iFi Audio Nano iDSD Black Label - Portable DAC/Amp - Review

September 23, 2018 2 Comments

iFi Audio Nano iDSD Black Label - Portable DAC/Amp - Review

Review written by Ian Dunmore (@Torq)

Introduction

The iFi Audio Nano iDSD Black Label is an updated version of the original Nano iDSD portable DAC/amp, and the latest unit to get the “Black Label” treatment (improved parts/specs - and a new black/orange color scheme). It’s a full-function DAC/amp, with support for high-resolution audio formats, usefully powerful headphone outputs, in a compact, battery/USB powered, form-factor - useable both on the go and at a desk.

The unit I am reviewing is on kind loan from “The HEADPHONE Community” and their “Community Preview Program”.

This is a $200 combined DAC/amp that’ll work with laptop or mobile devices. The DAC section can be used via the built-in headphone outputs, making it an all-in-one solution, or via a dedicated line-out connection to feed other amplifiers. There is no analog input, so the headphone output can only be used with the unit’s DAC as the source.

Features & Technology

The Nano iDSD Black Label is rather feature rich for such a diminutive unit, supporting high-bit rate PCM (up to 24 bit/384kHz), DXD, quad-rate DSD (DSD256) and MQA rendering. The headphone outputs are in dual-mono configuration which, combined with balanced-compatible TRRS headphone/IEM connections, keep the grounds for each channel separate (you don’t get more power this way, but it helps with channel separation/crosstalk).

Both 3.5mm headphone outputs can be used with either single-ended (TRS) or balanced (TRRS) connections, and will operate correctly for either configuration. One of these is a direct output, the other features iFi’s iEMatch feature, which reduces/eliminates hiss with very sensitive, low-impedance, IEMs and can improve their available dynamic range.

The USB 2.0 input features built-in iPurifier technology, which filters the USB power and data lines to reduce source-induced noise.

There are two selectable filters, labeled “Listen” and “Measure”. Depending on the format of the material being played, these swap between filters specific to those formats. In PCM mode they are a “minimum phase” and “linear phase, transient aligned”, respectively.

And finally the unit incorporates it’s own battery, good for about 10 hours of on-the-go listening. This is charged via the USB input. A particularly interesting feature here is that you can use the battery to power the unit WITHOUT taking power via USB, thus further reducing the potential for noise on the USB power-lines to affect the unit’s performance. This is done simply by powering the unit on before connecting it to your source. Otherwise, the unit will draw power from USB to operate and charge it’s battery.

Review Equipment & Material

Headphones used for this evaluation include: Etymotic ER4-XR, Empire Ears Zeus XR (Adel), Focal Clear Sennheiser HD650, HD660S, Massdrop x AKG K7XX, Fostex TR-X00 and Elex.

Other DACs and DAC/amps used in this review include the AudioQuest Dragonfly Black and Dragonfly Red and the Schiit Audio Modi Multi-Bit.

To focus on the performance of the Nano iDSD Black Label, without regard to output power etc., I also fed it through my SPL Phonitor x amplifier (single-ended, using an AudioQuest “Golden Gate” 3.5mm (1/8”) TRS to RCA cable).

The majority of the music I use in my evaluations is in “Red Book” CD format (16 bit, 44.1 kHz), most of which comes from CD rips; an initial playlist for my audition listening can be found here. Where appropriate/referenced I utilize a number of high-quality, high-resolution, albums, needle-drops, and also some native DSD content.

Build & Package

The Nano iDSD Black Label is a solidly built little unit. The all-metal chassis is a nice touch, connectors seem solid and well supported, recesses for connectors are wide enough to accommodate any plug/connector you’re likely to use. The inset-USB-A OTG connector on the back is an especially nice touch, as it helps keep cables/connectors out of harms way and reduces the overall foot-print of the unit when in use.

It’s a compact little device, as well, easily small enough to throw in a laptop bag - even if it is not quite as small as some other USB DACs.

As is typical with iFi products, the package includes all of the items you are likely to need to make the unit work. In this case that includes a 1m (3 foot) USB-A to USB-A OTG cable, for direct connection to a computer or other standard USB source. In addition there are two adapters that allow you to use an existing USB-A to USB-B cable (the most common type of USB cable for DACs, sometimes referred to as a “USB Printer Cable”) one a simple, short, inline adapter, and the other as a more flexible 6” long adapter with a flexible cable in the middle.

