iFi nano iDSD – Part Four: the First Week…Pros and Cons

IMG_6592Some updates:

On Friday I was able to get my iPhone working with the $189 nano iDS DSD DAC/headphone amp. I can’t explain why; it just began to operate as it should. Good news.

Things also stabilized with the iDSD’s operation as a desktop DAC/headphone amp with my Mac Pro at work. I haven’t heard any real benefits related to burn-in time, but I’ve probably only played about 30 or 40 hours of music through it so far.

I heard back from Vincent at iFi regarding some questions I posed last week about the iDSD. With Vincent’s permission, here’s the emails:

A customer pointed out your comments to us which were things we have not thought of mentioning.

With your permission, we would like to elaborate/clarify, please bear with us:


We did test this, and there should not be a “attached device uses too much power” message/issue, unless:

1) The battery is Flat, in that case it requires recharging.
2) The turn on sequence was wrong and the iDSDis actually set to buspower
3) The Connection kit used is somehow not working right (e.g. not original apple etc.)

Also, the long charge time may be down to the PC’s USB Ports. Some limit the current to 200mA. With 200mA the charge time could well exceed 10 Hours. This is of course beyond our control and subject to the vagaries of each computer.

It may be better to use a standard cellphone charger rated at 0.5A or more, likely most people have plenty leftovers from discarded/lost/stolen/broken phones (including the Apple ones), otherwise buy one from a reputable shop.

We hope this clarifies – please do not hesitate to ask if you have any further questions.

Lastly, we did pick up the typo [described in the 3rd-to-last paragraph here]. Subsequent user manuals have been corrected. We have attached a copy [downloadable here] for you. We also re-arranged a few things.

[from a followup email]:

Our tech guys said that I forgot to mention to you that the iDSD nano also works with iPod Classic + CCK [Camera Connection Kit] (4th and 5th generation only, but not 6th generation),

It seems Apple changed the firmware code in the 6th gen one and hence it won’t work with ANY USB DAC using the CCK.

Your iPod Classic 160GB is the 6th Generation one right?, so it most likely won’t work. But no harm to try.

Hope this clarifies that is something on the Apple side.

To sum up: after seven days with the nano iDSD — at home, on BART trains, and at work — I’ve found some things I like and some things I don’t like.

* Pros:

– The DSD playback with my home setup. I don’t know what $2,000 or $10,000 or $100,000 DSD DACs sound like (yet), but the few DSD files I have sound wonderful thorough the iDSD.

– It’s battery-powered and small, and therefore portable.

– A fully-charged iDSD won’t run out of power for 7 to 10 hours, depending on whether you’re using it as a headphone amp and, if so, how loud you’re cranking it.

– The thing costs $189 and does a lot for the money. It’s a good value, for the most part.

IMG_6588* Cons:

– The volume of the headphone amp portion of the device seems to be limited to a level fairly far below what could be perceived as damaging. I assume this is for liability reasons. Even when playing FLACs on a desktop Mac with an app like Cog — apps with volume controls — the level doesn’t have much oomph to it when turned all the way clockwise. Mitigating factor: playing hi-resolution FLACs on the iPad is a different story; the volume is mostly satisfying (and not what you’d call dangerously high, either).

– You need an Apple Camera Kit to play your iPhone or iPad through the iDSD. Not sure what your mileage might be, but my Camera Kit adapter dislodges easily (especially from the iPhone), and juggling the iDSD and i-Device during cramped commutes can be a challenge. I use my iPad primarily in landscape orientation, and the USB cable/Kit adapter does a perfect job of blocking easy access to the iPad’s home button. Bummer. Obviously these are limitations imposed by Apple, not iFi. But it does reduce the iDSD’s mobile versatility significantly.

– The iDSD doesn’t work with my 6th-generation iPod Classic 160gb, evidently due to some firmware update by Apple (previous iPods apparently DO work). Again, this is Apple’s doing.

– It takes a long time to charge via USB plugged into a computer. You may have to purchase a plug-into-the-wall USB power charger if the supplied USB A to B cable doesn’t charge in a timely fashion and/or you’re impatient and somewhat impulsive and cranky (as am I).

– The iDSD is very lightweight – this is a pro and a con. When put to home use on a flat surface, it often doesn’t stay put; the attached cables can pull it every which-way. I decided to stick the supplied plastic/rubber adhesive dots to the bottom of the unit, which helped somewhat. However, those dots make the iDSD difficult to stuff into the very snug velvet-y drawstring pouch (think mini-Chivas Regal) when you want to go portable, so keep that in mind.

* And, although I didn’t address this directly with iFi, I’m still confused about the purpose of the Filter toggle. Other than Volume/On-Off, it’s the only switch on the device, with settings of Standard or Minimum Phase. There’s little discernible difference between the settings. iFi’s documentations simply reads “We recommend Minimum Phase for listening, and Standard for measurements.” What sort of measurements? Wouldn’t it be better to actually have a phase-invert switch or something similar that would be more useable?

Oh — one last Pro: iFi’s responsiveness and transparency regarding my questions. Considering the price, sound quality and versatility of the nano iDSD, I’d recommend it primarily to folks who want to see what DSD can do. It’s also an adequate headphone amp for desktop and mobile use.