This review is part of a series of iFi product reviews made possible by MaxMedia, the Australian distributor for iFi. The first of these reviews is the iFi Nano iDSD which sits below the iDAC in the price hierarchy of products from iFi, but is very much worth a look at. The iDAC was the first of the portable DAC options released by iFi and I was fortunate to pick one up in a trade a while back so the unit I’m reviewing is mine.
Oh, by the way, don’t forget to subscribe if you want to know when the next part of this review series is published.
Overview of the iDAC
The iDAC sits at a retail price of $369 here in Australia and therefore competes with a number of entry-level desktop DACs on the market, but keep in mind that the iDAC is a truly portable option at 193g and given that it runs solely on USB power. It’s larger than most other portable DAC solutions, but it also has a few tricks up its sleeve that most portable DACs don’t.
- ESS Sabre chip
- Signal-to-Noise: >111dB (A-weighted)
- Crosstalk: <102dB (@ 1kHz)
- Distortion: <0.005% (THD)
- Output voltage: >3.3V
- Power: >150mW (15 ohms)
- SNR: >97dB
- THD: <0.003%
- Output impedance: <1 ohm
Design & Functionality
Just like all the other iFi “i” range of products, the iDAC uses the trademark rectangular chassis – in this case in the full length ‘micro’ format rather than the half-length ‘nano’ format of the Nano iDSD. This means more real estate is taken up in your bag or on your desk, but we’ll discuss later if it’s a worthwhile trade-off.
Looks-wise, you get the same all-over-metal construction which looks and feels great, even on a second-hand unit like mine. There is a set of 3 lights on top to tell you when there is power, a connection to the computer (and the drivers on the computer), and to tell you when there is signal coming through to the iDAC.
On the front of the iDAC is a metal volume knob, 3.5mm headphone jack, and a pair of RCA sockets. Although the RCA sockets would have been better on the rear of the device from an aesthetics point-of-view, it’s understandable why they needed to be placed on the front of the chassis in terms of the overall circuit flow (signal in the back, outputs on the front) so I’m OK with it overall.
On the back of the iDAC is a single socket – a B-type USB socket like you find on desktop DACs, printers, and other full-size devices. As I mentioned in the Nano iDSD review, this necessitates a bulkier product compared to those using micro USB sockets, but I think the B-type USB just feels so much better as a connector.
On the bottom of the iDAC you’ll find a bunch of printed information. It’s like always having your user manual (or quick reference guide) with you so I really like this touch. Something about the print on the bottom really ticks my boxes aesthetically too. I’m not sure if it reminds of the branding printed behind the front wheel arches on drift cars or what it is, but I just love the look and feel it creates for the products. Over time and use, the print will wear off a bit, but by then you’ll probably know your device inside and out so it shouldn’t really matter.
Just like the Nano iDSD, installation and playback is a breeze. Of course, like any USB product with drivers it’s possible to have glitches, but installing and connecting the iFi range is as simple a process as it could possibly be. The same driver install program works for all three of iFi’s DAC products (iDAC and the Nano and Micro iDSD products) and you can re-run it to fix any errors when switching USB sockets or devices. With all the switching of sockets and devices I’ve done for this review I’ve created a few driver conflicts and the like, but every time, without fail, the install program has smoothed it over and I’ve been on my way in just seconds.
I mentioned above that the second of the three lights on the iDAC lights up when it’s connected to the computer and communicating with the drivers. I noticed once or twice when I was rapidly switching devices that the first light on the iDAC would sometimes illuminate to show it was receiving power from the computer, but the middle light would stay dark. This was a nice feature because it let me know that I needed to unplug the cable, wait a beat and then plug it back in so the computer could catch up. Without that handy light I would have regularly started my media software only to be met with an error message and the hassles that follow.
As a Pure DAC
When using the iDAC as a DAC only, iFi recommend turning the volume to zero. This doesn’t switch off the amp or anything, but I gather it keeps noise to an absolute minimum. What this also tells us is that the iDAC offers a fixed-level line out, unlike the Nano iDSD which is always variable via the volume knob. Whether the fixed or variable is better all depends on your needs, but for a more DAC-focussed product like the iDAC I think the fixed level makes sense because it’s ultimately meant to be connected to an external amp for the most part.
Other than the volume control, there’s not much you need to do with the iDAC to enjoy it – just plug it in, fire up your media software and press play. The ESS Sabre chip used can handle all kinds of bit-rates up to 24-bit / 192kHz audio. It also happily plays back DSD so you don’t have to worry about software conversion or down-sampling of any DSD music you might have in your library. I am running JRiver on my PC and the iDAC switched happily from PCM sources to DSD / DXD and back without a hitch.
Overall, the sound from the iDAC is a tiny bit leaner than the Nano iDSD, but it’s not lean or thin sounding – it just has a touch more sense of lightness which is nice, but not better than the Nano, just different.
The sound from the iDAC is presented a bit more intimately than the Nano iDSD as well. It’s up-front and in-your-face just a little more. Again, this isn’t a criticism – they’re just different presentations, but I personally prefer the more spacious sound from the Nano if I had to choose between the two. If I was forced to live with the iDAC though there would be no tears at all.
The iDAC is unfortunately not a great stand-alone choice if you’re using sensitive IEMs. There is noticeable noise through the iDAC when using IEMs like the Shure SE846 and Noble K10. The noise isn’t noticeable during tracks so much as in quiet moments, but it can be quite distracting when you hear it from time-to-time.
The gain level from the iDAC is also a touch high for IEMs as well which means that you’ll be struggling to keep the volume low enough to be relaxed and comfortable on sensitive IEMs. It’s fine for spirited (but still safe) listening sessions, but may be too high for those who like some background music while they work.
