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Great USB DAC with Decent Headphone Amp

A Review On: iFi Nano iDSD

iFi Nano iDSD

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ClieOS
Posted · Updated · 17495 Views · 17 Comments

Pros: Well built, features rich as a DAC with native PCM/DSD/DXD support, OTG for smartphone.

Cons: Headphone amp section isn't the best, Slight bulky for portable use.

[Impression] iFi nano iDSD and iCAN with a splash of iPurifer

iFi Audio has gained a great success over its Micro line of small sized desktop gears, and now it is pushing into the portable world with the Nano series. The nano iDSD is USB DAC that not only works with PC, but also has OTG support for the iDevice with OS7 (via camera connection kit / CCK) and Android that have USB Audio Class driver built-in (*for older Android that doesn’t have the driver, there is still a chance that USB Audio Player PRO will work). The nano iCAN on the other hand is a pure portable amp, but infused with the magical XBass and 3D Holographic Sound we have seen on the micro iCAN. Both are retailed under US$200.

 

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Spec

 

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iDSD nano

 

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iDSD nano

Power Source: Battery/USB Bus power

                                DAC/Amp always run on battery

Battery Life: ~10 Hours playback*

Formats: 44.1/48/88.2/96/176.4/192/384kHz PCM

                2.8/3.1/5.6/6.2/11.2/12.4MHz DSD

                353/384kHz DXD

                Bit-Perfect DSD & DXD DAC by Burr Brown (1-DAC Chip; 2-Channel; 4-Signals)

Filter:    PCM: Standard/Minimum Phase digital (selectable)

                DSD: Standard/Extended Range analogue (selectable)

                DXD: Bit-Perfect Processing, analogue filter (fixed)

Input:    USB 2.0

                Compatible with iPhone, iPod, iPad and Android Devices USB-OTG

Output: SPDIF RCA (only PCM up to 192KHz)

                Audio RCA

                3.5mm Headphone

Dynamic Range: over 104dB

THD &N (35mW): Less than 0.005%

THD &N (Line): Less than 0.005%

Output Power (16R): over 130mW

Output Voltage: over 1.65V (over 100Ω)

Output Impedance (Zout): Less than 1Ω

Power Consumption: Less than 3W (charging battery and playback together)

Dimensions: 87(l) x 68(w) x 28(h) mm

Weight: 162g (0.43lbs)

 

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iCAN nano

 

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iCAN nano

Power Source: Battery / external 9V

Battery Life: ~70 Hours

Input:    RCA Stereo

                3.5mm

Output 6.3mm Headphone

                3.5mm adapter included

Analogue Processing / EQ: X-Bass, 3D Sound

Gain: 6dB/18dB (selectable)

Input Impedance: 100k

Output Impedance: Less than 1 ohm

SNR: 112dB(A)

THD &N (100mW): Less than 0.02%

Output Power (32R): 150mW (external power)

Dimensions: 87(l) x 68 (w) x 28 (h) mm

Weight: 160g (0.35lbs)

 

Accessories and Build Quality

Both gears come in pretty standard iFi while hard paper box, which we have seen on the micro line. With nano iDSD, you will get an RCA cable, an USB cable, a soft pouch, 4 rubber feet sticker and a pretty simple manual. With nano iCAN, you get the same RCA cable, soft pouch and rubber feet sticker, plus a 6.4mm-to-3.5mm adapter, 2 rubber bands, a small screw driver that is meant to help on pushing the gain switches, and a 9V iFi Ultra-Low-Noise power adapter. Two accessories that I wish iFi had included are a lower profile 6.4mm-to-3.5mm adapter and a short microUSB-to-USB-B OTG cable (*and I reckon a short USB-A-to-USB-B cable for the Apple foes). Both are actually not that easiest thing to find, but I was eventually able to source them from TaoBao myself. While the included 6.4mm-to-3.5mm adapter is fine by itself, it is really quite protruding with the 3.5mm plug from the headphone. I was able to find a lower profile version of the adapter that is 6mm lower. Well, every bit helps when you are traveling around.  As for the OTG cable, there simply isn’t that many places that you can find OTG cable for an USB-B socket.

