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iFi-audio Nano Series – iDSD DAC Review: Part III

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iFi-audio Nano Series – iDSD DAC

This is the third and last part of my iFi-audio Micro and Nano components review. I realized when I was partitioning this massive review into three parts, that not everyone would read all the parts since, for instance, some may not be interested in a tube buffer/preamp like the iTube discussed in Part I. So, for readers who are unaware or have little knowledge of the company up to now, or even for readers who already know about iFi-audio, I suggest reading the first page and the top of page 2 of Part I for company background info and setup/associated equipment before continuing to Parts II and III, or either Part II or III. The narrative flows better this way because I initially wrote this as one long review.

There has been a recent onslaught of inexpensive, tiny and portable high-resolution USB DACs on the audio market — spearheaded by the Audioquest Dragonfly — but only a few can play DSD files. As far as I know, besides the Nano iDSD, only the Resonessence Labs Herus, Geek Out 1000 and Schiit Loki DSD Companion of the smallest DACs available are DSD capable. However, neither the Herus nor the Loki is powered by a battery like the iDSD, and the Loki requires a host PCM DAC. Geek Out 1000 is capable of playing single and double rate DSD (64/128). Now iFi-audio has taken the bull by the horns and uped the ante by producing the Nano iDSD, capable of playing all hi-res files: PCM (up to 32 bit/384 kHz), quad DSD (6.2 MHz), and DXD (384 kHz). And it plays all these formats natively. No conversions, man. What it sees is what it plays!

The iDSD works equally well as a DAC for a smart device, such as an iPhone/iPad or Android, and of course with a laptop/computer. One will need the necessary connection kit or cable for use with a smart device, e.g. Apple camera connection kit (30 pin) or Lightning adaptor cable, and OTG cable for Android devices. Oh, the USB input is the latest and greatest 3.0 version, though USB 2.0 is compatible.

Two digital filters, selectable via a switch, allow the listener to fine tune, with switch up recommended for listening (Minimum Phase), and switch down recommended for measurement (Standard). There is a small multi-colored LED on top of the chassis, which changes color according to the sampling rate being processed. For example, Green indicates 44/48 kHz, White for DXD 352/384 kHz, Blue for DSD 2.8/3.1 MHz, and so on. In addition, the LED will inform the listener when the unit is waiting for a connection, or when the battery is either low or recharging.

Other features include one set of RCA analog outputs and an S/PDIF digital out (up to 192 KHz in PCM only). It appears the iDSD uses the same volume control for the headphone output as other iFi components. Unlike the iDAC described in Part II of the review (ESS Sabre chipset), the iDSD uses a Burr-Brown DAC chipset-capable of native DSD while the Sabre is not-with iFi-audio’s own software. The Nano iDSD is approximately 55% the size of the iDAC or the iTube from the micro series.

The iDSD is powered by an internal lithium-polymer battery for up to 10 hours of playback, but the unit can also be powered by the company’s own iUSBPower supply. To recharge, just connect the unit to either a Mac or PC. A full charge takes approximately two or three hours from a completely drained battery. Like other iFi-audio devices, several accessories are included: felt carrying bag, RCA and USB cables, information/warranty card, four stick-on feet, two rubber rings and a pear tree. No, make that last accessory a translucent pad with iFi logo. Actually, the rubber rings and pad can be used in combination to strap the iDSD to an iPhone/iPod or Android device.

iFi Audio iDSD input side

Groovin’ to PCM files from 1411 kbps (Redbook CD) to 4608 kbps (High-Resolution)

I started the audition by using the same iFi-audio chain as I did in Part II of this review, swapping the iDSD in place of the iDAC being the only alteration.

Smooth, with a capital S. The iDSD delivers a really smooth and somewhat relaxed sound, even slightly surpassing the iDAC. This quality of smoothness is reminiscent of what I heard with the Micromega MyDac, another very good sounding budget DAC, and far ahead in this regard than the Audioquest Dragonfly and some others. If one already has a very smooth and relaxed sounding system, I recommend borrowing an iDSD from someone to determine if the system doesn’t go overboard in the smoothness department. But for listeners who are tired of having their stereo throwing darts into their ears every time they want to hear music, the iDSD is like musical surgery.

The iDSD also produces an overall warmish sound-though not quite to the point of warm. I think this warmish quality really helped the tonal balance, and also helped with instrumental harmonics to sound very good. Generally, it’s a fairly full-bodied converter, with the exception of a slight leanness in the mid-band of the frequency range on a few recordings. I’m sure my Sensation M451 integrated is contributing much to this result, as it tends to slightly “lean” in that direction.

The iDSD offers good resolution, but falls short of the best DACs in micro-detail, like the Lindemann USB-DAC 24/192. For example, on the title cut of Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator) the movement of chairs or equipment at the very beginning of the track is a bit fuzzy and attenuated on the iDSD, while the Lindemann produced the movements clearly and at a higher volume. I would be in shock if the iDSD was as good with the $1,100 Lindemann in this area; after all, one usually has to pay big bucks for the small added refinement of some costlier components.

Comparing the iDSD to the Teac UD-501 ($849 retail) yielded a surprisingly similar result on Redbook or PCM high-resolution files, with the Teac edging out the iDSD in a few areas. Playback of both DACs was with ASIO because the downloaded Teac driver only supplied that interface. On “I Can See Clearly Now” both the piano and bass tones are slightly richer and denser with the UD-501, but the iDSD is not far behind, and Holly Cole’s vocals are slightly cleaner with the UD-501. The voice of Amy Winehouse and the bass guitar are a tad weightier, while imaging is a smidgeon more solid on “October Song” from her Frank album when heard on the UD-501. The differences are so slight that I had to A-B-A several times before I reached a firm conclusion on these and several other tunes.

Transparency is about on equal footing with the MyDac, which is pretty good, but both fell short of the Teac UD-501. The Teac’s ability to deliver transparency in spades is evident on first listen and thus easier to determine than the small changes of the other sound facets I noted. Still, the overall performance of the iDSD is really good. Frankly, I’m still shaking my head at how good this DAC sounds with PCM files at a cost of less than $200.

3 Responses to iFi-audio Nano Series – iDSD DAC Review: Part III

  1. Bill says:

    Once again Paul great review I really like the comparisons to some of the other units you experienced out there gives the humans something to go by……….

  2. kindbuzz says:

    is there any definite conclusion whether the micro is mo better then the nano

    • Paul Mah says:

      Hi Kindbuzz,

      I bought the Micro iDSD after my review of the Nano iDSD, and the Micro definitely offers better sound.

      Paul Mah

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