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  1. Dobrescu George
    IFI IDSD BL : THE PINNACLE OF DAC AND AMP TECH
    Written by Dobrescu George
    Published May 8, 2017
    5.0/5,
    Pros - Amazing Sound, Great Battery Life, Great Soundstage, Impressive Transients, Well extended sound in both bass and treble, versatility
    Cons - The start of a song is lower in volume after a long pause

    Introduction


    iFi Micro iDSD BL (Black Label) is one of the most interesting DAC/AMPs produced by iFi. iFi is a part of Abbingdon Music research group from UK.

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    I didn't know much about iFi before getting the BL, but they have proven to be very friendly so far and their interaction with their customers and fans is a commendable one.

    I was extremely skeptical towards iDSD BL at start, mostly because iFi has a very bold marketing and makes a lot of promises that I had questions about. Those questions can only be answered by firsthand experience and usage. No matter what explanation one would receive, you always have to hear to believe when a device receives so much enthusiasm as iDSD BL does.

    iFi has a lot of involvement with the audiophile community and organizes tours and such, but I wasn't part of their tours before because there were not enough participants from Romania. I briefly heard the original iDSD (the silver one), when I was comparing it with Chord Hugo, but I didn't have enough time to make a complex or throughout impression about it, although I remember liking it quite a bit.

    I have absolutely no affiliation with iFi at this moment, I am not receiving any kind of incentive to sweeten things out. My review will be as objective as it is humanly possible and it is a description of my general experience with iDSD BL as a device, every opinion expressed is mine and I stand by it.



    About me

    My name is George Dobrescu and I am the Director of the Seventh Heart Studios game studio. I work as one of the main programmers for the company, and I am the writer for Quantum Magica and Falsetto Memories projects. I spend eight – twelve hours a day working on a computer, writing and sometimes drawing. I also take care of administrative work which means that I require a portable setup so I'll be testing the portability of iDSD as well.

    Music is present all around me for a big part of that time as working with music is always more fun. With all the devices I own, I need great sound, comfort and ease of usage, not to mention that my listening volume ranges from "please stop that, it's far too loud" to "I can't even tell that you're listening to music".

    My collection includes everything from Classical to Metal, from Rap to Pop, from Punk to Cabaret and absolutely everything in between. There are great artists from every type of music, and I'm one to collect their albums, and keep a tidy order for my files.

    You can check out more about our games on our pages https://www.facebook.com/seventh.heart.studios/ and https://twitter.com/7heartstudios .

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    At Seventh Heart Studios, we all love music and this has had an impact on our games as we hold the music close to our hearts and we are committed to only use ogg -q10 as the encoding format for our music since it offers the best disk space to sound quality ratio, OGG -q10 being closest to audibly transparent when compared to FLAC encoding.

    Personal philosophy: Music is more than a hobby or sound. Music is inspiration. Music is life. Music has meaning by itself, being the one thing that can define one's life while shaping one's imagination and creativity. Music can open doors to new plains and music can change one's mood. Music can rest the mind better than days of sleep or can give one energy better than a thousand cups of coffee. Music can be anything we want it to be and the music we experience using professional audition tools is more but at the same time it is nothing more than our way of enhancing the emotion we get from music. Love is a concept too shallow, unable to encompass what music really means to a music lover.



    First Impression

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    When it comes do audio devices, I have owned a FiiO X5 2nd generation for the longest time from all the devices I've been using and it has proven to be one heck of a companion. I love that device and I love FiiO's service as they've helped me one too many times. I also owned Sennheiser ie800, Meze 99 Classics, and owned many other devices through the years, but only a few really impressed me.

    I have made my best efforts to get my hands on an iFi iDSD BL as curiosity was burning me for a while. All good and well, I was quite happy when I got a unit to play with as people have been praising iDSD BL to be one of the greatest DAC/AMPs of all time and my skepticism was burning me from the inside.

    Fast forward to one week later, the unit arrived in Romania. It was the Thursday before the Easter and everyone in Romania was in a rush to get their preparations done. At the moment I received the unit, I have already lost two nights of sleep, having less than two hours each night since I had a lot of work to take care of before Easter.

    The delivery guy called me to pick up iDSD BL and he was quite nice. The weather was warm and clear as well, but the lack of sleep was slowly getting to me. I could barely walk, was really hungry and most of all, a very bad mood haunted me the day I received the package. The delivery guy handed me the cardboard package and I placed the box and the unit in my backpack for an hour or so, as I went ahead to finish some of the work that still needed to be taken care of. When I arrived home, the unit was carefully placed on my desk (still packaged) for another hour as even so, I had even more work to do and could not dig right into a DAC/AMP before finishing at least the urgent tasks.

    After finishing all urgent tasks, I told myself that it is time to test the unit for a few minutes, just for quenching my curiosity then it's sleep time for at least a few hours. By the time I managed to open the box and sort out the cables, the fatigue was so much that I was blinking for seconds just to be able to keep myself awake.

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    The unpacking experience is a delight and the large number of accessories is a huge surprise, but at the moment the sound was the only thing that was on my mind. I wanted to know how it sounded like right away and the only accessory I really wanted to get out of the box was the USB cable. Happily, iFi included a good quality USB cable that's hard to mistake, so I could get to listening to iDSD BL right away.



    All good and well, the DAC install process on a laptop requires less than a minute and it didn't even ask me to restart it. Good work on the software support.

    The moment of shock comes in just a few seconds, when iDSD BL is connected to the laptop and I start the first song. Yes… It sounds interesting. It is impossible to tell how it sounds right away, but what I notice immediately is the soundstage and the details! It surely sounds different than what I'm used to hear when I listen to my music. I check if the X-bass and 3D switches are off, and both are off. What am I hearing though… Something… Details. Tons and tons of details. My laptop already has a dedicated audiophile grade DAC solution, based on an ESS chip, but iDSD BL stuns me with the great amount of details it is able to pull from the songs I have known for ages.

    Compared to my laptop, iDSD Micro BL managed to bring in so much more detail and nuance, life and dynamism to highlight every change of tonality and micro detail, to expand the soundstage way above what I am used to. All good and well, but I need to hear more of that new sound. As much as I fear it is addictive, I simply can't stop myself from listening…

    One song… then another… then another…

    Then another…

    I notice only later that at least three hours have passed and I'm still enjoying iDSD BL with a smile on my face. My work-related fatigue isn't there anymore, or rather I completely ignored my lack of sleep only so I could listen more to this wicked witchery box.

    The first impression ends only after I spend over four hours listening to iDSD BL. I eventually went to sleep happy with the sound I heard. A few hours of sleep, and I was back ready to listen to this thing. One way or another, I just can't get enough of it!



    Product Presentation:

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    Packaging:

    First things first, let's get the packaging out of the way:

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    iFi put a lot of thought in the package and the packaging process as the package includes all the accessories necessary for the unit to work with a large number of devices. The box is composed of an outer layer that must be stripped down, inside which is the actual cardboard box that includes the unit. Inside the cardboard box, the unit sits comfortably in a cutout that protects it and holds it in its place, next to a humidity controller bag.

    Underneath the unit, there are two small cardboard boxes, each including a number of connectors and accessories. I managed to identify most of them, but two or three of them are quite exotic and will surely come in handy to some power users. I like to see special extras that you don't really see included with most devices.

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    - There is a black velvety pouch, which acts mostly as a transport pouch as it is generally advised against using any DAC/AMP inside a case for thermal reasons


    - There are two black rubber bands for keeping ifi iDSD tied to a DAP / Transport and a rubber band that acts as a separator for them.

    - 2xRCA to 2xRCA cable that looks pretty sturdy and feels nice to the touch

    - USB cable that is USB-A Female to USB-A Male for connecting iDSD to a computer / laptop. This cable seems to be well made, it is thick but flexible and it seems to be shielded against EMI (Electro Magnetic Interferences)

    - Rubber feet that one must stick to iDSD so it sits better on a desk as a desktop DAC / AMP

    - USB-A Female to USB-B Female cable

    - 3.5mm to 3.5mm stereo line out cable

    - USB-A Female to USB-B Female short connector (packaged in a static isolating bag)

    - Toslink / Optical adapter

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    The large number of accessories is big a plus for iDSD BL, especially as some of those accessories are quite exotic and hard to come by.

    I have been using iDSD portable for the past two weeks and the feet present to sing of wearing, they stay in place and as good as they did the first day I applied them. I actually appreciate the possibility of each user applying the feet so iDSD BL is most compatible with any transport you have. Getting them perfectly aligned requires less than three minutes of fiddling and they do stay well put in place.

    The only accessory that is missing from the box is an OTG cable for smartphones, but that is a very common and cheap accessory that you can easily find in any smartphone shop. For the record, I already had one lying around the house to confirm that OTG cables are a common accessory.

    At the end of the day, the unboxing experience for iDSD is elegant and luxurious, it is clearly geared towards the high-end market, and there's a little bonus: the box has a green card indicating that iFi used an environmental friendly package, so you have no reasons to feel guilty about the cardboard box hurting the environment.

    What I look in for a DAC/AMP

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    When buying a DAC/AMP unit, there are a few things that a buyer should be looking and seriously consider as sooner or later those will come in foresight:

    - Sound quality. This is the most important aspect if traveling the path of adding a DAC / AMP to your daily listening chain

    - Battery life – at least 8 hours of battery life per full battery at high volume on high gain, with effects engaged. Anything above this number will come in handy down the road.

    - Intuitive / ergonomic build (buttons arrangement, robust build, no creaking noises, resistance to pressure for when it's a pocket, robust headphone jacks, no wearing issues after long term usage)

    - Good Value

    - Interesting design - the device must look modern / elegant / luxurious and fit in with both street usage and a business environment

    - To work well with both IEMs and over the ear headphones

    - USB DAC function that works with both laptops, smartphones and an audiophile dedicated transport

    - Enough I/O ports for all devices and current usage patterns

    - Fluent, Fast, stable Firmware

    - Wide Music file type support

    iDSD Micro Black Label checks the points above fairly well, although we will explore the sonic abilities in depth in just a few moments.

    For the record, the build quality in special is really good and although I do charge it daily, it never runs out of juice on me.



    Technical Specifications

    Output Impedance
    1 ohm into a 32 ohm load
    Connector
    6.3 mm Headphone Out
    Frequency Response
    20 Hz - 20.000Hz (-3dB)
    Works as a USB DAC
    Yes, works for Android and Windows
    Battery
    4800mAh, Li-Polymer
    Play Time
    ~10 Hours
    Output Power
    1560mW into 64 Ohm
    Output Power 2
    950mW into 32 Ohm
    Output Power 3
    250mW into 16 Ohm
    Weight
    310 g
    DAC Chip
    Custom Native Burr-Brown DAC
    Max Output Voltage
    10 V
    SNR
    115dB
    AMP Configuration
    OV 2627 + OV 2628
    Works as a pre-amplifier
    Yes
    Works as an Amplifier
    Yes, Line-Out Cable Included



    Build Quality/Aesthetics

    iDSD looks like an instrument from a future engineering laboratory, fitting well in with the industrial design world but able to pass fairly well for a modern piece of equipment. The black writing on black surface provides a plus of style, and the logo style and design looks modern. The power mode button is red – excellent selection as it is good to mind its role, especially if using IEMs while all the other buttons are black.

    There are a lot of cues written on the device that indicate what every button and setting does, all indications being written in an orange font for better visibility.

    The device is pretty thick and pretty long, but not wider than Xiaomi Mi Max or the average smartphone. The main audio jack is 6.3mm, but it comes with a golden adapter to 3.5mm so you can connect any headphone and IEM out of the box.

