IFi nano iDSD Black La­bel Amp/DAC

Lit­tle big amp. by Mark Fleis­chmann

Sound & Vision - - CONTENTS - By Mark Fleis­chmann

PRICE $199

IF YOU’RE LOOK­ING FOR A USB amp/DAC to juice your head­phones, you might as­sume that a cou­ple hun­dred bucks would buy noth­ing more than a stick amp, one of those com­pact don­gles that ex­tends straight out from your com­puter’s USB port. We live in the golden age of the stick amp, and I’m sure not knock­ing ’em. But what if the same money can buy some­thing with a lit­tle more real es­tate for cir­cuitry and the al­ways vi­tal power sup­ply, of­fer­ing bet­ter than 96-kilo­hertz/ 24-bit res­o­lu­tion, DSD, MQA, and two head­phone out­puts with dif­fer­ent gains, one for de­mand­ing ’phones and one for more ef­fi­cient ones (in­clud­ing in-ear mon­i­tors, aka IEMs)? Of course, you must read on.

Things from Eng­land

Bri­tish par­ent com­pany Ab­bing­don Mu­sic Re­search mar­kets a full range of pricey, bleed­ing-edge twochan­nel prod­ucts, in­clud­ing a tri­ode vac­uum tube am­pli­fier and a CD player. In 2012, AMR launched iFi Au­dio as a “trickle down” value brand with high en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist as­pi­ra­tions, us­ing ma­te­ri­als that are ei­ther re­cy­cled (plas­tic) or re­cy­clable (alu­minum). Some of iFi’s dozens of prod­ucts are ex­otic, like the LS3.5, a reimag­in­ing of the clas­sic BBC LS3/5A mon­i­tor with a bam­boo en­clo­sure, or the Pro iESL, a head­phone amp specif­i­cally de­signed for elec­tro­stat­ics. The nano line alone in­cludes the nano iGal­vanic3.0 USB iso­la­tion de­vice, the nano iUSB3.0 USB power sup­ply and sig­nal re­gen­er­a­tor, and sev­eral DACs: the nano iOne DAC, the nano iDSD LE head­phone amp/DAC, and, re­viewed here, the nano iDSD Black La­bel amp/DAC. That’s a mouth­ful; let’s just call it the Black La­bel.

The com­pany em­pha­sizes that the Black La­bel’s head­phone amp out­puts 10 times more power than one in a typ­i­cal smart­phone or tablet, en­abling it to run more de­mand­ing head­phones with more head­room. But its de­sign is smarter than your av­er­age head­phone amp. It pro­vides two dif­fer­ent head­phone mini­jacks, one of which is de­signed specif­i­cally with re­duced out­put for in-ear mon­i­tors and more ef­fi­cient head­phones; the other sup­plies full power for less ef­fi­cient ’phones. AMR touts com­pat­i­bil­ity through both out­puts with head­phones that of­fer a 3.5mm TRRS bal­anced ca­ble (the four-pole va­ri­ety) by main­tain­ing the bal­anced wiring all the way up to the am­pli­fier, which is claimed to main­tain the ben­e­fits of bal­anced wiring de­spite this be­ing a sin­gle-ended amp. There’s also a fixed-level ana­log line out­put to feed an au­dio sys­tem (but no in­put for ana­log line-level sources).

Along with han­dling PCM files (up to 384-kHz/32-bit in var­i­ous for­mats), the most preva­lent type, the Black La­bel de­codes ex­otic file types such as DSD (up to quad rate of

11.2 mega­hertz, also called DSD256) and DXD (a PCM-de­rived for­mat used in DSD mix­ing, up to 384/24). It also sup­ports the for­mat-ag­nos­tic MQA (Mas­ter Qual­ity Au­then­ti­cated), which al­lows a lossy ver­sion of hires au­dio to travel in streams and files that are com­pat­i­ble with, and the size of, un­com­pressed 48/24 PCM au­dio.

The phys­i­cal form of the Black La­bel is a mod­est black box about an inch tall, small enough to at­tach to your smart­phone with the sup­plied rub­ber straps. It also has rub­ber feet to grip the sur­face of a desk. On the front are a vol­ume knob, a mul­ti­col­ored LED for power and sam­plin­grate sta­tus, and the two head­phone out­puts. The amp cir­cuitry is Class AB. There is no DSP in the sig­nal chain to mod­ify the mu­sic. The Black La­bel as­pires to be bit-per­fect—lossy for­mats not­with­stand­ing, of course.

