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Review and Measurements of ifi nano iDSD Black DAC and Amp

amirm

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#1
This is a review and detailed measurement of the ifi nano iDSD Black edition portable DAC and headphone amplifier. I purchases this a few months ago from Amazon for USD $199 including shipping.

A lot of desktop and portable audio products I review are utilitarian and don't evoke much emotion. But there are some exception and the ifi nano iDSD BL is one of them. It is pretty cute!

ifi nano iDSD BL Black DAC and Headphone Amplifier review.jpg

The volume control feels nice. The metal enclosure also feels quite stout.

Included in the unit is their IEMatch resistor divider to lower noise and increase volume control range in case you need it. See my review of that functionality here: https://www.audiosciencereview.com/...asurements-of-ifi-ear-buddy-and-iematch.4707/

The only input is USB. For good or bad, this is the funky iFi male USB connector which necessitates using their cable to connect to your computer. They say this makes it more convenient to hook up portable devices to it. For my use, I don't like the very stiff USB cable. It easily tugs at the unit and is short to boot. It is also blue as you see in the above picture instead of black that I would expect. So you may want to get an aftermarket cable.

For output, in addition to the two headphone outs, there is also line out which I appreciated for my measurement purposes.

Speaking of measurements, this review would have come sooner had I not experienced some serious issues at first. First problem was getting the unit to be recognized by Windows. The green light would blink and Windows would not show it as a device. Installing ifi drivers did nothing to remedy this. On a hunch, I connected it to my USB 3 ports and that resolved this problem and I could talk to it using both ifi and native windows drivers.

But then the performance was awful. There was a lot of harmonic distortion with performance easily 20 dB lower than advertised (and totally non-competitive). Fortunately I remembered that many portable devices demonstrate a lot of distortions if their batteries are fully drained. Since this unit had been sitting in its box for months, I figured that may be the problem. So I turned it off and let it charge for a few minutes and the problem vanished.

The two issues were related since getting it to run initially required more current than my standard USB 2 port on my desktop machine can provide.

Anyway, with everything sorted out, I was ready to make my measurements. Let's see how she did.

Measurements
As usual, we start with our dashboard view using the line output to determine the DAC subsystem's performance:
ifi nano iDSD BL Black DAC and Headphone Amplifier Line Out Measurement.png


Output is a healthy 2.1 volts which is nice (2 volts nominal is what we like to see).

Advertised THD+N is 0.004% which we are beating at 0.002%. So that is good. Alas, that kind of distortion is nothing to write home about as we see in this graph of SINAD (signal above power of noise and distortion):

ifi nano iDSD BL Black DAC and Headphone Amplifier SINAD Measurement.png


For comparison and in the same class of product, I am showing the Topping NX4 DSD which betters it by some 11 dB!

The performance though is similar to that of ifi Nano iONE. So seems like the same subsystem is used in both.

Likewise dynamic range falls in the same class of "OK" but not fantastic:
ifi nano iDSD BL Black DAC and Headphone Amplifier Dynamic Range Measurement.png


Rating here is 109 dB so we are not quite there but there can be differences in measurement bandwidth.

Jitter and noise measurement is good:

ifi nano iDSD BL Black DAC and Headphone Amplifier Jitter Measurement.png


We see some tiny spikes but they are below -130 dB so no worries at all.

Let's now measure the headphone output at 300 ohm:
ifi nano iDSD BL Black DAC and Headphone Amplifier Power vs Distortion at 300 ohm Measurement.png


Power is decent but as I show again, the Topping NX4 DSD has more. Same competitive picture remains at 33 ohm:
ifi nano iDSD BL Black DAC and Headphone Amplifier Power vs Distortion at 33 ohm Measurement.png


Output impedance is very low and good at 1.0 ohm:

headphone dac and amplifier output impedance database.png


So it should be able to drive just about any headphone without audibly changing its frequency response.

Finally let's look at channel imbalance (blue) versus volume control position:

ifi nano iDSD BL Black DAC and Headphone Amplifier channel imbalance Measurement.png


While spec compliant, there is a lot of deviation at levels go down.

Listening Tests
I started my listening tests with my Sennheiser HD-650 headphones. The sound was quite nice although I had to turn up the volume to 3:00 o'clock from a max of 5:00 o'clock.

Performance with my Hifiman HE-400i was not as good depending on what I played. Bass is anemic here requiring more power than the nano iDSD BL can produce at times.

Overall, there was enough power here to get loud but not impactful. Personal preference and headphone type will determine if you get the same experience as me or better/worse.

