Review: iFi Micro iDSD Black Label DAC/amp | iLounge

Review

Review: iFi Micro iDSD Black Label DAC/amp

B+
Recommended

Company: iFi

Model: Micro iDSD Black Label

Price: $549

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Guido Gabriele

Weird company name, weird product names with weird feature names and weird form factors. To the uninitiated, researching one of iFi's portable headphone DAC/amps might be a bit overwhelming — the company doesn't shy away from the arcane, listing component part numbers in the place of advertising copy and bombarding the reader with branded features. iFi does things like nobody else, which might be why they're so popular in the audiophile community. Today we're trying out iFi's Micro iDSD Black Label. There's a lot to cover here — it's a DAC, it's a headphone amplifier, it's a preamp, it's powerful, and it's awesome.

The iDSD BL makes a strong first impression. Its all-metal black anodized housing, covered in ports, switches, and tiny orange text labels, feels solid and durable. Unlike its mostly square competition, the iDSD BL is long and rectangular, which may be great for crowded desks where horizontal space is at a premium. The iDSD BL’s front panel is densely packed with a volume knob, “Xbass” and “3D+” sound switches, headphone jack, and 3.5mm analog input jack. On the rear of the iDSD BL are a set of RCA analog outputs, an ingenious optical input/coaxial input-output jack and a recessed male USB-A jack. The right panel features a single female USB-A port for charging mobile devices (5V/1.5A) which can only be used when the unit is powered off. The left side has three switches — power mode (gain), polarity, filter — though the labels for these controls are on the bottom of the unit.

Finally, on the bottom of the iDSD BL is a preamp/line out switch and a switch to control iFi’s IEMatch feature, which adjusts the unit’s output to accommodate high-sensitivity IEMs, lowering the noise floor and giving the user a more usable volume range. Though the placement of these controls is a bit awkward at first, we memorized them easily enough, and ultimately came to appreciate the adjustability of the iDSD BL’s output. Packaged with the iDSD BL are accessories to fit nearly any use case: a USB-A male to female cable, USB-B to USB-A adapter, a 6.3mm to 3.5mm adapter, a short RCA analog cable, and a carry case. Though the iDSD BL includes a decent internal battery, a soft carry bag with a volume knob cutout, and silicone bands for attaching it to a mobile device, we think calling it “portable” is a bit too generous given its size and weight. Rather, we think the iDSD BL is better regarded as a “transportable” device into which maximum technology and power is packed into minimum space.

The iDSD BL’s “Swiss Army Knife” personality is more than just skin deep. Despite what it’s name would suggest, the iDSD BL supports more than just DSD — it can also handle PCM files up to an amazing 32-bit, 768 khz resolution. If you’re one of the few really using DSD, you’ll be happy to know that the iDSD BL can decode DSD 512 and DXD 2x. A single LED on the back of the unit changes color to indicate battery level and the type of music file being decoded. In our testing, the iDSD BL worked perfectly with macOS (no drivers required), Windows 10 (with drivers), and iOS (via the USB2 and USB3 Camera Connection Kits). We initially questioned why the iDSD used a USB-A port on the rear instead of the more commonly-used USB-B, but iFi explained that this is to make the device easier to use with mobile devices; it’s easier to find USB-A OTG cables than USB-B. The iDSD BL’s output is substantial for its size, with a max power of 1.5 watts (4W peak) into 16 ohms through its headphone jack, and low distortion of less than .008 percent. iFi uses a dual Burr-Brown chipset for its DAC section, with high-quality components that are upgraded in comparison to the standard version of the Micro iDSD. iFi is certainly proud of the iDSD’s components and topology — though we can’t comment on how much value is added by Sanyo capacitors or “Operationsverstärker” op-amps, we can confirm that we are happy with the iDSD BL’s performance.

Between the power mode and IEMatch, its easy to find the right power output to make the iDSD BL pair well with almost any headphone, even on battery power. We found this adjustability helpful to maximize battery life and, for more sensitive headphones, to avoid the channel imbalance found at the bottom few degrees of the volume range. None of the headphones we tried required the “Turbo” gain setting — even the Sennheiser HD800 and Audeze LCD-3 could be driven to sufficient volume in Normal mode, though the amp did feel a bit strained with those power-hungry cans. Sound out of the iDSD BL initially struck us as a bit bass-light, but after some time listening, we heard nothing but a clean, balanced presentation. The IE Match feature works exactly as advertised, immediately dropping the noise floor with sensitive IEMs. The iDSD BL’s XBass feature adds a noticeable but reasonable amount of bass boost without sounding bloated or distorted. The 3D Matrix switch is supposed to mimic the soundstage of speakers by adding some analog crossfeed, but we didn’t find the effect very useful in our listening — it sounds more like a boost to upper midrange than speakers. If more than one input is connected, the iDSD BL will switch between optical and USB inputs automatically depending on which is playing music. The analog outputs are clean, allowing the iDSD BL to work nicely as a DAC (2V line out) or preamp. And, lest we forget the most important interface component, this device has excellent knob feel.

We admit it: we have known about the iDSD and it’s large following for some time but, between its odd shape and iFi’s impenetrable product descriptions, never rushed to review it. After spending a week with the iDSD Black Label, we are believers. The iDSD BL is built like a tank, feature-packed, and powerful. In this review, we were only barely able to scratch the surface of the iDSD’s various branded features, but suffice to say that this DAC/amp sounds great and has enough flexibility to meet nearly any use case. The iFi Micro iDSD Black Label gets our strong recommendation.

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Editors' Note: iLounge only reviews products in "final" form, but many companies now change their offerings - sometimes several times - after our reviews have been published. This iLounge article provides more information on this practice, known as revving.

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