iFi iDSD Micro Signature Review: worth the $650?
Hey there everyone! Welcome back to The Neighborhood, and this is the Micro iDSD Signature from iFi. I wasn’t a huge fan of iFi’s last outing in this form factor with the Micro iDSD Black Label device. To me, that unit was anything but reference, and a bit too warm, fuzzy, and rolled-off for its own good. But, iFi seems to have been separating themselves from their previous house sound, at least a little bit, as of late; favoring a sound closer to neutral than before. The iFi Signature 6XX Zen Can amplifier was voiced more in this manner, but how does the iDSD Micro Signature stack up? Let’s get InToit!
Build wise, this shares a similar chassis to the Micro Black Label, but the Micro iDSD Signature is painted in a “Massdrop” blue, similarly to the 6XX Signature devices. But this device isn’t affiliated with Massdrop to my knowledge, so perhaps this is just the universal paint color for the “Signature” line-up from iFi. For the size of this device, and given the fact that it appears to be made out of metal, it is pretty light weight, which will make those out for a purely portable device happy.
But, let’s start with the back of the unit because its most simple. From left to right, the back of the unit consists of a SPDIF INPUT, RCA OUTPUT, and a recessed, male USB-A connection. In terms of the choice of USB-A connection here, I’ve always found this to be a bit of an oddity, but I guess iFi figures that the connection is more secure and less prone to breaking in portable scenarios. In any case, it is non-standard, but iFi does include a blue, female USB-A to male USB-A cable, and a female USB-A to female USB-B adapter in the box with the device. There’s also a male to male, purple, RCA cable included, and SPDIF adaptor, as the connection that iFi went with here is also the less widely used, and of the skinny, stick-like SPDIF variety.
The one side of the unit has a USB Type C connection that is used for charging the 4800 mAh Lithium-polymer battery and supplying continuous power to the device, and the other side has a variety of dip switches, which are unhelpfully labeled on the bottom of the unit. A male USB-C to male USB-A cable is also provided.
The switch closer to the back of the unit is labeled Power Mode, and is selectable to Eco, Normal, or Turbo. This appears to be your basic gain stage, with Eco Mode sacrificing power for battery-life or acting as a -dB adjustment for more sensitive headphones or IEMs. On Turbo Mode, maximum power output is listed at 4.1 watts with a little more than 1.5 watts output at 664 ohms and 166 mW @ 600 ohms. Normal Mode boasts 1.9 watts of total power with 100 mW of power at 300 ohms, and 950 mW of power at 32 ohms. Meanwhile, Eco Mode is listed at half-a-watt of power at 8 ohms, and a quarter of a watt of power at 16 ohms.
The middle switch selects the filter between, Bit-Perfect, Minimum Phase, and Standard. Out of these available filters, I preferred the Bit -Perfect the most, as it was closer to neutral and farthest from the iFi house sound. Lastly, the switch closest to the front of the unit is a built in iEMatch, adjustable between Off, High Sensitivity, and Ultra Sensitivity- depending up the sensitivity of your listening device. Uniquely, with this device, in some ways the built-in iEMatch functioned as a secondary gain stage on with certain devices.
The front of the unit consists of a quarter-inch, single-ended output, a 4.4mm balanced ouput, and selectors for iFi’s XBass and 3D Modes, which if you’re familiar with other iFi devices is similar here. One thing that I noted in my testing was that the XBass and 3D Modes only influenced the sound from the headphone outputs on the front, and not the RCA outputs from the back. There’s also a volume knob on the front that plays double duty for the Micro as it not only adjusts the volume, but also clicks the power off and on for the device. I would prefer a separate power button, or perhaps a button that powers off and on the device by pushing it in and holding it down, as this alternative implementation seems like it would be less prone to accidental turn-ons if used as a portable device. Additionally, it’s a bit odd to use the click on and off implementation here, as the volume has no influence on the line-out of the DAC from the back of the device, as that output is always sent out line-level.
