mcgsxr's review of the iFi Nano iDSD LE

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mcgsxr

mcgsxr's review of the iFi Nano iDSD LE
« on: 25 Jan 2017, 05:15 pm »
iFi Nano iDSD LE Review

I reached out to fellow Audiocircle member (and iFi contact) PEZ as I had an interest in learning more about the smallest and most affordable unit in the iFi fleet that could be used with my iPad or iPhone 6s.  He agreed to send me out a unit, and as per the review agreement iFi uses, I agreed to post my experience with it.  The unit arrived promptly, and communication was excellent throughout the process.

Unboxing

I don’t buy a lot of new gear – I have a history of surfing the classifieds for lightly used gear where the depreciation has been eaten by at least 1 past user.  I have bought some gear new (a Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11 as an example) so I know what quality packaging is.  I received the unit brand new in the shrink wrap, sent by US Postal to Canada.  I slit open the shipping bag, to unveil the iFi unit it in its long cardboard box (coffin? – riffing on the skeleton they use for pics in their promotions!).  What initially appears to be a box, is actually a box in a sleeve.  Careful pushing and prodding results in the sleeve sliding off, and the inner box revealed.  The top of that box comes off and inside you find the unit itself, and a smaller box of accessories.





The accessories include a usb cable, a short RCA to RCA cable, 4 stick on feet, a mat to rest the unit on (and I assume to use when stacking with a phone to prevent scratches) and 2 bands for stacking with a phone or DAP.  Lots of quality included items.  Nice touch when you buy a piece, but at the price point it is over the top!



The impression is immediately one of quality and class.  When you drop $150 on a small piece of gear, you might expect to receive a quality unit, but I was surprised at the overall quality of EVERYTHING included.  I love how smooth the volume control is during operation, it just flows in hand making it easy to find a great volume setting and make minor adjustments simply.  Those intangibles often make a big impression on the user experience – I know it did for me.

The unit falls to hand with solidity that inspires confidence.  It just feels like a small brick.  Reminds of of how I felt when I bought my NuForce HEM8’s and they arrived in a Pelican 1010 box.  That too was something that felt really classy in hand, and the iFi Nano LE feels just like that.  You know you have a quality piece in your hands.



Warm up/break in

It was literally cold out of the mailbox, so I brought it into the house and let it warm up to room temperature.  I then plugged it into a usb port to charge for 24 hours as suggested.  I saw the blue light on top and figured I was good.  I later connected the unit to my iPad 2 via a camera connection kit to verify functionality.  Once proven functional, I removed it from the iPad and connected it up to my main 2 channel rig.  This would be easier to arrange to leave on 24/7 and run in the LE.  If you are not into that kind of thing, no problem.  You can smugly assume that I wasted 125 hours of anticipation like a chump and we can both move on!





Systems and details

In order to give this DAC a good run and figure out how best I might use it I employed it in 2 different setups.  My 2 channel rig in the basement to see how it would hold up in that environment, and a transportable setup.  Full system details for each below.

2 channel system details

•   Server - dedicated netbook running Logitech Media Player
•   5TB drive of FLAC and some WAV – mostly 16/44.1 but some higher rez of 24/88.2, 24/96, 24/176 and 24/192
•   iPeng 9 app including in app for control of LMS   
•   Player - Pogoplug hacked running Linux (fooled a plug PC into thinking it is a Logitech Touch)
•   M2Tech Hiface 2 asych usb-spdif converter
•   Bolder Nitro digital cable (WBT connectors)
•   Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11 (Bolder modified)
•   Bolder Cable Nitro analog IC’s (Eichmann bullet connectors)
•   NuForce AVP-16 pre/pro (used as 2 channel preamp in bypass mode)
•   Audio Refinement Multi 2 amplifier
•   Focal Electra 906 speakers
•   Bolder Cable Nitro PC’s for amp, preamp and DAC
•   Speaker wire is CL2 Monoprice in wall (I have a media closet)
•   Room treatments are a mix of DIY and pro built panels and bass traps
•   Room is an open basement space – approx. 20x24x7.5

