iFi iDSD Micro – Review

I was made aware of Micro – iDSD by a friend of mine a few months ago near it’s release date. Looking at the specs I was really impressed.

Before getting into details let’s talk a little about iFi. You can find more about the company right here.

iFi is a brand new line of electronics with trickle-down technology licensed from AMR and aimed primarily at the future, Computer Audio generation. All iFi products boast Class A analogue circuitry with no DSP and the signal stays ‘Bit Perfect’ throughout.

How a product looks and performs matters, but so does its impact on the environment. That’s why nearly every iFi product and its packaging are made from highly recyclable materials like aluminum, paper, recycled plastic and why we refuse to use harmful toxins in our components. We do this to ensure that every product we release meets our environmental standards.

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of big companies that want to bring some of the quality from their expensive products into more affordable ones. You can see this with the Geek product series from lhlabs where they want to bring some technology from Da Vinci Dual Dac into the smaller and cheaper Geek products.

This also happened with Chord where they brought their latest technology into a portable dac/headphone amp, the Hugo. However, if you look at the price, you will see that Hugo is not quite cheap at all. Then if you look at the full option Geek Pulse desktop dac/amp combos you will notice that they are not close to cheap either.

Getting back to our main subject, iFi is trying to do the same thing, bringing the technology and performance from the mother company, Abbingdon Music Research, into smaller and much cheaper products.

AMR is one of UK’s largest manufacturers in high-end audio systems and have very respected and esteemed products in the audiophile communities.

In the case of iFi, they really intend in making cheaper products that try to bring the best at their price.

General Presentation & Specs

The first thing I noticed was the size and build quality of the unit which is quite small and it can fit in my palm, but it is made of solid and thick aluminium.

ifi micro idsd review

Let’s get through some very interesting spec features. The first thing that drew my attention was the music resolution it is capable of and I must admit that it is the first DAC I’ve seen with those numbers:

There is nothing like the micro iDSD. It is literally, out of this world. It is the only DAC in the world (at any price) to play True Native Octa-DSD512/PCM768/Double DXD. Its Perfect-Match means it can be fine-tuned to any headgear from IEMs all the way through to large headphones. Its 8v/4000mW output makes it one of the most powerful headamps to drive even the most hungry of headphones with ease.

I know that many of the DSD and DXD big words are used mainly for marketing reasons, but they are usually used in more expensive products. Coming from iFi Micro iDSD, I can only treat it with more attention and see if the buzz words make a difference in sound quality.

Micro iDSD has 2 dac chips inside:

iFi has forged an enviable reputation for being at the forefront of computer audio technology. The micro iDSD has just made another leap, an Octa-Leap to be precise. With its special Dual-Core Burr-Brown native DSD/PCM chipset at the heart, the micro iDSD is capable of True Native PCM768, Octa-Speed DSD512 and 2x DXD; it is simply out of this world.

Edit:

I was pointed out on headfi that the DAC chips are actually hybrid and the top 6 bits are multi-bit.

I didn’t find anything about this on their website, but iFi did write this on headfi.

It was the result of excellent work done at Burr-Brown Japan before it became TI and was meant to be used in High End universal disk players with excellent performance for CD replay, Audio-DVD and SACD. Unlike most newer Chips from TI and many others, it retains a true multibit core for PCM replay, based on the visionary (and under-appreciated) PCM69 AND it retains Burr-Brown’s unique and excellent approach to DSD replay, first introduced with the DSD1700 Chip.

What this means in practice is that the DSD Stream only passes an analogue lowpass filter, there is no up-conversion or data manipulation applied at all. Very few DAC Chips available today allow for this.

Further, with this chip we retain a true Multibit PCM Core, true, only the upper 6 Bits are converted using multibit conversion, while anything below the top 6 Bits goes through a 256FS low order delta sigma modulator, in many ways this particular configuration is the best arrangement currently available, short of using a true 32 Bit Multibit DAC, which realistically speaking does not exist (yet).

This actually makes a lot of sense to me, as iFi sounded more natural than most Delta Sigma implementations I’ve heard until now.

The amplifier is very powerful for its size and it is also very versatile. You can use it with a big range of headphones from IEMS to full sized headphones like Sennheiser HD800, LCD-3, LCD-X, HE-560, etc.

