1. dsnyder
    Incremental Improvements...or the start of a new line?
    Written by dsnyder
    Published Dec 31, 2016
    4.5/5,
    Pros - Lots of inputs and outputs, great features, delightful sound quality
    Cons - Ridiculous USB type-A input, excessive size/weight for portable use, too many switches in too many places, loud POP! on power-up/power-off
    First, I'd like to thank Lawrence and the folks at iFi Audio for lending me a micro iDSD Black Label DAC for a week so that I could experience it firsthand. If you're reading this review, I'm assuming you fall into one of three categories:
     
    1. you have an iFi DAC and you're wondering if the micro iDSD Black Label is a worthwhile upgrade
    2. you're in the market for a transportable DAC and are curious about iFi's new flagship product
    3. you've followed a link to this page but otherwise, have no idea what this thing is about
     
    iFi Audio is a brand that requires little introduction here on Head-Fi, but in case you missed the massive crowd design topics in this forum that are associated with the micro iDSD, I'll provide a brief introduction. iFi Audio is a subsidiary of AMR (Abbingdon Music Research), which is one of the UK's largest manufacturers of high-end audio systems. AMR is famous for their Series 77 and Series 777 products, including the highly regarded DP-777 reference class DAC with NOS tubes. For the performance it provides, this 25.4 lb monster is a great value even at its lofty $5K USD price. The problem? Well, apart from cost, it's not very portable!
     
    In the US, the assembly of gear that renders sound into a room is commonly referred to as a "stereo", even if many more than two channels are enabled. The term, "high-fidelity" is an adjective that describes the quality of a stereo. In the UK, the reverse is true; the term "hi-fi" is a noun, not an adjective, and "stereo" indicates the number of channels supported by the hi-fi. You go to your UK friend's house to listen to their "hi-fi", not their "stereo."
     
    The name "iFi", then, is a personalized version of "hi-fi". Like that certain American company that is keen to put the letter "i" in front of lots of nicely packaged products, "iDAC", "iDSD" and similar names indicate that these are personal entertainment products with trickle-down technology from AMR. Think of iFi Audio as the "personal hi-fi" (or "i-fi") arm of AMR.
     
    Ignoring their Pro and Retro lines for a moment, iFi Audio's components come in two sizes: "nano" and "micro". These sizes share the same six-sided cross-sectional dimensions of roughly 2 1/2" wide by 1" tall, differing only in length--3 3/8" for the nanos vs. 6 1/8" for the micros. While too thick to fit unobtrusively into a pocket, these are seriously small components compared to what you'll typically find in a desktop or rack audio system.
     
    micro_nano_BL.jpg

     
     
    I think of iFi Audio as a one-stop shop for computer audio. In addition to five native DSD-capable USB DACs plus a USB to S/PDIF interface, their product line has the greatest depth and breadth in USB power and signal clean-up devices on the planet...by a huge margin. Their emphasis on purifying the power that is fed to the DAC is particularly telling--it indicates that iFi Audio has a deep understanding of how and why clean power is important to computer audio, and that understanding drives their product design and product enhancements. The most recent product to benefit from this understanding is the new micro iDSD BL.
     
    BL_Box.jpg

     
    Those familiar with the original micro iDSD DAC/amp will find nothing new in terms of function and features with the Black Label model. All of the switches, toggles, inputs and outputs have been duplicated in the new product. The micro iDSD DACs come nicely packaged with a black velvet pull string bag, USB type B to A adapters, USB extension cables, RCA cables, a short 1/8" TRS patch cable, a TOSLINK S/PDIF optical coupler, a gold 1/4" to 1/8" TRS adapter, and elastic bands to strap the DAC to a smartphone or portable player. My original micro iDSD kit also included a set of stick-on rubber feet and a pair of thick plastic spacers to keep the DAC and whatever it is strapped to from scratching each other. I have found the rubber feet to be handy on my micro iDSD to keep it from marring the table or sliding around, but the rubber feet and the black velvet bag are somewhat mutually exclusive, so I can see why iFi dropped them from the BL's packaging. They are easy enough to find at your local hardware store if you want them.
     
    You might never know it by just glancing at the iDSD BL, but it sports three digital inputs (USB, TOSLINK and COAX S/PDIF), one analog input (1/8" TRS), one digital output (COAX S/PDIF), and two analog outputs (1/4" TRS and RCA, fixed or variable), plus a USB charging port. That's a crazy amount of I/O for such a small device! Think of the iDSD BL as the personal audio equivalent of one of those big, fat pocket knives with a dozen or two different tools. I actually tested all of these inputs and outputs, and they all work as advertised. What's interesting is that the COAX S/PDIF output functions even with the DAC switched off. As expected, there's no signal on the COAX S/PDIF output with PCM material at sampling rates above 192kHz or with DSD. The only thing missing is conversion of the analog input signal to digital on the USB and COAX S/PDIF outputs. :)
     
    BL_Inputs.jpg

     
    The combination of Power Mode and iEMatch® switches provide, in theory, nine different gain settings; however, iEMatch® is likely intended to be used with Power Mode set to "Eco", so effectively, there are five different gain settings. These are important because both versions of the micro iDSD have volume tracking issues at settings below 9 o'clock. Used together, these switches should enable just about any headphones to operate comfortably at close to the optimal 3 o'clock volume setting.
     
    The sound can be tailored using the X-Bass®, 3D Holographic Sound®, Filter, and Phase switches. I always felt that the effect of the 3D switch was a little too heavy-handed on the original micro iDSD; however, it seems to be more pleasing on the iDSD BL, making it usable even without the X-Bass switch enabled for most music. My understanding is that these switches have a different effect on the RCA line outputs when the preamplifier mode is engaged, providing enhanced stereo separation in the bass. I did not test this for reasons that I'll explain later. Like all of iFi's other DSD-capable DACs, the behavior of the filter switch depends on input format. Normal and minimum phase are digital oversampling filter settings with different cut-off frequencies, and bit-perfect is a non-oversampling setting with no digital filter. The same positions affect the cut-off frequency of the analog filter for DSD. The phase switch is a nice addition, however, although I'm somewhat sensitive to absolute phase in my loudspeaker + room system, I've never been able to identify a difference by inverting phase while listening with headphones.
     
    The light on top of the DAC changes color to indicate the source format. I wish that the micro iDSD models used a color scheme that's more similar to the nano iDSD and micro iDAC2. On the latter, green indicates a CD/DAT sampling frequency while any other color indicates high-rez. This is a useful distinction that's lost with the micro iDSD models which illuminate green for anything at or below 96kHz.
     
    A more significant point against the micro iDSD models relative to their less advanced siblings is the loud POP! that is emitted from both the headphone and RCA outputs when the device is switched on and sometimes when it's switched off and goes in/out of standby mode. I was disappointed when I discovered this issue with the original micro iDSD and even more disappointed to find that it has not been corrected in the iDSD BL. Not only is this POP! somewhat painful if you switch on the DAC while wearing efficient headphones, it precludes the DAC from directly driving power amplifiers and powered monitors. It can be a problem even if great care is taken to ensure that the external amplifiers are always off or muted during DAC power transitions because going into or waking up from standby can also cause an output surge. While not expensive, at the ~$500 USD price-point, I expect an audio product to be more well-behaved. This is why I did not test the preamplifier feature on the iDSD DACs.
     
    My final gripe with the crowd designed micro iDSD concerns the USB type-A input. Oh my gosh is this irritating! The idea is that the DAC will be directly connected to a smartphone or tablet by way of an OTG or camera connection kit cable, making the combination a tidy digital transport+DAC+amp combo for music on-the-go. Even though the type-A input eliminates the need for a short USB cable, this is an awkward and un-pocketable contraption. What's worse, we now have a ~$500 DAC that is incompatible with standard audiophile USB cables like iFi's own Mercury and Gemini, even though the DAC is sufficiently resolving to benefit from using them. We're left using a low-quality adapter or springing for the type-A iPurifier2 (which I did not have on hand for this review) to connect the micro iDSDs to a PC, which for a DAC this size and weight is likely the more common use case. Frustrating! A type-A input would almost make sense on the smaller nano iDSD models, but, in my opinion, it has no place on the micro iDSD. Okay...end of rant!
     
    Moving on from form, features, functionality, and my personal gripes to what you're probably more interested in...how the iDSD BL sounds. In a word, "lively". The BL departs slightly from the signature iFi Audio "house sound", which I would describe as erring on the warm side of neutral. Compared to previous iFi DACs, mid-bass on the BL has a little more punch, and vocals soar with a more open, forward midrange. Highs are, in particular, more extended, airy and pure than the iDAC2.
     
    loft_wide.jpg

     
    This new DAC is fast. I mean, crazy fast sounding--if that's even an audio descriptor. Listening to acoustic guitar, you get the sense that the DAC is tracking each string and the associated harmonics with tremendous speed and accuracy. No details are lost. Attacks emerge from the soundstage like a flash of lightening, and decays extend like rolling thunder into a deep black background. The more forward balance of the BL brings alluring presence to vocals but also to strings, snare drums, and brass instruments. The sound is energetic, punchy, and engaging both in the big rig and with headphones.
     
    Switching back to the original micro iDSD, I noted that the presentation is more laid-back and euphoric while still maintaining excellent detail. Soundstage width, depth, and height seem to be slightly greater with the original iDSD while the BL's soundstage is tighter and has a tiny bit more focus. The iDAC2 fits somewhere in the middle with a big, enveloping soundstage and lovely midrange bloom. It falls short relative to the BL only in its treble presentation, which by direct comparison, sounds slightly colored and rolled-off (both DACs using the minimum phase filter setting) vs. BL's pure, airy highs. This difference is most noticeable in acoustic jazz cymbals and hi-hat.
     
    micro_iDSD_BL_Orig.jpg

     
     
    Others have covered in detail what iFi has changed internally to bring about these sonic improvements, so I won't repeat them here except to say that the new Panasonic OS-CON capacitors should receive much of the credit. They are probably also responsible for the longer than normal burn-in time associated with the micro iDSD BL--this thing should finally settle in sonically after about 400-500 hours of playback.
     
    All three of these "micro" sized DSD capable DACs from iFi Audio sound terrific, especially considering their relatively low $350 - $550 USD price range. While there's not a huge difference in sound among them, each clearly has its own personality. If you delight in excavating every last micro detail from your music and listening sessions, the new BL is going to be your favorite by a mile. You might prefer the original iDSD if you prefer to just kick back and veg to soothing music with an enveloping soundstage while occasionally digging on details buried in the mix. If you don't require the portable features, the iDAC2 is incredibly resolving and punchy without being fatiguing.
     
    Your choice among these three may come down to system synergy as well. Listening to the BL with Grado RS2e headphones was an intense experience that could easily become overstimulating and even fatiguing depending on music choice and listening duration. However, the more laid-back Sennheiser HD600s were a delightful match to the BL's liveliness. In the big rig, if your system's balance tends towards forward or analytical, you may find the BL's intensity to be exhausting (perhaps addressable by inserting iFi's micro iTube between the DAC and your amplifier). However, the BL will add a little extra snap to systems with a more relaxed presentation. My big rig system employs room treatments and digital room correction, so the presentation is among the most neutral I have ever heard. As such, I never found the lively, energetic nature of the BL to be fatiguing, and I missed the beautiful, extended treble when I switched back to my beloved iDAC2.
     
    If you own the original micro iDSD, is there enough difference to justify the upgrade? It really depends on your listening priorities and associated equipment. If you have a dedicated audio PC with high-quality media player (JRiver, AMARRA, Audirvana, etc.) and Sennheiser HD600 or better headphones, you'll definitely appreciate the improvements in presence, detail, and speed offered by the BL. If you're mostly driving the DAC with a smartphone and using IEMs, the differences may not be as apparent or easy to appreciate. The BL is a pretty big step up in sound quality and power from the nano iDSD models, but keep in mind that it's also much larger, heavier, and less portable.
     
    The Chord Mojo is now the same price as the micro iDSD BL, so you might be wondering how to choose between these two. I happened to have one on hand for this review, so I did some quick listening comparisons. The difference in sound is nearly as great as the difference in size! Considering form factor alone, the Mojo is the way to go if portable audio is a priority for you. It's small, dense, and ergonomic. It has a pair of headphone jacks for sharing music with a friend without a splitter. While I don't love the mini-USB input, at least it's possible to find both OTG and audiophile grade USB cables with mini-USB plugs, including some from Audioquest. The Mojo's sound is even more laid-back, "British", and warm than the original micro iDSD, so the contrast in presentation between the Mojo and the BL is quite stark. Carefully consider your choice of headphones and associated gear before choosing one over the other. Both are beautifully detailed in their own way, but the BL presents a blacker background with greater dynamic contrast and is my pick between the two for best value for money.
     
    Mojo.jpg

     
    While I do miss some of the benefits of the BL in my system, I'm eagerly looking forward to seeing if iFi will give the iDAC2 the Black Label treatment. If so, that could be a very exciting sounding DAC that will be a welcome addition to an already extremely impressive lineup.
     
    Associated equipment for this review includes:
    1. Legacy Audio FOCUS SE loudspeakers
    2. Wyred 4 Sound mAMP monoblock amplifiers
    3. Emotiva XSP-1 analog preamp
    4. Morrow Audio and Straight Wire interconnects, speaker cables, and power cords
    5. iFi Audio, XLO, and Wireworld USB cables
    6. iFi nano iUSB3.0, micro iUSB2.0, and iPurifier2 USB power and signal conditioners
    7. Audio-Technica ATH-M50x, Sennheiser HD600, and Grado RS2e headphones
    8. JRiver Media Center v22 running on Windows 10 (with Fidelizer Pro) and Mac OS X
    1. View previous replies...
    2. dsnyder
      Fair question...I picked that up during a conversation with Mr. Zero Fidelity himself, Sean Fowler.
      dsnyder, Jan 1, 2017
    3. MLGrado
      I never noticed the pop on power up with my iDSD Micro Silver.  I did notice it with the Black Label.  It isn't that unusual.. I think it indicates lack of a muting relay that would add cost/complexity and is one more item in the signal chain that isn't absolutely necessary.  
       
      Via my Audeze LCD-X headphones, which, for Audeze, are high sensitivity with very easy to drive low impedance, the thunk was merely just an annoyance.  Not anywhere near loud enough for me to be worried about any possible damage to downstream components. 
       
      It may be more inconvenience, but if it truly worries you, keeping your headphones unplugged until after power on is a workable solution.  I will also note this only happens via the headphone output.  No such thunks on the RCA outputs (at least not in fixed mode)
       
      I agree about the increased presence and air.  It is especially welcomed (being done in a quite tasteful amount) in the upper mid lower treble.  Everything has just a bit more life and sparkle.  But I still would not go so far as to characterize the BL as bright.  Actually, as we move on up into the treble the sound is very smooth, sweet, and grain free.  No hint of listener fatigue. 
       
