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Decware Taboo MKIII Headphone Amplifier Review

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Sound

As soon as I started listening to the Taboo MKIII with the LCD 2.2, I knew that this amplifier was going to be something special. The music just flowed. Transparency was so real and focused, the sound stage was very deep and layered, the instrument separation was pinpoint and focused. When I listened to the Chesky Binaural recording of Amber Rubath Sessions from the 17th Ward, I felt like I was brought to the recording studio. I could hear very realistic guitar strings being plucked, and Amber’s crystal clear vocals sounded as if I was attending a live performance. The performance was so focused I forgot that I was listening through an amplifier. There were no signs of any electronic signature. I could close my eyes and see the performers coming to life. The focus and detail on the MKIII were quite realistic and allowed the music to flow. There was no electronic glare. The background was very black, and I heard no noise during the tracks or after the song was over. The amplifier was one of the quietest tube amps I have experienced.

The Sennheiser HD800 had a reputation of being very finicky with amplifiers. I have always felt that the HD800 was so transparent that it would let you know exactly what a component was doing. When I switched from the LCD2.2 to the HD800, I began to realize how much potential the MKIII had. I swapped out the stock tubes and inserted the Amperex O getter EL84’s, used the legendary Siemens ECC88 in the driver section and inserted a Phillips 5R4GYS in the rectifier section. Immediately, I heard the music become even more transparent. The stock tubes which came with the amplifier included the Russian SV83, a Sovtek 6922, and Hytron NOS 5u4GA. All were excellent tubes, but the NOS European tubes further improved the transparency and, more importantly, the inner detail.

While listening to Patricia Barber’s Modern Cool album with the HD800, I could easily hear what the Taboo MKIII was capable of doing. The bass was very tight and controlled, the treble was very extended and had the proper amount of sheen that I heard with live music. The MKIII had no shrill, and the midrange was as good as it could get. The HD800 really stepped up utilizing the Taboo MkIII. The synergy was incredible. The amplifier, while designed for the LCD2 planar, was a revelation with the HD800. I Listened for hours at a time and never once wanted to turn the amplifier off. I just became more involved with the music. Listening to Doug Mcleod’s new direct-to-disc recording for Reference Recordings, There a Time, engineered by Keith Johnson was another revelation. The recording was done at Skywalker Sound. All musicians sat in a circle and recorded the album live. While closing my eyes I could visualize the recording session, and could clearly identify where each musician was located in the room. I felt as if I was in the recording studio with them while they were making this excellent recording.

Another excellent sounding recording is Gerry Mulligan meets Ben Webster, recorded on the Verve label in 1959. I could visualize the five musicians in a perfect sound stage. Listening with either the HD800 or the LCD 2.2, the musicians came to life. Again, I felt transported back to 1959 into the studio with the musicians. I could hear every fine detail in the recording. The drums sounded very realistic. Baritone and Tenor Sax does not get any better than these two legendary Sax players. The Taboo let me feel the emotion of the music and the chemistry of the musicians making the music. The transparency was so good; not once did I feel like I was listening to anything electronic. The midrange was so exceptional that I kept flocking to well recorded vocal and jazz recordings; it was as if I was hearing the recording for the first time. Whether it was the delicate brush stroke of a drummer or a vocalist articulating a certain note, or the emotion of a trumpet player blowing into the instrument, the MKIII always let me know what the musician was trying to convey.

Comparisons

When comparing the V200 to the new Taboo MKIII, I could hear the differences immediately. The V200 was an excellent amplifier with very few shortcomings; but the Taboo MKIII clearly outclassed it in a number of ways. The Taboo had a much larger sound stage with more air and space around the instruments. The treble was much more extended with the Taboo than the V200. The sound of the Taboo was fuller and had more body to the sound. The Taboo was also more transparent. The Taboo was almost twice the price of the V200 so I expected it to perform better. It clearly did not disappoint.

