Sound Impressions

Tonality & Presentation

The Nano iDSD BL has a natural sounding tonality with a presentation that is easy going and slightly euphoric, especially in the vocal and instrumental timbre. Its staging is fairly open and spacious with excellent width and some decent depth and height but not the most extended. Instrumental separation in particular benefits from that open sound and black background the BL is able to project.

There are some nuanced differences that the filters bring to the sound of the BL. The listen filter adds a little more low-end warmth, particularly in the mid-bass and pulls back a bit more on vocal and treble presence. The reduction of higher frequency levels produces a very smooth and euphoric sound with good low-end body.

The measure filter pulls back a bit on the mid-bass warmth and delivers a slightly more linear low-end experience. It also sounds marginally further forward from the upper mids into the lower treble with a palatable injection of odd harmonics. Percussion work will have more bite though the notes seem to have a slightly shorter level of decay. Of the two the measure filter is the drier sounding and more neutral.

Matchability

IEMatch

The dual mode jack output of the Nano iDSD BL is a lifesaver and very flexible for both IEM and medium efficiency headphones. You can use just about any IEM and you should get excellent dynamic range and low to non-existent noise levels. It passes the Campfire Audio Andromeda test with flying colors. If it passes that test without noise pretty much any IEM should have similar results.

I was also able to deduce that the IEMatch 3.5m output does have the same effect, attenuation and tonality, (using same IEM), as the dedicated IEMatch cable. By plugging into the direct using the IEMatch cable you will get the same level of attenuation as the BL’s IEMatch output using the high sensitivity single ended setting on the cable. With the ultra-sensitivity, the attenuation is greater on the cable using the direct output than the BL IEMatch output.

Direct

Direct without the IEMatch has noise on a wide range of IEMs such as the dual BA Hum Pristine, the 5-BA Andromeda, and the Noble Savanna. It is very quiet with the RHA CL1 and the CA Vega which are know to be power hungry dynamic driver IEMs.

The gain on the analog pot is also too aggressive, even for the Vega though not too bad on the RHA CL1 with its very low-efficiency rating. With the CL 1, I can push it up to around 11am on the pot.

In all, I would use the IEMatch output for most IEMs. Even the CL1 benefits from that additional wiggle room on the analog pot, tapping out at around 2pm for most things. Anything 100dB or less seems to show low noise on the direct output but every IEM is quiet on the IEMatch.

Power

The Nano iDSD BL has more than enough gain and decent power for quite a wide range of headphones. I have used the term medium efficiency liberally. That pretty much any headphone that’s not full-scale planar or 600ohms.

Headphones that can scale such as the HD800 and the HE600 from Hifiman are better left out of the equation. However, classics, portable headphones, and more efficient planars did very well indeed.

Hifiman HE400i

Volume setting: 1pm direct output on OTG

The Nano iDSD BL had no issues driving the HE400i via the direct output. There is zero noise and healthy dynamics across the board. What I noticed though is how big an impact the filter switch had with this combo.

Listening filter has more ambiance and a slightly softer standoff character. Bass delivered a little more warmth than the Measurement filter also. The Measurement filter accentuates the HE400i mids, particularly the vocals and pulls back the bass response with slightly less warmth.

Sennheiser HD600

Volume Setting: noon direct output on OTG

For a 300Ω headphone, this performed rather better than I expected. It is not quite as dynamic and quick sounding as the micro iDSD and does sound optimal with a desktop solution but does not collapse like a deck of cards hooked to the BL. The micro iDSD delivers more power, more resolution and a cleaner presentation by comparison.

The BL softens the tone a little more than the micro iDSD and instead delivers a smoother presentation with a little more warmth. This is a nice natural tone with very little digitization in its timbre.

Meze 99 Neo

Volume setting – 9am direct, 11am IEMatch

This was a sublime pairing but gain-wise a better fit using IEMatch if just for the additional microvolume control this output offers. The 99 Neo is rated at 26Ω so it does not need a huge amount of juice to sound optimal.

