Pros: Incredibly clear sound, multitude of sound options, build quality, TURBO power! Good value.
Cons: TRANSportability, 3D not the best on some genre/songs, switches can too easily move
Oh my gawd this amp is incredible. If this is what moving upscale is, then I am in. I am beyond smitten. I am thrown face-first-headlong over the cliff. Enjoying the massive jet plane drop like never before. Traveling at warp 57, my Tennmak Pro’s have NEVER sounded this good…I await the crash to the ground. This would be a godsend, as it would be the final ecstasy to my full body experience. I cannot breathe, yanked from my body it is as I hurtle towards that ultimate death…. Which would be welcomed as it would free me from this overwhelming envelopment of sound. A veritable cacophony of senses….Can we have more than five?! You are damn right we can…hitting the 3-D on Coldplays White Shadows, I give myself up. I give in to the sensory overload, which it provides. An out-and-out pummeling of sensory trance. I cannot bring myself to move past this. I don’t WANT to move past this. I want to curl up in that fetal position holding the Black Label close as I approach the end. Willingly, I protect the iDSD, so that it will survive and I won’t. It MUST survive, so that others can experience what I am. It’s as if I am David Bowie’s Lazarus….he willingly gave in to the cancer in the end, knowing he had produced such a masterpiece, giving to us, so that we may enjoy. Fighting like heck to the end, he rebelliously threw Black Star at us, so we would remember how damn good he was. A magical genius who told cancer what it could do…going out on HIS terms, to the dreaded disease…so that we would survive. This is what I must do so others may experience this primitive core explosion. This is a sense of not dread, but Paradise. Absolute Paradise. I give myself up so that you may survive.
Watching the Australian Open tennis tournament the year they used Coldplay’s Paradise as the go-to song, I watched some tennis. Some extraordinary tennis. Australia was facing record heat during the tourney. The players didn’t care. They competed, some to the full 3 or five sets, as the gender determined. There were some matches that went well beyond the normal 6-4 fifth set. The crowning jewels were the semi-finals and the finals, culminated by the Men’s final, which paired Rafael Nadal & Novak Djokovic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Australian_Open_%E2%80%93_Men%27s_Singles) in the longest match of the Australian Open history…in the heat…It was beyond spellbinding. I’ll admit I’m not the biggest tennis fan (my better half the wife unit is though, so I watched) but this whole tourney has me. Like the Black Label. The two mega-stars threw guts and sweat and heart and determination and every other superlative I can think of in my feeble mind at each other. Neither would break. There were breaks where the two would cross paths going to their respective benches, and they would low five each other. They knew what the match meant to the other and they would not yield. Eventually after 5 hours and 53 minutes (ALMOST SIX HOURS!), Nadal yielded. It was an instant classic (a term thrown around in this social media drooling-drivel-day), and some regard it as at minimum a top ten contestant for best final ever…A match which culminated in the dignitaries speaking for FAR too long…to the point that one of the Open Marshalls sought out two chairs and bottles of water for the champions (both in my mind) and he received more applause than any of the speakers…that’s how tired the two were. They could barely move…You might ask, what this has to do with the ifi…and you would be correct to shout that comment at me.
THIS was a tennis match!
I fully believe after a short 45 minutes of listening that this device was crafted from the grit, the sweat, the blood, the Australian clay which those two idols of tennis competed on and gave up to that day. Shorn from the ground Nadal & Djokovic strode, the iDSD micro BL is a masterpiece. Simply smacks in the face to its competitors like Bowie to cancer. A full forehand volley driven of 125mph at its opponent head. A volley of such force that you must react or be laid out. Luckily for all of us, I do react and stop just short of the bottom. I thankfully come to my wits and stop; landing gently thanks to the parachute offered by the ifi iDSD micro Black Label. I cannot wait for more impressions.
