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iFi Audio micro iDSD

88% Positive Reviews
Rated #6 in Amp/DACs

Posted

Pros: sound quality, build quality, a ton of accessories, support of every format up to and including DSD512.

Cons: size which is more appropriate for transportable rather than portable use.


I would like to Thank iFi for providing me with a review sample of their flagship Micro iDSD in exchange for my honest opinion.

 

Manufacturer website: http://ifi-audio.com/portfolio-view/micro-idsd/

 

* click on images to expand.


 

I’m probably starting to sound like a broken record every time I mention about my preference of a portable audio setup where all I need is a small pocket-able DAP and a pair of IEMs for listening on the go.  But as a reviewer, I try to be more open-minded and step outside of the portable gear circle to get my feet wet exploring full size headphones, portable and usb DACs/amps and even some desktop DACs/amps.  Desktop setup for me is a real stretch because when I’m ready to sit down, my preferred listening environment is our family room couch, when our young ones are finally in bed and my wife next to me getting her daily dose of social media updates (thus a no open-back headphone policy lol!).  At that point, I can stack up my DAP with a portable amp or hook up USB DAC to my aging ThinkPad to boost its audio performance.

 

Obviously, while using my DAP or my laptop as a source, I’m not going to drag a desktop amp on to the couch.  Also, using some of my smaller usb DACs offers only a marginal improvement and can’t support all high res sampling rates, plus many of these are underpowered to drive higher impedance or planar magnetic full-size headphones to their full potential.  It feels like I have to either compromise or to use different pieces of equipment to meet my needs because I want something that could be reasonably transportable, could drive everything from sensitive monitors to more demanding cans, and will support all popular hi-res formats.  Add to this a wish for a great sound quality and not to be at a mercy of noisy 5V usb VBUS.  Is this too much to ask?  I thought it was until I got a chance to review iFi micro iDSD.  Is this too good to be true?  Let’s see what I found over the last few weeks of using this true Swiss Army Knife of semi-portable audio gear.

 

Unboxing.

 

Greeted with a nice cover shot of all aluminum Micro, my attention zoomed right into the description underneath of it with “Octa-Speed DSD512, Double-Speed DXD, and PCM 32bit/768kHz”.  You know right away this is going to be one serious piece of audio equipment with some major horse power under the hood.  As I continued with my tour of the box exterior, turning it on the side revealed more details about Dual-Core Burr Brown chipset supporting True Native DSD and Bit Perfect DXD/PCM, a powerful 8Vrms/4W (into 16 ohm) output, 3D holographic sound system and XBass effects, and even 1.5A external charging port for your smartphone or tablet.  But wait till you get to the back of the box and start reading every bullet in the Technologies and Specifications list underneath of a detailed drawing of Micro from every side.  To describe it as “impressive” would be an understatement, and the only thing missing in there was a kitchen sink, and that was probably because they ran out of room.

 

Even before getting my hands on it, I was already feeling overwhelmed trying to decide what I am going to test first when I get Micro out of the box.  The box was inside of the outer sleeve with all the printed info, and sliding it off revealed an all white “apple” quality cardboard box with silver iFi letters on top.  With a cover off, now I was able to see Micro in all its glory, wedged inside of a secure foam cutout.  My first impression was “Wow!!!”  It looked bigger than I expected and had a shape reminding me of a car amp unit.  I also felt a very solid aluminum shell and a noticeable heft as I removed Micro in order to get to the bottom of the box where all the accessories were stored across two partitioned sections.  While in many cases I appreciate the actual experience of unboxing the product, here my highlight was reading a detailed Spec list which builds up the anticipation!

 

 

 

 

 

Accessories.

 

As much as I couldn’t wait to get to Micro, I had to set it aside and move on to examine the accessories.  First of all there was a detailed manual, very important in this case since Micro is full of surprises you can easily miss.  Then, you have 4 clear rubber stick on bumps to use under the iDSD for additional friction and/or to prevent surface from scratches, and also a semi-transparent rubbery pad to use with iDSD when you stacking it with another device (smartphone, tablet, DAP, etc).  You also get 1/4” to 3.5mm adapter since iDSD has 1/4” HO.  With all aluminum/silver body finish I personally didn’t like the look of a gold adapter sticking out of the socket, so I found a shallow silver one as a replacement (PC-234S model).  Also, iFi included a velour drawstring storage/protection pouch and 2 mounting rubber bands to secure transport/source devices to Micro.

 

Moving on to cables, you will find a dual RCA high quality cable, and I really mean HIGH quality!  You also get a short 3.5mm to 3.5mm interconnect cable to use Micro as amplifier from your source.  Next is the USB-A to USB-B socket adapter cable and another short adapter to accommodate Micro’s USB-A connector on the back since many audio digital cables are usb-a to usb-b.  Also, you get a high quality USB-A socket to USB-A connector cable to attach Micro directly to you computer.  And if that wasn’t enough, they also included Toslink to mini 3.5mm optical adapter since Micro’s Coax port is combined with optical input.  Only one adapter was included, though I would have preferred a pair in order to transform a common Toslink cable.

 

This was a very impressive collection of accessories, and I’m not talking about cheap fillers, but the actual high quality cables and other goodies.  The only thing I would add is a short OTG adapter cable, typical USB-A socket to micro-USB connector for Android devices, and a camera adapter kit cable for iPhone/iPad devices.  Micro supports USB OTG connection and with USB-A connector on the back you can go directly with a short adapter cable to your smartphone or tablet.

 

 

 

 

 

PC-234S replacement 1/4" to 3.5mm adapter (not included, search for it on eBay):

 

 

 

Design.

 

I already mentioned that from the first look Micro iDSD design reminded me of a car amp unit.  It looks very clean with all aluminum body which probably great for heat dissipation and EMI shielding, and slopped edges along the sides for stacking other iFi units on top of each other.  When you visit iFi website, you will find that all of their products have the same universal shape and uniform aluminum look.  Weighting a little over 300g and with dimensions of 177mm x 67mm x 28mm, Micro looks a little bulky for a portable use, but next to my Note 4 I quickly realized that it’s only a little bit longer in comparison.  You do feel heft of the unit, but it’s manageable.  As many have mentioned this already, Micro iDSD is transportable rather than portable.

 

Starting with a “faceplate”, you will find 1/4” headphone jack all the way to the left, far away from an analogue volume control pot which is on the right.  Volume knob also turns the power on/off with a click as you turn it clockwise.  Also, there is LED light through a small pinhole on the top of Micro where the LED color indicates different audio formats as well as battery charging status.  My only comment here is that I wish the knob would be a little more textured (like a fine diamond cut) to enhance the grip which can get a bit slippery.  I really like that headphone jack and volume pot were far apart, unlike in Nano iDSD where they are next to each other causing a bit of an obstruction with headphone cables that use thicker connector housing.  In the middle of the faceplate you have 3.5mm audio signal input for a direct amplification of the analog signal (from HO).  To the Left/Right of this Input you have 2 high quality toggle switches, XBass for bass extension and 3D for holographic sound expansion – more about their effect in Sound analysis section of the review.

 

One thing to keep in mind and something which is not obvious until you read iFi detailed manual, the internal battery (a hefty 4800 mAh) allows two modes of power operation.  If you turn the power on before connecting to your source, you will be running in Battery Power mode and not draining the power from the source, also important since some smartphones will not allow usb DAC connection if excessive power drain is detected.  Otherwise, if you connect Micro to your source (with usb cable) and then turn the power on – you will be running in USB Power mode while also charging the battery.  Just keep in mind, the usb charging from laptop is painfully slow.  Either way, you have two different options.  Furthermore, Micro’s digital input (USB A port) also has a built-in iPurifier Lite which suppresses the noise from USB power line and conditions the data signal.

 

This brings us to the rear panel of Micro where you will find USB-A connector all the way to the right – the digital data input feeding into the internal DAC.  It was a bit strange not to find a more traditional USB-B connector, but the convenience of a straight USB-A allows a direct connection with USB OTG adapter to pair up with a smartphone or a tablet.  In a portable setup you want to have as little as possible cable interconnects to keep it clean, and in this case you can just use a very short USB OTG adapter for Android devices or camera kit adapter for Apple devices.  With other included cables and adapters you have different options to connect to your computer or to use an adapter so you can switch to your aftermarket high quality digital audio cables.

 

Next to USB input you have a Line Out which bypasses the internal amplifier and sends the signal from DAC to L/R RCA connectors.  That output could be connected to another external amplifier or receiver.  This Line Out output is actually configurable where underneath of Micro there is a switch allowing selection between Direct (0dB) or Pre-Amplifier (6dB) modes.  Next to Line Out you have SPDIF Coaxial combined with Optical port which works either as Input or Output – this socket is auto-switching.  When USB audio signal is connected, this port functions as SPDIF Coaxial Output.  Then, when USB audio signal is disconnected, this port functions as SPDIF Coaxial or Optical Input.  Due to combined nature of this port, optical Input uses 3.5mm mini-Toslink connection thus a reason why iFi included one Toslink mini adapter plug.  Basically, if you want to use your DAP as a transport to feed the digital signal into Micro’s DAC/amp, this is a way to go, and if your source supports Toslink optical signal – it’s the best choice over a coax cable.

 

Moving along the left side of Micro, you will find USB-A port which is only intended for SmartPower Charging, supporting 5V at 1.5A to charge your smart device.  On the other side you will find 3 different slide switches.  To make it stand out, the red switch corresponds to PowerMod gain with ECO (2V, 250 mW @16 ohm), Normal (4V, 1W @16 ohm), and Turbo (8V, 4W @16 ohm).  That is quite a spread allowing to drive anything from efficient to power hungry headphones.  Of course, the gain mode selection will have an effect on the battery life, where it's estimated to get close to 12hrs (in ECO mode) down to 9hrs (in Normal mode) reduced to 6hrs (in Turbo mode).  And if that wasn’t enough, underneath of Micro there is another power adjustment called IEMatch for sensitive IEMs with Off (0dB), High Sensitivity (12dB), and Ultra Sensitivity (24dB) attenuation adjustment.  I’ve never seen this level of micro-adjustment to accommodate anything and everything under the sun!  In addition to that, next to the gain PowerMode switch you will also find Polarity selection switch (for digital signal source), and a Digital filter to switch between Standard, Minimum Phase, and Bit-Perfect modes.

 

You can definitely see that iFi team put a lot of thought into the design and flexibility of controls where you don’t need any external software and can adjust and change all these modes of operation straight from the unit.  Overall, it wasn’t just a high quality material used in the design of the body, but also the selection of toggle and slider switches that felt solid and durable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Using micro iDSD as an external battery pack charger.

 

 

Under the hood.

 

Moving on to the internal design, I discovered that Micro was actually Crowd-Designed when iFi made their original post in March of 2014 on Head-fi, asking the members of this #1 audio community to list what they would like to see in this upcoming flagship DAC/amp.  We are used to hearing Crowd-Funded term when companies seek money to turn their ideas into a real product.  Here, we are talking about iFi Audio which is a subsidiary of Abbingdon Music Research (AMR) - one of the UK's largest manufacturers of high-end audio systems that cost up to $100k, a successful company that has been in businesses since 2000.  Despite all this credibility, they opened the forum discussion to build a list of desired features by asking the Crowd who this Design was intended for.  In today's audio market this is very rare, especially among reputable established companies.

 

Unfortunately I didn't follow their original Crowd-Design thread until now, but it's a truly fascinating read I highly recommend to check out here: http://www.head-fi.org/t/711217/idsd-micro-crowd-designed-and-the-new-firmware-flavours-are-here-page-138.  In addition to following everything from "birth" of the ideas, it contains a very well organized index page with links to corresponding posts going over every single design detail.  Furthermore, iFi is very active in Head-fi community, and I see constant interaction and replies where this thread continuous to grow with more info.

 

Block diagram of the design:

 

 

I'm not going to rehash all the details, and I already covered all the ports and controls in a Design section of my review.  One thing to keep in mind, with a selection of Burr Brown dual-core DAC chipset which actually utilizes 2x DAC chips across 4 output channels, you have a Native DSD/PCM support of every available high resolution format.  We are talking about up to Octa-DSD speed of DSD512, obviously supporting Quad/Dual/Single DSD256, DSD128, and DSD64, and also double/single speed DXD with 768/705.6kHz and 384/352.8kHz, and PCM from 44.1kHz to 768kHz.  I wasn't even able to find DSD512 samples for listening, and thanks to iFi samples included with iPurifier2 on usb stick, was able to play and to verify DSD64/128/256 using Foobar2k playing on my aging laptop.  Of course, this is a universal audio interface and every other lossy and lossless audio format will be supported.

 

Sound analysis.

 

A lot of people just assume because Burr Brown DAC is in the picture, it’s a slam dunk when it comes to sound quality.  Any DAP or DAC/amp architecture has many variables which all contribute to a final shaping of the sound.  I have a few DAPs using PCM1792, yet they all sound different.  This was my first experience with an audio gadget utilizing DSD1793, and I’m sure it will sound different from others due to iFi unique tuning of the amp section.  Luckily, due to plethora of inputs and output, you can also separate DAC and amp for a better evaluation.  But combined together, Micro offers a very addictive smooth analog detailed expanded neutral sound that brings up the best in any type of headphones regardless of their sound signature.

 

I can imagine that some people will expect a sound analysis based on evaluation of various parts of the frequency spectrum, but in reality we hear the sound not from a pure DAC/amp perspective, but rather colored by headphone signature.  I will cover various headphone pair ups with relatively comparison to other DACs/amp in Pair-up section of my review, but in this section I want to bring up a few other interesting observation about Micro iDSD sound performance.

 

With popularity of the original Nano iDSD, I’m sure many would be interested to know how Micro compares to Nano.  Fortunately, I was able to get my hands on Nano as well for review/comparison.  To my ears Micro sounds more transparent, more multi-dimensional (even without 3D holographic effect), more dynamic, and with blacker background.  Of course this should be expected considering a more advanced design and a different selection of components.  But in this case it wasn’t “just a little bit better” but actually noticeably better.  At the same time, for a portable convenience at less than half of the price, Nano definitely deserves a serious consideration.

 

 

 

Going back to Micro, you have an option to either use it as DAC/amp or Amp by itself.  I found this next test to be very interesting because Micro combination of DAC/amp sounds fantastic, but while testing amp by itself I found the sound to be not as dynamic or layered and lacking some transparency.  Don't get me wrong, amp is actually clean and relatively neutral, but the sound was missing the smooth detailed dynamic magic of Burr-Brown chipset.  To take full advantage of that, you need to either use digital/USB input or Coax input.

 

With Coax input you bypass your source's internal DAC/amp and go straight into Micro where you can either use an electrical RCA Coax cable or optical Toslink cable, depending on your source.  If your source supports both, like in some DAPs where Coax and Optical (mini toslink) inputs are combined, after a close a/b comparison I consistently hear with optical connection the sound being a little smoother and slightly more refined.  I went back'n'forth many times to rule out a placebo effect, and every single time I found that I prefer optical interconnect over coax cable.  If your source doesn't have optical output, Coax cable is still a great alternative, but otherwise - go for optical connection.  I used Extreme audio short optical interconnect cable, this one.

 

 

 

If you want to use your smartphone as a source, now you have access to a direct USB OTG digital connection.  Testing with my Galaxy Note 4, I found no EMI interference, excellent pair up with all of my headphones, dynamic analog smooth detailed sound, and overall no major difference in sound quality compared to Micro pair up with other DAPs through coax/optical, though maybe just a little bit smoother and warmer with Note 4 in comparison to dedicated DAPs.

 

 

 

One advantage of using Micro digital input is that it has a built-in iPurifier Lite.  You can't really disable it to note the difference, but I was able to use iFi standalone iPurifier 2 to hear the advantage of its functionality in series with USB port.  I ran the test using my Note 4 as a source/transport, and found that Micro (w/built in iPur Lite) vs Micro (w/iPur2 in series) yielded another noticeable change where the background became blacker, leading to a cleaner on/off sound of the notes with a faster transient, especially in instrumental tracks.

 

The same test using my Note 4 as a source and Nano vs Nano (w/iPur2 in series) yielded a very noticeable change with background becoming blacker and a significant reduction in background noise.  It actually improved Nano sound quality making it more dynamic, more transparent; maybe not on a level of Micro performance but definitely with an improvement.  The only problem - it adds a bulk to Nano iDSD, making it less portable.

