A month ago I was at the launch of the iFi nano iDSD Black Label portable DAC/amp. Now, I think it’s time to share my thoughts about it.
There are many companies looking to improve your audio on the go. As with most Hi-Fi, there’s also quite a range of price points from the easily affordable to the “how much?!” levels.
The latest portable offering from iFi comes in the reasonably priced arena. It’s a neat looking device with plenty of features crammed in.
Let’s take a look at how it performs.
iFi nano iDSD BL design
As you would expect from something called nano, this portable head amp and DAC easily fits in your pocket. Measuring just 96(l) x 64(w) x 25.5(h)mm and tipping the scales at a nicely weighted 139g, it feels sturdy.
It will take the knocks but, thanks to the bundled pouch with cable slot, it shouldn’t be any worse for wear being kept in a bag.
Under the nano iDSD BL’s hood is a Burr-Brown True Native DAC. This has the chops to deal with PCM files all the way up to 32bit/384kHz. Additionally audio skills include DXD and DSD256 formats. It also supports MQA, so physical MQA files and Tidal Masters are also accepted.
The amplifier is a Dual Mono 2 x 285mW Direct Drive, coupling capacitor free circuit for highest fidelity. iFi states that the iDSD packs “…maximum output power (32R) around 10 times that of iPhone 6 (285mW vs. 27mW)” and can drive most headphones on the market.
Alongside a ‘Direct’ 3.5mm headphone output, the ‘iEMatch’ output attempts to compensate for the extra sensitivity of in-ears.
Next to the heaphone ports is a chunky volume control dial that uses an analogue potentiometer for best sound quality.
Also around the rear is a USB type-A port. This makes it easy to connect to smartphones, laptops and tablets. This also doubles up as a charger when the 10-hour Lithium Polymer battery life runs dry.
Between the line-out and USB port is a switch that offers a choice of two DAC filter options: ‘Listen’ (a minimum-phase Bezier filter that iFi suggests sounds better) and ‘Measure’ (a linear-phase Transient Aligned filter, said to perform better in measurement tests).
The iDSD nano Black Label is compact and feels like a quality device.
iFi nano iDSD BL performance
The built-in IEMatch circuit ensures that even extremely sensitive headphones and IEMs are ‘hiss free’ throughout the volume range. The nano also includes the S-Balanced wiring system for the headphone outputs. This hands it the full benefit of balanced outputs when used with headphones and IEMs (fitted with balanced wiring) with low-noise and lower distortion. Even single-ended headphones benefit, as S-Balanced cuts crosstalk in half.
Having a rechargable battery also means 10 hours+ of audio enjoyment untethered by power lead.
Plugging it in to my phone for the commute with my Oppo PM-3 headphones the iDSD BL cleanly boosts the volume. Furthermore, there’s plenty of clarity and detail. However, this wasn’t the kind of clinical clarity that can easily wear you down though. There’s an ease and openness that leads to extended listening sessions.
Flicking between Tidal Masters (MQA), Spotify as well as 24bit Qobuz files you can hear the difference, especially between Spotify and the rest.
That transparancy continues through FLAC and DSD files. The one downside to this is poorly ripped MP3s are left practically unlistenable.
My usual choice for portable DAC/Amp in this price range is still the Oppo HA-2. It is still a remarkable device but the nano iDSD BL is more adept at unravelling more taxing tunes. Tracks such as ‘Slander’ by Trash Talk, ‘Run to Your Mama’ by Goat, or even The Distillers’ ‘City of Angels’ can get messy, yet the iFi unit still pushes the walls to give these bands some space.
However, dynamics and subtlty are sometimes exchanged for the nano’s clarity and space.
The high-hat crash that punctuates Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ seems to be disconnected from the strum of the acoustic guitar.
As I was about to wrap up this review, ‘Love Like Blood’ by Killing Joke started up and stopped me in my tracks (literally). Raven’s bass has such weight, the drums are tight and clear. But, it’s when Jaz starts singing that I get tingles. The piano stabs are also well defined.
Well, played iFi, well played.
Playing my NAS-stored audio on random through my laptop it was fun to try and guess the format.
You can tell what you are playing thanks to the device’s front LED. If you’re playing DSD256, for instance, the light glows blue. Put some DSD 64/128 through it and it goes cyan. MQA files will give you a magenta light.
iFi nano iDSD BL review conclusion
There is plenty to like about the iFi nano iDSD Black Label. It’s on-board battery has decent stamina and it’s a nice looking device.
I may have been spoilt by the Chord Mojo (twice the cost of the nano) but I do feel that the nano could be more dynamic. However, that’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable. I have used the nano with my tablet every lunchtime at the day job. In fact, that has now become my work system.
The nano iDSD Black Label certainly performs well and presents excellent value. If you’re looking for a versatile and talented portable head amp and DAC, you owe yourself to at least audition the nano.
iFi nano iDSD BL price and availability
You can buy the iFi nano iDSD Black Label right now for £199. For UK stockists please see here.