iBasso have this knack of churning out new products without much initial fanfare and slowly but surely it sort of just creeps into the audiophile consciousness before suddenly it becomes a cult hit or a reference product. Of late their DAPs have bucked that trend somewhat with the DX80 and the soon to be released DX200 firmly set in the minds of many looking for the next logical upgrade but here comes an IEM. Yes, an IEM from iBasso and yours truly has been road testing it for a few months before I started to see it being profiled by social peeps on the “Intertubz”.
What Is The Pitch?
Right so it is an IEM, but iBasso don’t normally do earphones so what is the deal here? Well, it wouldn’t be iBasso if it was just plain old dynamic or multi-BA, nope they have decided to take the less well traveled but more interesting hybrid path with a single dynamic driver and dual BA design encased in an all-black low key but striking design and pitch it at a typically iBasso friendly $259. I think the price is critical and matches well with iBasso’s relatively budget friendly outlook as well as keep it competitive against competing designs such as Fidue, Campfire Audio, and Oriveti.
Ibasso has also elected to stick with a fairly robust and large 9.2mm dynamic driver which means no messing around with 6mm micro drivers with a hint of bass, this is a pitch for all out musicality. The IT03 is also on a very low impedance rating of 8 ohms but not a huge sensitivity rating of just 105dB. It is clearly designed and pitched for weaker amps or quality DAPs and whilst 8 ohms might give rise to a possible noise issue the sensitivity rating is low enough to make this quite possibly a very easy to listen to IEM out of most sources and amps.
The IT03 sports a growingly popular shell design in 2016, that of the contoured acrylic design that is almost custom like in proportions. If you have dabbled in customs before you will know quite a lot have demo universal molds designed to show about 80% of the capability of a true custom design. In many ways the IT03 mimics that concept with a universal fit that should, in theory, best quite a lot of standard bullet-like shapes and on par with the class leading designs from Westone SureFit universal IEMs.
iBasso has basically designed a two-piece acrylic shell for the IT03. The bottom part is the contoured design that should work well with 99% of the general features of peoples out ears and in theory give you a very comfortable fit. Instead of a bullet type finish pushing against the ridges of your ear cartilage, the IT03 has an undulating type curvature that nestles over the cartilage thus reducing pressure, friction and producing a superior seal. It will feel similar to a custom fit in some ways unless your ears do not follow the norm.
The top part is the face plate of the IT03 and slightly larger than the actual shell itself but with very rounded and smoothed out curves to enhance its fitting capability. On top of the plate is the iBasso logo which is inset slightly from the very top layer of lacquer and polish giving it a slightly suspended look. The IT03 plate and shell are in a black tone but it’s not piano black or a solid black, there is a tiny hint of translucence in the shell but not enough to see its inner workings. Left and right are marked in a clean and clear white just below the unit name on the top of the short nozzle.
Fit & Seal
Better than Customs?
With that contoured design on the lower shell and shortish angled nozzle, the IT03 is a relaxed comfortable fit but with an absolutely dynamite seal, even with the silicone tips. It is right up there with quite a number of my custom IEMs, superior to my Mi-Pro silicone customs as well as my AAW W300AR (touch loose). Of course, customs are entirely as good as their maker and your impression as well as everyone having different ears but for a universal IEM, the IT03 is top class for fit and seal with the stock tips.
This is also superior to any other universal IEM I have tested to date out of the box with stock tips from the Andromeda down to RHA’s superbly made T20. The only superior ones in the collection that I have our customs such as the A12 and the SA-43 (M-Fidelity) which have “pro” nozzles that go a little deeper than most to really enjoy the silence. Now before you rush out and start grabbing all these contoured type IEMs on the market for the fit and seal let me tell you I have had two or three to date and they are not as solidly built or seal as well. iBasso have put some time and effort into this and it shows in the end result.
The IT03 is an MMCX gold plated terminated IEM with a 1.2m long braided soft and pliant cable terminated with a black right angled 3.5mm stereo jack plug. It is designed to be worn over the ear so it comes complete with memory hooks at the top of the MMCX connection to mold around your ear to reduce microphonics as well as keep the units secure in your ear. Strain relief is a rubberized cone like wrap at both ends of the cable. It looks pretty durable. The Y-split is a bit rough and ready with a basic plastic tube with a breakaway chin strap. It does the job but it’s no looker.
Retail Cable Type
You will probably note the cable with this unit is a non-standard aftermarket OFC braided cable with a heavy duty right angle gold plated 3.5mm jack. Sadly you will not receive this one in the package as since it was shipped as an early unit for review but to all extents and purposes, there is not a huge amount of difference between this cable and the black braided retail cable. both have the same consistency, both are lightweight and both are easy to work with showing little in the way of microphonics or memory retention.
Accessories & Packaging
It is impressive, to say the least, and if you are surprised at the level of detail from Ibasso for the IT03 retail package then I am surprised at you being surprised. They have been quietly getting better and better over the last 5 years. To think in 2011 they came in white cardboard boxes. They have come a long way from there and the IT03 is the best example yet of their determination to professionalize their product line.
What is Inside?
Inside you get a split shelf display case with the earphones on top encased in a foam cutaway and below you get 3 semi Sony EX1000 style tip display boxes with small, medium and large silicone single bore tips, a handsome leather case wrap and your frequency response chart for the IT03. If I am being hyper critical I would love to see a few foam and flange tips being thrown into the mix just to add some flavor to the sound and perhaps the option for a remote mic/playback inline cable but naturally, this might push up the price.
