iFi audio nano iDSD Black Label

Rating:
4.33333/5,
  1. glassmonkey
    Great genes in this DAC family, wallet happy price
    Written by glassmonkey
    Published Nov 29, 2017
    5.0/5,
    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.

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]
  2. emptymt
    Powerful, Flexible, Musical little DAC/AMP
    Written by emptymt
    Published Feb 1, 2018
    4.5/5,
    Pros - Musical and Enjoyable, Well-priced, Well-built, Macro detail is good, clean output, Powerful, Flexible, extra features do works, good accessories, good packaging.
    Cons - Micro detail can be better, can rarely sound a little artificial, no OTG cable, the carrying pouch is a dust magnet.
    Disclaimer
    Hi everyone, Before I start the review, I would like to thank Ifi for making this DAC/AMP.
    This review is made by myself based on my observation and listening pleasure of The DAC/AMP on various gear that I have regardless of price points.

    I have no affiliation to Ifi in any way and everything said here is based on my experience over a week.
    The pricing in Australia is 299.95 AUD , so the review will be made using that as the value.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Gear Used
    - Meze 99 Classic
    - Focal Utopia
    - Shozy Stardust
    - Fiio X7 II
    - Violectric HPA v281

    Artist, Music that I used in the review:
    - Porcupine Tree
    - Be'lakor
    - Opeth
    - Shadow Gallery
    - Cynic

    PACKAGING
    Simple white box, containing the unit and another white box inside containing USB cable and rubber bands for stacking, you will also find some documentation in there, simple and clean packaging.
    1.jpg

    ACCESSORIES

    - Black carrying pouch
    - USB adaptor (USB to USB-A)
    - Blue USB cable for digital input
    - 2 amp straps for "stacking"
    2.jpg

    Missing:
    OTG cable at least for Android, using USB C (Apple one is using lightning and not usable for pc, so this one is ok to miss, but USB-C is now standard, include this please..)

    I/O
    - 3.5mm headphone out
    - 3.5mm headphone IEMatch out
    - 3.5mm Lineout
    - USB In
    3.jpg 4.jpg
    5.jpg

    Extra Features:
    - IEMatch, according to Ifi site:
    Use the iEMatch® when the headphones/in-ear monitor (IEM) is either too loud and/or there is excessive hiss from the music source. From Smartphones to airplane in-flight entertainment systems, powerful headphone amplifiers, the iEMatch® improves musical enjoyment by:
    1. Background noise – significantly reduced
    2. Dynamic range – more open, transparent
    3. Volume control – increased usable range
    - Filter for measuring and music listening (Don't really care bout this TBH, i didn't even try it)
    - MQA
    - DSD playback (Most of my tracks are PCM, so I didn't test this)

    Battery Life
    8 -10 hours depending on loads

    Build Quality
    Excellent! Metal chassis with textured finish that is screwed together nicely, with rubber feet at the bottom to prevent sliding, nice analog volume pot with very good resistance that doubles as on/off swith, led indicator lights, light unit but not overly so, it does not slides around too much.

    Sound Quality
    Sound Signature

    Very slight V-shaped with boosted bass with tiny bloom, Mids is not forward and slightly laid back, very tiny emphasis and forward sounding upper-mid/lower treble for guitars with good body, upper treble like cymbals is slightly laid back and not too sparkly.

    This is not a neutral type signature, but very enjoyable to listen to for a long time without fatigue, is not too distracting as the treble is not harsh and, perfect for work or when you just want to relax.

    Bass
    The Bass is not the tightest bass I've ever heard but it has good dynamic and attack, so it doesn't soft or cushion-y and is not boomy. Other than that there is a slight bloom on it so bass kicks sounds thicker and meaty.

    Due to this the perceive speed on a very speedy beats like "blast-beats" drum kicks in metal music is not the fastest or most distinct I've ever heard, as the distinction between each hits is not apparent as compared other gears I've owned, but I've heard worse and despite this the speed is good.

    Bass extension is quite good but I wouldn't say that this is the bass best assets, however you don't have to work hard to notice it, it is presented in a tasteful way that makes music enjoyable especially in tracks that is mastered with weaker bass.

    Bass Guitar sounds sweet with tasteful thickness that does not overwhelm the music and just shines where it needs to be.

    Mids
    The Mids is not as forward as the bass, resulting in a slightly laid back presentation, It is smooth and has excellent macro detail but micro detail such as taking breadth, lip smack and raspiness is not very apparent, vocal decay is also decent with the voice fading away that can still be heard when other parts of the music takes over, especially at the start of the decay, however as the decay goes to the end it is covered by other sounds, so the separation has some weakness in this department.

    The presentation is on the smoother sides, when hearing harsh vocals from extreme metal bands, it is not harsh at all, however the edge of the voice is there but could be better, as those bites also adds to the experience of the music, but too much exposure of these bites when not handled properly can be fatigueing.
    The good thing here is that the Ifi is always smooth and I will happily lose out on some of those bites for a fatigue free experience.

    Moving on to the guitars, the guitars are forward sounding, this is really good on a guitar solo, It will get your attention and you will feel good about it if you like guitars like I do. So the presentation is very enjoyable, at least for me, how about the technicalities? It is also good, but again not the best I've heard. The guitar sounds melodic and sweet, but it's losing alittle bit of that rawness that you usally associate with electrric guitars on metal music, the bites is missing a little bit, my point is it is there but I want more of it to be exposed, we want to hear all those details because we love it.

    Treble
    The treble is slightly boosted and forward on the lower treble but laid back on upper treble.

    Guitars that has high notes still carry the same characteristics as I describe earlier, however when we move up to other percussion instruments like cymbal hits, it is laid back and sit in the background, it is not roll off in any way, it just that the other frequencies sounds more dominant so when the music gets busy, it is more difficult to hear this frequency, you will definitely need to concentrate.

    Technicalities is decent, due to the sound signature, upper treble details and extension is difficult to notice, although it is there but I would say that the decay is difficult to appreciate is the other frequencies all sound louder and this decay got buried in it.

    On Lower Treble/Upper mid, it has good body and it is smooth and sweet sounding with some bites of those distortion from the electric guitars shining through taking center stage, the details is appreciable with good body so that it does not sound thin.

    Sound-stage
    It has more width than depth and height, so it is more oval on the horizontal axis, left/right channel separation is good with instruments taking its own place without being congested.

    The depth is decent, you can tell there is some difference on how the sound is coming to you depending on the position, vocals close and center, guitar forward sounding either from left or right, drums from the back either from left or right.

    IEMatch
    Does it work? I think it does, It is not easy to spot the difference since IEMatch will give less volume compared to it's normal output, The Meze 99 classic (32 ohm, which technically shouldn't be affected) plays fine from both out put, but I want to find out if Ifi's claim about IEMatch is true or not.

    In order to test this, I switch back and forth using the same song, but the problem is when switching, I have to adjust the volume knob to get the same volume before I can start concentrating again to feel if there are any difference.

    Both output are clean and performs well without any problems, but ever so slightly, I feel that the IEmatch output possibly due to lower noise floor, sounds more vivid and also seems more dynamic, although the difference is really hard to hear and could be placebo effect in my brain, but this is what I think I heard.

    Comparisons
    Fiio X7 II

    The Fiio although still has slight bass emphasis, is much more balance signature wise, to be honest the X7 II sound signature is the type of sound signature that is ideal for my preference, I usually like neutral sound signature with slight bass emphasis, this is because it is easier to appreciate details across the frequency bands as all the frequencies more or less has the same emphasis. This makes X7 II easier to pair with a lot of other amps and headphones without over emphasizing anything when interacting with the sound signatures of other gears.

    The Ifi seems to be designed as an all in one DAC/AMP solution, judging from the price points, I can see the market target of this product will probably not experiment too much on amp and headphone pairings, therefore there is less chance of bad synergy.

    On this approach I think the Nano totally knock the implementation out of the park, it is not shy of going straight to the point with their sound signature to which they see fit for their audience.

    The Fiio X7 II exposed details more and has better balance, but depending on your preference you may like the Ifi more, it is more musical especially for most people who likes some elevation on the bass with fun enjoyable sound signature with clean clear sound.
    But the X7 II has the added benefits of a standalone unit, no need for stacking, this is a huge plus for me..
    Hmmm, this makes me wonder if Ifi is interested in making DAPs in the future..??

    I believe the X7 is more well match if compared to the micro iDSD Black Label, hopefully I will get a chance to compare those soon.

    Power output/ Headphone pairing
    It is quite strong for such a little unit, it powers my Meze 99 classic perfectly and the synergy is awesome, very enjoyable when working in the office.
    6.jpg

    The Utopia also sounds quite good on this and it plays music just fine, nothing sounds weird and just plays music well. The sound signature pairs well with the utopia, however it does not unleash the full potential of the headphone.
    7.jpg

    The shozy stardust also plays well on it, this is where the IEMatch comes to play, I have a good amount of volume pot wiggle room, it sounds nice and clean without any hiss and it's very enjoyable to listen too.
    9.jpg

    As DAC to V281
    When used with my V281, along with my focal Utopia, it becomes apparent that the technicalities doesn't expose the details that I usually find in my usual v281 combo, it is also less natural sounding, however, the bass presentation combos well with my Utopia and adds some of those bottom end that some people want and the treble is pulled back a bit but not as laid back as when using the ifi by itself, I personally think that the Utopia is not bass light, but for those who think so, this can work, although I would suggest looking for higher end DACs if you are on this level to get all those details.

    With that aside, all the details extracted by the DAC in Ifi Nano is presented beautifully, with superior layering (like on another level layering), I heard way more details easily that I have never noticed before as compared to using the Ifi alone, I have to say that the DAC although not the most technical in bringing Micro details, but it makes up for it with its presentation of macro detail and enjoyable tonality, at least in my set up.

    This combined with The Focal Utopia which pretty much exposed everything without any harshness, gives great results that I wan't expecting from a DAC on this price range, well done Ifi!
    8.jpg

    Conclusions
    The Ifi Nano iDSD BL is a good introduction for the iFi product, for the price I couldn't recommend this product more! It performs better than the price can suggest despite some weaknesses, very flexible power output and an enjoyable sound signature that is fatigue free.

    It has excellent build quality and acceptable use case, with a good amount of accessories out of the box.
    The only main negative for me is that OTG cable is not included, most people who buys this usually wants to use it with their mobile device.

    The pricing is good too, and I think is quite affordable for many people.
      Deftone, SV_huMMer, calbu and 4 others like this.
    1. Deftone
      Good review mate nice to see more appreciation for metal.
      Deftone, Feb 19, 2018 at 1:05 AM
      emptymt likes this.
    2. emptymt
      Thx mate, metal is my favorite music! I hope this helps other metal lovers out there.
      emptymt, Feb 20, 2018 at 11:37 PM
      Deftone likes this.
  3. crabdog
    Bring your phone or laptop to life
    Written by crabdog
    Published Dec 27, 2017
    4.5/5,
    Pros - Build quality
    Compatibility with iEMatch
    Rich, detailed sound
    Cons - Volume knob could use more resistance
    DSC_0670[1].jpg

    For a lot of people the DAP acronym likely means nothing or very little. Those people are probably content to use their smartphones as a daily driver to fulfill the task of a music player. And why not? Today's modern smartphones generally have a large screen with excellent visibility, a responsive user interface plus there are a multitude of third party music apps and streaming services available. However phones don't usually deliver the best quality audio and it's for that reason things like the iFi Audio Nano iDSD Black Label exist. Landing at a price of $200 this little, portable DAC boasts an impressive feature set at a competitive price. Let's take a closer look.

    Dislcaimer: This sample was provided for the purpose of an honest review. I am not affiliated with the company and all observations and opinions here are my own, based on my experience with the product. Check out the official page for more info and full specifications.

    Packaging and accessories

    Things start off with a fairly compact, white box enclosed in a cardboard sheath. The box is adorned with an image of the device on the front along with some text outlining key features. Over on the back is a more comprehensive list of features and specifications.

    After opening the box you see the device nestled in a foam cutout. Under the foam are the accessories which include 2x silicone bands, 1x USB cable, a fabric carry pouch and a couple of adapters. Like some others, I am a little puzzled about the lack of any OTG or lightning cable considering one of the device's main selling points is being able to connect it to your smartphone. You do however have everything you need to connect to a computer out of the box.

