iFi provided the Black Label on loan for the purpose of this review, for good or ill.
I was given the opportunity to hold on to the new Black Label edition of the Micro iDSD back when I first made contact with Lawrence Lee in regard to a review of the Unique Melody Merlin. He laid down the cold, dark truth of his existence. How he is nigh unto Godhood with connections all across the industry. What does UM, iFi, and MusicTeck have in common? Mr. Lee. He is the web which binds all things.
So yeah, I took him up on the offer to spend a few months with the Black Label. No rush, just a languorous exploration of the myriad functions inherent in the device. I’d never reviewed anything quite like it. There is a lot to cover. F**k, I better get started.
I couldn’t get my PC to reason with the iDSD. Windows 10 complained about power draw off the USB port. So I bought a powered USB Hub, and that solved that.
With the proper drivers and shit installed, I can switch back and forth between my NFB-28 and the Black Label with ease. Windows and foobar2000 recognize it, and operation is smooth.
I’ve come to see the Black Label as a creature that just works. It WANTS to work, and takes very little urging to take over DAC operation for whatever device you plug in. Connect an optical cable between a DAP and the BL, and you have the full might of the iDSD on the go.
It’s not the most compact thing in the world, but on the other hand, it’s no great burden to bear, either. If you’re predisposed, as I am, to carrying a bag with you, you should have no trouble finding room for this. It’s heavy, but not so heavy as to make you question physics and reality. Looking at it, knowing it’s mostly metal and packed full of features, you ought to be able to set some fairly accurate expectations.
The buttons, switches, and volume knobs are tight and finely constructed. There is an appreciable sturdy feel to the iDSD, one which encourages you to take it out for deviant adventures, without fear of breaking.
iFi has its own take on gain, with something they call iMatch. Turn it Off, and you’ll be able to drive most any headphone to blistering volume. Turn it to High Sensitivity, and your Dynamic Driver IEMs will be happy. Ultra Sensitivity best serves those multi-driver Balanced Armatures, like my U12, Encore, or VE8.
There are two USB inputs. Also an optical input, a coaxial, and…
Sweet Buddha, I’m bored already. I hate writing about “features”, which is a problem for a Swiss Army Knife like this. It’s all features! There are two more I must mention, though, as they flow right into the sound impressions.
3D… turn it on. Profit. Once you hear this feature enabled, the iDSD sounds flat without it.
Last feature is Bass Boost. It’s not overblown, but still more than I want for most of my headphones. If, like me, you already have warm and bassy gear, this takes things too far. But for the bass-lite, or neutral transducer, this can add some good fun. Of course, that’s just my perspective. You may be a starving beast who devours all sub frequencies and cannot be sated. By all means, flip the switch on. I shan’t stop you.
The iDSD BL delivers a thick, sweet, candy sound. It’s flat, in a sense, with just a healthy dollop of warmth. It renders liquid smooth and is profoundly resolving. No detail is misplaced or forgotten. The treble also contains that thick, sweet character, and has great energy and sparkle. The vocals are lush and smooth and well-defined. They have an effortless quality, and reach a high degree of transparency. Bass notes boom out with authority, while also exhibiting great control. You get as much articulation and texture in the lows as your headphones can handle.
The Black Label excels at depth and layering… especially with 3D turned on. Soundstage width is good, but not mind-blowing. I do feel there might be more height than usual.
It sounds damn good. Dynamics for days. Punch, sparkle, and clarity. Not an artificial note to be heard, nor a hint of harshness, though that treble is a bit on the wild side (we’ll get to that later). The iDSD is chocolaty and decadent, while creating exceptionally high resolution images… so to speak.
Putting it against my desktop DAC, the Audio-GD NFB-28, you hear how different the philosophies are. The NFB-28 aims for utter realism, whereas the iDSD pursues a romanticized ideal. Naturalness defines the NFB-28. It is neutral, and organically pure. The Black Label has that “sweetness”, and a lush tone. Yet the NFB-28 is far from dry. Energy and dynamics achieve its musicality. It also has greater note weight than the iDSD, and a fuller sound, occupying a larger stage. While the Black Label has more treble and bass energy, it loses naturalness because of it. Again, it’s the difference between realistic and romantic. If realistic meant thin, metallic, and boring, like many Sabre implementations, I’d prefer romantic any day of the week. But Audio-GD has mastered the Sabre chip, and it’s none of those things. It has an ever so slightly warm, true-to-life tone that just sounds better than iFi’s fantasy.
Another company who’s mastered the Sabre chip is theBit/Audio-Opus. My Opus#2 music player has more in common with the NFB-28 than it does the iDSD BL. Almost everything I wrote above holds true for the Opus vs BL comparison, just take it down a notch. Also, the Opus#2 has a touch more warmth, and a little less dynamics than my desktop DAC. But that realism, naturalness, and bigger soundstage are there. In fact, I found new appreciation for the Opus#2 during this comparison. I honestly believed the Black Label would out-perform it. And it does in terms of driving power, and maybe dynamics. But this duel Sabre DAC Opus is my pocket-sized desktop DAC, and today I fully understand why it costs so much.