    Connected to a DAP, it doesn't look like a bomb, but it does look quite eccentric. The extreme edges of the device are slightly rounded while many of its surfaces feature an angular design, all resulting in a neat looking device.

    The settings buttons are mostly made out of rubber and offer a hassle-free operation. The two buttons for sonic adjustments that read X-Bass and 3D are actually made of metal and are presented on the front of the device. There are two buttons / adjusters under the device, one for changing between preamplifier and Direct functions and one for engaging different iEMatch settings.

    The two frontal buttons, XBass and 3D feature an old-school switch design that will be loved by many audio enthusiasts, and both buttons click right into place. The buttons are fairly distanced between each other and it is possible to switch 3D on and off without touching the volume wheel. After using the device portably for a long time, I can surely say that even with a line-in cable connected, the buttons can be accessed and switched with no problems, I found their operation to be really good. I do change the xBass settings once per every two-three songs as I like it's effect.

    The analogue volume pot is pretty sensitive to touch, turns smoothly and offers a hassle-free operation. The true volume wheel usable area starts after 10 - 11 o'clock, if the music is too loud at that point, it is good to either lower the power setting or engage iEMatch.

    The USB input is found on the back of the device, along with the SPDIF in/put and RCA outputs. The USB port is a male USB port, but it has enough space around it to accommodate any OTG cable, like the one I had around so it can be said that iDSD a wide array of inputs.

    The RCA ports connected flawlessly with multiple RCA cables I had around and the ports themselves look well aligned. I mainly use iDSD BL with Sennheiser ie800 and Meze 99 Classics, but I'm sure that the RCA ports will come in handy for many users.

    There is a USB smart power port on the right side of the device, which will provide power to a smartphone. This Smart Charge port also features a quick charge function. It connected with Mi Max on first try and it provided charging, same for other smartphones I had on my hands.

    There is a single LED light on top of iDSD that provides insight to its function (featuring multiple colors and blinking patterns, depending on the information it provides).

    Every port and every button feels fairly sturdy and the whole device feels good in hand. While not in operation, the device is cold and the metal surface is finely textured resulting in a good grip and a nice sensation to the touch. While in usage, iDSD can get a bit warm, but I never experienced it getting too hot. Per total the build of the device is hard to fault and after proper testing I can confirm that it will react well to daily usage.



    Testing

    I have tested iDSD with my laptop and my phone, both as a portable device and as a desktop device. I also used iDSD BL with X5ii where iDSD BL acts as an amp for X5ii

    The connection to a laptop is flawless it works with both Foobar, Youtube videos and games without asking any questions. With Xiaomi Mi Max, which is an Android device, the connection doesn't require anything but the OTG cable and it works as well as with a computer. With FiiO X5ii, the connection doesn't work using the OTG cable, the preferred way being to use a co-aux cable with X5ii, or using X5ii as a DAC and iDSD as an AMP. FiiO X5-3 should be able to use an OTG cable as well as co-aux signal, but I don't own X5-3 to confirm.

    For the record, I have watched over 4 continuous hours and over 12 hours in total of music videos, using iDSD BL and Mi Max stacked together + Meze 99 Classics, while I was riding a bus. I can confirm that I didn't get any physical fatigue, the devices can be held together in one hand and there's no downside to using them this way. Using iDSD BL to watch videos on a phone is not just possible, but it is a fun and recommended experience.



    Sound Quallity

    iDSD BL has a specific signature that would come off as fun and natural. The whole sound is organic and musical, there is enough energy in music for it to sound engaging, the soundstage without 3D enabled is already very good, and the bass is well controlled, goes deep and has enough strength to sound real. The top end is friendly, and it sounds natural and life-like, iDSD BL having a very detailed top end. The Dynamic Range is impressive as iDSD BL gives life to a lot of music and the transients are quite impressive as well. The textures of iDSD are more than good, it is easy to get amazed by the guitar textures in many you've known for ages, especially with Meze 99 Classics. The sound is slightly warm and the midrange is expressed naturally, the whole sound being a perfect fit for Metal, Rock, Pop, Classical, Cabaret, Punk, Rap, Avant-Garde and Electronic (Everything Electronic included here). To be fair, iDSD works well with any kind of music thrown at it, from the La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin by Claude Debussy all the way to Metallica's Fuel.



    Little disclaimer:

    For the sonic impressions, I have used Ultrasone Dj One Pro, Sennheiser ie800, Meze 99 Classics / Neo and a few other auxiliary devices. Ie800 and Meze 99 C/N are both quite revealing, and both already have a very good soundstage. Each headphone has a signature of its own, and although they differ a lot in their signatures, I surely enjoy both in their own context.

    iDSD has been extensively tested against a generic good DAC solution found in a laptop and against Xiaomi Mi Max. The nature of testing a DAC / AMP makes any kind of observation possible through the headphone / IEM, so at times it is possible that I might end up describing the sound of the combo.



    Channel balance

    There is absolutely Zero channel imbalance on iDSD after the volume pot passes the 10 – 11 o'clock mark. This is fair for a device using an analogue volume pot and every device with an analogue volume pot presents this behavior. The 11 o'clock mark can be passed with virtually any IEM or headphone, provided you are using the right power + iEMatch combination, iDSD providing one of the most versatile driving functions ever seen in a DAC / AMP. A large number of iEMatch + power settings combinations is possible and you can obtain a wide array of power and volume outputs.

    To be fair, I never had a problem with channel imbalance, and my volume wheel sits around one-two o'clock while out and about and between twelve and one o'clock while inside.



    Bass

    I needed to hear iDSD much more than the initial audition to see what amazed me so much. What kept me up that day although I could barely see straight?

    The bass of iDSD BL is clearly part of the reason why. The natural, detailed, well textured and deep bass is one of the best features of iDSD BL. Even a basshead will cry of happiness the first time he hears the bass iDSD BL and the power it is able to push. There are many devices that go deep with the bass, but iDSD feels like it goes even deeper. The slam and hit are out-of-this-world. One of the biggest advantages of its bass is that it doesn't bloat one bit, but it goes deep in a clean way. The texture is kept in the bass, and it is presented in a vivid manner. It doesn't cover the midrange or treble at all, shining together with the rest of the spectrum.

    The bass recovers details very well, each tiny detail in the bass being easy to discern even for an untrained ear. A strong point of iDSD BL is also the control it has over the bass. iDSD provides much more authority than either Mi Max or most portable devices. the bass being clean, coming forward and being there to take names. The bass is one of the fastest I've seen, the good control meaning not only great depth, but also a fast recovery from every bass slam and hit. Metal and fast electronic music requires a very fast bass that is able to stop on the drop of a needle, but is also able to sound natural and full when it is called for. iDSD does a great job at this. The decay is precise and it is neither shortened nor prolonged, just the right amount of decay one would expect out of a TOTL DAC / AMP.

    There is a little button that has XBass written all over it. Now, the device clearly doesn't need for it to be pressed as the bass is already great in its natural form, but who can stop themselves when they see the button there?

    Engaging the X-Bass will add thickness, slam, warmth and raw force to the bass, but it won't slow it down. The sound keeps itself on the same level of coherency, but there is even more tactile feeling to every hit. It shakes the very ground around the listener and is able to turn a great bass into an even greater bass.

    There is also a 3D button that begs to be engaged. This is a bit unexpected, but when engaging 3D, the bass gets better in separation and layering. There is even more space to music and everything doesn't just come forward but from around the listener as well.

    With iDSD BL, the question is not whether it outclasses something anymore. The questions is now: "How can it sound so natural?"

    I am sure that the already incredible bass of ie800 and Meze 99C/N play a major role in this as well, but neither can have such an amazing sound when they are driven from a smartphone and although ie800 is an IEM, it is one of the hardest to drive IEMs in the whole world and iDSD BL has total control over it.

    Knife Party – 404 – The bass hits deep at the first notes, but when the song really starts, the bass goes even deeper. Each hit resonates for a good period of time, providing a clean and natural decay. All the symbols in the mids and treble stay clear and there is no trace of bloating or overdoing things. The fast segments of the song offer a good rhythm, the bass is fast enough to give a tactile / out-of-head sensation, and it feels like it is hitting from around the listener if called for. The sound is unique and most certainly is a surprise hearing this well-known song sound like this for the first time.

    Infected Mushroom – Becoming insane – The bass comes to accompany every guitar note at the beginning of the track, giving the guitar a lush and organic tone. The bass after the intro part feels insanely clear, goes all the way down to the lowest of octaves, but doesn't intrude on the midrange, the whole sound assembly giving the right bite to all guitar notes. The song comes off as deep and playful and there is a certain musical feeling to it. For the record, the amount of enjoyment with iDSD BL is so high that I couldn't stop listening the track while taking impressions.

    Gorillaz – El Manana – The bass comes off clear and again, there is no trace of distortion or overshadowing of other elements. The song feels liquid, flows well, and the background tones come through very well, having enough space to breathe around the forward tones. The spaciousness of the song is very good and there are sounds that come from around the listener, the song having a very involving feeling to it.

    Oceana – Barracuda Capital of the World – iDSD reveals good properties when playing a natural decaying bass guitar that's supposed to envelop the whole song. The song needs to a very clear bass to sound right and iDSD BL nails it just right. There is no trace of distortion in the bass, and the left – right panning is played well, while the micro details and short notes come out at the right moments, but keep their places as details, while the cymbals and the tambourine instrument have enough spark and bite to make the song feel real. The voice has a natural tone and is very convincing, coming forth with warmth and emotion.



    Midrange

    iDSD BL's midrange is a big surprise as it kept me up two nights testing between BL and other devices. At first, it was pretty hard to tell how the midrange of iDSD actually sounds like, and especially how is it different from other devices. There are differences that any listener notices at first hand listen when trying iDSD BL, but those differences are hard to name directly without a comprehensive vocabulary.

    One of the words I would use to describe it is musical. iFi iDSD Micro BL is extremely musical. Rather said, it is not analogue sounding but natural and life-like. Many digital sources make the music sound dull and lifeless, flat and undynamic. iDSD BL has an exceedingly dynamic sound, to the point where it is hard not to notice how much the dynamics are improved over weaker sources.

    There is a large difference between loud and quiet instruments, and there is a great sense of space and detail in the music. It is able to make Pop music sound dynamic and detailed. It doesn't forgive mistakes present in the music, but it is able to assemble the track in an authentic and enjoyable manner.

    When I first heard iDSD, I was surprised to discover that the midrange tonality between iDSD, Mi Max and a laptop's on-board audio is different. After further analysis, it seems that iDSD is the one that sounds most natural and that comes closest to how music sounds when live. The digital / off-tone of Mi Max, for example, cannot compare to the iDSD BL's spot-on tone.

    For the record, I couldn't start writing about the midrange until listening to iDSD BL for a few days since it dazzled me. One of the things that really surprises is the space between instruments that's much larger than any smartphone or laptop offers. I would venture to say that the sound of iDSD BL and ie800 is similar to that you hear when you hear Sennheiser HE-1 (Orpheus 2) native setup. The sound gains so much in the dynamics, details, and soundstage that it really reminds of how HE-1 sounds like. I would actually venture to say that that iDSD BL + ie800 can actually be compared to He-1 sound wise.

    The midrange is not recessed by any means, the midrange being in line with everything else, leaving enough space for instruments to breathe and for certain sounds to happen outside of one's head. Even though ie800 is an IEM and not a full headphone, iDSD makes certain sounds come as if they are coming from a good distance from the listener. Especially details and background instruments can feel as if they are meters away from the listener. A piano in the background is possible to imagine being somewhere in the back as it is possible to imagine how the pianist is playing it with a silly smile on his face. Guitars in Metal and Rock songs have power and texture to them, they don't feel recessed. The sound is vivid, exposing all the ribs on a steel guitar cord to the listener.

