It seems that as fast as I can conduct a thorough assessment of an iFi Micro device, the company has released another moving the product up in terms of performance. I am putting the finishing touches on a brief discussion of the iFi Micro iDSD USB DAC, and I see there is already an “octa” version which will do true native DSD512/PCM728/Double DXD! This is one of the few companies I will have to run to catch up with!
In the meantime, as a brief follow up to my Audio Blast article of the enjoyable iFi Micro iDAC, the iDSD version is “all that and more” – more in terms of options to customize the sound, and more in terms of retrieval of the essence of what we call good music. The iFi products are one line that brings to fruition the promise of both economical and respected sound quality. I wanted to see how well it would fare in a home audio system, and with headphones.
The headphone setup was as follows: Mac Mini/Clarity Cable Organic USB/iFi Micro iDSD/ Clarity Cable Organic IC/ Kingsound M-20 OTL amp and KS-H3 electrostatic headphones. Coupled with the iDSD this setup put into my ear one of the outstanding nuanced presentations of my music I had heard. With these headphones reaching as low as 10Hz, and with clarity due to the DXD functionality at 705/768 kHz, I was plenty happy with the spaciousness, depth and cleanness of the DAC. It was necessary to use the Turbo output mode in order to achieve enough gain to satisfy the electrostatic headphones, even though they had their own matching amp.
In another comparison, a friend who owns the Audeze LCD-3 brought them over to compare to the Kingsound rig. Though not an apples to apples comparison, the iFi Micro iDSD USB DAC, again in Turbo power setting and this time in the PreampliFier output mode, was paired with the Audeze LCD-3 magnetic planar headphones. The RCA outputs of the iDSD were used simultaneously to feed the input of the Kingsound M20 amp and KS-H3 ESL headphones.
The output of the iFi Micro iDSD USB DAC during the review period was consistently at the DXD 705/768 kHz level, as indicated by the LED glowing white (Several colors are used the LED to indicate bit depth and sampling rate). This was obviously not an apple-to-apple comparison, but the closest the gear would allow, as the cable for the Kingsound headphones is the classic five-pin STAX variety, which would not mate to the iDSD without an adapter. However, in loose comparison of the two setups it might be argued that the advantage of the iDSD going direct to the Audeze headphones might be matched by the advantage of the Kingsound’s amp being optimized for its ESL headphones.
The results were most interesting, and I will go into further discussion in my review of the Kingsound pairing, but for the purposes of this article the most important thing to note was that the iFi Micro iDSD USB DAC was far from embarrassed. In fact, my friend and I both felt that whatever deficiencies might lay in the LCD-3 in comparison we did not fault the iFi iDSD. The little iFi unit drove the magnetic planar cans with aplomb, at a quality level I would judge plenty acceptable for most listeners. It should be noted that we did not find the iDSD deficient tonally, but rather felt it was commendable how well it could enrich the LCD-3 experience. It was not a bad showing at all for such an affordable DAC.
The iFi Micro iDSD USB DAC comes with a bevy of adapters and cables which allow for use under battery power with a phone, as well as home systems. I will focus here on the home options, headphone and full system setups. Previously, I had discussed in my iDAC article the addition of accessories such as the iPuriFier, and the Gemini and Mercury USB cables. The question is, in comparison, which would be better, the tweaked out version of the DAC, or the newer iDSD? Simple, the iFi Micro iDSD USB DAC is the route to go if you haven’t already invested in the previous generation. The additions remain available for the iDSD too, if you wish to doll it up. However, when I think of add-ons, I return in my mind to the vivid prints in our home by Alexander Chen of Times Square and the Eiffel Tower. These are hyper-detailed miniatures which I can spend several minutes scrutinizing. I love the abundance of particularities in those images, a veritable world in a picture. So it is with the iDSD, a world of miniscule details available. The add-ons build out on this, but do obscure ever so slightly those details. You will need to prioritize which is most critical, the details or the image density and slightly larger scale.
Cabling is critical for this little wonder; I used the Clarity Cable Organic USB, which happens to cost double the iFi Micro iDSD USB DAC! Insane combination? Sure, but when the Organic beat out 7 or 8 others in a direct shootout on my system, it will go into whatever rig I build. Yes, it was clearly better than the Gemini and Mercury cables, but at a pretty price. I would assume that most will not be dropping this amount of coin for their USB, but rest assured the iDSD can dig out the details if you do indulge in that respect.
Evidence of this precision was found in the Urban Knight’s “High Heel Sneakers” packed with keyboard trills, finger snapping, guitar picking, and bass boomin’ while the piano laid down a funky tune. Trombone shorty’s disc Backatown was not so much dynamically compressed sounding as simply intense. The whack of the drum and pressurized horn were not insulting to the ear, as would be the case on a middling rig. I did not prefer to use the XBass function typically, as this seemed to not only expand, but exaggerate the LF. I would suspect that on any given bookshelf speaker system it might find usefulness.
In comparison to the Eastern Electric Minimax DSD DAC Supreme, a unit costing $1350, the iFi Micro iDSD USB DAC was more lightweight and brighter tonally. It had superior definition, however. In tube output the DAC Supreme was ultra-smooth, however it exhibited a low level hum, whereas the iDSD was completely silent throughout the testing period. Tube lovers would likely gravitate toward the Eastern Electric unit, while those who demand precision would desire the iDSD. If you must have a prodigious amount of bass, then the iFi Micro iDSD USB DAC may disappoint as it might seem too lightweight overall. However, cables greatly influenced the result, and the Clarity Cables tend to carry a touch of emphasis on the low end. If a cable with a propensity toward bass embellishment can be found, then the iDSD should do fine.
I have for several years used Joe Satriani’s “I Just Wanna Rock” as a test of the incisiveness of a component. I recall hearing this opening, repeated phrase, “What is you purpose,” sounding nearly pureed from lack of deftness of a DAC or CD Player. Not so with the iDSD; all such difficult passages are laid open nicely. If you cannot determine the lyrics of the music you are hearing, the iDSD is a most affordable way to reveal them.
It is hard to fault a $499 portable DAC which, designed to be ready for on-the-go listening by using the supplied rubber sleeves to pack a phone on its back, can hold its own in a home system. The iFi Micro iDSD USB DAC did a commendable job driving a popular upper end pair of magnetic planar headphones, and did not disgrace itself in comparison to a DAC nearly three times the price. It makes for an excellent, “action packed” (in terms of features and sound quality), budget conscious choice for either the home headphone set or even the big rig.
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