The first DAC I ever owned was iFi’s Micro Black Label, and since then, I’ve been a huge fan of the brand. In fact, in my humble opinion, few companies can compete with the sonic elegance of iFi’s DAC/amps. The Neo iDSD 2 is the second iteration of this popular desktop DAC/amp model, and it promises some big upgrades. What can you expect in terms of build, features and performance?
What’s in the Box?
Look and Feel
Although the Neo iDSD 2 is not substantially heavy, it does have some nice weight and solidity to it. The front of the unit features a color display screen, an analogue volume dial, 5 button controls and 2 headphone outputs (4.4mm and 6.35mm). And as usual, the remaining outputs and inputs are on the back of the unit. The Neo iDSD 2 can be positioned either horizontally or vertically (stand provided), and it’s about the height of my 14 inch MacBook pro. The volume dial is perhaps not as weighty as I would have liked, and it clicks into position for every degree that you adjust the volume. I would have preferred a heavier knob with smoother movement, but wouldn’t we all…
Design and Features
Most noteworthy in this new Neo iDSD iteration is the increased power output, boasting 5 times more power than the previous version. With a maximum headphone output power of 5,551 mW (@ 32Ω), it even beats a lot of dedicated headphone amps on the market. I found it powerful enough to drive everything from 250 Ohm dynamic driver cans, to super power hungry planar magnetic headphones. It features four gain settings ranging from -12dB to +16dB, making work perfectly for IEMs as well. To test out the noise floor, I paired the Neo iDSD 2 with the extremely sensitive Andromeda. And in part thanks to the “Auto iEMatch” feature, there was practically no audible hiss.
In addition to using the Neo iDSD 2 as a DAC/amp combo, the unit can also be used a as a pure DAC or amp. Alternatively, you could employ it as it as a DAC/preamp (with varying output), which allows you pair it with a power amp or active speakers.
The NEO iDSD 2’s DAC employs a Burr-Brown chipset, which it has used in some of its best selling models (such as the Micro Black Label), as well as the XMOS chip to process audio data.
The setup seems intentionally straightforward, and it’s hard to get lost while navigating the very simple to operate functions. All settings are displayed on a color screen, such as audio format, sample rate, volume level and input mode. Four buttons are responsible for most of the controls (the volume dial is analogue), while the digital filters, in addition to all other controls can be accessed from the included remote control. iFi also offers an accompanying app that gives you added flexibility over the unit’s settings.
The latest Neo iDSD (Bluetooth 5.4) supports aptX Lossless, a brand new Bluetooth format for lossless CD-quality streaming, making it the first DAC with this feature. And of course, you’ll also get all the other formats, including aptX Lossless, aptX Adaptive, aptX, LDAC, LHDC/HWA, AAC and SBC.
The iFi Neo iDSD features a couple newly added analogue processing modes – XSpace and XBass II – in addition to four digital filters. Both XSpace and XBass are intended to adjust the soundstage and low-end response. But it seemed to have other effects as well. More about that below.
Inputs and Outputs
The inputs and outputs give you plenty of flexibility over both, your music source and the mode of playback. For those just looking to use the Neo iDSD 2 as an amp, a 3.5mm analogue line in is provided. In addition, you’ve also got coaxial and optical input options. Finally, you have the USB input for connecting your digital source to the DAC. As for outputs, you’ve got a balanced XLR outs, RCA outs, as well as a 4.4mm output and unbalanced 6.35mm out.
- 3.5mm Analogue line input
- Balanced XLR
- Balanced 4.4mm
- 6.3mm (1/4 inch) Unbalanced
At its default mode, the presentation feels relatively neutral. Still you can sense the famous smoothness of the Burr Brown chip from the first track you play. The observation may be psychological, since it brought me back to the days of the iFi Micro Black Label, which was one of my favorite (and smoothest) DACs around. But there’s a fluidity and musicality to the sound that can’t be denied.
If you have a colder sounding headphone, the various XBass modes will do a good job of warming up the presentation and increasing richness and/or presence without clouding the midrange. Certainly, even with the added bass modes on, there was no contrived bloat or lazy bleed, which is so often the case with other DAC/amps. Still, there was a fattening of the bass, as well as the option to more tightly define bass-elements, while accentuating the upper mids. This mode worked great for intimate vocals and gave that extra snap and crispness to pop tracks. So, if you’re looking to liven up the mix, this particular mode will give track the touch of extra vibrancy.
The XSpace mode is also super fun, manipulating the soundstage to make it more expansive and multidimensional. This mode not only widened the stage, but also heightened instruments and pushed them deeper. The result was more distancing between instruments, creating a more open and holographic feel. And all in all, the Neo iDSD 2 does a great job of executing a clean and natural sound (though mildly refined), while also throwing in some entertaining sonic adjustments to keep things interesting.
The Neo iDSD 2 offers a great deal of power for a DAC/amp combo under $1000. But more important, it just sounds damn good. Smooth, yet honest, with options to enhance the bass, liven the balance and expand the soundstage, the aesthetically attractive Neo iDSD 2 is a worthy upgrade from the previous model. In fact, the Neo iDSD 2 might prove to be one of the best sounding (and best looking) DAC/amps in its class.
You can buy the iFi NEO iDSD at Audio 46.