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The only acceptable replacement for the most discerning audiophile's desktop stereo setups.

A Review On: iFi Audio micro iDSD

iFi Audio micro iDSD

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vapman
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Pros: Crazy amounts of power, beautiful sound, portable, doesn't require drivers to work.

Cons: Can't buy the special edition opamps on their own, costs money, will make your other gear suck in comparison

The original iDSD Micro stood out from the competition as an all-in-one replacement for the most discerning listeners' setups. The original iDSD Micro delivered - I had one, but as I started to not need a portable device anymore, I started comparing it to all the dedicated desktop gear I had. I had a glorious DAC and some very serious stereo power amps at the time - two Hafler DH500's running in mono. By the time I had re-configured my listening station to be all desktop again, my iDSD Micro didn't have much of a place since my desktop DAC - an E-MU 0404 with an AK4396 - could do the job. That was the end of my time with the original iDSD Micro. I sold it and moved on. However, after almost a year since then, I had completely dismantled my home stereo as a result of living in an apartment and getting too many noise complaints. That began my journey to find the setup the could replace that stereo with no compromises.

 

The new iDSD Micro Black Label is iFi's first major upgrade to the iDSD Micro. The very day I heard there would be a tour for it, I signed up and was ecstatic to find I had been one of the chosen reviewers for it. My hopes were that the Black Label wouldn't just match my crazy desktop setup - which could double my power bill just by being plugged in - but make it all seem lame in comparison.

 

I have gone thru tons and tons of gear in the decade or so I've been on Head-Fi. One of the few things that's been consistent in almost that whole time is one of my first big audio purchases - an E-MU 0404 USB I got shortly after it came out. So it's been in my hands for close to 15 years. It featured a beautifully implemented AK4396, and for a long time (up until maybe 2012 or 2013) I used it as my headphone amp too. It was the DAC that survived not only the original iDSD Micro but even the mighty Mojo.

 

 

 

Another one of my favorite DACs, although not a super expensive one - the Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium HD, like both the original and Black Label iDSD Micro, uses a Burr Brown DAC. I always found the SBX effects to be high quality on it. Since getting rid of my original iDSD Micro, I would switch between these two DACs. I ended up being a huge fan of the bMac, an Indonesian made & designed portable amp, which has kept its place on my desk for close to a year now. I had also gained a very strong affinity for the Parasound Zamp, with the gobs of power it could push to any headphone, and sound amazing doing so. After the tour was announced, but well before I received my unit, the Walnut V2 made its appearance on the Head-Fi map and became well respected as a very high quality but budget unit. Having a power output comparable to the iDSD Micro, I decided to settle with it as I liked its sound even as a desktop headphone amp.

 

Fast forward from the ending of 2016 to early February 2017. After a couple months of hearing nothing, and watching iDSD Micro Black Label reviews slowly pop up on the site - which I kept myself from reading to keep from having preconceived notions about its sound - I finally got the email. It was my turn at last to try the Black Label. Little did I know it would make me feel like the first day I got the E-MU instead of listening with my PC's built-in sound chipset, or the first time I heard $1,700 IEMs - you get the point.

 

 

The day it arrived, I got both my most recent favorite setup and the setup that beat the iDSD Micro many months ago, and got them ready and re-familiarized myself with them before switching to the Black Label. I don't even remember what headphone I tried first on the Black Label. The thing is, it doesn't matter. No matter what I tried, it was on a whole different level than any of my gear. My setup that had been my favorite up until that moment was dishearteningly muddy and flat in comparison to what I was hearing. The setup that nearly matched the original iDSD Micro in sound was lifeless and lacked dynamics compared to the Black Edition. And so, that marked the last day I was able to enjoy the setup I had until that point.

 

I knew the Black Label was all business. Custom-designed op-amps, a stunning capacitor selection, and some awfully bold claims about how much better it would be over the original. While I can't rip the op-amps out of this tour unit to try in other gear, and I doubt iFi would sell me some of their iFi/AMR op-amps, I've messed with enough op-amps in my life to know what to expect from a lot of them, and I know from my time with the Black Edition I like what I am hearing an awful lot.

