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iBasso IT03: An effing excellent first In-Ear from iBasso - [Review] 🇬🇧

Prolog:

Dies ist meine englische Fassung meines iBasso IT03-Reviews. Die deutsche Version kann man hier finden: http://kopfhoerer-lounge.blogspot.com/2016/10/iBasso-IT03.html


Preamble:

Who still knows iBasso Audio’s old website might remember that there was a tab labelled “Headphones” in the product overview, however it was empty and lacked content. Now it has happened and the Chinese company that established in 2006, having started with and still making portable headphone amplifiers, evolving to offering the digital audio players DX100, DX50, DX90 and DX80 (as well as having announced the DX200 and DX120), has announced a line of hybrid in-ears that were entirely designed and developed by iBasso. As you can see, the “Headphones” tab on their old website was there for a reason.



When iBasso’s Paul approached me and asked if I was interested in testing their IT03 in-ear that backs on two BA as well as one dynamic driver per side, I surely was interested. At this place, I also want to take the time to personally thank Paul as well as iBasso for sending me a sample of the in-ears free of charge for the purpose of an honest, unbiased evaluation.

How well the outcome of iBasso’s entry into the world of in-ears is and how the hybrid IT03 compares to other hybrid in-ears in about the same price range is to be found out in the course of this review.


Technical Specifications:

Price: $259.00
Drivers: 1x dynamic driver (9.2 mm), 2x Balanced Armature
Frequency Response: 10 Hz – 30 kHz
Sensitivity: 105 +/- 2dB
Impedance: 8 Ohms
Noise Attenuation: -30dB
Rated Power Input: 5 mW
THD: < 1% (at 1 kHz/1 mW)
Plug Size: 3.5 mm, gold-plated
Cable Length: 1.2 m
Weight: 9g without cable


About Hybrid In-Ears:

As you can read from the technical specifications and mentioned multiple times in the preamble, the IT03 is a little different from most In-Ears and doesn’t only use dynamic or Balanced Armature transducers, but combines both in one shell.

Most In-Ears use dynamic transducers for audio playback which have the advantage of covering the whole audible spectrum and achieving a strong bass emphasis without much effort. Valuable dynamic drivers are often said to have a more bodied and musical bass that has a more soft impact and decay and lacks of the analytical character that BA transducers are known for. On the downside, in contrast to headphones with other driver principles, dynamic transducers often have a lower resolution.

Higher-priced and professional IEMs mostly use Balanced Armature transducers, which usually have got a higher resolution than dynamic drivers, are faster, more precise and have got the better high-level stability, which is important for stage musicians that often require higher than average listening levels. On the downside, it is quite hard to cover the whole audible spectrum with just a single BA transducer and strongly emphasised bass is only possible with multiple or big drivers. Some people also find In-Ears with BA transducers to sound too analytical, clinical or cold (in several active years in a German audio community where I wrote multiple reviews, gave dozens of purchase advice and help, from time to time I heard people that got into BA earphones for the first time using these attributes for describing BA earphones, especially their lower frequencies).

Hybrid IEMs unite the positive aspects of both driver principles and use one dynamic transducer for lows reproduction and at least one BA driver for covering mids and highs, wherefore the often as “musical” described bass character remains and the BA transducers add resolution and precision to the mids and highs – and that’s what the IT03 does with its technology. It is addressed to those people who perceive the clinically-fast character of BA transducers as unnatural, but want to keep the mids’ and highs’ resolution, speed and precision.


Delivery Content:

The IT03 arrives in a black box that is covered by a light grey cardboard sleeve which contains the technical specifications and a really nice exploded diagram on the back.
Opening the magnetic flap of the box, we are greeted by golden text that says “InTune – Your Universal Ambassador of Music”. Also, we will find a user guide that doesn’t only contain information on how to wear the in-ears, but also a sheet of measurements, including an uncompensated frequency graph (however without information about the used coupler and source).
Below, the IT03 can be found, along with a real leather carrying pouch and three sets of different ear tips (narrow bore long stem black, narrow bore long stem semi-transparent and wide bore shallow stem black). One pair of medium long stem black silicone tips is already installed.
A warranty card can also be found in the box.








Looks, Feels, Build Quality:

The in-ears are made of shiny black plastic and ergonomically shaped, resembling the human concha. On the faceplate, a dark grey iBasso logo can be found.
Each in-ear piece is made of two parts that could have probably been jointed more elegantly.
On the inner side, white side-markers and IT03 letterings can be found.
The in-ears appear sturdy and well made; only the visual “gap” of the two jointed halves of the housing could look less obtrusive (in my opinion).
The nozzle has got a protective mesh to keep dirt and fluids from getting inside the in-ears.



