iFi audio nano iDSD Black Label

Rating:
4.35294/5,
  1. ahmadfaizadnan
    iFi iDSD Nano Black Label: a Micro BL Contender?!
    Written by ahmadfaizadnan
    Published Feb 6, 2018
    4.0/5,
    Pros - MQA, Neutral acoustic sound, portability, S-Balance, IEMatch
    Cons - Bass has less impact, IEMatch could do toggle button
    20180120_151109.jpg
    Wait. Don’t judge me by the title statement. I don’t want to make it controversial but that’s what I heard. Whether it holds or not, it’s really up to you to decide. The question is, where do I stand by this statement? I’ll let you guys know at the end. Let see if this small black box lives up to the hype.

    Disclaimer
    I used to own mojo but decided to sell the unit because I am not using it as much. I am focusing on dedicated desktop setup thus the reason for selling. While I am familiar with the sound signature, I don’t have the unit for direct comparison with iDSD Nano Black Label. I might throw in some impressions comparing the Mojo with Nano BL, but it will not do justice to how they really compare. But I did used iDSD Micro BL for direct comparison. Thus, I decided to give my two cents and my own insights on these DACs.


    First and Foremost
    I would like to give my thanks to Lawrence from iFi Audio that manage the west USA tour well; also, to iFi Audio in general as they gave us the opportunity to try the unit in our system/setup. I have talked to some of the iFi personnel in the past CanJam and they are easy to approach. The customer service also has never been better. They are helpful in Head-Fi and every other forum I bet.

    My iFi background
    I never had any iFi product on my own, but I do have several friends that own them, and it happened that two of them are my housemates. I get to listen to iDSD micro Black Label extensively while had a fair of listening time in the past with iDSD micro SE. My impression of the variations of iDSD micro is that the Black Label nail it in almost every section; a worthy upgrade I would say. I keep comparing the micro Black Label with Mojo but never come to a conclusion which one of them is better. In my opinion, Mojo performs better with HD800 and TH900 while micro BL shines with warm headphones like HD650. Well, in the end, it really comes to personal preferences. Now that iDSD Nano Black Label is released, I am really intrigued to see where it falls in iFi DAC/Amp line up. Although it might sound obvious that it’s going to be a better version of iDSD Nano, will it better the iDSD micro SE or BL? Or even Chord Mojo?

    20180120_151023.jpg 20180120_151142.jpg

    What’s in the box?
    Out of the box, you’ll get the DAC, a well-thought carrying case, a USB B cable female to male adapter, USB A female to a USB B female adapter, a short USB A female to USB B male adapter, rubber band for stacking, manual and warranty card. Obviously, RCA cable is not provided by iFi this time since it doesn’t have RCA like its older brother.

    20180120_151612.jpg
    Build and Appearance
    As usual, it has the iFi logo at the top and descriptions at the bottom. iFi is known for their product’s versatility but iDSD Nano BL by far the simplest in terms of functionality. It has two headphone outputs, both 3.5mm but one of them has the IEMatch feature. With the IEMatch, it ensures ‘hiss-free’ out from sensitive IEM or headphones. At the back, there’s a toggle button for ‘listen’ or ‘measure’. The ‘listen’ feature uses a minimum phase filter while ‘measure’ uses the linear phase filter. Personally, if I decide to do mastering tracks or get involved sound production, I might not be going to get the iDSD Nano BL despite the ‘measure’ feature; but, it is good to have and works for those who travel and work in the sound production industry. It only has digital input and 3.5mm line out if you want to connect the iDSD Nano BL with a separate amp. Overall, it got a great build quality and pretty much similar to any other iFi products.

    20180120_152001.jpg 20180120_151941.jpg 20180120_152021.jpg

    Features/ Specifications

    Input(rear):

    USB2.0 type A “OTG” Socket (with iPurifier® technology built-in)

    Output(rear);

    1 x Audio fixed line out L+R 3.5mm

    Digital Filter:

    2 positions, 2 filters

    Outputs(front):

    2 x Headphone Audio 3.5mm one direct and one with iFi iEMatch® integrated

    DAC

    DAC:

    DSD, DXD, PCM DAC by Burr Brown Bit-Perfect DSD processing, Bit-Perfect DXD processing

    Clock:

    Low-jitter crystal clock

    Audio Formats:

    DSD 256/128/64/12.4/11.2/6.2/5.6/3.1/2.8

    DXD 384/352.8kHz

    PCM 384/352.8/192/176.4/96/88.2/48/44.1kHz

    MQA 88.2/96/176.4/192kHz filters

    Filter–PCM:

    Listen(transient optimised minimum phase)

    Measure(frequency response optimized)

    –DSD:

    Listen(extended bandwidth transient optimised)

    Measure (narrow bandwidth, low output band noise optimized)

    –DXD:

    Fixed Bit-Perfect Processing

    –MQA:

    Fixed MQA Filter

    Headphone Amplifier

    Amplifier:

    Dual Mono 2 x 285mW Direct Drive, coupling capacitor free circuit for highest fidelity

    Volume Control:

    3.5mm TRRS with Balanced compatible wiring

    Dynamic Range(including DAC):

    > 109dB(A) @ 3v (Direct)

    > 107dB(A) @ 0.5V (iEMatch®)

    THD &N (@ 125mW/30R):

    < 0.005%

    Max. Output (<10% THD):

    > 3.5V @ 600Ω Load (Direct) (20mW/600Ω)

    > 2.9V @ 30Ω Load (Direct) (285mW/30Ω)

    > 1.7V @ 15Ω Load (Direct) (200mW/15Ω)

    Output Impedance :

    < = 1Ω (Direct)

    < = 4Ω (iEMatchsup>®)

    Channel Separation:

    > 79dB @ 600Ω Load (Direct)

    > 79dB @ 15Ω Load (Direct) (1kHz, TRRS plug Balanced wiring)

    Line Output

    Dynamic Range(Line):

    > 109dB(A)

    THD & N(0dBFS Line):

    < 0.004%

    Output Voltage(Line): :

    2.15V (+/-0.05V)

    Output Impedance:

    < 240Ω

    Channel Separation:

    > 99dB (@ 1kHz)

    Jitter(correlated):

    Below test set limit

    Dimensions:

    96(l) x 64(w) x 25.5(h)mm

    Weight:

    139g (0.31 Ibs)

    Warranty period:

    12months

    Info from ifi-audio.com


    Gear used


    Source(s): Tidal Master, Foobar, Pioneer XDP-100r

    Dac(s): iDSD Nano Black Label, iDSD Micro Black Label

    Amp(s): ECP DSHA-0

    Headphone(s): Takstar Pro 82, Sennheiser HD800 SDR and HD6XX (modded)

    IEM(s): Westone 30 and KZ ZS6


    Songs (mostly MQA)
    Sam Smith – Too Good at Goodbyes (Master)


    This song focusses mostly on male vocals and out from the iDSD Nano BL, the DAC is able to bring nuance and good tonal balance across the spectrum with Sam’s magical voice and the background singer. With iDSD Micro BL, the sound is another level. Sam’s voice seems to be more engaging and every instrument sounds lively and real.