 

A while back, I published a review on the Parasound Zamp, a 45 watt zone power amp that happened to have a headphone jack on the front of it. I praised it for its ability to breathe crazy amounts of life into any headphone you plug it. People got excited about it, and it was one of my most popular reviews. I've tried other amps that boast a high wattage output, but none are capable of being quite as dynamic and effortless as that Zamp did. Even if the original iDSD Micro couldn't do this job, the Black Edition definitely can and does. I think I spent at least 3/4 of my time with it in Turbo mode. I'm a bass head, a SPL freak and I love my headphones to sound like they're going to explode with energy. I could not find a headphone pairing that did not sound good on this amp, much like with the Zamp. And for how alive, crisp, and clear everything sounds, I probably would have been impressed if I was just hearing the amp section and didn't use the DAC at all. Using the original iDSD Micro I never wanted to use as an amp by itself, but the Black Edition has me enjoying the device as an amp thoroughly.

 

 

Speaking of bass - one of my bigger complaints about the original iDSD Micro was the bass boost switch hardly did anything. It made a very subtle difference which I felt was only really noticeable when you were listening at very high volumes. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the bass boost was certainly more present on this unit. On any headphones I used, it added a great amount of weight to the bass with any headphone I used. The background is silent and the detailing and clarity is top notch. When I was listening with more demanding headphones like the JVC SZ's, the difference was huge with the switch flipped.

 

The 3D option does roughly the same thing as the Sound Blaster's Crystallizer function. It essentially makes the sound a little more "V" shaped. I kept the 3D switch off for the majority of my listening, but never thought it sounded bad with it on. I don't tend to use the Crystallizer very often at all when I'm using my X-Fi anyway. What is clear is that the Black Label goes so much farther past the all-in-one replacement for your listening setup. For discerning and picky listeners who are not willing to accept any compromise, true music lovers who listen all day and can't tolerate a minute of downtime, this is the all-in-one unit for you.

 

The price and its similarity to the Mojo's price can not be ignored. The original iDSD Micro used to be compared to the Mojo, but I never felt that was a balanced comparison, even if they did the same jobs. Interface differences aside, the Mojo has a more unique sound. For me, that unique sound did not always work out. It made my MP3's and other lossy audio sound like garbage. Lossless sounded wonderful on the Mojo, but I don't have the kind of library that can be easily replaced with lossless copies. The Mojo failed to work out for me for this reason, regardless of the fact the volume control balls drove me insane and the charging mechanism was too flaky to work for someone who listens all day long and gets furious at any downtime. My Mojo only lasted a couple months before the aspects of it that bothered me outweighed my ability to enjoy it.

 

 

The Mojo is more easily compared to the Black Label, I think. Lossy audio still sounds great on the Black Label, but the Black Label - even on bit-perfect mode - offers such a fast and detailed yet slightly warm sound. I always felt the iDSD was the more honest of the two, and the Black Label is the best choice for me as it's honest, neutral, and balanced but offers the lush, refined sound the Mojo was capable of whereas the original iDSD Micro was not as capable. Before the Black Label, I think it would have been a much harder choice between the Mojo and the iDSD Micro. With the Black Label in the mix, the gap is so much smaller. The improvements iFi brought to the table with the Black Label really shows. No longer do you have to pick between two desktop stack replacements which approached the problem in completely different ways for a great all-in-one portable device. I noticed right away the overall sound character has tried to catch up to the competition, and it is my opinion that iFi did an excellent job of this. Anyone who thought the original iDSD Micro could stand to be brighter would probably not be the biggest fans of the changes iFi made. To anyone else, I would feel pretty confident it is only an upgrade. It's a move slightly more in the direction of how the Mojo sounds, and personally I like it a ton.

 

To be sure I get my point across by how impressed I am of the sound coming out of this device - all-in-one unit or not - my DAC and amp setup I had been using before this, I had replaced op-amps, capacitors, all manners of things to improve the sound quality to my liking. And while it all had approached and come fairly close to the Black Label's sound, it just simply can't catch up in any way. My setup had too much background noise and not a dynamic, crisp and quick enough sound to it. It was even a tiny bit like I was back in electrostatic territory listening to the Black Edition at times. I wasn't even happy with my setup's bass levels when I was switching back from the Black Label which took me by surprise. The bass power of the Black Label is not to be underestimated. 

