iFi audio nano iDSD Black Label

Average User Rating:
5/5,
  1. Grimbles
    5.0/5,
    "A small DAC/Amp that nails almost everything"
    Pros - Great sound, brilliant value for money
    Cons - Not pocket portable
    Quick Read Conclusion

    A superb sounding compact DAC/Amp that really packs a punch. Less suitable for pockets than some DAC/Amps, it is still a portable winner for me. Sound quality is fantastic, slightly warmer than purely neutral, with one of the best soundstages I have (in my admittedly limited experience) heard. Most of all, at £200 it is epic value for money, making it very easy to recommend. In fact, I recommend it so highly, I put my own money where my big mouth is and bought one.

    Introductions and General Bumf

    I was originally part of the tour for the iFi Audio nano iDSD Black Label ("Nano BL") but have actually purchased one for myself. Read into that what you will. For clarity, I am in no way associated with iFi and have received no inducement (other than the chance to use a Nano BL for a week) to write my review. I would like to thank Karina and the team at iFi for allowing me to take part in my first tour.

    Test Kit: I have tested the Nano BL with Shure SE215, SE425, Sennheiser HD600, Ultimate Ears UE900s and KEF M500 headphones/IEMs. Sources have been a Samsung Note 8 and Galaxy S8 (using both Hiby music and USB audio player pro), Dell E7270 running Windows 7 and 11" Macbook Air (2012 vintage). I also ran the line out through a Schiit Vali 2 to compare against the Modi 2.

    Preparation: I have given the Nano BL a shade over 50 hours of burn-in (unsure if I believe in burn in, but figured this should help for people who do) and I did not start any critical listening without giving it at least an hour to warm up (I think warm up of DACs does help, and have read a couple of papers on this, but given this is a "mobile" DAC I don’t think real world use will involve having had this thing plugged in for 24 hours before listening).

    Me as a listener: I am not a pro by any stretch of the imagination. I have always enjoyed my music, and my tastes are pretty broad. I go to live music ranging from rock and pop concerts to orchestra and opera. I would not describe myself as having a trained ear, but I am attentive and my ears are in pretty good nick for a 34 year old (my hearing cuts off around 17.5 kHz per my frequency generator).

    My tastes: neutral to warm, but I do like good punchy bass and I love to hear decent instrument separation.

    Test tracks: I've tried to keep it broad and I have cited my music sources below, so (where possible) people can download the tracks themselves.

    1) Wiz Kalifah – On My Level (320k MP3, Google Store)

    2) Norah Jones – Turn Me On (24/192 FLAC, Qobuz)

    3) John Williams – Throne Room from Star Wars performed by Prague Philharmonic Orchestra (16/44.1 FLAC, Qobuz)

    4) The Verve – The Drugs Don’t Work (16/44.1 self ripped FLAC)

    5) Ed Sheeran – Castle on the Hill (320k MP3, Google Store)

    6) Grieg – In the Hall of the Mountain King (from the Peer Gynt Suite) performed by the Zech National Symphony Orchestra (24/48, Musopen Kickstarter Project)

    7) Otis Redding – Dock of the Bay (24/192, HD Tracks)

    8) 30 Seconds to Mars – Stronger (Radio 1 Live Lounge Cover) (16/44.1, self-ripped FLAC)

    9) Pearl Jam – Yellow Ledbetter (320k MP3, Google Store)

    10) Rage Against the Machine – Wake Up (292k m4a, iTunes)

    So, on to the main event. [/General Bumf]

    Unboxing

    There are plenty of videos on youtube and some pictures below, so I won't bore on about this. Suffice to say, a good experience which felt suitably special. In the box, you get the Nano BL, a tactile "crushed velvet" (suspect not actually velvet) carry bag for it, a couple of silicon bands for attaching it to a phone, some cables and adaptors, a few (very basic) booklets and a little bag of silica gel.

    I've seen a few criticisms about the lack of an OTG cable and/or lack of a shorter cable. To be honest, I think iFi would struggle to win here – their user base is likely to be a mixture of iPhone (lightning) and android (usb-c or micro usb) so whatever they could include is not going to work for everyone (and at £200 I don’t think you can reasonably expect a full complement of cables). They're only a few quid after all, and I am sure iFi recognised that most of their target audience would either have one already, or could easily source one. I did not see this therefore as a massive omission.

    Unboxing 1.jpg Unboxing 2.jpg Unboxing 3.jpg Unboxing 4.jpg Unboxing 5.jpg

    Practicalities

    From the tip of the volume nob, the Nano BL is (by my approx. measurements) 9.5cm long, at its peak it stands 2.5cm high and is 6.5 cm wide. iFi tell us this is a portable unit, and that is broadly true, but there's portable and there's portable. Bolted to the back of a phone, this is not (in my opinion) practically "pocket portable" unless you are wearing a coat/clothes with very large pockets. I don’t really like attaching to my phone using rubber rings, so I don’t do this. For me, portability relates predominantly to my train commutes and for this it is perfect as I can set it on my table with my phone and drop it in my bag when not in use. It's reasonably light, and does not get particularly warm during use so I don’t see any bar to using the Nano BL on the bounce, other than general size.

    Battery life is claimed to be up to 10 hours by iFi on the packaging. My experience, with the volume at about 9 o'clock (off is c. 7 o'clock) I am seeing a shade over 7 hours. Also worth noting is that if the Nano BL runs out of battery life, you can continue to run it so long as the USB port can provide it with sufficient power. It won't charge the battery at the same time however. I think iFi have missed a trick here as being able to recharge on the fly whilst listening, would have been a great inclusion.

