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iFi Audio micro iDSD

100% Positive Reviews
Rated #1 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.

 

iM-02.jpg

 

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

 

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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: power to drive an HE-6 with finesse to feed a Kaiser 10 Encore, plays everything natively, extraordinarily flexible sonically and practically

Cons: 3D can sound artificial on some tracks, black on black fonts on bottom, difficult to see volume knob level

 

Acknowledgment   

It’s always a privilege to check out new gear in exchange for your honest opinion. Thanks, iFi, for letting me in on this particular party. I’ve been borrowing this unit as part of the worldwide iFi tour.

 

Introduction

This is my fifth review of a piece of iFi gear. I’ve previously reviewed the Micro iUSB3.0 (own it), the Micro iDAC2, and the iPurifier2 (extreme value for money and good performance)(links are to the reviews), and have a pending review of the Micro iCAN SE (link to the iCAN SE thread). I’ve also had brief listens to the Micro iDSD and the Micro iCAN, so I feel like I’ve got a good idea of what iFi has to offer now, and it’s generally good, though few products have reached anywhere near the wow factor of the first product I reviewed, the Micro iUSB3.0. The iDSD BL just may reach for that summit.

 

I’ve experienced a good working relationship with iFi and every item I’ve reviewed for them has been worth at least four stars. They make excellent products with extreme capabilities, and the newly upgraded and optimized version of the the Micro iDSD is no different. It packs a lot of power in a portable package, has a big battery, was developed with the community, and has an extremely capable DAC that plays every format worth delving into and some that are probably just wastes of space—I can’t tell the difference between DSD128 and DSD256 and PCM352, I’m pretty sure that I won’t hear anything different with DSD512—but good on iFi for being ironclad ‘buzzword’ proof. It’s a philosophy that I think Jason Stoddard of Schiit would probably smirk a little at. I won’t smirk. I actually do have a lot of respect for letting people play whatever music they want and doing your best to make it sound as good as you can even if you know that they are fools hearing placebo effects or just anything they think they want to hear. I think iFi’s dedication to serving their customers desires, within reason, is very enviable. I appreciate the amazing Schiit—the Yggdrasil is still one of my favourite DACs and I am eager to hear the Jotunheim—being turned out by that California powerhouse of affordable audio, but I’d really like to be able to play my DSD without using the sub-optimal Loki. A DAC named after the trickster god shouldn’t do one trick and only in limited fashion—it didn’t even play DSD128.

 

The iFi Micro iDSD Black Label isn’t trying to do one thing and do it well. It is trying to be a veritable Swiss army knife of audio goodness that is small enough to carry in similar fashion to perhaps the world’s most famous multi-tool—I got my whittling badge in Cub Scouts with a Victorinox knife. I doubt the iDSD BE will ever reach that level of fame, but I imagine I’ll have a lot more uses for it now that I’m not living in the deep woodlands of Alaska and not earning any further whittling honoraria.

 

Let’s see what this baby has going for us. But first, here is a mea culpa and description of my predilections. It takes a confident person, or maybe a fool—I resemble both—to buy shoes from a brand that they’ve never tried on. Reading a review without knowing anything about the reviewer is a similar thing, so there’s some pertinent information about me below the fold.

 

 

You know what P.T. Barnum said? It's kind of like what Mr. T said-ish, I'll paraphrase: don't be a sucka, fool; I pity the fool who don't know anything about their reviewer or grammar (Click to show)

Like most sensible people I started falling in love with music as a child. My first portable audio device was a Sony Walkman (the cassette kind) that I got when I was 10 years old (24 years ago).  I listened with the cheap Sony on ears that came with the Walkman until I bought a Koss CD boombox and started listening to UAF College Radio and 103.9 (alternative rock at the time) in Fairbanks, Alaska. I once listened to Louie, Louie for 3 days straight, and I’m not insane—did you know there is a Spanish gospel version of Louie, Louie?

 

Like political tastes and tastes in friends, my musical tastes evolved through association and then rebellion and experimentation. From the songs of my father (The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, ZZ Top), to the songs of my peers (Dr. Dre, Green Day, Nirvana, Weezer), my tastes evolved, expanded and exploded into the polyglot love that is my current musical tapestry. Like a Hieronymous Bosch mural, my tastes can be weird and wonderful: dreamy Japanese garble pop, 8 bit chiptune landscapes percolated with meows, queer punk, Scandinavian black metal; or they can be more main-stream with minglings of Latin guitar, Miles Davis trumpet, and banks of strings and percussion in the Mariinsky Orchestra. Mostly my audio drink of choice is a rich stout pint of heady classic rock and indie/alternative from my musical infancy and identity formation (the 90s). Come as you are, indeed. Beyond the weird, the wonderful, the interesting and accepted, I’m a big fan of intelligent hip-hop artists like Macklemore, Metermaids, Kendrick Lamar, Sage Francis and Aesop Rock. I even dabble in some country from time to time, with First Aid Kit and the man in black making cameos in my canals.

 

My sonic preferences tend towards a balanced or neutral sound, though I’ll admit to liking a little boosted bass or treble from time to time. If I have to choose between warm and bright, I’ll choose bright almost every time. A few screechy high notes are preferable to me than a foggy unfocused bass guitar. As my tastes are eclectic, and a day of listening can involve frequent shifts in my sonic scenery, I don’t generally want headphones that try to paint my horizons in their own hues. I need headphones that get out of the way, or provide benign or beneficial modifications. I desire graceful lifts like an ice-dancing pairs’ carved arc, not heaving lifts like a man mountain deadlift.

 

My last hearing test with an audiologist was a long time ago and under strange circumstances. However, I have heard tones all the way down to 10hz and all the way up to 23Khz using headphones in my collection. Either my headphones tend to have a hole in frequency at 18kHz or my hearing does, because I never seem to hear it. I’m sensitive to peaky treble, and treble fatigue, even when I can’t hear what might be causing it. I do enjoy smooth extended treble. I like deep tight bass and impactful drums, and dislike upper mid-bass emphasis.  I like my vocals crisp, so stay away from Josh Tillman’s voice you nasty upper mid-bass hump.  I like air in the stage, not just cues to distance and height, but the feeling of air moving around and through instruments. Soundstage shouldn’t be just about hearing, I need to feel it. I listen at volume levels that others consider loud (78 to 82 dB), but I just set it to where the dynamics peak. I’m not here to shatter my eardrums. I like them just how they are.

 

I generally don’t believe in using EQ, not even for inexpensive headphones, especially in reviews. I won’t claim that I haven’t done it, but I generally try to avoid it.

 

I believe that burn-in can make a difference, but I also acknowledge that there isn’t any measurement that appears to give conclusive proof that burn-in exists. I trust my ears, fully acknowledging that my brain may fill in expected details, may colour my interpretation, or may be subject to its own settling period with a headphone. In my experience, burn-in effects are not as large as proponents of burn-in tend to advertise. I’ve also noted that using white/pink/brown noise, I almost never observe changes beyond 24 hours of burn in. When people tell you that you shouldn’t listen to your headphones until they have 200 hours on them, I think these people need to be ignored. No matter what, you should be listening to your headphones at different stages, right out of the box and at intervals. How can someone observe a difference without baseline observations and follow up observations to measure change trajectories? If you really want to be serious about controlling for effect, you need volume matching, source matching, and tip/pad matching.

 

I’m a firm believer that cables can make a difference, but I don’t think they always do. When I tried out Toxic Cables line, they were in a bunch of baggies at the Cambridge 2015 HeadFi meet without any labels tell me what I was listening to. The cheapest looking one was the one I liked the best. I was excited that I wouldn’t have to spend much to improve my sound. It turned out that the cheapest looking one was the Silver/Gold top of the line cable. I’ve heard the difference that USB cables can make, from upgrading from the crappy cable that came with my Geek Out 1000 to a Supra USB, and then again when upgrading to the LH Labs Lightspeed 2G with the iUSB3.0. When I picked up a cheap shielded power lead from Mains Cables R Us to replace my standard kettle lead on my integrated amplifier, I heard more crunchy and clearer treble. I switched the leads with my wife blinded and she heard the same difference. I didn’t tell her what I heard and let her describe it herself. But cables don’t always make a difference. When I switched from my standard HD650 cable to a custom balanced cable (Custom Cans UK, very affordable), the sound stayed exactly the same when hooked up via a top tier (custom made by my local wire wizard, out of  silver/gold Neotech wire) 4-pin XLR to 6.3mm converter. Balanced mode made a difference in clarity and blackness of background—this indicates that the amp was the deciding influence, not the cable. Your mileage may vary and you may not hear a difference, but I have.

My brother used to have a Mohawk but not like Mr. T’s awesome Mohican. It was actually a Mo-mullet. It was probably the worst haircut I’ve ever seen. Shaved on the sides, short on top, long in back. Totally unique, in totally the wrong way. My brother the unicorn.

 

 

Vital Statistics (specs from manufacturers and distributors)

Of all the manufacturers I’ve dealt with, and there are a few, iFi is the only one that makes what they are doing sound like witchcraft. Stealth technology, tube state, noise cancelling power USB coax etc… I don’t know how they do it, and don’t pretend to, but my lack of understanding won’t make me turn all Luddite and start bashing gears. I don’t need to understand it to enjoy it.

 

 

 

Here’s the brief version of everything that iFi had to say in the iDSD thread about the newest member of the iFi family:

 

Quote:

In short, iFi Audio Micro iDSD Black Label has:

 

  • re-designed output stabilisation
  • OV2627 op-amps upgraded analogue section
  • Panasonic OSCON capacitors loaded power supply
  • OV2028 op-amps loaded DAC power supply
  • DAC voltage decoupling based on audio-grade ECPU film capacitors
  • GMT® Femto precision clock system power supply upgraded

 

In short, iFi Audio Micro iDSD Black Label is:

 

  • a tweaked to the roof original Micro iDSD
  • a satin black version (with silk orange writings) of original Micro iDSD
  • sonically much better version of original Micro iDSD
  • loaded with latest 3D+® and XBass+® tech, superior over ones in original Micro iDSD
  • 10% higher price of $549 (ex-tax) / Euro599 (incl VAT)
  • superior to original Micro iDSD

 

 

It also has special Operationsverstärker, which is Operational Amplifier auf Deutsch. They use the cool copper-lead frames pictured below.

