From the Spirit of the Elders – A Review of the iFi Pro iDSD DAC & Headphone Amp

My sound impressions were written while listening to the HIFIMAN Sundara Planar Magnetic headphone. I have more expensive cans, like the LCD-3 or the HD800, but Sundara, in my opinion, possesses the least coloration to the sound. The Audeze is a little warm and the Sennheiser a little bright, but Sundara is magnificently neutral, allowing the voice of the source to come through better.

Another thing you should note is I set the Pro iDSD to GTO (Gibbs Transient Optimized filter) and Tube+, for the ultimate in musicality and tube-y goodness. You can turn off the vacuum tubes completely and run pure solid-state. Or, for a touch of the tube sound, you can set it to just “Tube”. “Tube+” is only for crooked savages, like myself, whereas the GTO filter is iFi’s attempt to make things sound less digital and more lifelike.

I don’t have much experience with Burr Brown chips. And by that I think I mean none. As I look back, I can’t recall a single device that carried one. That surprises me, because I always suspected I would enjoy them, since I love warm, organic tones, and that is what Burr Brown is famous for.

I gotta say, I thought it would be… I don’t know. Warmer? Maybe a muffled, veiled sort of affair? That’s silly, of course. These are professional grade chips. They’d never be veiled.

Indeed, the clarity on display is fantastic. It’s an effortless sort of clarity, too, without any sense of desperation. The Pro iDSD is not trying to be clear, it just is. There’s none of the franticness of lesser DACs, often observed in heightened treble or unnatural dynamics. This unit is smooth, clean, and mature.

The treble is rounded and sweet, with hints of warmth, which really helps the Sennheiser HD800 from becoming too strident. The violins of Salvatore Accardo – Antonio Vivaldi Le Quattro Stagioni are keen and sharp, but they never cut you. Don’t take that to mean the highs are rolled off or subdued. They are not. Meg White’s drums on The White Stripes can still murder you with the wrong headphones. iFi’s treble has simply attained an earthy quality that feels grounded and realistic.

Vocals have the awesome quality of sounding wet and organic, without thickness or veil. They are not shrouded, but sing out clear and deep, issued from the living moistness of a human throat. The artist is so vivid and tangible you half expect to smell their breath.

Likewise, instruments have all the harmonics needed to be fully realized. There’s purity in their tone, accompanied by exquisite detail and definition. Such a marriage of richness and articulation captures the heart, putting you under the thrall of the music for long sessions.

The low-end is so full and resonant. Yet it is never flabby or lacking in control. Wholesome bass notes fill out the music, adding seductive body to the presentation. With Tube+, it’s less about the detail of the bass and more about the soul. Unlike with drier signatures, texture is not as prevalent, but depth and lushness is at an all-time high. I’m not saying there isn’t texture and detail, but rather the music overshadows it. Which is the way it ought to be, in my opinion.

With pitch-black background, spacious staging, and superb depth rendering, iFi achieves a wondrous, holographic soundscape that envelops the listener, allowing you to move through the layers of music, like a ghost through walls. It’s more than natural, it’s supernatural, and the best-sounding gear I’ve had on my table.

If you’re in the market for a DAC/Amp combo, and spending over $2k scares you, allow me to recommend the Topping DX7 Pro ($599). Apart from vacuum tubes, it has all the features I consider cool or important about the Pro iDSD, and one all-important feature the iDSD does not possess: XLR PO! Making the DX7 significantly more complete as a stand-alone unit. 1/4”, 4.4, and XLR, all right there on the front panel. And they all work properly. It easily drives any headphone I’ve thrown at it, and produces zero hiss from sensitive IEMs.

Let us not neglect the sound. For a quarter of the price, the DX7 Pro sounds remarkably close to the Pro iDSD. Is there a difference? Yes. Particularly with Tube+ On. There’s a touch more depth, and a wetter, more organic feel to the sound. But it’s subtle. Very subtle. I certainly wouldn’t give one the edge over notions of detail, resolution, or clarity. These are both Pro-level DACs, and you don’t get better than this with today’s tech.

If money was no issue, and I only had room on my desk for one unit, I’d pick the Topping. Because, again, that XLR output and functioning 4.4 balanced port makes all the difference to me. But if you’re planning on hooking these up to another amp, then I would go with the Pro iDSD, without hesitation. While the difference isn’t big, it does put a smile on my face, and that is important, too. All that changes quickly if you ask me to flip the bill with my current finances. Topping becomes the obvious choice. It does, after all, sound really goddamn nice.

My old 2016 Audio-GD NFB-28 (around $800) is less of a direct competition, because it doesn’t have as many interesting features. Yes, it has many inputs and all the outputs you’d hope for, but that’s it. It doesn’t have any wireless connectivity or advanced filters. It’s just a DAC, Headphone Amp, and Pre-Amp, that’s it. But, I gotta say, as a stand-alone desktop unit, I never needed more. It is perfect. The amp section is so powerful, you never feel the need to attach  it to a secondary device. The signature is perfect for my tastes, being warm and robust, yet never lacking for clarity or resolution. It’s also fully balanced with XLR PO, and produces zero hiss from sensitive IEMs. I’ve always felt comfortable recommending it to anyone looking for this kind of setup.

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ABOUT AUTHOR

Pinky Powers

Pinky Powers

Pinky is an artsy twat. Illustration, graphic design, writing. Yet music escapes him, and always has. He builds his own cables, and likes to explore the craftsmanship of others. He's a stabby one, also. At the first hint of annoyance, out comes the blade. I say he's compensating for something... in a big bad way. If we all try really hard as a collective, maybe we can have him put down.

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