    Obscurcis Romancia – Sanctuare Damne – By the time the song starts, you are surprised by the warmth and strength of it, pushing the listener to know that the song will shortly come to life. The multiple guitars chords come vivid and clear, the voices having enough strength to achieve an absolute impact. The synth notes are now extremely clear while many times they used to came off as a fuzz and they are now easy to tell apart from the guitar notes. The crescendo in the song has the right amount of suspense and the drums construct the rhythm all the way to the full explosion. The cymbals are very clear and have enough spark to feel tangible, but they don't go overboard and don't sound sibilant nor harsh. The acoustic guitar notes have the right amount of bite and attack to them, while the piano and the bass guitar have their own place and continue building to a coherent sound, making the whole song sound like a sweet symphony.

    Iron Maiden – Dance of the dead – The acoustic guitar has a good bite and presence, while the bass guitar is lucid and forward for the whole duration of the song. The voice is extremely clear and there is no sibilance on any of the words. The speed of the whole song is good, but it doesn't go overboard and every note has a natural decay leading to a crystalline but natural sound. The cymbal crashes are smooth, but that is the song itself. The synths are clear and sure a nice addition to the song as on weaker sources they can sound mushy, now being strikingly rich. What is shocking about the song is the separation and definition of instruments as many DAC/AMPs struggle with getting it right. The soundstage is very large, the guitar sound projecting itself in the front of the listener. The guitar solo has a natural tone and the rhythm guitars that accompany it make great highlights for one of Iron Maiden's greatest guitar solos.

    Maroon 5 – Not coming home – This is a special live song from the album "Songs about Jane". The song is vivid and there is even more space between the instruments than it is with other sources. The voice is clear and has good texture while all guitar sound clear. Although the song is dynamically compressed, the public is clearly somewhere in the background and the drums are well placed in the stereo field. Fuzz effects on guitars are easily palpable and they don't come as a cloudy or mushy fuzz while the bass comes forward and impresses by impact and lack of distortion. The special effects travel well in the sonic space and don't cover themselves in a veil while the voice remains natural and honest for the whole duration of the song.

    System of a Down – Nuguns – The aglow texture of the guitars is easy to spot right from the start of the song. Every note and reverberation comes through in hot and gets the right amount of play time. The voice is clear and tonality is spot-on. The bass guitar gives the whole song a lush presentation and a good impact while the cymbals and drums bite enough to be part of the song. The solo at 1:30 is vivid and the special notes are all entities of their own, coming with good distinction, well separated from the other guitar notes that are sang at the same time.

    Kathy Perry feat Kanye West– ET – This song is dynamically compressed from the start, but I'm quite enthused with the way iDSD BL handles it. The song will easily distort on many setups due to the high amount of dynamic compression it has, but stays daylight clear with iDSD BL and ie800. Bass strength helps a lot with the impact as every single drum hit at the start of the song is able to shake the ground around the listener better than a night club in the summer. What I really love here is the voice of Kathy Perry. Like all female voices through iDSD BL, it sounds crystalline, having the right tonality to it. Female voices sounding right is a pretty important aspect of any DAC/AMP + IEM or Headphone combo since a beautiful female voice can brighten one's day and I'm happy to report that iDSD BL nails the female voices very well. Male voices are clear as well and the tonality is also spot-on. There's an organic air to vocals that's hard to explain without using superlatives, but it's easy to discern after first hearing iDSD BL.

    Powerman 5000 – To Be Human – The song starts strong and fast, each individual bass and guitar note being sent well while every cymbal crash comes through with life and energy to enlighten the listener. The voice doesn't have any sibilance to it, and the effects and symbols up top have a good bite giving the song a great happy and musical impression. Guitar solos both have the right amount of highs to them and manage to live through the headphones / IEMs used as if the guitarists are masterfully playing them right in front of the listener. I couldn't stop from banging my head and tapping my leg on the floor hearing this song on this setup and had to start singing along by half of the song – this is the best measure of the fun one can have with this setup.

    Kishida Cult – High School Of The Dead – A great example of clear guitar tones and clear female voices. The voice feels close to the listener, the tone doesn't sing in falsetto at any moment, the guitars staying clear throughout the whole song. There is a clear tendency of the song to sound wide and guitar effects come from the sides, while the voice comes from the front of the listener, creating an ideal stage presentation for this song. The bass notes are welcome as they define the flow of the song very well, while the cymbals have the right amount of bite and spark to them, staying clear and in their own sonic space. There is a clear distinction between the guitar playing in the right and the one playing in the left ear, both offering a clear view over their own musical notes.

    Ken Arai – I Am – This is a dubstep / Electronic song and you can be pretty curious to hear on a TOTL setup. The first impact of the song is amazing as the bass hits deep and strong. The bass shakes the very being of the listener, but it doesn't distort one bit – amazing rendering knowing how pumped this song is in the bass. There is a clear sense of space and the mid-centric effects are well defined while their texture is aglow and tangible. The soundstage has a round shape with the sound being wide but deep at the same time. There are effects coming from the back and the front of the listener, effects coming from the whole audio space, and effects coming from the sides. Both Ie800 and 99C/N have a wide presentation by themselves, iDSD enhancing both, making this song even more fun to listen to.



    Treble

    iDSD BL treble is actually very good. I was extremely skeptical about the treble when I got the unit since many said that it is warm. I feared that this warmth or would mean a rolled off treble that doesn't carry enough energy. I am a natural treble lover, or at least I prefer cymbal crashes to have a good spark to them and I prefer for the symbols in electronic music to express their energy and not be recessed. iDSD goes one step further and above with this.

    In my Music Loving journey, I often find myself enhancing the treble of certain devices, leading to some sibilance in the top registers, eventually adding distortion, all leading to a tiring presentation.

    With iDSD, the treble doesn't sound rolled off nor is it sibilant. It has just the right amount of treble to present the notes well and keep their ADSR and Dynamics in check without any distortion or harshness.

    When a source has an inherent lack of treble, the music sounds laid back. Happily, iDSD Bl doesn't suffer from this and energetic music sounds energetic, upbeat songs are upbeat and laid back songs are laid back. Both fast and slow music sound natural / as they should through iDSD BL, leading to a DAC/AMP that is versatile in its presentation. Acoustic music in special needs a precise bite, and iDSD brings the right resolution for this.

    Acoustic guitars with metal wire strings need to have a certain bite to them that enhances the whole engagement of the song. I'm glad to report that iDSD BL keeps the guitar string bite complete without sounding metallic or shrill.

    In the past, I kept searching for this type of sound. A sound that has both a clear but present treble, energy and musicality. Trumpets need a lot of treble and energy to express their textures right. Leningrad is a band that uses trumpets quite a bit throughout their works, and iDSD BL helps a lot with their music getting the right amount of bite and impact, energy and life.

    Protest The Hero – I Am Dimitri Karamazov And The World Is My Father –This is a song that easily sounds harsh and sibilant on most sources. While I don't really mind sibilance or harshness, iDSD does manage to make it much more musical and coherent. The bass hits are stronger than on other sources, especially in the lowest registers while the treble is very clear but doesn't offend. The guitar notes are a pleasure to hear and the soundstage is large, but doesn't overdo things, keeping the right forwardness to the track. While this song hasn't got as much soundstage as other Protest The Hero songs, it clearly doesn't sound one bit congested, and like pretty much everything through iDSD BL, it sounds open and the instruments feel as if they come defined in layers, with a clear distinction between the individual layers.

    Leningrad – WWW – The song starts strong and the treble shines through the trumpets and the hi-hats. Guitars are sweet while the voice is clear and has the right amount of strength and texture to it. The bass is forward and keeps the song on-track while it is able to stop at the right moment to keep the chorus in check. There is a clear definition for the guitar notes in left and right, each ear getting a whole symphony of guitar notes. The pianos in the background are clear but don't intrude if they aren't called for. I'm once more amazed by the clarity and energy of the song given the lack of sibilance expressed by iDSD BL.

    Teddy Loid w Daoko – Me Me Me – P1 - The female voice is sweet and fuzzy while the cymbals are clear and come through with the right amount of strength. The piano and synth notes are also sweet and don't intrude but aren't subdued either. P2 – The female voice has the right tone to add to the emotion of the song while the pianos are also tuned right for the emotional impact. P3 – The symbols in the higher registers are not sibilant nor harsh, but have enough strength to enhance the whole song. The electronic parts come through with amazing strength and the bass is there, doesn't intrude but doesn't take a back seat either. The most amazing part of the song is the soundstage which gives it a vividness that's hard to match. The effects towards the end of the song are fairly crisp and won't intrude one on another. It is easy to say that the way the female voices are rendered by the iDSD BL + ie800 is lovely, but iDSD BL + 99N is awesome as well.

    The Offspring – Pretty Fly For A White Guy – The song starts with a really good impact on the drums. The cymbal crashes last exactly as long as they should while the female voices have the right sweet/smut feeling to them. The guitars following are clear and have a good texture while the male voices are crisp and clear. The bass keeps playing in its own layer, doesn't intrude nor does it bleed in the midrange. The cymbals are smooth and friendly, but they define the energy of the song, while the solo guitar is good at playing the notes in a well-defined location. The effects of the song have good spatial positioning and there's no smearing of space or dynamics.

    Special note

    I must say that I have been dazzled by the iDSD + ie800 combo and I feel haven't offered Meze 99C/99N enough time during the in-depth sonic review. This segment will be dedicated for iDSD BL + 99C / 99N combo.

    IOSYS – Professional Breeders – The song starts literally strong and the bass is literally shaking my head as I'm listening to it through 99N. The sweet girl voice comes through in perfect clarity without protruding on the bass or changing the impact the bass continues to have in its own layer. There is a clear distinction between the foreground and background voices that is being knitted through, while every single synth sound happens over a large space rather than radiating from a fixed source.

    Rings of Saturn – Infused – The song starts strong, but the voice, cymbals, bass and guitars stay in shape as each sound is easy to distinguish from one another. The cymbals are clear and there is no trace of early roll-off while the guitar solos start to weave in the song almost as if the fabric of the universe is being woven in the listener's mind through the headphones (The song is part of Alien Metal after all). The notes are whole and there's zero smearing while the sensation that a whole world is being constructed in front of the listener is true to itself, the song having great impact and strength with which it comes forth. The screaming voice has the right texture and tonality while the guitars have never been so vivid before, leading to an enlightening experience to this song. It is possible to hear the natural tailing of the cymbals every time it should happen as it is possible to hear the small finger movements on the guitar frets while the song is being played.

    Haggard – Chapter I / As The Heaven Wept – The song is difficult for most setups as Haggard uses many instruments in their songs, most of times only a few of the instruments sounding right. On iDSD + 99N, each instrument is rendered well in its own layer, while the bass brings a magical power to the whole song. The guitars are sweet and they clearly keep their own place and when the piano becomes the foreground instrument, each key pressed has the convincing tune of a grand piano. There is a specific resonance that the piano used has in reality and iDSD + 99N manages to reproduce it very well, and what's even more, I'm using them with no EQ while taking this impression! The male voice has the right amount of attack and warmth while every scream carries forward a unique power and emotional attachment.

