Smartphones make excellent music players. Most have plenty of storage, data for streaming, Bluetooth and — hopefully — a 3.5mm headphone jack, and exceptional portability. However, even while some manufacturers make an effort to get the sound right — LG’s G6 and V30 for example — most phones could benefit from adding a standalone digital-to-analog converter (DAC). In our Ifi Nano iDSD Black Label hands-on review, we test out the latest $200 DAC from Ifi Audio to see if it’s the bargain it appears to be.
Features and design
The $200 Ifi Nano iDSD Black Label is less than half the price of the similar, and very popular, Chord Mojo DAC. Ifi Audio said it didn’t believe a DAC should cost the same as the device to which it’s attached, and it hasn’t stripped back the feature list to achieve the price either. The little black box supports hi-res audio formats up to PCM 32/384kHz and DSD 256. Also, the DAC supports MQA for use with content such as Tidal’s Master files.
The Nano iDSD Black Label is lightweight and compact, and isn’t dissimilar to carrying around a battery pack for your phone. It has two headphone outputs, one with a balanced output, and a chunky physical volume knob that also turns the device on and off. Despite being designed for use with a smartphone, out of the box it’s easier to connect to your computer using the included USB cable. To connect it to your phone you’ll need to buy a special cable. If you have an iPhone you need the Apple Camera Connection Kit, or if you have an Android phone, you need an On-The-Go (OTG) cable, which is also often used for transferring photos from the device to a PC.
We couldn’t get the Nano Black Label working with many smartphones
We expect peripherals to connect up without issue, but unfortunately that’s not the case with the Ifi Nano iDSD Black Label, and the problem is very frustrating. We couldn’t get the Nano Black Label working with many smartphones we had on hand for the test. Most seriously, the LG V30 refused to connect and play music through the DAC, a phone which MQA highlighted as a high performer at the Nano Black Label’s launch, and even supplied us with special recommended tracks to test out on the device. We also tried with a Huawei Mate 10 Pro, a OnePlus 3T, a OnePlus 5, and a new Razer Phone.
After speaking to Ifi Audio about the problem, it may come down to the use of a USB Type-C plug and Android compatibility. They suggested several fixes which had worked on a Samsung Galaxy S8, but they did not cure the problems with our hardware. We eventually got the Nano Black Label working with our Google Pixel 2 and with our iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X. Here, it was essential the unit was switched on before being plugged into the smartphone, otherwise it wasn’t recognized.
We’re lucky to be able to swap between smartphones, a luxury most people won’t have. Buying the iDSD Nano Black Label and finding out it doesn’t work with your phone would be a disappointment. The DAC worked perfectly as a replacement for the soundcard on our MacBook Pro, plugged in with the supplied cable. The battery is charged using the same cable, and usage time is quoted as 10 hours.
How did it sound when we got it working? We tested the Ifi iDSD Nano Black Label with two sets of headphones. The Brainwavz B200 balanced dual armature in-ears, and the Marshall Major 2 Bluetooth (plugging in with the supplied cable, obviously) on-ear headphones. Starting with the iPhone X, Jidenna’s Long Live the Chief rattled our brain and blurred our vision using the Marshall headphones, giving a really strong vocal and bass performance. What’s immediately obvious is the amount of power the on-board amplifier on the Nano Black Label produces. Take it to three quarters volume and you can physically feel the Marshall’s cups vibrating on your head. There’s way more punch and volume than your ears can take.
We always enjoy Perfume’s Magic of Love for its varied, wide soundstage; but the iDSD Nano Black Label keeps things relatively intimate, without minimizing the wonderful spaciousness of that particular track. Keyakizaka46’s Kaze ni Fukaretemo — a great track over headphones — sounds great, with the wide range of vocals spread equally wide over the soundstage, and lead singer Hirate Yurina’s voice focused at exactly the right time. Trying the same tracks on the Google Pixel 2 resulted in a very similar performance, but with less bass response and a brighter sound.
Plug the Brainwavz balanced in-ears into the iEMatch 3.5mm jack, and flick the switch over to “Measure” on the iDSD Nano Black Label, and you get the clearer, wider soundstage the Marshall’s couldn’t produce — at the expense of heavy bass. If you own a pair of balanced headphones, the iDSD Nano Black Label will definitely help bring out their best.
There’s way more punch and volume than your ears can take.
A quick comparison with the Chord Mojo reveals the iDSD Nano Black Label can’t quite compete with the more expensive unit’s monster power and all-immersive soundstage. The Chord Mojo also works with all our Android devices without a problem. Audio performance differences are minor, and the iDSD Nano Black Label actually has the Mojo beaten on sheer, massive volume. If your plan is to lose your hearing in the near future, the iDSD Nano Black Label will be of great help. It’s also less of a cable nightmare, with the USB connector built into the device, rather than needing a MicroUSB cable to connect the Mojo to the phone’s audio dongle.
Because of the iDSD Nano Black Label’s problem connecting to Android phones, we haven’t had the chance to try out its MQA ability, and have only tested it with standard lossy files on our smartphones. All this makes a blanket recommendation of the device difficult. If you have an iPhone, we know it works, and it genuinely enhances the audio experience. If you have an Android phone, we’d hold off buying one until Ifi Audio releases a list of phones that absolutely work with the DAC. Otherwise you risk messing around with returning the product if it doesn’t connect.
We have alerted Ifi Audio about these problems, and know it’s working on fixing them. If updated firmware arrives and cures connectivity issues, we’ll update here.