iFi Audio Micro iDSD Black Label USB Headphone Amplifier Review
Starting a little differently
I need to start this review a little differently, I am starting it with an apology to iFi Audio. Its taken me much longer than I anticipated to get this review completed and I would like to say its because I have been testing every facet of the iDSD BL many different usage options but that is not the case. What has actually happened is the micro iDSD BL has become such an integral part of my current video production workflow that its own review has been overlooked. Coupled with the superb Audioquest NightOwl Carbon headphones I have found a combo that can stay on my head for hours, allow me to monitor and test all my video sound tracks, clearly hear the differences in the A/B demo videos I make and more. Take from that what you will now onto the review
The well equipped Audio Swiss Army Knife
When iFi was designing the micro iDSD BL I think they decided making something for everyone wasnt quite enough, I think they wanted to make it everything to everyone, a big challenge. It is a USB Headphone Amplifier that supports high rates of DSD and with a recent firmware MQA (a nice addition). It can be a standalone Dac and if you require a pre amplifier as well. You can take it with you on the go as its powered from internal batteries with a playtime of up to 12 hours and it can charge your phone at the same time. It can also take power from the computer if you want it instead of the batteries. It has different options for sensitivity for using in ear and on ear headphones and it has different power modes to drive real current hungry headphones. It has several different sound modes for some more tweaking or preferences. You can even feed spdif in and out to allow easy integration into a full hifi system.
Underneath the nice matt black chassis its a well equipped device with a dual core Burr Brown Dac chip, an AMR Global Master Timing Femto “super low” phase noise jitter clock, much higher quality and improved op amps and the use of the expensive Sanyo/ Panasonic Oscon Capacitors.
Its at this point the audiophile starts to hold their breath and grimace at the oncoming pain of the delivery of the retail price, but again iFi have made this for everyone including the price. The RRP for the IDSD Black Label is a very reasonable £599. This is a great price when you consider all it does and some of the market competition costs three times as much.
Its very well made indeed
A lower price point can invariably mean a worse build quality but I am happy to report that is not the case here with Micro iDSD BL. The chassis feels well manufactured and finished nicely, all the buttons feel reassuringly solid as you move them, the main volume dial has nice friction to it in rotation. The iDSD BL is not going to win any style awards, its relatively simplistic visually, but I like its curves and I like the understated nature of its appearance.
We have to consider here one of the big usage options of the iDSD BL and thats portability. Too heavy and it cant be carried, too light and it wont stay still on your desk or rack. Too big and its difficult to carry, too small and they have to sacrifice some internal space and inevitably some area of its performance. Make the design more modern and flash and invariably raise the manufacturing costs which will have to be passed on. I think iFi have struck a nice balance here with the micro iDSD BL. Its light weight enough without losing a solid construction feel to it, however I do think its too large for the majority of users to consider it a daily commute portable product. Its about the same length as a smart phone but feels much bigger and would feel quite awkward inside a coat pocket for example. I do feel being portable has other benefits to other users. Anyone who travels for work, anyone who has long stays in hotels, long train rides, long flights can put this in their bag and take it out and use it giving them far better sound quality than from a laptop or smart phone. They can then integrate it back into their home system when they return in any of the many ways it can be used.
This seems like an odd set of bits to include with the unit?
When I unboxed the micro iDSD BL I struggled to comprehend the included accessories and cables, some were obvious and some not so. I couldn’t work out why iFi had included a short USB 3 Extension cable, this seemed either strange or overly generous, then there was 2 rubber bands that resembled the sort you might wear on your wrist (UK fashion of a few years ago.) The USB cable is actually the cable you will need because the USB input is not the usual type B female, its actually a type A female. This is designed to make the micro iDSD BL easier to use with smart phones in a USB on the Go fashion, and this design also ties in with the rubber bands. They are designed to hold your phone and the micro iDSD BL together as one unit. I really cant see many users adopting this method of attaching the 2 devices together because the overall size of the combination and restriction to the phone touch screen, but I am sure there is a specific use case where this would be a benefit.
” Jim I just dont have the power”
When I first started using the micro iDSD BL I was having some battery charging issues, the iDSD needs a lot of power to charge it, it needs a USB 3 connection as a minimum but really its needs a device able to supply a lot more current than the output on my pc. I was initially charging it using a mobile phone wall charger and usb cable but this was a pain and not suitable as a long term solution, perfect for a travel one. This situation might have been more specific to me, I use a JCAT USB Card in my computer for a cleaner USB output maybe this wasn’t providing enough current for charging, however if you run into any issues I have a suggestion.
I discovered an article where iFi had suggested a USB 3 hub with 40w or more as a good solution for charging the micro iDSD BL “titled charging the beast.” I invested in an Anker hub from Amazon for two reasons, the first reason I trust Anker products to be reliable and long lasting. Secondly and more important to me this hub requires a 5V mains power and I happened to have a spare iFi Audio 5V iPower Power Supply that would be perfect for the job. Adding in extra usb cables, extra noise on the usb power lines from a hub is not an ideal situation, at least I could power the hub with a good quality low noise power supply and I can report it all works perfectly now and as such can recommend this hub and iFi iPower power supply
Its just like a Power Amplifier
I am sure most people are familiar with the power amplifier thump when you turn one on, well incredibly that is what you get with the micro iDSD BL when you click rotate the volume dial on, a very reassuring thump actually. Keep the thought of a power amplifier in your mind because its a very apt description for the micro iDSD BL.