The cable is made of four single strands that are twisted, so it is basically like most other cables of higher-priced and custom-moulded in-ears, however it is slightly springier than those, probably because of its glossy (clear-painted?) finish.
The 3.5 mm connector is angled and carries a small iBasso logo and is made of matte black metal.



While the carrying pouch is made of premium leather and looks beautiful, it is (to some degree) a failure in my view as it is just too small to fit the in-ears well without stressing the cables and connectors when trying to put them away rather quickly. Also, dust and dirt can come inside. In my opinion, a normal carrying case would have been more practical despite looking less luxurious.





Comfort, Isolation:

The in-ears are somewhat more on the larger size which however shouldn’t be any problem for people with average or even slightly smaller ears as the IT03’s bodies are ergonomically shaped and resemble the shape of the human concha (not much unlike the InEar StageDiver SD-2). Inserting the earpieces, the in-ears sit very securely and don’t twist, however I would prefer 2-pin instead of swivelling MMCX connectors for this kind of body shape when inserting the IT03.




Isolation is better than with most other vented in-ears and pretty solid (actually a bit more than that) while it doesn’t fully reach the level of fully closed models.


Sound:

My main sources for listening were my iBasso DX90 (as standalone device) and Chord Mojo plus Leckerton UHA-6S.MKII stack. The DX80 was used, too.

Although I don’t believe in burn-in with headphones, I let the IT03 burn in with sine and noise signals for over 200 hours before even initial listening started.

For listening, I used the largest size of the included semi-transparent silicone tips.




Tonality:

The tonality of the IT03 is something that is rather not very often found with hybrid in-ears: it has got an overall signature that is more on the fun side of balanced with a “true” sub-bass emphasis. Overall, there are four headphones that I find to share similarities with iBasso’s triple-driver hybrid in-ear: the FLC Technology FLC8s with the red sub-bass filter, the Fostex x Massdrop TH-X00, the ORIVETI PRIMACY and the UPQ Q-music QE80 (OEM of the Fidue A83).
Roughly summarised, I would say that its sub-bass remind me of the Fostex and FLC Technology, that its midbass, upper bass and root remind me of the ORIVETI and that its treble is not much unlike the UPQ’s while still different and less bright overall.

Beginning with my subjective observations listening to music, not including the sub-bass yet, I hear an overall rather balanced sounding in-ear that has got a treble that is somewhat more on the brighter side without sounding artificial or obtrusive at all. Vocals sound tonally quite correct with just a slight favour of higher voices (wherefore they are not as bright as the DUNU DN-2000J’s but a little leaner than the Etymotic ER-4S’s) and are overall a little in the background. The middle highs around 5 kHz are somewhat forward and so is the upper treble around 8 kHz with a good extension in the super highs past 10 kHz.
There is no unnecessary fundamental warmth and the bass doesn’t bleed into the lower mids. Speaking of the bass (still not including the sub-bass), I hear it as evenly climbing and being somewhat more forward than a strictly flat in-ear like the Etymotic ER-4S, with a quantity of the lower root and upper bass (= around 100 Hz) that is about comparable to the ORIVETI PRIMACY, DUNU DN-2000J and InEar StageDiver SD-2. Then below 100 Hz, it climbs a little, reaching its climax in the sub-bass around 30-40 Hz with ca. a little more than 3 dB more than in the upper bass.

The more I listen to it, the more it grows on me. Especially the very well made climb of the bass that reaches its climax low, in the sub-bass, is something that not that many headphones and in-ears really achieve. With that, unnecessary fullness, warmth and bloom can be fully avoided and the bass is also not perceived as too strong or obtrusive.
The bass is definitely not shy in the sub-bass and also has got a firm upper bass punch, nonetheless it is not overly big and miles away from sounding boomy. Feeding the IT03 sub-bassy music, it has a nice drive but doesn’t add any bass with recordings that don’t reach as low. Here, it reminds me quite a bit of my Fostex TH-X00 that has however got a little more subjectively perceived impact because of its different driver and build principle (in-ears vs. over-ears).
Then, the treble is overall fairly even and has got a nice amount of sparkle without becoming harsh or unnaturally bright, however people who listen to music at really high volume levels or are very treble-sensitive will probably not become best friends with the IT03’s upper end although it is not much brighter than a neutral in-ear’s upper end.
All in all, I find the balance between tonal balance and fun with an advantage towards the fun side quite well-made and also personally really like the in-ear for a lot of applications aside from true stationary and critical CD-only listening where I usually aim for a flat/neutral response.

