Despite the recently swollen portable sound market and its saturation with dozens of new manufacturers, it is still very little to set the tone in it.
The iBasso company enters this elite cohort for a long time and completely deserved. But do not worry, I am not going to arrange a tour of the landmark developments of the brand of the past years, and you already know them. No, today we will have the most novelty, both in terms of release time and in its essence, which clearly demonstrates the iBasso’s determination to remain at least one step ahead of the total mass of manufacturers.
iBasso, as many probably know, is purposefully working on a line of interchangeable amplifiers compatible with DX150, DX200 and DX220 players.
Until recently, there were nine such modules (AMP1, AMP2, AMP3, AMP4, AMP5, AMP6, AMP7, AMP8, AM1 MK2). And recently, the company released the tenth, the most unusual and innovative module - AMP9. A feature of it is that it is a tube. You must admit that the expression “tube amplifier for a DAP” sounds wildly, but progress, fortunately, does not stand still, and the most bizarre fantasies suddenly come true.
Three of my modules AMP1, AMP7, AMP1 MK2 helped me in evaluating this tube source. Well, since I introduced all the participants of our small party, it's time to go directly to the review.
Text: Alexey Kashirskey aka Hans Barbarossa
High Vurrent Output Vacuum Nutube AMP card
Compatibility with DAPs:iBasso DX220/DX200/DX150
Tubes by Korg 6th generation (KORG Nutube 6P1)
Headphone output: 3.5мм TRS
Output impedance: 0.3 Ohm
Appearance and kit
The module came to me in a minimalist little black box of cardboard, girded with a white ribbon. Only the brand name and model of the amplifier are printed on it. Truly aristocratic restraint in design. In addition to the AMP9, there is a screwdriver, which will soon come in handy, instructions and warranty card.
Replacing modules is quick and easy. You need to turn off your DAP, slightly loosen the side screws on the amplifier and pull it gently towards you and up. On the vacated site, there are two guide brackets, along which a new module should be docked, having carried out all the simple manipulations from the first part of the operation in the reverse order.
The glossy surface of the amplifier is completely identical to the back cover of the new DX220. But the DX150 and DX200 have a matte design, here AMP9 will stand out. However, even if someone uses these DAPs without a case, then a small dissimilarity of parts of the back side will definitely not be visible.
Owners of DX150 or DX200 may also encounter incorrect interaction of their players with AMP9, up to a complete failure to work. I hasten to reassure, the problem is solved by installing the latest OS firmware. Owners of DX220 do not face such difficulties, but since this conversation has already come, I will advise them not to forget about OS updates.
When you turn on the player on the amplifier, a pair of "green eyes" flashes - the backlight of the dual triodes, signaling their alertness. Therefore, do not rush to immediately put on the cover, and first admire this interesting detail.
The 3.5 mm jack for headphones / IEM, which is usual for the iBasso modules located on the end, has an output impedance of 0.3 ohms.
As I already mentioned, the fundamental feature of AMP9 from all its nine predecessors is the use of a unique electronic tube Nutube 6P1 (in the amount of two pieces), designed by Korg along with another Japanese company Noritake Itron. In portable audio, it has been used only once - in the recent flagship DAP Cayin N8. Now the turn of iBasso has come to say its word in the tube “miniature”.
Admit it, you can’t wait to finally get to the tasting of our exotic novelty? I agree, let's start listening faster.
The module was used with the currently best iBasso’s DAP DX220, and with my CIEM/IEM collection: 64 AUDIO A18, 64 AUDIO A12t, Vision Ears VE8, Vision Ears VE4.2, Custom ART FIBAE4, BGVP DMS, InEar SD-2 and InEar PP8.
Immediately it should be noted that the amplifier takes time to show itself in all its glory. When listening "out of the box" in the sound, you can catch the excessive color, slipping "grain" in the high frequencies and the impressiveness of the bass. But after “burn-in” for 50–100 hours, the AMP9 is transformed: the processing gets balanced and organic, becoming very melodic, and the slightly lousy woofers gather into a smart tube baritone.
Features of this module are best seen when compared with the brothers-amps. If the DX220 in conjunction with the AMP1 MK2 had a neutral, accurate, detailed and expressive style, and AMP7 inspired him with an energetic and dense “Spartan” disposition, then when switching to AMP9 the player shows a smooth and warm character. The sound becomes extremely melodious and rich, acquires a darkened background and a special charm that is difficult to express with any definitions.
However, it is necessary to clarify that replaceable amplifiers do not remake the entire musical canvas by their patterns, but only give it their own unique shades. And of course, a significant contribution to the final look of the picture is also made by your headphones/IEM.
And now in the company with AMP9, let's go through the frequency amplitude. Lows have a smooth, thick and velvety nature, good pressure and a solid blow. The bass is not as fast and accurate as in the case of the AMP1 MK2 or AM7, but it is rich in timbre, embossed and harmonious. It is great at filling the sound space, giving it greater depth and a slightly darker background. Commendable dynamics, excellent transfer of textures and exquisite mannerisms of this range fascinate and bewitch.
Mids are fed exactly, smoothly and thoroughly, with a focus on “analog”. This is a dense and plastic mass, where the images created are convexly depicted and the boundaries between them are clearly drawn. All sounds are tangible, have their own weight and size. The tube module draws mids with generous strokes with an emphasis on large-scale details, but it also does not forget to note the small nuances. It turns out beautiful and melodious. Guitars are brisk, fervent and colorful, and vocals are free from annoying bright flashes, they are natural, melodious and unconstrained.
High frequencies balanced and legible, with distinct articulation. They are moderately restrained and have an elegant light accent. Often the “sparkles” spoiling the Highs are absent, the register is perfectly reproduced: comfortable, clean and elegant, picturesque and exceptionally musical.
Before the final part, it remains only to deal with the relationship of AMP9 to various headphones. Since the module does not differ in exorbitant power, its compatibility with full-size headphones is very individual and is checked in each specific case. Well, with in-ear monitors, the amplifier behaves absolutely confidently.
From myself I will say that when high-sensitive low-resistance IEMs are connected, there is a slight background noise in the pauses between the compositions. Although with warming up this unpleasant moment becomes a little less.
The tube amplifier at iBasso has turned out chic! I like that having such a colorful, temperamental and rich in timbres palette, he doesn’t dare to motley but clumsy splint in front of the listener. On the contrary, the module impresses with a rather rare combination of sincerity and expressiveness. The combination of these two so different brushes allows you not only to decorate audio images, but to breathe life into them, and then build from them volumetric and fragrant sound landscapes, in which it is so fascinating to wander.
It is also important that, despite its fundamental structural differences from other modules, AMP9 did not become the “black sheep” in their company. Its specific handwriting is not a basis, but a superstructure, and the basis of the amplifier is based on the same beloved pedigreed sound from iBasso.
In the official online store ibasso.com AMP9 can be purchased for $ 249. In my opinion, the buyer will receive not only the most technically unusual module in the family with a wonderful sound, but also the good mood that comes with it, for this fully justified amount. Hand off, listening to this "yummy", it is impossible, even if you want.
Well, in conclusion, I want to say a huge thank you to iBasso for such a tasty novelty! And yes, I am already beginning to burst open with curiosity, what will the next module be like.
Sound, the possibility of rapid replacement by another amplifier module, the price.
Minor background noise in conjunction with very sensitive low impedance IEM models.