A review of the Little Dot MK III SE, which is a fully balanced hybrid tube headphone amplifier offering up to 2.5W of output power. It is priced at $454.99
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Over the last few years, Little Dot has expanded their product choice a lot to include headphones, IEMs, and DACs such as its GYFU headphones, its IEM Cu series, and the DAC VII.
However, their ‘bread and butter’ has always been headphone amplifiers, which can be considered the product that brought them notoriety.
Little Dot’s headphone amplifiers range from entry-level headphone amplifiers with the LD1+, which is a hybrid headphone amplifier, to their larger amps such as the Little Dot H1 and the Little Dot 3SE. Today, we’re taking a closer look at their mid-range hybrid headphone amplifier called the Little Dot MK III SE.
Based on the Little Dot website, the MK III SE can be thought of as the ultimate upgrade to the MK III series. This means that it has a fully balanced circuit from the input to the output stage while maintaining the basic attributes of the MK III series.
Being a hybrid tube amplifier, the MK III SE is composed of a tube preamp section based on 6N11 tubes, where tubes such as the 6922, ECC88, and other tubes can be swapped in. The preamp section then feeds into a transistor-based power section that’s made of discrete components biased to run in class A.
Typical to tube-based amplifiers, the measured THD of 0.0001% on the MK III SE isn’t the lowest particularly with the current trend of diminishingly low THD numbers in solid-state amplifiers.
The upside of tube hybrid amplifiers is that it maintains the benefits of having a tube section while having the power to drive both low impedance and high impedance loads equally well, and this is the case with the 2.5W @32Ω and 0.8W @300Ω rating of the MK III SE.
At around 250mm wide, the MK III SE can be considered as a half-width chassis making it relatively compact. It doesn’t take up much space on my desk, but it weighs quite a bit because of the built-in transformer, chassis, and other components.
On top of the chassis of the MK III SE is the enclosure for the transformer for the power supply of the amplifier. Then in front is a pair of tubes with some tube protectors that serve as the gold accents on the chassis that’s mainly painted in black.
The front of the chassis is made of a silver plate with the branding and labels painted on it with black ink. On the left-most portion of the device are the outputs available on the amp, volume control and a blue power indicator LED.
At the rear of the device, there is a standard IEC socket for power input with a power switch right beside it. Then there are the input options that are available to the MK III SE. Interestingly, the gain switches are accessible by switching on dip switches underneath the amplifier.
The MK III SE has balanced inputs in the form of a pair of 3-pin balanced XLR, and a dual RCA input as an option for connecting single-ended sources. However, it should be noted that both connections are internally connected, so only 1 source can be connected at a time to avoid damage.
Interestingly, the XLR balanced input options are both upside down. The socket locks are on the upper portion of the connector, where it’s typically at the lower part of the connector. The single-ended connectors are also labeled differently, since the red connector is labeled L, and the white connector is labeled R.
For outputs, the MK III SE also has 2 options with a 4-pin balanced XLR output and a ¼” single-ended output. Interestingly, the 4-pin XLR connector is also upside down compared to most other amplifiers, but it shouldn’t be too much of an issue in daily use.
There is a limited number of switches on the MK III SE, with a power switch at the back, and a volume knob in front. Underneath the device, 2 small slits allow access to a pair of dip switches that will switch the gain of the amplifier, allowing the user to switch from a 4.5dB gain to a 9dB gain when all 4 switches are turned on.
Packaging & Accessories
The MK III SE is packed in a plain cardboard box that also doubles as its shipping box. Inside, the MK III SE is amply protected with inappropriate foam inserts to ensure that it doesn’t get damaged during transport.
While the packaging is on the simpler side, the accessories that arrive with the MK III SE are actually very useful. You get a standard IEC power cable, a pair of RCA interconnects, a pair of 3-pin balanced XLR interconnects, and a 3.5mm to ¼” adaptor, which is more than what I see with most amplifiers in the current market.
When I hear the word tube amp, the first thing that I think of is something warm and lush, but it’s not quite this simple with the MK III SE. Instead, the MK III SE takes a blend of the attributes of both the solid-state and tube circuitry and creates a synergistic relationship.