    Shawn Mendes -Stitches MTV Unplugged (Master)

    A live concert could be an issue to some gear and iDSD Nano BL produce a more forward sound. It is lacking in separation when compare to iDSD Micro Label is noticeable with this song. I felt like I am sitting in the front row with Nano BL and 3 or 4 rows further with Micro BL. Other than mentioned, I had a tough time to distinguish between both DACs with this song. The one thing that I can point out is it sounds more real with Micro BL but if you’re not listening to them for 2-3 hours, you might think that both produce a very similar sound signature.


    Queen – Another One Bites the Dust

    I always use this song for review as every instrument and singer has its own mic thus produce a good separation on its own. Nano BL with MQA rendering provides a great layering and separation that rivals Micro BL. Although its older brother has more sense of space and a tad more microdetail, it is hard to differentiate them in this song. The drum kick has less impact with Nano BL but they have more similarities than differences in my opinion.

    20180120_151857.jpg

    Headphone Pair (Vs iDSD Micro BL)

    20180120_152729.jpg
    Modded Sennheiser HD6XX
    How does it pair with HD6XX/650? This is no doubt one of the famous questions asked in multiple forums. I personally enjoy the vocal out of these in almost every song that I listen to. This amp pairs amazingly fine with a more forgiving headphone like HD6XX/650 as it could have sounded too revealing with headphones like HD800 and Takstar Pro 82. I still enjoy the HD800 with DSD and acoustical music with this amp but favor HD6XX pair for most other tracks. Like I mentioned before, I can’t get enough with the MQA feature. It opens up the sound and shows the capability of the headphone. While I don’t seem to agree when people said that HD6XX/650 is veil, but the MQA does add a more refined detail and perceived clarity out of the headphone. I could hear a better bass, more open soundstage and better nuance across the spectrum. The Nano BL produce rich sound engaging mids but Micro BL wins in dynamic and faster transient response. The Micro BL is one of the best transportable DAC/Amp for HD650/6XX under $1000 but Nano BL do come close and with that smaller size, I am not surprised if I pick Nano BL over Micro BL.

    20180120_152535.jpg
    Modded Takstar Pro 82
    My first impression right off the bat was lively and full of energy. This headphone could sound dull and lifeless with bad synergy. With Nano BL, it brings everything forward but natural. Takstar Pro 82 is known for its wide soundstage but sometimes I feel that the sound is too distant and not natural. With Nano BL, everything sounds right. Articulate bass, smooth sound across the spectrum, percussion and singer’s position seems right to my ears. Imaging is above average despite the forward presentation. Even though I enjoy the combo, I still think that iDSD micro BL is a better pair with this headphone. Tonal density is lacking, and it sounds a little dry in comparison to micro BL. I used to love vocals and mids with this headphone but less so with Nano BL in the chain. However, the upper midrange and treble with this combo never cease to amaze me; pleasant to listen to but never lose energy.

    20180120_161720.jpg
    HD800 SDR + Sheepskin Pad
    Personally, I am not a fan of HD800 and iDSD Micro BL combo. Don’t get me wrong, they do sound great, but I felt like HD800 has a better synergy with mojo. So, what about Nano BL? As you would expect from the similarities of the Black Label brothers, I still prefer mojo over Nano BL for HD800 as they are more enjoyable to my ears. In terms of power, it got more than enough to drive the HD800 to an ear-splitting level. Since HD800 has a huge soundstage, the Nano BL provides a good imaging and more neutral soundstage to the headphone. As if you were seating in the front row of a concert while Micro BL is a further row back. The bass is profound but not as punchy as Micro BL. The Micro BL bass has more texture and quantity, especially with the XBass feature. Although, Nano BL really stands out with instruments like trumpet and saxophone. I enjoy the tonality with orchestra and instrumental song even though it still lacking in overall instrument separation as compare to Micro BL. Vocal is balanced and good but lacks rhythm. I enjoy acoustic song and vocal but less so with group singing. Well, I did find that the Nano BL has a more pleasing treble extension but also less airy at the same time.

    IEM Pair

    20180120_153112.jpg
    Westone 30
    The best portable combo that I had so far. Westone 30 has a similar tonality to HD650: forward sounding with great instrument separation, midrange has a great body with an amazing vocal presentation, impactful bass and laid back. I am positive that the IEM could benefit the iDSD NANO BL capability considering its performance with HD6XX and it certainly did. The first thing I noticed was the vocals on these were amazing! Sweet and intimate are the words to describe them. I keep playing any tracks that emphasis on vocals and GOSH! I love them. Period. My source with this combo is Pioneer XDP-100r and if you ask me if they are better than my desktop setup? I would say no but I really enjoy these when I step out of the door. It is kind of disappointing that Tidal mobile does not have MQA because it if it does, they are going to be an amazing combo. However, across the spectrum, I did find that it’s lacking in tonal density. It sounds a bit dry with some songs. At times, it felt a little congested and too forward. I tried the ‘measure’ filter for my other gears but not a fan of the sound. With Westone 30, it made it a slightly drier but more neutral at the same time. The bass in this IEM could be too much for some and with ‘measure’ filter, the bass is more controlled. Again, I still enjoy the ‘listen’ filter with this IEM for the most part. Overall, I really enjoy this fun combo, especially with EDM, pop, and rock.

    20180120_153255.jpg
    KZ ZS6
    KZ ZS6 is my another go to IEM with acoustic, orchestra and classic songs. I don’t have any preferences in genre, but I love to listen to any quality recording with great mastering. If I said that Westone 30 resembles HD650, KZ ZS6 reminds me of HD800. Large soundstage, shrilling treble, great clarity, clean bass but less impact. Despite the similar tonality, the quality is different and HD800 is superior by all means. The amp produced an accurate sounding combo and it did remove the unnecessary spike on the KZs which was I thought great because it did not do that much with HD800. Great imaging and has more body in the midrange and bass. KZs by far is my most sensitive IEM and it can pick up every single noise and distortion coming from the source. The IEMatch has the S-balanced feature that provides full balanced benefits and ‘hiss free’. The result is everything sounds clean with black background. I enjoy acoustic, orchestra and classical songs out of these but still lacking with some modern songs. As of how much I love the improvements it gave to KZ ZS6, I still think that Westone 30 is the better combo.


    Overall

    There are couple things that I like about this new DAC/Amp from iFi Audio and one of them is MQA rendering. In fact, I love it a lot. Everything seems clear and the clarity is something that I would not expect in the sub $200 portable amp. As a fan of balanced and neutral sounding amp, this will be my top choice if I am looking for the amp without breaking the bank. If you’re an IEM user, this amp is your best friend. The S-balance feature provides black background even with super sensitive IEMs. Of course, you can get a separate iFi IEMatch for the same purpose, but having it soldered inside the amp makes a lot of different; shield it from any external interferences. However, I prefer it to have a toggle button for the IEMatch feature like iDSD Micro BL instead of two 3.5mm outputs. A ¼ in output jack would be a good addition for versatility. I am positive that what iFi had in mind was to focus on IEM than full-size cans, but it would be amazing if ¼ in output jack could replace one of the 3.5mm jack and place the toggle button for the other 3.5mm jack to activate the IEMatch feature. I used the ‘listen’ filter most of the time and that’s how I enjoyed the most when listening to music. While it is a good feature to have, for leisure listener, it might not be utilized as much. I am a huge fan of iDSD Micro BL and thought that I am expecting too much on this amp to be a clone of its older brother. The bass in Micro BL is amazing and hope that Nano BL could do slightly better in the bass. It does have quantity but lacking in quality and texture.

