Editor's Note: Once in a while we receive detailed reviews, from members of the CA Community, that we think deserve to be published. We like publishing different perspectives and different writing styles. What follows is the most recent submission, from CA Community member @DuckToller.
To DSD or .. ?
A very personal iFi Micro iDSD Black Label DAC and head amp review by DuckToller (Tom H. Velte)
This is my personal review on the iFi Micro iDSD Black Label. It took me a long time to pack all the acoustic images that pleased me over the last 3 month into words and context. But finally it happened.
It is not about zillions of technical facts and details. If that is what you are looking for, here might be the wrong place, because it is just easy for you to find out about it elsewhere. In case you really love to read about them, I'd like Io advise the pinpoint tech spec review from Earphonia, a long time contributor to the forum where they prefer headphones to floor standers ;-)
I, for myself, had the objective, to find out about how does the BL fit into my needs
- as a DSD-DAC into my chain,
- as a headphone amplifier used mostly in nightly listening session with my Sennheiser HD 650 and
- as a mobile DAC/head-amp for business trips and holidays.
These are demands were already addressed with my existing Hi-Fi gear, so I was very curious to make comparisons in order to write about the benefits and shortcomings of the BL in daily life with regards to existing equipment.
Quick rewind to April 2017
I was invited to an old colleague/friend's home when visiting my mum last spring in Germany. He was so proud to show me his recently acquired T&A chain, including an old T+A SACD transport & the newer DAC 8 DSD, with some ELAC floor standers from the 500 series. I was told I could get a medium sized SUV for that rig. Actually, I could believe that, if that would be a French car.
Was it worth it? If you can afford it, YES!!! Everything he played to me sounded great, DSD512 was particularly exiting. When I asked for the source of the DSD-files he just smiled and told me : PS3! His SACDs were all ripped and converted since last year. I was impressed. From the excellent sound and from his seemingly perfect workflow, as I did already know his appalling work ethics from the past. On the other hand, I thought, the impact might come as well from his perfectly styled living room and all the neat and clean organized equipment. Everything textbook, NAS in the basement plus a streaming from an Intel I7 in his Office to an NAA using HQ Player.
Me, on the contrary, I do have serious problems with most of my cabling, thus my stereo rig had to find a new accommodation in my former office/now man cave, which I have given some room treatment, nothing that my wife had fancied spontaneously. That I added two 10' subs to the mix the same time, did not find much appreciation by the administration neither. Subsequently, I still do find, that they kick in too late, a problem which my better half enthusiastically supports, so we have agreed on playing only low level when she is in the house ...
Yet the wide staging, the fully dark background of my friend's system, the single instrumentation surprisingly audible accompanied by nearly visible instruments, and then the PRAT ... , made me rethink about my resentments against DSD more than once during spring time. I was looking often into all the raving reviews of the iFi Micro iDSD, but I still hesitated. I do neither have the funds for a Music Gallery Server, nor do I own a PS3 and hundreds of SACDs, I thought. Actually, I had owned just a single one, which my friend presented to me for my Birthday, the Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Session, one of my all-time favorite records, which came out this year on SACD.
When I saw the offer from iFi for the BL road show in June, I was all too ready to step in for a review. When the BL arrived for the review End of August, I was prepared. ;-)
Un-boxing the iFi Micro iDSD Black Label was kind of X-mas feeling at the end of August.
Excellent packaging with a great choice of fittings. I have read that some reviewers would see fit in an OTG Cable as supply. I'd reckon, it is not a necessity. Most mobile user using the OTG function of their phone do have that already! Besides that, you find actually everything you need: RCA cables, USB Cable, several Adapter from USB to headphone jack, 2 rubber bands and a protection pad for the use with your mobile phone.
I avoided to make too many changes to my system, because that obviously would alter my findings. That is the main reason why I did not use the HQPlayer software from Miska, but continued with JRMC 22 on my 2014 I7 C.A.P.S. Zuma (4790T) with AO 2.10 (core mode, sound signature 2d) and Uptone Regen, that allows me to upsample the DSD-Files to 8xDSD and all the PCM-Files to 2xDSD on JRIVER/IFI ASIO driver. Upsampling everything to DSD512 is possible with an ASIO proxy, which is primarily a foobar2000 component. (below are the settings, I used 0.8.3, newest is 0.9.2) .
With the BL in my system the options for playback suddenly multiplied, and it is a real plate of delicatessen to choose from. I now listen to native DSD64 and 8xDSD by JRMC, and HiRez 24/192 and 16/44 PCM Flac in my system, consisting of a NAD BEE 165/275 Pre- and Power amp combo into B&W 805s and 2x XTZ 10.17 subs fed from the Pre's LFE out.