I have used the micro iDSD BL for the majority of the time in Bit Perfect and Normal Power Mode. This is the ideal combination for the headphones I have been predominantly using. Changing these settings is easy using slider buttons on the side that click nicely into their positions. The Power Mode button is red as a warning, I have on occasion knocked this by mistake, not to any disaster but it is something to be mindful of as your hand will naturally want to grab the unit where these buttons are.
The sound quality and power from the micro iDSD BL in Bit Perfect and Normal Power Mode is spot on for the Audioquest NightOwl Carbon headphones, there is a solidity and drive to the sound that you wont get off lesser equipment. The presentation is clean and clear for the most part, there is fantastic insight into whatever you are listening to but the big one for me is that its not in an overly analytical, dry or fatiguing way. You can concentrate on very specific aspects of the sound or just as easily relax, breathe and enjoy it. This is an important attribute for long session listening, its wonderful to have ultra clean and clear presentation but if its tiresome will you want to go back and listen again and again.
Be careful with the volume, this little unit has a lot of power and clean power, you can easily finish a session a little too loud without realising its been so and feel it in your ears after, similar to good power amplifiers. I have tried changing the Power Mode to Turbo and lowering the volume dial to see if even more power will result in better performance with mixed results, I can hear where the headphones like the power but it appears to amplify too much of the bad that’s accompanying the signal and it doesn’t sound as nice overall, another individual could have a different preference here to me. I also feel its largely a result of the incoming signal quality from the computer more than the micro iDSD BL itself but I think its something important to mention if you have very power hungry headphones.
On this note I find the micro iDSD BL sounds better when its being powered from the batteries and not the computer, I do wish there was an option to turn this easily on and off. To activate this you only need to turn the iDSD BL on before the computer which is an easy one for someone settling in for a listening session. On a day to day basis its a bit pf pain having to restart the pc just for a short session or some video editing – audiophile laziness I hear you say and I agree.
Wanting more performance iFi have you covered
The sound quality from the micro iDSD BL overall is excellent and many will enjoy the nice balance to its presentation. Its good enough to hear signal quality limitations but it doesnt dominate the presentation. By signal quality I need to explain the setup I have been using. I have been reviewing the iDSD BL in my work computer which is a Windows 10, high power computer for video editing and general office work. I does have a JCAT USB card installed as mentioned but beyond that its a normal computer, not a dedicated optimised one such as in the main reference system. I feel this is probably how most people would use the iFi and therefore its a good review platform. I am confident there is a lot more performance quality to be had from the iDSD BL and I think users of either very analytical headphones or hard to drive headphones requiring the Turbo Power Mode or serious critical listeners will appreciate the iFi Audio upgrade path.
One of the great things about iFi Audio is their varied product ranges and upgrade path for every main component within the ranges. I find the iFi website a little confusing because they sell so many accessories and its not always easy to know what is the best accessory product for my needs. Some are more obvious such as their upgraded USB cables the Mercury 3.0 and Gemini 3.0 these seem like good designs, screened end to end including the connector and the Gemini separates data and and power in a dual cable configuration all very good.. iFi has products that go further to improve sound quality they make the iSilencer and the higher performing iPurifier 2 (Type A version needed for the iDSD BL). There are other products in their range for improving USB such as the very comprehensive Micro iUSB 3.0 a product designed to combat every and all of the problems with USB audio transmission at a higher price.
I think this is fantastic for users of iFi audio products that they are offered an upgrade path like this. Everyone enjoys buying new kit and getting better sound as a result. Everyone will appreciate keeping an existing product they like and making it better without breaking the bank. I dont believe anyone enjoys having to sell or trade in their existing kit for a fraction of what it cost and having to buy new all over again, even though this is inevitable and a big part of the hobby. I applaud iFi for offering their customers longer enjoyment spans and many options to add products over time at different price points.
It would have been good to test some of these products with the micro iDSD BL and see how much improvement they make, there is always time.
Does the iFi Micro DSD BL justify its price point?
I think this is an interesting point to discuss because if you break down what the micro iDSD BL is capable of and how versatile it is you realise you actually get a lot of product here for your money. If you consider alternative products on the market cost approximately three times more you appreciate you get a lot here for your money. If you consider the build quality, versatility with power to drive more demanding headphones, portability and upgrade ability you appreciate you get a lot here for your money. The only time value might be questioned is if the buyer only intends to use the iDSD BL for one duty only. I can see that one duty being similar to how I have been using it as a USB headphone amplifier exclusively plugged into a computer, does the iDSD BL justify itself against the cheaper options on the market. On this point I would make the comment if you are considering an upgrade from a product like the excellent Audioquest DragonFly Red then this iDSD BL is exactly that. Having compared the two the iDSD BL is a very clear and obvious step up and justifies its higher price point on performance alone.
I am going to finish this review back where I started by reiterating that the micro iDSD Black Label has become an integral part of my daily life by being essential to my work. I have used it nearly every day since getting it and besides a few initial setup niggles cant really fault it in any way, its worked flawlessly. I find it to be a brilliant stationary USB Headphone Amplifier but also like the idea of being able to take it away with me if I so desire. I like and appreciate the price point and also like and appreciate the upgrade path for it. I am sure other users would like and appreciate the other ways it can integrated into a system or just daily life. I can imagine someone coming home from work, connecting their smart phone to the micro iDSD BL and listening to their streamed and stored music on their favourite headphones sounding so much better than if they just used their phone on its own. While that usage is very different to mine I am sure they will appreciate the micro IDSD BL just as much as me
Special Performer Award is Pursuit Perfect Systems highest accolade and is in recognition of exceptional product performance regardless of price