Conclusions
I was very inclined to like the ifi nano iDSD BL from its good looks and fond memories of testing its larger and excellent brother, ifi iDSD Black which I reviewed recently. Alas, downsizing the unit has hurt performance with power levels are a bit too low for my taste. The chunky size of the unit also limits its usage some in portable applications (I can't see anyone rubber banding this to their phone).

My recommendation in this class would be the aforementioned Topping NX4 DSD. It has more power, slimmer case, better measurements and costs less ($160 vs $199).

Mind you, the ifi nano iDSD is not "broken" in anyway. It just sets lower targets and meets them. So if you want a product from a western company with better direct support, it would be a good option. Just make sure your appetite for power is not as much or more than mine. :)

As always, questions, comments, corrections, etc. are welcome.

-----
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Ron Texas

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#2
I had one of these for a week and sent it back because the main headphone jack was too loose to be useful and the other two were not as tight as a 3.5mm jack should be. I thought it lacked enough power to kick ass with HD650's. The weak S/N measurement does not surprise me one bit. It must be why I like the D30 more. That blue USB 3 connection cable might have been a hint.

Reviews of products like this are especially valuable as a lot of folks are likely to consider the reviewed gear based on price, features, company reputation, and availability of service. Thank you Amir.
 
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#3
Thanks Amir. I was definitely considering one of these and I am still on the fence as I will only be driving psb m4u 4’s for now, which are 16 ohms.

I’m assuming I would have less channel imbalance with the nano than with the nx4.

What cable does everyone recommend for the NX4 to the iPhone?
 

amirm

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#4

έχω δίκιο

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#6
The only input is USB. For good or bad, this is the funky iFi male USB connector which necessitates using their cable to connect to your computer. They say this makes it more convenient to hook up portable devices to it. For my use, I don't like the very stiff USB cable. It easily tugs at the unit and is short to boot. It is also blue as you see in the above picture instead of black that I would expect. So you may want to get an aftermarket cable.
I'm just hypothesizing here, but this might be an intentional effort to thwart the use of aftermarket USB cables. I know that Emotiva specifically recommends against long USB cables and "audiophile" USB cables for their Stealth DC-1 DAC:
Emotiva Stealth DC-1 User Manual said:
Note: Use a standard USB cable of reasonable length (with certain source computers, USB cables over six feet may not be reliable). Note: Some “audiophile” USB cables do NOT meet basic USB data cable technical requirements, and so may not work with the DC-1. We recommend using a standard USB data cable from a reputable vendor.
The product under test is USB-powered, so the vendor might be including a short cable with stout wires to minimize voltage drop. By using non-standard connectors, they make it harder to substitute some other USB cable which might not work correctly.
 

n2it

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#7
The only input is USB. For good or bad, this is the funky iFi male USB connector which necessitates using their cable to connect to your computer. They say this makes it more convenient to hook up portable devices to it. For my use, I don't like the very stiff USB cable. It easily tugs at the unit and is short to boot. It is also blue as you see in the above picture instead of black that I would expect. So you may want to get an aftermarket cable.
I have the ifi xDSD and assume it is the same cable - agree with the supplied cable being a bit short, stiff and not the expected/desirable color.

It actually does make it very convenient for use with portable devices - I was at first a little put off by the male USB connector, but then realized that all of various USB OTG cables for connecting to my phones to other devices that I already had (and that are readily available) would work just fine. It also is a very secure/tight connection.

By using non-standard connectors, they make it harder to substitute some other USB cable which might not work correctly.
Could be, but I wouldn't call it a non-standard connector - it is a standard connector ... it's just not the norm when connecting to a computer - however there are plenty of USB A male to USB female cables available. Also when connecting to a portable device with a standard USB OTG cable, it ends up being pretty normal.
 

n2it

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#8
So if you want a product from a western company with better direct support, it would be a good option..
I have a Topping NX4 DSD and an IFI xDSD. I was looking for the latest Thesycon ASIO drivers to support DSD 512 x 48K (i.e. 24.576MHz) to experiment with upsampling PCM to DSD 512 (when using a 48 kHz multiples of PCM). I reached out to both Topping and IFI. I was very surprised at the quick, no hassle response from Topping - they understood what I was asking for and had the latest (albeit not officially supported) drivers to me in less than 24 hours (actually by the time I woke up the next morning)!

While IFI also responded in timely fashion, it took several back and forth with them to even convince them that in fact the same xmos USB interface in their product would support DSD 512 x 48k with the proper driver (and there was no language barrier). Eventually they said that in the foreseeable future that they will not supply the latest driver and it would be best to return the product if I wasn't happy.