As a second rig I used the RPi 3b with Volumio 2.2, Uptone Regen and my Sennheiser HD650 Phones. I used the iDSD as well as an Headphone amp for my laptop and my pc, so to reflect the portability of the device.
Lastly, I used the BL with my Samsung S7 Edge with USB Player Pro and/or HIBY Music player. But strictly with the HP output.
The DACs to compare with were the Dragonfly Red and my beloved Klein DAC.
Cabling on the main rig were Curious Regen Cable/Supra USB Cable 1 m and a special RCA cabling provided by Gieseler Audio for matching the KLEIN with the sensitivity of the preamp. The speaker cable are Norstone Silver.
The Uptone Regen, the CAPS as well as the PPang USB Card and the Samsung SSD are supplied with power from a HDPLEX 100 w linear PSU. All the Music comes from a homebrew Unraid-NAS with 12 TB capacity, which is used for purposes besides the media network feed as well, system equipment is connected via a dedicated netgear 108T switch
As we are in a subjective domain of describing impressions we hear/think to have heard/believe to have heard, I'd like to describe, what my hearing instruments can do, so you as readers can weighting your belief in my personal findings:
- In my car, with a audio system deemed to play mp3 over usb over Bluetooth, I can hear (not on USB obviously, but on BT) the difference between MP3 and high-rez FLAC files, I have difficulties to differentiate between MP3-320 and 16-bit-PCM, but if I listen to the HiRez-files in a playlist, I can directly tell you, and also point out about the next one being MP3 or not.
- I believe to hear the difference between PCM 16-bit and High Rez PCM (88/96/192), but I have experienced difficulties to differentiate between 24/44-24/48 and 16/44 Flac. I am deeply disappointed every time I have a record that sounded so good in my car and that sounds too bad on my rig, usually it's due to bad dynamics ranges like DR6, that sound very bad and quite different to my car stereo when played on my home system.
- I do believe as well that I can figure out the source while playing a list of music with different sampling rates in my systems - Speakers and Headphones), if the difference is big enough, but I am not fully convinced, that this due to my hearing only.
- I did never make a blind test with unknown material on a unknown system to verify these finding.
- When I speak about audible differences, it is in my system with sources I know and never on scientific conditions.
- I have big doubts, I could verify an Ethernet cable difference as Madame Marenco. I neither have got these type of experienced ears, nor that type of exquisite equipment.
- My ears are on the south side of their hearing quality peak at 54 years, I'd assume. And I may be not open to believe from a technical point of view. After all the reading on DSD, I was skeptic but curious. Here are my findings.
Gieseler Klein DAC 1 vs iFi Micro iDSD Black Label
The KLEIN DAC is a bang for buck champion, who punches far above his weight. For a price less than 500 Euros this unit uses the AKM 4490 SQ and the Amanero 384 Combo module in Asynchrous mode, but converts PCM only in hardware mode with 5 filter settings available for the output. The Klein is a boutique DAC from the Audio expert Clayton Gieseler in Australia. It has now two bigger brothers KLEIN 2 (doing DSD on AKM4490 EQ) ) and GROSS (with DSD-DAC Chip AKM4497) and an uncle called Konverter, which is a GROSS combined with very versatile pre-amp)
About the Klein I wrote two years ago:
"I have lately noticed that in the no frills - no BS hifi and high-end audio world the paradigms are shifting into the nordic mythology and we may soon have our listening sessions in the hall of the Mountain King. If you can imagine a land of high end audio ELF dacs, the KLEIN Dac from Gieseler Audio would seem to me more the kind of a HOBBIT DAC: small, solid built, as pure as an elf, always with best intentions and capable of fulfilling his aim without being preposterous or overwhelmed by laziness nor being snobbish like young Thor.
The KLEIN is definitely not the one DAC to reign them all, and neither Frodo nor Bilbo, as we know them, but I'd like to class him as Sam (Samewise Gamgee), a true audiophile friend, who is a reliable workhorse and not at all too lazy to offer you impressing audiophile pleasures."
The Klein does up to 32/384, nonetheless I am used to play everything in JRMC on 24/192 and it sounds quite smooth, natural, detailed with a huge soundstage.
If it would be just about playing Flac files in High-Res or CD-Quality only, I couldn't see any need to change, as the KLEIN is very musical with a large soundstage, a good separation of instruments and particularly with 24-bit sources it makes me often slip into the music smoothly. I really love to listen to live recordings with it.