A black, soft, draw-string bag/case for the DAC, a 12mm (0.45”) wide rubber band for attaching the unit to a phone, DAP or other source and an instruction card complete the package.

Device Compatibility

The USB 2.0 type A “OTG” socket on the back of the Nano is the sole input. iFi supply a 1m (3 foot) cable with the required connection on it, with a standard USB type A connector for the source end. This socket is inset into the device in a manner that minimizes cable protrusion and helps protect/support the cable/connector. When used with the Lighting to USB Camera Adapter or Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter, required for iPhone or iPad connectivity, the connection at the DAC sits neatly inside the unit. For Android-based devices, you’ll need a USB OTG (On-The-Go) cable.

Operation with macOS, iOS and Linux is driverless, as is the case with the latest "Creators Edition” of Windows 10. Earlier versions of Windows will require installing iFi’s USB 2.0 Audio Driver.

Firmware Updates

iFi Audio have several different firmware versions/updates for the Nano iDSD Black Label. In addition to bug fixes and optimizations, some of these firmware revisions change/add features. The review unit arrived with version 5.2 installed, which supports DSD256 (4x) but does not do MQA Rendering. Installing the latest version, 5.3, adds support for MQA Rendering and changes the filter implementation in “Listen” mode, but reduces the maximum supported DSD rate to DSD128 (2x). So, you will need to choose which you want more … MQA Rendering or DSD256 capability.

The actual firmware update process is extremely straightforward. You simply download and run the appropriate firmware updater for your operating system (Windows or macOS), and it automatically does the rest.

Sound

The first thing I did before attempting to do a full assessment of the sound of the Nano iDSD Black Label was to explore the various sound-affecting options and determine how I liked it best. The bulk of my listening was then done in that configuration. So, let’s start by covering those options and where/how I liked them set and their overall effect on the audible output of the unit.

Filters

I started out by comparing the effects of the selectable filters. Most of my listening was done with PCM content, so this was where I focused - and this is also where I found the filters to have the most immediately audible effect. In this mode the “Listen” filter is a minimum phase filter (updated in the latest firmware to what iFi call the “iFi Gibbs Transient Optimized (GTO) Filter”), and the “Measure” setting is supposed to be a linear phase filter. Both sound more like variations on minimum phase filters to me, but they definitely sound different.

In the “Listen” setting I found that there was a reduced sense of space and air in the unit’s rendering. The top-end seems a little subdued, or rolled-off, with some missing sparkle. This seemed to take the edge or bite off some instruments in places where you’d be expecting it - not doing brass any favors in particular. The overall presentation in this mode seems a tad warmer and more relaxed and while pleasant, particularly via the headphone output, and seems a little too editorialized for my preferences.

For my listening, I consistently preferred listening in the “Measure” mode. There is no lack of air, space or sparkle here, glare and bite are suitably present - without trespassing into being “glarey” and without adding any sibilance. The tone of the unit becomes more neutral and the overall presentation sounds more realistic and natural. As a pure DAC (via the line-output), nothing is being emphasized and there is no sense of anything being “missing” (not the case in “listen” mode) - and via the headphone outputs there’s a hint of additional lower-register energy - but just a hint.

Battery vs. USB Power

Powering the Nano Black Label on before connecting it to your source will cause it to run from it’s internal battery rather than using external USB power. This has a minor effect on overall performance, which for me manifested itself as a slower onset of listening fatigue when listening on battery power. It was not something I could discern in simple, quick, A/B comparisons and was only apparent with longer listening sessions. I imagine this effect would be more audible if it were not for the built-in iPurifier technology, as USB performance seems pretty clean. Your mileage may vary - especially as all USB sources exhibit different noise characteristics.

iEMatch vs. Direct Output

Where possible you want to use the Direct Output, simply because it has the lowest output impedance - and is less likely to interact oddly with multi-BA-driver or other low-impedance transducers. This output was noise/hiss free with every full-size headphone I tried, and anywhere between silent and very-quiet with various IEMs (e.g. the Etymotic ER4-XR or budget favorites like the KZ ZS10).