 

 

 

Of course I can't finish sound analysis section without talking about XBass and 3D effects.  Activating XBass resulted in what I hear as a narrow and well controlled sub-bass boost that doesn't spill into lower mids and has a very subtle effect on mid-bass.  I definitely hear it as a well controlled boost, focusing mostly on sub-bass without affecting too much mid-bass or muddying the mids.

 

While testing, 3D holographic toggle had a bit of a polarizing effect on me.  Enabling 3D seems to affect only upper mids/treble region, acting like an exciter effect, adding some airiness to the sound, and creating a wider/deeper perception of the stage.  To my surprise I found this effect to work not as good with every pair of headphones.  It works great with warm and neutral signature headphones, but when used with bright headphones - it can make treble harsh and grainy.  Example, PM-3 and A2000Z benefited from Micro 3D effect, but ES60, EL-8C and DN2kJ – not as much.

 

 

Pair-up and Comparison.

 

I think this “pair-up” section is the most important in describing the sound of Micro because it gives you a better perspective with a relative comparison of how other headphones sound with Micro and how it compares to a selection of other DACs/amps.  In this test I used Micro connected to my laptop, and selected ES60, PM-3, EL-8C, and U12 for listening comparison with Micro iDSD, Nano iDSD, Schiit FULLA, Cozoy Aegis, and GeekOut GO450.  Below are my listening notes with each pair of headphones.

 

Westone ES60 CIEM.

 

w/Micro - hissing is under control with a gain switch (of IEMatch), smooth detailed sound, punchy extended tight bass, smooth detailed mids, well defined extended treble, smooth analog detailed tonality, and excellent transparency and layering/separation of instruments.

 

w/Nano – more background hiss (can’t take advantage of gain switch), the sound is not as smooth as Micro, still a punchy extended bass, but not as articulate in comparison to Micro, mids are revealing and detailed, but not as smooth as Micro, treble is very similar and so does soundstage expansion.

 

w/FULLA - a lot of hiss and distracting EMI crackle, soundstage is a little wider in comparison to Micro, the sound is bright and detailed, bass is not as tight and sub-bass is extended but not as deep as with Micro, but still, the bass is fast and punchy, mids are brighter in comparison, a little more upfront though not as smooth, also treble is brighter and with more crunch.

 

w/AEGIS - a lot of hiss, have to use a minimum volume setting (too much default gain, not good with sensitive multi-BA monitors), and I hear a lot of background noise.  The sound is balanced, detailed, bright, with a punchy extended tight bass, detailed revealing mids, and a well defined extended treble.

 

w/GO450 -  using 47 ohm output I hear less hissing/noise - but sound is dull and not as detailed, when switching to 0.47 ohm out – serious hissing, but sound is more detailed.  With the later one, I hear a balanced detailed revealing sound, punchy extended tight bass, detailed revealing mids, and a well defined extended treble.

 

Oppo PM-3 planar magnetic full size.

 

w/Micro – I hear a smooth detailed sound, punchy bass (but not as fast), smooth clear mids, nice smooth clear treble which is not as airy or extended.  In this pair up mids sound very natural, probably the best PM-3 pair up I heard to date.  I was a bit surprised since PM-3 is warm smooth to begin with, but Micro made them shine, especially with 3D switch on.

 

w/Nano – it was a bit short on power to drive PM-3 to their full potential, definitely a bit of a stretch for Nano, the sound was not as smooth, less revealing, not as transparent or layered, it was clear but not as detailed, and mids were a little less natural.

 

w/FULLA - nice deep punchy bass, tight and articulate, but mids didn’t sound as natural, and the sound was not as transparent or layered, a bit flat, though treble was clear and well defined – the star of his pair up.

 

w/AEGIS - nice deep articulate bass, but mids sound a bit off being a bit bright and unnatural, nice extended treble with a good airiness.

 

w/GO450 - great bass impact, bright detailed mids, nicely extended treble, and a decent transparency.

 

Audeze EL-8C planar magnetic full size.

 

w/Micro - bright revealing fast sound, has a slight metallic sheen, punchy fast bass, bright analytical mids, airy extended treble.  Mids are not as organic or natural.  I was a bit surprised, but didn’t like this pair up.

 

w/Nano - bright revealing sound, very noticeable metallic sheen, punchy fast bass but not as much sub-bass, bright analytical mids though could be a bit harsh with some songs, crisp extended airy treble.  Mids could be a lot more smoother.

 

w/FULLA - bright revealing fast sound, fast punchy bass, bright analytical mids, airy extended treble, still traces of metallic sheen, and sounds is not as natural.

 

w/AEGIS - bright revealing sound, metallic sheen, too vivid, fast punchy bass with a noticeable sub-bass extension, mids are bright revealing but slightly harsh, treble is bright crisp airy.

 

w/GO450 - bright revealing sound, articulate fast tight bass, mids are a bit shouty, bright, revealing, not as metallic as with other pair ups.  Treble is crisp and extended.  This pair up yields a touch less of metallic sheen.

 

64 Audio ADEL U12 IEM.

 

w/Micro - zero hiss (in Eco gain), smooth detailed sound, fast deep articulate low end with a nice punch, smooth detailed mids, smooth clean well defined treble.  Nicely expanded soundstage, even works with 3D switch.

 

w/Nano - a little bit of hiss, smooth detailed sound, deep articulate low end with a fast punch and a nice sub-bass extension, but bass is not as tight as with Micro.  Mids are smooth and detailed, but not as detailed as Micro, and I also hear a clean treble though not as extended.  Micro feels like it has a little better retrieval of details with U12.

 

w/FULLA - a little hiss, sound is a bit congested with overpowering low end, and not as transparent or detailed. But overall tonality is warm and you can hear a tight low end punch.

 

w/AEGIS - too much power for these IEMs, too much noise/hiss, can't even play it from laptop, this DAC/amp is not good for majority of sensitive IEMs.

 

w/GO450 - (0.47 ohm output), smooth warm sound, low end is not as tight but still has a good sub-bass extension, warm smooth clear mids but not as detailed, clear treble with some roll off.

 

With some other headphones.

 

Micro w/T5p.2 - bright revealing detailed sound, not as much body or sub-bass, fast mid-bass punch, lean lower mids, bright analytical upper mids, a bit harsh with some traces of sibilance, bright crisp, airy treble.

 

Micro w/R70x - excellent pair up with a very natural detailed sound, articulate punchy mid-bass, lean detailed mids with organic sound quality and excellent retrieval of details, extended crisp treble, excellent soundstage.

 

Micro w/MSR7 - great pair up with a clear detailed sound, not too bright, punchy extended bass, nicely balanced mids (not too full or too lean), mids are definitely not as bright as with some other sources, and crisp detailed treble.  Has a great soundstage expansion as well.  Overall sound is well balanced and detailed.

 

Micro w/DN2kJ - good pair up, upper frequencies are under control, but still a bit bright and with a more mid-forward signature.  Bass quality is good, but not as much quantity, sound sig is more J shaped.

 

Conclusion.

 

When it comes to my casual headphone listening at home, I found that any USB DAC will do because they all improve the sound of my aging ThinkPad T430s laptop.  But it was never as enjoyable until I switched to Micro iDSD and now can't even think about using anything else.  Micro's smooth analog detailed sound characteristics just works with any pair of headphones regardless of their sound signature.  Micro's design has an amazing flexibility to accommodate any audio setup, portable or desktop.  And due to its ability to play everything up to and including Octa-speed DSD512, instead of enjoying my usual selection of EDM tracks, now I'm looking for exotic DSD128, DSD256, and DSD512 classical orchestra performances (typical hi-res recordings).  Did I become a fan of Mozart and Chopin music renditions? Not really, but I'm fascinated with being able to play 1.5GB DSD256 audio files from my laptop without skipping a beat or a string.

 

I'm already anticipating questions after the review asking me how does Micro iDSD compares to another wave of British invasion from Chord, such as Mojo or Hugo.  I can't answer that because I never tested any Chord products.  That would certainly make an interesting comparison, especially since Mojo is in the same price category.  But until then, Micro iDSD will have a solid place at the top of my USB DAC/amp food chain because no other product I've tested in this category comes close to its performance and sound quality.  My only wish, and the only critical comment, is for iFi design team to be able to pack performance and sound quality of Micro iDSD into Nano iDSD footprint, turning this transportable into fully portable.

Posted

Pros: Plenty of Features with Excellent Performance

Cons: Size. Not the best standalone amp for the price.

At this point of time, iFi Audio shouldn’t need much introduction at all. The British company is the more budget oriented sister brand of the prestige Abbingdon Music Research and have made a name for able to punch above its weight when it comes to price/performance ratio. If anything, the micro iDSD that is going to be reviewed here has set a new bar on what it means to be an overachiever in the world of portable audio gear. Never have we seen so many features being packed into one portable USB DAC + amp while still having such level of performance.

 

iM-01.jpg

 

Spec

DAC:

Dual Burr Brown DAC, custom interleaving for maximum SNR

Clock: Ultra low jitter GMT computer controlled Femto Clock (RMS jitter 12kHz – 1MHz < 280 Femtoseconds)

Selectable Filter:    

            PCM (digital): Bit-Perfect Processing/Minimum Phase/Standard    

            DSD (analog): Extreme/Extended/Standard Range    

            DXD (analog): Bit-Perfect Processing

Full Native Decoding:    

            DSD 512/256/128/64 (24.6/22.6/12.4/11.2/6.2/5.6/3.1/2.8Mhz)    

            DXD 2x/1x (768/705.6/384/352.8kHz)    

            PCM 768/705.6/384/352.8/192/176.4/96/88.2/48/44.1kHz

Dynamic Range (Line): over 117db(A)    

THD & N (0dBFS Line): under 0.003%      

Output Voltage (Line): over 2V 

Output Impedance (Zout): under 240Ω 

Jitter (correlated): Below AP2 test set limit         

 

Headphone-out:

Selectable:

            Power mode: Eco, Normal and Turbo

            Polarity: Normal / Inverted

            Filters: see DAC spec

            iEMatch: Off / High Sensitivity / Ultra Sensitivity

Power (max) / (continuous.)

- Turbo mode: (10.0V max) 4000 mW @ 16 Ohm / over 1560 mW @ 64 Ohm

- Normal mode: (5.5V max) 1900 mW @ 16 Ohm / over 950 mW @ 32 Ohm

- Eco mode: (2.0V max) 500 mW @ 8 Ohm / over 250 mW @ 16 Ohm

Dynamic Range: over 115dB(A) (Eco Mode, 2V Out)

THD &N (500mW/16R): under 0.008%

Output Voltage: over 8V (Turbo Mode)

Output Impedance (Zout): under 1Ω (iEMatch not engaged)

 

Input:

USB 2.0 type A

            Built-in iPurifier, all major OS (*MacOSX, Windows, Linux) support. OTG supports: Apple portable devices with iOS 7+ and camera connection kit and selected Android devices with USB OTG cable.

S/PDIF

            Coax and optical in, PCM up to 192kHz.

Analog in

            3.5mm stereo jack

 

Output:

S/PDIF

            Coax-out, PCM up to 192kHz

RCA

            User selectable line (direct) or variable (preamp, with 9dB gain) output

Headphone out

            6.4mm stereo jack

 

SmartPower® Socket: For recharging USB device (BC1.2 supported, 5V @ 1.5A)

 

EQ: X-Bass and 3D Holographic Sound, separated output for speaker (RCA preamp mode) and headphone-out.

 

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iM-03.jpg

 

iM-04.jpg

 

Accessories and Build Quality

Just about everything you need are included with the micro iDSD. You will get two rubber bands (for strapping a portable source to the iDSD), a short RCA-to-RCA cable, a short 3.5mm interconnecting cable, 4 stick-on rubber feet, an 1m USB 3.0 cable, a 1 foot USB cable with right angled plug (presumably for the SmartPower socket), a 6.4mm-to-3.5mm stereo adapter, a TOSlink adapter, a soft pouch, a small silicone mat (for cushioning between iDSD and your portable source), plug two USB type A female to type B female adapter (just in case you don’t want to use the included USB 3.0 cable but instead opt for your own USB type B cable, which is commonly known as the USB cable for printer and desktop USB device). Perhaps the only thing missing is either an OTG cable or camera connection kit, depends on whether you are an Android or Apple user. But those should be sourced by your own.

 

As with all iFi’s gears, build quality is quite excellent, though I do have some very minor complaints. The first is the more obvious – the housing is not exactly portable friendly, even though it is consistent with the micro series. You will want to put micro iDSD (along with its source) inside a small messenger bag or backpack rather than inside your pocket. The second is the tiny switches on the iDSD isn’t extremely firm and can be moved accidentally if it is in a very tight place (which makes it even less idea to put inside a pocket). It isn’t really that much of an issue as long as it is not in tight places though it is something to pay attention to. You won’t want to get caught off guarded when the gain switch is pushed from Eco to Turbo without you knowing it, for an example. A good practice is just not to store your micro iDSD with a lot of other stuff together. Having the rubber band on the body also help to keep things away. Last but not least, and I am just nit-picking here, is to have a less protruding 6.4mm-to-3.5mm adapter. The included adapter works just fine, but I do think a lower profiled adapter really works better.

 

One of the true genius on micro iDSD’s design is the use of a recessed USB type A male connector. This makes using either a camera connection kit for Apple iOS devices or an USB OTG cable for Android devices much easier. Gone is the need of multiple cable connecting to each other or special cable. It is streamlined and it is beautiful – makes me wonder why no other has thought about it before.

 

iM-05.jpg

Front

 

iM-06.jpg

Back

 

Battery Life

Battery life is estimated to be just around 6 hours with Turbo mode, 9 hours for Normal mode and 12 hours with Eco mode, plus or minus an hours or so depends on different condition and load of course. The battery life isn’t exactly long per se, but it is price you have to pay for having such a huge amount of output power for portable use.

 

Another thing about the battery is that it has its own smart circuit to control the charging. To speed up the charging, you need to plug the micro iDSD into a BC1.2 complied USB port. A regular USB port will work just as well, as long as the iDSD is turned off and you don’t mind a bit longer charging time. If the iDSD remains on, a regular USB port might not output enough current to both charge and power iDSD at the same time, so it might drain off the battery slowly. Whether it will drain or charge really depends on how much power your USB port can pump out. Again, a BC1.2 complied USB port (or hub) is your best bet. Last but not least, the smart circuit also turns micro iDSD into a USB power bank when (and only when) it is turned off. Just plug any USB device on to the USB port on the side of micro iDSD and it will charge it up. Needless to say, this will eat into micro iDSD’s play time.

 

iM-07.jpg

SmartPower Socket on the side

 

iM-08.jpg

Gain, Polarity and Filters selection on the side.

 

iM-09.jpg

iEMatch and RCA-out selection on the bottom.

 

Gain, Hiss and EMI

There are two way of adjusting gain on micro iDSD: the power mode and the iEMatch. According to my own measurement, the Eco mode is just under 1dB of gain, Normal mode is around 9~10dB of gain where Turbo mode gives you around 15~16dB gain – and this is the same whether you are using micro iDSD as DAC+amp or as pure amp. iEMatch on the other hand is doing just the opposite by lowering gain: the Off setting doesn’t do anything, where High Sensitivity setting is about -11.4dB and Ultra Sensitivity setting is about -24dB. The recommended way of adjusting gain is that you start with the power mode first. If you still find Eco mode too loud, then you adjust the iEMatch. For example, it doesn’t make any sense to use Turbo mode with Ultra Sensitivity since you will end up getting roughly the same gain as Normal mode without iEMatch, yet wasting a lot of battery power in the process. Last but not least, there is also the pre-amp mode which you can set for the RCA output and it has a 9dB gain (roughly equal to Normal mode). That is mainly for using iDSD as a preamp feeding into a power amp, and you get to use the loudspeaker version of XBass and 3D Holographic Sound effect as well (which we will discuss more on the next section).

 

Hiss is not an issue for micro iDSD at all as I can’t even detect any obvious hiss on Turbo mode with my most hiss prone IEM. EMI is very mild too and hardly a concern at all. Even with Turbo mode, it is about as loud as someone whispering next to your ear.