But at $650 dollars, what about its performance? Simply put, I think this thing underperformances somewhat as an amp, and overperforms as a DAC. As a pure, stand-alone, single-ended DAC, this iFi at least kept pace with the single-ended performance of the Maxtrix Mini-I Pro i3- a device that’s over $1000 dollars that I also just reviewed. Was it as good as that device’s balanced output, in most situations no; yet, the general sound profile was somewhat similar to that device, nonetheless. To distinguish between the two devices somewhat, I’d say that the upper and lower boundaries of the frequency response of the iFi were slightly more well-extended and its tonality had a bit more weight to it, while the Matrix was slightly softer in its leading edge and somewhat more delicate in its presentation. Nevertheless, I’d also consider the attack of the iFi to be one of its strengths, as, although it is somewhat blunt in its delivery, it was also more guttural and emotionally jarring that the Matrix. While this wasn’t always particularly evident on headphones, I noticed this more in this comparison across speakers. For example, with the same Gold Note PA-10 as the amp, my Gershman Acoustic Studio II Bookshelves had additional force and energy behind their presentation with the iFi in comparison the Matrix- although I will note that both were great amps, and I’d say the presentation which one prefers between the two will, most likely be, up to that individual.
In general, I’d describe the tones of this DAC as slightly lush, but not nearly as dense nor overly warm in its presentation as its predecessor, the Micro iDSD Black Label, was. In other words, I’d say that iFi did indeed succeed in producing a more neutral tonality here with the Signature, and as a result, may be trying to redefine their house sound; if that is what they were truly going for with this Signature line-up. Still, the Signature’s note delivery is somewhat mildly flat and slightly compressed in its overall sound, although, not in an overly offensive way to my ear. For example, compared to iFi’s own, iOne Nano, the Micro Signature lacked spaciousness, musical distinctiveness, and was expressive in the mid-range and upper registries, even if it did excel verry slightly in both resolution and in the lower registries more so in this comparison specifically. And it may sound like I’m hating on the Signature, but, in all honesty, the Signature Micro was unquestionably a joy to listen to- both for long listening sessions and in combination with a variety of devices. What I’m mostly trying to get across is that its presentation was a relatively even one, even to a fault a times. With that said, the treble of the Signature is just ever so slightly rolled, and as a result, it was also a good combination with my Cessaro Mini Wagners at my desk- speakers that can certainly benefit from a bit of a rolled top-end if one desires for a more relaxed listen. Yet, as a result of these somewhat constricted sonics, air is not a strong-suit for the iDSD Micro Signature. There may be “enough” air for some, but it’s certainly not a stand out characteristic for this DAC.
Still, like I’ve already said, the bass on the iDSD Micro Signature did stand out, and it dug pretty deep- resulting in pretty good depth from this portion of its sonics. Nevertheless, I’d consider separation, layering, and general soundstage presentation to be only slightly above average, especially given its price. Having said that, if it were cheaper, I might give it better marks with this criterion in mind.
With specific regard to the amp, it is respectable, especially for a portable unit, but at the same time, it never really wowed me as an amplifier overall. Consistently, things sounded “good enough,” but rarely sounded superb. Its performance with the Meze Empyrean was an example of mediocrity compared to what this headphone is capable of. Instead of greatness, it was simply “just OK.” And given the somewhat high price of this thing, I have to say I was expecting more from its amplifier’s performance in general.
Going back and forth with iFi’s own Zen Can 6XX Signature amp, I preferred the Zen Can in almost every application. The cheaper, $250-dollar 6XX Signature amplifier just sounded more sophisticated, and had the “it-factor” where the Micro Signature lack it. For example, in the case of the Sennheiser HD6XX, a headphone which I actually liked quite a bit on the Micro Signature; well, it still sounded best on its 6XX Signature amp. Having said that, I did find that my balanced MK2 Argons drank up the power from the Micro, and this was a rather unique scenario in the course of my testing where I tended to prefer the Micro’s integrated performance to the 6XX signature amp in conjunction the Micro as the DAC. The Dan Clark Audio Aeon Open X was also a great match for the Micro Signature via its balanced output- producing good dimension and imaging characteristics within its admittedly narrow stage. The 600 Ohm Beyerdynamic 880 SE, which could not be driven well by the Zen Cans ran splendidly on the Micro Signature, as again its high impedance load required the power the Micro can deliver in comparison- resulting in a fuller, richer, and more well-rounded delivery in comparison.