The IT03 has a reasonably neutral sounding tonality with a bit of low-end warmth and smoothness generated from its 9mm dynamic driver and a snappier detailed driven and more neutral sounding BA mids and brighter single BA treble response. Bass is north of neutral but it balanced and fairly even right the way up to an upper bass dip into the lower mids. This allows the IT03 to retains a nice sense of clarity and keeps instrumental fundamentals from sounding too stuffy and bloated. Certainly, the IT03 has a healthy dose of musicality but it doesn’t sound overly warm or soft, just the right amount of decay typical from a large dynamic driver such as this at the low end.
Further up the FR the IT03 positively bursts with energy between the presence and brilliance region which will really suit EDM, some house and a few trance lovers with a ton of sparkle. This is a very clean sounding presentation, reasonably spacious with good extension either way and decent headroom. If using the IT03 with the stock unbalanced cable you might find it sound a touch too digital or hot sounding for high-hat and synth work, particularly with rock and metal. Switch to the balanced cable instead, you will find the treble a lot smoother and more palatable.
The IT03 bass performance is elevated but certainly not unbalanced. It doesn’t have any distinguishing dips or any midbass peaks. Technically its sub bass is around 2-3dB higher on a smooth sliding curve down to the lower midrange. If you are going to hear the IT03 bass you are going feel its strength more in its sub-bass delivery since there is very little drop-off. Though not quite as present as the Fidue A91’s low-end dynamic driver which is a little more elevated by around 2-3dB it does actually feel a tad quicker with slightly faster decay.
Since you won’t find any peaky mid-bass performance with the IT03 you won’t hear it just spit out bass on everything whether it needed it or not. If the tracks go low then the IT03 will go low with it, if not then it stays reasonably polite but full sounding. This is my preferred type of bass response; keeping out too much warmth at the top end, ensuring clarity is good and bleed is minimal. The fact it is a dynamic bass driver with that natural decay and spacious sound is the icing on the cake.
Lower midrange to around 1k continues the bass dip right down to about 7dB at its lowest compared to the upper midrange presence region at its highest. Lower mids are decidedly more neutral sounding where the BA design of the IT03 start to kick in and a much greater emphasis on clarity and neutrality than weight and thickness of note. Thus guitar and bass low-end crunch and rhythm sections will sound precise and very detailed but might lack a bit of crunch and texture in comparison.
This won’t be an issue on pounding EDM where much of the weight is generated from the low end or for acoustics where articulation is highly desired but for rock and indie where a lot of the power is generated from the string section, this might come across as a touch less convincing.
Vocals are slightly elevated and forward sounding on the IT03. Though again not a rich or thick sounding vocal it does have an accurate timbre particularly with male vocals and lower toned female vocals such as Hillary Scott or powerhouse vocalists such as Doro Pesch. A fantastic example of how well the IT03 can sound with these type of vocals is the edgy slightly lower pitched emo vocals of Banks “Someone New” from her Goddess album. Not a sibilant note in sight with outstanding acoustic clarity.
What I am not mad keen on are edgy high pitched vocals such as Ellie Goulding and certain Katherine McPhee tracks (“Open Toes” from her self-titled album is a good example). on the IT03. Tracks such as “Burn” from Ellie seems to get a touch sibilant and too energetic making the source match all the more important to keep it from sounding too aggressive.
I am in two minds about the treble performance, but then iBasso know me and this won’t come as a surprise. The presence region and aspects of the upper treble have a few peaks and dips making some aspects of the treble performance of the IT03 slightly unnatural and uneven sounding compared to the smoother sounding bass and mid range. The peaks, particularly around the 5-7k, colors the signature giving it a slightly brittle and bright nature that doesn’t gel as well with the rest of the FR.
For me, I am pretty sensitive about 100Hz lower on splashy cymbals and percussion work; that’s what gives me the pain. This is ever so slightly higher so it just sounds a touch unnatural and forced for me rather than fatiguing. It doesn’t always make its presence felt, on sparse ambient tracks actually it sounds excellent with plenty of air and space and on some hard rock tracks but once you throw in a ton of fast paced synth work and plenty of hi-hat energy it can get hot.
On the plus side, the clarity is good and the speed and articulation are top notch. There is very little drop off before 10k so the IT03’s treble performance never feels attenuated or rolled off. Matched with the right source and amp the IT03 treble performance should gel well with sparse “fragile” recordings that focus on accuracy and space rather than a full frontal assault. Further to that point, matching the IT03 did bring different flavors to the top end and in some cases, with the X7/AM3 combo, it sounded very clean indeed.
Ibasso has saw fit to release a balanced version of their stock cable that comes with the IT03 caleld the CB12. It does not come with the package but retails separately for $89 and is made of Mono crystal Copper & Copper-Silver alloy braided. It does change the presentation of the IT03 in a good way for the majority of DAPs and amps with balanced output capability.
Forget all the unblanced cable treble cons, the new iBasso CB12 balanced cable on the IT03 brings the performance right where I hoped it would go. If your DAP can cope (read Opus#1, or AM3 from FiiO) then I highly recommend switching to the IT03 balanced. Not only will it give you a far more controlled treble performance, particularly around 5-7k, it will also add a healthy dose of dynamics and tighten up the bass a touch without sacrificing any detail.
Mids & Treble
Everything just sounds so much more natural, particularly with rock and vocals. Female vocals, whilst still a touch too energetic for me in its attack, do not come across as sibilant when compared to using the IT03 in unbalanced mode. If I was on the fence with regard to the treble performance in single ended mode I can safely come off it going balanced. I won’t claim the second coming of subdued treble, but it is much more coherent and enjoyable now with those tricky genres and instruments I mentioned before.
Page 2: Matchability & Comparisons