McGary Audio

Essential Sound

Saturday, December 21, 2019

EAN Audiophile Review!
iFi Pro iDSD D/A Converter
HP Amp/Line Preamplifier
“Feature-Filled DAC, Impressive Sound!”



Brevis...
Price: $2,749
Likes: Excellent conversion
Dislikes: No bit depth status
Wow Factor: "One serious DAC"
More info: iFi Pro iDSD 

by John Gatski
  Known for its economy Hi-Fi products, British manufacturer iFi makes a dandy, high-end standalone DAC, the Pro iDSD, priced at $2,749.It offers a superb DSD upsample engine, handles native PCM to 384, upsample of PCM to 768 kHz sample rate and native DSD with incredibly accurate conversion. Throw in the switchable, dual-tube stage and streaming, and you could not ask anymore from a converter’s audio path. This is version 4.4.

Features
  The cool, modern-looking Pro iDSD DAC sports a high-performance, D/A design via Quad Dual Core Burr-Brown DAC 1793 chipset and Crysopeia FPGA DSD Digital Engine that enables DSD upsample up to 49.152 MHz sample rate (DSD 1024).
  With my AKG K812 and K702 Anniversary headphones, I found the DAC’s headphone amp output to be major league. Copious space and depth in the stereo image — with incredible transient dynamics — yet it projects a presentation of natural, subtle room sounds that are lower in level, but important to a balanced, accurate audio reproduction.

  Via the USB input, the Burr Brown circuit handles the Hi-Res native PCM D/A conversion to 32/384 with the bit perfect mode. The advanced upsampled PCM playback allows up to 32-bit and 705 kHz to 768 kHz sample rate (depending on original sample rate). The upsample modes are engaged when you select either the Gibbs Transfer Optimized (GTO) filter, the Apodising filter, or the Transient Aligned filter. The unit also can play MQA files.
  The USB input also enables native DSD playback up to 11.2 MHz sampling with the standard DSD 80 kHz filter. With the switchable DSD Remaster upsample engine, either the 512 and1024 options are engaged, DSD and PCM is upconverted to 22.4 MHz or 44.8 MHz DSD. 

A DAC, a streamer....
  The iDSD Pro can also stream Hi-Res audio via the various streaming services, such as Roon, Tidal, Spotify, and Qobuz. An app-controlled, smart phone also is an effective way to stream from the palm of your hand though the Pro iDSD. Or hook it into the Ethernet if you want it wired to a HD.The iFi Pro DSD also is compatible with Apple AirPlay; the Micro SD card slot provides onboard GB storage to play from a music app.

Compact but chock full of features

  The unit’s front panel sports three knobs. From left to right: Input/display brightness, Wi-Fi/WPS, and volume. Below the filter switch is the tube-activation switch, which engages two General Electric 5670 tubes — if you want to add a bit of tube smoothness. There are few standalone tube DACs that have a DAC mode. I have seen disc player mods with valve analog stage D/A mods. I normally don't favor tubes at the source, but this circuit does not overly affect the pristine conversion. More of a subtle effect. The Tube+ setting mode, reduces the negative feedback of the stock tube setting. If you want no tube, just slide the switch all the way to the left.

Stellar is apt for the Pro iDSD

  At nearly $3,000, you would expect the iFi Pro iDSD to be built with good parts plus state-of-the art design; your expectation would be right. Top-notch boards, galvanic isolation of connections and well-implemented signal path routing make this no slouch — even compared to costlier premium DACs.
  For example, it uses a new XMOS XU216 X-Core 200 Series 16-Core processor. All-internal digital processing is Bit-Perfect, unless particular digital filters are explicitly selected. Other components include Japan-manufactured Alps rotary volume pot, audiophile-grade ELNA Silmic capacitors and a bank of Elna Dynacaps ‘super capacitors.’

