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IFI-Audio Nano iDSD Black Label Pros&Cons

Pros 

  • Size
  • Value
  • Sound quality

Cons 

  • Battery life isn’t great
  • Picky USB-connection

IFI-Audio Nano iDSD Black Label Specs

  • Headphones impedance: Up to 600Ω
  • Output Power: >285mW (30Ω)
  • Output impedance: 1Ω (Direct), 4Ω (iEMatch)
  • Dynamic Range: >109dB
  • THD+N: <0.005%
  • Channel Separation: >79 dB

Packaging 

The Nano iDSD Black Label’s packaging is very much recognisable as that if IFI‘s. The overall look and style is exactly on par with the rest of their lineup. In fact, the only major change in the packaging is the fact that it’s about half the depth of that of their Micro-series.

nano-bl-box

Removing the outer printed-sleeve reveals an almost all-white box, only bearing the IFI logo. Lifting up the lid reveals what lies inside.
nano-bl-open-box

We are fist met with the Nano iDSD Black Label’s soft storage/carrying pouch, and a smaller white box which contains the rest of the accessories.

What’s in the box?

  • IFI Nano iDSD Black Label
  • Male-to-female USB charging/data cable
  • USB-A-to-USB-B adapter
  • USB-A-to-USB-B adapter cable
  • 2x Silicon bands
  • Soft storage pouch
  • Instruction leaflet(s)

nano-bl-box-contents

Accessories 

IFI are pretty well-known to include a large array of accessories with their products, particularly a number of different cables and adapter. In the case of the Nano iDSD Black Label, we’re given much fewer items than what was included with the Micro iDSD Black Label. However, to be fair, the Nano also has fewer inputs and outputs, hence a few omissions are to be expected.
The soft carrying/storage case is pretty much identical to the one included with the Micro iDSD Black Label, but of course only smaller in size. Two rubber/silicon bands are also included to help “stack” your source device to the Nano iDSD Black Label. Then, identical to what we’ve seen from the Micro-series, IFI included both a USB-A-to-USB-B adapter, as well as an adapter cable. And lastly, we’ve got a very nice, thick blue USB-3 extension cable which is to be used to both charge the device as well as for data delivery to the device.
Some useful things were left out, though, as no silicone spacer pads (to avoid direct frictional contact between the source device and the Nano when stacking) were included.

Design

So, does the Nano iDSD Black Label look like a “Mini Me” of the Micro iDSD Black Label? Pretty much, but there are some differences in the design. For starters, the Nano has a more simple and subtle design, whereas the Micro has a slightly more robust and rugged look. This is mainly due to the larger end-plates of the case.
In terms of size, the Nano iDSD Black Label is roughly half the size of the Micro, which of course makes it a more appealing device for portable use almost immediately.

nano-micro-bl

Where the front panel of the Micro has a large 1/4″ headphone jack, a 3.5mm analogue input, two toggle switches, and a volume knob, the Nano has two 3.5mm analogue output ports, an LED indicator, and volume knob. However, the 3.5mm outputs of the Nano do serve different purposes. Whilst the Direct output has an output impedance of 1Ω, the second output port features IFI’s IEMatch technology built-in, which pushes the output impedance of that port up to 4Ω. The purpose of this is to try and better match a headphone/IEM’s rated impedance to the output impedance of the amplifier, and thus reduce the amount of audible hiss produced by the headphones/IEMs. However, this isn’t really a “one size fits all” kind of setting, as the output impedance of an amplifier can change the frequency response of a headphone/IEM, as well as affecting the damping factor. As such, IEMatch may work really well in some cases, but not so much in others. nano-bl-front Totally absent from the Nano iDSD Black Label is any of IFI’s 3D and XBASS circuitry. There also is no line in port, and so you won’t be able to use the Nano iDSD Black Label purely as an amplifier.

