Feb 102013
 

Products that benefit from the trickle down of technology from designs much further up the range are always eagerly desired by those, who for whatever reason are unable to buy top of the range products and are perhaps on a tight budget but are still looking for excellence at an affordable price. New to the audio market – late 2012 – are a number of products that embody this in no uncertain terms and the company in question is iFi Audio a spin off from AMR – best know for their high end multi-bit valve based CD players and DAC – and the products are the iFi Audio iDAC, iCAN. iPhono and iUSB Power.

In the case of AMR (Abbingdon Music Research) they have, pretty much as a policy – very slowly introduced new designs to their range and only when they have felt them ready to be brought to market. So it comes as quite a surprise and a delight to find that AMR have introduced 4 new designs late last year and even more of a surprise that they are aimed squarely at the budget end of the audio market and at prices that nearly everyone can afford. These may well be bargain priced but as I found out they punch well above their individual price points in terms of performance.

While these are primarily AMR designs  – Thorsten Loesech AMR’s chief designer (among others) having had a hand in their design – AMR have chosen to brand them iFi Audio (though it says micro on their packaging) thus setting them apart from the main AMR product range which considering the style and flavour of the iFi designs and packaging is not a bad idea, as these products will – I feel and AMR hopes – appeal to a different type of audio enthusiast in the know but also to the hip/trendy computer users (1) who have little interest in high end HiFi but do in stylish products that can be easily integrated into their existing way of listening to music.

The subject of this particular review, which was originally to be just about the iFi iDAC, but another item in the iFi Audio range, the iFI USB Power, has had such a large effect in conjunction with the iDAC that I am going to include it in the review rather than giving it its own separate review.

Close Encounters of the iFi kind

My first encounter with the iFi Audio designs came at last Septembers National Audio Show in the Head Zones mini Show which featured the best in headphones and headphone related designs – to say I was impressed with iFi’s miniature products once I clapped eyes on them and then heard them is putting it mildly.

I had already heard a bit of a buz at the show about these items – a buzz that has grown steadily louder online – but I was determined to be disciplined and visit each exhibitor in turn as the show flowed around the hotel so it was the Saturday afternoon before I visited Vincent Luke of AMR and to say he was very animated and passionate about these new designs – as he is about all he and AMR does – is a bit of an understatement.

I try very hard not to let a show experience either put me off too much or equally push me into gushing praise of something I have not spent a fair amount of time with or getting to know in my own system but there are times when one knows that one is in the presence of something special, very special but it wasn’t until I had these items in my own system that I got the full sense of how good the ifi products are.

I am getting way ahead of myself here – though I have let the cat out of the bag early on, as these products are very special indeed – so lets rain back a bit and look at the iFi DAC and iFi USB Power in more detail.

Description and Technical

Both items are compact, both being 16cm long, by 6.5 cm wide, by 2 cm tall, fairly light weight though made of metal beautifully made, though I am no fan of recessed RCA jack plugs – as found on the iDAC – as they can present some issues with some types of RCA connectors used on quite a lot of higher end interconnect cables.

The iDAC has a single full sized USB2 B socket digital/power input, two nicely made RCA analogue outputs, a mini jack headphone output and a volume control that has a nice action in use but unless one uses the supplied clear rubber dome feet the iDAC will slide when the volume control is turned – well that was my experience when using it. The iDAC as it derives its power from the laptop came with no external power supply but it did come with a nicely made start you up USB cable and RCA stereo audio cable and a set of four attachable rubber feet.

The iUSB Power has one USB full sized B input and two USB A output sockets one is both audio and power and one power only – useful if you need to power an other device or charge one up. The iDAC comes with an external wall wart PSU that is switch mode but has been designed to not affect sound quality – something switch mode power supplies are notorious for doing.

The individual packaging is beautiful made and designed with nicely set out instructions both on separate cards and also printed on the bottom of the iDAC and iUSB Power cases.

iDAC

I will let iFi Audio describe the iDACs features and technology…….

‘A fantastic dynamic range means more of everything. More detail, more musical, and most of all: more fun. When it’s relaxation time – your ears will be treated to a rarefied, luxurious sound. All your music will sound striking on the iDAC.

Resolution matters. Yet the realism of playback matters more. These are all determined by a number of factors — like the USB interface technology, power supply quality, and the analogue output stage. The iDAC uses a highly-advanced Asynchronous/Jitterless USB interface (trickle-down technology from AMR’s high-end audio equipment) to give not just good but perfect audio transfer.

With 3 dedicated internal power supplies, they provide a clean environment for the DAC to produce high-resolution audio. Augmented by the ESS Hyperstream Chipset — typically reserved for expensive high-end audio equipment, music reproduction is startling realistic.