I haven’t even brought out the big guns yet…
I am extremely grateful to the folks at ifi for the inclusion of me on the world tour. I have never done a tour such as this, but drawing from my experience on another recent tour, I will do my best to convey my likes, dislikes, quirks and joys. This review will be as open as I can. The tour unit will then be sent to the next lucky victim. My hope is that I can get the parachute packed for them…
I have no experience with units of this magnitude, let alone price. My closest ownership is the Schiit Magni2, which I also use regularly. A comparison not really meant (or is it?), but one I will do (I didn’t). There is much difference, besides price.
From my unboxing, I was rather startled as to just what to expect when I first saw the BL. I was very happy whenst the lid opened. A very black rectagonal cigar-shaped box greeted me. This unit is not small. It is meant for not only desktop use, but also TRANSportability. This would be the piece with which all of your other portable gear sits upon. An excellent foundation with which to start. Through all of the knobs, toggles, connectors, and switches; a small green light illuminates to show that “Yes, I am working, now begone and listen fore I smash your head.”
From those multitudes of connecting options, I floundered for a good ten minutes trying to decipher where to hook my iPhone 6+…a simple start, and I completely bottled it. Eventually I was able to determine (stupid, I am) that the simple 3.5mm to 3.5mm right angle cable, which I raved about in the unboxing was the tool of choice. Until know, I did not let on what a dolt I was…
Daunting though the size might be, the controls are logically laid out, and easy of function. Industrially-efficient is what I would describe. All switches, toggles, plug-ins, and cord/cable outlets are pretty much where they should be. No real surprise, and the red labels on the black aluminum body allows for fairly quick identification when needed of the three-way switches on the side. And those three-way switches are of light action. So be careful, especially when moving from the “normal” to the “turbo” setting on the amp. Yikes! As one becomes familiar with the switches, the red labels would simply be the back up. My one qualm is the toggles. I was worried in my opening about the “fragility” of them; how they might handle their location. I will say that due to the connections of the headphones in the ¼” jack and the 3.5mm input jack the two are protected. My worries seem unfounded at this point. What is bothersome from the toggles is quickly reaching them, as needed. I can see one wanting to toggle off and on the X-bass or the 3D between songs. This is where there can be a bother. But since they are toggles, a light flick either way takes care of that. No harm done.
From the ifi site:
|Formats supported:||DSD512/256/128/64, Octa/Quad/Double/Single-Speed DSD
DXD(768/705.6/384/352.8kHz), Double/Single-Speed DXD
|Filters:||PCM – Bit-Perfect Processing/Minimum Phase/Standard
DSD – Extreme/Extended/Standard Bandwidth
DXD – Bit-Perfect Processing
|Digital Inputs:||High-Speed Asynchronous USB 2.0 (32bit/768kHz)
|Digital Output:||SPDIF Coaxial|
|Audio Output:||6.3mm RCA Line out (2V fixed/2V-5V variable)|
|Power Output:||Turbo (8.0V max/4,000 mW @ 16 Ohm)
Normal (4.0V/1,000 mW @ 16 Ohm)
Eco (2.0V/250mW@16 Ohm)
|Power System:||USB BCP V1.2 compliant up to 1500mA charging current|
|Power (max):||<2W idle, 4W max|
|Dimensions:||177(l) x 67(w) x 28(h) mm|
|Weight:||310g (0.68 lbs)|
Red lettering makes for a somewhat easier read
At a retail price of $549, this is not cheap for entry-level people. This is a definite step up. And it should be. With the reputation behind ifi’s other successful products such as the first generation micro iDSD as well as the micro and Pro iCan’s, it only makes sense to make an “improved” mid-fi with which to anchor the line up. Reading up on the old micro iDSD reviews it was very well received, called everything from “The Overachiever” by @ClieOS to a “True Swiss Army Knife” by @peter123, and the “New Wave of British Invasion” says @twister6 was in full swing. With a reputation for tailoring amps to quite specific IEM’s or headphones, my hope is that this is more Swiss Army Knife as opposed to specialist. Initial impressions bely this thought.
