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Smart and clean: iFi Audio’s Nano iONE DAC w/ Bluetooth

  • iFi Audio’s Nano iONE adds wireless (Bluetooth) and wired (S/PDIF, USB) digital audio handling to any audio system for US$199/€235/£199. I’ve had mine for three weeks. Out of the box, a super-concise user manual (here) goes large on minutiae.

    Before we get going, we need to talk about Bluetooth. Not all Bluetooth audio connections are born equal. To realise the ‘CD-like’- (and not CD-) quality of the aptX, Qualcomm’s codec must be present in the transmitter (smartphone, laptop) and the receiver (streamer, DAC).

    Where this all gets a little fuzzy is with iOS devices – they don’t do aptX! Streaming from smartphone to receiver without aptX support at either end will see the Bluetooth connection revert to the inferior sounding SBC codec: bye-bye to ‘near CD quality’ Bluetooth listening, hello to an emotionally neutered Tom Waits and a tack-flat Kraftwerk.

    iFi Audio have sidestepped aptX’s dirty secret in the Nano iONE by specifying another CD-like codec – AAC – which is supported by iOS. Let the good times roll.

    It gets better still. Hook the Nano iONE’s RCA analogue outputs into an integrated amplifier or a pair of powered/active loudspeakers and its internal, Bit-perfect Burr Brown DAC chipset will take care of D/A conversion. We’d expect as much from a DAC.

    However, for those already in possession of a DAC with coaxial input, the Nano iONE will send the necessary ones and zeroes downstream via S/PDIF. Now it’s a Bluetooth-fuelled DDC.

    If your third party DAC plays it old school and has only coaxial as its digital input, know that the Nano iONE’s digital passthrough smarts are carried over to its asynchronous USB input. Now it’s a USB-S/PDIF converter.

    That coaxial socket – it’s not just an output. It is also a two-mode digital input. The Nano iONE can be used to upgrade the sound of a dirt cheap disc spinner – many of which now arrive without analogue outputs – or, with the supplied mini-TOSLINK adaptor, a games console or Apple Airport Express. Now the iFi device is a S/PDIF DAC whose inputs (nerds take note) are galvanically isolated.

    The Nano iONE is powered by any USB phone charger-type wall wart and a USB cable. Neither come supplied in the box. The audiophile purist might turn up his nose but this is just one way in which the entry-level iFi device shows its mass market appeal. Lose your wall wart? With the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, there’s always another on hand. No need to contact iFi Audio unless you want one with lower electrical noise (we’ll get to that).

    For those who prefer to go with whatever wall wart they find lying around at home, iFi Audio’s Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) circuitry has been implemented to minimise the incoming electrical noise. Electrical noise is often a source of digital audio timing errors, referred to as jitter. Jitter is detrimental to sound quality.

    It was in the DARhaus’ big rig – US$30K of PS Audio electronics fronting a pair of KEF LS50 standmounts – that the Nano iONE’s D/A conversion smarts were first auditioned. A Samsung TV’s piped digital audio via TOSLINK into the iFi DAC whose RCA sockets fed a Schiit Jotunheim playing preamplifier to a pair of volume-pot-less Genelec G Two active mini monitors.

    Showing tremendous insight with vocal enunciation and atmospheric detail, the palm-filling iFi Audio unit makes a most excellent first impression. The ‘Listen’ filter sounds more agreeable to these ears – less arrant – than does ‘Measure’.

    With the Samsung TV playing digital audio interpreter between a 4th Gen Apple TV’s HDMI output – relaying tunes from Apple Music to the Nano iONE’s TOSLINK input, the Brit DAC’s talents with detail excavation and crisp rhythmic timing become more obvious. The Nano iONE imbues the Chemical Brothers’ Surrender with clean layer separation and makes Craig Finn’s Clear Heart, Full Eyes sound fresh and exuberant.

    The Nano iONE’s USB input is not only for sucking on a 5V power feed. It will extract DSD, DXD and PCM data from any PC or Mac. Now it’s a USB DAC.

    It also might be many a newcomer’s first DAC. RCA outputs once again diverted via the Schiit Jotunheim, this time juicing a pair of Sennheiser HD800S, remind us that the iFi unit comes on a darn site cleaner, dynamically nimbler and more detailed than an 11” Macbook Air’s 3.5mm audio output, which, by comparison, sounds congealed and lifeless.

    Ditto the Sonos Connect whose internal D/A conversion is similarly weak with tonality and dynamics. Connected via TOSLINK, the Nano iONE helps the Sonos regain match fitness.

    I didn’t try the iFi DAC with the Google Chromecast but I’d be stunned if it didn’t deliver higher sound quality than the dongle’s own analogue output. My confidence remains even when factoring in the Chromecast’s poor-sounding digital output.

    Hooked up via USB to a modestly priced head-fi rig – Rupert Neve Headphone Amplifier and Final Sonorous III headphones – the Nano iONE brings a taller headstage and more transparent midrange to the party when USB-appended to the AURALiC Aries Mini via Curious cable.

    The AURALiC Aries Mini’s internal DAC is no slouch but its presentation is contrasted by the iFi as mid-bass rich with a lower centre of gravity, even when its digital filter is set to ‘Balance’ mode. With this particular configuration of gear, I prefer the Nano iONE to remain part of the playback chain.

    The AudioQuest DragonFly Black splits the difference and the DragonFly Red remains the pick of the bunch by a nose. However, these DragonFly’s aren’t rivals proper – they don’t do S/PDIF or Bluetooth. AudioQuest’s Beetle will be the Nano iONE’s most proximate competitor when it finally comes to market.

    On bass weight, the Nano iONE runs the lightest of the three. Thankfully, the Final Sonorous III are long on low end action so it’s a non-issue for me here. OPPO PM-3 owners (for example) who put bass propulsion ahead of vocal clarity should keep this mind.

    Want more of the good stuff? That ANC circuitry – it won’t turn lead into gold. Swap out your (almost-certainly-noisy) switch-mode USB wall-wart for a higher quality power supply.

    iFi Audio offer the low noise iPower for fifty bucks but, yanked from its Sonore microRendu-powering duties, a linear Teradak U9 pushes 5V directly out of its USB output. Compared to an Apple iPhone wall charger, the Teradak adds a little flesh to bone (bass weight included) but also facilitates a more easeful top end, which for this commentator is a hallmark of better digital audio reproduction.

    The Nano iONE’s broad set of successful application is impressive. Its ability to elevate the audible performance of a Macbook Air and a Sonos Connect make it a proper everyman hifi product. That it improves on the AURALiC Aries Mini (in key areas) and gets within a whisker of AudioQuest’s DragonFly Red lends it serious audiophile credibility.

    Putting it over the top however is iFi’s smart decision to bring iOS-equipped Bluetooth listeners in from the cold. And a knockout feature like that sitting atop super sharp street pricing means a Knock-Out Award. Ka-pow!

    Further information: iFi Audio

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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