So not too long ago, I reviewed the iFi xCAN Bluetooth headphone amp, and today I’m reviewing its sister unit, the iFi xDSD combination Portable Bluetooth DAC and Headphone Amplifier. As I said in that review, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two by just looking at them, but basically, the xCAN is an analog unit, taking the output from a product with a DAC already in it, like a DAP, and providing the juice needed to drive a power-hungry set of cans.
The xDSD is a digital product, it takes the digital output from let’s say a laptop, converts it to a analog signal, then passes that on to the internal headphone amp which plays the music out of the headphone jack/line output.
The xDSD has the same wavy and shiny magnesium exterior as the xCAN, and also like the xCAN it picks up fingerprints like nobody’s business, so if that type of thing bugs you, make sure you keep the microfiber cloth handy. But this is a minor quibble, from a build standpoint, the xDSD is another great effort from iFi. It feels really solid yet light in the hand, and the waves on the outside form a nice gripping surface, which allow you to hold it very securely, regardless of the fact the shiny surface of the product is actually pretty slippery.
It’s not a tiny DAC/AMP like an Audioquest Dragonfly, for example, but it’s small enough for a coat pocket, and light enough to take with you to the coffee shop, which is where I would be most likely to use it. I think it’s a more pocketable (read: less chunky) unit than iFi’s own nano iDSD Black Label. It looks a lot classier too.
As with all of the iFi Products I have owned or reviewed, accessories are abundant. You get a couple of different USB cables, a USB adapter, a Toslink to Mini-Toslink adapter, straps for securing the xDSD to a digital player or another headphone amp, and the standard iFi velvet drawstring storage bag.
After my extended use of the xCAN, operation of the xDSD is almost second nature. It has the same combination volume/power knob in the middle of the front face plate, the combo knob also has the same multicolor led light in the middle which identifies if the unit is in Bluetooth or Digital input mode, it also shows the volume level of the unit by changing color as you turn the volume up or down. Each color corresponds to a different volume range, for example, the light will turn Green from 55 up to 72 percent of the volume range, then Yellow from 73 up to 90 percent.
Like I said with the xCAN, the volume knob performs many different functions, like switching between the Digital input and Bluetooth, or switching between Line Out and Headphone Out. This is done by pressing the knob in for different lengths of time at particular points in time, so getting everything to work does take some getting used to at first. But it becomes second nature after a while.
The xDSD also shares some other hallmark features with its sister unit, like APT-x Bluetooth for CD-Quality wireless sound, along with xBass+ and 3D+ sound enhancements. Like it’s sister unit, the sound from the Bluetooth is very good. It’s almost indistinguishable from the wired output, which is remarkable. The wired sound is slightly better, but you really have to strain to hear the differences. Just like with the xCAN, I would really like to hear how this thing would sound with APT-x HD, the high-resolution Bluetooth codec, but the wireless sound is so good, this is not a dealbreaker.
The xBass+ and 3D+ sound enhancements, like with the xCAN, are tastefully done, and while I don’t usually like these types of filters, the way iFi implements them is pretty good. Most companies go over the top with them, but the xBass+ for example, gives you just a slight amount of bass enhancement, filling in the bottom end nicely on bass light headphones/earphones.
The 3D+ is supposed to increase the soundstage of your headphones, giving you a more out your head type sound, and it does, to a small extent, again iFi uses the less is more approach here, eschewing the usual echoey DSP for an smooth analog-based solution. I can dig it.
As the xDSD is primarily a DAC, there are many things which differ from the xCAN as well, one being the presence of digital inputs, of which there are two. There is the USB Type-A input, which is compatible with PCs or USB OTG for use with mobile devices like smartphones. However, the device doesn’t come with the cable for this, you will have to purchase the correct cable for your phone, tablet, or digital player separately. There is also a 3.5mm SPDIF (coax/optical) input, which is a nice touch and gives the unit a lot more flexibility, especially since a lot more DAPs come with digital outputs nowadays.