 

iM-10.jpg

Sony Xperia Z2 feeds into micro iDSD via USB OTG cable

 

A15-iDSDm.jpg

Sony NWZ-A15 feeding into micro iDSD via WMC-NWH10 cable

 

Sound Quality and EQ

As usual, we start with some basic measurement. RMAA reveals no problem as far as frequency response, noise and distortion go. In fact, the measured difference between Eco, Normal and Turbo mode is pretty small as well, which is a very good thing as higher gain doesn’t seem to degrade SQ much. Line-out voltage is about 1.95Vrms or so, where max voltage on headphone-out goes from just a little above 2Vrms in Eco mode to over 11Vrms in Turbo mode (*no load, and it might go lower with load, as indicated by iFi). Measurement over current output shows that it has plenty of power regardless of which gain mode it is in. With iEMatch sets to off, output impedance is under 1 ohm. On High Sensitivity, it is around 4 ohm or so. With Ultra Sensitivity, it goes back down under 1 ohm again. Also, High Sensitivity roughly cuts the output power by half with the same volume as the Off setting, though Ultra Sensitivity only cuts about 1/5. The main reason for more loss of power on High Sensitivity probably has to do with its higher output impedance, if anything else. Regardless, both High and Ultra Sensitivity still maintain more than adequate amount of power to drive IEM with good authority.

 

SpectrumiDSD.png

The Three PCM filters @ 16/44.1

 

Another user selectable option on the micro iDSD that will affect SQ is the filter selection. Filter is needed because the DAC’s sampling process will produce high frequency noise above the audible range. Even though it is mainly on the inaudible range, its effect will still reach under 20kHz and therefore we need filter to cut them off. With PCM decoding, the filter switch changes between three different digital filters setting: Standard, Minimum Phase and Bit Perfect. Standard filter is also known as ‘fast roll-off’ sometime, which has a shaper cut –off frequency, offer a flatter FR curve and nicer measurement. But it is often also regarded as being harsher and grainier sounding. Minimum Phase is what known as ‘slow roll-off’ by some, and usually offer a smoother sound but comes with a slight -3dB roll off between 14kHz to 20kHz. It is probably one of the most common filter found on higher end DAC because it is regarded as the best compromise between measurement and human perception. Bit Perfect on the other hand is actually not a filter at all. It is more commonly known as Non-OverSampling, or NOS for short. As the name implies, it is where the DAC doesn’t oversample the signal and doesn’t use any digital filter. The resulted FR curve has a rather big -3dB roll-off going from upper midrange all the way to 20kHz. NOS is in itself too complex a topic for us to cover here - but the basic idea is not to oversample the signal as would be done on normal DAC. Instead, the sampling is carried out where the focus is to restore the musicality back to the signal rather than to achieve the highest accuracy on frequency response. The result is often being described as a sound that is more analog and natural, though doesn’t measure nearly as good as the other two filters and can sound slightly hissy with sensitive headphone due to the lack of filter. To put it short, you can think of the three filters as going from what measured best to what perceived best. With DSD decoding, the same filter switch change to three analog filter selection: Standard, Extended, and Extreme. Due to its 1 bit nature, DSD can’t employ any digital filter (which we will discuss further in the next section on native decoding). Therefore it can only use analog filter after the decoding. The three settings are mainly to determine where to set the cut-off point along the frequency response. Last but not least, DXD only gets one setting and it is Bit Perfect / NOS, therefore it doesn’t matter which position the switch is in. So, you might start to wonder which filter sounds best? Well, the whole point of having a filter selection is so that you can find out the answer for yourself. It isn’t about right or wrong but about your own preference. However, for the purpose of the review, I have used the Standard filter for most of the measurement as well as majority of the subjective listening. Of course, this doesn’t actually mean I prefer the Standard filter more.

 

Last but not least on the user selectable switch that affects the SQ is the polarity. The short story it is that someone once found out that his music has been recorded in reversed polarity (which most human are not very sensitive of), then reversing the polarity will restore back what the music should have sounded like. In the ‘+’ position, the music will pass through iDSD as it is; in ‘-’ position however, the polarity will be reversed. I can’t really tell the difference myself, but don’t let me stop you from trying it out for yourself. If you are like me, just leave it at ‘+’ should be fine.

 

Now let start with the subjective listening – and let get this out of the way first: while micro iDSD can be used as a pure amp, it is not really the best portable amp you can buy for the price. While the amp section is excessively powerful and can drive even fairly inefficient planar magnetic headphone to quite a good level, it has a noticeably drier and brighter sound signature with some of the texture over lower mid to bass range missing. However, micro iDSD isn’t a bad sounding amp either. I would think the amp section alone is good enough to match any upper second tier portable amp or even lower top tier portable amp. It is just not enough to truly being referred as a top tier portable amp on its own.

 

As I have written on my review on nano iDSD, I often find portable DAC+amp combo either has a good amp but an only a decent DAC, or the other way around with a good DAC but just an okay amp section. On the micro iDSD however, I really don’t find the amp section to be the limiting factor at all – yes, it isn’t the best amp section ever. But it does have really good synergy with the DAC section, where the slightly drier amp is compensated by the slightly warmer DAC and they end up being smooth and fairly neutral sounding, if not just a bit on the richer and fuller side of the presentation. In other words, the sonic characteristics of the famous Burr Brown sound that is supposed to be warm and thick are not lost in the process, but tuned down a little and become more adaptive as a whole when it comes to synergy and headphone pairing. Of course, you are really craving for the full Burr Brown treatment, the RCA-out still offers a chance for you to feed micro iDSD to an amp of your own choice. That being said, the line-out from micro iDSD is indeed excellent. It rivals just about every USB DAC I have heard before, desktop or portable. Though I do want to point out I really haven’t heard any of the multi-thousands DAC that I can’t afford anyway, so it is not to say micro iDSD is the be-all-end-all of DAC.

 

One other thing I really love about the micro iDSD is that it is optimized for OTG usage. In my case, it works with both my Sony Xperia Z2 as well as Sony NWZ-A15 DAP without any problem. Sony already has a special USB driver implemented on their latest Android flagship smartphone, which upsamples everything to 24/192, and it works flawlessly with micro iDSD without the need of any extra app. Of course, if you have either USB Audio Player Pro, Onkyo HD Player or Hiby Music player, you can also play DSD files on iDSD as well using DoP protocol. The A15 player however isn’t Android based. But it does support USB OTG with a special cable (Sony WMC-NWH10) and has no problem working with micro iDSD to create probably one of the best sounding portable ‘stack’ in the market, rivaling high end audiophile digital audio players like HiFiman and Astell & Kern. I was, on two occasions, also able to compare micro iDSD to the much more expensive and very well regarded Chord Hugo (both fed by the same digital source). While Hugo carries a much more euphonic presentation, I don’t actually find it to be technically better than iDSD. One might like the flavour Hugo adds to the music, but it is really more of a flavour to me rather than a true rendition of what is intended, not to say that it isn’t an absolute great flavour on its own right. I personally thought that this is a good indication on micro iDSD’s ability to play on a much higher level of playfield than what its price tag would have otherwise suggested.

 

SpectrumXBass.png

XBass

 

Micro iDSD, like micro iCAN, comes with both XBass and 3D Holographic Sound. Unlike iCAN’s two level selection however, they only have one setting on iDSD – on or off. The effect is somewhat in between iCAN’s two levels. iFi’s reasoning is that they don’t want to have too big or small an effect as people might find it either too much or too little. Thus they opted for the middle ground. To me, the effect on XBass is indeed a little too subtle. It seems to work fine on some of my IEM but less noticeable on other. 3D Holographic Sound on the other hand has a bit more noticeable impact, which the IEM user in me does like it quite a lot (*given most IEM never really have good soundstage to begin with). Last thing to note is that both XBass and 3D Holographic Sound also work on variable RCA-out (*preamp mode), but they are tuned differently from the XBass and 3D Holographic Sound on headphone-out as they are intended to be fed to power amp and eventually loudspeaker. So if you are feeding the variable RCA-out to a headphone amp (then to a headphone of course), the EQ might not sound right, especially with 3D Holographic Sound.

 

Extra: Native vs Non-Native Decoding

When it comes to DSD playback, the words ‘native decoding’ has been threw around fairly casually by many manufacturer. The fact is however, many of them isn’t as ‘native’ as you will like to believe and often some form of internal conversion has been employed. To really understand whether a DAC really is natively decoding DSD or PCM, often you need to look beyond words but inside the circuit design on the chip’s level. Unfortunately for most of us, that’s just impossible as manufacturer would rather not share with everyone their trade secret. I won’t try to cover the whole topic here as it is such complex an issue that it will probably take an expert a lot more inks than what this review is intended for, and I am no expert on this topic either. But luckily Mr. Thorsten Loesch, the designer of micro iDSD, has already written such an article. While it is about nano iDSD, the same blood is in the vein of micro iDSD as well. Therefore what has been said on that article is just as true for micro iDSD as it is for nano iDSD. Read it here: http://www.audiostream.com/content/qa-thorsten-loesch-amrifi

 

The take-away point is - with the complexity and uncertainty in recording and mastering of the music before it reaches our ears, it is best to keep thing as ‘native’ and as non-invasive as possible when it comes to converting the 1 and 0 back to analog sound. That’s perhaps the reason why iFi has insisted on using the Burr Brown DAC rather than opts for something new and shiny with a more ‘marketable’ nametag. In that sense, I think they have done a tremendous job on optimizing the Burr Brown DAC to make it just as relevant as any top-of-the-line DAC chip in the market right now.

 

Sum-up

Is micro iDSD the perfect portable DAC+amp? No. If I can have a wish list, I’ll like it to be smaller, lightly, slimmer, shorter and perhaps, a true top tier amp as well. But the one thing that can’t be denied, nor would I wish to change, is the fact the micro iDSD is packed full of value and performance.  If you ever need a portable USB DAC + amp that can just about do it all, do it well, and do it without costing a limb, I reckon this is /it/.

 

A thanks to iFi Audio for the review sample.

Posted

Pros: A lot of possibilities for adjustments, powerful, clean sounding

Cons: Slightly too large to be truly portable, may lack some richness in the sound

The iFi Audio Micro iDSD was sent to me by iFi with help from their Norwegian distributor Audioaktøren for the purpose of doing this review and including it in my recently started $250+ amp/DAC comparison thread. It’s a loaner unit and will be returned to Audioaktøren after my review is published. I would like to say thank you to Karina as well as Terje and Hallvar for making this review happen, thank you very much!

 

 

 

 

The iFi Audio Micro iDSD is available from numerous online and domestic resellers (many places) with prices starting from $499 (at the time of this review). This is a link to the current Amazon listing for the Micro iDSD: 

 

https://www.amazon.com/iFi-Micro-iDSD-Headphone-Amplifier/dp/B00M50FLWK

 

For more information about the Micro iDSD you can also visit the IFI website:

 

http://ifi-audio.com/portfolio-view/micro-idsd/

 

I’m not in any way affiliated with iFi or Audioaktøren.

 

Short introduction to iFi Audio:

iFi Audio is a UK based company.

 

This is what they say about themselves on their website:


“iFi is a brand new line of electronics with trickle-down technology licensed from AMR and aimed primarily at the future, Computer Audio generation. All iFi products boast Class A analogue circuitry with no DSP and the signal stays ‘Bit Perfect’ throughout.

How a product looks and performs matters, but so does its impact on the environment. That’s why nearly every iFi product and its packaging are made from highly recyclable materials like aluminum, paper, recycled plastic and why we refuse to use harmful toxins in our components. We do this to ensure that every product we release meets our environmental standards.”

 

About me:

Click to show! (Click to show)

I’m a 44 year old music and sound lover that changed my focus from speakers to headphones and IEM’s about five years ago. At that time I realized that it wasn’t realistic for me to have all the different setups that I wanted and still house a family of four children and a wife so my interest turned first to full sized headphones and later also IEM’s.

 

My preferences are towards full sized open headphones and I believe that also says something about what kind of sound signature I prefer (large soundstage in all directions, balanced and organic sound).

 

My music preferences are pretty much all over the place (only excluding classical music, jazz and really heavy metal). My all-time favorite band is Depeche Mode although I also listen to a lot of grunge/indie, singer/songwriter/acoustical stuff as well as the typical top 40 music.

 

I tend to value function over form within reasonable limits.

 

I do not use EQ, ever.

 

I’m a sucker for value for money on most things in life Head-Fi related stuff is no exception.

 

Built, accessories and functionality:

The iFi Audio Micro iDSD is a solid state headphone amplifier and DAC combo.  

 

The Micro iDSD is available in only one variation AFAIK: silver color.

 

I’ve got to be honest and admit that when I’ve seen pictures of  and read about the Micro iDSD I’ve almost been intimidated by its huge amount of options and buttons. At the same time I’ve also been very fascinated about in so naturally I was thrilled at the opportunity to try it out for myself.

 

Output power is rated to 950mW@ 32Ohm when running in Normal mode and from the numbers it should be somewhere around 2W in Turbo mode (more about the different modes later). Output impedance is rated at less than 1Ohm.

 

The Micro iDSD has a sturdy housing that feels very durable. The physical controls available on it do feel reliable. Speaking of physical controls there sure is an impressive number of them and they’re present on almost every side of the unit. On the front you’ll find the volume control that also is the on/off switch accompanied by the on/off buttons for bass boosts (XBass) and crossfeed (3D). The volume control seems quite sturdy but like most other devices with an analogue volume control there’s channel imbalance at low listening levels (very low to be fair). The number of settings to adjust the power from the iDSD to suit your IEM’s/headphones makes this pretty much a no issue though. Underneath the unit there’s a switch for choosing between pre-amp or DAC direct output from the RCA output. You’ll also find the “IEM match” switch here which you can use to fine tune the noise floor/gain with sensitive IEM’s. There are three settings available: High Sensitivity, Ultra Sensitivity or Off. I’m not sure that I’m that thrilled about the placement on these buttons since I more than once managed to change the IEM match level by incident by moving the unit, adding some rubber feet that’s high enough should eliminate this though. On the left side (facing from the front) you’ll find a red switch for setting the “Power Mode” and you can choose between Eco, Normal or Turbo. In addition you’ll also find the switch for changing the polarity and choose which digital filter you’d like to use ((bit perfect, minimum or standard are available). On top of the unit as well as on the right side there are no switches at all, so still room for more in the next revision ;). Puh, that’s it when it comes to options to make the iDSD work as good as possible with your preferences and/or IEM’s/headphones.  Although the Micro iDSD doesn’t feel very heavy the overall build still feels solid enough for a desktop unit.

 

The Micro iDSD offers one male USB A digital audio input and one separate female USB A charging port to take advantage of the fact that the iDSD ois also able to act as a powerbank and charge your phone or other devices. It’s the first time I’ve come across a device like this with a male USB input but I can surely see why iFi has chosen this solution, the USB connection is very sturdy and much more so than I’ve experienced on any device with the regular female input. Also located on the back you’ll find a combined optical in/coax in or out combined connection (this socket will work as a coaxial out when USB audio in is connected) as well as the RCA output. Further there’s a 3.5mm input on the front for line in together with the 6.3mm headphone output socket.

 

As you can tell there’s almost no limit to the ways you can make the iDSD suit you or your equipment the best way. Only thing I can actually think of that I miss is a balanced output. Apart from that this is a very complete and versatile unit, probably the best I’ve come across so far in this aspect.

 

The Micro iDSD works very well with Android when connected with an OTG cable and using USB Audio Player Pro (UAPP) as music player. Although Android and sound does not have a great reputation the Micro iDSD have worked with every Android device I’ve tried it with (sometimes with the help of UAPP).  Battery drain is quite low when running on battery and from testing with my LG G3 it seems to be 10-15% per hour. To make sure you do run it on battery turn on the iDSD before you connect it to your Android device, if not it’ll take its power from the device draining it very fast.

 

The Micro iDSD uses an Xmos USB receiver that is supposed to work with Apple devices using the Camera Connection Kit (CCK) but unfortunately I haven’t been able to test this myself.

 

The Micro iDSD support all popular file formats for audio up to DSD512 and 32bit/768kHz files.

