In recent times in the personal audio world there have been a range of products creating a stir with outstanding sound coming from small and portable packages. One of the brands creating a stir has been iFi – particularly with its iDSD range. Despite the Nano version of the iDSD being the smallest and cheapest in the range it has the goods to stand toe-to-toe with much larger and more costly units.
Welcome to the iFi Experience
This article marks the beginning of a multi-post series dedicated to iFi’s products. A few months ago I traded for the iFi iCAN and iDAC from a fellow Head-Fier and was immediately impressed with what I saw and heard. After reaching out to iFi, I was extremely grateful to also be offered a chance to try the iFi Nano iDSD and Micro iDSD.
So, with massive thanks to the Australian distributor of iFi, MaxMedia, I’d like to invite you to not only read this article, but also to subscribe or check back so you can also read my reviews and comparisons of the:
- iFi iDAC
- iFi Micro iDSD
- iFi iCAN
Without giving the game away, I can assure you of an interesting read given the performance and pricing of these DACs (and amps). But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves – this article is 100% focussed on the Nano iDSD with inter-iFi comparisons coming in the later in the series.
Overview of the Nano
The Nano is the smallest of iFi’s DAC offerings and despite being a blocky design (it’s a half-chassis equivalent of all of iFi’s other “i” range products) it is surprisingly light (162g) and compact. Sure, it won’t compare to an Audioquest Dragonfly in terms of portability, but in return for bag-style portability instead of pocketability you get an insane level of features and power in what is still a very modestly sized package. At a price in Australia of $299, the Nano isn’t the cheapest portable DAC on offer, but it matches its price with the value it offers.
- Battery powered DAC / amp
- 10 hour battery life
- Burr Brown Bit-Perfect DAC chip for 100% native decoding of PCM and DSD / DXD
- Sample rates: 44.1kHz to 384kHz PCM (mp3, FLAC, AAC, etc.), DSD and DXD
- Digital filters: 2 options (function depends on PCM, DSD or DXD)
- Outputs: 3.5mm headphone out, variable line-out via RCA, SPDIF RCA (up to 192kHz)
- Amp power: >130mW (into 16 ohms)
- Output impedance: <1 ohm
- Line-out voltage: 1.65V
Sorry about all those specs! I kept trying to leave something out for the sake of simplicity, but all of those specs are important and are actually a great indicator of how packed with features and quality the Nano really is.
Some Quick Context
Before I go any further I’d like to tell you that I came into this review expecting to be slightly underwhelmed. I had been using the iFi iDAC for a few weeks when I was lent the Nano and I had read plenty of reviews saying that the Micro iDSD was a clear upgrade over the Nano so I expected a solid, budget performer, but nothing special. I hate to start a review from a skewed stance like that, but I couldn’t help it this time so continue reading with the knowledge of where I started from…
Design and Functionality
As I mentioned already, the Nano cleverly makes use of a half-chassis version of the other “i” products so it’s instantly recognisable as an iFi product and it is a good, practical design – nothing special aesthetically, but also quite fine.
On one end of the blocky little Nano is a volume control (and power switch at zero volume), a pair of RCA sockets and a 3.5mm jack for headphones. Everything is metal (including the volume knob) and the casing is finished in a texture that hides minor wear and tear and shows no finger prints.
On the other end of the Nano is a B-type USB socket (the same as you find on a printer or desktop DAC) rather than the more common micro USB sockets found on many portables. This is an interesting choice because it forces a larger chassis than a micro USB socket, but I’m not complaining because it allows for the use of high quality USB cables and is just a sturdier connection all-round.
Next to the USB socket is an RCA coaxial output for SPDIF connections and a 2-position filter switch. If you hesitated when you read “RCA coaxial output” you’re not alone – so did I. What this means is that the Nano can’t accept a coaxial input, but it can act as a USB to SPDIF converter to interface your computer with a non-USB DAC (such as a home theatre receiver). That’s a huge plus in my book and gives the Nano plenty of versatility.
There is a single LED light on top of the Nano iDSD which changes to indicate charging (blue) or playback (a range of colours depending on the format playing).
On the bottom of the Nano is a slab of printing that basically acts as your quick reference guide any time you need it – it’s a really nice touch and looks kind of cool too, I think.
With a PC, the iFi products aren’t quite plug-and-play, but they’re very easy to install. There is a single driver installation file that you can download from iFi’s website and it works for the Nano and Micro iDSD as well as the iDAC. It’s a seemless installation process and I found that if I switched products and my computer failed to recognise the new device I could simply run the same install program again and it would fix the issue for me in about 30 seconds. Bravo to iFi for making the installation process so painless and simple!
Once connected, the Nano performs like any other DAC. You can select it as your primary sound output device and select “exclusive mode” if desired, or you can do what I do and leave regular OS sounds going to the speakers and use your audio software to take control of the Nano via either ASIO or WASAPI for perfect audio with no OS interference.
If your system is calibrated correctly, the Nano will seamlessly accept outputs from traditional PCM files and will accept native (un-converted) DSD and DXD streams from software like Jriver Media Center. The light on the Nano will change colours to tell you what it’s playing back with a range of colours used so you know if the output to the DAC matches the file type you’re playing. From experience, if the Nano lights up wrong you know you’re computer settings aren’t giving you optimal audio and are converting your music somewhere before it reaches the DAC.
All of the sound quality tests are completed with the stock USB cable supplied with the Nano so as to provide a fair and reasonable baseline. Of course, you can always use an upgraded cable if you wish, but I’ll leave that discussion for another day.