Ergonomically speaking
  The front panel jacks include a 1/4-inch stereo (4.4mm), 3.5mm TRS and balanced 2.5 mm TRRS for use with balanced IEMs. The 4-watt headphone amp can drive a most of headphones.
Plethora of connection options

  Around back are balanced XLR outputs, unbalanced RCA outputs, a MicroSD card to play music from via a wireless app, SPDIF coax/TOSlink combo input jacks, USB 3.0 input jack, clock sync I/O BNC’s, Wi-Fi antenna. Two rear-panel rotary switches  enable additional functions: clock sync options and the analog output modes (variable/fixed in Pro and Hi-Fi settings). The Ethernet port also is on the back panel.
  The power supply is similar to what you get with big hard drives, A 15-volt output “brick” with a detachable IEC cord. Even without the heft of an internal power supply, the Pro DSD still feels substantial at 6 lbs. I love the port hole front display!
  This DAC is priced even higher than what I see as its sonic competitors, such as Benchmark DAC3 HGC, Mytek Brooklyn, etc. But it does have features that most DACS do not have, such as the switchable tube stage. And the DSD Remaster upsample engine and the well-implemented Burr Brown DAC/analog signal path put the iFi DAC in the higher-echelon of my D/A favorites.
  It reminds me of the $2,700 Prism Sound Callia level of detail — with its Cirrus chip, but similar tonal character and stereo image depth). To my ears, the Pro iDSD exhibits a little more spacious and a tad smoother with lots of filter and upsample options.
  The Pro iDSD may be the best implementation of the Burr Brown 1790 series I have ever heard! I like the Bit Perfect mode for 192 kHz PCM and higher; it is the best unprocessed option that simply passes the audio straight to the converter without extra filtering or upsampling.

Burr Brown and other premium digital/analog parts

  For lower PCM sample rates, 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 96 kHz, I like the iFi PCM digital filter choices. They give the listener subtle sound shaping, along with upsampling, that can enhance listening on drier, flatter recordings; the GTO filter, Apodising filter, and Transient Aligned filters can make audible differences, depending on the music.
  You also have Bit Perfect modes for DSD, plus that marvelous DSD 512 or DSD 1024 via the DSD Remaster engine that works with all PCM (except MQA) and the DSD files. It it is hard to hear big changes in pure DSD beyond 5.6 MHz sampling, but I found the Pro iDSD quite a good upconverter of older, harsh-sounding PCM CDs.   
  The plethora of features and modes — including a pristine Bit Perfect audio path, multiple PCM filter/upsampling choices and killer DSD Remaster upsampling engine guarantee a setting that will suit any astute listener. Throw in quality streaming, multiple connection choices and onboard SD card storage, and you will find this DAC hard to beat.

  Upconverting a 1983 Second Hearing Classical CD revealed an eased-in smoothness of the violin and cello transient tones and enhanced instrument presence; this upconversion made the early day PCM sound so much more listenable with a reduced effect of the original PCM decimation and 44.1 kHz filtering.
  The tube stage, as mentioned previously, can soften original recording harshness to a slight degree, but I found my self staying in the sold state mode. By the way, I got to hand it to iFi; its tube circuit does not add any audible noise. The sonics are pretty quiet with the valves engaged.

The setup
  I deployed the Pro DSD to a number of different testing scenarios including primary DAC via internal HP, line-out through an outboard preamp and using it alone as a DAC preamp. Other DACs on hand included Mytek Brooklyn, Mytek Manhattan, Benchmark DAC3, Prism Callia, TEAC UD503 and Oppo HA-1.
  Speakers included Westlake Audio Tower 5, MartinLogan Montis and Amphion Argon3S speakers. All speakers were played through a Pass XA30.5 amp or Mytek Brooklyn Class D amplifier.
If you want tube or SS, the Pro iDSD has them

  I used Wireworld cables for analog, digital and speaker cable connection. Power distribution was from Essential Sound Products, which keeps the AC has from spoiling my advanced bit S/N.
  I played music from a Macbook Pro using Audirvana Plus, and SoundEdit 8, a Hi-Res, recording, editing professional audio music app that I use for DSD and PCM recording projects. I also connected to an Oppo BDP-205 universal player to output some great-sounding music BD’s to the DAC via an Essence Evolve II HDMI DAC bypass SPDIF output,

The audition
  From the get go, I must tell you that the iFi Pro iDSD is a fantastic DAC. I have seen others reviews that did not truly appreciate its degree of high-end sonic refinement. This is a really good converter!
  The Pro iDSD may be the best implementation of the Burr Brown 1790 series I have ever heard! I like the Bit Perfect mode for 192 kHz PCM and higher; it is the best unprocessed option that simply passes the audio straight to the converter without extra filtering or upsampling.

  With my AKG K812 and K702 Anniversary headphones, I found the DAC’s headphone amp output to be major league. Copious space and depth in the stereo image — with incredible transient dynamics — yet it projects a presentation of natural, subtle room sounds that are lower in level, but important to a balanced, accurate audio reproduction.
  These iFi engineers know how to extract every ounce of positive audio from the Burr Brown 1793, DSD Remaster Engine and the Pro iDSD’s highly satisfying analog pathway.

