iFi Audio Neo iDSD Sound Impressions

I rarely like to compare DACs because most of the time I find the differences to be subtle. However, the iFi NEO iDSD has a very good, clean sounding DAC with neutrality for days.

What makes a DAC the ideal DAC? Cleanliness, no introduction of noise, interference, or anomalies with the ability to produce audio that is unaltered from the source and that is what the NEO iDSD tries to do during the conversion from digital to analog and it does it well.

So basically what you feed it is what you get out. No alteration, no filtering, and no tone manipulation. There is no bass boost or DSP correction of any kind.

There is one more very important aspect I need to say about the NEO iDSD is that I heard no clicks, pops, hiss, or any noise while operating any buttons or switching sources. The NEO is completely transparent in operation and has a completely black background.

Summary

The iFi NEO iDSD seems as if it has a somewhat bright sound character because the top end is more present than in other DACs iFi made and might not sound as warm as the rest of their line however it does not mean the bass is lacking either.

The full spectrum is present with good lateral extension. The frequency response seems very linear and extends further out bilaterally than for instance compared to a ZEN DAC.

But one cannot say that it’s a sharp-sounding DAC because the bass is equally present it is just that it seems there is better high-frequency extension than other DAC amps.

Dynamics

The high dynamic range of the iFi NEO iDSD gives it a wide dynamic range even more so than past iFi gear. The 120db rating shows. I am actually sensitive to SN ratios.

This piece of gear has a very fast response and the sound is crisp coming out of the line outputs. The changes lie in the amplification.

I would say that the iFi NEO iDSD is a very good all-in-one device. So the type of amplification inside the device must be discussed because the two headphone outputs are worlds apart.

The single-ended side only outputs 295mw and that is not enough to drive some demanding headphones considering the set price. It would be enough for most dynamic headphones but not for hungry Planar magnetic cans.

Whoever purchases the NEO iDSD should invest in a quality Pentaconn equipped cable and run this amp section balanced. The power out more than doubles and it reflects in listening tests mostly in the bass and volume.

iFi Audio Neo iDSD

Synergy

Power

Once again we come to the necessity of a balanced cable to get that extra added boost. The iFi NEO iDSD just barely ran my Sundaras but sounded anemic with the Aryas which have a large Planar magnetic driver that requires lots of power. However, the balanced output was enough to drive the Aryas to a fairly acceptable level.

If you are using efficient headphones the need for a balanced wire diminishes some because the 295mw of power seems a conservative rating.

One small negative is that for some reason while using the USB input I could not control the volume on the PC which is a Windows 10 Pro x64 machine. Perhaps that will be addressed later on with a firmware update.

Another negative I could find is that Bluetooth only acts as an input. I wished I could transmit from the NEO iDSD to some Bluetooth headphones or a TWS.

The NEO iDSD played well with other amps I used including their new ZEN CAN and demonstrated an ability to drive the Aryas even better with that combo. The extra power made a difference but a touch of that NEO iDSD cleanliness was gone.

It also played well with my Schiit Asgard and made a cool setup because of the warmth of the AK4490 DAC and the cleanliness and linearity of the NEO all on one desk made up a good contrasting setup.

Gaming

iFi mentions in their literature that the NEO iDSD would make a great gaming DAC and indeed it does for the simple fact that it has very good imaging and separation with great staging.

I play COD WZ with friends and when we play quads they usually assigned me as the spotter, not only for my ability to spot surrounding moving objects but because the iFi NEO iDSD gave me a great sense of direction when it came to sound. The sound positioning was excellent.

So of course staging was very good with music and always portrayed an accurate picture of the soundstage with all the necessary elements. Height, width, and depth were all there and audio was never narrow unless the recording was so.

Wireless Performance

The iFi NEO iDSD actually sounds pretty darn good when you pair it with an Android phone. It is a convenience that is good to have but I still wished it transmitted to wireless headphones and TWS earbuds.

I was only able to use it on aptX HD which was the highest I had at my disposal on my Motorola G7 Power. It worked just fine with all my apps including Jet Audio and I could even transmit Pandora and other music services to the NEO iDSD from my phone.

One observation is that phone service does not work so if you get a phone call in the middle of transmitting to the NEO iDSD you would have to answer the phone normally at the phone.

You could feed the NEO iDSD to your home stereo and use your phone apps directly and with good quality sound to boot. Volume and any DSP the phone or apps have will reflect and work.

iFi Audio Neo iDSD

Selective Comparisons

Schiit Asgard (AK4490 DAC)

Technical

A more economical unit and heavier in weight. I have heard the Multibit DAC Schiit offers but somehow prefer the warm character and musicality of this DAC and the imaging is not bad either.