 

 

 

 

The accessories included are:

1 USB A female to USB B female cable

1 USB A female to USB A male cable

1 USB A to USB B adapter

2 rubber bands (to attach it to a phone or other transport)
4 small rubber feet (to attach the main body to the floor)
1 rubber sheet (to place between the iDSD and another device)

1 RCA to RCA cable  

1 Optical to 3.5 mm optical adapter

1 3.5 mm to 3.5 mm cable

1  3.5 to 6.3 mm adapter

1 pouch (to store it in when not in use or travelling)

 

 

 

 

The specs:

Click to show! (Click to show)

Item

Description

Remarks

Inputs/Outputs

 

 

Inputs (rear)

USB 2.0 type A “OTG” Socket
(with iPurifier® technology built-in)

Compatible with computers (Apple/Win/Linux), iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad and Android Devices, camera kit or USB-OTG cable required. (Full USB3.0 port compatible)

 

Intelligent SPDIF® Coaxial

3 Way combo SPDIF port (Coaxial In/Out; Optical In); Up to 192kHz PCM

 

SPDIF Optical

 

 

 

 

Outputs (rear)

Audio RCA L+R

 
 

Intelligent SPDIF® Coaxial

Up to 192kHz PCM

     

 

 

 

Output (right side)

SmartPower® Socket

Fast charge all portable devices. Compliant with USB Battery Charging Standard 1.2 – 5V @ 1.5A

 

 

 

 

 

 

Controls

   

Controls (front)

   

– HP Output

Audio 6.3mm Headphone Jack

 

– Volume with Power On/Off switch

Precision analogue volume control

<2dB Tracking error

– 3.5mm Input

 

Auto disable the digital section when this is in use

– X-Bass®

On/Off

 

– 3D Holographic Sound®

On/Off

Auto-switching for Speakers® and Headphones® (two separate and distinct circuits)

 

 

 

Controls (left side)

   

– Power Mode

Turbo, Normal, Eco

Computer controlled power and gain scaling

– Polarity

Normal/Inverted

 

– Filter

3 positions, 6 filters

(see filter section below)

 

 

 

Controls (bottom)

   

– Line Direct/Preamplifier

Preamplifier function Enable/Disable, 0/9dB gain selectable

Fixed 2V or variable with up to 5V available

– iEMatch®

Perfect-matching circuit for IEMs (eliminate hiss)

Off / High Sensitivity Headphone / Ultra Sensitivity Headphone

 

 

 

 

 

 

DAC section

   

DAC

Dual-core DSD, DXD, PCM DAC by Burr Brown

2-DAC Chip; 4-Channel; 8-Signals, custom interleaving for maximum SNR

 

Bit-Perfect DSD processing, Bit-Perfect PCM processing

 

 

 

 

Clock

Ultra low jitter GMT computer controlled Femto Clock

RMS jitter 12kHz – 1MHz < 280 Femtoseconds

 

 

 

Audio Formats

DSD 512/256/128/64
24.6/22.6/12.4/11.2/6.2/5.6/3.1/2.8

All native decoding, no internal hardware conversion

 

DXD 2x/1x
768/705.6/384/352.8kHz

All native decoding, no internal hardware conversion

 

PCM 768/705.6/384/352.8/192/176.4/96/88.2/
48/44.1kHz

All native decoding, no internal hardware conversion

 

 

 

Filters

   

– PCM

Bit-Perfect Processing/Minimum Phase/Standard

Digital filters selectable

– DSD

Extreme/Extended/Standard Range

Analogue filters selectable

– DXD

Bit-Perfect Processing

Fixed analogue filter

 

 

 

 

 

 

Specifications (DAC Section)

 

 

Dynamic Range (Line)

>117db(A)

 

THD & N (0dBFS Line)

<0.003%

 

Output Voltage (Line)

>2V

 

Output Impedance (Zout)

< 240Ω

 

Jitter (correlated)

Below AP2 test set limit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Headphone Power Output

   

HP Amp Output

Power (max)

Power (continuous.)

– Turbo mode

10.0V/4,000 mW @ 16 Ohm

>1560 mW @ 64 Ohm

– Normal mode

5.5V/1,900 mW @ 16 Ohm

>950 mW @ 32 Ohm

– Eco mode

2.0V/500 mW @ 8 Ohm

>250 mW @ 16 Ohm

 

 

 

 

 

 

Specifications (Headamp Section)

 

 

Dynamic Range (HP)

>115dB(A) (Eco Mode, 2V Out)

 

THD &N (HP 500mW/16R)

< 0.008%

 

Output Voltage (HP)

>8V (Turbo Mode)

 

Output Impedance (Zout)

<1Ω (iEMatch not engaged)

 

Maximum Output Power

4,000mW @ 16 Ohm Load

when using sinewave testing the iDSD micro may engage protection circuits

Continuous Output Power

1,000mW @ 64 Ohm Load

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve used the Micro iDSD for the last couple of weeks and my unit has played for well over 100 hours.

 

Demo list:

Click to show! (Click to show)

Mark Knopfler – Sailing to Philadelphia

Røyksopp (Feat.Susanne Sundfør) – Save Me

Ane Brun – These Days

Michael Jackson – Dirty Diana

Metallica – Die Die My Darling

The Peter Malick Group – Immigrant

Eva Cassidy – Songbird

Thomas Dybdahl – A Lovestory

Norah Jones – Don’t Know Why

Celldweller – Unshakeable

Jack Johnson – Better Together

Seinabo Sey – Younger (Kygo remix)

Dire Straits- So Far Away

Björk - Moon

Lupe Fiasco - Deliver

Morrissey – Earth Is the Loneliest Planet

 

Sound impression:

The first thing that I thought when I started to listen to the iFi Micro iDSD was that it reminded me quite a bit of the spacious and airy presentation that I’ve heard with the Mojo not too long ago.

 

Bass extension and quality is very good and I don’t feel as if there’s any noticeable roll off in the lower frequencies. Mid- and upper-bass is also well controlled contributing to the sense of space and airiness that the iFi Micro iDSD produces.  Despite the very good quality and quite good bass presence I can’t help feeling that the iDSD lacks some richness through the whole frequency range.

 

The midrange is liquid and smooth with plenty of details. The iFi Micro iDSD sounds very linear through all frequencies and the midrange is no exception. Nothing stands out and it sound natural and makes a relaxing listening experience. If anything I’d say it’s a bit on the dry side.

 

The treble is well extended, airy and smooth. Once again I find myself wishing for a touch more substance and body but the overall impression is still that the iDSD has a very nice and non-fatiguing treble presentation.

 

The overall presentation has great soundstage width and a very nice balance from the lowest to the highest notes. Despite this I still feel that there’s some richness and timbre lacking making the sound a bit on the dry side. To me this makes the iDSD work very well with  headphones and IEM’s that’s rich and full in there character.

 

As already mentioned the iDSD does also offers a lot of tuning options for those interested in that. This is really not my thing and to be honest I can’t hear much difference between the different digital filter options (this is the case with most of my amp/DAC’s that has got this so I won’t hold it against the iDSD). When it comes to the 3D setting I personally find it a bit artificial sounding and had it off for most of the time. The Xbass on the other hand is actually quite nice in its implementation and I enjoyed it when using earbuds but kept it off otherwise. I do know that other people enjoy these kinds of features a lot more than I do so I won’t hold it against the iDSD but rather add it as a positive thing for giving the user more choices which I really appreciate and value.

 

Comparison:

Please note that the comments in the comparison section are not in absolute terms but in comparison between subject A and B. This means (as an example) that if subject A is found to be brighter than subject B it does not necessarily mean that subject A is bright sounding in absolute terms. I hope this makes sense.

 

In these comparisons I’ve been listening through my AKG Q701’s.

 

I’ve been using the USB input when doing these comparisons. Both units has been hooked up to two different laptops both running Windows 7 with the same settings and I use MediaMonkey as my player of choice.

 

Both units was connected to a simple switch box through their respectively headphone outputs. This way it’s very easy to switch between the sources in minimal time. I also use a simple Android app to volume match the amplifiers so although maybe not perfectly scientifically the result should still be pretty correct.

 

Burson Audio Conductor V2+ (1,499) vs IFI Micro iDSD:

The V2+ is the heart of my main system and I really love both its features and sound. It’s expensive and it’s big and heavy (7 kg) but to me it’s also a very complete unit that doesn’t makes me miss anything in either sound nor features so I’ll include it as one of the comparison units for all my $250+ amp/DAC combo reviews. I’m also very familiar with it.

 

These two share a lot of treats like a similar amount of air and an equally wide soundstage presentation. Compared to the iFi Micro iDSD the V2+ has a touch richer sound through the whole frequency range, this makes quite a difference to the overall presentation,  resulting in the  V2+ sounding more dynamic and with better timbre to the notes.  It’s not a huge difference but an important one in making the V2+ sounding more natural and pair better with a wider variety of headphones. The deepest bass may also be a touch more well-defined on the V2+.

 

The V2+ of course has some other advantages such as significantly higher power output (4W @32Ohms which is about the double compared to the iDSD), two analogue RCA inputs. In addition it also has a great quality remote control. The iDSD on the other hand has internal battery, is more portable and a much better match for most IEM’s.

 

Audinst HUD-DX1 (with Burson Audio V5i op amps, $469) vs IFI Micro iDSD:

 

 

Compared to the iFi Micro iDSD the Audinst has a more dynamic and slightly less laid back sound. The Audinst is the fuller sounding of the two but its bass is also slightly looser and less well defined. The iDSD is a bit thinner and but also more airy in its presentation. The iDSD does also have a wider presentation while the Audinst has better depth and an overall richer sound. 

 

Feature wise both of these are equipped with a lot of in- and outputs but the iDSD does offer a lot more adjustments such as bass boost, 3D switch, and multiple gain and hiss (reducing) settings. When I reviewed the Audinst HUD DX1 I called it a “Swiss Army knife” offering, the iFi Micro iDSD is actually even more so, not necessarily when it comes to in- and outputs but definitely when it comes to settings and tweaks to make it sound as good as possible with the IEM’s/headphones that you use.

 

Burson Audio Conductor Air ($499) vs IFI Micro iDSD:

This two are similar in the way that they both works best when connected to a computer or laptop in my opinion but they can also be used portable (the Air maybe more so) or with your phone or tablet (the iDSD maybe more so) if needed. Compared to the iDSD the Air has a thicker sound while maintaining the same level of details. Layering is noticeable better on the Air while the iDSD has a touch more airiness and wider soundstage. The Air does also have better depth and timbre to the notes and the iDSD does actually feel a bit thin and dry in comparison. In short the Air has more drive while the iDSD is more laid back.

 

Feature wise the Air loses out by a fair bit though. With its two micro USB inputs (one for digital audio in and one for power) and two outputs (line out and headphones out) it’s no match for the number of inputs and outputs the iDSD offers. The iDSD does also have an internal battery.

 

For even further comparisons feel free to visit this thread for breakdown between more $250+ amp/DAC units (this is a work in progress and several other units will follow in the near future).

 

http://www.head-fi.org/t/816410/peter123s-250-amp-dac-combo-comparison-thread#post_12771442

 

Matching:

The output impedance of the headphone out on the Micro iDSD is rated to less than 1Ohm. This means that it should work well with pretty much all low and high impedance headphones and IEM’s available out there.

 

In this section I’ve tested how some of my favorite headphones but also one earbud and one pair of IEM’s pairs up with the Micro iDSD.  

 

AKG Q701 ($300):

The Q’s aren’t the best pairing with the iFi Micro iDSD in my opinion. The slightly thin sound on the iDSD makes male vocals lack some weight to sound perfectly natural. After having thoroughly enjoying the Mojo with the Q’s I’d expected the iDSD to work really well with them as well but I’d guess the Mojo is also richer sounding than I remember it .The iDSD has no problem at all to power the Q’s to louder listening levels.

 

Philips Fidelio X2 ($300):

The X2’s, being quite warm and full by itself, is a great match with the iDSD. It balances the full mid-bass on the X2’s in a great way making it sound excellent.  The smooth and dry presentation seem to work great with the X2’s ans although it’s not necessarily the best pairing I’ve heard with the X2’s it’s definitely one of the better.

 

 

VE Zen 2.0 ($138):

The Zen 2.0 is a 300Ohm earbud that I like a lot and tend to use instead of closed headphones. It’s also a reliable travel partner for me when I stay in hotels and don’t have any full size cans around.

 

The soft and smooth signature from the Zen 2.0 works OK with the iDSD but nothing more. This pairing lacks some dynamics and richness to be really good for me. A fuller more dynamic signature does suit the Zen’s better for my preference. Turning the bass boost on the iDSD helps though and it sounds quite good this way.

 

Aurisonics ASG-1PLUS ($500):

The ASG-1PLUS is an 11Ohm hybrid IEM (1 DD + 1 BA).

 

Once again an OK pairing and I like it better than what I did with the Mojo from memory. A bit too relaxed and lacking some depth but still quite an enjoyable listening. Once again I feel that I could have enjoyed a bit better timbre as well as some more dynamics. I’m aware that this is also the nature of the 1PLUS shining through but it’s more easily noticed here than with some other pairings.

 

Super Audio 6 ($250):

The Super Audio 6 (SA6) is a six BA driver Chines DIY offering. It has a warm, smooth, intimate and mid-centric overall presentation.

 

The combination of the iDSD and SA 6 is really nice to listen too. The SA6 is very rich sounding by itself and this works really well with the iDSD. The overall sound in this pairing is very enjoyable and once again the iDSD sounds great with a rich sounding pair of IEM’s7headphones.

 

To round off the matching section the signature of the iFi Audio Micro iDSD does make it work better with some headphones and IEM’s than others. To me there’s no doubt that it sounds the best with rich sounding IEM’s and headphones that has great timbre by themselves. That being said it doesn’t sound bad with anything I’ve tried it with (and that’s quite a lot).  The very low amount of hiss as well as enough power for all my full sized headphones, and not to mention all the available settings, does make it very versatile in practical use.

 

Summary:

The iFi Audio Micro iDSD is truly a remarkable device. It offers more settings and tuning availability and is more usable with a wide range of headphones and IEM’s than any other device of this kind that I’ve come across so far. It also has a great number of connection options combined with a quite neutral and very enjoyable sound signature.  I do find it to perform its best with richer sounding headphones and IEM’s but that being said I have not come across any pairing where it sounds bad.

 

Although it’s kind of big for being truly portable I’d still recommend anyone looking for a DAC/amp to use in their main system (both head-fi and/or hi-fi), around the house, in hotel rooms or in the office to check out the iFi Audio Micro iDSD .

 

Audio Quality: 4.5

Design: 4

Quality: 4.5

Value: 5

Features: 5

Posted

Pros: Very versatile DAC/amplifier, All in one DAC/amp solution for home and away, Ideal driving power for all types of earphones, Great sound quality

Cons: Downloading software/firmware can be a pain, Not a pocket friendly portable solution, Lots of settings to learn

 

At the time of this review, the iFi micro iDSD, iFi nano Gemini cable and iFi nano iUSB3.0 was for sale on Amazon’s website. Here are links for the purchase of these three items:

 

 

 

  

http://www.amazon.com/Micro-iDSD-Headphone-Amplifier-Octa-Speed-Double-Speed/dp/B01D40AQJ2?ie=UTF8&keywords=micro%20idsd&qid=1461553486&ref_=sr_1_1&sr=8-1

 

  

http://www.amazon.com/iFi-Gemini-Dual-Headed-Cable-Meter/dp/B00COJ5Z64/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1461553590&sr=8-2&keywords=ifi+gemini

 

  

http://www.amazon.com/iFi-iUSB3-0-Audio-Power-Regenerator/dp/B01BMT1CVS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1461553784&sr=8-1&keywords=ifi+nano+iusb

 

Introduction

When I purchased my Sennheiser HD600 headphones, I knew I was going to need a more powerful desktop rig to make them sing. I did my homework and came up with a budget solution. I picked up a HifimeDIY Sabre 9023 DAC and a Bravo Audio Ocean Class a tube amplifier. This combination created a very powerful and spacious sound that to this day I am very content with.