Some very sensitive, low-impedance, IEMs exhibit audible hiss, at different levels, using the direct output from the Nano iDSD Black Label. In particular my favorites, the Empire Ears Zeus XR (Adel) - which at 21Ω and 119dB @ 1mW are very prone to hiss - were quite noisy using the direct output. However, switching them to the iEMatch output completely eliminated this hiss.

In short, if you hear any noise/hiss, or find your IEMs are too loud even with the volume turned down, use the iEMatch output. Otherwise, use the Direct Output. Either way, your’e covered for pretty much any headphone or IEM you’re likely to try pairing with a unit like this.

Down to Actual Listening

So … everything from here on in, unless otherwise specified, is in “Measure” mode, using battery power, and the direct headphone output. Differences with the line-output are minimal and are summarized in the “DAC-only/Line Out” section.

Beyond a very modest, apparent, lift on the bottom end (and it really is modest), the Nano iDSD Black Label is tonally quite neutral. There is a somewhat laid-back aspect to the sound but that is not to say that it is reticent or slow sounding - it just doesn’t exhibit the exaggerated (fake) hyper-detail of some other DAC/amps at this end of the market. The unit is capable of being entirely incisive when called upon to do so. The first 20 seconds or so of Jack Johnson’s “Better Together” (In Between Dreams) illustrates this with excellent attack on the first strings and good micro-dynamics in the first vocal phrases uttered. And, similarly, the agility and speed of the Black Label is easy to appreciate with something like “Sing Sang Sung” (Big Phat Band, “Swingin’ for the Fences”) - which will also give an easy way to highlight the little DAC/amp’s ability to portray a smooth, rhythmic bass-line while preserving the natural glare and bite of horns/brass.

Detail/resolution is very good - particularly for a unit at this end of the market. Shining Moon (Cowboy Junkies, “Whites Off Earth Now”) is a fun, and interesting, track in this regard. While a typically sparse piece for them, there are moments in which things align and become very busy, and the Nano is still able to resolve the individual elements cleanly and clearly. Lots of DAC/amps do well with simple pieces, so the immediate contrast here between very sparse and suddenly busy segments makes this all the more audible and obvious, and helps in hearing the Black Label’s ability to dig out details and present them clearly when there is a lot going on.

Sticking with the Cowboy Junkies for a moment, their “Mining for Gold” (The Trinity Session) provides a tacit illustration of the baby iFi unit’s ability to convey the sense of space and air to a venue. Stage is, similarly, well presented if not quite as vivid and solid in the image it yields as some dedicated DACs (though it’s much better in “measure” mode than in “listen”).

Overall delivery is very coherent. Bass is present, articulate, and nuanced; you won’t lose the tune in a bass-line - and though it doesn’t “plumb the depths” with quite the same authority as, say, the more expensive Schiit Modi MB, it is ahead of the Dragonfly Red in this regard. The, again, modest, bass-lift I hear via the direct output helps a little here, and the bass performance is by no means subdued, its just not quite as obviously impactful as the best dedicated units at this level.

Vocals are presented naturally and with just the right amount of presence, neither sitting forward or back in the mix. This is the case for the midrange too. It is, simply, very well balanced. And the bottom end does not intrude into it at all. The transition is smooth and clean. Micro-dynamics are good enough to easily hear the subtle inflections and reverberation in voices, especially with very emotional pieces.

Treble, as already discussed briefly in my notes on the “filters” is properly extended in “measure” mode, but is somewhat rolled off with the “listen” setting. Depending on your chain, you may prefer the “listen” mode … in extreme cases, with difficult treble passages (sibilant female vocal recordings, for example) there is sometimes a hint of grain to the extreme treble - something that isn’t present in “listen” mode - as the treble doesn’t reach that high. Generally, though, treble delivery is smooth and detailed with no unnatural bite … making for generally easy extended listening sessions.

One of the performances I enjoy most, and that is a staple of my review work, is the Jessye Norman version of “Carmen”. This is often a sort-the-men-from-the-boys element of an audition or review, as there are many ways a piece of gear can fail to satisfy here (starting with me not making it through the whole performance). The iFi Nano iDSD Black Label was thoroughly enjoyable, and suitably emotive, in this test. While a bit less biting in its delivery in some spots the scale, drama, and highly varied emotions of the piece are well conveyed … and the result was entirely satisfying and genuinely moving.