While listening to the MKII and the MKIII, I noticed there were differences and more importantly, improvement over the MKII. The new MKIII was slightly more transparent, and the new lucid mode expanded the sound stage more than the MKII. The biggest difference was the addition of balanced outputs. The Taboo MKIII let you hear and enjoy balanced headphones. I noticed that all headphones that were balanced sounded better than using the same headphone single-ended, whether I used them single-ended on the MKII or the MKIII. The balanced headphones always stepped up the performance. Balanced headphones were also much more alive and had better transparency. The AT3000ANV was a single-ended headphone and was excellent on the Taboo MKII or III, but listening to balanced headphones became my preference with the MKIII. The tubes used were identical in both the MKII and the MKIII. The improvements were subtle but noticeable and a step up from the MKII.

Playing different genres of music revealed similar results, whether I was listening to Emmylou Harris and Rodney Cromwell or Alison Krauss. The transparency on the Taboo MKIII might be the best I have heard on a tube headphone amplifier. The amplifier just flowed with every genre. While playing full scale recordings like Copland’s “Fanfare” or “Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture,” I could hear layers upon layers of musicians within the sound stage. I could hear every instrument in its own space with uncanny realism.

Adding the CSP2 preamp gave the Taboo MKIII a more dynamic sound and added more gain, this allowing higher volumes. As there was no variable output I was unable to bypass the MKIII volume control. When I turned the volume control on the MKIII all the way up, I noticed some hum and when I backed it down half way, the hum disappeared. I decided that I preferred using the MKIII without the preamp, but it’s nice to know that if you decided to use the amplifier for speakers, as well the CSP2, it would be available for use with the MKIII.

Decware Taboo MKIII Headphone Amplifier

Conclusions

When I had heard that Steve Deckert had made changes to the Taboo MKIII and redesigned the new MKIII from the ground up, I was very excited yet concerned that the new product might not be as good as the Taboo MKII. Once I started to listen to the new MKIII my concerns disappeared. Steve Deckert has once again risen to the occasion. The Taboo MKIII was a true reference headphone amplifier.

The Taboo was a product that would drive headphones to new levels of musicality. It was built by a company that thrived in providing high quality products that perform at levels well above their price point. The Taboo MKIII had exceeded all my expectations in build quality and performance. It drove both high and low impedance headphones with very realistic transparency and let the listener concentrate on the music.

The $1,695 factory direct price gave one a fully loaded product that would provide a lifetime of enjoyment, from a company that continuously pushed the limits in high end audio design. Steve Deckert has once again introduced a product that can be the centerpiece of any high end headphone system. You may find, as I did, that it is exactly what your system needs. I enjoyed the musicality and performance so much that I purchased the review sample. The Taboo MKIII is an easy recommendation for anyone who is looking for exceptional performance and value. Highly recommended.

26 Responses to Decware Taboo MKIII Headphone Amplifier Review


  1. jazzerdave says:

    I’m glad to see your review is finally out, and it didn’t disappoint. As an owner of the Taboo mk2, I can’t wait to hear the mk3 myself. Keep up the good work.

  2. Matthew Poe says:

    This is really a top notch review and put this amp on my short list. I appreciate that it was evaluated in real world terms that helped me to put the amp in perspective compared to other amps.

    Great review!!

  3. Dubstep Girl says:

    another good review! keep em coming!

  4. Tom Canale says:

    Great Review!
    Reading it, it was as if I was actually listening to the Amp as I was reading the review.
    Well Done.

  5. Frank Iacone says:

    Thanks Tom. I am glad you enjoyed the review. Iappreciate your kind words.

  6. baka1969 says:

    Very nicely done Frank. I look forward to reading more of your reviews.

  7. Frank Iacone says:

    Thanks Ross

  8. Matt says:

    Excellent review of what should become a highly regarded headphone amplifier. Mine is in shipment as I type this and your review just makes me all the more excited to see that delivery truck!!!