    I want to take a minute to talk about the USB implementation too. I have to say this is brilliant – the USB port is USB A male, meaning if you are using an OTG cable from a phone or android device (I suspect most people reading this review would do this) it simply plugs straight in. One note of caution though, watch your OTG cable as the one in the pic below fits perfectly, but I have a chunkier plastic one I had to shave with a Stanley knife to achieve a fit.

    USB Port.jpg

    I have seen a few comments on forums, complaining about non compatibility. Across my devices (listed above) I have had no problems with instant recognition of the Nano BL.

    *EDIT* a few people have noted on forums that their bag has a hole in the bottom which they consider a fault. Have a look here from about post #415 https://www.head-fi.org/threads/ifi...-participants-page-26-post-386.864211/page-28 i think it is meant to be there, for poking cables through when you are out and about. See below.

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    Finally, I'm not going to list out all of the functions available, stats etc. – you can see them here on iFi's website https://ifi-audio.com/portfolio-view/nano-idsd-bl/, or discussed excellently in @glassmonkey 's frankly brilliant review (I especially like what he had to say about MQA) https://www.head-fi.org/showcase/ifi-audio-nano-idsd-black-label.22770/reviews#review-19505 .

    The Sound

    I have decided to split my review into the increasingly standard format of highs, mids, lows and soundstage. I am also going to focus a little on separation, as it is something I enjoy hearing.

    Highs

    I'm yet to experience sparkling or fatiguing treble and so whilst I have read a lot about it I can't say I have a reference point for it. Of the Nano BL I cannot say the highs are not disproportionately pronounced or notable to my ears. I enjoyed clearly hearing the triangle and cymbals in Throne Room, distinguishable through the entire orchestra. This is particularly notable on the SE425s which, along with the M500s, have probably seen the most use with the Nano BL. Similarly, the crashing waves and whistling through Dock of the Bay are right where you want them to be – present and clear but in no way overpowering.

    Mids

    From the headphones and tracks listed above, you can probably tell I'm a sucker for mids. And the Nano BL does not disappoint. Its performance of Yellow Ledbetter almost left a tear in my eye, the guitar absolutely consuming, ringing clear with the Nano BL faithfully re-creating the interplay of an increasingly complex fall off against each new note; a sound interplay which is often lost on lesser sources, particularly straight from my smart phones. Norah's Turn Me On is delivered with all that wonderful richness, the Nano BL evidently talented with this sort of track, I think assisted by the fact that its silences are really, really silent (subject to the below), no buzz or machine noise at all – just sweet, sweet silence! Even Rage's Wake Up is served up competently, each riff distinguishable amongst the constant noise of the track.

    Lows

    Here, the Nano BL again shows itself to be a class act. With the HD600s and M500s, the rumbling bassline in On My Level is suitably huge, creating that real sense of big bass I think can be hard to recreate without a chunky subwoofer. Where it really shows itself to be ahead of the pack though is how it covers the same song with the SE425s – these IEMs are definitely lighter (albeit usually tighter) with bass, but with the Nano BL pushing, that Wiz Kalifah bassline is still the leading sound to the song, with the rest of the track following. Each note is delivered with impact and more tremor than I've heard the SE425s deliver elsewhere. I wonder if iFi have enhanced the bass a little with this DAC? Not so much it's unpleasant, but with my setup it is noticeable.

    Soundstage and Separation

    So whilst the tonality and musicality are definitely sweet, something I really noticed with the Nano BL is its pronounced soundstage and instrument separation. This is the first time I have listened to music from an in-ear source and have felt anything like the sense of size you get when sat in front of an actual orchestra. I don’t particularly experience height of sound, but I definitely perceive width very clearly, especially on the orchestral pieces. I would also say separation is the most exceptional I have yet heard. In the verve's Drugs Don’t Work, both guitars are very clearly there, in no way blending as they often do, especially direct from phone outputs. Similarly in 30 Seconds to Mars' Stronger cover from Radio 1's Live Lounge, not only is there width, with each layer of the track sounding like it is physically placed somewhere else, but as the track layers up every drum tick, cymbal, guitar note and synth sound is clearly distinguishable, with the vocals holding everything together. I've posted previously how I've been really disappointed with Ed Sheeran's divide album on good earphones, but particularly my 425s. The complex track building has sounded very muffled and confused, with an overall effect of clashing. The Nano BL managed to hold it together here, with the layers distinguishable but coherent and complimentary without clashing.

    A criticism (which is probably down to recordings rather than the device) is that the pronounced separation and width of soundstage can occasionally sound artificial. A couple of the Otis Redding tracks on the same album as Dock of the Bay end up with a sort of "half-half" effect where all the vocals are in the left ear and everything else in the right. This was distracting for me, and took away from the enjoyment of the track a little, but I only noticed it on a few, older tracks. Further, it can pick up the odd thing it isn’t meant to – the musopen kickstarter's high res files have a few noticeable turns of page, musicians shuffling etc. and you can hear each and every one in In the Hall of the Mountain King.

    Comparisons v. Schiit Stack

    As you'll see from the photos below, I had a bit of fun feeding the Nano BL's line out into my Vali 2 and listening to the Nano BL v. the Modi 2 Uber (and for the below, "Schiit Stack" means the Modi 2 Uber and Vali 2) to see if there was much difference just in the DACs. For the purposes of this test, I only used my HD600s. Now, let's be clear about this, the Schiit Stack reopened my music collection for me, delivering clarity and detail I had never heard before. It was a massive upgrade for me, and so, for a portable £200 unit, I am really pleased to say that, across the piece, I think these two are pretty close. The Nano BL is possibly a little tighter and more impactful with bass, and the Schiit Stack perhaps a little more "tingly" in the highs, but not much in it. Where there is a difference is in the width of soundstage, the Nano BL definitely wider, and with more pronounced separation. My preference depends on mood, and I can't honestly give a "better" opinion – not better, not worse, just different and equally enjoyable.