Going on with the sine sweeps, this is what I am hearing:
Down from 500 Hz on, the bass starts evenly climbing, having about 5 dB more quantity that an absolutely flat in-ear around 100 Hz, however it doesn’t stop climbing here but instead reaches its climax around 40 Hz, being able to keep it upright even as low as 25 Hz with ca. 9 dB north of a really flat in-ear like the Etymotic ER-4S (so the IT03’s lows are mainly sub-bass focussed).
Going up, I hear 2 kHz as just being slightly brighter than 1 kHz, followed by a slight and broad-banded dip at 4 kHz and two broad-banded emphasises both at 6 and 8 kHz. Afterwards, the level drops a little but is still north of neutral, followed by a slight peak around 13 kHz and a beginning roll-off above 15 kHz.
So what I am hearing in the highs is that above 6 kHz, they are brighter than before however overall the treble is quite harmonious without any abrupt or narrow peaks respectively dips and the upper treble is not ringing but only very slightly on the metallic side at times, however realistic overall.

Resolution:

To say it beforehand, the IT03 is definitely worth its price tag and plays pretty much in the same league as the ORIVETI PRIMACY and UPQ Q-music QE80 (which is an OEM of the Fidue A83), maybe a little above, while it doesn’t fully reach all qualities of some higher-priced hybrid in-ears like the DUNU DN-2002 or FLC Technology FLC8s.

The midrange and treble are pleasantly as well as adequately detailed and vocals sound realistic without smaller singers’ variations being subdued. Overall, the midrange does also sound pretty open and not congested.
Treble attacks aren’t decaying too quickly nor do they stay there for too long. Also with busier tracks, the highs remain well-separated and nicely controlled.
The lows sound a bit less resolving than the mids and treble – I have heard (more expensive) hybrid in-ears that have got a somewhat better detailed dynamic driver, however this is probably the only thing regarding detail retrieval where the IT03 is not “very good” but only “good” and also something I have heard from other in-ears at this price point, so it is normal. What I really appreciate about the iBasso’s lows is that they definitely don’t need to hide from other really good hybrid in-ear when it comes to control and speed.
Regarding bass attack, the IT03 is not trying to hide that it has got a dynamic driver for the bass reproduction, however the balance between impact and speed are good for the attack. When it comes to decay however, the IT03 manages to put a smile on my face as its dynamic driver doesn’t swing for too long but decays quickly enough wherefore the bass sounds nicely fast, well controlled and realistic in terms of decay so that it also doesn’t become muddy or soft with fast and busy bass-lines.

Soundstage:

Soundstage is a little wider than average and has got overall a rather oval appearance in my ears with more width than depth. Instrument separation is surprisingly clean and precise and a bit above the QE80 and PRIMACY while it is outperformed by the FLC8s which separates instruments even somewhat sharper.

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In Comparison with other In-Ears:

UPQ Q-music QE80 (OEM of the Fidue A83):
The QE80 has got the somewhat warmer/fuller root and bottom end, however less level below 80 Hz and is somewhat rolling off towards the sub-bass whereas the IT03 is climbing here. So where the IT03 has got a more sub-bass driven bass, the QE80 is smoother and more relaxed sounding here.
In the mids, the QE80 sounds a bit more distant and has got the leaner, brighter vocal reproduction. In the highs, the UPQ is brighter and leaner, however a little more coherent here whereas the IT03 sounds more realistic and tonally correct.
Overall detail retrieval is pretty much identical with both in-ears. Still, I find the IT03 to be a bit more refined and separated in the mids and upper highs. In the bass, the QE80 appears a tiny bit more detailed, however the IT03 has got the better controlled and faster bottom-end.
The QE80’s soundstage appears a little wider and also slightly deeper in comparison, however the IT03 outperforms the UPQ when it comes to instrument placement, separation and spatial precision.

DUNU DN-2002:
The DUNU has got more warmth in the root as its bass starts climbing earlier, however both in-ears have got the same amount of upper bass and upper midbass with the IT03 having a climbing and more forward sub-bass with the DN-2002’s rolling somewhat off. Male vocals sound a little fuller with the DUNU due to its more forward fundamental range. In the lower and middle treble, the DUNU is more relaxed and comes back in the upper highs around 8 kHz with an emphasis that is just a little above zero. The IT03 sounds brighter in the upper and especially middle treble (where the DUNU has a broad-banded dip).
Regarding resolution, both are pretty close, nonetheless the DUNU’s dynamic drivers are somewhat more detailed and sound pretty much as detailed as the DN-2002’s mids whereas with the IT03, the mids are a bit more detailed than the lows. In the mids, the DN-2002 just appears very slightly more effortless than the iBasso, however both have got an equally detailed treble.
The DN-2002’s bass attack is only minimally faster while both in-ears have equal control and decay speed.
The DUNU’s soundstage is somewhat wider and deeper, wherefore it sounds more spacious and is able to generate more air between instruments. Separation is a little sharper with the DUNU because of its larger stage, nonetheless overall on the technical level, both are very close to each other with the DN-2002 only having the somewhat more detailed but equally controlled woofers.

