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Expecting great musicality from a cheap portable audio device isn't often the case. But there are exceptions to everything, and when it comes to iFi's budget models, there's a reason they're so intriguing: iFi manufacturers have a clear competitive advantage: access to the most advanced High-End developments of the audiophile company Abbington Music Research, the founder of this brand.
The iFi catalog features gadgets that take up little room in pockets and fit easily into any bag. That’s why the nano series models are so compact: They’re only a third smaller and weigh less than iFi’s main line of portable devices.
Although iFi’s portable devices are so compact, the company’s engineers are working to make them even smaller. To that end, they have created their own product line: the iFi nano. They present one of the world’s compact and powerful DAC/amplifiers, besides Audioquest Dragonfly.
iFi Audio Nano iDSD Mid-range Headphone & Laptop AMP Review
DAC: Burr Brown PCM1793 BitPerfect | Input Terminals: USB-A 2.0 with iPurifier technology (charging and syncing) | Output: 1 x mini jack line output, 2 x 3.5mm unbalanced headphone outputs (compatible with iEMatch+ direct) | Max Outputs: 2 x 285 mW/30 Ohms, 20 mW/600 Ohms | Sampling frequency: PCM 384kHz / 24bit, DSD 256, DXD 384 kHz, MQA 192 kHz | Battery: 10 hours | Weight: 139g
The iFi Audio Nano iDSD Black Label comes in a simple white box with a carrying case, USB-A cable, a pair of straps, a USB adapter, and other accessories. It features a discreet logo at the top and orange text in some places.
The Nano iDSD BL is black to match the color of the thick aluminum case. The shape of the case is small enough that you might think the device is a toy, but thanks to the large built-in battery, you can charge your phone with it, and the power of the built-in amplifier is enough to rock tight headphones up to 600 ohms.
The Nano iDSD is probably the smallest and most powerful DAC you’ll find. On the front panel, you’ll find two headphone outputs (iEMatch or Direct – note: according to the manufacturer, it’s not recommended to use two outputs at the same time), a 3.5mm headphone output, a volume knob, a power switch and an LED that changes color depending on the audio source.
- Blue: DSD 256
- Cyan: DSD 128
- White: DXD PCM 352.6 / 384 kHz
- Yellow: PCM 176.4 / 19 kHz
- Green: PCM 44.11 / 48 / 88.2 / 96 kHz
- Red: Battery level below 10
The rear panel features RCA SPDIF digital outputs (PCM format only, up to 192 kHz), a USB 2.0 input, and a digital filter mode switch that allows selection of the following filters: PCM: standard/minimum phase, digital; DSD: standard/extended, analog; DXD: Fixed Bit Perfect Processing, analog.
In terms of connectivity, the Black Label is much easier to pair with a computer than with a smartphone, using only the included USB cable. Pairing with a smartphone requires purchasing a special cable – an Apple Camera Connection Kit for iPhones and an OTG (On-The-Go) cable for Android smartphones. Connections to third-party devices are not detected unless the DAC is connected; thus, you have to turn it on beforehand.
In our testing, we were unable to connect the Nano Black Label to most Android smartphones. However, other users have said that the iFi iDSD Nano Black Label works with the Google Pixel 2, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X. This limitation is a major drawback, and you should be aware of it before you buy. However, the gadget works well as an alternative to your computer’s sound card when connected via a USB cable. The same USB cable was used to charge the battery, which took about 10 hours in our case.
We think the iFi Nano iDSD portable headphone amplifier is a unique device that combines compactness, functional richness, and musicality. iDSD Black Label weighs 139 grams, which is not unlike a portable smartphone battery.
The iDSD Nano really does carry a weight that others don’t. 32-bit PCM samples up to 384kHz and 11.2MHz via DSD265. And unlike many inexpensive devices designed for the DSD format, iDSD meets the challenge without converting to PCM. This is in keeping with True Native’s original philosophy that “all music formats should be processed in their original form without the need to convert from 1-bit to multi-bit and vice versa”.
The iDSD uses a vintage Burr-Brown digital-to-analog converter with hardware support for both mono and multi-bit audio stream processing circuits to solve this problem. In designing the iDSD DAC and amplifier, care was taken to avoid unnecessary connections in the signal processing circuits. Despite its small size, iFi features AMR’s ZeroJitter Lite, DC-Infinity, and DirectDrive Servo-less circuitry, all of which are used in iFi’s high-end models.
The ZeroJitter jitter elimination technology was borrowed from Abington Music Research for its equipment and successfully tested on its flagship CD player, the AMR DP-777. The iDSD features a built-in lithium-polymer battery with 10 hours of battery life. This allows for USB operation without an annoying power source when used with a computer or laptop. However, the most interesting aspect of this device is its integration with laptops, smartphones, and other iOS and Android mobile devices. Simply connect the iDSD with an adapter or USB OTG cable, and it transforms from an ordinary smartphone into a handheld hyphen vehicle.
When powered by the USB port, the sound is generally clean, balanced, and accurate. Bass was subjectively perceived as deep but not overly detailed. The midrange was evenly distributed across the stage; still, they lacked some clarity along with the high frequencies.
In terms of sound dynamics, attack, decay, delay, and release were pleasant and acceptable. The imaging of instruments was quite weak, and the sound was a bit flat. The high-resolution sources are much better than conventional CD sources, especially in terms of natural timbre and sonic detail; the difference between DSD and 24/192 is immediately noticeable; the DAC adds considerably to the power of the sound, and the sound quality is very good. If you turn up the volume and use headphones with above-average sensitivity, you can feel the vibrations and let the music resonate. The iDSD Black Label reproduces a nice, wide, accurate, and clean stereo sound, which is a positive sign for the soundstage.
Listening to the iDSD Nano with reference headphones is also a pleasure. The integrated amplifier takes advantage of the properties of all the connection methods used and the sound characteristics of each model. Simultaneously, all headphones sounded natural, fairly accurate, and equally detailed despite the obvious differences, but not harsh. If I were greedy, I would have liked the amps to have a little more power, but their small size did not help.
Modern smartphones offer good sound, streaming support, and Bluetooth connectivity. However, to get the best sound quality, you need a digital-to-analog converter (DAC). If you’re looking for the smallest, lightest, and most portable headphone amplifier/converter, the iFi Audio Nano iDSD is a good candidate at under $200.
Black Label’s iFi micro iDSD is packed with features and delivers them with high quality and performance. Not only is it the most compact and portable headphone amplifier on the market, but it also has a 10-hour rechargeable battery, powerful Burr-Brown circuitry, and digital-to-analog conversion for 32-bit/384 kHz PCM and 11.2 MHz DSD. These features make this little headphone amplifier a strong contender for its price and size.