      Back in 2014 I had a discussion with Thorsten Loesch about the USB type A input.  My concern at the time was possible compromise in fidelity when using the Gemini cable.  The extra cable or adapter seemed to be a potential weak spot where any gains achieved via separation of the power and data feeds could be lost.  Thorsten didn't seem to think the difference would be significant, and I am guessing their lab measurements showed little actual difference.  But that is just a guess.  For me the biggest issue I have is the clunkyness of the heavy aluminum termination on the Gemini cable combined with the added length and weight of the iPurifier 2 and/or the required adapter.  All of those combined together plus gravity puts quite a downward strain on the connector.  
      MLGrado, Feb 13, 2017
    4. dsnyder

      I still contend that the loud POP effectively renders the preamplifier output function of these micro iDSD DACs useless for those who otherwise might consider connecting them directly to powered monitors or poweramps. Disappointing also since the much less costly iFi nano iDSD DACs do not seem to have this issue. Obviously, iFi knows how to build a device that does not emit a huge "POP" upon power-up or wake-up from sleep, but they didn't bother for their flagship micro iDSD models. Like the type A input, I'll continue to complain loudly until I feel that I've been heard.  :)
       
      As I said, how the BL sounds really depends on the system in which it operates. With the Grado RS2e headphones, it sounds bright (trust me), but it was delightful with the Sennheiser HD600's and totally fine in my Legacy Audio FOCUS SE based big rig.
       
       
      Your note about the conversation with Thorsten is helpful; however, the adapter is still appalling. I agree with you on the weight issue as well. Again, going with a type A (or micro USB) input almost makes sense with the ultra-portable nano iDSD products. I personally think it was a terrible choice on the larger, heavier micro iDSD models. This is the sort of thing that sometimes happens when something is designed by committee, sadly.
      dsnyder, Mar 16, 2017
  2. stevenyu2000
    Good DAC with Multi-Connect and output
    Written by stevenyu2000
    Published Dec 30, 2016
    3.5/5,
    Pros - Flexible with lots input and output. Musical and Powerful AMP.
    Cons - Not Support DSD with Coxial input
    IFI Micro iDSD Black Label
     
    IFI released their new upgrade model of Mirco series , the iDSD Black Label , we called it BL .
    According to the IFI wed page ......
     
    In short, iFi Audio Micro iDSD Black Label has:
     
    re-designed output stabilisation
    OV2627 op-amps upgraded analogue section
    Panasonic OSCON capacitors loaded power supply
    OV2028 op-amps loaded DAC power supply
    DAC voltage decoupling based on audio-grade ECPU film capacitors
    GMT® Femto precision clock system power supply upgraded
     
    In short, iFi Audio Micro iDSD Black Label is:
     
    a tweaked to the roof original Micro iDSD
    a satin black version (with silk orange writings) of original Micro iDSD
    sonically much better version of original Micro iDSD
    loaded with latest 3D+® and XBass+® tech, superior over ones in original Micro iDSD
    10% higher price of $549 (ex-tax) / Euro599 (incl VAT)
    superior to original Micro iDSD
    500x1000px-LL-03b6ca5a_SanyoOSCON.jpg
    500x1000px-LL-584a7743_AMRCD-77-Digital-Engine.jpg
    500x1000px-LL-a73e217a_B_P1070660.jpg
    500x1000px-LL-c4a69a70_B_P1070561.jpg
     
     
     
    You can expected the improvement in power supply to provide a clean and good support to the DAC circuit.
    A Black outlook let it looks cool and much high class than the original silver color.
     
    Thank you IFI for let me be one the BL tour in Hong Kong. My BL was totally new in box . I opened it from the box and hear its sound from zero run in .
     
    Talk back my setup with the BL.
    My setup was a transportable headfi setup. A DX50mod with coxial out to BL . A Venture 4 core Coxial cable was connected between DX50 and BL.
    The BL as DAC with direct mod , RCA out to my DIY AMP , A 8 core pure silver RCA cable was connected between BL and AMP.
    The IEM I used was IE800 with Earmod , 8 core pure silver cable used.
    20161229_114351_HDR.jpg
    20161229_114425_HDR.jpg
     
     
    BL provided lots of solution for me such as PC with USB connect to BL , DX50 coxial out to BL and use BL own phoneout for my IE800 , and my transportable setup , DX50 > BL > AMP > IE800.
     
    BL support DSD with its USB but cannot support DSD with coxial input. I have try some players with coxial out but BL cannot playback the DSD with coxial in.
     
    BL has powerful AMP inside, even IE800 can drive well and muscial . the bass+ and 3D+ effectted with more bass and better sound stage.
     
    I used BL as DAC for my AMP. It was a musical DAC , Warm sound with good punch. Its same style with the old IDSD. Since my BL was new in box , the sound with tight, the dynmic range, Treble extend and Bass punch was not as good as the old one.
    The old IDSD was demo at shop , maybe the run-in time not enough let BL as good as the old one. The good news run-in was improve. The BL at last when I return , it was better than before but still not as good as the old one. But I believe the BL will better than the old model as new BL change lots of capacity as they need run in as well.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. jsplice
      Even with the somewhat-inefficient Beyer T1.2s, the amp in the iDSD is overkill.  I still run the iDSD on eco mode with the T1.2s.  I'd say unless you're looking for a portable unit that can power the HE-6, you'll never use all the power that the iDSD can output.  Headphones now are becoming more and more efficient every day.  The ability to do DSD is nice though, and something I definitely miss with the Dragonfly.
      jsplice, Jan 1, 2017
    3. glassmonkey
      @jsplice You must have more sensitive ears than me, or have a much lower preferred listening level. I listen at about 78dB and the iDSD BL needs to be in Normal mode to drive my HD600 adequately. The Beyerdynamic T1s are more demanding than the HD600, so I have to wonder if you are actually driving them fully. I'd turn the BL to at least Normal (I wasn't a fan of Turbo as noise shot up)--but if your listening level is really low you might get channel imbalance--and see what the headphones sound like.
      glassmonkey, Jan 1, 2017
    4. jsplice
      @glassmonkey I haven't measured the db level after I've set my listening level, so I can't say where I'm at there.  I've also never used the iDSD with the HD600 so can't make that comparison.  Yea, I've got the channel imbalance thing before when having the volume set low in normal mode.  That's the main reason I've kept it in eco.  Also, the Elear are so efficient that there's no way in hell I can use normal mode with them.  Even on eco mode with the Elear, I can't really get the volume past 10 o clock.  I will probably end up keeping my Dragonfly Red instead of the iDSD if I stick with my Elear and get rid of the T1.2.  If you have super efficient headphones, the amp in the iDSD is just overkill IMO.
      jsplice, Jan 1, 2017
  3. scootermafia
    Honey, I shrunk the home reference system.
    Written by scootermafia
    Published Dec 23, 2016
    5.0/5,
    Pros - Abundant power, stellar DSD performance, wide-ranging features to customize the sound
    Cons - Stretch-limo dimensions (narrow and long), 6.3mm output only, unusual USB input
    First off, I want to thank Tim @ Kitsune Hifi who sold me on iFi gear and gave me good advice on improving the digital end of my system (between the transport and the DAC), which was sorely lacking.  However, the iDSD BL could probably stand in for my home system, and at times makes me forget I even have a giant, overcomplicated rig.  
     
    Pre-disclaimer: I never write reviews and this will be a quick early one - some first impressions and my gut instincts on it - don't expect anything hyper-analytical, just some macro level stuff.  
     
    First impressions:
    This thing is long and narrow, while it's not for pocket use, it's not going to take up much room on the desktop, just place it judiciously.  It still takes up less area than a Chord Hugo, while clocking in at 1/5 the price.  It is made of hefty aluminum and the switches and knobs feel solid.  It has some heft to it, and the internal photos show a menacingly dense set of boards and exotic parts.  iFi does their own totally custom opamps, the digital clocking comes courtesy of their AMR ultra high end brand, and there are some badass caps and resistors in there for sure.  It's based off the new TI DSD DAC chips, of which it has two.  While you're going to have to make some adjustments to your hookups if you have all balanced stuff, it's well worth it.  
     
    Features: 
    The bass boost and crossfeed 3D toggles are subtle and don't seem to detract from the experience.  Not annoying me is a good sign, I left them on at most times, especially with the Utopia which can always use a little help to max out its bass capabilities.  The three different filters toggled on the side will take some experimentation and vary in their function for different filetypes so you can have hours of entertainment working out how they stack up.  With three different gain settings, I found that the Utopias do not need the high gain level - the Black Label seems not to flinch at really any of my mountain of headphones, even the hard to handle LCD4.  There are further IEM modes that can be activated to really dial things back and impedance match so it was able to play nice with my various CIEM.
     
    Sound:
    The iDSD has a male, recessed USB-A in the back panel; the included USB 3.0 cable has a cable mount female on it that slots into the recess.  I'm not going to think too hard about what iFi was going for here, nor am I going to agonize over the best way to hook everything up; copious adapters are included to make sure all avenues are covered.  I just plugged it into my Holo Audio Titanis USB Turbo to further clean up the Macbook's USB output, plugged in my Utopia, and that was what I spent the most time with.  I was really floored flipping through my DSD library (which has been dormant due to my use of the Yggdrasil, but is about to change with the impending arrival of the Holo Spring KTE Edition DAC, which will go head to head in my audio lab rig) as I think even on my home setup I've been missing out on some really insane little details using the Utopia - and this setup is by no means burned in or hooked up to an external amp.  I'm basing this all on about 4 hours listening tonight and on-off listening in the past week.  Loads of power and dynamics, ultra tight bass, and minimal fatigue.  I'm honestly laughing in horror at what i've spent on a gaggle of other portable dac/amps and DAPs.  They're all going to be spending a lot of time on the shelf.  If thieves showed up for the rest of my rig, I wouldn't even be that put out, so long as I had the Utopia or the Z1Rs and the iDSDBL.  The big thing is the dead silent background due to how well implemented the digital end of things is; pair that with the well-above-average power output and the relative efficiency of the Utopias, and they feel like they are being pushed hard even on medium gain.  This little dac/amp gets out of the way and lets the Utopia do their thing, while playing nice with literally every file format, even ones for which there are no files yet (DSD512 lol).  DSD256 classical is just fearsome, I don't even know what to say there, except it's a new level of delicate, nuanced clarity.  The free Mozart violin concerto on 2l.no should be a must have in everyone's test rig, with amazing transitions between the most quiet tiny bits towards the periphery of the soundstage exploding into the full orchestra, and each instrument placed laser-like in the headstage.  At this point in my audiophile career I have a ridiculously short attention span, so the fact that this new toy is not in a drawer somewhere yet is a testament to its value to me.  It's a keeper and at $550 should be on everybody's desk.

    Verdict: 
    Give it a try - in the very least you can feed your favorite amp with it, use it as a preamp, and everything in between.  iFi does not mess around and this is a disruptive product that has a no-holds-barred assault of technology and synergy to let it perform as it's doing right now.  Once I use it for months I might find something to whine about, but for now, it's a no brainer.  The real reason I'm using it is that it doesn't fatigue me with the Utopia, which is no mean feat.  With the wrong amp and dac, they have ludicrous clarity but will drive you nuts with that little bit of extra edge and attack and shrillness.  The only solution is a really good source and source material, and with some good DSD & hires files and the iDSD Black Label, you're all set.  

    Disclaimer: I paid retail price for any gear I've bought from Kitsune.  It's worth it to get an extra helping hand on what stuff to try next.  If I really wanted to, I could try to fish around for show samples direct from manufacturers to save a few bucks, not the case here.  
      gikigill and Cotnijoe like this.
  4. Takeanidea
    iFi iDSDBL a dacamp for Christmas with all the trimmings
    Written by Takeanidea
    Published Dec 22, 2016
    4.0/5,
    Pros - Accessories, finish, power, hardware settings
    Cons - Volume unbalanced at low settings
    iDSD BL

    Christmas Dacamp with all the trimmings

    Introduction

     
    I have been lucky enough to be part of a very special tour.  iFi has given me the chance to look at their heavily updated iDSD. They have called it the Black Label Edition. I’m part of a review tour. As reviewers on headfi, we are bound by only 2 things really; we must post a review and we must keep the unit for the length of time specified by the company. iFi gave me 7 days to find out as much as I can about this dacamp. This is the result. Hope you like it. If you don’t I’m sorry. I did my best in the time I had here. I try my hardest to put myself in the shoes of a prospective buyer and I know iFi any other company only want to know what I think about their products. Not what they think. I don’t get paid for this and I’ve done quite a few reviews this year, both on here and on earphonia.com. This doesn’t make my opinion more valid than anyone else’s. It simply shows I’m in this for the long run. 
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    My association with the iDSD is rather short. I used this when I met up with my good friend @glassmonkey on a weekend’s mini meet back last year. I threw a number of headphones at the old model ; the Sennheiser HD800, HiFiMan HE6, Mr Speakers Alpha Dogs were amongst some of my less sensitive headphones. All were powered admirably by the iDSD.  Fast forward to December 2016 and we now have an elegant black number to spend a week with. Micah(aka @glassmonkey) passed it to me last week (it’s a small world isn’t it?) and I have set it off on it’s way with a tearful wave. This is the iDSD but not as we know it. Many things have been changed from the standard model. iFi have moved on since then. Micah has written plenty on the components that have been changed. Suffice it to say, iFi has done more than just a spray job on it. More customisable power but less extreme 3D and bass switching are the order of the day. 
     

    Features

     
    So what is the BL model and what can the iDSD do? And are these the features you are craving from your source? Or this is overkill for you? When one reads through various threads the impression I get is that there can never be enough spec. Each person has found some aspect of the hifi world that appeals to them, be it DSD or balanced, mp3 or flac. The industry is changing all the time , not necessarily for the better. Many of the changes are to keep up with the changing digital formats available. 200 Gb memory cards are being filled to the rafters with music. These can even fit in some phones, so manufacturers are being forced to get OTG as standard on their units.
    IMG_20161222_114041235_HDR2.jpg
     
    The iDSD is a Dacamp. It can be fed music from a laptop with it’s high quality USB cable. It can also be fed an optical in signal and output a digital signal through optical. OTG is supported, so phones can output to the Black Label. I was able to use Android Marshmallow natively through Deezer and YouTube aswell as the usual USB Audio Player,  Onkyo Player and Hiby Music Player. All the weird and wonderful formats I had on my Macbook were easily taken care of by the iFi.  The iDSD also accepts analogue signals. The 3.5mm jack by the 6.3mm input, is not as I initially thought for IEMs. To my embarrassment I was informed it was for audio sources without digital out connections to be used on the iDSD. In this way the iDSD will act as an amplifier. The iDSD also can be used as a preamp or direct line out, to form part of a full sized HiFi. The F6 power amplifier I have did not cope with the amount of juice the BL was trying to put into it, so I used the preamp which worked suitable well. The Direct Mode will only be using the DAC part of the iDSD. The preamp uses both. There is a smart charge facility on the side of the unit. This allows for your phone perhaps to get some emergency power once it’s been OTG’d to death. I’m presuming many of you  know this already; even larger newer phones don’t last more than a couple of hours playing OTG out to an external device. The iDSD will easily outlast your phone so should be able to keep it going until you can get to a proper power source. Of course you won’t be using the iDSD as a source by this time and the phone will be all but redundant while it’s trying to achieve more charge. 
    IMG_20161222_114102031_HDR2.jpg
     
    Within the analogue and digital in realm we have been given a wide range of choices. There are 3 sensitivity switches on the underside of the unit for IEMs. A minijack converter is provided to plug in your earphones to the output. I found the highest sensitivity setting on all the IEMs I tried to be too quiet even with the volume switched to max. The lowest setting was really loud. Wow! There is enormous scope for getting the right balance of loudness setting within those 3 settings. The settings on the side are for full sized. The highest setting was too quiet even for my 32 Ohm AT W1000Z closed cans. The middle setting was perfectly ok for these. The HE6 needed the lowest one but not to the maximum volume.  With the headphones all dialled in for volume, you must then concentrate on the Digital Filter. This is a 3 way switch for Bit Perfect Minimum Phase and Standard. Standard is the most tweaked filter and is designed towards a DSD file. I settled on the standard filter as I felt it added some good punch to the music without making it harsh. All is not over yet. You must decide whether you want more bass in your life. There is just such a switch for this. Maybe your vinyl rips need a touch of extra or your orchestra is not sounding full enough? The bass has an on off setting. The 3D switch will widen the image of your soundstage considerably. Such features are available through various software. For those who will wish to change between filters on various tracks, this as a hardware feature, could be extremely useful.
     

