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Review - iFi Audio NEO iDSD

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Also available on YouTube in Spanish: Acho Reviews YouTube 



First let me start out by saying that the NEO iDSD was sent to me for review by iFi Audio as part of a tour they organized on Head-Fi. In exchange for the loan, the only request was that I published my opinions of the unit, good or bad, in a thread on Head-Fi. The thread can be found here: ifi audio NEO iDSD | Headphone Reviews and Discussion - Head-Fi.org (head-fi.org)

I have not received any other requests or offers but as always, it is good to understand that it hasn’t cost me anything to test this product.

I have actually had the unit in my possession for longer than was originally agreed. When I first received the unit, it had an issue with noise from the amplifier when using sensitive IEMs. I mentioned this to iFi, as did other people who had received units, and they asked me to hold on to the unit until they released a firmware update to correct the issue. 

Around a week later they released the update but as it was just before Christmas, they kindly allowed me to hold on to the unit for a couple more weeks to update it and then complete my review. The update to the firmware did indeed solve the issue I was experiencing, so nothing but praise for iFi on this point.

Now, on to the review...

Intro…

Before I even unboxed the NEO, I already knew that reviewing this item wasn’t going to be easy, speaking from an audio point of view. On one side of the coin there is the fact that there are many “firsts” in the equation, it is my first iFi Audio product, it is my first Multibit DAC (as far as I am aware*) and it is also my first experience with a Burr-Brown DAC. As I said, that is a lot of “firsts” that hinder my ability to narrow down what is different.

On the other side of the coin, as I have said in previous reviews of amplifiers, I am someone who has always, due to my line of work in audio, been in the camp that thinks that a DAC and an amplifier should be “transparent”, not adding anything of their own, unless we are specifically looking at tube amps or similar that purposefully change the sound (I think of them as products with a fixed onboard EQ). To be totally honest, I find it very difficult to spot differences between different good DACs and good solid state amps, and when I do pinpoint them, I struggle to convince myself if they are really there if I am creating them.

Having said that, I have spent this time testing the NEO iDSD alongside my usual chains that I use for reviewing IEMs and Headphones and will do my best to share what are my feelings, whether subconscious or not.

*I say “as far as I am aware” because I have used lots of equipment in situations where I had no idea what kind of DAC was being used, therefore I cannot be certain.



Presentation…

The iFi NEO iDSD is presented in packaging which, while nothing is really luxurious, does relate to the price of the unit and shows that care has been taken, it hasn’t just been thrown in a box.

On an outer cardboard sleeve we find an image of the unit, along with plenty of specs and other information about it.

Sliding out from the sleeve there is a simple white box with the iFi logo on the top, inside of which we find the unit safely packed. Underneath this there is a selection of smaller boxes that contain all of the accessories:

USB 3.0 Cable

RCA Cable

3.5mm to ¼” adapter

Power Supply

Bluetooth Antenna

Silicon feet

Stand (so it can be placed horizontally or vertically)

Remote control

I find things like the cables and adapter to be extras that cost the company next to nothing but do add to the pleasure of the person opening their latest purchase.



Build and aesthetics…

Although I haven’t had the pleasure of trying or owning any iFi Audio geaar in the past, I have taken note of many of their products and I think that they are one of the companies that opt for looks that break from the norm, which some like and others don’t. As always with aesthetics, it is a very personal thing. I am someone who does like the majority of the iFi designs and the NEO is a product that I really like the look of.

In the case of the NEO, they have opted for a design that is simple but elegant and I think that it’s looks are something that would make it an easy option for a desktop environment. It is small enough to not take up too much real estate, while at the same time, not so small that it looks temporary.

The fact that it can be placed vertically or horizontally, with the screen rotating automatically, is something that I feel is a great option, allowing it to be placed almost anywhere. On my desk in the office, I run a quadruple monitor setup (with my DACs and amps off to the side) which means space is at a premium. I found that the NEO, in vertical mode, fits perfectly between two monitors, allowing it to be straight in front of me. My home set up is housed in a 19” rack (yes, I have a 19” rack in my living room, much to the dismay of my wife) and the NEO fits perfectly on a 1U shelf.

As far as build quality, the whole unit is metal, feels robust and both buttons and volume knob feel sturdy and accurate. I obviously can’t say how it will resist the passing of time but I see no build flaws that strike me as possible issues.



Functionality…

The NEO iDSD seems to have been designed for those who are looking for an all in one solution while maintaining simplicity. There are no menus to get lost in, no choice of filter settings, no choice of outputs (all outputs are always active), no EQ, etc. The only thing that could be considered “hidden” is the selection of “Fixed” or “Variable” for the DAC outputs on the back. To access this you need to turn off the unit and then turn back on while pressing the volume wheel.

