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.
For my tastes, the Meze 99 Classics are not the best pairing with the iFi. The treble can get a little hot, and the vocals a little thin. These are traits which work well for the 99C. But the iDSD accentuates them too far. Black Sabbath, for instance, with its exciting, bright energy, doesn’t sound the greatest. But Nirvana Unplugged, being a warm, laid-back album, is quite seductive. The richness of the Meze is also heightened by the Black Label, and the sweetness of the DAC mixes well with these phones. So it’s not the best pairing, but it can be very enjoyable with the right music.
You know what does sound AMAZING with Black Sabbath? The Sennhieser + Massdrop HD6XX (or HD650). These headphones are famous for their thick and lush, forward vocals, and the iDSD does little to alter that. Plus, any increase in treble sparkle can only help these extremely warm monitors. They also revel in the speed and dynamism of the DAC, being known as slower and relaxed, normally. With iMatch Off, these pushed the volume up to 1 O’Clock before they were loud enough for serious Rock. Plenty of room to go. And f**k do they sound scrumptious!
Flipping iMatch up to Ultra Sensitive, I get lots of play on the volume pot using the Vision Ears VE8 IEM. At 12 O’Clock it starts to get good and loud, so you should have no problem finding the right volume. There is no hiss. It sounds wonderful. The VE8 is a clean, neutral-warm, sort of relaxed animal. I enjoy the color the Black Label adds. More glitter in the highs, harder punch in the lows, clarity throughout. You lose some of the air and soundstage of my other sources, but this combo is highly recommended nonetheless. Pinky approves!
HiFiMAN’s new RE800 needs no help in the treble region, possessing a savage spike in the 6K-8K area. Like the Meze, my enjoyment depends on the album. If it’s a warm, acoustic record, like Patricia Barber, the iDSD>RE800 manage a delightful balance. But if you have on MASTER OF PUPPETS, be warned: From hell’s heart they stab at thee. When these sound good, they sound really good. They’re aggressively resolving, rendering top level imaging and separation. The bass is meaty, tight, and controlled. Vocals are so detailed and transparent I expect the singer to lean over and lick my ear at any moment. I think I’d like that.
Really, it’s just that treble that’s a problem. It’s the iDSD’s only fault. It makes finding the right headphone more difficult than it ought to be. Too bright or too warm and your source can take the wrong headphone, exaggerate one of its strengths, and make it suddenly unacceptable. The Black Label has a tendency to do that. If all you own is warm, earthy monitors, you should feel confident in this purchase. It’s a stupendous DAC & Amp for such headphones. Just be careful with those trebly cans. They may learn new ways to kill humans.