The overall Digital architecture is derived from the micro iDSD Black Label, as both of them are based on the Burr-Brown DSD1793 D/A converter chip and share similar digital and analog stages. Also, like the micro iDSD Black Label, the xDSD has DSD512/PCM 768 compatibility with DSD via DoP, native DSD playback, and XMOS-based USB circuitry. It’s also compatible with MQA, excelling at decoding Tidal Masters high-resolution streams.
The Headphone Amp section also has some of iFi’s proprietary enhancements, like their S-Balanced output scheme which aims to provide the benefit of dual-mono balanced output to balanced and unbalanced headphones alike, even though the benefit is more pronounced with the balanced variety.
There is also iFi’s new Cyberdrive circuitry which both provides 3.7V of power to drive all but the most power hungry headphones, along with the capability to keep noise to a minimum with high-sensitivity IEMs. The circuitry alleviates the need for a separate “IE Match” output like on the nano iDSD Black Label. It drove my Aeon Flow Closed planar headphones to a good listening volume at about 75-80% of the volume range, but the xCAN drove them with greater authority at about 60% of the volume range for comparison.
Cyberdrive also manages battery usage, providing the most efficient use of the battery no matter how the device is used. The end result is battery life between 6-8 hours depending on the headphones used. It’s also useful to mention that unlike some other portable DAC/AMPs out there, the xDSD has a separate Micro-USB port for charging, so the USB-A input doesn’t draw power from the source while on the go. You can also charge it while it’s in use, which is convenient.
I consider one hallmark of a good DAC to be an overall smooth, laid back sound, but not so smooth as to obscure a lot of low-level musical detail. They pull you into the music. Some DACs are very forward, almost attacking you with detail, and I find these devices to be very fatiguing over time. The xDSD certainly passes this test, which doesn’t surprise me since it seems to have the same sweet and tonally balanced “iFi house sound” I have enjoyed in the nano iDSD BL, and my ol’ faithful nano iDSD LE. It was a good match with my Focal Elear which as a very forward headphone can be very fatiguing with a source that is too forward.
The xDSD also did a good job of separating instruments within the soundstage, which is another sign of a good DAC. Listening to one of my favorite tracks, “Cantaloupe Island” by Jeff Goldblum and the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, through the Elear, I was wowed by its ability to pull out all the various elements of the song. The band plays fast and furious, and the xDSD is able to present the interplay of guitar, piano, and sax with a nice sense of space and realism.
Once again, iFi has come up with another well-built, flexible, digital audio device which excels at many use cases. You can use it to level up the sound coming from your laptop or smartphone, you can use it as a high-quality stand-alone DAC with a more powerful headphone amp, and you can also do the same with your 2 channel speaker rig.
When you are out and about you can ditch the wires and connect to your laptop or phone with Bluetooth without losing much sound quality. The xBass+ and 3D+ also allow you to tweak your sound to get more out of your headphones. All this in the palm of your hand for $399. Not to mention it sounds good. If you are in the market for a portable DAC, definitely give this a listen, you will have to spend several hundred more to get better sound, and I don’t think you will get all this functionality somewhere else at any price.
|USB Input:||up to PCM768kHz & DSD512 (24.6/22.6MHz)|
|SPDIF Coaxial and Optical Input:||up to 192kHz/24Bit|
|Dynamic Range:||> 113dB (A)|
|Volume Control:||-101dB…0dB in 1dB steps|
|Output power:||> 2.82V/500 mW @ 16 Ohm
> 3.7V/270mW @ 50 Ohm
> 3.8V/48 mW @ 300 Ohm
> 3.8V/24 mW @ 600 Ohm
|Line out Level:||> 2.1V @ 0dBFS (& 0dB Volume)|
|THD &N (1V/16R):||< 0.005%|
|Output Impedance:||< 1 Ohm|
|Dimensions:||95 (l) x67 (w) x19 (h) mm|
|Weight:||127g (0.28 Ibs)|
|Warranty period:||12 months|