The Soft Sabre
- Smooth, warm, cohesive, powerful and musical sound.
- Power at low impedances.
- Volume control.
- 3 sound modes.
- Great value for money.
- Fade-in and a somewhat hesitant start.
- The short cable has a plastic coating with memory effect.
- There is no USB TypeC to TypeA adapter.
Link to the Store
One could already say that Ikko is a brand of IEMS and DAC/Amps, because this new device is not the first of its kind presented by the brand. This time it is the first sound card optimised for gaming. Thanks to the introduction of the F11 interface, the ITM01 is able to meet the needs of today’s PS5, Switch, Xbox, TV, iPhone, Android phones and PC devices, with optimised algorithms for three usage scenarios: music, cinema and gaming. With a simple press of the central button it is possible to switch between the three modes. As usual lately, it uses an ESS DAC, in this case the ES9298Pro, capable of decoding files up to 32bit/384kHz, achieving up to 2V output at 32Ω. Of course, it supports DSD DoP128 and adopts Ikko’s customised anti-interference magnetic interface connection method. All this and more at a very competitive price. Below we will discuss the other features of this new device, as well as its sound quality.
- DAC: ESS ES9298Pro.
- SNR: 118dB@32Ω(A-weight)
- Frequency response range: 20Hz-40kHz(-0.5dB)
- Output impedance: <0.8Ω
- Impedance of connected headphones: adaptable 16Ω – 600Ω
- Output level: 2V@32Ω(125mW@32Ω)
- THD+N: 0.0006%.
- 3 sound modes: music, cinema and game.
- PCM: 32bit/384kHz.
- DSD: 128
- Size: 58x22x11mm
The presentation is a bit different from the traditional cardboard box. It is a transparent hard plastic box, which is wrapped in a thin bag for protection. The box is rectangular in shape with rounded corners, with a size of 138x80x34. On the main side you can see the device encased in a white foam mould, as well as the magnetic USB Type-C connector. On the top is a white cardboard protection, with a diagonal cutout, on which is the brand’s logo. As if from the same cut, on the bottom is the other half of the cardboard, on which you can read the name of the model, its description and some features, in black ink on a complete white background, with a silver line dividing the two sections.
On the back side, the rest of the features can be seen, three realistic photos showing the colours that the ITM01 can adopt to notify the selected mode and the brand’s signs. At the top of this side, there is a hinged metal clip, which allows the packaging to be hung on a commercial shelf.
On the left side it is marked «TypeC & USB» and there are 3 QR codes.
After opening the box the rest of the contents are as follows:
- The Ikko Zerda ITM01.
- A short USB TypeC cable.
- One long USB TypeA cable, textile covered, with a leather strap.
- One instruction manual, in Chinese and English.
- A customer service card.
The packaging is distinctive and quick to consume, drawing attention to the product because it is visible from the first glance. It is simple and has only the minimum accessories, a short and a long cable. It is understood that the short cable is for use with other mobile devices and the long one for PC. But I would have liked a USB TypeC to TypeA adapter. Otherwise, there is little to ask for in this type of device, as most are equally sparse in their content.
Construction and Design
There is no doubt that the ITM01 has a distinctive shape. It is a rectangular pickup with a clear oval tendency. So far nothing seems new, except that it consists of two parallel, convex metal plates, with the connections at the ends in between and a translucent plastic plate at the sides, which allows the light indicating the mode to be seen. This light is quite diffused and has little power. It has a brighter central spot and expands towards the ends, dimming rapidly. On the top face are three elongated rectangular buttons, forming a central column. The bottom button is used to lower the volume, the middle button to change the mode and the top button to increase the volume. They are marked with a ‘-‘, ‘o’ and ‘+’ respectively. At the base of the tablet is the brand logo. All signs are white and the device is black with a very fine, smooth sandblasted finish. The connection of the base is USB input and is magnetic. It has a particular connection and shape, larger and oval, different from any regular USB connector. At the other end is the 3.5mm SE output. The inside is plastic, but has a gold crown around it. The back face is smooth, except for a small column in the centre, made of a hardened silicone-like material, which marks the model name in white letters.
The specifications state the size as 58x22x11mm, but do not indicate the weight, although it is not heavy.
It comes with two USB cables, the shorter one is TypeC, has a plastic coating and is curved due to storage in the packaging. The other cable is longer, I’d say 1m, and has a textile coating and a USB TypeA connector. Both magnetic USB connectors that fit the device have a flat, rubbery funnel shape.
