disclaimer: The Ta-03s was provided for the purpose of this review and the tube rolling article by Xtenik Audio. If you have an interest in purchasing any of the Xduoo amplifiers I have recently written about, I suggest you check out Xtenik’s website and follow them on facebook for more information. I have no financial interest in Xtenik, nor did I receive any compensation beyond the product itself for reviewing it.
Unboxing / Packaging:
The Ta-03s is a fairly heavy unit so is packaged accordingly and the box is much more designed for transport/travel than for retail sales. Typical Cardboard with heavy closed cell foam surround the amp itself while the cables and tubes come packed in a smaller box again with heavy foam surrounds around the tubes. My unit made its journey from China to the US without so much as a scratch on the outer package so I think it was well handled, but I have no doubt that it would have taken fairly substantial abuse to have caused any problems to the internal unit.
The outer case is anodized aluminum in a flat black. Going around the amp, the front plate (left to right) has an LED indicator lamp, a 6.35mm headphone jack, and shares a volume knob that it shares with the Ta-01s. The sides are ridged to help with cooling but otherwise slick. The rear (left to right) has a USB-type C input port with a link indicator LED above it, a pair of RCA Jacks for analog input, and the on/off switch immediately over the power cord port (standard C14 port). The power supply is listed as 110-240V capable and is auto-sensing as no external switch exists for setting input voltage. The top of the unit has the tube sockets in the front with vents on either side at the front and an output transformer that is roughly the full width of the unit at the rear. If there is a knock here, and it is a very slight one, it is that the tube sockets are not aligned in such a way that the tubes all face the same direction. This doesn’t effect performance at all but some of OCD types like myself will notice.
Since the Ta-03s can be used as a USB DAC/Amp or as a pure amplifier, not all of the internals are always in the signal path. Starting with the more complex use case, the USB input is handled by an XMOS u8 chipset and has separate clocks at 24.57Mhz and 22.57Mhz to handle the various sampling rates it supports. From there, the input is fed to a pair of Cirrus Logic 4398 DAC chips handle the D/A conversion and feed an LPF circuit before it reaches the 12au7 tube. If using the Ta-03s as a pure amplifier, all the previously mentioned circuitry can be ignored and the signal path starts with the RCA jacks and injects into the system just ahead of the LPF as we reach the 12au7 preamp tube. The 12au7 is a dual triode tube with left and right signals being handled separately. This means a closely balanced tube is required to prevent channel imbalances in the output. Once the 12au7 handles the voltage amplification, the signal travels to a pair of 6S19p power tubes that are responsible for current amplification and finally to an output transformer that prevents the output from having wide swings in impedance as can happen with tube output.
The Ta-03s DAC supports 32bit/192kHz PCM and native 64 and 128 DSD.
Sound is tough to discuss on any DAC/Amp as it often is more a matter of source material and headphones that influence what we hear. This is even more complicated when dealing with a tube amp where changing the tubes for different ones may have an impact on the sound. I did quite a bit of tube rolling with the Ta-03s and have documented that in a separate article so discussion here is limited to the device as it ships with the factory supplied tubes.
Bass is linear with good extension and plenty of punch when called on. There is not obvious coloration added by using the on-board DAC and roll-off is low enough that most headphones will struggle with producing bass before the Ta-03s struggles with it in the mid-20Hz range.
Mids are very dependent and preamp tube used. The supplied preamp adds a little warmth and push to the upper mids. The on-board DAC enhances this and has a warm tilt to the mids as a whole and emphasizes that upper-mid/lower treble lift. In that respect, the DAC implementation in the Ta-03s is similar to that of the Opus#1S with its warm overall tone without going overboard with it.
Here again, I think the treble can be heavily influenced by the tube used. Stock tubes show good extension and some sparkle and air at the top without being out of line with the rest of the signature. The DAC component has the previously mentioned lower treble lift, and then quickly falls back in line with the rest of the signature above it.
Soundstage / Imaging:
Probably the best thing you can say about stage and imaging when referencing an amp is it does nothing to hinder either. The Ta-03s does a good job of this and the stage of things like the HD800 is still as expansive as expected and imaging as precise as we expect from things like the Hifiman He560 or Ananda.
Thoughts / Conclusion:
For the price, it is hard to argue against the Ta-03s. It is a solid tube amp with good sound and lots of tuning options thanks to its 12au7 preamp tube. The fact that it can be used as a USB DAC/Amp is really just a bonus at the price point the Ta-03s goes for. The built in DAC is solid, but does have a slight coloration to the sound and wont render that last bit of detail that a higher end DAC will bring to the table. I would recommend the Ta-03s for those new to tubes that want a chance to learn about tube amps without crazy expense. The amp itself is quite reasonably priced, 6S19P power tubes can be bought for between 5 and 10 USD which is about as cheap as any power tube can be had and the 12au7 is among the most common tubes in existence so literally hundreds of options exist by the time you look at different makers and design changes over the years by those various makers. That variety means you can go from the $10 bargain tubes up to the $1000 Nickel plated Telefunken with stops at all price points in-between. For those interested in what tubes do to sound, it is on full display with the Ta-03s, and for $100 you can get 5 different (and good) 12au7 tubes to try out and find the signature you like best. My favorites are listed in my tube rolling article here for those who already have a Ta-03s and want more or different tube options.
Pros: Great inexpensive intro to tube amplifiers
Cons: Tube socket orientation is not symmetrical, USB power to dac can be noisy if not cleaned up.