Nothing I threw at the little guy was problematic, and all of it was enjoyable. Where things were not at the same level as the very best (and vastly more expensive) options here it was generally due to acts of omission rather than commission. Which is the right side of the behavior/sound spectrum to be on.

DSD Replay

There is not much to say here … unlike many DACs or DAC/amps, where one of either PCM or DSD frequently sets itself apart as being superior, that was not the case here. Both are handled extremely well … whether it was DSD256 (on firmware 5.20) or DSD128 (on version 5.30) or raw PCM at any rate from simple Redbook CD all the way unto 24 bit/384 kHz. Play what you want, how you want, and you’re not giving up anything in either direction.

I also tried the unit using HQPlayer to convert/upsample PCM content to DSD256, with various filter settings, and did not find any consistent improvement here (some differences, but nothing I would say was clearly “better”). I would, personally, avoid the hassle and just feed the unit whatever native files you have and let it do it’s thing.

DAC-only/Line Out

It is worth noting that using the Black Label’s raw DAC output, via line-out into an external amplifier, results in a more neutral rendering than via the headphone outputs and more detail is apparent this way too. As a DAC/amp there’s a slight bump to the bottom end - not enough to intrude further up the frequency spectrum, just enough that you can tell when run back-to-back. The effect can be a bit more pronounced with some headphones and, especially, multi-driver IEMs.

Fundamentally I think the DAC is the stronger aspect here, but the headphone outputs are by no means unworthy … the DAC aspect is just unusually good at this price point. This makes for a unit that particularly well suited to be use as an all-in-one while on the go, or moving from spot to spot, but that can be paired with a dedicated amplifier when at home for even better performance.

Headphone Pairing/Drive

Unlike most USB-powered DAC/amp units, available power is not much of a concern here - which significantly reduces the criticality of what headphones the Nano is paired with. With 285mW per channel at 30Ω (20mw @ 600Ω or 40mw @ 300Ω) and a decent available voltage swing, there’s enough power on tap to drive most dynamic, and quite a few planar, headphones to serious volume levels and with good authority.

I’m halfway round the volume dial, listening via the Sennheiser HD650, on my bass-heavy playlist (not what’s playing in the picture!), which is usually is where the first signs of trouble show up with portable DAC/amps, and the delivery is well controlled, impactful and with no sense of strain at all. I can turn this up to the point where it’s louder than I could stand to listen to and everything remains coherent and well behaved. It’s not the last word in drive/authority and raw slam with these cans, nor with the HD800S, but the difference here vs. much more powerful amplifiers isn’t huge - and unlike with some lesser powered DAC/amps they do not sound like they are struggling.

Pairing with more highly dynamic headphones, like the Focal Clear or Elex, will pay dividends in terms of macro-dynamic impact and micro-dynamic resolve, but that is not to say that there is much missing with less overtly dynamic units.

Tonally, the iFi Nano iDSD Black Label is generally neutral in signature, so it won’t tone down the bass on bass-cannons, or bring it up (much) for a bass-light can. Nor will it fix a recessed or forward mid-range. However, if you have very treble-happy/hot headphones then switching to the “Listen” filter will roll-off and subdue the top-end somewhat - which might help pairings there.

MQA Support

While a proper discussion of MQA is well beyond the scope of this review, it's worth noting that nothing special is required to play back MQA-encoded content. It'll work on any PCM-capable DAC (which covers pretty much all DACs) and from any player/source. If, however, you want to take advantage of the "features" of MQA, then you either need hardware, software, or a combination of the two that can handle the "decode" and "render" steps to get the full effect.

"Full MQA Decoder" hardware, like the Meridian Explorer 2, can do both the initial decode and the final rendering steps itself - no special software required. Some software players, including Roon (both desktop and mobile), Audirvana+ and the native TIDAL desktop clients, can do the first-level of decoding - which will also work with pretty much any DAC (no special hardware required). And then there are DACs that can only do the "rendering" part and must be combined with software that can perform the initial MQA-decode step first.

The iFi Nano iDSD Black Label is in that latter class; it's an MQA renderer. When paired with an MQA-decode capable player, you get the full MQA result, and if not it will just play that content like a normal PCM file. You can easily tell when the Nano iDSD Black Label is being fed decoded MQA content as the front panel LED on the unit will glow magenta. You'll need to make sure your unit is running at least firmware version 5.3 for this to work!