The ITM05 is compatible with many devices, such as game consoles (PS5, Switch, Xbox), but also TVs and mobiles (iPhone, Android). Of course, it is compatible with Windows 10 PCs and other DAPS. I have tested it with DAPS, PC and my android smartphone and it connects without any problems, just like any other dongle. Connected to Windows 10 there is no need to install any drivers, but it doesn’t have ASIO drivers either. This is the only disadvantage I find.
The operation of the device is very simple. When it is connected to the PC, it does not detect it until an earphone is connected to it, so be aware that even if the light comes on as soon as it is connected, you need to plug in an earphone for Windows to work. So you have to bear in mind that even if the light comes on as soon as it is connected, you will need to plug in an earphone for Windows to work, so don’t think it’s broken! Once plugged in, operation is very simple, two buttons for volume control and the central button, which has a dual function: a single press pauses or restarts playback, while a long press toggles between the three playback modes (yellow for HiFi, purple for gaming and blue for cinema).
Connected to Win10 each volume press changes the value in two steps. Connected to my Tempotec V1-A, each press changes the volume by 1 point out of 100. Connected to my smartphone, it changes the volume by one point, out of a possible 14 on my Redmi.
The different sound modes they have can be very useful for many people. But I have focused on the Cinema and HiFi modes. Cinema mode expands the soundstage and makes the music more spectacular, suitable for watching movies and series, giving a multi-channel and immersive feel. HiFi mode is the traditional pure music mode, which tries to maximise music fidelity. With no consoles or games available, the corresponding mode has been a bit of a miss for me.
I’m not a big fan of devices with built-in volume. Others that I have only have 32 steps and they are too short for me. The possibility of having 50 or 100 steps is much better, even if you lose the ASIO compatibility. This has made this device one of my favourites when it comes to using it as a source for watching movies or films on my PC. Thanks, too, to a specific mode that allows you to enjoy the sound even more.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that the ITM01 has a Fade-In function every time playback starts. I have said on other occasions that I am against this function, I don’t like to lose the first bars of the music.
On the negative side, at the beginning, I have occasionally noticed some clicking or unreliable operation, which disappears immediately. Maybe it has to do with some kind of setting associated with that Fade-In. In any case, it’s not the best dongle when it comes to music start-up. Fortunately, this disappears quickly.
The specifications indicate a relatively high power rating for a dongle of its price: 2V@32Ω(125mW@32Ω). And it is true that these values are met, which I’m very happy about.
The Ikko ITM01 is capable of delivering just over 2V RMS and has a very slight voltage roll-off, located at the audible end.
By setting the volume to the point where no pure wave distortion is observed, the ITM01 is capable of delivering 1.28V @1kHz, which is 110mW of power at 15 Ω, providing a current of over 85mA, which is quite high for a dongle of this price.
At maximum volume, the ITM01 gives slightly more than it specifies, with no trace of visible distortion: 2.07V @1kHz, that’s 130mW at 33 Ω, a very serious value. Another thing that can be observed when a load of this value is connected is that the output impedance is very low, practically zero, as there is no voltage drop between 33 Ω, 100 Ω or no load at 1kHz.
The values at 100 Ω are similar to those at 33 Ω, which means a power of almost 43mW for this impedance.
There is no problem with the fidelity of the device, it is very linear in the audible range and its roll-off at the 5hz and 40kHz extremes is less than 1dB.
In assessing the sound, I focused on the HiFi mode. It is clear that the cinema mode can expand the scene, giving it a more spectacular touch, but coloured in some aspects, and even cut down on definition in the high end. Undoubtedly, something that is there and that can be an improvement, or at least, a difference that can be positive, it would be foolish of me to ignore it. But as a purist, I prefer to focus my analysis on the music mode, whose fidelity is superior, as well as having a higher definition. On the other hand, I can only praise the cinema alternative for enjoying series and films.
When I hear a source for the first time, my instinct sharpens and it is then that I can guess its quality. It is a rather pure and primal inner feeling, which is then very difficult to change. This first contact can make up a very high percentage of my opinion about the device in question. My first feeling with the Ikko ITM01 was very good, surprising, falling into the hackneyed thought of «how far can the sound quality of a device that is getting cheaper and cheaper». It’s clear that Sabre is covering the maximum protagonism in this time that AKM is not present. And I can only hope that those famous chips from the factory that burned down will return to reignite the battle for the audio DAC throne. But in the meantime, ESS has gone from signifying a pure, analytical sound, to softening its signature, arriving at a warmth that doesn’t lose its roots. It is noticeable that there is a very slight drop in the treble at the audible end. It may not be enough to justify this warmth, because it is already noticeable in the mid-range, but it is there. This is not a bass-centred source, but rather a profile that is not strictly neutral, where the low and mid range have a greater prominence due to their body and exuberance, without this implying a difference in emphasis between the three bands. As I say, the lower range is rich and forceful, with a desirable and pleasing density, but with good definition and a sense of complete range. The weight of the notes has power and good depth, but is not excellent. There is no lumpiness, no sense of opacity in the bass and its resolution is very adequate, though not luxurious. I perceive no colour beyond a sense of warmth and the separation of layers and layering is noticeable. It’s a great area for its price range, with muscle and fullness.