 

Build quality is pretty much top notch for both the nano, which isn’t surprising as we have seen such level of quality on the micro series. LED indicator is located on the top, near the rear, with different color indicating different status. The shape of the housing is a bit awkward for a portable device, mainly due to the irregular shape of the front and back plate. The overall design of the nano series is pretty much like the micro series but half in length. Some of the elements that make perfect sense in the more desktop oriented micro series do look a little odd in a portable setting – such as RCA sockets, 6.4mm socket in nano iCAN and the USB-B socket in nano iDSD. I would think 3.5mm socket and micro USB might be more appropriate, as far as convenience is concerned, even though they are not that big of a deal. Beyond those, both nano are well designed and built.

 

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iDSD nano

 

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Battery Life

Nano iDSD can be run on both battery and USB power. If you switch it on before connecting to a PC or smart device, then it will run on pure battery power until the battery is flat. If you switch it on after connection, it will begin recharging. That makes it easier for the use with smartphone as many will reject USB DAC that draw too much power. The quoted battery life is about 10 hours on battery, which is pretty spot on from my own experience. For the most part, it will last around a day of normal usage before needing to recharge. That shouldn’t be a problem given most modern day smartphones probably won’t run much longer as well.

 

Nano iCAN on the other hand can run for a very long time before a recharge is required. The official number is around 70 hours. I haven’t actually drained the battery dry to test the battery life but it does seems to last like forever with a single charge. The only minor complaint I have with the nano iCAN is that it can only be recharged with the ULN adapter, which means you have to bring it with you on a long travel. The upside is that nano iCAN has more power when plugged in. So it is the case of win-some-lose-some.

 

 

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iCAN nano

 

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The gain switch on the bottom of nano iCAN

 

Gain, Hiss and EMI

The max voltage output on the nano iDSD is about 1.66V, pretty close to the 1.6V quoted in spec. It is not full 2V line level, but it should be plenty for portable use. From my observation, the RCA socket on the front is linked to the 3.5mm headphone socket and both are controlled by the volume knob, so the nano iDSD doesn’t really offer a line-out. According to iFi, the volume knob is actually a digital control over analog attenuation so you won’t lose any digital resolution by using it, yet it should offer near perfect channel balance at any volume. My measurement over the voltage output pretty much confirm that the channel balance is indeed perfect. They also point out that turning the volume to max essentially remove any analog attenuation and the signal should be at its best SNR, to approximate a line-level signal. Hiss is pretty good. Even with the hiss prone Shure SE530, I can’t hear any until the volume knob has passed around 2 o’clock, and that’s way too loud in normal listening with SE530. EMI is quite excellent on the nano iDSD as it remains in total silence right next to a smartphone when receiving call.

 

Nano iCAN offers two levels of gain, 6dB and 18dB. I’ll consider both being too high for IEM and sensitive headphone. You will probably want a low gain between 0~3 dB for IEM. As a result, hiss is quite noticeable with SE530 and I assume it will be the same for most of the sensitive IEM. EMI is also not particularly good as it is quite noticeable during call. That means the nano iCAN won’t be a good pairing with smartphone in general. Also, there is click and pop during startup and shutdown. Not very severe, but I’ll recommend unplugging headphone before startup / shutdown, especially if your headphone is quite sensitive. Unlike nano iDSD, the volume control in nano iCAN is fully analog, so there is some channel unbalanced coming from the volume pot when it is under 9 o’clock.

 

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A comparison of the stock 6.4mm-to-3.5mm adapter (left) and the low profile adapter I found (right)

 

Sound Quality and EQ

As usual, I started my sound quality review on amp and DAC with an RMAA measurement. With nano iDSD, when measured under 16bit 48kHz PCM, you can clearly see the difference between the Standard and Minimum Phase filter used (selectable at the back of nano iDSD). Standard filter only has a tiny, inaudible -0.2dB roll off near 20kHz; with Minimum Phase filer however, it is a more noticeable -3dB @ 20kHz. If I am not mistaken, it is likely a Butterworth filter we have seen on many Hifiman players before. The filter selector switch also engages different filter during DSD and DXD playback as well, but I am not that interest in DSD/DXD so I won’t go into detail about them. Beside the effect of the filter, the rest of the frequency response is about as flat as it can be. With nano iCAN, the frequency response is also flat from 20Hz to 20kHz. The rest of the RMAA result has revealed no problem with either nano – noise, dynamic range, stereo crosstalk, etc are all fairly respectable. Per my measurement, output impedance for the nano iDSD and nano iCAN are both well below 1 ohm. Output current on the nano iDSD is low but adequate, but decently abundance on the nano iCAN. Overall, I didn’t find anything wrong during measurement.