    DSC_0488.jpg DSC_0492.jpg DSC_0498.jpg DSC_0528.jpg

    Build quality and functionality

    The iFi Audio Nano iDSD Black Label portable DAC is roughly the size of a deck of playing cards or for those familiar, a Chord Mojo. Therefore it's a good size for attaching to a smartphone (although a bit bulky for pockets) and very diminutive if situated on your desktop.

    The brushed metal chassis looks and feels nice and durable. The top of the chassis is bare apart from the ifi branding. On the bottom side there are four small silicone feet to hold it in place on a surface and prevent scratching if strapped to a smartphone.

    DSC_0538.jpg DSC_0639[1].jpg

    On the front end are (from left to right): 3.5mm iEMatch headphone jack, 3.5mm Direct headphone jack, LED indicator and Power switch/volume knob. The purpose of the iEMatch jack is for pairing with sensitive in ear monitors and I found it to work well, allowing for better volume control and with no audible hiss.

    I do have one gripe with the volume knob and that is the low resistance that it has. Considering this is meant to be a portable device the volume knob is a little too easy to turn and it's near impossible to put into your pocket without moving it. This can result in either getting a deafening blast of music or having sound reduced to near nothing or even switching the device off accidentally. I feel that a recessed knob would have been more appropriate here, or at least one with greater resistance, although it does work well on the desktop.

    DSC_0637[1].jpg

    At the back end are (from left to right): 3.5mm Line Out, Measure/Listen filter switch and the USB digital input. With the filter set to "Measure" the output signal is more neutral and uncolored, great for those recording frequency response or the analytical fans. In "Listen" mode the sound is a little fuller and more enjoyable to my ears. During my testing I left the filter on the "Listen" mode.

    DSC_0634[1].jpg

    I had read that some people were not able to successfully connect the Nano BL to their smartphones. For me however, I plugged into my Samsung Galaxy Note 5 with the OTG cable (which I had to go out and purchase separately...) and it was good to go. It certainly was noticeably better than my phone's DAC and needless to say a much higher output power than provided by my phone as well.

    Sound

    Gear used for testing
    • PC/MusicBee > USB to USB
    • Samsung Galaxy Note 5 > OTG
    • Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro (250 ohm)
    • Meze 99 Classics
    • Acoustic Research AR-H1
    • Inearz Audio Fusion
    • DUNU DK-3001
    The Nano Black Label performs extremely well for a portable device. Although the soundstage is about average it does have great detail retrieval. Its sound is mostly transparent with good extension at both ends. The Nano Black Label converts your musical data and forwards it onto your listening medium and lets the latter paint its own image, which is just the way it should be IMO.

    DSC_0646[1].jpg

    DT990 Pro
    iFi claims that this little guy can drive almost any headphone. While it was able to do so with everything I tested with, I found on some tracks I was pushing the volume almost to maximum with the Beyerdynamic DT990. That's a 250 ohm headphone so I'm not entirely convinced that this DAC would be sufficient for something 300 ohm and upwards. Having said that though the DT990 Pro sounded to be performing at its best with good dynamic range and full-bodied bass.

    AR-H1
    With the Acoustic Research AR-H1 there's definitely more than enough grunt on tap to make these sing. Listening to Bach's Six Concertos by Trevor Pinnock and the European Brandenburg Ensemble was a treat with this pairing, the imaging and soundstage were very immersive and immensely enjoyable.

    Meze 99 classics
    iFi Audio's Nano BL wakes the bass dragon in these headphones. But it's not a bad thing. It's like you know that there's too much bass but you love it anyway and can't stop listening and tapping your feet. When you get that basshead urge and want your skull shaken the 99 Classics will happily oblige and the Nano is more than happy to provide the juice.

    Inearz Audio Fusion
    This is one of, if not the best pairing I've heard for the Fusion so far. Using the iEMatch jack on the Nano BL the Fusion's bass seems to tighten up, making it a little less boomy but maintaining its impressive impact. Separation is excellent with sounds coming from a deep, black space. There's not a hint of hiss or background noise and detail is really good. In fact I'm enjoying this combination so much right now I want to keep listening instead of moving on to the next earphone!

    DUNU DK-3001
    Still one of my all time favorite IEMs, the DUNU DK-3001 falls right into my personal preference when it comes to sound signatures. The 13mm dynamic driver provides a powerful, punchy bass while the balanced armatures deliver clear mids and crisp treble. The Nano Black Label portable DAC again presents the music with great separation, detail and tonality and lets the transducers work their magic.

    DSC_0638[1].jpg

    Conclusion

    iFi Audio has a very solid reputation among Head-Fiers and now that I've (belatedly) seen and heard what they can do I totally get it.

    The Nano iDSD Black Label is a fantastic little unit. I love the aesthetic, the build quality, features and of course the sound. The only thing that doesn't sit well with me is the resistance of the volume knob, as I mentioned before. Everything apart from that makes this a very appealing device. With its reasonable price this is definitely something I can recommend for anyone looking for a portable DAC to pair with their phone or computer.

    *This review was originally posted on my blog at Prime Audio. Hop on over to see more like this.
      Grimbles, dadracer2, trellus and 3 others like this.
  4. Grimbles
    A small DAC/Amp that nails almost everything
    Written by Grimbles
    Published Dec 1, 2017
    5.0/5,
    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.

    20171202_190441.jpg 20171202_190407.jpg

    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.
      SV_huMMer, KaiFi, arvinm21 and 3 others like this.
    1. KaiFi
      I've noticed the "artificial" sound of the soundstage too. It's not a major negative or anything, but on some orchestral tracks it seemed like everything was coming out of the left channel (and the Schiit stack, which I have too, sounded more balanced). Overall I think it's a great sound though.
      KaiFi, Jan 26, 2018
      Grimbles likes this.
    2. Grimbles
      Thanks @KaiFi pleased to hear you like the Nano BL too! Its a funny thing that soundstage - generally i think it sounds fabulous but the odd track (and agree i hear on some orchestral tracks) it's more emphasised than with other units. Anecdotally i think it is predomanantly with older recordings (presumably containg less sophisticated stereo data). I havent checked this scientifcally, but does this match your experience?
      Grimbles, Jan 27, 2018
  5. betula
    Best sound on a budget: iFi iDSD Nano BL
    Written by betula
    Published Dec 19, 2017
    4.0/5,
    Pros - good value for money, warm and well-balanced sound, small enough for portable use
    Cons - bulky USB-A connection to portable devices, some initial hiccups when connecting to android phones
    After participating in the iFi iDSD Micro BL tour earlier this year, iFi gave me another opportunity to test their new iDSD Nano BL this time. The UK based company sent me a brand new Nano BL for a week in exchange for my honest opinion. Thank you once again!

    [​IMG]

    After I had tested the iDSD Micro BL and compared it to my Chord Mojo (which I own since its release), I was lucky enough to own a Micro BL for a longer period. Knowing these two great quality portable DAC/amps pretty well, I was very excited to see what iFi has to offer for £200 which is more or less half the price of the two aforementioned devices.

    In my opinion, the Nano BL will definitely stir up the portable DAC/amp market in the £200 segment, I have no doubt about that.
    I also prefer the Nano’s sound to some slightly higher priced competition (Oppo HA2SE), but to my experience the picture still changes around £400 pretty drastically. The Micro BL and Mojo still rule the portable DAC/amp scene with all rights, but if someone can’t afford to spend £400 on a digital to analogue converter, it is not easy to recommend anything else for £200 than the Nano BL.

    [​IMG]

    Package, accessories, built quality

    The Nano BL comes in a nice box, which is half the size of the Micro BL’s box, just like the device itself. We still receive a nice selection of accessories, however one potentially useful cable is missing and that is the USB-A female to USB micro B/USB C which you could use to connect the Nano BL to mobile phones or DAPs. As the Nano has a truly portable size (unlike its bigger brother the Micro BL), not including this cable is a poor choice in my opinion. We do have a USB 2.0 cable though and an adapter as well which I think most customers would happily exchange for a Micro B or C cable.

    [​IMG]

    I mentioned this in my iDSD Micro BL review as well, so I am not going into details again but I am still not sure why iFi is using USB A female port on its portable DACs, when you can see USB B ports on all the similar devices.
    The Nano BL otherwise has the same very good build quality like its bigger brother, the Nano is just much smaller and lighter. Mojo is still slightly smaller than the Nano BL and does not have a volume knob sticking out which can easily turn if it touches something in your bag for instance.

    [​IMG]

    Even though the Nano BL has a truly portable size, there are sleeker and smaller competitors. The Nano BL however offers a better sound than any DAP or portable DAC I heard so far in the £200-250 price segment.

    The iDSD Micro BL is amazingly versatile, and you pay for this versatility as well as for its great sound quality. In case of the Nano BL, sound purists get a better deal for their money as on the one hand it is less versatile but on the other hand it also means your money is going towards sound quality only. This is the priority for many of us.

    [​IMG]

    Two burning questions

    Before I go into details regarding the Nano BL’s sound quality, I would like to answer two questions that probably many of the readers have.

    1,
    How much do I get for £200 from the iDSD Micro’s performance?
    It would be pretty pointless to suggest a number what percentage of the Micro BL’s sound quality the Nano BL possesses. iFi are obviously not stupid to give you the same or even almost the same sound quality for less than half the price of the Micro BL. Although the Micro’s higher price is partly due to its versatility and exceptional output power, it still sounds much better than the Nano in every respect. However I also think that 60% of the people who don’t need the Micro’s versatility and power, will be just as happy with the Nano’s sound quality. It is exceptionally good for £200.

    [​IMG]

    2, Does the Nano BL come close to Chord Mojo for only £200?
    The short answer is no. In my opinion the Micro BL is somewhat on Mojo’s level, (even though they represent quite a different approach to sound), but I have to disappoint you, the Nano is not beating DACs for twice its price. It is good marketing to ask this question, but the answer is simply a short no. I have to add though, the Nano BL’s sound will satisfy many people who don’t hear the difference between a £200 and a £400 DAC.
    My girlfriend who is not into portable audio but has quite musical ears sums up the difference: “The Nano sounds very good, but the Mojo makes me smile.”

    [​IMG]

    Now, that we have got the two most important/exciting/disturbing questions out of the way, let’s see what the Nano BL has to offer sound-wise.

    Sound

    The Nano BL has much less power than its big brother the Micro BL, which is not really a surprise. The Micro is a powerhouse, I can’t imagine there is anything it couldn’t drive. The Nano on the other hand in my opinion won’t power the most hungry headphones (300Ω) on a satisfying level, although it has plenty of power for every portable and/or lower impedance headphones. With my 25Ω Nighthawks I usually turned the volume up to 50%.

    [​IMG]

    The Nano’s sound signature is relaxing, warm and natural compared to its competition, with nice and satisfying bass, just what I prefer.
    The sound overall is very satisfying, nothing really lacks. Good treble and bass extention, good soundstage, good separation, good space, very enjoyable in fact. The Nano’s sound only starts to fall short when we compare it directly to higher-end products like the Mojo or the Micro BL. For the price of two Nano BLs you can get a better music listening experience, but you only need that if your ears are able to appreciate the difference, and the double cost also doesn’t hurt your wallet too much.

    [​IMG]

    I was able to listen to music with the Nano BL for hours, and I really enjoyed it’s warm, ear-friendly and powerful sound. It is not as detailed as the more expensive DACs mentioned in this review neither has the same level of resolution, but for half the money it is actually not very far from them. iFi’s smaller DAC is definitely more than half as good as the Micro or the Mojo, but as you go for higher and higher quality products in this hobby, you pay more and more for a 10-20% improvement.

    [​IMG]

    The Nano BL is well balanced tonally throughout the frequencies, with a healthy bass response. Bass never lacks on the Nano, however a category higher you can hear a cleaner and better controlled bass. More expensive DACs like the Mojo sound more exciting and pleasing, more realistic and lifelike especially when it comes to acoustic instruments (strings, percussion) and vocal. Also the soundstage depth of the higher-end DACs is missing from the Nano, the picture is slightly more 2D than 3D.
    The Nano BL is not as clean and clear as the more expensive competitors, it is like putting a good quality fullHD LCD screen next to a 4K oled screen. The full HD is absolutely satisfying, until you see (in our case hear) the better resolution.