    Eminem – Rap God – The first piano notes are clear and the bass notes go deeper than they ever did. The tactile sensation of bass is almost possible to feel through the whole head. Eminem's voice is as clear as it can be while the words are easy to understand and the effects can be heard through the whole audio space. Meze 99N and 99C are some of the best headphones if you're eyeing an amazing bass, and iDSD makes things even better. With weak sources, the bass doesn't go as deep as it does with iDSD BL and the soundstage is nowhere near as large nor are the instruments as well separated and layered. By the end of the song, I'm amazed how the bass can start out of nowhere and stop at the drop of a needle.



    Soundstage

    The soundstage of iDSD BL is one of the big surprises I have every time I hear it. The soundstage has a wide and deep feeling to it. There's no mistaking about it when a sound travels through the sonic space and iDSD BL is great at getting the attention and imagination of the listener involved in the song. There are lots of sounds that should come from a certain spot in the audio space and iDSD BL manages to create those sounds at the right spots.

    There is a large difference between iDSD and a weaker source when it comes to soundstage. iDSD manages to sound airy and open, even with a closed back headphone and a TOTL IEM like ie800.

    My music tastes rely heavily on a good quality soundstage and I would be willing to say that iDSD BL has one of the best soundstages I've heard to it. Without the 3D button engaged, the soundstage is natural / life-like and believable, while the positioning of instruments is extremely convincing. Songs that would normally sound congested (Protest The Hero – I am Dimitri Karamazov and the world is my father, Hollywood Undead – Knife called Lust) will now get a certain air to breathe and and while iDSD doesn't overdo things, it most certainly is able to make things sound musical and enjoyable. With songs that already have an over-expansive soundstage (Mindless Self Indulgence – Angel), the soundstage doesn't get smeared, but everything gets its textures enhanced, while the soundstage stays true to itself with certain effects sounding like they happen outside of the headphones themselves. There is no detail loss or over-enhancement of soundstage, rather things stay natural and do sound like they are coming from further away than they ever did.

    The 3D button will enhance the soundstage and the lower treble, giving a bit more air to instruments and it will also push the instruments further to the sides. It works amazingly well with 99Neo and 99Classics, almost replacing the need of using any EQ after all.



    ADSR/PRaT

    iDSD BL sports one of the best ADSR / PRaT I've seen (heard) in audio devices. The strong point of its (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release) and (Pace, Rhythm and Timing) is how natural it sounds. Probably one of the features of its special Burr-Brown DAC implementation, iDSD BL has a very life-like sound where the musical note feels whole, there is no early cut from a musical note and there is no bloating or distortion. The transients of iDSD BL don't feel enhanced or analogue, they simply feel natural – one of the best feelings in audio devices possible to achieve. After testing iDSD BL with another DAC, I would say that the AMP implementation it has is also flawless in the transient response and ADSR area since it stays at an excellent level.

    Where many DAC/AMPs can come off as extremely fast they can also feel like they have their transients enhanced, leading to a loss of depth when compared to the fulness iDSD can offer in songs that require it to sound real. Fast notes are lightning fast, micro textures are clear and wouldn't come off as enhanced, but rather perfectly natural where the black background of iDSD BL will make those micro textures easy to spot without having to over-enhance them.

    Music sounds effortless, and we have to mention the levels of engagement this type of presentation brings to the listener. The naturalness of ADSR will give flavor to every piano note and it will highlight the nuance of every sound played through iDSD BL.



    Portable Usage

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    Many of you might wonder how portable is iDSD BL and how will you feel while using it as your travel companion. The only thing I can comment here is that I have a small side bag in which I normally carry FiiO X5ii and it easily accommodated iDSD BL. I've been using it daily as a portable device for over two weeks now, and I never experienced a problem with it. It is built like a tank after all, it has been put in my backpack, it has been turned on and off a ton of times and I had been adjusting the volume and its settings while on-the-go. Everything works absolutely flawless and the black FiiO X5ii + iDSD Black Label looks stunning. While some stacks can look like bombs, people look at this stack like you're carrying one of the most luxurious devices for listening to music.

    For the record, with the rubber feet attached and when using the included rubber band, the stacking with X5ii not only works, but it works flawlessly. iDSD BL doesn't press against iEMatch nor against the preamp/direct button, as you can see from the pictures.

    All in all, I totally recommend iDSD as a portable device as my experience with it has been great and I have literally taken it with me while going on business trips and had an overwhelmingly positive experience.



    Drive factor

    iFi iDSD Micro series (both the BL and Silver) are probably the most versatile DAC/AMP series ever made – This is not even a compliment but a statement.

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    They are able to drive headphones from the most sensitive to the hardest to drive headphones (including the famous HD800), IEMs that are picky with their driving source (ie800), without having any hiss or having any kind of struggle to keep control. In fact, the rather high power rating of iDSD BL gives it an upper hand over most DAC/AMP setups out there as it extorts an amazing control over any headphone and IEM out there. Ie800 is a good example as although it is an IEM, it is much harder to drive than Meze 99 Classics and it can swallow a lot of power before the sound achieving its full potential.

    Happily, iDSD BL has no problems in gaining a true level of control over ie800, and it controls Meze 99 Classics / Neo greatly as well. The bass iDSD has is completely different from the bass of Mi Max or a good laptop soundcard because it goes far deeper and hits with far better strength, all while keeping far better control. Only now I realized that Mi Max actually can hit strong in the bass with enough EQ, but will quickly lose control while iDSD is able to keep its control over the headphone for the entire duration of a musical note.

    Given its versatility, iDSD can happily pass as one of the best DAC/AMP to own for a long duration of time or if trying to drive a varied collection of headphones and IEMs.

    To expand on this, iDSD features three power levels, Eco, Normal, and Turbo, each of them pushing a different power into headphones and IEMs, but it also has three levels of iEMatch, which controls the power, if Eco is too loud for driving the most sensitive IEMs. Any combination of the two is possible, my most used combination being iEMatch turned off and power set to normal. This combination gives enough power and control over both Meze 99 Classics and ie800, but also leaves enough volume pot movement space to fine adjust the volume when needed.

    iDSD has virtually no background noise, or at least no background noise that I can detect. This means that it will be dead silent with any IEMs, helping with the enhanced soundstage characteristics.

    All in all, iFi can only be commended for the great job they do with the driving segment of iFi iDSD Micro BL and at the moment it looks like iDSD BL can safely drive almost any Dynamic, Planar and BA headphone or IEM very well.

    EMI

    iDSD is free of any kind of EMI (Electro Magnetic Interference), as it resulted from the tests.

    It is possible to use it literally above the wifi router while a large game is downloaded through Steam with Zero EMI, and it is possible to use the Mi Max to make calls while iDSD is literally strapped to it and there will still be no EMI to talk about. Given the large metal body and considerable driving power, iDSD being EMI free is nice yet an unexpected treat.

    Comparisons

    Since iFi iDSD is a DAC/AMP device, I can only compare it partially with other devices I own as I don't have a lot of other DAC/AMPs on my hands right now.

    iDSD BL vs FiiO X5-2 –The tonality between the two devices is different as X5ii offers a more forward presentation, with a lower mid hump while iDSD is even throughout its whole frequency response. The fact that iDSD will offer a larger soundstage also means that most instruments will be less in-your-face. iDSD BL will generally make all details and micro details easier to spot, but it won't take away the fun of a good forward song. Given the differences between the devices (DAC/AMP vs DAP, iDSD has no storage and needs a transport, X5ii is not intended to do the same job and can work as a transport for iDSD), they are complementary rather than direct competitors, using iDSD as an AMP to X5ii being an idea as feasible as using X5ii as a transport. If there is a way to describe their sound differences, FiiO x5ii sounds analogue-like while iDSD BL sounds real-life-like.

    iDSD BL vs Mi Max – The main transport I used for iDSD BL while portable was actually Xiaomi Mi Max since it was pretty comfortable and I didn't have the cables to connect it to X5ii. I felt the limitation of having a single mSD card in Mi Max, but iDSD connected flawlessly to it, and there were no problems in their usage together. iDSD has a much cleaner, better controlled, better detailed presentation. iDSD has considerably more authority over the headphones, making Mi Max sound loose and weak in comparison. There is a clear tendency for iDSD to extract far more details from music, and the level of realism the music has with iDSD is worlds apart when it is compared directly to Mi Max. Mi Max sounds digital, while iDSD sounds real-life-like. There is no doubt that iDSD will sound better to virtually any listener, but the fact that Mi Max is a very nice transport for it is true as well.

    iDSD vs P775 custom ESS DAC solution – This is a good laptop's on-board DAC solution, maybe the best DAC/AMP solution found on a laptop at the date, masterfully implemented by Clevo. While the laptop sounds audibly clearer and more vivid than other laptops I had in the past, iDSD's sound is worlds apart in a good sense. iDSD has a considerably cleaner presentation with far better transients, much better instrument separation, considerably better driving power and bass slam. iDSD provides a considerably closer to reality presentation. Testing the DAC of the laptop by using its line-out against the DAC of iDSD reveals that the DAC in iDSD is also considerably better, being considerably cleaner, and rendering every musical note with far better definition and refinement. All in all, iDSD sounds life-like while P775 sounds like a bad digital presentation, but having iDSD near a laptop will mean that iDSD will play all the music.


    Bonus Photos

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    Value

    Taking into account all the specifications of iDSD BL, the driving power, the incredible sound and all the jobs it can get done, the price can only be considered fair for its abilities. In fact, it is one of the best priced DAC/AMP units considering that it is able to drive both ie800 and HD800 in the same package and do it while being portable. Compared to its competitors, iDSD has a better general versatility and provides a lot of features that cannot remain unmentioned such as great battery life, great sound, custom sound tuning, works as a pre-amplifier, can receive both USB and SPDIF signal, offers a plethora of accessories in the box, comes with a good warranty (iFi being known for offering a pretty good warranty for their products), and works out of the box with a machine or device running Android or Windows. iDSD is a fierce competitor regardless of the price we are considering it to run for.

    I haven't even gotten into the DSD and DXD abilities iDSD BL has, but that's just the icing on the cake and I'm not the best person to ask about those. I imagine that if RedBook FLAC sounds this good, DSD and DXD will sound crazy good so the fact that iDSD BL is able to play DSD and DXD and Hi-Res files is also something to take into account and it adds to the value.

    The general sound iDSD has with Sennheiser ie800 reminds of Sennheiser HE-1, the famous headphone setup costing over 55.000$, so that's something to take into account as well. Most of its magic comes from the wide soundstage, instrument separation, sonic layering and great authority it has over headphones, while the spot-on ADSR and precise sound come in to help define the sound as one of the most natural sounds heard in a DAC/AMP unit to date. Most alternative devices that offer similar abilities are priced higher than iDSD BL so the value of the unit is really good.



    Conclusion

    There are lots of reasons to get an iFi iDSD Micro Black Label and in fact, given its versatility and sonic abilities, the only possible downsides in the long run might be the size if you want to stack it, and… That would be it. I can't really fault this device. The battery life seems to last forever in my tests and I haven't managed to drain the whole battery so far, the ergonomics were fairly good for me and the whole device is just lovely.

    Taking into account everything it is able to do, iDSD can be a permanent solution to drive one's lifetime collection of headphones. The sound is vivid and life-like, so it will fit right in with both natural signature lovers and warm signature lovers, there is no trace of sibilance anywhere and iDSD can express enough authority over virtually anything, so there is virtually no reason not to get one given you can afford it.

    The price / performance ratio is pretty good as well, since in the time I've been using it, I found nothing to complain about. For the record, I think that it is intuitive to use and a pleasure to own as a device.

    You don't need to buy a new transport as it works with almost any smartphone and any laptop, and it most certainly doesn't need any special treatment to be used. It looks and is sturdy, the owner not needing to worry about it getting scratched, while the design is modern enough to take iDSD out of the home and even when heading to an official meeting.

