MQA and Native DSD playback set this mini powerhouse apart.
Looking for a powerful, great sounding, DAC/headphone amp combo that handles MQA rendering and native DSD playback? Want it to be smaller than a pack of cigarettes? Want to pay less than $200? Then the Nano iDSD Black Label by iFi is not only the only game in town, but it’s also a very entertaining game to check out, equivalent to a Yankees-Red Sox game if you’re a fan of New York baseball.
As far as build quality goes, this thing is solid. It’s almost all metal and built like a tank. Yet it’s so light. I have no doubt this thing will last a lifetime as long as you don’t toss the thing around the house. The switches and volume knob are high-quality and when adjusting the volume, the turning of the knob is smooth as butter with no noise.
Speaking of switches and knobs, one end of the Nano iDSD has a volume knob on the right side, with a multicolor LED for signal identification to the left of it. To the left of the LED, on the far left side of the unit, is two 3.5 mm jacks. One jack is for the “Direct” output, and the other for iFi’s “iE Match” output with provides a lower impedance for less noise from more sensitive earphones and headphones.
On the other end of the unit, you have a female USB-A connector which functions as a digital output to a PC or Mobile Device, to the left of that is a two position switch for digital filters, and to the left of that is the 3.5mm analog out which allows for connection of the DAC section to a amplifier/speakers.
The packaging is just as solid as the unit, with the DAC/Amp ensconced in a very sturdy white box with the iFi logo embossed on the top, then placed into a slipcover with the marketing info and pics of the product from different angles.
Inside the box, you get a felt bag to store the unit in, some velcro straps to facilitate stacking during portable use, along with a couple of USB-B adaptors, and a thick USB-A cable to connect the unit to a PC for playback and charging. The only cables it doesn’t come with is the cables needed for portable use, such as a USB OTG cable for Android smartphone connections, which is cheap enough to pick up on your own.
This portable USB Dac/Headphone Amp combo possesses a cornucopia of features, to the point that you wonder how they fit so many in such a small package. We’re talking native playback of all music formats from MP3 to DSD256, PCM384, DXD384, and MQA to boot. I for one love MQA tracks, because when you connect to Tidal on your computer, it opens up a literal buffet of Hi-Res goodness. There is no other way at this point (Qobuz is on the way) to get so much well-recorded music for so little money.
There is a Burr-Brown True Native® chipset to decode the various digital formats, and it delivers a very smooth open presentation. The iFi exclusive S-Balanced topology aims to deliver the maximum performance from single-ended and balanced headphones alike. As mentioned before, the analogue volume control with Its smooth action and smooth sound operates with precision.
There are also two digital filter options for those who like to tweak their sound, one being the ‘Listen’ (Minimum Phase Bezier Filter) and the other the ‘Measure’ (Linear Phase Transient Aligned Filter). While some may not even hear the difference between the two, this is a feature that only used to be present on very expensive dacs, and some audiophiles will love to have this option included at such a low price point.
The Nano BL has up to ten hours of battery life for on-the-go listening, and the USB Type A digital input incorporates jitter reduction technology to clean up the sound coming from your computer, alleviating the hiss and buzz that can be introduced by using a PC as a source. This is cool because manufacturers usually try to sell you an additional device to reduce jitter prior to the signal reaching your DAC. You can use an Apple CCK cable or Android OTG cable to connect the DAC to your mobile iOS or Android devices.
But all the features in the world don’t mean anything if there is no benefit, and in this case, there is one BIG benefit, great sound. I don’t know if it’s the Burr-Brown DAC, or just the way it was implemented, but there is nice smoothness to the sound that is easy to listen to. It doesn’t have the edginess (some may call it detail) exhibited by the ESS SABRE dacs I am used to listening to. It also has a nice depth to the sound, which while listening to 24/96 FLAC files of Norah Jones’ “Live at Ronnie Scott’s” thru the Audioquest Nighthawks gave me the impression of individual instruments hanging in space. The performance was very realistic and nuanced, something not usually heard in DACs of this price range.
I also dialled up the Tidal Masters (MQA) stream of Ambrose Akinmusire’s “Origami Harvest” on my HP Envy Laptop, and the Nano BL was readily recognized as an MQA renderer by the Tidal software, of course after installing the iFi driver, which was a very simple proposition once downloaded from the iFi website.
The staccato delivery of the poet on this jazz recording was very dynamic and immediate playing via the Nano BL, it really opened up the Nighthawk and enlivened what some may describe as one of the slower headphones out there.
In conclusion, this DAC represents a great value, a product that is small and light enough to take on the road with you, yet robust enough to occupy a prized position in a modest desktop setup. Rarely do you find a product with such a mix of versatility, build quality, ease of use, and well thought out features. In the end, this all adds up to one of the best values in budget audio.