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Amp/DACs item created by joe, Aug 5, 2014
Pros - Accessories, finish, power, hardware settings
Cons - Volume unbalanced at low settings
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Pros - Smooth delivery of orgasmic sound. Powerful enough to drive a planar, whilst gentle enough for sensitive IEM.
Cons - xBass+ can get a tad bit too heavy.
I will be comparing both the iDSD and the iDSD Black Label (called BL for short) with the XBass turned on as default as that is what I am used to listen. Each unit will be given a rating and at the end, the highest score wins. For a consistent result, I will be using my Hifiman HE-560 and 64 Audio U10 UIEM with Effect Audio Ares cable. I will not be swapping too many gears in order to not create too many variations. An ABX tester will be used so I can switch between the unit easily. All songs are ripped as AIFF from cd's. I will leave my thoughts on the stack integration and other headphones at the end. Do note that with your gear YMMV.
Counting Crows - Big Yellow Taxi
Immediately, with the harder and punchier bass of the iDSD BL, I thought this song had a clear winner. Vocals were thicker, more musical, and by the mid of the song, I was tapping my feet and bobbing my head. Further switching between the 2 units made me realise that although the bass on the iDSD was not as punchy, the guitar strum just before the chorus sent chills down my spine thanks to its brighter treble. A thing to note is that while the HE560 liked the bass boost, but the low end got a bit too boomy for the U10 IEM.
iDSD - 4/5 | iDSD BL - 4/5
Eagles - Life in the fast lane
My gripes previously was that the bass is too light on the track with the iDSD. Now though, the iDSD BL presents a harder bass kicks in the opening, overall enhacing the imaging and musicality of the song. XBass and 3D is an appropriate option to use as it carries the song up to another level - closer to the live experience.
iDSD - 3/5 | iDSD BL - 5/5
Norah Jones - Crazy
The iDSD BL brought Norah Jones directly to my room. The darker Black Label makes her voice sound as smooth as honey. Her voice just tickled my ears bringing me to a huge grin. The notes from the double bass and piano was well rounded and punchy which added some depth to the sound.
iDSD - 4/5 | iDSD BL - 5/5
Babyface - Change the World (w Eric Clapton)
The leaner iDSD takes the cake here due to the airy presentation. It brings out the details in the choir, hi hats, the electric piano and the bongo. I had to turn off the XBass on the BL as it was covering the detail in the song passage. Marks to the brighter iDSD.
iDSD - 5/5 | iDSD BL - 3/5
Joe Hisaishi - My Neighbour Totoro Opening theme
Again the airier iDSD beats the iDSD BL in this song. You can hear every instrument clearly thanks once again to the more neutral presentation. I tried adding in the 3D setting, while better, it could not sound as clear as the iDSD.
iDSD - 5/5 | iDSD BL - 3/5
The Blue Hearts - Linda Linda (J Punk Rock)
the iDSD can make the treble slightly splashy but more detailed. The iDSD BL controls the song better but could be duller in presentation.
iDSD - 4/5 | iDSD BL - 5/5
Aerosmith (ft Carrie Underwood) - Can't stop loving you.
The brighter iDSD emphasises the guitar strums but it can get a bit fatiguing if you are sensitive to high frequencies. the iDSD BL tames the highs and adds more depth to the song. However, Carrie Underwood's voice seem to be very slightly muffled due to the darker sound signature. the iDSD projects her voice and overall instruments better.
iDSD - 4/5 | iDSD BL - 4/5
Scars - James Bay
The iDSD projects James Bay's voice better, but lacks the depth that the iDSD BL provides. The bass kicks can get slightly boomy with the xbass turned on. The level of detail for both units remain excellent however.
iDSD - 5/5 | iDSD - 5/5
AC/DC - Hard Times
iDSD BL has got this song in its grip. The darker signature gives depth and really brings out the hard rock genre of this song. Hi-hats are well controlled but still remaining detailed. That Gibson electric guitar just sounds so rich with the iDSD BL.
iDSD - 4/5 | iDSD BL - 5/5
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - Downtown (feat. Nally)
I love this song due to the quirky nature, and more importantly a mixture of a lot of instruments and styles. The iDSD BL sent a massively (good) deep bass into my head thanks to the xBass boost (Although with the bass can get too messy with the U10). It is a toss between the 2 as the iDSD has more detail and sounds more forward. But in the end I had to give it to the iDSD BL for making me enjoy the song tremendously.
iDSD - 4/5 | iDSD BL - 5/5
Final thoughts between the iDSD and iDSD Black Label.
I would call this unit a more matured iDSD with minor refinements that makes it great. I rated the Black Label 44/50 (compared to 42/50 for the iDSD). With my gear, the Black Label is darker overall with a slightly higher low end, and very ever so slightly recessed treble. Although I reckon that they may have added a touch too much boost to the XBass+. It would be nice if it came with a 2 step selector like on the iCan. Compared to the iDSD, the iDSD is a little more airy and detailed, but somewhat sterile and boring. The 3D+ setting is better implemented but I do not use them most of the time. Toggling it on certain songs (unplguged/live) can certainly complement the song, but use it wisely. All that said, if you are looking for an all-in-one solution, you cannot go wrong with both. The iDSD BL would be more polite to most songs, and also able to satisfy your inner bass-head, but could be too much for cans like the Beyerdynamic DT770, Fostex TH900 and Shure SE846.
Things that I would like to see on future revisions
2-step Bass toggle (found in the iCan), USB to Lightning cable for instant connection for iDevices.
Pros - Desktop class sound, DAC/amp very versatile for a wide range of iem/hp pairings, neutral and resolving yet engaging sound signature that pairs easily
Cons - Only (trans)portable, not quite convenient to use with DAPs, 3D switch a bit too close to volume knob may cause accidents
For the purposes of this review I will refer to the iDSD Micro Black Label as the BL
Thanks and appreciation goes out to iFi Audio for organizing this tour – it is a privilege to be given this opportunity to review the BL. This unit will be returned after 1 week to be passed on to the next reviewer in the tour.
This is my second official review on Head-Fi, so I would gladly welcome any suggestions for improvement, or tips on what I could include so that it would be more helpful for other Head-Fi’ers in evaluating gear for purchase. I thought a bit about how to structure this review because I generally find it challenging to review DACs as compared to headphones or earphones. This is because it is not as easy to generalize a DAC’s characteristics and sonic qualities as compared to a headphone (or earphone), and they might sound slightly different with various pairings. I think that the most useful way to pin down a DAC’s sonic performance is to compare how it performs with different headphones and also comparing it with other DACs.
I value timbre and tonality, then resolution and soundstaging (depth and realism over plain width). My listening preferences tend toward neutral but slightly dark, and I appreciate good low-end extension, texture and slam. I’m a vocal lover so the midrange is very important to me – mids need to have clarity but retain a level of musicality so that it is engaging and not sound congested or too analytical/hollow. I’m highly sensitive to treble, and harsh/uneven/forward treble can fatigue me easily. However, I appreciate high quality treble e.g. tonal correctness vis-à-vis real instruments as I know them (cymbal/violin tones) without any glare or peaks. High quality gear tends to tick most of these boxes easily.
Packaging and Accessories:
The BL comes in a standard white box, and includes –
1) felt pouch for the BL
2) female USB A to female USB B cable
3) 3.5mm to 3.5mm adaptor
4) rubber pad (presumably for putting under the BL on a tabletop)
5) USB A male to USB B male adaptor
6) Two black rubber bands (for stacking the BL)
7) 3.5mm to 6.35mm jack
8) Standard manual that explains the jacks and switches that can be found on the BL
Design and Build:
The BL is solidly built, and beautifully finished. I personally love the metallic black finish, and aesthetically I prefer it to its predecessor in silver. It is a compact design, and at times I still wonder how iFi has packed all that functionality into its chassis. I wouldn’t exactly call it portable but it is definitely transportable, especially if you are one who usually carries a small bag around e.g. a messenger or backpack (like I do). The volume knob allows you to do very fine adjustments, which can be very useful, and is quite smooth but retains enough traction for accuracy and to avoid accidental volume changes. The only gripe I have about the layout here is that when toggling the 3D switch I have the tendency of accidentally pushing the volume knob as well, because of my fat thumbs. People who have leaner digits or greater finger dexterity should have no worries though.
The XBass and 3D switches feel sturdy and have a nice tactile feel when flipped. There are switches at the bottom of the BL, one for toggling between using it as DAC/Amp and as DAC only, and IEMatch, for toggling in use with highly sensitive earphones. There are 3 other switches at the side of the BL, one for power mode, one for polarity and the last for sound filters. I find that the 3.5mm input jack and the 6.35mm output jack is well placed for portable use, because that means that you can stack and still place the BL in an upright position in your back with those jacks facing up, allowing for fairly convenient volume manipulation on-the-go.
Schiit Lyr (Philips 6DJ8 tubes)
Earwerkz (now Empire Ears) Legend Omega
Some of the tracks I used:
1) Don’t Know Why – Norah Jones 24/192
2) Spanish Harlem – Rebecca Pidgeon DSD128
3) Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48: II. Valse: Moderato – Tempo di valse – LSO String Ensemble 24/96
4) Photograph – Ed Sheeran 16/44.1
5) Birds – Coldplay 16/44.1
6) What About Me – Snarky Puppy 16/44.1
*note that I may not always comment specifically for each track in my review, but I am open to requests if you need specific information.
Well here comes the most important part. I am running Audirvana+ on a 2011 Macbook Air 13”. Settings on the BL are usually on ‘Normal’ mode with IEMatch off unless specified.
The first setup sees the Sony A15 as DAC, with line out into the BL, paired with the Aurisonics Rockets. The second setup uses the Onkyo DP-X1 as transport, feeding the BL with USB into the HD650. Then, comparisons 1 and 2 pit the BL against the Concero HD, which is a widely praised DAC and my desktop driver, albeit with less functionality than the BL but priced higher ($549 for the BL and $850 for the Concero HD), through the HE400S and the HD650. In the comparisons I usually kept the bass and 3D switches off in order to give a fairer comparison, and added comments about their selective use.
Comparison 3 tries to pin down the performance of the BL in driving custom monitors (BA drivers), in contrast to my usual DAP, the Onkyo DP-X1.
Sony A15 (Line Out) > BL > Aurisonics Rockets (and HD650)
I remembered that I had the line out jack for the A15, and added this setup because I considered that this is actually a transportable option. Besides, iFi does provide 2 black bands for those who might want to stack the BL with their DAPs. It may not be convenient for many but the sound quality may change your mind. This is desktop quality sound, available on-the-go.
I volume-matched the A15 with and without the BL as accurately as I could, and I loved what I heard. Even with the XBass and 3D switches off, the audible difference is already significant. Comparing ‘Don’t Know Why’ by Norah Jones with and without the BL, there are immediate gains in air, space, and imaging, with greater vocal presence and resolution. Norah Jones’ voice is more focused; instrument placement increase in definition and clarity, and soundstage also gains some width and air.
With the XBass toggled on, the midbass is pleasantly elevated to give a little more slam, decay and texture. By texture I mean that the bass can be ‘felt’ more – a little bit more tactile. The caveat is that not everyone might like this difference, because it may be a little too much north of neutral for some. Without also toggling the 3D switch on, the presentation turns a little dark.
I loved the presentation with both the XBass and 3D switches turned on. The 3D switch re-balances the tonality of only the XBass switch by giving the music a treble lift. But that is an understatement. In this setup the 3D switch seems to provide a more ‘open’ sounding presentation. Vocals become a bit more forward and engaging without losing transparency. The soundstage increases in height, fills up the imaginary area somewhere above your forehead, along with a tad more width. The presentation also gains a lot more air and instruments have more breathing room and are nicely separated. The treble moves from the sonic background to a place where it suddenly has a little more sparkle and clarity.
