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iFi Audio xDSD review: A real ‘Swiss-Army’ trans-portable DAC/amp.

Pros –

  • Form-factor + build-quality
  • Range of connectivity + file compatibility options
  • Power and transparency
  • Excellent Bluetooth sound

Cons –

  • Chrome-finish is a fingerprint/smudge-magnet
  • Controls not immediately intuitive
  • Some Bluetooth pairing ‘hiccups’
  • Cheaper little-brother Nano BL is curiously a better desktop prospect

iFi are on a veritable roll in the mobile DAC+amp stakes. Having cornered the market between the stupendously-powerful Micro Black Label, and recently landing a more budget-conscious win with the Mojo-challenging Nano Black Label, they’ve slotted the xDSD squarely between those two products, splitting the difference price-wise and performance-wise, while adding Bluetooth and an all-new form-factor in the equation.

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What’s the pitch?
It’s a $589.95 (current Australian retail price) portable headphone DAC & amp, which includes some pretty impressive features. I won’t copy & paste the entire warts-and-all specs of the device (I’m more than confident you can manage to find these on their website if you’re interested), but the parts that interested me included:

  • Connectivity: USB; Optical (a step-up from the Nano Black Label and something I do genuinely try to use where possible); and proper aptX (great for me as an Android user) / AAC (great for you, if you’re an iOS user) Bluetooth
  • File-handling: up to 22.57MHz* DSD and 768kHz/32Bit* PCM (I can count the number of 192kHz albums I own on one finger, but this sounds impressive)
  • Power: 500mW @ 16 ohms, 48mW @ 300 ohms (a relevant figure for Sennheiser HD 580/600/650/800 users out there).
  • Line-out mode: for use a stand-alone DAC (I do like to use portable DACs in conjunction with my two-channel set-up)

…and a few features that weren’t really of much interest to me, but of course, might be to you:

  • Full MQA compatibility: (I won’t really dwell on this, aside from saying that it’s a solution for a problem I don’t really think exists and creates proprietary hardware + software problems)
  • ‘Listen’ & ‘Measure’ filters: I certainly don’t plan on doing any ‘measuring’ for pleasure, nor do I plan on critically trying to split them apart (spoiler altert: I tried briefly, and couldn’t)
  • Balanced 3.5mm headphone out: I don’t own any balanced cables or gear, and can’t really say I need it.
  • ‘3D+ Matrix’ & ‘XBass+’: I figure that using hardware to change the signature of your headphones is a very expensive way of EQ-ing them. I don’t really tend to EQ, but have occasionally dabbled in Roon parametrically.
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What’s in the box?
The same paraphernalia as the Nano BL, actually:

  • A nice velour carrying-case (cosmetic, certainly not drop-proof)
  • A rather-long full-sized USB 2.0 cable for data transfer
  • A couple of obscure-looking and irrelevant USB adapters (which I suspect would be of far less use that including Lightning / USB-C OTG cables…)
  • A TOSLINK optical adapter
  • Some 3M ‘Command’ strips for connecting to phones/DAPs
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Mobile users might be left scratching their heads as to why some kind of on-the-go cable isn’t included, but given the likely audience split between Lightning/USB-C/USB-Micro connectivity, iFi leaves that up to you. So be warned, if you don’t have one of these you won’t be playing it straight away (wired, anyway).

How’s it put together?
Well for starters, if you tried walking into a sporting stadium carrying the xDSD a security guard might be forgiven for thinking you were trying to smuggle-in a hip-flask of booze! The polished chrome finish and shape certainly gives-off that impression, and the centrally-located round volume pot certainly adds to it. It looks super-cool and premium…but touch it once and it tarnishes immediately with fingerprint smudges. It needs a serious polish with a cloth to buff-out (making it a bitch to photograph!), so if you plan on using it in its intended use as a portable device, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

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Have you held a Chord Mojo before? Well, it’s about the same size.

