In his first article for Hifi Pig Simon Jelffs visits Soho in London for the launch of the iFi iDSD Nano Black Label portable headphone amp/DAC

Soho, that bohemian, leafy suburb of London will always be synonymous with fine music-making thanks to Ronnie Scott’s famous club, scene of so many legendary gigs over the decades. It has become a mecca for music-lovers and it was just around the corner from this hallowed ground on November 2nd that the British audio-electronics company iFi-Audio chose to announce to the world’s press its brand new product; the iDSD Nano Black Label portable headphone amplifier/DAC. Covering the event for Hifi Pig’s esteemed readers, I was only too happy to be invited along!

The location for the global launch of the Nano iDSD was the imposing House of St Barnabus; a two-story Georgian building just off Soho Square Gardens. Unmissable with its Union Jack flying and the words ‘Charity House’ emblazoned in beautiful period tiling across the façade, the organisation has been helping people experiencing homelessness since 1846. For the past four years it’s been run as a non-for-profit members club hosting music and entertainment events as well as showcasing visual art from emerging artists. Pictures of the club’s various benefactors lined the beautiful interior rococo walls and among the many famous faces, from the musical world I recognised Jarvis Cocker and Giles Peterson. In any case, the altruistic, classy and vibrant nature of the venue seemed to me to be in keeping with iFi’s corporate vision. As Vicky Pickles, Head of Global Sales and Marketing, explained in a refreshingly succinct and laid-back presentation; iFi is dedicated to making premium audiophile products that are realistically affordable to all, something that instantly chimed a chord with me!

At the far end of a packed reception room, iFi techie Owen Delehedy stood behind an impressive array of equipment laid out on a long table. On closer inspection it became apparent that there were three separate headphone systems set-up but my attention was instantly drawn to the star of the show over in the far corner. Conspicuous by its size, the tiny Nano is no bigger than a cigarette packet and not much heavier than a mobile phone. The simple, elegant design, plain black punctuated only with a subtle touch of orange writing for control labelling, gave me a positive first impression. The unit was tactile, well-made, solid, and highly portable. Finally, I thought, something I could realistically want to carry around! When I saw the price my excitement grew. An affordable, portable headphone amp/DAC for only £200… surely this was too good to be true?

The demo Nano was connected to a laptop running Tidal, paired with Audio Technica MSR headphones. Good choice, no need for me to get my own set of AT’s out! So where was the catch? Well this is the really interesting part. It’s clear from its high specs that iFi don’t consider the Nano as merely a “Black Label Lite”, a token gesture aimed at appeasing budget end audiophiles like myself. Instead it is a carefully researched and targeted product made with the same components as its chunkier, EISA award-winning bigger brother: (Burr-Brown True Native DAC chipset with DSD256/PCM384/DSD).

In his presentation IFi Technical Director Vincent Luke explained what everyone knows, but which so few audio companies seem prepared to acknowledge or address: times have changed and lots of people listen to music on-the-go via phones and tablets as well as on dedicated mobile music players. Gone are the days when wearing over-sized cans would attract a tirade of abuse from bemused bystanders! No, it’s the norm now and many people are walking around with over-ear headphones and IEMs (some of them half-decent!) that their handheld devices are simply not capable of powering. In fact Vincent estimated that only 20-30% of the headphone’s potential is being utilised, a considerable loss.  And this is where the Nano comes in. It is of course less powerful than the original Black Label (c.285 mW compared to a massive 4W), but that power is still more than 10 times that of a top notch phone and more than sufficient to drive the appropriately matched headphones e.g. around the £200 mark. To make another Black Label analogy; why lug a whole bottle around with you when you only need one drink? The practical answer is to take a miniature, i.e. take the Nano! The fact that the Nano is their first product to include Master Quality Authenticated file rendering is further proof of iFi’s commitment to the Nano. They are clearly proud of this technology, as the MQA team had also been invited along to the gig. MQA’s Sarah Roberts explained how this complex bit of computer wizardry, recently integrated into Tidal, enables the listener to take full advantage of the highest definition audio files available, Tidal Studio Masters and experience true master quality.

So what does the Nano sound like? Well, for the brief period I had a chance to listen at the event I completely lost myself in the music. Always a good sign, I even started tapping my foot along, marvelling at the Naim-like superb pace the unit was producing, something I rarely get from an audio headphone experience.  Toggling between the Nano and the original Black label iDSD I couldn’t discern any noticeable differences using the same headphones. Of course moving onto the other systems on display there were clear increments in sound quality. The mid-range system, targeting “Headphone enthusiasts/Serious (which I think means rich) pre-amp people” was more of a traditional home-based separates set-up. It consisted of the Micro iCanSE headphone amp/phono stage, the Micro iTube2 to add the classic “valve sound” and the Micro iDac2, (DSD256/PCM384) with claims of achieving a sound “close to vinyl”, connected via a dedicated Micro iUSB3. This system without the rather ornate Meze 99 Classic headphones would set the listener back over one and a half grand and as expected did sound rather good, but wasn’t exactly what I’d call portable!  The esoteric heavyweight combo for ultimate home headphone music appreciation consisted of the Micro iDAC2, the Pro iCAN, Pro iESL and a pair of Stax SR 009 Electrostatic “Earspeakers”. Obviously it sounded incredible and showcased the fact that iFi has all customer bases covered. They even had their own beautifully designed compact “Retro” stereo on show playing some nice-sounding background music. On closer inspection this unassuming little system turned out to have Bluetooth and all modern digital capacity as well as 6 valves, all for a very reasonable £2K. Whatever your need and budget it seems there is a quality product in iFi’s range that has been specifically designed to match your requirements. I was impressed that this attention to quality extended right down to useful products like the Ear Buddy, a £20, 3.5mm jack adapter to reduce hiss and increase resolution, which I immediately ordered.

All iFi products boast class A technology, contain the finest components and are very stylish and practical. They are clearly in touch with the computer audio generation and excitingly plan to develop even smaller products. I was impressed by the Nano and also by iFi’s astute marketing and cutting-edge technology. They really do appear to be trying to meet the needs of the modern audiophile and I for one left the House of Charity with a definite feeling of benevolence! I will of course be putting the Nano through its paces in a thorough review to come but as far as I’m concerned, so far there doesn’t seem to be anything “iffy” about iFi!!

Simon Jelffs

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