    20180120_151731.jpg


    With MQA rendering feature, it allows for great detail retrieval that rivals Micro BL and Chord Mojo. It is a top-notch selection DAC/Amp under $200. For those who are looking for a sub $200 portable amp, I would advise you to just pull the trigger. You will never regret it.

    images

    1. 20180120_152729.jpg
  2. bms44974
    Excellent desktop DAC/AMP for headphones/IEMs
    Written by bms44974
    Published Jan 30, 2018
    4.0/5,
    Pros - price
    size
    SQ (especially with headphones & IEMs)
    Cons - when used as desktop DAC/AMP:
    frequent clicks with system sounds
    laptop reverted to onboard speakers when unit was not on at boot time
    Setup:
    I currently use an iDAC (original) in my desktop configuration. Foobar2000 serves as the source on my laptop (Dell XPS15 [9550]). The signal path is:

    laptop USB C -> Dell WD15 “docking station” -> USB 3.0 SS (A) cable to USB 2.0 B in iDAC.

    For testing the nano iDSD BL, I used the same USB cable from the dock and added the female to female USB B to USB A adapter that came with the nano iDSD BL. The iFi USB audio driver was updated to version 3.2 prior to testing.

    Downstream equipment included home and office desktop setups:
    1) Creek 4330se integrated amplifier and Epos M12 loudspeakers
    2) JBL LSR305 active studio monitors​
    and two headphone/IEM pairs:
    3) Sennheiser HD600 headphones
    4) Etymotic ER4SR IEMs​

    The iDAC RCA and nano iDSD BL line-out were used when testing the two desktop speaker configurations (DAC only). The headphone (iDAC) and IEM-match (nano iDSD BL) ports were used when testing the headphone and IEMs (DAC/AMP).

    Please note that I did not have am means to connect my portable source (FiiO X5ii) to the nano iDSD BL. All tests used the desktop source noted above.

    Operation:
    As I am used to the iDAC which only operates on USB power, one of the hardest things for me to remember was to turn the nano iDSD BL off when not in use. Switching between the two was also a bit cumbersome as the iFi USB drivers, while bundled, are different for the iDAC and iDSD. Each switch required that Foobar2000’s output settings be reset. This would not be an issue in normal use.

    When using the nano iDSD BL exclusively for several days in my office and home desktop configurations (1 & 2, above) I had to turn the unit on after the computer to keep from running on battery power. This meant that the iFi USB driver would not see the nano iDSD BL at boot time and reverted to my laptop speakers by default. If I was careful (and fast), I could turn the BL on during the boot process (i.e. as soon as the blue charging light came on) and avoid having to unplug and reconnect the unit. I suppose I could have waited for my laptop to boot entirely before connecting the iDSD, but I am too accustomed to plugging the iDAC in first. Old habits die hard.

    During desktop use, there were often small clicks when system sounds were played through the speakers. This was never a problem with the iDAC.

    Sound Quality:
    With HD600 and ER4SR, the nano iDSD BL had cleaner treble and base and better instrument separation and staging than the iDAC. The HD600s and ER4SRs really opened up with the nano iDSD BL. To my ears, both units performed equally (and very) well in the Creek/Epos and JBL settings. I could hear no notable difference between nano iDSD BL and iDAC with these open speaker systems.

    Overall:
    I was very impressed with the nano iDSD BL when using headphones and IEMs, where there was a clear improvement in sound quality compared with the iDAC. Whether due to a lack of fidelity in my desktop systems, DAC only operation, or the fine job iFi did with the original iDAC, I could not discern a difference between the nano iDSD BL and iDAC with my two open speaker setups. On account of its battery and smaller size, the nano iDSD BL is clearly more portable than the “transportable” iDAC. It would make an excellent addition to a portable rig. For desktop use with open speakers (where battery operation is not important), the iDAC (and likely the iDAC2) might be a better choice in so far as convenience of operation is concerned. The advantage would clearly go to the nano iDSD BL in the “price department”.

    Recordings used during the test:
    I have very few DSD files in my library and use them only when testing portable gear. I can’t tell much difference between DSD and FLAC for well-recorded source material. The following CD up to studio master quality FLAC files (approximately 500 to 5500 kbps) were used during testing of the nano iDSD BL.
    • Adam Harasiewicz: Chopin Nocturnes & Preludes
    • Bonnie Raitt: Road Tested
    • Calum Graham: Phoenix Rising
    • Dirks und Wirtz: Kinski Spencer Gismonti
    • Don Ross: PS15
    • Giovanni Palombo: La melodia segreta, A Secret Melody
    • Goran Sollscher: Eleven-String Baroque
    • Hoff Ensemble: Quiet Winter Night
    • Julian Webber: Elgar Cello Concerto - Saint-Saens Cello Concerto No.1
    • Laurence Juber: Guitar Noir
    • Los Angeles Spin
    • Luca Stricagnoli: Luca Stricagnoli
    • Mike Dawes: What Just Happened
    • Nora Jones: Come Away with Me
    • Oslo String Quartet: The Shubert Connection
    • Vladimir Horowitz: Rachmaninov Piano Concerto #3
    • Yo-Yo Ma: Bach Cello Suites Nos. 1, 5 & 6, Rachmaninov Prokofiev Cello Sonatas, Mendelssohn Piano Trios, Op. 49 & Op. 6
  3. joaojp1
    iFi audio nano iDSD Black Label
    Written by joaojp1
    Published Jan 23, 2018
    4.0/5,
    I am posting this review due to being part of the iFi nano iDSD Black Label tour, all the thoughts shared in this review are my own and reflect my honest opinion about this product.


    I am new to the head-fi world, I only started to appreciate the intricacies of the high resolution audio last year so don’t expected this to be a technical review It will be a review that will address the major features of the product from the consumer point of view specifying it’s usefulness or not



    Packaging and accessories

    2018-01-15 11.30.05.jpg

    2018-01-15 11.25.03-1.jpg

    The product Is well package in a white box enclosed in a cardboard sheath, the device rests in a cut out and in front of it is a little white box containing the included accessories (iFi bag to carry the device, 2 silicone bracelets, a USB A Female to B Female Adapter, a USB3.0 A Male to A Female cable and a USB A Female to USB B Female Cable). Although the box contains all the necessary cables to connect it to the computer it lacks a OTG Cable to able to connect It to your android or an equivalent solution for an Apple device, which in my opinion is a bit of a major flaw, since one of it’s bigger selling points is it’s portability and the possibility to connect it to your smartphone.

    Build quality

    The device features an all metal chassis that feels premium and should be pretty durable, in the bottom it was four silicone feet that prevent it from sliding or scratching your smartphone when it's attached via the included silicone bands

    2018-01-15 11.21.21.jpg


    2018-01-15 11.21.40.jpg

    Features

    2018-01-15 11.23.25.jpg

    2018-01-15 11.22.11.jpg

    On one side you have the in my opinion excellent volume knob and the two 3.5mm headphone output, one labeled IEMatch that works better with sensitive IEM's by providing better volume control and no audible hiss with my Shure SE846, basically it works as advertised, the other one is labeled direct and works as an ordinary headphone output. On the otherwise you have the only input, one of the few weak points of this unit, and a 3.5 mm line out if you want to connect it to a pair of powered speakers.