Read: Chord Electronics Hugo 2 DAC/AMP Review

nano-bl-back

 

The rear of the device houses a 3.5mm line out port, a digital filter toggle switch, and a full-size male USB connector (seemingly identical to the one found on the Micro Black Label). Interestingly enough, here IFI has employed their S-Balance circuitry. What this means is that both of the output ports have balanced circuitry, so you can go ahead and use headphones/IEMs that have balanced cables on the Nano iDSD Black Label. The only catch here is that most balanced cables out there are of the 2.5mm variety, not 3.5mm, and so you’d need an adapter.
For the digital filter you have the choice of two options – either Measure or Listen. Measure will give a flat frequency response, but will also contain a fair amount of post and pre-ringing. On the other hand, the Listen filter is a minimum phase filter which gradually reduces the level of higher frequencies, but at the same time removing post and pre-ringing. IFI has suggested that the removal of post and pre-ringing produces a more “natural” sound.

Other switches that are “missing” compared to the Micro Black Label is a polarity switch, as well as a gain switch. This means that the only way you can control the amount of power the Nano iDSD Black Label puts out is with the volume pot and/or using the IEMatch port.

On the underside of the Nano iDSD Black Label is a plethora of text, pretty much the same as what we’ve seen on IFI’s other models.

One rather negative aspect of the Nano iDSD Black Label, though, is that it’s battery-life isn’t particularly great. Whilst IFI does state a maximum continuous playback time of up to 10 hours, it’s not clear under which conditions that was achieved. Instead, under a more realistic condition of playing a mixture of 44.1kHz/16-bit, 48kHz/24-bit, and MP3 files and outputting the audio signal into the Fiio F9 at a moderate volume level, the Nano iDSD Black Label gave up the ghost after roughly 5 hours and 45 minutes. That’s a rather far cry from the 10 hour mark. Of course, this figure would drop even more if the device has to deal with more demanding file formats such a DSD.

Sound

Test Setup
In testing out and comparing the Nano iDSD Black Label’s sound to that of the Micro iDSD Black Label, a simple A/B test rig was used. 
The test rig has been set up to try and eliminate as many variables as possible, in an attempt to make the Nano iDSD Black Label and Micro iDSD Black Label the only variables in the entire system.
On the source end of the system we’ve got 2 of Shanling’s M2s DAPs, both of which have identical microSD cards and are running the same firmware version. Moving on to the cables, both of the DAPs are connected to identical USB Type-C OTG cables (produced by OnePlus), and from the OTG cable is another USB extension cable. Here it was found that the Nano iDSD Black Label can be rather picky with cables. Trying to use the USB extension cable that has been used with other DACs was simply a hit and miss situation. Sometimes the Nano would work flawlessly with it, other times not so much. The included blue extension cable worked every time though, so the original test rig cable was swapped out for the included cable. Once the extension cables are connected to the respective DAC/AMPs, a short analogue interconnect cable (identical for each device) is placed between the DAC/AMP and A/B switch. The output of the A/B switch is where either the Fiio F9 or HiFiMAN RE-400 is connected to perform the listening and comparison tests. Before any listening tests were performed, the output level from the F9 was monitored and adjusted accordingly whilst switching between the A and B inputs of the A/B switch to ensure that both units were playing at the exact same volume level.

Read: Fiio Q1 Mark II DAC/AMP Review

If there’s one thing you can always count on with IFI, it’s that they know how to produce some damn fine sounding equipment. The Nano iDSD Black Label does deviate a little bit from its bigger and older brother, but it’s actually really close.
It’s as though the Nano is at that awkward age where, despite being the “baby” of the family, it can go toe-to-toe with an older sibling.
It should be noted that, in order to really hear the differences in their sonic signature/quality, a prolonged listening session was required. The differences were’t immediately obvious, illustrating just how close the Nano comes to the Micro. Moreover, without the use of an A/B switch, it would be A LOT harder to really hear these subtle differences.