    Stacked.jpg

    Other thoughts

    iFi are making a lot of their "semi balanced" output. I started a thread here a while ago on unbalanced v balanced and know that it is an emotive issue for some and not a debate I am going to enter into (due to self-recognised ignorance on the topic). Technical implementation aside, and subject to the buzz point discussed below, silents are silent so for example, in In the Hall of the Mountain King, the almost silent start of the track, with very quiet plucking is not detracted form by any sort of buzz or hum. For clarity, I have not tested with a 3.5mm TRRS cable and so cannot comment on any difference between unbalanced v (sort of) balanced on this device.

    If I plug my IEMs into the direct output and crank the volume up there is a hiss. However this would be a listening level that would probably burst my head, so not a real world problem. This is not noticeable at low level/with non-IEMs/from the IE Match port.

    For all headphones I tested in both ports. The IE Match port doesn’t go loud enough to drive the HD600s at a pleasant listening volume for me, but the direct port definitely does. If I'm being very picky, I would say that the IE Match port sounds ever so slightly veiled compared to direct, particularly in the mids with guitars. But it's slight, barely noticeable, and wouldn’t stop me from using it for IEMs.

    Measure/Listen switch – switched this a few times and couldn’t discern a difference. All testing was done on Listen.

    Niggles and Solutions

    Early on I was experiencing a mixed amount of battery drain on both my S8 and Note 8. Intermittently, the Nano BL seemed to suck a big chunk of juice out of the phone, and then the phone goes back to operating normally. I couldn’t explain this initially, but have now realised that if you turn it off and leave it plugged into the phone (certainly on the S8 and Note 8) it will pull power and recharge itself, rinsing your phone!

    I also experienced a pronounced clicking and popping (not interference, just intermittent pops and clicks) for a while. I isolated this to one of the cables (in fact, the one I shaved down so it could fit the USB port), but I don’t get the same issue with this cable on other devices so perhaps a fit issue? In any event, it was the cable not the Nano BL but one to watch for.

    Conclusion

    All in all, the Nano BL delivers some of the best sound I have ever heard, standing shoulder to shoulder with my Schiit Stack. That it does this in a reasonably portable package is remarkable, but when it does that for £200 I find almost nothing to fault. This game is all about compromise and personal taste for me, as I will probably always be able to buy "better" than I have. The question I ask myself is, can I tell the difference, and if so, is it worth it? Hence, compromise. At this price point though, there is little or no compromise on sound and in fact I suspect a number of manufacturers making similarly priced and even more expensive devices are, correctly, a little worried. If the compromise for this product is that it is a little chunkier than would be absolutely ideal, it is one I am happy to live with – so much so, I have bought one with my own, hard earned dosh.
    zdrvr, Wildcatsare1 and glassmonkey like this.
  2. glassmonkey
    5.0/5,
    "Great genes in this DAC family, wallet happy price"
    Pros - Pros: Excellent transparent sound, small size, outstanding price, driving power for HD600, iEMatch built in, iPurifier built in, excellent 3.5mm line-out, two good filters, huge format compatibility
    Cons - Cons: Silk-screen writing is damn near impossible to read, doesn’t come with short OTG cable (one would be better than none), doesn’t come with USB3.0 adaptor so not compatible with new iFi USB cable releases, a slight softness in the midrange through headphone outs
    Acknowledgment
    I’d like to thank iFi for loaning me the Nano iDSD Black Label and a pre-production unit in return for my honest opinion. It was a lot of fun being one of the first folks to get their hands on a retail unit, though I wish I could have been at the launch event. I still haven’t tried Johnny Walker Black.

    This review was originally posted on my blog, and I'm now sharing with the wonderful community on Head-Fi. You folks rock.

    Introduction
    Anyone who’s been following me for a while knows that I’ve reviewed two full sheds of iFi gear. I might be the person with the most iFi reviews, I’m not sure. This one makes six after the following: iFi Micro iDSD Black Label (Micro iDSD BL), iPurifier2.0, iDAC2, iCAN SE, Micro iUSB3.0. I’ve also spent some time with the original iDSD and the original iCAN. I’ve been offered a couple more reviews, and will probably do some, time allowing.

    Up to now, the most ‘WOW!’ product I’ve heard from from iFi is the iDSD Micro BL. It was also the classiest and most decked out offering. It’s a desktop dynamo with a Swiss Army knife of audio features, but I have to emphasize that while it can be transported, it isn’t really what people think of as portable. For that, I’m now having a look at the brand spankin’ new iDSD Nano BL’s pocketable frame.

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    Usability: Form & Function
    Unboxing
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    I’ve unboxed a lot of iFi gear over the years, but this is the first piece of gear from iFi to actually surprise me. Anyone who has been following iFi for any length of time or bought any of their Micro or Nano series DACs or amps has received the same box, with quite often the same components and compartments inside. It’s a roughly 10” x 3.5” x 3” oblong rectangle—a sort of less streamlined coffin-box. In the past, it hasn’t mattered whether you were buying a Nano or Micro series, the only thing different on the top level was how big the cut-away in the foam insert was. Below the presented DAC or amp would be some mix of the following accessories, a red 3.5mm aux cable, a short purple set of RCA interconnects, some adaptors (most likely), rubber stacking bands (for your DAP/phone), and a blue USB cable (sometimes USB3.0).