So not sure I would say that having western support is necessarily better (although I can see for hardware issues where a device needs to be returned - that it might be)
 

έχω δίκιο

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#9
Could be, but I wouldn't call it a non-standard connector - it is a standard connector ... it's just not the norm when connecting to a computer - however there are plenty of USB A male to USB female cables available.
That was lazy wording on my part. I meant that it wasn't the type of cable likely to be lying around someone's house -- supplied with some other device.
 
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#10
That was lazy wording on my part. I meant that it wasn't the type of cable likely to be lying around someone's house -- supplied with some other device.
The simple reason for that male USB A connector is that it matches with the lightning to USB camera adaptor that Apple is selling. The adaptor is necessary for the DAC/Amp to play well with iOS devices.

For the Topping NX4 you need to connect: iOS device>lightning to USB camera adaptor>USB A male to microUSB male>Topping NX4. It’s not that big a deal, but slightly more cumbersome.

It’s all because of MFi (Made For iPhone) licensing limitations that DACs cannot be directly connected to iPhones and the like.
 

έχω δίκιο

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#11
The simple reason for that male USB A connector is that it matches with the lightning to USB camera adaptor that Apple is selling.
From the manual: "Connect the USB cable from the host (PC,iPhone/iPad or Android etc). We recommend the enclosed USB3.0." They are not recommending that people plug the end of a camera adapter directly into the DAC.
 
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#12
The simple reason for that male USB A connector is that it matches with the lightning to USB camera adaptor that Apple is selling. The adaptor is necessary for the DAC/Amp to play well with iOS devices.

For the Topping NX4 you need to connect: iOS device>lightning to USB camera adaptor>USB A male to microUSB male>Topping NX4. It’s not that big a deal, but slightly more cumbersome.

It’s all because of MFi (Made For iPhone) licensing limitations that DACs cannot be directly connected to iPhones and the like.
Note that there there are MFi certified DACs like the Fiio Q1mkII.
 

TimW

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#14
It's a shame that this doesn't have a better SINAD score. iFi makes some of the most affordable MQA compatible DAC's and I would like to own one if they made a simple DAC focused more on performance then excess functionality. It seems like most of the DAC's they make have a battery, a headphone amplifier, and some sort of signal processing built in. How many devices like that do we need? Why can't I buy a simple desktop MQA DAC for around $250 or less?
 
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#16
From the manual: "Connect the USB cable from the host (PC,iPhone/iPad or Android etc). We recommend the enclosed USB3.0." They are not recommending that people plug the end of a camera adapter directly into the DAC.
The next paragraph in the manual goes like this:
"For mobile devices, you must separately purchase the correct respective Apple (Camera Connection Kit) or Android (USB OnThe-Go) cable to connect directly to the nano iDSD Black Label."

It is definitely not clear what they want you to do. After all, why would you have a chain of cables if you can get away with one?

Note that there there are MFi certified DACs like the Fiio Q1mkII.
Correct, there are other MFi DACs as well. Not all though. I was merely trying to explain the design choice of adopting a male USB A connector. Mobile devices is the main focus here.
 
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TimW

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#17
How about the Meridian Explorer 2?
That will do MQA and at a reasonable price. For the same price and similar form factor the Dragonfly Red will as well I believe. I would prefer a more substantial desktop style unit though. But I would get either of those products if it turns out they measure very well... at this point I'm not interested in buying any DAC's unless Amir has gotten good measurements from it. I already own the Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 Digital and like it a lot. But what I'm waiting for is a company to build a unit similar in price, form, and performance to the Topping D50 but with MQA, and for Amir to measure it. I think iFi could do this if they wanted to.
 

έχω δίκιο

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#18
It is definitely not clear what they want you to do.
I agree. The use of the USB A connector on the DAC might have two purposes:
  1. To enable plugging some mobile adapters directly to the device
    1. The adapters are so short that they are not practical for most people to directly connect to the back of this.
  2. When a cable is required, to 'encourage' the use of a cable that they supplied and know to work well with the device.
I don't see this genuine Apple camera kit plugging directly into that DAC without a cable in between:

Apple Camera Kit.jpeg
 
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#20
The adapters are so short that they are not practical for most people to directly connect to the back of this.
Short adapters work perfectly when you tie the DAC at the back of the device with Velcro or rubber bands. And yes, I was referring to the adaptor mentioned by n2it.

To be honest, I have a Topping NX4 that has a microUSB input. I wanted to combine it with my iPod touch, as a decent portable solution. Believe me, the chain of cables that I have to setup becomes a tangly mess in my pocket. Directly connecting the camera adaptor to the DAC would be really convenient.

Fortunately, I found a short lightning to microUSB adaptor from a third party manufacturer that does the trick. However, future iOS updates can potentially render the cable useless.
 
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