First, let me apologize. This review has been a long time coming. Too long, if I’m honest. Ifi sent the NEO iDSD out for review months ago and in that time I’ve used it off and on. The positive to delaying the review was I’ve had time to actually use it in long-term real-world situations. Now, that I’ve gotten my sincere apology to both ifi and you, our readers out of the way. This is TLR Technologies review of ifi NEO iDSD.
The if NEO iDSD is beautiful and screams premium from the packaging, the feel and the sound.Jules.B
What’s In The ifi NEO iDSD Box
As always let’s start with the packaging. The ifi NEO iDSD is shipped in a super high-quality white box that shouts premium with a chrome ifi logo. The box however is covered by a full-color sleeve with a glossy embossed picture. It pictures the NEO iDSD vertically on one side and various features on the other. On the rear of the box is a list of specs and features that is as long as my arm.
Inside the box, the quality just keeps oozing. The NEO iDSD is packaged in high-density foam that holds it securely in place. The iDSD isn’t going to be moving at all in its packaging. It is easily one of the best, most complete packaging jobs that I’ve seen in the audiophile space. Below are 3 boxes that hold individual components for the NEO iDSD. The power supply, the antenna, and the remote control. Again the packaging is top-notch. I can’t think of anything that I’ve received in the audiophile space that has had this much of a well-rounded unboxing experience.
If you thought the box and unboxing experience sounded premium they have nothing on the actually ifi NEO iDSD. The NEO iDSD has to be one of the most visually complete devices that I’ve used in my headphone setups. First things first the Neo iDSD can be sat either vertical or horizontally. If you decide to go vertical like, I did ifi includes a matching metal stand. The stand securely holds and supports the NEO iDSD. When installed in the stand, the chance of knocking it over NEO iDSD is slim to none.
Dot Matrix Display For The Win
The next immediate feature that stood out to me is the dot matrix display. Not only because it was bright and vibrant, easy to see in all lighting conditions… No, not any of that. It was because ifi installed an accelerometer in the NEO iDSD. When you rotate the NEO from horizontal to vertical the display rotates automatically to match the orientation. Nuts! Right? and something that I didn’t expect.
So after gushing over the display and the fact that it automatically rotates, the ifi NEO iDSD as a whole… as I said above is the real deal visually. It could easily find its home in a multi-thousand dollar audio setup and not look out of place. At the same time, it could easily fit on a desk to complete a multi pc/ device headphone audio solution. This is the setup that I used, more about that below.
Before I get into the details of my setup and how the ifi NEO iDSD could be a game-changer. Is the ifi NEO iDSD the device you’ve been looking for? Let’s take a look at the features and sound quality.
When it comes to features you’d be hard-pressed to find another device that has the features of the NEO iDSD. If you need it, then chances are the feature exists. Do you want LDAC Hi-Res Bluetooth up to 96kHz, you got it. How about Burr-Brown Multibit Bit-Perfect DAC chips… Yep, the NEO iDSD has that too! MQA Hi-Res Streaming, Check! Fully balanced headphone output, Check!
Features, Features And More Features
I’ll be here until next year listing all the features. So, I’m going to just post a list so you can see for yourself exactly what I mean. The ifi NEO DSD is really as feature-packed as they come.
So besides being one of the only DAC to support all… I SAID… ALL… Hi-Res DSD12, PCM768, MQA384kHz, Bluetooth 96KHz formats. It has tons of inputs and for me that where it really started to shine. The inputs are USB 3.0, Coaxial, Optical, and Bluetooth 5.0 in practically all the HI-Res formats.
Inputs And Outputs
When it comes to outputs, you again have choices. If you are using the ifi NEO iDSD as a stand-alone DAC, you can output through the RCA or balanced from the XLR connectors. As a stand-alone DAC, you of course get the Bit-Perfect processing through the Burr-Brown chips without the use of DSP. In simple terms, you are getting a non-colored pure audio signal that can be used to drive other amps while allowing those amps to color the music. I know have not mentioned the price of the ifi NEO iDSD yet, but just buying a DAC of this quality easily costs hundreds of dollars alone, and most of them can’t process nearly as many Hi-Res codec.
As far as the headphone output goes you have only 2 choices. The unbalanced 1/4in or balanced with the 4.4mm connections. The power output is just over 1 watt balanced at 32ohm and around 300mW at 32ohm. Headphones can range from 12ohm-600ohm, so basically whether it’s a low impedance headphone like the 36 Ohm Grado SR80x, the 300 ohm Sennheiser 6 series, or the Beyer Dynamics 600ohm DT880 the NEO iDSD has you covered.
Ok, I know you are thinking all that’s fine and dandy but all that means nothing if it doesn’t sound good.
Well first I need to tell you about the controls and the display, so just hold your horses..lol
The Neo unlike most amps in my arsenal has a bright dot matrix display that is very easy to read no matter how bright the environment is. It displays the current volume level in a large (easy to see at a glance) font, and it is measure in negative increments. 0 being the loudest. Above that is the current audio format along with the MHz of the source being played. Lastly to the right of the volume an icon that represents the source; Bluetooth, USB, Coaxial, or Optical. Just the info that you need and nothing more, so I’ve got no complaints.
I’ll keep this short and it is defiantly worth mentioning again is the inclusion of a small credit card style IR remote control. If you have the ifi NEO iDSD setup in an audio cabinet or away from your sitting position (such as if you were using it as a DAC for speakers etc) then the remote can be priceless inclusion. In my test, I used the NEO iDSD on my desk, and never had any real reason to reach for the remote.