    It is a device that's been able to put up with my quandaries and my crazy usage habits, as I have used iDSD BL portable and I've watched a few hours of music video with it using my smartphone as a source without any trace of fatigue or it becoming boring. I consider the usage a fun experience and would totally recommend it if you're looking for a DAC/AMP that will last you a long while and works like a pocket army knife, able to do all kinds of jobs, no matter how odd the job is.

    If the main question that's on your mind is if you should be getting an iDSD Black Label, the simple answer is go out and listen one! You will hear how good it sounds for yourself! Every user so far is in love with their iDSD Black Label and I am sure that it will make even more music lovers from all round the world fall in love with its signature!

    Stay safe and remember to always have fun while listening to music!

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  2. kamikaziH2Omln
    Subtle Design with Not So Subtle Sound
    Written by kamikaziH2Omln
    Published Jan 20, 2018
    5.0/5,
    Pros - Swiss Army DAC, Rich Sound, Portability
    Cons - No definitive EQ, Silence Fade In at beginning of playback
    Who Am I?

    I’m a 21-year-old student studying electrical engineering. I’ve been immersed in the world of high fidelity audio for a long while now and been part of the Head-Fi community now for over 5 years. With the support of the community, I have had the opportunity to attend a few meet ups, listen to various Amplifiers, DACs, and DAPs, and write reviews to contribute back! I love seeing the changes that have brought to the market, and I hope that the constant innovation and competition in the market drives better products at lower prices. I always find myself learning something new in these reviews that I write, and I hope you can learn something new too!


    Equipment Used

    Sources:
    • Schiit “Modi 2 Uber” Digital-to-Analog Converter
    • Labs “Objective 2” Amplifier
    • iDSD Black Label
    • Supermini DAP
    IEMs:
    • Heir Audio 3.ai
    • HiFiMan RE-600 “Songbird”
    Headphones:
    • Sennheiser HD 6XX
    • Sennheiser Momentum Over Ear (v1.0)

    Disclaimer:

    I was not incentivized by any means from iFi to write this review. I am not sponsored by iFi Audio and my opinions on the unit I was provided are my own. At this point in time, the iFi iDSD Black Label provided for this review has already been returned, and is in the possession of iFi Audio.

    The opinions expressed in this review are my own. They may not be necessarily what another may perceive. Audio is subjective and your experience will differ from mine in some form. Don’t take my opinion alone to come to a decision on this unit or any unit that I have reviewed. I thoroughly believe that the best way to understand a product in the event you cannot test it is through multiple sources. Luckily for the iDSD Black Label, there are plenty of reviews to read!

    I wanted to extend my thanks to the iFi Team for giving me the opportunity to express my opinion on this device, and I hope it helps you, the reader, to better understand this piece of equipment, even if you can’t see it for yourself.


    Packaging and Initial Impressions:

    One of my favorite things about iFi is their care in packaging. In my opinion, iFi-Audio are what other companies should strive to be in terms in packaging. They present their product not only with a fashionable and professional manner, but also in a very functional way as well. The packaging isn’t space inefficient (one of my biggest pet peeves), and sturdy. The box design hasn’t noticeably changed between this and other previous products they have released (the iUSB comes to mind personally). The packaging served me very well when setting up between dorm room, home, and visiting a friend.

    The boxes came compartmentalized with many little boxes with an assortment of many cables, adapters, and other necessities for this Swiss Army Knife of a DAC/AMP. Among these cables include a USB 3.0 USB Male to Female connector from the iDSD to computer, a RCA stereo cable (male to male), SPDIF adapter, and various other adapters to meet other needs, such as pre-amping and using the iDSD as a DAC. Although these cables aren’t exactly the most “premium” in terms of build quality, they are certainly not poorly made either. However, when spending $549.99 (market price July 2017) on an item such as the iDSD, it isn’t uncommon to already have premium variants of these cables already. However, the inclusion of these cables were thoughtful and worked well in practice. Although they wouldn’t necessarily be my “end game” in cabling, it definitely would be something I could appreciate when in a bind.

    But all of this aside, the design of the iDSD Black Label shouldn’t come as a drastic surprise to anyone familiar with iFi-Audio. This design is tried and true staple of iFi; using this design for years now, going all the way back to the iCAN. It isn’t the most aesthetically crazy designs on the market, however it makes up what it lacks in fashion in utility, both in size and accessibility. Being an incredibly powerful unit for a variety of reasons in a small package as well as being rack mountable (up to 4 units?!) on the iFi iRack, it seems that the design isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

    Power and Connectivity:

    Oh boy, talking about connectivity options on this guy is a doozy. I’m sure that, no matter how much I write out on this, I’ll miss something in some way or another. The iDSD Black Label is so expansive in its connectivity options that it often feels unfair when many people refer to it only as a DAC/AMP since it can do so much more. It can serve any headphone or IEM under the sun with ease. LCD2? No problem, crank up the power mode (gain) to “turbo” and rock out. Got some Noble Savants? Easy peasy. Dial down the power mode, and set the iEMatch accordingly.

    Inputs wise, you have three options; USB digital, SPDIF/ Toslink digital, and 3.5mm Analog. Additionally, you get three output options; SPDIF/ Toslink digital, RCA output, and ¼ in (6.3mm) headphone analog out, all in one compact package. To further the insanity, this little guy is capable of handling DSD512, PCM768, and DXD2x. While being able to use all of these capability, is nice, it is critical to remember that not all devices or software support these bitrates and container types. Certain games (CS:GO comes to mind) will refuse to output sound when set beyond 192 kHz. Additionally, certain programs will refuse containers such as DSD and DXD (iTunes, I’m looking at you). With more “exotic” file types, you may finding yourself having to put a little extra effort in to squeeze out that extra data. I know that many praise JRiver for being able to handle the majority of the aforementioned file types, and you may find yourself drifting towards this media player as your musical journey progresses. This isn’t a fault towards iFi by any means.

    Connecting to all devices with the iDSD BL seemed to work flawlessly. Windows 10 was accepted without special drivers, Android (v 7.0) was no issue, and even Mac OS X Snow Leopard was without issue. The only “catch” was that the sample rate options that I had on the Android OS was limited to what Poweramp decided was appropriate for that day. I very well could have missed the options where I could change that but I wasn’t able to for the love of this review. Regardless, although I constantly praise the sound quality of the LG V20, carrying the iDSD wasn’t remotely a fair competition. Sure, I can gloat about how much I love to sprint, but put me next to Usain Bolt, and you now have an understanding of the significant rift these two devices have. But I’ll leave those details for later on.

    I tried my hand at a detailed table this time around, and these were pulled directly from the manufacturer at this link here.


    Sound

    I actually had the pleasure of listening and reviewing the new EL Stack right before I was able to listen to the iFi iDSD BL. With their surprisingly close price points, with the iDSD sitting at $549.99, the EL AMP stack sits at a combined $528.00. With impressions fresh in mind and notes on hand, I was very happy to set these two solutions against each other.

    However, you may say, “Hey, hey, hey! Hold up just a second! Those two solutions are completely different! One is restricted to a desktop with dedicated power and the other has modularity and portable form factor! How on earth are you going to compare them?” Before I had learned about the unit a little bit and received it for review, I would have absolutely agreed with you. From a spreadsheet, one would assume that the iDSD would get slaughtered in comparison to a two piece set. However, what makes this review and hobby fun is that, until you something a listen, anything can happen.

    I chose a few songs that I thought were different but demanding. However, I wanted to make sure that these songs were not only demanding for the sake of being demanding, but chose a few carefully to highlight different frequency ranges. These pieces included:

    · Magic (feat. Nile Rodgers and Brandy) – Mystery Skulls (320 kbps MP3)

    · Burning Bright – Riot Games (320 kbps MP3)

    · Very Early- Bill Evans (11289 kbps DSD 128/ 5217 kbps FLAC)

    · Atlantis (Must Die! Remix) – Popeska (320 kbps MP3)

    Since I had the Schiit 2 Uber and Objective 2 combo available on hand, I had used those for direct comparison with the iDSD BL on hand. I utilized an RCA switch and a program called “Audioswitcher” to switch between each source respectively whilst isolating each source from interference from each other by being directly connected.


    Treble

    The song that put the most emphasis on treble out of the selections I critically listened to was “Burning Bright” by Riot Games and “Very Bright” by the Bill Evans Trio, and is the focus of this section.

    Starting off with “Burning Bright”, this song was chosen due to its frequent instrumentally chaotic sections. With bright vocal interludes amid the instrumentals, this piece is often a challenge to be properly presented in a couple of spots. Listening to the iFi unit compared to the JDS Labs offering and the Schiit Modi 2U and O2, the most apparent and definitive differences between them in the treble regions was instrumental separation efficiency. The vocals were cleaner, the instruments were more distinct, and the overall sound was less veiled.

    However, when I played Bill Evans… oh… oh man… the reason for why people find the iDSD BL to be a game changer became quite apparent. Although the majority of this song hangs out in the midrange (and stay tuned, since we’ll talk more about this soon), the drums in Bill Evan’s “Very Early” are too perfect to possibly forget mentioning.

    Without giving too much of a history lesson, the Bill Evans Trio was a jazz group that were predominant in the 1970s, known particularly for their modal and cool jazz genres. For those unfamiliar with both of these genres, modal jazz is a style that is based off of different “jazz modes”, which is well explained here (http://www.jazzstandards.com/theory/modal-jazz.htm). Cool jazz alternatively is characterized by relaxed tempos and lighter overarching tone, which contrasted the intense and complex bebop style that presided it. But, why does this matter? Understanding the genre, you can understand why it is a very ideal for critical listening. With the simplistic soundscape, the instrumentals are incredibly revealing of the faults of a given sound system. On this track, the differences between the different systems became stark. Looking back on my previous reviews, this type of music was a missed opportunity that won’t be overlooked in the future.

    Self-reflection aside, this piece was a fresh slap in the face, showing why the iDSD BL is a crowd favorite. Although the only other DSD device I had available was the HiFiMan Supermini (which the iDSD defiantly trampled), I actually had multiple copies of this piece in varying formats.

    For the treble, I focused on the drum kit, particularly the crash and rides. The experience was… fantastic. It was as perfect, no more than perfect, than what you could as for in the given. To be more precise about the experience, a lot of people like to describe the experience of getting nicer headphones as “removing the veiling sheet between the artist and the listener”. Using the iDSD BL, the treble was unforgivingly transparent, and the experience was like upgrading headphones all over again, but on a much more personal level. Instead of things sounding cleaner, the sound was crisp, true, and rolled off more naturally. It was surprising, and I was grinning the way any good surprise makes you do. Sure the EL Stack was good, but it felt less… well… special when compared side to side.


    Midrange

    I hate to drone on about the same song over and over, but the proverbial “meat” of the Bill Evans piece wasn’t the Treble- no, not remotely. Rather, the focus of this piece was centered around the midrange, with the musings of Bill Evans on the Piano and upper midrange and Eddie Gomez on the Bass covering the lower midrange and bass. In one word, I would describe the iDSD as lush. From Merriam-Webster, the term “lush” means, “appealing to the senses; opulent, sumptuous” or to be characterized by an abundance. I choose this term carefully, as… well, it is hard to describe sound to someone.

    However, the iDSD BL has a special way of sounding incredibly wide, luxuriously smooth, and particularly personal. The piano from Bill Evans is fully bodied and clean while Eddy Gomez’s bass fills in the lower registers with equal but subdued presence. The midrange was so sweet that it brought back fond memories of seeing McCoy Tyner live with my father when I was roughly 10 years old. I honestly can’t remember the sound quality of the set that night, but for a fleeting moment I escaped reality and imagined it to sound like what I am hearing now.

