UNBOXED: Reviewing the ifi Nano IDSD Black Label DAC
British-based audio wizards ifi have added the newest member to their line of super potent DAC's, and despite its unassuming form factor, the Nano IDSD Black Label is their most substantial showing yet.
The market for DAC's is a complicated one, mostly because it has a seemingly high entry barrier for the casual consumer. What helps the ifi nano separate itself from the rest of the pack is three main selling points: affordability, portability, and functionality.
Right off the bat, the $199 price tag is super affordable. That's not to say the ifi nano comprises anything for that value, in fact, a lot of features feel like icing on the cake at that price point. A light-weight all-metal unibody frame complements the small deck of card sized DAC. Nothing about the ifi nano feels economical, despite that entry-level price point. All factors considered, the DAC isn't a hassle to bring on the road, and a 10-hour battery gives enough juice for most use cases. Sitting on a desktop, the all-black aesthetic matches any assortment of gadgets.
Getting into the meat of the ifi nano, it's clear that they paid particular attention to every last detail. The front of the DAC has two 3.5mm outputs labeled iEMatch and Direct. While they mostly accomplish the same goal, the iEMatch is a little more sensitive to in-ear monitors.
The ifi nano also sports a Burr-Brown MultiBit chipset, capable of playing some different audio sources. It doesn't flinch when switching from PCM 384 to DSD 256, DXD to MQA. Yes, the ifi nano can playback MQA files without breaking a sweat. An LED indicator located next to the volume knob changes based on the format. It can be a little cumbersome to remember which is which, but as long as it doesn't flash to red, you are probably using it correctly.
Hooking up the ifi nano to your output means plugging a USB-female cable into your device. The same port is used for charging and reading data. Out of the box, ifi supplies a USB connection for most formats, but if you want to take advantage of another device, you have to buy a new cable. They are typically a few bucks, but it is the quintessential first world problem to an otherwise flawless product. Next to the USB-port is a switch that offers two filter options. 'Listen' is a minimum-phase Bezier filter that is used for, you guessed it, listening. The 'measure' option is a linear-phase Transient Aligned filter that is better for testing.
To the final point of the ifi nano, the sound is one of the best we have ever heard. Even the casual consumer can tell the difference when listening to their favorite music. It's the sort of experience that feels like you are rediscovering your favorite music for the first time. Your favorite album suddenly has depth and a soundstage like never before. Of course, all this is subjective to the listener, but I can confidently say that the ifi nano is one of the most sonically neutral DAC's I have ever used. For our testing, we primarily used a pair of 1More Quad Driver IEM's, using a series of consumer-level outputs (i.e., an old iMac, a newer MSI laptop, and a Google Pixel 2) across a few different music sources including Tidal web client, Spotify app, and local files.
The ifi nano feels like it fills a pretty serious void in the market. Audiophiles are typically a pretty niche club - read elitist - and I don't want to seem like I'm slandering audiophiles for that, but it can be intimidating to join. I think that the hobby is an incredibly enjoyable one and is fueled by people who are genuinely passionate about music to sound the way it should. What ifi brings to the table is a ladder for people to re-discover their favorite music. Even for retailers, it's an easy way to upsell headphones or display the benefits of exploring new ways to enjoy music.
The ifi nano hasn't exactly reinvented the wheel, but with a subtle combination of affordability, portability, and functionality, it sure feels that way.