    Build

     
    With the iDSD comes many bits and bobs.  
     
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    IMG_20161222_112619348_HDR2.jpg
     
    IMG_20161222_113516518_HDR2.jpg
     
     
     
    The packaging is beautiful. The unpacking of the unit was a sensual pleasure. There are things which impressed. A variety of non standard looking cables and stars and bags fell gently out of 2 shiny white boxes neatly tucked into their respective columns hidden under the belly of the iDSD itself.  
    Top left - an analogue cable 3.5mm. Coming downwards a USB converter for OTG. The purple cable is twin RCAs for line out to a full size amp. 2 thick rubber straps to tie your phone or DAP up to the BL. The white shiny card above is a spacer to keep the iDSD from being scratched or rubbed by the thing it’s attached to. The blue USB cable is a thick high quality one. An optical adapter, detailed manual and USB adapter complete things. Other than one really nice extra. 
     
    IMG_20161222_1136287082.jpg
     
     
    A black velvet carry pouch. Very nice indeed. 
    A sizeable number of accessories. For OTG the cables provided here won’t do the trick. There would be far too much cabling once even a tiny micro usb is daisychained on. Chord supplied one tiny usb cable for the Mojo in comparison. RHA also make sure they have lots and lots of goodies in their DL1 Dacamp box. I used the Mojo OTG cable from their accessory pack with the iFi which created a great little stack for out and about. I would have liked to have seen a dedicated optical cable with the bundle. Adapters are very easy to lose. 
    There has been some discussion about the volume control on the iDSD. The original volume control was slated by a vociferous minority for being unbalanced at low volume settings. The volume has not been changed on the BL version.
     
    IMG_20161222_114102031_HDR2.jpg
     
     
    It still has issues with unbalanced sound at low volume. It’s therefore extremely important to get the switching sensitivity correct to alleviate this problem. This problem does not exist on either the RHA DL1 IMG_20161129_113738013_HDR.jpg
     
    or the Mojo. 
     
    [​IMG]
     

    Sound Quality

     
    I have a semi professional analogue to digital converter, the ART Phono Preamp Plus. It’s ability to rip vinyl without electronic interference in the background recording is the reason I bought it. I soon discovered it had many other benefits. I can hook up any line out source, in this case , the iDSD, and record the output straight into the ART and then onto the MacBook digitally. It’s merely a case of picking a track , plugging the device into the back of the ART and pressing record on Audacity.  Only the source is changed. switching is instant. 
     
    IMG_20161222_114135294_HDR.jpg
     
     
    Once a volume match is attained, my Chord Mojo can then be compared side by side, over and over again, using the same track, same input, same volume. This testing was done by me on day one. They are freely available for anyone who wishes to listen for themselves. There is no load going into the 2 devices. The analogue stage and the quality of the preamp mean that the sound quality is not as good as you would get from plugging your headphones straight into either device. It will give you a flavour of any differences between the Chord Mojo and the iDSD Black Label. In my opinion the differences are there. Please PM me if you wish to be sent a link to them. They are of a DSD recording so should be pretty good quality. I invite you therefore to listen for yourself as to what you might think of the sound quality of the iDSD BL. If you wish to do that I would encourage you not to read any further. STOP NOW!  
     
     
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    PM me and I will send you the link. Make your own conclusion, listen as much as you can stand, then come back here and see if you agree with me. I really hope some of you do. I am not the authority here, nor are my ears. We all must decide for ourselves using the information out there whether any audio product will suit our needs and improve on what we have. Only the individual can decide that, ideally with an audition. This is the closest I can give anyone to that experience. You are welcome!
    Now it is time for the spoiler, my own opinion of the iDSD sound quality , specifically against 2 devices.  Device one, from memory. The iDSD v the RHA DL1 dacamp. IMG_20161129_113658868_HDR.jpg
     
    The iDSD is a clear winner against the DL1. I found the RHA to be too shrill in the upper regions and too bloated in the lower regions. This with one notable exception; the CL1 Ceramic IEM in balanced mode  was superb through it. The iDSD v the Mojo; that you can hear for yourself. You can take my opinion with a pinch of salt. For what it’s worth, I did like the iDSD a great deal. The standard filter and mid setting on with the bass and 3D switch off sounded powerful and punchy. It sounded a little thin and slightly recessed in the mid section and less strained in the treble regions than the Mojo. mojorha4.jpg
     
    The bass and subbass lacked some of the impact of the Mojo. Although the Mojo was probably slightly more rolled back in the higher FR the iDSD seemed like it was being pushed slightly harder. I have had the Chord Mojo since October 2015. 
     
    Clearly it will take quite some beating. I haven’t yet found a portable device that I preferred the sound to. These differences in SQ are not huge differences. I am subtly trying to defend my views on the differences between the 2 if you are unable to hear them. I am merely stating that buying a different pair of headphones would give you a much more obvious set of differences than changing between the iDSD or Mojo. 
     

    Conclusion

     
    The iDSD BL offers an awful lot of options for the money. It costs more money for the Chord Mojo. The Mojo is a simple device with few options. It can output 2 headphones simultaneously whereas the BL  only has the one. It has arguably better sound quality than the iDSD but the differences are small. It fits a standard 5” smartphone or DAP considerably better than the Mojo without it’s adapter, although for the same money the Mojo has an accessory pack which sorts this problem out.  All choices in the audio world are complicated. If I had my opinion as to which device I would spend my money on, then I would choose sound quality before all else. 
     
    HD800MojoDX100.jpg
     
     
    In this regard I would put the iDSD a close second to the Chord Mojo. But, my dear reader, have a listen to the track which I have painstakingly prepared for you. Click here You may have an entirely different take on the matter
      Cagin, golov17, Whitigir and 3 others like this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. Takeanidea
      @gunwale  the differences to me are quite clear but I have cheated a little by listening many many times with everything from $20 IEMs to AKG K1000s. If you aren't noticing the differences then I don't think you need to spend so much money on stuff like this. The money might be better invested in different headphones as they are much easier to pick up the differences on. It's a blessing for you that you are not hearing the differences, or perhaps, imagining the differences.....
      Takeanidea, Dec 30, 2016
    3. Takeanidea
      The files are Ed Sheeran Parting Glass live at Wembley 90 second excerpt and Simple Minds She's a River 90 second excerpt - I have linked them in the review now
      Takeanidea, Dec 30, 2016
    4. gunwale
      now i am thinking of getting the grace m9xx since it was made available again a few days ago.
       
      is there anyone who have tried both idsd bl and m9xx?
      gunwale, Jan 4, 2017
  5. aftercrasher
    The iDSD Black Label is a more matured performer in every aspect
    Written by aftercrasher
    Published Dec 20, 2016
    4.5/5,
    Pros - Smooth delivery of orgasmic sound. Powerful enough to drive a planar, whilst gentle enough for sensitive IEM.
    Cons - xBass+ can get a tad bit too heavy.
    I will be comparing both the iDSD and the iDSD Black Label (called BL for short) with the XBass turned on as default as that is what I am used to listen. Each unit will be given a rating and at the end, the highest score wins. For a consistent result, I will be using my Hifiman HE-560 and 64 Audio U10 UIEM with Effect Audio Ares cable. I will not be swapping too many gears in order to not create too many variations. An ABX tester will be used so I can switch between the unit easily. All songs are ripped as AIFF from cd's. I will leave my thoughts on the stack integration and other headphones at the end. Do note that with your gear YMMV.
     
    • Counting Crows - Big Yellow Taxi
      1. Immediately, with the harder and punchier bass of the iDSD BL, I thought this song had a clear winner. Vocals were thicker, more musical, and by the mid of the song, I was tapping my feet and bobbing my head. Further switching between the 2 units made me realise that although the bass on the iDSD was not as punchy, the guitar strum just before the chorus sent chills down my spine thanks to its brighter treble. A thing to note is that while the HE560 liked the bass boost, but the low end got a bit too boomy for the U10 IEM.
      2. iDSD - 4/5 | iDSD BL - 4/5
    • Eagles - Life in the fast lane
      1. My gripes previously was that the bass is too light on the track with the iDSD. Now though, the iDSD BL presents a harder bass kicks in the opening, overall enhacing the imaging and musicality of the song. XBass and 3D is an appropriate option to use as it carries the song up to another level - closer to the live experience.
      2. iDSD - 3/5 | iDSD BL - 5/5
    • Norah Jones - Crazy
      1. The iDSD BL brought Norah Jones directly to my room. The darker Black Label makes her voice sound as smooth as honey. Her voice just tickled my ears bringing me to a huge grin. The notes from the double bass and piano was well rounded and punchy which added some depth to the sound.
      2. iDSD - 4/5 | iDSD BL - 5/5
    • Babyface - Change the World (w Eric Clapton)
      1. The leaner iDSD takes the cake here due to the airy presentation. It brings out the details in the choir, hi hats, the electric piano and the bongo. I had to turn off the XBass on the BL as it was covering the detail in the song passage. Marks to the brighter iDSD.
      2. iDSD - 5/5 | iDSD BL - 3/5
    • Joe Hisaishi - My Neighbour Totoro Opening theme
      1. Again the airier iDSD beats the iDSD BL in this song. You can hear every instrument clearly thanks once again to the more neutral presentation. I tried adding in the 3D setting, while better, it could not sound as clear as the iDSD.
      2. iDSD - 5/5 | iDSD BL - 3/5
    • The Blue Hearts - Linda Linda (J Punk Rock)
      1. the iDSD can make the treble slightly splashy but more detailed. The iDSD BL controls the song better but could be duller in presentation.
      2. iDSD - 4/5 | iDSD BL - 5/5 
    • Aerosmith (ft Carrie Underwood) - Can't stop loving you.
      1. The brighter iDSD emphasises the guitar strums but it can get a bit fatiguing if you are sensitive to high frequencies. the iDSD BL tames the highs and adds more depth to the song. However, Carrie Underwood's voice seem to be very slightly muffled due to the darker sound signature. the iDSD projects her voice and overall instruments better.
      2. iDSD - 4/5 | iDSD BL - 4/5
    • Scars - James Bay
      1. The iDSD projects James Bay's voice better, but lacks the depth that the iDSD BL provides. The bass kicks can get slightly boomy with the xbass turned on. The level of detail for both units remain excellent however.
      2. iDSD - 5/5 | iDSD - 5/5
    • AC/DC - Hard Times
      1. iDSD BL has got this song in its grip. The darker signature gives depth and really brings out the hard rock genre of this song. Hi-hats are well controlled but still remaining detailed. That Gibson electric guitar just sounds so rich with the iDSD BL.
      2. iDSD - 4/5 | iDSD BL - 5/5
    • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - Downtown (feat. Nally)
      1. I love this song due to the quirky nature, and more importantly a mixture of a lot of instruments and styles. The iDSD BL sent a massively (good) deep bass into my head thanks to the xBass boost (Although with the bass can get too messy with the U10). It is a toss between the 2 as the iDSD has more detail and sounds more forward. But in the end I had to give it to the iDSD BL for making me enjoy the song tremendously.
      2. iDSD - 4/5 | iDSD BL - 5/5

    Final thoughts between the iDSD and iDSD Black Label.
    I would call this unit a more matured iDSD with minor refinements that makes it great. I rated the Black Label 44/50 (compared to 42/50 for the iDSD). With my gear, the Black Label is darker overall with a slightly higher low end, and very ever so slightly recessed treble. Although I reckon that they may have added a touch too much boost to the XBass+. It would be nice if it came with a 2 step selector like on the iCan. Compared to the iDSD, the iDSD is a little more airy and detailed, but somewhat sterile and boring. The 3D+ setting is better implemented but I do not use them most of the time. Toggling it on certain songs (unplguged/live) can certainly complement the song, but use it wisely. All that said, if you are looking for an all-in-one solution, you cannot go wrong with both. The iDSD BL would be more polite to most songs, and also able to satisfy your inner bass-head, but could be too much for cans like the Beyerdynamic DT770, Fostex TH900 and Shure SE846.
     
    Things that I would like to see on future revisions
    2-step Bass toggle (found in the iCan), USB to Lightning cable for instant connection for iDevices.
     
    bl-side.jpg   blback.jpg
      DoctaCosmos and hqssui like this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. Krisna13
      Great review and comparisons. I've got the iDSD micro and the BL on the way. Looking forward to A/B-ing them. Do you mind briefly commenting on how the BL performs against the Mojo?
      Krisna13, Mar 9, 2017
    3. aftercrasher
      I felt the Mojo is a very good performer for its size. Price talk will be subjective, but for me yes it is reasonable. Solid aluminium body and very very nice pebble-like material for buttons. The Mojo has a lively sound. Bass is tight and punchy, vocals crisp and highs are nicely placed. If i remember correctly, the Mojo outperforms the iDSD (non BL) very slightly by having a more organic tone. the iDSD sounded more sterile and digital. Having said that i reckon the BL is as good and better value (due to the different connectivity and control options) than the Mojo. If you would like an all-in-1 portable dac, no doubt the Mojo will win due to its size and capability. However if you would like a desktop setup, my money is with the iDSD BL.
      aftercrasher, Mar 12, 2017
    4. Krisna13
      Thank you for the reply, good information to have for future reference. The iDSD BL will join my desktop setup so size is no worry. Saying that, I do take my iDSD micro for portable use too...Thank you again for the review and reply.
      Krisna13, Mar 12, 2017
  6. mejoshua
    Top notch DAC for the price and tons of functionality in a compact transportable device
    Written by mejoshua
    Published Dec 20, 2016
    4.5/5,
    Pros - Desktop class sound, DAC/amp very versatile for a wide range of iem/hp pairings, neutral and resolving yet engaging sound signature that pairs easily
    Cons - Only (trans)portable, not quite convenient to use with DAPs, 3D switch a bit too close to volume knob may cause accidents
    For the purposes of this review I will refer to the iDSD Micro Black Label as the BL
    Thanks and appreciation goes out to iFi Audio for organizing this tour – it is a privilege to be given this opportunity to review the BL. This unit will be returned after 1 week to be passed on to the next reviewer in the tour.
     
      20161219_111832_HDR.jpg
     
    Preamble:
    This is my second official review on Head-Fi, so I would gladly welcome any suggestions for improvement, or tips on what I could include so that it would be more helpful for other Head-Fi’ers in evaluating gear for purchase. I thought a bit about how to structure this review because I generally find it challenging to review DACs as compared to headphones or earphones. This is because it is not as easy to generalize a DAC’s characteristics and sonic qualities as compared to a headphone (or earphone), and they might sound slightly different with various pairings. I think that the most useful way to pin down a DAC’s sonic performance is to compare how it performs with different headphones and also comparing it with other DACs.
     
    I value timbre and tonality, then resolution and soundstaging (depth and realism over plain width). My listening preferences tend toward neutral but slightly dark, and I appreciate good low-end extension, texture and slam. I’m a vocal lover so the midrange is very important to me – mids need to have clarity but retain a level of musicality so that it is engaging and not sound congested or too analytical/hollow. I’m highly sensitive to treble, and harsh/uneven/forward treble can fatigue me easily. However, I appreciate high quality treble e.g. tonal correctness vis-à-vis real instruments as I know them (cymbal/violin tones) without any glare or peaks. High quality gear tends to tick most of these boxes easily.
     