Advances in Computer Audio technology have pushed the quality past CD. Only a DAC that is capable of replaying the highest-quality recordings unhindered can realise the full, stunning potential from modern High-Definition digital formats – up to 24Bit/192kHz and beyond.

These recordings are almost all exclusively available as downloads for replay via computer. To accept anything less from a DAC designed to partner computers for music replay is to accept a compromise in sound quality. For iFi, this was not an option.

The ESS Sabre is one of the highest-quality DACs bar none. That’s because the ESS Sabre chip’s advanced Hyperstream technology provides up to 10x better signal-to-noise ratio, superior dynamic range, and unrivalled jitter rejection making it audibly superior to the competition.

Music is incredibly clear, virtually tangible. Bass lines are sharper and more powerful than ever, music is life-like.

Realism and resolution matter. These and other qualities are determined by a number of factors — the USB interface technology, power supply quality, and the analogue output stage. The iDAC uses an advanced Asynchronous/Jitterless USB interface to give the best audio data transfer possible.

With 3 dedicated internal power supplies, they provide the purest environment for the DAC. In conjunction with the discrete analogue stage — found in high-end audio equipment — the iDAC reproduces the most faithful and musical high-definition music ever.

The Asynchronous USB audio connection is now commonplace and lauded as the cutting-edge. This was only the starting point for iFi; the iDAC has a super low-jitter Asynchronous USB connection with Bit-Perfect technology. Before the iDAC, this superior technology was reserved for AMR’s expensive high-end DACs. Our engineers bring these advanced technologies to the iDAC at a truly remarkable price point.

DirectDrive technology (which originated from top-end studio equipment) has negated the need for coupling capacitors to offer a purer, shorter signal path. Behind this technology is direct-coupling and more; resulting in greater power output and lower distortion than most USB-powered audio devices. Headphones are responsive across the frequency range; to give the most undistorted, uncoloured sound. Your ears will be enthralled by the iDAC’s audible superiority.’

Specifications:

Signal to Noise Ratio: >111dB(A) Dynamic Range(-60dBFs): >111dB(A) Crosstalk: <-102dB(1KHz) Total Harmonic Distortion(THD): <0.005%Jitter: Below measurement limit Frequency Response: 3Kz to 33KHz + 0.1dB/0.3dB Headphone section: Output Power: >150mW(15Ω) Signal to Noise Ratio: >97dB(A) Total Harmonic Distortion: <0.003%(400mV/300R) Noise: <-86dBu(A) Output Impedance:(Zout): <10Ω Power Consumption: < 2.5W Dimensions: 158(l)x68(w)x28(h)mm Weight: 193g(0.43lbs)

iUSB Power


iFi Audio’s words about the iUSB Power…..

‘The most important feature of any USB audio device (USB DAC, USB Amplifier and USB Speaker etc.) is the power supply. The USB system as well as audio, carries its own power. Perfectly adequate to power anything from USB memory sticks to tablet computers; it falls far short from being a suitable noise-free power supply for high-quality music reproduction.

To improve all USB audio devices out there, we wanted to develop not just a better power supply, but the best power supply for all audio devices. With the iUSB, quiet passages are whisper quiet. The climaxes are fiercer, and everything in between is richer, more vibrant and no longer grainy.

To create a USB power supply that is ultra-quiet is an engineering feat in its own right. We went several steps further. The Super Regulator technology encompasses; multi-stage and multi-order power purifying with filtering. We even commissioned a special, audio-grade USB power supply unit. The iUSB with an excellent voltage accuracy of 0.5% is even quieter than a 9V dry cell battery.


To put it into perspective, if the DC power supply voltage from the iUSBPower was taken as equivalent to the sound level of a large calibre gun fired right next to you (painfully loud, usually taken as around 140dB), the noise produced by the iUSBPower would be completely inaudible to the human ear.

The IsoPower system is a completely new way to connect your USB audio device. There is the standard USB connection option; but with the upcoming iFi dual-path Gemini USB cable, our engineers developed the IsoPower system which offers the option to run separate power and audio data lines. You wouldn’t place interconnects and power cables together so why should the USB connection do it?

IsoPower eliminates any pollution between data and power lines. It keeps your USB audio data free from contamination and removes the USB Signal noise from the power supply lines, to enjoy the maximum performance from your USB audio device, unhindered.

Our engineers developed the advanced IsoEarth technology specifically for the iUSBPower. By breaking the noisy DC ground connection between the computer and your USB audio device, this further reduces the ground noise by a factor of 10. Your USB audio device can now operate in the cleanest environment possible; allowing your music to flow.’