 

 

 

It is also worth noting some of the features passed on through its iDSD lineage:

  • Dual Burr-Brown DAC chips developed by Burr-Brown Japan before the TI acquisition, custom tweaked to play all the way up to unicorn formats: OctaDSD (512DSD—there aren’t even any recordings that I know of) to PCM768 (I don’t know if recordings exist for this standard)
  • 3 output modes: eco, normal and turbo and the iEMatch feature allowing headphones from ultra-sensitive custom in-ear flagships to insensitive masses of metallic HiFiMan HE-6 glory
  • Intelligent In/Out SPDIF Digital Optical/coax allows using the iDSD BL to feed your Sonos, or plugging in your DAP when you feel the need to make up for it’s inadequacies
  • Battery power for loads of time, with smart charging for your devices when you aren’t blasting your aural cavities with wonders, delights, and delectable morsels of audio fayre (iFi advertise 6-12 hours battery playback, depending on how hungry your headphones are)

 

If you want more text about this new-fangled contraption, check out the iFi website.

 

Specifications

 

Formats supported

DSD512/256/128/64, Octa/Quad/Double/Single-Speed DSD

DXD(768/705.6/384/352.8kHz), Double/Single-Speed DXD

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

Filters

PCM – Bit-Perfect Processing/Minimum Phase/Standard

DSD – Extreme/Extended/Standard Bandwidth

DXD – Bit-Perfect Processing

Digital Inputs

High-Speed Asynchronous USB 2.0 (32bit/768kHz)

SPDIF Coaxial/Optical

Digital Outputs

SPDIF Coaxial

Audio Input

3.5mm

Audio Output

6.3mm (2V-5V variable), RCA Line out (2V fixed)

Power Output

Turbo (8.0V max/4,000 mW @ 16 Ohm)

Normal (4.0V/1,000 mW @ 16 Ohm)

Eco (2.0V/250mW@16 Ohm)

Battery

Lithium-polymer 4800mAh

Power System

USB BCP V1.2 compliant up to 1500mA charging current

Power (max)

<2W idle, 4W max

Dimensions

177(l) x 67(w) x 28(h) mm

Weight

310g (0.68 lbs)

Manual

Available online here

Drivers/Firmware

Here ya go

 

Form & Function

 

Those who’ve seen any iFi gear from the Nano or Micro series will know that they all come in the same size box. Whilst this is true, the iFi iDSD BL comes with more in its box than any of the other’s I’ve opened. Here are the full contents:

  • Micro iDSD BL
  • 1 metre USB 3.0A female to USB3.0A male cable
  • USB 2.0A female to USB 2.0B female cable (for using whatever USB cable you like without straining the USB jack)
  • USB 2.0A female to USB 2.0B female short adaptor (for using whatever USB cable you like)
  • iFi’s standard purple RCA cables
  • Heavy duty rubber bands for stacking your source on top of the iDSD BL
  • 6.3mm to 3.5mm convertor
  • Short 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable
  • Mini Toslink to Toslink adaptor
  • 4 iFi branded silicone feet (that’s a step up from my Micro iUSB3.0)
  • A silicone sheet—is this for putting under or on top? I couldn’t tell, but it should provide some cushion
  • A velvet bag for transport

 

That’s a lot of stuff in the box. Strangely, they didn’t include a standard USB OTG cable. That seemed really strange to me. For a device that is going to be used with a lot of people’s cell phones, that should be included. We get two USB2.0A female to USB2.0B female adapters.

 

absolutely bass

head round bashing

up down vertical

crack guitar--sparkle

 

Those who like Ace will understand. Must not sleep, must tell others. Those poor lines above are mine, not Aesop Rock, so direct your hate mail at me for the bad attempt at rap. Ace rocks the lyrics better below.

 

 

I can also confirm that if you are going to connect your phone in this way as your primary way of using your Micro iDSD Black Label, you’ll want to flash the Limoncello 5.2B firmware. Twenty minutes hooked up to the iDSD BL took my Samsung Galaxy Note 2 from 100% to 81% battery.

 

The Micro iDSD Black Label speaks.

 

The Micro iDSD BL has the same form factor as the whole micro series, but has traded out the straight aluminum (aluminium for some folks) sheath for a stark matte black scabbard with orange accent lettering. I was a bit worried that the orange lettering would look garish and never allow me to escape the conquest of Jack-o-lantern images in my head. Luckily for me, and all those thinking of buying this little beast, the orange is very well executed and the black looks amazing. It looks like I’ve got a miniature panther sitting atop my other audio gear, but there are no eyes to see on this in the dark, nothing to let you know that your ears aren’t about to be bombarded with bliss. It’s a stealthy joy cannon.

 

The switches are well labelled, as is the headphone jack, 3.5mm input, and all inputs and outputs, but lordy the volume knob could use an orange dot to know not to blast my ears too badly. This thing can throw out a lot of wattage, so a little warning would be good. As is, there is just a barely visible black line to let you know what volume you are at. The line is cut into the knob, so you can feel the volume before you hear it at least.

 

Similarly, if you want to read anything on the bottom of the iDSD BL, good luck with that. The writing is dark grey on a black background. Not the most clear choice of text. The good news is once you know what you are doing, and through using the user manual, the text on the bottom is made irrelevant.

There are lots of features on the iDSD BL. I’ll take these features one by one.

 

  • Power mode: the iDSD BL, like it’s predecessor has three power modes, it’s like gain but each step doubles the wattage to the headphones. Turbo delivers 4W, while normal delivers 1w, and Eco delivers 250mW into 16 Ohms. My personal preferences with the HD600 were was normal at about 2 o’clock. With the Noble Kaiser 10 Encore (K10E), I liked Eco mode at about noon. I liked the Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered (UERR) best in Normal with volume at about 11 o’clock.
  • iEMatch: the Noble K10E is pretty sensitive and has pretty much never needed much of anything to drive it on anything that I’ve drove it out of, but it didn’t need iEMatch. I don’t have any more sensitive IEMs on hand. One advantage of IEM match with the Noble K10E was more sensitive volume control. When I turned to high sensitivity my volume adjustment became finer. I tried the UERR in High Sensitivity, but had to put the power level into Turbo, which comes with some noise floor consequences, so negates some of the benefit. I preferred the UERR with iEMatch Off and power set to Normal. With the Noble K10E, I tried Eco and High Sensitivity, but found that I preferred Eco with Normal, as I perceived a slightly larger soundstage.
  • XBass: gives a small dB boost to lower frequencies without touching the mids. It’s a really nicely executed effect that worked well with the HD600 and the UERR (especially with the UERR).
  • 3D: I was previously a fan of this on the iCAN SE, but the iCAN SE amp was not as good sounding as the iDSD BL, from memory, and I find the change on this iDSD BL is not as subtle as the XBass effect. It does give a bit more air, but it also pushes some instruments forward (cymbals particularly), which will be pleasing to some but sounded a bit unnatural to me. I like an organic neutral signature most of the time, without any particular sections of the frequency range sounding too far forward. The 3D switch goes a little too forward and v-shaped for my tastes. That’s OK, though, as it is designed for variation, the standard is soooooo good, I generally don’t even touch the switches (maybe the XBass from time to time, depending on my mood and my material). 3D is awesome with the Meze 99 Classics.
  • Filter: there are three filter settings—standard (not for DSD or DXD), Minumum Phase, and Bit Perfect. I tested these out with the Rebecca Pigeon – Spanish Harlem, and noted that the sound got warmer and less sharp as I dropped down the ladder from Bit Perfect to Standard. The differences were very subtle. With DSD256 (Trondheim Solistene – Frank Bridge Variations 4. Romance, from 2L recordings), I noticed increased volume as I went down the ladder. With DXD (Hoff Ensemble - Bøhren/Åserud: Blågutten) I didn’t notice differences—it all sounds wonderful.
  • Native everything. Cookie Marenco over at Blue Coast has previously emphasized that the less conversion that happens, the better; this is why they say recordings that they receive in PCM192 sound best in PCM192, not DSD. This plays native DSD to OctaDSD (512) and DXD to double DXD (768mHz), and all the other PCM you can eat. If you need DoP it’s there, but trust me, you don’t need it.

 

In other good news, I powered the HD600 for at least 13 hours on battery power, so the battery has plenty of guts. The reason I say at least 13 hours is I fell asleep and it was off when I woke up. I was doing the battery test passively, as 13 hours is a long time to be in one place. I fell asleep after watching the Seahawks dismantle the Panthers—that game ended at 5 AM here, I was le tired.

 

Audio quality

With no switches engaged the iFi iDSD Black Label is dead to rights neutral. It lets the headphone do the singing. This is very similar to the LH Labs GO2A Infinity I just recently picked up. These two DAC/Amps share quite a bit in common, actually. Both are made out of aluminum, both have multiple gain settings, both output 4VRMS at 16 Ohms, both are freaking excellent neutral DACs. The GO2A Infinity, for all its qualities, can’t play DSD256 or higher, uses DoP exclusively, doesn’t have a battery up in it (GO V2+ for that), doesn’t have the sheer headphone matchability, and doesn’t have digital or analogue outputs outside of headphone outs—of which it has a 3.5mm TRRS balanced and a standard 3.5mm jack. Also, the GO2A doesn’t have the magic switches found on the front of the Micro iDSD Black Label.

 

Let’s talk about those switches. I first threw the iDSD on with another item I’m reviewing, the 1MORE MK802 using the optional 3.5mm cable (it’s a Bluetooth headphone). I tossed some white noise on to see if I could hear the shaping effects of the switches. When I flipped the 3D switch the pitch of the white noise became higher. It was a very noticeable change. I then flipped off the 3D switch and flipped on the XBass switch expecting a similar lowering of pitch. I couldn’t hear the difference with white noise. However, when I threw on the new Chesky 30th Anniversary Collection, the bass switch was subtle, but noticeable, and more so when I switched to the HD600. From what I can tell the XBass gives a subtle subbass boost that is just big enough to make bass notes more full and drum strikes have more palpable impact and air in the strike. XBass can lend bass guitar and stand-up bass some really nice grunt, too. The 3D effect is accomplished through a treble boost. Neither boost messes with the midrange frequencies, which is really nice. The boosts are subtle modifications that allow you to give more fulfilling bass on a slightly bass light headphone like the HD600 or give a little more perceived soundstage on a treble limited headphone. Also, if you have a neutral phone and want it to sound more vibrant you can flip the switches. If you want to paint in technicolour shades in a landscape in your audio dreams without losing the central image and symbolic language, these switches let you do that.