    Packaging and Accessories:
    The BL comes in a standard white box, and includes –
    1)   felt pouch for the BL
    2)   female USB A to female USB B cable
    3)   3.5mm to 3.5mm adaptor
    4)   rubber pad (presumably for putting under the BL on a tabletop)
    5)   USB A male to USB B male adaptor
    6)   Two black rubber bands (for stacking the BL)
    7)   3.5mm to 6.35mm jack
    8)   Standard manual that explains the jacks and switches that can be found on the BL
     
    Design and Build:
    The BL is solidly built, and beautifully finished. I personally love the metallic black finish, and aesthetically I prefer it to its predecessor in silver. It is a compact design, and at times I still wonder how iFi has packed all that functionality into its chassis. I wouldn’t exactly call it portable but it is definitely transportable, especially if you are one who usually carries a small bag around e.g. a messenger or backpack (like I do). The volume knob allows you to do very fine adjustments, which can be very useful, and is quite smooth but retains enough traction for accuracy and to avoid accidental volume changes. The only gripe I have about the layout here is that when toggling the 3D switch I have the tendency of accidentally pushing the volume knob as well, because of my fat thumbs. People who have leaner digits or greater finger dexterity should have no worries though.
     
    The XBass and 3D switches feel sturdy and have a nice tactile feel when flipped. There are switches at the bottom of the BL, one for toggling between using it as DAC/Amp and as DAC only, and IEMatch, for toggling in use with highly sensitive earphones. There are 3 other switches at the side of the BL, one for power mode, one for polarity and the last for sound filters. I find that the 3.5mm input jack and the 6.35mm output jack is well placed for portable use, because that means that you can stack and still place the BL in an upright position in your back with those jacks facing up, allowing for fairly convenient volume manipulation on-the-go.
     
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    Gear used:
    Concero HD
    Schiit Lyr (Philips 6DJ8 tubes)
    Onkyo DP-X1
    Sony A15
    Sennheiser HD650
    Hifiman HE400S
    Earwerkz (now Empire Ears) Legend Omega
    Aurisonics Rockets
     
    Some of the tracks I used:
    1) Don’t Know Why – Norah Jones 24/192
    2) Spanish Harlem – Rebecca Pidgeon DSD128
    3) Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48: II. Valse: Moderato – Tempo di valse – LSO String Ensemble 24/96
    4) Photograph – Ed Sheeran 16/44.1
    5) Birds – Coldplay 16/44.1
    6) What About Me – Snarky Puppy 16/44.1
     
    *note that I may not always comment specifically for each track in my review, but I am open to requests if you need specific information.
     
    Sound:
    Well here comes the most important part. I am running Audirvana+ on a 2011 Macbook Air 13”. Settings on the BL are usually on ‘Normal’ mode with IEMatch off unless specified.
     
    The first setup sees the Sony A15 as DAC, with line out into the BL, paired with the Aurisonics Rockets. The second setup uses the Onkyo DP-X1 as transport, feeding the BL with USB into the HD650. Then, comparisons 1 and 2 pit the BL against the Concero HD, which is a widely praised DAC and my desktop driver, albeit with less functionality than the BL but priced higher ($549 for the BL and $850 for the Concero HD), through the HE400S and the HD650. In the comparisons I usually kept the bass and 3D switches off in order to give a fairer comparison, and added comments about their selective use.
     
    Comparison 3 tries to pin down the performance of the BL in driving custom monitors (BA drivers), in contrast to my usual DAP, the Onkyo DP-X1.
     
     
    Sony A15 (Line Out) > BL > Aurisonics Rockets (and HD650)
     
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    20161219_164506_HDR.jpg
     
    I remembered that I had the line out jack for the A15, and added this setup because I considered that this is actually a transportable option. Besides, iFi does provide 2 black bands for those who might want to stack the BL with their DAPs. It may not be convenient for many but the sound quality may change your mind. This is desktop quality sound, available on-the-go.
     
    I volume-matched the A15 with and without the BL as accurately as I could, and I loved what I heard. Even with the XBass and 3D switches off, the audible difference is already significant. Comparing ‘Don’t Know Why’ by Norah Jones with and without the BL, there are immediate gains in air, space, and imaging, with greater vocal presence and resolution. Norah Jones’ voice is more focused; instrument placement increase in definition and clarity, and soundstage also gains some width and air.
     
    With the XBass toggled on, the midbass is pleasantly elevated to give a little more slam, decay and texture. By texture I mean that the bass can be ‘felt’ more – a little bit more tactile. The caveat is that not everyone might like this difference, because it may be a little too much north of neutral for some. Without also toggling the 3D switch on, the presentation turns a little dark.
     
    I loved the presentation with both the XBass and 3D switches turned on. The 3D switch re-balances the tonality of only the XBass switch by giving the music a treble lift. But that is an understatement. In this setup the 3D switch seems to provide a more ‘open’ sounding presentation. Vocals become a bit more forward and engaging without losing transparency. The soundstage increases in height, fills up the imaginary area somewhere above your forehead, along with a tad more width. The presentation also gains a lot more air and instruments have more breathing room and are nicely separated. The treble moves from the sonic background to a place where it suddenly has a little more sparkle and clarity.
     
    The result? Greater immersion into the music with excellent resolution, transparency, and musicality. Switching back to the A15 alone causes the music to sound compressed and somewhat claustrophobic. Given that the A15 has a small footprint, I would actually seriously consider this portable stack as a serious rig that gives you desktop class performance that you can actually carry around in a messenger bag.
     
    (I tried this stack with the HD650 just for kicks, of course with power mode on “Normal” and IEMatch “Off”. Turning the XBass on put the thump into the low end of the HD650s, however, it might not always be tasteful depending on track and preference. In many cases it changes the HD650s bass from being heard to being felt, working well as a result. I also toggle the 3D effect on simultaneously, and for most tracks, again, most noticeably makes the stage taller and more immersive, and adds air in the vocals and slightly more instrument definition. Imaging improves, together with a greater sense of realism. Even on a track with heavy cymbal work, tonality is never compromised, and with the HD650 the presentation still maintains its coherence and cohesiveness. However, as I note later (heads up), I suspect that more treble oriented cans might not synergize tonally as well with this pairing. I am really enjoying how a (trans)portable stack can drive HD650s properly.)
     
     
    Onkyo DP-X1 > BL > HD650
     
    The HD650s are the stuff of legend, and are well known for their audio quality. In fact, Massdrop recently ran a drop in collaboration with Sennheiser for the HD6XX, which basically replicates the sound signature of the HD650s. The HD650s are known to be slightly dark with a musical and lush midrange presentation, with the ability to scale up with better sources and amps.
     
    As tracks are playing I experimented with the BL’s power settings. I found that the “Turbo” drove the HD650s better than in “Normal” mode, but with the drawback of not having much volume control headroom – in between being too soft with channel imbalance or too loud for any listening comfort. In comparison to “Normal”, I found “Turbo” to provide slightly better control in the bass, and midrange notes were very slightly thicker. However, I ended up doing most of the listening in “Normal” mode for the reasons stated above.
     
    Compared to my memory of the non-Black Label iDSD Micro, generally the BL improves on its predecessor by providing a tighter grip on the bass, retaining midrange accuracy but having somewhat thicker notes lending itself to a more ‘musical’/engaging vocal presentation, for lack of a more appropriate term. Treble reproduction is remarkably accurate without giving in to any harshness or glare (perfect for someone like me), and maintains clarity without erring on the side of being clinical. Extension on both ends is very good, and detailing and resolution is top of its class in this price range.
     
    The pairing with the HD650 is a fine combination, and makes for a pleasurable listening experience. Because the HD650 is slightly dark, it pairs well with the BL’s neutrality and clarity to provide immersion into the music. The BL’s 3D switch, again, gives tracks a slight treble lift (and more), and also required tuning down the volume knob a notch when applied. However, the net gains seem more track dependent than with the Rockets (on some tracks it worked wonders for soundstage and imaging, but on others recessed/thinned out the mids and did weird things to the imaging – became too diffuse), I would say that the 3D function/crossfeed is generally very well implemented, and worked well for most tracks that have decent mixing and mastering. I would imagine that with neutral or more treble oriented headphones or earphones this boost may not work as well, and might even in fact cause an overemphasis on treble reproduction.
     
     
    Comparison 1:
    BL > Lyr > HE400S
    Concero HD > Lyr > HE400S
     
    My HE400S is grill modded and Focus A pad swapped, which helps improve its inherent staging qualities and bass extension. The comparison is done with the switches on the BL off, and set to “Preamplifier” mode. To be honest, when I first swapped out the Concero for the BL on the HE400S, I was a little shocked at its performance –the tonality was quite similar, and technically it is pretty close. In fact it was so close I was hard pressed to tell the difference at first listen, and it was only after critical listening that I managed to sieve out some small differences. This speaks volumes of what iFi has managed to achieve with the BL, when you get a DAC that competes easily with higher priced DACs in the sub $1k category.
     
    The Concero HD gets the edge for macrodynamics – bass slams a little harder and the presentation is slightly more energetic. The Concero HD low-end extension also reaches just a step lower than the BL. However, the BL’s bass is hardly far behind, albeit comparatively quicker and faintly lighter.
    Midrange/vocal resolution and clarity is top notch on both DACs, and I cannot pick them apart. For vocal-centric music both DACs present a highly immersive performance, drawing you into the music. Cymbal work comparatively sounds very slightly tizzier/hotter on the BL, but I’m really nit picking here, and so the Concero gets the nod for a slightly more natural treble timbre. The Concero HD also seems to extend a hair more than the BL but my ears are not as good with treble extension so take this last comment with a pinch of salt.
    Staging is a touch wider on the Concero, but seems a touch deeper on the BL. Imaging and separation brings both DACs neck to neck.
    I suspect that this result has also got to do with the pairing of the headphone’s sonic qualities, and in this case, the pairing of the Concero HD and the HE400S is more synergistic for my preferences. I conclude that this is a very impressive showing by the BL as DAC.
     
     
    Comparison 2:
    BL > Lyr > HD650
    Concero HD > Lyr > HD650
     
    Results are mostly similar to the HE400S, however, an interesting point of deviation worth noting is that I prefer the treble tonally on the BL with the HD650 over the Concero HD. This leads me to conclude that it has to do with DAC/headphone pairing when it comes to tonality. It also squares with what I have learnt in my personal audio journey, that synergy between your gear is the most important thing – getting the most expensive gear is not as important, because upstream gear may not play nice tonally with your current gear.
     
     
    Comparison 3:
    Onkyo DP-X1 > Legend Omega (Balanced)
    Onkyo DP-X1 (line out) > BL > Legend Omega
     
    Well, what can I say – naturally as a compact desktop level DAC/Amp offering the BL in SE trounces the Onkyo in balanced, even though the Onkyo does put up very decent competition, and performance is close.
     
    Power mode is on “Eco” and IEMatch is at “Ultra Sensitivity” – that leaves ample room for the volume pot, even though comfortable listening levels for me hover at around the 9 to 11 o’clock markings on the knob.
     
    With Norah Jones through the BL, her voice is slightly more focused with a bit more resolution and clarity. Imaging also gains a little more precision and definition, with some added air in the presentation. Because the Legend Omega is slightly dark in presentation, using the XBass on added too much bloom and decay to the bass for my liking. However, the 3D switch provided pleasing results. The treble gains precision and detail, and with the lift in treble the presentation also gains some air. Again, soundstage most noticeably gains height and a sense of “openness” (similarly, height and a smidgen more width). Notes are a little cleaner and more defined. However, the only thing I noticed is that the mids, although with some improved resolution, seemed to have taken a small step back in presence and is relatively less engaging than just with the Onkyo’s balanced out. On further listening I suspect my mind may be playing tricks on me as it adjusts to a larger stage presented through CIEMs. Somehow in my audio experiences midrange quality and soundstage spaciousness seem inversely proportional most of the time (i.e. the thicker and realistic the midrange, the smaller the stage; the thinner and hollower the midrange, the larger the stage). Of course this is a generalized observation based on the select gear that I’ve had the opportunity to listen to.
     
    With only the 3D switch on now, on Coldplay’s “Birds” track, through the BL, bass reaches down low, and has great attack and impact. If I can summarise the sound, two words I would use are ‘control’ and ‘precision’. I hear a lot of detail in individual instrumental and vocal spaces. The increased soundstage height from the 3D switch really helps with the spatial presentation and definition. Bass is well defined and fairly tight without being too analytical. Midrange is clear without losing much musicality, and the treble sits harmoniously with the rest of the spectrum without sacrificing any detail or sparkle. Tonality is pretty spot-on here, and with the detail retrieval and spatial qualities it’s one heck of a listening experience.
     
    The 3D switch is really beneficial on most classical tracks because of the increased presence of the HF spectrum and the improvements in air and staging. Most of the time it helps immerse one in the music and allows you to zoom in on any single instrument and passage. The balanced out on the Onkyo alone presents treble in a softer manner, and instruments are not so defined. If I may invoke a visual analogy, its akin to switch from 4k (BL) to 1080p (balanced out). This difference may prove starker (read: more audibly discernible) when applied to classical music than genres like pop, because of the number of instruments at play. I would also add that the BL has better microdynamics e.g. small volume changes in different sections are slightly more audible than just using the balanced out. The BL also hits slightly harder, so in terms of macrodynamics it also has the slight edge. The BL’s ability to render clarity and retrieve detail without losing musicality really allows the listener a fine experience over the Onkyo’s balanced out alone. Here the BL is definitely the better performer, especially so for classical music lovers.
     
    Conclusion:
     
    The iDSD Micro BL is truly a formidable device with a fantastic DAC and a ton of functionality, suited to the most sensitive of in ear monitors to the most inefficient and demanding of headphones. Its strengths lie in its neutral yet cohesive and very musical tonality, presentation of space and ability to resolve fine detail. Together with the capability of toggling the presentation with the XBass and 3D switches it is incredibly versatile, presenting the listener with a range of options for pairing with different headphones/earphones with varied sound signatures. I personally really dig the 3D switch, and I feel that it is very well implemented. It works wonders with darker sounding headphones with improvements in air and soundstaging (and sounds superb with the HD650). I suspect its effect varies primarily because it is track dependent (and headphone dependent).
     
    For audiophiles who do not mind the inconvenience of stacking, I would highly recommend the iDSD Micro BL as a (trans)portable option, paired with a DAP like the Sony A15 it will yield wonderful sonic results. As a DAC/Amp desktop solution for someone looking to enter the world of hi-fi I cannot more heartily recommend it. At $550 I think it has tremendous price to performance value (albeit a little steep if one is only starting out, but worth it), its DAC section easily competing with more expensive DACs in under the $1k range. Its functionality and small footprint is an added bonus. Bravo, iFi Audio, for a most excellent product! 

