iFi NEO iDSD Review
A Master of all Trades
Pros: – Reference quality neutral sounding DAC
– Fully balanced topology
– Dead silent
– Balanced headphone amplifier
– Balanced preamplifier
– High resolution bluetooth receiver
– Good build quality
– Remote control
Cons: – Single ended headphone out is underpowered
– May not suit well bright components
The NEO iDSD was provided by iFi for one week as part of the Headfi loaner tour.
Due to the holiday season I was privileged to abuse that time.
I would like to thank them very much for letting me participate.
The review reflects my personal honest and subjective opinion.
iFi never asked for a favorable review of any kind.
About the firmware
A few words about the supposed noise problem that was discussed here in Headfi.
My loaner sample came with the original release firmware and was dead silent during all the tests I have performed.
After installing the updated firmware the unit remained dead silent and the only change I have noticed was a somewhat improved sound signature at the higher registers.
The hated and long forgotten 2020 was not good at all for humanity but it sure was a very prolific year for iFi.
They produced the fabulous and highly acclaimed – value for money – ZEN range and then the micro iDSD Signature followed by the brand new NEO iDSD.
The NEO iDSD is a fully balanced desktop DAC with balanced preamplifier function plus a discrete balanced headphone amplifier.
It supports wireless Bluetooth connectivity and it is remotely controlled.
Technical specifications as published by iFi.
The Burr-Brown True Native® chipset means file formats remain unchanged or ‘bit-perfect’. This means you are listening to music as the artist intended in the format in which it was recorded.
The XMOS 16-Core chip processes the audio data received via the USB and S/PDIF digital inputs.
This new low-latency XMOS microcontroller has greatly enhanced processing power. Compared to the current generation of eight-core chips, this new 16-core IC delivers double the clock speed (2000MIPS) and four times the memory (512KB), as well as the latest SuperSpeed USB standard.
Extensive jitter-eradication technologies are applied to the digital stage, including our GMT (Global Master Timing) femto-precision clock and intelligent memory buffer. This represents a total ‘out-of-the-box’ systematic digital solution that solves jitter once and for all.
Even the OLED SilentLine display is engineered to ensure there is no electrical noise to interfere with the audio signal as it switches itself off when not in use.
As with many other iFi audio products, we’ve incorporated a custom OV Series operational-amplifier. This top-notch component contributes to the extremely low noise, low distortion (0.0001%) and wide bandwidth.
Balanced, differential analogue circuit design reduces noise and cross-talk within the signal path by fully separating the left and right channels.
The headphone amp stage has a continuous power output of more than 1000mW into 32ohms available through the balanced headphone socket. To retain maximum resolution, the volume is adjusted in the analogue domain via a resistor ladder, under precise microprocessor control.
All internal components are hand picked by major brands.
Hi-res audio support is state-of-the-art with True Native® playback. It handles PCM data to 32-bit/768kHz, DSD up to DSD512 and single and double speed DXD.
MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) is supported through the USB and S/PDIF inputs, with full decoding of MQA files up to 384kHz thanks to the processing power of the new 16-core XMOS chip.
iFi uses Qualcomm’s new QCC5100 Bluetooth processing IC.
All current high-definition Bluetooth audio formats are supported – aptx, aptX HD, aptX Adaptive, aptX LL, LDAC, HWA/LHDC, AAC and SBC.
Physical specifications and handling.
The NEO iDSD is a bit larger than the ZEN series but is still very discreet with a small footprint.
It measures 214 x 146 x 41 mm and the weight is 970gr.
The unit sports a rather futuristic design that differs significantly from the rest of the iFi products.
It is a sturdy all aluminium case with good build quality without any hard edges.
All the buttons and plugs are of good quality and well put together but care should be taken with the display which is very prone to scratching.
The front panel is dominated by the large rotary knob in the middle with the OLED display at the left side and the two headphone jacks at the right.
One small button is the power switch and another one is used to enable the bluetooth and select the digital input.
A large white LED illuminates the center part giving a spaceship glow.
At the back from the left to the right we can see the XLR and RCA outputs , the coaxial , optical and USB digital inputs , the DC jack and the bluetooth antenna.
The unit can be placed horizontally or vertically thanks to the supplied extra base and the display will automatically adjust it’s orientation.
The NEO iDSD can be powered from the USB input while under this mode but for any other operation the external power supply is needed.
The iFi iPower upgraded low noise power supply is provided as a regular inside the box.
The other accessories include an external bluetooth antenna , a USB 3.0 cable , a generic stereo RCA cable , four silicone feet , the extra base , the remote control and an 6.35mm to 3.5mm adapter.
Connectivity and use.
