There are two economic worlds for audiophiles, the Extreme and the Budget and ne’er the two shall meet – at least in theory. In reality, these two rub shoulders more than hobbyists may think. Trickle down of technology happens to a greater or lesser degree in all manufacturers that produce more than one line of products. The question is, how much of the “good stuff” gets passed down the line to the entry level components? One manufacturer shuttling downstream a goodly amount of its upper end component performance is Abbingdon Music Research, or AMR. Their “iFi” brand represents superior value due to an extremely high performance level for starter gear.
Chris and Melissa Owen of Clarity Cable whose opinion I respect based on the premium sonic characteristics of their cables, introduced me to the iFi line in 2014. I have enjoyed the quality of Clarity Cables in many review systems, so when Chris heard I was moving to file playback he loaned me his iFi Micro iDAC and Micro iUSBPower power supply. Though he enthused about them, I anticipated little to no variance from the similarly priced Musical Fidelity V-90 DAC, which I had used in the transition from Redbook to file playback. However, the iFi Micro iDAC struck me as being more “mature” sounding, fuller and refined. Both are 24bit/192kHz USB DACs, but the iFi Micro came away consistently sounding as though it was a far pricier product.
As a point of clariFication, customers should note that AMR has more than one line of small components, the other being the “Nano” series. The Nano products represent an even smaller, more portable component, while the Micro components include more features suitable for a home environment in an attempt to maximize performance on a tight budget.
I direct the reader to Paul Mah’s incisive discussion of these iFi products to see a thorough discussion of features and operational details. I will concentrate on the experience of system building with them. One system I assembled for this assessment was:
Mac Mini using iTunes
iFi iDAC Micro
Audioquest RCA splitters (used on analogue RCA outputs of the Micro)
Clarity Organic RCA Interconnects leading to Legacy Audio XTREME HD Subs
Silnote Orion M1 Master Series Interconnects leading to Wells Audio Innamorata ampliFier
Silnote Anniversary speaker cables
Daedalus Audio Ulysses Speakers
I will not comment at length about the Silnote Cables, as they are under review, except to point out that they are among the most exquisite wires I have ever used, and they bear serious consideration by enthusiasts.
I also had a quick spin with the iFi Micro iPuriFier, a USB plug-in signal adjustment device to be placed just prior to the Micro iDAC. Along with the sliding magnets on the iFi Mercury and Gemini USB cables I felt this was the least efficacious of the methods of improving the Micro’s performance. The net effect of these devices was to smooth the sound, or if you prefer to “tube” the sound slightly. The use of the iFi Micro iUSBPower caused an immediate dynamic leap, adding in terms of macrodynamics, but a soft, high pitched hum heard through the speakers was not ameliorated by moving the magnets on the Gemini and Mercury cables. Putting in the iPuriFier increased the hum, but it also continued the filling/smoothing effect such that the performance was more like use of a digital filter, like interpolating a 16bit/44.1kHz signal to 24bit/192kHz.
The downside of all this was a fractional loss of definition. This is a subjective element of the iFi products, and personal preference should weigh heavily in the decision to try these products. Audiophiles who consistently move toward ultra-crisp, tightly imaged sound will perhaps not be thrilled by them. Others who value fullness over crispness, timbre over definition, would likely be elated at adding them.
In the wake of amassing a variety of samples for Axpona, Chicago, I turn to that playlist first when putting a rig through its paces. I typically queue up Jackson Brown’s “The Pretender,” followed by “True Story” by Ginny Owens, then on to Wynonna Judd’s “Help Me,” or Al Jarreau’s “After All”. Using these selections I compared a competitor’s USB active cable, the BMC PureUSB1, to this combination of iFi products.
When the iFi Micro iDAC was optimized according to AMR’s philosophy with iUSBPower, Mercury and Gemini cables, and iPuriFier the selections of music aforementioned took on a patina similar to solidly performing CD players I have used in the past, such as the Ah Njoe Tjoeb 4000 with upsampler, or the Ayon Audio CD-5. Simple file playback unadorned with such enhancing software as Amarra was commendable and gave no reason for me to pine for the old days of Redbook. Jackson Brown’s piano was adequately, though not ultimately clear, and Al Jarreau’s voice had plumpness of the sort heard through a tube buffer stage like the Eastern Electric Minimax BBA.
One of my regular tests of resolution is the introduction to Joe Satriani’s “I Just Wanna Rock,” where an electronically treated voice repeats “What is your purpose?” Several years ago, when my systems were far more humble in terms of cost and performance, that line in the song was almost unintelligible to the point that I had to play it over and over to understand it. As better digital front ends were used in my system the phrase became easily heard. With the iFi setup the phrase continued to be clearly heard, which shows these AMR products send to the speaker system a high degree of detail in the media being played.
