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iFi nano iDSD – Part One: Unboxing and FLAC first impressions

IMG_6577iFi’s entry into the portable DAC/DSD/headphone amp derby arrived today. The $189 device is the cheapest DSD-capable DAC, and also appears to be one of the first battery-powered DSD DACs that will work with iOS devices without external power.

After unboxing the palm-sized nano from its very Apple-like packaging, my impatient self didn’t bother topping off the charge on the built-in battery. Instead I immediately grabbed my Apple Camera Kit USB adapter, plugged my iPad2 into it, fired up FLAC Player and loaded a 24/96 vinyl rip of Michael Brook’s “Ultramarine” from Cobalt Blue and turned it up. And up.

And up. I kept waiting for the sound to break up, but my aged, mid-fi Sennheiser HD280 Pros — the everyday headphones I stuff in and out of my backpack on BART every morning and evening — handled things well. IMG_6581Without better headphones it’s going to be hard to give a more enlightened opinion on the Nano, but the main difference I noticed (other than no distortion at high volumes) was presence, especially with mid and high frequencies. When the iPad’s low-rent DAC is removed from the signal chain, things are definitely clearer and less veiled.

Next up I played a 24/96 vinyl encoding of “Walk With Me” off Neil Young’s Le Noise. Young’s electric guitar came forth with a familiar roar. Daniel Lanois’ multitracked overtones seemed all over the place (I mean that in a good way). Huge dynamic range, with lots of space to the mix.

Using the digital filter (two settings: standard and “minimum phase”) didn’t seem to make a lot of difference. If anything, the minimum setting seemed to tame the sound a bit in a manner that’s hard to describe. IMG_6584I figured it might come in handy for electronic music, so I tried the 5.1-to-2.0 downmix of Todd Rundgren’s “Truth” from Liars. Sure enough, the minimum phase setting took the edge off a bit. It might come in handy for CD rips of titles that were mastered a tad hot (or a tad lousy). Or just for “toppy” electronic stuff.

The Le Noise track tested the rock abilities of the iFi nano, but I wanted to hear something with drums, a full-band affair. A 24/96 vinyl rip of Cowboy Junkies “3rd Crusade” from Sing In My Meadow with the device’s volume cranked to nearly full….yes, that would work.

And it sounded REALLY GOOD. Crunchy. The distorted guitars came across as intended, with a chunky, clean and tight low end and pleasingly searing midrange. It almost sounded live.IMG_6588 Without the nano the iPad reduced the definition of the instruments…and when the iPad was turned all the way up, it just sounded shrill. With the nano, you hear the individual players. The bass and guitar parts meshed, instead of mushed. And the louder you crank it, the better it sounds. I turned the volume full-clockwise, then thought better of it. It still sounded great, but the level didn’t exactly seem…healthy.

One unknown: am I going to get tired of juggling the iPad and the iFi nano iDSD on my lap each morning during my 30-minute commute? Let me get back to you on that.

Next: the iFi nano iDSD and…DSD.