iFi iDSD Nano Black Label: Micro Black Label Contender?!

Wait. Don’t judge me by the title statement. I don’t want to make it controversial but that’s what I heard. Whether it holds or not, it’s really up to you to decide. The question is, where do I stand by this statement? I’ll let you guys know at the end. Let see if this small black box lives up to the hype.

Disclaimer

I used to own mojo but decided to sell the unit because I am not using it as much. I am focusing on dedicated desktop setup thus the reason for selling. While I am familiar with the sound signature, I don’t have the unit for direct comparison with iDSD Nano Black Label. I might throw in some impressions comparing the Mojo with Nano BL, but it will not do justice to how they really compare. But I did used iDSD Micro BL for direct comparison. Thus, I decided to give my two cents and my own insights on these DACs.

 
First and Foremost

I would like to give my thanks to Lawrence from iFi Audio that manage the west USA tour well; also, to iFi Audio in general as they gave us the opportunity to try the unit in our system/setup. I have talked to some of the iFi personnel in the past CanJam and they are easy to approach. The customer service also has never been better. They are helpful in Head-Fi and every other forum I bet.

My iFi background

I never had any iFi product on my own, but I do have several friends that own them, and it happened that two of them are my housemates. I get to listen to iDSD micro Black Label extensively while had a fair of listening time in the past with iDSD micro SE. My impression of the variations of iDSD micro is that the Black Label nail it in almost every section; a worthy upgrade I would say. I keep comparing the micro Black Label with Mojo but never come to a conclusion which one of them is better. In my opinion, Mojo performs better with HD800 and TH900 while micro BL shines with warm headphones like HD650. Well, in the end, it really comes to personal preferences. Now that iDSD Nano Black Label is released, I am really intrigued to see where it falls in iFi DAC/Amp line up. Although it might sound obvious that it’s going to be a better version of iDSD Nano, will it better the iDSD micro SE or BL? Or even Chord Mojo?


What’s in the box?

Out of the box, you’ll get the DAC, a well-thought carrying case, a USB B cable female to male adapter, USB A female to USB B female adapter, a short USB A female to USB B male adapter, rubber band for stacking, manual and warranty card. Obviously, RCA cable is not provided by iFi this time since it doesn’t have RCA like its older brother.

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Build and Appearance

As usual, it has the iFi logo at the top and descriptions at the bottom. iFi is known for their product’s versatility but iDSD Nano BL by far the simplest in terms of functionality. It has two headphone outputs, both 3.5mm but one of them has the IEMatch feature. With the IEMatch, it ensures ‘hiss-free’ out from sensitive IEM or headphones. At the back, there’s a toggle button for ‘listen’ or ‘measure’. The ‘listen’ feature uses a minimum phase filter while ‘measure’ uses the linear phase filter. Personally, if I decide to do mastering tracks or get involved sound production, I might not be going to get the iDSD Nano BL despite the ‘measure’ feature; but, it is good to have and works for those who travel and work in the sound production industry. It only has digital input and 3.5mm line out if you want to connect the iDSD Nano BL with a separate amp. Overall, it got a great build quality and pretty much similar to any other iFi products.

Features/ Specifications

Input(rear): USB2.0 type A “OTG” Socket (with iPurifier® technology built-in)
Output(rear); 1 x Audio fixed line out L+R 3.5mm
Digital Filter: 2 positions, 2 filters
Outputs(front): 2 x Headphone Audio 3.5mm one direct and one with iFi iEMatch® integrated
DAC
DAC: DSD, DXD, PCM DAC by Burr Brown Bit-Perfect DSD processing, Bit-Perfect DXD processing
Clock: Low-jitter crystal clock
Audio Formats: DSD 256/128/64/12.4/11.2/6.2/5.6/3.1/2.8
DXD 384/352.8kHz
PCM 384/352.8/192/176.4/96/88.2/48/44.1kHz
MQA 88.2/96/176.4/192kHz filters
Filter–PCM: Listen(transient optimised minimum phase)
Measure(frequency response optmised)
       –DSD: Listen(extended bandwidth transient optimised)
Measure (narrow bandwidth, low output band noise optimised)
       –DXD: Fixed Bit-Perfect Processing
       –MQA: Fixed MQA Filter
Headphone Amplifier
Amplifier: Dual Mono 2 x 285mW Direct Drive, coupling capacitor free circuit for highest fidelity
Volume Control: 3.5mm TRRS with Balanced compatible wiring
Dynamic Range(including DAC): > 109dB(A) @ 3v (Direct)
> 107dB(A) @ 0.5V (iEMatch®)
THD &N (@ 125mW/30R): < 0.005%
Max. Output (<10% THD): > 3.5V @ 600Ω Load (Direct) (20mW/600Ω)
> 2.9V @ 30Ω Load (Direct) (285mW/30Ω)
> 1.7V @ 15Ω Load (Direct) (200mW/15Ω)
Output Impedance : < = 1Ω (Direct)
< = 4Ω (iEMatchsup>®)
Channel Separation: > 79dB @ 600Ω Load (Direct)
> 79dB @ 15Ω Load (Direct) (1kHz, TRRS plug Balanced wiring)
Line Output
Dynamic Range(Line): > 109dB(A)
THD & N(0dBFS Line): < 0.004%
Output Voltage(Line): : 2.15V (+/-0.05V)
Output Impedance: < 240Ω
Channel Separation: > 99dB (@ 1kHz)
Jitter(correlated): Below test set limit
Dimensions: 96(l) x 64(w) x 25.5(h)mm
Weight: 139g (0.31 Ibs)
Warranty period: 12months