This is not to say the combination could not be bested, as the BMC PureUSB1 active USB cable used in conjunction with the iFi Micro iDAC was even more to my liking. At the time I tried this combination I had two industry insiders in the room comparing a set of seven USB cables. They were quite skeptical when I elected to pair these two products, but upon hearing it agreed that the combination was dramatic. In fact, this combination competed quite well with an $8K DAC sitting alongside it on the same shelf! I am not prepared to say that the BMC cable and iDAC were in an absolute sense superior, because the higher priced DAC had not been optimized with it’s own power supply and cables. But, for an econo-DAC to play in the same sandbox is mightily impressive and speaks volumes about what AMR have accomplished in this small, wondrous box.
A quick aside on the seven cable USB link comparison; with representatives ranging from under $100 to well over $1,000 the standout by a long shot was the Clarity Cable Organic USB, a product under development and well worth tucking away in your memory bank. It was exemplary in bringing to file playback the characteristics normally associated with a top notch S/PDIF cable. The Organic USB with the iFi Mirco iDAC was far and away the most desirable set, outperforming all other permutations mentioned in this article. The difficulty for some is that the cost of the USB cable is multiples that of the DAC. I have encountered such anomalies in the past, and wish to convey that as unusual as that is, the result of such pairings can be more remarkable than the reverse. In this particular case it would not be a mistake to expend the money on the more expensive USB cable to use with the Micro iDAC.
Later, as I reviewed the above selections, as well as others, it was abundantly clear that this oddball pairing of BMC PureUSB1 was a home run for affordable systems, performing far above expectations, though a more rough representation of the Organic USB. I am considering a set of the PureUSB1 cable and iFi Micro iDAC for my office use to replace the Eastern Electric Minimax DAC Plus with discrete Opamps. I had a great time running those discrete opamps in the DAC Plus, and at the time it was a standout affordable upgrade. Not any longer; the old DAC Plus has been decimated by the diminutive iDAC. I have halted all experimentation with discrete opamps at this time; the sound quality does not bear investing more of my attention to it in a DAC that cannot do 32/386. Things may turn in the future back toward such upgrades, but not in the immediate future.
I must admit, however, that Eastern Electric is not letting the digital world slip through their fingers, as new versions of the Minimax DAC are on their way to me as I speak. There are many companies that will want to employ the more recent DAC designs, for they are sensationally successful and largely affordable across the home listening audiophile spectrum.
Viewpoint on the headphone output of the iFi Micro iDAC forthcoming.
Not sitting on their laurels
AMR seems a very motivated company, and one committed to giving the customer an exceptional amount of performance for the price. As good as the iFi Micro iDAC is, I’m told by Darren Censullo of Avatar Acoustics, the distributor of AMR in North America, that the Micro iDSD will perform at a far higher level. Based on the outcome with the Micro iDAC, I believe it. If products like the Micro iDAC did not exist, I would encourage audiophiles full out to chase after the $1,000 dollar DACs. However, systems can be built with the Micro iDAC which yield cleaner and yet richer sound. I strongly recommend that when considering DACs in the $1,000 price range the iFi Micro iDAC be given a trial run, as it may end up being the one kept in your system. Don’t let the size fool you; while not omnipotent, it is potent!
Source: Macintosh Mac Mini; Sonos Digital Music System; Musical Fidelity M1CDT Transport Playback Software: Amarra NAS: Buffalo Linkstation 500G DAC: BMC PureDAC; Eastern Electric Minimax DAC Plus with Burson and Dexa NewClassD Discrete Opamp Upgrade; Musical Fidelity V90-DAC; iFi Micro USBPower and Micro DAC Preamp: TEO Audio Liquid PreampliFier; VAC Renaissance Signature PreampliFier MkII; Pass Labs XP-20; Cambridge Audio 840E Amps: VAC Phi 200; Pass Labs X600.5 Monos; Musical Fidelity M1PWR (two units bridged to Mono) Integrated: Pathos Classic One MkIII stereo tube hybrid (two units bridged to mono); Peachtree Audio Nova Speakers: Kings Audio Kingsound King III; Legacy Audio DSW Clarity Edition; Kings Audio King Tower omnidirectional; Daedalus Audio Ulysses used in Landscape orientation; Vapor Audio Nimbus White Subwoofers: Legacy Audio XTREME HD (2) IC’s: Clarity Cable Organic RCA/XLR; Snake River Audio Signature Series Interconnects; Silent Source “The Music Reference” Speaker Cables: Clarity Cable Organic Speaker; Snake River Audio Signature Series Speaker Cables; Silent Source “The Music Reference” Digital Cables: Clarity Cable Organic Digital; Snake River Audio Boomslang; Silent Source “The Music Reference” Power Cables: Clarity Cable Vortex; MIT Oracle ZIII; Xindak PF-Gold; Snake River Audio Signature Series; Silent Source “The Music Reference” Power Conditioning: Wireworld Matrix Power Cord Extender; Tice Audio Solo
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