The result? Greater immersion into the music with excellent resolution, transparency, and musicality. Switching back to the A15 alone causes the music to sound compressed and somewhat claustrophobic. Given that the A15 has a small footprint, I would actually seriously consider this portable stack as a serious rig that gives you desktop class performance that you can actually carry around in a messenger bag.
(I tried this stack with the HD650 just for kicks, of course with power mode on “Normal” and IEMatch “Off”. Turning the XBass on put the thump into the low end of the HD650s, however, it might not always be tasteful depending on track and preference. In many cases it changes the HD650s bass from being heard to being felt, working well as a result. I also toggle the 3D effect on simultaneously, and for most tracks, again, most noticeably makes the stage taller and more immersive, and adds air in the vocals and slightly more instrument definition. Imaging improves, together with a greater sense of realism. Even on a track with heavy cymbal work, tonality is never compromised, and with the HD650 the presentation still maintains its coherence and cohesiveness. However, as I note later (heads up), I suspect that more treble oriented cans might not synergize tonally as well with this pairing. I am really enjoying how a (trans)portable stack can drive HD650s properly.)
Onkyo DP-X1 > BL > HD650
The HD650s are the stuff of legend, and are well known for their audio quality. In fact, Massdrop recently ran a drop in collaboration with Sennheiser for the HD6XX, which basically replicates the sound signature of the HD650s. The HD650s are known to be slightly dark with a musical and lush midrange presentation, with the ability to scale up with better sources and amps.
As tracks are playing I experimented with the BL’s power settings. I found that the “Turbo” drove the HD650s better than in “Normal” mode, but with the drawback of not having much volume control headroom – in between being too soft with channel imbalance or too loud for any listening comfort. In comparison to “Normal”, I found “Turbo” to provide slightly better control in the bass, and midrange notes were very slightly thicker. However, I ended up doing most of the listening in “Normal” mode for the reasons stated above.
Compared to my memory of the non-Black Label iDSD Micro, generally the BL improves on its predecessor by providing a tighter grip on the bass, retaining midrange accuracy but having somewhat thicker notes lending itself to a more ‘musical’/engaging vocal presentation, for lack of a more appropriate term. Treble reproduction is remarkably accurate without giving in to any harshness or glare (perfect for someone like me), and maintains clarity without erring on the side of being clinical. Extension on both ends is very good, and detailing and resolution is top of its class in this price range.
The pairing with the HD650 is a fine combination, and makes for a pleasurable listening experience. Because the HD650 is slightly dark, it pairs well with the BL’s neutrality and clarity to provide immersion into the music. The BL’s 3D switch, again, gives tracks a slight treble lift (and more), and also required tuning down the volume knob a notch when applied. However, the net gains seem more track dependent than with the Rockets (on some tracks it worked wonders for soundstage and imaging, but on others recessed/thinned out the mids and did weird things to the imaging – became too diffuse), I would say that the 3D function/crossfeed is generally very well implemented, and worked well for most tracks that have decent mixing and mastering. I would imagine that with neutral or more treble oriented headphones or earphones this boost may not work as well, and might even in fact cause an overemphasis on treble reproduction.
BL > Lyr > HE400S
Concero HD > Lyr > HE400S
My HE400S is grill modded and Focus A pad swapped, which helps improve its inherent staging qualities and bass extension. The comparison is done with the switches on the BL off, and set to “Preamplifier” mode. To be honest, when I first swapped out the Concero for the BL on the HE400S, I was a little shocked at its performance –the tonality was quite similar, and technically it is pretty close. In fact it was so close I was hard pressed to tell the difference at first listen, and it was only after critical listening that I managed to sieve out some small differences. This speaks volumes of what iFi has managed to achieve with the BL, when you get a DAC that competes easily with higher priced DACs in the sub $1k category.
The Concero HD gets the edge for macrodynamics – bass slams a little harder and the presentation is slightly more energetic. The Concero HD low-end extension also reaches just a step lower than the BL. However, the BL’s bass is hardly far behind, albeit comparatively quicker and faintly lighter.
Midrange/vocal resolution and clarity is top notch on both DACs, and I cannot pick them apart. For vocal-centric music both DACs present a highly immersive performance, drawing you into the music. Cymbal work comparatively sounds very slightly tizzier/hotter on the BL, but I’m really nit picking here, and so the Concero gets the nod for a slightly more natural treble timbre. The Concero HD also seems to extend a hair more than the BL but my ears are not as good with treble extension so take this last comment with a pinch of salt.
Staging is a touch wider on the Concero, but seems a touch deeper on the BL. Imaging and separation brings both DACs neck to neck.
I suspect that this result has also got to do with the pairing of the headphone’s sonic qualities, and in this case, the pairing of the Concero HD and the HE400S is more synergistic for my preferences. I conclude that this is a very impressive showing by the BL as DAC.
BL > Lyr > HD650
Concero HD > Lyr > HD650
Results are mostly similar to the HE400S, however, an interesting point of deviation worth noting is that I prefer the treble tonally on the BL with the HD650 over the Concero HD. This leads me to conclude that it has to do with DAC/headphone pairing when it comes to tonality. It also squares with what I have learnt in my personal audio journey, that synergy between your gear is the most important thing – getting the most expensive gear is not as important, because upstream gear may not play nice tonally with your current gear.
Onkyo DP-X1 > Legend Omega (Balanced)
Onkyo DP-X1 (line out) > BL > Legend Omega
Well, what can I say – naturally as a compact desktop level DAC/Amp offering the BL in SE trounces the Onkyo in balanced, even though the Onkyo does put up very decent competition, and performance is close.
Power mode is on “Eco” and IEMatch is at “Ultra Sensitivity” – that leaves ample room for the volume pot, even though comfortable listening levels for me hover at around the 9 to 11 o’clock markings on the knob.
With Norah Jones through the BL, her voice is slightly more focused with a bit more resolution and clarity. Imaging also gains a little more precision and definition, with some added air in the presentation. Because the Legend Omega is slightly dark in presentation, using the XBass on added too much bloom and decay to the bass for my liking. However, the 3D switch provided pleasing results. The treble gains precision and detail, and with the lift in treble the presentation also gains some air. Again, soundstage most noticeably gains height and a sense of “openness” (similarly, height and a smidgen more width). Notes are a little cleaner and more defined. However, the only thing I noticed is that the mids, although with some improved resolution, seemed to have taken a small step back in presence and is relatively less engaging than just with the Onkyo’s balanced out. On further listening I suspect my mind may be playing tricks on me as it adjusts to a larger stage presented through CIEMs. Somehow in my audio experiences midrange quality and soundstage spaciousness seem inversely proportional most of the time (i.e. the thicker and realistic the midrange, the smaller the stage; the thinner and hollower the midrange, the larger the stage). Of course this is a generalized observation based on the select gear that I’ve had the opportunity to listen to.
With only the 3D switch on now, on Coldplay’s “Birds” track, through the BL, bass reaches down low, and has great attack and impact. If I can summarise the sound, two words I would use are ‘control’ and ‘precision’. I hear a lot of detail in individual instrumental and vocal spaces. The increased soundstage height from the 3D switch really helps with the spatial presentation and definition. Bass is well defined and fairly tight without being too analytical. Midrange is clear without losing much musicality, and the treble sits harmoniously with the rest of the spectrum without sacrificing any detail or sparkle. Tonality is pretty spot-on here, and with the detail retrieval and spatial qualities it’s one heck of a listening experience.
The 3D switch is really beneficial on most classical tracks because of the increased presence of the HF spectrum and the improvements in air and staging. Most of the time it helps immerse one in the music and allows you to zoom in on any single instrument and passage. The balanced out on the Onkyo alone presents treble in a softer manner, and instruments are not so defined. If I may invoke a visual analogy, its akin to switch from 4k (BL) to 1080p (balanced out). This difference may prove starker (read: more audibly discernible) when applied to classical music than genres like pop, because of the number of instruments at play. I would also add that the BL has better microdynamics e.g. small volume changes in different sections are slightly more audible than just using the balanced out. The BL also hits slightly harder, so in terms of macrodynamics it also has the slight edge. The BL’s ability to render clarity and retrieve detail without losing musicality really allows the listener a fine experience over the Onkyo’s balanced out alone. Here the BL is definitely the better performer, especially so for classical music lovers.
The iDSD Micro BL is truly a formidable device with a fantastic DAC and a ton of functionality, suited to the most sensitive of in ear monitors to the most inefficient and demanding of headphones. Its strengths lie in its neutral yet cohesive and very musical tonality, presentation of space and ability to resolve fine detail. Together with the capability of toggling the presentation with the XBass and 3D switches it is incredibly versatile, presenting the listener with a range of options for pairing with different headphones/earphones with varied sound signatures. I personally really dig the 3D switch, and I feel that it is very well implemented. It works wonders with darker sounding headphones with improvements in air and soundstaging (and sounds superb with the HD650). I suspect its effect varies primarily because it is track dependent (and headphone dependent).
For audiophiles who do not mind the inconvenience of stacking, I would highly recommend the iDSD Micro BL as a (trans)portable option, paired with a DAP like the Sony A15 it will yield wonderful sonic results. As a DAC/Amp desktop solution for someone looking to enter the world of hi-fi I cannot more heartily recommend it. At $550 I think it has tremendous price to performance value (albeit a little steep if one is only starting out, but worth it), its DAC section easily competing with more expensive DACs in under the $1k range. Its functionality and small footprint is an added bonus. Bravo, iFi Audio, for a most excellent product!
Pros - Incredibly clear sound, multitude of sound options, build quality, TURBO power! Good value.
Cons - TRANSportability, 3D not the best on some genre/songs, switches can too easily move
Oh my gawd this amp is incredible. If this is what moving upscale is, then I am in. I am beyond smitten. I am thrown face-first-headlong over the cliff. Enjoying the massive jet plane drop like never before. Traveling at warp 57, my Tennmak Pro’s have NEVER sounded this good…I await the crash to the ground. This would be a godsend, as it would be the final ecstasy to my full body experience. I cannot breathe, yanked from my body it is as I hurtle towards that ultimate death…. Which would be welcomed as it would free me from this overwhelming envelopment of sound. A veritable cacophony of senses….Can we have more than five?! You are damn right we can…hitting the 3-D on Coldplays White Shadows, I give myself up. I give in to the sensory overload, which it provides. An out-and-out pummeling of sensory trance. I cannot bring myself to move past this. I don’t WANT to move past this. I want to curl up in that fetal position holding the Black Label close as I approach the end. Willingly, I protect the iDSD, so that it will survive and I won’t. It MUST survive, so that others can experience what I am. It’s as if I am David Bowie’s Lazarus….he willingly gave in to the cancer in the end, knowing he had produced such a masterpiece, giving to us, so that we may enjoy. Fighting like heck to the end, he rebelliously threw Black Star at us, so we would remember how damn good he was. A magical genius who told cancer what it could do…going out on HIS terms, to the dreaded disease…so that we would survive. This is what I must do so others may experience this primitive core explosion. This is a sense of not dread, but Paradise. Absolute Paradise. I give myself up so that you may survive.
