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iFi nano iDSD – Part Two: DSD and second impressions

IMG_6592In part one, I reviewed iFi’s new nano iDSD as an iPad headphone amp/DAC. I played around with the setup a bit more this morning. I hooked the iDSD to my home system and experimented with the RCA outs and the digital coax output, running the box directly into my power amp and into my full-size DAC, respectively.

The device is indeed palm-sized, especially in my somewhat oversized hand. The specs claim it weighs 0.37 pounds. I also finally spent some quality time with the unit’s minimal four-panel instruction card (how comprehensive is it? Let’s just say you can fit it in your wallet).

There’s a single pinhole LED on the top of the iDSD, and the instructions read thusly:

LED color:

Green: 44/48kHz
Yellow: 88/96kHz
Cyan: 176/192kHz
White: DXD 352/384kHz
Blue: DSD 2.8/3.1MHz
Magenta: DSD 5.6/6.2MHz
Green (flashing): awaiting USB connection
Red: battery low
None: battery empty
Blue: battery chargingIMG_6586

Let’s talk colors, man.

The LED is recessed and tiny, and difficult to see in bright light. And one of the first things I noticed is that the battery takes a LONG time to charge, if the indicator light is any, um, indication. Since testing the thing for a couple hours this morning, I’ve had the iDSD turned off and plugged into my laptop’s USB port for over nine hours now — and the LED is still blue. And that’s a deep blue, almost purple. Not to be confused with, uh, cyan. I have no 176/192-encoded files, but I may upsample one just so I can check out that (presumably) watery blue LED that iFi calls “cyan.” I’m weird that way.

So. When playing my first DSD file, the white LED looked sorta pale green — at least in the light of my living room. I switched to a 24/96 FLAC and the LED suddenly glowed a dark green. So there’s that.

Enough about The Light already. How does the nano measure up for DSD playback on a home system?

First off: there’s not a lot of space on or in this thing for knobs. Folks who like fiddling with settings should take note. There’s the volume control, which doubles as an on/off switch. Then there’s a toggle switch for “Minimum” and “Standard” phase tweaks. Upon further reading of the instructions, iFi recommends using the Minimum Phase setting for listening, and the Standard setting for “measurements.” Oh. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the audible difference between the settings seems pretty negligible. And maybe iFi’s marketing team should re-think calling the default/recommended setting “minimum’? Just a thought.

(I should note that I was running the iDSD directly into my power amp while writing the following).

The first track I tried was Janet Feder’s “White Men Landing”, a 2.8MHz DFF file from Janet’s Songs With Words album from last year — definitely the album’s highlight track, at least for me.

It sounded wonderful. Janet’s voice had a perceptible bloom and warmth to it that wasn’t evident before, even on the hi-res DVD files included with the LP. Her treated guitar sounded as though it was right there, somewhere behind and between the speakers. Actually, I forgot the speakers were there. I played the track again and turned it up. It kept sounding better. The iDSD lacks coloration and just plays the music without noise or enhancement; can’t ask for much more than that.

IMG_6579Next I downloaded the DSF 2.8MHz file of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence 30th anniversary remaster. I know this recording as well as anything I’ve listened to over the past few decades, and other than some, um, shall we say, limitations of the source material (I’ll get to those in a future post), it sounded excellent, especially on the more orchestral numbers like “Batavia,” “Germination” and “Sowing the Seed.” David Sylvian’s singing on “Forbidden Colors” — one of the album’s few vocal tracks — sounded muddy and veiled; not sure what happened there. Sakamoto’s varied synthesizer textures have a breathy and airy quality on the DSD remaster. I’m not convinced that the album download was worth $43, though.

Back to the hardware opinion: the iDSD is very quiet and transparent, whether with FLACs, MP3s and AACs on mobile devices, or DSD on a home system. Its versatility is a selling point, but the silent backgrounds are its best quality, especially at this price. Does the iDSD have a burn-in period? Some Head-Fi wonks claim it does. I’ll run music through it all night tonight and get back to you (Part Three?).

After a few hours with the thing, I’m happy with my purchase. But I’m beginning to doubt just how well a $189 box can do DSD…or, rather, how much better a larger, more expensive piece of hardware might handle the new format? The iDSD’s quality is good, but it made me wonder how a $1600 unit like the Mytek 192 (or the $31,000 Da Vinci Dual DAC, yeah, okay) would sound with my humble system. I’m a snob for balanced outputs, and the iDSD has none…not that I was expecting such bells and whistles for under $200, of course. But if you’re going to be paying $30+ for a DSD download (or an average of about $4 per track) of your favorite album, I’m assuming that most hi-fi fans are going to treat the iDSD as I do – something with which to get one’s feet damp in the growing DSD pond, but, ultimately, of better use as a relatively nimble and inexpensive mobile DAC/headphone amp with a phone or tablet.

IMG_6589Another bitch I’d like to register is with the documentation. The tiny card that comes with the device is barely adequate, and iFi’s website, while wonderful at marketing, doesn’t have much depth when it comes to explaining the iDSD’s operation. Yes, it’s a relatively simple device and it doesn’t take a lot of intuition to figure out how to connect it. But some simple diagrams would help newcomers to DACs (let alone DSD) to get things up and running. And, granted, the instruction card has its charms: second-language typos like “the SPDIF stangard [sic] does not support DSD/DXD/352/384kHz”. Didn’t anyone at iFi in England proofread the dang thing?

And, pursuant to my post yesterday regarding iOS playback: tonight I hooked up my iPhone 4S running iOS7 and tried to play a 320kbps AAC…and repeatedly got the dreaded “attached device uses too much power” message. This didn’t happen with the iPad, and it’s disappointing. Perhaps a full night’s charge of the iDSD and my phone will eliminate that warning.

I hope.

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Equipment used with the iFi nano iDSD:

PS Audio PerfectWave DAC Mk II w/Bridge
Parasound A21 power amplifier
Paradigm Studio 100 v5 speakers
Nordost bi-wire Super Flatline 4m speaker cables
Kimber Timbre interconnects, 1M, RCA
Oyaide PA-02 TX interconnects, 0.7m XLR
Wireworld Starlight 7 USB cable
Apple MacBook Pro 2007 running 10.6.8
JRiver Media Center for Mac 19.0.100
OWC 2.0TB Mercury Elite Pro external hard drive