    [​IMG]

    In my Micro BL review I mentioned that iFi’s sound with the BL line reminds me to a good quality film theater sound system with its good bodied bass. Very entertaining and relaxing. On the other hand Chord’s DACs like the Mojo aim to sound as lifelike as possible. Both approach has a market in my opinion, it is good to have different choices. The Nano follows this ’entertaining Hi-Fi sound system’ kind of sound. iFi’s DACs still sound more natural and lifelike than many of their competitors, for instance I did not really like the OPPO HA2SE’s thinner and more artificial sound (especially in the treble region) even though it was very detailed (more detailed than the Nano).

    Nano BL vs. Mojo

    The most obvious difference when we compare the Nano BL to Mojo is the lack of dynamic punch and depth on the Nano. Mojo’s attack is much quicker, decay is shorter which results in a more accurate sound with additional clarity and air, leading to better imaging and better instrument separation. Background is also more black and we have more details and a more lifelike sound as the final product.
    The fact we can compare the Nano BL to a significantly more expensive DAC is a big compliment itself to the Nano.

    [​IMG]

    Conclusion

    This little black box from iFi is extremely capable for £200. I like its ear-friendly and smooth sound, it is well-balanced tonally and offers a fantastic value for money. The full MQA compatibility can be an attractive feature for many buyers. iFi’s newest DAC/amp the iDSD Nano BL has everything to be the new king of its price category.
  6. shenanbay
    $200 Beast Portable AMP/DAC
    Written by shenanbay
    Published Dec 21, 2017
    4.0/5,
    Pros - Build Quality, SQ, ieMatch, Compact Size, Accessories, Soundstage
    Cons - Volume knob can turn in the pocket
    First of all I would like IFI for letting me in on this tour. I have never reviewed anything so here goes,

    Build

    The Nano looks like it will weigh a brick. In reality it doesn’t. it is surprisingly light. Weighs just as much as my phone. It is a bit thick, but its not massive. The unit looks beautiful in the stealth black finish . The lettering in the back is a bit hard to read since its also black. You have to hold the nano in a specific angle for the light to reflect just right to see what is written

    iEMatch

    wow this definitely changed the way some of the tracks sounded to me. It was mostly heard on my jhaudio 10x3. Plugging them into just the direct port gave the slightest hiss, but after plugging them to the iEMatch it was like day and night. The background was pin drop silent. It gave a real empty feeling when the tracks had silence in them

    Filters

    To be honest I tried a lot to hear the differences between the two filters. I was not able any difference, maybe it is just my ears. I left it on measure for the majority of the time after the initial switching around to hear the difference.


    Test Tracks

    Murder One – Metallica

    hd6xx - warm, not as crunchy as I would like it. the amp has plenty of power to drive it. I was able to tell the different layers and separate them

    jhaudio - warm, same as the hd6xx not as crunchy I would prefer. plenty of power to drive it. the iem match does make a difference. Was able to tell the different layers

    AFO – it doesn’t like this song through the iDSD nano. It sounds cluttered and underpowered.

    Nuforce – I had to run these on the direct port. It did sound much better than driving it with just my phone, but it was not a lot better than how it sounded with the hd6xx and JHaudio

    Spanish Harlem - Rebecca Pidgeon

    jhaudio - iemmatch made the silent backgrounds as Silent as I have ever heard. the female voice and the voilin sounds beautiful. Made me listen to this song on repeat atleast 5 times. it sounds very musical. can hear the instrument layers very clearly. from the bass line to the marracas. Beautifully matching. The imaging was very nice. I was able to pick out every instrument

    hd6xx – not as musical as I liked it on the jhaudio 10x3. It is missing the coherence on these. The piano sounds too warm and kind of muffled. The background is pretty silent. The female voice comes out beautifully. Just a tad warm for my taste. The imaging was there. A bit cluttered


    Wayfaring Stranger - New Appalachians

    hd6xx – the female voice comes out beautifully again. The bass line also is very nicely presented. Kinda missing the umph, but that might be the headphone also. While the imaging was nice. I felt like a layer of music was missing when comparing to listening with the jhaudio 10x3. Other than the nano performs this song beautifully

    jhaudio – pretty much everything was delivered perfectly to my ears. The Nano performs amazingly well with acoustic music.

    Nuforce – the sound was too warm for me. It wasn’t muddy or bad. I would have liked a bit more treble and mid range. The bass was overwhelming

    Comparison

    Oneplus 5 vs iDSD nano – the nano definitely has a lot more power for headphones. It also sounds cleaner with better soundstage and imaging. It is definitely worth paying the $200 for this.

    Shangling M3s vs iDSD nano – hands down prefer the nano. They both seem to have the same amount of power output. The nano might be a bit more powerful, but the nano sounds transparent and neutral compared to the M3s. The m3s is too warm for my taste. The nano has better soundstage than the m3s

    NFB 11.28 vs iDSD nano – these two are not exactly in the same class. The NFB is a very powerful amp. The nfb is much more transparent and also sounds neutral. Maybe the tiniest bit of sparkle. The nano sounds a bit warm when you compare it to the nfb. While the nano has a good soundstage, the nfb beats in a very noticeable way.

    Conclusion

    While this is a portable amp/dac it does have the power to drive the hd6xx very well. It does not sound as open on some songs, but other than that this performs very well. Boy does it perform like a beast with my jhaudio 10x3. JUST WOW!! The two are a perfect match. With the nuforce x massdrop while it was better than just driving it with my phone I don’t see myself carrying the nano just to drive these. It is not the Nano’s fault. The iem is just not on the Nano’s level. It seems to bottleneck the dac/amp. I highly recommend this to anyone that wants powers their portable headphones and iems on the go. I might actually buy one myself.

    IMG_20171211_192122_801.jpg

    images

    1. IMG_20171211_190824.jpg
    2. IMG_20171211_191607.jpg
    3. IMG_20171211_192100.jpg
    4. IMG_20171211_192336_536.jpg
    5. IMG_20171211_192437.jpg
      Grimbles, arvinm21 and Wildcatsare1 like this.
  7. starman93
    just the best DAC around in the sub 600€ market
    Written by starman93
    Published Dec 19, 2017
    5.0/5,
    Pros - smoothest and most analogue sounding in this price range(even 1200€ if we consider sony wm1a),details and instrument separation to die for
    Cons - Why so long USB cable?Why no female USB to micro USB/USB C?
    [​IMG] <a href="https://www.hostingpics.net/viewer.php?id=409475IMG201712120959163.jpg"><img src="https://img15.hostingpics.net/thumbs/mini_409475IMG201712120959163.jpg" alt="Hébergement photos" /></a>
    First,i want to say i have NOT been influenced in ANY way(should it be a discount coupon if i post a positive review or whatever you might imagine)by iFi Audio who sent me the DAC as a group test,this is the 1st time i EVER participate in this,i never thought i would ever have been chosen,just feel free to PM if you're skeptical(as i was myself before).I'm a human being,i either like or dislike a music/hi-fi gear,i'm no MUSIC surgeon so i won't go into FR analysis(as you find a lot in these pages)BECAUSE in the end i find them confusing(contadictions in terms,misuse of words or lack of clear and honest impressions).
    At first listen i felt quite unimpressed but the Nano's charms slowly grow up on you to become utterly addictive in the end.The bass are well rounded just as i love them(nothing close to the dry bass of ,say,the Pioneer XDP30R),the mids glorious(slight tilt to it which makes the whole difference with an average sounding DAC),the highs are detailed without EVER being harsh(any harshness will come down to the HPs used or poorly recorded materials).This DAC simply outperforms well-established "killers" like the Mojo,or the Sony WM1A.When listening to the Sony i find myself missing the sheer sparkle and life of the Nano,making the Sony sounding dull.Instrument separation is better than of an old fav of mine,the IBasso DZero Mk2,which shares with the Nano an outstanding midrange.
    Final word:i wish this DAC will meet the success it truly deserves as this is the cleanest sounding i have ever had,its value(regardless of price) is simply outstanding,even more so than the exceptionnal Dragonfly Red.
      Grimbles, trellus and arvinm21 like this.
  8. dadracer2
    Nano Black the best portable DAC/Amp?
    Written by dadracer2
    Published Dec 18, 2017
    5.0/5,
    Pros - Sound Quality
    Size
    Flexibility
    Ability to drive high impedance headphones
    Cons - I don't have one!
    [​IMG]


    There is a very good reason why I took a photo of the Nano Black is sitting atop my existing ifi Audio “Stack” which consists of Micro iDSD; Micro iCAN SE; iUSB; Gemini cable; Mercury cable and iPurifier2.


    The reason is that unexpectedly I spent a lot of time and effort comparing these and constituent parts thereof. Initially I had fully expected to get my trusty Meze 99s warmed up and a quick listen to the Stack and then compare the Nano Black and job done. But oh no that was not nearly sufficient……….


    The Meze 99 is a good headphone and for a closed back has very good imaging properties. It also has a warm and generous bass with an ever so slightly laid back treble. But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I could not easily decide which was better through the Meze 99s the Stack or the Nano Black. The comparison was using some favourite album tracks on Tidal HiFi from my laptop.


    The Meze 99s is one of my favourite travel headphones due to their sound quality, ease of drive and cost. Therefore I had expected they would be a good combination with the Nano Black.


    So with my initial plan now thwarted I turned to my HD800s in order to get more resolution and neutrality and imaging so to be sure what the key differences were.


    I started back with the same album tracks as before but this time comparing the Micro iDSD on its own to the Nano Black using Tidal HiFi from my iPhone and then a selection of Hi Res album tracks from the phone. All of this was via the HD800s.


    The first thing is that the Micro iDSD has a more potent amplifier and so was able to drive the HD800s from a lower volume setting. The Nano Black does drive the HD800s but needs a bit more from the volume control so it took a bit of trial and error to get the volume levels matched (by ear as I don’t have a meter!).


    Oh my goodness it was still very close. The Nano Black has a warmer/fuller bass as though it had one click of Xbass. In fact if you gave the Micro iDSD one click of Xbass the sound was astonishingly close, to the point where it made me wonder if this was a design feature???


    The Nano Black does not quite deliver the image depth of the Micro iDSD, but in fairness other than those points you would not have thought one was twice the price of the other.


    Then I joined the Micro iDSD back up with its chums in the Stack and tried again. Well this just doesn’t seem right but it’s still a close thing. The Stack is a bit better resolving, bit better depth, bit less warmth to the bass, bit more treble energy. That might seem a lot but it took a lot of the day to determine this and by a bit I mean 10-15% better.


    And here’s the thing. When I just sat and listened to the Nano Black playing Hi Res tracks via HD800s I wasn’t thinking any of that I was just enjoying really good sound reproduction of really good music.


    The ifi Stack I have is remarkably good for the money to the point where I listen to it more often than my main system simply because it is so easy to use and the sound quality is so high. Using it with Tidal is very easy and gives me an almost limitless supply of music.


    What the Nano provides is a portable version of that Stack with nearly as good sound and all for £200. It is ridiculous!


    You can read all the details and specs of the Nano Black here… https://ifi-audio.com/portfolio-view/nano-idsd-bl/


    So there is no need for me to tell you what ifi Audio can tell you more comprehensively!


    Meantime I’d like to mention a couple of the Nano Blacks features. The first is the amp as mentioned will drive high impedance headphones such as the HD800s and drive them properly. The one thing I don’t have is a 3.5mm TRRS plug so that I could have used the HD800s in balanced mode. This would be worth trying as I have heard the HD800s in balanced mode via an XLR plug and it improves them even further.


    Likewise I didn’t try MQA or rather Tidal Master tracks as my Micro iDSD doesn’t unfold these and so it would not have been a fair comparison, and that’s why I used 24/192 and DSD files from my iPhone instead for the His Res comparison. I will probably try the Master file later on and once I download the new firmware.


    In conclusion I must thank ifi Audio for the kind loan of the Nano Black. I think that it is as good a device as they have ever made and for the price I am truly dumfounded. I will certainly be purchasing one for myself when this loaner goes back as it offers the possibility of very nearly Hi End HiFi on the move. Indeed if you were listening to this while travelling or in a hotel on business of an evening then I think you would be highly impressed with the quality of sound this device brings to CD and Hi Res music. stack.jpg
      Grimbles, KaiFi and arvinm21 like this.
    1. KaiFi
      This is the best DAC I've used so far. It sounds better than the Fiio E17K, the Dragonfly Red, and even the Schiit Modi 2/Magni 3 stack to my ears.
      KaiFi, Jan 26, 2018
      Grimbles likes this.
  9. Ksweene5
    iFi's Newest Black Label Entrant Reviewed
    Written by Ksweene5
    Published Feb 19, 2018 at 12:40 AM
    4.0/5,
    Pros - soundstage, separation, build quality, looks, reputable company, future-proofed, actually 4.5 Stars ****
    Cons - included accessories, lone input
    Review - iFi Nano iDSD BL (4.5 stars is my actual rating, that didn't seem to be an option when submitting)

    Hello HF -

    Full disclosure - iFi supplied the unit free of charge for a review period of apx. 7 days. This is a completely unbiased review and iFi was very clear that they wanted honest and unbiased review.

