The NEO iDSD is iFi’s latest DAC/Amp Combo, and as usual, they have come up with a well-built, well-designed piece of gear. It combines a fully-balanced headphone amp section with a USB and S/PDIF DAC that handles all the hi-res formats (PCM768, DSD512, Full MQA Unfold). BTW, it also acts as a high-quality Bluetooth receiver, covering just about every codec available. Think CD-Quality streaming.
While it’s a little lacking in raw power (its best with sensitive headphones), it makes up for that by providing a super clean, low distortion sound and smooth operation. The DAC section also has excellent resolution, separating elements of the mix with precision. If you’re looking for a Headphone Amp/DAC combo that is capable of breathtaking high-end sound, this component should be on your list.
Disclaimer: The NEO iDSD was sent to us as a review sample in exchange for an honest review.
As of late, iFi has trended towards sleek, flashy designs, and the NEO iDSD continues that trend with glistening silver and chrome everywhere. Even the LED screen has a mirror finish. That said, I love the all-metal design as it manages to look more premium than gaudy.
Laying down flat, it has a footprint and height similar to a lengthy novel. If that’s more room than your desktop can spare, then you can stand it up vertically, similar to a book on a bookshelf. In that orientation, securely positioned in its included aluminum stand, you gain a great deal of space, something sorely needed in my work area.
When switching from horizontal to vertical, the NEO iDSD performs a great trick, re-orientating the front LED display for easier viewing.
That same LED display reads out the volume level, audio format (PCM, MQA, or DSD), sampling rate, and the input mode via icons. The type on the screen is small but well laid out, so it’s easy to read.
Next to the display is an illuminated multi-function knob, which primarily controls volume, but it can also be used to mute volume with a press. It also allows you to toggle between variable or fixed volume or adjust screen brightness. iFi has used similar schemes on previous devices, and the smooth operation of the NEO iDSD’s knob shows they have mastered such division of duties.
Since the analog volume knob performs multi-functions, it is not a potentiometer (which is a good thing). Instead, it connects to a resistor ladder embedded inside of a microprocessor that attenuates the volume. The attenuation is controlled digitally.
I found this setup superior to a volume pot since it was quieter, and there was no channel imbalance that I could make out. I was impressed at how transparent the sound was, even at the lowest levels.
By the way, the NEO iDSD comes with a handy little card remote that controls some of the same functions, namely volume, input selection, brightness, and muting.
Next to the volume knob are two metal buttons, one for Bluetooth/pairing input switching and the other for power. A firm press elicits a click when you push them in. Next to the buttons are the two headphone jacks, one ¼” single-ended and a 4.4 mm Pentaconn balanced, which gives entre to the amp section’s full muscle.
You have two analog outputs in the rear, both RCA single-ended and XLR Balanced, which allows you to connect the DAC section to various devices, including serious amps and pre-amps, which tend to use XLR connections.
As far as digital inputs are concerned, you get the standard lineup: a single optical (Toslink) connection, an RCA coax, plus a high-speed USB 3.0 connection for plugging in a laptop. A nice USB 3.0 cable is included in the box, which is par for the course for iFi.
Also included in the box is one of iFi’s low-noise iPower power supplies, which is one of the nicest wall-warts you can get with a device like this ($50 bucks sold separately). Of course, iFi recommends you upgrade to their even quieter iPower X power supply ($99), but I think the one in the box is plenty good. That being said, it’s an option if you like to tinker.
One thing I noticed missing from the NEO iDSD was the DSP modes that are usually included in iFi DAC/Amps. Usually, you see some bass boost button or space enhancer like the “3D” feature on the recently released ZEN Can headphone amp, but there’s no such option on this device.
This looks to be a deliberate design choice, something iFi calls “Purist Design.” The idea is they use high-grade components in their amp and DAC circuitry and then put nothing in the path that may color the sound.
Listening to the iFi NEO iDSD
I spent most of my listening time with the NEO iDSD on the desktop with headphones, but keep in mind there are many use cases for this component. If you only have digital sources, you can use it as a DAC/digital preamp to switch between inputs and feed a power amp. You can also set the unit to a fixed volume and use it as a pure DAC.
I tried it out first as a standalone DAC, connecting it to the Audiolab 6000A Play integrated via the RCA line input. Listening to TIDAL from my laptop using the NEO iDSD’s USB input, it did an admirable job of producing a reasonably transparent presentation through the modest hi-fi setup.
iFi’s Burr-Brown based DAC produced the warm, natural sound I’m accustomed to hearing from their components, but this time there was some extra clarity and layering you don’t hear in their lower-cost offerings.
