iFi Audio is a spin-off from the well-respected British high-end audio company Abbingdon Music Research (or AMR for short). Leveraging design know-how drawn from AMR, the iFi team has set as its mission the creation of compact, beautifully made, and decidedly affordable audio components that in most ways capture the essence of the AMR sound, but at Everyman prices. Thus far, iFi Audio’s efforts have succeeded brilliantly.
When Hi-Fi+ reviewed iFi Audio’s original Micro iDSD headphone amp, preamp, and DAC back in 2014 we said it was “possessed of more clever, creative, and forward-looking features than just about any other product of its size, type, or price.” That’s still true today, but now the Micro iDSD has evolved into a significantly improved new Micro iDSD Black Label Edition (£549/$549), which sports uprated parts on the inside and a distinctive satin-finished, “none more black” chassis exterior. Like its predecessor, the Black Label seems the very definition of what a ‘do-it-all’ product should be, which means reviewers face the daunting task of describing the device’s many features, functions, and capabilities within the tight confines of a print review. I’ll do my best, but please bear in mind I’ve got a lot of ground to cover.
As our review title suggests, the Micro iDSD Black Label serves as an accomplished high-resolution/multi-format DAC, and as a powerful headphone amp/preamp. Let’s begin by looking at the Black Label’s DAC functions.
At the centre of the Black Label are its dual-core Burr‑Brown DSD512/PCM768/2xDXD True Native® DACs. According to iFi, the True Native device was, “one of the last chipsets from Burr Brown Japan,” and was, “Burr-Brown’s ‘swansong’ and embodied all their converter technology. It is unrivalled in terms of subjective musicality…” To support the Burr-Brown chipset, the iDSD Black Label incorporates upgraded digital signal and digital power sections, plus an Abbingdon Music Research Global Master Timing femto-precision clock system said to offer extremely low phase-noise and jitter. Reflecting iFi’s depth of digital audio experience, the Black Label also incorporates a side-mounted digital filter switch with options labeled Standard, Minimum Phase, and Bit-Perfect. When the DAC plays DSD files, those three settings instead stand for Standard, Extended, and Extreme filters, while DXD files automatically default to the Bit-Perfect setting.
The headphone/preamp section of the Black Label is based on special German OV-series (‘Operationsverstärker’) op-amps that, says iFi, “use HCOFC copper lead-frames and 4N Gold bond-wires, which are streets ahead of mainstream commercial chips that use inexpensive aluminium bond‑wire, and low-grade/low-cost copper in the lead-frames.” Supporting these op-amps are very high quality signal path parts sourced from MELF, COG, Sanyo/Panasonic, and others. In particular, iFi is proud of the Black Label’s Sanyo/Panasonic OS-CON capacitors—devices typically found only in far more costly full-size components, such as AMR’s CD‑77 Reference CD Processor. Finally, the Black Label features revised analogue signal and power sections.
iFi’s goal is for the Micro iDSD Black Label to be powerful enough to drive even extremely power-hungry full-size headphones, but also quiet and revealing enough for use with ultra-sensitivity custom-fit in-ear monitors, and everything in between. To this end, the Black Label features a side-mounted Power Mode switch offering Eco (low power), Normal (medium power), and Turbo (high power) output modes. Then, to provide even finer gradations of output control, the Black Label sports a bottom-mounted iEMatch switch that comes into play only when the main Power Mode switch is set in the Eco position. Then, iEMatch offers users three fine-tuning settings labeled Off (the default setting), High Sensitivity, and Ultra Sensitivity. In this way, users can make subtle adjustments to match the amp’s gain and output characteristics to fit the requirements of whatever headphones, earphones, or CIEMs are at hand.
As a further sonically important touch, the Black Label provides a side-mounted Polarity switch that controls the absolute phase of the amp’s outputs. The effects of this switch aren’t always obvious on all recordings, but on some the right polarity setting can make for a big leap in perceived realism. Last but not least, the iFi offers a bottom mounted output switch with settings for Direct fixed DAC-level outputs or for preamplifier variable-level outputs.