iFi is kicking off 2021 with the self-proclaimed best battery-powered DAC/headphone amp it has ever produced – the iDSD Diablo. Engineered to sit proudly at the top of iFi’s range of mobile and transportable devices, the Diablo is, says the firm, built for purists.
Similar in size to other amps in the company's Micro iDSD series, the built-in battery makes it portable, but its sleek new design and red supercar-esque finish mark it out as distinctly different – and there's a strong engine and plenty of tech nestling under the hood.
Like a high-performance vehicle designed for uncompromising speed, iFi explains that the iDSD Diablo sets aside some facilities offered by other iFi DAC/amps – sonic tailoring options and Bluetooth connectivity, for example – to focus on pure sonic power. It boasts the ability to drive any headphones on the planet, too. iFi invites you to connect your digital source via USB or S/PDIF, plug in your headphones, then sit back and enjoy the musical ride.
The iDSD Diablo’s digital stage incorporates the Burr-Brown DAC chip used extensively by iFi, but here, two of these chips are installed in a custom ‘interleaved’ configuration – this enables four pairs of differential signals (two pairs per channel) which promises to lower the noise floor, improve channel separation and enhance the DAC’s ability to resolve fine musical detail and micro-dynamics.
The iDSD Diablo also uses a new low-latency XMOS microcontroller with enhanced processing power – compared to the current generation of eight-core chips, iFi claims this new 16-core IC delivers double the clock speed (2000MIPS) and four times the memory. Extensive jitter-eradication technologies are applied to the digital stage, including an enhanced version of iFi’s GMT (Global Master Timing) femto-precision clock featuring a new crystal oscillator.
The boxes are checked for hi-res audio support too, including handling PCM data to 32-bit/768kHz, all levels of DSD up to DSD512, and single- and double-speed DXD. And to get a bit more technical, thanks to that Burr-Brown DAC chip’s four-channel True Native design, PCM and DSD take separate pathways – this enables DSD, as well as PCM, to remain ‘bit-perfect’ in their native form right through to analogue conversion. This is often not the case with DAC devices – many such DACs convert DSD signals to PCM.
MQA – the hi-res streaming codec used by Tidal’s ‘Masters’ tier – is also supported through the USB and S/PDIF inputs, with full decoding of MQA files up to 384kHz thanks to the processing power of that new 16-core XMOS chip. This means that the full ‘three unfold’ decoding process is performed internally, as opposed to only the final unfold in the manner of an MQA ‘renderer’.
Sit tight though, because the digital stage is only half the story in any DAC/headphone amp. When it comes to the crucial analogue circuitry, a balanced, differential analogue circuit design has long been championed for its ability to reduce noise and cross-talk within the signal path by fully separating the left and right channels. However, it's expensive. This costly upgrade over single-ended circuitry has traditionally remained the preserve of high-end hi-fi components.
iFi has gradually introduced fully balanced circuit designs across its range – first in its flagship Pro Series components, then in the entry-level Zen Series devices. The company’s two newest DACs, the mains-powered Neo iDSD and the new transportable iDSD Diablo, benefit from further refinement to this circuit concept which iFi calls ‘PureWave’.
iFi promises the iDSD Diablo will drive all manner of headphones with ease, from highly sensitive in-ear monitors to current-hungry planar headphones, delivering power up to 5000mW. Three settings enable the user to adjust power and gain to suit whatever the amp stage is tasked with driving: ‘Turbo’ ramps up the level of drive for current-hungry headphones, ‘Eco’ dials down the power to suit high-sensitivity in-ear monitors and/or extend battery life, and ‘Normal’ sits between the two.
At the front of the unit, alongside a standard 6.3mm single-ended headphone socket, resides a 4.4mm Pentaconn output for headphones offering balanced connection. In terms of power, the balanced headphone output delivers 12.6V/4980mW into 32 ohms and 19.2V/611mW into 600 ohms, while the single-ended output supplies 8.8V/2417mW into 32 ohms and 9.6V/153mW into 600 ohms.
At the back of the chassis are two digital audio inputs: USB-A and an S/PDIF socket that accepts both electrical and optical signals, the former via a 3.5mm connector and the latter via a supplied adapter.
Unusually, the USB-A input features a ‘male’ connector, rather than a typical ‘female’ port – iFi claims this arrangement promises greater mechanical integrity than the USB/Micro USB ports commonly used by other DAC/headphone amps. It also offers an advantage to users of iPhones and iPads with Lightning ports, because it accepts Apple’s Lightning to USB Camera Adapter directly. A separate USB-C charging port is also provided, along with a fixed line-level 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced output to connect an external amp.
iFi has been rather generous with the iDSD Diablo's bundled accessories, too. Since DAC/amp is battery and mains-powered, the company has included its iPower 5V AC/DC adapter. It promises significantly less noise and normally costs £49.
Also included is a 4.4mm Pentaconn to XLR balanced interconnect cable, enabling the iDSD Diablo to be connected to an amp and speakers, a short (15cm) USB-C to USB-A audio cable, an extension cable – all USB3.0 compliant – plus a USB-C charging cable and an adapter to connect headphones with a 3.5mm jack to the 6.3mm single-ended output. Even a travel case is included.
To top it all off, the first iDSD Diablo production run includes iFi’s iPurifier3 in the bundle – retailing separately at £129. It's billed as a USB ‘noise-buster’ to tackle all aspects that degrade sound quality over USB, thanks to a mix of tech including Active Noise Cancellation. It adds up to a package of accessories worth around £300.
iFi’s iDSD Diablo is available at selected retailers from today, Friday 15th January, for £899 (opens in new tab) (AU$1,399). Pricing for the US isn't yet known, but that roughly equates to $1228.
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