Watching the Australian Open tennis tournament the year they used Coldplay’s Paradise as the go-to song, I watched some tennis. Some extraordinary tennis. Australia was facing record heat during the tourney. The players didn’t care. They competed, some to the full 3 or five sets, as the gender determined. There were some matches that went well beyond the normal 6-4 fifth set. The crowning jewels were the semi-finals and the finals, culminated by the Men’s final, which paired Rafael Nadal & Novak Djokovic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Australian_Open_%E2%80%93_Men%27s_Singles) in the longest match of the Australian Open history…in the heat…It was beyond spellbinding. I’ll admit I’m not the biggest tennis fan (my better half the wife unit is though, so I watched) but this whole tourney has me. Like the Black Label. The two mega-stars threw guts and sweat and heart and determination and every other superlative I can think of in my feeble mind at each other. Neither would break. There were breaks where the two would cross paths going to their respective benches, and they would low five each other. They knew what the match meant to the other and they would not yield. Eventually after 5 hours and 53 minutes (ALMOST SIX HOURS!), Nadal yielded. It was an instant classic (a term thrown around in this social media drooling-drivel-day), and some regard it as at minimum a top ten contestant for best final ever…A match which culminated in the dignitaries speaking for FAR too long…to the point that one of the Open Marshalls sought out two chairs and bottles of water for the champions (both in my mind) and he received more applause than any of the speakers…that’s how tired the two were. They could barely move…You might ask, what this has to do with the ifi…and you would be correct to shout that comment at me.
THIS was a tennis match!
I fully believe after a short 45 minutes of listening that this device was crafted from the grit, the sweat, the blood, the Australian clay which those two idols of tennis competed on and gave up to that day. Shorn from the ground Nadal & Djokovic strode, the iDSD micro BL is a masterpiece. Simply smacks in the face to its competitors like Bowie to cancer. A full forehand volley driven of 125mph at its opponent head. A volley of such force that you must react or be laid out. Luckily for all of us, I do react and stop just short of the bottom. I thankfully come to my wits and stop; landing gently thanks to the parachute offered by the ifi iDSD micro Black Label. I cannot wait for more impressions.
I haven’t even brought out the big guns yet…
I am extremely grateful to the folks at ifi for the inclusion of me on the world tour. I have never done a tour such as this, but drawing from my experience on another recent tour, I will do my best to convey my likes, dislikes, quirks and joys. This review will be as open as I can. The tour unit will then be sent to the next lucky victim. My hope is that I can get the parachute packed for them…
I have no experience with units of this magnitude, let alone price. My closest ownership is the Schiit Magni2, which I also use regularly. A comparison not really meant (or is it?), but one I will do (I didn’t). There is much difference, besides price.
From my unboxing, I was rather startled as to just what to expect when I first saw the BL. I was very happy whenst the lid opened. A very black rectagonal cigar-shaped box greeted me. This unit is not small. It is meant for not only desktop use, but also TRANSportability. This would be the piece with which all of your other portable gear sits upon. An excellent foundation with which to start. Through all of the knobs, toggles, connectors, and switches; a small green light illuminates to show that “Yes, I am working, now begone and listen fore I smash your head.”
From those multitudes of connecting options, I floundered for a good ten minutes trying to decipher where to hook my iPhone 6+…a simple start, and I completely bottled it. Eventually I was able to determine (stupid, I am) that the simple 3.5mm to 3.5mm right angle cable, which I raved about in the unboxing was the tool of choice. Until know, I did not let on what a dolt I was…
Daunting though the size might be, the controls are logically laid out, and easy of function. Industrially-efficient is what I would describe. All switches, toggles, plug-ins, and cord/cable outlets are pretty much where they should be. No real surprise, and the red labels on the black aluminum body allows for fairly quick identification when needed of the three-way switches on the side. And those three-way switches are of light action. So be careful, especially when moving from the “normal” to the “turbo” setting on the amp. Yikes! As one becomes familiar with the switches, the red labels would simply be the back up. My one qualm is the toggles. I was worried in my opening about the “fragility” of them; how they might handle their location. I will say that due to the connections of the headphones in the ¼” jack and the 3.5mm input jack the two are protected. My worries seem unfounded at this point. What is bothersome from the toggles is quickly reaching them, as needed. I can see one wanting to toggle off and on the X-bass or the 3D between songs. This is where there can be a bother. But since they are toggles, a light flick either way takes care of that. No harm done.
From the ifi site:
DSD512/256/128/64, Octa/Quad/Double/Single-Speed DSD
DXD(768/705.6/384/352.8kHz), Double/Single-Speed DXD
PCM – Bit-Perfect Processing/Minimum Phase/Standard
DSD – Extreme/Extended/Standard Bandwidth
DXD – Bit-Perfect Processing
High-Speed Asynchronous USB 2.0 (32bit/768kHz)
6.3mm RCA Line out (2V fixed/2V-5V variable)
Turbo (8.0V max/4,000 mW @ 16 Ohm)
Normal (4.0V/1,000 mW @ 16 Ohm)
Eco (2.0V/250mW@16 Ohm)
USB BCP V1.2 compliant up to 1500mA charging current
<2W idle, 4W max
177(l) x 67(w) x 28(h) mm
310g (0.68 lbs)
Red lettering makes for a somewhat easier read
At a retail price of $549, this is not cheap for entry-level people. This is a definite step up. And it should be. With the reputation behind ifi’s other successful products such as the first generation micro iDSD as well as the micro and Pro iCan’s, it only makes sense to make an “improved” mid-fi with which to anchor the line up. Reading up on the old micro iDSD reviews it was very well received, called everything from “The Overachiever” by @ClieOS to a “True Swiss Army Knife” by @peter123, and the “New Wave of British Invasion” says @twister6 was in full swing. With a reputation for tailoring amps to quite specific IEM’s or headphones, my hope is that this is more Swiss Army Knife as opposed to specialist. Initial impressions bely this thought.
With a size slightly longer than a 6+ (YES, it IS!), stacking could be accomplished. I’m not sure how portable or practical that would be, but it can be done! It would dominate smaller DAP’s such as my Fiio x3ii, but such is life. As stated, many will simply use the BL with their desktops or laptops, so the size will not hinder.
"Stacking with iPhone 6+"
Some have said that with the new black color, they could not see the function terminology such as “turbo” and “DSD,” on the back. That just doesn’t bother me. This isn’t about what the unit says, it is about the sound. And my initial impressions were darn good if’n you couldn’t figure that out…
Included with the BL is a Crown Royal-like suede pouch in which you would carry the unit and the necessary cables for the day. Functional, and no frills it does the job, albeit a tad small and snug. An assortment of cables and connectors is included in the box, such is the variety of ways one can connect the unit. Boasting such technological advances as:
• DAC digital signal and digital power sections upgraded
• AMR Global Master Timing® femto-precision clock system upgraded for ‘super low’ phase-noise/jitter
• Analogue signal and power sections revised
• 3D+® performance-tuned / XBass+® performance-tuned
• Latest Output stabilisation network offers less distortion
The BL comes quite well equipped…as it should.
Multitude of accessories which came with the i5...
All of which mean the unit should be better. From initial third-party experiences, I can say the results are positive. I have no personal expertise with the old. With the addition of the “Headamp” Turbo setting, one can enhance the bass settings another notch beyond the normal. If that is not enough, then the XBass adds that final “11” to the mix. Think Spinal Tap, with the power to back it up.
Once my initial WOW settled down, I thoroughly listened to see if the above-mentioned settings were simply an “enhancement” of the sound. My old ears did their best…
Colplay: Paradise, A Sky Full of Stars, A Message, White Shadows, Lovers In Japan, Clocks, Paradise
David Bowie: Lazarus, Blackstar
Dave Matthews: Dodo, So Damn Lucky, Gravedigger,
twenty one pilots: Hometown, Heavydirtysoul, Addict With a Pen, Car Radio
U2: The Unforgettable Fire, When Love Comes to Town,
Santana: Persuasion, Fried Neckbones and Home Fries
Dire Straits: Lady Writer, Down to the Waterline, Sultans of Swing,
Adele: Set Fire to the Rain, He Won’t Go, Hello,
Los Lonely Boys: Senorita, Heaven, anything else, which came through my players…
Campfire Audio Nova
Fostex T40RP MK3
Amp comparisons: ummmm….never mind, pointless comparisons…
My listening was broken up into an odd assorted way, to some maybe. I spent a thorough day solely with the Tennmak Pro’s on my iPhone 6+ and the BL. What a joyous, pleasurable day it was! If my opening description wasn’t enough, then I will simply add that the BL brought out the best of the Pro’s. Solid, full, warm sound emanated from the Pro like I had never heard. Rich mids, solid but slightly boomy bass (sometimes) and a treble of sufficient quality came through so that temporarily I forgot that this was a $21 IEM playing through a $550 amp.
This would be a case where the better source definitely enhances the lower priced item. Sometimes faults come through when using a “cleaner” power source, as if the deficiencies are laid bare-naked in the snow. Not a pleasant option or vision (please don’t ask…), but in this case the Pro doesn’t MIND being put bare, in fact it enjoys the frolic and gladly rewards with that warm sound I mentioned. Kind of like dancing through the snow with a nice mug of hot cocoa, laced with Bailey’s for good taste. Darn, that sounds really good right now…
I followed that day with a single day using the Nova in the same set up. OK, this makes more sense…an IEM in the same category as the amp. What a wonderful combo this is! Open more “airy” and brighter than simply through the iPhone. Detail oriented I heard things, which were hard to come by using my other amps. With some of my other setups, I would “hear” the sound, but it was sometimes fleeting, such as when I worked as a Biologist studying birds… If a new bird came along on my survey, I would separate out the new sounds from the ones I had already identified. It was not that I didn’t hear the finer tones in my normal set; but with the BL, it wasn’t as if this was a new sound. There was no mistake…that tone, which might have been the fleeting sound of a far off bird on my surveys was DEFINITELY there. The birds/sound presenting themselves to me in a nice orderly fashion. No hiding, but not boisterousness either. Just a neat progression of sound. Harken back to a full procession coming in front of you…or the birds presenting me with easy identification without needling or disorder. Just presented for my listening indulgence. Enhanced bass with the switch on paid dividends to the Nova, adding that little extra I craved from them before. Now, I am in no way dissatisfied with the Nova, but the bass switch added the right amount for my taste. EQing would get me near the same thing, but toggling the bass on is a simple way to enhance for my taste.
With the 3D toggle switched on, there is a definite jump in mids and a slight treble bump. In conversation with a fellow Head-fier, we discussed whether this was a placebo effect from the gain of mid/treble tones or if it was real. I do not have the equipment to gauge the truth (others are as we speak), if one can define the truth that way. My seat of the pants explanation (and reading about the crossover system involved) is that there is a shift fore and aft in my cranial matter in regards to the soundstage. Switching back and forth, or playing a song fully then repeat I can “sense” added depth in the anterior/posterior relationship of my cranial mush. Call it a bodybuilding “loudness” switch. Some have stated that the effect on the micro/micro BL is not as effective as other units, but it works quite well for me. I could sense a larger soundstage, but not enough to make the instrumentation feel separated by a distance. I left the switch toggled on for the whole time; except times I wanted an “unencumbered” sound with which to listen.
I find it quite marvelous that technologies such as the XBass and 3D can fit into a unit this size. My-oh-my how sound times have changed!
Some have stated they wished for a bigger boost in the XBass toggle. I would disagree. I think there is enough of a bump at 6dB to satisfy most. I like the push added to the overall sound. A quick jolt of bass for those IEM’s which might be bass-shy. If I want more, then I will EQ my source.
Switching to my Fostex T40RP Mk3’s, I pushed the BL to the Turbo setting. I still had to push the volume pot to about halfway for a good listening level for me. And it was quite the stunning combination. Going through my iPhone 6+ with a newly acquired Lightning camera kit attachment, I was able to use the Digital SPDIF port, bypassing the DAC of the 6+, and fully using the BL. Holy buckets, what a difference! And yes, one would expect that going from a Smartphone to a dedicated DAC/DAP; but still the revelation was astounding. Rich of sound, full of body, slightly warmer than when run with my other setups, the Fostex have not sounded this good. I would call them a slightly “dry” sounding can OOTB, but one with which I like very much. EQing can take care of my personal tastes with the T40, but using the BL, there was no need. With 3D and XBass toggled on, I sat back and fully felt Dire Straits Down to the Waterline. Knopfler’s guitar rifts are a masterpiece to be enjoyed using good equipment, and I had found my listening of choice, whether it be from my x3ii or 6+, it was purely a marvel. Clean, clear, crisp, with the full sound one would expect from an amp of this caliber. It did not disappoint. And a volume, which satisfied me to the fullest. I cannot imagine pushing the pot higher, for fear of hearing damage.