 

 

In several words the iDSD Black Label is: clear, neutral, powerful, and flexible. I tried the iDSD Black Label with the HD600 (Normal, iEMatch Off), the Noble Kaiser 10 Encore (Eco, iEMatch Off, soft hiss on Normal), the UERR (Normal, iEMatch Off), and the Meze 99 Classics (Eco, iEMatch Off, hiss on Normal) it delivered all courses deliciously. When I craved a bit more bass from the HD600, the XBass took care of that; and when I wanted to balance out the signature of the Meze 99 Classics to make them clearer, I switched on 3D effect; but generally I found I liked the iDSD BL vanilla. It delivers such perfect neutrality. I think that the Meze 99 Classics really benefit from the 3D switch. The sound of them improves so much more to my liking—after listening to them with 3D on, I don’t think they’ll ever sound quite as good on other sources. The 3D switch balances out the extra bass groove that the Meze’s have. They don’t tighten that bass, but they put it into relief by sharpening the upper-mids and treble registers. I found that the 99 Classics don’t have sharp treble—I don’t get where that has been coming from; but do have boosted bass and mids. The signature is much more balanced with 3D engaged. One thing I did like with 3D was boosting the treble helped make some muddier tracks sound a bit more crisp, which to me was better than boosting soundstage. I totally dug the increase in perceived resolution. Duller tracks had their camping spork audio tranformed into restored functional blades, but not into Japanese steak knives.

 

 

Light My Fire Titanium Spork

Business card from Zazzle

Restored rusty bayonet

 

My primary listening for the review was Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited in 24/96. The album is excellent and excellent sounding. You really understand why Bob Dylan just recently won the Nobel Prize for literature—his words are poetry that moved the world and shaped music in his heyday and will continue shaping music long into the future. I used this to generate my initial impressions above and gauge the capabilities of the device.

 

Comparisons

For comparative listening I expanded out a bit:

  • Dragonforce – The Fire Still Burns; Heartbreak Armageddon (speed, air)
  • Damien Rice – Animals Were Gone (just for the heartbreak)
  • Animals as Leaders – Ka$cade (speed, resolution)
  • Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (resolution, male vocals)
  • Why – Strawberries (bass, stage)
  • Michael Jackson – Billie Jean [vinyl rip] (stage, imaging, resolution)
  • Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra – Sibelius: 5th Symphony, Allegro molto [DSD64] (scale, imaging)
  • Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev  – Tchaikovsky: 1812 Festival Overture
  • Amber Rubarth – Sessions from the 17th Ward
  • And others…

 

Before I do some comparisons, here is the relevant info about my set-up(s).

 

Dell Vostro → LH Labs Lightspeed 2 (split power and data) USB cable → iFi Micro iUSB3.0 →

  • Stock iDSD BL USB3.0 cable → iDSD BL
  • Stock iDSD BL USB3.0 cable → iDSD BL → Airist Audio Heron 5
  • LH Labs Lightspeed 2 (split power and data) USB cable → LH Labs GO2A Infinity

 

iBasso DX50 → stock 3.5mm to coaxial cable → iDSD BL

 

 

 

 

When comparing the iDSD to the Airist Audio Heron 5, the Heron 5 has more grunt and soar across the whole spectrum, clearer holographic mids, and a bit bigger stage (all dimensions), but both are truly excellent sounding. The Heron 5 costs $750 (on Massdrop when it comes up, $1000 direct from Airist Audio). The Micro iDSD BL costs $550. The caveat here is that when I reviewed the iCAN SE, I didn’t find the iCAN SE to do as well with power hungry cans as the Heron 5. For this review, I don’t have any of those top-tier cans on hand. With the HD600 the Heron 5 is better, but it isn’t as decisive a victory as the comparison with the iCAN SE. There are a lot of ways that the iDSD BL is better: you can use it with high sensitivity low resistance IEMs, it has an excellent DAC implementation, you can throw it in your backpack, the iDSD BL has excellent distribution networks, and the customer service of iFi is absolutely stellar. Overall the Micro iDSD BL is a way better value than the Heron 5. In this comparison the Airist Audio Heron 5 was also being fed by the Micro iDSD BL, so the incremental cost of the improved performance is really $750 or more, because the iDSD BL is responsible for some of the sound quality I’m hearing out of the Heron 5.

 

When comparing to the Light Harmonic Labs GO2A Infinity in balanced, with volume matching, the two amps were nearly indistinguishable when playing at the same power output. The GO2A (1000 mW) setting is exactly the same 4VRMS into 16 Ohm output as the Micro iDSD BL. The GO2A was a little smoother, with the iDSD having a bit tighter contours and more well defined edges. The GO2A Infinity and the iDSD BL both have good power and good matchability. The GO2A Infinity has three levels, 100mW, 450mW, and 1000mW into 16 Ohms. Potentially, the iDSD BL has more matchability than this with the various iEMatch settings. Both amps have about the same soundstage. The GO2A Infinity is tiny, but won’t have a chance in Hades of driving an HE-6 or AKG-K1000. The GO2A Infinity will do fine on most headphones on the market, and performs very well with my HD600 and the Noble Kaiser 10 Encore. For value, the GO2A Infinity is currently $349 (not including shipping/taxes/etc…, distributor network is poor), and the iDSD BL is available all over the place for $549 (£455, €599—dang, what happened to the Euro?). Another place that iFi wins is customer service. iFi are just better staffed and more responsive. They also have had a better business plan to date and a lot better relationship with the community—needless to say.

 

As expected the iDSD BL sounds great when fed by the coaxial source. Amber Rubarth covering Tom Waits’ ‘Hold On’ is still one of my favourite acoustic tracks. Sessions From the 17th Ward should be in everybody’s collection. I don’t care if all you listen to is mainstream pop, metal and EDM, if you can’t feel this music and can’t get into the stellar musicianship, I just don’t know what to say.

 

Conclusions

Go get one. What the heck are you waiting for? There isn’t a so easily transportable DAC/Amp combo out there with the technical capabilities of the iDSD Black Label. It has a crisp, transparent, neutral presentation. It can power headphones from the most delicate flower sensitive custom IEMs all the way up to the man eating Bengal tigers of audiophilia: the HE-6 and other rare beasts. Beyond having power and finesse, it also plays any kind of music you throw at it natively—no signal degrading conversion. If you needed some dessert with this 15 course dinner, the XBass and 3D effect switches give it to you. Have all the pudding you like, I promise the enhanced treble and bass won’t screw up your appetite. It's a worthy $549 contender for your audio money.

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: Very powerful, very clear sonic signature

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

.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted

Pros: Feature rich with high performance to price ratio; Multi-platform compatibility; Isolated USB and analog ground with excellent USB EMI noise rejection

Cons: 1-2 seconds of silence at the beginning of playback (from a stop); 1 LED indicator with complicated color codes

Many thanks to iFi for the tour program, to let us have some experience with the new iFi micro iDSD Black-Label!

 

 

iFi micro iDSD Black-Label product web page:
http://ifi-audio.com/portfolio-view/micro-idsd-bl/

Manual:
http://ifi-audio.com/wp-content/uploads/data/manual/miDSDBL_manual.pdf

 

 

Due to the limitation of max 100000 characters in this review section, I couldn't post here the features and measurement part of this review. Please check the features and measurement part here:

 

iFi micro iDSD Black-Label - In-Depth Review

 

 


The iFi micro iDSD Black-Label is the improved version of the previous iFi micro iDSD. iFi has shared to us in detail, many of their design considerations during the development of the micro iDSD. Lot’s to learn from the post, therefore I think it is worth to post the link to the early discussion here:

http://www.head-fi.org/t/711217/idsd-micro-black-label-tour-details-page-147-release-info-page-153

I bought the iFi micro iDSD pre-ordered from Stereo Singapore in September 2014. Since then it has been one of my favorite portable DAC. I like the line output sound quality especially when paired with iFi micro iCan, but the headphone output of iFi micro iDSD requires some matching to sound best. My biggest complaint so far from the iFi micro iDSD is the quality of the iEMatch switch that often glitchy and causes loss of the right channel or severe channel imbalance. The volume pot of my iFi micro iDSD also has audible channel imbalance below 9:30’ position. Together with the glitchy iEMatch switch, it makes me difficult to use it for sensitive IEMs. I’m glad to say that I found the channel imbalance of the review unit of the iFi micro iDSD Black-Label has been greatly reduced, and practically I didn’t have any channel imbalance issue even at low volume setting. I hope this will be the case for all iFi micro iDSD Black-Label units. I also hope that the iEMatch switch durability has been improved on the Black-Label version.

 

 

 


Some of the improvements in the Black-Label version are some of the electronic components, power sections, clock system, and some other improvement on both digital and analog circuit sections, including the implementation of custom Op-Amp. There is no changes in the technical specifications and features from the previous iFi micro iDSD, so feature wise both the iFi micro iDSD and the Black-Label version are similar. The improvement is more on the sound quality. One might ask when there is an improvement in the sound quality, why it is not shown in the specification? The simple answer is, the measured specifications don't cover all aspects of the sound quality. Basic specifications such as FR, THD, and SNR are only a few aspects of the audio quality and quite often are not advertised in detail. THD for example, usually only advertised as average THD, but manufacturer usually doesn't give further detail like what is the distortion profile across the audio band, which type of distortion that is more dominant, etc. Therefore, usually, it is close to impossible to judge the sound quality of a DAC or Amplifier only by looking at the advertised specifications.