 

Since obtaining this rig, I have had the pleasure to attend several audio exhibits and Head-Fi meets. It’s been awesome being able to try the best headphones, DACs and amplifiers the world of personal audio has to offer. I’ve heard DAC and amplifier rigs that sound better than mine, but the big drawback and reason I haven’t picked anything else up to this day has been because of price. It seems like every time I hear something I would prefer to have over my current gear, the price tag is around two thousand dollars or more. As many of us know, in the world of top end audio we tend pay a lot for minor upgrades. The law of diminishing returns becomes more and more apparent the further we travel down the proverbial rabbit hole of audio gear.

 

When iFi contacted me to see if I would be interested in covering some of their products for a review, I was pretty excited. I decided at the time that it was going to be a challenge to see if iFi could offer a source that can rival my budget set up and fall under the thousand dollar mark. Not only does this combination trump my budget rig in terms of sound quality, I found it to be a Swiss Army Knife for audiophiles. Let’s go over these products with a comprehensive review.

 

Disclaimer

I was given an opportunity to review samples provided by iFi in exchange for my honest and unbiased opinion and review. I am in no way affiliated with iFi. I would like to take this time to personally thank Tyler for the opportunity to review these products.   


 

Micro iDSD (Octa DSD512)

http://ifi-audio.com/portfolio-view/micro-idsd/

 

Before I begin the discussion on this, allow me to quote the Amazon listing’s description and explanation:

 

There is nothing like the micro iDSD. It is literally, out of this world. It is the only DAC in the world (at any price) to play True Native Octa-DSD512/PCM768/Double DxD. Its Perfect-Match means it can be fine-tuned to any headgear from IEMs all the way through to large headphones. Its 8v/4000mW output makes it one of the most powerful headamps to drive even the most hungry of headphones with ease. iFi has forged an enviable reputation for being at the forefront of computer audio technology. The micro iDSD has just made another leap, an Octa-Leap to be precise. With its special Dual-Core Burr-Brown native DSD/PCM chipset at the heart, the micro iDSD is capable of True Native PCM768, Octa-Speed DSD512 and 2x DxD; it is simply out of this world. The micro iDSD has 3 different power modes Eco, Normal and Turbo. Capable of 4000mW, 1000mW or 250mW, the micro iDSD is able to drive the full gamut of headphone and amplifiers alike. With iEMatch there to dial to suit any IEM, the micro iDSD has redefined the headphone amplifier class. Used along with the analogue volume control, the diminutive size of the micro iDSD belies its uncanny ability to drive virtually anything and everything! SmartPower is the micro iDSD's onboard recharging feature for Smartdevices. Its 4800mAH battery is able to fully recharge an iPhone two-times. Compatible with Apple and Android, phones and tablets, it is another example of iFi's commitment to customer needs - enjoy high-end audio on the go with the micro iDSD”

 

As for the background on the micro iDSD, this product was designed with the Head-Fier in mind. In fact, much of the design concepts were a product of feedback from the Head-Fi community. Search the threads for this device and you will see that this product was designed from what many felt were the things required to make the micro iDSD the ultimate all-in-one audiophile DAC/amplifier.

 

The Micro comes with the following accessories:

1x RCA cable (1 foot)

1x 3.5mm interconnect (approx. 4 inches)

1x Silicone pad for stacking purposes

2x Silicone bands for stacking portable sources

1x USB male to female type A cable (approx 3 feet)

1x USB type B female to USB type A female (approximately 6 inches)

1x Optical female input to toslink adapter

1x USB type B female input to micro USB output adapter

1x USB type B female input to USB type a female output

1x Felt carrying case

 

You get just about everything you need to hook any audio device up to the iDSD in the package. The only aftermarket cable I used outside of the package contents were the Gemini Cable, or a Toslink to Toslink interconnect.

 

Getting Started

Because the micro iDSD was used in combination with the nano iUSB 3.0, hooking the device up is a bit different than going straight into the computer. However, getting started with the software was the same.

 

Once the device has a full initial charge the software can be downloaded from the iFi website. Once the iFi software is loaded and installed, optional firmwares can be downloaded, unzipped and installed by loading it into the computer application’s firmware folder. I will admit that this process calls for someone who has a little more knowledge of computers than the average person, or someone who can follow the online instructions carefully. Figuring out the software will be a pain for some people. Let it be known that it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you don’t follow the instructions you can run the risk of bricking your micro iDSD and need to send it back to iFi to be fixed.  

 

After downloading and installing the software and firmware updates, the first thing I did was bump the output resolution. On my Windows 10 laptop the iDSD has max output at a whopping 32/192k. If you aren’t sure how good that is, just know that the output resolution and bitrate of a compact disk is 16/44k.

 

Sound in a Nutshell

Once the sampling rate was maxed out, it was time to grab my HD600 and fire up some DSD files. Even upon first listen I had perma-grin. To my ears, without flipping any switches on the unit, the micro iDSD is true to any recording and plays it with a level of resolution and detail that is very, very impressive!

 

I could ramble on and on about the sound about the iDSD, but in a nutshell the iDSD plays music with no added color to its presentation. The iDSD will play your music the way it should be heard. It is a very revealing sound thanks to its very accurate sound reproduction. I've read several iDSD reviews before writing this review, and impressions vary, sometimes significantly. Many of them are different depending on who's review you read. After listening to the iDSD for a few months, the conclusion I have about the sound is that I don't want to label the signature on the iDSD, and feel that the iDSD sound is incredibly balanced with enough minor sound adjustment settings to match just about anyone's preference.

 

The iDSD is future-proofed in terms of its resolution capability. It plays pretty much every type of music file up to double DXD. The iDSD uses dual Burr Brown DAC chips (one for each channel). After looking at the diagram, I was left wondering why iFi wouldn’t finish the deal and add dual op-amps and a balanced output. If I had to guess, iFi is probably already working on this for future versions.

 

Power Output

The most impressive thing about the iDSD is its versatility, with the most important aspect being the adjustable power outputs. The iDSD will drive my ZMF Omni and HD600 with ease, and with the flip of a switch or two I can drive my most sensitive multi-armature in-ear monitors. I have NEVER used a DAC/amp with adjustments that makes it ideal for any earphone type of earphone that I own.

 

The iDSD has three power output settings:

 

*Turbo: (8.0V max/4000 mW@16 Ohm)

*Normal:  (4.0V/1000 mW@16 Ohm)

*Eco: (2.0V/250 mW@16 Ohm)

 

Yes friends, in Turbo mode the micro iDSD pumps out FOUR WATTS at sixteen Ohms! Do you own a headphone that the iDSD can’t drive? Probably not!

 

When you don’t need that much power the Normal mode hits a sweet spot, offering one full watt. This is still plenty of power for almost every headphone in today’s market. This is the setting I used to push my headphones when using the iDSD as a portable. It’s powerful enough to make my cans sound great, and not so powerful that I’m prematurely draining my 4800mAh lithium ion battery.

 

Eco mode is the least powerful and I found it to be ideal with in-ear monitors. It also worked well for more sensitive headphones. When using this mode the battery lasts longer than the other settings.

 

If you thought the power output settings are enough, the iDSD has a “IEMatch” switch to dial things in even more with your most sensitive earphones. You can attenuate the signal from 0/12/24 dB to get the output and volume dial perfect for your earphone and preference.

 

The iDSD has a USB charger attached to side of the device as well. If your portable device or smartphone runs out of juice, you can charge it with the iDSD. One thing to note, the iDSD will not work as a DAC or amplifier and charge at the same time. It’s one or the other.

 

Desktop and Portable use

The iDSD can be used as a desktop or portable device. The 4800mAh battery not only guarantees a consistent and undisturbed power supply, it also allows the unit to be used without being plugged into a power source. The battery lasted for me for an entire day of on and off listening, and still had power to spare when I plugged it in as my desktop rig later on in the day.

 

If I wasn’t using it as my daily portable, it was on my desk being used as the main DAC/amplifier for my desktop, or charging thanks to the design of the nano iUSB 3.0 and Gemini cable (I’ll go over that more in a bit). The iDSD is bigger than most portable DAC/amplifiers on the market today. Although it is portable, I don’t consider it to be pocket friendly. If this bothers you, iFi offers a smaller version called the nano iDSD which offers a good amount of its big brother’s features.

 

Inputs and Outputs

 

micro iDSD input options:

*3.5mm analog input (on the front)

*SPDIF input (coaxial or optical via toslink)

*High Speed USB 2.0 input

 

micro iDSD output options:

    *¼ inch line out (comes with ¼ to 1.8th inch adapter)

    *RCA line with adjustable preamplifier or direct output (on the back of the unit)

    *SPDIF Coaxial output with adjustable preamplifier or direct output (on the back of the unit)

 

With these input/output options, I’m still experimenting with all of my sources and figuring out various ways to get the iDSD to work. This not only applies to my desktop and portable rigs, but also my home stereo. When used in my review laboratory the iDSD not only pushes my headphones, I also use the dual RCA outputs on the back of my unit to feed my stereo music from my laptop. The micro iDSD does this phenomenally. Not only do my headphones sound better, so does my stereo thanks to this device.

 

I was able to connect the DX80 via toslink.

 

With my Luxury and precision LP5, I was able to connect via digital coax.

 

With my LG V10, I was able to connect via OTG. All connections were simple and without any complications or bugs.

 

Fine Tuning Options

 

Filter Options:

    *Bit-Perfect

    *Minumum Phase

    *Sandard

 

To be honest, I didn’t notice a significant difference in sound when using these filters. For the most part I left the iDSD in standard or Bit-Perfect mode. From what I read, the Bit-Perfect and Minimal Phase settings are for using the iDSD in PCM, and the Standard filter was ideal for DSD and DXD. If anything, the upper frequencies seemed maybe just a bit more relaxed in Bit-Perfect mode, with virtually no change in the other two settings to my ears.

 

Another option was a switch to reverse polarity. This was another feature I could have done without. I leave the iDSD in positive polarity when I use the device.

 

Xbass

The Xbass switch is located on the front of the iDSD. While I’m usually not a fan of bass boost switches, in this case I find it to be a useful tool and utilize it quite often. The iDSD Xbass button adds a boost only to the lowest frequencies without raising the midbass or making the sound boomy. Where I found the Xbass switch to be most useful is with my more linear sounding earphones. A simple flip of a switch gave them a clean and welcomed low end boost that improved their sound.

 

 

3D Switch

The 3D switch is also located on the front of the iDSD. Although the intention of this is to create a more open soundstage (and it does so in a certain degree), I found it to be a “awesomifier” for my warmer and bassier earphones. My pair of ZMF Omni sound good with the iDSD, but add the 3D switch into the mix and they become incredible to my ears. The same results can be said for all of my warmer and bassier stuff.


 

Nano iUSB 3.0

http://ifi-audio.com/portfolio-view/nano-iusb3-0/

 

Before I begin the discussion on this, allow me to quote the Amazon listing’s description and explanation:

 

“The Nano iUSB3.0 is small, but provides a "USB Total Solution" for audio technology. With USB3.0 Ultra-Speed (5.0 Gbps), it is future-proofed with a near-silent noise floor thanks to built-in Active Noise Cancellation®. IsoPower® separates the audio and power lines for the ultimate in audio signal transmission via USB. You will immediately notice cleaner, crisper audio from your USB DAC when using the Nano iUSB3.0. REclock® technology re-clocks and completely re-generates the USB signal. PowerStation® generates a completely new 5V USB power line including a 3-stage, 6th order RFI noise filter. The quietest of quiet is what you will get with iFi's added technologies. On top of all of this, REbalance® further purifies the audio datastream. Last, but not least, RapidCharge® means the fastest re-charge of even the thirstiest rechargeable battery powered devices. This means flawless pairing with iFi's iDSD DACs. Feature-packed? Yes. Cutting-edge technology? Check. Improves every USB audio system? You bet. In short, you can't go wrong by adding iFi's Nano iUSB3.0 to your USB Audio rig.”

 

So now that you have the information on it, let’s first start by addressing the lingering topics that go on in audiophile circles about products like this. Some will say that something like this isn’t necessary, especially if we have DACs that implement some of this same technology already. Others will say that the audible difference isn’t noticeable to the human ear, and may only be slightly traceable through measurements. While I think there is a half truth to this, what I will add to the conversation is that for under two hundred dollars I find this item to be worth every penny and more, ESPECIALLY when paired with the micro iDSD. Let me explain why.

 

The nanao iUSB 3.0 has the same shape and size body as the portable models iFi offers. Its basically a shortened version of the micro iDSD body.

 

What is Jitter?

I could try to explain jitter, but this guy does it way better than I can:

 

With advancements in digital audio technology, I don’t think jitter is as big of a deal as it used to be. We all know that some things sound better than others, and that’s usually because of the combination of a high quality DAC and amplifier. There are variables that make a DAC/amplifier perform poorly and one of these things is jitter. It's nice to have a product like the nano iUSB 3.0 that helps to eliminate this (even if it is an added safeguard when used with a high quality dac with similar “jitter elimination technology”). It’s reassuring to think that we have the added certainty that jitter will not play a big part in why we aren’t getting the most out of our sources and music.

 

Clean Power Supply

The other benefit of this device is clean power. The flow of power has a considerable impact on our audio chain. Just about all of us can remember a time when listening to music and our experience is altered because of signal noise. We hear it sometimes as electromagnetic interference, or a slight hiss when the music is quiet or paused. As audio enthusiasts, we strive for perfect sound, and a big part of this is a black background. Although many would see these as minor setbacks, in the grand scheme of things it’s a big deal. We want the music to be as clean and uninterrupted as possible.

 

Noise Cancelling (before it’s actually noise)

We’ve all heard of noise cancelling. Bose has cornered the market on noise canceling headphones. The way it operates is that for any noise that they headphone picks up, the headphone essentially creates a “counter-frequency” to cancel unwanted sound. This allows the listener to focus more on the music and less on the surroundings. The folks at iFi have implemented technology in the nano iUSB 3.0 with the same concept but in a different application. It cancels unwanted noise created by your power supply.

 

REclock/REgenerate

Have you ever listened to music through a computer or phone, and tell yourself “wait a minute, this sounds faster/slower?” Or maybe you’ve listened to music and thought something in the timing is just “off” and can’t put your finger on it? Most of our music players have internal clocks that aren’t always spot on. The data is all there, but the timing isn’t. This can be one of the biggest problems with digital audio. Modern day computers tend to do it less often than older ones, but it still happens from time to time.

 

The iFi nano iUSB 3.0 addresses this with technology that takes your audio data and re-clocks and regenerates the music, making it as natural as possible before it gets to your DAC.

 

REbalance

The claim on this is that the iFi nano will take your USB signal and make it cleaner by eliminating unwanted noise and balancing the signal. While I’m not too sure about this, I don’t think iFi would blatantly sell some magic snake oil, and I’m confident that there is some technology designed to help improve the USB signal. If it’s there, it’s not audible to my ears.

 

Separate Power/Audio and USB Charger

The iUSB 3.0 has a nine volt wall wart and a USB type B port for  inputs, and two USB type A outputs. The two separate USB outputs are split into power and audio/power. It works in two ways.

 

Option #1: The Audio out USB port can be used for both power and audio for a DAC, leaving the power output for charging external devices. One nice thing to note is that the iUSB 3.0 charging port is Bus Charge 1.2 compliant, meaning not only will it charge your portable devices, it will charge them faster than normal USB chargers. This is the way almost any DAC aside from the micro iDSD would hook up to the iUSB 3.0.

 

 

Option #2:  When using the nano with the Gemini Cable, the power and audio from each port is transmitted separately and to the same device. This makes for a “best of both worlds” type of application and maximizes the potential of the micro iDSD. It will charge the battery of the iDSD when not in use, and when in use it will power the unit while keeping the Audio and power supply separate up to the point of the connection.

 

Gemini Cable

http://ifi-audio.com/portfolio-view/accessory-gemini/

 

I’m going to be honest here. I think spending over two hundred dollars on a double sided USB cable is pretty out there. Here’s the kicker though...

 

The Gemini cable is designed to be used exclusively with the iUSB and micro iDSD products. It looks like no corners have been cut with this cable, and no exceptions were made. It’s a very rugged cable, with excellent shielding.

 

The transmission of this cable from end to end stays around ninety ohms and only varies by one percent at most. That is incredibly efficient and basically makes the transmission from the nano iUSB 3.0 to the micro iDSD about as flawless as it can get.