Running all set ups through my MacBook Pro, 6+ and x3ii; I tried all set ups, but fell back to the listings below. If I didn’t like the set up, I quit using it within about 15 min. My time was too short to audition something which was not that pleasant.
Stacking with the Fiio x3ii
Summary of Sound Prefs (no particular order):
iPhone 6+-->Lightning Camera kit-->ifi BL-->Tennmak Pro:
Just a thoroughly satisfying sound. A Marvel of todays technological advances from a cheap IEM to a moderately priced mid-fi amp; this was my favorite go-to sound for day to day. This would be my set if I had only one, which would travel. twenty one pilots Hometown was my first listen, and my main song no matter what I test. I follow this up with Coldplay’s White Shadow or A Sky Full of Stars. The three songs hit a full gamut of sounds, which I can use to gain that initial sound, which I liked so much. That initial push of “what can this unit do.” From the keyboard, which nears distortion to the very forward sound of the Coldplay songs, this is a good judge. There is no hiding; and the “grouping” did not disappoint.
iPhone 6+-->Lightning Camera kit-->ifi BL-->Campfire Nova:
My favorite setup for the majority of the music I auditioned. Bowie’s Lazarus is haunting enough under normal listening; but with this grouping, I could VERY easily imagine myself holed up hugging the wall in his hospital “suite.” Trying darn hard not to be noticed, lest I get thrown in the Institution myself, I would listen to his beautiful voice; and it would sound identical to this match, getting drawn in with his dilemma, his final push before death calls his name. This set brings me closer to his music than I have with anything else. And I am grateful. A nice slightly warm sound, which does not intrude, not wanting to draw attention to itself much the way if I were hunkering in Bowie’s hospital room. Sipping single malt, this would be my unwind unit in the evening.
iPhone 6+-->3.5mm to 3.5mm cable-->ifi BL-->Tennmak Pro:
This was the set with which I wrote my opening. As you can tell, it was sufficiently “adequate” that I was able to eagerly anticipate the “better quality” hook ups with gleeful, slack-jawed-joy. I was in listening bliss. I was so taken aback by that initial listen, that I wrote the opening on the spot. Such an honor it was, that I replayed Coldplay, twentyonepilots, David Bowie, and Lyle Lovett for three straight hours. Such was the joy, that I lost track of time and it was 0200 the following morn before I realized. Not that I cared, not one iota because of the delight I had experienced. Easy setup and with the length of the 3.5mm cord, easy to transport. This was the closest set up to actually SHOUT at me. Grab me by my shoulders, screaming WAKE THE HECK UP AND LISTEN!!!
iPhone 6+-->3.5mm to 3.5mm-->ifi BL-->CA Nova:
I spent the whole of the second day running this way. And I was not disappointed. I ran the same songs, over and over, with the same results. A more full sound, rounded out by the fore/aft added depth of the 3D, the Novas ran well. While not as good as the SPDIF/Lightning setup, a thoroughly enjoyable sound encased me, to the point where my co-worker was essentially right next to me before I heard or SAW her. A trance worthy of an Ouija board I was in…My second audition of the BL was a complete success, and it was during this day that @nmatheis convinced me to purchase the Lightning camera kit and I would not be dissatisfied (which I wasn’t!). Just more “Wow” moments all around…
Fiio x3ii-->3.5mm to 3.5mm-->ifi BL-->Tennmak Pro
Since the Fiio is a definite step up from the iPhone, I spent the next two days thoroughly auditioning my music with the x3ii as the source. This was probably the least used system, but not because it was the “worst.” I simply wanted to spend more time with the Nova inserted here. That said, I loved how the x3ii brought a cleaner sound to the table than Amazon Music, or Tuneshell (which has since failed me and I have deleted the app for reasons I will not state here). Yes, of course it was of higher quality music than the other, but I wanted to make sure I tested the arrangement in my best possible light. My best units if you will. While the quality was better, I did not enjoy this system as much as through my 6+. I know, I know, that doesn’t make much sense, but I felt the music I had was a bit flat. Even running through the “Line Out” from the Fiio it just wasn’t full enough for me. The warm Tennmak’s and XBass could not make me happy with my recordings the same way the 6+ did. I’m not sure I can explain it any better than I just wasn’t happy with this. Would it work? You bet, it wouldn’t be my first or second choice, though.
Fiio x3ii-->3.5mm to 3.5mm-->ifi BL-->CA Nova:
If I absolutely had to choose one set up, this would be it. The Novas warmer sound could compensate for the colder-more analytic sound of the Fiio. I think I stated in my review video, how with this set the two (BL & Nova) could overcome the cold nature of the x3ii, and it did. This set up would (and did) need the most EQing to be completely satisfactory of listening pleasure. I guess I have come full circle then; I used to EQ, and then swung HARD the other way. Now I am back to EQing. At least with this grouping I am. And that’s ok in my book. I hate to keep using the same bloody commentary regarding “slightly warm and full,” but…since I already stated that this would be my one go to set up, I really do not think I need to describe it any better. Using the line out on the x3ii, I was quite OK with letting the BL dictate and run the sound program. It was kind of like having a simple DJ with me who could only do three things well (XBass, 3D, Eco/Normal/Turbo) and that was quite all right. More than adequate, this was a DJ I could afford.
Fiio x3ii-->3.5mm to 3.5mm-->ifi BL-->Fostex T40RP Mk3
What a superb way to bring out the best in these hard to drive cans. Turbo was more than suitable to drive these “near-mid-fi” closed cans. I opted for the T40 because I wanted the better of the bass units, and the closed back, for privacy. These do not disappoint, but the amps I have, short of the Schiit Magni2 & Fiio A3 (almost) cannot really do them the justice which I heard through the BL. I have talked about a “veil being lifted” in previous reviews, but I think that would be an insult to the Fostex. Call it having the necessary “passing power” to cruise by the slower vehicles in the mountains. While the Schiit is sufficient, it doesn’t compete with the BL. Kind of like a BMW 3-series with four passengers and full luggage… The A3 would be the equivalent of a Prius…It would get me there, and in quite fine manner; just not like having a Ferrari F455 with which to do the job, and in not so near a hurry. There was no worry for power using the BL. I barely went over ½ on the volume with the BL/Fostex. Anything more, and I was ricking hearing loss in my mind. I really don’t want to lose more…
Slim lines bely it's size
So there you pretty much have it. My time was far too short for my listening WANTS. I found myself craving just one more day knowing it wouldn’t happen. I think that is the highest compliment I can pay to this delightful unit. If a unit (especially a loaned/tour unit) can have my mind begging for just one more day, by the SECOND DAY; then I am enamored. I am taken. I am engaged to the listening for the short time available to me. Liken this to a long distance relationship where you will meet for a week, knowing that each day draws closer to the separation. The leaving, which will tug, no yank at you over the increasing distance which WILL happen. You keep thinking, “I really should be focused on the moment, lest it is lost.” But you obsess over the time ticking down, ever closer to the farewell. But during that time, you force yourself to envelop the moment, devour that time together, devoting full attention to your time together. Even though that damn clock is ticking ever louder in the back of your mind; you scream silently to it, "SHUT THE F-UP! I’M NOT DONE HERE,” as you surrender yourself, your time and your ears to the listening; knowing you must. Otherwise the task is lost. And not only do I not want that, I desperately do not. It would be a disservice to your relationship, your short but oh-so-sweet time together.
You really must give in to the relationship to fully understand what is going on, otherwise the time is wasted, as is the relationship. Hopefully I have not wasted that time on this wonderful relationship, courting a future together, which I would willingly, GLADLY give in to again. And again. Lover's In Japan, from Coldplay's excellent Prospekt's March album is a very fitting end to this review. The timing could not be better...
Is it perfect? Heck no. Does it have a few quirks? Yes, size to me is the main drawback. It is almost too big to be commonly portable, but workable. I would definitely keep this in a desktop situation, though if “forced” to; it is too good not to use… And the 3D is not for everyone. It can artificially inflate the sound stage fore/aft as well as the mids becoming overly bright. It sounded good on some tracks, not good on others. So a simple toggle of the switch changes that. But the positives FAR outweigh the negatives. Three amp settings with which to choose from, as well as the XBass switch and the excellent sound from the digital out highlight those positives. Fine-tuning of IEM’s through the sensitivity settings is another quick way to tailor the listening. A nice touch.
I really want to thank Lawance and Jared for this relationship. This time together with the WELL more than fine ifi iDSD Micro Black Label was all I could ask, albeit too short for my lusting listening pleasures... It really is a fine unit, which I would gladly spend more time with, and my hard earned dollars upon. That is about the highest praise I can give. Go listen, it will be worth it.
Pros - Sounds Great, Can Play Anything & Power Anything, Bass Boost & Treble Boost are Very Fun
Cons - Trans-Portable size makes it hard to walk around with, nothing else really I can think of
I was lucky enough to get to demo the iFi Audio iDSD Black Label for about a week thanks to the good folks at iFi and I just wanted to share my experience with this great little piece of equipment. The headphones I used for my review included an HE1000, LCD-3F, Ether C and a pair of Andromeda IEM's.
The first thing you'll notice when you open the box is that they've included just about every adapter or accessory you can think of (except an OTG cable apparently), so right out of the gate you'll pretty much be ready to use this device with whatever gear you've got. The next thing that stands out is how well it seems to be built. Considering it comes in at what I would consider a budget gear range, I was very impressed because it had the build quality of more expensive gear. As I began using it with my different headphones I found out it was pretty damn versatile too, it could go from driving my Campfire Audio Andromeda's (which are very sensitive) on the IEM setting, all the way up to my HE1000's, which needed the Turbo setting to really shine. No other device I've got can achieve that feat of being able to drive anything you throw at it. That was my biggest takeaway from my week with the iDSD BL too, is how versatile it was. It can literally plan any file type, on any headphone and it sounded great doing so.
Another thing I really liked about it was the bass/treble boost switches. Normally stuff like this is very gimmicky and doesn't sound good, so I really wasn't even planning to try them but luckily I gave them a chance because I actually had a lot of fun using them! They are very subtle effects, nothing like I've been used to before, and they allow you to modify the sound very slightly which I found helpful for dealing with tracks that were either too closed in sounding and could use a little more air (mostly newer recordings), or other recordings that could stand for a little more bass.
In terms of headphone pairings, my guilty pleasure, and the one that's got me thinking about buying the iDSD BL was the LCD-3F pairing. I admit to using the bass boost with it quite a bit too, was just so fun sounding and really got me into the music. The Ether C's and Andromeda's were my next favorite pairings, but the HE1000 came across as a little bright sounding to me with the iDSD, just wasn't a great pairing IMO, but it certainly had the power to drive them adequately, I would just say it's a sound signature preference.
My only con for the device would be the size that fits it squarely into TRANS-portable territory. Unfortunately it's just too big to carry around in your pocket along with a phone for example, but if you are thinking about using it with a laptop for example it would be the perfect fit.
So in conclusion here are my main takeaways from the iDSD BL, in terms of pro's and cons:
-Versatile (Plays Anything, Powers Anything)
-Subtle but Fun Bass/Treble Boost
-Reasonable Price for Everything it Offers
-Perfect for Transportable Setup
-Too Big to be Used for a Portable Setup
-Can Be a big Bright with certain headphones (particularly with bright recordings)
So in Conclusion, I would say this device is like a swiss army knife for headphone enthusiasts in that it can be used in so many various setups, with any kind of headphones, and offers a great sound that is easily customized to user's tastes. It's an easy piece of gear to justify for a reasonable price for everything that it offers, highly recommened.