The micro iDSD has 3 different power modes Eco, Normal and Turbo. Capable of 4000mW, 1000mW or 250mW, the micro iDSD is able to drive the full gamut of headphone and amplifiers alike. With iEMatch there to dial to suit any IEM, the micro iDSD has redefined the headphone amplifier class.

Used along with the analogue volume control, the diminutive size of the micro iDSD belies its uncanny ability to drive virtually anything and everything!

So, it has 2 switches. One for the Power Mode and one for iEMatch. Combining them, allows you to choose the right power for your headphones:

PowerMode

It also packs a battery that helps in achieving cleaner sound and portability.

SmartPower® is the micro iDSD’s onboard recharging feature for Smartdevices. Its 4800mAH battery is able to fully recharge an iPhone two-times. Compatible with Apple and Android, phones and tablets, it is another example of iFi’s commitment to customer needs – enjoy high-end audio on the go without worrying about the phone going flat.

In front of the unit near the volume you can see that it has 2 switches. One is for the XBass bass boost and one for “making the scene more holographic”. I will explain later why I have surrounded the last words in quotes.

iFi’s iCAN and iTube have already achieved widespread acclaim, so much so that their core features including 3D Holographic and XBass have become renowned in their own right and imitated by others. In the micro iDSD, for the first time in an iFi product, it features XBass and 3D Holographic for Headphones and Speakers. All these features are still executed in the analogue, not digital domain to preserve the original music format.

And so much more….with the amazing Crowd-Design program, we are over the moon that you, the customer was central to the development of the micro iDSD. The micro iDSD is literally bursting with features – such as Direct/Pre-Amp, 3.5mm input, SPDIF Input/Output and much, much more. You will have to see it to believe it.

Indeed, the unit is very versatile. You can use it just as DAC, just as headphone amp, pre-amp and dac/amp combo of course.

The unit can also be used as USB converter as it has a spdif output as well.

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Besides the above, iFi still had some stuff that impressed me even further.

One of them would be its femto clock. Considering the experience I had with the DACs that include femto clocks and their prices, this was very impressing from my perspective.

Ultra low jitter GMT computer controlled Femto Clock | RMS jitter 12kHz – 1MHz < 280 Femtoseconds

The DAC section has a Dynamic Range (Line) of >117 db(A) with a THD & N  (0dBFS Line) of <0.003 % , while the amp section has > 115dB(A) in Eco Mode with 2V Out and a THD & N (500mW/16R) of <0.008% .

Here is more on the amplification section:

Headphone Power Output
HP Amp Output Power (max) Power (continuous.)
– Turbo mode 10.0V/4,000 mW @ 16 Ohm >1560 mW @ 64 Ohm
– Normal mode 5.5V/1,900 mW @ 16 Ohm >950 mW @ 32 Ohm
– Eco mode 2.0V/500 mW @ 8 Ohm >250 mW @ 16 Ohm

Besides the above it also has an output impedace of < 1 Ω when iEMatch is not engaged.

As you may have noticed for yourself, Micro iDSD packs a lot of power under its small hood.

iFi doesn’t stop here and also adds a filter selector where you have 3 options which differ for PCM and for DSD meaning that it has 6 filters in total.

3 Digital Filters (for PCM)

  • Bit-Perfect
  • Minimum Phase
  • Standard

The Standard filter measures the best. The Minimum Phase filter reduces the unwanted pre and post ringing of the digital signal and produces a more natural sound. A lot of high end DACs have this one.

The Bit-Perfect filter originated in CD-77(called Digital Master Mode) then on AMR DP-777 (Bit Perfect Mode) and should ensure unaltered transmission of the data at its original bitrate and sampling frequency.

3 Analogue Filters for DSD:

  • Ultra-wide Range
  • Extended Range
  • Standard Range

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Tests and Listening Experience

The tests were performed with iFi iDSD Micro, Sennheiser HD800,  Audeze LCD-X,  HiFiMAN HE-560, Shure 535-LTD, Sennheiser IE800, FiiO X5, FiiO E12A.

The first thing I tested was to see what effect the battery has on the sound. If you want to use the battery, you have to turn Micro iDSD on before inserting the usb cable. If you insert the usb cable and then you turn it on, iFi will be powered by the 5V line from the USB input.