With a size slightly longer than a 6+ (YES, it IS!), stacking could be accomplished. I’m not sure how portable or practical that would be, but it can be done! It would dominate smaller DAP’s such as my Fiio x3ii, but such is life. As stated, many will simply use the BL with their desktops or laptops, so the size will not hinder.
“Stacking with iPhone 6+”
Some have said that with the new black color, they could not see the function terminology such as “turbo” and “DSD,” on the back. That just doesn’t bother me. This isn’t about what the unit says, it is about the sound. And my initial impressions were darn good if’n you couldn’t figure that out…
Included with the BL is a Crown Royal-like suede pouch in which you would carry the unit and the necessary cables for the day. Functional, and no frills it does the job, albeit a tad small and snug. An assortment of cables and connectors is included in the box, such is the variety of ways one can connect the unit. Boasting such technological advances as:
• DAC digital signal and digital power sections upgraded
• AMR Global Master Timing® femto-precision clock system upgraded for ‘super low’ phase-noise/jitter
• Analogue signal and power sections revised
• 3D+® performance-tuned / XBass+® performance-tuned
• Latest Output stabilisation network offers less distortion
The BL comes quite well equipped…as it should.
Multitude of accessories which came with the i5…
All of which mean the unit should be better. From initial third-party experiences, I can say the results are positive. I have no personal expertise with the old. With the addition of the “Headamp” Turbo setting, one can enhance the bass settings another notch beyond the normal. If that is not enough, then the XBass adds that final “11” to the mix. Think Spinal Tap, with the power to back it up.
Once my initial WOW settled down, I thoroughly listened to see if the above-mentioned settings were simply an “enhancement” of the sound. My old ears did their best…
Colplay: Paradise, A Sky Full of Stars, A Message, White Shadows, Lovers In Japan, Clocks, Paradise
David Bowie: Lazarus, Blackstar
Dave Matthews: Dodo, So Damn Lucky, Gravedigger,
twenty one pilots: Hometown, Heavydirtysoul, Addict With a Pen, Car Radio
U2: The Unforgettable Fire, When Love Comes to Town,
Santana: Persuasion, Fried Neckbones and Home Fries
Dire Straits: Lady Writer, Down to the Waterline, Sultans of Swing,
Adele: Set Fire to the Rain, He Won’t Go, Hello,
Los Lonely Boys: Senorita, Heaven, anything else, which came through my players…
Campfire Audio Nova
Fostex T40RP MK3
Amp comparisons: ummmm….never mind, pointless comparisons…
My listening was broken up into an odd assorted way, to some maybe. I spent a thorough day solely with the Tennmak Pro’s on my iPhone 6+ and the BL. What a joyous, pleasurable day it was! If my opening description wasn’t enough, then I will simply add that the BL brought out the best of the Pro’s. Solid, full, warm sound emanated from the Pro like I had never heard. Rich mids, solid but slightly boomy bass (sometimes) and a treble of sufficient quality came through so that temporarily I forgot that this was a $21 IEM playing through a $550 amp.
This would be a case where the better source definitely enhances the lower priced item. Sometimes faults come through when using a “cleaner” power source, as if the deficiencies are laid bare-naked in the snow. Not a pleasant option or vision (please don’t ask…), but in this case the Pro doesn’t MIND being put bare, in fact it enjoys the frolic and gladly rewards with that warm sound I mentioned. Kind of like dancing through the snow with a nice mug of hot cocoa, laced with Bailey’s for good taste. Darn, that sounds really good right now…
I followed that day with a single day using the Nova in the same set up. OK, this makes more sense…an IEM in the same category as the amp. What a wonderful combo this is! Open more “airy” and brighter than simply through the iPhone. Detail oriented I heard things, which were hard to come by using my other amps. With some of my other setups, I would “hear” the sound, but it was sometimes fleeting, such as when I worked as a Biologist studying birds… If a new bird came along on my survey, I would separate out the new sounds from the ones I had already identified. It was not that I didn’t hear the finer tones in my normal set; but with the BL, it wasn’t as if this was a new sound. There was no mistake…that tone, which might have been the fleeting sound of a far off bird on my surveys was DEFINITELY there. The birds/sound presenting themselves to me in a nice orderly fashion. No hiding, but not boisterousness either. Just a neat progression of sound. Harken back to a full procession coming in front of you…or the birds presenting me with easy identification without needling or disorder. Just presented for my listening indulgence. Enhanced bass with the switch on paid dividends to the Nova, adding that little extra I craved from them before. Now, I am in no way dissatisfied with the Nova, but the bass switch added the right amount for my taste. EQing would get me near the same thing, but toggling the bass on is a simple way to enhance for my taste.
