iFi Audio USB DAC Lineup Review

Company & Product Overview

A high-quality headphone amp and DAC are essential to peak performance for any headphone. The issue for many people is finding a headphone amp that sounds good, has plenty of features and enough power to give their headphones the dynamics they really want while staying within a budget.

In 2012, iFi Audio debuted at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest to fill this gap and make a product that is both affordable and High Fidelity. Born from AMR (Abbingdon Music Research), iFi used their knowledge for high-end home components to develop their line of products. After only a few years, iFi had won EISA’s Best Product and has now achieved over 30 award-winning products.

After reading countless raving reviews, we had to get our hands on their products and see if they matched our standard! iFi was nice enough to send us a few of their most popular headphone amps and DACs.

In this overview, we quickly break down each one to see what they bring to the table. We'll also briefly touch on a few of iFi's most popular portable DACs in their lineup so we can compare the features and benefits against the latest models.

close up of the iFi hip dac front panel.

iFi hip-dac Portable DAC/Headphone Amp

First up is the hip-dac Portable DAC and Headphone Amp. If you're always on-the-go, iFi's new hip-dac is the perfect companion to take on a run, a flight, or to get some work done at a coffee shop. It looks great and provides great sound. Smartly dressed in petrol blue with a touch of copper, the go-anywhere hip-dac was designed to slip discreetly into your pocket BUT its cool look might mean you want to show it off.

Small but mighty, iFi's miniature DAC/headphone amp replaces the inferior DAC and amp in your smart device, PC or Mac. It connects via USB so you can relax with your favorite music streamer, Spotify, Apple Music or Tidal. Just insert headphones and away you go. The hip-dac delivers a sound brimming with bold dynamism and fluid refinement. It features a Burr-Brown True Native DAC chipset that delivers 'bit-perfect' audio for hi-res PCM up to 384kHz, DSD256, and its compatible with Tidal's MQA ‘Master’ tier. Your audio files remain unchanged, so you can listen to music as the artist intended in the format it was recorded.

In terms of sound quality, the hip-dac sports a 4.4mm balanced output for balanced headphone cables/connectors, so it brings you the cleanest signal possible. For those ‘hissy’ IEMs, use the 3.5mm S-Balanced. Enjoy all the benefits of balanced from your single-ended connection.

With PowerMatch switchable gain, hip-dac lets you adjust input sensitivity to match the level of drive to the load of your headphones. Leave it off for those ‘out and about’ IEMs or turn it on for on-ear and over-ear styles with relatively low impedances when you require more oomph.

The XBass sonic adjustment addresses the lack of bass that’s often apparent with in-ears or open-back headphones. Boost that bass, and “pump up the jam” to your IEMs with the hip-dac.

And with extensive battery life, you can take it out with you all day for up to 12 hours of playback time. Even if you are using headphones that require a lot power, the hip-dac can join you at the gym first thing, come along with you for lunch, and keep your feet tapping on your way back home.

If you like to tweak your sound on-the-go, the iFi hip-dac is for you. Use any of the eight adjustments (including volume) to find the perfect sound for your headphones:

  • Burr-Brown True Native DAC chipset for 'bit-perfect' audio.
  • XBass - analog bass correction system corrects for the missing headphone/speaker bass response.
  • S-Balanced circuit delivers maximum performance from single-ended and balanced headphones alike. Balanced circuits reduce noise and crosstalk. Less Interference – clearer sound.
  • Hi-Res True Native playback of all music formats from MP3 to DSD256, PCM384, and DXD384.
  • Compatible with Tidal MQA Masters.
  • Long-lasting battery life for up to 12 hours of playtime.

 

close up of iFi Headphone DAC Nano iDSD front panel.

iFi nano Black Label Portable USB DAC/Headphone Amp

The iFi nano iDSD Black Label was the first in the line we received, and we were nothing short of impressed by the specs. The iFi nano iDSD is capable of handling DSD 256, MQA, and has Burr-Brown DAC’s. Those are some pretty impressive specs for a $200 price point.