One interesting aspect to DACs that only support MQA rendering, is that you can do back-to-back comparisons feeding them MQA content that has, or has not, been through the decoding phase - simply by turning that option off in your player. In doing this with the Nano iDSD Black Label, it is relatively easy to discern that MQA content generally sounds better played with decoding enabled in your player thereby allowing the Black Label to do the final rendering step.

Specifics here, much like the AudioQuest Dragonfly Black, include slightly improved transients, a better sense of air/space - especially in acoustic pieces, an overall smoother sounding delivery - most notable in the upper registers and the "perception" of more detail/resolution. I say "perception" as I'm still not convinced there's actually any more detail at all. It is quite common for what detail is present to be easier to hear if dynamic range is compressed - something MQA does.

That's not to say it's always necessarily better than the equivalent non-MQA version of a track, assuming you can find otherwise identical MQA/non-MQA sources to compare. But again, it is relatively easy to tell the difference.

Whether the feature is worthwhile at all, currently at least, depends a lot on where/how you get your music. While it's possible to buy MQA-encoded music from various vendors, by far the largest source of it is via TIDAL (you'll need a premium subscription and the desktop client - it's not currently supported by the web player or mobile clients). So unless you are, or plan to be, a TIDAL Premium subscriber MQA support is of questionable value currently.

Summary

In short, I cannot, at present, name a better sounding, more enjoyable/flexible/feature rich DAC/amp at the same price point as the iFi Nano iDSD Black Label! It supports every interesting (or, at least, relevant) format presently available, has enough power to drive most full-size headphones convincingly, while retaining an inky-black background even with fussy/hiss-prone IEMs. It can be run directly off a phone for hours at a time using it’s own internal battery, and yet has features to isolate it from noisy PC USB ports.

As portable, or transportable, device, it handily bests both the Meridian Explorer 2 (except for MQA replay, where the Meridian is both a full decoder and yields a more enjoyable end result with MQA encoded content) and the AudioQuest Dragonfly Red in its ability to drive more challenging loads and on it’s overall sound quality. And it is well enough thought out in terms of it’s layout that it could easily be employed as a fixed, desktop, unit.

I will say that, if dedicated desktop use was my personal use-case I would probably explore two-box solutions instead, but the moment I wanted any kind of portability/transportability that idea would go straight out of the window.

The only genuine negative I can come up with for this unit is that if you want both MQA Rendering support and native DSD replay capability, you have to limit yourself to DSD128 and lower. This isn’t much of a negative. There is very little native DSD content at more than 1x (DSD64), let alone above 2x (DSD128).

For $200 the iFi Nano iDSD Black Label comes highly recommended. And very highly recommended if you’re going to use it in its portable capacity. I know of nothing else like it in terms of flexibility, features and overall performance in the same price ballpark.

-Ian Dunmore (@Torq)

Join the discussion about the iFi Nano iDSD Black Label at the “The HEADPHONE Community”.

Buy the iFi Nano iDSD Black Label on Headphone.com here, at the best price available.

 


2 Responses

John Franks
John Franks

October 16, 2018

I have been lusting after this system since I first read about it. My normal mode of listing is to play back DSD that I have downloaded from HDTracks or a similar source or to find an artist that I want to follow and listen to every recording available on Tidal, Since Tidal has been supporting MQA and since I have had no real desire to purchase at this time an MQA playback system, the iFi IDSD Black Label seemed to be the obvious choice, if not as a starting point. I have a collection of headphones that range from low-efficiency classics (such as the Original Yamaha HP-1), the unusual (the KOSS Dual Element Stereophones), and high-resolution IEMs (Advance Model 3). I don’t care for the sound of balanced-armature earphones, so I have passed by most of those from Ultimate Ears and most multidriver systems. I have just begun collecting those earphones employing graphene in order to increase transducer rigidity and shift the break-up points to higher and higher frequencies while allowing a larger effective surface area to be employed, and it is to those that I would like to begin to apply the iFi iDSD Black Label.

Joseph Regina
Joseph Regina

October 19, 2018

How does it compare to the Grace M900 at a high price point?

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