With PCM ma­te­rial, the Mea­sure mode em­ploys a lin­ear phase fil­ter for flat­test fre­quency re­sponse, and the Lis­ten mode uses a min­i­mum phase fil­ter to avoid pre-ring­ing on tran­sients. With DSD, Mea­sure is nar­row band­width, op­ti­mized for low outof-band noise, while Lis­ten is ex­tended band­width, again op­ti­mized for im­pulse re­sponse. I found the dif­fer­ence be­tween the two modes al­most van­ish­ingly sub­tle on pro­gram ma­te­rial. The op­tion isn’t avail­able in MQA, which uses a pre­de­fined, manda­tory fixed fil­ter, or in DXD, which uses a fixed fil­ter for what they call “bit-per­fect” pro­cess­ing.

The only au­dio in­put is an un­usual sock­eted USB-A male con­nec­tor re­cessed into the chas­sis. It can charge the in­ter­nal bat­tery by draw­ing power from your PC (though you might in­stead use a com­mon 5-volt phone charger). The com­pany pro­vides three accessories that plug into it: a 40-inch USB-A fe­male to USB-A male ca­ble, a 7-inch USB-A fe­male to USB-B fe­male don­gle, and a USB-A fe­male to USB-B fe­male adapter. The com­pany rec­om­mends them over ordinary charg­ing ca­bles. For use with mo­bile de­vices, you’ll have to add your own An­droid OTG or Ap­ple cam­era adapter don­gle. The Black La­bel can be pow­ered via USB from An­droid de­vices, but not from iOS hand­helds, which do not al­low USB power draw by Ap­ple man­date. Run­ning it off its charged in­ter­nal bat­tery is rec­om­mended with mo­bile de­vices.

The unit is spec­i­fied to run up to 10 hours on bat­tery power with IEMs or ef­fi­cient head­phones. With two sets of moder­ately ef­fi­cient cans and one set of in­ef­fi­cient ones—the first three men­tioned be­low, and con­nected one at a time—it ran my 57-minute playlist nearly three times, or fewer than three hours, be­fore the red bat­tery-dis­charged in­di­ca­tor went on. iFi clar­i­fied that their ini­tial pro­duc­tion had firmware that set the bat­tery warn­ing LED too con­ser­va­tively and that the unit runs about twice the time in­di­cated by the light. I ver­i­fied that the Black La­bel did last a more rea­son­able five to six hours on a full charge ir­re­spec­tive of the LED. Cur­rent pro­duc­tion has the up­dated firmware in place, and any cus­tomer in the field who en­coun­ters this and wishes to cor­rect it can send their unit to iFi’s ser­vice cen­ter for a soft­ware update (http://sup­port,ifi­au­dio.com). In any event, the is­sue is cos­metic and has no ef­fect on the unit’s per­for­mance.

As noted, I au­di­tioned the Black La­bel with a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent HiFiMan pla­nar mag­netic open-back head­phone mod­els: the big Edi­tion X V2 ($1,299), on which I’ve come to de­pend, and (just for fun) the slightly smaller (and far more af­ford­able) HE400S

($299). Also in ro­ta­tion were

the Aus­trian-made AKG K240 (semi-open back, about $70 on­line), the Sennheiser HD 600 (open back, about $285 on­line), and the Sony MDR-V6 (closed back, about $90 on­line). The HiFiMen and Sony were fairly ef­fi­cient, the AKG and Sennheiser less so.