Upon unboxing, the build quality on this piece was the first thing we noticed - it has a solid aluminum body with a matte black finish, smooth controls, and rubber feet to avoid sliding off of a tabletop or surface. One build feature we found especially interesting throughout the entire iFi series was its recessed male USB connection. While this may not be entirely beneficial for all, it’s a huge win for those of us who use USB-C or Lighting adapters! Instead of going from the adapter to another cable, you can go directly into the amp for a cleaner and more convenient connection. Additionally, it’s a Zero jitter connection for a very precise buffering of the digital signal before it goes to a DAC.

As for sound, this headphone amp and DAC goes above and beyond its price point! It comes with an IEMatch 3.5mm output and a more powerful 3.5mm direct output, pushing 3.5V at 600Ohm. It can drive the most stubborn headphones with ease, and it does it with crisp highs and full bass response. The iFi Nano iDSD also features two filters for PCM - Listen and Measure for (listen) transient optimized minimum phase and (Measure) frequency response. Not only is this product great for headphones, but the 3.5 mm line out also makes it perfect for connecting to an existing HiFi system to support MQA.

We’ve tested this with a variety of headphones ranging from IEM’s to the Audeze LCD-4, and nano iDSD BL could drive them all with awesome detail and a great bottom end. Even on a pair of bass-shy headphones, the iFi nano iDSD BL really filled them out making them much more enjoyable at a low volume!

 

close up of the iFi Headphone DAC Micro iDSD Signature front panel

iFi micro iDSD Signature USB DAC/Headphone Amp

Always upping the ante, the next DAC/headphone amp in iFi’s lineup is the iFi micro iDSD Signature Edition — if you like tweaking your sound, then this one is definitely for you. It features a Dual-Core Burr-Brown DAC chip, upgraded amp sections for low noise, and plenty of power to drive any headphones out there.

It also has a whole host of inputs & outputs that make this the ultimate “swiss-army knife” for your 2-channel system or for headphone use. There's also a host of adjustment modes that let you dial in and find the perfect sound for your headphones. A quick rundown of these cool sound-shaping features are:

  • XBass+ – Increases Bass Extension
  • 3D+ – Shifts soundstage/ increases treble
  • 3 Power modes – Turbo, Normal, and Eco for various headphone sensitivity-levels.
  • Polarity – For positive and negative polarity
  • Filter – for Bit-Perfect, Minimum Phase and Standard
  • IEMatch – For use with IEM’s of various sensitivities
  • Preamplifier/Direct mode – For the SPDF connection

While the most obvious changes from the previous Black Label version are the fine-tuned audio circuitry, the 4.4mm Pentaconn headphone output, and the new Space Blue finish, the other enhancements iFi implemented are unique to the Signature edition. A few of these include:

  • Front and rear faceplates have been trimmed for a sleeker look.
  • Redesigned volume knob and new switches for XBass+/3D+.
  • A view of the sampling frequency via a new multi-colored LED indicator on the front panel.
  • IEMatch control has been moved from underneath the unit to the side.
  • A USB-C charging port now resides on the side next to a new battery status indicator.
  • Damping feet now adorn the underside of the unit.

The outgoing micro iDSD Black Label’s amp stage is widely recognized as the finest available in any battery-powered portable DAC/headphone amp. It's able to drive a wide variety of headphones, from highly sensitive in-ear monitors to current-hungry planar headphones.

However, another exclusive to the Signature Edition is the refined & fine-tuned circuitry housed inside – it still delivers the same impressive power as the original micro iDSD (up to 4100mW), but iFi re-tuned the signal path for maximum musical texture and detail. This comes down to the even higher quality boutique components iFi used throughout the Signature Edition's circuitry. A few of these include:

  • Custom ultra-low-distortion OV2028 and OV2627 op-amps in both the digital and analog stages.
  • Hand-selected capacitors (TDK C0G, Panasonic ECPU & OS-CON).
  • MELF thin-film resistors & inductors from Taiyo Yuden and Murata.

All of these internal upgrades are more costly, but we think the dividends are substantial in terms of sound quality. We spent many hours listening to both the regular micro iDSD BL and the Signature Edition, and while the sound performance is incremental, we think audiophiles will appreciate all the extra additions hiding inside the Signature model — especially if you appreciate the "warm" sound signature you get from an all-analog signal path with boutique-grade components. For less than $50 more than the regular micro iDSD, we think this one is a no-brainer.

