iFi Audio Neo iDSD DAC Review
- Excellent performance across all the functionality.
- Well made and easy to use
- Useful range of supporting accessories
- Slightly fussy appearance
- Might benefit from another optical input
- Some rivals offer on board streaming
Introduction - What is the Neo iDSD?
The iFi Audio Neo iDSD is a DAC and preamp with headphone capability. This is in fact the same basic description that one can apply to the ZEN DAC MkII and indeed a host of other devices we have tested in recent years. As you may surmise then, we’re not looking at the iNeo DSD because it does something radical. We are in fact looking at the Neo iDSD because of its relationship to the ZEN DAC MkII.
For £160, the ZEN DAC MkII is an absurdly good product. More than simply being sensible, no nonsense engineering, it has a remarkable level of genuinely innovative thinking, judged almost regardless of price. This logically asks what happens if you give them more budget. At £800, the Neo iDSD is considerably more expensive and, as we shall cover, it does a fair bit more with it too. The questions that need to be asked are, are these improvements sufficient to justify the price increase and does the product that results cut it against the competition at the price point?
Two small addenda need to be covered before we get stuck in to this one. The first is that, at the time of writing (late December 2021), the Neo iDSD seems to be being offered as a pack with the iPurifier 3 and iPurifier 2 which are inline filters for the USB and S/PDIF inputs. As this sample showed up prior to these devices being added to the bundle, they have not been tested. The second is that what has been tested is the iPower Elite external linear PSU, which was supplied with the unit and has been used for sections of testing.
Specification and Design
When I began reviewing equipment for AVForums, the threshold of ‘decoding acceptability’ for DACs was 192kHz PCM. Over the years it has increased to the point where that same threshold; the point where you go “yeah, that’s state of the art” is 768kHz PCM with DSD 512 support. It’s largely irrelevant that files you play on the DACs have just about increased to the point where the original 192kHz PCM threshold might be useful. The good news for a number of people though is that the iFi is entirely state of the art. The 768kHz PCM and DSD 512 benchmarks are hit (with DXD support too) and there is the added facility of MQA decoding as well. The long and the short of it is that you’re unlikely to find yourself unable to play something in the next decade.
The mechanics by which the Neo iDSD does this is related to the ZEN DAC (and indeed other members of the ZEN family). These products do not make use of the ESS family of DACs and instead iFi employs Texas Instruments silicone for decoding. As this is a four channel DAC, it allows the iDSD to be naturally balanced. In keeping with other iFi devices, there is a fair bit of emphasis on the wider circuit that this is employed in. The company uses what it calls its Neo Engine which is a microprocessor controlled interface between the inputs and the decoding. An extremely high quality clock serves to ensure that, pretty much regardless of what you elect to connect to it, the iDSD will decode it with negligible jitter.
The analogue side of the iDSD reflects the same attention to detail. There’s a roll call of op amp based outputs, TDK and muRata capacitors, alongside FET based switching. The message is that everything that the iDSD does is done as well as it can be. This message doesn’t differ that radically from the ZEN products but there’s more components mentioned here and greater emphasis on the output stage.
Something that’s also worth noting is that the iDSD is actually the equivalent of two ZEN products because the Bluetooth implementation is identical to the ZEN Blue MkII. This means you get the most comprehensive collection of supported formats I have ever seen and the ability to handle (in truncated form) up to 96kHz audio should you have an LDAC equipped source. The presence of a digital out on the ZEN Blue MkII means that this isn’t quite the killer blow that it could be because you can use it with other DACs but nevertheless, if you do make regular use of Bluetooth though, there’s not much at the price that gets anywhere near it.
This is joined by three physical inputs. There’s a USB-B connection supported by one optical and one coaxial input. There are rivals that offer more but, judged against most products at the price, it should be enough for most needs. Outputs are made via a single set of XLR connections, a set of RCA outputs and 6.35mm and 4.4mm headphone connections, ensuring that the iFi has the means to run balanced in all configurations. The volume control fitted operates exclusively in the digital domain and you can use the iDSD as a preamp or line level device; a concept made simpler by the inclusion of a small but perfectly usable remote control.
As standard, the iDSD is powered by a 5V wall wart PSU but iFi has included the same signal plus power USB connection as the ZEN DAC which means you can eliminate the mains plug if you wish. Alternatively, you can spend an extra £299 on the iPower Elite. This is a linear PSU available in 5, 12, 15 and 24V models for use with iFi’s own equipment and other company products too. I am aware that the response of a considerable swathe of AVForums towards add on devices of this nature has a certain healthy scepticism so it’s worth noting a few things in its favour. The first is that iFi applies little to no hard sell to needing the Elite with the iDSD. Everything you need to run it without is supplied and the DAC has achieved a great deal of success without it.
The second is that the specification of the iPower Elite is impressive even when taking into account the asking price. As well as a thoroughly comprehensive specification (one which might arguably make more sense in the higher voltage offerings but nevertheless won’t hurt at 5V either), it is equipped with active noise cancellation that works in a similar vein to noise cancelling headphones; where noise is studied in real time and an identical but reversed phase signal is generated to cancel it out. As with all devices of this nature, its efficacy will depend in part on what issues affect the mains going into it but it’s more than a nice metal box.