    This time around we get a half-height box, which I very much like. The wasted space of previous Nano series boxes has been eschewed in favour of a more efficient DAC apartment. You’ve got your bed of foam on the left, and your closet box of white accessories on the right, all the cooking happens when the DAC gets out of bed. The box is still surrounded in a tight-fitting card sleeve, and still has the same silver iFi logo filigreed onto the top of the now slimmed down white heavy card box. Some things change, but others stay the same.

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    Aesthetics and Ergonomics

    The major ergonomics critique of the iFi Micro series is that calling them portable is a bit of a joke. They are portable like your laptop and less convenient to carry, as there just aren’t any bags that really work for iFi’s unique signature shape. I loved the iFi Micro iDSD Black Label, but it was about as transportable and ergonomic as a pet brick. Don’t throw your Black Label, it’s so much better than Father Jack’s brick. It’s a shape that grows on you. Love who your Micro be, iFi.



    That said, the Nano series is smaller, a little smaller than a minimum size deck of Magic the Gathering cards, with penny sleeves. Previous iterations of the iFi Nano series haven’t had any of the genetic make-up of the iDSD Micro Black Label in the looks and functionality department. Now that has changed. This isn’t your 2014 Nano iDSD. That version was silver, with big faceplates ridges on the front and back, whilst the new one has tapered edges to make it more pocket friendly. It doesn’t really feel like something you’d throw in your coat pocket due to the ergonomics. Those two RCA jacks sticking out the front and the coax coming off the back coupled with the aforementioned anodized aluminum ridges left lots of things to poke you from inside your jacket pocket.

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    From an ergonomics perspective the new Black Label is smoother, sleeker, with more attractive printing and a more durable frame. I say more durable for a different reason than one might think. It is made of the same aluminum, it has the same anodized finish (albeit in black), but it has some key differences. The iFi iDSD BL is rocking out with three 3.5mm jacks set flush and not directly by the volume knob. Making the 3.5mm jacks flush makes it so there isn’t anything to snag on, which is more pocket friendly. The placement of 3.5mm output right next to the volume knob didn’t just make the front of the original Nano iDSD a bit busy, it made it so turning the volume knob whilst listening to headphones would require navigating your headphone cable. An additional pocket friendly addition is switching from the USB B input of the original Nano iDSD to the USB A OTG input of the Micro iDSD series. The connection is very stable which reduces stress on the jack. All these smoothing factors add to reduced wear and friction on the case elements, and the more secure USB connection will minimise damage to the USB connection, meaning this is a daily driver that should hold up to a bit of rubbing, but I’d still not drop it or toss it around roughly.

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    Function
    The original iFi Nano iDSD was full of firsts (DXD and DSD256, super lightweight, 10 hour pure battery running) and was the best-selling DAC in Japan for a while, but it was for a different use case. That iDSD was about being a pint-sized capable home DAC with a lightweight amplifier that only output 130 mW into 16Ω. It had a digital out, and full-size RCA outputs to hook up to your home amplifier—great features, but not pocket friendly. The iFi Nano iDSD BL has some serious upgrades under the sleeker casing. Much like the Micro iDSD BL, this Nano iDSD BL has iEMatch built in and iPurifier built in. Like the Nano iDSD (original) the Nano iDSD BL runs on battery for 10 hours and throws down some DSD256 and DXD, but it also has MQA in-built now too.

    MQA
    Now, I’m not sure about this MQA thing (ars technical article that is well worth a read). Some have said it’s a sneaky backhanded route to a new form of DRM (record companies have to license equipment, consumers pay for special equipment, streaming services get charged for royalties, etc…). Whatever I might think about the likelihood that MQA gives me better than just streaming 24/96 FLAC directly or listening to real master quality PCM (Archimago’s Musings), MQA certainly didn’t sound bad. That said, I was listening through the XI Audio Formula S and a pair of HiFiMAN Susvara headphones with the Nano iDSD BL as the DAC to start. I listened to 2L recordings DXD tracks in both DXD and in the MQA down-coded versions. I don’t know if I would be able to tell the difference. Both sounded bloody excellent, but those are excellent recordings. Chicken/egg dilemma. Did the tracks sound excellent because the format captured the quality of the recording, or would any lossless format of CD quality or above capture the quality of the recording? I don’t know. I also took an auditory stroll through Tidal’s ‘Masters’ library. Beyonce’s Lemonade album sounded awesome—why did Adele 25 win best album? That decision makes no damn sense as Lemonade is a triumph from start to finish (though some parts had some hardcore derivations, like the transparent Eurythmics inspiration on Don’t Hurt Yourself) and 25 is Adele singing three good songs plus some filler.

    The difficult part of MQA listening is its hard to compare to actual redbook CD. I’ve always found that Tidal sounds a bit ‘enhanced.’ I’m convinced that there is DSP to make it sound a bit more vivid. Who’s to say this doesn’t also happen with MQA? Most of the albums that Tidal has MQA ‘Masters’ of, they also have standard ‘CD Quality’ versions. So I stepped right up and made a quick playlist of some stuff I’m familiar with:

