IFi’s Latest Portable Dac/Amp Combo Has Unrivaled Power And Refinement At Its Price!
It’s no secret that I have a bit of a soft spot for iFi products. Their combination of innovative design, thoughtful features, and build quality is unmatched at their price points. They always seem to give you more for your money.
The previously reviewed iFi Hip Dac was a beautiful sounding DAC with tons of nice features for $149. The iFi NEO iDSD Desktop Dac/Amp ($799), which we also reviewed, was equally good with its beautiful design and reference sound quality.
iFi’s latest product, the $899 iDSD Diablo, is their new flagship portable/transportable DAC/Amp with a bright red curvy exterior reminiscent of a flashy sports car.
The sports car parallels don’t end there, with iFi describing the Diablo as “a racing car designed for uncompromising speed,” stripped of all extras and tuned to provide “pure sonic power.”
The idea is that just like a supercar stripped of inessential stuff (like an air conditioning unit) to go as fast as possible, Diablo only has what it needs to provide pristine D to A conversion and tons of clean power to power-hungry flagship headphones.
That means no niceties like XBass boost or 3D signal processing, something iFi fans have come to expect on their Dac/Amp combos. This is a direction iFi has taken on several of its higher-end products, like the Pro iDSD and the Neo iDSD. Pure signal and the best sound possible is the goal.
If that’s not enough sports car parallels, there’s also a super-powerful high-gain mode called “Turbo.”
The Diablo is for those looking to take battery-powered reference sound on the go. It’s primarily for the guy or gal who’s looking to get the best sound possible out of their power-hungry flagship cans without dragging an expensive (and heavy) desktop rig around.
The sound is actually good enough that it could replace a lot of desktop setups. That’s while still being small enough to take from room to room.
Full MQA decoding is also on board, meaning you will get fully optimized hi-res sound from Tidal Masters.
iFi’s exquisite new iTraveller bag, which can carry the amp, a DAP, and many accessories, is also thrown in for free. That enormously sweetens the pot.
Disclaimer: The iDSD Diablo was sent to us in exchange for a thorough and honest review. No input was given regarding the content written.
As stated earlier, the iDSD Diablo has a nice curved metal case with a beautiful “candy apple red” paint job, and it looks rather sleek at 6.5 inches long by 1 inch high. It’s slightly smaller than iFi’s recently released micro iDSD Signature; a transportable Dac/Amp combo positioned right below the Diablo.
It has small rubber feet on the bottom so you can set it on a surface without slipping, a nice touch that also helps protects the finish.
There’s a combination analog/power knob on the front panel that has a nice feel to it, along with two headphone jacks, one ¼” single-ended, and one 4.4mm balanced. There’s also a three-position gain switch marked Turbo, Normal, or Eco, with Turbo, of course, representing the highest gain, Normal the middle level, and Eco the lowest setting.
There’s also an led that indicates audio format and frequency, with seven different colors representing the range of files it supports:
Yellow: PCM 48/44.1kHz
White: PCM 768/705.6/384/352.8/192/176.4/
Cyan: DSD 128/64
Red: DSD 512/256
Blue: MQA Studio
Magenta: Original Sample Rate (MQA)
Of course, a screen with the actual format and number on it would be more helpful, but I’m willing to sacrifice that in exchange for a slimmer unit. As you can see, the Diablo supports any format you choose.
On the rear, you have a Male USB3.0 Type-A input for audio data and a separate USB-C port for charging the internal battery. The Male Type-A port is nice since it will directly support some Apple Camera Adapter cables and USB OTG cables.
The USB-C port supports fast charging (about 6 hours to a full battery) using the included iFi iPower adapter. Below the port is a Battery Status LED that goes from White (full) to Green (around ½ full) to Red (Empty).
While you can leave the Diablo plugged in and run it off of wall power, it switches to battery power once it’s unplugged. Approximate listening time depends on the gain and headphones used. In Eco mode, expect up to 10 hours, Normal up to 8 hours, and Turbo around 4-5 hours.
Next to the USB charging port is a balanced 4.4mm output, which sends a signal directly from the true balanced circuitry to an amp with a balanced input. The Diablo comes with a 4.4mm to Twin XLR cable in the box, a nice touch.
A single-ended line out would’ve been nice, but according to iFi, this would’ve necessitated unnecessary circuitry in a straight signal path and used up too much real estate on the rear panel. These are decisions I can live with if it means a better signal into my headphones.
Speaking of real estate on the rear panel, the Diablo also has a combination Coax/Optical 3.5mm SPDIF input next to the balanced output, which allows you to hook up CD players or Digital Audio Players. You can even send MQA from MQA-CDs into this connection if that’s your cup of tea.
However, with iFi DACs, what’s inside the case is often the real story, and that’s no different here. In the Diablo, you get a dual-core Burr-Brown DAC chipset, upgraded Zero Jitter/Femto clock system, ultra-low noise Op-Amps, OS-CON polymer capacitors, and Panasonic audio-grade film capacitors. There’s also the powerful Xmos chip which allows advanced processing for things like MQA decoding.
Again, this is all in a fully-balanced configuration instead of the quasi-balanced scheme used in some of their other products.
When it comes to accessories, you get a bunch with the iDSD Diablo, including an iFi iPower adapter made specifically for this DAC, a power adapter cable so you can plug it into the USB-C port, A USB-C to USB-A cable, a USB-C 3.0 data cable, a ¼” to 3.5mm headphone adapter, and a Toslink to mini-Toslink adapter for the digital input.
