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

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iFi Audio iDSD output side

DSD up to a gazillion kbps

Like with PCM files, the iDSD delivers a buttery smooth and relaxed sound when playing well-recorded DSD, and takes the performance level up further. There is a good degree of realistic natural sound which the iDSD imparts that sometimes makes me forget I’m listening to electronic components; this quality is certainly helped by the DSD format. The Teac UD-501 offers an even greater degree of realism because of its superior resolution and transparency, but for a budget DAC the iDSD’s performance is quite an achievement.

I love hearing live music and go to concerts as much as possible-attending between 30 and 50 performances per year-for the sheer emotional joy music provides. To my ears, the DSD format has the capability of approaching a live musical experience. Though not able to recreate realism to a live level, DSD is able to at least duplicate the emotional joy I hear when listening to an excellent vinyl system.

As I’m writing this review, I am also listening to a Mahler symphony in DSD 128 and finding it very difficult to describe what I’m hearing in individual musical elements. The sound is so involving and emotionally satisfying that it is hard to be analytical, even though it is one of my strong suits. Well recorded DSD has such a comprehensive organic flow to the music, with its natural timbres, timing, decay, dynamic range, etc., that even excellent PCM recordings isn’t able to replicate the result to my ears.

I downloaded from Blue Coast Records three formats (44.1 kHz, 96 kHz and 2.8 DSF) of Keith Greeninger singing “I Bid You Goodnight,” a traditional Bahamian gospel tune. The 96 kHz hi-res version sounded slightly better than the 44.1 Redbook file, but the DSD version clearly (to me) delivered the most natural rendition, one where I felt there was a real person singing.

I do have one criticism but it’s not about sound quality. The output level is far lower on some recordings than their equivalent PCM versions. On the Keith Greeninger song, I had to increase the volume from ten o’clock for the 44.1 version to past two o’clock for the 2.8 DSF version to achieve the same relative volume. In times like this, I wish I had a more powerful amplifier.

Just a few short years ago, only a few expensive digital D/A converters could deliver this high a level of sonic performance, but digital products have advanced at such a dizzying rate that now even some budget DACs like the iDSD are capable of performing at a fairly high level. While the expensive converters have also gotten better, the gap is much closer now between very good sounding inexpensive digital to the best sounding expensive digital.

Skinner’s box

So, how did iFi get such big and very good sound from tiny boxes? The scientist in me was skeptical (B.A. in Experimental Psychology); could these products be the equivalent of the audio Skinner box? For those who are not familiar with the Skinner box, it is an observational device used to measure the behavior of organisms, mostly small furry creatures, the results of which can be transposed to larger creatures, some furry and others almost hairless (like me). To test for positive reinforcement, Skinner added a lever and an enclosed food tray inside the box. Push the lever and a food pellet would drop as a reward. Skinner learned that once the subject (usually a rat) went beyond the accidental pushing of the lever stage, the behavior of pressing the lever for a reward became routine until the subject satiated itself. While there is no food — at least I think so — inside any of the iFi products, the sound is good enough for me to use them repeatedly. I wonder if any of the iFi personnel are behavioral psychologists.

Nano_iDSD_Tech_Specs

A high five for iFi

It is easy for large electronic conglomerates to mass produce entry level audio components due to economy of scale and therefore, charge low retail prices. But these products are also marketed for the masses, so superior sound quality is not a major factor in their design and research. As long as a component achieves the spec sheet numbers, then it’s ready for the market. Superior sound quality only becomes important in the more expensive models or so-called “elite” or “reference” lines. The conglomerates know the higher price components yield far fewer sales, so retail prices are raised accordingly. They know consumers expect more from a more expensive product and will take the time to perfect a design and in the execution of a product. This is not unique to the electronic industry because many other industries follow the same business model.

By contrast, most small companies in this industry do not have the advantage of large operating budgets, especially companies just starting out or those that have a short history, thus no economy of scale. In order to compete, designs are less thought out, research time shortened, cheaper parts and boards used, and testing is minimal. Such nascent small companies are hopeful that their initial entry level products, offered at extremely low retail prices, will catch on with the masses and allow them to continue and grow.

IFi-audio seems to break away from this mold. Despite the low prices, quality is evident in their design, execution, features, chassis, parts complement (yes, with permission I did look inside the iTube) and operation. Although I do not have an AMR product on hand to compare, I suspect these iFi devices will give you a large dose of the AMR “sound” for a fraction of the cost. What you won’t get is the last bit of musical refinement that AMR and many other expensive components can and very often, do provide.

For many, the much greater cost is not insignificant, and who therefore are willing to sacrifice the last bit of “state of the art” sound. In my never ending search for excellent sounding, value-rich audio products, I can say the entire iFi line offers tremendous value. I say to all: musicians, budding audiophiles, seasoned audiophiles, non-audiophiles, music lovers, audio equipment lovers, curmudgeons with prehistoric audio components –t his list includes all ages and genders — run to audition these components.

The evolution of miniaturization may well bring forth even smaller devices in the future. Perhaps the next one or two generation will be some wireless audio products as small as a safety pin, with your voice commands acting as the remote control. Laugh out loud and long now Luddites, for the day will surely come. Mark my words!   IFi has already started the journey.

Even if you are as parsimonious as the legendary misers Old Grandet (Honore de Balzac) or Ebenezer Scrooge (Charles Dickens), I’ll bet these products will bring a smile to your face and you will pat yourself on the back thinking you are getting one over on iFi-audio. Shucks, you are probably saving so much money and receiving so much audio joy that you shout out loud: It’s great to be a miser! One can now obtain a good taste of high fidelity at near rock bottom prices. It’s certainly worthwhile to see if the iFi product line will improve your computer desktop system or moderately priced stereo system. Clinical psychologists or psychiatrists would declare me crazy if I didn’t highly recommend them for audition, which of course I do since they are “insanely” good. Until next time, I wish you happy listening.

Addendum: I wish to thank Vincent Luke of iFi-audio for offering a solution to the glitch I encountered (described in Part II) where my Asus does not recognize the AMR/iFi driver after I disconnect the iFi devices chain from the laptop. He suggested I turn off the integrated amplifier before I turn off the iFi devices. This fixed the problem.

Associated Components:

  • Virtue Audio M451 Sensation digital switching integrated amplifier with Astron Power Supply
  • OppO 981 DVD player
  • AAD 2001 stand mounted speakers
  • Audio Sensibility Impact RCA interconnects
  • Monster USB 2.0 cable
  • Audio Sensibility Impact RCA interconnects and speaker cable

 

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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