In comparison with the KLEIN, the BL, used with 16 and 24-bit flac, sound more clean, maybe a bit clinical, but with huge concentration on details. I tend to prefer the smoothness of the KLEIN with HiRez Flac files, especially with its wider stage. The sound is more than solid, I felt it is muscular, but particularly with the CD-Quality Flac-files like Fleetwood Mac's "Go your own way", it sounded a bit more nervous in the upper midst, manifesting my findings of slight discomfort with that record, that I was already used to have with the Rumours CD/CD-Rip I own. The drums weren't as punchy and forward as with the Klein, and the voices not as clear as with DSD. Nonetheless, it sounded not bad at all, yet the better is usually the enemy of the good.
DSD512, the First
Speaking of DSD, I need to admit, that I had never heard a better version of that record on my rig than with DSD. Playing it native was impressive, but on DSD512/8xDSD, I was just stunned. The textures felt just right, the dynamics not picky, which in my ears are some of the characteristics with that record, that always like an example of a record where listening fatigue occur to me more than quickly. In my view, slightly over-produced and a bit over-blown in the upper end. I usually can not listen to the full Rumours record in CD quality. Period.
Not so with DSD, I felt (and I have read about this effect, too ;-) that there was a lot less ringing in the sound, which helped me so much to enjoy this big favorite of my youth.
Overall, the DSD64/128-Files, played on DSD512 with the ifi Micro iDSD BL, were audibly superior in my system than the same files in HiRez, except of the Eric Bibb with Mesdames Muldaur & Block, interpreting "Gotta serve somebody". This one, in my opinion, shines most in 16-bit Flac. In higher resolution, I feel it loses the density and the power which characterizes this version of that Dylan classic.
My enthusiasm about Octa-DSD maybe had been due to the novelty effect, but I'd like to admit, it has persisted over the last two months.
As I noticed with the BL on DSD512 as a rival, the KLEIN's background could be blacker and the bass more and the higher midst a bit less pronounced. The textures could be less smooth, but more refined, sometimes.
The BL, playing music up-sampled to DSD512, in my system and with my ears, gives more grip and flesh to the low end, is delicately nice to the upper midst without softening, but profits from a good yet not enormous soundstage and the darkest background I have heard so far in my system. The placement and presence of instruments are very special and I tend to think the sound is clear, not bright but muscular and dynamic.
iFi Micro iDSD in DSD512 mode (magenta LED) iFi Micro iDSD in DSD256 mode (blue LED)
I have to disclaim, that one of the songs that made me really happy, had been "Postcard Blues" of the Cowboy Junkies, played as DSD64, converted from last year's Analogue Productions Remasters SACD.
For this song played from the SACD as HiRez or DSD, it is easy to win by far margin over the 16/44 flac files, ripped from the original CD, as the remasters were audibly concentrating on some audiophile effects, like the foot-stomping on "Postcard Blues". On the SACD reissue, this unique rhythmic pulse is much more present and gives you a precise image on the shoe size of the bumbling guy. Yet having the subs ad hoc reacting to that noise, just gave me a special grin and some great peace of mind, that I can still have some extraordinary audible surprises with my gear.
iFi Micro iDSD Black Label vs Dragonfly Red 1.0 (with Sennheiser HD 650)
I used the BL particularly with my Senn's with music sourced from CAPS machine, having a looong cable lying over my office floor. My IE's can't compete on that level, and my Superlux headphones are fair enough for video replay on my workplace, but lack the head stage and elegance of sound that characterize the HD650's.
I just felt it from the first listen, it is a match in heaven in comparison with the Dragonfly Red, which at its time was a big step forward from listening to my (mobile) devices without DAC. I even accepted the lack of comfort from less mobile approach of the BL, if it was to give these joy to my ears. I just could not accept to have less magic from the Senn's, when using them in the train, on the airport or in our holiday home.
The DF Red, for me, is still a versatile approach to mobile sound improvement, particularly as it excels in the size/performance ratio for quick listening. It just lacks the bandwidth of formats as compared to the BL and its usability.
Having native DSD64 from my Samsung S7 Edge and the Hiby Music player gave me one of the most intense and relaxing hours of my October holidays at the French Atlantic coast. I used the BL and my mobile with either Hiby Music Player or the well known USB Audio Player pro, which is generally recommended by iFi, yet had some performance issues in my case. The Hiby player likewise does use the UAP engine to get connected with the USB device over OTG but needs seriously less resources.