Tonally this is an excellent presentation. The 99 Neo has a fairly meaty but slow low-end, the BL keeps it tight with better definition than most DAPs tend to deliver. Dynamics are convincing also. Not once did I get a feeling headroom was restricted or everything sounded compressed.

It’s also a spacious-sounding presentation with a nice black background. Instrumental separation is excellent though slightly more engaging on the measurement filter than the listening filter.

OTG Compatibility

The USB OTG capability of the Nano iDSD BL is based on USB Host Mode functionality. If your phone or source has it then it should work. In our testing, not every OTG solution is compatible with the Nano iDSD BL during our testing.  For a very comprehensive list and some tips on USB Host Mode functionality check out this website. Our list here is not exhaustive but it should include some of the more popular devices people will use to pair with.

  • Apple iTouch 6th Gen (iOs 10) – full compatibility (must use female to male adapter)
  • Hidizs AP60 II – full compatibility
  • Shanling M3s/M2s/M1s – full compatibility
  • Cayin N5ii – full compatibility
  • AK240 (PCM output only, not functional with DoP)
  • AK380 (PCM output only, not functional with DoP), will also not work with an AK amp attached
  • FiiO X7ii – no OTG connectivity (Pure or HiBy Music app)
  • FiiO X7i – full functionality (Pure and HiBy Music)
  • FiiO X5iii – no OTG connectivity (Pure or HiBy Music app)
  • HiBy Music R6 – full compatibility
  • iBasso DX200 – no OTG connectivity (Mango)
  • LG G6 – full compatibility
  • ZTE Axon 7 – full compatibility
  • Opus#2 – No OTG connectivity

My surprise was the FiiO compatibility issues, particularly the X7ii and X7 first gen. I was not expecting the latest generation to be incompatible with the Nano iDSD BL. Neither HiBy Music or the Pure Player app would play ball with the BL yet the first gen was more than happy to send OTG audio to the BL in any app I tried. If you want to get a BL and have a first gen X7 then I advise holding onto it.

If you have more results please feel free to put them in the comments below this review. Likewise, if you have functionality where I do not on the list please comment also.

MQA

Whether you are a TIDAL desktop user, or ROON (TIDAL by proxy) or simply have some MQA encoded tracks, the Nano iDSD BL’s bit-perfect output will handle it no issues. The bonus was having ROON easily pick up on the BL via its settings and then log into TIDAL via Roon and go straight to TIDAL Masters. From there, the Nano iDSD BL will play everything and play it very well indeed.

What impressed me most about this setup was the clarity and black background combined with the excellent dynamics. I am not a big believer in MQA yet but from a personal point of view, I thought the quality of performance from both TIDAL Masters and the BL was far better than I was expecting. Enough to get a subscription? We shall see.

Select Comparisons

Oppo HA-2SE

$299

Technical

Technically, the HA-2SE will resolve to similar DSD256 levels but does not process MQA. Its form factor is slimmer and more suitable for stacking and it has a wider range of USB connectivity options. It is also $100 more expensive.

Performance

It also exhibits a higher noise floor with sensitive IEMs though it is much lower than the older first gen HA-2. The BL though is more adept for sensitive IEMs with its IEMatch delivering very low noise floors. The power ratings of both are not too dissimilar at 220mW into 32Ω for the HA-2SE and 235mW for the BL on direct output. Both can deliver decent power to medium efficiency headphones.

Tonally the HA-2SE is more neutral sounding compared to the Nano iDSD BL. Its ES9028PRO DAC and amp implementation is clean, detailed though a little brighter than the BL’s PC1793. It will hit a little harder with the bass boost option compared to the smoother tonality of the BL.