As I expected, the battery ads clarity and detail to the sound and it is not something hard to notice.

The unit sounded very good when it was powered from usb as well and it seemed a little warmer / more analogue. However, still preferred the battery sound to the normal usb power.

I wanted to take the tests to another level so I tried my split usb cable , in order to power the micro idsd from my linear power supply inserted in my power regenerator.

The last tweak won the competition. It added more details compared to the battery and besides that, I got faster transients with  more powerful attack.

So my preferences was:  usb power < ifi battery < linear usb power with split usb cable.

Having so many filters I was curious to see how they sound. For PCM I ended up liking the Bit-Perfect filter as everything sounded more natural, with better textures, soundstage width and better bass depth. The Standard filter was nice, being a little more transparent than the other filters, but not as natural. Bit-Perfect has better viscerality, better instrument extension, more textures and a more natural tonality.

Minimum Phase Filter sounded more natural than the Standard Filter but did not match it in details and transient attack.  I think that Bit-Perfect has the best out of both filters and liked it the most.

In conclusion, my preferences were Bit-Perfect > Minimum Phase Filter >= Standard Filter.

With the Analog DSD Filters it was a litte  harder to choose as they were all useful from time to time. The Extreme Range was the most analog sounding  while the Standard Range was the most detailed and had the most air. Actually the Extreme and Extended Range filters seemed to dim the upper mids and the treble compared to the Standard Range.

Having to IEMs in my possession I said it would be a pity not to test them with Micro Idsd. My Shure 535 LTD are very sensitive and I have rarely found an amplifier not to present a small hiss in the background. It happened with both X1, X5 or any phone I tested it with.

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With iFi the noise disappeared completely proving to be a good match with it. I also tried the bass boost, but it seemed to make the sound a little muddy with the 535. I have also tried the Sennheiser IE800 with it and iFi drove them quite well. I was surprised to notice that both headphones, especially IE800 actually sound cleaner  with the iEMatch turned off. When I say cleaner I am referring to better transparency, details and more air in the sound.

XBass Boost may come in handy with some headphones and it is a nice feature to have. I felt like it adds more to the bass section and it should concentrate on the sub bass a little more. Depending on the headphones/speakers, it might take away from clarity/transparency.

When I compared the XBass Boost with the bass boost found in FiiO E12A , I thought the latter to be cleaner, leaving the mids more transparent.

The 3D Surround feature is extremely similar to the Lucid Mode found in Decware Taboo MK3. It seems to bring the midrange in front, especially the upper midrange and some treble. This tweak can be quite nice on some songs and awful on others.

I’ve also tested it with Sennheiser HD800, LCD-X and Fostex TH-900. It sounded great with all these headphones but it impressed me the most with HD800 which it managed to tame quite nice, giving them good bass depth and a smoother / analog signature.

This is why I chose them as the main test headphones.

Rodrigo y Gabriela- “11:11”

The effect achieved in the beginning of the song when the artists rub their guitars is efficient in determining how detailed and natural the textures are. Micro iDSD was quite a surprise here as it showed a very natural and detailed texture, accompanied by the subtle sound of the strings being touched gently during the rubbing I was talking about. The chords had a visceral and detailed extension but also good attack and fast decay, leading to an engaging experience.

Pink Floyd – Another Brick in the Wall ( Part 2 )

The song starts strong with some drums. I thought I had forgotten the xBass boost on. It wasn’t on, but Micro iDSD kicked the hell out of those drums. They showed a very deep and extended bass that packed a strong  punch as well.  The electric guitar in the back had a  detailed and natural texture, quality showed quite well with the voices as well, voices that sounded natural and well textured.

Hugh Laurie – Battle of Jericho

This song also starts with   drums and ifi made them to sound quite imposing, with impressive bass depth and presence. The voices sounded natural,  being quite well textured and extended. The guitars were sparkling all around with strong plucks and noticeable extensions.

Vivaldi – Autumn – Allegro (La Caccia)

This song was also a pleasure to listen to on Micro iDSD. This little guy has something special, as it gives a very natural and lifelike sound presentation. The instruments were well presented with good details and natural textures. They were also well separated leading to a good and airy soundstage.

