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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
USB2.0 type A “OTG” Socket (with iPurifier® technology built-in)
1 x Audio fixed line out L+R 3.5mm
2 positions, 2 filters
2 x Headphone Audio 3.5mm one direct and one with iFi iEMatch® integrated