MK3 which is an SEPP instead of a hybrid and does not have balanced and the MK3+ which is hybrid but not balanced. They probably should be listed as 3 distinct models as it is confusing.
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