Leonard Cohen – Vilanelle For Our Time

This song is a great test for voice reproduction. Micro iDSD managed to reproduce the gritty and visceral voice of Leonard Cohen very good, which was natural and well textured. There are few DACs that reproduce this song so good that it tricks my brain into thinking that I have a sour throat and makes me cough. The Micro is one of them.

Coldplay – We Never Change

The guitar plucks on this song are quite  interesting as with iFi I manage to feel the woody body of the guitar helping me approximate it’s size and material used. The voice was very well reproduced being presented with a strong and natural presence.

Infected Mushroom – Noon

The strong kick on this song made me look for the xBass boost switch again, only to see it was not activated. Besides the strong and punchy bass, the song was fast and engaging as well, showing good PRAT.

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Summary

Bass

The bass is one of the strong features of this little guy. It knows how to get very deep and pack a very strong punch. Besides these, it also has a very detailed and naturally textured extension.

Mids

The midrange is very rich and natural. The voices and instruments are quite life like showing good and detailed textures.

Treble

Until I reached this section I forgot about the treble which is not as impressive as the midrange or the bass with iDSD. It is sparkly and well extended but it isn’t as natural as the rest of the frequency range. It still is very good, but not on par with the midrange and bass sections. I found Micro to be more  natural/analog than most full Delta Sigma Dac chips implementation, but that is mostly because of the bass and midrange frequency ranges.

Good Textures & Natural Tonality

One of the strong things about this unit is that it sounds very natural. It doesn’t reach the full R2R (Ladder) DAC level, but it might be one of the most natural delta sigma dacs I’ve heard. The voices and instruments have good and natural textures that make the songs sound more life like and enjoyable.
When I found out that the dac chips are hybrid and the last 6 bits are multi bit, it all made more sense.

Details

The Micro packs a good amount of details. I could hear some subtle things in the songs like only a gentle stroke over a guitar string, a car passing by  the recording studio and even an artist scratching his face during the song.

Transients and Viscerality

The transients are fast and impactful with a strong attack and quick decay. Between the beginning and the end of a sound, it also packs a very detailed and visceral extension leading to engaging and enjoyable guitar plucks, voices, electric guitars, etc.

Soundstage, Imaging & Instrument Separation

I never felt like the instruments blended in the same layer. Every instrument was well delimited and placed into the scene leading to good imaging and soundstage.

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Conclusions

iFi Micro iDSD was a really nice surprise. I never expected this quality at that price. I didn’t feel like I was listening to a portable unit at all. I felt like listening to a full blown desktop rig. Actually, I think it might beat a lot of more expensive and bigger desktop rigs.

Besides the abundance of features this little unit has, it gives a very natural and pleasant sound signature. I’ve rarely heard a Delta Sigma DAC to sound so analog / life like, and the Hybrid Dac Chips in iFi made a very positive difference from my point of view.

I found both DAC/Headphone amplifier sections to be very good and to offer quality well  above their price.

Unfortunately I didn’t have Chord Hugo for a direct comparison, but I think that the amplification section is superior and more versatile than the one in Hugo. The DAC isn’t as detailed but it is more analogical and pleasant and still packs excellent details, but not quite in the same league as Hugo on this area.

Going to stretch my memory  a little more and make another bold remark.

I think that iDSD might overall be better than Burson Conductor as well. The DAC section is clearly superior and the amplification section is more transparent, giving a more natural sound presentation. The amp in conductor is faster and has more impact, but overall, I think that iFi might be better.

Considering what opponents iDSD is rivaling and that what it costs, you can draw your own conclusions.

This product is another one of the very important products that clearly mark the evolution of this domain and I must say that I pretty much like what I am starting to see.

Pros

  • Excellent build quality
  • A lot of features making the unit very versatile
  • Excellent amplification / dac sections
  • Very good bass with strong punch, deep, detailed and naturally textured extension
  • Rich and natural midrange
  • Fast and Impactful transients accompanied by good viscerality
  • Good soundstage and imaging
  • Very good details
  • Excellent price/performance ratio

Cons

  • ieMatch takes the hiss away from ultra sensitive headphones like the shures, but makes the sound muddier overall
  • bass boost should add a little less bass and more sub bass in my opinion (FiiO E12A has a cleaner approach)

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