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iFi iDSDBL a dacamp for Christmas with all the trimmings

A Review On: iFi Audio micro iDSD

iFi Audio micro iDSD

Rated # 2 in Amp/DACs
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Takeanidea
Posted · Updated · 3681 Views · 20 Comments

Pros: Accessories, finish, power, hardware settings

Cons: Volume unbalanced at low settings

iDSD BL

Christmas Dacamp with all the trimmings

Introduction

 

I have been lucky enough to be part of a very special tour.  iFi has given me the chance to look at their heavily updated iDSD. They have called it the Black Label Edition. I’m part of a review tour. As reviewers on headfi, we are bound by only 2 things really; we must post a review and we must keep the unit for the length of time specified by the company. iFi gave me 7 days to find out as much as I can about this dacamp. This is the result. Hope you like it. If you don’t I’m sorry. I did my best in the time I had here. I try my hardest to put myself in the shoes of a prospective buyer and I know iFi any other company only want to know what I think about their products. Not what they think. I don’t get paid for this and I’ve done quite a few reviews this year, both on here and on earphonia.com. This doesn’t make my opinion more valid than anyone else’s. It simply shows I’m in this for the long run. 

 

My association with the iDSD is rather short. I used this when I met up with my good friend @glassmonkey on a weekend’s mini meet back last year. I threw a number of headphones at the old model ; the Sennheiser HD800, HiFiMan HE6, Mr Speakers Alpha Dogs were amongst some of my less sensitive headphones. All were powered admirably by the iDSD.  Fast forward to December 2016 and we now have an elegant black number to spend a week with. Micah(aka @glassmonkey) passed it to me last week (it’s a small world isn’t it?) and I have set it off on it’s way with a tearful wave. This is the iDSD but not as we know it. Many things have been changed from the standard model. iFi have moved on since then. Micah has written plenty on the components that have been changed. Suffice it to say, iFi has done more than just a spray job on it. More customisable power but less extreme 3D and bass switching are the order of the day. 

 

Features

 

So what is the BL model and what can the iDSD do? And are these the features you are craving from your source? Or this is overkill for you? When one reads through various threads the impression I get is that there can never be enough spec. Each person has found some aspect of the hifi world that appeals to them, be it DSD or balanced, mp3 or flac. The industry is changing all the time , not necessarily for the better. Many of the changes are to keep up with the changing digital formats available. 200 Gb memory cards are being filled to the rafters with music. These can even fit in some phones, so manufacturers are being forced to get OTG as standard on their units.

 

The iDSD is a Dacamp. It can be fed music from a laptop with it’s high quality USB cable. It can also be fed an optical in signal and output a digital signal through optical. OTG is supported, so phones can output to the Black Label. I was able to use Android Marshmallow natively through Deezer and YouTube aswell as the usual USB Audio Player,  Onkyo Player and Hiby Music Player. All the weird and wonderful formats I had on my Macbook were easily taken care of by the iFi.  The iDSD also accepts analogue signals. The 3.5mm jack by the 6.3mm input, is not as I initially thought for IEMs. To my embarrassment I was informed it was for audio sources without digital out connections to be used on the iDSD. In this way the iDSD will act as an amplifier. The iDSD also can be used as a preamp or direct line out, to form part of a full sized HiFi. The F6 power amplifier I have did not cope with the amount of juice the BL was trying to put into it, so I used the preamp which worked suitable well. The Direct Mode will only be using the DAC part of the iDSD. The preamp uses both. There is a smart charge facility on the side of the unit. This allows for your phone perhaps to get some emergency power once it’s been OTG’d to death. I’m presuming many of you  know this already; even larger newer phones don’t last more than a couple of hours playing OTG out to an external device. The iDSD will easily outlast your phone so should be able to keep it going until you can get to a proper power source. Of course you won’t be using the iDSD as a source by this time and the phone will be all but redundant while it’s trying to achieve more charge. 