    1. View previous replies...
    2. dsnyder
      You really have a way with words when it comes to describing what you're hearing. Nice work!
      dsnyder, Jan 6, 2017
    3. mejoshua
      Thank you! Just hope it helps others make their purchasing decisions!
      mejoshua, Jan 6, 2017
    4. Krisna13
      Terrific review, thank you for putting in the time and effort. 
      Krisna13, Mar 9, 2017
  7. ngoshawk
    Just One More Day, Please!
    Written by ngoshawk
    Published Dec 18, 2016
    4.5/5,
    Pros - Incredibly clear sound, multitude of sound options, build quality, TURBO power! Good value.
    Cons - TRANSportability, 3D not the best on some genre/songs, switches can too easily move
    Oh my gawd this amp is incredible. If this is what moving upscale is, then I am in. I am beyond smitten. I am thrown face-first-headlong over the cliff. Enjoying the massive jet plane drop like never before. Traveling at warp 57, my Tennmak Pro’s have NEVER sounded this good…I await the crash to the ground. This would be a godsend, as it would be the final ecstasy to my full body experience.  I cannot breathe, yanked from my body it is as I hurtle towards that ultimate death…. Which would be welcomed as it would free me from this overwhelming envelopment of sound. A veritable cacophony of senses….Can we have more than five?! You are damn right we can…hitting the 3-D on Coldplays White Shadows, I give myself up. I give in to the sensory overload, which it provides. An out-and-out pummeling of sensory trance. I cannot bring myself to move past this. I don’t WANT to move past this. I want to curl up in that fetal position holding the Black Label close as I approach the end. Willingly, I protect the iDSD, so that it will survive and I won’t. It MUST survive, so that others can experience what I am. It’s as if I am David Bowie’s Lazarus….he willingly gave in to the cancer in the end, knowing he had produced such a masterpiece, giving to us, so that we may enjoy. Fighting like heck to the end, he rebelliously threw Black Star at us, so we would remember how damn good he was. A magical genius who told cancer what it could do…going out on HIS terms, to the dreaded disease…so that we would survive. This is what I must do so others may experience this primitive core explosion. This is a sense of not dread, but Paradise. Absolute Paradise. I give myself up so that you may survive.
     
     

     
    More background:
     
    Watching the Australian Open tennis tournament the year they used Coldplay’s Paradise as the go-to song, I watched some tennis. Some extraordinary tennis. Australia was facing record heat during the tourney. The players didn’t care. They competed, some to the full 3 or five sets, as the gender determined. There were some matches that went well beyond the normal 6-4 fifth set. The crowning jewels were the semi-finals and the finals, culminated by the Men’s final, which paired Rafael Nadal & Novak Djokovic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Australian_Open_%E2%80%93_Men%27s_Singles) in the longest match of the Australian Open history…in the heat…It was beyond spellbinding. I’ll admit I’m not the biggest tennis fan (my better half the wife unit is though, so I watched) but this whole tourney has me. Like the Black Label. The two mega-stars threw guts and sweat and heart and determination and every other superlative I can think of in my feeble mind at each other. Neither would break. There were breaks where the two would cross paths going to their respective benches, and they would low five each other. They knew what the match meant to the other and they would not yield. Eventually after 5 hours and 53 minutes (ALMOST SIX HOURS!), Nadal yielded. It was an instant classic (a term thrown around in this social media drooling-drivel-day), and some regard it as at minimum a top ten contestant for best final ever…A match which culminated in the dignitaries speaking for FAR too long…to the point that one of the Open Marshalls sought out two chairs and bottles of water for the champions (both in my mind) and he received more applause than any of the speakers…that’s how tired the two were. They could barely move…You might ask, what this has to do with the ifi…and you would be correct to shout that comment at me.
     
    djokernadal.jpg
    THIS was a tennis match!
     
    I fully believe after a short 45 minutes of listening that this device was crafted from the grit, the sweat, the blood, the Australian clay which those two idols of tennis competed on and gave up to that day. Shorn from the ground Nadal & Djokovic strode, the iDSD micro BL is a masterpiece. Simply smacks in the face to its competitors like Bowie to cancer. A full forehand volley driven of 125mph at its opponent head. A volley of such force that you must react or be laid out. Luckily for all of us, I do react and stop just short of the bottom. I thankfully come to my wits and stop; landing gently thanks to the parachute offered by the ifi iDSD micro Black Label. I cannot wait for more impressions.
     
    I haven’t even brought out the big guns yet…
     
    I am extremely grateful to the folks at ifi for the inclusion of me on the world tour. I have never done a tour such as this, but drawing from my experience on another recent tour, I will do my best to convey my likes, dislikes, quirks and joys. This review will be as open as I can. The tour unit will then be sent to the next lucky victim. My hope is that I can get the parachute packed for them…
     
    DSC_0042.jpg
     
     
    Initial Impressions:
     
    I have no experience with units of this magnitude, let alone price. My closest ownership is the Schiit Magni2, which I also use regularly. A comparison not really meant (or is it?), but one I will do (I didn’t). There is much difference, besides price.
     
    From my unboxing, I was rather startled as to just what to expect when I first saw the BL. I was very happy whenst the lid opened. A very black rectagonal cigar-shaped box greeted me. This unit is not small. It is meant for not only desktop use, but also TRANSportability. This would be the piece with which all of your other portable gear sits upon. An excellent foundation with which to start. Through all of the knobs, toggles, connectors, and switches; a small green light illuminates to show that “Yes, I am working, now begone and listen fore I smash your head.”
     
    From those multitudes of connecting options, I floundered for a good ten minutes trying to decipher where to hook my iPhone 6+…a simple start, and I completely bottled it. Eventually I was able to determine (stupid, I am) that the simple 3.5mm to 3.5mm right angle cable, which I raved about in the unboxing was the tool of choice. Until know, I did not let on what a dolt I was…
     
    DSC_0034.jpg DSC_0035.jpg
     
     
     
     
    Daunting though the size might be, the controls are logically laid out, and easy of function. Industrially-efficient is what I would describe. All switches, toggles, plug-ins, and cord/cable outlets are pretty much where they should be. No real surprise, and the red labels on the black aluminum body allows for fairly quick identification when needed of the three-way switches on the side. And those three-way switches are of light action. So be careful, especially when moving from the “normal” to the “turbo” setting on the amp. Yikes! As one becomes familiar with the switches, the red labels would simply be the back up. My one qualm is the toggles. I was worried in my opening about the “fragility” of them; how they might handle their location. I will say that due to the connections of the headphones in the ¼” jack and the 3.5mm input jack the two are protected. My worries seem unfounded at this point. What is bothersome from the toggles is quickly reaching them, as needed. I can see one wanting to toggle off and on the X-bass or the 3D between songs. This is where there can be a bother. But since they are toggles, a light flick either way takes care of that. No harm done.
     
    From the ifi site:
     
    Specifications
     
    Formats supported:
    DSD512/256/128/64, Octa/Quad/Double/Single-Speed DSD
    DXD(768/705.6/384/352.8kHz), Double/Single-Speed DXD
    PCM(768/705.6/384/352.8/192/176.4/96/88.2/48/44.1kHz)
     
     
    Filters:
    PCM – Bit-Perfect Processing/Minimum Phase/Standard
    DSD – Extreme/Extended/Standard Bandwidth
    DXD – Bit-Perfect Processing
     
     
    Digital Inputs:
    High-Speed Asynchronous USB 2.0 (32bit/768kHz)
    SPDIF Coaxial/Optical
     
     
    Digital Output:
    SPDIF Coaxial
     
     
    Audio Input:
    3.5mm
     
     
    Audio Output:
    6.3mm RCA Line out (2V fixed/2V-5V variable)
     
     
    Power Output:
    Turbo (8.0V max/4,000 mW @ 16 Ohm)
    Normal (4.0V/1,000 mW @ 16 Ohm)
    Eco (2.0V/250mW@16 Ohm)
     
     
    Battery:
    Lithium-polymer 4800mAh
     
     
    Power System:
    USB BCP V1.2 compliant up to 1500mA charging current
     
     
    Power (max):
    <2W idle, 4W max
     
     
    Dimensions:
    177(l) x 67(w) x 28(h) mm
     
     
    Weight:
    310g (0.68 lbs)

     
    DSC_0044.jpg
    Red lettering makes for a somewhat easier read
     
     
    At a retail price of $549, this is not cheap for entry-level people. This is a definite step up. And it should be. With the reputation behind ifi’s other successful products such as the first generation micro iDSD as well as the micro and Pro iCan’s, it only makes sense to make an “improved” mid-fi with which to anchor the line up. Reading up on the old micro iDSD reviews it was very well received, called everything from “The Overachiever” by @ClieOS to a “True Swiss Army Knife” by @peter123, and the “New Wave of British Invasion” says @twister6 was in full swing.  With a reputation for tailoring amps to quite specific IEM’s or headphones, my hope is that this is more Swiss Army Knife as opposed to specialist. Initial impressions bely this thought.
     
    With a size slightly longer than a 6+ (YES, it IS!), stacking could be accomplished. I’m not sure how portable or practical that would be, but it can be done! It would dominate smaller DAP’s such as my Fiio x3ii, but such is life. As stated, many will simply use the BL with their desktops or laptops, so the size will not hinder.
     
     
    DSC_0041.jpg DSC_0040.jpg DSC_0045.jpg
     
    "Stacking with iPhone 6+"
     
     
     
    Some have said that with the new black color, they could not see the function terminology such as “turbo” and “DSD,” on the back. That just doesn’t bother me. This isn’t about what the unit says, it is about the sound. And my initial impressions were darn good if’n you couldn’t figure that out…
     
    Included with the BL is a Crown Royal-like suede pouch in which you would carry the unit and the necessary cables for the day. Functional, and no frills it does the job, albeit a tad small and snug. An assortment of cables and connectors is included in the box, such is the variety of ways one can connect the unit. Boasting such technological advances as:
     
    • DAC digital signal and digital power sections upgraded
    • AMR Global Master Timing® femto-precision clock system upgraded for ‘super low’ phase-noise/jitter
    • Analogue signal and power sections revised
    • 3D+® performance-tuned / XBass+® performance-tuned
    • Latest Output stabilisation network offers less distortion
     
    The BL comes quite well equipped…as it should.
     
    DSC_0049.jpg DSC_0050.jpg
    DSC_0051.jpg DSC_0052.jpg
    ​Multitude of accessories which came with the i5...
     
     
     
     
     
    All of which mean the unit should be better. From initial third-party experiences, I can say the results are positive. I have no personal expertise with the old. With the addition of the “Headamp” Turbo setting, one can enhance the bass settings another notch beyond the normal. If that is not enough, then the XBass adds that final “11” to the mix. Think Spinal Tap, with the power to back it up.
     
    Unknown.jpg
     
     
    Once my initial WOW settled down, I thoroughly listened to see if the above-mentioned settings were simply an “enhancement” of the sound. My old ears did their best…
     
     
    Listening pleasures:
     
    Colplay: Paradise, A Sky Full of Stars, A Message, White Shadows, Lovers In Japan, Clocks, Paradise
    David Bowie: Lazarus, Blackstar
    Dave Matthews: Dodo, So Damn Lucky, Gravedigger,
    twenty one pilots: Hometown, Heavydirtysoul, Addict With a Pen, Car Radio
    U2: The Unforgettable Fire, When Love Comes to Town,
    Santana: Persuasion, Fried Neckbones and Home Fries
    Dire Straits: Lady Writer, Down to the Waterline, Sultans of Swing,
    Adele: Set Fire to the Rain, He Won’t Go, Hello,
    Los Lonely Boys: Senorita, Heaven, anything else, which came through my players…
     
    Device pleasures:
     
    Sources:
    iPhone 6+
    Fiio x3ii
    MacbookPro
     
    IEM’s/Headphones:
    Tennmak Pro
    Campfire Audio Nova
    Fostex T40RP MK3
    RHA ma750
     
    Amp comparisons: ummmm….never mind, pointless comparisons…
    Fiio A3
    Schiit Magni2
     
    DSC_0046.jpg
     
     
    Detail:
     
    DAY ONE:
    My listening was broken up into an odd assorted way, to some maybe. I spent a thorough day solely with the Tennmak Pro’s on my iPhone 6+ and the BL. What a joyous, pleasurable day it was! If my opening description wasn’t enough, then I will simply add that the BL brought out the best of the Pro’s. Solid, full, warm sound emanated from the Pro like I had never heard. Rich mids, solid but slightly boomy bass (sometimes) and a treble of sufficient quality came through so that temporarily I forgot that this was a $21 IEM playing through a $550 amp.
     
    This would be a case where the better source definitely enhances the lower priced item. Sometimes faults come through when using a “cleaner” power source, as if the deficiencies are laid bare-naked in the snow. Not a pleasant option or vision (please don’t ask…), but in this case the Pro doesn’t MIND being put bare, in fact it enjoys the frolic and gladly rewards with that warm sound I mentioned. Kind of like dancing through the snow with a nice mug of hot cocoa, laced with Bailey’s for good taste. Darn, that sounds really good right now…
     
    DAY TWO:
    I followed that day with a single day using the Nova in the same set up. OK, this makes more sense…an IEM in the same category as the amp. What a wonderful combo this is! Open more “airy” and brighter than simply through the iPhone. Detail oriented I heard things, which were hard to come by using my other amps. With some of my other setups, I would “hear” the sound, but it was sometimes fleeting, such as when I worked as a Biologist studying birds… If a new bird came along on my survey, I would separate out the new sounds from the ones I had already identified. It was not that I didn’t hear the finer tones in my normal set; but with the BL, it wasn’t as if this was a new sound.  There was no mistake…that tone, which might have been the fleeting sound of a far off bird on my surveys was DEFINITELY there. The birds/sound presenting themselves to me in a nice orderly fashion. No hiding, but not boisterousness either. Just a neat progression of sound. Harken back to a full procession coming in front of you…or the birds presenting me with easy identification without needling or disorder. Just presented for my listening indulgence. Enhanced bass with the switch on paid dividends to the Nova, adding that little extra I craved from them before. Now, I am in no way dissatisfied with the Nova, but the bass switch added the right amount for my taste. EQing would get me near the same thing, but toggling the bass on is a simple way to enhance for my taste.
     
    With the 3D toggle switched on, there is a definite jump in mids and a slight treble bump. In conversation with a fellow Head-fier, we discussed whether this was a placebo effect from the gain of mid/treble tones or if it was real. I do not have the equipment to gauge the truth (others are as we speak), if one can define the truth that way. My seat of the pants explanation (and reading about the crossover system involved) is that there is a shift fore and aft in my cranial matter in regards to the soundstage. Switching back and forth, or playing a song fully then repeat I can “sense” added depth in the anterior/posterior relationship of my cranial mush. Call it a bodybuilding “loudness” switch.  Some have stated that the effect on the micro/micro BL is not as effective as other units, but it works quite well for me. I could sense a larger soundstage, but not enough to make the instrumentation feel separated by a distance. I left the switch toggled on for the whole time; except times I wanted an “unencumbered” sound with which to listen.
     
    I find it quite marvelous that technologies such as the XBass and 3D can fit into a unit this size. My-oh-my how sound times have changed!
     
    Some have stated they wished for a bigger boost in the XBass toggle. I would disagree. I think there is enough of a bump at 6dB to satisfy most. I like the push added to the overall sound. A quick jolt of bass for those IEM’s which might be bass-shy. If I want more, then I will EQ my source.
     
