We’re a fan of external portable DACs. Smartphones have extremely limited options for high-res audio playback, and a portable DAC is a crucial accessory if you have capable headphones. Unlike the traditional desktop DAC, these devices are compact, have their own battery, and can be connected to the smartphone’s data port to handle the audio processing. We looked at the Chord Mojo DAC a bit ago and were impressed at how much performance Chord squeezed out of a device that fits within the palm of the hand.
This is a thriving market though, and the competition is fierce. There are other noteworthy and compelling devices out there, and one that we feel butts heads with the Mojo is the iFi Micro iDSD Black Label.
IFi has earned a top-end reputation in the audiophile community, and the Micro iDSD is one of most important devices. The “Black Label” version is the DACs second iteration, delivering some notable refinements and a classy new look. This Synopsis sums up what the Micro iDSD Black Label is about.
The Micro iDSD takes a different approach than the Mojo. It prioritizes features over compactness. So the size of the unit pushes on the boundaries of “portable”. Some may consider this a deal-breaker, but we feel that what it delivers makes up for it. This is the most powerful mobile DAC we’ve seen.
- Tons of features
- Probably the most powerful amp in its class
- Wide impedance scaling, from 8 to 600 ohms
- Very low output impedance, < 1 ohm
- Fine volume tuning
- Analog bass boost
- Huge battery, which can additionally charge another device
- Proven Burr-Brown DAC and DSD playback support
- Relatively big footprint, edging on the limit of “portable”
- Digital audio input is via an unfriendly USB-A port
- May have lots of features you don’t care about
- Volume level indicator not easily visible
- Cable for mobile use not included in box
- Toggles are prone to accidentally switching
What it’s like to use
- The unit is as premium as a metal build can supply. It’s almost simply a whole block of Aluminum, save for some shaved angles and steps. Whereas the original Micro iDSD just kept the metal’s silver exterior, this Black Label version introduces an inky, matte black finish. It certainly fits the “sexy” adjective and we feel it’s a nice update, being a subtle, not overdone flair that design really benefits from.
- There is one drawback from the update – the tiny carved out tick mark on the volume knob is barely visible now. Unless you’re in good lightning, you have to bring it close to your eyes to see where it’s set. IFi could have mitigated this by coloring the tick mark the same orange color that it made some of the text around the device.
- It’s a little physically cumbersome to pair the Micro iDSD with a smartphone, because of the unit’s size and heft. It’s footprint swallows up even big phones. It works if the pair is traveling in a backpack but not really if you want to carry it around or stuff it in your pocket. That said, it does stack well, because the mobile device, in a way, acts like the DAC’s display – nicely riding atop the chassis and fitting within the footprint. It’s still a brick, no less, but an ergonomic one.
- However, the fact that the cable has to have a USB-A female connector is annoying. For Android, USB-A female to USB-C with OTG (on-the-go) capability (needed to accept digital audio output from the USB port) isn’t widely available (fortunately, Amazon has a few good, inexpensive options). And the ergonomics when paired isn’t as nice as if the cable had more compact jacks on both ends.
- We don’t like how large the volume knob is, but have to commend it on how solidly it functions. It’s very firm and smoothly rotates. It doesn’t have “click” ranges, you can finely set it at any spot, which is superb.
- The standard headphone jack is a large 6.3mm type (suggesting that iFi wanted to make this thing friendly with a wide variety of setups). Fortunately, a 3.5mm adapter is included in the box.
- Like most portable DACs, the iDSD Micro is set up to plug-and-play in a computer or mobile device. However, iFi only ships a USB-A male to female cable to connect to a computer. Chord did the same thing with the Mojo. If these devices claim to be “portable” DACs, they should come with the appropriate cables to do so.
- The unit will automatically start charging when connected to a device (You’ll see a blue light lit around the connection port). This can be problematic if you don’t desire to draw power from your connected device, especially if that other device is on battery power too. Fortunately, there’s an easy way (though, not intuitive) around it. Turn on the device first (before connecting it) and it will only use it’s own battery power.