Other than the noise, the quality of the sound is very nice with IEMs, but I can’t see any reason to recommend the iDAC for IEM users when the Nano iDSD is such a superb option for a lower price.
With the Alessandro MS1i, the iDAC purrs along nicely at about 10 o’clock volume (where zero is at 7 o’clock). The sound has a delicacy and agility to it which is very enjoyable, but it’s not light or thin so much as clear and clean. Bass notes and mid-ranges are equally well-presented and enjoyable.
I stepped the difficulty up a bit faster with the iDAC test compared to the Nano and jumped straight to the FA-011 LEs. The volume required jumped up to around 11-12 o’clock on the dial, but there’s still plenty of headroom there and the sound is great. Details are crisp and clean and the bass is punchy and full as it should be from the Fischers. The pairing is actually very enjoyable despite sounding slightly closed-in in terms of the stage size – I think the excellent resolution of details helps to prevent it from ever feeling congested.
Connecting the HD800s with low expectations, I was surprised to find that I didn’t need the same kind of jump in volume that the Nano needed with the Sennheisers. Instead, the volume remained a little under 12 o’clock and the combo sounded surprisingly good – clean and detailed with good overall balance. There was the occasional hint of edginess to the treble, but the key word there is “hint” – it was nothing that would get in the way of enjoying the iDAC as a portable solution with HD800s – consider me impressed.
Now, I’m not for a second suggesting that the iDAC would ever replace a top-notch DAC and amp to really hear the HD800s at their best, but if you wanted to take your HD800s somewhere with just a small device and a laptop, the iDAC does an admirable job – I’m shocked to be writing that, but it’s true.
Such a stellar performance with the HD800s had me reaching for the LCD-2s… would the iDAC perform well? Surely not…
Well I’m now doubly amazed. Once again, I’m not suggesting you throw away your amps or desktop DAC, but the iDAC is completely passable with the LCD-2s. I’d say the HD800 combo might be better in terms of coming closer to the peak performance of the headphone, but the LCD-2 with the iDAC is still quite enjoyable with plenty of headroom remaining on the volume knob.
As a pure DAC, the iDAC is clean, detailed and quite neutral. Paired up with the Bottlehead Mainline and HD800s, the iDAC presents plenty of detail and clarity at the occasional cost of a slight edge to the treble. Keep in mind here that the HD800s can be prone to some slight treble emphasis so this could just be a case of the iDAC’s neutrality letting the HD800s be themselves without taming the treble at all. Certainly, the sound is still very enjoyable and the treble is never even close to cringe-inducing, but coming from my normal setup that’s slightly tilted towards musicality there is a noticeable hint of edge to the sound from the iDAC.
Despite being a fan of musical sources, I do like the slight hint of dryness presented by the iDAC when it comes to the timbre it creates for vocals and drum skins. Actually, I think that’s understating it – I love the timbre of the iDAC. It’s able to create a real sense of texture and tangibility to the upper mids and treble where it really matters and that makes it really addictive for a good vocal or drum recording.
The other thing I notice with the iDAC is that it presents a relatively 2-dimensional soundstage where instruments and sounds are well-placed, but without a lot of depth and space. Everything tends to be at the sides or the front without much action occurring at the diagonals. The vocals are also quite close to the listener, falling right between the eyes rather than pushing out slightly in front. I’d describe it as being like sitting or standing right at the edge of the stage for the performance rather than sitting a few rows back. It makes the music immediate and intimate, but a touch less ambient and grand.
iDAC vs Nano iDSD
Switching from the iDAC to the Nano iDSD, I immediately noticed a sense of space with the Nano that was missing (for my tastes) from the iDAC. That sense of space does come at the cost of a tiny bit of perceived detail / resolution. All of the information might still be presented by the Nano, but the signature of the iDAC makes it seem slightly more detailed.
It’s actually really hard to say which of these two I would choose as just a DAC. The iDAC seems like it might be technically superior in terms of neutrality and detail retrieval, but the Nano offers a degree of ambience and space that the iDAC can’t match. I think in the end I would choose the Nano iDSD, but only because it is a quieter circuit overall (which is only relevant if using sensitive IEMs). On a headphone-only rig I honestly wouldn’t know which to choose because different tracks suit different DACs.
Summary & Overall Comparison
All-in-all, the iFi Micro iDAC is a really solid portable DAC (and amp) with the only real drawback being it’s susceptibility to USB noise. Depending on your setup and tastes, the iDAC could fit the bill perfectly, particularly if you want to use it to directly drive larger headphones. I love its simplicity and neutrality. The only caveat I would add is that if you crave spacious and expansive soundstages, the iDAC probably isn’t for you.
Nano iDSD or Micro iDAC?
So, which would I buy? That’s actually simpler than I thought.
Personally (and I can’t stress enough that this is a matter of personal taste), I would buy the Nano iDSD. Here are my reasons:
- It’s smaller (literally half the size)
- It’s better at isolating USB noise (important to me as an IEM user)
- I don’t need the extra power of the iDAC
- I am happy to sacrifice that extra sense of detail in return for the Nano iDSD’s sense of spaciousness
- It’s more versatile due to the SPDIF output
Of course, the Nano iDSD is also cheaper, but I didn’t count that in the equation.
Am I still happy owning the iDAC? Absolutely! It’s a great product and worthy of its price tag. To beat its performance you’ll be looking at spending at least $200 more in my experience and you’ll be getting a non-portable solution so for a portable DAC at the price it’s hard to go past unless it’s baby cousin, the Nano iDSD, fits the bill for your needs.
Final note: don’t forget that there’s one more piece to this iFi DAC puzzle with the iFi Micro iDSD review coming soon. There’s been a short delay getting the Micro iDSD review done though so be sure to subscribe (see the top right of this page) if you’d like to be notified when the Micro iDSD review is ready to read.