In summary, iFi micro iDSD Black-Label is an excellent sounding, feature rich DAC + headphone amplifier. It does require some knowledge to get the most out of it. Sound quality wise, it is on the neutral side with no obvious coloration. For those who are looking for warm, intimate, mellow type of sound signature, better look elsewhere. Transparency, clarity, speed, and detail retrieval are still the main characteristics of iFi micro iDSD Black-Label sound signature, similar to the iFi micro iDSD. And iFi has improved it further in a more musical manner on the Black-Label version. Besides some technical improvement from the previous iFi micro iDSD, the sound quality improvement that I observed on the Black-Label are transparency, dynamic, and instrument separation. The Black-Label is more transparent and realistic sounding than the already transparent sounding iFi micro iDSD. Not a night and day differences, but noticeable. And I’m glad to say that the increase in transparency and detail retrieval doesn’t make the iFi micro iDSD Black-Label sounding more analytical than the iFi micro iDSD. Subjectively, iFi micro iDSD Black-Label is actually sounding more musical to me. Even though not by much, I do prefer the iFi micro iDSD Black-Label sound quality than the iFi micro iDSD.

 


 


Pros:

  • Feature rich with high performance to price ratio.
  • Neutral sound quality with superb transparency, speed, and detail retrieval.
  • Good multi-platforms compatibility with various operating systems.
  • Isolated USB and analog ground with excellent USB EMI noise rejection.
  • Various digital and analog filters to suit listening preference.
  • A wide range of gain and headphone output power settings to suit various loads, from sensitive IEMs to demanding headphones.
  • Useful and good sounding analog bass boost and stereo enhancement analog circuit.
  • Good battery life.


Cons:

  • 1-2 seconds of silence at the beginning of playback (from a stop). This short period of silence causes the first 1-2 seconds of the song gets muted at the start. This can be quite annoying for some songs that start immediately at the 1st second. This is the only most annoying flaw of iFi micro iDSD Black-Label so far, but I believe it can be fixed by firmware update if iFi is willing to fix it, or probably by releasing a special driver only for PCM playback. I notice that the silence period is slightly longer on the iFi micro iDSD Black-Label compared to the iFi micro iDSD. Due to the short review time, I’ve only tested it with foobar v1.3.12 (WASAPI and DSD ASIO). Probably there is a way to shorten the silence from the setting, but I didn’t have enough time to play around with the setting or checked this symptom using other media player applications.​ This short period of silence at the beginning of playback is could be due to ‘pop’ issue described here:

          http://ifi-audio.com/audio_blog/pop-goes-dsd-why-does-this-happen/

  • 1 LED indicator to indicate many operating conditions. It is not user-friendly to expect a user to memorize so many color codes from a single LED indicator.
  • Volume level indicator is hard to see.


Suggestions for improvements:

  • To shorten the start play silence.
  • A more user-friendly LED indicator. Suggested 3 LEDs indicator as described at the end part of this review.
  • White or silver volume level indicator for better visibility.
  • Better design rubber feet with a stronger attachment to the metal case. It is preferable to have better rubber feet that have been fixed to the metal case from the factory.

 


 

 

 


Sound Quality

Sound quality observations were done using my regular test tracks as shown at the end of this review. As for headphones and IEMs, I mostly used the following during this review:
 

Headphones:
Audio-Technica ATH-R70x
Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7
Beyerdynamic T1
HiFiMan HE-6

Massdrop HD6xx
Sennheiser HD800
Philips Fidelio X1
STAX SR-L300 + SRM-252S

 

In-Ear Monitors:
AK T8iE Mk2
Brainwavz B200
DUNU DN-2000

 

 


Headphone Output Sound Signature:
Transparent with good detail and dynamic is probably the simplest way to describe iFi micro iDSD Black-Label sound signature. Generally, it sounds quite neutral with no obvious coloration. The iFi micro iDSD Black-Label is not a warm and mellow sounding type of DAC that tends to ‘beautify’ recording flaws. It is a bit on the dry and analytical side, but iFi has done it in a nice and musical way. It is still lean on the analytical side but it doesn’t sound thin. iFi micro iDSD Black-Label has excellent stereo imaging, spacious and holographic with good depth. The headphone output is powerful with lightning fast transient, always giving the impression that it can drive any IEMs and headphones with ease. iFi micro iDSD Black-Label might not be for those looking for smooth warm and polite sounding DAC, but I imagine that the Black-Label could easily be the sound engineer favorite portable DAC.

With the mentioned headphones and IEMs above, I prefer to match the iFi micro iDSD Black-Label with the less analytical sounding ones. Though pairing the iFi micro iDSD Black-Label with HD800 and T1 give and impressive transparent and holographic sonic presentation, but overall still rather too bright for my preference. The iFi micro iDSD Black-Label despite the small size also surprisingly able to drive the HiFiMan HE-6 quite well, but the pair also a bit too bright for me.

 

 

 

So the headphones and IEMs that I consider pairs well with iFi micro iDSD Black-Label are:

Audio-Technica ATH-R70x
Philips Fidelio X1
STAX SR-L300 + SRM-252S
(Connected to Line Output)

AK T8iE Mk2
Brainwavz B200

Most surprising is how iFi micro iDSD Black-Label improves the sound quality of the new Brainwavz B200, dual BA drivers IEM. B200 usually sounds polite with soft treble with my Onkyo DP-X1, not so much excitement. But when driven from iFi micro iDSD Black-Label, the treble suddenly shines and sparkling nicely. B200 sounds more lively and exciting with iFi micro iDSD Black-Label. Quite a significant improvement. The Audio-Technica ATH-R70x and STAX SR-L300 + SRM-252S
(Connected to Line Output) are also wonderful pairs with the iFi micro iDSD Black-Label.

 

 



Comparison to iFi micro iDSD Headphone Output
At the same volume level, the Black-Label sounds more powerful with greater dynamic and sense of driving power. Bass sounds slightly thicker, tighter, punchier, and has a better texture. I feel both bass and midrange texture and micro dynamic seems to be improved on the Black-Label, giving a slightly better perception of depth, transparency, and instruments separation. Treble is more or less the same, but on some recordings with sibilance, the sibilant sounds a tad more prominent on the older micro iDSD, and a tad less sharp on the Black-Label. Just a tad, basically the difference is quite small. The level of treble and treble sparkle are about the same, but with slightly different character. The sparkling character of the treble of iFi micro iDSD Black-Label is somehow sounding a tad more natural to my ears. In summary, the Black-Label sounds more transparent, bolder, and more energetic than the previous micro iDSD. The difference is audible but not a night and day kind of differences. What I mean is, that if we already have the micro iDSD, I think it is not necessary to sell it to get the Black-Label. But if I have to choose, I would definitely choose the Black-Label over the silver micro iDSD.

 


iFi micro iDSD Black-Label Line Output + iFi micro iCan
I remember that in past, ever mentioned in the forum that some suggested to iFi to tweak the headphone amplifier of the micro iDSD to be closer to the sound signature of the micro iCan. So is the headphone amplifier of the iFi micro iDSD Black-Label now sounds close to the micro iCan? Well not quite yet. The headphone output of iFi micro iDSD Black-Label sounds dryer than the iCan. In my opinion, the iFi micro iDSD Black-Label line output connected to micro iCan still sounds better. They do share some similarity, like the level of transparency, detail retrieval, and dynamic are probably about the same, but the micro iCan sounds slightly smoother and warmer that makes the micro iCan more friendly for analytical headphones like HD800 and T1. The micro iCan has slightly longer decay than the Black-Label headphone amplifier that makes it sounds less dry and more pleasing to my ears. I’m still hoping that one day I could have a new generation of micro iDSD with the headphone out sound quality that is similar to the micro iCan sound quality. So I don’t have to bring two units to enjoy the sound quality of the combination of micro iDSD + micro iCan. In the past, I’ve compared the line output sound quality of my micro iDSD to bigger and more expensive desktop DACs, and micro iDSD line output has been proven to exceed its price bracket. iFi micro iDSD Black-Label line output doesn’t disappoint and even improved it further on the transparency, detail, and instrument separation. Very impressive line output sound quality from such a small portable DAC. IMHO, iFi micro iDSD Black-Label is worth it even just for the DAC section alone.

 

 

 

 


Chord Mojo (Headphone Output Comparisons)
Listening to classical DSD tracks, Super Artists on Super Audio sampler vol.5 from Channel Classics Records, when using the analogy of medium and large concert hall, Chord Mojo sounds like we are listening to the concert in a medium size hall, with a tad better micro detail and impact. Listening to Chord Mojo is like sitting closer to the musical performance, more intimate presentation with a tad clearer micro detail and slightly better sense of micro-dynamic. iFi micro iDSD Black-Label, on the other hand, provides a more spacious sensation, like listening in a larger hall. Less intimate with a larger sense of space. iFi micro iDSD BL is also perceived as a tad smoother sounding than Mojo. The difference is not day and night, but quite easy to distinguish. Both performs admirably in their own ways. I do need more time for better comparison between Mojo and iFi micro iDSD Black-Label, but the most distinguishable difference is in the presentation, between the more intimate presentation of Mojo and the more holographic presentation of iFi micro iDSD Black-Label. Honestly, I can’t really tell which one is better. I guess it is not for better or worst but more about personal preference.

 

 

 

Features and Measurement

 

Both the older version of iFi micro iDSD and the Black-Label version have similar features and specifications, therefore I listed only the Black-Label version in this table of features.

