Pros: Plays just about anything, great build quality, good sonic.
Cons: Tries to be a all-in-one but should focus on doing one thing really well.
When I decided to sell my Chord Mojo the iDSD was one of the units that got put on my list to research more. If you have a box to check, the spec sheet of the iDSD BL probably does it. Super High PCM sample rates, check, DSD, check, absurd wattage output, check, optical, USB, coax and analog inputs, check. On top of that iFi follows some great design and build practices, high quality material and parts are standard on every iFi product I've seen to date.
With my past AMP/DAC being truly portable with the Mojo and my current AMP/DAC Schiit Jotunheim) being more a standard desktop solution I found the iDSD BL to fall somewhere in between. With a price for the BL at $549.00 and the Mojo ($529.00) coming in slightly lower and the Jotunheim ($499.00) coming in even lower than that the iDSD BL has some stiff competition to compete against in the eyes of this reviewer.
I received the BL as part of a Head-Fi loaner tour. It went on to the next person when I was finished with my review. I have no connection to ifi other than this loaner tour.
HARDWARE AND SPECIFICATIONS:
Packaging & Accessories:
The BL comes in a nice box with a sleeve on the outside that has the graphics. The inner box is like a iPhone box and there are two smaller boxes below the iDSD to hold the accessories. There are a ton of accessories. USB 3.0, RCA, Optical mini adapter, 6.35 to 3.5mm TRS adapter, a bag, non skid silicone mat, two silicone bands and two adapters to go type A to type B usb. If you plan on using USB your going to need a lot of these cables and adapters as the USB input is a Type A male connector, not the typical USB type B (printer cable) you see on a lot of DACs.
One of the things I see repeated about the BLs specs is its 4 watt power output. Yes, it can do 4 watts, however that output is only into a 16 ohm load and it's likely only for a fraction of a second. Notice that the continuous power output figures are much lower and not at 16 ohm. Furthermore if you look at the continuous power output (which is a more real measurement of what the amp can do) they rate it at 64 ohms and its 1560 mW. Or wait, is it 1000 mW into 64 ohm continuous output, they are both listed on the page I linked.
I'm not saying the BL isn’t capable of powering most of the headphones out there, however, I think iFi should concentrate on providing solid ( and not conflicting ) values for output instead of some values for marketing to throw around. Additionally, those power values are given using turbo mode, yet for some reason the dynamic range measurement is done in ECO mode. Something tells me figures aren’t so pretty when measured in Turbo mode.
DESIGN AND BUILD:
SPDIF Coax (Rear)
SPDIF Optical (Rear)
*Note that the SPDIF ports are combined and limited to 192Khz PCM
3.5 mm TRS (Front)
RCA (Rear) Fixed or variable output
6.35 mm TRS (Front)
USB Power (provides 5V 1.5 Amp when BL is off)
I find the BL design to be a bit odd. Is it portable or more of a desktop solution? It's small-ish and can run off battery which would lead a lot of people to believe that it's portable product. However, it only has a 6.35 mm headphone output, which is normally found on full-size cans. I don’t see a lot of people rocking full size cans on the go. Also, with the exception of the apple CCK you're going to need some type of speciality cable to hook up your your Android phone or a DAP. The USB input is a male port and won’t work with the common cables I see being used with phones and DAPs. Yes, optical and coax are available to mobile users, however, your aren’t going to listen to anything over 192khz and DSD is out of the question. Additionally, all the cables they give you are for full size applications.
I was pretty excited to see the 5V 1.5A port on the side of the BL Thoughts of Volumio running on my Raspberry Pi feeding the BL while I move around the house were flying around my head. That is until I clicked on the BL and noticed that the power to that USB port is cut when the BL is powered on. I thought this would be nice for mobile users until I really thought about it, if my phone is dying/dead and I want to listen to music I need to charge it via a USB port. The power port on the side of the BL is not a USB input only power. OK, so someone with a DAP with plenty of power could listen to that while they charge their phone on the go. Nope, useless there to, don’t forget once you power the BL on that port goes dead. Not to mention with the BL connected to a DAP and your phone there is a mess of wires and quite a bit of bulk, not really portable. I really don’t get how someone would use this port. There are battery boost packs the size of my thumb that can charge my iPhone 6s a couple of times, Id much rather keep that in my bag than the BL.
OK, so the BL is more of a desktop solution. This makes sense given the 6.35mm headphone jack and the RCA outputs (variable and fixed output available). Then why have it use a battery, why try to make it small and powered off of USB? If it's meant to be a desktop solution, provide a traditional power input and increase the footprint a bit, give use a bigger volume knob.
I kind of get the feeling that the BL is like a swiss army knife, yes it's great when you can pull that toothpick out of your knife, or save the day with your bottle opener or some other trick tool. To have all that stuff you're making sacrifices in size or design somewhere else and most of the time all you really want is a good knife.
The BL and all the accessories it comes with actually are very nicely built. The chassis feels very solid and all the ports, knobs and switches feel solid. The black coating on the BL should hold up, if feel like I see this coating on a lot of products and it holds up well. Overall, the BL has very good build quality and is what you would expect at this price point.
USING THE BL:
The BL has three power levels, Eco/Normal/Turbo. I kept the BL in ECO most of the time with my Ether Cs. . Only when I needed a bit of a boost on a track with a low recording level did I use normal. The turbo made the volume knob a bit touchy as the power increases very quickly. With my HD6XX I used either normal at the very top of the range or turbo at the very bottom. Small volume adjustments in Turbo with the HD6XX were much easier.