The iDSD itself is a slightly more mixed bag aesthetically. It is far from unattractive and it does come across as somewhat fussy. There’s a display which gives volume, sample rate and input information, plus a power and input selector button as well as the volume control. Where the ZEN devices take their simple but distinctive casework and make the result look both straightforward and smart, the iDSD doesn’t quite have the same courage of its convictions. In its mitigation though, you can use it standing on one end which is potentially very handy and it is indisputably well made.
The good news for a number of people though is that the iFi is entirely state of the art
How Was the Neo iDSD Tested?
The iFi has been tested with and without the power supply, receiving a signal from a Roon Nucleus, iFi ZEN Stream over USB and an LG 55B7 OLED TV over optical. An Oppo Find X2 Neo Android phone has been used for Bluetooth testing. It has been used with the Cambridge Audio Edge A over XLR and a Naim Supernait 3 via RCA and the preamp tested with an XTZ A2-400 power amp. Speakers used have been the Focal Kanta No1 and Q Acoustics Concept 30. Headphone testing has been undertaken with the Focal Clear MG and Meze Audio LIRIC. Material used has been FLAC, AIFF, DSD, Tidal, Qobuz and some on demand and broadcast TV.
More: Audio Formats
Something that has become apparent over the time that the iDSD has been here is that iFi Audio is doing increasingly well at having a house sound. The decision to stick with Texas Instruments leaves you with a presentation that is slightly different to both the ESS and AKM presentations and one that I suspect I am hardwired to be fond of. There’s a propulsive energy to the iDSD that just works for me in a way that I suspect dates back to the Naim ND5 XS I used as a test source for many years being similarly equipped.
The iFi is not a carbon copy of this sound though and neither is it trying to be. Instead, there is some of the same effortless propulsive force and rhythmic energy at work but this is matched with a tonal balance that is sweeter and richer than either the Naim or the more contemporary Bluesound Node. Listen to the stunning 24/96 Qobuz stream of Sturgill Simpson’s All Around You and the iFi is almost as lush and sweet as the AKM equipped devices but possessed of a greater rhythmic assurance than almost all of them. In a way that the ZEN DAC embodies this in miniature, the iDSD is an elegant demonstration that there is more to this DAC business than simply sticking a chip in a box.
In some ways though, good as it is, using the iFi as a line level DAC is almost wasteful because the real meat of its abilities comes from employing the extra functionality. That Bluetooth connection isn’t markedly better than it is in its ZEN relative but here it is an extra ribbon to an already fairly enticing bow. It is an exceptionally transparent preamp too. Gain can be set exactly and it is utterly linear in use. Partnered with the XTZ, the iDSD makes for a very compelling system indeed and I see no reason to suspect that the performance with active speakers won’t be as good.
It’s as a headphone amp that the iDSD both shines and demonstrates the purpose of the iPower Elite. Connecting the Clear MG to the iDSD results in a superb listening experience. The tonal match between the two devices is a fine one and it means that Tunng’s wonderfully quirky Tunng Presents… Dead Club is a truly magnificent experience. This is an intimate sounding album that often sounds its best on headphones and that’s certainly the case here. The iFi ensures that the Focal receives the information it needs to generate a spacious and convincing soundstage. The tonality and that same innate timing makes its way across as a matter of course.
I would say though, even if you are wholly opposed to the idea of external PSUs, the performance of the iDSD takes a step forward with it present that is hard to ignore. The Clear MG is not a hard headphone to drive but the simple expedient of there being more current delivered via the iPower Elite ensures that higher listening levels sound sweeter and less strained. If I were buying the iFi with a view to using it mainly as a headphone amp, I would certainly be prepared to budget for the external PSU at a later date. In a sense, it’s the same leap that the ZEN DAC makes when moved from USB power to a dedicated PSU writ large with better components.
In some ways though, good as it is, using the iFi as a line level DAC is almost wasteful because the real meat of its abilities comes from employing the extra functionality
iFi Audio Neo iDSD DAC Review
My only real gripe with the iFi isn’t a failing so I will list it here and you can decide if it applies to you. It comes from the price point that the iDSD weighs in at. It offers sparkling performance for £800 but the context of how you will choose to use it is important. If you are taking a USB feed from a media PC, NAS or similar, it works well. If you need to add an actual streaming interface - which iFi Audio now does make in the form of the Stream - it climbs to a point where devices like the Arcam ST60 exists and, while it can’t match the spec of the iFi, it’s a joy to use and it sounds fantastic. At this point, the costs of getting a signal to your DAC may mean you consider something else.
If you have your system mapped out though and that doesn’t apply, you need to listen to the iDSD. Referencing the original questions from the intro, you can reasonably argue that it doesn’t necessarily reinvent the ideas that are present in the ZEN units. What it does instead though is build on them and create a product that is seriously capable but never anything less than fun with it. Throw in the comprehensive spec, scope to upgrade with the iPower Elite and you have a product that comes Highly Recommended.
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