 

Table of Features in comparison to Chord Mojo:

Parameter iFi micro iDSD Black-label Chord Mojo
DAC Dual-Core Burr-Brown (2-DAC Chip) Chord Custom FPGA DAC
PCM PCM 768/ 705.6/ 384/ 352.8/ 192/ 176.4/
96/ 88.2/ 48/ 44.1kHz
PCM 768/ 705.6/ 384/ 352.8/ 192/ 176.4/
96/ 88.2/ 48/ 44.1kHz
DSD up to DSD 512 up to DSD 256
Multi-platform compatibility Yes Yes
USB Input USB 2.0 type A “OTG” Socket
(with iPurifier® technology built-in)
Micro-B USB
SPDIF Coaxial Input RCA - Up to 192kHz PCM 3.5mm jack - Up to 768kHz PCM
SPDIF Optical Input Up to 192kHz PCM Up to 192kHz PCM
SPDIF Output RCA Coaxial - Up to 192kHz PCM -
USB to SPDIF Conversion Yes - Up to 192kHz PCM -
Selectable Filter Yes - 3 options for each PCM and DSD -
Analog Line Input Yes - 3.5mm socket -
Analog Line Output Yes - Dedicated RCA Integrated with headphone output
Line Output Level Direct: 2V Fixed
PreAmp - Eco: 0 - 2.18 V
Variable - Normal: 0 - 5.66 V
Variable - Turbo: 0 - 6.43 V
0V - 4.79V Variable
Headphone Output 1x 6.5mm socket 2x 3.5mm socket
Adjustable HO Gain Yes - 9 combinations -
Maximum HO Voltage -
measured @ 600 ohms load
9.71 Vrms 4.79 Vrms
Maximum HO Current -
measured @ 15 ohms load
306 mA 199 mA
HO Output Impedance IEMatch Off: 0.34 ohms
IEMatch High Sensitivity: 4.1 ohms
IEMatch Ultra Sensitivity: 0.95 ohms
0.44 ohms
HO SNR @ 50 mV @ 33 ohms
(for very sensitive IEM)
Eco - Ultra Sens. : 87.3 dB
Normal - Ultra Sens. : 87.0 dB
Turbo - Ultra Sens. : 83.0 dB
82.9 dB
Volume Control Analog Potentiometer Digital
Extra Features XBass Plus, 3D Matrix Plus, Polarity Switch,
& USB Power Bank (5V, 1.5A)
-
Weight 310g 180g
Dimension 177mm (l) x 67mm (w) x 28mm(h) 82mm (l) x 60mm (w) x 22mm (h)

 

I did some test and observation of the iFi micro iDSD Black-Label features, like testing the iFi iPurifier® technology on the iFi micro iDSD Black-Label USB input and how effective that feature to remove unwanted EMI from USB audio, here:

 

 

Unfortunately I cannot post all the features and measurement part here due to the maximum limit of the characters that can be posted in this section.

Therefore, Please check the features and measurement part here:

 

iFi micro iDSD Black-Label - In-Depth Review

 

 



iFi micro iDSD Black-Label is probably the most unique and feature rich DAC+Amp combo in its class. The Black-Label version is a proof of iFi main priority in their design philosophy, which is sound quality. The Black-Label version has similar features to the older version of micro iDSD, and all the effort and improvement is only to achieve one goal, better sound quality. And I think iFi has achieved it. Kudos to iFi!

 

 


 

 

 

 

 




Equipment used in this review

Headphones:
Audio-Technica ATH-R70x
Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7
Beyerdynamic T1
HiFiMan HE-6

Massdrop HD6xx
Sennheiser HD800
Philips Fidelio X1
STAX SR-L300 + SRM-252S

 

In-Ear Monitors:

1964 Audio V3 (universal)

AK T8iE Mk2
Brainwavz B200
DUNU DN-2000

 

DAC and Amplifiers:
Chord Mojo
iFi micro iDSD
iFi micro iCan
Audio-Technica AT-HA22Tube

 

Measurement Equipment:

QuantAsylum QA401 - 24-bit Audio Analyzer

Owon VDS3102 - 100 MHz Digital Storage Oscilloscope

Brymen BM829s - Digital Multimeter

HRT LineStreamer+ - Analog to Digital Converter

ZKE EBD-USB+ - USB Power Meter
 

Computer & Player:
DIY Desktop PC: Gigabyte GA-H77-D3H-MVP motherboard, Intel i7-3770, 16 GB RAM, Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit SP1.
foobar2000 v1.3.12



Some recordings used in this review:

 

Posted

Pros: Versatility, power, accessories, quality XBass if that is what you are after

Cons: size for portable use, sound quality is very good, but not exceptional for the price

 First of all I would like to say thank you to iFi for choosing me as one of the lucky tester of their new iFi Micro iDSD Black Label in the UK section of their worldwide loaner program. I have had a lot of fun during this week and I really enjoyed playing with the Black Label and comparing it to my Chord Mojo.
 I chose this title for my review, as the Mojo is one of the most popular competition to the Micro iDSD BL due to its similar purpose and price point, and probably many potential buyer will be looking for comparisons of this two DAC/amps. This review reflects my personal, subjective opinion. Ears, headphones, sound signature preferences widely vary, which can lead to different results. Reading many reviews however can give the reader a direction to go, and test the chosen audio equipment to see if that really is what they want. This review is not the ultimate objective truth, but one honest and subjective opinion from an audio enthusiast.

 

Background:

 I am in this hobby for 8-10 years, and I simply love to listen to music in high quality and just relax and get lost in the tunes after a busy day. I am not a professional sound engineer, like many reviewers here on Head-Fi. I am not very interested in different graphs and measurements as my ears can tell me whether I like the sound of a DAC/amp/headphone or not. I am into detailed and clear bass that has authority, but does not suppress other frequencies. I like clean and slightly forward mids with lifelike vocals and smooth, laid back but not rolled of or lacking treble. I can’t stand harshness, sibilance and plastic sound which I define as the opposite of a real, lifelike, and natural sound presentation.

 I mostly listen to ambient, downtempo, electronica, but I also like trip-hop, some vocal centric music, and occasionally even classical music.
 Since on Head-Fi there are already a lot of detailed reviews about the iDSD BL with measurements and technical details, I decided to focus on comparing the BL to my Chord Mojo, and do it in a more subjective way.
 



Equipment used:


 For this review I mainly used my beloved AudiQuest NightHawk headphone, but also tried my (new) Cardas A8, and Sennheiser IE80 (just sold) IEMs. I have been using my Chord Mojo almost every day, since I purchased it a year ago.
 My source is a Dell Latitude E7440 laptop with Foobar2000, AudioQuest Jitterbug and I use bitperfect mode, mainly with FLAC files and some DSD.

Let’s see then, whether the iDSD BL has got enough to offer me to dethrone the Mojo.
 

 

Accessories, built quality:

The iDSD BL comes in a nice box, with tons of accessories. I can’t imagine anyone complaining about the number of connection cables, adapters and other accessories. The cables and different sockets on the iDSD BL offer endless possibilities to connect almost anything and everything to iFi’s latest flagship DAC/amp. There are also rubber bands and rubber sheet for portable use, not to mention the nice carrying pouch.
 At this point I will echo the opinion of many other reviewers: I just can’t see the BL as a portable device due to its size. When connected to a smartphone it is almost the size of a real brick. I often find even Mojo too bulky for portable use. On a positive note, the BL is easily transportable, which means you can just put it in your bag and take HQ audio with you on your holidays.
 No complaints regarding the built quality, the BL is indeed a very well-built piece of equipment.

 

About some of the switches and sockets on the iDSD BL:

 This is the area where the iDSD BL has a clear advantage over Mojo. It is much more versatile. You literally can connect it to anything and everything, while Mojo was mainly designed to be a DAC/amp ‘on the go’ used with smartphones.
The iDSD BL can find a place in many areas, from studios to speaker systems, home audio systems and you can also use it on the go. That being said I mainly use my Mojo as a desktop DAC, but I admit it might not be the most ideal device for that.
 

 At first I did not really understand why iFi chose a female USB A socket as digital input. It is very uncommon, since most of the aftermarket USB cables are Micro B male to USB A male. If somebody wants to upgrade the supplied iFi USB cable, will have hard time to find one. (It is debatable whether upgrading USB cables make sense or not, but there always will be customers, who want to do that.)  On the other hand I can understand iFi’s decision, as the Micro USB B connections can often be weak and loose, while the USB A socket gives a much safer and tighter fit, especially when you have the female version, where the bigger half of the USB plug’s head is basically ‘swallowed in’ by the device.
I find the extra USB socket on the side of the BL a very useful addition, as you can use it to charge other electronics on the go.

 

Volume knob:

 I have to say from the perspective of comfort I prefer the (software controlled) analogue volume knob of the iDSD BL to Mojo’s digital pebbles. It is just simply more comfortable to turn a knob than tapping on buttons. However choosing the right volume level to match the impedance of your headphones or IEMs can be a bit tricky with the iDSD BL. iFi says the volume knob should be set at 12 o’clock or above to achieve optimal performance. The reason for this is, because on lower volume levels (below 10 o’clock) there is audible channel imbalance on iFi’s DAC/amp. According to iFi, this compromise had to be made in order to have the better sound quality of the analogue volume knob.
 With the ‘power mode’ switch (and ‘IEMatch’ switch if you use IEMs) you need to find the right settings first, to be able to turn the volume knob to 12 o’clock without any issues. In my opinion for some users this will be slightly inconvenient, and some other users who do not necessarily read the user’s manual just won’t understand why they experience channel imbalance in their headphones when the volume knob on the iDSD BL is below 10 o’clock.

Power mode:

This switch will be in normal position with higher impedance headphones, eco mode with IEMs and low impedance headphones, and in turbo mode with speakers I guess, as I can hardly imagine anyone keeping the switch in turbo mode even with the highest impedance headphones, it has so much power!

Polarity and filter:

To me these switches did not make any difference.

3D toggle switch:

 I kept the 3D effect switched off. To me it did not make the sound better, but on the contrary. There is a slight treble elevation, that I would rather call treble boost not 3D. The soundstage also becomes a little wider, and the sound a bit airier, but to me this effect is too artificial, with no benefits.

XBass toggle switch:

 One of my very first impressions with the BL’s sound was that the bass is quite present, even without the XBass effect turned on. Switching the XBass toggle on is like turning up a subwoofer on your head. (Although it is a very well implemented subwoofer, it does not kill the rest of the frequencies.) I can’t imagine anyone using the XBass effect continuously. Occasionally with some bass heavy electronic music it can be real fun for a few minutes, as you can imagine yourself being in a concert venue or club, where the bass from the subwoofers just shake all the internal organs of the audience. At times it can be fun, but impossible to live like this long term.
I kept both the Xbass and 3D effects switched off for the rest of my time with the iDSD BL.

iFi Micro iCAN 1st gen. vs. iFi iDSD Black Label:

 The iDSD BL is not the first iFi product in my hands. I owned a Micro iCan 1st gen. and a Nano iCan at some point of my life. (Unfortunately I have no experience with the iDSD 1st gen.)
Compared to these iFi amplifiers, I can see the physical and hear the sound quality improvements, even though I have to rely on my memory with this. Sorting out the illogical switching directions of the 3D and XBass toggles of the older units is a very good thing in my opinion, but I have to add, I miss the two step Xbass settings from the Micro iCan.
  The iDSD BL compared to the Micro iCAN 1st gen. sounds much more natural, and smoother. The BL’s sound is very smooth, ensuring long fatigueless listening sessions. In my opinion it is a great direction to go from previous iFi house sound.

