I have been using a CMOS headphone amplifier for awhile now, and have really enjoyed the way it brings my Sennheiser cans to life, even though it is digital and not super warm. But, I recently had the opportunity to pick up a quality tube-loaded Little Dot Mk III headphone amplifier, and I am hooked.
Little Dot amplifiers are sold directly from the manufacturer in China, so you are looking at $199 + $45 shipping to the US for a Mk III; they even take PayPal. You might be a little worried about dealing with anonymous faces overseas, but it is not a big deal in this case. They have been selling to satisfied US customers for years, and they pack the amps well and ship them out quickly.
For your money, you will get the amplifier, RCA cables, a headphone adapter, an industry standard power cord (like the one on your computer or monitor), and an owner’s manual.
Just looking at it, the Little Mark III is a really cool unit. It had four glowing tubes with polished bezels around their bases, a machined aluminum front plate, and a crinkly-painted transformer cover. All of the screen printing is clear and it is a solid piece of work, coming in over 6 pounds. Everybody that stops by wants to know what it is.
It is chock full of good parts too. There is an Alps pot, a passel of Rubycon capacitors, and the world’s brightest blue LED. Not to mention two GE5654 NOS driver tubes and two Soviet 6H6PI power tubes. Everything is neatly attached to the circuit board, and the workmanship is first-class on this thing.
The frequency response specs for the Little Dot Mk III are impressive: 12hz to 100 Khz. Of course I have no way to verify this, but the frequency range is robust enough for normal listeners out there. The amplifier will support loads of 32 ohms to 600 ohms, which pretty much covers the spectrum of quality headphones that are out there. Output is understandably low, from 100mW to 350 mW, depending on load. The whole thing uses 30 watts during normal use, which is half of what your Playstation is pulling.
I mostly use this amplifier with my iPod Classic and my Sennheiser HD280 headphones, so I read through the Little Dot Owner’s Manual and adjusted the gain dip switches to match up with the impedance of my headphones. I also cleaned the tube terminals with De-oxit, as this was recommended in the owner’s manual. Apparently this product is not available in China, but I always have some on hand.
And right away I was blown away by the tone of the Little Dot. The tubes were not fully burned in yet, but the sound was warm with amazing dynamics. I was expecting good bass and sharp highs, but the full mids were stunning. As I dialed in more volume with the amplifier (I leave the iPod dimed), it was not the increase in volume that was more impressive, but rather the blossoming of tone.
As I burned in the tubes, I used my usual selections of music, from funk to metal to rap to classic countrified rock and blues, and it all worked well with the Mk III. And as the tubes burned in, I found that the bass lost its boominess, the mids smoothed out a little and the highs became much more defined. I consider the tubes to be fully burned in at this point and the overall tone is very balanced and the sound stage is very true.
I think the folks that designed this amplifier used pure genius when it came time to pick these tubes. I do not think they could have done better in choosing tubes that are affordable, yet sound very good with a wide variety of musical styles. And my god these things sound warm and analog, with no added signal noise (I am a recent tube covert, BTW).
This being said, I am sure that there is some benefit to tube rolling and optimizing tubes to the types of music being played (and spending a boatload more money). But I am happy enough with what I have here, so I am ending my quest and will enjoy this amplifier just as it came from the factory.
That does not mean that I am not going to experiment a little more. I plan to try this out as a preamp with my guitars to see what it can do for me.
I have used this amplifier quite a bit and have been trying to come up with something I do not like, but have come up dry. That is rare for me, maybe even a first. So, if you want to pick up a Little Dot Mk III, I highly recommend it. You can find them (and a few other models) at littledot.net and they are all reasonably priced. You will be glad you did!