    Before starting I want to note when I reference a “unit” I mean the unit being reviewed - “iFi Nano,,,”. I also call it the Nano and iFi. If I am talking about something that isn’t the iFi I call it by name. iFi - please simplify the naming conventions? We are getting into BMW/Mercedes levels of silly model names.

    Intro -

    To start - I plan to write this focused on the “feeling” of using the equipment, as opposed to technical listening type info. There are many more qualified than I, and many in general, who can and will write about specifics of frequency response, strong/weak points of sound reproductions, etc. I plan to review this based much more on the “feeling” of the sound relative to what I know and other equipment. As such, I should give a little summary of the W/H’s of how I listen so you can get a basis for your listening habits v mine.


    I listen to classic/modern/indie/alt rock and then pop music the most. Withing that, the vast majority is rock music. No modern/radio country really. Not much classical. Some jazz. I prefer a little bias of the highs and lows, a “jazz/r&b” sig if you will, scooped mids some extra bass but close to neutral. My favorite headphones are my HD-650s and my Pinnacle P1s. I also love my Etymotic HF5’s. I have Grado Sr80s and also loved my (recently sold) Fidelio X1s. I also like my Monk +’s and my UE6000s. My normal equipment includes a Ray Samuels Audio (RSA) The Predator portable DAC/Amp, and a Schiit Magni 2 amp for home/wired use. I also have my LG V30, which is fantastic.


    I like warm sound. I really appreciate separation and soundstage.


    To me - “mid-fi” means pieces of equipment in about the $300-500 range. I apply that same descriptor to headphones / amps / DACs.


    First Impressions / Unboxing -


    Sturdy, quality build, compact packaging. Everything fits tight (very tight).

    The build quality on the unit feels great right off the bat. Its light but the casing feels very sturdy in the hand. It turns on with a satisfying “click” on the volume and my first time plugging into the unit (¼” cable to 650s, USB out from my laptop) the ports felt very sturdy. The only input is a USB connection, the unit has a USB-A male plug. This will turn out to be a very frustrating aspect of getting going.


    Hours into the session, I want to get up and get a snack and clean up. Normally I would throw my kit into my pockets and walk around like a weirdo with cables hanging off of me into my pants. Unfortunately I can’t do that here with what I got out of the box - reminding me again of frustration instead of the super pleasant listening experience.


    My job has trained me to offer at least some solution when discussing a problem, thus - what would I like to see included. Why are we using a male USB-A? Regardless, if you use this as your ONLY input - include a female to male A adapter. I would like to see at the least an option to get going with a USB micro, even that would be way late to the party. I can’t imagine the reason for not making this with a USB-C input and probably a USB C. It’s 2018, USB-C is here to stay, and offers so many perks over older USB types.

    Offer a little upcharge to get lightning if its a money thing, USB-C shouldn’t be a barrier in 2018. Get this stuff in the box - nobody buying this will blink at a $10 increase in cost to get cabling that is actually useful. Also, if I don’t have the cable/adaptor to get this going you’ve messed up! I have cables on cables on cables and adaptors on adaptors on cables on cable(y) adaptors. I know that sounds silly, but I rarely can’t come up with some cable or cable combo to get what I need in a pinch. In addition to “audiophile” stuff, I am a musician and have worked in studios - I really have a pretty stupid amount of cables laying around.


    Usage - initial thoughts


    I quickly noticed the lack of ability to get an analog input to the unit and just check out the amp portion. My regular portable dac/amp (Ray Samuels RSA Predator) has the option to input 3.5mm and just use the amp. I like this option as sometimes I don’t have the necessary digital cable handy, and my new LG V30 is a very capable DAC.Using only the amp also has battery benefits over running as a DAC/AMP. This could be a specific use-case scenario for this reviewer - but in my experience I would not be the only one having these thoughts.


    Sound / Comps -


    The sound has very good separation. I notice this right away casually listening as I set up for writing and a focused listening session.


    The following is almost a “stream of consciousness” section while I was listening to songs I know well. For readers sake, I edited some afterwards.


    I hear birds in the background of Frank Ocean’s “Pink + White”, during the last verse/chorus, that I honestly never noticed before. I had only ever noticed this sound at the very end of the song. The unit makes it sound like they are overhead, just behind me, and a little on my left. I love when equipment allows me to feel like I could close my eyes and point to where the instrument (sound, whatever) is “in the room”.

    I get a tight, but large feeling, soundstage using this unit. The sound seems to tighten up my 650s, where some equipment give them a little bit of a “loose” warm feel. I think the attack and decay here is sharper than I normally hear out of the 650s, but still warm and fun.


    In Bon Iver’s “For Emma” I can clearly hear the different guitar takes, strumming patterns, stereo separation in the mix. It affords me the ability to generally tell the difference between what is likely Justin using different guitars/mics/recording techniques. It adds to the complexity of the sound (in a good, even great, way). To a “lay” user, I think they would hear this as incredibly detailed and pleasing. To me it is also very pleasing, but I hear every little up/down strum flourish very well. Did I mention I love the separation and soundstage on this unit? Because I do.


    Switching back to my V30 only (same file) the sound is equally clear, possibly a little more neutral. The separation is good, but the soundstage is closer together. As the instruments comes together it still sounds great, but there is less directional definition and I also hear a less detail in things like the up/down strum pattern and multiple guitar takes mixed together. I do prefer the listening on the iFi. Both very quality, but a warmer and bigger sound on the iFi. To me, that's a great quality.


    On “All Night” - Bey’s vocals sound just about equal across the V30 to iFi. I will say that, again, the soundstage is better on the iFi - Bey sounds like she is “in front” of the band moreso with the unit than just off the v30. I enjoy the song quite a bit, it seems to really “hit” where pop music ashould. To me this dac/amp has wide appeal for how it handles sound.


    Compared to the V30 and Schiit combo - I think the iFi is actually more fun. The bass sounds to me like it’s “jumping” around more - like its more live and present than the song via the phone/schiit. The bass is a little flatter and less lively, its separated less, and the vocals get lost in the mids more with the v30/schiit combo than in the iFi to 650 combo.


    Switching over to my most used IEM’s, MeeAudio Pinnacle P1s, I still get a great soundstage with QOTSA’s “Like Clockwork” sounding wide and deep. The vocal on this track sounds excellent - this amp really allows a vocal track to shine, reproducing Homme’s raspy croon as well as anything I have used.


    Listening to Julien Bakers “Shadowboxing” again shows off the excellent mid-range on the Nano. With the bassy electric having full separation from her breathy and powerful vocal you can really appreciate the quality of the simple production on the album - you could be listening on IEMs or hearing the song at your favorite sounding venue. There is very much a “live sound” presence the Nano brings to the table - very accurate but not the clinical sound that is sometimes a product of focusing on neutral and accurate sound reproduction.


    Compared to the same listening on my Predator, the iDSD is less warm, equally detailed and with a more pleasing soundstage to my ears. This dac/amp really rewards quality recordings, it seems more than happy to allow the listener to hear and appreciate every nuance of a song. I hear this the most on a recording like Daft Punk’s “Game of Love” - where subtle background synth lines are very present and small percussion accents very easy to hear.


    Where I find the first (sound) shortcoming of this amp is when I dig into my hip-hop/rap collection. I listen to a good bit of music in this genre, but its production values frequently don’t play nice with audiophile gear, which I suppose is part of the reason anyone buys Beats. I do not get a lively, bassy feel at all. The bass is actually quiet and seems generally pushed towards the back of the mix, leaving the mids hanging out to dry. Compared to rap through my Predator, and even the V30 alone, this sound is flat and boring.It does not inspire me to want to get up and dance, just to take a review break and get my bass/dance/party fix quickly on a different setup.


    On Tool’s “The Pot” the excellent soundstage in on full display again. It’s like the band is playing in a circle around my head. It sounds great! - percussion is crystal clear, bass is heavy and accurate, vocals show Maynard’s range and authenticity, and and Jones’ guitar is beautiful.


    Listening to Bon Iver’s “22, A Million”, I am reminded of the respect paid to great production by this unit. If an artist wanted you to hear a guitar noodle, in the background, clearly overshadowed by a vocal flourish after - you will hear it just like that. For me, one of the greatest parts of accurate audio reproduction isn’t the pomp and circumstance of a totally unbiased, neutral sound, but hearing what your (__enter artist of choice__) wanted you to hear. To understate it to the extreme, a multitude of people, from the artist to the series of engineers, all work very hard to get a specific sound to you. To me, it’s seeing a Van Gogh in person vs seeing an excellent print. If possible, I want the original, all day every day. With audio, I can have (very nearly) that. The Nano 100% moves you towards that goal.


    My current most used setup at home is my phone (LG V30) into my Schiit Magni 2, to my 650s. I’ve really enjoyed this setup a lot. The same songs, computer to Nano, to 650s, sound so much more full and warm through the latter. Turned to what I’d appxmate as 60%, the Nano drives the sh*t out of y 650s - in the best possible way.


    I have, and I’m sure will, loved the Magni 2. Schiit is a great company in the scheme of mid/hi end audio. On this front, I’d take the sound out of the Nano hands down. I didn’t find tracks to deter me from that position despite trying to (in audio, the negative is easier to prove than the positive). I get a ton of clarity and beauty from the V30/Schiit, but the warmth and separation I get from the Nano is far better. By no means take this as a deterrent from picking up either of those pieces of kit, but if the choice involves the Nano v those options/something similar - get the nano. It is great. I really, really, love the sound from this unit.





    Listening options -


    Plugging the unit into my laptop (older Yoga Pro) it was picked up immediately and I had no issues getting music going pretty much right away. There is plenty of headroom here using my 650s. I am ½ volume, “Direct” out, and these cans are bumping. I’ve spent countless hours on these cans and have a good feel for when they are really being driven, pushed a little but in the sweet spot. The iFi delivers here in spades. It really drives these, plenty of room to spare, and I feel like this matchup is an especially good one. We’ll see as I move on to other options.


    Battery -


    I am not the first in the review chain, and the unit was sent with a full charge. The holidays meant I had a little less time with the unit than I qould have liked. The battery seemed well above average.


    Features -


    IE Match / Direct - I have read up on the IE Match feature, from iFi and also some user generated info, and I am still not sure this is as important a feature as it is made out to be. I may not have quite the diversity of headphone/impedance types to really benefit. What I can speak to is what I perceive as a difference in the sound. There is a level difference between them, where I needed to turn up the volume to get to the same listening level output while using IE Match.


    After matching listening levels, using the IEMatch sounds, to me, almost like dropping the blanket over the music. I hear a little less crispness using IE Match, and it does also seem to temper some of the more harsh highs. The ladder is especially noticeable when listening to something like Kanye’s “Jesus Walks” and in general more noticeable on radio pop type songs. I also hear some muddling of the L/R separation that I enjoy so much from the Nanos other output. I detect a narrowing of the soundstage, with the music feeling more like it's being played AT me instead of WITH me. Its less immersive and I feel less engaged.


    Overall, I preferred the sound from the “Direct” output and used that much more during my time with the Nano. Again, I might be a specific use case situation where this feature isn’t very beneficial - but I also don’t fully understand what this feature adds overall.


    Final thoughts -

    I would buy this unit. In fact, I might buy this unit. I live in the “mid-fi” space (a hilarious name for a spot where people spend car-payments worth of dough on unnecessary equipment) but this represents a likely upgrade for anyone living at or below that spot. Its very similar to my RSA, but newer, more adaptable, and better prepared for the future. I hate the cabling situation - it's just silly in 2018 - but as an audio nerd I’ll happily research and buy yet more equipment to correct that problem. For the price, I don’t know I would have a better “jack of all trades” rec over this.. If this is in your financial wheelhouse, and you are wanting a versatile and portable option, buy it.


    TL;DR version -


    Pros -

    • great soundstage and separation
      • Vocals are excellent!
    • Compatibility with all current hi-res file types

    • Build quality and feature set

    • Looks (its good lookin’ !)