    Bass

    The piece that I used to pay particular attention to bass was “Atlantis (Must Die! Remix)”. This is because this piece is not only busy and aggressive in the low range, but also extends deep into the bass. It’s a piece that I’ve heard too many cheaper, more affordable systems screw up this piece, often getting lost and getting muddy in the lower extremities.

    Although the O2+Modi 2U was a surprisingly well handled combo, it was audibly dwarfed by the iDSD alone. The O2 sounded thinner and fatigueingly sharp, whereas the iDSD was significantly more bodied at the lower extremities. Additionally, the iDSD was more pronounced and instrumentation clarity was clearly in favor of the iDSD when compared to the O2+ Modi as well as the JDS EL Stack. It is a treat listening to this song with both the JDS Stack and iDSD. From the various amps I have tried, they are both the first sets at the cheapest cost that provide a bass experience that not only physically shakes my Sennhesier HD 6XX, but does so cleanly and with finesse. I’m not one to encourage going deaf, but with both sets you’ll find yourself hurting your ears before you start criticizing either set for clipping, which can provide for some really entertaining listening sessions.


    3D Matrix + and XBass

    One of the biggest things that I wish that the JDS EL Stack had that I still haven’t found frequently in many high end DACs or Amplifiers would be the availability of an equalizer, similar to what is available on a lot of the portable Fiio options. Although iFi didn’t exactly provide a full EQ to tamper with, they took a different but similar step with the 3D+ and XBass switches on the device. It’s funny how out of all the million frills that this device has, I am easily the most fond of these two switches. I am a particularly sporadic listener and having the modularity to change the music, no matter how small, is a huge perk to me as a listener compared to the other options out there.

    The 3D Matrix + (3D Holographic Sound®) switch is one that, for lack of better description, widens the perceived soundstage of the output without perceived distortion. Reading other reviews, I notice this feature is more often than not overlooked, which is a disservice to this small but wonderful switch. However, it is hard to elaborate when not much information really exists about the finer details of this process. In my experience however, I find the soundstage to be significantly wider, at a cost of a hair of clarity loss.

    XBass is a function that adds a mild bump in the lower registers during playback. Though it isn’t the most “mind blowing” or novel feature to be released on a DAC/ AMP, saying that I don’t appreciate it would be an understatement. The execution of this switch is perfect, providing a bump that is noticeable, but never overbearing to my experience. My greatest mistake I think I made in writing this review was my carelessness to neglect getting measurements on the actual differences that this switch makes in playback.

    Regardless, listening to music on my 6XX, I found myself keeping both switches toggled on almost all the time. Sure it isn’t a “perfect” reproduction of the mix that made it onto the CD/ WEB based release, but the tuning that these switches provide perfectly satisfy those tiny itches that I’ve longed for that many solutions don’t have to offer. Being able to actively tune older, less bass aggressive pieces to match more modern mixing techniques and tendencies at the flip of a switch is fantastic. However, giving a little cleaner “bump” in the lower registers gives me an experience that I could only imagine the engineers of Beats would dream of. That coupled with the enveloping sound of the 3D Matrix, and I know that I’ll be definitely reminiscing the experience I had till I can get my own iDSD or equivalent offering.


    Conclusions

    This was easily the most difficult review that I have ever done. Not because it was a product I didn’t like, not because it was a product that I was indecisive about, nor was it a product that didn’t have a lot to talk about. Rather, it was quite the opposite. I have never had the conundrum where I didn’t know which angle to approach a product. But the iDSD BL is a device that does an awful lot, and it does an awful lot well. There was a lot to talk about, but I still think that there is plenty that I missed. Like every product I look at, I recommend getting a second persons option, but with the iDSD BL, even more so. With all the things it can do, I am sure to have missed something, and it is always good to have a second, third, and fourth opinion to weigh in.

    Conclusively, I love the EL Stack, and I love my Modi + O2 combo, but using the iDSD was took the listening experience to a new level. Metaphorically, if the O2 or EL Combo was like looking at a beautifully shot professional landscape shot, the iDSD BL was like seeing the scenery in person. Sure, the professional shot is incredible, but there is something inexplicable about seeing a breathtaking view for yourself. Realistically, the differences are minute, but if you are looking at amplifiers in this price bracket, with a little research, you already know that returns on audio quality don’t often scale with price. However, the distinguishing factors between the tested tracks, such as spaciousness and accuracy, made the iDSD BL feel unusually deserving of the stark price difference that these two setups have.

    Between the three setups that I had used frequently (Modi 2U+ O2, JDS EL Stack, and iDSD BL), the iDSD was easily my favorite. It had too much to offer on top of its top-notch playback that made it something special. Unfortunately for you as the buyer, iFi has provided so much that something about it will eventually make you consider it. If you get the opportunity at a meetup or at a store, absolutely get a listen, but don’t be surprised if your wallet is $550 weaker when you get home.

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      Fondler, blackyangell and phthora like this.
    1. phthora
      Nicely done! Great review!

      And I see that the nub has fallen off of your preamp switch as well. I lost mine after maybe two weeks of stacking my DAP with the BL. That has been my biggest complaint about the Black Label, so I guess that's pretty telling.
      phthora, Jan 29, 2018
  3. SoundApprentice
    Black is Better
    Written by SoundApprentice
    Published Jan 21, 2018
    4.0/5,
    Pros - Feature set, Flexibility, Price to Performance
    Cons - Questionable switches, Might be paying for unused features
    [​IMG]

    Shortly after sending my iFi Audio Pro iCAN review unit back, iFi hit me up with its stealthy Micro iDSD BL (Black Label), a portable desktop DAC and pre-amp/headphone amp combo that packs a punch and goes head-to-head against the very popular Chord Electronics Mojo (If you see this Chord, I’d love a demo).

    Much like the Pro iCAN, the iDSD BL is an iFi flagship product, but this time in its smaller portable/desktop Mirco line. Here again, iFi packs in strong feature sets bettered by trickle-down R&D and technology from iFi’s ultra-high-end parent company, Abbingdon Music Research, or AMR Audio.

    You can read about all of the tech specs on iFi’s website, like the dual-core Burr-Brown DAC chips, custom Sanyo OP-Amps, and femto clock, so I’ll just get to the feedback you care about — user and listening impressions.

    Unboxing Impressions

    A relative newcomer to iFi products, I was happy to see the lesser-expensive iDSD BL comes well-packed in higher-end packaging with clean, minimalistic design and aesthetics like the Pro iCAN. It gives off the impression that you’re unboxing a much more expensive product. Inside, you’ll find a very comprehensive accessory set. Everything you need to put the iDSD BL to use is included: USB 3.0 cable, RCA cable, Optical/Toslink adapter, 3.5mm to 6.3mm headphone jack adapter, 3.5mm jumper, some other various USB adapters, a crushed velvet storage bag, a rubber mat to keep the iDSD BL from sliding around on various surfaces when in use, and two bands for securing the iDSD BL to your smartphone or DAP (you can even use the iDSD BL to charge your smartphone).

    Despite its light weight, in hand, the iDSD BL has a sleek and solid feel. I’d say it’s comparatively robust next to products from JDS Labs and Schiit, and maybe a hair less robust than ALO and Chord’s offerings; however, I do have a couple of gripes. The black-on-black text on the chassis is hard to read, and the various recessed slide switches feel, well, cheap. In fact, the first time I slid the iEMatch switch into another position, the round plastic button popped off the switch post. The button easily went back on, but I’d prefer more solid switches on a unit at this price point. I can see these buttons easily popping off their posts if handled less that delicately when traveling. This nitpicking aside, the front panel toggle switches and volume pot operate nicely with good tactile feedback, and the overall look and feel of the device is quite pleasing.

    As for being portable, yes, the 4800mAh lithium battery lets you use the iDSD BL on the go, but it’s long, narrow rectangular shape and overall length does make it rather awkward to carry. It’s approximately 1.5” longer than most standard smartphones when accounting for the volume knob and exposed inputs/outputs. In fact, it’s closer in size to the battery brick for my laptop, so this isn’t something I am tossing into a jacket pocket to use on the train each day. This becomes less of an issue if you carry a bag of some sort.

    Sound Options

    Perhaps the greatest traits of the iDSD BL are its flexibility and versatility. From sensitive IEMs to more power-hungry headphones, mixing and matching the Power Mode (Eco -
    2.0V/500 mW @ 8 Ohm; Normal - 5.5V/1,900 mW @ 16 Ohm; Turbo - 10.0V/4,000 mW @ 16 Ohm) and proprietary iEMatch (Off, High-Sensitivity, Ultra-Sensitivity) settings allows you to dial in the right amount of power and gain to drive your music with balance and authority.

    Because of a strong channel imbalance on the volume pot of my review unit, and my preference for lower listening levels while working, I found these variable settings incredibly useful for balancing the volume output for all of the headphones and IEMs in my collection. For example, I’m back to primarily using the Beyerdynamic Amiron Home as my home-office headphone, which was comfortably driven in just the Eco/High-Sensitivity settings, meaning the more powerful settings will get deafeningly loud.

    Furthering its versatility, the iDSD BL also benefits from two proprietary circuitries — Xbass+ and 3D+ — that help correct some common headphone and loudspeaker shortcomings: sub-bass and imaging. While only “on” or “off” via two front panel toggle switches, instead of being active in varying degrees like on the Pro iCAN, these are still very usable EQ-like features.

    XBass+ is iFi’s solution to bass deficiency in reference headphones and loudspeakers. Through analog signal processing circuitry, XBass+ provides a noticeable, although sometimes intrusive, bass boost. Much like my experience with the Pro iCAN, I was mostly pleased with how the bass boost integrated into the timbre of the amp, but results obviously vary by recording and headphone/loudspeaker selections. XBass+ nicely boosts the deep bass regions of the Sennheiser HD650, Beyerdynamic Amiron Home, and Focal Elear on bass-light recordings. With bass-shy headphones like my old AKG K701 or the updated Q701, XBass+ adds some welcomed warmth and impact. On the other hand, the dark and mysterious AudioQuest NightHawk (review), and the Fostex TH-600 gets boomy with Xbass+. The takeaway here is that you just have to experiment; XBass+ is not a set-it-and-forget-it option.

    While XBass+ helps correct bass deficiency, 3D+ helps correct sound stage deficiencies, like that closed-in feeling when the sound is stuck right between your headphones. In other words, 3D+ was designed to create an “out-of-head” headphone listening experience that emulates listening to well-placed loudspeakers in a room.

    Much like the XBass+ feature, 3D+ is rather hit-or-miss. I particularly liked this feature on the Pro iCAN, which had varying degrees of impact. On the iDSD BL, 3D+ is again “on” or “off” only, which limits its usability. In particular, I found 3D+ to work well with live recordings and videos, like Ben Howard’s 2015 Glastonbury Festival performance, where it widens the sound stage and makes for a more cohesive and deeper blending of sound. Testing it with the tracks I used in my Pro iCAN review, the 3D+ function again worked well enough with jazz classics like John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” where instrument localization is very apparent and added depth and dimension enhances the experience. Admittedly though, some tracks get too busy and displaced with 3D+ engaged, especially when it has adverse effects in the treble region, injecting a strange artificial tizzy-ness to cymbals or an intrusive reverb effect to the entire track. Here again, it’s a feature that’s easily experimented with. Does it truly emulate properly positioned loudspeakers? No, but with the right tracks, it does make welcomed improvements to that “stuck in your head” feeling during long headphone sessions.