    1. Nick Drake – Thoughts of Mary Jane
    2. Nick Drake – One of These Things First
    3. Counting Crows – Anna Begins
    4. Norah Jones – Shoot the Moon
    5. Beyoncé – Don’t Hurt Yourself
    6. Led Zeppelin – D’yer Mak’er
    7. The Supremes – Where Did Our Love Go
    8. Beck – Guess I’m Doing Fine
    With Thoughts of Mary Jane the volume levels between the tracks aren’t the same. I have similar experiences on Counting Crows – Anna Begins. The Masters versions seem a little more restrained, but they also have a touch more depth to the sound, but this additional depth sounds like it is all in front of the stage. The stage sounds moved, not factually deeper. Turning down the volume on the HiFi version of Norah Jones – Shoot the Moon gives a good approximation of the Master. I am noting a bit more texture in the bass on the Shoot the Moon Master version. It sounds a bit fuller with rounder attack and decay. I think there may actually be differences, but that some of it is difficult to judge due to volume effects. I observe similar improvement in the kick drum on Beyoncé – Don’t Hurt Yourself. Well it’s either confirmation bias, or a trend, the bass on the Master version of D’yer Mak’er is more textured and rich. Transients in the cymbals also take on a bit more weight. Overall the sound is just a little weightier and more textured. On The Supremes – Where Did Our Love Go the Masters version is the louder version. Unfortunately two Where Did Our Love Go tracks sound so different, I’m pretty sure they aren’t from the same master. I can’t do a real comparison. This may end up being a problem for anything that has a remaster. Provenance is important, but it may be even more important on MQA albums as essentially they are having multiple operations done on the material. On Guess I’m Doing Fine slide guitar and bass sound a bit richer with fuller note edges without sounding fat. The bass sustains just a little bit longer.

    So inconclusion (intentional), the results are inconclusive on MQA. With 2L songs off their test bench I couldn’t distinguish MQA from DXD Masters. On Tidal, MQA sounded generally a little quieter, but also sounded like the notes were a bit fuller and richer, especially in bass notes, which got some plus texture. I couldn’t discern any differences in sound stage. I didn’t do my tests blinded, but I also didn’t always know the order of tracks and was able to pick out the MQA track on a couple of occasions without having visual confirmation (D’yer Mak’er, Guess I’m Doing Fine), which could easily be random chance. Without repeated blind testing, the null hypothesis would be that I guess right 50% of the time. Two cherry-picked right guesses does not a strong observation make. How much do you trust my ears? How much do you trust your own? The next time I listened to D’yer Mak’er I guessed wrong. I also wasn’t consistent on Norah Jones – Shoot the Moon. I think I’d have to have perfect volume matching to have confidence in any comparisons over time.

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    One thing I can say for MQA, it doesn’t appear to make sound quality worse. Whether real or imagined, the sound seemed different, but it seemed generally better than the CD quality version on Tidal and not worse than the DXD when listening to 2L tracks (with a substantially smaller file size). I’ve done previous tests with DXD and lower bitrate formats and found that I generally preferred the DXD to everything else and couldn’t tell it apart from DSD128 and DSD256 on DSD mastered tracks. Generally, DXD is as close to the master as you can get. Top masters are in 32bit DXD (352kHz), commercial DXD just drops 8 bits on the word length.

    iEMatch
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    To test out iEMatch I whipped out my most sensitive IEMs, the Noble Kaiser Encore. When no music is playing there is low level hiss out of both the Direct and the iEMatch outputs, but the iEMatch output is virtually silent. The hiss on the iEMatch is way way down. Hiss is inaudible on either of them when any music is playing, including silent portions of music. The iEMatch comes with a sound signature toll. Because it raises output impedance (from under 1Ω to under 4Ω), it does exactly what you would expect it to do, it pushes up the bass a bit. The effect isn’t bad, but it definitely colours the sound.

    On the Micro iDSD I found that the main advantage of iEMatch was allowing greater use of the volume control with sensitive IEMs, and this is still the case here. On Direct, the Noble Kaiser Encore gets loud fast.

    Driving Power
    As previously highlighted, the Nano iDSD BL does just fine with sensitive IEMs, thank you very much. It also handled the RHA CL750 with aplomb. But what about the HD600, you say? What about those teasers on the twitterverse?

    The stats say it should be able to pull it off. I’ve previously done the HD600 driven well from a 280 mW into 32Ω source. That measurement just happens to be right about where this Nano iDSD BL sits (285 mW into 30Ω), so theoretically, it should do it.

    Is theory replicated in practice? Absolutely. Actually, I think it drives the HD600 better than it drives the RHA CL750. When comparing to the XI Audio Formula S (in balanced output) fed by the Nano iDSD BL driving the HD600 vs. the Nano iDSD BL in Direct drive mode, I get a little bit more depth on the Formula S, but the differences aren’t much. The iFi Nano iDSD BL gets out some serious performance. It will drive the HD600 to plenty of volume with plenty of dynamics.

    For laughs, I hooked up the HiFiMAN HE1000 v2 for a little try. The Nano iDSD BL gives enough volume, but it lacks the dynamic punch of the XI Audio Formula S and can’t match the imaging. Unsurprisingly, the HE1000 v2 needs more juice to thrive. You can play the HE1000 v2, but it’s wasted on the iFi Nano iDSD BL. It was, surprisingly, not a laugher.

    I also used the 3.5mm out to the XI Audio Formula S (review upcoming), and it provided a super clean output. The system is straight up transparent. I loved this combination with the HiFiMAN Susvara, and I also dug it with the Unique Melody ME1.

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    Audio quality
    You know what is really strange? I really don’t have much to say about the sound quality of the iFi Nano iDSD BL independent of comparisons. It is transparent. It has excellent resolution. It doesn’t output a coloured sound. It has an accurate, well-defined, reasonably sized soundstage. I think the key here for the BL is actually how it compares to other DAC/Amps and DAPs. I’ve got a few of those on hand. DAC comparisons used the following signal chain, designed to get the best out of a DAP (you may not get as good using these on your rig):

    Dell Inspiron 13 → Generic iFi USB3.0 cable → iFi Micro iUSB3.0 → LH Labs Lightspeed 2G split power and data usb cable → DAC/Amp (potentially with adaptor first)

    I used a Lindy USB3.0 B to A adaptor instead of the iFi one included in the packaging (one more thing to send back to iFi in perfect condition). Since iFi doesn’t produce their adaptors and they don’t appear to be audiophile grade, it doesn’t really matter which adaptor I use, so long as it isn’t junk. I’ve used the Lindy for a long time. It does the job.