The iFi micro iDSD Signature is available from select retailers for $649. Only a limited number will be made, so those wishing to get hold of the Signature edition of iFi’s landmark transportable DAC/headphone amp should act fast.

close up of the iFi iDSD Diablo USB DAC/Headphone Amp.

iFi iDSD Diablo USB DAC/Headphone Amp

If you really want to squeeze out every last drop of performance from a pair of audiophile-grade headphones, this is the piece for you.

At the top of iFi’s range of portable DAC/headphone amps, we have yet another newcomer to the lineup and this one is called the iDSD Diablo. For less than $400 more than the Signature Edition micro iDSD, we think Diablo is built for true headphone enthusiasts and music purists in mind.

Able to drive all manner of headphones with ease, the iDSD Diablo delivers up to 5000mW of prodigious power, propulsive energy, and engaging dynamics, coupled with a remarkable ability to resolve fine texture and detail. With 3 settings, you can adjust power and gain to suit your daily driver or track day supercar!

Here's a quick rundown of some of the features:

  • Power Modes:
    • Turbo – ramps up the level of drive for current-hungry headphones
    • Normal – for most over or on-ear headphones
    • Eco – dials down the power to suit high-sensitivity in-ear monitors
  • Connections:
    • Standard 6.3mm single-ended headphone socket
    • 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced output for headphones offering balanced connection, or to an external amp.
    • Two digital audio inputs: USB-A & S/PDIF accepts both electrical and optical signals (the former via a 3.5mm connector and the latter via a supplied adapter.)
    • USB-A input features a ‘male’ connector, rather than a typical ‘female’ port for greater mechanical integrity.
    • USB-C charging port
close up side by side views of the iFi iDSD Diablo USB DAC/Headphone Amp front and rear panels.

For the digital stage, iFi selected a similar Burr-Brown DAC chip used across their line of other DACs. This chipset has a very natural, musical sound signature. iFi’s deep experience with this DAC means they really know how to squeeze every last drop of performance from it.

iFi took the same digital engine from the micro iDSD Signature which uses two of these chipsets installed in a custom ‘interleaved’ configuration to lower the noise floor, improve channel separation, and enhance the DAC’s ability to resolve finer musical details and micro-dynamics hiding in the music.

However, for the iDSD Diablo, they souped it up with a new 16-core, low-latency XMOS microcontroller that processes the data at double the clock-speed and with four times the memory compared to the current generation of eight-core chips.

Throw in iFi's special jitter eradication, including their GMT Femto-precision clock, intelligent memory buffer, and their GTO filter as standards, and you’ve got one heck of a super DAC for less than $900!

This state-of-the-art DAC also has the benefit of letting you access every hi-res music format under the sun with the highest fidelity. It can handle PCM data up to 32-bit/768kHz, all levels of DSD up to DSD512, and single-and double-speed DXD.

Thanks to the Burr-Brown DAC chip’s four-channel True Native design, PCM and DSD take separate pathways here – so this enables DSD, as well as PCM, to remain “bit-perfect” in its native form right through to the analog conversion. This is often not the case with DACs from other brands – even if DSD compatibility is stated, many DACs will actually convert DSD signals to PCM.

There's also great Bluetooth onboard and this piece provides full MQA decoding up to 384kHz thanks to that extra processing power from the new 16-core XMOS chip! And now with MQA being available over S/PDIF, this means you can take advantage of the SPDIF connection to playback the MQA CDs in your collection!

close up shot of the iFi ZEN DAC front panel.

iFi ZEN DAC Desktop USB DAC/Amp

The next DAC and headphone amp in iFi’s lineup is the ultra-affordable hi-res desktop DAC – ZEN DAC USB Desktop DAC and Amplifier. Just add a smartphone, tablet, PC or Mac, press play, and chillax.

We think it's the perfect companion for your work desk or in a system at home. The ZEN DAC is compact enough to use it as a USB DAC/amp on your work desk with your favorite set of cans. It's also stylish enough for your audio system at home – just add your favorite active speakers or amplifier. ZEN DAC enables you to chill and relax in style.

ZEN DAC supports PCM and DXD to 32-bit/384kHz, DSD256, and also MQA for Tidal Masters. Thanks to the True Native Burr-Brown chip design, DSD files remain ‘bit-perfect’ to honor the artist's vision in your music library, Spotify, Qobuz, Apple Music, or Tidal playlist.

