[S]ince 1996 Steve Deckert has been designing state of the art tube amplifiers the old fashioned way, with a dedication and passion that many designers abandoned years ago. He builds his amps by hand one at a time, uses all premium parts and point to point wiring with no circuit boards, and he takes no shortcuts in their manufacturing process. Not only are his products well built, but they are sold at prices that most enthusiasts could afford, and they are backed with a lifetime warranty. Decware sells all its products factory direct, and has been very successful with its business model. Most products are custom made, and it usually takes from eight to twelve weeks from the time you place the order to you receiving your amplifier. Customer satisfaction is a major strength of Decware.
In November of 2010, I used the Audeze LCD2 as one of my primary headphones and felt they could benefit from more power. I called Steve up and asked him if he could build a custom headphone jack in my Taboo MKII. The Taboo was a very successful 6-Watt speaker amp that could be used either as a standalone amplifier or with the Decware CSP2 preamp. Since I owned the CSP2, I figured this may be the perfect match for the Audeze LCD2.2 and any other headphone that needed power. Steve was receptive and went ahead and designed the first Taboo MkII headphone amplifier for planar headphones. The Taboo was a major hit in the headphone community and has been a very successful product for Decware.
Fast forward to 2012. Steve felt he could improve upon the very successful MKII and redesigned the amplifier from the ground up. There were so many changes in the new design it could easily have been rebranded but instead he called it the MKIII. This could be the last revision for the Taboo, as Steve told me that he felt he has maximized what was possible with the design; redesigning a successful product could be risky for a manufacturer. The Taboo has been very successful and has a cult type following. In speaking with Steve he felt the changes in the design he wanted to implement were well worth the risk, the improvements would create the ultimate headphone amplifier and would drive high efficiency speakers as well as headphones.
The new Taboo MKIII had the same chassis as the original MKII, but there was a new retro looking black plate replacing the traditional white plate used in other Decware designs. The new black plate was very sharp and much nicer looking than the white plate. The new Taboo was fully loaded with a number of standard features, such as two meters in the front that showed how well your power tubes were matched. This was a great tool especially for people who did not own a tube tester, as it would reveal whether the tubes one has purchased were matched well, but will also let the owner know when it’s time to replace tired tubes. The amplifier had balanced outputs utilizing either a dual 3-pin XLR or a single 4-pin XLR which allowed for the use of balanced headphones. In addition to the XLR, there were two single-ended outputs so you could listen to multiple headphones at the same time as well as driving speakers. It had two inputs so that you could use two sources or preamp as the volume control if desired; the Taboo MKIII was primarily designed to be used as a standalone headphone amplifier. The base was made of solid hardwood, and the standard base could be either in Walnut or Black. Maple or Cherry bases could also be ordered for an additional $50. The review sample was in standard Walnut, and its price totaled $1,745.
The original Taboo had a power rating of 6W into 8 ohms. The newer amp had a 1 ohm resistor in place and the power rating was now 4.6W into 8 ohms, slightly less than the MKII. Decware has the full power ratings for the different headphone loads listed on its website and the power varies with different headphone loads. The Taboo delivered 1.7W of clean power into the LCD2.2’s 50 ohm load and 1.6W into the Sennheiser HD800’s 300 ohm load. It could handle headphones ranging from 8-600 Ohms and would also handle more efficient speakers of 94dB or more. All my listening for this review was done with headphones as I did not have any high efficiency speakers. The Decware website also had the complete design notes as well as the manual available for downloading.
The Taboo MKIII had a floating balanced output; the amplifier was still single-ended but would accommodate balanced headphones. The original Taboo had a single lucid mode, which according to Steve, was a natural cross feed that could be switched on or off and would give more of a mono sound that let you hear deep into recordings. The new MKIII also had the original cross feed but a second lucid mode stage that was an expander. It moved things around in the sound stage and gave a very wide and layered stage. The effect varied on recordings, and some will like it on other recordings, you may not want to use that function. The nice thing was that the switch could be engaged on the fly, so you could leave it on or switch it off very conveniently.
Upon initial listening I noticed that volume was limited, so I called Steve and he arranged to have the amp picked up. He discovered that the problem was that a 100 ohm resistor had inadvertently been substituted for the specified 1 ohm resistor. Once this was corrected and the amp returned to me, it worked flawlessly. Decware was very fast in resolving the issue.
The headphones used for this review were primarily the Audeze LCD2.2, Sennheiser HD800 and the Audio Technica AT3000ANV. I also used the Audeze LCD3 and Beyerdynamic T1 while comparing the MKII to the new MKIII. The LCD2.2 andHD800 were all balanced. The headphone cable was from Q and Norse Audio. The source was the Oppo BDP95, and all interconnects were Audioquest Diamondback and King Cobra. Music varied from jazz, vocals, classical and rock. The other amplifiers that were used in the review included the Taboo MkII and Violectric V200.
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