We recommend you to read our regular iDSD review for better understanding of BL. Click Here for Our Regular iDSD Review
We have the iFi’s latest sorcery in our hands!
We all know iFi. For those who don’t know, iFi is a renowned audio company. They specialize in all sorts of devices, DACs, Pre-amps, Amps, Signal Purifiers, Signal Enhancers etc… They have this crazy habit of supplying you with everything you’ll ever need while using their products.. On a side note, they are a customer-oriented company. A rare thing nowadays.
Box Contents | Accessories
iDSD comes with a well designed, elegant cardboard packaging. You can find everything about the Black Label on the box. Specs, features, technologies…
Inside the box;
- 1x Blue male USB to female USB cable (1 meter) to connect iDSD to a PC.
- 1x Male 3.5mm to male 3.5mm (15 cm) interconnect cable to use iDSD as an amplifier.
- 1x Purple male RCA to RCA cable. (50 cm)
- 1x Female USB Type B to Female USB Type A converter “cable” to connect iDSD to a PC with a audiophile grade USB Type B cable.
- 1x Female USB Type B to Female USB Type A converter “dongle” to connect iDSD to a PC with a audiophile grade USB Type B cable.
- 1x iFi branded, velvety carrying pouch.
- 2x Silicone bands to attach iDSD to a phone.
- 1x Silicone piece that protects your phone when you attach your phone to iDSD.
- 1x Female 3.5mm to male 6.3mm connector.
Accessories are very rich. iFi thought of everything although we’d appreciate an micro usb OTG cable! Anyway, I must congratulate iFi for thinking and including the accessories like no company ever does. The only difference in the accessories between regular iDSD is the improved USB3.0 cable. It looks more durable now!
Design | Build
The device itself is big but not so heavy. If you are carrying a phone that is bigger than 5.2”, pairing it with iDSD won’t be a problem because they are almost the same size but does not have the same thickness. Its thickness is four times bigger compared to my phone. (LG V20)
Most of the people consider iFi products as transportable, not portable but when you include it in your daily rig and get used to it, it does not cause major problems to you while carrying. Black Label’s finish is truly mesmerizing. I am not a big fan of orange but I must say that black/orange combo worked for this device. It’s fully aluminum and does not have any loose part which makes it very durable. All sockets are gold plated. Its side and bottom switches feel like good quality rubber, Xbass and 3D switches are metal. Please look at my night shots, BL looks utterly amazing.
iFi re-designed some parts of iDSD to create the Black Label. Changes are shown below:
- re-designed output stabilisation
- OV2627 op-amps upgraded analogue section
- Panasonic OSCON capacitors loaded power supply
- OV2028 op-amps loaded DAC power supply
- DAC voltage decoupling based on audio-grade ECPU film capacitors
- GMT® Femto precision clock system power supply upgraded
- 3D and XBass Switches re-designed
Sound Signature | Sound Quality | Resolution
Following changes above granted a certain warmth to iDSD BL.
Increased note thickness resulted in bolder mid presentation. This alteration contributed to female vocal tonality to be more realistic. Plus, added emotion increased the perception of holographic staging. Surprisingly enough, added warmth did not influenced iDSD’s airy presentation dramatically. Same goes for the treble extension. It’s not in anyway crippled or hindered by the new changes of iDSD BL. In short, Black Label sounds more organic and musical compared to regular iDSD. I personally, always wanted my regular iDSD to sound fuller, more natural.. Well, I definitely got what I wanted!
Resolution is pretty much the same, however 3D switch do improve the perceived detail and texture little bit, which contributes to resolution by a small margin.
Black Label’s bass is little bit rounder, tighter. With XBass on, the difference is HUGE. I’ll talk more about it later!
Side note, iDSD BL is a lot more forgiving than the Original iDSD.
Hiss | Volume Knob
If you remember our previous iDSD(Silver) review, we implied Android and Windows not being all the same about sound. While using iDSD(Silver), portable devices tend to have a darker background whereas iDSD BL sounds fantastic on everything. USB or Battery Power, Android or Windows.
