Today we are having a look at another piece of gear from iFi Audio, the Neo iDSD. For info on iFi as a company, please see my previous reviews of their “Pro” line of gear. Apart from that, lets dive in, shall we!
This is the first desktop, not transportable based, non battery based iDSD product (apart from their flagship Pro iDSD.) However, it is still a medium sized piece of gear, and doesn’t take up too much desktop real estate. This is important for some people, especially those who like a low profile set up. The Neo iDSD actually surprised me with its pricing, coming in at a solid $700USD, or $1000CAD. This is more than I expected, but perhaps not out of line given its feature set and performance.
The Neo iDSD strikes me as a pared down version of the companies flagship Pro iDSD, a piece of gear I really enjoyed my time with. The Neo iDSD is based around a circuit design iFi is calling “PureWave.” There is no DSP, no selectable filters, and no XBASS or 3D, common on their other products. The idea is a “pure” signal, unadulterated, and unmolested. Basically, this is a no frills DAC/Amp combo, and seems to me to perhaps be the desktop counterpart to their new top of the line transportable, the iDSD Diablo.
The Neo iDSD does not feature a 4pin XLR output for headphone use, but a 4.4mm Pentaconn connector. I do not have any cables terminated in 4.4mm, and I have been waiting for an adapter to arrive from China for over a month, but it has not shown up yet. Sadly, this means I have no been able to use the Neo iDSD from its balanced output (for headphone use.) However, I was able to use it as a balanced DAC in both my speaker system and my headphone set up. The Neo iDSD, does indeed perform better as a DAC out of its balanced outputs, and I would surmise that this carries over to its headphone amp section. I could be wrong, as I have not actually tested it, but I would take note of this if you are considering the Neo iDSD. Spend the 50 bucks on an adapter from 4pin XLR to 4.4mm Pentaconn, or have a cable terminated in 4.4mm ready, as the Neo iDSD does see a bump in performance from its balanced outputs.
*As an aside, I should note that I am not a believer that balanced=inherently better. I believe a good SE design will be better than a poor balanced design, and a good balanced design will be better than a poor SE design. The Neo iDSD is a good balanced design, I feel, thus it performs better when used as such.*
I actually really like the simple no frills nature of the Neo iDSD. No messing with filters, and figuring out what suits you best. Whilst this is appreciated on more expensive gear, sometimes all you want is the “best” setting chosen for you, and a “plug and play” piece of gear. The Neo iDSD fits the bill. It really is plug and play. You can run the Neo iDSD directly from your USB port entirely, or plug in the included power adapter. I would assume that purchasing the iPowerX adapter would take the iDSD’s performance up a level, perhaps not hugely, but at least somewhat. However, with that being said, in the plug and play line of thought, the Neo iDSD works great simply from USB 5v power.
The Neo iDSD actually reminds me of my time spent with other iFi pieces of gear, but in particular, my iDSD Black Label, the ex flagship of their portable line. My Black Label sadly died after 3.5 years of use, literally all day every day, and I miss it. The Neo iDSD is maybe slightly more refined sounding, especially in pure DAC use, but there is certainly a familiarity to its sound. It isn’t overly warm, or cold and clinical, it just sort of hits that middle point of doing its job, and doing it well. Its not the most detailed piece of gear in terms of DAC use, but its certainly competent and I think compared to the competition that I have heard in this price range, does a better job of not sounding harsh and as if the designer doesn’t listen to their products.
Now, for DAC use, you can use the USB input, which also powers the unit. Or, alternatively, you can use the power brick which is included and use a spdif input, or the separate optical input as well. You can also use the Neo iDSD via Bluetooth, which in this price range is an attractive feature for some users who are trying to keep their set up as minimal, and clutter less as possible. Copied from the iFi website, its bluetooth capabilities are as follows, iFi uses Qualcomm’s new QCC5100 Bluetooth processing IC.
All current high-definition Bluetooth audio formats are supported – aptx, aptX HD, aptX Adaptive, aptX LL, LDAC, HWA/LHDC, AAC and SBC.
Now, I’m admittedly not a huge bluetooth person, but I did play about with it, and I was impressed with the ease of use and sound quality, in comparison to some other bluetooth experiences I have had in the past. It may not yet be at the level of wired connections, but it’s certainly getting closer, and I’m looking forward to seeing where the technology goes next. It’s promising, if not yet perfect.
In terms of headphone amplifier capabilities, as mentioned, you have an unbalanced 1/4” output, and the 4.4mm Pentaconn output. As also mentioned previously, I did not have a chance to use the 4.4mm output with headphones. However, I would guess that there is a bump up in sound quality, simply given the fact I felt the XLR outputs were better in terms of DAC use, and the overall balanced design. iFi’s chief designer is no dummy, and if he thought it was a good idea to implement a balanced design in this product, vs the previous single ended designs of the iDSD BL etc….you can bet he did so with good reason. Out of the balanced output, you are looking at a solid watt of continuous power, and 295mw single ended continuous. I’m not sure what the peak power is, as it is not listed on their website.
Using the single ended output, again, I felt the Neo iDSD was similar in regards to my iDSD BL’s sound quality. However, you take a hit in terms of available power. Even the 1000mw from the balanced output is paling in comparison to the BL’s output, not to mention the 5 watts the iDSD Diablo is now capable of. However, if you aren’t trying to drive the Susvara, HE6, or AB1266 from Abyss (and a few others) you should be ok if you use the balanced output. Darn, there is another reason to use the balanced output. I really do suggest if you decide to purchase the Neo iDSD, that you plunk down the extra $50ish for an adapter to use the balanced headphone output.
Using the SE headphone output, it’s a very slightly warm sound, with solid technical performance. Nothing earth shattering in terms of micro detail and micro dynamics, but it conveys the music in a very pleasing well done manner. The macro dynamics are very well done. It casts a very believable soundstage, but not one which is extremely wide or tall. It has good imaging capabilities for the price, and the thing that surprised me most was the depth in terms of soundstage. It is better than my iDSD BL in this regard. Maybe this is due to the new balanced architecture they are using nowadays, but iFi certainly seems to be on to something within this price range. Their non top of the line products just keep slowly getting better, and more refined. Hardly a bad thing for us, the consumers.
All in all, you are looking at a no frills desktop DAC/Amp combo from iFi that does exactly what is advertised on the tin. It isn’t too big, and can be placed either horizontally or vertically on your desk, freeing up precious real estate. It looks nice (in my opinion, though I wish it came in black as well as silver) and would fit in with most set ups in terms of looks. You don’t have to mess with 1000 settings to find your preferred sound, iFi just gives you the distilled version of what it considers its best design features from past products are. The Pro iDSD is the better sounding product, there is no question about that in my mind, and if you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up. However, for those that don’t need the vast feature set of the Pro iDSD, and want something that is a great sounding all in one desktop only model, at comfortably under $1000USD, the Neo iDSD makes a very strong case for being the current go to in my eyes. I’d definitely recommend checking out the Neo iDSD should you be in the market for this sort of piece of gear.