Pros - Tonally similar to its predecessor yet packs in that last ounce of oomph, slam, musicality and finesse in just the right spectrums of audio. Worth it!
Cons - The black casing and hard-to-read words are subjectively not in line with the trademark IFI looks, but the sound makes the cosmetics tolerable!
Went into the shop to audition the original Micro (my current desktop setup) vs the BL. Remember, not all reviews here are about the BL but the iDSD Micro platform products in general.
Anyway, after an hour of careful volume-matched auditioning, what skepticism I had about the minor tweaks in componentry over the already-great-sounding Micro silver had melted away.
I have concluded that the upgraded components really make that last ounce of difference in an already fine product! Bass slam that was already pretty good in the original, is now more pronounced and adds to the oomph and color and the low end. Overall clarity, already good on the original, is now slightly increased and subtly smoother and sweeter. Overall image width and height, on the Senn HD599, is about the same to me, but then, with the added clarity+sweetness+slam, that same stereo image suddenly snaps into sharper focus on good recordings. On bad or average recordings the BL actually makes the music tolerable due to the added musicality. Ahhhh... musicality... that is the one elusive trait which could justify giving up my beloved Micro. The BL definitely has a palpable increase in musicality which I didn't even know I was hungering for, til today. The original silver Micro definitely has that muscical quality, but I guess the BL has nailed the fringes of diminishing returns down.
For new owners who have never owned the Micro but like its sonic signature, this more-expensive unit may be a hard sell because the we're talking about mostly the same features and hardware platform. For the price difference you get a couple high-end components and improved clock... can this super tweak really justify the price difference? To that, I now say YES, if extra slam and musicality make a pronounced difference to the kind of music you like. For most general listening of lossy music, the BL won't be justified over the original Micro. But with the right equipment that has the resolving power to let you discern the 5% increase in sound quality, playing high quality uncompressed well-recorded audio, that 5% suddenly scales to 10% or more. Really hard to put a finger on it, but I guess this kind of sonic tweaking is what drives the audio hardware-modding market worldwide.
For owners of the existing Micro looking to sell off their unit for this upgrade at the new price, I would advise a long side-by-side audition at the shop with your own gear in tow. The price differential you pay has to justify the improvements I mentioned above. Not everyone will feel the need to upgrade, if the music, other hardware and taste in audio do not require (or do not resolve the fine differences) the subtle increases in clarity and smoothness. Many headphiles depend on differences in tonal signature as the way to size up a tweaked product. In this case, the tonal signature remains unchanged, so that may give us a hasty conclusion about the value of the tweaks. But then again, anyone who owns the silver Micro (and bothers to keep it) would likely not be casual music lovers who go for V-shaped tonal signatures... so even a 5% improvement in an already good product can mean a lot if it is centred around not just tonality but the harder-to-define areas such as microdynamics, slam and musicality. The wonderful home-trial policy of IFI is definitely a good excuse to give the BL an extended spin in your own audio setup. Just don't blame me if you find the sonic improvements mild and yet you still decide to keep it because the music now somehow seems to connect with you more than how it did on the original Micro!
Oh, and one last thing -- the XBass and 3D features have been judiciously used to liven up flat sounding recordings on the original Micro, and I walked into the store today not expecting much improvement in the XBass+ and 3D+. In fact, I did the bulk of the audition without these features, so that I could get a good feel of the basic audio differences in the main hardware. But when it came time to test out these two features, I can honestly say, they really have been fine-tuned to sound more natural without losing much of the punch! XBass is now even tighter and more refined due to the main benefits of the hardware tweak on the bass spectrum. 3D+ is sweeter and more holographic at the extreme HF region. It makes the previous 3D now sound a bit harsh and brash (that sounded gooded nevertheless!).
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.
Spoiler: 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
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:
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.
DSD512/256/128/64, Octa/Quad/Double/Single-Speed DSD
DXD(768/705.6/384/352.8kHz), Double/Single-Speed DXD
PCM – Bit-Perfect Processing/Minimum Phase/Standard
DSD – Extreme/Extended/Standard Bandwidth
DXD – Bit-Perfect Processing
High-Speed Asynchronous USB 2.0 (32bit/768kHz)
6.3mm (2V-5V variable), RCA Line out (2V fixed)
Turbo (8.0V max/4,000 mW @ 16 Ohm)
Normal (4.0V/1,000 mW @ 16 Ohm)
Eco (2.0V/250mW@16 Ohm)
USB BCP V1.2 compliant up to 1500mA charging current
<2W idle, 4W max
177(l) x 67(w) x 28(h) mm
310g (0.68 lbs)
Available online here
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.
head round bashing
up down vertical
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 4V[sub]RMS[/sub] 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 30[sup]th[/sup] 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: 5[sup]th[/sup] Symphony, Allegro molto [DSD64] (scale, imaging)
Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev – Tchaikovsky: 1812 Festival Overture
Amber Rubarth – Sessions from the 17[sup]th[/sup] Ward
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 4V[sub]RMS[/sub] 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 17[sup]th[/sup] 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.
Pros - A lot of possibilities for adjustments, powerful, clean sounding
Cons - Slightly too large to be truly portable, may lack some richness in the sound
The iFi Audio Micro iDSD was sent to me by iFi with help from their Norwegian distributor Audioaktøren for the purpose of doing this review and including it in my recently started $250+ amp/DAC comparison thread. It’s a loaner unit and will be returned to Audioaktøren after my review is published. I would like to say thank you to Karina as well as Terje and Hallvar for making this review happen, thank you very much!
The iFi Audio Micro iDSD is available from numerous online and domestic resellers (many places) with prices starting from $499 (at the time of this review). This is a link to the current Amazon listing for the Micro iDSD:
For more information about the Micro iDSD you can also visit the IFI website:
I’m not in any way affiliated with iFi or Audioaktøren.
Short introduction to iFi Audio:
iFi Audio is a UK based company.
This is what they say about themselves on their website:
“iFi is a brand new line of electronics with trickle-down technology licensed from AMR and aimed primarily at the future, Computer Audio generation. All iFi products boast Class A analogue circuitry with no DSP and the signal stays ‘Bit Perfect’ throughout.
How a product looks and performs matters, but so does its impact on the environment. That’s why nearly every iFi product and its packaging are made from highly recyclable materials like aluminum, paper, recycled plastic and why we refuse to use harmful toxins in our components. We do this to ensure that every product we release meets our environmental standards.”
Spoiler: Click to show!
I’m a 44 year old music and sound lover that changed my focus from speakers to headphones and IEM’s about five years ago. At that time I realized that it wasn’t realistic for me to have all the different setups that I wanted and still house a family of four children and a wife so my interest turned first to full sized headphones and later also IEM’s.
My preferences are towards full sized open headphones and I believe that also says something about what kind of sound signature I prefer (large soundstage in all directions, balanced and organic sound).
My music preferences are pretty much all over the place (only excluding classical music, jazz and really heavy metal). My all-time favorite band is Depeche Mode although I also listen to a lot of grunge/indie, singer/songwriter/acoustical stuff as well as the typical top 40 music.
I tend to value function over form within reasonable limits.
I do not use EQ, ever.
I’m a sucker for value for money on most things in life Head-Fi related stuff is no exception.
Built, accessories and functionality:
The iFi Audio Micro iDSD is a solid state headphone amplifier and DAC combo.
The Micro iDSD is available in only one variation AFAIK: silver color.
I’ve got to be honest and admit that when I’ve seen pictures of and read about the Micro iDSD I’ve almost been intimidated by its huge amount of options and buttons. At the same time I’ve also been very fascinated about in so naturally I was thrilled at the opportunity to try it out for myself.
Output power is rated to 950mW@ 32Ohm when running in Normal mode and from the numbers it should be somewhere around 2W in Turbo mode (more about the different modes later). Output impedance is rated at less than 1Ohm.
The Micro iDSD has a sturdy housing that feels very durable. The physical controls available on it do feel reliable. Speaking of physical controls there sure is an impressive number of them and they’re present on almost every side of the unit. On the front you’ll find the volume control that also is the on/off switch accompanied by the on/off buttons for bass boosts (XBass) and crossfeed (3D). The volume control seems quite sturdy but like most other devices with an analogue volume control there’s channel imbalance at low listening levels (very low to be fair). The number of settings to adjust the power from the iDSD to suit your IEM’s/headphones makes this pretty much a no issue though. Underneath the unit there’s a switch for choosing between pre-amp or DAC direct output from the RCA output. You’ll also find the “IEM match” switch here which you can use to fine tune the noise floor/gain with sensitive IEM’s. There are three settings available: High Sensitivity, Ultra Sensitivity or Off. I’m not sure that I’m that thrilled about the placement on these buttons since I more than once managed to change the IEM match level by incident by moving the unit, adding some rubber feet that’s high enough should eliminate this though. On the left side (facing from the front) you’ll find a red switch for setting the “Power Mode” and you can choose between Eco, Normal or Turbo. In addition you’ll also find the switch for changing the polarity and choose which digital filter you’d like to use ((bit perfect, minimum or standard are available). On top of the unit as well as on the right side there are no switches at all, so still room for more in the next revision . Puh, that’s it when it comes to options to make the iDSD work as good as possible with your preferences and/or IEM’s/headphones. Although the Micro iDSD doesn’t feel very heavy the overall build still feels solid enough for a desktop unit.
The Micro iDSD offers one male USB A digital audio input and one separate female USB A charging port to take advantage of the fact that the iDSD ois also able to act as a powerbank and charge your phone or other devices. It’s the first time I’ve come across a device like this with a male USB input but I can surely see why iFi has chosen this solution, the USB connection is very sturdy and much more so than I’ve experienced on any device with the regular female input. Also located on the back you’ll find a combined optical in/coax in or out combined connection (this socket will work as a coaxial out when USB audio in is connected) as well as the RCA output. Further there’s a 3.5mm input on the front for line in together with the 6.3mm headphone output socket.
As you can tell there’s almost no limit to the ways you can make the iDSD suit you or your equipment the best way. Only thing I can actually think of that I miss is a balanced output. Apart from that this is a very complete and versatile unit, probably the best I’ve come across so far in this aspect.
The Micro iDSD works very well with Android when connected with an OTG cable and using USB Audio Player Pro (UAPP) as music player. Although Android and sound does not have a great reputation the Micro iDSD have worked with every Android device I’ve tried it with (sometimes with the help of UAPP). Battery drain is quite low when running on battery and from testing with my LG G3 it seems to be 10-15% per hour. To make sure you do run it on battery turn on the iDSD before you connect it to your Android device, if not it’ll take its power from the device draining it very fast.
The Micro iDSD uses an Xmos USB receiver that is supposed to work with Apple devices using the Camera Connection Kit (CCK) but unfortunately I haven’t been able to test this myself.
The Micro iDSD support all popular file formats for audio up to DSD512 and 32bit/768kHz files.
The accessories included are:
1 USB A female to USB B female cable
1 USB A female to USB A male cable
1 USB A to USB B adapter
2 rubber bands (to attach it to a phone or other transport)
4 small rubber feet (to attach the main body to the floor)
1 rubber sheet (to place between the iDSD and another device)
1 RCA to RCA cable
1 Optical to 3.5 mm optical adapter
1 3.5 mm to 3.5 mm cable
1 3.5 to 6.3 mm adapter
1 pouch (to store it in when not in use or travelling)
Spoiler: Click to show!