    All comparisons were done using the Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered (for general timbre and DAC capabilities), the Sennheiser HD600 for driving power, and the Noble Kaiser Encore for hiss. Volume matching was performed using an SPL meter and a listening level of ~78.2 dB calibrated with white noise for comparisons using the UERR. I didn’t bother to volume match the Noble Kaiser Encore because the listening tests were for answering relatively simple yes/no question does it hiss during silence or during quiet music? For that question I just need to listen at a similar volume, not a precisely calibrated volume. For the HD600, my question was similarly simple to the Noble Kaiser Encore: can the player drive it? To know this, all I needed to do was check volume and listen for dynamics and spacialization. My listening level is 78.2dB, approximately, and I can usually get within 0.2-0.5dB by ear. I’ve had a goodly number of times where I set the volume on an IEM, measure it, and then discover that the SPL measurement is 78.2 dB with white noise. For all listening tests the Nano iDSD BL was on the ‘Measure’ filter.

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    I played the following tracks:

    1. Cyndee Peters – House of the Rising Sun (fantastic track from Opus3 records, DSD128)
    2. Hoff Ensemble – Blågutten (2L track with huge space, DXD, available for free)
    3. Wager-Åstrand - Fasten Seat Belts (another Opus3 track, DSD128)
    4. Pixies – Where is My Mind (24/88.2)
    5. Why? – Sod in the Seed (16/44.1)
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    iFi Nano iDSD BL vs. LH Labs GO2A Infinity
    From a features standpoint, the Nano iDSD BL has a number of advantages: it draws normal current off of a USB source (LH Labs Draws a bit extra), it has 10 hours of battery, and it has a true and excellent fixed line-out. The Nano iDSD doesn’t have a balanced output, but the balanced circuit inside it gives the same sonic benefits. The Nano iDSD BL is more matchable and doesn’t rely on external volume control.

    UERR
    The sense of space in both players is similar, with the GO2A Infinity having a slight advantage in height and width, but depth goes to the Nano. The GO2A Infinity has harder edges and more firm impact, but it can be sharp and unforgiving at times. The Nano iDSD BL is smoother and more forgiving, whilst the GO2A can be hard and sharp at times. The upper mids on the GO2A are sweeter, but can overheat at times. The iDSD doesn’t soar as much as the GO2A does on Where is My Mind, but it has more depth on Sod in the Seed and has an overall less exuberant sound. On Sod in the Seed, the high glockenspiel notes are a bit piercing on the GO2A, and more natural on the Nano iDSD BL. Treble is hiked up a bit, which is probably what creates some of the extra height in the GO2A sound, and more edgy impactful sound in the upper mids. The sound on the GO2A can become fatiguing with its exuberance, even if it is totally inspiring in a collection of moments. If the hard edges and exuberance irritate you even a little, the echo-chamber of your mind will get to you when the track playing back has what some would view as flaws. Some will find the exuberance inspiring and worthy of praise whilst others will be immediately turned off on the GO2A Infinity, the Nano iDSD BL doesn’t have these hard edges, it’s smooth. It is still detailed, but the treble isn’t enhanced, so no divisive screams.



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    Noble Kaiser Encore
    Out of both the Direct and iEMatch outputs, the Noble Kaiser Encore sounds as special as it should. Hiss is effectively controlled on both outputs, but there is some minor hiss during silence on the Direct output. You may not even hear it. If the Kaiser Encore is hooked up to the iEMatch output, it gets a bass boost. Maybe you want a bit extra midbass, maybe you don’t. When using the Kaiser Encore on the GO2A Infinity, even at the lowest gain, it hisses like an Indiana Jones nightmare.

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    HD600
    The HD600 is my stress test for portable players and the both of these players pass. The HD600 sounds full with all dynamics intact. Soundstage was not crushed and nothing sounded softened.

    iFi Nano iDSD BL vs. Questyle QP2R
    I know. This comparison is not really fair, right? The QP2R is more than 6x the price. As anyone who’s been around the block in audiophile-land more than once will tell you, the law of diminishing returns hits like crotch-punching circus dwarf. There are some features that the Nano iDSD BL has that the QP2R doesn’t: a fixed analog line-out, and iEMatch. Of course the QP2R also throws down some features that iFi doesn’t, mostly about being a DAP and not a portable DAC/Amp. They both rock 10 hour (tested) battery life and excellent sound.

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    UERR
    The UERR has brilliant spatial presentation on both the Nano iDSD BL, it’s a friggin’ monitor after all. However, the QP2R has greater depth, width and height as well as better layering. The soundstage has an effortlessness to the separation of the instruments on the QP2R. It’s really friggin’ brilliant. Tonally, the Nano iDSD BL is a bit soft in the midrange, whilst the QP2R is more impactful and sharper. On Where is My Mind, there is more soar, more space, more layering. The QP2R is just superior with the UERR. Listening to other tracks

    Noble Kaiser Encore
    The QP2R has hiss with the Kaiser Encore, more so on the balanced out. The hiss is lower and less obtrusive than that found on the GO2A Infinity when on single-ended output, but it is noticeable. I tried messing with some adaptors like the 75Ω impedance adaptor from DUNU or the UE Buffer Jack. The UE Buffer Jack reduces hiss by adjusting damping factor in favour of the IEM. It doesn’t cause frequency response modification like an impedance adaptor, but it does lower the hiss level, whilst not eliminating it completely in this case. The 75Ω adaptor eliminated the hiss, but messed up both the bass and the treble, making the treble thin and the bass flabby. The Nano iDSD BL is superior with the Noble Kaiser Encore. It has been my experience that none of Questyle’s gear plays well with multi-BA, sensitive IEMs. I’ve tried using the QP2R, the CMA600i and the CMA800R Golden Reference amps, and all have problems with the Noble Kaiser Encore. Questyle gear likes headphones and IEMs that have some impedance.