 

My Opinion on the nano iUSB 3.0

I really like this device when paired with the micro iDSD (via the Gemini Cable which I will cover next) and feel it justifies its asking price. This thing isn’t going radically improve your music and send you into another dimension of audio bliss, but it will noticeably help clean up any signal noise you get with your DAC and amplifier. The most beneficial thing regardless of what DAC you have is how silent the noise floor is. When combined with the micro iDSD, the noise floor is pitch black, even with my most sensitive in-ear monitors. There is no hissing or signal noise that I noticed whatsoever.

 

I didn’t notice any kind of jitter or clocking issues with the iUSB 3.0, even when used with my nine year old Toshiba laptop (I do occasionally notice clocking issues when not using the iUSB 3.0 with this computer).

 

Another thing I will say about the nano iUSB 3.0 is that if you have a micro iDSD, it’s a must have because the two compared together makes for an incredibly awesome and convenient desktop rig in terms of functionality. Using the nano iUSB 3.0 along with the Gemini cable, it operates as a charging port if you want to use the micro iDSD for portable use. I can use my micro iDSD all day for portable use, then when I get home, all I have to do is plug into the Gemini Cable and my micro iDSD is now a complete audiophile desktop rig that charges without any needed power from my computer.

 

I went into this having my doubts about whether or not this nano iUSB 3.0 is just a gimmick that will take people’s money without offering much beyond what the micro iDSD already does. Truth be told, the nano iUSB and Gemini cable is the ultimate compliment to an already awesome DAC/amplifier from iFi. It adds to the micro iDSD (or any DAC for that matter) both in terms of functionality and performance.


 

Conclusion

I went into this thinking that this would be a contest to see how the micro iDSD would stack up against my long time favorite budget rig. I’m not even going to bother doing a comparison because it isn’t a contest. It’s in a league with things that cost much more than its current asking price. The micro iDSD/nano USB 3.0/ Gemini Cable combination comes to a cumulative total of under a thousand dollars. I say this in all honesty, at this price I find it to be one of the greatest deals I’ve come across in this hobby. I can’t think of anything that will give you this much versatility and sound quality for twice as much money.

 

The iDSD does everything just as good or better than all of my other DACs and amplifiers. The micro iDSD is everything I need wrapped up into one device. It’s a great desktop or portable rig. It’s incredibly easy to use. With the Gemini cable, the thought of charging the unit is an afterthought as long as I use it as a desktop unit that day. It pushes everything from in-ear monitors to Power hungry full size cans. The various output powers and sound adjustment switches made me revisit earphones I gave up on in the past and find new life in their sound. It may not be the only DAC/amplifier I will ever need, but for now I can say in all honesty that the iDSD offers just about everything I need to enjoy my entire collection of music and earphones.

 

Thanks for reading and happy listening!   

Posted

Pros: Sound, Settings, Power, Very Robust build!

Cons: There really is no Cons, some might not like the size

                                                                                           iFi Micro DSD

 

 

First a little boring stuff about me. I am a 42 year old man with average hearing loss for someone my age. I like to think I take good care of my ears and I’m able to pick up subtle differences in the music I listen to. I will state right away as well that I am not an Audiophile but rather someone who really enjoys listening to most genres of music.
I will also state that I am in no way affiliated with iFi, just simply doing a review of this wonderful AMP/DAC. I only do reviews on something I like and for the most part I do not do a lot of reviews. I was supplied this device from an iFi distributor.

 


Boxing
The Box is nicely made and reminds me of Apple in how it was designed. To me I could care less about packaging as long as it protects the merchandise. Some here like a well made box so here is a few pictures of the box and its contents.

 

 

Source used


I only paired this with my DX90 (with a SanDisk 128gb Class 10), as this is a great match. The DX90 is easy to operate without looking at it and fits nicely on top of the Micro. This is hooked up via the Coax that came with my DX90. Update: And now with a DX80 and 2 128gb cards. Half of the review was with the DX90 and I recently bought a DX80 to go with it. I should also mention that half way through this review I ended up buying my own Micro as I just fell in love with the sound and I returned the review unit. 

 

 

Headphone/IEMs used


Thus far used ENIGMAcoustics Dharma 1000 (Dharma), Oppo PM3, VMODA M100 and Alclair RSM Customs.

 

 

 

 

Sound


Now, to me, the most important part is the sound. This is all in MY opinion as they are my ears!
To me the sound is absolutely to my sound signature which is clean, clear and crisp. I have heard a lot of great sounding rigs and this to me is one of the best I’ve heard. I recently had the Mojo (Tour Unit), and I’m not going to say anything bad about the Mojo as I loved that as well but to tell you the truth I very much prefer this awesome rig. There are so many options; from using very sensitive IEMs to your desk speakers this thing can power them all. So with all of that said, I will start with the Dharmas. The Dharmas are a great sounding Headphone and at $1200.00 dollars it should be, but paired with the Micro DSD for the first time I was blown away ( I always try and look for the immediate WOW factor) with the sound. I felt like I was there and really got emotionally involved with the music I was listening to. I was hearing subtle differences in songs I have listened to a million times before. 

 


The Bass is very impactful and not even the slightest bit Boomy or distorted, it is very controlled. The Highs are perfect and not overly done, I can listen to the Micro for hours with any headphone with no fatigue, it is that well done. The Mids are present and just where I like them. Soundstage is good, (this is where the MoJo excels) it’s not too far out, but really properly placed. There is a “3D” switch to make it wider and I have used it a few times but actually prefer it the way it is (off). There is also a Bass boost, I have used it a few times to try it out and it has a slight bump, it is smooth and not over powering, but again, I like it the way it is. 

 


The iDSD Micro is like a Swiss army knife of features, with all the varying combinations, there is setting for anyone. There is an IEM switch for varying sensitivity levels of IEMs so that you will not get hiss, which I had none with my Alclair CIEMs. For gain there is ECO which is like low gain, there is a standard which is like a medium to high gain and there is a turbo (10.0V/4,000 mW @ 16 Ohm), this is if you want to melt your brain. The turbo mode for most headphones is way too powerful, but, is there if you need it. This would be for the really hard to drive headphones or speakers. There are a few more switches like Polarity so you can switch your polarity. Filter switch, which has bit perfect so it can play your music like it was intended. 
My favorite setting right now and while doing this review is IEMatch set to off the Filter is on Bit Perfect, Polarity set to + and the power mode is on standard/ECO.  

I won’t get into the semantics as there are some very detailed reviews on there like @twister6. I just wanted to give my brief feeling on this great device, this is definitely a keeper as I have been trying to whittle down my collection to a couple of good rigs and just enjoy what I have!

 

 

Thanks for reading!

Posted

Pros: Very powerful, very clear sonic signature

Cons: at the time of this review there are none will update the "cons" section later

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Posted

Pros: Crystal clear, lifelike audiophile sound, with a touch a warmth that is great for long listening sessions. TONS of power to drive any headphone.

Cons: some switches are a 'set em and forget em' variety

It was around February of 2014 when I first read of iFi while skimming the Head-fi forums. I was looking for a DSD capable DAC in the sub $500 range to replace the first generation Audioquest Dragonfly serving my desktop listening needs. There was only a handful of options at the time, and my interest in DSP free DSD playback further limited the choice. Actually, my choice was made for me. The iFi iDSD nano was the only DAC I could find that fulfilled this requirement in my price bracket. The only problem was I knew nothing about iFi, and I was concerned by the incredibly low price. Surely the raw sound quality would be compromised at this price point. Then again, at a mere $189 there was little risk, so with a 'What the heck?' attitude I ordered one. And wow. Wow. Wow again.

 

I am glad I took the risk of a blind buy. In addition to being impressed with the sound quality, I became equally impressed with the crew at iFi/ AMR. Their customer interaction and support is superb. And they are truly committed to their vision of Hi-Fi, which is unapologetically different than the hi-fi norm. In the end, they are committed to providing the best sound and most useful feature set for the dollar.

 

 

It should come as no surprise, then, that I followed closely the crowd design of the iDSD Micro, and am among the first 512 owners. An 'Octa-Adopter.'

 

 

OCTA-WHAT???

 

 

'Octa' as in 8x DSD, or DSD512. Yes, this DAC will playback DSD rates up to 24.6 Mhz! This is the first example of such support in a consumer level product. It also supports PCM up to 768khz. Although I know of no content currently available at these high rates, upsampling to DSD512 is possible in software, and PCM 768 allows for DSD256 playback via DoP, which means ASIO is not required for playback at that rate. Although I am not as familiar with the state of Mac computer audio, I believe this may be the first time DSD256 is available on the Mac without a need for special driver software.

 

 

A DIFFERENT KIND OF HI-FI

 

 

I mentioned earlier that iFi doesn't follow the hi-fi norm. What does that mean? iFi believes in minimal DSP, and believes that one should be listening to as close to the source audio as possible. DSP's such as upsampling, volume control, format conversion, etc. create unavoidable mathematical losses. The more conversions, the greater the losses. The more changes to the source signal, the more likely the changes become audible. This may especially be the case with DSD. DSP such as filtering, sample rate conversion and volume control require conversion of the 1-bit bitstream to a multibit intermediary, and remodulation back to 1 bit.

 

Therefore, the iDSD Micro uses a chipset that converts DSD to analog natively with no extra digital conversion or DSP. The 1 bit DSD signal is sent to an analog FIR filter for conversion. That's it! Also, the iDSD micro has a 'BitPerfect' filter option for PCM. This eliminates the oversampling reconstruction filter used in PCM conversion.

 

So in a DAC loaded with features, simplicity characterizes the nature of the actual audio conversion. This matches my personal audio values.

 

 

THE iFi EXPERIENCE

 

 

Unboxing an iFi product is a treat! Packaging is reminiscent of that other "i" company.

 

In the box you will find a plethora (hyperbole, of course) of quality adapters and cables. Which calls attention to the unique 'OTG' USB port on the back of the Micro. It is a unique port engineered for mobile convenience. To use it with a standard desktop USB cable, an adapter is required. Two versions of the adapter are included. The adapter I chose to use is cable-less. The other adapter has a very short cable between terminations. I chose the first adapter presuming higher quality, but the cabled version may be more convenient when space behind the DAC is a concern. The 'hard' adapter combined with my iFi Gemini cable requires several inches of clearance.  It is also an interesting little detail that the 'hard' adapter comes packed in an anti-static bag, like what you would expect to find enclosing delicate computer components.  Also, I think it is important to add that the included USB cables are OTG cables, so if you don't already have an expensive USB cable like the Gemini, I would suggest forgetting about the adapters and going with one of the included cables.

 

This is all I will have to say about the adapters, mobile uses, battery, etc. I will leave that to others, as I use this iDSD exclusively in a desktop environment, and cannot adequately review mobile functionality.

 

Build quality and appearance is typical iFi. The iDSD micro is well built but take care with the switches. They feel a little fragile, and as a matter of fact, I had some trouble with a sticky switch.  My over aggressive tugging, attempting to 'un-stick' it, caused the red 'Turbo' switch that controls amp output level to go flying off into the floor!! Fortunately it easily reattached, and works properly now.

 

 

THE SOUND

 

 

Now on to the good stuff! The sound! Crisp detailed highs, smooth upper mids, slightly warm lower mids and upper bass. Clean extension into the lows. Not too much bass; just about right. Does it deviate from neutral? That is something I am not sure I can answer. Tonal balance is the product of an entire system, and all I can tell you is how it sounds in mine, which is a custom built AMD PC running the latest Jriver Media Center software, iDSD micro, iFi iUSB power, iFi Gemini 'split' USB cable, and a modded USB cable eliminating the 5v line pre iUSB Power. The review headphones are Grado RS1i's.

 

In comparison to the iDSD nano, the sound is the same tonally, but there is a notable increase in detail and dimensionality. On the Nano, audio images are wide, but slightly flat in comparison. The Micro has greater depth of soundstage. Never is the extra detail harsh, though. The micro is always delightfully smooth and listenable.

 

DSD was the strong suit of the iDSD nano, and is improved in the Micro. I feel the greatest improvement, though, is with PCM material, especially using the BitPerfect filter. The promise of the Burr Brown DSD1793 segment DAC is realized more fully here. PCM sounds both silky smooth AND extremely detailed, like a hybrid of true PCM and Delta Sigma conversion, which is EXACTLY what the segment DAC is.

 

For headphone use, which is how I exclusively use the iDSD, power is abundant and flexible. There are three settings, from Eco mode to 'Turbo' mode, which will tear paint off the walls with my Grados!!! Eco mode is already stronger than the headphone amp in the iDSD Nano, but I have settled on the middle 'Standard' mode for all my listening.

 

The headroom it provides for the dynamic orchestral recordings that dominate my listening is welcome. This addresses the only other weakness of the iDSD Nano. The iDSD Micro has plenty of power, dynamic swing and driver control to keep up when the music gets loud and complex.

 

I enjoy the 3D and XBass 'Analog Signal Processing'. The effect of both is subtle but notable. They never get in the way, and depending on soundtrack can really enhance the experience. For instance, the bass drum on orchestra recordings has deep authority with XBass turned on, and 3D mode really does widen the soundstage nicely, and puts the center image more 'out in front.' But I did notice that with 3D mode engaged, images on recordings I know well were placed too far to the edges for my liking, and overall imaging suffered. Instruments gain a greater sense of space, but lose their precise placement 'in space', so I do the majority of my listening with 3D mode disengaged.  XBass seems ESPECIALLY useful at lower to moderate listening levels, filling in the low end nicely.  At higher levels, or with music recorded with little dynamic range, the bass emphasis may be a bit much.  But as most of my listening is to very dynamic music with moderate average levels, I leave XBass engaged most of the time and do enjoy the effect.  Ultimately, results vary from soundtrack to soundtrack, though.

 

 

IN CONCLUSION

 

 

There are many more features included in this incredible product that I have not mentioned, but I believe I have covered everything that stands out to me after two days of listening. This is a special product, both in feature set and sound quality. Designed by a renowned audio engineer, with customized software and extreme functionality. Oh, and it sounds in a word, amazing. If you are looking to spend in the $500 to $1000 range, and maybe even more, you owe it to yourself to hear the iDSD micro.

 

Highly recommended.  

Posted

Pros: Compact, transportable, powerful, beautiful sound, tube-like warmth

Cons: Buttons, volume knobs, no balanced connections



Please allow me a moment to express my appreciation toward IFI for this opportunity to demo the Micro IDSD for reviewing purposes and return. The unit itself is a DAC/AMP combo which plays DSD natively, and sport Burrbrown DAC, so any fan of BurrBrown will be happy.

Upon receiving the unit, it arrived in a nice and neat box, and literally comes with a lot of supportive cables and adapter, a carrying pouch as well.




At first I couldn't figure out how to charge the unit because the confusion between the "smart charging" port on the side and the "digital input". Took me about 15 minutes to figure out that the unit charging port is the digital input with male USB and provided blue USB cables. I had to look for the manual to discovered that the smart charging port on the side is to charge your devices as an external battery pack only! So, please do not get confused


The device itself is like a chunk of aluminum with ports ! But it magically about the size length of the Note 4. Hah! Perfect stack up! Though, it would be nice and neat if IFI with all of their supplied cables would add in a short Female USB to OTG micro USB cable. There is only 1/4" out for headphones, and if you have 3.5mm style plug, you can use the adapter inside the box. I like the RCA stereo out for pre-amp to large stereo systems. This is excellent feature for people who also love large stereo system. It can be pre-amplified (controllable output volume), or direct (max output)

The knobs and switches, it would be nice to have the volume knob and switches more covered, recessed, or a button to lock it, because it is so easy to knock it out of the setting and damage your own hearings. It is best to set it and sit still to enjoy it. Therefore, I agree with people calling the IDSD the "transportable" unit. Beside, the rubber bands once strapped on to stack, it could easily hit and move the gain switch....which may again damage your hearing, I stacked it up higher to avoid hitting it. I rarely move mine, and more than a couple occasions I almost yank out my headphones due to the sudden loudness...this 4000 mW is not a joke ! So, it is good to set and sit to enjoy, and not recommended to pocket it on the go.


