Review: ifi Nano iDSD Black Label

ifi Nano iDSD Black Label

Product Link: ifi Audio

MSRP: $199 USD

Grover Neville has been working quietly in the background at InnerFidelity for a while now, this is his first full review for us, so please welcome his efforts warmly.

A mouthful of a name for an itty-bitty unit.

Many readers are probably passingly familiar with ifi at this point – they’re active in sending gear to community meets and have a broad product range from higher-end amps to the small portable units for which they are best known.

Their iDSD Black Label Amp/DAC has been a popular performer in recent years, and today we’re taking a look at the little sibling to that unit, the rather verbosely named Nano iDSD Black Label.

The Nano iDSD has been around for a few years, a smaller version of the full iDSD, and is finally getting its own Black Label treatment. I’ve heard the larger Black Label iDSD several times before and have always found it to be a surprising performer for its price and size. It has a very dynamic and lively sound, making up for a lack of detail and true transparency with a very tastefully done warm colouration. I say this as someone who normally dislikes ‘fun’ colourations, so take that for what it’s worth.

Owing most likely to its smaller size and I suspect the intention for it to be a truly portable unit, the Nano trades the original Black Label’s single for two 3.5mm TRRS units that can be run either single-ended or balanced, if you have balanced 3.5mm cables. While ifi’s S-balanced design is technically dual-mono single-ended, they claim the design provides crosstalk-separation by eliminating the second, inverted channel amplifier and instead using a negative wire per-channel into a ground. The output impedances are listed as approximately one ohm for the headphone out and four ohms for the IEMatch out. The Amplifier is an all-discrete design without coupling capacitors and has about 235mw per-channel of power into a 30 ohm load.

Perusing the manual, ifi makes special mention of the components, and I was surprised to learn that the volume control is a fully-analogue balanced-wired potentiometer, not something you usually see in this form factor and price point.

On the back end, ifi has chosen a multi-bit Burr-Brown DAC chip, capable of everything from 358/352.8 PCM to MQA to 256 DSD and 384 DXD, with native DSD and DXD support and bit-perfect processing. If you have a digital file, the Nano Black Label will play it. The whole buffet of ifi’s iPurifier USB re-clocking, Asynchronous USB and jitter reducing memory buffers is included in the unit as well. The unit performed without hiccup or digital artifacts on the variety of good and crummy USB interfaces I had available.

The rear of the unit has a 3.5mm line out should you wish to use the DAC only, and a reverse-plug USB A connector, which is compatible with the Apple camera Lightning or Android mini and USB C cables. ifi only includes adaptors and cables for USB A and B however, so you’ll need to purchase any mobile cables or adaptors on your own.

Although some older ifi portables lacked Android compatibility, I had no problems running this off a borrowed Android or an iPhone 5 or 6. Battery life is listed by ifi as being around 10 hours, which I found to be reasonably accurate if listening at medium-to-low levels. At full blast, which is much higher than I would ever listen, the battery life dropped to about six-seven hours. This thing has some serious go juice though, and even in my loudest listening sessions I never turned the volume pot past about halfway, even on inefficient headphones.

One issue I had with the bigger Black Label unit however was the size. While the weight and height are not an issue, the length of the unit is simply a little too great for me to consider it truly portable. More of a transportable small desktop unit. The Nano iDSD Black Label solves this issue in a big way. From pictures, I was expecting a unit that was about half the length of the larger Black Label. The Nano is actually slightly smaller than that, and ever so slightly more squat in proportions. It retains the black metal chassis of the larger unit, which ifi says is made from EMI/RFI insulating aluminum, although the feel and design flourishes are much simpler and it weighs noticeably less. I found it easy to slip into a shirt pocket or large pants pocket.

So how does it sound?

The word I think of is inoffensive. Unlike the bigger unit, this one won’t wow you with exceptional dynamics or a pleasing colouration, and it certainly doesn’t have the gobs of gain and power the bigger unit has, although it got louder than I’d ever want to listen even with the fairly inefficient ZMF Ori.