Everything else is as simple as it gets. There are two buttons and a volume wheel that also serves as a push button, each of these serves one function.

The bottom button (when standing vertically ) is for power, the second button is for choosing input (cycling through USB/Bluetooth/Optical/Coax) and the volume wheel mutes the unit when pressed or allows you to change screen brightness if held for 2 seconds (it can also be set to auto off, leaving only the white light below the volume wheel active).

The volume knob is smooth and accurate, with a great feel and placed in a position that makes it easily accessed in both horizontal and vertical modes.

Another nice touch is that the unit speaks to you when selecting Bluetooth. Rather than just seeing a flashing icon on the screen (which is also present), a voice tells you that you have activated bluetooth and when it enters pairing mode etc. The voice even tells you what codecs you are using when a connection is established. 

While on the subject of Bluetooth, connection was very easy and fast from my phones and DAPs. LDAC connection was easily established without any need to force any settings on my phone, an issue I have had with a few LDAC capable receivers. I haven’t really checked the maximum distance for connection but I have moved around my office and my living room with my phone in my pocket and haven’t experienced any glitches or dropouts.

There is also a remote control included with the unit, however, there is no need to actually use the remote if you don’t want to, as all the same functions are available directly on the unit. The only added benefit of the remote (apart from being able to control the unit while sitting on the sofa) is that the screen dimmer is a dedicated button, which saves you a 2 second press of the volume wheel. 

I know that the functionality of the unit is simple but I really appreciate the fact that there are no functions that need the remote. As most of my equipment is within arms reach, I hate having to use a remote to access a specific function or setting.

As far as functionality, there isn’t much more to add, it is a simple unit that covers all of the basic inputs that an all in one desktop device should. If you are someone who loves to dive into sub-menus to change parameters and tweak settings, then I guess this unit isn’t for you. However, if you are looking for something that just does what you need it to without having to do more than select input, this unit is perfect.

I haven’t mentioned outputs but they are also very complete. On the back of the unit we get both RCA and balanced XLR outputs from the DAC, while on the front we have a single ended  ¼” TRS and a balanced 4.4mm Pentacon.



Sound…

Now comes the difficult part, explaining the sound in comparison to my other set ups. As I said at the beginning, it is hard for me to differentiate between two good amplifiers and even more so between two good DACs, as I am never sure what my brain is adding to the equation based on expectations. 

Apart from spending lots of time just listening to music through the NEO, I have also done some comparisons against the usual DACs and Amps I use for my headphone and IEM reviews. At work, where I do most of my general listening, I use an SU-8 or an 01V96i feeding an Atom amp, an L20 amp and a QSC CX302 amp (for my speakers). At home, I use a Topping D10 to distribute optical to various other DACs and systems and also a Modi 3+ connected via Coax with an L30 amp and a Magni Heresy. I have a couple of other set ups around the house but I haven’t really compared them against the NEO as they serve other purposes. 

So, with that cleared up, on to what I have actually tested and found, or at least what I think I have found…

General listening...

First off, I’ll start with my general listening tests. For these I have spent many hours just listening to music, using a combination of headphones and IEMs, from both the unbalanced and balanced outputs. I have listened to all kinds of music from my own FLACs (using Foobar), Tidal and even Spotify. During this time, I had absolutely no issue with sound quality at all. Everything sounds as it should, nothing strange stands out and the NEO provides more than enough quality for me to consider it a good sounding device.

For my first few days with the unit, I didn’t have a Pentacon adapter available (my equipment is XLR4) and had to order one. This means that the first 4 days were spent with the unbalanced output, allowing me to give it a good run without even worrying about the balanced output. 

I found that the unbalanced output was lacking a little in power for driving my HD6XX and the DT1990 Pro, although the Ananda did have more room to spare. I don’t listen at very high levels, so, to be truthful, I didn’t find myself running out of power but I did find that with some quieter tracks (especially some DSD files) I was getting up to around -10dB (max is 0dB), so I could see someone who likes to play music loud (using low sensitivity headphones) finding the unbalanced output a little weak. I will say though that even when nearing max output (unbalanced), there was no sign of any audible distortion.

Moving over to the balanced output, the power issues with the HD6XX are gone, providing plenty of power for my needs and seemingly adding a little more clarity but that could quite easily be my brain that is adding it. Again, I used multiple sets of headphones and IEMs, all proving to be powered with ease from the balanced output.