 

Within the analogue and digital in realm we have been given a wide range of choices. There are 3 sensitivity switches on the underside of the unit for IEMs. A minijack converter is provided to plug in your earphones to the output. I found the highest sensitivity setting on all the IEMs I tried to be too quiet even with the volume switched to max. The lowest setting was really loud. Wow! There is enormous scope for getting the right balance of loudness setting within those 3 settings. The settings on the side are for full sized. The highest setting was too quiet even for my 32 Ohm AT W1000Z closed cans. The middle setting was perfectly ok for these. The HE6 needed the lowest one but not to the maximum volume.  With the headphones all dialled in for volume, you must then concentrate on the Digital Filter. This is a 3 way switch for Bit Perfect Minimum Phase and Standard. Standard is the most tweaked filter and is designed towards a DSD file. I settled on the standard filter as I felt it added some good punch to the music without making it harsh. All is not over yet. You must decide whether you want more bass in your life. There is just such a switch for this. Maybe your vinyl rips need a touch of extra or your orchestra is not sounding full enough? The bass has an on off setting. The 3D switch will widen the image of your soundstage considerably. Such features are available through various software. For those who will wish to change between filters on various tracks, this as a hardware feature, could be extremely useful.

 

Build

 

With the iDSD comes many bits and bobs.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

The packaging is beautiful. The unpacking of the unit was a sensual pleasure. There are things which impressed. A variety of non standard looking cables and stars and bags fell gently out of 2 shiny white boxes neatly tucked into their respective columns hidden under the belly of the iDSD itself.  

Top left - an analogue cable 3.5mm. Coming downwards a USB converter for OTG. The purple cable is twin RCAs for line out to a full size amp. 2 thick rubber straps to tie your phone or DAP up to the BL. The white shiny card above is a spacer to keep the iDSD from being scratched or rubbed by the thing it’s attached to. The blue USB cable is a thick high quality one. An optical adapter, detailed manual and USB adapter complete things. Other than one really nice extra. 

 

 

 

A black velvet carry pouch. Very nice indeed. 

A sizeable number of accessories. For OTG the cables provided here won’t do the trick. There would be far too much cabling once even a tiny micro usb is daisychained on. Chord supplied one tiny usb cable for the Mojo in comparison. RHA also make sure they have lots and lots of goodies in their DL1 Dacamp box. I used the Mojo OTG cable from their accessory pack with the iFi which created a great little stack for out and about. I would have liked to have seen a dedicated optical cable with the bundle. Adapters are very easy to lose. 

There has been some discussion about the volume control on the iDSD. The original volume control was slated by a vociferous minority for being unbalanced at low volume settings. The volume has not been changed on the BL version.

 

 

 

It still has issues with unbalanced sound at low volume. It’s therefore extremely important to get the switching sensitivity correct to alleviate this problem. This problem does not exist on either the RHA DL1

 

or the Mojo. 

 

 

Sound Quality

 

I have a semi professional analogue to digital converter, the ART Phono Preamp Plus. It’s ability to rip vinyl without electronic interference in the background recording is the reason I bought it. I soon discovered it had many other benefits. I can hook up any line out source, in this case , the iDSD, and record the output straight into the ART and then onto the MacBook digitally. It’s merely a case of picking a track , plugging the device into the back of the ART and pressing record on Audacity.  Only the source is changed. switching is instant. 

 

 

 

Once a volume match is attained, my Chord Mojo can then be compared side by side, over and over again, using the same track, same input, same volume. This testing was done by me on day one. They are freely available for anyone who wishes to listen for themselves. There is no load going into the 2 devices. The analogue stage and the quality of the preamp mean that the sound quality is not as good as you would get from plugging your headphones straight into either device. It will give you a flavour of any differences between the Chord Mojo and the iDSD Black Label. In my opinion the differences are there. Please PM me if you wish to be sent a link to them. They are of a DSD recording so should be pretty good quality. I invite you therefore to listen for yourself as to what you might think of the sound quality of the iDSD BL. If you wish to do that I would encourage you not to read any further. STOP NOW!  

 

 

 

 

 

PM me and I will send you the link. Make your own conclusion, listen as much as you can stand, then come back here and see if you agree with me. I really hope some of you do. I am not the authority here, nor are my ears. We all must decide for ourselves using the information out there whether any audio product will suit our needs and improve on what we have. Only the individual can decide that, ideally with an audition. This is the closest I can give anyone to that experience. You are welcome!

Now it is time for the spoiler, my own opinion of the iDSD sound quality , specifically against 2 devices.  Device one, from memory. The iDSD v the RHA DL1 dacamp.

 

The iDSD is a clear winner against the DL1. I found the RHA to be too shrill in the upper regions and too bloated in the lower regions. This with one notable exception; the CL1 Ceramic IEM in balanced mode  was superb through it. The iDSD v the Mojo; that you can hear for yourself. You can take my opinion with a pinch of salt. For what it’s worth, I did like the iDSD a great deal. The standard filter and mid setting on with the bass and 3D switch off sounded powerful and punchy. It sounded a little thin and slightly recessed in the mid section and less strained in the treble regions than the Mojo.