RHA Dacamp L1

$549

Technical

The L1 uses a dual ESS SABRE32 ES9018K2M DAC chip configuration with a similarly powered amp using single ended and balanced output configurations. Instead of filters, it has 3 dials for EQ including gain, treble, and bass. They work quite well and may offer a degree more flexibility than the preset filters of the Nano iDSD BL. The L1 does not do MQA natively.

Performance

However, the gain is fast and aggressive and not as nuanced as the BL despite the power ratings being in the same ballpark. The IEMatch here comes into its own with its attenuating capability giving more headroom and control on efficient IEMs.

Both have similar capabilities on headphones and highly inefficient IEMs such as the CL1 from RHA. The CL1 though can go balanced with its own balanced mini-XLR cable and is tuned to sound just right with the L1.

Tonally the L1 is cleaner solid state sound with plenty of energy. It is also a little more digital sounding than the BL. However, it can really rumble. The low-end of the L1 is energetic, impactful and more aggressive. The BL, in contrast, takes a slightly warmer more analog sounding approach and sounds the more natural of the two. Depth and height belong to the L1 but width and separation are excellent on the BL.

iBasso D14

$229

Technical

The D14 might be a little old school given its nearly 3 years old but in some ways, its a jack of all trades for a DAC/Amp. Its price point is almost the same as the Nano iDSD BL at just $30 more and you do get some excellent features such as line-out, SPDIF, USB-DAC as well as OTG. Decoding is similar at DSD256 and PCM 32BIT/3894kHz. You also get a measure of control over the level of gain though it has no filtering, MQA support and most definitely no IEMatch capability.

Performance

Noise levels are higher on the D14 than the BL with efficient IEMs but its power output is much higher at 400mW into 32Ω. Battery life is also a bit longer on the D14 at 10-13 hours compared to the BL’s 7-10 hours max rating.

Tonally, the D14 runs a lot brighter than the smoother and warmer presentation of the BL. It also has far more treble extension and articulation with an airy signature that matches well with dark sounding headphones. It does exhibit a little of that ES9018K2M glare that the newer chipsets from Sabre have cut down on so it is a little harsher sounding and less forgiving than the Nano iDSD BL. Elsewhere it is more linear sounding and generally a lot cleaner than the BL but also a bit thinner and not as natural sounding.

Both have excellent staging quality with the BL bettering the D14 on depth and equal in width but maybe a little more relaxed sounding on height. Instrumental separation on both is excellent.

Our Verdict

I honestly can’t find fault with a device at this price point that can do as much as the Nano iDSD Black Label can. At $199 it is a bit of a steal to get IEMatch, decent levels of gain and power as well as a smooth analog-type delivery with BitPerfect capability. Throwing in MQA is kind of like a selectively high-end cherry on a generally rather tasty cake.

What is missing? Not a whole lot to be honest, maybe a proper OTG cable would be handy to prevent those wishing to do OTG having to go out and buy one but even then they are generally inexpensive and easy to acquire.  The battery life is also a bit short in real-world scenarios with 10-hours being rarely achievable with all those features built-in.

Apart from that, if you have IEMs or even a wide range of medium efficiency headphones the Nano iDSD BL is a really smart entry-level choice for the price. It can handle both but with IEMatch it excels with today’s hyper-efficient IEMs which I suspect is where the majority of buyers will likely be.