Rather surprisingly for a portable unit it sounds neutral though perhaps just a touch on the laid-back side. The balance isn’t exciting, and paired with something like a Mr. Speakers Aeon Flow Closed (why do manufacturers love superfluous adjectives so much?) I could see some finding the sound a tad boring, though exceptionally neutral.

But when I paired it with headphones one might use as portables, where serious colourations were at play, such as the Meze 99 Classic and Neo, various offerings from Beyerdynamic, Sennheiser, and a variety of cheaper low-end headphones, I actually quite liked the results. The variously weird and sometimes nasty colourations of the headphones were less noticeable, and it seemed to harmonize well with most of the cans on offer.

I’ve never been a huge fan of brute force ‘curing’ a bright headphone by introducing an overly dark or veiled headphone amp, or vice versa with really veiled headphones and bright amps. At some point, you’re attempting to solve a specific problem with an exceptionally broad brush – there’s just too many things given away in the process. Here I think that by going with a somewhat safer, more neutral, laid-back tuning, ifi has made an excellent choice. It has excellent synergy even with coloured headphones, though of course it can’t fix major flaws. The really high point here for me is that the unit provides a surprising amount of volume – it really does play loud with every headphone I’ve tried it with and never sounds as if it’s run out of headroom or is straining to power the cans.

And it’s small. Not just audiophile fanny pack small, but legitimately small.

So what about the feature set? I did some blind and sighted comparisons between the two filter options. According to ifi the ‘listen’ filter is a minimum-phase filter while the ‘measure’ filter is linear phase. I tend to be pretty phase-sensitive, and found the two filters to be music dependent. The ‘measure’ setting will tend to have less phase shift and more linear frequency response though at the cost of a cleaner transient response, while the minimum phase ‘listen’ mode has more phase shift but cleaner transients. The more intense the music the more you’ll notice the difference between the filters, although I generally left it on listening and had no major problems with the sound. I suspect most people will prefer this setting.

The IEMatch output works nicely for IEMs, the higher impedance providing a somewhat quieter and cleaner sounding output. It’s a nice feature to have for those who prefer in-ears and does provide increased functionality for very sensitive IEMs.

By the way, did I mention this thing is only $200 USD? Not bottom of the barrel cheap, but I’ve used and abused more than a few inexpensive portable amp/DACs in my time, and many of them aren’t particularly robust when it comes to drop-testing. The Nano Black Label survived several accidental drops and stair-bouncing adventures, which is more than I can say for some of the portables I’ve owned. If I had a complaint it would be that there’s not 6.5mm output, although I doubt most buyers will find that in issue for this use case.

In conclusion, I’d say that if you’re looking for a truly portable unit, and don’t want to spend the cash on its bigger brother, but do want portability or an upgrade from a less expensive amp/DAC then this is an excellent choice. The obvious comparison is the Chord Mojo, which is nearly exactly the same size as this unit and does sound a bit nicer. It also costs several hundred dollars more. The only other portable amp/DAC that readers may be familiar with is the Centrance HiFi-M8, which costs significantly more than the ifi Nano iDSD Black Label.

Very nice work from ifi.

COMPANY INFO
ifi Audio
105 Professional Pkway, Ste 1527 Yorktown, VA 23693
enq@ifi-audio.com

COMMENTS
iamlilysdad's picture

Does the Dragonfly perform slightly different functions and not warrant a mention?

SonicSavourIF's picture

It would be really interesting to see measurements of frequency response and phase shift as well as transient response over different frequencies (to see how the phase shift affects it) for the two different filter settings.
Probably, this would have to be done for different frequency bands because a base drum works at a different frequency than a snare or a guitar strum.
Also, doesn't natural phaseshift also occur in a live situation if one is not standing perfectly centered, the stage is big, reflections happen?

Simply Nobody's picture

Any comparisons with Chord Mojo? .......... Of course Mojo costs more ................

Simply Nobody's picture

Also, possible comparison with Lehmann "Traveler", may be? ..........

donunus's picture

I compared them but only with an akg k553 pro. The mojo is nice since it has similar highs to the nano idsd bl when it is on the listen filter without warming up the bass a little due to the ever so slight taming of some upper mids with that filter engaged on the ifi. The measure filter sounds more raw and brighter than the mojo and may suit some classical music more but the thing is, for the price, these differences are small and probably won't even be noticed to some that are new to the hobby. In conclusion, If you have cans that are relatively easy to drive not needing the extra power of the mojo, the Ifi is a no brainer for the price plus it has a dedicated line out to boot.