USB 2.0 type A “OTG” Socket
(with iPurifier® technology built-in)
Compatible with computers (Apple/Win/Linux), iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad and Android Devices, camera kit or USB-OTG cable required. (Full USB3.0 port compatible)
Intelligent SPDIF® Coaxial
3 Way combo SPDIF port (Coaxial In/Out; Optical In); Up to 192kHz PCM
Audio RCA L+R
Intelligent SPDIF® Coaxial
Up to 192kHz PCM
Output (right side)
Fast charge all portable devices. Compliant with USB Battery Charging Standard 1.2 – 5V @ 1.5A
– HP Output
Audio 6.3mm Headphone Jack
– Volume with Power On/Off switch
Precision analogue volume control
<2dB Tracking error
– 3.5mm Input
Auto disable the digital section when this is in use
– 3D Holographic Sound®
Auto-switching for Speakers® and Headphones® (two separate and distinct circuits)
Controls (left side)
– Power Mode
Turbo, Normal, Eco
Computer controlled power and gain scaling
3 positions, 6 filters
(see filter section below)
– Line Direct/Preamplifier
Preamplifier function Enable/Disable, 0/9dB gain selectable
Fixed 2V or variable with up to 5V available
Perfect-matching circuit for IEMs (eliminate hiss)
Off / High Sensitivity Headphone / Ultra Sensitivity Headphone
Dual-core DSD, DXD, PCM DAC by Burr Brown
2-DAC Chip; 4-Channel; 8-Signals, custom interleaving for maximum SNR
Bit-Perfect DSD processing, Bit-Perfect PCM processing
Ultra low jitter GMT computer controlled Femto Clock
RMS jitter 12kHz – 1MHz < 280 Femtoseconds
All native decoding, no internal hardware conversion
All native decoding, no internal hardware conversion
All native decoding, no internal hardware conversion
Bit-Perfect Processing/Minimum Phase/Standard
Digital filters selectable
Analogue filters selectable
Fixed analogue filter
Specifications (DAC Section)
Dynamic Range (Line)
THD & N (0dBFS Line)
Output Voltage (Line)
Output Impedance (Zout)
Below AP2 test set limit
Headphone Power Output
HP Amp Output
– Turbo mode
10.0V/4,000 mW @ 16 Ohm
>1560 mW @ 64 Ohm
– Normal mode
5.5V/1,900 mW @ 16 Ohm
>950 mW @ 32 Ohm
– Eco mode
2.0V/500 mW @ 8 Ohm
>250 mW @ 16 Ohm
Specifications (Headamp Section)
Dynamic Range (HP)
>115dB(A) (Eco Mode, 2V Out)
THD &N (HP 500mW/16R)
Output Voltage (HP)
>8V (Turbo Mode)
Output Impedance (Zout)
<1Ω (iEMatch not engaged)
Maximum Output Power
4,000mW @ 16 Ohm Load
when using sinewave testing the iDSD micro may engage protection circuits
Continuous Output Power
1,000mW @ 64 Ohm Load
I’ve used the Micro iDSD for the last couple of weeks and my unit has played for well over 100 hours.
Spoiler: Click to show!
Mark Knopfler – Sailing to Philadelphia
Røyksopp (Feat.Susanne Sundfør) – Save Me
Ane Brun – These Days
Michael Jackson – Dirty Diana
Metallica – Die Die My Darling
The Peter Malick Group – Immigrant
Eva Cassidy – Songbird
Thomas Dybdahl – A Lovestory
Norah Jones – Don’t Know Why
Celldweller – Unshakeable
Jack Johnson – Better Together
Seinabo Sey – Younger (Kygo remix)
Dire Straits- So Far Away
Björk - Moon
Lupe Fiasco - Deliver
Morrissey – Earth Is the Loneliest Planet
The first thing that I thought when I started to listen to the iFi Micro iDSD was that it reminded me quite a bit of the spacious and airy presentation that I’ve heard with the Mojo not too long ago.
Bass extension and quality is very good and I don’t feel as if there’s any noticeable roll off in the lower frequencies. Mid- and upper-bass is also well controlled contributing to the sense of space and airiness that the iFi Micro iDSD produces. Despite the very good quality and quite good bass presence I can’t help feeling that the iDSD lacks some richness through the whole frequency range.
The midrange is liquid and smooth with plenty of details. The iFi Micro iDSD sounds very linear through all frequencies and the midrange is no exception. Nothing stands out and it sound natural and makes a relaxing listening experience. If anything I’d say it’s a bit on the dry side.
The treble is well extended, airy and smooth. Once again I find myself wishing for a touch more substance and body but the overall impression is still that the iDSD has a very nice and non-fatiguing treble presentation.
The overall presentation has great soundstage width and a very nice balance from the lowest to the highest notes. Despite this I still feel that there’s some richness and timbre lacking making the sound a bit on the dry side. To me this makes the iDSD work very well with headphones and IEM’s that’s rich and full in there character.
As already mentioned the iDSD does also offers a lot of tuning options for those interested in that. This is really not my thing and to be honest I can’t hear much difference between the different digital filter options (this is the case with most of my amp/DAC’s that has got this so I won’t hold it against the iDSD). When it comes to the 3D setting I personally find it a bit artificial sounding and had it off for most of the time. The Xbass on the other hand is actually quite nice in its implementation and I enjoyed it when using earbuds but kept it off otherwise. I do know that other people enjoy these kinds of features a lot more than I do so I won’t hold it against the iDSD but rather add it as a positive thing for giving the user more choices which I really appreciate and value.
Please note that the comments in the comparison section are not in absolute terms but in comparison between subject A and B. This means (as an example) that if subject A is found to be brighter than subject B it does not necessarily mean that subject A is bright sounding in absolute terms. I hope this makes sense.
In these comparisons I’ve been listening through my AKG Q701’s.
I’ve been using the USB input when doing these comparisons. Both units has been hooked up to two different laptops both running Windows 7 with the same settings and I use MediaMonkey as my player of choice.
Both units was connected to a simple switch box through their respectively headphone outputs. This way it’s very easy to switch between the sources in minimal time. I also use a simple Android app to volume match the amplifiers so although maybe not perfectly scientifically the result should still be pretty correct.
Burson Audio Conductor V2+ (1,499) vs IFI Micro iDSD:
The V2+ is the heart of my main system and I really love both its features and sound. It’s expensive and it’s big and heavy (7 kg) but to me it’s also a very complete unit that doesn’t makes me miss anything in either sound nor features so I’ll include it as one of the comparison units for all my $250+ amp/DAC combo reviews. I’m also very familiar with it.
These two share a lot of treats like a similar amount of air and an equally wide soundstage presentation. Compared to the iFi Micro iDSD the V2+ has a touch richer sound through the whole frequency range, this makes quite a difference to the overall presentation, resulting in the V2+ sounding more dynamic and with better timbre to the notes. It’s not a huge difference but an important one in making the V2+ sounding more natural and pair better with a wider variety of headphones. The deepest bass may also be a touch more well-defined on the V2+.
The V2+ of course has some other advantages such as significantly higher power output (4W @32Ohms which is about the double compared to the iDSD), two analogue RCA inputs. In addition it also has a great quality remote control. The iDSD on the other hand has internal battery, is more portable and a much better match for most IEM’s.
Audinst HUD-DX1 (with Burson Audio V5i op amps, $469) vs IFI Micro iDSD:
Compared to the iFi Micro iDSD the Audinst has a more dynamic and slightly less laid back sound. The Audinst is the fuller sounding of the two but its bass is also slightly looser and less well defined. The iDSD is a bit thinner and but also more airy in its presentation. The iDSD does also have a wider presentation while the Audinst has better depth and an overall richer sound.
Feature wise both of these are equipped with a lot of in- and outputs but the iDSD does offer a lot more adjustments such as bass boost, 3D switch, and multiple gain and hiss (reducing) settings. When I reviewed the Audinst HUD DX1 I called it a “Swiss Army knife” offering, the iFi Micro iDSD is actually even more so, not necessarily when it comes to in- and outputs but definitely when it comes to settings and tweaks to make it sound as good as possible with the IEM’s/headphones that you use.
Burson Audio Conductor Air ($499) vs IFI Micro iDSD:
This two are similar in the way that they both works best when connected to a computer or laptop in my opinion but they can also be used portable (the Air maybe more so) or with your phone or tablet (the iDSD maybe more so) if needed. Compared to the iDSD the Air has a thicker sound while maintaining the same level of details. Layering is noticeable better on the Air while the iDSD has a touch more airiness and wider soundstage. The Air does also have better depth and timbre to the notes and the iDSD does actually feel a bit thin and dry in comparison. In short the Air has more drive while the iDSD is more laid back.
Feature wise the Air loses out by a fair bit though. With its two micro USB inputs (one for digital audio in and one for power) and two outputs (line out and headphones out) it’s no match for the number of inputs and outputs the iDSD offers. The iDSD does also have an internal battery.
For even further comparisons feel free to visit this thread for breakdown between more $250+ amp/DAC units (this is a work in progress and several other units will follow in the near future).
The output impedance of the headphone out on the Micro iDSD is rated to less than 1Ohm. This means that it should work well with pretty much all low and high impedance headphones and IEM’s available out there.
In this section I’ve tested how some of my favorite headphones but also one earbud and one pair of IEM’s pairs up with the Micro iDSD.
AKG Q701 ($300):
The Q’s aren’t the best pairing with the iFi Micro iDSD in my opinion. The slightly thin sound on the iDSD makes male vocals lack some weight to sound perfectly natural. After having thoroughly enjoying the Mojo with the Q’s I’d expected the iDSD to work really well with them as well but I’d guess the Mojo is also richer sounding than I remember it .The iDSD has no problem at all to power the Q’s to louder listening levels.
Philips Fidelio X2 ($300):
The X2’s, being quite warm and full by itself, is a great match with the iDSD. It balances the full mid-bass on the X2’s in a great way making it sound excellent. The smooth and dry presentation seem to work great with the X2’s ans although it’s not necessarily the best pairing I’ve heard with the X2’s it’s definitely one of the better.
VE Zen 2.0 ($138):
The Zen 2.0 is a 300Ohm earbud that I like a lot and tend to use instead of closed headphones. It’s also a reliable travel partner for me when I stay in hotels and don’t have any full size cans around.
The soft and smooth signature from the Zen 2.0 works OK with the iDSD but nothing more. This pairing lacks some dynamics and richness to be really good for me. A fuller more dynamic signature does suit the Zen’s better for my preference. Turning the bass boost on the iDSD helps though and it sounds quite good this way.
Aurisonics ASG-1PLUS ($500):
The ASG-1PLUS is an 11Ohm hybrid IEM (1 DD + 1 BA).
Once again an OK pairing and I like it better than what I did with the Mojo from memory. A bit too relaxed and lacking some depth but still quite an enjoyable listening. Once again I feel that I could have enjoyed a bit better timbre as well as some more dynamics. I’m aware that this is also the nature of the 1PLUS shining through but it’s more easily noticed here than with some other pairings.
Super Audio 6 ($250):
The Super Audio 6 (SA6) is a six BA driver Chines DIY offering. It has a warm, smooth, intimate and mid-centric overall presentation.
The combination of the iDSD and SA 6 is really nice to listen too. The SA6 is very rich sounding by itself and this works really well with the iDSD. The overall sound in this pairing is very enjoyable and once again the iDSD sounds great with a rich sounding pair of IEM’s7headphones.
To round off the matching section the signature of the iFi Audio Micro iDSD does make it work better with some headphones and IEM’s than others. To me there’s no doubt that it sounds the best with rich sounding IEM’s and headphones that has great timbre by themselves. That being said it doesn’t sound bad with anything I’ve tried it with (and that’s quite a lot). The very low amount of hiss as well as enough power for all my full sized headphones, and not to mention all the available settings, does make it very versatile in practical use.