Nano iDSD BL Specifications

General  
Input(rear): USB2.0 type A “OTG” Socket (with iPurifier® technology built-in)
Output(rear); 1 x Audio fixed line out L+R 3.5mm
Digital Filter: 2 positions, 2 filters
Outputs(front): 2 x Headphone Audio 3.5mm one direct and one with iFi iEMatch® integrated
DAC  
DAC: DSD, DXD, PCM DAC by Burr-Brown Bit-Perfect DSD processing, Bit-Perfect DXD processing
Clock: Low-jitter crystal clock
Audio Formats: DSD 256/128/64/12.4/11.2/6.2/5.6/3.1/2.8
  DXD 384/352.8kHz
  PCM 384/352.8/192/176.4/96/88.2/48/44.1kHz
  MQA 88.2/96/176.4/192kHz filters
Filter–PCM: Listen(transient optimised minimum phase)
  Measure(frequency response optmised)
       –DSD: Listen(extended bandwidth transient optimised)
  Measure (narrow bandwidth, low output band noise optimised)
       –DXD: Fixed Bit-Perfect Processing
       –MQA: Fixed MQA Filter
Headphone Amplifier  
Amplifier: Dual Mono 2 x 285mW Direct Drive, coupling capacitor free circuit for highest fidelity
Volume Control: 3.5mm TRRS with Balanced compatible wiring
Dynamic Range(including DAC): > 109dB(A) @ 3v (Direct)
  > 107dB(A) @ 0.5V (iEMatch®)
THD &N (@ 125mW/30R): < 0.005%
Max. Output (<10% THD): > 3.5V @ 600Ω Load (Direct) (20mW/600Ω)
  > 2.9V @ 30Ω Load (Direct) (285mW/30Ω)
  > 1.7V @ 15Ω Load (Direct) (200mW/15Ω)
Output Impedance : < = 1Ω (Direct)
  < = 4Ω (iEMatchsup>®)
Channel Separation: > 79dB @ 600Ω Load (Direct)
  > 79dB @ 15Ω Load (Direct) (1kHz, TRRS plug Balanced wiring)
Line Output  
Dynamic Range(Line): > 109dB(A)
THD & N(0dBFS Line): < 0.004%
Output Voltage(Line): : 2.15V (+/-0.05V)
Output Impedance: < 240Ω
Channel Separation: > 99dB (@ 1kHz)
Jitter(correlated): Below test set limit
Dimensions: 96(l) x 64(w) x 25.5(h)mm
Weight: 139g (0.31 Ibs)
Warranty period: 12months

 

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27 Responses

  1. michael

    i want more detail about nano bl for hd600
    does nano bl already push enough max potential of hd600?? or it just loud enough to feed hd600?
    im planning to get nano bl for driving hd600 , there is any another dac amp which have same price around $200? or nano bl is best choice?
    thanks in advance

    Reply
    • Marcus

      If I am being hyper-cautious I would grab the xCAN because of that excellent dynamic range and power but then that leaves you without a DAC. I think its a yes for the BL on an aural memory basis but I need to try it again sometime to be 100% sure.

      Reply
      • michael

        thanks a lot for sharing , this is kind of dilemma
        aside some ppl on website says nano bl are enough for hd600 , on other hand in my local audio community says nano bl it may be enough for hd600 but it lack of dynamics and power.
        unfortunately ifi xcan isn’t available in my local marketplace and only available micro idsd bl, nano bl , xdsd

  2. Bhavin Lakdawala

    My replay to Headfonics on its above replay is as below.

    “Hello dear. If you are telling that ifi Nano BL is ine of of the best DAC Amp, then it is true because Headfonics blogs are good, unbiased & trustworthy for our audiophile community.

    Dear,
    ifi claims that converts DSD to Native DSD(while other DACs convert DSD to PCM to Analog DSD). There is no reason to disapprove this claim. But, even with other DACs, we can differentiate between files like MP3, FLAC, DSD etc. Isn’t it?

    ifi Nano BL must be one of the best DAC Amp, but if ifi claims that is only DAC which converts DSD to Native DSD & thus only DAC which gives natural output is just a marketing gimmick, I believe.”

    What’s your take, dear Headfonics?

    Reply
  3. Bhavin Lakdawala

    In replay @Headfonics replied as below.

    Hi Bhavin, there is much to sound than a DAC, there is also the amp. THis is a $200 amp that sounds excellent but compared to a desktop dac/amp no it does not nor would it claim to be. There is also the preference question in terms of how things sound. Is it the best at $199? Certainly one of the best yes. With regard to the claim, not sure I can disprove it unless I take it apart and measure it bit by bit.