Regular iDSD was doing some channel imbalance between volumes 0-30%. It wasn’t a big problem because of the gain modes and iEMatch wouldn’t let you to listen below 50%. Actually it wasn’t a problem at all. It was just a fact. The exact fact remains same with iDSD Black Label. We hoped that they fixed this slight discomfort but I guess it’s related to analog attenuator they’re using. Anyways, the problem persists but like I said this is not a game changer or an unfortunate loss.
Soundstage | Separation
iDSD has a wide soundstage. Not very tall, but wide. iDSD BL’s separation is a little better than the regular iDSD but still it is the weakest point of iDSD compared to more expensive systems. (LPG, Hugo etc.) I’m not saying that the separation is bad, I’m just saying everything iDSD gives is beyond its price range, except its separation. Its separation has nothing special but it is surely good for the asking price.
XBass+ & 3D+
iFi really did fix the switches, the change is NOT subtle anymore.
Let’s talk about the “XBass”. It will be the new favourite of bassheads. iFi really outdid themselves on this one because this switch boosts the low end A LOT. I don’t have the required equipment to measure it but I can say that it acts like a 8-9db bass boost. It’s much much better than the Original iDSD’s bass boost which was very subtle.
Now, the 3D+ switch. Well to be honest I did quite a lot experiment on this switch and I am quite sure that it narrows the soundstage and increases perception of depth when used with IEMs. It is quite different with near-field monitors though. It organizes the stage resulting in more precise and holographic staging. I wouldn’t use it with all IEMs though.
Driveability | ECO – NORMAL – TURBO | Usability
iDSD is a beast in this subject and that’s probably why it has so many fans. It can literally drive anything. In ECO mode, sensitive monitors, in Normal Mode, standard headphones and in Turbo Mode it can drive most power hungry cans.
- Turbo mode 10.0V/4,000 mW @ 16 Ohm
- Normal mode 5.5V/1,900 mW @ 16 Ohm
- Eco mode 2.0V/250 mW @ 16 Ohm
According our tests, it takes 12 hours to drain iDSD in ECO setting while Battery Mode is activated. On USB Power setting, the battery won’t drain itself whether it’s in ECO or Normal setting. I’ve also tested it in Turbo setting. It approximately takes 6-7 hours to drain its battery.
Digital Filters | Analogue Filters | Polarity
When it comes to digital filters iDSD has, such as Standard, Minimum Phase, Bit-Perfect, I wasn’t able to hear a noticable difference. If I heard it, I’m not even sure it’s not placebo. The way I understand it, when you’re listening DSD, digitals filters turn into analogue ones.
When it comes to analog filters such as Standard Range, Extended and Extreme, I was able to hear clear differences and I liked what I heard. When you’re listening to DSD, these analogue filters get activated. Also iDSD has a polarity switch. Like the digital filters I wasn’t able to hear much difference.
iFi integrated an iPurifier technology onto the PCB of the BL. Right off the bat, I didn’t think that it’d benefit me all that much. Boy was I wrong.. I recently bought a pair of JBL LSR305 for mixing purposes. Using LSR305s with my gaming desktop rig + Dragonfly v1.5 caused crazy amount of buzzing, hissing and RF. God, all that interference… I couldn’t stand it. I’ve been searching for a cure and then iFi sent the iDSD to me. Of course I instantly remembered the integrated iPurifier, I gave it a shot and the LSRs were DEAD SILENT. Truly amazing. All that interference from my GTX 1070, power supply and unshielded motherboard was gone as soon as I plug the BL in. I love you iPurifier. I truly do.
iEMatch is a passive attenuator that increases output impedance of the 6.3mm out a little. iFi doesn’t have a detailed explanation about how much it changes the output impedance but I assume Off <1 Ohm, High Sensitivity ~ 2 Ohm, Ultra Sensitivity ~ 3 Ohm.