The size and weight of the BL is obviously not very suitable to summer clothing pockets. It was far better to have it with a fabulous dry 2015 Aligoté from Domaine de Villaine (Property of the CEO of La Domaine Romanée-Conti (DRC) in Burgundy, just 4 the wine enthusiasts around ;-), paired with a view on the Atlantic ocean from our late summer/early autumn break holiday home's balcony table.
What a beautiful situation that was, 18° C, the crepuscular light of the declining sun in the early evening, and Keith Jarrett's Köln Concert on the player (DSD64). As good as it gets.
I did not test the DF Red for comparison that time, I need to admit. I would assume, that experience was my trigger point of decision making, what I would want to have for Xmas. And what device I would eventually donate to my teenage son.
The iFi Micro iDSD Black Label does not perform as spectacular with the phone as it does in my regular chain. The sound is light in a positive sense and precise, but the imaging much more compressed, the pronunciation of the instruments is quite good, but not so overwhelmingly, as is the soundstage in that combination. But hey, it is great for mobile use only!
I liked as well the 16-bit PCM performance in regard to the fact that it is a mobile, not yet a final solution.
On files with lower dynamic resolution (DR), i.e. the 24-bit DL from the last Dream Syndicate record "How did I find myself here" I felt the Dragonfly were more performing than the BL. I can't explain that. But I guess it is the clarity of the BL, which makes it more difficult to enjoy DR6 records.
To give some kudos to the Dragonfly, I still feel, that listening to the sound of Video streams in AC3 via DF & my low-Fi HP gives me more excitement than with BL and the Senns.
iFi Micro iDSD Black Label in combination with the RPi 3 as Volumio Music Server
End of last year I had started to build some RPi's as low cost music streamer/DACs for some of my friends, and at the end I decided to get one for my sleeping room (rather than buying a Teac NT 503, which I fancied for several month) to use it with the Dragonfly Red and my Senn's for the times I am reading or relaxing before falling asleep.
The combination with RPi3 allows on a very small footprint an exciting listening experience, but I would not label it a mobile solution. Especially , as I have recently introduced an USB Regen (Amber) to the mix which lead me with an annoying bunch of cables, but still a very small footprint ;-)
I need to admit, the combination sounds very good to my ears, particularly with the iDSD, but I believe, I would be discarded by my better half if I'd aim to travel with that set for our holiday trips.
Actually, connecting the spare Regen to the mix was influenced by Michelangelo Guarise, the developer of Volumio, who advertises the BL together with the iPurifier Re-Clocker as his favorite solution.
Having only the BL on hand for a review, I thought about my spare Regen, which were sleeping in the closet, and it worked like a charm. I'd guess the RPi's USB Architecture really profits from the REGEN, and even I am usually skeptic to hype, on the given combination it had most of the impacts CA readers know from the different Regen Threads: Clarity, more pronounced bass, hissing the curtain, soundstage.
After I disconnected the Regen from the mix, I used the combo only two times this way, firstly, in the same moment, just to archive a level of direct disappointment and second only a week later to confirm my impression. Since then I am converted and regard the Regen as a fix installation to the RPi.
Here as well excelled the BL with the Volumio 2.2 distribution, that can play DSD up to 4x native. The advantages of the iFi Micro iDSD Black Label against the DF red were more or less the same as with the Samsung, but the performance with the combo RPi/Uptone Regen/DAC was levels ahead of the phone/dac combo. I would put it quality wise in between the first and the second. I did prefer the streaming from the NAS over Ethernet to playback from an USB pen drive.
Does the BL change my life?
No, it is neither a life safer nor had there been any audiophile emergency. Yet, it enhanced beautifully the way I listen to Music with the DSD512 option and it's head amp's rewarding aptitude to bring out the best performance from the Sennheiser HD650.
I always considered my ability to critical listening as a kind of diminishing art, that will disappear during the next 10 years for age reasons. What the BL taught me, considerably, there is still something more to find out, even you are already content with you gear. That is truly audiophile in the best of all senses.
DSD512 - Second Coming - Is it Worth All That Fuzz?
The truth is, for me, YES. Yet you need to do it correctly, or you better may stay away to avoid disappointment/discomfort of various kinds.
Today, there is no DSD version available for ALL of your beloved music. In fact, besides the 12.000 SACD discs that are already published, you'll find a majority of Classical and Jazz titles available up to DSD256, but much less Pop or Rock music. And, to be frank, most of it is not produced in a quality we would describe as good or even audiophile, so the outcome on DSD512 could be as well a bad surprise. My shortcoming in that case had been, obviously, that I genuinely heard a lot better than average material.
Furthermore, to archive the best results reproducing your music through up-sampling into DSD512 you'll need to invest heavily in computer gear to provide the optimal computerized source for your DSD512 capable DAC.