Battery longevity: I listen to my collections for about 2-3 hours a day, and it keeps up just fine, with both Zx2/note 4 and IDSD stacking, it last an average of 6-5 hours. It digital input actually will draw and charge itself whenever possible, and I observed that it charged from The IPad Pro, because they both went through their battery faster and the blue light will lit up even though the unit is turned to off. Therefore, on supportive device, the USB in port can be used to feed digital and charge at the same time. Interferences and noises are no issues here when stacking on a phone or getting too close to the computer. I do hear hums and such on PHA-3 when paired with smartphone being on top. So, interferences isolated = 1 more credit toward micro IDSD. However, IDSD micro doesn't have secondary self charge port while the main digital/charge port is being used, and that means you just can not stack another additional battery on top, this is where PHA-3 get the credit, but then PHA-3 takes a longer time to charge up than Micro IDSD. So, you get to pick your poison.

Battery recharge: it charges around 4 hours on average by using the Apple 12W charger and its blue digital cables.

Also to note, the adapter of 3.5mm to 1/4" that comes in the box will work with any 3.5mm TRRS hi-fi man style or Zx2 style.

It took me a few tries to get the Zx2 to work with Micro IDSD. I figured both Zx2 and IDSD has to be off , connected, then turned on IDSD (wait on the green light), then turn the ZX2 screen on in order for them to pair up ? Strange, but whatever as long as it works.
Now, then I tried to pair it with Note 4 and Onkyo Hf player, it worked just in a snap of a fingers.






Pairing with Windows 10 laptop requires manual download of the driver from IFI, and connecting to IPad or IPhone with IOS only needs Apple Lightning to Camera USB cables. I tried watching movies and gaming are both simply superb. It is so far the best Single Ended device that I have come across so far.




Summed up: It is Warmth but sweet mid range, beautiful micro energies variations, every micro movements of the tonal body from the inner fidelity can be observed . That is why I call it beautiful and sweet, especially string instruments and drum plays. Yeah, tube-like, impact, darker, warmer, but controlled, detailed, great 2D soundstage, and musical are the summed up of Micro IDSD perfectly. So, I guess, if they hit your spot ? Please read on.


The sound signature: warm tone on low and mid spectrum while the vocal is with great transparency, airy but darker trebles and very good separations. Very good soundstage, and this soundstage is the typical soundstage that I like a lot, the spherical soundstage. I would say it is even a bit more emphasized toward Lower mid bass and bass energies (the impacts, oh my...). This sound signature will grab "bass lovers" and "audiophiles" all alike at the heart on the first impression. I love (quality only) type of bass, and it really did grab my attentions. Please don't be mistaken this bass for the kind of bass that you hear on cheap gears and or low quality. I have to say it again, (it is the energies, the fidelity, the impact ) that is emphasized. For example, in the song that is well known to me, I feel the percussionist applied more power into his beats and plays but they are all so magically controlled, detailed, textured. The best enjoyment comes from both Xbass and 3D off. Beautiful dynamic energies.

The next thing I found out is that it uses Femto clock to totally eliminate Jitters ? I think this is the cheapest device to have built in the Femto clock at the price $499 on Amazon and authorized dealers.



Soundscape: surrounding and holographical

Soundstage: spherical, good width and depth. But with more attention and I would say this soundstage is with more width than depth, also the 3rd dimension Presentation is surprisingly good for a device with single ended and at this price range. Now, there is 3D function, and it seems that IFI reserved the extra 3rd dimensional depth and height for this feature. There is a noticeable improvement on this 3rd dimension senses when turned on. It also improves the width and depth of 2nd dimensional and the separations of each instrument spaces as well. Most importantly, it doesn't feel artificial.... Actually to really look into nit picking it, the mid is a bit sharper , and there are more reverbs, but not to the noticeable level to call it artificial. Some smoothness in the lower energy of upper mid and lower trebles play may be a tad harsher.

Bass: Very detailed , clean and full of energies while retaining the warmth but very clear and transparent. I love how deep, powerful the sub-bass goes and still detailed/controlled without being muddy, the separations of different plays are well presented, and the power applied onto each beats on different instruments are very well presented. Then there is X-Bass function, which don't really noticeably bring out "Bass" as I would think, it actually turned the mid-bass to be warmer and with deeper sub-bass. Bass is very enjoyable and addictive on this device with big body and defined dept whether you turn on X-bass or not because it doesn't really bring the kind of EQ like noticeable bass bump, but more like a different kind of sound signature bass. Keep it off for tighter and more controlled bass, or on for a tad warmer and deeper bass. I observed much deeper bass and slams on SA5000 VS TH900. It probably scales with the headphones and the headphones sound signature itself as well. The best thing about the bass here is the Percussion of the play, whether it is projected further away or closer to me, I always feel that Slam and Bang in full body (always full of energies and impactful).

Mid: Mid is warmth, with excellent separations, every details are well presented even some nuances details are playing out very good. Vocal is forward and clean with the transparency and smoothness. Mid spectrum is full of energy that one would expect coming from a powerful amp of 4000mw as advertised + some more, and not only that the variations of the micro details energies are very well perceived, and that means beautiful strings play, brass, and wind instruments. I would say Mid spectrum is one of this IDSD forte, it is just so good, sweet, fluid, warmth+smooth, linear, detailed and full of energies. Oh, and that electric guitar crazy plays, it is always full of energies. Excellent variations of micro energies, and kind of following it give me the total satisfactions, the feeling of hearing the guitarists right in front of my eyes, if I focused on to it, and never miss any micro-details.

Trebles: very detailed, warmth but detailed, splashy but soft, and well extended but Super smooth and thick, also a bit darker but energetic. It helps to observe detailed play without introducing fatigue. There is this beautiful blend of upper mid and lower trebles spectrum for a very detailed fidelity and sparkles without the harshness and hot coming trebles. It is so well received that the extensions of vocal tone is more "air like" rather than harsh "S,X,Z". I rarely enjoy Rock and Metal, but I tried it here "the veer Union-Decade", and it was awesome. I never liked Rock and Metal much because the music domain too much into upper mid and high spectrums, if not done right it could easily be lacking the bass thumb, energized and detailed trebles but harsh and hot trebles which had always makes these genres less enjoyable for me. However as stated here, I love this trebles and the sound overall from Micro IDSD




Conclusions: I have yet to hear a better (bass quality and musicality with the warmth+detail+transparency sound like this especially mid spectrum, vocal and wide soundstage) from a single ended sonically performance like this Micro IDSD. For the moment, I couldn't help but wondered "what if" there was balanced connection due to Dual DAC in this unit ? My experiences with Balanced vs SE had always been very favorable toward a good Balanced design. Even though my Demo unit had some flaws here and there, whether defective or bugs, it is still a too good with price to performance ratio. I enjoy it a lot due to the warmth tonal body, big and powerful bass but too well controlled, the transparency mid, the clear vocal, and the smooth transitional between upper mid and lower spectrums and then the airy trebles with flying details but still relax and musical. It makes me recall the 80ish hi-fi systems with tube and such, and back then I was only a kid....so....memory won't be that good for sound quality biggrin.gif




The love-hate Story:

Ok, I give up. How come it sounds so good with SE connection ? The tonal balances, details, and musicality is even better than Zx2. For my personal taste and preferences, I love instrumentals, pop, EDM, ballads, therefore I love what I am hearing here, full of energy, dynamic, beautiful strings plays. One could even call this being a bit colored like i mentioned above, more toward the warmth and tonal body thickness, so it is all about musicality, enjoyment and not for picking your music a part in the while of not missing any beats and micro details. Also don't forget that vocal, very addictive. If I thought Zx2 had that unique tonal body and musicality, this IDSD micro brings it to another level, an improvement, at a cheaper price, and single ended connection! I can totally justify buying it for my Zx2. By this, I can enjoy Zx2 alone, or pair it up to IDSD micro for enjoyment, and I can even use it to iPad, laptop, iPhones, a function that Zx2 lack.

I had never been aware of IFI and it products line up, until I got offered a chance for this demo unit for audition and return. I was a bit skeptical because I am slowly losing faith of "affordable and quality" audio to be in any new products anymore. Then I wasn't even excited about the unit when it arrived. I even had a hard time with it on the first day. The confusion of smart charge port and digital and charging ports, the pairing with Zx2. But then, after everything was figured out and listened to it. I changed my mind, and I just want to buy it. Therefore, I went digging into it real hardware components and it explained everything: high quality components, and Femto clock, dual DAC, Quality Capacitors. It is so lovely, beside the unique sonical quality, I think it build is unique for this price range as well. I am glad to have the chance to audition this unit. The design within the device is all dual like (Dual DAC, Dual Mono Pre-amplification).....and the end output is only Single ended....god...so frustrated regardless of IFI explanations, I still think there will be a huge market for this type of Warmer, darker, more musical sound signature and balanced connection for an even better quality.



Comparison VS Mojo: form and build factors, Mojo win straight out. Sound performances ? I prefer IDSD micro with it beautiful warmth tonal body and transient micro energies, and I also prefer the more spherical soundstage. But keep in mind, Mojo can totally be Portable, with better clarity and transparency, more neutral, but only a little less spherical in soundstage, where as IDSD Micro is only Transportable....as in do not put in the pocket moving and jamming. All of these buttons will get messy and blow out your ears drums.



The potential of RCA pre-amplifier output. It is actually more powerful than I imagined. I tried on to connect o my large stereo system, and it actually is pumping pretty good impact, dynamic, and the soundstage is very very good for a device of it size. It carries on with the above sound signature from headphones, but most noticeable will the bass, depth, impact, and the soundstage. Me and my wife are both surprised by it. Therefore, I have nothing to say beside the good thing for this micro IDSD being a quality pre-amplifier.

Posted

Pros: Clear, detailed, full, and engaging sound. Huge battery and smartphone support. IEM sensitivity matching, bass and 3D boosters, various audio formats

Cons: It's large for a portable DAC. Smartphone cable is not included.

iFi Audio comes from the Abbingdon Music Research (AMR) family of HiFi gear (that can run upwards of $10K). The iFi team has taken that AMR expertise and trickled it down to more affordable devices. Seems that was a good move, because its flagship mobile DAC, the Micro iDSD, has hit the audiophile scene pretty hard and won the hearts of many.

I wanted to see what all the hubbub was about and iFi Audio was kind enough to send me a review unit. It’s not the most compact device, but I’m recommending it for audio lovers nonetheless. Let’s go over why that is.

 

Design

The Micro iDSD is a big slab metal. Other than the smooth, anodized finish, the design from every angle is industrial and raw. And that’s perfectly fine. Metal is premium and robust all on its own. There’s machined edges and lines all over, so its definitely not boring either.

As I mentioned earlier, the Micro iDSD is on the large-side for a portable DAC, but iFi did in fact make a portable unit here. It has its own battery and can interface with an Android device (via OTG) for the music source. I think the reason for its girth is because iFi puts audio quality and features above all else. We’ll get to the sound impressions later, but as a hint, I’m convinced that the size is worth it.

 

Let’s continue with the tour. There are I/O on both ends and switches for unique features all around the device (which I’ll get to in the next section). While the Micro iDSD is a mobile unit, iFi built it with flexibility. That’s why on the left end you’ll see A/V ports for SPDIF In/Out and coaxial Left/Right channel outputs for an entertainment system.

Here is also where the audio source goes in. Strangely, this Digital Input port is a full-sized male USB connector. That means to hook up your source, you’ll be using a cable with a female USB connector on one end and the respective male port on the other (USB, micro-USB, Lightning).

 

In the packaging, there’s a female USB to male USB cable included (for connecting to a computer), but unfortunately no cable for any mobile devices. So you’ll have to hit up Amazon or something for a micro-USB compatible cable.

My third-party female USB to micro-USB OTG cable

 

The other end of the unit is where you plug in your headphones and control the volume. The headphone jack is full-size (6.3mm), but thankfully iFi included a 3.5mm adapter in the box. If you prefer to send analog audio into the DAC (rather than digital), there’s also a 3.5mm input here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The volume knob is rather large, but I appreciate that it allows you to finely tune the attenuation. It firmly and smoothly rolls to suit your sensitivity. It’s also serves as the power switch. Rotate the knob clockwise from the starting position and you’ll hear a click that turns the DAC on.

You’ll spot a USB opening on one of the sides. This allows you to draw power from the Micro iDSD’s hefty battery (4,800mAh) to charge your mobile device. That’s one benefit about the bulk, it can also be a power bank.

Lastly, there’s a tiny multi-color LED light on the top of the unit. It does typical indication, like a Blue light for charging or Red for low battery. But iFi goes a step further and uses its other colors to indicate the format of the audio signal. The Micro iDSD supports three different encoding technologies – PCMDXD, and DSD.

 

Features

 

Another benefit of the Micro iDSD’s beefy size is that it can pack a lot of features. Some of these are features you won’t find in another DAC. On the end with the headphone jack and volume knob, there are two switches for audio enhancement – XBass and 3D Holographic. What they do is self-explanatory (XBass extends the bass response and 3D recreates a holographic sound field), but an important thing to know is that they add to the analog signal (after it’s converted from digital). iFi doesn’t want to mess with the true, original signal or risk negatively impacting other sounds.

On the underside, there’s generous feature called IEMatch. It’s pretty common these days that earphones (aka In-Ear Monitors or IEMs) are sensitive, meaning that it doesn’t take much volume before they get too loud. That can be annoying depending on the volume control of the source. Therefore, iFi threw in two different levels to help tame the volume – High Sensitivity and Ultra Sensitivity.

Behind the scenes, these are probably two degrees of attenuators (or can be thought of as gain reducers). The important thing is that they keep the sound true (something that resistors typically struggle with; so iFi probably had to work some magic there). I have super sensitive IEMs, the Shure SE846, and on the Ultra Sensitive setting there is zero noise (hissing) and I for the first time have adequate control over the volume level.

 

The other features are a bit more technical, but I’ll briefly run through them:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Power Mode: Three different power settings (Eco, Normal, Turbo), to accommodate differing types of headphones, from sensitive (Eco) to more demanding (Turbo) hardware.
  • Filter: Three digital/analog filters for different audio use cases (Bit-Perfect, Minimum Phase, Standard).
  • Output: The Micro iDSD can pre-amplify the signal before sending it out of the RCA output (up to a gain of 9dB).

Sound

When I look at the size of the Micro iDSD, I’m like, “This thing better bring it!” Personally, I’ve only used the more typically-sized portable DACs, which are roughly the size of playing cards. They already sounded great to me, so I was suspicious over iFi’s beefy strategy. But boy did I get a reality check with this one.

 

There are two things that hit you straight away on the first listen – Clarity and Fullness. By clarity, I’m talking crisp, crystal clearness in details you may not have even noticed before. I also mean it in terms of separation. Even when there’s a lot going on, the enunciation of the instruments, vocals, etc. just come through beautifully. And when the music calms and you hear only one or two elements, this allows your brain to focus and adore the minute nuances. You can hear whispering from voices or damping of instrument vibrations. It’s also an eye-opener when you realize what your headphones can really do.

I notice the entire spectrum being more impactful and richer than with other DACs I’ve used. The overall sound is more encompassing (like from a sound system), which of course makes the experience more engaging and fun. The sounds are balanced, and elements only hit hard when the recording asks for it. I can tell that iFi does its best to honor the recording and artist’s intent.

The whole presentation is so tight and controlled. I get the sense that iFi knows what it’s doing, in terms of precision and equal amount of enjoyment. I usually find something that I don’t like about a reproduction, but the Micro iDSD really makes it difficult to not call it perfect. I could say that sometimes I wish the low-end hit harder, but then there’s the XBass setting (which adds on the extra oomph).

Final Thoughts

So there you have it. The superb sound reproduction of the Micro iDSD just left me awe struck. So much that so that I stopped caring about the size – I need this thing in my life.

 

The Micro iDSD won’t be for everyone. It really depends on your headphones and your budget (it’s not cheap, at $499). But if you’re at that point and looking for the best of the best, you cannot gloss over this DAC. The Micro iDSD is seriously going to be hard to top, and now I’ll think twice before I consider a small DAC.

I must mention that iFi does have a more compact solution – the Nano iDSD. It obviously doesn’t pack as many features as the Micro, but it makes iFi’s expertise more reachable with a price of $199.

As originally seen on AndroidGuys.com

Posted

Pros: State-of-the art design, a touch of Burr-Brown warmth, rich feature set

Cons: Not really portable, LED status light isn't in the best spot.

My iFi micro iDSD review was originally posted on Metal-Fi but I am cross posting on Head-Fi at iFi's behest.