The iFi Audio Micro iDSD is truly a remarkable device. It offers more settings and tuning availability and is more usable with a wide range of headphones and IEM’s than any other device of this kind that I’ve come across so far. It also has a great number of connection options combined with a quite neutral and very enjoyable sound signature. I do find it to perform its best with richer sounding headphones and IEM’s but that being said I have not come across any pairing where it sounds bad.
Although it’s kind of big for being truly portable I’d still recommend anyone looking for a DAC/amp to use in their main system (both head-fi and/or hi-fi), around the house, in hotel rooms or in the office to check out the iFi Audio Micro iDSD .
Audio Quality: 4.5
Pros - Sound, Settings, Power, Very Robust build!
Cons - There really is no Cons, some might not like the size
iFi Micro DSD
First a little boring stuff about me. I am a 42 year old man with average hearing loss for someone my age. I like to think I take good care of my ears and I’m able to pick up subtle differences in the music I listen to. I will state right away as well that I am not an Audiophile but rather someone who really enjoys listening to most genres of music.
I will also state that I am in no way affiliated with iFi, just simply doing a review of this wonderful AMP/DAC. I only do reviews on something I like and for the most part I do not do a lot of reviews. I was supplied this device from an iFi distributor.
The Box is nicely made and reminds me of Apple in how it was designed. To me I could care less about packaging as long as it protects the merchandise. Some here like a well made box so here is a few pictures of the box and its contents.
I only paired this with my DX90 (with a SanDisk 128gb Class 10), as this is a great match. The DX90 is easy to operate without looking at it and fits nicely on top of the Micro. This is hooked up via the Coax that came with my DX90. Update: And now with a DX80 and 2 128gb cards. Half of the review was with the DX90 and I recently bought a DX80 to go with it. I should also mention that half way through this review I ended up buying my own Micro as I just fell in love with the sound and I returned the review unit.
Thus far used ENIGMAcoustics Dharma 1000 (Dharma), Oppo PM3, VMODA M100 and Alclair RSM Customs.
Now, to me, the most important part is the sound. This is all in MY opinion as they are my ears!
To me the sound is absolutely to my sound signature which is clean, clear and crisp. I have heard a lot of great sounding rigs and this to me is one of the best I’ve heard. I recently had the Mojo (Tour Unit), and I’m not going to say anything bad about the Mojo as I loved that as well but to tell you the truth I very much prefer this awesome rig. There are so many options; from using very sensitive IEMs to your desk speakers this thing can power them all. So with all of that said, I will start with the Dharmas. The Dharmas are a great sounding Headphone and at $1200.00 dollars it should be, but paired with the Micro DSD for the first time I was blown away ( I always try and look for the immediate WOW factor) with the sound. I felt like I was there and really got emotionally involved with the music I was listening to. I was hearing subtle differences in songs I have listened to a million times before.
The Bass is very impactful and not even the slightest bit Boomy or distorted, it is very controlled. The Highs are perfect and not overly done, I can listen to the Micro for hours with any headphone with no fatigue, it is that well done. The Mids are present and just where I like them. Soundstage is good, (this is where the MoJo excels) it’s not too far out, but really properly placed. There is a “3D” switch to make it wider and I have used it a few times but actually prefer it the way it is (off). There is also a Bass boost, I have used it a few times to try it out and it has a slight bump, it is smooth and not over powering, but again, I like it the way it is.
The iDSD Micro is like a Swiss army knife of features, with all the varying combinations, there is setting for anyone. There is an IEM switch for varying sensitivity levels of IEMs so that you will not get hiss, which I had none with my Alclair CIEMs. For gain there is ECO which is like low gain, there is a standard which is like a medium to high gain and there is a turbo (10.0V/4,000 mW @ 16 Ohm), this is if you want to melt your brain. The turbo mode for most headphones is way too powerful, but, is there if you need it. This would be for the really hard to drive headphones or speakers. There are a few more switches like Polarity so you can switch your polarity. Filter switch, which has bit perfect so it can play your music like it was intended.
My favorite setting right now and while doing this review is IEMatch set to off the Filter is on Bit Perfect, Polarity set to + and the power mode is on standard/ECO.
I won’t get into the semantics as there are some very detailed reviews on there like @twister6. I just wanted to give my brief feeling on this great device, this is definitely a keeper as I have been trying to whittle down my collection to a couple of good rigs and just enjoy what I have!
Thanks for reading!
Pros - Very versatile DAC/amplifier, All in one DAC/amp solution for home and away, Ideal driving power for all types of earphones, Great sound quality
Cons - Downloading software/firmware can be a pain, Not a pocket friendly portable solution, Lots of settings to learn
At the time of this review, the iFi micro iDSD, iFi nano Gemini cable and iFi nano iUSB3.0 was for sale on Amazon’s website. Here are links for the purchase of these three items:
When I purchased my Sennheiser HD600 headphones, I knew I was going to need a more powerful desktop rig to make them sing. I did my homework and came up with a budget solution. I picked up a HifimeDIY Sabre 9023 DAC and a Bravo Audio Ocean Class a tube amplifier. This combination created a very powerful and spacious sound that to this day I am very content with.
Since obtaining this rig, I have had the pleasure to attend several audio exhibits and Head-Fi meets. It’s been awesome being able to try the best headphones, DACs and amplifiers the world of personal audio has to offer. I’ve heard DAC and amplifier rigs that sound better than mine, but the big drawback and reason I haven’t picked anything else up to this day has been because of price. It seems like every time I hear something I would prefer to have over my current gear, the price tag is around two thousand dollars or more. As many of us know, in the world of top end audio we tend pay a lot for minor upgrades. The law of diminishing returns becomes more and more apparent the further we travel down the proverbial rabbit hole of audio gear.
When iFi contacted me to see if I would be interested in covering some of their products for a review, I was pretty excited. I decided at the time that it was going to be a challenge to see if iFi could offer a source that can rival my budget set up and fall under the thousand dollar mark. Not only does this combination trump my budget rig in terms of sound quality, I found it to be a Swiss Army Knife for audiophiles. Let’s go over these products with a comprehensive review.
I was given an opportunity to review samples provided by iFi in exchange for my honest and unbiased opinion and review. I am in no way affiliated with iFi. I would like to take this time to personally thank Tyler for the opportunity to review these products.
Micro iDSD (Octa DSD512)
Before I begin the discussion on this, allow me to quote the Amazon listing’s description and explanation:
“There is nothing like the micro iDSD. It is literally, out of this world. It is the only DAC in the world (at any price) to play True Native Octa-DSD512/PCM768/Double DxD. Its Perfect-Match means it can be fine-tuned to any headgear from IEMs all the way through to large headphones. Its 8v/4000mW output makes it one of the most powerful headamps to drive even the most hungry of headphones with ease. iFi has forged an enviable reputation for being at the forefront of computer audio technology. The micro iDSD has just made another leap, an Octa-Leap to be precise. With its special Dual-Core Burr-Brown native DSD/PCM chipset at the heart, the micro iDSD is capable of True Native PCM768, Octa-Speed DSD512 and 2x DxD; it is simply out of this world. The micro iDSD has 3 different power modes Eco, Normal and Turbo. Capable of 4000mW, 1000mW or 250mW, the micro iDSD is able to drive the full gamut of headphone and amplifiers alike. With iEMatch there to dial to suit any IEM, the micro iDSD has redefined the headphone amplifier class. Used along with the analogue volume control, the diminutive size of the micro iDSD belies its uncanny ability to drive virtually anything and everything! SmartPower is the micro iDSD's onboard recharging feature for Smartdevices. Its 4800mAH battery is able to fully recharge an iPhone two-times. Compatible with Apple and Android, phones and tablets, it is another example of iFi's commitment to customer needs - enjoy high-end audio on the go with the micro iDSD”
As for the background on the micro iDSD, this product was designed with the Head-Fier in mind. In fact, much of the design concepts were a product of feedback from the Head-Fi community. Search the threads for this device and you will see that this product was designed from what many felt were the things required to make the micro iDSD the ultimate all-in-one audiophile DAC/amplifier.
The Micro comes with the following accessories:
1x RCA cable (1 foot)
1x 3.5mm interconnect (approx. 4 inches)
1x Silicone pad for stacking purposes
2x Silicone bands for stacking portable sources
1x USB male to female type A cable (approx 3 feet)
1x USB type B female to USB type A female (approximately 6 inches)
1x Optical female input to toslink adapter
1x USB type B female input to micro USB output adapter
1x USB type B female input to USB type a female output
1x Felt carrying case
You get just about everything you need to hook any audio device up to the iDSD in the package. The only aftermarket cable I used outside of the package contents were the Gemini Cable, or a Toslink to Toslink interconnect.
Because the micro iDSD was used in combination with the nano iUSB 3.0, hooking the device up is a bit different than going straight into the computer. However, getting started with the software was the same.
Once the device has a full initial charge the software can be downloaded from the iFi website. Once the iFi software is loaded and installed, optional firmwares can be downloaded, unzipped and installed by loading it into the computer application’s firmware folder. I will admit that this process calls for someone who has a little more knowledge of computers than the average person, or someone who can follow the online instructions carefully. Figuring out the software will be a pain for some people. Let it be known that it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you don’t follow the instructions you can run the risk of bricking your micro iDSD and need to send it back to iFi to be fixed.
After downloading and installing the software and firmware updates, the first thing I did was bump the output resolution. On my Windows 10 laptop the iDSD has max output at a whopping 32/192k. If you aren’t sure how good that is, just know that the output resolution and bitrate of a compact disk is 16/44k.
Sound in a Nutshell
Once the sampling rate was maxed out, it was time to grab my HD600 and fire up some DSD files. Even upon first listen I had perma-grin. To my ears, without flipping any switches on the unit, the micro iDSD is true to any recording and plays it with a level of resolution and detail that is very, very impressive!
I could ramble on and on about the sound about the iDSD, but in a nutshell the iDSD plays music with no added color to its presentation. The iDSD will play your music the way it should be heard. It is a very revealing sound thanks to its very accurate sound reproduction. I've read several iDSD reviews before writing this review, and impressions vary, sometimes significantly. Many of them are different depending on who's review you read. After listening to the iDSD for a few months, the conclusion I have about the sound is that I don't want to label the signature on the iDSD, and feel that the iDSD sound is incredibly balanced with enough minor sound adjustment settings to match just about anyone's preference.
The iDSD is future-proofed in terms of its resolution capability. It plays pretty much every type of music file up to double DXD. The iDSD uses dual Burr Brown DAC chips (one for each channel). After looking at the diagram, I was left wondering why iFi wouldn’t finish the deal and add dual op-amps and a balanced output. If I had to guess, iFi is probably already working on this for future versions.
The most impressive thing about the iDSD is its versatility, with the most important aspect being the adjustable power outputs. The iDSD will drive my ZMF Omni and HD600 with ease, and with the flip of a switch or two I can drive my most sensitive multi-armature in-ear monitors. I have NEVER used a DAC/amp with adjustments that makes it ideal for any earphone type of earphone that I own.
The iDSD has three power output settings:
*Turbo: (8.0V max/4000 mW@16 Ohm)
*Normal: (4.0V/1000 mW@16 Ohm)
*Eco: (2.0V/250 mW@16 Ohm)
Yes friends, in Turbo mode the micro iDSD pumps out FOUR WATTS at sixteen Ohms! Do you own a headphone that the iDSD can’t drive? Probably not!
When you don’t need that much power the Normal mode hits a sweet spot, offering one full watt. This is still plenty of power for almost every headphone in today’s market. This is the setting I used to push my headphones when using the iDSD as a portable. It’s powerful enough to make my cans sound great, and not so powerful that I’m prematurely draining my 4800mAh lithium ion battery.