    DAY THREE:
    Switching to my Fostex T40RP Mk3’s, I pushed the BL to the Turbo setting. I still had to push the volume pot to about halfway for a good listening level for me. And it was quite the stunning combination. Going through my iPhone 6+ with a newly acquired Lightning camera kit attachment, I was able to use the Digital SPDIF port, bypassing the DAC of the 6+, and fully using the BL. Holy buckets, what a difference! And yes, one would expect that going from a Smartphone to a dedicated DAC/DAP; but still the revelation was astounding. Rich of sound, full of body, slightly warmer than when run with my other setups, the Fostex have not sounded this good. I would call them a slightly “dry” sounding can OOTB, but one with which I like very much. EQing can take care of my personal tastes with the T40, but using the BL, there was no need. With 3D and XBass toggled on, I sat back and fully felt Dire Straits Down to the Waterline. Knopfler’s guitar rifts are a masterpiece to be enjoyed using good equipment, and I had found my listening of choice, whether it be from my x3ii or 6+, it was purely a marvel. Clean, clear, crisp, with the full sound one would expect from an amp of this caliber. It did not disappoint. And a volume, which satisfied me to the fullest. I cannot imagine pushing the pot higher, for fear of hearing damage.
     
    DAY FOUR-SEVEN:
    Running all set ups through my MacBook Pro, 6+ and x3ii; I tried all set ups, but fell back to the listings below. If I didn’t like the set up, I quit using it within about 15 min. My time was too short to audition something which was not that pleasant.
     
    DSC_0047.jpg DSC_0054.jpg
    Stacking with the Fiio x3ii
     
     
     
     
    Summary of Sound Prefs (no particular order):
     
    iPhone 6+-->Lightning Camera kit-->ifi BL-->Tennmak Pro:
     
    Just a thoroughly satisfying sound. A Marvel of todays technological advances from a cheap IEM to a moderately priced mid-fi amp; this was my favorite go-to sound for day to day. This would be my set if I had only one, which would travel.  twenty one pilots Hometown was my first listen, and my main song no matter what I test. I follow this up with Coldplay’s White Shadow or A Sky Full of Stars. The three songs hit a full gamut of sounds, which I can use to gain that initial sound, which I liked so much. That initial push of “what can this unit do.” From the keyboard, which nears distortion to the very forward sound of the Coldplay songs, this is a good judge. There is no hiding; and the “grouping” did not disappoint. 
     
    iPhone 6+-->Lightning Camera kit-->ifi BL-->Campfire Nova:
     
    My favorite setup for the majority of the music I auditioned. Bowie’s Lazarus is haunting enough under normal listening; but with this grouping, I could VERY easily imagine myself holed up hugging the wall in his hospital “suite.” Trying darn hard not to be noticed, lest I get thrown in the Institution myself, I would listen to his beautiful voice; and it would sound identical to this match, getting drawn in with his dilemma, his final push before death calls his name. This set brings me closer to his music than I have with anything else. And I am grateful. A nice slightly warm sound, which does not intrude, not wanting to draw attention to itself much the way if I were hunkering in Bowie’s hospital room. Sipping single malt, this would be my unwind unit in the evening.
     
    iPhone 6+-->3.5mm to 3.5mm cable-->ifi BL-->Tennmak Pro:
     
    This was the set with which I wrote my opening. As you can tell, it was sufficiently “adequate” that I was able to eagerly anticipate the “better quality” hook ups with gleeful, slack-jawed-joy. I was in listening bliss. I was so taken aback by that initial listen, that I wrote the opening on the spot. Such an honor it was, that I replayed Coldplay, twentyonepilots, David Bowie, and Lyle Lovett for three straight hours. Such was the joy, that I lost track of time and it was 0200 the following morn before I realized. Not that I cared, not one iota because of the delight I had experienced. Easy setup and with the length of the 3.5mm cord, easy to transport. This was the closest set up to actually SHOUT at me. Grab me by my shoulders, screaming WAKE THE HECK UP AND LISTEN!!!
     
    iPhone 6+-->3.5mm to 3.5mm-->ifi BL-->CA Nova:
     
    I spent the whole of the second day running this way. And I was not disappointed. I ran the same songs, over and over, with the same results. A more full sound, rounded out by the fore/aft added depth of the 3D, the Novas ran well. While not as good as the SPDIF/Lightning setup, a thoroughly enjoyable sound encased me, to the point where my co-worker was essentially right next to me before I heard or SAW her. A trance worthy of an Ouija board I was in…My second audition of the BL was a complete success, and it was during this day that @nmatheis convinced me to purchase the Lightning camera kit and I would not be dissatisfied (which I wasn’t!). Just more “Wow” moments all around…
     
    Fiio x3ii-->3.5mm to 3.5mm-->ifi BL-->Tennmak Pro
     
    Since the Fiio is a definite step up from the iPhone, I spent the next two days thoroughly auditioning my music with the x3ii as the source. This was probably the least used system, but not because it was the “worst.” I simply wanted to spend more time with the Nova inserted here. That said, I loved how the x3ii brought a cleaner sound to the table than Amazon Music, or Tuneshell (which has since failed me and I have deleted the app for reasons I will not state here). Yes, of course it was of higher quality music than the other, but I wanted to make sure I tested the arrangement in my best possible light. My best units if you will. While the quality was better, I did not enjoy this system as much as through my 6+. I know, I know, that doesn’t make much sense, but I felt the music I had was a bit flat. Even running through the “Line Out” from the Fiio it just wasn’t full enough for me. The warm Tennmak’s and XBass could not make me happy with my recordings the same way the 6+ did. I’m not sure I can explain it any better than I just wasn’t happy with this. Would it work? You bet, it wouldn’t be my first or second choice, though.
     
    Fiio x3ii-->3.5mm to 3.5mm-->ifi BL-->CA Nova:
     
    If I absolutely had to choose one set up, this would be it. The Novas warmer sound could compensate for the colder-more analytic sound of the Fiio. I think I stated in my review video, how with this set the two (BL & Nova) could overcome the cold nature of the x3ii, and it did. This set up would (and did) need the most EQing to be completely satisfactory of listening pleasure. I guess I have come full circle then; I used to EQ, and then swung HARD the other way. Now I am back to EQing. At least with this grouping I am. And that’s ok in my book. I hate to keep using the same bloody commentary regarding “slightly warm and full,” but…since I already stated that this would be my one go to set up, I really do not think I need to describe it any better. Using the line out on the x3ii, I was quite OK with letting the BL dictate and run the sound program. It was kind of like having a simple DJ with me who could only do three things well (XBass, 3D, Eco/Normal/Turbo) and that was quite all right. More than adequate, this was a DJ I could afford.
     
    Fiio x3ii-->3.5mm to 3.5mm-->ifi BL-->Fostex T40RP Mk3
     
    What a superb way to bring out the best in these hard to drive cans. Turbo was more than suitable to drive these “near-mid-fi” closed cans. I opted for the T40 because I wanted the better of the bass units, and the closed back, for privacy. These do not disappoint, but the amps I have, short of the Schiit Magni2 & Fiio A3 (almost) cannot really do them the justice which I heard through the BL. I have talked about a “veil being lifted” in previous reviews, but I think that would be an insult to the Fostex. Call it having the necessary “passing power” to cruise by the slower vehicles in the mountains. While the Schiit is sufficient, it doesn’t compete with the BL. Kind of like a BMW 3-series with four passengers and full luggage… The A3 would be the equivalent of a Prius…It would get me there, and in quite fine manner; just not like having a Ferrari F455 with which to do the job, and in not so near a hurry. There was no worry for power using the BL. I barely went over ½ on the volume with the BL/Fostex. Anything more, and I was ricking hearing loss in my mind. I really don’t want to lose more…
     
    DSC_0038.jpg
    Slim lines bely it's size
     
     
    Conclusion remarks:
     
    So there you pretty much have it. My time was far too short for my listening WANTS. I found myself craving just one more day knowing it wouldn’t happen. I think that is the highest compliment I can pay to this delightful unit. If a unit (especially a loaned/tour unit) can have my mind begging for just one more day, by the SECOND DAY; then I am enamored. I am taken. I am engaged to the listening for the short time available to me. Liken this to a long distance relationship where you will meet for a week, knowing that each day draws closer to the separation. The leaving, which will tug, no yank at you over the increasing distance which WILL happen. You keep thinking, “I really should be focused on the moment, lest it is lost.” But you obsess over the time ticking down, ever closer to the farewell. But during that time, you force yourself to envelop the moment, devour that time together, devoting full attention to your time together. Even though that damn clock is ticking ever louder in the back of your mind; you scream silently to it, "SHUT THE F-UP! I’M NOT DONE HERE,” as you surrender yourself, your time and your ears to the listening; knowing you must. Otherwise the task is lost. And not only do I not want that, I desperately do not. It would be a disservice to your relationship, your short but oh-so-sweet time together.
     
    You really must give in to the relationship to fully understand what is going on, otherwise the time is wasted, as is the relationship. Hopefully I have not wasted that time on this wonderful relationship, courting a future together, which I would willingly, GLADLY give in to again. And again. Lover's In Japan, from Coldplay's excellent Prospekt's March album is a very fitting end to this review. The timing could not be better...
     
    Is it perfect? Heck no. Does it have a few quirks? Yes, size to me is the main drawback. It is almost too big to be commonly portable, but workable. I would definitely keep this in a desktop situation, though if  “forced” to; it is too good not to use… And the 3D is not for everyone. It can artificially inflate the sound stage fore/aft as well as the mids becoming overly bright. It sounded good on some tracks, not good on others. So a simple toggle of the switch changes that. But the positives FAR outweigh the negatives. Three amp settings with which to choose from, as well as the XBass switch and the excellent sound from the digital out highlight those positives. Fine-tuning of IEM’s through the sensitivity settings is another quick way to tailor the listening. A nice touch.
     
    I really want to thank Lawance and Jared for this relationship. This time together with the WELL more than fine ifi iDSD Micro Black Label was all I could ask, albeit too short for my lusting listening pleasures... It really is a fine unit, which I would gladly spend more time with, and my hard earned dollars upon. That is about the highest praise I can give. Go listen, it will be worth it.
      proedros, dsnyder, peter123 and 3 others like this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. ngoshawk
      Thanks man, I appreciate the kind words. Just a wonderful piece this was, and I miss it everyday. Maybe we will get lucky and be on the next tour together. Cheers and stay warm.
      ngoshawk, Dec 18, 2016
    3. proedros
      epic review indeed

      great job
      proedros, Dec 19, 2016
    4. ngoshawk
      Much obliged! Thank you very much.
      ngoshawk, Dec 19, 2016
  8. goldendarko
    Well Designed, Great Sounding and Extremely Versatile Trans-Portable DAC/Amp
    Written by goldendarko
    Published Dec 15, 2016
    4.5/5,
    Pros - Sounds Great, Can Play Anything & Power Anything, Bass Boost & Treble Boost are Very Fun
    Cons - Trans-Portable size makes it hard to walk around with, nothing else really I can think of
    I was lucky enough to get to demo the iFi Audio iDSD Black Label for about a week thanks to the good folks at iFi and I just wanted to share my experience with this great little piece of equipment. The headphones I used for my review included an HE1000, LCD-3F, Ether C and a pair of Andromeda IEM's.
     
    The first thing you'll notice when you open the box is that they've included just about every adapter or accessory you can think of (except an OTG cable apparently), so right out of the gate you'll pretty much be ready to use this device with whatever gear you've got. The next thing that stands out is how well it seems to be built. Considering it comes in at what I would consider a budget gear range, I was very impressed because it had the build quality of more expensive gear. As I began using it with my different headphones I found out it was pretty damn versatile too, it could go from driving my Campfire Audio Andromeda's (which are very sensitive) on the IEM setting, all the way up to my HE1000's, which needed the Turbo setting to really shine. No other device I've got can achieve that feat of being able to drive anything you throw at it. That was my biggest takeaway from my week with the iDSD BL too, is how versatile it was. It can literally plan any file type, on any headphone and it sounded great doing so. 
     
    Another thing I really liked about it was the bass/treble boost switches. Normally stuff like this is very gimmicky and doesn't sound good, so I really wasn't even planning to try them but luckily I gave them a chance because I actually had a lot of fun using them! They are very subtle effects, nothing like I've been used to before, and they allow you to modify the sound very slightly which I found helpful for dealing with tracks that were either too closed in sounding and could use a little more air (mostly newer recordings), or other recordings that could stand for a little more bass. 
     
    In terms of headphone pairings, my guilty pleasure, and the one that's got me thinking about buying the iDSD BL was the LCD-3F pairing. I admit to using the bass boost with it quite a bit too, was just so fun sounding and really got me into the music. The Ether C's and Andromeda's were my next favorite pairings, but the HE1000 came across as a little bright sounding to me with the iDSD, just wasn't a great pairing IMO, but it certainly had the power to drive them adequately, I would just say it's a sound signature preference. 
     
    My only con for the device would be the size that fits it squarely into TRANS-portable territory. Unfortunately it's just too big to carry around in your pocket along with a phone for example, but if you are thinking about using it with a laptop for example it would be the perfect fit. 
     
    So in conclusion here are my main takeaways from the iDSD BL, in terms of pro's and cons:
     
    PRO's:
    -Versatile (Plays Anything, Powers Anything)
    -Subtle but Fun Bass/Treble Boost
    -Reasonable Price for Everything it Offers
    -Perfect for Transportable Setup
     
    Con's:
    -Too Big to be Used for a Portable Setup
    -Can Be a big Bright with certain headphones (particularly with bright recordings)
     
    So in Conclusion, I would say this device is like a swiss army knife for headphone enthusiasts in that it can be used in so many various setups, with any kind of headphones, and offers a great sound that is easily customized to user's tastes. It's an easy piece of gear to justify for a reasonable price for everything that it offers, highly recommened.
    1. glassmonkey
      Nice concise review!
      glassmonkey, Dec 16, 2016
    2. dsnyder
      Nice review...sounds like your impressions were very similar to mine. iFi should use this quote from your review in their marketing material, "It can literally plan any file type, on any headphone and it sounded great doing so". Well said.
      dsnyder, Jan 6, 2017
  9. hardlok
    Black but beautiful compared to the silver original iDSD Micro!
    Written by hardlok
    Published Dec 12, 2016
    5.0/5,
    Pros - Tonally similar to its predecessor yet packs in that last ounce of oomph, slam, musicality and finesse in just the right spectrums of audio. Worth it!
    Cons - The black casing and hard-to-read words are subjectively not in line with the trademark IFI looks, but the sound makes the cosmetics tolerable!
    Went into the shop to audition the original Micro (my current desktop setup) vs the BL. Remember, not all reviews here are about the BL but the iDSD Micro platform products in general.
    Anyway, after an hour of careful volume-matched auditioning, what skepticism I had about the minor tweaks in componentry over the already-great-sounding Micro silver had melted away.
     
    I have concluded that the upgraded components really make that last ounce of difference in an already fine product! Bass slam that was already pretty good in the original, is now more pronounced and adds to the oomph and color and the low end. Overall clarity, already good on the original, is now slightly increased and subtly smoother and sweeter. Overall image width and height, on the Senn HD599, is about the same to me, but then, with the added clarity+sweetness+slam, that same stereo image suddenly snaps into sharper focus on good recordings. On bad or average recordings the BL actually makes the music tolerable due to the added musicality. Ahhhh... musicality...  that is the one elusive trait which could justify giving up my beloved Micro. The BL definitely has a palpable increase in musicality which I didn't even know I was hungering for, til today. The original silver Micro definitely has that muscical quality, but I guess the BL has nailed the fringes of diminishing returns down.
     