Sound quality:

 Since I have been using Mojo almost every day for a year, I know its sound very well. When I turned the iDSD BL on the first time, I instantly noticed the nice and smooth sound with quite a weighty bass, but I found it more two dimensional and less exciting compared to Mojo. Almost like the warmth was just a little too much, creating a very thin, velvety veil compared to Mojo’s immediately obvious clarity and dynamic punch. The bass being strong and present on the BL does not help with this sensation. Please do not misunderstand what I am saying, the iDSD BL does have a very nice sound, but in direct comparison to Chord Mojo, these differences are present to my ears. It is not night and day, but to me it is obvious enough. Do not forget, I am using the NightHawk, which is already a warm headphone with a relatively good amount of bass. (Same true for the Cardas A8.) Perhaps bright and treble-centric open back headphones like for example most of Beyer’s line up benefit more from the iDSD BL’s warm and more bass-centric sound.
 The soundstage on the iDSD BL is slightly wider than it is on the Mojo, however Mojo’s exceptional depth gives the sound a real 3D feeling, which makes the 3D effect on the iDSD BL even more unnecessary. Instruments and voices are better separated on Mojo, and they are slightly more detailed with a better contour.
 This picture appeared in my mind while I was A/B testing the two DACs: listening to the iDSD BL is like sitting in a comfy plush chair in a cinema with a nice speaker system watching a concert of your favourite band, while listening to the Mojo is more like being in a small jazz club, listening to live music. The latter means a more intimate and more realistic sound, but both have the right to exist.
 These differences mostly pop up in direct A/B comparison. When I only listen to the iDSD BL for a couple of hours, it is also very enjoyable.

 

Let me go into a bit more details regarding the frequency regions:
 
Treble:

 The treble on the iDSD BL is very smooth and non-fatiguing. Despite the relaxed high frequencies everything that happens in this region is clearly audible. No disturbing high pitch noises, even percussion never comes through as harsh or piercing. (I believe, brighter headphones with the 3D knob turned on can sound harsh, but this is a very unlikely scenario. I suggest to leave that knob alone anyway.) The iDSD’s treble is an absolutely fine treble. Nothing is missing, but also nothing is shining through. Mojo in comparison has a slightly more detailed, more dynamic treble. Instruments sound clearer, more present (and more lifelike) to my ears.

Mids:

 This is where the difference is the most obvious in favour of the Mojo. In direct comparison mids sound slightly recessed on the BL and more forward on the Mojo. Mojo is a ‘mid-heaven’. While on the BL mids are there and fine again, Mojo just wins this part by quite a long mile, being absolutely realistic and lifelike. On vocal centric music the difference should be obvious to most ears. It feels like good recording vs live singing. Probably the exceptional depth on Mojo also helps the voices to sound more realistic.

Bass:
 
 I find this region the most interesting. I have already mentioned one of my very first impressions with the BL was the somewhat weighty bass. Do not misunderstand what I am trying to say, the bass on the iDSD is not overwhelming, and it does not bother the mids, neither the treble, it just always feels more present compared to the Mojo. (Remember, it is with the Xbass effect being turned off.) This velvety smooth and good bodied bass gives a real base to the sound on the iDSD BL. It is not bothering, but this sensation of bass presence is always there. I do like warm and smooth sound, but when I do critical listening (like now), I would not mind to have a little less of these two brilliant sound characteristics. At casual listening, when the headphones are simply on your head and you do some reading or anything else, this extra warmth and smoothness can actually be very useful, saving you from listening fatigue, and ensuring a comfortable long listening time. For my personal taste Chord has found a bit better balance between clarity and smoothness, and I find the iDSD BL leaning just a little bit too much to the warmer side here, and I mostly hold the bass quantity responsible for this. (I still consider the BL to be a huge improvement over the Micro iCan 1st gen.’s brighter and not very realistic sound.)

 

 I find Mojo to be more true to recordings. Mojo also has a stronger dynamic punch, and the bass becomes big and thumping only, when the recording is calling for it. If we wanted to oversimplify things, we could say the BL has bigger bass quantity in general, but the Mojo’s bass is better defined and higher quality. After coming to the conclusion, that the iDSD BL has got a bit more bass quantity in general, I was very much surprised, that with some sub-bass heavy music tracks like the ‘Creeper’ and ‘Animal’ from the band called ‘The Acid’ the sub-bass notes were more powerful on the Mojo, while the BL has run out of that big bass juice at the lowest notes, and became slightly rolled off in this sub bass region. After the strong bass presence on the BL this small difference in the bottom frequencies was quite surprising to me.

 

The differences that have been highlighted between the two DACs in this review are not very huge differences by any means. Both the iDSD BL and the Mojo are great DAC/amps, and you can’t really go wrong with any of them. In this tight A/B comparison however I have to give the edge to Mojo on pure sound quality (not versatility!), but I know, probably some people will prefer the iDSD BL’s smoothness and bass centric sound to Mojo’s precision and dynamism, and there is nothing wrong with that.
 The Mojo to my ears has a slightly more refined sound with better depth which results in a space, where you can experience lifelike music with plenty of fabulous dynamics. The iDSD BL provides a very nice and very smooth listening experience. In head to head comparison, the Mojo sounds more exciting to me, so for me the choice is clear. The iDSD BL is a very nice product, its versatility is impressive, and it truly has a top performer sound. At the end of the day, diversity is what makes this world beautiful.
 For me however the nice and smooth, good quality music listening experience what the iDSD BL offers just can’t beat the excitement and beauty of Mojo’s natural realism. Of course, as always, Your Miles May Vary.

Posted

Pros: Incredibly clear sound, multitude of sound options, build quality, TURBO power! Good value.

Cons: TRANSportability, 3D not the best on some genre/songs, switches can too easily move

Oh my gawd this amp is incredible. If this is what moving upscale is, then I am in. I am beyond smitten. I am thrown face-first-headlong over the cliff. Enjoying the massive jet plane drop like never before. Traveling at warp 57, my Tennmak Pro’s have NEVER sounded this good…I await the crash to the ground. This would be a godsend, as it would be the final ecstasy to my full body experience.  I cannot breathe, yanked from my body it is as I hurtle towards that ultimate death…. Which would be welcomed as it would free me from this overwhelming envelopment of sound. A veritable cacophony of senses….Can we have more than five?! You are damn right we can…hitting the 3-D on Coldplays White Shadows, I give myself up. I give in to the sensory overload, which it provides. An out-and-out pummeling of sensory trance. I cannot bring myself to move past this. I don’t WANT to move past this. I want to curl up in that fetal position holding the Black Label close as I approach the end. Willingly, I protect the iDSD, so that it will survive and I won’t. It MUST survive, so that others can experience what I am. It’s as if I am David Bowie’s Lazarus….he willingly gave in to the cancer in the end, knowing he had produced such a masterpiece, giving to us, so that we may enjoy. Fighting like heck to the end, he rebelliously threw Black Star at us, so we would remember how damn good he was. A magical genius who told cancer what it could do…going out on HIS terms, to the dreaded disease…so that we would survive. This is what I must do so others may experience this primitive core explosion. This is a sense of not dread, but Paradise. Absolute Paradise. I give myself up so that you may survive.

 

 

 

More background:

 

Watching the Australian Open tennis tournament the year they used Coldplay’s Paradise as the go-to song, I watched some tennis. Some extraordinary tennis. Australia was facing record heat during the tourney. The players didn’t care. They competed, some to the full 3 or five sets, as the gender determined. There were some matches that went well beyond the normal 6-4 fifth set. The crowning jewels were the semi-finals and the finals, culminated by the Men’s final, which paired Rafael Nadal & Novak Djokovic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Australian_Open_%E2%80%93_Men%27s_Singles) in the longest match of the Australian Open history…in the heat…It was beyond spellbinding. I’ll admit I’m not the biggest tennis fan (my better half the wife unit is though, so I watched) but this whole tourney has me. Like the Black Label. The two mega-stars threw guts and sweat and heart and determination and every other superlative I can think of in my feeble mind at each other. Neither would break. There were breaks where the two would cross paths going to their respective benches, and they would low five each other. They knew what the match meant to the other and they would not yield. Eventually after 5 hours and 53 minutes (ALMOST SIX HOURS!), Nadal yielded. It was an instant classic (a term thrown around in this social media drooling-drivel-day), and some regard it as at minimum a top ten contestant for best final ever…A match which culminated in the dignitaries speaking for FAR too long…to the point that one of the Open Marshalls sought out two chairs and bottles of water for the champions (both in my mind) and he received more applause than any of the speakers…that’s how tired the two were. They could barely move…You might ask, what this has to do with the ifi…and you would be correct to shout that comment at me.

 

THIS was a tennis match!

 

I fully believe after a short 45 minutes of listening that this device was crafted from the grit, the sweat, the blood, the Australian clay which those two idols of tennis competed on and gave up to that day. Shorn from the ground Nadal & Djokovic strode, the iDSD micro BL is a masterpiece. Simply smacks in the face to its competitors like Bowie to cancer. A full forehand volley driven of 125mph at its opponent head. A volley of such force that you must react or be laid out. Luckily for all of us, I do react and stop just short of the bottom. I thankfully come to my wits and stop; landing gently thanks to the parachute offered by the ifi iDSD micro Black Label. I cannot wait for more impressions.

 

I haven’t even brought out the big guns yet…

 

I am extremely grateful to the folks at ifi for the inclusion of me on the world tour. I have never done a tour such as this, but drawing from my experience on another recent tour, I will do my best to convey my likes, dislikes, quirks and joys. This review will be as open as I can. The tour unit will then be sent to the next lucky victim. My hope is that I can get the parachute packed for them…

 

 

 

Initial Impressions:

 

I have no experience with units of this magnitude, let alone price. My closest ownership is the Schiit Magni2, which I also use regularly. A comparison not really meant (or is it?), but one I will do (I didn’t). There is much difference, besides price.