With the 3D toggle switched on, there is a definite jump in mids and a slight treble bump. In conversation with a fellow Head-fier, we discussed whether this was a placebo effect from the gain of mid/treble tones or if it was real. I do not have the equipment to gauge the truth (others are as we speak), if one can define the truth that way. My seat of the pants explanation (and reading about the crossover system involved) is that there is a shift fore and aft in my cranial matter in regards to the soundstage. Switching back and forth, or playing a song fully then repeat I can “sense” added depth in the anterior/posterior relationship of my cranial mush. Call it a bodybuilding “loudness” switch. Some have stated that the effect on the micro/micro BL is not as effective as other units, but it works quite well for me. I could sense a larger soundstage, but not enough to make the instrumentation feel separated by a distance. I left the switch toggled on for the whole time; except times I wanted an “unencumbered” sound with which to listen.
I find it quite marvelous that technologies such as the XBass and 3D can fit into a unit this size. My-oh-my how sound times have changed!
Some have stated they wished for a bigger boost in the XBass toggle. I would disagree. I think there is enough of a bump at 6dB to satisfy most. I like the push added to the overall sound. A quick jolt of bass for those IEM’s which might be bass-shy. If I want more, then I will EQ my source.
Switching to my Fostex T40RP Mk3’s, I pushed the BL to the Turbo setting. I still had to push the volume pot to about halfway for a good listening level for me. And it was quite the stunning combination. Going through my iPhone 6+ with a newly acquired Lightning camera kit attachment, I was able to use the Digital SPDIF port, bypassing the DAC of the 6+, and fully using the BL. Holy buckets, what a difference! And yes, one would expect that going from a Smartphone to a dedicated DAC/DAP; but still the revelation was astounding. Rich of sound, full of body, slightly warmer than when run with my other setups, the Fostex have not sounded this good. I would call them a slightly “dry” sounding can OOTB, but one with which I like very much. EQing can take care of my personal tastes with the T40, but using the BL, there was no need. With 3D and XBass toggled on, I sat back and fully felt Dire Straits Down to the Waterline. Knopfler’s guitar rifts are a masterpiece to be enjoyed using good equipment, and I had found my listening of choice, whether it be from my x3ii or 6+, it was purely a marvel. Clean, clear, crisp, with the full sound one would expect from an amp of this caliber. It did not disappoint. And a volume, which satisfied me to the fullest. I cannot imagine pushing the pot higher, for fear of hearing damage.
Running all set ups through my MacBook Pro, 6+ and x3ii; I tried all set ups, but fell back to the listings below. If I didn’t like the set up, I quit using it within about 15 min. My time was too short to audition something which was not that pleasant.
Stacking with the Fiio x3ii
Summary of Sound Prefs (no particular order):
iPhone 6+–>Lightning Camera kit–>ifi BL–>Tennmak Pro:
Just a thoroughly satisfying sound. A Marvel of todays technological advances from a cheap IEM to a moderately priced mid-fi amp; this was my favorite go-to sound for day to day. This would be my set if I had only one, which would travel. twenty one pilots Hometown was my first listen, and my main song no matter what I test. I follow this up with Coldplay’s White Shadow or A Sky Full of Stars. The three songs hit a full gamut of sounds, which I can use to gain that initial sound, which I liked so much. That initial push of “what can this unit do.” From the keyboard, which nears distortion to the very forward sound of the Coldplay songs, this is a good judge. There is no hiding; and the “grouping” did not disappoint.
