iFi iDSD BL DAC + Headphone Amp Review: Black is Better

January 21, 2018


Shortly after sending my iFi Audio Pro iCAN review unit back, iFi hit me up with its stealthy Micro iDSD BL (Black Label), a portable desktop DAC and pre-amp/headphone amp combo that packs a punch and goes head-to-head against the very popular Chord Electronics Mojo (If you see this Chord, I’d love a demo).

Much like the Pro iCAN, the iDSD BL is an iFi flagship product, but this time in its smaller portable/desktop Mirco line. Here again, iFi packs in strong feature sets bettered by trickle-down R&D and technology from iFi’s ultra-high-end parent company, Abbingdon Music Research, or AMR Audio.

You can read about all of the tech specs on iFi’s website, like the dual-core Burr-Brown DAC chips, custom Sanyo OP-Amps, and femto clock, so I’ll just get to the feedback you care about — user and listening impressions.

Unboxing Impressions

A relative newcomer to iFi products, I was happy to see the lesser-expensive iDSD BL comes well-packed in higher-end packaging with clean, minimalistic design and aesthetics like the Pro iCAN. It gives off the impression that you’re unboxing a much more expensive product. Inside, you’ll find a very comprehensive accessory set. Everything you need to put the iDSD BL to use is included: USB 3.0 cable, RCA cable, Optical/Toslink adapter, 3.5mm to 6.3mm headphone jack adapter, 3.5mm jumper, some other various USB adapters, a crushed velvet storage bag, a rubber mat to keep the iDSD BL from sliding around on various surfaces when in use, and two bands for securing the iDSD BL to your smartphone or DAP (you can even use the iDSD BL to charge your smartphone).

Despite its light weight, in hand, the iDSD BL has a sleek and solid feel. I’d say it’s comparatively robust next to products from JDS Labs and Schiit, and maybe a hair less robust than ALO and Chord’s offerings; however, I do have a couple of gripes. The black-on-black text on the chassis is hard to read, and the various recessed slide switches feel, well, cheap. In fact, the first time I slid the iEMatch switch into another position, the round plastic button popped off the switch post. The button easily went back on, but I’d prefer more solid switches on a unit at this price point. I can see these buttons easily popping off their posts if handled less that delicately when traveling. This nitpicking aside, the front panel toggle switches and volume pot operate nicely with good tactile feedback, and the overall look and feel of the device is quite pleasing.

As for being portable, yes, the 4800mAh lithium battery lets you use the iDSD BL on the go, but it’s long, narrow rectangular shape and overall length does make it rather awkward to carry. It’s approximately 1.5” longer than most standard smartphones when accounting for the volume knob and exposed inputs/outputs. In fact, it’s closer in size to the battery brick for my laptop, so this isn’t something I am tossing into a jacket pocket to use on the train each day. This becomes less of an issue if you carry a bag of some sort.

Sound Options

Perhaps the greatest traits of the iDSD BL are its flexibility and versatility. From sensitive IEMs to more power-hungry headphones, mixing and matching the Power Mode (Eco -
2.0V/500 mW @ 8 Ohm; Normal - 5.5V/1,900 mW @ 16 Ohm; Turbo - 10.0V/4,000 mW @ 16 Ohm) and proprietary iEMatch (Off, High-Sensitivity, Ultra-Sensitivity) settings allows you to dial in the right amount of power and gain to drive your music with balance and authority.

Because of a strong channel imbalance on the volume pot of my review unit, and my preference for lower listening levels while working, I found these variable settings incredibly useful for balancing the volume output for all of the headphones and IEMs in my collection. For example, I’m back to primarily using the Beyerdynamic Amiron Home as my home-office headphone, which was comfortably driven in just the Eco/High-Sensitivity settings, meaning the more powerful settings will get deafeningly loud.

Furthering its versatility, the iDSD BL also benefits from two proprietary circuitries — Xbass+ and 3D+ — that help correct some common headphone and loudspeaker shortcomings: sub-bass and imaging. While only “on” or “off” via two front panel toggle switches, instead of being active in varying degrees like on the Pro iCAN, these are still very usable EQ-like features.