    Sound

    The nano BL performs extremely well for it's price and small size I can't give you any detailed comparisons with any other dac's since the only other one that I have tried is the Chord Hugo 2 which is in a league of it's own in terms off general detail retrieval and micro detail but the nano BL is no slouch either it has good detail retrieval and doesn't color the sound in any way, providing definitely better sound than your standard smartphone

    When using my Shure SE846 I found it performed as good as my Onkyo DP-X1 DAP which is three times it's price however when paired to my Mr. Speakers AEON I found the Onkyo to have better detail retrieval and a more laid back sound which suits better my preferences.

    Conclusion

    The iFi Nano iDSD BL is the perfect portable DAC for it’s price range, it definitely offers a lot for the price and for the budget conscious audiophile I definitely think it’s one of the best solutions on the market right now. The only downside I can think off is the lack of inputs otherwise this a pretty good and well rounded product that extends iFi excellent line of products.
      Grimbles likes this.
  4. TimeSnow
    Best in class
    Written by TimeSnow
    Published Jan 23, 2018
    4.0/5,
    Pros - Great sound for the price
    - Eminently portable
    - Best portable MQA ready device on the market.
    Cons - Soundstage sounds a bit artificially wide
    - May not suit an already bright rig
    - Bass is a little looser than I'd like
    This is my first audio gear review, but hopefully not my last.

    Caveat: This is a review that I'd like to read - which means cutting out a lot of extraneous stuff and instead focusing on what matter to someone like me when trying to decide what gear to purchase. If you want that other stuff, there's ample reviews that contain it and they're all worth a look.

    About me:

    I'm a professional music, mix engineer and composer. I have a lot of expensive gear and a lot of cheap and cheerfully gear. I use the tools I need without going overboard and wasting money. At least that's my goal.

    Disclaimer: I was part of the iFi tourbox for the Nano and was allowed to test it for a few weeks in exchange for my honest review.

    The pitch

    The iFi audio nano iDSD Black Label is a more compact, simplified and cheaper version of the non-nano Black Label. It uses well known and respected Burr-Brown convertors, and - like the similarly priced Dragonfly Red - allows users to access MQA files on Tidal, etc.

    So, is it better than the Dragonfly Red?

    When I was getting into headphones again, after years of just using them for work, I did what many do, I started googling.

    What Google lead me to believe was that a decent set of open back headphones was going to be a lot nicer than my studio cans, but I'd probably need an amp to get the most out of them.

    Not wanting to break the bank I bought a pair of HD 650s and a Dragonfly Red.

    This - especially with Tidal/MQA - was a total eye opener.

    At about the same time I signed up for Head-fi and started buying cheap then less cheap IEMs.

    Trying to get that same level of happiness on the go as I had at home was... Frustrating. MQA isn't really a portable format, and IEMs don't sound like open-back headphones. However I eventually bought my LZ A4s, USB Audio Player Pro and - coupled with the DFR - was pretty happy.

    But...

    Then I bought my custom made Hifiman HE-560s (known on Head-fi as the Batman headphones) and a Chord Mojo.

    Suddenly that DFR was not only underpowered, but it just didn't sound all that good, relative to the €500 Mojo.

    So. Now the meat, the reason you might be reading this: where does the iFi Nano stand, compared to the DFR and... Dun, dun, dun... The Mojo?

    Well, it's interesting and almost but not quite the outcome you'd expect.

    VS the Mojo:


    Can you save £300, skip the Mojo and buy this?

    No. Well, maybe. Yes? It depends.

    No, because comparing the two back to back playing FLAC files, or DSD, the Mojo is just better. If the Mojo is 100, the Nano is say about an 80/85.

    But it's a little more complex than that.

    The sound signatures ARE different, and not just by a little bit. The Nano is brighter, but not thinner. The bass is a bit looser and the soundstage is a bit wider, but it also sounds a little artificial.

    That might actually be something people prefer. If it is, then at the price it's a crazy steal. So that's the maybe. Maybe it matches your gear, your taste and your budget perfectly, in a way the mojo can't.

    As for the Yes... Yes it is better than the Mojo in one hugely significant way: MQA.

    The Mojo is probably never going to playback MQA. That's just a sad fact. Which means you have to have another solution if you want to take advantage of all that Tidal has to offer. And guess what...

    VS the Dragonfly Red:


    The iFi kills the DFR is every single way except one: it's size. It's larger and more bulky. Oh I guess you have to charge it as well... So that's another thing... But c'mon, charging things is just part of life in 2018. Suck.It.Up.

    Anyway and in conclusion:


    If you have about £200 to spend on an DAC/Amp combo, and want MQA, there's no earthly reason to look anywhere else.

    If you're looking for a first DAC/Amp to see if they actually do anything, look no further.

    If you don't care about MQA, and have £500 to spend on the best sound quality, the Mojo is better. Assuming your gear matches it, which it probably does.

    But for many thousands of people this will probably be the new king of sub-Mojo portable DAC/Amps. It certainly should be.

    As for me, I'm selling my DFR and buying a Nano for MQA alone. It's 100% a steal compared to the DFR, and the only real choice in this price range.

    Thanks:

    Thanks to iFi for the loaner, thanks to Karina and the IFI UK team and thanks to Head-fi for making it all possible.
      Grimbles likes this.
  5. rafaelo
    Nano Black: A review by a non Headphone person.
    Written by rafaelo
    Published Dec 31, 2017
    4.0/5,
    Pros - IFI sound signature, bass, IEMatch, Volume knob, MQA rendering
    Cons - Battery Consumption, Not Gym friendly, NO MQA Decoding, ΝO Bluetooth.
    First of all, I need to apologize to all because I am not a headphone person, I have very budget headphones which I use only out of nessecity and my review will appear so poor in comparison with so many experts in this forum. I am posting in this forum simply because it is required as part of the loan review process. However, I will do the review in an informal way from the point of view of simple consumer that offers an honest opinion in order to help other consumers at his level to choose a product and I hope some of you will find this review somewhat useful. More importantly, I hope I will provide useful consumer feedback to Ifi audio to design new products that fullfil some additional requirements of a silent budget audiophile minority (or maybe a majority:)...)

    To start with, my biggest concern regarding this device is the battery life. I thought that I had a default product since in any of my listening sessions I did not exceeded 2 hours of continuous listening. On my conserns Ifi responded with the following message :


    '10 hours playback is possible but on low volume / headphone etc.
    Charging time is around 3 hours'

    It is true that I was listening on high volume because i liked the combination of using IEMatch and raising the volume a lot (without IEmatch the volume is so loud in lower settings) but I got this response after I returned the unit so simply I do not know if that is the case.
    However, 2 hours battery life is a bit of deal breaker for me but I am not sure if this is the result of faulty unit or let's say an "illegitimate" usage from me.

