First Look: iFi iDSD nano DAC/headphone amp & iCAN nano headphone amp

Digital-to-analog converters,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
iFi Audio iCAN Nano,
iFi Audio iDSD nano
First Look: iFi iDSD nano DAC/headphone amp & iCAN nano headphone amp

But let’s pause for a moment to consider the iDSD nano’s headphone amplifier circuit. The amp, to a point, exhibits sound quality similar in general tone and tenor to that of the iCAN nano (or, for that matter, the bigger iCAN micro), though of course the iDSD has had to forego the iCAN nano’s Xbass and 3D HolographicSound circuits (hey, something had to go overboard in order to hold the price comfortably below $200).

Given that the claimed power output specifications for the iDSD nano (130mW) and the iCAN nano (150mW) are similar, you might expect them to sound equally dynamic and robust, but in practice I found that not to be the case. A few evenings ago I tried the iDSD nano with a battery of headphones including the Fischer Audio FA-002W High Edition, the HiFiMAN HE-500, and the Audeze LCD-3, comparing the sound of the iDSD nano used as a standalone product vs. the sound of the iDSD nano used in conjunction with the iCAN nano. In every single instance, the overall sound quality and dynamic characteristics were markedly better when the two units were used together.  Here’s a rough summary of my listening notes from that session.

iDSD nano with the Fischer FA-002W High Edition:

·      Great (vibrant) mids,
·      Sweet and detailed highs,
·      Bass has lovely pitch definition but lacks weight,
·      Overall, there is not quite enough gain available with the iDSD nano, however
·      With the iCAN nano added to the system I found, “…the bass and overall sound improves markedly the iCAN nano added to the signal path.”

IDSD nano with the HiFiMAN HE-500:

·      Generally a warmer, more organic, and more natural sound than the Fisher, though the HE-500 is certain no less details,
·      Less overtly midrange-forward sound than the Fischer,
·      Again, iDSD nano has insufficient output for the HE-500, however
·      With iCAN nano added to the system I noted, “Sound is dramatically better with the iCAN nano in action; the sound becomes more robust with even better midrange and treble resolution, and dramatically more authoritative bass. There’s plenty of gain, too.”

iDSD nano with the Audeze LCD-3:

·      This combination offers the best overall tonal balance and articulacy of these first three ‘phones, and perhaps also the best overall sensitivity,
·      Still the iDSD nano lacks sufficient output (gain?) to fully exploit the LCD-3’s strengths, however
·      With the iCAN nano put into play I wrote, “Not surprisingly, the iCAN nano fixes everything, providing plenty of output and great bass weight.”

The moral of this story, for now, is that while the iDSD nano is a wonderful thing in its own right (it would be terrific for use with earphones, custom-fit in-ear monitors, and higher sensitivity full-size phones), it pays to add the iCAN nano to the mix if you own somewhat more difficult-to-drive full-size ‘phones.

Watch for our upcoming Hi-Fi+ review of the iDSD nano and iCAN nano.  Until then, however, I hope this “First Look” blog will give you some idea of what to expect.

Happy Listening!