That’s quite the haul, but the best part of the accessory pack has to be the iTraveller case. Not only does it look good, but it will also carry everything that comes with this DAC and then some.
While that’s an option, the case actually made to carry the DAC along with a source (a smartphone or DAP) and a pair of IEMs for on-the-go listening. It also has holes on the side to feed in a pair of full-size headphones and play some music while carrying the bag around.
That would be a heavy load, but you could do it. In any case, this bag is a godsend for the road warrior. It’s also sold separately if you’re interested.
Listening to the iDSD Diablo DAC/Amp Combo
For my listening tests, I connected the iDSD Diablo to my Android test phone, a Moto G Fast (2020) with the UAPP app installed, and an HP Envy X360 laptop with the Tidal app installed.
I played MQA from both sources into my Mr. Speakers (Now Dan Clark Audio) Aeon Flow Closed Planar Headphones, and I could tell right away this DAC/Amp was something special.
First of all, the amp section’s power was massive, even in the low gain “Eco” setting using the single-ended connection. On most battery-powered amps, I have to set the amp to high-gain right away even to attempt to drive these headphones, but that was not a problem with the Diablo.
A little more than a quarter-turn up to a half turn on the volume knob drove the AFC headphones to their full potential, with full robust bass and dynamics. That’s quite remarkable, considering a quarter turn is needed just to turn the unit on. On the single-ended output, you’re getting 2417 mW at 32 Ohms, which is crazy for such a compact device. That’s on par with Class-A desktop headamps.
iDSD Diablo Headphone Max Output:
>19.2V/611 mW (@ 600 Ohm)
>12.6V/4,980 mW (@ 32 Ohm)
>9.6V/153 mW (@ 600 Ohm)
>8.8V/2,417 mW (@ 32 Ohm)
That does cause a dilemma with sensitive IEMs and Headphones, as it will be difficult to get them to a volume level low enough to listen comfortably. I tried a pair of Kinera Freya IEMs (110 dB sensitivity), and it was too loud even on the lowest gain setting.
That said, I was astonished at how clean the power was, as the background sounded extraordinarily black for a portable unit. This made it very easy to hear the character of the recording space when present in the recording.
For example, on Duke Ellington’s “Afro-Bossa,” I was amazed at how clearly I could hear the room’s reverberations in the recording.
This track also let me hear how well the DAC section did texture and layering, as it provided nice texture on the horns and percussion.
It also did a good job at separating the elements, presenting the percussion instrument dead in the center of my head stage to the rear, then surrounding it with horns to the front left and right. I loved how the iDSD Diablo could blend the various melodies while keeping the instruments in their own little bubbles.
The way it presented trailing notes throughout the time domain was nice as well; it added some realism to this dynamic recording.
On Kurt Elling’s “September In The Rain,” I got more room ambiance, with Kurt’s voice sounding very nuanced, just like l remember when I went to see him at the Chicago Jazz Festival. If I had any nitpick about the DAC section, it would be a lack of very sharp edge definition in the imaging, but that may be asking too much at this price point.
Overall, the iDSD Diablo trends towards a cooler, more neutral, reference-type sound than iFi’s lower-priced offerings, which tend to be warmer and lusher. That makes sense for an amp that’s clearly meant for headphones at the top of the food chain.
It’s an approach similar to the one taken with their recently released desktop amp, the $699 NEO iDSD, which actually sounds a lot like the iDSD Diablo. The NEO has similar crispness up top, similar separation, and a similar fine texture is given to instruments and vocals.
The difference is the iDSD Diablo is the more powerful amp even though the NEO iDSD is a Desktop model. The Diablo gave the Aeon Flow Closed a more dynamic sound with greater gravitas on the bottom end.
However, with the Diablo, I heard a little edginess up top on certain songs, something I didn’t hear on the NEO iDSD.
I also compared the Diablo to my Topping A90/D90 Desktop Amp and Dac ($1350 as a set), which was better sounding overall. It was a little cleaner than the Diablo with an even blacker background, which allowed the mix elements to stand out even more than they did on the iFi combo.
The A90/D90 also had the added depth, layering, and edge definition I was missing from the Diablo, but that said, the Diablo sounded a little more open than the Topping set, making the presentation sound larger in my headphones, just a little less “in my head.”
The A90/D90 was better, but the iDSD Diablo gave me about 80% of the definition and all of the power in a much smaller package that I can take anywhere.
I know that many will be interested in how the Diablo compares to the $649 iFi Micro iDSD Signature, which has a similar form-factor and a few more convenience features like bass boost and 3D signal processing. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to hear it yet. I’ve read a lot of impressions from headphone enthusiasts who have used it, and from what I understand it has the warmer more lush sound present in iFi’s other Zen, Nano, and Micro products while being more powerful and more refined. That’s opposed to the flatter reference sound of the iDSD Diablo.
As far as headphone matches are concerned, I, of course, liked the Aeon Flow Closed with the iDSD Diablo, but the Focal Elear and Hifiman Sundara may have been even better matched soundwise. I really like how it added some depth and openness to the Sundara, so I can see it really doing well with some higher-end Hifiman Planars.
The Wrap Up
If you need a top-notch portable DAC/Amp combo that can drive your power-hungry flagship cans while on the go, the Diablo may be just what you need.
I can see someone who wants to have a nice rig on the desk at work or someone who likes to move their rig around the house really digging this device.
Just keep in mind that the iDSD Diablo may not be a good match with very sensitive IEMs or headphones. If that works for you, then this stellar DAC/Amp combo with its beautiful design and premium accessory package is definitely worth a listen!
Where To Buy
Fi Micro iDSD Diablo Portable 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.