Setting up the device is an easy and straightforward procedure.
We can cycle between the three available digital inputs with the remote control or the input button.
For the USB input we need to install the drivers from the iFi website and we are provided with ASIO bit perfect support.
While in Bluetooth mode the device will automatically enter seek operation and pairing is fast and easy.
Up to seven different devices are remembered and the connection remains active even if we switch to another digital input.
So we can cycle between all the available digital inputs without losing wireless connection.
From the main menu we can choose whether the analogue output will be fixed or variable and plugging in a headphone will cut off the output.
A voice assistance is heard during the various operations.
We have decided to test the NEO iDSD first of all as a stand alone DAC and then with the internal headphone amplifier.
We have used our reference 2 channel audio system with the AudioPhysic Step 35 speakers and Cambridge Audio 851A amplifier plus some external headphone amplifiers like the ZEN CAN and Feliks Audio Euforia.
Unfortunately no active loudspeakers were available to test the balanced preamplifier function.
Our first contact was something of a surprise as we didn’t experience the known somewhat warm sound signature of recent iFi products.
Instead the NEO iDSD is very neutral and transparent favoring a precise and honest reproduction of the supplied material without any kind of altering or processing of the signal.
The dac is very clean and crystal clear with a linear response from bottom to the top.
Detail retrieval is superb thanks to the dead silent and black background.
Mind you that this is not the kind of a mechanical or soulless presentation as all the fine particles blend together in an uncanny and effortless way.
The NEO is lighting fast with a great sense of timing and never lost pace even during the most demanding and complex passages.
This is a true reference sound at its best and it is going to expose equally all the best and the worst parts of the whole chain.
iFi could very easily have stopped here calling the NEO a winner as an excellent reference DAC and be done with it.
But that’s not the case here as there is a lot more to it and this is not of a surprise considering iFi’s tendency to favour musical and analogue kind of sound.
And the NEO can support that claim as it is full sounding with excellent overall timbre while retaining the great neutrality.
The bass that extends down to the lower registers is visceral , tight and hard hitting with exemplary layering and definition.
The mids while ultra flat and crystal clear don’t sound distanced or lifeless but on the contrary are well rounded and very engaging with an organic flavor to them.
Higher above the presentation is very luminous touching brightness but thankfully it is well contrasted and equated by the bass and mids performance.
Truth to be told there is a certain lack of body and a faster than the desired decay so some instruments at certain recordings and with several headphones / speakers will sound lean or somewhat etched.
Synergy is as always the key word with this hobby and as that we would avoid pairing the iFi NEO iDSD with bright or overly analytical external amplifiers or speakers / headphones.
The NEO did surprisingly well with space and time domain and we were treated with an accurately placed recording venue that unfolded in a three dimensional stage with the right proportions between the instrumentalists from a solo singer to the whole symphonic orchestra.
The Headphone Amplifier.
Listening tests were performed mostly with Drop Hifiman HE5XX – Hifiman Ananda and Sennheiser HD660S.
Switching to the internal headphone amplifier all the above characteristics are retained intact.
The amplifier is totally transparent and it does a great job amplifying with great dynamics and speed delivering a satisfying experience.
That is of course if we have somewhat efficient headphones because from the single ended output it is rather underpowered while from the balanced is a lot better but still not enough for very power hungry headphones.
As an example with the easy to drive Sennheiser HD660S we didn’t get past the -25dB mark with low level recorded classical music.
So under real life conditions the internal headphone amplifier is sufficient enough for most of the usual headphones be it that they can support balanced connection.
Owners of difficult loads or users seeking an upgraded overall experience should add an external amplifier.
The new Qualcomm processor is very powerful and integration is perfect.
New generation bluetooth is much improved offering a very stable operation and great sound quality.
With the high resolution codecs aptX HD and LDAC the overall loss in sound fidelity is minimal and the sonic results are almost excellent.
Add the ease of use and we would not be very surprised to discover that the bluetooth connection is the most preferred one.
The only thing that we missed is the lack of a transmitter mode that could be very useful with bluetooth headphones and speakers.
At the end.
The NEO iDSD is a reference quality standalone balanced DAC with balanced preamplifier function able to stand strong against the competition.
The high quality balanced headphone amplifier is a welcomed extra bonus that adds a lot to the whole value as is the high resolution bluetooth support and the handy remote control.
The NEO iDSD is a top class minimal all in one device that can support multiple use scenarios with great success and it is aligned with the contemporary way of life.
And instead of being a jack of all trades condemned to mediocrity it is rather a true master in every trade that exercises.
The test playlist – http://open.qobuz.com/playlist/5669033
Copyright – Laskis Petros 2021.