Still, the adjustable effects on the 6XX Signature amplifier were more unique, and I preferred them over iFi’s more traditional XBass and 3D modes on the Micro Signature. The XBass darkened things up a bit too much, and often bled diffuse warm and fuzzies into other sonics, while the 3D effect resulted in more of a mild, echo chamber-like effect. The 3D effect reminds me of the Concert Hall setting on old school receivers, and like that effect on those devices, I did not prefer it when the 3D effect was engaged on the Micro. In overall comparison, the Micro was just kind of stuffy in a number of ways, and I even preferred the Micro as the DAC feeding into the 6XX Signature amp in comparison to the Micro as a singular, integrated unit.
There was also an odd phenomenon with some headphones where there was a rather large channel imbalance until the volume was turned up at least a third of the way. The 150 Ohm, Sennheiser 58X Jubilee displayed this phenomenon the worst, and I had to turn it up louder than I would prefer to get things to come into balance. Still, this outcome almost seemed random, as other devices did not display this issue- neither easy to drive, nor hard to drive- headphones and IEMs alike.
So, from my viewpoint, the iFi Micro iDSD maybe a good solution for some, especially if you can deal with its somewhat larger size for a portable; but from an amplifier perspective, I would really only use it portably in most circumstances, as it won’t really keep up with desktop amplifier options in its price range with most headgear, and may even struggle against some stand-out cheaper desktop solutions. But, like anything, synergy will matter most, as I really liked the performance of the iFi with my Gershman Studio II’s and Gold Note PA-10 as a stand-alone DAC, and it also excelled with some headphones such as the Dan Clark Audio Aeon Open X as an integrated, portable DAC/Amp solution. Also, as a single-ended DAC I really do think this thig is respectable, and if the synergy was right, would definitely consider it as a DAC in my system.
Still, when I think portable solutions, my brain tends to gravitate towards CEntrance products. Alternative DAC/Amps to consider might be the CEntrance DACportable at around $200, and the HIFI-M8 V2 at approximately $750. The DACportable is only single-ended in its implementation, possesses no pure DAC output, and has less power at only 1.3 watts, but I prefer its tonality and more neutral presentation with most headphones in comparison. Plus, the DACportable is significantly smaller in comparison to the Micro too, and easier to carry around. Further, from my perspective, with more headphones, it simply had the “it” factor where the iFi lacked it. For example, the HE4XX from HIFIMAN excelled with this device, while it was just “so, so” on the Micro Signature. And while, I have yet to hear HIFI-M8 V2 myself, this unit has more similar options to the Mircro, and then some… And given that CEntrance has yet to let me down, I suspect neither I nor you will be disappointed by it. Hopefully, I get to review it in the near future, so I can let The Neighborhood know for sure. With that said, the M8 V2 is also underpowered in comparison, at only 1.6 watts, so if you “need” that power, you’ll probably still want to go with the iFi here, or consider the Micro’s cousin, the more expensive, Diablo. Both of these have fixed DAC outputs, while the Centrance units do not. More specifically, the Micro comes with its unbalanced RCA output as we’ve discussed, while the Diablo comes with a balanced 4.4mm output instead for its DAC.
In the end, I think the Micro is for the person who wants a lot of amplifier power in a portable solution, a fixed, unbalanced output for the DAC, and a jack-of-all-trades, master of some headphone amplifier. But its purchaser should understand that this is more of a reference DAC than a reference amplifier in my book, even if some other reviews have used Micros for this purpose in the past. To put it another way, this a versatile unit for someone who prioritizes portability and single-ended DAC performance above all else, despite what its feature-rich list of functions may suggest upon initial inspection.
*Thanks to iFi Audio for sending in the micro iDSD Signature for review!
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