iFi Audio Nano iDSD Black Label portable DAC review
For a lot of people, the DAP acronym likely means nothing or very little. Those people are probably content to use their smartphones as a daily driver to fulfil the task of a music player. And why not? Today’s modern smartphones generally have a large screen with excellent visibility, a responsive user interface plus there are a multitude of third-party music apps and streaming services available.
However, phones don’t usually deliver the best quality audio and it’s for that reason things like the iFi Audio Nano iDSD Black Label exist. Landing at a price of $200 this little, portable DAC boasts an impressive feature set at a competitive price. Let’s take a closer look.
Check out the official page for more info and full specifications.
This product was provided for the purpose of an honest review. I’m not affiliated with the company and all observations and opinions here are my own.
Things start off with a fairly compact, white box enclosed in a cardboard sheath. The box is adorned with an image of the device on the front along with some text outlining key features. Over on the back is a more comprehensive list of features and specifications.
After opening the box you see the device nestled in a foam cutout. Under the foam are the accessories which include 2x silicone bands, 1x USB cable, a fabric carry pouch and a couple of adapters. Like some others, I am a little puzzled about the lack of any OTG or lightning cable considering one of the device’s main selling points is being able to connect it to your smartphone. You do however have everything you need to connect to a computer out of the box.
Build quality and functionality
The iFi Audio Nano iDSD Black Label portable DAC is roughly the size of a deck of playing cards or for those familiar, a Chord Mojo. Therefore it’s a good size for attaching to a smartphone (although a bit bulky for pockets) and very diminutive if situated on your desktop.
The brushed metal chassis looks and feels nice and durable. The top of the chassis is bare apart from the ifi branding. On the bottom side, there are four small silicone feet to hold it in place on a surface and prevent scratching if strapped to a smartphone.
On the front end are (from left to right): 3.5mm iEMatch headphone jack, 3.5mm Direct headphone jack, LED indicator and Power switch/volume knob. The purpose of the iEMatch jack is for pairing with sensitive in-ear monitors and I found it to work well, allowing for better volume control and with no audible hiss.
I do have one gripe with the volume knob and that is the low resistance that it has. Considering this is meant to be a portable device the volume knob is a little too easy to turn and it’s near impossible to put into your pocket without moving it. This can result in either getting a deafening blast of music or having sound reduced to near nothing or even switching the device off accidentally. I feel that a recessed knob would have been more appropriate here, or at least one with greater resistance, although it does work well on the desktop.
At the back end are (from left to right): 3.5mm Line Out, Measure/Listen filter switch and the USB digital input. With the filter set to ‘Measure’, the output signal is more neutral and uncoloured, great for those recording frequency responses or the analytical fans. In “Listen” mode the sound is a little fuller and more enjoyable to my ears. During my testing, I left the filter on the “Listen” mode.
I had read that some people were not able to successfully connect the Nano BL to their smartphones. For me, however, I plugged into my Samsung Galaxy Note 5 with the OTG cable (which I had to go out and purchase separately…) and it was good to go. It certainly was noticeably better than my phone’s DAC and needless to say a much higher output power than provided by my phone as well.
Gear used for testing
PC/MusicBee > USB to USB
Samsung Galaxy Note 5 > OTG
Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro (250 ohms)
Meze 99 Classics
Acoustic Research AR-H1
Inearz Audio Fusion
The Nano Black Label performs extremely well for a portable device. Although the soundstage is about average it does have great detail retrieval. Its sound is mostly transparent with good extension at both ends. The Nano Black Label converts your musical data and forwards it onto your listening medium and lets the latter paint its own image, which is just the way it should be IMO.
iFi claims that this little guy can drive almost any headphone. While it was able to do so with everything I tested with, I found on some tracks I was pushing the volume almost to the maximum with the Beyerdynamic DT990. That’s a 250-ohm headphone so I’m not entirely convinced that this DAC would be sufficient for something 300 ohm and upwards. Having said that though the DT990 Pro sounded to be performing at its best with good dynamic range and full-bodied bass.
With the Acoustic Research AR-H1, there’s definitely more than enough grunt on tap to make these sing. Listening to Bach’s Six Concertos by Trevor Pinnock and the European Brandenburg Ensemble was a treat with this pairing, the imaging and soundstage were very immersive and immensely enjoyable.
iFi Audio’s Nano BL wakes the bass dragon in these headphones. But it’s not a bad thing. It’s like you know that there’s too much bass but you love it anyway and can’t stop listening and tapping your feet. When you get that basshead urge and want your skull shaken the 99 Classics will happily oblige and the Nano is more than happy to provide the juice.
This is one of, if not the best pairing I’ve heard for the Fusion so far. Using the iEMatch jack on the Nano BL the Fusion’s bass seems to tighten up, making it a little less boomy but maintaining its impressive impact. Separation is excellent with sounds coming from a deep, black space. There’s not a hint of hiss or background noise and detail is really good. In fact, I’m enjoying this combination so much right now I want to keep listening instead of moving on to the next earphone!
Still one of my all-time favourite IEMs, the DUNU DK-3001 falls right into my personal preference when it comes to sound signatures. The 13mm dynamic driver provides a powerful, punchy bass while the balanced armatures deliver clear mids and crisp treble. The Nano Black Label portable DAC again presents the music with great separation, detail and tonality and lets the transducers work their magic.
iFi Audio has a very solid reputation among Head-Fiers and now that I’ve (belatedly) seen and heard what they can do I totally get it.
The Nano iDSD Black Label is a fantastic little unit. I love the aesthetic, the build quality, features and of course the sound. The only thing that doesn’t sit well with me is the resistance of the volume knob, as I mentioned before. Everything apart from that makes this a very appealing device. With its reasonable price, this is definitely something I can recommend for anyone looking for a portable DAC to pair with their phone or computer.
You can buy the nano iDSD Black Label on Amazon HERE.