 

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The Standard filter vs Minimum Phase filter in nano iDSD.

 

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iCAN with and without XBass enable

 

From my own personal experience - when it comes to USB DAC + amp, the common trend for most manufacturer is that they start with a good amp section first, then squeeze in a DAC that is just adequate for the job. Therefore many of them are more of an amp than they are a DAC. On the nano iDSD however, I’ll say you are getting a hell lot more of a DAC than an amp. If I am not mistaken, iFi is using the TI TPA6130A2 as nano iDSD’s headphone driver. It is a chip we had previously seen on FiiO E5 and E7. While it is not bad per se, it isn’t great either. It will drive your typical headphone well enough, but it doesn’t quite have the wow factor of a really good, full blown amp section. The good news is that nano iDSD does sound better than an E7, no doubt thanks to the far more mature DAC section, but you can still detect a sense of warmness that is typical to the TPA6130A2. Where nano iDSD really shine is when it is used as a source to feed into a better amp. Yes, technically you are double amping, but the result is well worth the effort [update] According to iFi, technically TPA6130A2 only acts purely as the buffer stage of the DAC when the volume is turned to max, so it is not double amping per se. Another area that nano iDSD distinguishes itself is as an OTG devices for smartphone. While nano iDSD might not be the best sounding USB DAC there is, it is still far better than the built-in audio section of most smartphone out there. If you are using Android, with third party app like USB Audio Player PRO, you can even have full HD playback without a problem, PCM and DSD included.

 

One of the reason why I think nano iDSD is more of a DAC is how many features that iFi is able to pack inside. In the heart of nano iDSD sits one of TI’s top of the line DAC chip, the DSD1793. If you were to look up its datasheet, you will find it doesn’t support as much native DSD/DXD decoding as iFi has claimed. How did iFi do it then? Well, they were able to dig up some hidden features that are designed into the chip but not officially documented. Then they develop a custom XMOS solution to enable all those extra stuffs that you won’t find on any other DSD1793 implementation outside of iFi. The result is a sub$200 USB DAC that has features than usually belong to DAC that is priced in the thousands. As I have said, I am not that into DSD / DXD myself. But if you looking for a DAC that supports DSD / DXD in real native decoding, I don’t think you will find another USB DAC that does them all for such a price tag, especially one that also works well with smartphone..

 

So how about nano iCAN? From what I can tell, the basic amp topology seems to utilize an OPA1642 for gain stage, followed by MAX9722 as buffer. In between them, there are the Xbass and 3D Holographic Sound that I have nothing to say but praise for. As I have said on another review, MAX9722 can go from mediocre to really good, depends on the implementation. iFi has utilized it quite successfully on the micro iDAC, and the new implementation seems to work fairly well on the nano iCAN too. Subjectively speaking, nano iCAN doesn’t quite have the kind of maturity and effortlessness found on JDS Labs C5, but it has no problem matching up to FiiO E12. With E12, you get a sense of tighter control, power and intimacy. With nano iCAN, it is more neutral with better clarity and a really wide soundstage, even before the EQ is turned on. All and all, I won’t categorize nano iCAN as a top-tier portable amp in the sub-$200 price bucket, but it is definitely a very close runner-up.

 

The thing that really makes nano iCAN unique is however its XBass and especially the 3D Holographic Sound EQ. Sometime hardware EQ can be over implemented in portable amps, such as the case of C&C BH, where it helps a lot on some music but also ruins the whole image on others. The way iFi does its EQ is much gentler yet remains effective. They do exactly what they are meant to do without making anything sounds artificial or out of place. The degree of refinement is something I haven’t experienced on EQ from another brand of portable amp.

 

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iPurifier

To explain it in a simple way, I guess you can say that iPurifier is a kind of EMI filter for USB transmission. I have tried it on my desktop setup, with both nano iDSD and micro iDAC, but doesn’t found it to make any noticeable difference. I do however find that it darken the background when pairing with my Xperia Z2 + nano iDSD a bit, though the effect is pretty subtle. Given it is meant to filter EMI, it makes sense as such since my desktop setup hasn’t really known to have suffer any EMI issue at all. I guess iPurifier is one of those devices that would really help if there is already a persistent case of EMI over the USB connection. Otherwise, you might be able to get away without one. It is more of a fine tuning tool rather than an instant improvement.