The Asgard is a simple device with one RCA line input, one RCA line output, and a single-ended 6.35mm TRS headphone output. It ends there.

On the front panel, you do get to chose between the USB DAC or the line input plus a 2 step gain switch. You do not get any fancy displays or even a power LED with the Asgard.

The feature set, of course, is more intensive with the NEO iDSD but I know many people who like things with no frills and hate features.

Tuning

The Schiit Asgard has a powerful amplification section rated at 5 watts per channel which seems enough on paper to drive some full-sized efficient speakers, but find myself most times using a higher than average volume setting.

Somehow I can obtain a higher volume level at the same setting from the NEO iDSD but only from the balanced Pentaconn output.

If I was to use one single device to power my Aryas then I would probably choose the Asgard for the extra added power which gives the bass some heft and weight. But for the Sundara or mostly any other headphones, I would choose the NEO because it sounds cleaner.

The AK4490 is a very musical sounding DAC chip but it adds some color and warmth in where the NEO iDSD is linear and stays true to the source you feed it.

iFi Audio Neo iDSD

iFi Audio ZEN ‘Stack’

Technical

The Basic ZEN Stack consists of the ZEN DAC and the ZEN CAN and is a cheaper alternative with some room to grow. You could add more components also but we will leave it there for comparison reasons.

I like the looks of the ZEN Stack which looks retro in contrast to the modern style NEO iDSD but I like both. Both units are made of metal and both have some heavy-duty construction.

Featurewise, the stack wins hands down because you get the extra 3D, TrueBass, Xbass which is probably the best bass boost switch out there, Lots of inputs and gain settings but it lacks Bluetooth, SPDIF, and optical inputs.

Tuning

There is more color in the ZEN stack and both amp sections tend to sound warm, even more so on the ZEN CAN. The NEO iDSD is more neutral and linear. The ZEN Stack can change tonality with the included features.

The ZEN Stack has a better ability to drive hard to drive headphones especially through the Pentaconn output of the CAN.

There is a difference in that the NEO iDSD is cleaner sounding, has no bugs like the channel imbalance you get on the bottom of the volume setting with both the CAN and the ZEN even though they all use a similar rotary analog volume control. You just do not get a step resistor controller with microcontroller assistance.

You do not get any switching noise with the NEO iDSD and the NEO is the quieter and higher quality in fidelity unit.

iFi Audio Neo iDSD

Our Verdict

If the iFi Audio NEO iDSD would have a beefier headphone amplifier section, this could almost be an endgame piece because as a preamplifier DAC it is clean as a whistle. There are no clicks, pops, hiss, or turn on or off thumps. This is probably the first device of this type I tested that is completely silent in operation.

Somehow, I feel like iFi will soon release a powerful accompanying amp that will stack with the NEO and that would be epic. Imagine that. A NEO stack.

As a 3 in one DAC preamplifier, it works great, the quality shows and the iFi Audio NEO iDSD will make an excellent audio centerpiece to feed your desktop audio system and then some.

ifi Audio NEO iDSD Specifications

Inputs

  • Digital USB3.0 B (USB2.0 compatible)/S-PDIF (coaxial/optical)
  • Bluetooth 5.0™ ( AAC, SBC, aptX, aptX HD, aptX Adaptive, aptX LL, LDAC, LHDC/HWA Codec)

Formats

  • DSD512/256/128/64, Octa/Quad/Double/Single-Speed DSD
  • DXD (768/705.6/384/352.8kHz), Double/Single-Speed DXD
  • PCM (768/705.6/384/352.8/192/176.4/96/88.2/48/44.1kHz)
  • MQA
  • Bluetooth 96kHz

Outputs

  • Balanced XLR 6.3V / 7.7V max. (variable) 4.4V fixed
  • UnBAL RCA 3.2V / 3.9V max. (variable) 2.2V fixed

Zout

  • Balanced <= 100Ω
  • UnBAL <= 50Ω
  • SNR -112dB(A) @ 0dBFS (UnBAL/BAL)
  • DNR >116dB(A) @ -60dBFS (UnBAL/BAL)
  • THD + N <0.0015% @ 0dBFS (UnBAL/BAL)

Headphone Section

  • Output Balanced >6.4V/68.6 mW (@ 600Ω)
  • >5.77V/1040 mW (@ 32Ω)
  • UnBAL >3.25V/17.6 mW (@ 600Ω)
  • >3V/295 mW (@ 32Ω)
  • Output Impedance <1Ω (UnBAL/BAL)
  • SNR -112dBA (3.3V UnBAL/6.2V BAL)
  • THD + N <0.0015% (125mW @ 32Ω)