The demo playlist was David Ch­esky’s Vene­tian Con­certo No. 3, first move­ment, with the com­poser con­duct­ing the Orches­tra of the

21st Cen­tury (AIFF 48/24), Bernard Her­rmann’s North by North­west score, main ti­tle, with Lau­rie John­son con­duct­ing the Lon­don Stu­dio Sym­phony Orches­tra (ALAC 44.1/16), David Ch­esky’s “Ben’s Farm in Ver­mont” from Dr. Ch­esky’s Ul­ti­mate Head­phone Demon­stra­tion Disc (FLAC 192/24), Bach’s Gold­berg Vari­a­tions, first vari­a­tion, with pi­anist Kimiko Ishizaka (FLAC 96/24), Richard Thomp­son’s “They Tore the Hip­po­drome Down” from Acous­tic Rar­i­ties (FLAC 88.2/24), Nick Drake’s “Hazey Jane II” from Bry­ter Layter (FLAC 96/24), Steely Dan’s “The Caves of Al­tamira” from The Royal Scam (ALAC 44.1/16), King Crim­son’s “Melt­down” from Rad­i­cal Ac­tion to Un­seat the Hold of Mon­key Mind (ALAC 44.1/16), and for a grand fi­nale, Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” from Med­dle (ALAC 44.1/16).

With Pla­nar Mag­netic Head­phones

The Black La­bel per­formed bril­liantly for a $199 amp/DAC, al­low­ing nearly ev­ery head­phone to ful­fill most of its po­ten­tial. As promised, it de­liv­ered enough juice to power even the most de­mand­ing of my head­phones, with a lit­tle (or a lot of) room to spare. The IEM mode de­liv­ered less gain, al­low­ing a wider range of vol­ume ad­just­ments for the more ef­fi­cient ’phones. Tonal bal­ance was on the light side, il­lu­mi­nat­ing the pres­ence re­gion beau­ti­fully, while art­fully dodg­ing lis­ten­ing fa­tigue with most of the cans and con­tent. Bass was usu­ally suf­fi­cient but not out­stand­ing. It was ob­vi­ous that the Black La­bel’s heart was in its re­pro­duc­tion of vo­cals and in­stru­ments oc­cu­py­ing roughly the same spec­trum.

With the two HiFiMan pla­nar head­phones, the Black La­bel pro­duced a suit­ably large and deep sound­stage with a per­spec­tive that was up close but not un­com­fort­able, and it demon­strated loads of plea­sur­able tone color. Imag­ing was just how I like it: well out­lined but fully fleshed out.

Among the three or­ches­tral test tracks, the star was the Varèse Sara­bande re­lease of North by North­west. As my notes re­mind me, it lit­er­ally made me say “wow” to an empty room. The top end’s rip­pling cas­tanets were zingy and vi­brant with­out be­ing over­whelm­ing. The record­ing is loaded with re­verb and am­bi­ence, giv­ing the orches­tra an ex­otic un­du­lat­ing qual­ity, and as re­pro­duced here the long de­cays were rig­or­ously struc­tured and co­her­ent. The spa­tial co­her­ence also suited the massed strings and solo flute of the Vene­tian Con­certo and the pi­ano of the Gold­berg Vari­a­tions. With my go-to track for high­fre­quency fin­ery, “Ben’s Farm in Ver­mont,” the Black La­bel ex­celled with ev­ery head­phone; I never had to turn it up but could still hear all the del­i­cate in­stru­ments at the low lev­els al­lowed by the record­ing.

The two folkie tracks showed how beau­ti­fully the Black La­bel could han­dle voices. It gave the Richard Thomp­son home-stu­dio record­ing a full-bod­ied rich­ness in both voice and acous­tic gui­tar, a qual­ity that would be elu­sive with the head­phone out­put of an av­er­age smart­phone or tablet. The gor­geously pro­duced and en­gi­neered Nick Drake track was re­mark­able not only for vo­cal re­al­ism and bal­ance but also for lay­er­ing of com­plex ar­range­ments. Steely Dan’s vo­cals, back­ing vo­cals, and horn charts also ben­e­fited from adroit lay­er­ing, as did the nu­mer­ous keen­ing, chug­ging gui­tars over­dubbed onto the Pink Floyd epic. The HiFiMan HE400S had a slightly darker tonal bal­ance than the Edi­tion X V2, which worked well on the King Crim­son track, mod­er­at­ing the sax’s bright bite and giv­ing the three clock­work drum­mers an at­trac­tive patina of grunge.

With Dy­namic Head­phones

When I moved from pla­nar mag­netic to the more com­monly found dy­namic head­phones, the Black La­bel scored two out of three, en­abling the AKG to con­jure smaller but tighter im­ages than the pla­nars and con­spir­ing with the Sennheiser’s peer­less sense of flow.