XBass+ is iFi’s solution to bass deficiency in reference headphones and loudspeakers. Through analog signal processing circuitry, XBass+ provides a noticeable, although sometimes intrusive, bass boost. Much like my experience with the Pro iCAN, I was mostly pleased with how the bass boost integrated into the timbre of the amp, but results obviously vary by recording and headphone/loudspeaker selections. XBass+ nicely boosts the deep bass regions of the Sennheiser HD650, Beyerdynamic Amiron Home, and Focal Elear on bass-light recordings. With bass-shy headphones like my old AKG K701 or the updated Q701, XBass+ adds some welcomed warmth and impact. On the other hand, the dark and mysterious AudioQuest NightHawk (review), and the Fostex TH-600 gets boomy with Xbass+. The takeaway here is that you just have to experiment; XBass+ is not a set-it-and-forget-it option.

While XBass+ helps correct bass deficiency, 3D+ helps correct sound stage deficiencies, like that closed-in feeling when the sound is stuck right between your headphones. In other words, 3D+ was designed to create an “out-of-head” headphone listening experience that emulates listening to well-placed loudspeakers in a room.

Much like the XBass+ feature, 3D+ is rather hit-or-miss. I particularly liked this feature on the Pro iCAN, which had varying degrees of impact. On the iDSD BL, 3D+ is again “on” or “off” only, which limits its usability. In particular, I found 3D+ to work well with live recordings and videos, like Ben Howard’s 2015 Glastonbury Festival performance, where it widens the sound stage and makes for a more cohesive and deeper blending of sound. Testing it with the tracks I used in my Pro iCAN review, the 3D+ function again worked well enough with jazz classics like John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” where instrument localization is very apparent and added depth and dimension enhances the experience. Admittedly though, some tracks get too busy and displaced with 3D+ engaged, especially when it has adverse effects in the treble region, injecting a strange artificial tizzy-ness to cymbals or an intrusive reverb effect to the entire track. Here again, it’s a feature that’s easily experimented with. Does it truly emulate properly positioned loudspeakers? No, but with the right tracks, it does make welcomed improvements to that “stuck in your head” feeling during long headphone sessions.


Toned Up

Coming from the Pro iCAN, which was surprisingly neutral and precise, I was expecting more of the same from the iDSD BL, but I was met instead with a tuning tipped towards warmer tones and marginally less precision in detail retrieval and treble clarity. It seems while the iDSD BL still seeks transparency, its tone plays it a bit safe, emphasizing more body in the bass and mids, probably for more versatility with headphone/IEM selection. I suspect this is also in part due to the tuning of the dual-core Burr-Brown DAC chips. For what it’s worth, the iDSD BL sounds more like the tube modes of the Pro iCAN than the solid-state section.

In comparison to my JDS Labs Objective2 headphone amp and OL DAC (review), the iDSD BL offers more bass impact and dimension, even without the XBass+ and 3D+ features engaged. However, the JDS stack takes the edge in neutrality and clarity, which is a touch dry in comparison, but perhaps more sonically accurate. I also still use an older ALO “The Island” at work, which comes off as much warmer and textured in comparison to both.

Overall, my takeaway is that the iDSD BL is relatively crisp and clear, with good bass impact and timbre, a touch rounded in the mids, but with nice dynamics, good space and dimension, and the right amount of treble and resolution for it to be hi-fi without being analytical.

Accuracy and neutrality are what come to mind with the Pro iCAN, which simply lacks a notable “house sound.” The iDSD BL moves a step back from its big sibling, adding a hint of coloration that gives it a touch of flavor for your desktop and portable needs. Add in the simple sound tweaks possible with XBass+ and 3D+ and you have a small amp/DAC that dishes out a darn good listening experience.

Parting Thoughts

Lastly, it’s well worth noting that the iDSD BL’s flexibility doesn’t stop with power and tone controls for your headphone listening sessions. The iDSD BL can serve as a DAC and pre-amp for your powered monitors, where XBass+ and 3D+ also work. It accepts USB and digital coax inputs (and optical/Toslink with the provided adapter) for greater input versatility. It natively plays all DSD, DXD, and PCM files, including Quad-DSD256, Octa-DSD512, and bit-perfect Double-DXD and PCM768. Consider all this on top of the innumerable headphones and IEMs that can be driven efficiently with the various Power Mode and iEMatch configurations and it’s clear that the iDSD BL offers scalability, flexibility, and performance well beyond its weight class.

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