For the analog stage, iFi uses a balanced design which is quite rare and not found in most products at this price point. Balanced means less noise interference and crosstalk. In terms of sound quality, this makes the ZEN DAC special. With ultra-low noise-performance, ZEN DAC will remain quiet even in noisy situations such as yachts or RVs. From our perspective, this equals more ZEN.

The ZEN DAC sports Pentaconn 4.4mm balanced outputs at both the front and back. On the front, there’s also the popular 6.3mm headphone output. You get both headphone options.

In terms of controlling the volume, ZEN DAC has two modes: "Variable" mode lets you use the ZEN DAC as a pre-amp to feed a power amp or a pair of active speakers. "Fixed" mode lets you bypass the volume control, so you can connect to an external pre-amp or integrated amp.

Use PowerMatch switchable gain to perfectly match the sensitivity-levels of the headphones in your collection. ZEN DAC lets you adjust the input sensitivity to match the level of drive to the load of your headphones or IEMs. IEMs are high-sensitivity, so leave PowerMatch at its lower setting for hiss-free listening. For on-ear and over-ear headphone styles with relatively low impedances, press PowerMatch to increase the level of drive when you require more "oomph."

For pumping up the bass, ZEN DAC sports TrueBass – iFi's proprietary technology boosts the bass using all analog components. There’s no DSP with iFi gear. TrueBass enhances the bass but does not muddy the mid-range. It's perfect for use with bass-shy headphones such as IEMs or open-back headphones, which usually lose out on bass.

If you like to tweak your sound in the office or at home, the iFi ZEN DAC is for you. The features you'll get with ZEN DAC are:

  • True Native Burr-Brown chip for "bit-perfect" music as the artist intended in the format in which it was recorded.
  • TrueBass - All analog circuitry that enhances the bass without muddying the mid-range – perfect for use with bass-shy headphones.
  • PowerMatch switchable gain for perfectly matching sensitivity-levels of the various headphones in your collection.
  • Balanced circuits for ultra-quiet reduced noise and less interference for clearer sound.
  • Hi-Res True Native playback of all music formats from MP3 to DSD256, PCM384, and DXD384.
  • Compatible with Tidal MQA Masters.

 

Close up of the iFi NEO iDSD Headphone DAC front panel laying down horizontally.

iFi NEO iDSD Hi-Res DAC/Headphone Amp

Next up on our list is the iFi NEO iDSD hi-res DAC/headphone ampthis one has a lot of the same custom circuitry from iFi's Signature series DAC products which also trickles down from their flagship Pro iDSD desktop DSD DAC.

What sets the NEO iDSD apart is its sleek aluminum casework and the generous amount of I/O it offers. As a desktop DAC/headphone amp, NEO iDSD offers a ton of flexibility for a variety of applications. It can be positioned horizontally or vertically, and the OLED display flips automatically to suit the preferred orientation. If you decide to set this one up vertically, it comes with a stand too. The smooth-acting multifunction rotary control also ensures the NEO iDSD is simple to use, despite all of its sophistication and versatility.

We think this makes it more convenient to use with certain audio sources that also stand upright like next-gen gaming consoles. This is really cool because you can finally match the picture quality of your high-performance gaming system with more immersive high-fidelity sound in spectacular fashion. Pair it with new the Sony PS5 or Xbox Series X for the ultimate gaming experience. Plus, we think it looks great propped up right next to high-performance gaming consoles.

It can also be used as a pure DAC with a fixed-level analog output so that you can connect it with a separate integrated amp or a preamp in an audio system. Or, use it as a DAC/preamp with a variable output, which is ideal for connecting with a power amp or a pair of active speakers. And, of course, headphone users can make use of the high-performance amp stage. We think the NEO iDSD is a great "head-fi" system with just about any pair of headphones.

There's also great hi-res Bluetooth on board. iFi uses Qualcomm’s new QCC5100 Bluetooth chipset which supports all current high-definition Bluetooth audio formats, including – aptX, aptX HD, aptX Adaptive, aptX LL, LDAC, HWA/LHDC, AAC, and SBC. The NEO iDSD can also store and "remember" up to 7 Bluetooth devices thanks to Bluetooth 5.0's impressive wireless operating range.