    Someone can avoid using the battery for instance if using a desktop or laptop or Network adapter like the raspberry pi or the USBridge. However, you need the battery for a connection with an ios device like the iPad or iPhone and although is not strictly required for practical reasons with an android device too.

    I am an extremely happy owner of the ifi ione DAC so in my case I was interested in the mobile abilities of the nano Black. In my home set up the ione DAC is simply a dream so I would only consider to buy the nano for mobile use with my android phone or the iPad trying to reproduce the situation I experience in home for which I will discuss more thoroughly later.

    The headphones I used in my testing are the following:

    1) AKG Y50 50£
    2) soundmagic e10c 40£
    3) sennheiser hd 202 25£

    All of them I consider them very good for the price but clearly belong in the super budget category and probably they do not do any justice to the quality/power of nano. However, the nano is a relatively affordable dac so this may make sense as well. If I had 1000£ headphone I would consider a lot more expensive dac/amplifiers and not even blink to buy the mojo, maybe the Hugo as well.

    To my view the rivals to ifi nano Black are the mojo (because is so hyped and roughly the same footprint) and the audioquest dragonflys third generation.

    Both Dragonflys, red or black, have the perfect footprint for me for mobile use and I would definitely have bought one over the two if I had an iPhone instead of my android phone. As it is widely known from forums the android system is not compatible with these DACs and you need the UAPP in order to enjoy the full benefit of these DACs. Unfortunately, it seems that this is the case for the Nano black. Is working great with UAPP but not so well outside the app. I heard some clicks and pops from time to time and although in the beginning I thought is the otg cable responsible now i believe is the android system so screwed for proper usb audio without an appropriate app. Recently, I discovered that I have problems with using my dragonfly even with my UAPP so I couldn't do a comparison between dragonfly and nano on my phone. I can't use it in my iOS devices because v1.2 takes so much power so I did a direct comparison only with my surface book where the nano black smoked in sound quality the dragonfly v1.2. (although to be completely honest the dragonfly was not used for much time at this point) but since I had done similar comparisons in the past between ione and dragonfly I call it a day after a few minutes of comparison. Which brings to my first observation, that in a desktop/laptop situation the nano black is so much better and easily justifies its lager footprint. Usually, in a laptop situation I use the tidal desktop app which I find very powerful with the exclusive mode and the MQA Decoding functionality. After updating the nano firmware the MQA in the latest firmware version the rendering could be used providing a noticeable improvement in MQA tidal master songs. I believe this is the strongest point of the nano black. In a desktop/laptop situation with MQA where it really thrives and has the biggest delta with a non MQA dac. It would be interesting to compare with the red version in an MQA setting but that was not possible in my case.

    Because in my home set up ione was so much an improvement and better definitely than any of my previous DACs I am always wishing ifi to bring at least some portion of this sound quality to a dragonfly like form. For people like me with budget headphones that do not require a lot of power convenience is of ultimate importance. Another alternative, is to utilize the nano form factor with the Bluetooth functionality of ione. I am not fun of Bluetooth in home even in the best version available which is the ione implementation. Using usbridge or even raspberry pi provides so much more quality after paying the introductory price(in time) of setting up a system like that.

    But on the road where the ambient noise plays an important role and where compromises can be made this can be excellent solution. Even in the nano form you can have nano in one pocket phone in the other and go even in the gym.

    On the iPad, nano is good as well but the tidal app does not utilise fully the abilities of this dac. The blue cable provided in the box has excellent sound quality but behaves as a diva. With my iPad most of the times did not work. When it works is very good but only when it works. Maybe loves usb 3 ports more. I have similar experience with the blue usb supplied with my ione.

    I used the nano also in my home set up where I did not spend a lot of comparison time between this and the usb input of ione. I took as a given that they sound very similar and this is also confirmed by a brief observation more or less. So I am taking the liberty to comment on the sound quality of the nano dac from my previous experience from the ione and combine my experiences.

    My home set up consists of a marantz 6005 pm amplifier (300£) and a tannoy DC6T speakers that I got on offer for 250£ and voted best speakers for few years in the 800-1500£ category by the what hifi magazine. A very budget system again with some potential. However, before using the ifi dac or the ipurifier I was somewhat in disbelief for the ability of these speakers. I thought that maybe the amp was not able to realise the full potential or simply they were overestimated. I had also the belief that all budget DACs sound more or less the same so no further music satisfaction could be achieved until I upgrade my system considerably. That was before ifi arrived in town. First with the ipurifier and then with ione. Immediately, the improvement was substantial the amp and the speakers made an unbelievable combination that defied their price. Further tweaks, like a tube preamplifier, good RCA cables and the USBridge elevated the sound even further. If my speakers on 250£ pounds deserve every single penny the same is true for the ifi products. The ifi DACs transform the sound in two ways. One is through their ipurifier technology and the other through the DAC section.

    The sound signature of this dac I believe depends very much on the synergy. In my home set up with the warm marantz, the tube preamplifier section and my RCA cables the sound is warm, dynamic, transparent powerful and full of energy. Another way to put it is that the sound transformed to the equivalent sound of a hifi system that is one price category above without being fatiguing so you can listen for many hours.

    However, the ifi dac alone in a different system or the black alone with my headphones had a different behaviour and someone could say that it has neither excess warmness nor brightness. This is a positive for me, because it can be manipulated according to tastes. As such, I was getting more pleasure from my home set up rather than using the nano black with my laptop. Another observation, is that the nano black played better with the power supply taken from an ifi ipower through a usbridge and jitterbug than its internal power from its battery.

    This brings me to the following conclusions.

    1) An excellent DAC in absolute levels however you need to read other reviews (as I will do) for a comparison with the biggest rivals such as mojo and dragonfly red.

    2) Not very transportable. I prefer/need so much more the small factor of dragonfly. Alternatively, it needs the Bluetooth functionality to be truly convenient. If IFI manages to do that can make a budget Poly/Mojo killer with the nano form factor.

    3) For home set up I definitely prefer ione. It has the same sound quality and offers so much more functionality. The spdif implementation is from another planet and elevates the TV system to extraordinary levels.

    4) The battery for me is the big question. Nobody complained so far so maybe is my unit or I was doing something wrong. But 2 hours is two little this is an issue for me. The point is that it sounds so good that you want to raise the volume, if that deplates the battery excessively what is the point then?

    5) It would be nice to have MQA Decoding functionality as well. With UAPP you can have tidal with mobile devices and with Kodi/tidal 2 add on in home without a PC.

    6) The sound signature of IFI I believe is one of the best in the market and the one I clearly prefer. Please package this in more devices of different forms.

    7) The volume knob is a big plus for me and the strongest advantage against dacs like the mojo. For me it feels like the throttle in a bike. You give more when you need or want and the feeling is amazing. Maybe this is why I had two hours of battery only in my listening sessions. Ifi please NEVER remove the knob from your devices when needed.

    Probably, I will not buy this device simply because it does not cover my mobile needs but if it covers your requirements then I really recommend this product. I do not know if it is the best dac under 500£ and how compares with all its rivals but I know that: it sounds really really good in order to write a review 4 hours before new year Eve!