 

On the day I got the tour unit, I was doing recording work in my studio and had it sitting on top of a tube compressor I was using. Of course, it made perfect sense that once I was done recording and going to listen back on headphones, I should first listen with the setup I had deemed best, and then listen straight out of the Black Edition.

 

In my pitch-black recording studio, I noticed the iDSD Micro BL illuminated by one of my tube compressor's VU monitors.

 

Listening to the Black Label has made me so uninterested in all the other DACs and amps I have lying around. They all are so inferior to the Black Label in my mind now. Every headphone I have tried it with, it's a gorgeous, lively pairing. There is no such thing as bad synergy with the Black Label. Everything works so amazingly with it, and the Black Label is able to make anything I throw at it - source material or headphones - sound the best I've heard most of it ever be.

 

While it did not provide a whole new world of clarity I hadn't heard through my DAC before, it did give me something I hadn't heard since that dual mono Hafler setup with the 0404 sitting on top. That dead silent background, perfect extension across the full frequency spectrum, no BS. All you got was the music, honest as possible, but sounding beautiful doing so. It is a gorgeous thing when there is truly no need for any tricks to make the source sound better than it really is. All you need is the perfect presentation of it. My years and thousands of dollars per year spent chasing this level of sound proves this was no easy feat. 

 

One of the other things I wanted to test out of the Black Label right away was its performance as a DAC if substituted for either my 0404 or modded X-Fi Titanium HD with the same amps afterward. The dual mono DAC design had me very interested in this model. It had lower noise and better detailing, speed and dynamics compared to the X-Fi Ti HD. Compared to the 0404 with the AK4396, the 0404 was a leaner and brighter sound. It did not have the slight warmness the dual Burr Brown setup in the X-Fi, but the 0404 also had a thinner and flatter sound in comparison.

 

The last time I've had this hard of a time giving up some review gear was when I was touring the Kumitate Labs IEMs. I never ended up getting one of those were too far out of my price range combined with my unwillingness to buy a custom IEM, with the KL-REF being close to $2000. Still, to this day it remains one of the most beautiful and well balanced sounds I've heard from any headphone. Going back to my gear after sending the Black Label back to iFi I know will feel like sending those Kumitates back. I just wanted to keep begging to spend another day with them. I had to force myself to keep listening when I was comparing my other gear to the Black Label because none of it was as good. None of it. I knew it was a winner when I couldn't stop trying different headphones through it, not because any of them weren't giving me the sound I wanted, but because they all sounded so ridiculously good out of the Black Label. I had been using headphones I hadn't tried in ages just to rock out because they all sounded so much better than I had remembered them. This isn't something I had done or really experienced since I was doing my Parasound Zamp review.

 

I had been struggling to find out how I was going to describe this device adequately in a review. I wanted to do it proper justice, not just say over and over "it was great! i loved it! everything was great!" and after several drafts I still have the feeling my whole review just reads like that. What I can't seem to emphasize properly is how to put my experience having the iDSD Black Label into the proper context.

 

 

Finally, the answer came to me on the weekend at 4AM. I was standing in my living room in my pajamas, JVC SZ2000 on my head, the iDSD Black Label in my hand, running off a super long USB extension cable into my PC. I had been tweaking my five-band parametric EQ and blasting crappy Italian Discomagic compilation CD's from the early and mid 1990's. I remember because I had Turbo mode on the Black Label and was pushing every last decibel of sub and mid bass out of my JVC SZ2000 as I could. As I was listening to the cheesy Italo disco mixes, I went back through all the Head-Fi meets I'd been to in my life and came to a realization. The most active meet I'd ever attended, which was in 2006, I listened to all the top of the line setups that existed eleven years ago. Nothing I was hearing was possible back then. Forget the bass power of the SZ2000 which just wasn't possible before JVC invented that - what about the Black Label itself? As a perfect stand-in replacement but not more than that, the original iDSD Micro was still a feat of technology that wouldn't have been possible in 2006, but I never got the impression with the original iDSD Micro that really took me by awe. The Black Edition was something that truly was not possible as long as a decade ago or even half a decade. Here was a box I could hold in my hand and not only could it match the sound of stacks of gear amounting to nearly $1,000 on their own - it was surpassing all of it in any possible way. Going back to any of my old setup results in one form of disappointment or another. And anything I heard that long ago, giant stacks of specialized gear isolated from one another and linked up with top of the line cables, to my own personal setup I've obsessively perfected over time, all crushed by the sound of the Black Label. This was truly the sound of audio perfection as far as I've heard. Maybe it won't be 5 years or a decade from now, that's fine because it's good enough to have turned the tables. I can shamelessly say this is what I hoped the Mojo would be. Not only having enough power to challenge the most power hungry headphones but sounding so glorious doing it, there is nothing else I could ask for.