 

From my unboxing, I was rather startled as to just what to expect when I first saw the BL. I was very happy whenst the lid opened. A very black rectagonal cigar-shaped box greeted me. This unit is not small. It is meant for not only desktop use, but also TRANSportability. This would be the piece with which all of your other portable gear sits upon. An excellent foundation with which to start. Through all of the knobs, toggles, connectors, and switches; a small green light illuminates to show that “Yes, I am working, now begone and listen fore I smash your head.”

 

From those multitudes of connecting options, I floundered for a good ten minutes trying to decipher where to hook my iPhone 6+…a simple start, and I completely bottled it. Eventually I was able to determine (stupid, I am) that the simple 3.5mm to 3.5mm right angle cable, which I raved about in the unboxing was the tool of choice. Until know, I did not let on what a dolt I was…

 

 

 

 

 

Daunting though the size might be, the controls are logically laid out, and easy of function. Industrially-efficient is what I would describe. All switches, toggles, plug-ins, and cord/cable outlets are pretty much where they should be. No real surprise, and the red labels on the black aluminum body allows for fairly quick identification when needed of the three-way switches on the side. And those three-way switches are of light action. So be careful, especially when moving from the “normal” to the “turbo” setting on the amp. Yikes! As one becomes familiar with the switches, the red labels would simply be the back up. My one qualm is the toggles. I was worried in my opening about the “fragility” of them; how they might handle their location. I will say that due to the connections of the headphones in the ¼” jack and the 3.5mm input jack the two are protected. My worries seem unfounded at this point. What is bothersome from the toggles is quickly reaching them, as needed. I can see one wanting to toggle off and on the X-bass or the 3D between songs. This is where there can be a bother. But since they are toggles, a light flick either way takes care of that. No harm done.

 

From the ifi site:

 

Specifications

 

Formats supported:

DSD512/256/128/64, Octa/Quad/Double/Single-Speed DSD
DXD(768/705.6/384/352.8kHz), Double/Single-Speed DXD
PCM(768/705.6/384/352.8/192/176.4/96/88.2/48/44.1kHz)

 

 

Filters:

PCM – Bit-Perfect Processing/Minimum Phase/Standard
DSD – Extreme/Extended/Standard Bandwidth
DXD – Bit-Perfect Processing

 

 

Digital Inputs:

High-Speed Asynchronous USB 2.0 (32bit/768kHz)
SPDIF Coaxial/Optical

 

 

Digital Output:

SPDIF Coaxial

 

 

Audio Input:

3.5mm

 

 

Audio Output:

6.3mm RCA Line out (2V fixed/2V-5V variable)

 

 

Power Output:

Turbo (8.0V max/4,000 mW @ 16 Ohm)
Normal (4.0V/1,000 mW @ 16 Ohm)
Eco (2.0V/250mW@16 Ohm)

 

 

Battery:

Lithium-polymer 4800mAh

 

 

Power System:

USB BCP V1.2 compliant up to 1500mA charging current

 

 

Power (max):

<2W idle, 4W max

 

 

Dimensions:

177(l) x 67(w) x 28(h) mm

 

 

Weight:

310g (0.68 lbs)

 

Red lettering makes for a somewhat easier read

 

 

At a retail price of $549, this is not cheap for entry-level people. This is a definite step up. And it should be. With the reputation behind ifi’s other successful products such as the first generation micro iDSD as well as the micro and Pro iCan’s, it only makes sense to make an “improved” mid-fi with which to anchor the line up. Reading up on the old micro iDSD reviews it was very well received, called everything from “The Overachiever” by @ClieOS to a “True Swiss Army Knife” by @peter123, and the “New Wave of British Invasion” says @twister6 was in full swing.  With a reputation for tailoring amps to quite specific IEM’s or headphones, my hope is that this is more Swiss Army Knife as opposed to specialist. Initial impressions bely this thought.

 

With a size slightly longer than a 6+ (YES, it IS!), stacking could be accomplished. I’m not sure how portable or practical that would be, but it can be done! It would dominate smaller DAP’s such as my Fiio x3ii, but such is life. As stated, many will simply use the BL with their desktops or laptops, so the size will not hinder.

 

 

 

"Stacking with iPhone 6+"

 

 

 

Some have said that with the new black color, they could not see the function terminology such as “turbo” and “DSD,” on the back. That just doesn’t bother me. This isn’t about what the unit says, it is about the sound. And my initial impressions were darn good if’n you couldn’t figure that out…

 

Included with the BL is a Crown Royal-like suede pouch in which you would carry the unit and the necessary cables for the day. Functional, and no frills it does the job, albeit a tad small and snug. An assortment of cables and connectors is included in the box, such is the variety of ways one can connect the unit. Boasting such technological advances as:

 

• DAC digital signal and digital power sections upgraded
• AMR Global Master Timing® femto-precision clock system upgraded for ‘super low’ phase-noise/jitter
• Analogue signal and power sections revised
• 3D+® performance-tuned / XBass+® performance-tuned
• Latest Output stabilisation network offers less distortion

 

The BL comes quite well equipped…as it should.

 

​Multitude of accessories which came with the i5...

 

 

 

 

 

All of which mean the unit should be better. From initial third-party experiences, I can say the results are positive. I have no personal expertise with the old. With the addition of the “Headamp” Turbo setting, one can enhance the bass settings another notch beyond the normal. If that is not enough, then the XBass adds that final “11” to the mix. Think Spinal Tap, with the power to back it up.

 

 

 

Once my initial WOW settled down, I thoroughly listened to see if the above-mentioned settings were simply an “enhancement” of the sound. My old ears did their best…

 

 

Listening pleasures:

 

Colplay: Paradise, A Sky Full of Stars, A Message, White Shadows, Lovers In Japan, Clocks, Paradise

David Bowie: Lazarus, Blackstar

Dave Matthews: Dodo, So Damn Lucky, Gravedigger,

twenty one pilots: Hometown, Heavydirtysoul, Addict With a Pen, Car Radio

U2: The Unforgettable Fire, When Love Comes to Town,

Santana: Persuasion, Fried Neckbones and Home Fries

Dire Straits: Lady Writer, Down to the Waterline, Sultans of Swing,

Adele: Set Fire to the Rain, He Won’t Go, Hello,

Los Lonely Boys: Senorita, Heaven, anything else, which came through my players…

 

Device pleasures:

 

Sources:

iPhone 6+

Fiio x3ii

MacbookPro

 

IEM’s/Headphones:

Tennmak Pro

Campfire Audio Nova

Fostex T40RP MK3

RHA ma750

 

Amp comparisons: ummmm….never mind, pointless comparisons…

Fiio A3

Schiit Magni2

 

 

 

Detail:

 

DAY ONE:

My listening was broken up into an odd assorted way, to some maybe. I spent a thorough day solely with the Tennmak Pro’s on my iPhone 6+ and the BL. What a joyous, pleasurable day it was! If my opening description wasn’t enough, then I will simply add that the BL brought out the best of the Pro’s. Solid, full, warm sound emanated from the Pro like I had never heard. Rich mids, solid but slightly boomy bass (sometimes) and a treble of sufficient quality came through so that temporarily I forgot that this was a $21 IEM playing through a $550 amp.

 

This would be a case where the better source definitely enhances the lower priced item. Sometimes faults come through when using a “cleaner” power source, as if the deficiencies are laid bare-naked in the snow. Not a pleasant option or vision (please don’t ask…), but in this case the Pro doesn’t MIND being put bare, in fact it enjoys the frolic and gladly rewards with that warm sound I mentioned. Kind of like dancing through the snow with a nice mug of hot cocoa, laced with Bailey’s for good taste. Darn, that sounds really good right now…

 

DAY TWO:

I followed that day with a single day using the Nova in the same set up. OK, this makes more sense…an IEM in the same category as the amp. What a wonderful combo this is! Open more “airy” and brighter than simply through the iPhone. Detail oriented I heard things, which were hard to come by using my other amps. With some of my other setups, I would “hear” the sound, but it was sometimes fleeting, such as when I worked as a Biologist studying birds… If a new bird came along on my survey, I would separate out the new sounds from the ones I had already identified. It was not that I didn’t hear the finer tones in my normal set; but with the BL, it wasn’t as if this was a new sound.  There was no mistake…that tone, which might have been the fleeting sound of a far off bird on my surveys was DEFINITELY there. The birds/sound presenting themselves to me in a nice orderly fashion. No hiding, but not boisterousness either. Just a neat progression of sound. Harken back to a full procession coming in front of you…or the birds presenting me with easy identification without needling or disorder. Just presented for my listening indulgence. Enhanced bass with the switch on paid dividends to the Nova, adding that little extra I craved from them before. Now, I am in no way dissatisfied with the Nova, but the bass switch added the right amount for my taste. EQing would get me near the same thing, but toggling the bass on is a simple way to enhance for my taste.

 

With the 3D toggle switched on, there is a definite jump in mids and a slight treble bump. In conversation with a fellow Head-fier, we discussed whether this was a placebo effect from the gain of mid/treble tones or if it was real. I do not have the equipment to gauge the truth (others are as we speak), if one can define the truth that way. My seat of the pants explanation (and reading about the crossover system involved) is that there is a shift fore and aft in my cranial matter in regards to the soundstage. Switching back and forth, or playing a song fully then repeat I can “sense” added depth in the anterior/posterior relationship of my cranial mush. Call it a bodybuilding “loudness” switch.  Some have stated that the effect on the micro/micro BL is not as effective as other units, but it works quite well for me. I could sense a larger soundstage, but not enough to make the instrumentation feel separated by a distance. I left the switch toggled on for the whole time; except times I wanted an “unencumbered” sound with which to listen.

 

I find it quite marvelous that technologies such as the XBass and 3D can fit into a unit this size. My-oh-my how sound times have changed!

 

Some have stated they wished for a bigger boost in the XBass toggle. I would disagree. I think there is enough of a bump at 6dB to satisfy most. I like the push added to the overall sound. A quick jolt of bass for those IEM’s which might be bass-shy. If I want more, then I will EQ my source.