Home transportable system details

•   Server - dedicated netbook running Logitech Media Player
•   5TB drive of FLAC and some WAV – mostly 16/44.1 but some higher rez of 24/88.2, 24/96, 24/176 and 24/192
•   Player - iPad 2 running ios 9.5.3
•   iPeng 9 app including in app purchase playback   
•   Penon Audio silver usb a- usb b cable
•   NuForce HEM8 iems with Spin fit tips (not as isolating as my Comply’s, but way easier to remove and reinsert for a conversation with the family)



Musical preferences

Uhhh, all over the place.  I listen to tons of different stuff, so the easiest way to describe it would be to say not a lot of opera, true country, or much R&B.  Other than that a long playlist of mine could easy span 6 decades, and 6-7 genres including jazz, rock, alternative, electronic, rap, classical and blues.  I grew up playing violin, stand up bass and trombone.  I later dabbled with electric bass, electric guitar, trumpet and classical guitar.  Here is a sample 20 song list I pulled together to give me some insights about the LE.

Sample playlist

1.   Nucleus - Alan Parsons Project – Nucleus – I Robot MFSL – 16/44.1
2.   Reality – Los Angeles Jazz Quartet – Look to the East – 16/44.1
3.   No more “I love you’s” – Annie Lennox – Medusa – 16/44.1
4.   The lover of beirut – Anuoar Brahem – The Astounding Eyes of Rita – 16/44.1
5.   You’d be so nice to come home to – Art Pepper – The Best Jazz Sound – 24/192 (iPad is limited to 24/96 so some downsampling occurred on the transportable setup, but not the 2 channel rig)
6.   Compared to what – Les McCann & Eddie Harris – Atlantic Jazz Legends Sampler – 16/44.1
7.   Guess I’m doing fine – Beck – Sea Change – 24/88.2
8.   Hunter – Bjork – Greatest Hits – 16/44.1
9.   Marble halls – Enya – Shepherd Moons – 16/44.1
10.   Come hell or high water – Everything but the Girl – Baby, The Starts Shine Bright – 16/44.1
11.   Just dippin – Snoop Doggy Dogg – No Limit – 16/44.1
12.   Oxygene, Part IV – Jean Michelle Jarre – Oxygene – 24/96
13.   Breathe – Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon (25th Anniversary Remix) – 16/44.1
14.   Vere Meininga – Ellen Sejersted Bodtker – SONaR – 24/96
15.   The Traitor – Herbie Hancock – Man-Child – 24/96
16.   Without Me – Eminem – Curtain Call: The Hits – 16/44.1
17.   Elektronauts/Bumper (Pump DJ’s Mix) – Paul Oakenfold – Ibiza CD1 – 16/44.1
18.   Also Sprach Zarathustra – Eumir Deodata – Prelude – 24/192 (iPad is limited to 24/96 so some downsampling occurred on the transportable setup, but not the 2 channel rig)
19.   Smooching – Mark Knopfler  - Local Hero HDCD Remaster – 16/44.1
20.   Groovy side – Stephane Huchard – Panamerican – 24/88.2

Summary

I have owned a 2 channel music system (speakers) for over 30 years.  From living at home, to university, to an apartment, to our first townhome, and into the home I live in today.  Music replay for pleasure has always been a staple for me.  I care about music, and I care about how it sounds.  Clearly iFi does too.  Using this Headamp/DAC in both my systems was musically satisfying.  That is always my first qualifier.  If I am less inclined to listen after inserting a piece of gear into any of my setups, I know that it won’t last.  I kept coming back to the LE in the transportable setup.

In my “big rig” I found the iFi to work just fine.  No odd sounds, no glitches at all during the 125 hour burn in period.  No loss of connection or other issues that can drive folks batty.  I found the sound to be good, and engaging.  Was it the equal of my Bolder modified Grant Fidelity TubeDAC?  No.  But it was engaging and I did enjoy listening to it in that context.  I also doubt that the intended use of the LE is in a setup like my 2 channel setup.  It can work there though, so if you are starting out (or simplifying) and don’t need a remote, you could implement this as a DAC/Preamp and get a TON of value.