And it han­dled the head­phones’ chal­leng­ing nom­i­nal im­ped­ances of 600 and 300 ohms, re­spec­tively, gen­er­ally us­ing half to two-thirds of the vol­ume con­trol’s range when con­nected to the higher-out­put jack. Only with the tre­bly Sony did the Black La­bel’s light tonal bal­ance be­come too much of a good thing—though when I re-au­di­tioned the Sony later, at the start of an­other day, I re­al­ized that much of my dis­sat­is­fac­tion was in di­rect com­par­i­son with the other head­phones. With fresh ears, the Sony/iFi pair­ing wasn’t half bad.

With the or­ches­tral and pi­ano se­lec­tions, the Black La­bel ap­pro­pri­ately did lit­tle to off­set the AKG’s darker tone, though this pair­ing still showed ex­cel­lent de­tail re­trieval on the chim­ing in­stru­ments of “Ben’s Farm,” and its imag­ing of the Bach pi­ano track was the most straight­for­ward and re­al­is­tic of the lot. Lead vo­cals on all tracks that had them were sim­i­larly shifted to the dark side. The AKG/iFi combo got the meati­est groove out of Steely Dan and the best live feel out of King Crim­son. This led me to veer from my playlist and put on Led Zep­pelin’s “Black Dog” which erupted like Old Faith­ful; the urge to play it loud was ir­re­sistible and, thanks to the amp’s out­put ca­pa­bil­ity, quite fea­si­ble. But, re­turn­ing to the playlist, the AKG sucked the life out of Pink Floyd, turn­ing vo­cals bland and gui­tars muddy. These ’phones also pinched my nog­gin painfully, re­mind­ing me why I rarely use them nowa­days.

Putting on the plushly padded Sennheiser was a phys­i­cal re­lief. Al­though they usu­ally pro­duce lit­tle low bass, their win­ning way with midrange not only flat­tered the strings of the Vene­tian Con­certo but also gave them an ir­re­sistible sense of for­ward mo­tion. In the giddy taran­tella of North by North­west, the Sennheiser/iFi team was dark like the AKG but close-up and vivid like the HiFiMan Edi­tion X V2. “Ben’s Farm” lost some of its fleecy fin­ery to the Sennheiser’s re­served top end, but the Bach pi­ano track was pleas­ingly warm, with a medium per­spec­tive, nei­ther in the pi­ano nor too far from it. The word nat­u­ral ap­peared in my notes on the Thomp­son and Drake tracks, with the lat­ter in­spir­ing a tor­rent of ad­di­tional ad­jec­tives:

“dark, warm, smooth, flow­ing, each el­e­ment in its place.” The Sennheiser/iFi team rev­eled in the lead vo­cals of Steely Dan but lost the lush­ness of the back­ing vo­cals; I blamed the head­phones, not the amp. Toppy el­e­ments like King Crim­son’s sax and Pink Floyd’s scream­ing-seag­ull slide-gui­tar ef­fects were dis­creetly smoothed out—again, not un­ex­pect­edly, with these head­phones.

The Black La­bel al­lowed most of the head­phones to be the best ver­sions of them­selves most of the time. But with the Sony, it spot­lighted a top end that is al­ready prom­i­nent and clin­i­cal with most amps, lead­ing to lower vol­ume set­tings, drier tex­tures, and minia­tur­ized im­ages. Even so, in one in­stance, the Sony/ iFi combo suc­ceeded where the Sennheiser/iFi combo failed, il­lu­mi­nat­ing Pink Floyd’s airy vo­cals and com­plex thicket of gui­tars, even if the seag­ull ef­fects were pre­dictably sear­ing.

For the price of a stick amp, iFi’s nano iDSD Black La­bel musters fea­tures and out­put ca­pa­bil­ity you won’t get in most stick amps, yet it still fits in a pocket. It is in­ge­nious, great sound­ing, and highly rec­om­mended.

Au­dio Edi­tor Mark Fleis­chmann is the au­thor of Prac­ti­cal Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Au­dio Sys­tems, now avail­able in both print and Kin­dle edi­tions.

The front panel of­fers a pair of head­phone out­puts, each with a dif­fer­ent gain.

The com­pact nano iDSD mea­sures 2.5 by 1 by 3.8 inches and weighs in at 5 ounces.

The sim­ple back panel in­cludes a line out, USB port, and fil­ter switch.

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