Eco mode is the least powerful and I found it to be ideal with in-ear monitors. It also worked well for more sensitive headphones. When using this mode the battery lasts longer than the other settings.
If you thought the power output settings are enough, the iDSD has a “IEMatch” switch to dial things in even more with your most sensitive earphones. You can attenuate the signal from 0/12/24 dB to get the output and volume dial perfect for your earphone and preference.
The iDSD has a USB charger attached to side of the device as well. If your portable device or smartphone runs out of juice, you can charge it with the iDSD. One thing to note, the iDSD will not work as a DAC or amplifier and charge at the same time. It’s one or the other.
Desktop and Portable use
The iDSD can be used as a desktop or portable device. The 4800mAh battery not only guarantees a consistent and undisturbed power supply, it also allows the unit to be used without being plugged into a power source. The battery lasted for me for an entire day of on and off listening, and still had power to spare when I plugged it in as my desktop rig later on in the day.
If I wasn’t using it as my daily portable, it was on my desk being used as the main DAC/amplifier for my desktop, or charging thanks to the design of the nano iUSB 3.0 and Gemini cable (I’ll go over that more in a bit). The iDSD is bigger than most portable DAC/amplifiers on the market today. Although it is portable, I don’t consider it to be pocket friendly. If this bothers you, iFi offers a smaller version called the nano iDSD which offers a good amount of its big brother’s features.
Inputs and Outputs
micro iDSD input options:
*3.5mm analog input (on the front)
*SPDIF input (coaxial or optical via toslink)
*High Speed USB 2.0 input
micro iDSD output options:
*¼ inch line out (comes with ¼ to 1.8th inch adapter)
*RCA line with adjustable preamplifier or direct output (on the back of the unit)
*SPDIF Coaxial output with adjustable preamplifier or direct output (on the back of the unit)
With these input/output options, I’m still experimenting with all of my sources and figuring out various ways to get the iDSD to work. This not only applies to my desktop and portable rigs, but also my home stereo. When used in my review laboratory the iDSD not only pushes my headphones, I also use the dual RCA outputs on the back of my unit to feed my stereo music from my laptop. The micro iDSD does this phenomenally. Not only do my headphones sound better, so does my stereo thanks to this device.
I was able to connect the DX80 via toslink.
With my Luxury and precision LP5, I was able to connect via digital coax.
With my LG V10, I was able to connect via OTG. All connections were simple and without any complications or bugs.
Fine Tuning Options
To be honest, I didn’t notice a significant difference in sound when using these filters. For the most part I left the iDSD in standard or Bit-Perfect mode. From what I read, the Bit-Perfect and Minimal Phase settings are for using the iDSD in PCM, and the Standard filter was ideal for DSD and DXD. If anything, the upper frequencies seemed maybe just a bit more relaxed in Bit-Perfect mode, with virtually no change in the other two settings to my ears.
Another option was a switch to reverse polarity. This was another feature I could have done without. I leave the iDSD in positive polarity when I use the device.
The Xbass switch is located on the front of the iDSD. While I’m usually not a fan of bass boost switches, in this case I find it to be a useful tool and utilize it quite often. The iDSD Xbass button adds a boost only to the lowest frequencies without raising the midbass or making the sound boomy. Where I found the Xbass switch to be most useful is with my more linear sounding earphones. A simple flip of a switch gave them a clean and welcomed low end boost that improved their sound.
The 3D switch is also located on the front of the iDSD. Although the intention of this is to create a more open soundstage (and it does so in a certain degree), I found it to be a “awesomifier” for my warmer and bassier earphones. My pair of ZMF Omni sound good with the iDSD, but add the 3D switch into the mix and they become incredible to my ears. The same results can be said for all of my warmer and bassier stuff.
Nano iUSB 3.0
Before I begin the discussion on this, allow me to quote the Amazon listing’s description and explanation:
“The Nano iUSB3.0 is small, but provides a "USB Total Solution" for audio technology. With USB3.0 Ultra-Speed (5.0 Gbps), it is future-proofed with a near-silent noise floor thanks to built-in Active Noise Cancellation®. IsoPower® separates the audio and power lines for the ultimate in audio signal transmission via USB. You will immediately notice cleaner, crisper audio from your USB DAC when using the Nano iUSB3.0. REclock® technology re-clocks and completely re-generates the USB signal. PowerStation® generates a completely new 5V USB power line including a 3-stage, 6th order RFI noise filter. The quietest of quiet is what you will get with iFi's added technologies. On top of all of this, REbalance® further purifies the audio datastream. Last, but not least, RapidCharge® means the fastest re-charge of even the thirstiest rechargeable battery powered devices. This means flawless pairing with iFi's iDSD DACs. Feature-packed? Yes. Cutting-edge technology? Check. Improves every USB audio system? You bet. In short, you can't go wrong by adding iFi's Nano iUSB3.0 to your USB Audio rig.”
So now that you have the information on it, let’s first start by addressing the lingering topics that go on in audiophile circles about products like this. Some will say that something like this isn’t necessary, especially if we have DACs that implement some of this same technology already. Others will say that the audible difference isn’t noticeable to the human ear, and may only be slightly traceable through measurements. While I think there is a half truth to this, what I will add to the conversation is that for under two hundred dollars I find this item to be worth every penny and more, ESPECIALLY when paired with the micro iDSD. Let me explain why.
The nanao iUSB 3.0 has the same shape and size body as the portable models iFi offers. Its basically a shortened version of the micro iDSD body.
What is Jitter?
I could try to explain jitter, but this guy does it way better than I can:
With advancements in digital audio technology, I don’t think jitter is as big of a deal as it used to be. We all know that some things sound better than others, and that’s usually because of the combination of a high quality DAC and amplifier. There are variables that make a DAC/amplifier perform poorly and one of these things is jitter. It's nice to have a product like the nano iUSB 3.0 that helps to eliminate this (even if it is an added safeguard when used with a high quality dac with similar “jitter elimination technology”). It’s reassuring to think that we have the added certainty that jitter will not play a big part in why we aren’t getting the most out of our sources and music.
Clean Power Supply
The other benefit of this device is clean power. The flow of power has a considerable impact on our audio chain. Just about all of us can remember a time when listening to music and our experience is altered because of signal noise. We hear it sometimes as electromagnetic interference, or a slight hiss when the music is quiet or paused. As audio enthusiasts, we strive for perfect sound, and a big part of this is a black background. Although many would see these as minor setbacks, in the grand scheme of things it’s a big deal. We want the music to be as clean and uninterrupted as possible.
Noise Cancelling (before it’s actually noise)
We’ve all heard of noise cancelling. Bose has cornered the market on noise canceling headphones. The way it operates is that for any noise that they headphone picks up, the headphone essentially creates a “counter-frequency” to cancel unwanted sound. This allows the listener to focus more on the music and less on the surroundings. The folks at iFi have implemented technology in the nano iUSB 3.0 with the same concept but in a different application. It cancels unwanted noise created by your power supply.
Have you ever listened to music through a computer or phone, and tell yourself “wait a minute, this sounds faster/slower?” Or maybe you’ve listened to music and thought something in the timing is just “off” and can’t put your finger on it? Most of our music players have internal clocks that aren’t always spot on. The data is all there, but the timing isn’t. This can be one of the biggest problems with digital audio. Modern day computers tend to do it less often than older ones, but it still happens from time to time.
The iFi nano iUSB 3.0 addresses this with technology that takes your audio data and re-clocks and regenerates the music, making it as natural as possible before it gets to your DAC.
The claim on this is that the iFi nano will take your USB signal and make it cleaner by eliminating unwanted noise and balancing the signal. While I’m not too sure about this, I don’t think iFi would blatantly sell some magic snake oil, and I’m confident that there is some technology designed to help improve the USB signal. If it’s there, it’s not audible to my ears.
Separate Power/Audio and USB Charger
The iUSB 3.0 has a nine volt wall wart and a USB type B port for inputs, and two USB type A outputs. The two separate USB outputs are split into power and audio/power. It works in two ways.
Option #1: The Audio out USB port can be used for both power and audio for a DAC, leaving the power output for charging external devices. One nice thing to note is that the iUSB 3.0 charging port is Bus Charge 1.2 compliant, meaning not only will it charge your portable devices, it will charge them faster than normal USB chargers. This is the way almost any DAC aside from the micro iDSD would hook up to the iUSB 3.0.
Option #2: When using the nano with the Gemini Cable, the power and audio from each port is transmitted separately and to the same device. This makes for a “best of both worlds” type of application and maximizes the potential of the micro iDSD. It will charge the battery of the iDSD when not in use, and when in use it will power the unit while keeping the Audio and power supply separate up to the point of the connection.
I’m going to be honest here. I think spending over two hundred dollars on a double sided USB cable is pretty out there. Here’s the kicker though...
The Gemini cable is designed to be used exclusively with the iUSB and micro iDSD products. It looks like no corners have been cut with this cable, and no exceptions were made. It’s a very rugged cable, with excellent shielding.
The transmission of this cable from end to end stays around ninety ohms and only varies by one percent at most. That is incredibly efficient and basically makes the transmission from the nano iUSB 3.0 to the micro iDSD about as flawless as it can get.
My Opinion on the nano iUSB 3.0
I really like this device when paired with the micro iDSD (via the Gemini Cable which I will cover next) and feel it justifies its asking price. This thing isn’t going radically improve your music and send you into another dimension of audio bliss, but it will noticeably help clean up any signal noise you get with your DAC and amplifier. The most beneficial thing regardless of what DAC you have is how silent the noise floor is. When combined with the micro iDSD, the noise floor is pitch black, even with my most sensitive in-ear monitors. There is no hissing or signal noise that I noticed whatsoever.
I didn’t notice any kind of jitter or clocking issues with the iUSB 3.0, even when used with my nine year old Toshiba laptop (I do occasionally notice clocking issues when not using the iUSB 3.0 with this computer).
Another thing I will say about the nano iUSB 3.0 is that if you have a micro iDSD, it’s a must have because the two compared together makes for an incredibly awesome and convenient desktop rig in terms of functionality. Using the nano iUSB 3.0 along with the Gemini cable, it operates as a charging port if you want to use the micro iDSD for portable use. I can use my micro iDSD all day for portable use, then when I get home, all I have to do is plug into the Gemini Cable and my micro iDSD is now a complete audiophile desktop rig that charges without any needed power from my computer.
I went into this having my doubts about whether or not this nano iUSB 3.0 is just a gimmick that will take people’s money without offering much beyond what the micro iDSD already does. Truth be told, the nano iUSB and Gemini cable is the ultimate compliment to an already awesome DAC/amplifier from iFi. It adds to the micro iDSD (or any DAC for that matter) both in terms of functionality and performance.
I went into this thinking that this would be a contest to see how the micro iDSD would stack up against my long time favorite budget rig. I’m not even going to bother doing a comparison because it isn’t a contest. It’s in a league with things that cost much more than its current asking price. The micro iDSD/nano USB 3.0/ Gemini Cable combination comes to a cumulative total of under a thousand dollars. I say this in all honesty, at this price I find it to be one of the greatest deals I’ve come across in this hobby. I can’t think of anything that will give you this much versatility and sound quality for twice as much money.
The iDSD does everything just as good or better than all of my other DACs and amplifiers. The micro iDSD is everything I need wrapped up into one device. It’s a great desktop or portable rig. It’s incredibly easy to use. With the Gemini cable, the thought of charging the unit is an afterthought as long as I use it as a desktop unit that day. It pushes everything from in-ear monitors to Power hungry full size cans. The various output powers and sound adjustment switches made me revisit earphones I gave up on in the past and find new life in their sound. It may not be the only DAC/amplifier I will ever need, but for now I can say in all honesty that the iDSD offers just about everything I need to enjoy my entire collection of music and earphones.
Thanks for reading and happy listening!