    • Price
    Cons -

    • The digital input, cable situation! (an easy fix, please fix it??)

    • Inability to use it w/o DAC
      HalSF and SV_huMMer like this.
    1. HalSF
      Nice review, with excellent bonus mocking of the "mid-fi" concept.
      HalSF, Feb 19, 2018 at 11:40 AM
    2. jeffhawke
      Enjoyable review Kyle, I was thinking of getting one myself to supplement my micro iDSD BL (which I would never let go of, as it has all the digital and analog inputs the nano is missing, PLUS the cables! on top of amazing sound), as the nano appears to be really portable, as opposed to transportable, and I could use my Cayin N3 as pure digital transport. I found a USB C to USB A female OTG that actually works, for less than $3, so I might give it a go.
      jeffhawke, Feb 20, 2018 at 6:28 PM
    3. Ksweene5
      Thanks for the feedback ya'll - I hope to contribute more reviews in the near future.
      Ksweene5, Feb 20, 2018 at 6:54 PM
  10. SV_huMMer
    Nano iDSD Black Label: a black box full of wonders
    Written by SV_huMMer
    Published Feb 16, 2018
    5.0/5,
    Pros - Excellent feature set, platform and format compatibility
    Great portable-friendly package
    Vastly improved amplification section
    Clear, transparent and neutral sound signature
    Cons - May sound too sterile with extremely neutral cans
    Accessories bundle not optimal
    Not ideal headphone connectors layout
    USB input square opening could be larger
    This review is part of iFi Audio’s generous Nano BL Tour, where I am happy and proud to be selected as one of the reviewers for the European leg of the Tour. Therefore, a disclaimer is due here:

    Disclaimer: the unit tested was a loaner from iFi, which means exactly this: I received it from iFi free of charge and returned it after the review. I have not been otherwise incentivized by iFi to write a positive review. And frankly – I didn’t need any additional incentives!

    Disclaimer 2: the review contains a few very technical and detailed abstracts, that may be way too lengthy and detailed for a captivating reading, therefore, those abstracts will be titled as Geeky Tech Notes and will be hidden under spoilers, which you may or may not wish to open.

    Background with iFi products

    I have been for three years and I still am a happy owner of iFi’s original Nano iDSD (the fully-featured one, not LE!), that I’ve had enough time to put through its paces in both desktop and portable applications. I must confess I am absolutely in love with this little piece of genius engineering, although, as it is always the case with beloved partners, Nano iDSD wasn’t without its flaws. Needless to say I was eagerly awaiting for the opportunity to get my hands on the new Black Label incarnation of this tiny magic box to see what has changed and in what direction, apart from the obvious switch from “blonde” to “brunette” appearance. So inevitably, throughout this review I will be comparing the new BL to the original iDSD Nano.

    Packaging and contents

    The unit I reviewed was a brand-new, unopened retail unit (not a tour unit), therefore I can be confident that the packaging and contents are exactly what you’ll find on the shelves of retail stores/in boxes coming from online stores.

    Nano BL Package.JPG

    The packaging style is very similar to the original iDSD Nano that I own: you’re met by an outer sleeve with a colorful product picture and a wealth of both marketing and technical information. It even has a little special sticky black label (no pun intended… or is it? ) on the top of the box, showing off 4x Extra Power, Dual Mono Output and MQA Authenticated features. The sleeve off, you will find a typical iFi white tight-fit box (a bit “Apple-style”). Note the obvious difference between box dimensions of the original Nano and the BL: the latter is much slimmer, with roughly the same length and width.

    Nano iDSD and BL packages.JPG
    Nano Black Label on the left, original Nano iDSD on the right

    Great job by iFi on slimming down the box, given that the Nano BL has a lot of stuff included:

    Nano BL bundle.jpg

    The most notable difference is the set of cables, which is logical given the change of physical USB connection on the BL compared to the original.

    iDSD and  BL rear stacked.jpg

    The BL comes with the total of 3 cables/adaptors:

    - 1m/3ft long USB3.0 A Male to A Female cable. This one looks like the regular USB3.0 extension cable, and technically this is exactly what it is. It will be your main cable for charging the unit from any wall plug adapter/powerbank/computer port, as well as your USB DAC connection cable to connect the BL to a PC.
    - A short (slightly less than 20cm/about 7in) USB2.0 A female to B Female cable. This will allow you to connect whatever existing USB A to B male cables you may already have in your desktop or portable setups.
    - An even shorter single-piece solid A Female to B Female adaptor, which obviously has exactly the same purpose as the aforementioned 7 inch cable, but in a different form factor.

    I will get back to this with a more in-depth analysis of connectivity options later in my review.

    Unlike the original Nano iDSD, which included a regular, but decent, stereo RCA cable, the new BL bundles no analogue interconnects at all.

    In addition to the set of cables and adapters, the BL also comes with a pair of rubber bands to “sandwich” it with a portable source – a smartphone or a DAP, however, the rectangular silicone spacer that came with the original Nano iDSD, is no longer included.

    To finish with the packaging, I’ll mention the much discussed carrying pouch. Yes, it does have an opening at the bottom, and no, this is not a stitching defect, but a wise feature to run cables through.

    I am personally not a big fan of soft-cloth carrying pouches, especially made of velour-esque materials. To say that this is a dust/debris magnet is a classical British understatement. Moreover, it offers only limited protection against scratches, but not more. Don’t get me wrong – this is perfectly fine, and very thoughtful on behalf of iFi to include the pouch free of charge, but I always want my beloved gadgets well protected. My original Nano iDSD has been kept in a small digital camera pouch that I got dirt-cheap in the local camera store, and, as you can see, after 3 years of heavy use it is still in a pristine condition.

    Nano iDSD in pouch.JPG

    Given that Black Label is black (what a surprise ), I’d strongly recommend getting something similar for your new toy, as the black coating may be even more prone to accidental bumps and scratches.

    Exterior, connections and controls

    I can’t agree more with Henry Ford who once said that “The car can be of any color, as long as this color is black”!
    The Nano BL, with its high-grade matte-black finish and glossy black/orange markings is beautiful. Full stop! Front and rear plates are perfectly machined and beveled edges add to the overall impression of a quality product.

    Nano BL angle view.JPG

    Don’t get me wrong – the original Nano iDSD made me have the same feelings of shimmering quality when I first got it in my hands, but there’s nothing I can do – BLACK is BLACK. I love it.

    While it’s a pure question of personal taste, I was not overly happy with the overall change in the front and rear plate shapes. I really loved the complex multi-angled “raised eyebrows” shape of the original Nano and Micro series.

    Nano iDSD and BL side by side.JPG

    The new BL has a much simple, more “boring” trapezoid face. I can see it being more comfortable in the portable set up, as it has less bumpy edges now, but to me it kind of lost that signature bold look of iFi Nano/Micro series. Other than this, the overall physical dimensions of the two units remain very close, with exactly the same chassis length and width. The BL has a slightly smaller overall length thanks to a very wise move by iFi of making the volume knob almost twice as short as the original Nano iDSD.

    Front panels profile.jpg

    Bravo, iFi, you really nailed this one! While still offering perfectly sufficient grip for convenient volume control, the new BL does not have this unnecessarily protruding volume knob of the original Nano iDSD. Moreover, the new knob is also more visually informative, thanks to an orange mark against a black background – a step forward from barely visible silver mark on a silver knob of the original Nano iDSD.

    Volume knobs.jpg

    However, both the original Nano iDSD and the new BL volume knobs could in my opinion do a much better job in portable use, if they were a little crown-shaped, as opposed to cylindrical.

    Crown_Volume_Knob.jpg

    This would allow much easier “blind operation” of the unit if in a pocket/pouch/bag, because with a little practice you’d be able to tell the dialed volume just by feeling the knob position relative to the unit body.

    Geeky Technote on volume control
    Note on the volume control of the Nano BL: the novelty is not only the new shape of the knob In fact, technically volume controls of the original iDSD Nano and the Nano BL are implemented very differently. The original Nano iDSD had iFi’s proprietary “Software controlled analogue volume control”, which, in human language, meant that the actual potentiometer that you turn with the volume knob is not in the audio signal path. Instead, it controls a special IC, which in turn switches the signal route across multiple arrays of small resistors, providing stepped volume control. The advantage of this method is that the actual signal quality, as well as relative channel tracking, are not affected by neither the quality nor the possible wear and tear of the potentiometer’s resistive track layers.

    This allows using a relatively inexpensive potentiometer with no detriment whatsoever to the audio signal quality – one of those smart things iFi utilizes to build great products at attractive prices. However, the downside of this approach is that a) arrays of resistors take up valuable PCB real estate, and b) the steps of attenuation are quite pronounced and audible, especially at lower volume levels. This translated into quite a few user complaints about “pops” and “clicks” of the original Nano iDSD as you turn the volume knob, especially in the initial part of the adjustment range, that in reality were those audible attenuation steps. iFi even issued tech notes detailing this, outlining the comfortable adjustment range of “past 12 o’clock mark at the volume dial”, and even advised users of very sensitive IEMs to add impedance-boosting adapters, to shift the volume adjustment range of comfortable listening levels further up the actual knob range.

    I am very happy to confirm that the new Nano BL is completely free from all these issues, and not only thanks to a dedicated “iEMatch” headphone out. The volume control in Nano BL is now a classical tried and tested “potentiometer-in-the-signal-line” solution. The potentiometer used is twin-track, to maintain the “S-Balanced” topology of Nano BL’s amp, which means that adjustment is made separately for left and right channel signals. The result is silky-smooth, absolutely “analogue-feeling” volume adjustment throughout the entire volume knob rotation range, no matter with what headphones – hard to drive full size cans plugged into “Direct” socket, or super-sensitive IEMs connected to “iEMatch” socket.

    First of all, big thanks to iFi for resisting the temptation of simply using fully digital DAC-level volume control, which is a lot easier and cheaper to implement, but might result in quite audible degradation of sound quality.

    My (partially educated guess) is that another reason behind replacing the original Nano iDSD’s resistor array switching method of volume regulation with the more traditional “pot-in-the-signal-path” thing is due to the fact that with the old method in order to maintain “S-balanced” dual mono topology of the amp output section, one would have to use twice as much resistor arrays, which may drive the costs up, and be very hard, if not impossible, given the small PCB footprint.

    Adding more to the overall compactness of the unit, the new BL has no protruding RCA connector for SPDIF out on the back (although this one comes at a price of actually losing the functionality), and the filter switch is now a nicely recessed design.

    rear panels profile.jpg

    Front controls and connectors

    One of the headline features of the new BL is a totally reworked amplifier part, which now offers two 3.5mm connectors for your headphones, located in the left part of the front panel. The left one is marked as “iEMatch”, the right one as “Direct”.

    NanoBL front panel.jpg

    While having two headphone outputs may sound better than one, I personally don’t think so. In a small portable package, where every millimeter and gram counts, having two basically identical headphone connectors with just some internal impedance-matching circuit that differ is a bit of a waste, in my view. I am not an audio engineer, but it seems to me iEMatch could well be a toggle switch feature, instead of a separate connector. The valuable space taken by the second connector could be then used to provide some more useful features, such as 2.5mm TRRS balanced connector (to complement 3.5mm TRRS connector which is already there). I don’t think a full-size ¼ inch (6.3mm) jack is that important in a device that is tailored for portable use, but even this would be a more useful feature than what we have now.

    Between the pair of headphone output connectors on the left and the volume knob on the right now resides the main RGB LED which signals battery states, connection states and formats of tracks played. More on it later, but I wanted to highlight another perfect hit by iFi for moving the LED from the top of the original Nano iDSD to the front plate, where it really belongs. I loved how discreet and unobtrusive was the tiny LED on the original iDSD Nano, but its placement could feel awkward at times, especially if you try to stack several units in desktop use, or put your “sandwich” into a pocket/pouch/bag in portable use. In many normal usage scenarios you simply could not see or, at least, could not easily see the LED on the original Nano iDSD. This problem is simply inexistent in the new BL. Ideally, I’d personally prefer the old, smaller and less bright LED of the original Nano iDSD at the new Nano BL location, but this is probably asking too much.

    Rear controls and connectors

    Nano BL rear panel.jpg

    The left corner of rear plate of the unit houses the 3.5mm stereo mini jack line out, which is a fixed-level 2v stereo output.

