You ask: which DAC for portable headphone listening and a loudspeaker rig? In 2016, Chord Electronics’ battery-powered Mojo will likely dominate a field of crowd-sourced responses. But Chord aren’t the only game in town. Bubbling underneath are AMR offshoot iFi Audio whose micro iDSD unit offers a far more diversified feature set even if its DAC chip comes directly off the shelf from Texas Instruments.
First and foremost, the micro iDSD is a D/A converter. Its Burr Brown DAC chip offers compatibility with a wide range of digital audio formats, some of them more unicorn-like than others: PCM all the way up to 768kHz and DSD up to 8x; the latter is handled natively and without a priori conversion to PCM.
Digital inputs on the micro iDSD number three: USB Type A complete with iPurifier circuitry for direct connection to Apple’s Lightning-to-USB adaptor; a S/PDIF socket (for PCM up to 192kHz, no DSD) that combines coaxial and TOSLINK inputs – as seen on iFi Audio’s DAR-KO Award-winning S/PDIF iPurifier. This same port can even output a digital signal via coaxial, essentially turning this iFi unit into a USB-S/PDIF converter.
X-Bass and 3D-holographic Sound options present for those who like to get really tweaky but for more subtler seasoning there are user-selectable filters: three digital for PCM playback and three analogue for DSD.
“From [Sennheiser] IE800 to [HiFiMAN] HE-6” – that’s how iFi describe the micro iDSD’s 6.4mm output power. From the slide of a underside switch, ‘Turbo’ introduces tougher loads to up to 1.5W, ‘Normal’ gives 32 Ohms cans almost a single Watt of go juice whilst ‘Eco’ dials proceedings down to 250mW for 16 Ohm loads.
Yet another underside switch clicks iFi’s IEMatch into gear to allow a lower noise floor and better dynamic range from highly- and super-sensitive IEMs.
For those looking to position the micro iDSD at the heart of a loudspeaker system, there’s no need to adapt its headphone output to twin RCAs (as one must with the Mojo). At the other business end of the iFi device sits a pair of RCA sockets. Your favourite interconnects remain in play.
There’s also a switch to kick analogue volume attenuation in and out of the signal path (as required). In other words, the micro iDSD is an active pre-amplifier and not only for digital audio. Keep your existing DAC (or phono stage!) in play with the micro iDSD’s 3.5mm analogue input.
In summary, the micro iDSD can be deployed as standalone DAC with line-level output, as active pre-amplifier with analogue rotary or (more likely) a portable DAC/headphone amplifier for on-the-go listening.
The internal battery isn’t only for going without mains power when out in the street. It brings off-grid listening to the home-based listener and for an extra dollop of convenience, its side-facing USB port can recharge your smartphone.
I think you’ll agree, that’s quite some feature set.
So – why talk about the micro iDSD now?
iFi have today announced an updated version. The new Black Label edition has, as its name suggests, been moved to a satin black chassis with orange accents. However, this is no superficial re-skinning; it’s a complete overhaul:
Designer Thorsten Loesch describes the Black Label iteration as “tweaked to the roof” and “sonically much better”.
“With the original micro iDSD, iFi already pushed parts quality to a very high level. Yet after long-term testing and with new parts now available to us, we were able to wring meaningful improvements in sound quality by substituting specific parts with higher grade (and more expensive) alternatives.”
“Specifically, with the upgrades applied we were able to produce a sound that is smoother sounding than the original, yet with increased level of detail and improved dynamics and slam. These are not ‘night and day’ differences but the difference is very discernible.”
“To gain meaningful sonic improvements on a product like the micro iDSD was no small challenge.”
“Os-Con’s originally from Sanyo (now taken over by Panasonic) have been around for a good while. Among the larger value capacitors useful in power supplies, they hold a special place. In a groundbreaking series on capacitor performance published in the late nineties and early noughties in Wireless World, Cyril Bateman showed they persistently outperformed all alternatives at high frequencies and were second in low-distortion only to Elna Silmic types.”
“After the Panasonic takeover, supply chains were changed and they became difficult to obtain. Testing alternatives offered by other manufacturers showed them to be dramatically inferior to the original Sanyo product and not much better than generic Electrolytic Capacitors. Further, originally Os-Con’s were not available in the values/voltages/sizes needed for the relative miniature equipment in the iFi range.”
“In recent times, the supply situation has improved and Panasonic has introduced a new range of ‘miniaturised’ Os-Con’s suited for iFi equipment. So, despite their steep cost (around 10x that of common electrolytic capacitors) the micro iDSD Black Label is the first to start to feature them as an alternative where Elna Silmic capacitors cannot be accommodated; be it because of cost or size constraints, as they are physically much larger for the same capacitance and even more costly.”
The upgrades can be summarised thusly:
- re-designed output stabilisation
- OV2627 op-amps upgraded analogue section
- Panasonic OSCON capacitors loaded power supply
- OV2028 op-amps loaded DAC power supply
- DAC voltage decoupling based on audio-grade ECPU film capacitors
- GMT® Femto precision clock system power supply upgraded
OV? ‘Operationsverstärker’ – that’s German for Operational Amplifier.
Here’s Loesch again:
“iFi/AMR’s ‘OV’ range IC’s use HCOFC copper lead-frames and 4N Gold bond-wire which is streets ahead of mainstream commercial chips that use inexpensive aluminum bond-wire and low-grade and low-cost copper in the lead-frames. It is seldom found because it requires custom packaging of chips from wafers and has a very high MOQ (30,000 pcs per part and purchase) to do. Therefore, the parts used in the micro iDSD BL are ‘above and beyond.”
“Specifically the iFi OV2028 is a BJT input Dual OV with extremely low-noise, wide bandwidth and high slew rate. The iFi OV2627 is an FET input Dual OV with low noise, extremely wide bandwidth and very high slew rate.”
For all of that, we note a more-than-reasonable 10% price hike over the original micro iDSD. The Black Label edition will sell for US$549 (ex-tax) or €599/£455 (inclusive of VAT). That’s one full half of a Benjamin less expensive than the Chord Mojo.
With the micro iDSD Black Label we are able to spend less but do more – that’s one heck of a proposition.
Further information: iFi Audio