ORIVETI PRIMACY:
Both in-ears start equally in the root, but below 100 Hz, the IT03’s bass continues climbing whereas the PRIMACY extends flat into the sub-bass with just as much sub-bass as upper bass, making its bottom end more realistic/sober than the IT03’s sub-bassy lows. The ORIVETI’s mids are more intimate compared to the iBasso’s slightly bright mids. In the middle highs, the ORIVETI has got a stronger dip around 5 kHz that makes its overall vocal presentation more relaxed and smoother – here, the IT03 sounds more direct, with the somewhat more forward overall treble.
In the lows, the IT03 has something in common with the PRIMACY: the dynamic woofer sounds a little less detailed than the BA midrange driver. Directly comparing the two, the iBasso’s lows appear a little more detailed. The PRIMACY has got the slightly cleaner and quicker bass attack while both have an identically fast decay and control. The IT03’s mids sound more detailed and rawer, more direct, which is however mainly because of the PRIMACY’s 5 kHz dip that reduces the quantity of vocal overtones.
The PRIMACY’s soundstage is smaller and more intimate, yet with just as much width as depth. Instrument separation is somewhat cleaner with the iBasso.

FLC Technology FLC8s (red-grey-gunmetal filter combination):
The FLC8s is even more of a truly sub-bass focussed in-ear with this filter combination as its lows start climbing lower, with even less level in the root and upper bass, but a comparable amount of sub-bass quantity with the FLC’s reaching its climax even lower (so in comparison with the FLC8s, the IT03 has got the fuller bottom-end while it is the more sub-bassy in-ear when compared to many other in-ears). In the mids, the FLC is more forward and intimate while both in-ears sound comparably open here. Though, to my ears, the FLC8s has got a spot-on correct vocal timbre with the gunmetal filter whereas the iBasso minimally shifts voices to the slightly brighter side. In the middle treble around 5 kHz, the FLC8s is more in the background and has got a narrower peak around 8 kHz, however the iBasso is somewhat brighter in the highs, nonetheless its upper treble appears a bit more realistic as its emphasis is more broad-banded and even.
While the FLC8s has got the quicker bass attack with all of the other sub-bass filters, its (sub-) bass attack is moderately softer than the iBasso’s when using the red sub-bass filter. Control and decay speed however appear comparable. Nonetheless, the FLC8s’s dynamic woofer sounds somewhat higher resolving than the iBasso’s to me. In the mids, the FLC, that I also say to have more precise and detailed vocals than my UERM, sounds somewhat more detailed than the IT03 here as well. In the treble, the FLC8s appears a bit cleaner, however the IT03 is more even and tonally realistic here.
The FLC’s soundstage is somewhat wider and deeper with the sharper and cleaner separation in comparison.


Conclusion:

A surprise can be either of positive or of negative nature. Fortunately, the IT03 definitely turned out as the first.
The sound is nicely coherent, with a sub-bass driven nature and lows that start climbing low, avoiding spillage into the root and midrange. The highs are somewhat more on the brighter side but pretty even overall, avoiding any narrow dips or peaks, making the treble harmonious and realistic on the total.
The amount of details is high and the IT03 definitely doesn’t need to hide from other hybrid in-ears at the same price point, despite the slightly less resolving bottom-end, nonetheless some of the other hybrid models in the same price range “suffer” from the same, and iBasso’s triple-driver in-ear manages to have a pretty nimble and well-controlled bass as compensation. Overall, I would even say that the, compared to the mids, somewhat less resolving bass is its only small taint, because on the whole, the combination of tonality, speed, resolution, evenness and instrument separation are definitely very convincing.



What’s not so great though is the carrying case that looks nice but is a little inappropriate for in-ears of this size. Additionally, with the ergonomically shaped shells, either rotation-locked MMCX or 2-pin connectors would have been better suited for the overall insertion comfort as opposed to the swivelling MMCX connectors that would be better suiting for smaller and not concha-shaped in-ears. And just a small thing at the end, a more gracile (less visible) transition between the two parts of each ear piece would also be something that I would have liked to see.


Overall, especially on the sound side, the IT03 is a very convincing in-ear, scoring 94 percentage points when it comes to sound quality of hybrid in-ears at this price point and 87% when it comes to build and accessories, making it a total of 4.595 out of 5 possible stars with my usual 70 to 30 weighting.