PROS: excellent tuning with a powerful bass and revealing detailed highs, comfortable universal design with a custom touch, quality removable cable and accessories.
CONS: might be a bit too much bass for some, wish the case would be bigger.
The product was provided to me free of charge for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion.
Yes, you are reading it correctly – I’m reviewing a new pair of 3way hybrid IEMs from a company that until now has been well known for their portable DAPs and DAC/amps. I often talk about the risk some audio gear manufacturers take with a new product introduction, and this is another good example of it. When I heard that iBasso is adding headphones to their portfolio, right before the upcoming release of their next flagship DAP, I had some doubts in my mind. I have seen joint collaborations where companies add re-branded and re-tuned IEMs to their product line, but starting from scratch is not an easy task, especially when you put your reputation on the line going against many other established players in 3way hybrid world.
In my personal opinion, if you are deciding to jump into already saturated IEM pool, maybe it’s a good idea to skip shallow waters of a single driver design and probably a good idea to avoid deep waters of anything higher than 3 drivers. 3way hybrid design gives you access to a single dynamic and dual BA drivers with more control over the tuning and enough flexibility to hit a sweet spot of price/performance ratio. My last iBasso review featured their DX80 DAP which did exactly the same, not going after the entry level market or the summit-fi market (the job of the upcoming DX200), but instead hitting that sweet spot with a unique design and lots of features at a very reasonable price.
As a prelude to this review, I gotta say that I did find quite a few pleasant surprises, something I didn’t expect from a freshman release. After spending a month with IT03, it became clear that iBasso didn’t want to release just another hybrid IEM and instead pushed the envelope with something more unique to stand out from the crowd. So, did the risk pay off? Let’s proceed to the review and find out more!
The packaging box was just the right size to give the product a more premium look. I’m a sucker for a product packaging and always like to analyze details – it’s the first thing that grabs your attention before you open the box. Here, I like the detail of the actual IEM shells on the cover with a shadow of where the wire would be – it sends a clear message that wire is replaceable and you are not locked into a stock cable. On the back and the side you have design details and a comprehensive spec.
One thing that stood out for me was a detailed 3D breakdown diagram of the design with every internal component of IT03. You don’t have to be a headphone geek to appreciate the beauty of looking under the hood of the shell, to see how the drivers and the other components are arranged inside. It’s always nice to see when manufacturer takes pride in their work to showcase internal guts, but I wish this diagram would have more info with corresponding labels of the components.
With an outer sleeve off, now you are faced with all black giftbox where under the magnetic cover you will find two flip trays with IT03 and accessories. IEMs were placed in the top tray, sitting securely in a precise foam cutout with an attached cable, going to the back where the cable was wrapped around a spool. This provides a very clean and neat presentation of the product. Flipping this tray over revealed another one below it with a leather storage case and accessories inside of it.
One thing to mention is that I received this product a short while ago, sent to me as a final pre-production unit for the review purpose. Recently I have seen a few other people showing pictures of FR graph from iBasso and also noticed that final production unit comes with 3 sets of eartips instead of 2 that I’ve received. The reason I’m bringing this up, if you notice a slight difference in the unboxing pictures of the packaging I received in comparison to your purchased IT03, don’t be alarmed.
Don’t expect to find a lot of accessories, but whatever was included is definitely of a high quality. As I mentioned before, my package arrived with 2 sets of eartips plus an extra pair already on IEMs, each set with 3 pairs (S/M/L size) of silicone single flange tips. They do have a slight variation in bore opening and springiness of the cap, and should give you plenty of choices to find the right one to give you the best seal. It was also nice to see that eartips were organized inside of small holders making them easier to store and to find the right size pair.
The only other included accessory was a leather case, no other unnecessary 1/4″ or airplane adapters or cleaning tools. Usually, I wouldn’t spend too much time talking about the leather case, but here it deserves a special attention. This is real high quality leather, US sourced and vegetable tanned. iBasso is very proud of this case, and after doing a little bit of research I realized why. In a world where pleather is so common and even a real leather has this distinct chemical smell, apparently there are different ways of tanning the material.
Vegetable-tanning is a process that takes a long time, doesn’t use any harmful chemicals, like chromium, and done in a natural way by using tannic acids found in some plant species by using barks, branches, leaves, and even some fruits. That explains the unique brownish hint over a beige color and natural, woody, and earthy smell. As a result, the colors are more natural and organic, the look is more irregular and handmade, and durability and strength exceeds synthetic material. In a long run, the color will not fade and should stay true to its original finish.
Who knew that you can actually learn something new from a simple leather case and its methods of tanning? But regardless of its quality, I was a bit disappointed about its small size. The case does have a little partitioning inside where you can place the shells without them coming in contact and then stuff its thin cable before closing the cover, but it was a very tight fit and a bit time consuming to get it right. Majority of people put away their IEMs by wrapping the cable around 3-fingers before storing it in the case, a method that won’t be as fluid with this custom case. Plus, for anybody who wants to use an aftermarket replacement cable – there won’t be any extra room left for it.
Bottom line, eartips were pretty good, and I didn’t even have the need to look into a stash of my spare replacement tips. The leather case is beautiful with a pure class quality, but not very practical if you are in a rush or if you want to use another replacement thicker cable.