Specifications:

Output Voltage: 5V±0.5% Output Current: 1A Output Noise: 0.1uV(0.0000001V) High-Speed USB 2.0: 480Mbps Input Voltage: AC 100 – 240V, 50/60Hz (Ultra Low-Noise Power Supply included) Power Consumption: < 9W (includes powered USB device) Dimensions: 158(l)x68(w)x28(h)mm Weight: 195(0.43lbs)

System Used

The review system was my current main one which consists of : Balanced Audio Technology VK300SE integrated amplifier, Anthony Gallo SA Reference amplifier, AMR DP777 DAC, Acer 1810TZ Notebook, Freecom 2TB hard drive. Speakers Anthony Gallo Reference 2.1. Digital cabling; Wireworld Ultraviolet/Starlight USB A to B, Line level signal cabling; Atlas Mavros RCA to RCA and XLR to XLR, Kimber KCAG. Speaker cable: Atlas Mavros, QED Genesis. All equipment was housed on Clearlight Audio Aspekt racks, with SSC isolation platforms and Brightstar Isonodes under the laptop and hard-drive. Headphones: Sennheiser PX30, Sennheiser HD560 Ovations 2 and Grado GS1000.

Music

Dead Can Dance – Into The Labyrinth

Stanley Clarke – 1,2, To The Bass

and various other standard definition and high definition music.

Listening to the iDAC

Setting up the iDAC was relatively painless with the only small issue being positioning it so that I could run all the cables neatly to it from the laptop and then to the BAT VK300se amplifier. As mentioned earlier with the RCA jacks being partly recessed into the body of the iDAC you may need to change your interconnects as I can see some heavy duty plugs not fitting well and very heavy cables will no doubt lift the iDAC into the air. I pressed some Kimber KCAG interconnects into service and they worked a treat both in terms of fitting and sounding right with the DAC, plus they are light weight enough to allow the DAC to not slide about the Clearlight Aspekt racks top shelf – fitting the four supplied rubber feet helped as well. I used Wireworld Ultraviolet USB cables initially but then switched to the Wireworld Starlights which was well worth doing despite the iDAC’s modest price.

Once I had downloaded the driver off ifi’s website opened it and set it up I was good to go and go I did using JRiver 17 via my Acer notebook laptop. Up first was Dead Can Dances album Into The Labyrinth which is an 88.2 flac file and I was gob smacked at just how good – this previously used and thus run in – USB DAC sounded.

It was very obvious right from the get go that the iDAC shares similar DNA to the AMR DP777 (despite not having a valve digital input stage or output as the DP777 has) as the tonal balance was pretty similar, though the iDAC sat just to the slightly leaner side of the marginally warmer but neutral DP777. Soundstage height, width and depth were also pretty good with standard USB cables but were much better with the Wireworld Ultraviolets and considerably better with Starlights in situ but I should point out not as good as those produced by the DP777 DAC.

Comparing the iDAC to the DP777 DAC was not really fair as there is a massive price difference between the two but it was an interesting comparison none the less and the little iDAC was very much a chip off the old block with very similar DNA coursing through its veins.

Listening to The Carnival is Over by Dead Can Dance the iDAC presented the music in a well balanced way with nice instrument separation detail and focus, the music ebbed and flowed well and Brendan Perry’s voice was nicely portrayed. Switching to the DP777 showed that the iDAC’s performance was all about sins of omission not commission and in away was a DP777 lite. I don’t say that to insult the iDAC but in reality at the price the iDAC is quite an achievement as it offers a fair taste of what the DP777 does.

The main differences where in the following: areas via the DP777 images were more solid, more real and dimensional, there was real space around them whereas via the iDAC they were flatter less solid, less real. The DP777 had greater clarity allowing more insight into the music and how it was made up plus more weight and scale. Bass went deeper and had more texture with the DP777 but that is not to say that the iDAC sounds bass light as it does not, but overall it has a lighter less tonally rich or expansive sound. However without doing a direct comparison to the DP777 (2) it sounds very good and its only when compared to the much dearer DAC that any of these characteristics are really that evident.

Listening via headphones

I am not a massive user of headphones despite having a few pairs and a very expensive pair in the form of the Grado GS1000’s but as the iDAC is also has a headphone output I felt I should have a listen to it this way as well.

Well listening this way was very enjoyable, with the quality of reproduction increasing as I changed headphones, with the Grado GS1000 producing the best sound. These quite hard to drive headphones seemed to present the iDAC with no challenge and the way The Carnival is Over by Dead Can Dance was reproduced was beautiful, beguiling, open and detailed, with excellent bass (even with the tiny PX30s) articulation and punch. Certainly higher end headphone amplifiers with external DACs will give a better sound but if you want something compact and neat I would imagine one would have to look around long and hard to find a much better integrated solution at this price point (3)

Conclusion

Listening to the iFi Audio iDAC was my first exposure to a near entry level USB DAC and I was not sure what to expect but the brief exposure at the National Audio Show 2012 seemed to promise great things and the reality in my system matched the initial impression and exceeded it by quite a big margin whether listening via an external amplifier and speakers of headphones.