    HD600
    The Questyle QP2R likes the 300Ω Sennheiser HD600 headphones. The Questyle QP2R, on paper, shouldn’t drive the Sennheiser HD600, but current mode amplification is magic, and it somehow manages to drive it with space to spare on the settings dialled into high gain and high bias settings with the balanced output. I had to turn it up to 99 out of 120 on volume, which means plenty of overhead was still there.

    With regard to the sound characteristics of the two players, the QP2R has a clearer and more forward midrange with stronger edges. The iFi Nano iDSD BL has a smoother more soft feel, which makes it feel a little less resolute, but will have people really digging the ambiance once they settle in. Much like the Hidizs AP200 below, the Questyle QP2R has greater impact to it’s sound, but it never sounds like it is trying too hard or tipping the frequency response out of balance. The Questyle QP2R is delightful, and I prefer it’s sound to the iFi Nano iDSD BL. It is 6x the price, though, so on a value for money level the Nano iDSD Black Label wins easily.

    iFi Nano iDSD BL vs. Shanling M2s
    The iFi Nano iDSD BL and Shanling M2s might be considered direct comparators. Both do DSD256 and DXD. Both are small and capable. Both are useable with your phone (iFi via USB OTG, Shanling M2s via Bluetooth). Both can be used as external DACs with a computer. Both are under £200 with the iFi Nano iDSD Black Label coming in at £199 and the Shanling M2s dropping in at £189 (on Amazon.co.uk). The Shanling M2s has the best screen on any DAP I’ve been privileged enough to use. The Nano iDSD BL doesn’t have a screen, but does have iEMatch, a true fixed line-out and MQA.

    UERR
    The Shanling M2s has a softer midrange on the The Pixies – Where is My Mind and doesn’t soar with female vocals like the iFi Nano iDSD BL can in Where is My Mind. It lacks the amplitude. On Why? – Sod in the Seed the midrange is cleaner and clearer with better defined edges on Yoni Wolf’s slacker rap musings. Claps and woodblocks lack the impact and definition on the Shanling M2s. Bass on the Shanling M2s is a bit more present with a warmer overall sound. There is a bit of a gauziness to the Shanling M2s sound, a slight veiling. On the fast percussion of Fasten Seat Belts, the M2s just can’t keep up with the track in the way that the Nano iDSD Black Label does. The Black Label has excellent speed and precision. The Shanling M2s just sounds slower. Listening with the iFi Nano iDSD BL on Cyndee Peters – House of the Rising Sun, it’s like a morning mist has been pierced by the rising sun and forced to retreat back into the wooded hollows from whence it crept. The background is black and clear. Excellent. The Shanling M2s, whilst good doesn’t have the kind of clarity and resolution that the iFi Nano iDSD Black Label can muster.

    Noble Kaiser Encore
    There is a slight elevation in the bass on the Shanling M2s because of the output impedance. Some will like this ‘enhancement.’ The added bass is still nice, but this is not neutral playback. The Noble Kaiser Encore does not hiss on the M2s.

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    HD600
    The Shanling M2s can play loud enough with the HD600 only if you max out the volume meter. This player will do in a pinch, but really shouldn’t be used for the HD600. Dynamics are crushed a bit and the soundstage gets a little smaller, but the overall sound is still good.

    iFi Nano iDSD BL vs. Hidizs AP200
    Interestingly both the Hidizs AP200 ($299 suggested for aluminum 32GB) and the iFi Nano iDSD BL ($199) have balanced amplification inside with a single ended output. The Hidizs is more expensive, but you do get yourself a full-on touch screen DAP with full Android, Play Store, and friggin’ killer sound. In practice the iDSD gets better battery life. I’ve been averaging around 7-8 hours on the Hidizs AP200.

    UERR
    On Where is My Mind, the Hidizs soars a little more and has a little more impact. It is a very punchy player without having the sharpened treble claws of the LH Labs GO2A Infinity. Image size and clarity are pretty similar between the Nano iDSD BL and the Hidizs.

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    If I had to give any edges, it would be that the Hidizs AP200 has a little bit more height and the iFi Nano iDSD BL has a little more width. Depth is even, as far as I can tell. Tonally the Hidizs AP200 is a little more bright. What listeners prefer will really come down to tonal preference. Overall presentation is a little more energetic on the AP200 than the iFi iDSD Nano Black Label. Again, whether you want a more relaxed sound like the iFi or a punchy stand up and get noticed sound like the Hidizs will come down to listening preference. Personally, I’d be happy to have both options. Sometimes you want more relaxing, sometimes you want energy. Are you feeling laconic today?

    Noble Kaiser Encore
    There is a very soft hiss with the Hidizs AP200 that becomes inaudible in most music. Listening to Cyndee Peters do House of the Rising Sun with the UERR there is no hiss on the track, it’s clean as a surgical theatre. When switching to the Kaiser Encore, there is hiss on the track but it is light and may actually be the IEMs being more sensitive to the noise of the tape. The Cyndee Peters recording is a tape transfer direct to DSD, so it is possible that the Kaiser Encore could be picking up non-musical information from the recording method. The impedance output of the Hidizs didn’t cause any perceptible bass elevation, which is a pro in my book. Performance compared to the Nano iDSD in Direct mode is pretty similar, with slightly more hiss on the AP200.