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It’s a nicely-built device, in keeping with it’s iFi stable-mates, and has a nice ‘heft’ to it that gives you the assurance of quality craftsmanship. It’s theoretically pocket-able, but when stacked with a smartphone it creates quite the ‘sandwich’ which does mean you’ll be forced to carry it in one hand.

On the desktop
I did use the xDSD for all my desktop listening-duties during my week spent with it, and did find it frankly a little tricky to use as a desktop device – the volume-pot is a ‘wheel’ rather than a ‘knob’. This is great for on-the-go use, as it prevents inadvertently wild (and potentially dangerous) fluctuations in volume; but it’s slightly less user-friendly on a desktop. Not a deal-breaker, but I just found the Nano Black Label a little easier to use when stationary.

Also, being a pretty light-weight device the size, heft and tension of the supplied USB cord tended to make the xDSD slide around on my desk at work. It has four little rubberised ‘feet’ which keep the shiny finish from scraping on desktops but doesn’t provide too much friction otherwise.

On-the-go: Stacking vs streaming
During my time with the xDSD I found I spent most time with it powering IEMs via aptX Bluetooth-mode (connected wirelessly to my Samsung Galaxy S9+), with the xDSD sitting in my jacket inside pocket. I did try stacking but found the convenience of Bluetooth easily outweighed the marginal loss in sound-quality. Add to that the ’surface noise’ of life that comes with commuting and general life outdoors, and Bluetooth easily came out on top in terms of pros and cons. I must add that I did find a couple of instances where I simply couldn’t get the xDSD to pair to either of my Android devices – I had to ‘forget’ them and restart the device to get it to work.

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Actually, I found myself using Bluetooth at home more often that not with full-size cans – it’s just too damn convenient for non-critical listening.

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I also used it plugged straight into my two-channel system as a source via aptX Bluetooth, controlling via my Galaxy Tab A from the couch, to good effect. A quick A/B between the 44.1 FLAC via the xDSD and vinyl versions of Radiohead’s “A Moon Shaped Pool” did have some slight digital ‘glare’, but otherwise super-enjoyable.

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User interface & controls
Like any new ‘toy’, I took the xDSD straight out of the box and started to mash buttons to make it work. Without reading the instructions, naturally. I like to see how things perform intuitively, plus, instructions schminschtructions…right? Anyhow, I didn’t know that I received the xDSD in ‘line-out’ mode from the previous user, meaning that it was set to ‘LOUD’ immediately for headphone use (luckily, I wasn’t wearing the headphones at the time). Switching between regular-mode, line-out mode, and wired/Bluetooth mode requires a slight learning curve in order to figure out which isn’t immediately intuitive, but easily learnt with practice.

The volume-pot gives a nice ‘glow’ to indicate volume-level + file-type. Like other devices (looking at you, Mojo), you do work out eventually what colour represents which volume-level…which does change volume-level depending on the impedance + sensitivity of your cans. So like all audio devices, practice caution and sensibility.

The ’Measure’ and ‘Listen’ filters proved to be indistinguishable to me. That’s all I can really add about that.

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‘Bass-boost’ switches were intoxicating to me as a kid. Flicking a switch to be rewarded with +10dB of instantly-audible, distorted flab was my idea of a “good time”. It took me a good decade or two to wean myself off that cat-nip, so I treated the ‘3D+ Matrix’ & ‘XBass+’ switches with caution. When I did tinker with them, I had to seriously concentrate to find any pronounced difference, if anything at all. I did find that it differed wildly depending on what music I was listening to. On Van Halen’s “Panama” (MQA via Tidal desktop app), the 3D+ switch made the cymbals noticeably ‘tizzier’ and wider in terms of spacial-perception, for example.

Power & headphone matching
It handled everything I through at it from IEMs to 300-ohm Sennheiser HD580/650’s with aplomb. There’s plenty of power in this little device to drive pretty much anything to deafening levels. It’s powerful.

