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iFi iDSD BL : The pinnacle of DAC and AMP technology


iFi iDSD Micro Black Label – The next standard in portable DACs and Amplifiers. iFi decided to make a statement in portable audio devices so they created iDSD BL


 



Introduction
 

 

iFi Micro iDSD BL (Black Label) is one of the most interesting DAC/AMPs produced by iFi. iFi is a part of Abbingdon Music research group from UK.
 
I didn’t know much about iFi before getting the BL, but they have proven to be very friendly so far and their interaction with their customers and fans is a commendable one.
 
I was extremely skeptical towards iDSD BL at start, mostly because iFi has a very bold marketing and makes a lot of promises that I had questions about. Those questions can only be answered by firsthand experience and usage. No matter what explanation one would receive, you always have to hear to believe when a device receives so much enthusiasm as iDSD BL does.
 
iFi has a lot of involvement with the audiophile community and organizes tours and such, but I wasn’t part of their tours before because there were not enough participants from Romania. I briefly heard the original iDSD (the silver one), when I was comparing it with Chord Hugo, but I didn’t have enough time to make a complex or throughout impression about it, although I remember liking it quite a bit.
 
I have absolutely no affiliation with iFi at this moment, I am not receiving any kind of incentive to sweeten things out. My review will be as objective as it is humanly possible and it is a description of my general experience with iDSD BL as a device, every opinion expressed is mine and I stand by it.
 
 
 
About me
 
My name is George Dobrescu and I am the Director of the Seventh Heart Studios game studio. I work as one of the main programmers for the company, and I am the writer for Quantum Magica and Falsetto Memories projects. I spend eight – twelve hours a day working on a computer, writing and sometimes drawing. I also take care of administrative work which means that I require a portable setup so I’ll be testing the portability of iDSD as well.
 
Music is present all around me for a big part of that time as working with music is always more fun. With all the devices I own, I need great sound, comfort and ease of usage, not to mention that my listening volume ranges from “please stop that, it’s far too loud” to “I can’t even tell that you’re listening to music”.
 
My collection includes everything from Classical to Metal, from Rap to Pop, from Punk to Cabaret and absolutely everything in between. There are great artists from every type of music, and I’m one to collect their albums, and keep a tidy order for my files.
 
You can check out more about our games on our pages https://www.facebook.com/seventh.heart.studios/     and https://twitter.com/7heartstudios .
 
At Seventh Heart Studios, we all love music and this has had an impact on our games as we hold the music close to our hearts and we are committed to only use ogg -q10 as the encoding format for our music since it offers the best disk space to sound quality ratio, OGG -q10 being closest to audibly transparent when compared to FLAC encoding. 
 
Personal philosophy: Music is more than a hobby or sound. Music is inspiration. Music is life. Music has meaning by itself, being the one thing that can define one’s life while shaping one’s imagination and creativity. Music can open doors to new plains and music can change one’s mood. Music can rest the mind better than days of sleep or can give one energy better than a thousand cups of coffee. Music can be anything we want it to be and the music we experience using professional audition tools is more but at the same time it is nothing more than our way of enhancing the emotion we get from music. Love is a concept too shallow, unable to encompass what music really means to a music lover.
 
 
 
First Impression
 
 
 
When it comes do audio devices, I have owned a FiiO X5 2nd generation for the longest time from all the devices I’ve been using and it has proven to be one heck of a companion. I love that device and I love FiiO’s service as they’ve helped me one too many times. I also owned Sennheiser ie800, Meze 99 Classics, and owned many other devices through the years, but only a few really impressed me.
 
I have made my best efforts to get my hands on an iFi iDSD BL as curiosity was burning me for a while. All good and well, I was quite happy when I got a unit to play with as people have been praising iDSD BL to be one of the greatest DAC/AMPs of all time and my skepticism was burning me from the inside.
 
Fast forward to one week later, the unit arrived in Romania. It was the Thursday before the Easter and everyone in Romania was in a rush to get their preparations done. At the moment I received the unit, I have already lost two nights of sleep, having less than two hours each night since I had a lot of work to take care of before Easter.
 
The delivery guy called me to pick up iDSD BL and he was quite nice. The weather was warm and clear as well, but the lack of sleep was slowly getting to me. I could barely walk, was really hungry and most of all, a very bad mood haunted me the day I received the package. The delivery guy handed me the cardboard package and I placed the box and the unit in my backpack for an hour or so, as I went ahead to finish some of the work that still needed to be taken care of. When I arrived home, the unit was carefully placed on my desk (still packaged) for another hour as even so, I had even more work to do and could not dig right into a DAC/AMP before finishing at least the urgent tasks.
 
After finishing all urgent tasks, I told myself that it is time to test the unit for a few minutes, just for quenching my curiosity then it’s sleep time for at least a few hours. By the time I managed to open the box and sort out the cables, the fatigue was so much that I was blinking for seconds just to be able to keep myself awake.
 
 
 
The unpacking experience is a delight and the large number of accessories is a huge surprise, but at the moment the sound was the only thing that was on my mind. I wanted to know how it sounded like right away and the only accessory I really wanted to get out of the box was the USB cable. Happily, iFi included a good quality USB cable that’s hard to mistake, so I could get to listening to iDSD BL right away.


 
All good and well, the DAC install process on a laptop requires less than a minute and it didn’t even ask me to restart it. Good work on the software support.
 