 

Just an extra note – iPurifier comes with an USB-B to mini USB adapter for the portable USB DAC, but I do hope it has an USB-B to micro USB adapter as well, since micro USB has become more and more dominant even among small USB DAC.

 

[update 2] Upon reading about the comment above, iFi has decided to included the micro USB adapter into the iPurifier package in the future.

 

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Size Comparison (from left): JDS Labs C5, FiiO E12DIY, nano iCAN, micro iCAN, nano iDSD, iPurifier.

 

Sum-up

I was thoroughly impressed by the micro series when they hit the market. While the nano series might not be quite the big smasher on performance as their elder siblings, they are themselves no sloth either. iFi Audio has managed to pack in some unique features to both nano iDSD and iCAN to make them stand out from the sea of portable amps and DAC in the market, while still makes sure they stay competitively priced. That’s no small feat on its own.

 

A thanks to iFi Audio for the samples.

17 Comments:

Excellent review, as is the usual result from ClieOS.  I am intrigued by the iFI products, but the review is not really selling me, to be frank.  The value seems to be there, with respect to a great set of features, build quality, et al., but not much is said about the sound.  One of the challenges I have with the iCan for portable use is I would have to carry a 9V wall-wart around to keep it charged (as opposed to charging via USB, which I am already carrying for my phone and tablet).
^^^ EDIT to the above: what I really meant to say was I don't feel like the author was impressed with the SQ (obviously, much was written about the sound itself in the review).
Nicely done review! I was wondering if you or anyone else has done a comparison between the nano iDSD and the micro iDSD? 
I have a nano iDSD and ClieOS is right on the mark regarding the details. The amp section is an afterthought but works great with my highly sensitive headphones, although I am still better off connecting an amp in line, esp. for the soundstage. Which brings me to the exact relevance of this pair when considered in context of the Micro iDSD. the nano iDSD I get to an extent but the op-amp based iCan Nano? I am not a businessman but it seems like ifi Audio just took an axe to its own legs. Both of them cost ~$300-350 whereas the iDSD Micro is $500 and seems like a VERY worthwhile upgrade, esp. because it gives up to 4 Watts of power! Any insights folks?
 
Tuxan1- read this great thread for a comparison between the Nano and Micro
http://www.head-fi.org/t/728236/ifi-idsd-micro-dsd512-pcm768-dac-and-headphone-amp-impressions-reviews-and-comments/360#post_10804805
@Krutsch If every review ended up with 'highly recommended with no reservation!!!' or "throw this into the bin!!!", it will get old very soon and frankly, doesn't serve much of a purpose as a review. Unfortunately, it seems to be a trend these days for reader to expect either a thumb-up or thumb-down but not something in between. Personally, it doesn't make sense for me as a reviewer to write a sensational review just for the sake of being sensational. That has already been done way too often all over the place.
 
I think if I were to put it another way, I'll say there are certain aspects of both nano that are head and shoulder above the competition, such as the native DSD / DXD decoding and OTG support on iDSD nano and the hardware EQ on the iCAN nano. But on the other hand, there are certain aspects that don't quite do it for me, such as the headphone amp of iDSD nano and the EMI / gain on the iCAN nano. Then again, can anyone expect absolute perfection from a portable gears at $200? I'll say that will be an tall order. For the most parts, I have to give it to iFi as both iDSD and iCAN nano have done their job admirably and compared favorably to others within the price range, especially since I have played with amp and DAC that cost a lot more but don't deliver as much. The iDSD and iCAN nano are just not the "giant killer" from the perspective of the review, but you can hardly count that as a fault.
 
@Tuxan1 No competition, micro iDSD just smashes both nano to pieces. I'll write a review on it later.
 