More specifically, I spent my time listening with the xDSD paired to:

IEMs:

  • Grado GR10
  • Sennheiser IE800S
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Full-size cans:

  • Grado GH1
  • Meze 99 Classics
  • Sennheiser HD580/650
  • Campfire Cascade (briefly)
  • Focal Clear (briefly)
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Listening & sound quality
I’m not going to give you a bass/mids/treble/soundstage run-down because I don’t think a good solid-state amplifier should impart any of those characteristics onto headphone transducers, (unless it’s either underpowering them; or has dampening/impedance mismatches). Instead, I’ll give you every surety that this device decodes and plays music with absolute transparency and clarity. The Burr-Brown multibit DSD1793 DAC sounds predictably perfect (like a good DAC should), and has ample power for most headphones.

I will give you a few examples of some musical and gear pairings I tried-out and enjoyed with the iFI xDSD, because music’s there to be enjoyed, not analysed.

1. Ryan Adams “Prisoner” (MQA via Tidal desktop app) with Sennheiser HD580 Precisions

This album is one of the most heartfelt ‘breakup’ records ever written, it’s raw, personal, and incredibly powerful. It’s also incredibly well-produced and recorded, and it’s a great test for vocals and guitars, which the 580’s excel at. Amazing separation and “air”.

2. A Perfect Circle “Eat the Elephant” (aptX via Samsung S9+) with Sennheiser IE800s

APC’s first album in well over a decade, and if I’m honest a little disappointing on my first listen. The IE800s are so incredibly linear and transparent that it was if anything, a little too ‘smooth’ and didn’t really impart the dynamics I would have liked, but that’s hardly the fault of the xDSD. The bass and impact on my favourite track on the album, ‘Hourglass’ was pretty impressive and nicely textured. I had to play this album via loudspeakers to really enjoy it.

3. Snail Mail “Lush” (aptX via Samsung Galaxy Tab A) with Grado GH1

Easily one of my favourite records released in 2018 thus far, and being guitar/vocal-driven rock sounds incredible over the Grados. The Grados also happen to be less-than-forgiving on poor source material and can have a harsh/fatiguing top-end. I forgot that I was listening via Bluetooth to this record, which is full-praise for how the xDSD acquitted itself on the wireless front.

4. Father John Misty “God’s Favourite Customer” (FLAC via Roon) with Sennheiser HD650’s

Ok, this one’s definitely my favourite record released this year. Mr Tillman has one of the clearest voices in the business, combined with a rapier-wit and brash turn-of-phrase. The 650’s have a pronounced ‘relaxed’ voicing, and the top-end can taper-off when underpowered especially. I couldn’t fault this listening session at all, just brilliant.

So who’s it for?
If you have 600 dollarydoos to spend on a DAC/amp, you’re pretty much looking at this or the Chord Mojo. The Mojo pips it for wired connectivity (USB, optical + coax), but loses-out on aptX Bluetooth. On the other hand, it can have a ‘Poly’ grafted onto it which does do SD-card playback; DLNA; MLP; Bluetooth (albeit it non aptX/AAC), but at a significant premium.

So then, is it worth twice the price of entry over iFi’s Nano Black Label? If you seriously plan on using it for its Bluetooth capabilities, then it’s a genuinely exciting proposition for transparent, powerful and tether-less performance with IEMs and hard-to-drive full-size cans alike.

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iFi have managed to squeeze just about every plausible feature under the sun into this shiny little gadget – it was certainly an ambitious undertaking and to their credit they’ve executed it brilliantly. It’s a genuine Jack-of-all-trades, and at the end of the day will have you enjoying your music in more circumstances, in more places than any other device I can think of. Which is a ‘win’ in my books. Cheers!

The iFi xDSD is available from Amazon (International) for $399 USD at the time of writing. Please see my affiliate link for the most updated pricing, availability and configurations.

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