    Happy new year everyone!
      ninetylol likes this.
  6. SV_huMMer
    Nano iDSD Black Label: a black box full of wonders
    Written by SV_huMMer
    Published Feb 16, 2018 at 7:45 AM
    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 1.65v 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 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 at 1:11 AM
  7. Mshenay
    Streamers Delight!
    Written by Mshenay
    Published Feb 2, 2018
    4.0/5,
    Pros - Spacious Sound, MQA Support, Functionality, Black Background, Balanced & Flexible Presentation
    Cons - Volume Knob, Bass can be a little soft
    iFi Audio is at it again! This time their latest Black Label product the iDSD Nano brings MQA support into the portable realm. Overall I found it's sound to be spacious and black with a super light compact body and priced right at $199.



    Build
    [​IMG]

    The product's well built with minimal seams in the chassis and non-invasive screw placement. It features a unique USB Type A male connector housed seamlessly into the chassis. It's well built and light, the power switch is built into the volume knob and otherwise the only other moving part is the digital filter switch on the back.



    [​IMG]

    The 3.5mm and USB connectors are solid with no wiggle or play. My only gripe is the volume knob wiggles just a little, and there's a noticeable jump about 2 dBs up halfway through it's rotation. Otherwise it works, I didn't have any issue with it slipping or self rotating while I had it stashed in my hoody.



    [​IMG]

    The front side also features two different 3.5mm outputs, iEMatch and Direct. iEMatch is optimized for low impedance high sensitivity headphones and iems. Direct is suited for normal or more traditional impedance and sensitivity ratings. The only headphone I had that benefited iEMatch was my HD 25-1 ii and even then it was only marginally quieter. Otherwise I ran everything else through the direct port.



    [​IMG]

    As always the iDSD Nano arrives within iFi Audio's gorgeous packing brimming with goodies. This time they included a little soft felt pouch, a USB 3.0 Type A Cable and a 3.0 Type A female to Type B female so that you can hook it up to an existing USB Cable you already have for another DAC. Pretty handy as I have quite a few USB B's I use for the various Dacs I have in home. There was also a little sheet of paper with some optional rubber feet that I did choose to install. No analog cables this time how ever, just digital.



    Sound Quality
    [​IMG]

    Part of me wants to believe there's a little black magic at work here, but alas I know it's only electrons flowing to an fro. That said, the iDSD Nano Black Label sounds amazing and is characterized by a wide spacious sound with an excellent black background. Part of it's blackness has to due with the dual outputs, there's a Direct and IEMatch port. Direct for normal sensitivity headphones and IEMatch for high sensitivity headphones and iems. You can also run 3.5mm Balanced into either and achieve an even quieter output.



    I also liked how it's uniquely wide imaging also improved the quality of my owning lossy streaming listening. I typically shy away from streaming for reviews, but both Spotify and Napster set to 320kbs gained a subtle but noticeable more spacious presentation. This level of clarity I also enjoy from my Geek Out v2+ but the iDSD Nano Black Label presents this without emphasizing so much of what is lost like the Geek Out v2+ sometimes does. I do appreciate that iFi has voiced this product in such a way that it compliments the more closed in sound of lossy, especially at this price point!



    Tonality of the amp did change depending on the filter selected, with the Listen filter engaged it had a warmer tonality with a nice focus on the transients that follow after each individual note, how ever the lows were a bit thicker, in contrast the Measure filter tightened up the presentation for the entire spectrum as a whole but didn't have as sharp of a focus on transients. For the most part I enjoyed the Listen filter the most, as it offered the most natural and resolved presentation. Measure was more often than not too dry and sometimes harsh, though about 1/10 of the headphones in my collection actually did sound better with the Measure filter! The HE 4XX being the most notable of them.



    [​IMG]

    Hifiman's Massdrop collaboration the HE 4XX is it self a thicker sounding headphone with a nice focus on transient balance. Resolving equally well both micro detail and ambient noise. What I found is with listen, while the resolve was even better the sound as a whole lacked impact. Switching over to measure breathed life into the HE 4XXs presentation without tilting the balance of resolve too aggressively toward ambient noise. Meaning, while micro detail didn't pop out as much, macro detail or ambient noise also wasn't over emphasized.



    All in all I felt with the Measure filter the HE 4XX was equipped for every and all genres of music! It's own thicker intimate signature pair'd well with the iDSD Nano Black Label's spacious imaging and the added edge of the Measure filter. Even better the iDSD Nano Black Label never presented me with too little head room I always had more than enough range on the volume knob.



    [​IMG]

    With my Ypsilon G1 and many others, the listen filter was the best. This Grado style DIY headphone has a nice forwardness in the upper mids with good balance in the rest of the spectrum. The iDSD Nano Back Label kept that nice edge in the upper mids without softening the rest of the spectrum to much.



    I found it kept a good texture in the bass while still adding a little needed body. The upper mid peak was also lessened a little by some added bloom and decay within the lower and central mid range. This fairly balanced dynamic sounded phenomenal with just the iDSD Nano Black Label! These two made for a super easy to carry around combo, as each is light weight and simply pleasurable to listen with.



    [​IMG]

    Now power wise, I did find the iFi iDSD Nano Black Label to be lacking a little with my HD 800. While it had enough voltage to get loud, I found insufficient in providing the power needed to bring the HD 800 to life. That said, I did pair up the Line Out into my APPJ PA1502A SET Tube Amp.



    I also took this time to compare the Line out of the iFi Audio iDSD Nano Black Label to that of my own Behringer UCA 202. With the APPJ 1502A the difference between the two was obvious, the iDSD Nano maintained better tactility with more texture in the lows. In comparison the UCA 202 had some ringing in the mid range in addition to a some what congested sound even with the HD 800! Switching back to the iDSD Nano Black Label I always appreciated how the sound opened up! The only real advantage the UCA 202 seem to have was how clearly it resolved breaths. Human breathing and breathing alone stood out just a bit better with the UCA 202 than it did on the iFi iDSD Nano Black Label, though this advantage is only obvious on tracks featuring a solo or duet where congestion is a non-issue. With larger Jazz ensembles or classical orchestra's the iDSD Nano Black label again reigned supreme.



    [​IMG]



    I also took the time to see how the UCA 202 Line out into my Vali 1 would compare again'st the iDSD Nano Black label running as both an DAC/Amp. For these impressions I went back to my Ypsilon G1 headphone.



    Once again, I found the UCA 202 and Vali 1 pairing to have some congestion, while both sources were quite cohesive with their respective amps. The UCA 202 still struggled with larger bands or scores. Ultimatley the iFi iDSD Nano Black label proved it had better balance, resolve and imaging overall.



    Though, the Vali 1 and UCA 202 did present a uniquely sweet wonderfully stunning and beautiful mid range in comparison to the iDSD Nano Black Label. This benefit though didn't compensate for the systems overall inability to properly present space. I suppose if you find your self listening to only classical duets or solo's then you may be able to sustain your self with such a system for only around $100. Other wise if you enjoy a larger range of music then you'll get not only a better quality of sound overall but the benefit of portability with the iFi iDSD Nano Black Label!



    [​IMG]



    Being a DAC/Amp combo only the iDSD Nano Black Label does require both a graphic interface and storage interface for playback. So I decided to see how it compared to some of the DAPs in my collection that it prices just above.