@ashutoshp Yes, the nano iDSD + iCAN combo is pretty good, but the price tag is pushing it closer to micro iDSD, so might as well save a bit more for the micro to save you from the trip of upgrading in the long run.
@ClieOS OK, got it. No one is looking for a "sensational review" from a respected reviewer.  But you have to appreciate that as someone who reviews a lot of gear, you have heard/experienced more equipment than most folks on head-fi.  As such, we really *do* want to know how a product stacks up - i.e. would you spend your own money to buy one, given what else is out there?  My take on your review is the answer is 'No'; even though you state that the product is a great value, comparing features and price, etc.  That's all I meant by my original comment.
@ClieOS Thank you for taking the time to write the review, as well as your very thoughtful responses to questions.
@Krutsch Ok, the question of whether I'll buy the nano iDSD myself is related to a few more questions: First, do I have a need of a portable USB DAC like nano iDSD and second, are there better option for the price? The answer is 'no' and 'no'. I do not use my smartphone for music (given battery is already as short as it is on flagship smartphone) and rather carry a separated DAP for the job. Of course I also have a great desktop setup at the moment and nano iDSD won't be an upgrade. So are there better option  for a portable USB DAC+amp that is better than nano iDSD? Well, it depends what is better - If better means biggest soundstage or better clarity, then yes. If better means a tremendous headphone amp, then yes as well. But the thing is, is there any other single USB DAC+ amp unit that is better than all aspects found on nano iDSD? I don't think I know any. One of the biggest feature on the nano iDSD is its native DSD / DXD decoding, and that is pretty much unique to iFi and you won't find another portable USB DAC+amp that has the same capability of nano iDSD - but as I have also said in my review, I don't actually care that much about DSD / DXD since I don't use them. So you have to realize that I don't really have a lot of reason to pick a nano iDSD up, and as such, it is reflected on my review. But for anyone who do want DSD / DXD decoding on an OTG devices, I have no problem recommending nano iDSD, given it is probably the only of such device in the market right now that is under $200. In fact, you can double the budget to $400 and won't find that many USB DAC+amp that do all the native DSD / DXD decoding on-the-go. That's what I means when I said in the review that nano iDSD 'stand out from the sea of portable amps and DAC in the market'. That is, it has a unique set of features that will appeal to those who need them, but might not be the same for others. If I were to go out on my way to tell everyone to pick one up, then it will be just hyping for no good reason.
p/s: The reply above is meant to go above Krutsch's reply, as the only way to edit is to delete the original reply and repost again, hence why his reply came out before mine.
ClieOS wrote: "No competition, micro iDSD just smashes both nano to pieces. I'll write a review on it later".
 
 While the Nano probab. sounds competitively decent, IMHO, you should've waited and presented both reviews concurrently (or done a quicker review job with the Micro, to get them both out the door simultaneously). Some folks whose needs are immediate may, later, feel "forced" to upgrade ... that's human nature ... and product marketers may time/schedule street dates to take advantage of this. 
That said, it is understandable that Reviewers are a bit under-the-gun, too ... sample may have to be returned to manuf. ... or if the review sample is free, and the reviewer leans a bit politically favorable. 
I don't want to do quick review, or at least try to avoid doing it as much as I can. I am firm believer that a full review should be written by the person who actually took the time to understand and use the product on a regular basis, not just a quick half an hour playing around then mashing everything together. The accumulation of experience and the reflection of thought can't be short-cut, at least not for me. I don't actually enjoy spending hours writing stuff - so unless it is worth my time to sum up the thought, I really won't want to write it. That's my own respect to the work.
 
Back in the old days when I first joined head-fi, it took people months and sometime year to feel comfortable to write a full, really in-depth review. We are already in too fast a world, and it is not always a good thing.
@ClieOS - Thanks for your comments. Much appreciated!
ashutoshp - Thanks ... interesting article.
@ClieOS - You mentioned, "I also have a great desktop setup at the moment and nano iDSD won't be an upgrade." I am interested in a "great desktop DAC" which is known for a big soundstage. Any suggestions as to put on a short list in the under $1000 range?
My current setup is iDAC + iTube, but I also have Asus Essence STU and STX II, Audiotrak Dr.DAC3 and FireStone CustomCute - all excellent DAC of their own. Of course, I also have the micro iDSD with me. For the $1K budget, I'll go fir the micro iDSD + iTube, which combines an excellent DAC, headphone amp as well as tube buffer for desktop speaker. That's almost a complete setup for any occasion.
Nice review. This one adds to others I have read and partly one of the reasons I ordered the iFi iCan Nano. I really like that little amp. Makes for a nice combo with my iBasso DX90.
 
I'm thinking about getting the iDSD Nano and pair the two for my laptop and use for portable sound-system.
Thanks so much for your comments gentlemen. 
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