Once acclimated to their respective signatures, it was easier to hear the Nano’s “shortcomings”. Compared to the Micro, the Nano has a slightly warmer and more congested signature. Where the Micro tends to give the illusion of a bigger room, the Nano’s presentation feels more akin to a studio. Many (perhaps even most) people might prefer a more intimate presentation, and that’s perfectly fine.
The Micro presents sounds with a longer decay, giving it a more airy presentation (which is probably what gives it a slightly “bigger” sound).
However, despite the slightly warmer and more relaxing overall signature of the Nano iDSD Black Label, switching between the two devices revealed the extra refinement that has gone into the Micro Black Label. This was particularly evident with vocals, where the Nano just displayed a hair more graininess. But overall the essence of the Micro iDSD Black Label is very much present in the Nano iDSD Black Label.

The Nano iDSD Black Label did exhibit a fair amount of hiss, though. The Fiio F9 isn’t exactly the most sensitive or low-impedance IEMs around, yet hiss was immediately noticeable from the Direct port. Thus, with sensitive IEMs, you’ll pretty much have no choice but to use the IEMatch port. This is where things can get a little tricky, as the higher impedance of the IEMatch port could have some negative effects. The higher impedance can alter a low-impedance IEM’s frequency response, and thus affects its sound signature. The F9 definitely displayed a warmer and slightly boomier sound signature when plugged into the IEMatch port, which may also be due to a reduced damping factor.

Read:IFI Micro iDSD Black Label DAC/AMP Review


Value
 

IFI really did do a great job with the Nano iDSD Black Label. One thing that has become clear is that IFI are capable of cramming quite a lot of tech into very compact pa packages, and at really decent prices. With the Nano iDSD Black Label we really do have most of the Micro Black Label’s technical capabilities stuffed into a very neat and compact package. The only things missing here are some extra features and some refinement in the sound quality department. This is where the value of the Nano iDSD Black Label really becomes apparent, as its price-point is situated at way less than half that of the Micro Black Label, but it’s absolutely not only half the performer. If we had to really make a guesstimate, in terms of sound quality, the Nano iDSD Black Label probably manages to produce about 90-95% or so of the outright sound quality that the Micro Black Label can. As such, if you don’t require the insane power capability and/or the extra features and inputs/outputs of the Micro Black Label, then the Nano iDSD Black Label definitely holds a much better bang-for-buck value.

Rating

The TECH MERIT rating system is designed to take as many aspects of the device into account as possible. As such, we have a basic rating, as well as a final rating. The basic rating rates the product purely as a high quality portable audio device, and is generally a good indicator of how it stacks up to its rivals in terms of standard features and specs. The final rating, however, grants bonus points for any extra features and specs that aren’t quite as common, and is a great way to judge the product as a complete package.

Packaging
Look and feel: 8 / 10

Included Accessories
Protective case: YES
Cables: YES

Build
Quality control: 10 / 10
Seems durable: YES
Use of metal: YES
Relative silence when inserting cables: 10 / 10

Sound
Sound stage: 9 / 10
Detail retrieval: 9 / 10
Sibilance: 10 / 10
Instrument separation: 9 / 10
Neutrality of sound signature: 9 / 10
Plays lossless audio: YES
Plays 24-bit: YES
Hiss: 8 / 10

Portability
Small size: 8 / 10
Relatively low weight: 9 / 10
battery life more than 10 hours: –

Value
Competitive price-point: YES
Relative value: 10 / 10


Basic Rating: 9.0

 

Bonus points
Has a screen: –
Ability to EQ: –
Bass boost: –
Various digital filters: YES
Number of cables included: 2
Number of gain positions: –
Fast charging: –
How premium the case feels: 4 / 10
Bluetooth: –
Apt-X: –
Premium look and feel of the device: 8 / 10
Number of digital connections: 1
Number of analogue connections: 3
Power adapter included: –
Balanced output: YES
WiFi: –
Dual DAC setup: –
Premium DAC chip(s) used: YES
Plays DSD: YES
Plays 32-bit: YES
Wireless connection quality: –

Final Rating: 9.5

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REVIEW OVERVIEW
Durability
9.6
Design
9
Portability
8.7
Connectivity
9.4
Sound
9.5
Battery
9.3
Supplied Accessories
9.5
Value For Money
9.8
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