One of the biggest revelations I've had in the past year is that you really don't need to spend a bunch of money to get really good sound. You can, of course—there's pretty much no upper limit to the incremental advancements you get from pricey audio equipment.
But, if you know what you're doing, for the price of a pair of the top-tier of Beats By Dre headphones, you can have sound that absolutely murders Beats.
With the right combo DAC/amp, pretty much any device can give you HiFi quality sound. Old iPhone? Check. First generation Nexus 7 tablet? Yup. Laptop? Double check.
Which brings me to my latest audio obsession, iFi's iDSD Black Label. "It's pure magic," the ad copy says, and I'm not here to argue.
The remarkable thing about the sound from the iFi iDSD is how little there is to say about it. It's rich, clear as a bell and true-to-life, with nice vibrancy in the mids, plenty of oomph on the bass and great detail in the upper range. Soft sounds sound soft, hard sounds hard and I get as much detail as I do from my ELAC loudspeakers and the new NAD 3020.
First, obviously, it's an amp, which means that it puts out about 10 times as much power as the little amp inside your phone. That power is mostly useful for driving power hungry high impedance headphones, which have super thin wire on their coils that's more sensitive, and thus better sounding, than consumer headphones tuned to play over Bluetooth. This is a better subject for another column, but you can find a decent pair of impedance headphones from a company like Sennheiser for just over $100.
But the real magic of the iDSD is its Digital To Analog converter. Like other DACs, this device hooks up to your device through a USB cable, circumventing the internal DAC and putting the digital stream you send it through its own decoding. This DAC is ultra high-end, and likely overkill for any application you have unless you're ripping SACDs with a hacked Playstation or spending $50 on highest-quality DSD files. This DAC will handle up to 32/384 kHz, which is 256 times the sample rate of a CD.
The other huge advantage is the portability. The iFi iDSD is small, about the size of a man's wallet. It also has a rechargeable Lithium Polymer battery in it, which means it won't drain your laptop or phone battery if you're out and about. They say you can get up to 10 hours of battery life on it, though I have not yet pushed it that far in my tests.
One great feature of the compact design is that you can use this device across a room without buying expensive new headphone cables. I'm currently running a pair of HiFi Man HE400i headphones, and if I wanted to get a high-quality three-meter cable so that I could listen from the couch in my office I'd be looking at $200. But with the iDSD, I can simply invest in a longer USB 3.0 cable. For $7.50, I can get a cable that takes the digital signal from my laptop all the way across the room where it goes undiminished through the DAC and into the crystalline cables that feed my headphones.
This is a great little device, and highly recommended to anyone looking to up there headphone game at the office, in their study or even on an airplane.
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