By : Theo @ Samma3a
The packaging for the Pro iDSD is pretty much identical to that of the Pro iCAN. The outer sleeve features a large image of the Pro iDSD, along with showcasing the fact that it offers both solid state and vacuum tube circuits. The bottom edge lists a few of the key features and specification, as well as a sticker to indicate for which regional plug is on the iPower Plus power supply.
Not a great deal has been included with the Pro iDSD, but then again, you don’t really need anything else.
The iPower Plus power supply has the same model number as the one included with the Pro iCAN despite having a longer yet thinner profile.
The purple short RCA cables are the same as the ones included with practically every other iFi DAC product, as is the 3.5mm optical adapter.
The remote control is very similar to the one included with the Pro iCAN, but the one for the Pro iDSD can control the volume for both the Pro iCAN and the Pro iDSD independently.
When placed next to the Pro iCAN, we can see that iFi kept a very deliberate theme going here with the design of these two devices. Both cases seem nearly identical, with the Pro iDSD having just a slightly darker colour and rougher finish to the touch.
The slightly corrugated design and thermal cutouts give these products a very unique look.
On the front panel, starting from the right we have a power button, and a large rotary knob which cycles through the inputs when turned and can adjust the brightness of the display when pushed. A long press of this knob can also invert the polarity of the signal.
Next we have another rotary knob which, when turned, cycles through the 5 available digital filters. A single push on this knob will cycle through the DSD remaster feature (upsampling any PCM input to DSD), whereas a long-press will engage the easy WPS WiFi pairing function (but only if the Pro iDSD is in WiFi input mode).
Just below this knob is a 3-way toggle switch which is used to select between the solid-state and tube analogue circuitry.
In the middle of the front panel we’ve got an OLED display which is used to indicate which mode the device is in, whether it’s being fed a PCM or DSD signal, the sampling rate, as well as which digital filter is being used.
Next we’ve got a 1/4″ single ended analogue output, and below that we’ve also got a 3.5mm single-ended output as well as a 2.5mm balanced output. In between the 3.5mm and 2.5mm outputs is another 3-way toggle switch which allows the user to select how much gain is applied to the signal.
And finally we’ve got the analogue volume pot. This can also be used as a preamp control when the appropriate setting has been made on the rear of the device. Just to the left of the knob there’s also an infrared port for the remote control. Just like the volume control on the Pro iCAN, the control knob on the Pro iDSD is connected to an electric motor, so when you press the buttons on the remote to increase or decrease the volume, the motor physically turns the volume knob.
On the rear of the device we get a set of left and right XLR outputs, stereo RCA outputs, an Ethernet port, a COAX/Optical combo port, a USB-host port as well as a USB input,a microUSB slot, an XLR input, a WiFi antenna, and 2 BNC connectors.
Just below the Ethernet port is a switch which allows you to select whether or not the Pro iDSD will output the signal via the rear outputs at a fixed level, or of the volume knob on the front will act as a preamp control.
The top of the Pro iDSD’s enclosure also features a viewing port through which you can just about see the built-in vacuum tubes. This is the same design-element that iFi used on the Pro iCAN too. It actually looks like a bit of a cheeky nod to a very similar design element on some of Chord’s products.
Engaging the tube circuit also produces a nice warm orange light to be produced. However, this light is produced by 2 LEDs that are situated underneath the tubes, rather than being produced by the tubes themselves.
Of course, the main attraction point of the Pro iDSD is how it sounds. I’m gonna be frank and upfront about it…HOLY DAAAAAAAAAMN.
I absolutely love my Micro iDSD BL, and I still consider it to be one of the best value options out there, but there’s no getting around it, the Pro iDSD truly is something quite special. Using the Micro iDSD BL as my personal benchmark, it was exceptionally interesting for me to see what kind of improvements and refinements in sound can still be had. The Pro iDSD just renders music with such a wonderfully effortless and natural fluidity that it can make you wonder, “is there any other way to listen to music?”. OK, end of hyperboles.
No, the Pro iDSD is unlikely to change your world into one filled with unicorns and willing maidens, but it certainly will take your audio enjoyment up to the next level. Unless you own something like a Chord Dave, the Pro iDSD could very well be an “end-game” device.
Irrespective of the type of music, iFi have been able to produce a device that renders anything and everything to a point where it all just seems so right.
Having the ability to switch between solid state and tube amplifier circuitry is also another really sweet bonus.
Tube vs. Solid State
When comparing the sound of two devices, I prefer to do so in a controlled environment where I can eliminate as many variables as possible (especially a volume mismatch), and also to be able to instantly switch between one device and another via an A/B switch.
Unfortunately, in the case of the Pro iDSD, it’s impossible to do so as it not only takes a few seconds for the device to switch between its solid state and tube circuitry, but the volume is also slightly lowered on the tube circuitry. So, the following differences that I describe may be objective differences between the 2 circuits and/or as a result of a volume-mismatch.