After listening to the USB connection, I moved over to the Bluetooth input and paired my LG V60. The NEO iDSD immediately went into pairing mode after selecting Bluetooth and announced “paring” over the speakers. Once the phone was connected, the DAC announced: “aptX adaptive,” letting me know what codec it was using.
AptX Adaptive is Qualcomm’s latest Bluetooth codec, and the name pretty much says it all. This new codec is built to adapt or adjust its performance (bit-rate) based on the demands of the material playing on your device, whether it be video, music, or games. I like it because you don’t have to fuss with any settings to get the best sound, which is how it should be.
AptX Adaptive is low latency, so voices are synced with video, and it’s also capable of high-quality audio streaming similar to aptX HD. The NEO iDSD DAC is one of a few devices to have it now, and I really like how it sounds. It sounds almost identical to the USB connection, albeit a little bit softer and laid back.
It’s probably the best Bluetooth implementation I have ever heard. The LDAC high-quality connection was similarly as good from a sound quality perspective but slightly less stable. I did experience a few drops in the signal. But at the end of the day, I didn’t find myself missing the wired connection at all.
After testing the NEO iDSD as a hi-fi DAC, I moved it back over to my desk and switched back to the USB input, playing hi-res files from my laptop. While I liked it connected to the hi-fi system, I felt it shined even more on the desktop in an intimate context. I tried several different headphones, and with all of them, I found the sound to be extraordinarily balanced and transparent. However, I found the somewhat limited output power, especially from the single-ended connection, made the internal amp section better suited for higher-sensitivity dynamic headphones.
I found the sound from low-sensitivity planar headphones like the Dan Clark Audio AEON Flow Closed to be a little compressed. I had to turn up the volume fairly high (about ¾ of the range with SE jack) to get a satisfactory listening level. The balanced connection provided a little more gusto for planar cans, but it wasn’t optimum; I still felt dynamics were a little restrained.
On the other hand, with headphones with sensitivity ratings of a 100db/mW or higher, the NEO iDSD absolutely sings.
The Focal Elear and Beyerdynamic T5 (3rd Gen) were two of my favorites, with the Focal getting the slight edge overall. The natural, laid back sound of the iFi worked really well with the forward-leaning Elear, which also excelled at presenting the remarkable depth and transparency of the NEO iDSD.
Listening to “Baker Street” from the Chesky Records album, “The World’s Greatest Audiophile Recordings,” I was astonished by the earnestness of Livingston Taylor’s vocal, along with the realness of the guitar and the harmonica. It truly sounded like he was singing in my room. If you like vocals, the NEO iDSD reproduces them at an all-star level.
The background was very quiet, and instruments just popped out of the mix. Mids clarity was off the charts, highs were sweet, and the bass was tight, filling in the music just right for me. Some may say it’s a little light.
Overall, I was super impressed at how musical this device was. The only thing I wished for was a tad bit more space between elements in the mix and a touch more width in the presentation. That said, I’m probably nitpicking there, as the presentation is superb for the price and has the ability to make you forget you’re listening to headphones.
Compared to the Topping A90/D90
While the Topping A90/D90 Amp/Dac stack bested the NEO iDSD in layering, resolution, and depth, the iFi amp/DAC combo came pretty close in those categories. That’s exceptional for an all in one device (compared to separates) that costs $500 less.
The A90/D90 has the edge in power to drive headphones, but if you’re dealing with high-sensitivity models like the ones I mentioned earlier, that edge is nullified. If the price weren’t a factor, I would probably go with the Topping stack mainly because it lets you “see into” a recording a little better. But if your budget is under a grand, the NEO iDSD is hard to beat for its high level of refinement.
Ladies and gents, iFi has done it again. How they managed to combine a class-leading Bluetooth receiver, top-notch DAC, and super-clean headphone amp in such a sleek well-designed package for only 700 bucks is beyond me. To me, the clarity and tonality is spot on, and if you listen to a lot of acoustic or vocal-based music, this thing will knock your socks off. If you’re looking for a premium desktop amp/DAC combo for less than a grand, then you need to check out the NEO iDSD. The only thing to look out for is its lack of horsepower for harder to drive headphones.
Where to Buy
iFi NEO iDSD Desktop DAC/Headphone Amplifier
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I’m an audio writer who started as a young audio salesman/consumer electronics professional back in the late 90s. That’s where I discovered the magic of 2-Channel sound. My thirst for great sound has led me on a delightful music quest that continues today.