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:
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.
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)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!