Today we are talking about another great Swiss Army knife type piece of gear. The iFi Pro iDSD! The companies flagship DAC. As with pretty much all of iFi’s products, it tries to bring both value and great sound to the table, and I think they have managed to achieve one and a half of those goals.
iFi Audio is a British company that was founded in 2012. It is a subsidiary of AMR Audio, which has a long history of making stereo equipment. iFi has always struck me as a company that focuses more on headphone and personal audio, but that does seem to be changing lately, and they are branching out into other areas (see the iFi “Aurora” all in one for an example of this.) Their products are innovative, and seem to prioritise functionality as well as sonic performance.
The pro line up is iFi’s flagship line, consisting of the Pro iCAN that we reviewed a few months ago, the iESL Electrostatic energizer, and the Pro iDSD. The Pro iDSD was the last in the lineup to hit the market, as iFi really did want
To do their best to get it “right” on the first go round. The Pro iDSD incorporates so many features, that it is actually hard to remember them all without looking at the companies specs page. The Pro iDSD is not *just* a DAC, but a capable all in one DAC/Headphone amp/Streaming solution. Similar to the Pro iCAN, it offers solid state, tube, and tube+ modes, as well as a fully balanced architecture. I was honestly worried that with all these features, the Pro iDSD may not have managed to sound great as well, but, for the most part, it absolutely does.
I will talk about what I feel the basic sonic signature of the Pro iDSD (used as a DAC) is, and then get into the variations on the sound, depending on which features you are using.
The Pro iDSD seems to slightly warm, and I really do mean slightly here. It isn’t dead neutral, and it certainly isn’t cold and clinical. However, with that being said, it isn’t as warm as some other solid state DACs I have heard, and certainly doesn’t venture into being mushy and gooey sounding, as some pieces of gear do. Dynamics, both macro and micro come across with convincing realism, and detail, both macro and micro was pretty darn good. Not the best I have heard, no, but far from the worst I have heard. I think the tiniest of micro detail may be better conveyed but other DACs, but the ones that I have heard that manage to do so are also quite a bit more expensive. I suppose it really depends on the features you prioritise, and what you are looking to get out of a DAC that matters when making your final choice.
For the first little while that I had the Pro iDSD, I experimented with the settings to figure out which I liked best. I ended up settling on using the bit perfect + filter, as well as the DSD1024 upsampling option. This seemed to bring a slightly better focus to the music, not making it sharp, but perhaps more incisive, with a tighter leading edge. Now, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t find the difference HUGE by toggling the DSD1024 upsampling on and off, but it did make a slight difference, so I went with it. Once I had decided on these settings, I left them alone for the most part. The Pro iDSD has SO many options to tweak, and play with, it can become overwhelming. I also think that if you are always changing all the settings, you might lose track of which change is coming from where, leaving you clueless as to what you really prefer.
So, with the settings decided on, I started listening to the solid state, tube, and tube + modes. These were quite similar to the tube settings on the Pro iCAN, which makes sense as it is exactly the same tube being used. Solid state mode actually ended up being my preferred mode for some music, mostly that which was fast paced and complicated in nature. Tube mode however, was probably my favourite mode out of the three. There isn’t a massive difference between the two, but tube mode seemed to have a bit better sound stage expansion in comparison to the solid state mode, at the expensive of the incisive leading edge of the notes with solid state mode. Tube + mode was curious, as I didn’t really notice it bringing anything positive to the sound signature over the regular tube mode, but it further reduced the incisiveness of the recording and also seemed to reduce the speed of the sound, albeit slightly.
Two settings that iFi didn’t include on the Pro iDSD are the “XBASS” and “3D Sound” features, that are present on the Pro iCAN. I reckon that they simply couldn’t find space and time to implement these features on and already feature laden device. Also, I suppose most people will at least consider using the Pro iDSD with the Pro iCAN, which does have the features, so there was no reason to include them twice.
The headphone amp section on the Pro iDSD is fairly competent, and can be used either in either unbalanced or balanced configurations. A recent post release update to the Pro iDSD has added the option of the 4.4mm Pentaconn connector as the balanced option, vs. The original 2.5mm jack. This is a welcome addition in my opinion, as it is a much more sturdy conductor, and will have a better lifespan. The Pro iDSD I had for review had the original 2.5mm balanced jack, and I have no cables with that termination, so I stuck to using the 1/4” TRS output. There are three gain options (0db, 9db, 18db) and up to 4w of output power (balanced) on the Pro iDSD. This means, for the most part, it will drive most headphones out there. Granted, for the HE6 and Susvara etc….you are going to get much better results with the Pro iCAN, but in a pinch, the Pro iDSD will work decently on its own. The headphone output struck me as remarkably similar to the Micro iDSD, albeit slightly more refined. However, there wasn’t much comparison when compared to the dedicated amplifier that the Pro iCAN is. Quite simply, if you have the means, or possess harder to drive headphone, I would highly recommend adding a dedicated headphone amp to use with the Pro iDSD. If, however, you are looking for an all in one solution, that will still do a competent job, you could do a lot worse than the Pro iDSD.
I did play around with streaming and the Pro iDSD, but I have to be perfectly honest and say that I didn’t venture too far with it. I don’t use streaming in my day to day listening to music, and wouldn’t like to speak about something I honestly don’t know much about. The small experiments I did end up doing went smoothly, and seemed to be consistent with my results from wired use. I reckon it is best for me to leave this option of use alone in this review, and allow those with more experience to speak to the streaming portion of the Pro iDSD in their reviews. I apologize for this lack on knowledge on my part.
Compared to some other DACs that I have had here, the Pro iDSD did fair quite well.
iFi Micro iDSD BL
The Pro iDSD brought a very similar tonal balance to the table, but did out resolve the iDSD BL quite handily. With that being said, I still think the iDSD BL offers a good value for what it does. The Pro iDSD also took the win on dynamic swings, and punch/impact.
Hugo TT 2
The Chord Hugo TT2 is quite a bit more expensive than the Pro iDSD. Using them both as purely a DAC, the TT2 is brighter, and perhaps more fatiguing. It does one up the Pro iDSD on raw detail, but I think that the tonal balance of the Pro iDSD may be more pleasing to a wider audience. The TT2 also out does the Pro iCAN in terms of being the better all in one unit, but as mentioned before, there is a significant price difference.
There are some concerns I have about the Pro iDSD. It may not be the best value proposition if you aren’t going to be using it as an all in one solution. The extra features add to the cost, and if you aren’t going to be using them, it makes little sense to purchase the Pro iDSD, given the other options that are out there on the market nowadays. The Pro iDSD is a good DAC, there is no doubt about it, but at times I felt as though it could have been better. Perhaps if iFi released a cheaper “Pro iDAC” in the future, that might be the better buy, if you aren’t going to use the headphone amp and streaming features.
All in all, I’d recommend checking out the Pro iDSD if you are looking for an all in one unit, but if you are looking for a pure DAC, you might be better served by a different, more cost effective option. With that being said, there is nothing wrong sonically with the Pro iDSD, and it does perform well as a standalone DAC. I think it has a pleasing tonal balance and does all the technical stuff pretty darn well. Maybe this is a case of “try before you buy” if at all possible. I think iFi may not have hit this one out of the park like they did with the Pro iCAN, but it certainly has landed pretty close to the back fence. Well done iFi!