I used the BL via USB with two Linux variants; Mint and Arch Linux (volumio) and both times was plug and play. Connecting the BL to my iPhone 6s via a CCK worked also and the CCK plug fits into the male USB port on the BL nicely without the need for any other cables. On Windows (7 and 10) a driver is required. I hate having to install drivers (this is a windows problem not a iFi problem) but iFi does make it easy, single file, click and it's installed. It's also just a single item in your programs. (unlike Chord which left 3 or 4 programs to uninstall)
The battery. It lasts a long time, I really didn’t use it in a portable situation during my review. However, I did have it connected via optical and wondered how it would fare without its USB power source. It lasted over night without going dead even though I left it powered on. The one issue I have is that it cannot run straight off the USB power source, it has to get some juice in the battery if left totally dead before you can listen again. This was one of the reasons I sold my Mojo, I guess I'm bad at remembering to plug it in at the end of a listening session. Also, if I am constantly going to have something plugged in why not just have a desktop solution with a real power source. By the time I unplugged the optical and USB it was just as easy to unplug my Jot power cable and the USB to move them.
HOW DOES IT SOUND:
First off I would like to cover some of the ‘sound enhancement’ features and switches of the BL.
3D+: Maybe this didn’t pair well with my headphones or just isn’t my cup of tea but I found this ruined whatever song it was applied to. I think the same effect could be gained with some bad EQ adjustments. The output from the BL becomes harsh and I could never leave it on for more than a short stint.
Xbass+: A bass head may like this feature. If you like the sound signature of your headphones and just sometimes just want a bit of a bass boost this isn’t going to be your cup of tea. There is a large boost in the bass and while it remains clean and I never heard distortion from it, it's just too much. Some of their other products have multiple stages of this bass enhancer but the BL does not, it's on or off. A dial or multiple stages is needed here.
The rest of the review is done with these two items in the off position.
Filter: Switching between bit perfect, minimum phase and standard resulted in no difference for me.
Other Gear Used During this Review:
Mr. Speakers Ether C v1.1 (No tuning pads): https://mrspeakers.com/shop/1-headphones/ether-c/
Sennheiser HD 6XX Headphones: https://www.massdrop.com/buy/massdrop-sennheiser-hd6xx
Schiit Jotunheim w/DAC: http://schiit.com/products/jotunheim [Jot used in single ended mode only]
[Source 1] Raspberry Pi running Volumio: http://www.head-fi.org/t/795895/a-70-bit-perfect-audio-player
[Source 2] Desktop PC (Windows 10 via USB running Foobar)
My initial impression of the BL when I first plugged it in was that there was way too much energy in the high end frequencies. Songs like The Chain from Fleetwood Mac would have an over emphasis on the tambourine and cymbals which became a bit distracting. As I normally do with a review, I spent a few days listening to only the BL, let my ears become accustomed to it and get to know the sound signature. Over this period the high end emphasis became less apparent but would still be noticeable during some songs.
I spent quite a bit of time listening to the BL, trying different genres and going through my normal review playlist. I found the BL to be extremely competent and it drove my Ethers (low impedence) and HD6XX (high impedence) with ease. I never found it running out of steam trying to reproduce low frequencies and it pulled a the detail out of my recordings that I was used to.
After a few days I started doing some A/B testing with my Jot. If you look at my other reviews I generally go through specific recordings and note the differences between a known (my Jot in this case) and the review sample. I ended up finding that I was writing the same thing over and over again so I figured I would just provide it once and save some bandwidth.
From a technical perspective I could be happy with the BL or the Jot. They both power my cans with lots of room to spare and other than the BLs high end issue I noted above they are on par with how they reproduce the music. Here and there I would think one was pulling a bit more detail than the other but without a switch box to rapidly switch it's really hard to say reliably that one is better than the other.
Overall, it will come as no surprise that I prefer the high end reproduction of the Jot. For bass and mids I really like the Jot better too. The BL has plenty of authority and control for the low frequencies but I just prefer the Jot. I found guitars coming out a bit warmer from the Jot, and it should be, an acoustic guitar really isn’t a cold instrument. We are starting to split hairs here though.
I think the biggest difference I noticed between the BL and Jot is I could sit back and listen to the Jot. With the BL I was always in review mode, not really enjoying the music. When doing my A/B tests I often end up getting off task and just listen to the music with a review sample. That never happened with the BL, I was always listening to it and not the music or just sitting back and enjoying myself.
I think the BL is a great example of what is possible today in audio. A device that can easily be transported, plays basically every format and bit rate available, and can power anything from IEMs to super high impedance over ear headphones. The BL provides a ton of options and flexibility, it can be used as a DAC and pre-amp for your speakers and has a wide variety of input options. The construction is top notch and all the ports and materials are top notch.
Furthermore, with the exception of the high end reproduction on certain songs I think it's very good sonically too. However, I never really enjoyed the BL, I never got lost in the music with it, I never ended up halfway through an album wondering how I got there. I wish I could give a characteristic or specification to express this better but I'm failing at finding a way to express it in more objective terms.
Finally, would I recommend the BL to someone? With the exception of someone who has very power hungry cans and wants a transportable (not portable) solution; I would say no. If you want a very competent portable player the BL isn’t it, it's not portable, I would only put it in the transportable category. You really can’t stuff it in a pants/coat pocket with your DAP. If someone doesn’t have the need for portability there are a ton of full-size and even transportable (within a house) solutions that come in at a lower price than the BL and are just as competent sonically.
This review is a bit short on details of the sonics of the BL but I found it really hard to spend a ton of time reviewing a product and trying to communicate every last detail about the sound when I really don’t think people should buy it. As I said earlier in the review I feel like the BL is the swiss army knife of the Head-fi world; if you're in the market for a DAC/AMP figure out what you really need and get a ‘knife’ that does what you really need and leave the gimmicks behind.
OTHER BL REVIEWS:
OTHER REVIEWS FROM ME: