iFi is one of our favorite audio device makers. The company’s signature Micro iDSD DAC/amp series has won the hearts of tons of mobile audiophiles (including myself). I use the latest “Black Label” model quite often, as it produces the most rockin’, expansive, and fun output in my portable DAC collection.
The problem with the Micro iDSD has always been that its size pushes on the boundary of “portability”. iFi has recognized that and has been hard at work to debut something considerably reduced in size but not sound quality, which comes in the form of the new xDSD. This synopsis run through the to-the-point usability and audio details, and addresses if iFi’s newest attempt is successful or not.
The xDSD isn’t just a shrunken down iDSD device, it’s a complete overhaul. It looks like nothing iFi has built in the past. This is a change in philosophy for a company known for putting construction and performance above all other things, like size or weight. For the first time, with the xDSD, it looks like the mobility game is catching up with the company.
- Slim, lightweight, and unique design
- Bluetooth capability with aptX support
- MQA and DSD playback support
- <1 ohm output impedance up to 600 ohm power
- Great sounding Burr-Brown DAC chip
- Smudge-prone, cheap-feeling exterior material
- Xbass+/3D+ switch has mind of its own
- Battery life nothing to write home about
- Bluetooth audio could be better
- Sound quality a step behind the Micro iDSD BL
What it’s like to use
> It goes without saying that the design of xDSD is standout, but in-hand, is overall underwhelming. This DAC/amp is price-aggressive (compared to iFi’s other offerings and a direct competitor like the metal-clad Chord Mojo), and unfortunately in this case, the xDSD’s exterior does not pull bang-for-the-buck magic like a company such as Fiio manages. The build is no where near as solid as the ~ $300 Fiio Q5 DAC/amp, for instance, and that device packs Bluetooth capability as well.
> Smudges on this primarily glossy exterior are real. Like many smartphones nowadays, it’ll look attractive out of the box, but will live its life looking icky. iFi should have just utilized that smooth, matte black section on the rear for the whole exterior.
> We like how close the dimensions of the xDSD are to a deck of cards. It stacks better than the thicker Mojo.
> We’re assuming that the xDSD replaces iFi’s original flagship portable DAC solution, the Micro iDSD. Being reduced in size ten-fold, it makes sense that a lot of features were dropped, like the surmountably powerful amp, awesomely tactile volume knob and switches, and huge battery. Only a couple signature features were maintained, like the XBass+ and 3D+ analog signal boosters and “Listen”/”Measure” frequency response filter switch. And for better or worse, despite the compacted size of the unit, iFi continues utilizing a full USB-A port for digital input, instead of switching to the more practically sized microUSB or USB-C. We’re guessing that this is in a large part Apple’s fault. In order to pull a digital signal from an iPhone, you have to use Apple’s CCK adapter.
> While the new volume wheel functions fine, it’s a far-cry from the robust and smooth knob from days past. This one looks and feels like cheap plastic, and its embedded placement/limited access makes it feel like an afterthought. The attenuation is now also digitally-controlled (the wheel has an endless spin). An RGB LED within the center button now signifies the volume level (similar to what Chord does on the Mojo).
> The power button could also use some refining. The entire volume wheel depresses for the function (and takes a pretty hard press to do so). You hold it for a couple seconds until lit. That functions simply, but the Bluetooth-enabling/disabling switch is baked into it. Holding it longer (but only upon powering it on) is how to switch it to Bluetooth mode. This means, to switch it out of Bluetooth mode, you have to shut it off first and do the operation again. Furthermore, shutting off is a little weird. You hold the button to shut off as expected, but you see the light turn white until you let go. The user won’t know what the white light means initially, but you figure out that this is the signifier that you can release and it’ll shut off. There’s no reason to have this; shutting the light off with a hold is all that’s needed.
> Additionally, due to the compact factor, the XBass+ and 3D+ switches have now been baked into a single button. With a button press, there’s LEDs that show if you have either/or on, or both at the same time. A problem that iFi needs to fix is that the device often powers on with a random selection. It should remain with the setting you left it with. I don’t personally care for these sound-altering features, and was often annoyed to find that they were enabled on their own. So I have to check it each time I turn the device on.
> Although the full USB port is maintained from the xDSD’s bigger brother, it no longer handles the task of charging. There’s a separate microUSB port dedicated to the task. We’re guessing this is a result of the device’s reduced battery time – now you can listen and charge at the same time. The charging indicator LED under the charging port is wonky though. It sometimes wouldn’t light up when I plugged it in (so I had no idea if it really was charging). That could maybe be because it was mostly charged, but there’s no indication of the current battery capacity).
> So now to the most important part – How does the xDSD sound? It’s apparent that this is an iFi player. A lot of the rockin’ energy that we loved from the Micro iDSD line is here. We’re glad that iFi places so much focus on the experience; for most people it’s not all just about accuracy.
> That said, this isn’t a 1:1 experience with the company’s preceding flagship mobile DAC. There is a performance consequence to the compacting, though it’s not as anywhere near as proportionally drastic.
> Specifically, there’s a hint of looseness/laid-back-ness throughout, where the Micro iDSD BL is noticeably tighter. Depth (or the finishing of notes) is an immediate consequence. Bass, for instance, is plenty authoritative and impactful, but the low-end intensity and decay is held back. Similarly, the treble, while pleasantly clean and present, can lack body and extension. The mid-range nicely carries a lot of the engaging qualities that we know iFi for – satisfyingly open, airy, and space-filling. Though, soundstage and imaging is pretty average.
> Mind you, these are nitpicks as a result of the high bar that the Micro iDSD BL set, which excelled at all these aspects. We think that iFi pushed a little too far, too fast in the compact direction, and couldn’t quite maintain the top-end composure that they’re known for.
> This in no way means that the xDSD is a write-off. In the grand scheme of things, it’s an excellent-sounding DAC, with an awesomely balanced signature and expansive sound – more than many of its rivals can attest to. If you’re not too hung up on pin-drop details (though, speaking within the audiophile realm, we wouldn’t blame you), and appreciate a delivery that puts an equal focus on fun energy and immersion. Listening to the xDSD, it’s easy to forget about analytics and just fall into the enjoyment of the music.
> Regarding Bluetooth output, we’d save it for those special instances, rather than primary usage. The xDSD’s moving sound signature is maintained, but quality/detail takes a noticeable hit. It may be the 384 kbps cap of the aptX codec (of which, in our opinion, is negligence to omit support for the higher rate aptX HD or even LDAC). The Bluetooth output lays back the quality, making the xDSD sound more like an entry-level DAC.
So the xDSD turns out to be a mixed bag. It’s our opinion that iFi should have gradually shrunken down its flagship portable DAC/amp, rather than make such the huge leap that it did. The sonic consequence is certainly detectable to the discerning audiophile. The xDSD’s saving grace may be its aggressive price-point. It relatively offers a lot for $400. But numerous questionable aspects in build quality and usability don’t help it. For instance, it feels like a toy compared to the direct competitor from Fiio, the metal-clad Q5, which also has Bluetooth capability and balances liveliness and accuracy very well.
Furthermore, while the xDSD undercuts the Chord Mojo by around $100, the latter undoubtedly outputs more refined details (though, we’d say that the xDSD has a fuller, more immersive sound). We look forward to seeing how iFi refines the xDSD in the next generation. They have the foundation to make it one of the best mobile DACs.
Also See: iFi Micro iDSD Black Label DAC Synopsis