    [​IMG]

    Toned Up

    Coming from the Pro iCAN, which was surprisingly neutral and precise, I was expecting more of the same from the iDSD BL, but I was met instead with a tuning tipped towards warmer tones and marginally less precision in detail retrieval and treble clarity. It seems while the iDSD BL still seeks transparency, its tone plays it a bit safe, emphasizing more body in the bass and mids, probably for more versatility with headphone/IEM selection. I suspect this is also in part due to the tuning of the dual-core Burr-Brown DAC chips. For what it’s worth, the iDSD BL sounds more like the tube modes of the Pro iCAN than the solid-state section.

    In comparison to my JDS Labs Objective2 headphone amp and OL DAC (review), the iDSD BL offers more bass impact and dimension, even without the XBass+ and 3D+ features engaged. However, the JDS stack takes the edge in neutrality and clarity, which is a touch dry in comparison, but perhaps more sonically accurate. I also still use an older ALO “The Island” at work, which comes off as much warmer and textured in comparison to both.

    Overall, my takeaway is that the iDSD BL is relatively crisp and clear, with good bass impact and timbre, a touch rounded in the mids, but with nice dynamics, good space and dimension, and the right amount of treble and resolution for it to be hi-fi without being analytical.

    Accuracy and neutrality are what come to mind with the Pro iCAN, which simply lacks a notable “house sound.” The iDSD BL moves a step back from its big sibling, adding a hint of coloration that gives it a touch of flavor for your desktop and portable needs. Add in the simple sound tweaks possible with XBass+ and 3D+ and you have a small amp/DAC that dishes out a darn good listening experience.

    Parting Thoughts

    Lastly, it’s well worth noting that the iDSD BL’s flexibility doesn’t stop with power and tone controls for your headphone listening sessions. The iDSD BL can serve as a DAC and pre-amp for your powered monitors, where XBass+ and 3D+ also work. It accepts USB and digital coax inputs (and optical/Toslink with the provided adapter) for greater input versatility. It natively plays all DSD, DXD, and PCM files, including Quad-DSD256, Octa-DSD512, and bit-perfect Double-DXD and PCM768. Consider all this on top of the innumerable headphones and IEMs that can be driven efficiently with the various Power Mode and iEMatch configurations and it’s clear that the iDSD BL offers scalability, flexibility, and performance well beyond its weight class.
  4. emptymt
    Fun, Technical, Competent and Black Labelled
    Written by emptymt
    Published Mar 7, 2018
    4.5/5,
    Pros - Fun, excellent technicality and details, silent background, well-priced, well-built, clean clear sound, powerful, flexible, well implemented extra features, generous accessories.
    Cons - The carrying pouch is a dust magnet, transportable and hard to use on the go because of the size and long shape, not pocket able. Features can be overwhelming when you get into it.
    DISCLAIMER
    Hi everyone, Before I start the review, I would like to thank Ifi for making this DAC/AMP.
    This review is made by myself based on my observation and listening pleasure of The amp/dac on various gear that I have after about a bit over a month of ownership regardless of price points.

    I have no affiliation to Ifi in any way and everything said here is based on my experience over a week.
    The pricing in Australia is 799.95 AUD (About 620 USD, converted by Google, not official price), so the review will be made using that as the value.

    This Review will also touch on the difference between the micro and the nano, and whether it is worth it to get the micro over the nano.

    INTRODUCTION (If you read my other review, you can skip this)
    I'm an Indonesian working as a Web Developer in Melbourne, Australia.
    Other than programming/coding, listening to music is another one of my hobby.
    When I start my headphone hobby, music listening has been a very rewarding experience for me and has helped me in many aspects of life other than music enjoyment, but, with the booming price of high end headphones/IEM, it has become a bit of a heavy hit on my wallet.

    Starting from almost 4 years ago I've been really hooked by metal music, and nowadays my everyday music listening always incorporate metal tracks, I guess you can call me a Metal-head.

    Other than that I also like Progressive Rock, Jazz, etc basically anything that is very technical and well made except classical, and no I don't really listen to modern music.

    Metal music is my primary focus, so this review will appeal more for people who likes Metal music like me and less so for people who likes modern music like Trap music, pop music, ed sheeran, Taylor Swift, etc.

    I don't actually listen to all kinds of music, lets say for example Classical, therefore it is important to understand that this review is based on my observation on the kinds of musics I like, and those are mainly:
    - Metal (many kinds, mainly the extreme kind, like 80% off the time)
    - Rock (mostly Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson, Riverside(rock/metal), Radiohead or something like it)
    - EDM (Mostly trance)
    - Jazz (Norah Jones, Diana Krall and the likes)
    - Folk (just start lately, but I've been listening to Fionn Regan and found it enjoyable)
    - Indonesian Song (it's basically the Indonesian version of pop, guitar used is mostly acoustic guitar, sounds natural and relaxing however, mastering of the song is usually poor, this is good to test how good a headphone/Iem handle poorly recorded material)
    - etc

    Genre's that I don't listen to, not even one bit, unless forced like in shopping center.
    - Rap
    - Classical
    - Bollywood stuff
    - Modern pop

    GEAR USED
    - Meze 99 Classic
    - Focal Utopia
    - Shozy Stardust
    - Fiio X7 II
    - Violectric HPA v281

    ARTIST/MUSIC USED IN THE REVIEW
    - Porcupine Tree
    - Be'lakor
    - Opeth
    - Shadow Gallery
    - Cynic
    - Lurker Of Chalice
    - Amorphis
    - Novembre

    PACKAGING
    Simple white box, containing the unit and 2 more white boxes inside containing USB cable and rubber bands for stacking, you will also find some documentation in there, simple and clean packaging.
    A lot of accessories is packaged in the box, neatly and well organized.

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    ACCESSORIES
    - USB adapter (USB to USB-A)
    - Blue USB cable for digital input
    - 3.5mm to 1/4 inch adapter
    - RCA to RCA cable (Ifi Micro to your amp, unbalance in)
    - 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable (for stacking your DAC to the AMP section of the Micro)
    - Optical/Toslink adapter
    - USB-A Female to USB-B Female short adapter
    - Black carrying pouch case
    - 2 black rubber amp straps for "stacking"
    - Extra rubber feet (4, white in color)
    - Rubber insert mat for stacking (It will stay in between your device so that it doesn't rub each other and causes scratches)
    - Documentations and warranty

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    I/O
    - 1/4 inch headphone out
    - RCA unbalance out
    - 3.5mm unbalance In
    - USB digital In
    - USB "smartpower" charging in
    - SPDIF In/Out

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    PLAYBACK ABILITIES / SOUND ENHANCEMENT
    - MQA
    - DSD playback
    - XBass
    - 3D +

    BATTERY LIFE
    About 8 hours depending on loads

    BUILD QUALITY
    Excellent! Metal Chassis, with great Black Matte finish, screwed together nice and tight.
    Switches are great and tactile, volume pot with good resistance, USB and headphone Jacks have a secure feel to them when you connect your devices.

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    SOUND QUALITY
    SOUND SIGNATURE

    It is quite neutral, with a little bit of boost and coloration in the bass department, so the bass has a lot of power and attack, however unlike the typical bass elevated signature, where the overall sound can have some lushness to it, this Micro is not like that at all, the amount of body is about straight in the middle of being thin and lush.

    The mids is slightly recessed especially the vocal and upper mid and Treble are about right in line with each other with about the same amount of emphasis and straight down the middle in the body department, I feel that it has a slight rise in the upper mids but nothing too major, due to this personality, the Micro has the benefit of being clinical without sounding sterile, where the details pop but still musical.

    BASS
    The Bass is powerful but tight, the attack are strong, and this combine with very fast blast beat in metal music makes for an excellent combination. The distinction of each hits are apparent, you can almost feel the physicality of the play and it is very engaging. I really like the bass interpretation of the Micro, it has the speed, attack and tightness that enables you to hear notes as fast as this with very minimal effort.

    The Bass is slightly boosted, I feel that it is a couple DB more than the mids and treble at any volume level, and this is without XBass, it is also slightly more forward to you, although not by much, so positioning is almost spot on for me.

    Despite the slight boost, it has never intrudes the mids at all, I think the tuning of the bass is spot on, it combines very well with the mids and treble, and when all spectrum is playing together in the music, nothing takes over, you can everything that is going on and gives the music cohesiveness.

    MIDS
    The mids is very natural sounding with some slight clinical tilt to it, listening to violin work of Ne Oblivisacris is a very enjoyable experience, It almost feel a little thin sounding, but not really so, to put it simply, it is just about right to hear all the intricacies before sounding thin while staying smooth.

    The mids is slightly more laid back as compared to the bass, but it is only slightly and does not sound recess at all, positioning is good, singer comes out about in the center stage, depending on the recording.

    Vocals are natural and is slightly relaxed in presentation, a bit behind the guitar I would say, Amorphis use both clean and harsh vocals in their music, and on the clean vocals side, it sounds clean and smooth, and dare I say a little sweetness in it, slightly mellow and syrupy to portray the emotion.
    When transitioning to the harsh vocals, it still remains smooth without harshness and the growl is powerful and guttural, portraying the rage and stronger more raw emotion in the music.

    When two singers sing together, I can hear the distinction very clearly and they don't cover each other up which says a lot about the resolving ability the unit has.

    When hearing string instruments, you can feel the string as it is being pluck by the player, there is a little "jolt" that can be heard and the sound transition naturally to the decay, the decay is quick but not abrupt, which means that the micro handles reverb very well.

    Talking about the guitar, it has an excellent amount of bites, and combines well with the layered sounding distortion, that at times sounds big and grand enveloping the atmosphere.
    The guitar tone is very natural both for electric and acoustic guitar, as a metal music fan, I'm a massive addict when it comes to electric guitar sound and I really enjoy the presentation that the Micro offers in this regard.

    TREBLE
    The treble is flat starting from the upper mid, which is a little behind the bass in emphasis, the rise start in the frequency where the guitar usually lives.

    After passing this region, it goes flat, maybe very slightly more so it can get a little bit exciting.
    This is quite similar as in the nano, but not as prominent and instead of dipping after the upper mid, the micro stays flat.

    Guitar Solo shines when it needs to be, trebly guitar has some sweetness into it and sounds very melodic without sounding thin and sharp, a lot of Melodic death metal music can benefits from this.
    Unlike the Nano, the treble is quite linear and is not tamed at the upper region, at least not as much to my ears. Cymbals and Hi-hats are heard clearly and is not in the background, it is not the sparkly type, so don't expect super sparkly treble here.

    I think going for the approach that they did in the bass and mids, this is an excellent decision, as we want to keep the general sound clean and fatigue free, too much tizz and spark can reduce haziness to the sound.
    If you are a treble addict, I feel that the 3D feature despite being marketed to increase soundstage actually did some trickery to the treble and makes the whole sound brighter, so you might want to try that.

    SOUND STAGE / SEPARATION
    Sound stage is about average for a unit at this price range, although this is a bit hard for me to test as all my headphone are not the best in sound stage, and I'm also not a big sound stage addict.

    The amount of width, height and depth is very close, so this is the #D spherical type as opposed to the nano which I think is more oval in shape.

    Regardless, Instrument separation is great, nothing overlap each other, they just do their own thing and play harmoniously.

    EXTRA FEATURES:
    We have a lot of these, just look at this switches everywhere:

    ifi-micro-bl-bot.jpg ifi-micro-bl-left.jpg ifi-micro-bl-front.jpg

    IEMatch (Off, High Sensitivity, Ultra sensitivity)
    I didn't play around with this much, I did try the High sensitivity and the off one, I feel some differences in the blackness of the background just like I did in the nano, I leave this on almost all the time.