Detailed listening and comparisons…

Searching for differences, I went through a series of comparisons and combinations to see what I could differentiate (or what my brain tells me I can differentiate, however you want to look at it).

My first comparison was to test the overall unit (as a whole) against other setups. I tested this against various combinations, however, as all of my solid state amplifiers are single ended only, I stuck with the SE output of the NEO. My subjective findings were that the iFi is a little smoother than my other combinations. I mean, this was not night and day, it was small things like the decay of notes and reverb of voices that seemed to be a little smoother. I found the attack to be very similar but the release was smoother. 

I did find also that the SE output of the NEO is very weak in comparison to amps like the L30, Heresy or Atom. While I was hitting between -20dB and -10dB (depending on track) on the NEO, I was at much lower levels on the other options (for example, L30 around 10 o’clock on medium gain or Heresy at around 1 o’clock on low gain). The balanced output of the NEO gives these little amps a much better run for their money as far as power.

Switching back and forth between the combinations, I came away with the sensation that the iFi NEO iDSD was more enjoyable while the others were sharper and more "straight to the point".

My next comparison was to test the amplifier of the NEO. There is no analog input on the unit, so it is not possible to take the DAC out of the equation, therefore I ran the DAC output to other amplifiers to compare against the onboard amplifier. I balanced the output levels of the amps (as in the previous test) to avoid automatically preferring the loudest of the two, I started out with the SE output from the iFi but again ended up opting for the balanced output to compare. 

Here I found that the DAC connected to an external solid state amplifier is sort of a middle ground between using two completely different chains (for example, the iFi NEO vs Modi 3+ & Heresy). There still seems to be a slightly more rounded touch to the sound but not quite as much as before, although I am talking about micro changes and these could again be due to personal expectations. I actually really liked the combination of the iFi DAC paired with any of my small SS amps.

Finally, I compared DACs. My non-scientific approach here was to use the two inputs of the Atom, setting the output of the NEO to variable and balancing the levels against the SU-8 which also has a variable output, however, it turned out that the output levels of the two DACs are identical when set to full.

I spent an hour or so switching back and forth between the two DACs on the Atom. To be totally honest, I am not sure I noticed any difference at all. There were times that I again got the sensation that the iFi is smoother than the SU-8 but the next song I wouldn’t be able to pick which was which. 

In the aim to be a little more scientific in my approach (but only a little), I asked a colleague to randomly connect the two DACs to whichever input of the Atom he liked, without me knowing which input was which. After another hour or so and many switches back and forth, I picked the DAC that I thought sounded more “musical” to my ears. 

There was one DAC that I felt sounded better with acoustic instruments (guitars, basses etc.) and voices, basically being smoother overall. Basically,  I chose the one that I would buy if I could only use that selector switch to decide. That DAC did turn out to be the iFi NEO which I guess is a good thing but this was based on specific songs that I have heard thousands of times, I certainly wouldn’t bet my money on picking it in a blind test.

As far as the balanced outputs of the iFi NEO iDSD, I don’t really have a quick way of swapping sources without going through an extra level of processing (my speaker set ups are driven by a BSS Blu-160 which does an ADC before processing and then DAC out to the speakers). I only have one balanced headphone amplifier, the P20, which involves swapping cables and isn’t a simple A/B test. Saying this, the iFi presented no issues and the overall sound quality was very enjoyable on all my systems, headphones and speakers.

One thing to take into consideration is that the outputs of the DAC are always active, with no way of turning them off. That means that if you are using the NEO to feed external speakers or amplifiers, there is no way to switch between headphones and line out from the unit, you will need another way of turning them on or off. Yes, they can be set to variable but raising volume when using the headphone outputs will also increase volume on the DAC outputs.



Conclusion…

The iFi NEO iDSD seems to be a product that is aimed as an all in one solution for those that are wanting a simple desktop unit that provides all the functions one would need in a very simple but elegant fashion.

The unit is good looking (in my opinion of course) and seems to be very well built, making it a perfectly valid option for someone who is wanting something like this for their desktop or even living room set up. I would be quite happy to have the NEO on my desk at work, covering all the needs I have in my office. and on top of that, it sounds great! 

All in all, I am impressed with the iFi NEO iDSD and feel like it is a very good option at it’s price point. You could put together a similar system (as far as sound and functionality) using separate pieces of equipment but I don’t think you would save anything as far as cost and you wouldn’t end up with a good looking all-in-one that the NEO is.

 A big thank you to iFi Audio for allowing me to try out the NEO iDSD!

SenyorC