 

The Sound Blaster seemed so worthless in comparison. No DSP can come close to matching the sound of bit-perfect music played so honestly, with so much perfectly controlled power. The E-MU could only compete when it was running thru the Zamp V3 - still one of the most amazing and perfect combinations I've ever heard in my life - but this offers so much more flexibility and doesn't require two AC outlets. That is what truly made this device so good to me. The sound quality and energy I could only get my running my all-time favorite DAC into a 45 watt desktop power amp, designed to drive speakers, with a gigantic toroidal transformer. The DAC also requires its own power supply. Two pieces of gear I had never been able to beat with anything bus or battery powered. And here it was! Worst of all, it wasn't even mine - I was last in line for my leg of the tour. I would go in between dancing and singing to these bargain bucket Italo house mixes and complete despair that I had to give it back to iFi. I just couldn't stop listening to it, day or night. Every minute I spent with the sub and mid bass boosted as high as 34dB and Turbo mode activated with my JVC's was to die for. And, yes, it's suitable for non bass heads too. More often than I could understand, I found myself with Turbo mode on but running no EQ and just having the XBass switch on with all my power-hungriest ear buds. But again I have to emphasize, it doesn't really matter what gear you use on this. No matter what it is, it's going to sound as good as it can possibly sound in the year 2017 as far as I am convinced. I spend thousands of dollars on gear per year chasing after this exact sound. I have no doubts that the Black Label is a turning point, as it would be remarkable even for a desktop only device in my opinion. To be in a battery powered, compact format is nothing short of mind-blowing, and the components that are upgrades over the original iDSD Micro enough to make any audio loving engineer shed a tear of delight.

 

 

Is it worth your hard earned money? I would feel better about getting this than I ever did about buying a Mojo. I could just have this and my PC running foobar2000 and I'd be set. There is nothing I could find lacking in this device compared to anything else I like to use to listen. In fact, the Black Label really brought out what was wrong with the rest of my system. I was worried if I liked this a lot I wouldn't be able to budget for it even if I stretched it, but my experience using this has completely and honestly made the rest of my DACs and amps seem useless. At this point, they are all inferior to the Black Label in my eyes. When I send it back to iFi, I'll be counting the days until I have one in my hands again. Really, after about 2 weeks spent with this unit, I haven't been able to bring myself to use anything else for more than a couple minutes. It's the new standard by which I will measure anything else, truthfully and honestly. I can only hope I don't have to go too long without it in my life. I've had iFi gear before but I'm fully convinced now they're entirely deserving of all my respect. I can't thank iFi enough for the opportunity to try this out, even if it did make me hate all my other DACs and amps. For a single device to be able to replace what I missed most about my 500 watt dual mono-block home stereo is truly remarkable. For it to be battery powered and pocketable is truly ridiculous. I do honestly think this is a new milestone in portable sound. Anybody else making combo DAC/amp units needs to take a serious lesson from this. iFi is not messing around and it is so obvious when you are listening to it. I can't help but recommend any lovers of that lively, energetic sound prioritize investing in this unit.

 

(edit: I realized I never mentioned my settings used. For nearly the entire time I had this, as with my original iDSD Micro, I had IEMatch disabled and the filter set to bit-perfect. Also, I failed to mention the IEMatch switches are more recessed than on the original iDSD Micro, which I appreciated.)

2 Comments:

Thank you for a great review!
Glad you appreciated it, @Lord Rexter. Thank you =)
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