Have you ever wondered what would happen if a high-end audio manufacturer with a reputation for sonic excellence applied itself wholeheartedly to designing affordable electronics for personal audio applications? As it happens, that very question has been answered by the British firm Abbingdon Music Research, through its subsidiary brand iFi Audio.
iFi’s first components were its compact, affordable, desktop-orientated Micro-series models that demonstrated an uncanny ability to channel many of the sonic virtues of AMR’s full-size, high-end components. I reviewed the iFi Micro iCAN headphone amplifier in Hi-Fi+ issue 97 and stated that it represented “a new benchmark in its price class and … a perfect entry point for high-enders who would like to experiment with top-tier headphones, yet without investing an arm and a leg in dedicated headphone electronics.” Lately, however, iFi has focused on developing an even more compact range of portable Nano-series models.
Given favourable past experiences with the brand, we decided to review iFi’s new Nano iDSD portable DAC/headphone amplifier (£165) and Nano iCAN portable headphone amplifier (£149, reviewed elsewhere in this issue). Candidly, £165 is such a modest sum that many might question whether it represents a viable budget for something as sophisticated as a multi-format, DSD-compatible DAC. But if you set aside such ‘it’s-too-cheap-to-be-good’ biases, you may discover, as I have, that the Nano iDSD can sound ridiculously good in many (though not all) listening contexts. In short, the Nano iDSD begs to be taken seriously.
The Nano iDSD’s list of features and functions is extensive and impressive. For starters, the iFi is an asynchronous USB DAC that uses a BurrBrown DAC chipset to provide true native decoding for PCM files (44.1 – 384kHz, 16 – 32-bit), DXD files (352.8 – 384 kHz/24-bit), and DSD files at rates of 2.8, 3.1, 5.6, and 6.2MHz. The unit’s high-speed asynchronous USB interface uses iFi’s signature “Bit-Perfect” data transfer technology, backed by proprietary “ZeroJitter Lite” clocking technology. Finally, the Nano iDSD provides a useful 130mW headphone amplifier.