Introduction


Does anyone remember what portable, audiophile-grade playback used to look like? I certainly do. I remember going to Head-Fi meets and being in just awe of all the insane amount of paraphernalia attendees would carry around just to play their favorite set of digital bits. Take for instance the Headroom Micro line. Consisting of both a standalone DAC and headphone amp, the Micro line was originally conceived to conquer the low to mid-tier desktop market. But because it packed a lot of performance per square inch, many audiophiles opted to go with it instead of Headroom’s own dedicated portable line, the Airhead, as their go to portable stack. That's why Headroom at the time even offered you a Micro sized fanny pack to help you transport your iPod's BFFs everywhere you went.

Looking back though, it seems outlandish to me that any sane audiophile would even consider lugging around an entire Micro line just to achieve a modicum of fidelity through their favorite digital source. But the fact is both the Micro headphone amp and DAC were considered state-of-the-art back in the day, and offered many bleeding edge features that we all now take for granted, including an asynchronous hardware reclocker with noise shaping and even crossfeed.

But technology improves at an extremely rapid pace, and what was state-of-the-art back then is now today's garage sale bait. Yet if the Micro line was indeed the standard in which all portable stacks were judged back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth (circa 2005), then today's equivalent would have to go to iFi Audio's micro iDSD, which is nothing short of a technological marvel. Read on to find out why this $499 (street) little beasty is nothing short of spectacular.

iWho?


iFi Audio is a division of Abbingdon Music Research (AMR), a fairly well known and well respected high-end audiophile shop based in the UK. Their reference level CD player, the CDP-77 ($8,500), has been hailed by many as a real giant killer, conquering Redbook induced digititus for half the cost of some of its better known competitors. More recently however, AMR has been getting a lot of press for their single-ended triode amplifer, the AM-77 ($8,500), which brings valve-like sensibilities to your favorite reference chain of choice through the use of their proprietary OptiGain circuit.

Obviously given the price tag of your standard issue AMR component, the market for these devices is somewhat limited (though frankly $8,500 isn't that outlandish in the high-end audiophile world believe it or not). So in order to expand their product line and appeal to a wider audience (read: younger), AMR spun off iFi Audio in 2012 as a separate business unit to develop audiophile grade products at a more affordable price.

iFi Audio came running out the gate releasing a number of products that spanned all four corners of the digital and analog world, ranging from the iPhono (with no less than six different EQ curves to choose from) to the iUSB (the Arm & Hammer of USB power). In fact, very recently they just updated their well respected iDAC, which as many of its owners will attest to, laughs in the face of other DACs (portable or otherwise) that claim "high-res" support. But out of all the micro products they offer, I feel the micro iDSD, a combination DAC/headphone amp, is by far the most representative of AMR's trickle down economics approach.

Crowdsourced Design


After iFi reached critical mass with its 2012 introductory product line, the folks over there did something very smart: They sought direct community feedback during the design phase of their next iFi product. The net result of this social experiment can be found in the massive micro iDSD thread over on Head-Fi, where iFi not only collected feedback from the entire audiophile community at large but used this forum space to document the overall design process as well. If you have some free time to spare, I highly recommend you read all of the cherry picked posts referenced in the first post's table of contents section. iFi literally walked you through almost every major design decision they made, ranging from how they wrote some custom scheduling code to load-balance the numerous XMOS cores to how they implemented a reference level clock inspired by a missile guidance system. Trust me when I say that this thread is not only extremely informative, but very well written and at a level that even a non-technical audiophile will find fascinating to comb over.

Digital Done Right


The iDSD has been one of the most difficult pieces of gear I've ever had to review simply for the fact that it is so feature rich. I could probably spend an article or two just talking about its DAC - seriously. In any event, in an effort to keep things organized let's dive into its digital side and then slowly make our way to its analog half.

As you can see above, at the heart of the iDSD is a pair of Burr-Brown Multibit DACs that offer true native DSD and PCM support, the exact same chipset found in the nano version of the iDSD. But by adding a second double B, iFi was able to lower the noise floor by 3 dB as well as improve channel separation to boot! But like the nano version, the micro's firmware employs the same novel approach to PCM conversion as well.

Unlike most delta-sigma architectures that convert everything to a 1-bit stream first before filtering, the iDSD preserves the high order 6-bits of a PCM data stream and only converts the rest of the low order bits via its internal 256fs (DSD256) modulator. iFi claims that this allows the iDSD to keep some of that Burr-Brown signature warmth while still retaining all the smoothness delta-sigma modulators are so famous for. Obviously for pure DSD input, those Burr-Brown's handle it natively using that same DSD256 modulator to convert to analog. And since iFi used the latest and greatest chipsets, the iDSD is able to handle an insane number of sampling rates, maxing out at Octa-Speed DSD512 and PCM768 (2x DXD)!

Keep in mind that the iDSD is truly native with respect to DSD playback, so all volume control is done in the analog domain in an effort to stay true to the original bitstream. In other words, unlike a lot of DSD capable DACs that transcode to PCM first in order to apply digital volume control, the iDSD always preserves the original signal as is when converting 1's and 0's to electrons.


Feeding these two DACs is an eight-way XMOS U-series based chipset, which is one of the premier USB receiver solutions on the market. Now if you are vaguely familiar with XMOS that's probably because you've heard about it in the context of some ESS SABRE based solution, since the combination of SABRE and XMOS seems to be the defacto reference platform most audiophile products are based on today. I suspect though that iFi choose the XMOS (as opposed to something like a high-end C-Media chipset a la Schiit) not for its industry wide popularity, but mainly because of its high-processing power (MIPS) and ease of development. In fact as I mentioned above, iFi's software team went to town on the XMOS, not settling for the reference implementation provided by the vendor but actually writing their own custom firmware to better utilize all eight cores. Couple that with built-in iPurifier support, the iDSD has one of the most advanced USB solutions on the market today at any price point.

There was also expressed interest by many Head-Fi'ers to have selectable digital filters just like you would find on the Herus+ dongle I reviewed recently. iFi listened and implemented two sets of three selectable filters depending on whether you are playing PCM versus DSD. For PCM based input, you have standard, minimum phase, and bit perfect, while for DSD you have extreme, extended, and standard. Sticking with PCM since that is by far most of what your brutal bits are encoded in, the standard filter offers the most accurate digital filtering at the cost of some added ringing. While the minimum phase and bit-perfect filters seem to be the most popular for actual listening among audiophiles, exhibiting the least amount of pre and post-ringing with respect to transients. DXD sampling rates have no filtering applied whatsoever and are converted to analog as is (as they should be).

With Great Power Comes Greater Responsibility


As for amperage, the iDSD puts out an astounding amount of power with enough lightening to sizzle most full sized headphones. The key to taming this beast is through the Power and IEMatch mode switches located on the side and its underbelly respectively. The Power mode switch is by far the most important setting on the iDSD and the one you have to get right or you can blow up your favorite pair of transducers easily. It can be broken down into the following modes: Eco (500 mW at 8 ohms), Normal (1900 mW at 16 ohms), and Turbo (4000 mW at 16 ohms). Trust me when I say that the overwhelming majority of you will be headbanging in Eco mode. However, if you have some really hard to drive headphones (think HE-6) you can use the Normal and Turbo modes as appropriate (yes, Turbo mode will drive the AKG K-1000 handily).

After the Power mode switch is finalized, then comes the IEMatch mode switch. Again, for full sized cans you are probably going to leave this switch in the off button for the life of the unit. But if you do plan to use really any kind of IEM (especially CIEMs) then the two other modes, High Sensitivity and Ultra High Sensitivity, are your friends. In order to figure out which setting will work best for your particular headphone, iFi offers the following chart:


Common sense applies, so using Ultra High Sensitivity in Turbo mode is for those looking to earn a Darwin Award. For the rest of us however, iFi recommends that in general you want to be able to listen to your favorite pair of headphones at normal volume levels at the 3 o'clock position of the volume knob. That's the sweet spot, so start in Eco/Off mode and then gradually increase the Power and/or IEMatch buttons as needed. Trust me, it's not hard.

Speaking of power, the iDSD allows you to work directly off of its internal 4800 mAH battery or USB via its SmartPower circuitry. The order of when you connect the iDSD via USB and turn the unit on is very important: Turn on the unit before connecting it via USB tells the firmware to operate on battery power exclusively. Conversely if you connect the unit via USB first and then turn the unit on, the iDSD will operate off of USB power instead. For iPhone and Android potential customers, iFi recommends that you use battery power mode since you may experience some device errors otherwise. Caveat emptor. And yes, the unit will charge while playing music too. In fact, the iDSD can even charge your favorite smart device up to two times while in use! In case you're wondering how do you tell when you are running out of juice, there is an LED status light on top of the unit that based on its color will tell you all sorts of useful information. Again, with great power comes greater responsibility. Use it wisely.

Odds & Ends


In terms of inputs outside of USB, the iDAC accepts optical and coaxial SPDIF via one port in the back and another 3.5 mm one in the front. The SPDIF input on the back also serves as output if you don't have any headphone connected. For outputs, you have your standard red and whites on the back (RCA) and the single 1/4" headphone jack in the front. And yes, the iDSD can essentially mimic a DAC/preamplifier via those RCA outputs by switching it out of Direct mode into Preamplifier mode by toggling a switch toward the rear of the unit.

The volume knob controls a specially designed potentiometer (POT) made specifically for the iDSD, and apparently gives you slightly better control (<2 dB tracking error) than your standard issue ALPS. The two other switches next to it are the XBass and 3D Holographic Sound switches. When XBass is turned on it gives you a nice noticeable bass boost. The 3D Holographic Sound is iFi's cross feed circuit, which you may or may not dig. Disclaimer: I'm not a big fan of crossfeed in general.

There is also a polarity inversion switch which for some of you out there on strong meds might find useful. I've never experienced any particular need to invert the polarity of the output so I'm highly confident that 99.9% of you aren't going to use it either.


Finally, in case you haven't noticed from the pic above, the iDSD comes with a myriad array of adapters, and even includes a high quality USB 3.0 cable to boot. Once you open that box, you're set. For life. Seriously.

Setup


As usual. my primary source was my trusty late-2011 Macbook Pro running OSX Yosemite 10.10.4 and Audirvana 2.2. For full sized cans I switched back and forth between my Audeze LCD-3 (non-fazor) and HiFiMan HE-1000, both powered by Eco mode with IEMatch off. That allowed me to listen to both headphones at normal volume levels around the 3 o'clock position. Check. I also tried my JHA Roxanne CIEM in Eco mode with Ultra High Sensitivity turned on which also worked like a champ - zero hiss, total black background. In addition to USB, I decided to plug in my Audiophilleo AP1 with PurePower USB to SPDIF converter to give that a go as well. Everything worked as expected but surprisingly I felt the USB input sounded better overall and as a result, became the primary way I escorted bits off of my MBP for this review.

I also played a lot with the digital filter switch too, ultimately settling on the BitPerfect setting. Again, your mileage may vary, but I would start with BitPerfect, or maybe even Minimum Phase first, before randomly moving that switch around during playback.

One final setup note: I had one technical problem I was not able to overcome switching back and forth between DSD and PCM with Audirvana. If I play DSD and then switch to PCM (no matter the resolution), I get a lot of noise and distortion as if the unit and/or my headphones are completely toast. I had to manually reset the unit by disconnecting it from the USB port and then plugging it back in again to reach a steady-state. This issue seems to be relegated to Audirvana only though, since I tried foobar2k under Win 7/VMware Fusion without any problem. Interestingly enough, Audirvana auto-recognizes that the iMicro supports up to DSD256 even though it really supports up to DSD512. This is due to the fact that the DoP spec (DSD over PCM) only supports up to DSD256 currently on OSX (I believe on Linux you can tweak the kernel to get DSD512 to go, but obviously I have no such luxury on my Mac).

Sound


You made it!

Alright, despite the fact that the iDSD supports a plethora of sampling rates and formats, I'm quite aware 99% of your time will be spent with 16-bit/44.1kHz PCM source material. With that said, just the ability to play these insane-rate files seemed like a lot of fun. So what I did was go to Native DSD's website and download a few free samples of various high-res formats, including DXD (32-bit/384kHz) and DSD128/256. I then plugged in my HE-1000 and off I went. Suffice it to say everything just worked! Was I amazed by the sound though? Not really, but frankly I didn't spend a lot of time critically listening to each download sample nor did I have any equivalent source material in standard definition format to really compare it to. Couple all that with the technical glitches of switching back and forth between DSD and PCM, I decided to move on.


As a first test, I wanted to listen to some high-quality reference material to see what this puppy can really do. That means high dynamic, well mastered source material a la Horrendous' Ecdysis. This record is one of the best death metal albums to come out in a long time and Horrendous guitarist/engineer Damian Herring did a bang up job producing it, clocking in at DR10. And after blasting tracks "Weeping Relic" and "Monarch" I quickly realized just how good the iDSD is given its price tag. First off, detail retrieval is outstanding, with every track on this record just beaming with life. Transients are of particular note, having a very fast attack and then natural sounding decay as the dual Burr Brown's have no problem keeping up with band's various tempo changes. Bass is absolutely ear boggling too, with or without the XBass switch on. But what I found most gratifying is that unlike a lot of its competitors, the iDSD's overall presentation is open and wide. Any compressed sense of soundstage I was hearing was more an artifact of the headphone I was using than it was from the iDSD itself. Put simply, the iDSD has a way of politely removing itself from the playback chain, letting the music just speak for itself. A hallmark of every great piece of audiophile gear.


Unfortunately, given how revealing the iDSD can be, I was immediately worried that Loudness War governed music would not fair as well, and to some extent I was right. As soon as I threw heavily compressed records like Strapping Young Lad's 1997 classic, City, or the recently released Trials record, This Ruined World, the iDSD's wonderful sense of airyness vanished due to both record's heavily reliance on dynamic range compression. Obviously, this isn't the fault of the iDSD per se, but just be aware that this unit is quite resolving for better or worse. The good news is that the added warmth of the Burr Browns does actually help alleviate ear fatigue over long listening sessions. However, I would absolutely avoid even looking at the 3D Holo switch, since iFi's crossfeed implementation pushes the midrange to the fore which for most highly compressed material utterly destroys the music (imagine the Grado house sound on steroids). Use of the XBass switch is certainly encouraged, especially if you have a can that is known to be somewhat anemic down low or you just want to have a little fun.


Finally, a Metal-Fi review would not be a Metal-Fi review without some kind of needle drop. So I dusted off Nokturnal Mortum's Voice of Steel from my collection and just sat back and listened. Bass control again is just phenomenal, and that rang true no matter what headphone or IEM I used. I also felt that the midrange was exactly where it needed to be - prominent, but not to in your face, and having just enough analog warmth to help round out some of that digital edge we've all come so accustomed to. Some of you may find that unacceptable if strict transparency is what you seek, but for the rest of us who are out to simply enjoy the music the iDSD hits the nail right on the head. And while the treble doesn't shimmer like I've heard on systems many times its price, the iDSD's command of the upper frequency range is quite respectable. Not once did I feel somewhat grossed out by the crash of a cymbal or tap of a hi-hat. Something I can't say the same for a lot of SABRE based products I've listened to.

Conclusion


The iFi micro iDSD is a phenomenal piece of gear, incorporating state-of-the-art digital design in an extremely well thought out package. In fact, my single biggest complaint is that it isn't really portable, but rather transportable. I mean of course you can lug it around if you really had to, but it doesn't make a whole lot of sense these days given the rise of the dongle form factor. But portability issues aside, when it comes to both fidelity and feature set the iDSD is clearly the current standard in which all other devices in this segment should be judged. No question. My guess is you would have to spend at least four times the price to best this little box, and even then I suspect the differences will be paper thin. If you are looking for a multi-faceted desktop solution at a very reasonable price point, then your quest is over. Highly recommended.
iFi Audio micro iDSD
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There is nothing like the micro iDSD. It is literally, out of this world. It is the only DAC in the world (at any price) to play True Native Octa-DSD512/PCM768/Double DXD. Its Perfect-Match means it can be fine-tuned to any headgear from IEMs all the way through to large headphones. Its 8v/4000mW output makes it one of the most powerful headamps to drive even the most hungry of headphones with ease.

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