    Geeky Technote on Line Out
    The line out of the Nano DL did not only change location and connector type compared to the original Nano iDSD, but is now implemented in a different, and more appropriate, way: it is a truly fixed-level line out signal, not affected by the volume control circuit and totally independent from headphone output. This is different from the original Nano iDSD, where the “line-out” front RCA connectors were affected by the volume control knob, and were truly “line-out” only if you set the volume knob to MAX. Note also that with the original Nano iDSD, the “line out” signal was muted when you inserted the jack into the headphones out – not the case with Nano BL: the line out signal is always present, no matter headphones connected or not.

    Needless to say how much better the new approach is: in desktop use you can now easily connect the BL to an external amplifier and still be able to listen to headphones plugged into BL at adequate levels without affecting the line out signal. Great job on implementing this, iFi! You do lose the “preamp” feature of the original Nano iDSD, however, you’d probably only need it in some exotic cases of connecting Nano to speaker systems that have no volume control. Ironically, I happen to have exactly this exotic case for near field speaker set up – a pair of Genelec 6010 studio monitors. They do have gain control knob on each speaker, but it is located at the rear of the cabinet and is very awkward to use. So I had to add a passive volume control to the set up to test with Nano BL.

    Next to the line out is the tiny digital filters switch, which seems to be exactly the same filter switch as in the original Nano iDSD, but with different naming. It looks on paper that “Listen” on the BL is the old “Minimum Phase” on the original Nano iDSD, and “Measure” is “Standard”. To be frank with you, I have never been able to hear any difference beyond the autosuggestion between the two, neither on the original Nano, nor on the new BL, no matter what music I listened to with what headphones. If this sounds to you as a verdict that I am deaf or at least hearing-impaired, you might want to skip my listening impressions altogether :)

    The right corner of the rear plate is occupied by the digital USB input, which represents another novelty introduced on the BL.

    Nano BL Digital Input.jpg

    Unlike the original Nano iDSD, which had a traditional USB3.0 Type B Female (USB3.0 shaped, but USB 2.0 electronically, to be precise) connector for digital input, the new BL offers the recessed USB Type A Male connector. This smart move (as well as a few other feature differences that I will mention later) to me is a clear sign that iFi is shifting the positioning of the unit more towards the portable use rather than desktop use.

    Electronically, this is still the USB2.0 asynchronous digital input, just like on the original Nano iDSD. However, the use of a recessed male connector now allows users to connect the BL to both Android and iOS devices with a lot less cable clutter.

    iOS connections

    As you all know, in order to get true digital USB audio out with current generation of iOS devices, you need to use Apple’s Lightning to USB camera adapter (and special software, and some luck – but more on this later).

    Apple lightning to USB connector.JPG

    This adapter has a USB Type A Female socket at the device end, where you’re normally supposed to plug the regular USB Type A Male end of the cable connecting your camera to import pictures. (Yes, Apple officially says that this connector is only for importing pictures from compatible digital cameras. He-he ) With most other USB DACs/Amps, this is exactly what you’ll have to do: plug the Type A Male end of your normal USB cable into this Apple adapter.

    Apple with original Nano iDSD.jpg

    What you can do now, with iFi Magic (or shall I say clever thinking), is have this regular USB cable disappear! Instead, you simply plug the Type A Female end of your Apple adapter right into this rectangular hole with rounded corners, where it fits just perfectly.

    Nano BL with iPad.JPG
    Sorry for the fingerprints on the dirty iPad screen

    Geeky Technote on Apple USB adapters and USB Audio Out
    Technically speaking, there are a total of four Apple’s original adapters that allow (with varying degree of success though) to connect an external USB DAC to an Apple device for a bit-perfect USB Audio Class-compliant output. For older 30-pin devices, it’s the old and discontinued Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit (MC531ZM/A) (and yes, it works only with 30-pin iPads, no 30-pin iPhones or iPods support it). This is now kind of history.

    For more recent lightning devices, there’s Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter – this is exactly what you want to use with Nano BL because of physical connector compatibility – you can plug the device end of this adapter straight into Nano BL’s recessed Type A Male socket. There are two generations of this adapter, MD821ZM/A (the earlier) and MD821AM/A (the more recent), which seem to work in exactly the same way, at least for the purposes of USB Audio out. And finally, there’s the Apple Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter (MK0W2AM/A), which is the newest version. It adds USB3.0 speeds to devices who support it (selected iPad Pro models only, AFAIK), and has a physically larger adapter body adding a female lightning socket for external power supply. This adapter will not physically plug directly into Nano BL, simply because it’s bigger than the square opening around the USB connector.

    Side note. Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter is not just straightforward wires with different connectors: they do have some Apple’s proprietary digital circuitry inside, so the result is only guaranteed (sort of :wink:) with original adapters.

    Android connections

    In order to connect a USB DAC to an Android device, you need to use the so-called USB OTG (or On-The-GO) cable. This cable is a lot simpler than the Apple adapter, and is in fact just straight wires with different connectors, but wires are soldered in a specific way so that the cable conforms to OTG specs.

    Typically, an OTG cable will have a micro USB (or, with recent smartphones, USB Type C) connector at the phone end, and then a USB Type A Female socket on the other (device) end. And while technically very different, both Apple adapters and Android OTG cables share physically identical USB Type A Female connectors at the device end, meaning both of which can be plugged directly into the new BL, without any additional cables or adapters.

    Apple and OTG Type A Female connectors.jpg
    A typical Android USB OTG adapter (left) next to Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter (right)

    This is where the new “recessed USB Typa A Male” connector of Nano BL really shines in its full glory: all you need to have is a standard USB OTG adapter (Micro USB or USB Type C at the phone end, depending on your device), which you can plug directly into Nano BL.

    Nano BL with Android OTG.jpg

    I can’t stress enough how much more convenient and compact this is, compared to, for example, the original Nano iDSD. This is the mess of cables you’d normally have to live with when using Nano iDSD in portable mode:

    Nano iDSD stock cables mess.jpg

    In order to make the portable package with Nano iDSD nicer and more compact, I ordered a wonderful custom-built copper litz Micro USB to USB Type B OTG cable, which worked perfectly, but required quite an additional investment.

    Nano iDSD custom OTG cable stack.jpg

    With the Nano BL, this is not necessary. Of course, those of us who fancy aftermarket custom cables, could still bother ordering a custom-made higher-quality OTG cable with typical USB Type A Female connector, but the ability to use almost (and this is an important “almost”!) any commercially available USB OTG adapter is a huge plus.

    However, a special note must be made here: while Apple’s original Lightning to USB Camera Adapters are all exactly the same in terms of physical dimensions, unfortunately, USB OTG cables are offered by hundreds of different manufacturers, and the size of the outer plastic shell of the female connector can vary quite significantly. Being more of an Android guy rather than Apple person, I have quite a selection of different OTG cables, and I was able to find both those that fit perfectly, those, that fit with a very tight squeeze, and those, that just won’t fit at all.

    Three OTG connectors.jpg
    From left to right: perfect fit, barely fits, does not fit at all.

    Therefore, if you plan to use the BL in an Android-based portable set up and you’re planning to use the USB OTG cable directly plugged into BL’s USB socket – take the BL with you when you shop for the OTG cable to try the fit, or be prepared to do some sanding off of the plastic shell. Do NOT force the connector into the socked – you risk to bend/damage the contacts. The connector must enter without any excessive force.

    Original USB and OTG connectors.jpg
    Note the striking size difference between the bundled USB cable Type A female connector and the worst-case Android USB OTG connector – it is well over 1.5 mm!

    I wish iFi made this square opening just another half-millimeter larger in each direction – this would have solved a lot, if not all, of the physical compatibility issues with all sorts of cables and adapters.

    As you may have noticed, gone is the SPDIF RCA output of the original Nano iDSD – yes, the new BL omits the Digital-to-Digital Converter (DDC) functionality altogether. Whether to lament it or not strongly depends on your intended use. If you happen to own and cherish one of those older-generation coaxial SPDIF-only DACs – then you’ll lose the ability to hook it to your PC via USB to SPDIF conversion offered by the original Nano iDSD. If not (my case) – this omission is nothing to regret about. Obviously, the DDC is a lot more “desktop” rather than “portable” feature: I can hardly imagine when you could need to have an SPDIF output in a truly portable scenario. Yet another sign of iFi clearly wanting the BL to be perceived as a portable solution in the first place.

    This closes the section on external controls and connectors. All other sides of the unit are free of any connectors/controls etc. The “belly” has four pre-installed small silicone bumps which provide good grip for the unit sitting on the desk, and some protective clearance between BL and the phone/DAP, if used in a portable “sandwich” set up. Note that the original Nano iDSD also came with preinstalled silicone feet, but those were much larger and taller, making the entire portable “sandwich” noticeably thicker, than in case of Nano BL.

    Since this is a loaner unit which I am supposed to return in impeccable condition, there will be no disassembly/teardown, sorry :).

    Test equipment and music

    Test equipment.JPG

    Sources

    In desktop mode, the BL is fed by the digital signal from a dedicated music PC running Windows Server, via a NEC-based PCIe USB 3.0 card. I installed the most up-to-date USB Driver package from iFi, v.3.20.0. The playback software is Foobar2000 v1.3.17, packed with foo_out_asio v2.1.2, foo_dsd_processor v1.1.0 and foo_input_sacd v1.1.0.

    In portable mode, the BL is connected to Sony Xperia Z5 Compact, non-rooted, and running latest stock FW. The playback software is the latest version of USB Audio Player Pro (UAPP)v.3.8.5 and/or Hiby Music v.3.0.0 International build 5481. I have also tested the iOS playback using an iPad Mini 4, running the latest iOS 11.2.2 and Onkyo HF Player (full license) for bit-perfect hi-res USB Audio output tests, although I do not primarily use iPad as a portable music source.

    The Nano BL was tested with three different firmware binaries: the original 5.2 Limoncello, the 5.2A “DSD256 DoP” variation, as well as the 5.3C RC2 MQA-enabled. More on this later.

    Headphones

    Full size: AKG K501; AKG Q701; Audiotechnica ATH-A700; Audiotechnica ATH-ES10; Sony MDR-7506; Philips Fidelio X2

    IEM: Etymotic ER4P Custom eartips + recable.

    Compared to/paired with:

    iFi Nano iDSD USB DAC/Amp
    M2Tech HiFace USB DAC
    Ray Samuels Audio RSA Predator USB DAC/Amp
    Laconic HA-04AF Tube Headphone Amp
    Genelec 6010 Near-field studio monitors

    Test music

    While I have listened to a large variety of music during burn-in, I will base my listening impressions for this review on a playlist of test songs that I try to use in whatever equipment listening tests, in order to have more comparable results.

    Format compatibility and audible differences between formats (or absence thereof :wink:) was tested using the excellent selection of hi-res samples offered by 2L – a Norwegian record label. The advantage is that I truly compare apples to apples: 2L offers the same track, packaged in a variety of different formats (FLACs ranging from Redbook to DXD, DSD from 64 to 256, and even MQA-encoded files) all coming from the same highest-quality studio master source. In my compatibility tests I used the Mozart Violin Concerto in D major KV 218, I. Allegro, performed by Marianne Thorsen & TrondheimSolistene and mastered in hot and fresh MQA remix of 2016.

    Sound signature and sonic qualities were tested using a selection of my favorites tracks, mainly coming from big audio companies’ or record lables’ test/demonstration disks. The track list is below:

    track list.jpg

    Basic operations

    PC operation

    BL is recognized by Windows-based PCs as a USB Audio device and appears under “Sound, video and game controllers” as “iFi (by AMR) HD+ USB Audio”.

    I used the supplied USB3.0 Type A Female to Type A Male cable for connection to my PC. In fact, any USB Type A Female to Type A Male extender cable would work, no matter USB3.0 or USB2.0, because electronically the USB input on the Nano DL is USB2.0.
    However, this is not the only cabling option. The Nano DL includes two adapters that allow you to use any USB2.0 Type B terminated cable to connect to your digital source. USB Type A to B cables are quite common among higher-end aftermarket USB cable manufacturers. The USB Type A end would usually go to the source – a PC, or a network player/streamer, and Type B would usually go to the DAC. This is not a rule nor a standard, so other variations also occur.