En plus, a DAC with DSD512 usually comes at a cost, surely: From the 43 DACS listed at the Native-DSD Database, capable of converting octa-DSD into analogue signals, just 2 handful are below 1.000 USD, 11 DACs are costing between 7.500 and 90.000 USD, the others are 4 digits dollars in-between.
AFAIK, to get the most out your DSD512, e.g. with Miska's HQPlayer, either an audiophile fan less High-End-Server or an NAA-Solution seems to be the way to go today. There might be no free lunch with DSD512 for the foreseeable future.
A factor to note is the usability. Using JRMC might be comfortable for some, using Roon does the trick for others. Several other audiophile player software comes to mind. I'd guess that playing DSD native, mixed with HiRez and CD-Quality flac would be the most appropriate for the daily use. Bringing the system up to play DSD512 might be a different kind of pony. More that kind for the "no fear" audiophile?
In that light, the ability of the ifi Micro iDSD Black Label to reproduce DSD512 at 599 Euros comes to me as being at a reasonable price for audio enthusiasts, who want to invest some more of their hard earned money into the (than necessary) computer equipment.
The BL, interestingly, does offer a lot more features than DSD512 and most of them succeed with flying colors. It is a match in heaven with the HD650s, and a very good performer on all levels with your mobile phone or RPi for a low footprint music solution, either with headphones or eventually with some active speaker like the JBL 305's (YES, I am pondering about this ...) as desktop solution.
For myself, the testing of HQPlayer will definitely be one of the next steps. And I need to analyzed my personal needs on computer power.
What I like
- Versatile Headphone amp - perfect match with the Sennheiser HD650's
- DSD512 and lower
- The texture of the sound and the absence of hiss and ringing with DSD
- Portability in conjunction with performance
- Overall the device offers a very premium quality feel
- -You can outsmart yourself easily, if you connect the device before you put it on, because this will empty your phone rapidly (10% drain in 30 min). It's explained in the manual, but I had to find it out the hard way. Even with the correct battery power mode, the BL has drained my Samsung in conjunction with the USB Player Pro (11% drain in 4h30 minutes). Using the Hiby Music Player, the endurance was much better with 20% drain over the period of 12 hours (see images below).
- The ticks before starting the DSD playback might be too much for the sensitive audiophile, I had no problem with that whatsoever !
- The real life portability is not as I wish for. It does not suit your smallish beach bag, just as your B&W P9 signatures are not really beach gear ;-) - The lack of DSD512 material in online shops ;-)
The DSD Playlist
I had got hands on the iFi DSD-Sampler at the Sound Liaison website, one DVD full of DSF Files of Classic Rock Favourites, along with a SACD-ISO file from the Cowboy Junkies from my friend, and later Downloads from NativeDSD and SoundLiaison.
In order to get an impression of the differences between DSD and 24-bit PCM and CD-quality flac, I choose a playlist only with some tracks, I knew very good, some of them since I was a teenager, some of them, that had me pleased during the last 20 years, but all of them at least in two formats. FLAC (16-bit/24-bit) and DSF, except of the Köln Concerts, that were DSF only.
The Playlist used consisted of:
- Fleetwood Mac - Go your own way (2011, SACD, DSD64 and Flac 16/44 2001)
- Peter Gabriel - Biko (SACD, 2003, DSD64 and Flac 24/88)
- Arne Domnerus - Antiphone Blues (DL, 2015, DSD128) and FLAC 24/192)
- Paul Berner Band - Buttonfly (DL, 2013, DSD64 and FLAC 24/96)
- Cowboy Junkies - Postcard Blues (SACD 2016, DSD64 and FLAC 24/88)
- Bibb/Muldaur/Block - Gotta Serve Somebody (SACD 2004,DSD64 and FLAC 16/44 2004)
- André Heuvelman - Oblivion (DL, 2015, DSD64, and FLAC 24/96)
- Everlast - Blinded by the Sun (SACD 2004, DSD64 and FLAC 16/44 2004)
- Rolling Stones - Gimmie Shelter (SACD 2002/ABKCO, DSD64 and FLAC 24/88)
- Pixies - Vamos (SACD 2007/MoFi, DSD64 and FLAC 24/192)
- Dead can Dance - The Wind That Shakes The Barley (SACD 2008/DSD64 and Flac 24/88)
- Meat Loaf - Bat out of Hell (SACD 2016, DSD64 and Flac 16/44 1994)
- Keith Jarrett - The Köln Concert (SACD 2017, DSD64)