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iBasso DC03 DAC/Headphone Amplifier: Fear & Loathing in America

An affordable & portable USB Dongle DAC for your iPhone or Android phone — the iBasso DC03 is a winning combination for your headphones.

iBasso DC03 DAC/Headphone Amplifier in black on white marble

Anyone who thought 2021 was going to be so much better than 2020 was not in Washington D.C. on January 6th. Having travelled from New Jersey the day before to spend time with the folks at Linear Tube Audio (you can check out our coverage on Instagram) in Takoma Park, I decided to also pay a visit to my best friend from college who resides in the city. 

I lived in D.C. for almost 10 years and commuted through Union Station for work for almost two years. For those who don’t know the city well – it sits less than two blocks from the U.S. Capitol. You can see it as you exit the building and I’ve run past our center of government dozens of times during the years I was a student back in the early 1990s.

It is my second home. What I saw as I was leaving will not be erased anytime soon. I cracked open the case to the iBasso DC03 DAC/Headphone amplifier and connected it to my iPhone and began the long 4-hour trek home to the Shore. I was unable to look at anyone on my return trip without feelings of both anger and confusion. There is no justification for what took place. Not in D.C., Seattle, Minneapolis, Portland, or New York City. 

Capitol Protest on 2021-01-06

Music never felt more important. 

A kind thank you to Nicholas Tolson, Director of Marketing at Linear Tube for being an excellent host, good friend, and for texting to make sure we made it home safely.

It was also great to see him this past week in New York City at a private headphone event hosted by Audeze. They have some incredible new products coming soon and not all of them are for audio.

I will not use this platform to promote my personal politics but understand that I still can’t shake what I witnessed. I cringed at comparisons to Kristallnacht being tossed around by journalists and pundits on social media.

My family were targeted during the two-day pogrom in Nazi Germany before almost all of them were transported from Poland, Germany, and France to Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen in the years that followed. Over 100 members of my family were murdered in the camps and I was raised by survivors so I speak for a genuine position of authority on this topic.

Do you know what was similar to the Holocaust?

The Holocaust. 

Done with the politics. 

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Police Entering Capitol Protest on 2021-01-06

Perhaps more people should take that sage advice and focus on family and community.

Music is also a reflection of the times that we live in. It expresses the mood of a nation. From many different perspectives. You don’t have to agree with it, but it is often important to give it a listen and think. 

Products like the iBasso DC03 are also a reflection of the times that we live in. People can’t exist in 2021 without their smartphone and many of us travel with a laptop in our backpack even when on vacation. 

Digital streaming services like Spotify, Tidal, and Qobuz are 24-7 libraries of music at our disposal that are accessible through our phones, tablets, and computers. Tens of millions of people listen to music this way every single day. 

Anything that can improve that listening experience deserves a shot at the title. 

iBasso DC03 DAC/Headphone Amplifier in Hand

The iBasso DC03 joins a growing list of dongle DACs like the Helm Bolt DAC, Zorloo Ztella, AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt, and Clarus CODA; all of them offer support for high-resolution audio (anything above 16-bit/44.1kHz) playback and can drive a pair of headphones through the 3.5mm headphone jack.

The iBasso DC03 features dual Cirrus Logic CS43131 Master HiFi DAC chips and supports up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM, and native support of DSD 256x. 

It is very small. Even smaller than most USB flash drives. Everything about it feels solidly constructed and while I’m not a huge fan of exposed cables in this scenario, it appears that it should last a long time. 

iBasso has developed a control app for Android devices that is available but nothing yet for iOS. With the application, your Android smartphones support UAC 2.0 volume adjustment with 64 volume levels providing the user with precise volume control.

If you use an iPhone, you require a USB to Lightning adapter to connect the DC03 to your device. I’ve commuted with different variants of the AudioQuest DragonFly USB DAC for the past few years so that type of adapter is mandatory with iPhones and iPads. 

I don’t usually travel with more than one pair of headphones, but the chance to spend time at Linear Tube Audio meant taking my Meze Audio 99 Classics, Audeze LCD-1, and HiFiMan Deva in my backpack. 

iBasso DC03 DAC/Headphone Amplifier in Black

As I sat listening to the DC03 connected to my MacBook Pro; the DC03 includes a USB-C to USB-A adapter, I was immediately struck by how much gain it has. 