    For new owners who have never owned the Micro but like its sonic signature, this more-expensive unit may be a hard sell because the we're talking about mostly the same features and hardware platform. For the price difference you get a couple high-end components and improved clock... can this super tweak really justify the price difference? To that, I now say YES, if extra slam and musicality make a pronounced difference to the kind of music you like. For most general listening of lossy music, the BL won't be justified over the original Micro. But with the right equipment that has the resolving power to let you discern the 5% increase in sound quality, playing high quality uncompressed well-recorded audio, that 5% suddenly scales to 10% or more. Really hard to put a finger on it, but I guess this kind of sonic tweaking is what drives the audio hardware-modding market worldwide.
     
    For owners of the existing Micro looking to sell off their unit for this upgrade at the new price, I would advise a long side-by-side audition at the shop with your own gear in tow. The price differential you pay has to justify the improvements I mentioned above. Not everyone will feel the need to upgrade, if the music, other hardware and taste in audio do not require (or do not resolve the fine differences) the subtle increases in clarity and smoothness. Many headphiles depend on differences in tonal signature as the way to size up a tweaked product. In this case, the tonal signature remains unchanged, so that may give us a hasty conclusion about the value of the tweaks. But then again, anyone who owns the silver Micro (and bothers to keep it) would likely not be casual music lovers who go for V-shaped tonal signatures... so even a 5% improvement in an already good product can mean a lot if it is centred around not just tonality but the harder-to-define areas such as microdynamics, slam and musicality. The wonderful home-trial policy of IFI is definitely a good excuse to give the BL an extended spin in your own audio setup. Just don't blame me if you find the sonic improvements mild and yet you still decide to keep it because the music now somehow seems to connect with you more than how it did on the original Micro!
     
    Oh, and one last thing -- the XBass and 3D features have been judiciously used to liven up flat sounding recordings on the original Micro, and I walked into the store today not expecting much improvement in the XBass+ and 3D+. In fact, I did the bulk of the audition without these features, so that I could get a good feel of the basic audio differences in the main hardware. But when it came time to test out these two features, I can honestly say, they really have been fine-tuned to sound more natural without losing much of the punch! XBass is now even tighter and more refined due to the main benefits of the hardware tweak on the bass spectrum. 3D+ is sweeter and more holographic at the extreme HF region. It makes the previous 3D now sound a bit harsh and brash (that sounded gooded nevertheless!).
  10. glassmonkey
    iFi iDSD Black Label: Swiss Army knife utility, top tier sound and flexibility that does everything extremely well, so much value it’s uncompetitive
    Written by glassmonkey
    Published Dec 6, 2016
    5.0/5,
    Pros - power to drive an HE-6 with finesse to feed a Kaiser 10 Encore, plays everything natively, extraordinarily flexible sonically and practically
    Cons - 3D can sound artificial on some tracks, black on black fonts on bottom, difficult to see volume knob level
    iDSDBL-24.jpg

     

    Acknowledgment   

    It’s always a privilege to check out new gear in exchange for your honest opinion. Thanks, iFi, for letting me in on this particular party. I’ve been borrowing this unit as part of the worldwide iFi tour.
     

    Introduction

    This is my fifth review of a piece of iFi gear. I’ve previously reviewed the Micro iUSB3.0 (own it), the Micro iDAC2, and the iPurifier2 (extreme value for money and good performance)(links are to the reviews), and have a pending review of the Micro iCAN SE (link to the iCAN SE thread). I’ve also had brief listens to the Micro iDSD and the Micro iCAN, so I feel like I’ve got a good idea of what iFi has to offer now, and it’s generally good, though few products have reached anywhere near the wow factor of the first product I reviewed, the Micro iUSB3.0. The iDSD BL just may reach for that summit.
     
    I’ve experienced a good working relationship with iFi and every item I’ve reviewed for them has been worth at least four stars. They make excellent products with extreme capabilities, and the newly upgraded and optimized version of the the Micro iDSD is no different. It packs a lot of power in a portable package, has a big battery, was developed with the community, and has an extremely capable DAC that plays every format worth delving into and some that are probably just wastes of space—I can’t tell the difference between DSD128 and DSD256 and PCM352, I’m pretty sure that I won’t hear anything different with DSD512—but good on iFi for being ironclad ‘buzzword’ proof. It’s a philosophy that I think Jason Stoddard of Schiit would probably smirk a little at. I won’t smirk. I actually do have a lot of respect for letting people play whatever music they want and doing your best to make it sound as good as you can even if you know that they are fools hearing placebo effects or just anything they think they want to hear. I think iFi’s dedication to serving their customers desires, within reason, is very enviable. I appreciate the amazing Schiit—the Yggdrasil is still one of my favourite DACs and I am eager to hear the Jotunheim—being turned out by that California powerhouse of affordable audio, but I’d really like to be able to play my DSD without using the sub-optimal Loki. A DAC named after the trickster god shouldn’t do one trick and only in limited fashion—it didn’t even play DSD128.
     
    The iFi Micro iDSD Black Label isn’t trying to do one thing and do it well. It is trying to be a veritable Swiss army knife of audio goodness that is small enough to carry in similar fashion to perhaps the world’s most famous multi-tool—I got my whittling badge in Cub Scouts with a Victorinox knife. I doubt the iDSD BE will ever reach that level of fame, but I imagine I’ll have a lot more uses for it now that I’m not living in the deep woodlands of Alaska and not earning any further whittling honoraria.
     
    Let’s see what this baby has going for us. But first, here is a mea culpa and description of my predilections. It takes a confident person, or maybe a fool—I resemble both—to buy shoes from a brand that they’ve never tried on. Reading a review without knowing anything about the reviewer is a similar thing, so there’s some pertinent information about me below the fold.
     
    2015-07-20-1437426450-7937643-babarcus.jpg
     
    Like most sensible people I started falling in love with music as a child. My first portable audio device was a Sony Walkman (the cassette kind) that I got when I was 10 years old (24 years ago).  I listened with the cheap Sony on ears that came with the Walkman until I bought a Koss CD boombox and started listening to UAF College Radio and 103.9 (alternative rock at the time) in Fairbanks, Alaska. I once listened to Louie, Louie for 3 days straight, and I’m not insane—did you know there is a Spanish gospel version of Louie, Louie?
     
    Like political tastes and tastes in friends, my musical tastes evolved through association and then rebellion and experimentation. From the songs of my father (The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, ZZ Top), to the songs of my peers (Dr. Dre, Green Day, Nirvana, Weezer), my tastes evolved, expanded and exploded into the polyglot love that is my current musical tapestry. Like a Hieronymous Bosch mural, my tastes can be weird and wonderful: dreamy Japanese garble pop, 8 bit chiptune landscapes percolated with meows, queer punk, Scandinavian black metal; or they can be more main-stream with minglings of Latin guitar, Miles Davis trumpet, and banks of strings and percussion in the Mariinsky Orchestra. Mostly my audio drink of choice is a rich stout pint of heady classic rock and indie/alternative from my musical infancy and identity formation (the 90s). Come as you are, indeed. Beyond the weird, the wonderful, the interesting and accepted, I’m a big fan of intelligent hip-hop artists like Macklemore, Metermaids, Kendrick Lamar, Sage Francis and Aesop Rock. I even dabble in some country from time to time, with First Aid Kit and the man in black making cameos in my canals.
     
    My sonic preferences tend towards a balanced or neutral sound, though I’ll admit to liking a little boosted bass or treble from time to time. If I have to choose between warm and bright, I’ll choose bright almost every time. A few screechy high notes are preferable to me than a foggy unfocused bass guitar. As my tastes are eclectic, and a day of listening can involve frequent shifts in my sonic scenery, I don’t generally want headphones that try to paint my horizons in their own hues. I need headphones that get out of the way, or provide benign or beneficial modifications. I desire graceful lifts like an ice-dancing pairs’ carved arc, not heaving lifts like a man mountain deadlift.
     
    My last hearing test with an audiologist was a long time ago and under strange circumstances. However, I have heard tones all the way down to 10hz and all the way up to 23Khz using headphones in my collection. Either my headphones tend to have a hole in frequency at 18kHz or my hearing does, because I never seem to hear it. I’m sensitive to peaky treble, and treble fatigue, even when I can’t hear what might be causing it. I do enjoy smooth extended treble. I like deep tight bass and impactful drums, and dislike upper mid-bass emphasis.  I like my vocals crisp, so stay away from Josh Tillman’s voice you nasty upper mid-bass hump.  I like air in the stage, not just cues to distance and height, but the feeling of air moving around and through instruments. Soundstage shouldn’t be just about hearing, I need to feel it. I listen at volume levels that others consider loud (78 to 82 dB), but I just set it to where the dynamics peak. I’m not here to shatter my eardrums. I like them just how they are.
     
    I generally don’t believe in using EQ, not even for inexpensive headphones, especially in reviews. I won’t claim that I haven’t done it, but I generally try to avoid it.
     
    I believe that burn-in can make a difference, but I also acknowledge that there isn’t any measurement that appears to give conclusive proof that burn-in exists. I trust my ears, fully acknowledging that my brain may fill in expected details, may colour my interpretation, or may be subject to its own settling period with a headphone. In my experience, burn-in effects are not as large as proponents of burn-in tend to advertise. I’ve also noted that using white/pink/brown noise, I almost never observe changes beyond 24 hours of burn in. When people tell you that you shouldn’t listen to your headphones until they have 200 hours on them, I think these people need to be ignored. No matter what, you should be listening to your headphones at different stages, right out of the box and at intervals. How can someone observe a difference without baseline observations and follow up observations to measure change trajectories? If you really want to be serious about controlling for effect, you need volume matching, source matching, and tip/pad matching.
     
    I’m a firm believer that cables can make a difference, but I don’t think they always do. When I tried out Toxic Cables line, they were in a bunch of baggies at the Cambridge 2015 HeadFi meet without any labels tell me what I was listening to. The cheapest looking one was the one I liked the best. I was excited that I wouldn’t have to spend much to improve my sound. It turned out that the cheapest looking one was the Silver/Gold top of the line cable. I’ve heard the difference that USB cables can make, from upgrading from the crappy cable that came with my Geek Out 1000 to a Supra USB, and then again when upgrading to the LH Labs Lightspeed 2G with the iUSB3.0. When I picked up a cheap shielded power lead from Mains Cables R Us to replace my standard kettle lead on my integrated amplifier, I heard more crunchy and clearer treble. I switched the leads with my wife blinded and she heard the same difference. I didn’t tell her what I heard and let her describe it herself. But cables don’t always make a difference. When I switched from my standard HD650 cable to a custom balanced cable (Custom Cans UK, very affordable), the sound stayed exactly the same when hooked up via a top tier (custom made by my local wire wizard, out of  silver/gold Neotech wire) 4-pin XLR to 6.3mm converter. Balanced mode made a difference in clarity and blackness of background—this indicates that the amp was the deciding influence, not the cable. Your mileage may vary and you may not hear a difference, but I have.
    My brother used to have a Mohawk but not like Mr. T’s awesome Mohican. It was actually a Mo-mullet. It was probably the worst haircut I’ve ever seen. Shaved on the sides, short on top, long in back. Totally unique, in totally the wrong way. My brother the unicorn.
     
    photo.jpg
     

    Vital Statistics (specs from manufacturers and distributors)

    Of all the manufacturers I’ve dealt with, and there are a few, iFi is the only one that makes what they are doing sound like witchcraft. Stealth technology, tube state, noise cancelling power USB coax etc… I don’t know how they do it, and don’t pretend to, but my lack of understanding won’t make me turn all Luddite and start bashing gears. I don’t need to understand it to enjoy it.
     
    a4179298634_10.jpg
     
     
    Here’s the brief version of everything that iFi had to say in the iDSD thread about the newest member of the iFi family:
     
     
     
    It also has special Operationsverstärker, which is Operational Amplifier auf Deutsch. They use the cool copper-lead frames pictured below.
     
    TQFP_Leadframe_p2.jpg
     
     
    It is also worth noting some of the features passed on through its iDSD lineage:
    1. Dual Burr-Brown DAC chips developed by Burr-Brown Japan before the TI acquisition, custom tweaked to play all the way up to unicorn formats: OctaDSD (512DSD—there aren’t even any recordings that I know of) to PCM768 (I don’t know if recordings exist for this standard)
    2. 3 output modes: eco, normal and turbo and the iEMatch feature allowing headphones from ultra-sensitive custom in-ear flagships to insensitive masses of metallic HiFiMan HE-6 glory
    3. Intelligent In/Out SPDIF Digital Optical/coax allows using the iDSD BL to feed your Sonos, or plugging in your DAP when you feel the need to make up for it’s inadequacies
    4. Battery power for loads of time, with smart charging for your devices when you aren’t blasting your aural cavities with wonders, delights, and delectable morsels of audio fayre (iFi advertise 6-12 hours battery playback, depending on how hungry your headphones are)
     
    If you want more text about this new-fangled contraption, check out the iFi website.
     
    Specifications
     
    Formats supported
    DSD512/256/128/64, Octa/Quad/Double/Single-Speed DSD
    DXD(768/705.6/384/352.8kHz), Double/Single-Speed DXD
    PCM(768/705.6/384/352.8/192/176.4/96/88.2/48/44.1kHz)
    Filters
    PCM – Bit-Perfect Processing/Minimum Phase/Standard
    DSD – Extreme/Extended/Standard Bandwidth
    DXD – Bit-Perfect Processing
    Digital Inputs
    High-Speed Asynchronous USB 2.0 (32bit/768kHz)
    SPDIF Coaxial/Optical
    Digital Outputs
    SPDIF Coaxial
    Audio Input
    3.5mm
    Audio Output
    6.3mm (2V-5V variable), RCA Line out (2V fixed)
    Power Output
    Turbo (8.0V max/4,000 mW @ 16 Ohm)
    Normal (4.0V/1,000 mW @ 16 Ohm)
    Eco (2.0V/250mW@16 Ohm)
    Battery
    Lithium-polymer 4800mAh
    Power System
    USB BCP V1.2 compliant up to 1500mA charging current
    Power (max)
    <2W idle, 4W max
    Dimensions
    177(l) x 67(w) x 28(h) mm
    Weight
    310g (0.68 lbs)
    Manual
    Available online here
    Drivers/Firmware
    Here ya go

     

    Form & Function

    iDSDBL-3.jpg
    iDSDBL-5.jpg
    iDSDBL-6.jpg
    iDSDBL-8.jpg

     
    Those who’ve seen any iFi gear from the Nano or Micro series will know that they all come in the same size box. Whilst this is true, the iFi iDSD BL comes with more in its box than any of the other’s I’ve opened. Here are the full contents:
    1. Micro iDSD BL
    2. 1 metre USB 3.0A female to USB3.0A male cable
    3. USB 2.0A female to USB 2.0B female cable (for using whatever USB cable you like without straining the USB jack)
    4. USB 2.0A female to USB 2.0B female short adaptor (for using whatever USB cable you like)
    5. iFi’s standard purple RCA cables
    6. Heavy duty rubber bands for stacking your source on top of the iDSD BL
    7. 6.3mm to 3.5mm convertor
    8. Short 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable
    9. Mini Toslink to Toslink adaptor
    10. 4 iFi branded silicone feet (that’s a step up from my Micro iUSB3.0)
    11. A silicone sheet—is this for putting under or on top? I couldn’t tell, but it should provide some cushion
    12. A velvet bag for transport
     
    That’s a lot of stuff in the box. Strangely, they didn’t include a standard USB OTG cable. That seemed really strange to me. For a device that is going to be used with a lot of people’s cell phones, that should be included. We get two USB2.0A female to USB2.0B female adapters.
     
    absolutely bass
    head round bashing
    up down vertical
    crack guitar--sparkle
     
    Those who like Ace will understand. Must not sleep, must tell others. Those poor lines above are mine, not Aesop Rock, so direct your hate mail at me for the bad attempt at rap. Ace rocks the lyrics better below.
     