- To save power, when playback isn’t occurring, the unit will go into a standby mode (the light slowly cycles a green color on and off). The unit is still on in standby, but just a low-power mode. Once it detects the audio signal again, it immediately resumes.There color indicator also shows through a dot at the top of the unit, but it’s tiny. Besides the charging or standby light, when playback is occurring, it will display a color that indicates the sampling frequency range it’s outputting.
- Battery life was consistently solid in our use. It’s rated for up to 12 hours, but we saw more like 10-11 hours. Keep in mind that it differs based on volume and power output. We used the low-gain setting.
- There are a few fancy toggles that we’ll skip over here, like digital filter, pre-amp support, and even a polarity switcher, and just talk about the more likely used features.
- The Micro iDSD can handle power-hungry full-on headphones, even those with 600 ohms of resistance. A three-stage toggles ranges from Eco, Normal, or Turbo for roughly low impedance, 300 ohms, and 600 ohms headphones, respectively. That’s not all though. IFi takes it a step further offers a similar adjustment in the other direction for very low impedance headphones (which usually correspond to high-end Balanced Armature earphones). Dubbed IEMatch, it has levels from Normal, High Sensitivity, and Ultra Sensitivity. This magnitude of headphone support and friendliness is unprecedented. I’ll say it’s a godsend for my ultra low impedance and picky SE846 earphones – for once I hear an absolutely silent noise floor.
- What’s immediately noticeable is how full and powerful sounding this DAC is compared to others of its class. The benefit of the size and the powerhouse amp certainly shows. It detectably pushes a deeper, fuller-bodied punch out of the entire bass region of my Shure SE846, even compared to the excellent Chord Mojo.
- What comes with the amp’s power and the DACs prowess is an expansive soundstage. It opens the 3D space noticeably wider than a standard DAC would, and an airy/open presentation follows it.
- Compared to the original Micro iDSD, it’s mostly noticeable that the bass and treble have been tightened up. While not bad in the original, they could’ve still benefited from a resolution/definition boost, and that’s what iFi has done here. They’re cleaner, which aids detail conveyance and appreciation.
- As far as the sound signature, it slightly leans on the warm-side (bass has the largest presence). IFi does have an analog bass booster on the unit, but we think that the default bass will be plenty for most people. The treble follows closely behind, causing us to sometimes feel U-shaped kind of signature. But it’s not so much the mid-range being recessed, the other ranges are just so strong. There’s actually a lot of energy and lushness in the mids, and they shine when the track calls for it. Instruments strike boldly and vocals are tonally excellent.
- Speaking of the bass boost, iFi amp’d it substantially from the original Micro iDSD, where it was a minimal, mostly sub-bass boost. It now feels like a boost in the 6-9 db range, reaching up through the mid-bass range. It’s just too much. If iFi was going to do this, we would’ve liked to see another an extra stage for a lower boost option. That said, bassheads will love the amount of guilty pleasure. Because iFi is boosting in the analog (the already processed signal) instead of digital, the fidelity is maintained, just amp’d. So the result isn’t boomy but punchier and hardier.
- We’re not a fan of the 3D Holographic setting. It affects the sound signature too much. It tries for a “surround sound” experience, and does achieve it to an extent, but you end up with a treble-boosted, bright sound.
There’s a lot to consider with the iFi Micro iDSD Black Label portable DAC. While we think many folks will pass it off because of its relatively overbearing size, but we would say to first give it a shot. I did, and despite my initial reservation, the performance of this powerhouse was enough to win me over. Fortunately for iFi, the extra girth does result in a sound that trounces most other DACs of its class (in my opinion). It made my headphones sound more like a stereo system, and the smile that gets put on my face is money well spent.
That said, if this is something that you’re going to frequently carry out and about, then the Chord Mojo is the more suitable device. It’s comparable in terms of audio quality and significantly more travel-friendly. It may come down to what you value. The Micro iDSD has more features, bass boost, better battery life, and a fuller/wider sound. The Mojo is easier to use, pocket-able, and a slightly more musical and smoother listen. They’re comparable in price ~ $500.