    HD600
    Much like the Shanling M2s, it takes everything the Hidizs AP200 has to get to a good volume level on the HD600 (97 of 100). In this case, I think it sounds a bit better than the M2s. The soundstage has significantly less width and depth than the Nano iDSD BL, and the Nano iDSD BL clearly outplays on clarity, separation and driving power. It also handles the speedy percussion of Fasten Seat Belts with outstanding resolution that the Hidizs AP200 does not match. The Hidizs AP200 gives good tone, generally, but the technical capabilities of the Nano iDSD BL are superior. At times the Hidizs struggles and distorts on some low bass notes, whereas the iFi Nano iDSD BL withstands the assault of low bass notes without distortion. The Hidizs does have a bit more focus and slam in the mids, which could be due to slightly elevated upper mids compared to the Nano iDSD BL. Punchy like the talented Mr. McGregor.

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    iFi Nano iDSD BL vs. Aune M1s
    The Aune M1s is quite simply one of my favourite DAPs to work with. It doesn’t change the sound of any IEMs I play with it. It stays out of the way, maintaining the most consistently neutral presentation of any of the DAPs in my stable (more than a few). It’s a simple beast, and it doesn’t have a ton of power for output or a ton of features. It doesn’t have a fixed line-out. It will not play the HD600. It does have balanced output. It also doesn’t mess with the sound of the Noble Kaiser Encore at all. I’ve spent a lot of time previously talking about the Aune M1s, so you can check out it’s review.

    UERR
    Listening to House of the Rising Sun, there is more width to the stage on the Nano iDSD BL than on the Aune M1s. Both keep a nice tone, but the Nano iDSD BL has a bit sweeter treble when the bells and cymbals come in, with a bit fuller presentation.

    Noble Kaiser Encore
    The M1s is perfectly clear with the Noble Kaiser Encore. It is a beautiful pairing that lets the Encore shine. There is no hiss, and the bass isn’t elevated due to impedance mismatches.

    HD600
    Can’t do it. Sound is drained and feeble. Frequency response isn’t accurate either.

    Specifications
    General Specifications
    Price: £199 ($199)
    DAC: Burr Brown
    Formats Supported: DSD64-DSD256, DXD384/352.8kHz, PCM 44.1-384, MQA 88.2/96/176.4/192kHz filters
    Filters: Listen (transient optimised minimum phase filter), Measure (frequency response optimised filter)
    Inputs: USB Type A “OTG” socket with built in iPurifier® technology
    Battery Life: ~10 hours (tested)
    Dimensions: 96 x 64 x 25.5mm
    Weight: 139g (0.31 lbs)
    Warranty: 12 months

    Headphone Amplifier
    Outputs: Dual Mono 2 x 285mW Direct Drive, coupling capacitor free circuit, 2 x 3.5mm outputs: 1 Direct and 1 iFi iEMatch integrated (for sensitive IEMs)
    Max Output Level (<10% THD): >3.5V @ 600Ω load (Direct; 20mW into 600Ω), >2.9v @ 30Ω load (Direct; 285mW into 30Ω), >1.7V @ 15Ω load (Direct; 200mW into 15Ω)
    Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise: < 0.005% @125mW/30R
    Dynamic Range (DNR): >109db (A-weighted) @ 3V (Direct), >107db (A-weighted) @ 0.5V (iEMatch®)
    Output Impedance: ≤ 1Ω (Direct), ≤ 4Ω (iEMatch)
    Channel Separation: > 79dB @ 600Ω load (Direct), > 79dB @ 15Ω load (Direct)
    Volume Control: Analog 2-track Potentiometer with power switch, < 2dB tracking error – 40dB…0dB attenuation

    Line Output

    Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise: < 0.004%
    Dynamic Range (DNR): >109db (A-weighted)
    Output Voltage: 2.15V (±0.05V)
    Output Impedance: < 240Ω
    Channel Separation: > 99dB @ 1kHz
    Jitter (correlated): Below set test limit

    Conclusions

    If you are looking for an upgrade to your two channel living room setup from something more basic, and potentially from something considerably more advanced—as a straight-up DAC the iFi Nano iDSD Black Label was superior to my Questyle CMA600i in the same signal chain (playing into the XI Audio Formula S feeding HiFiMAN Susvara); or you are looking for something that drives a wide variety of headphones with no problem, or maybe you are staring into the abyss of format wars like the potential impending ascendancy of the newest format darling (MQA), then you may want to check out the iFi Nano iDSD BL. The Nano iDSD BL drives headphones from the Noble Kaiser Encore (very minimal hiss that disappears with music) all the way up to the Sennheiser HD600 without distortion through the Direct port. In the case of the Noble Kaiser Encore, I did notice a little tonal change on the iEMatch port, that change was pretty similar to what I experience when listening to the Kaiser Encore out of the Shanling M2s, both sound good with the Kaiser Encore.

    If I had to cite any weaknesses, it would be that sometimes the midrange can sound a little meeker than I expect. Some will find this of benefit, and I find it to be a very minor detractor that varies in infinitesimally small effects with the changing of my mood. This softening of the midrange is specific to the headphone amplifier component as the line-out maintains firm tone through the midrange when feeding the XI Audio Formula S.

    You’d be hard-pressed to find a DAC/Amp combo at £199 ($199) with more features and better sound. Just as the iFi Micro iDSD Black Label was unfair to it’s competitors, the Nano iDSD Black Label should make some DAPs in the £200 range nervous. It’s got better sound quality than the all of my under $200 DAP stable, and kicks out sound on par to significantly better than some more expensive DAPs that I have or have played with.

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