To test the DAC stage in the Nano I connected it to my Bottlehead Mainline amp and Sennheiser HD800s – a great test of the DAC’s propensity for musicality versus sterile accuracy. My tastes for a great DAC are one that produces a detailed and nuanced sound with plenty of texture, a spacious presentation and an overall sense of musicality. To date, my reference for this combination of attributes is the Matrix X-Sabre so they’re the shoes that all DACs need to live in to. But let’s be fair – the X-Sabre is a $1200+ DAC while the Nano is a $299 DAC so while my tastes don’t change, my expectations have to adjust slightly.
Well the good news is that the Nano ticks all of my boxes for a great DAC. It is musical, but without losing detail. It is smooth, but not too warm and the overall sound has a nice sense of spaciousness for the price and size of the Nano. It’s not going to replace an X-Sabre, but it’s sure to outperform plenty of other DACs on the market with no troubles at all. For a portable DAC to produce this quality of sound isn’t unheard of, but it certainly is special.
The elements that show the Nano’s limitations (not flaws – that would be overstating it) are a slight sense of edge in the treble and a limited sense of space compared to top-end units. On a scale of 1-10 where 10 is the score for a perfect DAC, the Nano would drop to about a 7 for the treble performance and about the same for its sense of space. That’s exceptional for a DAC that is smaller than my computer mouse and cheaper than a pair of good mid-level headphones.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if (and it’s a big if) I had to live with just the Nano as my DAC, I’d be OK with it. Sure – I won’t get the very best sound from my HD800s and Mainline, but it’s still extremely enjoyable.
DAC and Amp
One of the great things about the Nano is that it’s a multi-purpose device that can act as a variable output DAC and/or a DAC and headphone amp in one package. To get a good sense of the amp that’s hooked up with the Nano’s DAC stage I tried a few different ‘phones and I’ll explain them separately in a moment. Before I do the individual comments though I wanted to discuss the overall signature of the Nano’s built-in amp.
Based on what I heard of the DAC via the line-outs, the headphone stage is the tiniest bit warm and slightly smooth which is a great thing because it successfully tames the tiny bit of edge I noticed in the treble from the DAC. Given that the DAC was already very good, an overly warm amp stage could have sunk the Nano’s performance, but iFi nailed the balance here and the end results are smooth, musical, detailed and enjoyable. In short, the Nano is an amazing auditory package as a stand-alone device.
I used the Noble K10s first up and the amp did a fine job of squeezing out excellent performance from the K10s. Given how well the K10s scale, I’d say the Nano didn’t quite reach their peak, but it took them a long way towards it.
In terms of power, the Nano has buckets more than you need for hyper-sensitive IEMs so maximum volume is realistically at around 9-10 on the clock-face with zero volume at 8 o’clock so there’s not much play and channel imbalances are an issue if you want really low volumes, but I find the channels both come good consistently at about the perfect relaxed listening volume so it’s really not a problem.
Next on the test rig were the Alessandro MS-1is and the Nano drove them equally as well although this time the volume control was between 10-11. The sound was once again excellent – highly enjoyable and engaging.
The outstanding Thinksound On1s were up next and ran well at similar volume levels to the Alessandros. Once again, the sound was nothing short of fantastic. Clearly it was time for a tougher challenge…
Enter the Fischer Audio FA-011 LEs and the Nano still doesn’t break a sweat. The Fischers were purring with the volume just a little past 12 on the dial. The sound had authority and power along with all the other traits I’ve already mentioned. I didn’t get any sense that the Nano was running out of puff with the Fischers at all so, just for kicks I connected the HD800s…
At a volume of around 2 o’clock the HD800s reach a really nice volume and they sound fine. The Nano isn’t going to maximise your HD800s (or T1s, or LCDs), but it still presents an enjoyable sound with the HD800s and reaches good volume levels. In fact, I’d say that the Nano probably has the chops to drive the HD800s just fine – it’s just that the HD800s perform at a level beyond the Nano – it’s kind of like driving a Ferrari on a regular road versus getting it onto a race track. Similarly, the LCD-2s sound just fine and provide plenty of volume from the Nano, but are limited to very good performance rather than the spectacular heights that lovers of flagship ‘phones are used to.
I should clarify at this point that none of this is a knock on the Nano. It’s a $300 product providing outstanding performance on all but the toughest-to-drive headphones. In fact, the level of performance it extracts from the flagships is nothing short of commendable. However, where the Nano can really impress is when paired with IEMs and portable or semi-portable cans.
One final point on the Nano’s sound is to discuss it’s filter system. The 2-way filter switch says “standard” or “minimum phase” and iFi recommend “standard” for measurements and “minimum phase” for listening. Of course, my first thought was “I wonder how much difference it will make?”
Well, the answer is that the difference is subtle, but noticeable depending on the source material (i.e. track) and headphones. The different to my ears seems to be a slightly sharper edge to the treble, but it’s still nothing nasty or enough to change the enjoyment levels – it’s just that the “minimum phase” setting is a hair smoother and therefore it’s more pleasing overall to my ears. It never seems smoothed over though – in fact the sound seems more real in “minimum phase” because it’s a less digital sound.
When playing DSD and DXD files, the filter switch uses different categorisations of the sound with DSD becoming Standard or Extended Range analogue filtering and DXD becoming a fixed filter for bit-perfect analogue sound (meaning the switch does nothing as far as I can tell. On DSD, I think there is a subtle change to the sound when throwing the switch, but both options are equally enjoyable and subtle enough that if you said it was doing nothing I would probably believe you.
Overall, the Nano has wowed me. It looks great, it’s tiny for what it is and does, and the fact that it offers native DSD playback, variable line-out USB to SPDIF conversion, and a great in-built amp all make it a hands-down winner in my book. I was expecting to be underwhelmed by the Nano, but I absolutely love it and will be sad to see it go… so much so that I might be $300 poorer after this exercise (but musically richer for owning an iFi Nano iDSD).