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The 99 Classics are not the hardest to drive and I barely had to turn the volume up past the midway point on the iPhone or MacBook Pro. Turning the volume all the way up became very uncomfortable and I’m sure everyone could hear what I was listening to. 

I was not in the mood for “happy” music on my journey and most of it was spent listening to Nils Frahm, Max Richter, Donald Byrd, Jason Isbell, David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen. 

Nebraska (Columbia, 24-bit/192kHz, Qobuz) has always felt like his most authentic work to me. There is a coldness to it; a brutal honesty about those in this country who exist on the fringes and Springsteen’s stripped-down production is the only way it could come across as authentic. The vinyl copy trounces all of the digital versions; there is a brightness that makes me always turn the volume much lower when using the CD or streaming copies. The DC03 presented everything with a rather even keel when powering the Meze 99 Classics with two noticeable exceptions. 

There was a definite hardness in the treble with all 3 headphones listening to “Atlantic City,” and “My Father’s House,” but I would attribute that more to the recording than the iBasso DAC/Headphone amplifier which is not a bright sounding DAC.

When I swapped out the DC03 for the Clarus CODA, I heard the same hardness in regard to Springsteen’s voice and guitar work. It’s something I don’t hear on the vinyl copy. Interestingly, Springsteen’s harmonica playing through the iBasso was much smoother than the CODA and I found myself tapping along with my shoe on the cold floor. The DC03 also puts more emphasis on the midrange than the CODA.

Switching over to Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” from his brilliant Southeastern (Southeastern Records, 16-bit/44.1kHz, Qobuz) release, the DC03 demonstrated its emphasis on midrange color, but also a slight softening in the treble.

Isbell’s vocals on the track can illuminate a bright sounding amp or headphone and when I pushed the volume, I found the DC03/Meze combination a tad dull sounding.

Too much power in this case was not good for the Meze. I was also confused how a rolled-off treble, combined with the warm tonal balance of the Classic 99s resulted in such a thin presentation.

I would pair the iBasso DC03 with a neutral or slightly cool sounding headphone; and if one is inclined to pair the DC03 with the Meze 99 Classics – I would keep a leash on the volume.

When I switched over to the Audeze LCD-1 open-back planar magnetic headphones, the synergy between the two products was far superior. Isbell’s vocals on the aforementioned track had less strain and there was a greater sense of space around him.

The LCD-1 can sound something thin when pushed, but the midrange warmth of the DC03 was a good thing in this particular case.

One area where the DC03 demonstrated its inferiority to the CODA, and AudioQuest DACs was in the bass. Both of the $300 DACs had a clear advantage in regard to extension, and weight of bass information.

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Donald Byrd’s “Cristo Redentor” has always felt like an anthem protesting injustice and it is an unforgiving track. If your loudspeakers or headphones are slightly hard sounding on top – you will know it when Byrd’s trumpet kicks into high gear. 

Against the darkness that dominates the Shore in the cold winter months, I made my way home from the train station, my mind focused on the events of the day. Donald Byrd’s beautiful playing never sounded so good. The iBasso DC03 hit its stride as I reached my street, grateful to see my children awaiting our return on the front steps.

Removing the headphones from my head, I gave them both extended hugs. 

Music and family. It’s all I needed on that fateful day. And maybe a little thing called hope. 

Technical Information:

Dual CS43131 DAC chips
Ultra-low noise floor: <0.9µV
Output voltage: 2Vrms (300 Ohms), 1.61Vrms (32 Ohms)
Output power: 80mW @ 32 Ohms
Signal to Noise ratio: 127dB
USB Type-C Interface
3.5mm Headphone Output

Where to buy: $69 at Audio46 | Amazon

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Adam

    September 7, 2021 at 5:56 pm

    I’m curious if the firmware for the DC03 had been updated for this review. iBasso has two or three revised firmware versions available on their website. It would be interesting to know if they address the bass issue described.

    • Ian White

      September 7, 2021 at 6:04 pm

      Adam,

      I would have to check on the last update but it was a unit provided directly from the distributor here in America.

      Ian White

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