Often I’m being asked why I dedicate a separate section to the cable which could be considered as either part of the accessories or part of the design. As many of you know, I’m a cable believer and like to experiment with different wires to see if I hear any subtle difference in the sound. Sometime I find a better pair up that in my opinion worth the investment, while other times I recommend keeping a stock cable because improvement can’t be justified by additional cost. Either way, it’s a subjective opinion, and for those who have concerns – I’m well aware of volume matching though prefer to do it by ear.
When I heard the cable going to be a “regular” OFC wire, I already assumed that wire swap will be necessary, but still went ahead to take a closer look at the stock cable. Here you will find a very durable all metal slim right angled gold plated connector with iBasso logo and a nice rubber strain relief (boot). The connector was slim enough to work with any DAP or a smartphone even inside of a thick case. Wires have 4 separate conductors twisted in pairs and inner-twisted going to the connector where grounds are combined. Y-splitter is your typical heat-shrink piece and chin slider is just a piece of a plastic tube that slides with friction.
The shell connectors are standard mmcx with a nice rubbery housing, marked R on the right side and with 3 bumps on the left side (for a blind ID). There is a flexible memory wire covered by plastic tubing. Just a matter of personal preference, but I’m not a big fan of mmcx connectors with memory wire because it makes it hard during the fit with wire spinning around the connector, but typically it’s an easy DIY to remove it as long as you are careful and aware that any modification voids the cable warranty. Mmcx connector engagement is very snappy and secure, not all connectors are created equally and the one iBasso selected are definitely of a higher quality.
The shielding of the cable feels a little plasticy and not as soft, but the wires are thin enough to keep the cable flexible for storage which is important with included case. At the same time, due to wires being on a thinner side, they can get tangled if you are not paying attention when wrapping them around. Still, not a show stopper. As a hint, before wrapping the cable for storage just push the chin slider up to reduce them getting tangled.
I found no microphonics, definitely a credit to a proper selection of wire shielding and the mmcx connector attachment.
The reference to “OFC” wire really did throw me off the track at first, expecting it will be just another cheap stock cable. It’s common among many manufacturers to use cheap stock cables without investing into overhead of premium wire cost. But as I moved through my review collection of silver plated and pure copper wires, I always ended up coming back to this stock cable which had the best pair up synergy with IT03. Other cables made the sound either a bit brighter or contributed a very subtle change not worth spending extra money. After further discussion with iBasso, turned out this is a higher purity OFC wire, and they actually spent a lot of time testing and comparing different OFC cables to find the one with the best sound quality.
While testing IT03 with different cables, here is what I found:
OFC cable (iBasso stock) – wide soundstage, deep sub-bass balanced with a nice mid-bass punch, bright revealing detailed mids, crisp airy extended treble.
PlusSound X8 8-conductor pure copper – sound performance close to a stock cable, maybe a touch brighter in upper mids.
SuperBax SPC Litz – sound performance close to a stock cable, just upper mids being a little smoother, and surprisingly a bit less hissing (w/LPG).
ALO SPC Litz – nearly the same sound performance as a stock cable.
Bottom line, feel free to experiment with different cables, but you might find it surprising that improvement in sound quality might not justify the additional cost of premium cables when dealing with IT03. As I will talk about this later, the pair up with different sources had a more noticeable influence on a sound signature change. Of course, anything related to cables is a pure subjective opinion, so take it with a grain of salt.
Quite often when you look at the image of the product on the cover of the packaging, you get a good idea of what to expect. I already mentioned about a clever way how iBasso depicted detachable cable with a shadow of the attached wire, but one key design element was missing and I didn’t even notice it on the back of the box where they had IEM diagram. I’m talking about the inner part of the shell facing toward the ear. Not sure if they meant it as a surprise, because it sure was one for me.
Overall, the shell has a neutral dark color, with a shiny non-transparent piano finish. The faceplate is smooth with iBasso logo. The area of the mmcx connector is slightly protruding from the shell, with a nice gold plated metal collar, and when you attach the cable it’s not visible from the faceplate side, but it does from the inner side. Also, when you attach the cable it doesn’t look like you are pushing the cable connector into the shell since the collar is outside, and as a result it feels like you are not applying any unnecessary pressure on the shell itself.
The surprise comes when you flip the shell over to find a curved surface which reminded me of a Custom shell. The inner shell design has almost custom-like curved landscape to fit precisely into Concha Cymba area of the ear. The fit is very comfortable, feels like a Custom Universal shell design (Universal fit with a Custom shape). The inner part of the shell has a model name and corresponding L/R marking. Also, you can see two separate vent holes, one across from the dynamic driver and another one closer to the nozzle. I’m sure both are important contributing factors to the bass performance, as well as wide soundstage and zero-flex.
The nozzle tip has a metal mesh cover, and the nozzle itself is long enough for a good fit with many different eartips. There is no lip at the tip of the nozzle, but to me the top of the nozzle looks just a tiny bit wider which prevents eartips from slipping off. With a correct eartips selection the isolation is very good and there is no sound leakage. The fit is not exactly flush, but they don’t stick out too far either. Also, don’t expect to be able to put your head on the pillow with your ear down.
Overall, I really like the design and found the fit of these shells (only 9g) to be just perfect! What impressed me the most, from a distance the design is not that flashy, but when you take a closer look analyzing the details and then put them in your ears – you quickly realize there is nothing generic about IT03 and everything has been carefully calculated. That’s one thing I learned about iBasso, every single detail of their design, regardless if it’s a DAP or a DAC/amp or a pair of IEMs, is well thought out.