Grover Neville's picture

This review was written quite some time ago, so a few things were changed - I mentioned the Centrance HiFiM8 brcause it was the only other portable on the wall of fame at the time. As the WoF may be changing, this was edited to what you see here.

To respond to other comments - I did reference the Chord Mojo in the review, at the end. I have heard only the first edition dragonfly’s so its not a unit I have much experience with, and it fulfills a slightly different function than this unit in my opinion.

In regards to linear vs minimum phase filter differences, a quick search for linear vs minimum phase Filters on the AES website or many pro audio software company’s websites should turn up a plethora of results. Let me know if you’d prefer more specific links.

Best,

Grover

iamlilysdad's picture

Thanks for the reply. I appreciate the follow-up.

ednaz's picture

Sounds like you may have listened to the big brother version Mini. I have one (holiday gift) and was initially disappointed at how big it was... too big to share an airplane seat back tray with a laptop source. Then I listened to it in a work desktop role, and eventually had to stop that, because I wasn't getting any work done. I found it VERY engaging, detailed enough, and effortless with everything from my CIEMs to a set of planar headphones. But... big. It's now landed as my desktop rig in my studio, where there's no real penalty to getting lost in the music. So nice to have a setting that works great with CIEMs.

I know you probably can't A/B. To your memory, is the sound of nano similar to the mini? That'd make me drag my wallet out. I've got an Explorer 2 for travel now, and it's fine. Not exciting to listen to, nowhere near as engaging as the mini, but good enough when small is needed.

Grover Neville's picture

I have! I have had quite a bit of experience with the big unit actually. It's a bit more colored, but fantastically fun. It's got these crazy huge punchy, slightly dark sound. I think it's a great desktop unit, but I find it a bit big to use portably. There's only marginal family resemblance here. The DAC sections are similar, but the amp on the Nano is much more neutral and not quite so 'balls to the walls.' It's also super duper portable. All of this to say, you're impressions seem to be pretty spot on : )

HalSF's picture

Thanks for the review. I’ve had this unit for a few months now and am enjoying its power and transparency playing 24/96 from a Hidezs AP60 II DAP along with Redbook and AAC files from an iPhone SE.

I have a much greater enthusiasm for this iFi Nano than the language here reflects — “inoffensive... laid-back... isn’t exciting” (and even the somewhat paradoxical “a tad boring, though exceptionally neutral”) The impression conveyed is one of bland wimpiness, which is not something I’m experiencing. On balance this seems like one of those generally positive reviews that veers perilously close to scanning like a bad review. I would have emphasized the stellar fidelity and usefulness more than the milequetoast/meh connotations here.

I’m somewhat relieved that you completely avoided the topic of MQA. I’ve avoided installing the v. 5.30 firmware that enables the units MQA capabilities (but meanwhile cripples some of the DSD playback) because the whole MQA thing seems like a hairball of hype and confusion, whereas the audiophile usefulness of the iFi iDSD Nano is crystal clear.

Pardon the quibbles — I was glad to see the review and enjoyed reading it.

Grover Neville's picture

One of the things I'm not a huge fan of is hyperbolic reviews laden with superlatives. I try to be fair in my reviews, stating my personal preferences and distinguishing those from my attempt at more objective observations. I actually really enjoyed the unit, and one of my biggest compliments is that it just works and doesn't get in the way sonically. I do a lot of mixing and mastering work and that fits well with my no-nonsense approach to gear.
Is the unit a little boring? Yeah, I think so, but that's not a bad thing, and it certainly isn't clinical. I don't find the sound exciting and I think that's praise. It's meant to be a small form factor, portable unit that plays things back nicely on many headphones. It does that well. The feedback is appreciated though, and I'll take it under consideration going forward : )

On the topic of MQA I'll stay silent. I did test the functionality on DSD and Tidal, and found those features worked satisfactorily. Most of my library and listening is not in DSD or MQA however, so I didn't feel it particularly pertinent to the review.

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