Okay, it’s the 1st of April, but this is not April fools. Louis from The Audio Hub sent me a unit of the Uber Muzik Tiny Tube DAC, another new alternative to the $200 USB DAC/Amp offerings. What separates the Tiny Tube DAC from the rest of the market offerings is the use of vacuum tube on the DAC output stage, so far the first one I’ve seen on this price bracket. Within the first 30 minutes of spending some time with the Tiny Tube DAC, I know that this DAC is going to be a strong contender on the $200 DAC/Amp market.
The D/A chip used in the Tiny Tube is a relatively unknown UAC3553B 24/48 USB Audio DAC chip from the Zurich based semiconductor manufacturer Micronas. Analog data signal from the Micronas UAC3553B is then passed on to the 12AT7 twin triode tube, which is then passed on to the popular TPA6120 amplifier chip and out to the headphone sockets. All parts talk aside, the thing that matters the most is that the Tiny Tube DAC is great sounding, very competitive for $200, easy to use, and comes with plenty of power for headphones. I’ve tested the Tiny Tube with all the big headphones including the Sennheiser HD650 and HD800, while my friend Bram has tested his Beyer DT880/600 and Hifiman HE5-LE with no issues. The 12AT7 tube can be tube rolled, but I haven’t had the chance to try other tubes on the Tiny Tube.
SOUND IMPRESSIONS, COMPARISONS
For comparison purposes, the two products that come to mind are the ever popular Audinst HUD-MX1 and the Yulong U100 (aka “The New Recommendation”). Both the Audinst and the Yulong are pure solid state gears. And just like the debate with single and multi driver speakers, I think tube gears and solid states resolve around primarily the same points. Generally solid states have an edge in presenting a more complete frequency balance from the low bass to the high trebles. On the other hand, tubes mostly focus on the middle part of the frequency and delivering the kind of midrange quality most solid states can only dream of. Some people swear that midrange is the most important part of the music, and while that’s true for some genres, modern music and especially electronic ones put big emphasis in bass perhaps more than the midrange.
Although the Tiny Tube is not a pure tube box (due to the presence of the TPA6120 on the headphone amp), the placement of the 12AT7 tubes on the DAC output section gives it a clear, smooth, and sweet midrange. Again, the Yulong and the Audinst are very good with midrange — but in this case, the tube is simply better. The mids are very clear, grain free, natural, smooth, and you can insert other positive adjectives in that sentence — but what really matters is that the mids on the Tiny Tube leaves an stronger impression on my brain than the Yulong and the Audinst does. It’s also refreshing to hear that the Tiny Tube doesn’t over-mellow and over-thicken the midrange which some tube gears sometimes do, muddying the midrange clarity for the so-called “tubey” sound. Midrange is slightly forward to give a good vocal presence, and midrange clarity is really good — best one of the trio actually. If you are into midrange, then you can skip the rest of article and order the Tiny Tube with confidence.
It’s probably no secret that tubes tend to excel in midrange. But another thing that I don’t hear so often is how tubes also excel in soundstage and imaging. From the low end Starving Student Millet Hybrid Amplifier (SSMH) to the high end Manley 300B, it seems very easy for tube gears to achieve a natural open soundstage with awesome depth in them. Last year I’ve had the chance to compare a Tubelover PCM1794 DAC side by side to several other sources, and my impression was that it has a natural soundstage that differentiates it from the other DACs with solid state output stage. Likewise, the Tiny Tube carries on the same natural soundstage. The width is actually not that big, but the depth factor is very good, while imaging, instrument placement, and ambiance are all very good. The Tiny Tube definitely has one of the best soundstage performance among the $200 DAC/Amp boxes, including the Yulong U100 and the Audinst HUD-MX1. The soundstage presentation is a bit laid back like the Audinst, and though both the Yulong and the Audinst are also strong performers in soundstage, I give an extra point to the Tiny Tube as it is noticeably cleaner in terms of grain, and the background is also blacker.
When Bram received the Tiny Tube, one of his comments was that he wasn’t getting as much low bass and treble extension, though midrange quality was very good. Although the use of the TPA6120 chip in the headphone amp section helps to add a solid midbass punch, ultimately I do feel the Tiny Tube to lack the low bass to make electronic music work. In this case, the Yulong U100 absolutely rocks as it delivers a tight and punchy low bass and with excellent PRaT factor — the best among the trio. The Audinst, though significantly warmer, darker, and possessing more bass body than the other two, was actually weaker in the punch. Top end extension wise, I don’t think the Tiny Tube has any issues there, at least not when viewed relative to the other $200 price bracket products.
The tonal balance is actually very good, and I never feel a certain frequency range to be flawed — until there is a strong demand for bass from the music. The decision to go with a tube output stage probably has taken into consideration that the Tiny Tube is not going to have a strong low bass, as it is the reality with most tube gears (a lot of the high end tube amps do have low bass issues). But the Tiny Tube really have made up for that loss by giving you a very strong midrange and soundstage, and I really wouldn’t complain about the low bass too much. Ultimately gear choices are dictated by the choice of music, and as long as your music doesn’t play a lot of low bass, then you’ll be very happy with the musicality of the Tiny Tube.
The Yulong U100 has the fastest pace in the group, but the Tiny Tube falls into a good second place, slightly ahead than the Audinst. This is quite surprising, considering a lot of tube gears tend to struggle with pace (well, the entry level ones do). I think the TPA6120 chip deserves a lot of the credit here, but what’s important is that the Tiny Tube is not the slow mellow kind of tube gear. The ambiance is slightly laid back, but prominent vocals and instruments in the recording are placed relatively forward to maintain the intimacy. The pace is good for the majority of Rock music, and the majority of music is not going to run into pace problems when played from the Tiny Tube.
The relatively high gain level of the Tiny Tube makes it not so ideal for IEMs. In fact, with all three DAC/Amp boxes compared here, I’m only turning the knob to roughly 8 O’clock position and that would’ve given me a nice moderate level volume — just high enough to clear the volume imbalance region of the potentiometers. Frankly, unless you prefer to be a digital purist, what I do is I lower the volume on Itunes and that way I get far better control with high sensitivity IEMs. On minimum volume level, the Tiny Tube has a little bit of noise level, but once I get some music playing the noise disappears and the sound is totally clean.
The bottom line is that I’m very happy to see a tube-infused DAC/Amp box with such a great musicality and sound quality at this price bracket. It still won’t replace the Yulong U100 for my number one recommendation, as there are some things that solid states do better. But I also won’t rank the Tiny Tube below the U100, as ultimately the two gears represents the best of $200 Dac/Amp boxes, each with their own strengths. Audinst owners, you guys be best start saving up for an upgrade (LOL). But for the midrange lover, the answer is so clear I don’t think you need to be waiting for other reviews to make your decision. Tube Rules!