    When going from High to ultra, after volume matching by ears, I feel that there is no difference whatsoever, if there is any it would be too small for me to catch with my current gears as I'm not an IEM user.

    XBass + (Off, On)
    Does it work? Yes!, Does it work Well? also yes.
    I think it mostly does the work on the sub-bass as I feel the kick and rumble of the music much more when I have this on.

    I think this feature works very well, although I would like one more level between on and off as I feel that the strong can be a bit on the strong side when left on all the time.
    I'm not a bass addict and mostly content with the bass I get from the off set up.

    However the implementation of this feature is excellent, I heard nothing weird going on in the bass while having this on, no distortion, no boominess and no softness to it.
    The attack still remain strong just with more weight and loudness to it.

    This feature is also really useful for playing games and movies, when you turn it on the sound of explosion, gunshot just becomes more powerful and more exhilarating.
    I think the XBass is the most useful feature out of all the features the unit has.

    3D + (Off, On)
    Does it work? Yes!, Does it work well? depends.
    This is where it can be a little experimental, I found that they approach this by doing something to the treble, which makes the presentation sound more lively and has a bigger scope of view.

    For comparisons sake, we will using a clock as our 360 degree point of view:
    When listening to Lighbulb sun from Porcupine tree, the guitar sounds like it's coming from the left around 10.30 in direction, with the 3D on, it sounds like it's coming from 9.30 in direction, plus the treble becomes more lively and brighter. I found that in the lightbulb sun record, it works quite well.

    However when I play some Opeth or other metal songs, maybe due to the guitar distortion having a lot of distortion already, the brightness and extra liveliness makes the guitar sounds artificial, as it now sounds too distorted, it loses the cohesiveness and just doesn't sound good at all to me, at least for Metal.

    I mostly have this feature off due to my music preference being mostly metal in this review, but I think if you listen to a lot of rock music, you might want to try this.

    Extra notes on XBass & 3D (+ some analysis for use case):
    Turning this on will skew the tonal balance as you may already know, but the amount changes depending on your listening level.

    For example if you are allow level listener, I feel that the amount of boost that the XBass adds to the bass is most likely a fixed number, let's say + 6db.
    This means that it will always add 6db regardless of your volume, for example:
    You listen to music at 60db, + XBass + 6 db, so the bass boost is 10% in decibel
    You listen to music at 80db, + XBass + 6 db, so the bass boost is 7.5% in decibel (you get less boost in percentage compared to 60db volume listening level)

    Bottom line is, you get more bass boost at low volume level, and don't forget that decibel is a logarithmic measurement, 1db increase means 10 times louder in sound.
    Similar thing could apply to the 3D Natrix, although I think that they work in a different way.

    This is actually quite common in other portable amplifier as well, as they usually add a fixed amount to increase the intended frequency, usually the bass.

    *notes:
    If some has a better understanding on this than me, feel free to enlighten me in the comments, this is just my observation, I could be wrong.


    Power Mode (Turbo, Normal, Eco)
    This sets how much power the unit use on default, lets say if you use IEMs you may need to go with eco mode, as the ifi documentation say:
    "Tip: With a new pair of IEMs/Headphones, ALWAYS start
    with the volume no higher than 9 o' clock and with the
    Power Mode set to ‘Eco’"
    I mostly use the unit in normal power mode.

    Polarity (-, +)
    I had no idea about this one, I assume it might have something to do with the dynamic transition, I had it on all the time.

    Filter (Standard, Minimum Phase, Bit Perfect)
    I had it in bit perfect phase all the time, as most of my music is PCM, according to iFi:
    "Tip: For PCM we recommend ‘Bit-Perfect’ for listening and
    ‘Standard’ for measurements. For DSD, select
    Extreme/Extended/Standard to find the one that sounds
    best for listening and ‘Standard Range’ for
    measurements."

    Pre-amplifier output
    I didn't use this at all, so no comments here.

    COMPARISONS
    Fiio X7 II

    The Fiio X7 II is a good little unit, it is a DAP that I'm currently using on the go now as I grew tired of stacking.
    The X7 II I feel has a more neutral sound signature, the mids is a little more forward than the BL, where it is slightly recessed.

    However after using both units, I'm confident to say that the Ifi Micro beats the X7 II in power and dynamic, the bass has a stronger attack and treble more defined.

    Other than that I also feel that they have a different sound stage, I feel the Micro is more spherical compared to the X7 II, cohesiveness is really close, both are cohesive all the way through the frequencies, where the sound just envelop around you.

    The question is, is the BL strong enough to make me give up the X7 II?
    the answer is no, the X7 II just have way more functionality for an all in one device, no stacking around with cable, can act as transport, and the sound is really closely match.

    Chord Mojo
    I used to own one, and back in the day the chord mojo and the ifi Micro has a fierce rivalry!

    I have sold my chord mojo probably last year, so I can't do a direct comparison on it, however the iFi micro BL has a different sound signature and feel from the mojo, the mojo was warmish and more lush, details are there but due to it's sound signature, the mojo can sound less detailed compared to the BL, I personally like the BL better, the mojo wins hands down with portability though, the BL is transportable but too bulky too use while on the move.

    The BL to me just sounds cleaner and details pop a little bit better, soundstage is slightly bigger and sounds more cohesive.

    iFi Nano BL
    The nano is more geared and focused on music enjoyment that is fatigue free.

    Due to this the the treble is more subdued compared to the Micro, where it can gat a bit exciting at times.
    Both are smooth at the top, however one has more emphasis is brighter than the other, if you are very sensitive to treble, you may want to test the Micro before buying the unit.

    For long hours use, it might be safer to get the nano if you are unsure about the Micro's treble.
    Details, clarity, cohesiveness and bass tightness is superior on the Micro, the bass attack, mids naturalness has some upgrades too but not significant.

    POWER OUTPUT / HEADPHONE PAIRING
    This unit is extremely flexible, I have no doubt that it is powerful enough to power through everything from IEM to full sized, except maybe the HE-6, which I don't have so I can't test this for sure.

    Meze 99 Classic
    My on the go set up. I'm still using the small pads on my meze 99 classic as I think the bigger pads has more bass.
    Good strong dynamic, with clear mids and controlled treble, bass attack is strong and punchy with good speed, it synergize well with the BL.

    ifi-v281-meze99.jpg

    Focal Utopia
    My main gear at home, the BL powers it up perfectly, unlike the Nano BL where I can feel that my Utopia is not performing at its max, the Micro BL certainly brings out the potential of the headphone.
    Cohesiveness and details are the strong point in this set up, you just hear everything in the music, from the guitar plucks, violin strokes, voice vibration, absolutely lots of information you can hear with this combo!

    ifi-v281-utopia.jpg

    Shozy Stardust
    Clear sweet unoffensive sound with controlled treble and excellent bass for a small earbud, for a super lazy set up this works pretty well.
    I mostly use this to watch movies, play games etc.

    ifi-stardust.jpg

    AS DAC
    When used with my V281, along with my focal Utopia, The BL did an excellent job, the Violectric HPA V281 just takes cohesiveness, separation and attack to the next level, my utopia sounds very dynamic and smooth.
    More natural sounding mid that sounds vivid and personal.
    Treble sounds more refined, and controlled, very enjoyable to listen to.

    Sound signature is very similar to using the BL asa standalone, this leads me to believe that the amp section of the BL is quite transparent.

    ifi-v281.jpg

    CONCLUSIONS
    The Ifi Micro iDSD BL is an excellent unit, the main duty for this product for me is as transportable, you can leave the unit at your office at work and just use it everyday while doing some productivity work.

    The sound quality for the price range is excellent, it has a lot of features which can be overkill sometimes, but you don't need to use it!

    Battery life is good and accessories are pretty generous.
    Pricing is good, considering all those extras above and it's performance, I found it well justified.
    4.5 Stars
  5. lambdastorm
    Horrible.
    Written by lambdastorm
    Published Sep 21, 2018
    1.0/5,
    Pros - Very nice chassis

    AMP section has remarkable amount of control and drive

    Battery lasts reasonably long
    Cons - Absolutely horrible DAC

    Channel imbalance
    With everyone loving these and hyping this lil' box up, I'm gonna play the devil's advocate and call it terrible, and I've owned two over the course of a year, got the first one here for around $320, bought another one brand new for $599.

    Let's not talk about aesthetics. That's what lures me in in the first place. It looks pretty dang neat. A few switches here and there, a 1/4 port on the front, a set of RCAs, one optical and one USB port in the back. A real swiss army knife huh, compact and thoughtful.

    But that's where all good news end. I literally cannot find anything positive to say about the sound. It's terrible, no, horrible actually. I bought the second unit just to see if I got a lemon, and bam I did not, it really just sounds that bad.

    First of all, the headphone amp is actually pretty decent. It has plenty of drive and decent level of control for high impedance cans. HD600s sound great out of the amp, why the AMP section you say?

    Because its DAC section is unforgivingly terrible. I've used the RCA ports in the back many times and everytime I plugged something in, it makes me wonder how on earth would these guys pair such a horrible DAC with such a good sounding amp in such a deceivingly nice chassis. The sound it puts out is lifeless, greyed out and lacks air. Detail retrieval is actually pretty decent, but highs are rough, mids are okay-ish and the bass on this thing is just an abomination. Not only is it loose, it doesn't have much extension down low and lacks quantity. My PS Audio Nuwave and Perfectwave MkII DAC both eat this thing for breakfast. Going back to those two makes me realize how artificial and harsh sounding this DAC/AMP really is, cuz the DAC section ruins what would otherwise be a fantastic dac/amp.

    The amp section is pretty decent however. I tried hooking up my desktop DACs to this lil thing with a RCA-3.5mm cable, and it sounds pretty dynamic. Lots of power, pretty good control and reasonably good bottom end extension. Doesn't really sound like a portable unit, but the horrible DAC section makes the unit as a whole very tiny sounding.




    In the end, I suggest any other users to steer clear of this dac/amp. The AMP section of this lil box trumps most if not all portable units on the market, however the DAC section is just so uninspiring it ruins the whole experience. It's tiny sounding, doesn't have much dynamics and lacks air. I don't really think its worth it even for the $320 I got it for.
      joeydgraffix and Sabron like this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. ceemsc
      You guys must have your rigs eq'd incorrectly because I get a full range of frequency response right down to 20hz especially with XBass+ enabled. The treble extends fine hitting my top hearing range of 14khz, What this DAC/AMP lacks in intimacy, it makes up for in Soundstage size & depth + instrument separation; it sounds like I'm in a live concert. Make sure that IEMatch is set to OFF if you are using headphones as I've heard that can make at tinny sound if wrongly engaged.
      ceemsc, Mar 1, 2019
    3. joeydgraffix
      We may just have different taste's in sound. I had both the silver and black versions & I had everything set correctly. They both handled poorly with EQ. XBass just muddied the bass. The 3d was absolutely disappointing, to me there was no concert like sound to it, just boosted treble with some sound being pushed to the sides. It had a ton of power but the sound from it just seemed to be on the bad side for me.
      joeydgraffix, Mar 1, 2019
    4. abirdie4me
      Just picked this up used, and I think it sounds great. However, it doesn't sound great as preamp to my Jotunheim amp. I did some A/B testing with Jot balanced DAC, I noticed very little difference (grouped zone via Roon, so they were volume matched). But the iDSD by itself sounds awesome to me, so for me this is a great value for a portable dac/amp. I sold my mojo, it seemed lifeless and uninspiring in comparison. We all hear differently and have different preferences I guess.
      abirdie4me, Apr 9, 2019