    Reply
  4. Bhavin Lakdawala

    Sry, by mistake I removed my comment. I m posting it again.

    Hello @Marcus.

    ifi claims tht “TI Burr Brown 1793 DAC” used in “ifi Nano BL” converts DSD to Native DSD without convert it to PCM.
    They say tht other DACs convert DSD to PCM & then to Analog.

    U agree? Did u get better sound through ifi Nano BL than other DAC Amp fr DSD files?

    Pls replay. Thanks & regards,

    ~ Bhavin

    Reply
  5. Bhavin Lakdawala

    Hi. If you are telling that ifi Nano BL is one of the best among 199$ price DAC Amps then I believe it for sure because I trust unbiased & informative “Headfonics blogs”.

    But, like you disapprove claim by ifi that Nano BL(& TI Burr Brown PCM 1793) DAC Amp gives natural output by convert DSD to Native DSD directly(other DAC Amps convert DSD to PCM to Analog DSD as per ifi claims), I also don’t trust this claim because we can clearly get different sounds through different files like DSD, FLAC, MP3 etc. For other brand DACs, too.

    This claim of ifi that Nano BL converts DSD to Native DSD unlike other DACs & thus gives natural sound is a marketing gimmick I guess.

    Reply
  6. Headfonics

    Hi Bhavin, there is much to sound than a DAC, there is also the amp. THis is a $200 amp that sounds excellent but compared to a desktop dac/amp no it does not nor would it claim to be. There is also the preference question in terms of how things sound. Is it the best at $199? Certainly one of the best yes. With regard to the claim, not sure I can disprove it unless I take it apart and measure it bit by bit.

    Reply
  7. Bhavin Lakdawala

    Hello @Marcus.

    ifi company claim tht “TI Burr Brown 1793 DAC” chipset used in “ifi Nano BL” makes it only DAC Amp in the market who converts DSD file formats to Native DSD without convert it to PCM first.

    ifi claim tht other DAC chipset & other DAC first converst DSD to PCM & then give DSD output.

    Is this claim of ifi company right? Also did u get better sound through ifi Nano BL than other DAC Amp while u used it for listen DSD files?

    Pls replay. Thanks & regards,

    ~ Bhavin

    Reply
  8. SublimeSound

    Hi Marcus, I am planning to pair the iFi Nano with Senn HD 650. Do you feel an amp (Schiit Magni 3 is what I have in mind) will improve SQ significantly, given the impedance of the 650 is rated at 300 ohms?

    Reply
    • Marcus

      Well certainly it will have more power which is a plus for the HD650 to drive it but since I do not have the Magni 3 I cannot say for sure if they both have synergy.

      Reply
  9. Sorin

    You are right Radovan and I tried today one on Audirvana plus and besides the fact that it could only play DSD128, it did not encode correctly MQA probably you should have installed the firmware you are talking about.

    What player do you use?

    Reply
  10. Sorin

    Why do not anyone say on the forum as on OSX if IFI in features has DSD 128 actually can only DSD 64 on Audirvana plus which is one of the best players for Mac

    Reply
  11. Alexander

    Hi there! Two questions: 1) would this Nano BL be a good match for a HD6XX? and… 2) what is the best cable to use to connect this Nano BL to an iPhone 6Plus? Thx.

    Reply
    • Marcus

      It will not have an issue driving the HD6XX but as for tonal preference, it is hard to say since everyone is different. I like neutral systems for my HD650 (which is the exact same as the HD6XX) but this is not an overly warm and fuzzy pairing also. For iPhones, a Lightning to USB adaptor is needed and honestly, any should work.

      Reply
  12. Juan Luis

    Hello Marcus, great review as always. My current configuration is the Cayin n3 with the 99 Neo. Will my cayin be compatible with the nano bl?