    The first of which was my Hifiman HM601, each had their own strengths and weakness as far as resolve went. How ever the iDSD Nano Black Label had better tonal balance and imaging overall. In some cases the HM601 proved to have better micro dynamics and micro resolve. As I found transients and small gradual volume increases were resolved with phenomenal clarity from the hm601... assuming your using a pair of complimentary headphones. My Ypsilon G1 was too sensitive and picked up on the nosiness of the onboad amp in the HM 601. Though my ES 10 did better and took advantage of the HM601s amazing resolve, but my HE 4XX did not. For the most part my HE 4XX was too thick that any gained resolve was lost in the ocean of decay. So thicker headphones will suffer when pair'd with the HM 601, it's intimate sound stage also holds it back.



    In contrast the iFi Audio iDSD Nano Black Label offers two distinct filters to widen it's "complimentary" range or scope. Using Listen for my Ypsilon G1 and ES 10 there was again better tonal balance overall and I enjoyed Measure with my HE 4XX. So there was never a problem of a "bad pairing" as each filter had a distinct enough difference to compliment almost every headphone I threw at it.



    While resolve alone was not always as immersive, the combined performance of both resolve in relation to imaging was. More intimate pieces of music found an increase and clarity from the iDSD Nano Black Label, where as with the HM601 they were often too close sounding. Additionally both ambient noise and spacial cue's where clearer with the iDSD Nano Black Label over the HM 601.



    So while the HM 601, when pair'd with the right headphone, resolved more transient information relating to the individual instruments themselvs. The iDSD Nano Black Label, with any headphone, presented more information relating to how that instrument was placed within the space it was recorded in. At times this lead to an almost... fuller more real to life sound, as the music as a whole had a more vivid envelope. It's easy to get lost into the individual instruments when listening with the HM601, but moving up to the iDSD Nano Black Label suddenly the entire band's presence in relation to one another is clearer. For example the decay of the double bass s in Mile's Davis So What adds a nice fullness that blends nicely with the falling edge and echo of the horns. The littlest of details like this is something I expect and usually look for in higher priced products so I was surprised to hear it while listening on the iDSD Nano Black Label.



    [​IMG]



    Shanling's M2S still holds my recommendation as by far the best single all in one portable music solution, and for those of you who want a nice upgrade from it without spending as much and having to daisy chain a DAP to an Amp. The iFi iDSD Nano Black Label would be my recommendation, as it keeps to a small light weight and convenient form factor. This is even more true if your wanting to take advantage of Tidal's MQA Masters or other streaming services.



    The two share a similar balance doing many things right and having few actual faults. What the iDSD Nano Black Label brings is an even more resolved sound with a more flexible tonality. The Listen filter really reminds me of how the M2S presentation with the Measure bringing me back to my time with the Cayin N3. Except the iFi iDSD Nano Black Label offers more power and resolve than both. So those of you who may not need blutooth support but want MQA and streaming support and intend to use your cellular phone/laptop top or desktop as a source will find a noticeable improvement in upgrading to the iDSD Nano Black Label.



    Now in my video review I choose not to comment on the MQA Playback for the iFi iDSD Nano Black Label. This was because I do not have Tidal my self nor access to to it, how ever I had the chance to finally hear the iDSD Nano Black Label with an MQA Master!!!



    [​IMG]



    For better or worse I waited until after I listened to the MQA Master to take my pic, the meet was a little busy so I didn't have prime time for arranging everything as I wanted. Non the less, I took the iFi iDSD Nano Black Label for a spin with some Megadeath! I choose their Rust In Peace album and took Tornado of Souls for a listen, I did so with my ZMF Eikon and the iCan Pro Amp set to Tube-output. An WOW I was yet again impressed with how clear and vivid the sound was. While the music was un-familiar to me the level of resolve I heard was not, in switching between the MQA Master and Non MQA Master there was indeed an increase to the spaciousness and blackness overall. While MQA Masters don't take the iFi iDSD Nano into the "next level" I felt it was enough of an improvement to maybe justify a Tidal Subscription... maybe.



    The sheer convenience of both Tidal and the quality of it's MQA Masters really encapsulate what the iFi iDSD Nano is about! Quality and convenience packaged in a light weight easy to use form factor without compromise. So for those of you maybe looking for the ultimate in light weight listening, your Cell a Tidal Subscription and this little magic black box might be all you need! I won't say it's the most cost effective solution, but again it's by far one of the most liberating. What ever music you want, where ever you want it, without the fuss of managing a myriad of SD Cards or a library of offline files, you don't even have to hunt for the "perfect Master" either as again Tidal's taken that time to procure it for you! If Tidal continues to expand it's MQA Master library I may even buy into the madness... maybe.



    Conclusion
    iFi Audio have once again been the first to launch another amazing product in an emerging market. It's light weight small size and sheer functionality combined with MQA rendering really make it a highly competitive portable for today's growing market of streaming consumers. I even found it to subtlety help open up the often closed in sound of lossy from my own Spotify and Napster streaming services. All in all any one searching for a highly functional portable Dac-Amp to serve a collection of both super sensitive iems and moderately sensitive fullsize/portable headphones across a wide variety of both digital sources and playback rates will be hard pressed to find better option at this price point!
      St3ven and emptymt like this.
  8. ostewart
    Superb sound on the go
    Written by ostewart
    Published Jan 24, 2018
    4.0/5,
    Pros - Size, Power, Sound Quality
    Cons - Lack of inputs
    Firstly I would like to thank iFi Audio for loaning me this unit for review.

    *disclaimer: This sample was provided on loan for the purpose of writing a review, no incentive was given to write a favourable review. All opinions expressed are my own subjective findings.

    Gear Used:
    HP Laptop > Nano iDSD Black Label > Kinera Earbuds, Custom Art FIBAE3, HiFiMan HE500, German Maestro GMP400 and others.

    DSC_9806.jpg

    Tech Specs:
    A comprehensive list can be found on the iFi website: https://ifi-audio.com/portfolio-view/nano-idsd-bl/
    MSRP: £199

    Packaging, Build Quality and Accessories:
    The Nano iDSD Black Label comes in familiar packaging if you have bought from iFi before, a small white box with an outer sleeve detailing features and specs. Take off the sleeve and you are greeted with a two part box, take the top off and the Nano iDSD is held in place with a foam inlay, also you will see a white box which houses the accessories. I like the simplicity of iFi Audio packaging, pleasing to the eye, detailed and easy to open, with no added frills or luxuries.

    The Nano iDSD BL is a very neat little device that feels like it was built to last the rigours of daily use. The housing is made of aluminium, the sockets are all tight and have no play in them, the volume knob that acts as the on/off switch is smooth and doesn’t stick out far. Overall it feels well put together and should last a long time, and survive some tumbles.

    Accessory wise you get a small black velvet carry case, a small pigtail adaptor (USB to USB-A), a solid USB to USB-A adaptor, and a long USB cable for PC use. Also included are 2 amp straps, everything you need to get up and running on a PC or MAC. You will need additional cables for using it with an Android or iPhone.