iPhone 6+–>Lightning Camera kit–>ifi BL–>Campfire Nova:
My favorite setup for the majority of the music I auditioned. Bowie’s Lazarus is haunting enough under normal listening; but with this grouping, I could VERY easily imagine myself holed up hugging the wall in his hospital “suite.” Trying darn hard not to be noticed, lest I get thrown in the Institution myself, I would listen to his beautiful voice; and it would sound identical to this match, getting drawn in with his dilemma, his final push before death calls his name. This set brings me closer to his music than I have with anything else. And I am grateful. A nice slightly warm sound, which does not intrude, not wanting to draw attention to itself much the way if I were hunkering in Bowie’s hospital room. Sipping single malt, this would be my unwind unit in the evening.
iPhone 6+–>3.5mm to 3.5mm cable–>ifi BL–>Tennmak Pro:
This was the set with which I wrote my opening. As you can tell, it was sufficiently “adequate” that I was able to eagerly anticipate the “better quality” hook ups with gleeful, slack-jawed-joy. I was in listening bliss. I was so taken aback by that initial listen, that I wrote the opening on the spot. Such an honor it was, that I replayed Coldplay, twentyonepilots, David Bowie, and Lyle Lovett for three straight hours. Such was the joy, that I lost track of time and it was 0200 the following morn before I realized. Not that I cared, not one iota because of the delight I had experienced. Easy setup and with the length of the 3.5mm cord, easy to transport. This was the closest set up to actually SHOUT at me. Grab me by my shoulders, screaming WAKE THE HECK UP AND LISTEN!!!
iPhone 6+–>3.5mm to 3.5mm–>ifi BL–>CA Nova:
I spent the whole of the second day running this way. And I was not disappointed. I ran the same songs, over and over, with the same results. A more full sound, rounded out by the fore/aft added depth of the 3D, the Novas ran well. While not as good as the SPDIF/Lightning setup, a thoroughly enjoyable sound encased me, to the point where my co-worker was essentially right next to me before I heard or SAW her. A trance worthy of an Ouija board I was in…My second audition of the BL was a complete success, and it was during this day that @nmatheis convinced me to purchase the Lightning camera kit and I would not be dissatisfied (which I wasn’t!). Just more “Wow” moments all around…
Fiio x3ii–>3.5mm to 3.5mm–>ifi BL–>Tennmak Pro
Since the Fiio is a definite step up from the iPhone, I spent the next two days thoroughly auditioning my music with the x3ii as the source. This was probably the least used system, but not because it was the “worst.” I simply wanted to spend more time with the Nova inserted here. That said, I loved how the x3ii brought a cleaner sound to the table than Amazon Music, or Tuneshell (which has since failed me and I have deleted the app for reasons I will not state here). Yes, of course it was of higher quality music than the other, but I wanted to make sure I tested the arrangement in my best possible light. My best units if you will. While the quality was better, I did not enjoy this system as much as through my 6+. I know, I know, that doesn’t make much sense, but I felt the music I had was a bit flat. Even running through the “Line Out” from the Fiio it just wasn’t full enough for me. The warm Tennmak’s and XBass could not make me happy with my recordings the same way the 6+ did. I’m not sure I can explain it any better than I just wasn’t happy with this. Would it work? You bet, it wouldn’t be my first or second choice, though.
Fiio x3ii–>3.5mm to 3.5mm–>ifi BL–>CA Nova:
If I absolutely had to choose one set up, this would be it. The Novas warmer sound could compensate for the colder-more analytic sound of the Fiio. I think I stated in my review video, how with this set the two (BL & Nova) could overcome the cold nature of the x3ii, and it did. This set up would (and did) need the most EQing to be completely satisfactory of listening pleasure. I guess I have come full circle then; I used to EQ, and then swung HARD the other way. Now I am back to EQing. At least with this grouping I am. And that’s ok in my book. I hate to keep using the same bloody commentary regarding “slightly warm and full,” but…since I already stated that this would be my one go to set up, I really do not think I need to describe it any better. Using the line out on the x3ii, I was quite OK with letting the BL dictate and run the sound program. It was kind of like having a simple DJ with me who could only do three things well (XBass, 3D, Eco/Normal/Turbo) and that was quite all right. More than adequate, this was a DJ I could afford.
