David Blumestein take a listen to the iFi Nano iDSD Black Label Headphone Amp/DAC costing £199.

Rarely, if ever, have I classified a piece of gear, in this case a transportable rechargeable battery powered headphone amp/DAC as a no brainer. Sure, the unit has some flaws, nobody’s prefect, but at the price £199 you cannot fault it for what it is able to do in such a small package. I’m well aware of the gravity of that opening statement, but I stand by it.

DSD256, PCM 384, MQA, DXD, headphone amp and 3.5mm output capable of running on a battery charge for 10 hours which is impressive and should suffice for most days out and about. The headphone amp has TRRS balanced wiring and claims to offer all the advantages of balanced wiring, despite the actual amp being single-ended. It does everything it claims, and when was the last time a piece of gear delivered on so many promises.

The nano iDSD Black Label lets you choose between the ‘Listen’ (Minimum Phase Bezier Filter) and ‘Measure’ (Linear Phase Transient Aligned Filter) options and is switchable from the rear of the unit. The large front mounted analogue pot felt solid accurate. On the front you get a direct output and a iEMatch output. The latter is designed to reduce background noise, improve dynamic range and improve the control of volume on sensitive headphones.

Did I mention that it built like a brick outhouse and over the last week the unit, I am here to testify I hit it hard, slammed it into my satchel on the bus, on the train, in the underground, in the wet, in the cold, in the snow, (as much as thats possible in London) and it took the abuse without complaint or missing a beat.

For the review period I had at my disposal a choice of six DAPs which I dutifully connected and disconnected from the iFi nano iDSD Black Label. I could not get the device to hiccough. It functioned like a trooper. All of these players were connected via a generic OTG (On The Go) to Micro USB cable. The cables are easily available online and come at no great cost. In the scenarios in which tested the unit on the go, the generic cable performed admirably. I proceeded to connect my Samsung Android phone and eventually my Apple iPhone 6+ with Apple’s proprietary and more expensive cable. Same results, no better no worse in comparison, especially out and about.

Besides my travel Koss Port-a-Pro headphones, I tested with pairs of Audioquest Nighthawk and Meze Classic/Neo headphones. As much I enjoyed listening with the bigger, more expensive headphones, I felt the Koss provided a more realistic scenario for my testing purposes. The nano iDSD BL will output 20mW at 600 Ohms, 285mW at 30 and 200mW at 15.

I feel very confident in the iFi nano iDSD Black Label as a transportable workhorse DAC/headphone amplifier solution, but let’s not stop there.

I could envision a situation where I would be visiting a friend where I’d be the one bringing high resolution files and having to supply the DAC. Not being sufficiently motivated, taking my system down is NOT an option. I would want to find the path of least resistance: Enter the iFi nano iDSD Black Label. I set the device up in people’s home connected to their main systems, their computers, their powered speakers with myself and my partners in these endeavors being pleasantly shocked by the outcome. Listening to a full system where the DAC was transportable and battery powered did not seem to phase the systems or us. Am I ready to give up my full size traditionally powered DACs in favor of this transportable one? No, but, those without the benefit of such systems were really enjoying the sound, the spaciousness of it all and I was left wondering if many would be more than satisfied without investing more in their music playback system in the home?

I was not expecting the unit to be more than advertised, and as a headphone amp it did the business. The sound was appropriately loud and full, carrying its weight while simultaneously punching above it.

My DAPs sport just about every genre of music: Classical, Jazz, Funk, Acid Jazz, Pop, Ambient, Percussion, World Music and that dreaded Miscellaneous folder for all that defies description. Without the Black Label I was happy, with the Black Label I was getting lost not only in the music, but space and time. I missed stops on the train. I was late to appointments. Almost did without my favorite pizza in London.

Across the spectrum of the music, I was being treated to more of a show. This year, this month alone has been for new album releases and music. As I’ve been ankling about these past two weeks in London, the following have been in HEAVY rotation:

  • Django Django – Marble Skies,
  • Beth Hart & Joe Bonamassa – Black Coffee
  • Jamison Ross – All For One
  • Nils Frahm – All Melody
  • Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Wrong Creatures
  • Venetian Snares (Aaron Funk) – She Began To Cry Tears of-Blood Which Became Little Brick Houses When They Hit The Ground
  • First Aid Kit – Ruins
  • Bahamas – Earthtones

Listening to these new releases with and without the iFi Nano iDSD Black Label how much deeper the sound. The highs and lows were so much more defined. I was expecting this with the higher resolution and the devices DAC capabilities, but on traditional Redbook (16 bit 44.1 kHz) files the qualitative difference was/both startling and evident. You don’t expect to hear the instruments, so as to separate them, especially on the go, but this was indeed possible on the move: buses, trains and walking about town. Contrary to popular belief, you CAN take it with you…the Black Label brings . i-Fidelity to transportable gear at an every-man price.

AT A GLANCE

Conclusion

iFi has created a portable workhorse of DAC/Headphone amplifier. At the price, I can heartily recommend the unit. Yes, the sound may not be to everyone’s exact preference, but headphones play a big part there. A lot of factors at play here: headphones model/brand, DAP model/brand and lastly individuals’ level of hearing.

Build Quality:  The unit is built to last. It is sturdy and rugged. If I were to choose something portable/transportable with which to concuss, the iFi Nano DSD Black Label would be high on my list.

Sound Quality:  It is not just a portable/transportable solution. I could very well see some folks using this product as their desktop/system DAC. There are several sub £500 DACs out there which should be quaking in their boots right about now.

Value for Money:  At £199 this item is a steal, an absolute no-brainer. Even if you don’t own a DAP (portable player) it is great to be used with headphones connected to a phone/tablet /computer

Pros:  All of the above

Cons: The price makes it hard to quibble, like other manufacturers it would be nice to have a Micro USB cable in the box

David Blumenstein

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