This creates a tonally even-handed amplifier with a good amount of PRaT and dynamics while injecting a measured amount of tube magic allowing a more expansive soundstage presentation. This creates an engaging and exciting experience without inducing too much fatigue into the listening experience.
The bass is punchy and controlled, allowing drum beats to have a taut and textured character. Bass guitars also have that immediate sense of attack and decay, but the upper registers may sometimes sound more dispersed than usual.
The vocal presentation is accurate while staying away from inducing too much euphony, ensuring that it won’t sound artificial. With vocalists such as Ed Sheeran, there is a good degree of vocal detail even making breathiness and textures more apparent.
Acoustic guitars sound very natural and full-bodied. Pianos, on the other hand, may just lack that percussive quality of piano keystrokes but each note takes on a generally brighter harmonic tilt.
One of the things that I find engaging is the treble on the MK III SE, where the cymbals have the right amount of presence and thickness. However, the leading edges of notes sound a bit blunted, making cymbal hits less energetic.
When listening to wind instruments, such as trumpets, the tube section of the MK III SE superbly presents horns, allowing them to sound natural and sweet without being too harsh.
Staging & Dynamics
While the soundstage presentation on the MK III SE is not particularly wide, it doesn’t detract much from the width of the soundstage presentation. What’s interesting though is the ability of the MK III SE to introduce a level of delineation between the images formed within the soundstage, making each element separated well from each other.
The depth of the images within the soundstage is also well defined, allowing the images to be formed at appropriate distances from the listener.
When listening to classical piano tracks, the MK III SE performs well due to its wide dynamic range. This allows the MK III SE to have control over the headphone drivers even when gentler passages are making them sound dainty, while larger crescendos induce the intended emotional engagement.
The MK III SE is capable of up to 2.5W into 32Ω, and 0.8W into 300Ω and based on my testing, the MK III SE easily powers all of my headphones, with my Sennheiser HD600 and ZMF Auteur only requiring up to 25% on the volume dial. Even my Audio Technica ADX-5000 doesn’t require me to go much beyond 30%.
Planar magnetic headphones didn’t require much more power from the MK III SE either, as the Final D8000 only required me to go to 20% for my maximum listening levels. Similarly, the Hifiman Ananda also required just 22% to reach my loudest listening levels.
Even at the volume extremes, the MK III SE never gave me trouble with channel balance, as the volume potentiometer faithfully tracked the left and right channel even at lower volumes. This allowed me to run some IEMs through the MK III SE, including the FiiO FD3 that only required 18% through the single-ended output to reach my maximum listening levels.
The MK III SE works well with headphones of all kinds of impedances. With planar magnetic headphones, the MK III SE makes a good pairing with the Hifiman Ananda as it adds a bit more attack and palpability. However, it synergizes better with the Sendy Peacock as the soundstage opens up significantly.
Where the MK III SE shines though is with headphones that traditionally pair well with tube amplifiers, such as the Sennheiser HD600, where some much-needed soundstage separation is injected.
Paired with the HarmonicDyne Poseidon, the overall engaging presentation on the Poseidon is maintained while there is a hint of vocal euphony injecting sweetness into the vocal range.
Another interesting pairing is with Little Dot’s own GYFU headphones as the tonality perfectly complements the MK III SE’s timbral character. The MK III SE dials down the more energetic presentation of the GYFU creating a balanced tone while injecting a more expansive soundstage and maintaining great control over the GYFU’s drivers.
For upstream gear, the MK III SE combined with the Denafrips Ares II was very engaging. This pairing allows the strengths of the MK III SE to shine through easily while adding some excitement to the more relaxed presentation of the Ares II.
My tube collection is limited, and the only other tube that I can swap into the MK III SE is a pair of Mullard 6922 tubes.
Based on my experience, the tubes from Mullard introduce an even tighter bass response while making the vocal presentation more matter-of-fact. There is also a more expansive soundstage presentation making images even less congested.
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