Hi-res audio support is also state-of-the-art. The NEO iDSD can handle PCM data up to 32-bit/768kHz, all levels of DSD up to DSD512, and also single-and double-speed DXD.

Based on the Burr-Brown DAC chip iFi uses across its line of other DAC products for its natural-sounding musical signature and its True Native architecture, iFi’s deep experience with this chipset means it really knows how to squeeze every last drop of performance from it.

For the NEO iDSD, they souped it up with a new 16-core, low-latency XMOS microcontroller that processes the data with the latest SuperSpeed USB standard or S/PDIF digital inputs at double the clock-speed and with four times the memory (512KB) compared to the current generation of eight-core chips. Throw in iFi's special jitter eradication, including their GMT femto-precision clock, intelligent memory buffer, and their GTO filter as standards, and you’ve got one heck of a super DAC for less than $700!

Whether connected to source devices via cable or high-definition Bluetooth, we think the NEO iDSD’s next-level digital engine and fully balanced analog circuits deliver incredibly immersive sound for music and multimedia content. We especially like using this one to enhance our own gaming experiences with next-generation gaming consoles.

close up of the iFi Pro iDSD Desktop DAC front panel.

iFi Pro iDSD Desktop DSD DAC

Last, but certainly not least, the flagship model in iFi's DAC lineup – iFi Pro iDSD.

A standalone DAC, streamer and amplifier package, Pro iDSD is designed for those who like music in all its flavors. Pro iDSD will take your music, movies, and gaming to new levels. And with the option to listen in solid-state, tube or tube+, there’s something for everyone.

Pro iDSD features a ‘quad ‘stack’ of Bit-Perfect DSD and DXD DACs by Burr-Brown. The ‘interleaved’ configuration means up to 8 pairs of differential signals can be used and mixed, equaling 4 pairs of signals per channel. Pro iDSD employs the new XMOS XU216 X-Core 200 Series 16-Core processor for Bit-Perfect low-jitter processing unless particular digital filters are explicitly selected. Data is sent to the Memory Buffer from all inputs where it is de-jittered to eliminate any transmission of source jitter to the DAC output. The data from the Memory Buffer is further re-clocked by the low-jitter Global Master Timing clock, which also drives the X-Core 200 and FPGA.

In terms of playback, this means Pro iDSD is capable of playing Studio Grade DSD1024 with the – a rare feat. Previously reserved for only a select few, the DSD1042 remastering is handled by the Crysopeia FPGA digital architecture inside. Pro iDSD can also handle MP3 up to hi-res DSD, and MQA with cool filters to control and tame every nuance of the musical experience. All this power controlled from the palm of your hand via an app. With Pro iDSD, you are truly future-proofed.

When it comes to connectivity, the list is endless. Load up some hi-res music onto a micro SDHC card for instant playback. Or stream with any streaming service – Tidal, Spotify, Qobuz, Apple Music, etc. Use the wired Ethernet connection with LINKPLAY to connect to your WIFI network, and stream your music library from a router or NAS (Network Attached Storage) for wireless streams up to 32-bit/192kHz and DSD64. Relaxing with AirPlay for easy convenient playback right from your iPhone, iPad or Mac computer is also just a click or a tap away. Enjoy soulful tunes from your CD transport and enhance your gaming or movie experience as you connect via the coaxial/digital input. With so many options, your music never sounded this good.

The Pro iDSD now currently comes in two ‘balanced’ versions – with 4.4mm or 2.5mm balanced headphone sockets. You get to choose which version you need. So, whatever your mood, however, you connect or listen, the Pro iDSD has an option for you.

There's even an extra Tube+ setting to reduce overall loop-gain and negative feedback to the minimum. This presents a different sonic perspective between the tube’s natural harmonics and transient performance. If you like tweaking your sound and getting lost in the music, the Pro iDSD is the premier choice for those who are serious about great sound. With every option imaginable to connect with your music, who wouldn't choose it?

 

Overall Recommendation

The entry into the world of headphones can be confusing but it doesn’t have to be expensive. If you’re looking for an affordable headphone amp to bring life into your cans, iFi will have the solution. Whether you use IEM’s or the most stubborn open-back, iFi can push them and give you the lifelike music you’ve been wanting.

Lastly, if you have any questions about these Amps and DAC’s and want to know whether they’ll fit your headphones or system, give us a chat or call.