The middle range is the one that shows this warm character most clearly, distancing itself from a more analytical or highly descriptive profile. Despite the level of transparency, I find the midrange more musical and cohesive, rather than bright or defined. The result is a very pleasant midrange, with a good level of resolution, although it doesn’t have a very high separation and I miss a point of greater dynamics, which would give the sound more vivacity and extension. Thanks to the slight warmth of the sound, this range has a good feeling of complete body, fullness and a good level of musical complexity.
The tendency of the high end is towards a smooth and controlled naturalness. It is not a cold or crisp dongle, but neither is it a clipped treble, only subtly lightened. But this does not detract from the fact that this range is far from being unrepresentative. The roll-off is too small to have a clear influence on the sound. Thus, both the extension and the amount of air is more than realistic and more than sufficient.
Technically speaking, I would rate the ITM01 one step above its price range. It has a remarkable level of detail and resolution, crispness and separation. But I think it is in the scene where it is not as well developed as other features. The width is palpable, there is a good sense of depth, although it doesn’t go as far as other sources. But both in height and in three-dimensional recreation, the feeling is lighter. It’s not quite an intimate scene, but it’s not an ethereal or enveloping sound, but the music’s provenance is more frontal, albeit with good laterality. The level of separation doesn’t go so far as to offer absolute darkness between notes, but rather the cohesion and warmth of the sound, smoothing out the background and detail. While micro nuances are only hinted at, the degree of the level of resolution falls short of something more explicit.
Hidizs S3 Pro
The Hidizs S3 Pro is a very small dongle, similarly priced, quite powerful for its size and has the advantage of being able to change its sound via firmware, with three tunings to choose from. For this occasion the balanced tuning has been used. It is clear that its description is accurate, as the sound offered is pure, flat and detailed. It is not as powerful as the ITM01, just half as powerful, but I think it is quite sufficient for use with IEMS, and could even be used with something bigger. It is also much smaller and has an integrated cable, which can be an advantage in many ways. The easy mode switching and volume control offer better operation on the Ikko, but may be less practical in some other scenarios.
The centre range of the ITM01 is more complete, complex, fuller and punchier. A similar situation arises in the low end, although the bass sounds different. In the S3 they sound cooler, while in the ITM01 the warmth is noticeable and the bass is a little thicker and more powerful. The S3’s profile is more analytical, with thinner and finer notes, although the detail doesn’t quite blossom, remaining at a similar level to the ITM01. The result is that the Hidizs offers a brighter, crisper feel, with even more separation and expansive feel. Whereas the ITM01 is denser, cohesive, musical, nicer and smoother, less splashy than the S3. This feeling would seem to favour the micro detail over the ITM01, but this is not the case, as I say, the two remain fairly even, even though the Hidizs is more descriptive at first glance. It is clear that the character of the Hidizs is more Sabre than that of the Ikko, which is more analogue, natural and organic. The sense of dynamics is a little bigger in the S3 and it offers more separation due to its thinner notes, something that favours the perception of a darker background. That’s why I think that the character of both, cool vs. warm, may be one of the characteristics that tip the balance towards one or the other, as far as sound is concerned. If the most important parameter is power, there is no doubt, the Ikko is twice as powerful.
The Ikko Zerda ITM01 is a great multimedia sound device. It is highly versatile and is ready to connect to PCs, SmartPhones and consoles, it has 3 sound modes, HiFi, Cinema and Gaming. It also has a volume control and can pause/play music. Its power specs are excellent and it is capable of delivering 125mW@32Ω, with really low distortion: 0.0006%. In terms of sound, it plays in a league above its price and I think there are few devices as complete as it, hence the excellent quality/price ratio. Anyone who wants to buy a device with a lot of features should seriously consider the ikko ITM01 before making a decision.
Earphones and Sources Used During Analysis
- HiBy R3 Pro
- Tempotec V1-A
- Xiaomi Redmi Note 8 Pro
- NiceHCK Topguy
- ISN H40
- Rose QT9 MK2
- BQEYZ Autumn
- Ikko OH2
- Yanyin Aladdin
- BLON BL-Max
- Dunu Falcon Pro
- NiceHCK EBX21
- Hessian Ansata Pro
- Takstar Pro 80
- SoundMagic HP150