    As I mentioned earlier, both included adapters do exactly the same thing and only differ in shape and length. In my opinion, including both of them is a bit of a redundancy. Moreover, unlike the original Nano iDSD, which had “USB3.0-shaped” Type B socket (with the cutout for the raised part of USB3.0 compliant cables), both included adapters would only physically accept “square” USB2.0 Type B cables. Technically, USB3.0 fully-wired cables would make absolutely no difference, as only the USB2.0 part of contacts will be used anyway. However, as USB3.0 is gradually replacing USB2.0 virtually everywhere, the physical compatibility of the original Nano iDSD with the new generation of cables is an added bonus.

    With Firmware 5.2 Limoncello the unit is absolutely stable, and gets recognized by the system every time I connected it, both in “battery power mode” (where you have to first turn the unit on with the volume knob, and then connect the USB cable), and in “USB power mode” (where you plug the cable first and then turn the device power on with the volume knob).

    Geeky Technote on power circuit
    ¬The Nano BL does an excellent job of managing the power, and does in my opinion even better, than its predecessor. There are quite a few subtle, but interesting differences, and I did some tests and measurements using an inexpensive USB power meter, the absolute precision of which is not too important, as what I am really interested in is relative performance between different modes, as well as compared to the original Nano iDSD and my M2Tech HiFace DAC. So please take the absolute power numbers below with a grain of salt – it’s the trends that are more important.

    Charging

    When connected to a USB power source (no matter PC port, portable device or USB power adapter) with power switched off, the Nano BL initiates the charging mode: the LED turns blue, and the battery is begin charged with up to 600mA. The maximum the original Nano was roughly 400mA, which means that, all other things being equal, the Nano BL would pump more energy during the same period of time (with a good charger), resulting in reduced charging times.

    Nano BL OFF Charging.jpg

    An interesting observation: when you connect the Nano BL in USB Power mode, the device starts talking to the system even when the volume knob is in the OFF position. Voltage is supplied to Data+ and Data- lines the moment you plug the cable (see D+ and D- readings in the picture above). The driver is initialized; the device is correctly detected by the host, no matter PC, Android or iOS. For example, on a PC, Nano BL is correctly displayed in the iFi HD USB Audio control panel, and you can even start the playback in Foobar2000 using it as the output device (the control panel will also correctly reflect changes in the track sample rate) with the unit still switched off, but of course no sound will be coming out of connected headphones and/or line out.

    This is very different from the original Nano iDSD, which started the handshake only after you switched it on by turning the volume knob. In OFF position, there’s no voltage on Data+ and Data- lines, hence the device is not visible to the host, and only draws power.

    This leads me to the conclusion that the Nano BL always powers at least the USB receiver chip and (maybe) part of the DAC circuitry from the external USB power source, before the circuit is broken by the power switch in the volume pot.

    Turning the unit ON while in “USB Power mode”

    If you turn the Nano Black Label ON while it is connected to a USB port, it enters the “USB Power Mode”, and the current consumption increases by approximately 20mA. In other words, in my measurements it went up from 600mA to 620mA when turned on while charging at max current, or from 210mA to 230mA when charging closer to full battery capacity. If you turn the power OFF again, and the battery is still not full, the power consumption will go back to whatever charging current there was, and the LED will turn blue again.

    Nano BL OFF Charging low.jpg
    Nano BL OFF, charging
    Nano BL on from Charging low.jpg
    Nano BL On from charging

    600mA is quite a lot of current, and even though it will drop as the battery charges, I certainly do not recommend using “USB Power Mode” with portable devices, nor leave Nano DL connected to your portable device after you switch it OFF. I know it sort of contradicts iFi’s statement that you can use the unit with portable sources, even if the battery is fully depleted. And yes, you can, however, I don’t think you want to drain 600mA current from your mobile phone, and this is exactly what Nano BL will drain with empty battery, as the charging current will be the highest. Another thing to remember is that there are quite few portable devices, that would actually allow such a drain from them. My Sony Xperia Z5 Compact is known to have a very generous current allowance on its OTG port, so it did supply up to 610mA to Nano BL (590mA in the picture), but the battery drain was very strong.

    Nano BL OTG Charging.jpg
    Note the huge voltage drop – the phone’s power regulator has a hard time coping with Nano BL’s power appetite!

    The original Nano iDSD shows a slightly different behavior. When connected with power off, it starts charging the battery at around 400mA, gradually dropping as it gets fuller. Same pattern with different values. However, when you turn the power ON, the power consumption jumps to a fixed value оf around 340-360mA, regardless of the battery charging level (and current consumption in charging mode). When you turn the power OFF again, the current consumption returns to the charging value (which could be higher or lower than 340-360mA in the ON state, depending on the level of battery charge).

    Nano iDSD OFF Charging.jpg
    Nano iDSD OFF, charging
    Nano iDSD ON from USB Power Mode.jpg
    Nano iDSD ON from charging

    However, if you turn the power ON when the battery is fully charged (the LED is off and Nano iDSD goes into the “trickle charge” mode, drawing about 40mA) - the current consumption drops to basically zero (at least, below the precision threshold of my cheap meter, which seems to be 10mA). The unit operates with literally zero current draw from the source until the battery is dead or until you unplug and re-plug it – in which case the power management logic resets. So in other words, if the original Nano iDSD gets fully charged between the moment you connect it to the USB port and you turn it ON, it will always start in “Battery Power Mode”, even though technically you plugged the cable first, and then turned the power ON.

    This strange behavior was corrected in Nano BL, which, even if fully charged, will always correctly turn ON in “USB Power Mode”, always drawing “X+20mA” from the source, where X is whatever current the unit was drawing in the “OFF” position, including the “trickle charge” when the battery is fully charged.

    Battery Power Mode

    If you connect the Nano BL to a USB port with its power ON, it will enter the “Battery Power Mode”.
    In this mode the unit consumes virtually nothing from the source’s USB port, with my cheap power meter it was jumping around 10-20mA.

    Nano BL OTG Battery Power mode.jpg

    Nano iDSD has approximately the same current drain in Battery Power Mode. Needless to say that this mode is a lot more appropriate for the portable use. Compared to a very portable-friendly, but still battery-less, M2Tech HiFace DAC, both Nanos draw almost 10 times less power from the source, which, to me, is a clear and unbeatable advantage of battery-equipped devices in portable use.

    M2Tech.jpg

    Using Foobar2000, I had absolutely no problem playing back all almost all declared file formats. The unit correctly accepted PCM signals ranging from your Redbook 16/44.1 all the way up to whopping DXD 24bit/352kHz files. As far as DSD is concerned, I was able to effortlessly playback DSD 64 (2.8MHz) and DSD 128 (5.6MHz).

    DSD256 files could not be played back though Nano BL flashed with 5.2 Limoncello. The original Nano iDSD running the same 5.2 Limoncello firmware (and yes, this is exactly the same FW, the binary file is absolutely identical) could not play DSD256 neither. However, for the original Nano iDSD there’s 5.2A firmware variant officially listed on the web site, which unlocks DSD256 in DoP (DSD-Over-PCM), and allows to play back DSD256 files.

    While 5.2A is not officially listed as compatible with Nano BL, after consultations with iFi technical specialists I tried flashing this binary to Nano BL, and it went totally fine. The unit was initialized by the driver now displaying 5.2A firmware, and DSD256 tracks played just fine, with the control panel correctly reporting DSD256 (DoP) output format and a whopping 705600kHz sampling rate.

    Foobar_lights.jpg

    While I strongly believe that the ability to play back DSD256 content in a normal, “consumer listening” environment, let alone portable set ups, is more of a demonstration of iFi’s excellent engineering rather than a practical necessity, credits given where due. iFi managed to cram an incredible amount of versatility and flexibility in such a tiny footprint (both in terms of physical dimensions and the price bracket). There’s certainly some magic going on inside those tiny boxes. Black magic in this case :wink:

    I have also tried the newer Release Candidate firmware for the Nano BL – namely, 5.3C RC2. This firmware unleashes MQA decoding capabilities of the Nano BL, is said to lock PCM up-sampling to 8x, and changes the logic of LED color indication of the incoming signal format.

    As far as MQA is concerned, unfortunately, I could not test this feature. TIDAL is not available in Russia, and I could not find any other way of testing MQA-encoded tracks on a PC source. So no magenta light has ever shown up on my Nano DL.

    DSD playback in 5.3C RC2 is unchanged compared to 5.2 – full support of DSD64 and DSD128 tracks, the LED correctly turns cyan. DSD256 tracks cannot be played back again – you do need 5.2A to unlock DSD256 DoP mode.

    With the PCM material the unit behaves quite differently compared to the stock 5.2 Firmware. The 5.3C RC2 is said to always show the white LED on PCM material because it is “upsampled 8x”. And indeed, instead of showing individual color coding for up to 96kHz (green) or 174/192kHz (yellow) or DXD (white), the Nano BL is now always white with PCM tracks. However, I could not perceive any audible difference between non-upsampled playback of PCM tracks and 8x upsampling.

    I must note, however, that in terms of the overall stability the 5.3C RC2 is still what it is honestly called – a release candidate. I did have a couple of occurrences where Nano BL would not be recognized by the system at first connection attempt (no matter “Power then cable” or “Cable then power”), and required re-plugging it one or two times. Once recognized, the unit remain rock-solid in terms of stability. This only happened to me on the 5.3C RC2 firmware – I have never had any issues plugging/unplugging/re-plugging dozens of times with neither Nano BL, nor Nano iDSD, with officially released 5.2 and 5.2A firmware.

    Android operation

    Nano BL was tested with my Sony Xperia Z5 Compact, which supports USB OTG connection (this is a mandatory requirement to properly use outboard USB DAC on an Android device, bypassing any internal system audio processing).

    The only caveat is the physical compatibility of the Nano BL’s square opening and the size of the outer shell of the Type A female connector on the OTG cable. I covered it in the “Packaging and contents” section of this review, just a reminder: not all USB OTG cables are created equal, so please try before you buy!

    On my Xperia, in order to use the Nano BL (or any other external USB device), I needed to initialize it manually, by going to Settings -> Device Connection -> USB Connectivity, and tap the “Detect USB Device”.

    Screenshot_20180214-171938.png

    Your mileage may vary, as I think it strongly depends on the USB OTG implementation and can differ from phone to phone and from Android version to another.

    In portable set up, you will want to use Nano BL’s Battery Power Mode, so please make sure to turn the unit on with the volume knob first, and then connect your cables and perform whatever actions are necessary to initialize the device on your smartphone or tablet.

    Nano BL demonstrated perfect compatibility with both USB Audio Player Pro (UAPP) and Hiby Music – the two leading Android apps capable of completely bypassing Android system sound mixer and output bit-perfect USB Audio to outboard DACs. I had absolutely no problem playing back the entire selection of my test tracks, including (with some quirks) DSD256 tracks.

    Screenshot_20180214-171914.png Screenshot_20180214-172139.png

    Track format indication by the LED was accurate with all the files. Most of my testing was done using USB Audio Player Pro, with Bit Perfect set to “ON”, DSD Mode set to “Native”, and no USB Tweaks selected. I must once again acclaim iFi’s excellent format compatibility across any platform!

    Geeky Technote on DSD256 playback on Android
    The only thing that deserves a special mention is that DSD256 files in UAPP played just fine both in “Native DSD” and in “DoP” mode. This seemed a bit strange to me, because I thought DSD256 playback required “DSD-Over-PCM” (DoP) mode. The LED on Nano BL correctly lights up in blue, which means that at least there’s no hidden PCM conversion of any sort going on. Frankly, I don’t know if it is Nano BL actually doing more than advertised, or the UAPP has those settings messed up, switching to DoP automatically when the DAC requests it.

    In Hiby Music DSD256 also didn’t work as advertised: it didn’t work at all My test DSD256 file would not start playing back with an error message “File format is not supported”, no matter what DSD setting was selected – Native DSD or DSD-Over-PCM.

    Once again – in my opinion, DSD256 files in a portable set up are just plain useless. They take up HUGE amount of portable device’s storage (a single 5-min DSD256 .dsf file is on average an insane 800 MB!!!), while offering absolutely no sonic advantages compared to DSD64 or 128, and, depending on other equipment, it may not offer any audible advantages even over PCM files. My deeper-than-necessary dwelling into this subject is dictated by purely technical curiosity, rather than any practical concern.

    iOS connection and operation

    While I don’t normally use iOS devices as my digital music sources (I could’ve elaborated on this on 3-4 more pages, but I will not start this Holy War :wink:), for the purposes of testing I used my iPad Mini 4 with Onkyo HF Player, connecting Nano BL directly by Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter.

