Product: Little Dot CDP_I & DAC_I - CD transport & DAC
Manufacturer: Little Dot - Hong Kong
Approx. price: 289 $ (CDP_I) - 259 $ (DAC_I) (YMMV)
Reviewer: Lucio Cadeddu - TNT Italy
Reviewed: November, 2010
In the first part of this review I analyzed and described these units, the way they have been designed and built, the way they work. Please refer to that article for more technical infos and pictures and let's focus our attention on the way these units sound and perform.
At 400 € this transport + DAC combo simply doesn't have competitors. If you let aside DIY kits there are no real alternatives if you're in the market for a digital pair like this. The main question now is: why should you go for separates when you can buy a decent integrated CD player instead? There are many clever reasons, actually.
First of all, you can use the DAC_I as the heart of a complex digitally-based system, with multiple digital sources: you can connect up to three different digital sources PLUS a PC (via USB). This is something you can't do with a simple integrated CD player.
Then you have some technical reason: two separate power supplies that feed the transport and the DAC circuits mean less interferences, for example. Moreover, keeping the DAC far from the transport allows for some extra interference isolation too.
Considering the DAC has two analogue line-level outputs, you can easily connect up to two amplifiers, for example two small Class-D integrated amps used to biamp the speakers or feed a secondary system in another room. Finally, a separate system like this one allows you to perform different levels of upgrade. You can buy a better transport or a better DAC, experiment with different digital cables and so on. In other words, it could be the perfect solution for anyone willing to make experiments (and learn something during the process).
Conversely, an integrated digital player is a sort of a closed box: there are few things you can do to improve it, apart from the obvious ones. So you should think at this CD transport + DAC pair as a fully open system, easy to upgrade and funny to play with. Considering its low price it could represent the perfect tweaker's gym :-)
I've tested the Little Dot units with various sparring partners, different CD players, DACs, transports and digital cables. First of all I'd like to remark that choosing one or the other filter slope settings on the DAC_I is mainly a matter of personal taste but the differences are subtle in any case. Your choice will be influenced by the balance of the rest of your system and/or by the disc you are playing. Feel free to switch from SHARP to SLOW from disc to disc in order to find the setting which suits better your taste. Leave all the other settings on 24/192 mode.
The tonal balance of the CDP_I & DAC_I appears to be mostly on the neutral side, just a bit dry, if I may. The sound is precise and detailed, punchy and lively though it never becomes aggressive. High frequencies might be affected by a gentle roll-off or, if you prefer, might lack ultra high resolution. Even the mid range suffers from a lack of presence: certain voices appear less solid than they should be. For example, the male chorus on Philip Glass Koyaanisqatsi or Marla Glen's voice in The cost of freedom should have a beefier body. Also the harmonic content of complex musical programs could be richer than it actually is. Piano notes appear a bit essential (thin?) while they should shine thanks to their naturally rich harmonic content.
The bass and the mid bass range are simply excellent, instead: powerful, extended and well articulated. With certain recordings, rich in bass content, the bass range can even distract the listener from enjoying the whole picture.
Overall, these units are good all-around performers: without direct comparison against better and much more expensive digital players they can sound astonishing, to say the least. Their tonal balance isn't perfect, perhaps, but considering the 400 € tag they can give many integrated CD players in the same price class a good run for their money.
The Little Dot units are crisp, fast and perform very well in the PRaT department. Impulsive and percussive signals, both in the bass and in the mid range are reproduced with plenty of energy: attack time is impressive, indeed! The natural decay of notes could be better as I've found it to be too...quick. These two aspect contribute to give the listener the feeling these units like to remark dynamic variations. This is a welcomed plus with lively musical programs, though it could be considered excessive with more relaxed music. Just when you need more introspection, this Little Dot combo seems to be in a rush. Even if you'e a speed demon you might need to hit the brakes from time to time.
In the microdynamics department the performance of the pair is very good as their low level resolution (small details etc.) is outstanding for the price.
This digital pair can create a reasonable soundstage, but the three spatial dimensions aren't represented all in the same way. More precisely, while the width of the image is good, depth and height are not so satisfactory. Things get slightly better, just in terms of depth, when the SLOW digital filter option is ON. Perhaps this has something to do with the more natural decay of the high frequencies (because the slope of the filter is smoother), but I don't know exactly. The height of the image doesn't seem to be affected by the different settings of the digital filter.
The focus of the image is good, and the contours of singers and instruments are well defined. The different horizontal planes inside the virtual soundstage are somehow compressed, one closer to the others. This notwithstanding, the performance in this area is quite good, especially considering the price tag. Entry-level CD players, normally, don't image this good.
The CDP_I is annoyingly slow: it takes ages to initialize, doesn't reply quickly to inputs (both from the remote and the front panel switches), loads and unloads CDs too slowly. Even the TOC reading takes a geological era. Perhaps this lazyness improves reliability and prolongs components life but I'd have preferred a quicker performance.
An old Mission/Cyrus PCM II CD player - equipped with a Philips CDM4 mech - reads, loads/unloads and initializes in a snap. Lightning fast. I love speed. I'm a speed freak, indeed :-)
Apart from this aspect, that one might even consider irrelevant, the transport works flawlessly and gets the job done. The remote control should have a wider operating window and should include fast forward and fast rewind, these options are sometimes very useful, especially for reviewers [big grin].
The DAC_I has too many useless settings. The only one that produces audible differences is the filter slope choice (sharp or slow). All the other settings are meaningless (and confusing for novices). The USB section should be upgraded so to play 24/96 files at least. Stock feet can be bettered on both units.
Sound. It is hard to find something serious to complain about. Considering the price, these two units are almost a miracle, indeed. Considering they sound just a bit on the dry side, with gentle roll-off in the high frequencies and with a lack of presence effect in the mids they should be partnered with amps and speakers that can deliver a rich (not fat!) sound.
These Little Dot units are, considering what they offer, a real bargain. Though not everyone's cup of tea, maybe, they still can represent a no-nonsense first step in the world of serious HiFi components. With the right partners it will be easy to forget their ridiculously low price tag. Definitely, the HiFi market NEEDS more products like these. An integrated CD player with some of the features of this pair and an appropriate price tag could be every audiophile's dream. Kudos Little Dot!
© Copyright 2010 Lucio Cadeddu - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com