The sound quality you’ll find in laptops is getting better, but audiophiles may not find it as good as they need just yet. That’s where an external DAC comes in — as a way to improve your audio experience without having to buy a lot of expensive equipment. Ifi, however, is taking a wider approach with the Ifi Nano iDSD Black Label. How? Its DAC works with your phone too.
Of course, the vast majority of people won’t need an external DAC — as the vast majority of people won’t be able to tell the difference between using one and not using one. Those that can, however, will appreciate a portable, relatively inexpensive device that can be used on both laptops and phones.
Is the Ifi Nano iDSD Black Label worth buying? We put it to the test to find out.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Ifi Nano iDSD Black Label is its design, and it’s a lot smaller than it might look in some of the photos. That’s a good thing — this device is built to be pretty portable, and as such you’ll want to be able to fit it in your pocket or a bag.
On the front of the device, you’ll find two outputs, and a volume dial. All the way down, that volume dial turns the DAC off — and you’ll get a satisfying click when you start turning it on to signify that it is in fact powered up.
As mentioned, there are two headphone outputs on the front of the device — one standard “Direct” output, and one so-called iEMatch output, which is aimed at compensating for the high level of sensitivity in-ear headphones often offer.
On the back, you’ll get a USB port, a 3.5mm line out port, and a switch for different DAC filter options — one labelled “Listen,” which ifi says is a minimum-phase filter that may sound better, and one labelled “Measure,” which is a linear-phase filter that may perform better in some tasks.
In general, the unit seems well-built and is definitely easy to use. It should be pretty tough too — we never felt like it would break unless we were unnecessarily rough with it.
In the box, apart from the device itself, you’ll get a USB cable for plugging into your computer, and a few different USB adapters.
Using the device was a bit of a mixed bag. We found it easy to plug the device into a MacBook and start listening, but for a device that’s billed as being able to work with your smartphone too, it was pretty difficult to do. In fact, even with the right cables and accessories, we were completely unable to connect the device to a Google Pixel XL at all.
It seems other reviewers have had trouble with connecting the device to their phone too — which is a pretty major issue. We’re not sure what the problem is, the but the device really should be plug-and-play.
Apart from that, when we used the device with a Mac it worked pretty well. It was easy to plug it in then use it as the audio device from the Settings menu.
If you can get the Ifi Nano iDSD Black Label to work with your phone, or you intend to use it with your computer, you’ll love the sound it can produce.
This device is built for audiophiles on the go, and it produces a beautifully detailed and present sound. There’s an ever-so-slight boost in the lows and highs, which translates to a small dip in mid-range — but not enough to make the DAC sound unnatural in any way.
The device is also quite responsive, though not quite as distinct as some other, similar devices, especially in the low-end. That’s not to say that the device is muddy at all — just that the bass, while tight, isn’t quite as tight as it could be.
The mid-range, as mentioned, is very slightly cut, but it still sounds pretty smooth and natural. We noticed that the mid-range was especially detailed towards the upper mids, and things like guitars and vocals delivered a clear overall sound.
The sound-stage on offer here is really quite wide, with excellent stereo separation and instrument placement. That’s really quite helpful — we loved that we could hear, in detail, everything that was going on.
The Ifi Nano iDSD Black Label is hard to recommend. It sounds great, to be sure, but considering the number of issues we ran into when connecting it to our phone, it kind of defeats the purpose of having a portable DAC in the first place. If you intend to solely use the device with your computer, it may well be worth it — but if you’d like to use it with your phone too, we’d give this one a miss.