iFi Audio NEO iDSD DAC Pre/ Headphone Amp Review
Does the world need yet another affordable DAC preamp/ headphone amplifier? Quite possibly, says Michael Evans…
DAC and Pre/ Headphone Amp
This small £699 box promises a lot, but in the words of Mick Jagger, “you can’t always get what you want.” iFi would beg to differ, as it’s a DAC with preamp functionality, balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA line outs and balanced and unbalanced headphone outputs. It has direct support for Roon, TIDAL and Audirvana, is Bluetooth enabled, and the Burr Brown 1793 digital converter chip plays PCM up to 32-bit/768kHz, DSD up to 512 and DXD x2. It also provides full MQA decoding including MQA over S/PDIF in case you have any MQA CDs.
The NEO iDSD has the look and feel of a quality product. Set-up is straightforward, once you have decided what you are going to use it for, and there’s no shortage of options here. I used it primarily as a remote-controlled preamp via the balanced outputs, straight into the active crossover for my Linn Isobarik loudspeakers, but it also capably drove various cans from Oppo PM-1s to Philips Fidelio X3s; it offers a 6.35mm unbalanced headphone socket and a 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced. It also has a cool party trick – the crisp-looking OLED display rotates automatically depending on whether you use in on its feet in conventional horizontal mode, or on its supplied stand in a vertical position.
My first port of call was to try it with my Sony CD transport via the coaxial connection, and once I had mastered the nicely weighted volume control I was immediately impressed. It has a smooth, easy delivery with no harshness or shrill top end. For example, David Bowie’s Cat People can be screechy with lesser budget DACs, but the NEO iDSD was no problem. Indeed, hard rock fans might even think it too laid back.
I was also rather impressed by its stereo imaging, and overall ability to recreate the song’s recorded acoustic. It proved noticeably better in this respect than the (admittedly a bit cheaper) Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M that David Price reviewed earlier this year. With the Bowie track, there was nothing two-dimensional about it, indeed it seemed less closed in than some DACs I’ve heard at nearly twice the price.
Moving to other digital media, I plugged my smartphone into it and streamed music from Qobuz and TIDAL MQA to FLAC tracks on my phone’s SD card. The NEO iDSD played everything without a problem. Peter Gabriel’s Shock The Monkey sprang into action with plenty of life and energy, yet no nastiness in the treble. Again, it was noticeably more animated sounding than the DacMagic 200M I had to hand. A TIDAL MQA of James Blake’s The Colour in Anything album was grippy and engaging too, but I couldn’t help but think Qobuz sounded best. Via this, I found myself listening to entire albums, The Police’s Ghost in the Machine being a standout; drummer Stewart Copeland’s snare had a particularly satisfying thump and plenty of pace.
Even Bluetooth was good. My mobile does not have an aptX HD codec, so I purchased a Creative Labs BT-W3 transmitter, which worked a treat pushing aptX HD to the iFi. The NEO iDSD’s connectivity is impressive, to say the least, as there seems to be little it cannot handle. This was a family pleaser in my household, as we are a mixture of Android and Apple users, it was so easy for everyone to connect and listen regardless of brand. Even Spotify via iPhone sounded pretty decent. Late at night, it drove headphones very well. I’ve heard better, pricier standalone headphone amps of course, but the iFi is hard to fault for the money – sounding clean, detailed, and snappy.
My only real gripe is its cheap and nasty remote control – although at least it has one I suppose, unlike some of its rivals. If you really don’t like it, you could always purchase a posh Logitech Harmony remote and program the commands. Also, the bundled power supply looks pretty low rent – but is upgradeable to the £99 iPower X upgrade model.
IFi’s new NEO iDSD is a welcome new contender into a crowded budget DAC market. It’s a fine package and an impressive performer but faces stiff competition. Chord’s Qutest DAC is twice the price, but its performance is such that some might seriously consider saving up. By the same token, the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M offers a nice saving at just £450 – and isn’t that far away in performance, even if the iFi is still clearly the more enjoyable listen. I think the best way to think of this is as a great mid-market choice, a highly capable starter DAC that does an awful lot for the money.
A music junkie who served his apprenticeship in UK hi-fi retail in the 1990s, Mike loves the simplicity of analogue and the complexity of digital. With an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject, he’s been on a life-long quest for great sound at a sensible price – and is still loving the journey…
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