Fiio x3ii–>3.5mm to 3.5mm–>ifi BL–>Fostex T40RP Mk3
What a superb way to bring out the best in these hard to drive cans. Turbo was more than suitable to drive these “near-mid-fi” closed cans. I opted for the T40 because I wanted the better of the bass units, and the closed back, for privacy. These do not disappoint, but the amps I have, short of the Schiit Magni2 & Fiio A3 (almost) cannot really do them the justice which I heard through the BL. I have talked about a “veil being lifted” in previous reviews, but I think that would be an insult to the Fostex. Call it having the necessary “passing power” to cruise by the slower vehicles in the mountains. While the Schiit is sufficient, it doesn’t compete with the BL. Kind of like a BMW 3-series with four passengers and full luggage… The A3 would be the equivalent of a Prius…It would get me there, and in quite fine manner; just not like having a Ferrari F455 with which to do the job, and in not so near a hurry. There was no worry for power using the BL. I barely went over ½ on the volume with the BL/Fostex. Anything more, and I was ricking hearing loss in my mind. I really don’t want to lose more…
Slim lines bely it’s size
So there you pretty much have it. My time was far too short for my listening WANTS. I found myself craving just one more day knowing it wouldn’t happen. I think that is the highest compliment I can pay to this delightful unit. If a unit (especially a loaned/tour unit) can have my mind begging for just one more day, by the SECOND DAY; then I am enamored. I am taken. I am engaged to the listening for the short time available to me. Liken this to a long distance relationship where you will meet for a week, knowing that each day draws closer to the separation. The leaving, which will tug, no yank at you over the increasing distance which WILL happen. You keep thinking, “I really should be focused on the moment, lest it is lost.” But you obsess over the time ticking down, ever closer to the farewell. But during that time, you force yourself to envelop the moment, devour that time together, devoting full attention to your time together. Even though that damn clock is ticking ever louder in the back of your mind; you scream silently to it, “SHUT THE F-UP! I’M NOT DONE HERE,” as you surrender yourself, your time and your ears to the listening; knowing you must. Otherwise the task is lost. And not only do I not want that, I desperately do not. It would be a disservice to your relationship, your short but oh-so-sweet time together.
You really must give in to the relationship to fully understand what is going on, otherwise the time is wasted, as is the relationship. Hopefully I have not wasted that time on this wonderful relationship, courting a future together, which I would willingly, GLADLY give in to again. And again. Lover’s In Japan, from Coldplay’s excellent Prospekt’s March album is a very fitting end to this review. The timing could not be better…
Is it perfect? Heck no. Does it have a few quirks? Yes, size to me is the main drawback. It is almost too big to be commonly portable, but workable. I would definitely keep this in a desktop situation, though if “forced” to; it is too good not to use… And the 3D is not for everyone. It can artificially inflate the sound stage fore/aft as well as the mids becoming overly bright. It sounded good on some tracks, not good on others. So a simple toggle of the switch changes that. But the positives FAR outweigh the negatives. Three amp settings with which to choose from, as well as the XBass switch and the excellent sound from the digital out highlight those positives. Fine-tuning of IEM’s through the sensitivity settings is another quick way to tailor the listening. A nice touch.
I really want to thank Lawance and Jared for this relationship. This time together with the WELL more than fine ifi iDSD Micro Black Label was all I could ask, albeit too short for my lusting listening pleasures… It really is a fine unit, which I would gladly spend more time with, and my hard earned dollars upon. That is about the highest praise I can give. Go listen, it will be worth it.