The Pro iDSD’s sound in solid state is extremely clean and non-fatiguing. I get no sense of “digital-etch” or any sort of graininess unless it’s in the recording. On the flip side, the tube sound seems a bit softer and less defined, but ultimately offers a liquidy smooth presentation. It’s by no means a significant departure from the solid state sound, but just has that extra little bit of a smoother character.
Something to note though is that the Pro iDSD’s tube is quite prone to translating vibrations into the audio-stream, meaning that, if you bump or tap on the casing of the device, that sound travels into the headphones too. Thankfully this does not seem to be an issue for the RCA outputs, though, so it seems unlikely that there would be some kind of infinite feedback loop due to the vibration caused by full-sized speakers.
Apart from that slight ringing issue, both the solid state and tube sound of the Pro iDSD is extremely clean and transparent.
The only area/feature which it seems could possibly affect a number of people is with the available power for the single-ended output. Whilst the 1500mW available is still a fair amount of power, there certainly are some really power-hungry cans out there that may reveal the Pro iDSD to be limited in this regard. It’s actually a bit of a shame to see that even the Micro iDSD BL has more than double the power available. For the vast majority of cans out there though, 1500mW is more than enough.
Pro iDSD vs Micro iDSD Black Label
Of course, when looking at their respective price-tags, a comparison between these two products may seem horribly inappropriate or unfair. However, keep in mind that, thus far, the Micro iDSD BL was iFi’s flagship portable/desktop DAC/Amp solution. Whilst it will remain as their top portable device, it’s interesting to see how it now performs against their ultimate desktop DAC/Amp solution.
Comparing the sound of these two again showed just how damn good the Micro iDSD BL is, but the Pro iDSD is clearly more refined.
The manner in which the Micro iDSD BL portrays the audio just seems more congested than the way the Pro iDSD does. From the sound stage to the instrument seperation, the Pro iDSD just has more fluidity and more “space” between sounds. It’s easier to place instruments within the stage as well as distinguishing one from the other.
What I found really interesting was how the Pro iDSD, despite having a seemingly wider stage, manages to place vocals in the centre better. Vocals just seem clearer and more focused. This again perhaps adds to that sense of better separation between sounds.
Another element that stood out to me was the naturalism of cymbals on the Pro iDSD. On the Micro iDSD BL they came across as being more “splashy”, with less of that inherent brassy texture. It’s that transparency and realism that gives the Pro iDSD such a phenomenally enjoyable sound.
Hooked Up To The Pro iCAN
This was quite a fun thing to do, being able to join up iFi’s two flagship products.
The refinement of the Pro iCAN’s amplifier circuitry over that of the Pro iDSD is apparent, but again, it’s not a dramatic difference. If we look at the specs, in particular the dynamic range, we can see that the Pro iCAN definitely performs better than the Pro iDSD, but those are absolute measured differences.
Instead there are subtleties that make their overall presentation just that little bit different from one another. Compared to the Pro iDSD, the Pro iCAN seems to have a touch more smoothness, but with absolutely no loss in apparent detail to the sounds. There also seems to be a slightly wider perceived soundstage, and perhaps a bit deeper too.
But really, these differences either are extremely subtle, or entirely as a result of a placebo.
The dynamic range of human hearing is at around 120dB, whereas the dynamic range of the Pro iDSD is 119dB, and up to 137dB (single ended) for the Pro iCAN. So whilst the Pro iCAN technically performs 15% better in this regard, it’s well beyond what we can perceive with our senses, and so it’s essentially no difference to us.
Does that mean that the Pro iDSD can easily replace the Pro iCAN? To some extent, yes.
The thing is, we shouldn’t try to differentiate between these 2 products in terms of how their audio performance is relative to one another, as they’re just too close to one another for that. Instead, we should consider that each product has significantly different features; features that are different enough to justify the need for separate devices.
The Pro iDSD represents very nearly the best of the very best that iFi is capable of producing thus far. It’s jam-packed with features and it’s truly a stellar performer.
It would’ve been nice to see iFi kit this device out with some more power and Bluetooth connectivity as well, but for what it is they’ve done a fantastic job. Heck, the Chord Hugo TT (which does have BT, though) is probably the closest competitor for the Pro iDSD, but the Chord costs nearly twice as much despite not being able to offer both solid state and tube circuits, WiFi connectivity, nor microSD or USB-Host functionality.
Taking that into account we can see how the sheer bang-for-buck value of the Pro iDSD emerges. Compared to it’s competitors, iFi did a great job here and have really managed to produce a truly objectively value-packed product.
Sure, $2500 is a fair chunk of change to be spending on a device that can be used for nothing other than music playback…but…these devices aren’t intended for anything else. The hardware is specifically selected and optimised to enhance an audio enthusiast’s enjoyment of their favourite music. And for that reason, that price-tag of $2500 should be seen as an investment rather than simply the cost of yet another device.