    [​IMG]
     
    I can also confirm that if you are going to connect your phone in this way as your primary way of using your Micro iDSD Black Label, you’ll want to flash the Limoncello 5.2B firmware. Twenty minutes hooked up to the iDSD BL took my Samsung Galaxy Note 2 from 100% to 81% battery.
     
    iDSDBL-10.jpg
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    The Micro iDSD Black Label speaks.​
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    The Micro iDSD BL has the same form factor as the whole micro series, but has traded out the straight aluminum (aluminium for some folks) sheath for a stark matte black scabbard with orange accent lettering. I was a bit worried that the orange lettering would look garish and never allow me to escape the conquest of Jack-o-lantern images in my head. Luckily for me, and all those thinking of buying this little beast, the orange is very well executed and the black looks amazing. It looks like I’ve got a miniature panther sitting atop my other audio gear, but there are no eyes to see on this in the dark, nothing to let you know that your ears aren’t about to be bombarded with bliss. It’s a stealthy joy cannon.
     
    The switches are well labelled, as is the headphone jack, 3.5mm input, and all inputs and outputs, but lordy the volume knob could use an orange dot to know not to blast my ears too badly. This thing can throw out a lot of wattage, so a little warning would be good. As is, there is just a barely visible black line to let you know what volume you are at. The line is cut into the knob, so you can feel the volume before you hear it at least.
     
    Similarly, if you want to read anything on the bottom of the iDSD BL, good luck with that. The writing is dark grey on a black background. Not the most clear choice of text. The good news is once you know what you are doing, and through using the user manual, the text on the bottom is made irrelevant.
    There are lots of features on the iDSD BL. I’ll take these features one by one.
     
    1. Power mode: the iDSD BL, like it’s predecessor has three power modes, it’s like gain but each step doubles the wattage to the headphones. Turbo delivers 4W, while normal delivers 1w, and Eco delivers 250mW into 16 Ohms. My personal preferences with the HD600 were was normal at about 2 o’clock. With the Noble Kaiser 10 Encore (K10E), I liked Eco mode at about noon. I liked the Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered (UERR) best in Normal with volume at about 11 o’clock.
    2. iEMatch: the Noble K10E is pretty sensitive and has pretty much never needed much of anything to drive it on anything that I’ve drove it out of, but it didn’t need iEMatch. I don’t have any more sensitive IEMs on hand. One advantage of IEM match with the Noble K10E was more sensitive volume control. When I turned to high sensitivity my volume adjustment became finer. I tried the UERR in High Sensitivity, but had to put the power level into Turbo, which comes with some noise floor consequences, so negates some of the benefit. I preferred the UERR with iEMatch Off and power set to Normal. With the Noble K10E, I tried Eco and High Sensitivity, but found that I preferred Eco with Normal, as I perceived a slightly larger soundstage.
    3. XBass: gives a small dB boost to lower frequencies without touching the mids. It’s a really nicely executed effect that worked well with the HD600 and the UERR (especially with the UERR).
    4. 3D: I was previously a fan of this on the iCAN SE, but the iCAN SE amp was not as good sounding as the iDSD BL, from memory, and I find the change on this iDSD BL is not as subtle as the XBass effect. It does give a bit more air, but it also pushes some instruments forward (cymbals particularly), which will be pleasing to some but sounded a bit unnatural to me. I like an organic neutral signature most of the time, without any particular sections of the frequency range sounding too far forward. The 3D switch goes a little too forward and v-shaped for my tastes. That’s OK, though, as it is designed for variation, the standard is soooooo good, I generally don’t even touch the switches (maybe the XBass from time to time, depending on my mood and my material). 3D is awesome with the Meze 99 Classics.
    5. Filter: there are three filter settings—standard (not for DSD or DXD), Minumum Phase, and Bit Perfect. I tested these out with the Rebecca Pigeon – Spanish Harlem, and noted that the sound got warmer and less sharp as I dropped down the ladder from Bit Perfect to Standard. The differences were very subtle. With DSD256 (Trondheim Solistene – Frank Bridge Variations 4. Romance, from 2L recordings), I noticed increased volume as I went down the ladder. With DXD (Hoff Ensemble - Bøhren/Åserud: Blågutten) I didn’t notice differences—it all sounds wonderful.
    6. Native everything. Cookie Marenco over at Blue Coast has previously emphasized that the less conversion that happens, the better; this is why they say recordings that they receive in PCM192 sound best in PCM192, not DSD. This plays native DSD to OctaDSD (512) and DXD to double DXD (768mHz), and all the other PCM you can eat. If you need DoP it’s there, but trust me, you don’t need it.
     
    In other good news, I powered the HD600 for at least 13 hours on battery power, so the battery has plenty of guts. The reason I say at least 13 hours is I fell asleep and it was off when I woke up. I was doing the battery test passively, as 13 hours is a long time to be in one place. I fell asleep after watching the Seahawks dismantle the Panthers—that game ended at 5 AM here, I was le tired.
     

    Audio quality

    With no switches engaged the iFi iDSD Black Label is dead to rights neutral. It lets the headphone do the singing. This is very similar to the LH Labs GO2A Infinity I just recently picked up. These two DAC/Amps share quite a bit in common, actually. Both are made out of aluminum, both have multiple gain settings, both output 4VRMS at 16 Ohms, both are freaking excellent neutral DACs. The GO2A Infinity, for all its qualities, can’t play DSD256 or higher, uses DoP exclusively, doesn’t have a battery up in it (GO V2+ for that), doesn’t have the sheer headphone matchability, and doesn’t have digital or analogue outputs outside of headphone outs—of which it has a 3.5mm TRRS balanced and a standard 3.5mm jack. Also, the GO2A doesn’t have the magic switches found on the front of the Micro iDSD Black Label.
     
    Let’s talk about those switches. I first threw the iDSD on with another item I’m reviewing, the 1MORE MK802 using the optional 3.5mm cable (it’s a Bluetooth headphone). I tossed some white noise on to see if I could hear the shaping effects of the switches. When I flipped the 3D switch the pitch of the white noise became higher. It was a very noticeable change. I then flipped off the 3D switch and flipped on the XBass switch expecting a similar lowering of pitch. I couldn’t hear the difference with white noise. However, when I threw on the new Chesky 30th Anniversary Collection, the bass switch was subtle, but noticeable, and more so when I switched to the HD600. From what I can tell the XBass gives a subtle subbass boost that is just big enough to make bass notes more full and drum strikes have more palpable impact and air in the strike. XBass can lend bass guitar and stand-up bass some really nice grunt, too. The 3D effect is accomplished through a treble boost. Neither boost messes with the midrange frequencies, which is really nice. The boosts are subtle modifications that allow you to give more fulfilling bass on a slightly bass light headphone like the HD600 or give a little more perceived soundstage on a treble limited headphone. Also, if you have a neutral phone and want it to sound more vibrant you can flip the switches. If you want to paint in technicolour shades in a landscape in your audio dreams without losing the central image and symbolic language, these switches let you do that.
     
    [​IMG]
     
    In several words the iDSD Black Label is: clear, neutral, powerful, and flexible. I tried the iDSD Black Label with the HD600 (Normal, iEMatch Off), the Noble Kaiser 10 Encore (Eco, iEMatch Off, soft hiss on Normal), the UERR (Normal, iEMatch Off), and the Meze 99 Classics (Eco, iEMatch Off, hiss on Normal) it delivered all courses deliciously. When I craved a bit more bass from the HD600, the XBass took care of that; and when I wanted to balance out the signature of the Meze 99 Classics to make them clearer, I switched on 3D effect; but generally I found I liked the iDSD BL vanilla. It delivers such perfect neutrality. I think that the Meze 99 Classics really benefit from the 3D switch. The sound of them improves so much more to my liking—after listening to them with 3D on, I don’t think they’ll ever sound quite as good on other sources. The 3D switch balances out the extra bass groove that the Meze’s have. They don’t tighten that bass, but they put it into relief by sharpening the upper-mids and treble registers. I found that the 99 Classics don’t have sharp treble—I don’t get where that has been coming from; but do have boosted bass and mids. The signature is much more balanced with 3D engaged. One thing I did like with 3D was boosting the treble helped make some muddier tracks sound a bit more crisp, which to me was better than boosting soundstage. I totally dug the increase in perceived resolution. Duller tracks had their camping spork audio tranformed into restored functional blades, but not into Japanese steak knives.
     
     
    715rP6OlDoL._SL1500_.jpg
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    Light My Fire Titanium Spork
    Business card from Zazzle
    Restored rusty bayonet

     
    My primary listening for the review was Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited in 24/96. The album is excellent and excellent sounding. You really understand why Bob Dylan just recently won the Nobel Prize for literature—his words are poetry that moved the world and shaped music in his heyday and will continue shaping music long into the future. I used this to generate my initial impressions above and gauge the capabilities of the device.
     

    Comparisons

    For comparative listening I expanded out a bit:
    1. Dragonforce – The Fire Still Burns; Heartbreak Armageddon (speed, air)
    2. Damien Rice – Animals Were Gone (just for the heartbreak)
    3. Animals as Leaders – Ka$cade (speed, resolution)
    4. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (resolution, male vocals)
    5. Why – Strawberries (bass, stage)
    6. Michael Jackson – Billie Jean [vinyl rip] (stage, imaging, resolution)
    7. Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra – Sibelius: 5th Symphony, Allegro molto [DSD64] (scale, imaging)
    8. Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev  – Tchaikovsky: 1812 Festival Overture
    9. Amber Rubarth – Sessions from the 17th Ward
    10. And others…
     
    Before I do some comparisons, here is the relevant info about my set-up(s).
     
    Dell Vostro → LH Labs Lightspeed 2 (split power and data) USB cable → iFi Micro iUSB3.0 →
    1. Stock iDSD BL USB3.0 cable → iDSD BL
    2. Stock iDSD BL USB3.0 cable → iDSD BL → Airist Audio Heron 5
    3. LH Labs Lightspeed 2 (split power and data) USB cable → LH Labs GO2A Infinity
     
    iBasso DX50 → stock 3.5mm to coaxial cable → iDSD BL
     
     
     
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    When comparing the iDSD to the Airist Audio Heron 5, the Heron 5 has more grunt and soar across the whole spectrum, clearer holographic mids, and a bit bigger stage (all dimensions), but both are truly excellent sounding. The Heron 5 costs $750 (on Massdrop when it comes up, $1000 direct from Airist Audio). The Micro iDSD BL costs $550. The caveat here is that when I reviewed the iCAN SE, I didn’t find the iCAN SE to do as well with power hungry cans as the Heron 5. For this review, I don’t have any of those top-tier cans on hand. With the HD600 the Heron 5 is better, but it isn’t as decisive a victory as the comparison with the iCAN SE. There are a lot of ways that the iDSD BL is better: you can use it with high sensitivity low resistance IEMs, it has an excellent DAC implementation, you can throw it in your backpack, the iDSD BL has excellent distribution networks, and the customer service of iFi is absolutely stellar. Overall the Micro iDSD BL is a way better value than the Heron 5. In this comparison the Airist Audio Heron 5 was also being fed by the Micro iDSD BL, so the incremental cost of the improved performance is really $750 or more, because the iDSD BL is responsible for some of the sound quality I’m hearing out of the Heron 5.
     
    When comparing to the Light Harmonic Labs GO2A Infinity in balanced, with volume matching, the two amps were nearly indistinguishable when playing at the same power output. The GO2A (1000 mW) setting is exactly the same 4VRMS into 16 Ohm output as the Micro iDSD BL. The GO2A was a little smoother, with the iDSD having a bit tighter contours and more well defined edges. The GO2A Infinity and the iDSD BL both have good power and good matchability. The GO2A Infinity has three levels, 100mW, 450mW, and 1000mW into 16 Ohms. Potentially, the iDSD BL has more matchability than this with the various iEMatch settings. Both amps have about the same soundstage. The GO2A Infinity is tiny, but won’t have a chance in Hades of driving an HE-6 or AKG-K1000. The GO2A Infinity will do fine on most headphones on the market, and performs very well with my HD600 and the Noble Kaiser 10 Encore. For value, the GO2A Infinity is currently $349 (not including shipping/taxes/etc…, distributor network is poor), and the iDSD BL is available all over the place for $549 (£455, €599—dang, what happened to the Euro?). Another place that iFi wins is customer service. iFi are just better staffed and more responsive. They also have had a better business plan to date and a lot better relationship with the community—needless to say.
     
    As expected the iDSD BL sounds great when fed by the coaxial source. Amber Rubarth covering Tom Waits’ ‘Hold On’ is still one of my favourite acoustic tracks. Sessions From the 17th Ward should be in everybody’s collection. I don’t care if all you listen to is mainstream pop, metal and EDM, if you can’t feel this music and can’t get into the stellar musicianship, I just don’t know what to say.
     

    Conclusions

    Go get one. What the heck are you waiting for? There isn’t a so easily transportable DAC/Amp combo out there with the technical capabilities of the iDSD Black Label. It has a crisp, transparent, neutral presentation. It can power headphones from the most delicate flower sensitive custom IEMs all the way up to the man eating Bengal tigers of audiophilia: the HE-6 and other rare beasts. Beyond having power and finesse, it also plays any kind of music you throw at it natively—no signal degrading conversion. If you needed some dessert with this 15 course dinner, the XBass and 3D effect switches give it to you. Have all the pudding you like, I promise the enhanced treble and bass won’t screw up your appetite. It's a worthy $549 contender for your audio money.
      vapman, proedros, jazzfan and 9 others like this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. Haris Javed
      good review - I just ordered mine as well - however you might want to fix this 
           - Turbo delivers 8W, while normal delivers 4w, and Eco delivers 250mW into 16 Ohms - The 8, 4 numbers are volts, not Watts :wink: 
      Haris Javed, Dec 13, 2016
    3. glassmonkey
      @Haris Javed thanks for the kind words and gentle corrections. I've fixed the error now. Jeez, confusing watts and volts. Good thing I'm not an engineer... Yikes.
      glassmonkey, Dec 13, 2016
    4. Condocondor
      Just got mine today 12/16/16.  Guess what?.........it's aye......uh.....well.......a ******* masterpiece. 

      I also have the amazing new LH Labs Geekout 2A Infinity.  Taking nothing from the Geekout 2A Infinity but the iDSD BL bests it fairly handily by.... say 15% in nearly all respects.  Now, I've not let it burn in.  I've not played with any of the settings.  I've not listened to it with a bunch of different headphones--just the AKG 553 Pro.  I've not put the iDSD BL through it's paces etc. BUT.....................Almost immediately, I experienced a better (and more) believable sound staging.  The music has more body than the GO2A Infinity.  The iDSD BL just seems more effortless, focused, etc.  There is an ease about it's power....a solidity.  There is a connection to the music that is more emotional.  I nearly cried on a few tracks as I was greatly moved by what I was hearing.  Those femto clocks and other boutique parts are definitely doing their thing.  $549 is a bargain in my mind.  I have absolutely no regrets with this purchase.  I have a new best friend and cannot wait to add some of the other iFi power goodies to this thing.  Oh and that volume pot problem that manifests at less than 9 O'clock is a non-issue on my product.  My volume pot works perfectly below 9 O'clock.   I may have a Geekout 2A Infinity for sale......it's that good.  
      Condocondor, Dec 16, 2016