Power consumption

  • No Signal ~0.5W
  • Max Signal ~2.5W
  • Dynamic range -120dB(A)
  • Input voltage DC 5V/2.5A, AC 100 -240V, 50/60Hz (with iPower)

Dimensions

  • 214 x146 x 41 mm
  • 8.4″ x 5.7″ x 1.6″
  • Weight 970 g (2.14 Ibs)
  • Warranty period 12 months
  • 380
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14 Responses

  1. David C. Snyder

    I’ve had quite a few DACs in my systems, including some that are much more expensive than the NEO iDSD, but I’ve never had one that sounds better. The secret to getting $700+ worth of sound out of the NEO, as Louis suggests, is to pretend that the internal headphone amp does not exist. You get endgame performance out of those XLR jacks on the back. There’s a lot of competition at this price point, but nothing I’ve heard so far matches the NEO when driving an external amplifier. It redefines what I thought was possible from a DAC and is a bargain at its asking price.

    Reply
  2. David Camp

    I love IFI probably more than the next guy. I have 4 DACs and AMPs from them. They make a quality product. I get it. But I am sorry, with the way the market is saturated with so much stuff that do mainly the same thing, YES MQA, its overpriced. Like way overpriced. Should be TOPS, TOPs $299. Now I hope headfonics publishes this review because it had to be said as a matter of opinion. The prices for MQA devices are becoming out of control. Buy a HIP DAC. buy a xDSD DAC. Shoot, treat yourself and buy the Zen DAC and add on tghe Zen CAN to really shake things up. I am sorry but $700 plus tax is just way too high for a very pretty desktop DAC, its not an Apple product, but the sellers are acting like it is.
    Thank You

    Reply
    • Louis Gonzalez

      What makes the NEO expensive is not MQA implementation. you could get a 100 device that does that. What makes the unit expensive is the 16 core Xmos chip plus all the other components that are of high quality including the display. BTW I do have the ZEN and CAN stack and although it sounds very good as a combo it does have some noise and hiss while the NEO doesn’t.

      Reply
    • Louis Gonzalez

      It only receives a signal from BT sources like a phone and plays it back. I
      dislike the fact that it cannot transmit to BT headphones.

      Reply
  3. zygfryd

    hi man, nice review
    I just completed full ZEN stack: DAC, BLUE and CAN
    I am wondering if having only NOE iDSD (1 box vs. 3) would bring better sound to ZEN stack or not?
    I think CAN has more power. Apart from that all other features should be almost the same – so the sound is what would be the pro/con
    If you have any thoughts or better experience in these 2

    thx

    Reply
    • Louis Gonzalez

      Oh yea I was using the line out from the NEO to the CAN with very good results. I liked that combo. The NEO lacks power. Hopefully iFi will listen to my words and produce an amp to make a NEO stack soon.

      Reply
      • David

        Of course they will. Its called marketing. Throw a line out to the consumer and wait. Like fishing. After a few genuine reviews and remarks like yours, they will. And it will also be $700. Thats $1400 DOLLARS for what my IFI HIP DAC does so well. Or my SMSL M500. C’mon IFI, you make a great ZEN stack and then throw a $700 device at us? Thats just plain crazy. My opinion.

  4. Dominic

    Thank you for your review! May I ask how does it pair with the Asgard as the amp? Does it also reduce some its clarity like the Zen Can did? How do you find the combination?

    Reply
    • Louis Gonzalez

      Thanks for visiting our website and taking time to read our reviews. The Asgard and the NEO actually compliment each other because the NEO is clean and linear while the Asgard is warm and musical. So 2 different sound signatures on one desk.

      Reply
  5. Louis Gonzalez

    It seems this unit can play music off anything including rocks. It does it while remaining transparent with no noise whatsoever. Yea it’s a good candidate for consideration as a center piece to control a more elaborate sound system and handle all your input needs.

    Reply
  6. Chim Ruangkanit

    If you still have the Neo iDSD, could you please test the MQA through SPDIF?
    I’m interested in playing MQA CD with CD player connects via Coax/Toslink.
    Thank you.

    Reply
    • Louis Gonzalez

      Hello and thanks for visiting our website. I did try MQA on the optical side and it worked fine. It also works on Bluetooth. It should work on SPDIF fine. the internal DAC should handle the decoding.

      Reply
      • Chim Ruangkanit

        Thank you for your prompt reply.
        This model is at the top of my list for next upgrade.

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