A neat, yet solid looking DAC with an integrated headphone amplifier, Paul Rigby reviews the iFi nano iDSD Black Label
If you plug headphones into your phone or your laptop and play music through those devices then you will hear a melodic noise, sure, but not a great deal more than that. If you want fine detail, a measure of clarity and a balanced soundstage then a basic device, spewing forth, will not provide any of that.
The reason is that any phone, tablet, laptop of even desktop is a multi-function device, not a dedicated music player. Why should you expect top quality music from a device that can work out your accounts, play games, run full blown films, browse social media and more?
The problem with any music play on a general electronic device is the noise that gets in the way of music detail. That is, the extraneous noise caused by the continuing house-keeping of other tasks that devices do while playing music, as well as the relatively poor component quality (for sonic production, that is) and the free and decidedly non-audiophile manner of the component layout.
This is why mobile and portable, specialist headphone amplifiers and DACs are important. These third party gizmos connect to said devices and bring an audiophile sensibility to your general device.
iFi’s nano iDSD Black Label (BL) is one of those. A small, portable DAC/headphone amp, it is compatible with PCM/DXD audio files (treated natively and running up to 32bit/384kHz) and DSD (up to DSD256) while also supporting MQA.
You’ll find a low-jitter crystal clock, a choice of two digital filter settings, Type-A USB On-The-Go input for connection to Android and iOS devices, iFi’s ‘iPuriier’ technology and two headphone sockets deliver different output levels – one ‘direct’, the other with iFi’s ‘iEMatch’ for high-sensitivity headphones/earphones
This dual-mono design of the nano iDSD includes a ‘S-Balanced’ wiring system that, “…delivers the benefit of balanced outputs when used with headphones with balanced wiring and even cuts crosstalk in half with unbalanced headphones,” said the company.
The built-in rechargeable battery delvers 10 hours of audio performance from a single charge.
I did miss a Line in socket to readily connect a portable DAP so be aware of this omission when considering purchasing of this unit. After my direct query on the matter, iFi did add, “The nano iDSD BL is a digital input DAC only with a headphone amplifier, therefore Line out bypasses the headphone amplifier.”
I began with a wired connection to my iPhone 8 via the usual camera-type adaptor (not supplied by iFi, nor is a USB OTG cable) and played Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me via AAC. You have to bear in mind that a smartphone is not exactly an audiophile source carrier and my lossless file is not exactly the best wrapper. Nevertheless, the iDSD provided a clear and, considering that this is an AAC file, relatively broad soundstage with admirable instrumental separation to enable detail to be accessed. Despite a lack in maturity and tonal richness from the file format, this level of analytical attention provided a measure of complexity to the track that enhanced the listening experience.
I did try the Listen EQ setting which offered a warmer, slightly subdued presentation but quickly returned to Measure which appeared to provide a more neutral but also extended response.
I then turned to more serious musical sources and, via my laptop, a SSD-powered MacBook, played Sonny Rollins’ with the superlative On the Sunny Side of the Street at 16bit/44.1kHz (a ripped WAV) with Sonny Stitt and Dizzy Gillespie in attendance. Gillespie provided a lovely vocal line later in the track, incidentally.
It was here that the nano iDSD first truly swung into action exhibiting a cavernous soundstage with both midrange insight plus a balanced and rather smooth tonal output. Hence, Rollins’ sax offered detail in terms of the movement of the reed and how the great man utilised it but the sax itself eased into place without much effort, such as the flowing nature of the music.
I upped the PCM to 24bit/192kHz with Looking for a Home from Kevin Greeninger and Dayan Kai. For a mobile device like this, you’re not going to get a sense of space achieved by lots of dynamic reach. You could hear that the iDSD was coping very well but there were limits. Anyone looking for the ultimate in sonic reproduction really needs to head for a desktop unit. Still, for a mobile unit, the performance was excellent, in relative terms, at this very high resolution. Vocals offered a sensitivity that was engaging while the guitar accompaniment was delicately coated onto the song.
It was reassuring to hear that the nano iDSD didn’t allow and frequency nasties to occur here. No bass bloom, pinched treble or midrange smearing to spoil the fun. In fact, fun was available in buckets here with enough focus to enable each instrument to move with agility and flexibility. You never felt that the music was dragging, the timing here was impeccable.
I changed to DSD and Eric Bibb and Meeting at the Building at DSD128. This sound existed within a busy soundstage with numerous instruments and vocals popping in and out all over the place so the potential for frequency confusion was high here. The iDSD coped well with the onslaught providing space for percussive reverb along with more subtle instruments such as the harmonica and accordion. Again, the general output was a smooth one that gave the performers a relaxed demeanour.
A compact unit, ideal for mobile use, the nano iDSD proved to offer superb sound for its diminutive size. Covering a range of resolutions and connectivity options, the iFi Nano iDSD BL provides excellent value for money too.
IFI NANO IDSD BL
Tel: 01900 601954
GOOD: compact, easy to use, balanced output, low noise, overall sound quality
BAD: no Line in option
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REFERENCE SYSTEM USED
Apple iPhone 8
Sennhesier HD660 & 800 headphones