The moment of shock comes in just a few seconds, when iDSD BL is connected to the laptop and I start the first song. Yes… It sounds interesting. It is impossible to tell how it sounds right away, but what I notice immediately is the soundstage and the details! It surely sounds different than what I’m used to hear when I listen to my music. I check if the X-bass and 3D switches are off, and both are off. What am I hearing though… Something… Details. Tons and tons of details. My laptop already has a dedicated audiophile grade DAC solution, based on an ESS chip, but iDSD BL stuns me with the great amount of details it is able to pull from the songs I have known for ages.
 

Compared to my laptop, iDSD Micro BL managed to bring in so much more detail and nuance, life and dynamism to highlight every change of tonality and micro detail, to expand the soundstage way above what I am used to. All good and well, but I need to hear more of that new sound. As much as I fear it is addictive, I simply can’t stop myself from listening…

One song… then another… then another…

Then another…

 

 
I notice only later that at least three hours have passed and I’m still enjoying iDSD BL with a smile on my face. My work-related fatigue isn’t there anymore, or rather I completely ignored my lack of sleep only so I could listen more to this wicked witchery box.
 
The first impression ends only after I spend over four hours listening to iDSD BL. I eventually went to sleep happy with the sound I heard. A few hours of sleep, and I was back ready to listen to this thing. One way or another, I just can’t get enough of it!



Product Presentation:
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


Packaging:
 
First things first, let’s get the packaging out of the way:

  


 
 
iFi put a lot of thought in the package and the packaging process as the package includes all the accessories necessary for the unit to work with a large number of devices. The box is composed of an outer layer that must be stripped down, inside which is the actual cardboard box that includes the unit. Inside the cardboard box, the unit sits comfortably in a cutout that protects it and holds it in its place, next to a humidity controller bag.
 
Underneath the unit, there are two small cardboard boxes, each including a number of connectors and accessories. I managed to identify most of them, but two or three of them are quite exotic and will surely come in handy to some power users. I like to see special extras that you don’t really see included with most devices.

 

      There is a black velvety pouch, which acts mostly as a transport pouch as it is generally advised against using any DAC/AMP inside a case for thermal reasons


      There are two black rubber bands for keeping ifi iDSD tied to a DAP / Transport and a rubber band that acts as a separator for them.
 
      2xRCA to 2xRCA cable that looks pretty sturdy and feels nice to the touch
 
      USB cable that is USB-A Female to USB-A Male for connecting iDSD to a computer / laptop. This cable seems to be well made, it is thick but flexible and it seems to be shielded against EMI (Electro Magnetic Interferences)
 
      Rubber feet that one must stick to iDSD so it sits better on a desk as a desktop DAC / AMP
 
      USB-A Female to USB-B Female cable
 
      3.5mm to 3.5mm stereo line out cable
 
      USB-A Female to USB-B Female short connector (packaged in a static isolating bag)
 
      Toslink / Optical adapter



The large number of accessories is big a plus for iDSD BL, especially as some of those accessories are quite exotic and hard to come by.

 
I have been using iDSD portable for the past two weeks and the feet present to sing of wearing, they stay in place and as good as they did the first day I applied them. I actually appreciate the possibility of each user applying the feet so iDSD BL is most compatible with any transport you have. Getting them perfectly aligned requires less than three minutes of fiddling and they do stay well put in place.
 
The only accessory that is missing from the box is an OTG cable for smartphones, but that is a very common and cheap accessory that you can easily find in any smartphone shop. For the record, I already had one lying around the house to confirm that OTG cables are a common accessory.
 
At the end of the day, the unboxing experience for iDSD is elegant and luxurious, it is clearly geared towards the high-end market, and there’s a little bonus: the box has a green card indicating that iFi used an environmental friendly package, so you have no reasons to feel guilty about the cardboard box hurting the environment.
 
What I look in for a DAC/AMP

 

 
When buying a DAC/AMP unit, there are a few things that a buyer should be looking and seriously consider as sooner or later those will come in foresight:
 
      Sound quality. This is the most important aspect if traveling the path of adding a DAC / AMP to your daily listening chain
 
      Battery life – at least 8 hours of battery life per full battery at high volume on high gain, with effects engaged. Anything above this number will come in handy down the road.
 
      Intuitive / ergonomic build (buttons arrangement, robust build, no creaking noises, resistance to pressure for when it’s a pocket, robust headphone jacks, no wearing issues after long term usage)
 
       Good Value
 
      Interesting design – the device must look modern / elegant / luxurious and fit in with both street usage and a business environment
 
      To work well with both IEMs and over the ear headphones
 
      USB DAC function that works with both laptops, smartphones and an audiophile dedicated transport
 
      Enough I/O ports for all devices and current usage patterns
 
      Fluent, Fast, stable Firmware 
 
      Wide Music file type support
 
iDSD Micro Black Label checks the points above fairly well, although we will explore the sonic abilities in depth in just a few moments.
 
For the record, the build quality in special is really good and although I do charge it daily, it never runs out of juice on me.
 
 
 
Technical Specifications
 
Output Impedance
1 ohm into a 32 ohm load
Connector
6.3 mm Headphone Out 
Frequency Response
20 Hz – 20.000Hz (-3dB)
Works as a USB DAC
Yes, works for Android and Windows
Battery
4800mAh, Li-Polymer
Play Time
~10 Hours
Output Power 
1560mW into 64 Ohm
Output Power 2
950mW into 32 Ohm
Output Power 3
250mW into 16 Ohm
Weight
310 g
DAC Chip
Custom Native Burr-Brown DAC
Max Output Voltage
10 V
SNR
115dB
AMP Configuration
OV 2627 + OV 2628
Works as a pre-amplifier
Yes
Works as an Amplifier
Yes, Line-Out Cable Included
 
 
(Build Quality, Sonic Quality & Usage Next Page)

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