 Info from ifi-audio.com

Gear used
Source(s): Tidal Master, Foobar, Pioneer XDP-100r

Dac(s): iDSD Nano Black Label, iDSD Micro Black Label

Amp(s): ECP DSHA-0

Headphone(s): Takstar Pro 82, Sennheiser HD800 SDR and HD6XX (modded)

IEM(s): Westone 30 and KZ ZS6


Songs (mostly MQA)
Sam Smith – Too Good at Goodbyes (Master)

This song focusses mostly on male vocals and out from the iDSD Nano BL, the DAC is able to bring nuance and good tonal balance across the spectrum with Sam’s magical voice and the background singer. With iDSD Micro BL, the sound is another level. Sam’s voice seems to be more engaging and every instrument sounds lively and real.

Shawn Mendes -Stitches MTV Unplugged (Master)

A live concert could be an issue to some gear and iDSD Nano BL produce a more forward sound. It is lacking in separation when compare to iDSD Micro Label is noticeable with this song. I felt like I am sitting in the front row with Nano BL and 3 or 4 rows further with Micro BL. Other than mentioned, I had a tough time to distinguish between both DACs with this song. The one thing that I can point out is it sounds more real with Micro BL but if you’re not listening to them for 2-3 hours, you might think that both produce a very similar sound signature.

Quenn – Another One Bites the Dust

I always use this song for review as every instrument and singer has its own mic thus produce a good separation on its own. Nano BL with MQA rendering provides a great layering and separation that rivals Micro BL. Although, its older brother has more sense of space and a tad more microdetail, it is hard to differentiate them in this song. The drum kick has less impact with Nano BL but they have more similarities than differences in my opinion.

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Headphone Pair (Vs iDSD Micro BL)

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Modded Sennheiser HD6XX

How does it pair with HD6XX/650? This is no doubt one of the famous question asked in multiple forums. I personally enjoy the vocal out of these in almost every song that I listen to. This amp pairs amazingly fine with a more forgiving headphone like HD6XX/650 as it could have sounded too revealing with headphones like HD800 and Takstar Pro 82. I still enjoy the HD800 with DSD and acoustical music with this amp but favor HD6XX pair for most other tracks. Like I mentioned before, I can’t get enough with the MQA feature. It opens up the sound and shows the capability of the headphone. While I don’t seem to agree when people said that HD6XX/650 is veil, but the MQA does add a more refined detail and perceived clarity out of the headphone. I could hear a better bass, more open soundstage and better nuance across the spectrum. The Nano BL produce rich sound engaging mids but Micro BL wins in dynamic and faster transient response. The Micro BL is one of the best transportable DAC/Amp for HD650/6XX under $1000 but Nano BL do come close and with that smaller size, I am not surprised if I pick Nano BL over Micro BL.

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Modded Takstar Pro 82

My first impression right of the bat was lively and full of energy. This headphone could sound dull and lifeless with bad synergy. With Nano BL, it brings everything forward but natural. Takstar Pro 82 is known for its wide soundstage but sometimes I feel that the sound is too distant and not natural. With Nano BL, everything sounds right. Articulate bass, smooth sound across the spectrum, percussion and singer’s position seems right to my ears. Imaging is above average despite the forward presentation. Even though I enjoy the combo, I still think that iDSD micro BL is a better pair with this headphone. Tonal density is lacking, and it sounds a little dry in comparison to micro BL. I used to love vocals and mids with this headphone but less so with Nano BL in the chain. However, the upper midrange and treble with this combo never cease to amaze me; pleasant to listen to but never lose energy.