    DSC_9793.jpg

    Features:

    The Nano iDSD BL is a DAC/Amp, it only has a USB input, and cannot be used with an analogue source, nor can it be used with a coaxial or optical source. This limits it somewhat, but then again to fit all that in a small chassis would bring compromises that could alter the performance. On the back you have the USB input, filter switch and a 3.5mm line-out. The filter switch has 2 positions, Measure and Listen, there is a very slight difference between the two; the listen position adds a little smoothness and warmth to the sound, the measure position gives you a more analytical sound.

    On the front you have the volume knob that acts as the on/off switch, and two headphone outputs. The direct output which is for full-size headphones and the iEMatch output which is for sensitive IEM’s (the signal is attenuated a little amongst other things). The 3.5mm output is also TRRS compatible if you want to go balanced, but iFi say the way their system works brings benefits of balanced to single ended headphones too.

    The Nano iDSD BL is plug and play with most devices, however it is recommended to install the official iFi drivers on a PC.

    The Nano iDSD BL has an internal battery capable of giving up to 10hrs of listening time on a full charge. This makes it a great companion to those who have moved to phones without a headphone jack.

    DSC_9797.jpg

    Sound:

    The Nano iDSD BL is a great little device that packs a punch in a small package, its sound is much bigger than its size might suggest. It has a slight warmth and smoothness to the sound, being a great DAC/Amp to just sit back and enjoy the music with. Using it with IEM’s it brings an added level of control and separation to the sound, bringing out much better sound quality than your average smart phone or computer can deliver. It does a very fine job at handling slightly harder to drive loads like the HD6xx series from Sennheiser, or my German Maestro GMP400, bringing out very impressive dynamics and a slight fullness to the sound.

    The Nano iDSD BL is not clinical, it won’t make you analyse your system, but it also doesn’t mask the finer details. The detail retrieval is superb, and as a standalone DAC it would do very well in any system. iFi have spent some time honing the sound of their newer devices, making them appeal to a wide audience with a detailed, yet rich and open sound that is sure to please a lot of people. There is no lack of air or sparkle up top, it is still a very well balanced sounding DAC/Amp, but as stated it is not clinical in its presentation.

    It doesn’t try to jump out and say “Hey I’m influencing the sound by adding this” instead there is a subtle smoothness that takes away any fatigue. The Nano iDSD BL works really well with most of the easy to relatively hard to drive headphones out there. Performance with IEM’s should not be understated; the iEMatch works wonders allowing you to listen to sensitive IEM’s with no hiss, or the need for an attenuator.

    DSC_9795.jpg

    Conclusion:
    The iFi Nano iDSD BL is the perfect portable partner for any audiophile on a tight budget, for £200 it offers a lot for the price. It is an easy recommendation, the sound is smooth, natural and open, the build quality is excellent and there are no downsides apart from the lack of inputs. Use it out and about, then at home hook it up to your speaker system via the line-out. You won’t be disappointed by the Nano iDSD BL.

    I really cannot fault it for the size and price; it seems that most equipment prices are going up, yet iFi are really out there trying to show you can have a lot of performance for a small price.

    Now I wish iFi could bring out a sub-par product so it doesn’t look like I am being sponsored to write positive reviews for them. But I genuinely struggle to find fault with the Nano iDSD BL, along with quite a few of their other products.


    Sound Perfection Rating: 9.5/10 (The sound and features make up for the lack of inputs).

    DSC_9803.jpg
      Grimbles and Wyville like this.
  9. wormsdriver
    Great sound sometimes comes in small packages!
    Written by wormsdriver
    Published Jan 22, 2018
    4.0/5,
    Pros - engaging sound, volume knob, nice aesthetics , price to performance ratio, portable
    Cons - a bit too light weight for my taste, battery life between charges
    iFi Nano iDSD Black Label

    Greetings all, these are my impressions on the iFi nano iDSD Black Label. The unit comes courtesey of iFi as they are hosting a review tour of the nano idsd BL here on Head-fi. I have spent 7 days with the unit and I am shipping it out to the next person in line so they can review it. Before I begin I want to thank Lawrance and iFi for hosting these tours of their products and giving us a chance to try out their products in exchange for an honest review, can't beat that right!? :smile:


    Package, accessories, built quality

    The Nano comes in a small white box. Inside opening the package you will find some paperwork, the Nano itself and a small white box. Inside that box there is a USB cable for connecting the nano to your PC/Mac and it also doubles as charging cord. Also included are 2 other USB adapters, 2 silicone bands for stacking the Nano to your smartphone/ipod and a felt carrying bag to protect your Nano.

    The Nano iDSD Black Label is as it's name indicates all black in color, made out of brushed metal and has an excellent finish. The unit itself is very small and light weight so it is ideal for taking along with you to use with your smartphone, tablet or laptop as long as your device is cable of being a USB host.
    IMG_9482.JPG


    Features

    The nano's front panel has two 3.5mm outputs, one of which is labeled iEMatch and the other is labeled direct. iEMatch is ideal for sensitive in ear monitors and headphones, I found it works very well giving you full use of range on the volume knob. Direct output is the regular higher gain output. And lastly the front also consists of the volume knob which is lovely to have for a device such as this as opposed to buttons or even worse only software volume controls as found on such DACs as the Audioquest Dragonfly and other similar types of Dac/amps in this price range.

    The back of the unit has a dedicated line out for sending your signal from the Nano DAC to a different amp or powered monitors. A switch containing two listening filters and a digital input for connecting to your transport device or for charging the unit itself.
    IMG_9483.JPG IMG_9484.JPG



    Sound

    The nano BL to me sounds on the warm side of neutral. Very nicely done in my opinion, not overly done just right. At times the treble seems a bit laid back, not as upfront and the bass is slightly warm but makes it very engaging in my opinion.

    As a matter of fact my whole time with the nano has been very enjoyable no complaints whatsover and the only short comings (nit picking really) are only audible when in direct comparison to something "better" that is in a higher price brackett. Even then it really depends on how resolving your headphone is and how critical you are listening to really tell a difference.

    In direct comparisons with the Chord Mojo, the nano held it's own but ultimately fell short in overall resolution and sounded a tiny bit more dry. The Mojo also has a lower noise floor which helps notes come across more clearly. For this comparison I used a classic Grado Rs1 which is easy to drive and has a very intimate soundstage so Ymmv. Speaking of soundstage the Mojo is abit more holographic as the sounds had a bit more depth and were more sourrounding as opposed the nano which sounds a bit more 2 dimmensional in comparison. These are very subtle differences and not exactly night and day. I'd say for one third the price of the Mojo the Nano BL has nothing to be ashamed about, no Sir!

    Direct comparisons were done by volume matching both units with and SPL Meter app on my phone and playing a pink noise file to the Rs1.

    In conclusion, I'd say the iFi Nano iDsd is a definitive winner not only for it's price to performance but for it's overall engaging sound that is a joy to listen to!


    Other notes:

    No noticeable interferance when using with my Android phone. UAPP would occassionally crash and track would start looping.

    I was unable to fully test battery life and charging cycle in my short audition period.

    I wasn't really able to tell if the Nano was fully decoding MQA files since the led did not change colors while listening to Tidal Master tracks.

    Unfortunately I was unable to try out the balanced output due to not having a proper adapter for my cans.
      zdrvr and Grimbles like this.
  10. 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.