The Wonderful Ifi Nano iDSD Black Label DAC/Headphone Amp
The first DAC I heard in the nascent dawn of digital audio was a multi-thousand-dollar Cambridge Audio unit and it was surprisingly good at a time when digital was not. I can remember the original Arcam Black Box DAC and it was good too. And then there were many more, many, many more. None of them were great. Many of them were very expensive.
Fast forward 30 plus years and digital audio has come of age. My first exposure to portable DACs occurred when I used an HRT Music Streamer Pro which I quite liked and still possess. HRT was one of the first companies to use an asynchronous USB input. Clearly, the Pro was an innovative DAC. And it finally allowed me to enjoyably experience music directly from my computer.
Since those first experiences with the HRT, I have inserted many different portable DACs into my laptop music system. The DACs have become progressively more affordable and better. Although truth be told, my laptop system still utilized a separate headphone amplifier – at one point, my rig included a Burson HA-160. It was all a bit too much.
Yet what choice did I have? Most affordable solutions failed to significantly energize my reference cans –Sennheiser HD-600 – they always seem to need a volume set to 11. Consequently, maxing out the volume to 10 on most portable solutions failed to excite. Enter the little black label ifi.
The ifi designers in England really know their stuff. The ifi Nano iDSD BL comes feature and more importantly performance rich. It starts with the first impression when you open the box. The Nano iDSD BL is well-packaged and inside the box you will find everything needed except for a USB cable (more on that later). Connection to my MacBook Pro was done simply and without fuss – a Windows rig will require downloading and installing the correct driver which is available on the ifi website.
The Nano iDSD BL can do it all. It uses a Burr-Brown DAC to process DSD 256 / DXD 384 / PCM 384 in a variety of file formats – flac, wav, alac, whatever. The Nano iDSD BL has enough power output at 285mW per channel to drive 600 Ohm headphones comfortably and with the inclusion of ifi’s IEMatch, it can also accommodate high-sensitivity IEMs for reduced background noise and matched gain. My Sennheisers begged no more. A full charge to the Li-Po battery via the USB connection will keep you listening for 10 hours. A 3.5mm line out allows connection to a stereo or a pair of powered speakers. User-selectable digital filters are available for PCM and DSD files and enable you to choose between two sonic profiles. And most importantly, the Nano iDSD BL is fully MQA Authenticated.
MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) at its best can deliver the sound of the original master recording in a package small enough to stream or download. The Nano iDSD BL will decode and authenticate all three folds (if three are encoded) and reconstruct the full 24 bits at up to 192 kHz. You can experience the Brave New World of high-resolution music simply with a Tidal subscription and an ifi Nano iDSD BL.
Let’s get to the good stuff. I tried several different USB cables to connect the Nano iDSD BL to my MacBook Pro. I initially used a nearly $1K USB cable. The DAC sounded sublime and my HD-600s seemed to disappear from around my head and left only the sweetest musicality. I eventually chose the appropriately affordable ifi Mercury 3.0 cable (1.0m - $199) – it paired well with the ifi DAC and has a smooth detailed sound. The DAC’s USB (OTG) interface incorporates ifi’s iPurifier technology to actively cancel noise. For even more noise cancellation, I also connected both an ifi iSilencer and an ifi iPurifier2. Too much of a good thing is ultimately a good thing.
The sound of the Nano iDSD BL is quite transparent and detailed. Musicality is maintained with a very well sorted neutral midrange. There is no harshness or brittleness and the confident presentation will keep you enjoying music as you listen for hours and hours. When I played some Glenn Gould, I could hear his characteristic humming and felt the sparseness of the recording studio. “Hey Nineteen” by Steely Dan was punchy and tonally opulent suggesting a besotted decadence and yet clearly punctuated by longing regret. Fairground Attraction’s “Perfect” had me tapping my toes and the beauty of Eddi Reader’s voice kept the insistent beat perfectly framed. All this and more you get.
In the end, you will find this ifi engaging and easy and is most highly recommended by this humble scribe – the ifi Nano iDSD BL sells for $269!