    I really need to explore some of those tubes that you recommended.

    • Frank Iacone says:

      The stock tubes are excellent as well but the EL84 and the Siemens tubes really made the amp more transparent with better detail. The Phillips tube is excellent and available at Upscale audio.

  9. MacedonianHero says:

    Great write up Frank! Looks like a killer amp and by the sounds of it, sounds just as great.
    Thanks for this!

  10. Frank Iacone says:

    It is a very good amplifier and thanks for the comments

  11. SnaponTom says:

    Good job Frank. About a year ago I purchased the Decware CSP2+ pre-amplifier and the Taboo MKII. I purchased the LCD2 heaphones at the same time. At first I enjoyed the black background and the best volume control I have ever experienced. Later the V-Caps began to bloom, sporatically at first, but more and more they kicked in. It took the signal to a new level. Smooth, detailed and powerful; grin worthy. I was wondering if you used a digital source or a turntable for your review. I just acquired a modest turntable with a Shure v15vx cartridge that has expanded my soundstage. Listening to side one of Santana’s Abraxas album, the soundstage is more detailed and enjoyable than the digital version. My speakers never shout out with the Taboo. The music is contained. My friends put their ear close to my speakers and rave at the clarity. Final note, bad recordings sound bad. It seems the Taboo has evolved giving headphone listeners an affordable foundation for the high end audio experience.

    • Frank Iacone says:

      Thanks for the detailed comments. I used the Oppo BDP95 as the source. I no longer have any vinyl in my system. The differences between the Mk11 and mK111 are noticeable and the biggest change that Decware made was to focus on the MK111 as headphone amplifier to be used more so on it own while the first Taboo was designed primarily as a speaker amp and was designed to be used with the CSP2 as the preamp to increase the dynamics. you can still use the CSP2 as the preamp with the Mk111. The transparency and clarity is simple among the best I have heard so far in tube amplification.

  12. moodyrn1 says:

    Fantastic review Frank! I’ve always enjoyed your writing style. The way you described the sound impressions, I could imagine listening to it myself. Well done.

  13. Lee Shelly says:

    Thanks for the insightful review. It’s very clear you’re enamored with the sound! Sounds like a terrific amp! What, if any, do you feel are it’s shortcomings? Are there phones you wouldn’t expect to have good synergy with the amp? Are there any areas you felt were bettered by the other amps you’ve heard?

    • Frank Iacone says:

      Thanks Lee. I believe in its price range there are no major shortcomings. If there was one, I would suggest that it could play a little louder but I listen at very high levels at times. I don’t believe the Hifiman HE6 would be a fit for the the MK111. I tried the Beyer 770 80 ohms and both the T1 and hD800 with the lCD2 and the LCD3 and all worked well.

  14. MikeMc says:

    As good as the Oppo 95 is, the Oppo 105 is in another league. Perhaps you can update your review sometime using a different source? Did you inquire with Steve about the hum when the CSP2 was connected? Is that to be expected? Being able to listen to cans and speakers seems like a very good thing but dealing with the hum? Hmm, not sure….

  15. Frank Iacone says:

    The hum disappeared when the volume control on the Mk111 was backed down half way. I did mention it to Steve Deckert and he suggested it may have been a tube but I suspect it was using two volume controls without a variable input. For my needs now I like the Oppo BDP95 but I may upgrade at some point.

  16. Olias of Sunhillow says:

    Nice review, Frank. This amp has vaulted to the top of my list for when/if I decide to move on from the Super 7.

  17. Todd says:

    Very helpful review, Frank! Would you say that you preferred the Senn HD800 to the Audeze’s on the new Taboo? Were the effects of tube rolling more apparent with the HD800’s? Thanks again.

  18. Frank iacone says:

    I liked the hd800 better than the lcd2 as it has the bigger sound stage and the lcd2 benefits also from the power but the tube rolling is evident with both headphones.

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