I have recently been enjoying more and more the option to listen to my collection at home via wifi.  I have spent 10+ years going to the basement to enjoy my 2 channel setup in the sound proofed basement.  I still do, but the option of grabbing a set of iems and an ios device wherever I happen to be is quite alluring.  Does the addition of the CCK, usb cable and LE increase the cludge factor?  Absolutely.  My daughter said it looks like I could use a “breakfast in bed” tray for that mess you carry around. 

But does it sound better?  Well, that is where the proof in the pudding is most felt.  I found the combo of the LE and my NuForce HEM8’s to be really something. 

•   Articulation of detail?  Check.
•   Treble clarity?  For sure.
•   Separation of instruments?  In spades.
•   Engaging decay of cymbals and reverb?  2nd only to my experience with Maggie 1.6’s.
•   Bass impact and pace?  All over the place.
•   A holistic musically satisfying experience?  Oh baby, you bet.

Drawbacks?  None from a sound perspective for me.  The only thing I can say is that although it is small, it is not TINY.  For a full sized 2 channel setup, it could actually do the job, though only for a PC front end of course as the LE has only a USB input. 

For use in a transportable setup, it can work, but between it and the required cabling, it does get a lot more complex to physically carry around.  For use in a truly portable setup, I am not sure. 

I have ordered a lightning CCK so I can try this LE with my iPhone or my daughter’s iPod Touch 5th gen.  I continue to let the LE break in, and will add to this once I receive the lightning CCK.

Thanks again to iFi for the chance to put an ear on this piece. 

Pez

Re: mcgsxr's review of the iFi Nano iDSD LE
« Reply #1 on: 26 Jan 2017, 09:01 pm »
Mark,
I gotta say, based on what you reported here it sounds like the Nano iDSD LE is voiced similarly to other iFi gear. It might not have all the features and options in the Micro Line and yet it's sonics are so good they don't make you miss the home rig. I don't think I would want to travel with something much bigger OR smaller than the Nano line, IEMatch and a pair of IEMs. I have yet to hear an amp smaller with sonics that match the original iDSD nano. I haven't heard the new LE yet so it's great to read Marks info here.  :thumb: I appreciate the thorough and thoughtful review!

JLM

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Re: mcgsxr's review of the iFi Nano iDSD LE
« Reply #2 on: 26 Jan 2017, 10:05 pm »
Good review Mark.

You've set the bar high for us upcoming iTube 2 auditioners.

mcgsxr

Re: mcgsxr's review of the iFi Nano iDSD LE
« Reply #3 on: 31 Jan 2017, 05:23 pm »
I am delayed in writing anymore.  The unit is burning in for another 8 straight days as we are on a family vacation and I was not going to bring any gear that is not mine.

More when I get home.



mcgsxr

Re: mcgsxr's review of the iFi Nano iDSD LE
« Reply #4 on: 7 Feb 2017, 11:31 pm »
Two weeks later and the CCK has not arrived (too cheap to pay full retail locally!) so I will have to post my final conclusions without having tried the LE with an iPhone.  I know it can work, since I was successful in using it with my iPad 2.

I do find that although the wiring and extra bulk can be a hassle, but I do want to plug it all in and listen this way more than just fire the iems into the iPad or phone.  The added musical enjoyment is there.  Music sounds better through the LE than directly out of the iPad, and the ability to truly enjoy hi rez in my wifi environment is excellent.

I suspect (and these are simply my own suspicions) that the LE is created from the larger, more expensive gear that iFi sells.  That means that the excellent volume control and DAC found in some of their other gear appears to trickle down nicely in this piece.  The addition of the battery and thus the ability to run this with my iDevices is great.

If I ran a desktop setup of any kind I would be buying this unit.  It brings hi rez affordably, has a great volume control, can be used in a transportable setup, and for the $ is a great leap forward.  I could see an excellent setup using active speakers with this, and even a cool setup using a Pi as a source into this.

I have not tried all the small form factor DAC/headamps out there, but this one should be on your list if you are looking to bring hi rez on a budget to your desktop or portable setup.  A cool differentiator is that it also happens to bring DSD to the party – though I could not play with that as I don’t have any of that s/w.

Thanks again to Pez and the iFi folks for letting me get an ear on the Nano iDSD LE!   :thumb: