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iFi iDSD Black Label: Swiss Army knife utility, top tier sound and flexibility that does everything extremely well, so much value it’s uncompetitive

A Review On: iFi Audio micro iDSD

iFi Audio micro iDSD

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glassmonkey
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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.

19 Comments:

How does it fare against Chord Mojo?
I have a Light My Fire Titanium Spork. It's amazeballs for scooping awesomesauce.
@tomscy2000 I have one too, it is amazeballs for scooping rehydrated mac 'n' cheese, but the knife edge isn't really something you'd try to slice a steak with and it wouldn't be an effective weapon for stabbing.
 
@Reignfire Strangely enough, I haven't joined the Mojo owner's club, so haven't made that comparison. I do know that @Takeanidea, who is later on the tour, will be making that comparison. He also has an HE-6 and an AKG-K1000, so you'll really want to tune in for his review.
Great review which confirmes how good the geek out V2A inf is but I don't know what you mean by : the GO2A (1000 mW) setting is exactly the same 4w into 16 Ohm output as the Micro iDSD BL.
Whoops, typo, I'll fix it.
 
If you convert 4Vrms into 16 Ohm into mW using this convertor: http://owenduffy.net/calc/voltcnv.htm; you'll find that 4Vrms into 16 Ohm is exactly the same as 1000 mW. 1000 mW is the output level of the GO2A (Infinity or Standard) at it's highest gain setting, so essentially Normal on the iDSD and high gain on the GO2A are the same output power.
 
Some real scientist can pop in and correct me here if I've mucked anything up.
Hi, I'm totally new to iFi products and very tempted to get an iFi desktop/transportable setup (particularly this micro iDSD black label) due to loads of compliments I have been reading on Head-fi. However, I am very confused with their product lines and feeling clueless about what to buy for a proper/best value setup; my budget is limited and reading English is quite hard in some technical topics (English is not my native)
 
So would you mind explaining briefly what roles the iPurifier, iUSB 3.0 etc from iFi beside the Micro iDSD as an dac/amp unit? Do I really need/have to buy them for my setup?
 
Thanks so much,
Linh Vu
@Ling Vu My advice is to get the iDSD Black Label and not worry about the rest. I have found the iUSB3.0 and the iPurifier to give improvement in sound, but it is marginal and I would say you would do more by investing that money in headphones.
 
I love my iUSB3.0, but if you are just starting out, you can get bigger gains for a smaller price. Upgrade over time. No need to rush.
You mention that you had a brief listen to the standard micro iDSD so do you have any thoughts on what the improvements are with the BL version please?
Great review.  I can't wait to get mine.
Thanks a bunch, guess I will try to get that one.
How would this go if I were to compare with the Marantz PM7005 (which has a built-in DAC)  ??
(apart from the portability factor)
@Dadracer I listened to the original a long time ago. It was my friend @Turrican2's iDSD and it was a brief listen. I can't really make any comparisons there. I know that @nmatheis and @Hawaiibadboy will be able to do comparisons.
 
@akshaysalkar The general consensus is that integrated 2 channel amplifiers with a headphone out don't really make ideal headphone listening rigs because the headphone out is not the focus of the design. This isn't necessarily true, as some integrated amps will have a good headphone out. I haven't personally listened to the headphone out of the Marantz 7005, so I'll not pass any judgement. You'll need to listen for yourself. I think the chances are good that the iDSD BL will sound better for headphones and I know it will play more formats.
Excellent review, as always. Hope you don't mind if I quote you on acouple of items (nothing bad) in my review. Cheers!
Thanks, @ngoshawk! I've got no problems with being quoted, just link back to this review if you do. Cheers! 
I am sorry, but I got nothing from you review. I have no clue how the iDSD sounds as a DAC. You should get some gear that's more standard/popular so folks would have some sense of the sound. Comparison against any of Chord, EMM, MSB, Linn, Playback, Esoteric or Naim would have given me some clue as to the sound. I do not expect iDSD to compete with those brands, but at leas a comparison would be helpful. As written, this review is pretty useless IMO.
@chesebert Most good DACs don't impart much of their own sound. If you read the section of my review, "Audio Quality" I describe the DAC as neutral, clear, describe the effect of the switches, and compare it to other equipment.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but telling a reviewer to go buy thousands to 100s of thousands of dollars in equipment they don't have in order to make their review more useful to you is more akin to trolling than a useful comment. If you expect people to compare a $549 DAC/Amp to an MSB, I don't think you'll find any of my reviews satisfactory. I suggest you read Stereophile instead of HeadFi, the average article has a lot more money behind it over there.

I'm sorry that I'm not an Armani clad billionairre, I really am. Feel free to send me donations and I'll make sure to go buy that MSB Select when I get enough of them. I'll happily update the review then.
good review - I just ordered mine as well - however you might want to fix this 
     - Turbo delivers 8W, while normal delivers 4w, and Eco delivers 250mW into 16 Ohms - The 8, 4 numbers are volts, not Watts ;) 
@Haris Javed thanks for the kind words and gentle corrections. I've fixed the error now. Jeez, confusing watts and volts. Good thing I'm not an engineer... Yikes.
Just got mine today 12/16/16.  Guess what?.........it's aye......uh.....well.......a ******* masterpiece. 

I also have the amazing new LH Labs Geekout 2A Infinity.  Taking nothing from the Geekout 2A Infinity but the iDSD BL bests it fairly handily by.... say 15% in nearly all respects.  Now, I've not let it burn in.  I've not played with any of the settings.  I've not listened to it with a bunch of different headphones--just the AKG 553 Pro.  I've not put the iDSD BL through it's paces etc. BUT.....................Almost immediately, I experienced a better (and more) believable sound staging.  The music has more body than the GO2A Infinity.  The iDSD BL just seems more effortless, focused, etc.  There is an ease about it's power....a solidity.  There is a connection to the music that is more emotional.  I nearly cried on a few tracks as I was greatly moved by what I was hearing.  Those femto clocks and other boutique parts are definitely doing their thing.  $549 is a bargain in my mind.  I have absolutely no regrets with this purchase.  I have a new best friend and cannot wait to add some of the other iFi power goodies to this thing.  Oh and that volume pot problem that manifests at less than 9 O'clock is a non-issue on my product.  My volume pot works perfectly below 9 O'clock.   I may have a Geekout 2A Infinity for sale......it's that good.  
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