 

The bass and subbass lacked some of the impact of the Mojo. Although the Mojo was probably slightly more rolled back in the higher FR the iDSD seemed like it was being pushed slightly harder. I have had the Chord Mojo since October 2015. 

 

Clearly it will take quite some beating. I haven’t yet found a portable device that I preferred the sound to. These differences in SQ are not huge differences. I am subtly trying to defend my views on the differences between the 2 if you are unable to hear them. I am merely stating that buying a different pair of headphones would give you a much more obvious set of differences than changing between the iDSD or Mojo. 

 

Conclusion

 

The iDSD BL offers an awful lot of options for the money. It costs more money for the Chord Mojo. The Mojo is a simple device with few options. It can output 2 headphones simultaneously whereas the BL  only has the one. It has arguably better sound quality than the iDSD but the differences are small. It fits a standard 5” smartphone or DAP considerably better than the Mojo without it’s adapter, although for the same money the Mojo has an accessory pack which sorts this problem out.  All choices in the audio world are complicated. If I had my opinion as to which device I would spend my money on, then I would choose sound quality before all else. 

 

 

 

In this regard I would put the iDSD a close second to the Chord Mojo. But, my dear reader, have a listen to the track which I have painstakingly prepared for you. Click here You may have an entirely different take on the matter

20 Comments:

I didn't have any problems with low volume, but folks will tell you that I don't listen too quiet. If you have channel imbalances at low volume, this should actually be pretty easy to solve, all you need to do is adjust the IEM match switch on the right side of the unit. It gives a lot more play in the volume control and makes ideal volume higher round on the potentiometer.
 
The Mojo is a wonderful DAC/Amp, but it can't drive an HE-6. We'll have to agree to disagree on whether it does well driving an HD600. I'm somewhat surprised that the HE-6 and K1000 didn't get thrown at this. The HD800 is really sensitive, so isn't hard to drive fully as full size TOTL cans go (HD600 is harder). I was really looking forward to that test with a comparison to the mini-beast. I think the biggest selling point of the iDSD BL is it's no compromise matchability. DSD music? Plays natively. DXD? Native. Super sensitive Noble K10E? No problem. HD600 midrange difficulty to drive headphone, also no problem. I was really hoping to find out if this did better than the iCAN SE did driving the demanding cans. Neither of us were that moved by the iCAN SE with the HE-6 or the K1000. As of now the question of iDSD BL plus super power hungry beast of a headphone is unanswered. Maybe somebody will throw the LCD4 at it later. :D
The HE-6s and K1000s are not really suited to this sort of power . They need speaker amps to sound at their best my friend. It's a waste of my time putting them through this sort of stuff. They need lots and lots of power. The HD800 is fine for the iDSD but anything beyond that sensitivity wise I'm gonna hook up to a big amp everytime and that's the truth.
Does it hiss with sensitive iems?  The Mojo has a small, albeit noticeable, amount of hiss with sensitive iems.
Nope I don't think it has hiss due to the 3 selectors. I don't worry about hiss too much I'm afraid and as it's gone it's too late to check for sure. Don't worry too much about hiis. I have a 50 Watt per channel power amp pure class A. It hisses like a mad thing before the music starts on my low impedance stuff, but by god when the music starts! Hiss is merely a prelude to the magic.
@Uberclocked never once have I worried about hiss on my Mojo. OTG interference yes, hiss no. Not a bit.
Nice write-up!
 
I have to say that Mojo definitely hisses with very sensitive, low-impedance, IEMs (e.g. SE846).  You personally may not be able to hear it, but it's there.  Enough to worry about?  No, definitely not, you have to listen for it even with no music playing, but even the designer acknowledges its presence (one easy fix is a simple inline attenuator, iFi's ieMatch works as well).
 
Interesting that the channel balance at low volume came up.  This was literally the first thing I noticed with the iDSD BL.  That was using it to drive the Fostex/Massdrop TH-X00 Purpleheart ... had to wind the volume around to 10:30, nearly 11:00 o'clock in "Normal" mode for it to go away completely.  At 9:30 one channel is audible and the other is silent.  That, and the size, are really the only two negatives I could find with it.
 