 

DAY THREE:

Switching to my Fostex T40RP Mk3’s, I pushed the BL to the Turbo setting. I still had to push the volume pot to about halfway for a good listening level for me. And it was quite the stunning combination. Going through my iPhone 6+ with a newly acquired Lightning camera kit attachment, I was able to use the Digital SPDIF port, bypassing the DAC of the 6+, and fully using the BL. Holy buckets, what a difference! And yes, one would expect that going from a Smartphone to a dedicated DAC/DAP; but still the revelation was astounding. Rich of sound, full of body, slightly warmer than when run with my other setups, the Fostex have not sounded this good. I would call them a slightly “dry” sounding can OOTB, but one with which I like very much. EQing can take care of my personal tastes with the T40, but using the BL, there was no need. With 3D and XBass toggled on, I sat back and fully felt Dire Straits Down to the Waterline. Knopfler’s guitar rifts are a masterpiece to be enjoyed using good equipment, and I had found my listening of choice, whether it be from my x3ii or 6+, it was purely a marvel. Clean, clear, crisp, with the full sound one would expect from an amp of this caliber. It did not disappoint. And a volume, which satisfied me to the fullest. I cannot imagine pushing the pot higher, for fear of hearing damage.

 

DAY FOUR-SEVEN:

Running all set ups through my MacBook Pro, 6+ and x3ii; I tried all set ups, but fell back to the listings below. If I didn’t like the set up, I quit using it within about 15 min. My time was too short to audition something which was not that pleasant.

 

Stacking with the Fiio x3ii

 

 

 

 

Summary of Sound Prefs (no particular order):

 

iPhone 6+-->Lightning Camera kit-->ifi BL-->Tennmak Pro:

 

Just a thoroughly satisfying sound. A Marvel of todays technological advances from a cheap IEM to a moderately priced mid-fi amp; this was my favorite go-to sound for day to day. This would be my set if I had only one, which would travel.  twenty one pilots Hometown was my first listen, and my main song no matter what I test. I follow this up with Coldplay’s White Shadow or A Sky Full of Stars. The three songs hit a full gamut of sounds, which I can use to gain that initial sound, which I liked so much. That initial push of “what can this unit do.” From the keyboard, which nears distortion to the very forward sound of the Coldplay songs, this is a good judge. There is no hiding; and the “grouping” did not disappoint. 

 

iPhone 6+-->Lightning Camera kit-->ifi BL-->Campfire Nova:

 

My favorite setup for the majority of the music I auditioned. Bowie’s Lazarus is haunting enough under normal listening; but with this grouping, I could VERY easily imagine myself holed up hugging the wall in his hospital “suite.” Trying darn hard not to be noticed, lest I get thrown in the Institution myself, I would listen to his beautiful voice; and it would sound identical to this match, getting drawn in with his dilemma, his final push before death calls his name. This set brings me closer to his music than I have with anything else. And I am grateful. A nice slightly warm sound, which does not intrude, not wanting to draw attention to itself much the way if I were hunkering in Bowie’s hospital room. Sipping single malt, this would be my unwind unit in the evening.

 

iPhone 6+-->3.5mm to 3.5mm cable-->ifi BL-->Tennmak Pro:

 

This was the set with which I wrote my opening. As you can tell, it was sufficiently “adequate” that I was able to eagerly anticipate the “better quality” hook ups with gleeful, slack-jawed-joy. I was in listening bliss. I was so taken aback by that initial listen, that I wrote the opening on the spot. Such an honor it was, that I replayed Coldplay, twentyonepilots, David Bowie, and Lyle Lovett for three straight hours. Such was the joy, that I lost track of time and it was 0200 the following morn before I realized. Not that I cared, not one iota because of the delight I had experienced. Easy setup and with the length of the 3.5mm cord, easy to transport. This was the closest set up to actually SHOUT at me. Grab me by my shoulders, screaming WAKE THE HECK UP AND LISTEN!!!

 

iPhone 6+-->3.5mm to 3.5mm-->ifi BL-->CA Nova:

 

I spent the whole of the second day running this way. And I was not disappointed. I ran the same songs, over and over, with the same results. A more full sound, rounded out by the fore/aft added depth of the 3D, the Novas ran well. While not as good as the SPDIF/Lightning setup, a thoroughly enjoyable sound encased me, to the point where my co-worker was essentially right next to me before I heard or SAW her. A trance worthy of an Ouija board I was in…My second audition of the BL was a complete success, and it was during this day that @nmatheis convinced me to purchase the Lightning camera kit and I would not be dissatisfied (which I wasn’t!). Just more “Wow” moments all around…

 

Fiio x3ii-->3.5mm to 3.5mm-->ifi BL-->Tennmak Pro

 

Since the Fiio is a definite step up from the iPhone, I spent the next two days thoroughly auditioning my music with the x3ii as the source. This was probably the least used system, but not because it was the “worst.” I simply wanted to spend more time with the Nova inserted here. That said, I loved how the x3ii brought a cleaner sound to the table than Amazon Music, or Tuneshell (which has since failed me and I have deleted the app for reasons I will not state here). Yes, of course it was of higher quality music than the other, but I wanted to make sure I tested the arrangement in my best possible light. My best units if you will. While the quality was better, I did not enjoy this system as much as through my 6+. I know, I know, that doesn’t make much sense, but I felt the music I had was a bit flat. Even running through the “Line Out” from the Fiio it just wasn’t full enough for me. The warm Tennmak’s and XBass could not make me happy with my recordings the same way the 6+ did. I’m not sure I can explain it any better than I just wasn’t happy with this. Would it work? You bet, it wouldn’t be my first or second choice, though.

 

Fiio x3ii-->3.5mm to 3.5mm-->ifi BL-->CA Nova:

 

If I absolutely had to choose one set up, this would be it. The Novas warmer sound could compensate for the colder-more analytic sound of the Fiio. I think I stated in my review video, how with this set the two (BL & Nova) could overcome the cold nature of the x3ii, and it did. This set up would (and did) need the most EQing to be completely satisfactory of listening pleasure. I guess I have come full circle then; I used to EQ, and then swung HARD the other way. Now I am back to EQing. At least with this grouping I am. And that’s ok in my book. I hate to keep using the same bloody commentary regarding “slightly warm and full,” but…since I already stated that this would be my one go to set up, I really do not think I need to describe it any better. Using the line out on the x3ii, I was quite OK with letting the BL dictate and run the sound program. It was kind of like having a simple DJ with me who could only do three things well (XBass, 3D, Eco/Normal/Turbo) and that was quite all right. More than adequate, this was a DJ I could afford.

 

Fiio x3ii-->3.5mm to 3.5mm-->ifi BL-->Fostex T40RP Mk3

 

What a superb way to bring out the best in these hard to drive cans. Turbo was more than suitable to drive these “near-mid-fi” closed cans. I opted for the T40 because I wanted the better of the bass units, and the closed back, for privacy. These do not disappoint, but the amps I have, short of the Schiit Magni2 & Fiio A3 (almost) cannot really do them the justice which I heard through the BL. I have talked about a “veil being lifted” in previous reviews, but I think that would be an insult to the Fostex. Call it having the necessary “passing power” to cruise by the slower vehicles in the mountains. While the Schiit is sufficient, it doesn’t compete with the BL. Kind of like a BMW 3-series with four passengers and full luggage… The A3 would be the equivalent of a Prius…It would get me there, and in quite fine manner; just not like having a Ferrari F455 with which to do the job, and in not so near a hurry. There was no worry for power using the BL. I barely went over ½ on the volume with the BL/Fostex. Anything more, and I was ricking hearing loss in my mind. I really don’t want to lose more…

 

Slim lines bely it's size

 

 

Conclusion remarks:

 

So there you pretty much have it. My time was far too short for my listening WANTS. I found myself craving just one more day knowing it wouldn’t happen. I think that is the highest compliment I can pay to this delightful unit. If a unit (especially a loaned/tour unit) can have my mind begging for just one more day, by the SECOND DAY; then I am enamored. I am taken. I am engaged to the listening for the short time available to me. Liken this to a long distance relationship where you will meet for a week, knowing that each day draws closer to the separation. The leaving, which will tug, no yank at you over the increasing distance which WILL happen. You keep thinking, “I really should be focused on the moment, lest it is lost.” But you obsess over the time ticking down, ever closer to the farewell. But during that time, you force yourself to envelop the moment, devour that time together, devoting full attention to your time together. Even though that damn clock is ticking ever louder in the back of your mind; you scream silently to it, "SHUT THE F-UP! I’M NOT DONE HERE,” as you surrender yourself, your time and your ears to the listening; knowing you must. Otherwise the task is lost. And not only do I not want that, I desperately do not. It would be a disservice to your relationship, your short but oh-so-sweet time together.

 

You really must give in to the relationship to fully understand what is going on, otherwise the time is wasted, as is the relationship. Hopefully I have not wasted that time on this wonderful relationship, courting a future together, which I would willingly, GLADLY give in to again. And again. Lover's In Japan, from Coldplay's excellent Prospekt's March album is a very fitting end to this review. The timing could not be better...

 

Is it perfect? Heck no. Does it have a few quirks? Yes, size to me is the main drawback. It is almost too big to be commonly portable, but workable. I would definitely keep this in a desktop situation, though if  “forced” to; it is too good not to use… And the 3D is not for everyone. It can artificially inflate the sound stage fore/aft as well as the mids becoming overly bright. It sounded good on some tracks, not good on others. So a simple toggle of the switch changes that. But the positives FAR outweigh the negatives. Three amp settings with which to choose from, as well as the XBass switch and the excellent sound from the digital out highlight those positives. Fine-tuning of IEM’s through the sensitivity settings is another quick way to tailor the listening. A nice touch.

 

I really want to thank Lawance and Jared for this relationship. This time together with the WELL more than fine ifi iDSD Micro Black Label was all I could ask, albeit too short for my lusting listening pleasures... It really is a fine unit, which I would gladly spend more time with, and my hard earned dollars upon. That is about the highest praise I can give. Go listen, it will be worth it.

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!

iFi Audio micro iDSD
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Description:

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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