DMP on the Pro iDSD
  I played the Tom Jung-recorded Warren Bernhardt — So Real recording, a DMP-label, DSD album from 2001 via the USB output of the Macbook Pro. Although there is no fancy ESS or AKM D/A chip, the well-regarded Burr-Brown 1793 and the Pro iDSD’s critical analog section showed me DAC’s prowess on this DSD album.

Trusty AKG's sounded aces with Pro iDSD — at any sampling rate.

 On the title cut, I could hear that brushed sheen of the drum cymbals, the standout drum stick roll on the snare, and the gorgeous tone of the stereo mic’d Steinway piano — all relayed in that glorious deep stereo image the DMP recordings are known for. It sounded about as good as I have ever the heard cut.
  The classic “Autumn Leaves” track also revealed the same layering of the drum cymbals and an increase in dynamic range. Ooh, those cymbal brush licks.
  In top-class DACs, such as the Benchmark DAC3 and Mytek Brooklyn, there might be better spec numbers, but the iFi was right there in the straight ahead listening sessions.
  I listened to a Pentatone DSD download album, the 1974 version of Berlioz Symphony Fantastique, Sir Colin Davis and The Concertgebouw Philharmonic (Phillips)). This is my favorite recording of this Berlioz staple, in performance and in sound quality. The richness, fullness and ultimate power of the orchestra — combined with a vastly dynamic, yet rich, analog tape character  — was stellar in the Bit Perfect mode, at 2.8MHz sample rate DSD.
  I kicked in the DSD Remaster upsample to DSD1024 for grins, not expecting any difference since it was a a DSD-from-analog transfer. However, the DSD Remaster  mode tightened up that analog warmness in the strings to a more neutral, revealing impression of the instruments. It was subtle, but I liked it. On speakers or my trusty Sennheiser HD-650 or AKG headphones I could definitely hear the change.

Glorious nylon string guitar
  Years ago, I ripped 1963 recording of The Guitar Artistry of Charlie Bird CD —  the DC-area, jazz guitar player who favored nylon string arrangements. For this test, I upconverted the track “Ring Them Harmonics from 16/44.1 to 24-bit/192 and let the iFi do its stuff.


More than enough headphone connections

  The cut is catchy, fast and percussion driven, via the guitar licks and the drum kit. Its stereo presentation belies its 1963 origination. It is a thoroughly modern mix that only shows its age via the bit of pre-Dolby tape hiss. Fantastic transient width and depth — with ample spread of the guitar, drums, and bass instruments in the mix.
  I played it for a couple of audiophile friend from the DC Hi-Fi Group, and they could not believe that this was from 1963. Both thought it was a recent Hi-Res recording
  Another cut I played to reveal the iFi’s nuance-relay capability was a real 32-bit integer PCM recording I made in the mid-2019. Real 32-bit integer is not 32-bit floating point, which is only 24 bits integer. 32-bit integer has a theoretical S/N level of 190 dB! Of course no analog parts are that quiet in real life, but I wanted to make a real 32-bit recording.


  The guitar’s cedar/rosewood wood nuance subtle harmonic transients and a wide stereo image presentation are some of the best I have ever heard from a classical guitar mic’d up close. You could certainly hear them through the iFi Pro iDSD.

  My high-end classical guitar recording demo recording session featured me playing a Manuel Rodriguez, solid cedar/Indian rosewood guitar. The guitar was mic’d with a pair of professional Audio-Technica 4041B microphones and a low-noise, microphone preamp that fed a Mytek Brooklyn ADC at 32-bit/384 sampling. The A/D stream was routed to a Windows 10 Dell computer, through USB, and recorded with Reaper-64, an audio-production program that does real 32-bit integer recording, mixing, and processing.
  This recording sounds great on all my tester DACS, but the iFi Pro iDSD eked out a spatial presentation that was simply amazing. (Did I just record that I said to myself after sampling the audio playback via the Martin Logan 11s, a Benchmark LA4 preamp and Pass Labs X350.8 amplifier
  I may not be Segovia, but the guitar’s cedar/rosewood wood nuance subtle harmonic transients and a wide stereo image presentation are some of the best I have ever heard from a classical guitar mic’d up close. You could certainly hear them through the iFi Pro DSD.

