iFi Nano iDSD Black Label
While smartphones and Bluetooth headphones are great for commuters and joggers, music lovers sometimes want something more than the fidelity lifestyle audio headphones solutions (i.e. Bluetooth noise-cancelling cans) can offer. The catch is that experiencing audiophile thrills often requires using power-hungry headphones that demand more amplification than a smartphone can deliver. Alternatively, it can involve using pricey and sensitive IEMs that require quiet amplification. Fortunately, with a device like the iFi Nano iDSD Black Label ($199 on Amazon) portable USB DAC headphone amp, discerning listeners on the go can have their cake and eat it.
Features and Specifications
The iFi Nano iDSD Black Label packs a Burr-Brown DAC chip (with 32-bit/384 kHz capability), a 285mW per channel amp, and a 10-hour lithium-ion polymer battery inside a compact aluminum enclosure. It supports MQA format audio as well as PCM up to 32-bit/384 kHz, DXD files and DSD.
Here’s the full list of audio formats it supports:
DSD: 256, 128, 64, 12.4, 11.2, 6.2, 5.6, 3.1, 2.8 MHz
DXD: 384, 352.8 kHz
PCM: 384, 352.8, 192, 176.4, 96, 88.2, 48, 44.1 kHz
MQA: 192, 176.4, 96, 88.2 kHz
According to iFi, the Nano iDSD Black Label has a dynamic range that exceeds 109 dBA at 3 volts with a THD & noise rating of 0.005% or less (@ 125mW). Furthermore, its iEMatch feature offers a second headphone jack that’s designed to work with high-sensitivity headphones to reduce hiss; it offers greater than 107 dBA of dynamic range at 0.5 volts. Channel separation is greater that 79 dB at 1 kHz and these outputs are compatible with balanced wiring.
This DAC amp has a line output, so it can be used with just about any audio system that has analog inputs. The specs here are good, with >109 dBA of dynamic range and THD & noise held to less than 0.004%. Channel separation is greater than 99 dB at 1 kHz. The iDSD Black Label DAC amp even offers two listening modes: Listen filter (minimum-phase bezier filter) and Measure filter (linear phase transient aligned filter). MQA playback uses a fixed, proprietary MQA filter.
As far as inputs go, the Nano iDSD Black Label has just one: An “OTG” style USB 2.0 connector that’s directly compatible with “on the go” USB cables for Android phones. That’s the only connection you need to use it with tablets, phones, and PCs. The enclosure measures 3.8” (deep) x 2.5 (wide) x 1.0″ (high) and weighs 4.9 ounces (139 grams).
iFi includes a USB cable and several adapters for connecting it to various devices. However, you’ll need to get an appropriate cable to connect to iOS or Android devices.
This is going to be a very short review because best I can tell the Nano iDSD Black Label does exactly what it claims. I used it in various contexts with a pair of HiFiMan Edition X V2 ($1199 on Amazon) as well as iMore’s quad-driver IEMs ($199 on Amazon) and Periodic Audio’s Be beryllium single-driver IEMs ($299 on Amazon).
While not as truly portable as a standalone HiFi player, the Nano iDSD allowed me to enjoy the Edition X V2s outdoors, for example when walking the dog at night. It’s a much better experience than powering those planar-magnetic headphones with a phone; there’s certainly more headroom that results in improved dynamics.
With its specs, you’d expect the iFi Nano iDSD Black Label to sound good. Indeed, as far as I’m concerned the main value of having “extreme” hi-res capability (32-bit/384 kHz) is that it represents overkill. It simply means distortion and noise are going to be undetectable.
I did not use a timer to figure out how long the battery lasts, and I’m sure that varies depending on headphone sensitivity and listening habits. Charging is achieved through the same USB port used to connect the Nano iDSD Black Label to music sources.
The iFi Nano iDSD Black Label worked perfectly on all of the devices I tried it with, namely an iPad Pro, a Galaxy Note 8, and a Windows 10 PC. When used with Windows, I was pleased to see playback options all the way up to 32-bit/192 kHz.
The advantage of having clean, robust amplification was apparent as I played electronic music with very deep bass in the mix. Dubstep tracks from the latest Datsik release, Master of Shadows, provided a bracing, mesmerizing head trip as I strolled around South Philly. And a crisp recording of a drummer playing a funky beat, such as Jon Kennedy on his recent album Ha!, comes through with uncanny realism.
As usual, I tapped into the Tron: Legacy soundtrack and the one-two punch of the tracks “Disc Wars” and “C.L.U.” to see how the amp handles being pushed hard. Since hearing damage is not appealing to me, I stopped at the point where I could feel the Edition X V2s start to lift off my ears from the bass pressure.
The same qualities that make this a good choice for music lovers also make it an easy recommendation for watching movies while wearing headphones, as well as delivering a bracing and immersive headphones gaming experience. Plus, you can use it as a source device from just about any stereo system and it delivers the same clean, neutral, accurate sound you hear through headphones. That’s a lot of utility for $199!
The iFi Nano iDSD Black Label is surely a technological marvel in the sense it can handle such a wide variety of audio formats at such high fidelity. It’s certainly well built and in my time using it has performed flawlessly.
With its support for hi-res PCM, DSD and MQA audio, three stereo outputs, and two selectable filters, this is not a barebones DAC amplifier by any means. The built-in battery is the icing on the cake because it means you can use it for hours on end with a smartphone and not worry about draining the phone’s battery.
If you are looking for a “swiss army knife” of portable USB DACs, the iFi Nano iDSD Black Label has what it takes and deserves an online-shashki Forum “Recommended 2018” designation.