I own both, and they both have their place.  The iDSD BL is hugely more flexible, and can be used for some interesting things beyond just being a DAC/Amp ... and is something I ultimately prefer the sound of over the Mojo both with IEMs and full-size cans.
@Uberclocked 
 
Just tried the iDSD BL into my SE846 (114 dB SPL/mw and 9 ohms) purely to listen for hiss.  No hiss at all if you put the IEMatch switch in either the "High" or "Ultra" sensitivity positions.  This remains true regardless of which power-mode I'm in.  If I turn IEMatch OFF then there's some low level hiss (a bit more than with Mojo).
 
Using an IEMatch dongle with Mojo fixes things up there nicely too.
Nice review and write up! Thanks for sharing your opinions. The iDSDBL seems to be a well received bit of kit. 
@Torq What's the headroom like with the TH-X00 on 'Normal' mode. You mentioned the channel imbalance until 11 o'clock or so, how loud are we talking here? Cheers! 
@JamieCole 
 
It's fine - not too loud (below my normal listening levels) by the time it's all even ... and there's plenty of headroom still (in normal mode, it'll drive the TH-X00 far louder than I'd ever dare listen).
 
Note that the "switch on point" with my volume control is at 8:30, and in re-testing with the TH-X00 it's actually closer to 10:30 that the imbalance is completely gone, so it's not quite as bad as I thought.  Probably some degree of sample variation/tolerance there.
Thank you for a very nice review. 
 
I too have the iDSD BL and the Mojo, my findings are a bit different from yours.  To me, the iDSD BL is significantly better than the mojo in most areas.  It has better definition, better resolution, better control, more solid and full body, and more musically.
 
The mojo sounded fuzzy and a layer of white haze has been masked on top of the music when compares to the iDSD BL, but I guess this can sound soft and comfy sometimes, different strokes for different blokes :D
@deskmate  @Whitigir  thanks very much for your comments. @deskmate it's great that you have come to a different conclusion than me. All too often people jump onto a bandwagon following a reviewers opinion on something. I would rather you all listened for yourselves,. we all have different expectations as to what we want from our sound signature; sometimes we don't even know what we want until we hear it. It's all very subtle and very subjective. A mix of opinions should reflect that. 
Thanks OP for the files.
 
I am a audiophile wannabe with he 400i and sound blaster e5 wanting to get some schiit, idsd or mojo.
 
TBH both of them sounded great. 
 
There were two tracks and I couldn't really tell the difference for "She's a river".
 
As for the other one, Ed sheeran was a little further away in iDSD.
 
I tested parting glass on tidal with my sound blaster and it sounded similar to mojo.
 
Anyways, I am going to test the real mojo tomorrow at some audio shop but is kinda hard to find the iDSD BL.
 
Cheers.
Meant to compliment you on your excellent review earlier. Sorry about that. A very thorough write up and well deserved front page material. I was honored (and am!) to be part of the tour with such seasoned vets as you and others. I am very intrigued by the ART phono pre-amp. I have an NAD running from my Linn Axis to my Arcam, but it does not have the capabilities of the ART. I may have to investigate that piece! Again, congrats, thorough, well written, details of the important information; and backed by good stuff. I will PM you later for the music tracks, as I did not have a Mojo with which to compare the BL when I had it.


Cheers! 🍻
The ART is great fun for showing you guys the differences between players and also for vinyl rips. I have given my turntable away now so I have more time to do some of these comparisons. It costs £75 but it is simple and effective. I'll send you a PM
Sorry if you already answered this somewhere else but what is that thing attached to your Mojo? 
The 2nd to last picture is an RHA DL1 Dacamp Mojo stack. The last picture is an Ibasso DX100 Mojo stack. The DX100 does Coax Optical and line out and will run 4 outputs at once so it's quite versatile for reviews as well as sounding amazing on it's own, let alone with a Mojo
@gunwale  the differences to me are quite clear but I have cheated a little by listening many many times with everything from $20 IEMs to AKG K1000s. If you aren't noticing the differences then I don't think you need to spend so much money on stuff like this. The money might be better invested in different headphones as they are much easier to pick up the differences on. It's a blessing for you that you are not hearing the differences, or perhaps, imagining the differences.....
The files are Ed Sheeran Parting Glass live at Wembley 90 second excerpt and Simple Minds She's a River 90 second excerpt - I have linked them in the review now
now i am thinking of getting the grace m9xx since it was made available again a few days ago.
 
is there anyone who have tried both idsd bl and m9xx?
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