You may ask, “What output impedance affects?”. The general use of this that iFi thought was eliminating the hiss of very sensitive monitors. But it does much more. Output impedance changes the frequency response of an IEM or a headphone. There is a basic calculation for that. If the impedance of the headphone/IEM is at least 8-10 times bigger than the amplifier’s output impedance, it won’t change the sound. If it’s less than that, you may need to greet with a colored sound which may be nice or sometimes unpleasant. I really love the idea of having this switch on a device and it does its work very well.
Male USB A | RCA Out (Direct/Pre-Amplifier) | SPDIF IN/OUT
Having a male USB A 2.0 connector for the digital connection was a great idea. When you’re going to connect the device to a phone, all you need is an OTG cable and you’re good to go.
iDSD also has a RCA output section. You have two different choices for that. Direct or Pre-Amplifier. Direct, as the name indicates, directly gives the DAC’s reference sound. Pre-Amplifier’s sound is more colored compared to Direct mode. It is warmer. Volume knob, XBass and 3D works with it. 3D that comes from RCA outs are different than 3Ds you’re using for headphones. They have a different circuit iFi says. 3D that comes from Pre-amplified RCAs are called “3D for Speakers”.
Also Direct or Pre-Amplifier, RCA’s are working simultaneously with the headphone output.
I’ve also had the pleasure of testing the SPDIF input, Toslink. I felt a little difference between USB input. Between digital audio transmission methods, the change is always subtle like this was for me. Toslink has slightly smoother but less detailed presentation than USB but in a very subtle way.
Installation | Updating iDSD | Smart Power
When it comes to DACs, installation time and progress matters very much. With a Mac OS, IOS, Android or Linux, iDSD is just a plug-and-play toy. There is no installation. If it is a portable device, to make it work in the Battery Power Mode, you switch iDSD on, then you make the USB connection, if it is a non-portable device, you plug iDSD in and switch it on. That’s it. Cannot be simpler.
If it is Windows, there is a 2-3 minute driver installation progress. Download from iFi’s website, install and you’re good to go.
Unlike most of the DAC or DAC/Amp brands on the market, people of iFi are busy with developing new stuff. There are many software versions of iDSD BL Micro. Currently, they are on version 5.2. They do care about your device and continue developing it with softwares. Version 5.2 has a playback delay problem. iFi pointed out that it was related to Sleep Mode. To solve this issue, they published 5.2B. 5.2B doesn’t switch to the sleep mode. They are calling it “the portable version” but I like to call it “the life-saver version”.
iDSD has a Smart Power feature. If your phone battery is about to be drained you can use iDSD as a power bank. iDSD has 4800mah battery that can be used for that purpose which is more than enough for your phone or your tablet. It gives 5V / 1.5A which is quite standard. This feature is another plus if you ask me.
vs. Lotoo Paw Gold ($2000)
LPG has a better resolution, separation, deeper soundstage and it is easier to carry around. iDSD has a wider soundstage.
Tonality-wise, LPG has a sharper imaging and a punchier sound because of its energetic upper mid region, iDSD is warmer because of its midbass and mid forward presentation.
vs. Chord Mojo ($599)
Mojo is warmer, it has a narrower stage and it is more intimate. iDSD BL has a more balanced sound compared to Mojo. Resulting in better detail revealment. They are both very musical. BL has superior resolution and soundstage. I’d personally go with BL.
vs. Audioquest Dragonfly Red ($200)
Audioquest have a similar sound signature. It’s not as detailed as iDSD. iDSD have better PRaT and handles complicated passages more successfully. iDSD has more natural timbre.
Red sounds kind of thin, especially with classical music. iDSD has more bass weight.
vs. Audioquest Dragonfly Black v1.5 ($100)
Dragonfly Black has a lot less treble extension.Technicality-wise iDSD has a better resolution, detail, separation and soundstage. When used without a Jitterbug, Dragonfly is more likely to hiss.
iDSD BL is the definition of bang for the buck in every way. More or less expensive, there aren’t many options other than Mojo. Furthermore, iFi is a concerning company, they care about you, also they care about their product, iDSD’s resolution is very good and it can literally drive anything. It has tons of features and I think iDSD BL is the real deal.
If you are looking for a DAC/AMP between 350-750$ this is your safest bet. Go get one!