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HD800 SDR + Sheepskin Pad

Personally, I am not a fan of HD800 and iDSD Micro BL combo. Don’t get me wrong, they do sound great, but I felt like HD800 has a better synergy with mojo. So, what about Nano BL? As you would expect from the similarities of the Black Label brothers, I still prefer mojo over Nano BL for HD800 as they are more enjoyable to my ears. In terms of power, it got more than enough to drive the HD800 to an ear-splitting level. Since HD800 has a huge soundstage, the Nano BL provides a good imaging and more neutral soundstage to the headphone. As if you were seating in the front row of a concert while Micro BL is a further row back. The bass is profound but not as punchy as Micro BL. The Micro BL bass has more texture and quantity, especially with the XBass feature. Although, Nano BL really stands out with instruments like trumpet and saxophone. I enjoy the tonality with orchestra and instrumental song even though it still lacking in overall instrument separation as compare to Micro BL. Vocal is balanced and good but lacks rhythm. I enjoy acoustic song and vocal but less so with group singing. Well, I did find that the Nano BL has a more pleasing treble extension but also less airy at the same time.

IEM Pair

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Westone 30

The best portable combo that I had so far. Westone 30 has a similar tonality to HD650: forward sounding with great instrument separation, midrange has a great body with an amazing vocal presentation, impactful bass and laid back. I am positive that the IEM could benefit the iDSD NANO BL capability considering its performance with HD6XX and it certainly did. The first thing I noticed was the vocals on these were amazing! Sweet and intimate are the words to describe them. I keep playing any tracks that emphasis on vocals and GOSH! I love them. Period. My source with this combo is Pioneer XDP-100r and if you ask me if they are better than my desktop setup? I would say no but I really enjoy these when I step out of the door. It is kind of disappointing that Tidal mobile does not have MQA because it if it does, they are going to be an amazing combo. However, across the spectrum, I did find that it’s lacking in tonal density. It sounds a bit dry with some songs. At times, it felt a little congested and too forward. I tried the ‘measure’ filter for my other gears but not a fan of the sound. With Westone 30, it made it a slightly drier but more neutral at the same time. The bass in this IEM could be too much for some and with ‘measure’ filter, the bass is more controlled. Again, I still enjoy the ‘listen’ filter with this IEM for the most part. Overall, I really enjoy this fun combo, especially with EDM, pop, and rock.

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KZ ZS6

KZ ZS6 is my another go to IEM with acoustic, orchestra and classic songs. I don’t have any preferences in genre, but I love to listen to any quality recording with great mastering. If I said that Westone 30 resembles HD650, KZ ZS6 reminds me of HD800. Large soundstage, shrilling treble, great clarity, clean bass but less impact. Despite the similar tonality, the quality is different and HD800 is superior by all means. The amp produced an accurate sounding combo and it did remove the unnecessary spike on the KZs which was I thought great because it did not do that much with HD800. Great imaging and has more body in the midrange and bass. KZs by far is my most sensitive IEM and it can pick up every single noise and distortion coming from the source. The IEMatch has the S-balanced feature that provides full balanced benefits and ‘hiss free’. The result is everything sounds clean with black background. I enjoy acoustic, orchestra and classical songs out of these but still lacking with some modern songs. As of how much I love the improvements it gave to KZ ZS6, I still think that Westone 30 is the better combo.

Overall

There are couple things that I like about this new DAC/Amp from iFi Audio and one of them is MQA rendering. In fact, I love it a lot. Everything seems clear and the clarity is something that I would not expect in the sub $200 portable amp. As a fan of balanced and neutral sounding amp, this will be my top choice if I am looking for the amp without breaking the bank. If you’re an IEM user, this amp is your best friend. The S-balance feature provides black background even with super sensitive IEMs. Of course, you can get a separate iFi IEMatch for the same purpose, but having it soldered inside the amp makes a lot of different; shield it from any external interferences. However, I prefer it to have a toggle button for the IEMatch feature like iDSD Micro BL instead of two 3.5mm outputs. A ¼ in output jack would be a good addition for versatility. I am positive that what iFi had in mind was to focus on IEM than full-size cans, but it would be amazing if ¼ in output jack could replace one of the 3.5mm jack and place the toggle button for the other 3.5mm jack to activate the IEMatch feature. I used the ‘listen’ filter most of the time and that’s how I enjoyed the most when listening to music. While it is a good feature to have, for leisure listener, it might not be utilized as much. I am a huge fan of iDSD Micro BL and thought that I am expecting too much on this amp to be a clone of its older brother. The bass in Micro BL is amazing and hope that Nano BL could do slightly better in the bass. It does have quantity but lacking in quality and texture.

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With MQA rendering feature, it allows for great detail retrieval that rivals Micro BL and Chord Mojo. It is a top-notch selection DAC/Amp under $200. For those who are looking for a sub $200 portable amp, I would advise you to just pull the trigger. You will never regret it.

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