    A note to be made here: make sure to always use “Battery Power Mode” when connecting Nano BL to your iOS device, by turning the power on first, and the plugging the cable in. Otherwise you will most likely get the famous annoying Apple’s “The attached accessory uses too much power” error message, and your Nano BL will not be initialized.

    iOS warning.png

    Your mileage with more powerful Apple devices such as iPads Pro may vary, but to be on the safe side, I recommend sticking to the Battery Power Mode all the time. Even without the error message, this makes perfect sense, as you don’t really want Nano to draw power from your mobile device.

    Connecting Nano BL in Battery Power mode is a breeze. Once initialized by the system, the unit becomes visible to Onkyo HF Player.
    Nano BL demonstrated once again excellent format compatibility, playing back all my test PCM and DSD tracks. Note that, unlike UAPP or Hiby on Android, Onkyo HF Player only offers DSD-Over-PCM (or DoP) playback for DSD files (in addition to DSD-to-PCM conversion, which is a totally different thing). It may well be an iOS platform limitation, although being able to play hi-res or DSD content and output it to an external USB DAC form an iOS device is already a huge achievement by Onkyo!

    onkyo HF Player.png

    The Nano BL LED indicator correctly reported all the signal formats, from green for PCM all the way up to blue for DSD256 DoP.
    The only unpleasant experience of using Nano BL on iOS device is a sudden and very loud unpleasant “scratching” sound, quite often coming from the headphones the moment you close Onkyo HF Player after playing back a DSD file. This has nothing to do with Nano BL and must be something about the app or the iOS platform in general, as this happened to me with every USB DAC I tried on my iPad. It does not happen but make sure to switch the unit off before closing the Onkyo HF Player.

    I did not test any other third-party music software on my iPad, since Onkyo HF Player is the only true bit-perfect USB Audio app that I know of, and I own a full-licenced version which allows you to load and play back hi-res content. Please note that for all your fancy hi-res PCM and/or DSD tracks, you’ll need to load them directly to Onkyo HF Player using iTunes’ application-specific file sharing. Onkyo HF Player can read your iTunes music library locally stored on your iPad, but the playback will be routed via iOS audio mixer.

    The native Apple music app can play through Nano DL too, but of course, only those tracks that are in your iTunes library.

    Listening impressions

    black magic.jpg

    This is the trickiest part of any review, but probably for most readers, the most important one. My problem with listening impressions has always been that I know this is always purely subjective, and as such maybe the least reliable part of any review. On the other hand, this is exactly what makes multiple reviewers’ tours the most useful form of product presentation – readers get a wide range of different opinions, and where such opinions converge would most likely be as close to objectivity as possible.

    I will start with a few general comments about Nano iDSD Black Label, and then would add some finer details and impressions on various gear combinations and music tracks.

    Unique sonic characteristics of different headphones driven by Nano BL remain very recognizable

    This one is important. In other words, Nano iDSD Black Label does a good job of not adding too much of its own sonic character to different headphones it drives. Some reviewers would call it neutral sounding, and it may be a good term, although to me, it is neutral not in the sense of perfectly flat frequency response curve, but in the sense of not affecting much the overall tonal characteristics of given headphones.

    What it means in practice, with Nano BL, for example, my Etymotics sounded pretty much what they are supposed to sound: a high-precision surgical scalpel, capable of dissecting music into its finest layers and pieces. And not a Thor hammer that slams base notes into your head like a very colored and punchy ES-10 by Audiotechnica.

    Nano BL does not try to be nice sounding (by emphasizing lower end, or adding more sparkle to the treble), it tries to be sounding honestly. This may or may not what someone is looking for.

    For example, the M2Tech HiFace DAC + RSA Predator combo are a totally different sounding set up, with much more coloration, much more involving sound. Great lower end punch; lush, rich and forward-sounding mids, and slightly recessed treble may sound more appealing, especially with some genres.

    However, the price to pay for this emotional involvement is that there’s much less sonic character difference between different pairs of headphones, and all of a sudden your darker, more aggressive and impactful Fidelio X2 start sounding not that different from you normally airy, light and laid-back AKG K501.

    Nano iDSD Black Label is a true powerhouse of a headphone amplifier

    This one is obvious. The Black Label is a HUGE improvement over the original Nano iDSD in terms of headphone amplification.
    It easily coped with anything I was able to throw at it, from sensitive Etymotic IEMs and ATH-EW9 clip-ons to much harder to drive AKG K501.

    Nano BL with AKG K501.jpg
    I hope this is the biggest thing ever plugged into Nano BL :)

    Even without going to the extremes of the headphones range (no, I don’t own any planars, orthodynamics or old-school 600 Ohms studio monitoring cans), I can tell the power reserve of this tiny box is absolutely amazing!

    This is probably the most notable difference with the original Nano iDSD. I have always thought (and I still do) that Nano iDSD is a much better DAC than the headphone amp, and in my personal set up it was mainly a desktop unit. Its headphone jack was its Achilles heel.
    Certainly not the case with the new Nano BL! A combination of clever iEMatch technology, new fully analogue volume control and the S-Balanced topology make it a much more capable headphone amp than its predecessor.

    If any criticism could be applied to headphone amplification of the Nano BL – this would go towards the iEMatch socket. It does sound slightly veiled, less transparent and detailed, than the Standard output, even at normalized volume levels. Whether it has to do with iEMatch additional circuitry in the signal path, or I simply don’t have uber-sensitive 16-ohms IEMs to really benefit from this technology – I am not sure. But here’s the fact: most of my listening was done via the Standard output.

    I must admit I was not able to test the advantages of the “S-Balanced Technology” offered by iFi, simply because I could not get hold of any balanced-cabled headphones that would be terminated in a 3.5mm TRRS plug.

    Geeky Technote on balanced headphone connections
    The problem with “balanced headphones” (as much as I hate this term, because it is completely incorrect from the engineering point of view) is that, unlike studio/on-stage/broadcasting world, there’s absolutely no industry standards as to the connectors. We have a wild plethora of options, ranging from dual 3-pin XLRs to 2.5mm 4-pole TRRS, with all sorts of things in the middle - single 4-pin XLR, 4-pin mini-XLR, dual 3.5 TRS, dual 6.3 TRS, 4-pin square “RSA-Alo Audio” Camera plug and you name it!

    As I wrote in the Connections and Controls section of this review, anything that would help users cope with this versatility, would be of great help: a 2.5mm balanced connector instead of one of the 3.5mm, and/or one or two balanced adapter cables instead of two identical USB Type B adapters in the bundle would make this “S-Balanced” feature a lot more practical and useful.

    Nano iDSD BL as a DAC kept all the good things of the original Nano iDSD

    I compared Nano iDSD Black Label to the original Nano iDSD, as well as to M2Tech HiFace DAC, in DAC only mode, driving either an external headphones amp or my active monitors from the devices’ line outputs. My findings confirm that the DAC part of both generations of Nanos is almost, if not exactly, the same: the best DAC I have ever heard in sub-$500 class, hands down, especially with DSD material.

    Line outs.JPG

    It has a very neutral, open sound signature, with a very cohesive overall sonic picture, very good level of detail, and excellent timber reproduction – very natural and delicate. With PCM material it retains most of its qualities, however, it does sound a little less refined and detailed. The differences are very subtle, and require very careful listening with very detailed and neutral headphones (I use my Etymotics for these purposes), but they are audible. This is perfectly in line with my earlier impressions from the original Nano iDSD, and I can only repeat that if you really want to get the best of your iFi Nano – go for DSD material.

    I must say that overall the Burr-Brown platform iFi chose for its portable range is really great, and iFi certainly learned well how to make a good DAC on this chip. In my personal ranking, it beats all of the Sabre portable implementations I have heard in this price bracket, and is a very solid contender even against my preferred (albeit not yet owned) AKA4490-based portable platform, such as Shanling M3S. However, this comparison is not very accurate, as I did not have M3S at hand during the review, and had to rely on memorized sonic impressions of the latter.

    One thing to note here. It is not a warm and bright sounding DAC, nor a dark, bass-hammering DAC. So if you prefer this type of sound signature – look elsewhere.

    Individual sound impressions

    With open full size cans (AKG K501/Q701, Philips Fidelio X2)

    The Nano BL did a great job allowing K501 and Q701 unleash their strongest features: excellent airiness, fantastic detail and wide and precise soundstage. You could almost physically feel the intimate chamber space where TACET went on with tube only recording of Stuttgarter Kammerorchester performing Boccherini’s La Musica Notturna, while at the same time enjoy the spaciousness of a concert hall with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, conducted by Anatole Fistoulari, made you plunge into the Swan Lake’s Act 2, Scene 10.

    Timbre accuracy was also excellent, and I am not adding “for the price” this time. TACET’s tube-only recordings have, to my taste, the most-natural sounding string instruments I have ever heard, and Nano BL was able to convey them without any undue interference. This is something that, for example, none of the Sabre-based portable devices I auditioned was capable to do.

    With Fidelio X2, Nano BL managed to drive them to their usual more punchy, heavier-weight and full-bodied sound. “You and your friend” by Dire Straits sounded as energetic and full of drive as you’d expect it to sound, and the same applies to the heart-touching acoustic guitar reefs and voice by Nils Lofgren in his “Keith Don’t Go’.

    With closed-back cans (Sony MDR-7506/Audiotechnica ATH-A700/ES-10)

    Those are the cans I’d normally use for recordings that benefit from a more intimate, in-your-ears sound signature, with a lot of presence. And Nano BL did not disappoint! John Campbell’s infernal voice sounded infernal enough to make you shiver listening to his Down in the Hole. And the incredible Melody Gardot would literally whisper into your ear her “So we meet again, my heartache”.

    The lower end of the spectrum was punchy and accurate, if only just a tiny bit lighter-weight than, for instance, my desktop tube amp is capable of delivering into the same cans. This totally conforms with the term “neutral-sounding” that can be applied to Nano BL – as much as I enjoy the whopping bass response of my Laconic tube amp, its sound signature is anything but neutral :).

    Laconic.jpg

    At home, in my desktop system, I’d probably have more enjoyment of Alan Taylor’s “Dedicated to…” bass line, however, on the go Nano BL was more than persuasive with this piece.

    With Etymotic ER4P Custom re-cabled IEMs

    Nano BL had absolutely no problems driving Etymotics, and I did not even have to recourse to the iEMatch socket – they played just fine from the Standard output. No matter Standard or iEMatch, Nano BL demonstrated a totally black background, with no hum or hiss whatsoever, even with the volume knob turned all the way to max. Excellent job by iFi, and apparently "iPurifier technology built in" does its job.

    Plugged into Nano, ER4P remained exactly what they are: an extremely accurate, sharp and sterile medical scalpel, which is capable of carving out the smallest details of the music texture. Etymotics and Nano BL turned out to be an excellent testing and evaluation combo, but…

    This is probably the only case where in terms of the actual listening pleasure and enjoyment I might say I liked my M2Tech HiFace DAC/RSA Predator more than the Nano BL. The much livelier sonic character of M2Tech HiFace DAC, combined with RSA’s signature dark, laid-back and lower-end focused sound are simply more fun with Etys because they offset nicely the uber-flat, even and sterile sound signature of Etymotics. This in no ways mean something is wrong with Nano BL, it is just that ER4 are a very specific pair of IEMs, and not all DACs/Amps are a synergetic match.

    Conclusions and final word

    Bravo, iFi, you did it again!

    You started this game with the original Nano iDSD – opened up the world of excellent sound in a portable package to a sub-$200 market. Then you took the original Nano iDSD, painted it in black, improved on every single aspect that needed improvement, added a few new features (some more practical than others :wink:, and still crammed the whole thing into the same $200 envelop.
    The only question that I have is how do you guys do it. Black magic? :wink:

    Is Nano BL ideal? For its price it certainly is. It’s small, incredibly versatile, packed with features and has a very pleasant, clear and neutral sonic character.

    Is it for everyone? Well, in my view, it will definitely fit the bill with most users. However, a distinctly neutral sound may seem a bit uninspiring for someone who is addicted to colored sound. Others may note some lacking energy and emotion, especially with some headphones, but this is certainly not Nano BL’s fault.

    Did I like it? I absolutely did, and this is not surprising: I like my original Nano iDSD a lot, and here comes the successor that is simply a better, improved version of it.

    Oh, and now it is BLACK!
      Dark Helmet and HalSF like this.
    1. Dark Helmet
      Geat review.
      Dark Helmet, Feb 18, 2018