No playback deficits
  I auditioned at least 40 recordings through the Ifi including tons of CDs and DVD-As and Hi-Res downloads. I never heard anything sound bad. Even old 1980’s GRP, all-digital jazz CDs sounded good. I was surprised at how good the original Telarc Classical CDs sounded via the DSD Remaster. The Firebird Suite from 1978 is way more listenable in the high-sampling DSD conversion. The dynamic range is intact, but the harsh edges are gone.

My PCM dub of the title track showcased the iFi sound

  I found that use of the DSD Remaster feature or the various upsamle rate/filter options is music dependent. On PCM, more modern, 24-bit and high-sample rate recordings often are indistinguishable from the native sample rate bit perfect. The same with native DSD upsampled. However, many of old my old CDs certainly sounded better in the DSD Remaster mode. I appreciate having the option.
  One last music audition with the Pro iDSD that I should mention. Several years ago, I recorded the output of my Marantz SACD player via a Benchmark ADC1 converter to see how I liked the audio character of DSD being transferred to PCM via A/D. I recorded  the SACD of Midnight Sugar — The Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio - Three Blind Mic Records from 1975.


  Overall, the iFi Pro iDSD is one heck of a DAC. I did not expect it to be near the top of the D/A heap in terms of its performance, but it is. PCM and DSD playback possibilities are numerous. And everything from old DDD CDs to new Hi-Res stuff sounds brilliant and fully fleshed. Headphone listening and through an amp/speakers the sonics are aces!

  In my opinion, the PCM dub of the jazz recording did not change the sound much, at PCM 192/24, over the original DSD, so I put the tracks into my vast collection of experimental audio file HD — never to listen again. Or so I thought.
  For this review, I downloaded the Midnight Sugar title track into the Mac with Audirvana+ and listened to it through the Pro iDSD. Let me tell you that through this DAC, I really like the PCM-dubbed version. Those percussive, intense piano notes, the slow, percolating bass line and tight drum fills of the title track revealed more energy — especially in the cymbal hits and the piano-note velocity.
  I really noticed all that space around the instruments. The iFi took the PCM to the max. I now look at my album dub in a new way.

To bit or not to bit...
  I had only one real complaint about the iFi Pro DSD, and it is simply an ergonomic omission: no bit-status display; it only reveals the sample rate of PCM. No 16-, 24- or 32-bit indicators like the Benchmark, Prism, Mytek or Oppo DACs I had on hand.


Crysopeia FPGA DSD Digital Engine


  I like the bit-status feature since it tells you what the computer or player is actually outputting. On three occasions, with the Pro iDSD and the TEAC DSD Editor app on the Mac, the computer’s Audio-MDI settings utility self-switched to 16-bit output, and I did not know it until I listened closely to a Jazz recording that did not sound right. I checked the settings and clicked the 24-bit option to get the track to sound like it should through the D/A chain. Bottom Line: why don’t all DAC’s have bit displays?
  My other niggle is the unit lacks the normal bottom panel feet. It has a raised rubber pad that may not give a firm enough foot print since the unit does not weigh more than 6 pounds. I kept inadvertently scooting it across a soft-top table if I clicked the Filter knob to change modes or swapped headphones. Four rubber feet spaced to the corners would lessen the instability on soft table tops. On glass it was fine.

The verdict
 Overall, the iFi Pro iDSD is one heck of a DAC. I did not expect it to be near the top of the D/A heap in terms of its performance, but it is. PCM and DSD playback possibilities are numerous. And everything from old DDD CDs to new Hi-Res stuff sounds brilliant and fully fleshed. Headphone listening and through an amp/speakers the sonics are aces!

iFi Pro iDSD is a deserving selection for our awards

  The plethora of features and modes  — including a pristine Bit Perfect audio path, multiple PCM filter/upsampling choices and killer DSD Remaster upsampling engine guarantee a setting that will suit any astute listener. Throw in a quality streaming function, multiple connection choices and onboard SD card storage, this DAC is hard to beat.
  Whether you are seasoned pro, a picky audiophile or a music fan one who just wants to listen to digital in its best state-of-conversion, you cannot ignore the iFi Pro iDSD D/A converter. It is that good. That is why it gets the a EAN Stellar Sound award and EAN Product of The Year Award in the standalone DAC category.

  EAN Founder John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1988. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for SoundOnSound, Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music, The Audiophile Voice, High Performance Review, Radio World and TV Technology. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via email: everything.audio@verizon.net

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