Where it sits in context to what else is available on the market at this price point I can’t say but the iDAC compared quite well to its much bigger brother the DP777 and while the dearer DAC was much better the iDAC was not slaughtered, providing a fair taste of what the dearer DAC can do. Moving from the dearer DAC to the cheaper DAC did not create such an overwhelming feeling of loss as to make the cheaper DAC unlistenable or a turn off and that is quite an achievement in my book.

As I said above its sins are those of omission not commission (in comparison to the DP777) and as such it should really be on the list if anyone is looking to buy a DAC at or in and around this price point and dare I say it more. I would not be surprised to learn, and I hope to compare it to similar priced DACs in the future, that it actually stands way out in front of them, but for now that must remain pure speculation only.

Listening to the iUSB Power

Like the iDAC setting up the iUSB Power was also straight forward though unlike the DAC one needs to have a power socket to hand, as the iUSB requires power, which is supplied to it by a wall wart PSU; that while being of the switch mode type has been according to ifi Audio designed and implemented properly to remove the polluting effect that most other switch mode PSUs generate.

Using the iUSB is simple, plug a USB cable into the USB B input and if you need power only the clearly marked left USB A output and if you need power and audio the right hand USB A output. I tried the iUSB with the iDAC and my AMR DP777 the USB input of which does not require any power.

Adding the iUSB Power to the signal chain, directly after the USB output on the laptop was one of those jaw dropping revelatory moments when what you thought what was as good as it could get gets better and that comment goes for the iDAC and the DP777.

Having read a fair bit about the potential effect noisy power from USB outputs could and do have on items being powered via them to hear that affect in such a clear way it was quite shocking to hear this first hand.

Using the iUSB Power does not change the tonality of the device that is hooked into it – at least that was my experience with the iDAC and DP777 – but what it does do is remove a whole layer of grunge that is holding the signal from the computer back. The degree of opening up of the music was quite shocking as there was greater depth, width and height to the soundstage, greater clarity, a better defined and extended bass (quite a bit more with the iDAC not as much with the DP777) and the music seemed to hang together better when hooked up to the iUSB Power.

The improvement with the DP777 was not quite as great as with the iDAC but it was big enough of a one to really offer a very reasonable upgrade to the DP777 performance and thus I would strongly recommend the purchase of one when you are buying a DP777 – the review unit won’t be going back to the supplier I will be buying it.

Conclusion

Frankly buying an iUSB Power to use with any USB powered audio device is a no brainer and the degree of improvement it brought to the already very good iDAC really means the two should be viewed as one unit and bought together – you won’t be disappointed.

Based on my experience with the DP777 DAC I think it safe to say that improvements can be obtained – possibly to varying degrees based on the DACs USB input implementation – with even high-end DACs and thus I recommend strongly that those using a laptop as a source via USB should give the iUSB Power ago.

Overall Conclusion

Once again AMR has pushed the boundaries of what’s possible and at a new price point I look forward to see where they and iFi Audio go next (4)

Neil

This review, my first of 2013, is dedicated to the memory of my Dad, he who gave the love of music to me. Thank you Dad I will always love you.

My Dad  Dec 1937 to Nov 2012 Rest in Peace your labours are now done.

iFi Audio iDAC £275

iFI Audio iUSB Power £175

Source of loan – iFi Audio and Select Audio.

iFi Audio – http://www.ifi-audio.com/en/index.html

Select Audio UK Distributors – http://www.selectaudio.co.uk/

(1) It has to be said and its probably no accident that iFi products packaging have a touch of the Apple look about them and if this gains AMR a wider customer base then good on them.

(2) I am very concious that the only other USB DAC I had to hand for the comparison is AMR’s own £3500 one. It would have been better to have had other DACs in and around the same price point as the iDAC to see where it sits in that end of the market but comparing it to the much dearer DAC was interesting and useful re sussing out the DNA of the design and the trickle down of higher end technology to the lower end market.

(3) I did encounter a problem when hooking all three of my headphones up in that there was a problem with the socket on the iDAC which unless the headphones plugs were inserted and held a particular way I would get odd left right channel imbalances, frequencies missing or a phasy sound with echo – all very odd but when working music sounder very good as reported above.

(4) I have the iPhono here for review and I will also be reviewing the iCAN, my first headphone amplifier review, very soon.

© Text and Photos Copyright 2012 Adventures in High Fidelity Audio…..except for iFi Audio product photos and album covers. Copyright belongs with their original publishers.

NB No part or portion of this article may be reproduced or quoted without written permission or legal action may result.

 Posted by at 7:05 pm

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.