    Reply
    • Marcus

      Just tested with a cheap USB to micro-USB cable and an adapter for USB-c and it works fine. I use Transmart USB-C $5 adapters as they are bi-directional.

      Reply
      • Juan Luis

        Oh nice! It could also work as a single cable like this, do not you think?

      • Marcus

        It is possible though I cannot vouch for that cable. Sometimes it is trial and error but at that price, I see no harm in taking the risk.

  13. dalethorn

    Your review does not state clearly whether the Nano BL is a full MQA decoder and renderer, so that you can get the full MQA experience with non-MQA-aware players playing MQA files, or whether it’s an MQA renderer only, requiring an MQA player to get the full MQA experience.

    Reply
    • Marcus

      Hi Dale, it is a rendering device. So you would use TIDAL to do the initial sweep. Personally, most are going to be on TIDAL for MQA anyhow so they won’t see a physical difference. If you want full unfolding I highly recommend the Project Audio Pre Box S2 digital at $399.

      Reply
  14. Radovan

    Nice review, thanks a lot for reviewing the nano. I actually purchased the nano back in november shortly after it got available to replace the Oppo HA-2 (the original version) as my desktop dac/amp connected to my Mac home. The main reasons have been the MQA and the proclaimed low noise level (as you might know the original HA-2 produced quite a noticeable hiss on sensitive headphones so I ended up using a 300 Ohm DT990 with it).
    I am very pleased with the sound it produces as well as the MQA reproduction from Tidal, however there are some serious issues I am facing with it. One should have been told the device does not ship with an MQA compatible firmware and you have to upgrade it first. In doing so, you loose the led indications on the sound quality/rate as well as the full compatibility with Mac (which is very surprising), as the latest firmware is officially only compatible with Windows. Thus you get a very troublesome connectivity to Tidal, which is very unpredictable and the devices often loose connection to each other, so you have to switch off and disconnect the nano to overcome it.
    In addition, playing Masters form Tidal gets you an unmute period (actually volume muted down associated with a funny sound at the end) at the beginning of each new track, lasting for about 2 seconds, which is very annoying. Apparently the nano is trying to identify what is being thrown at it in the beginning of each track. The only other MQA-capable device I have is an Auralic Aries, and it does not behave like this by any means.
    Wonder you have had any similar experience when testing it with Tidal Masters.
    It seems to me the firmware needs still some work on till the device really delivers to what it promises.

    Reply
    • James

      I purchased one yesterday and am using to listen to Tidal Masters through a MacBook Pro. I did have to download the latest firmware (5.3 I believe) but I did not experience the same issues as Radovan. My quality indicating lights are working fine and I did not lose any compatibility with my Mac. I do notice the slight delay/tic when playing a new track though which is annoying. Overall it sounds very good to me.

      Reply
      • Radovan

        Thanks, which version are you using? I am on 5.3C RC2 – see https://ifi-audio.com/nano-idsd-bl-xmos-firmware/
        This is supposed to be the latest and ifi confirms appart from the magenta colour when playing Tidal Masters, LED is NOT working as supposed to, as everything else turns the LED white….

      • Sorin

        Hello ,
        It would be interesting if you tried the Audirvana plus mac as I tried yesterday and it seems they still do not have an MQA driver to go, basically if you have an MQA format song to say MQA 96 khz everything you can to decode the ifi nano BL is 45 khz but without MQA in front, that means Audirvana does not have the MQA coding driver yet at IFI, and if you listen to Tidal as master, you are not sure as it is.

      • Marcus

        Yeah sadly I am not a MAC guy, my setup is Win 10 and then Google Chromebook for travel. Maybe I should do Mac laptop reviews and sort that imbalance out :)

    • Sorin

      You are right Radovan and I tried today one on Audirvana plus and besides the fact that it could only play DSD128, it did not encode correctly MQA probably you should have installed the firmware you are talking about.

      What player do you use?

      Reply

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