What I did reach for was the large textured and tactile volume wheel that transmits a subtitle and satisfying click-like feel when it’s rotated. Again, the ifi NEO iDSD shouts premium, and that’s … well, because it is. The only other buttons on the Neo are the silver beveled power and source buttons, again less is more. Simple and elegant design.
Now let’s get to the good stuff the sound. If you are looking for spec, the ifi NEO iDSD has an extremely low THD of <0.0015%. If you’re like me you just need to know that means there is no noticeable white noise with no music playing. The amp is clean and transparent.
I’ve Got The Power
In my test, I found the NEO iDSD pushed all the headphones I tested to reasonable volume levels without distortion. The only reservation I have are for the people that like listening to headphones at mind-numbing volumes, and that only really with high ohm load headphones such as the 600ohm DT880. I found volume -16 to be around the level I prefer to listen to much which was loud enough to block outside side and conversations. If I’m feeling good I found myself going down to around -7 which is loud to me. Again 0 being the loudest, so I was 7 steps away from max volume, but again this is LOUD for most people I feel.
I found that -13 to be around the same level of loud when using the 300ohm 6XX, so 13 levels from max.. again I’d consider this loud. The lower the ohm load the lower the volume is needed, so basically what I’m saying that most people will find the power level of the ifi NEO iDSD to be more than enough there may be a few people with high impedance headphones that “might” want a little more power.
Color Me Impressed
The actual sound from the DAC/AMP is transparent, I don’t find it colors the music much if any at all to my ears. That was ifi intent from the beginning. As a DAC you want the amp to flavor the music and if the DAC can get out the way that’s a big win. The amp has to back that up as the ifi NEO iDSD is also a headphone amp.
The good news is the amp like the DAC does what it should and delivers what I’d consider a transparent experience. I realize this description isn’t going to do much for a lot of you so I’ll try to compare the sound to a few popular amps that I use for testing.
The THX AAA series amps tend to add a bit of sparkle to music that isn’t there with other amps and the same is true with the NEO iDSD. The NEO is just a straight-up clean amp and doesn’t add that bit of flair that isn’t there like the THX AAA series amps. So if you asked me which was the more pure sound it would be the NEO. I think it plays songs closer to the way it is naturally recorded. The NEO in my opinion is just as clean when it comes to the THD (noise). The benefit of the THX AAA series is they tend to output nuclear submarine levels of power vs the more modest power levels of the NEO iDSD.
ifi NEO iDSD Vs Everything
Comparing to the cheaper Schiit audio Magni series. I think it would sound closer to the Heresy which is a really clean and transparent amp. I’d have to test the Magni Hersey using the NEO iDSD as the DAC ( I don’t have a Magni Hersey right now) but if memory services me correctly I think the NEO iDSD is a little more finessed, and a little more resolving. Is the slightly better sound worth the potential gulf in price, well that’s up to you, but you’d have to buy a really… I mean really good DAC with Bluetooth, to make an apples-to-apples comparison, and I think when you look at the numbers the cost would be close and the NEO is a neat all in one.
Comparing to the famous Liquid Spark, the sound is night and day. The Liquid Spark is smoother in the mid-range and less analytical. The NEO is less musical and more true to the original content. Again the Spark sounds fantastic and I’d still rather listen to the 6XX on Liquid Spark vs the NEO. However, I’d rather listen to headphones like the Focal Clears on the ifi NEO iDSD.
The Rupert Neve Headphone Amp is one of the cleanest sounding amps that I’ve had the pleasure to listen to especially when paired with a high-quality DAC like the NEO or Geshelli Labs JNOG. The RNHP also has similar power output compared to the NEO so you’d think they sound close and in truth they do. The RNHP however cost $500 and the ifi NEO iDSD cost $799, so $300 more… Now show me a DAC that has the quality, Bluetooth, and codec support of the NEO for $300… I’ll wait, oh and don’t forget the ifi NEO iDSD also has balanced output, the RNHP doesn’t. I’ll even go out on a slight limb and say I think the ifi NEO iDSD might be a slightly, very, very slightly more resolving amp.
This Or That
Now the amp that I feel is closest to the ifi NEO iDSD. This really shouldn’t be a surprise if you are a normal reader or if you’ve been in the audiophile headphone space in the last year or so. The Geshelli Labs Erish fully balanced amp paired with the Geshelli Labs JNOG is arguably just as clean and transparent. The ifi NEO iDSD and Geshelli stack traded blow for blow. I know you want a winner of this battle, and I’m going to give you one. If I had to listen to either the Geshelli Labs Erish and JNOG or the NEO iDSD I’d choose the Geshelli stack BUT < A big but…
The 2 sound nearly identical, however, the Geshelli brings more low end. Just to assign a number for clarity. All things identical resolution, transparency, etc the bass (lows) on the NEO iDSD I’d say the bass level was a 5, and the Geshelli stack was 8.5. I don’t mean it in the sense of it adding more bloated bass like a pair of Beats by Dre headphones, I mean the NEO feels like it kind of just falls on its face ever so slightly comparatively.
Why The ifi NEO iDSD
Let’s get back to that BIG but that I listed above. The problem with the Geshelli Erish, JNOG stack vs the ifi NEO iDSD is it isn’t apples to apples, it’s more apples to watermelon. Erish is balanced only and many headphones don’t come balanced. Most can’t be made balanced to work with the Erish without some mad scientist skills.
For most people having only a balanced amp isn’t going to cut it. The next thing about the Geshelli stack is the JNOG doesn’t have Bluetooth, and when it comes to swapping sources it is not nearly as smooth as the display of the ifi NEO iDSD. Sure the Geshelli stack would be cheaper, almost half the price to be honest, but you’d have to buy a single-ended output amp that is a good as the ifi NEO iDSD. So that would be maybe the RNHP and that’s $500. At that point, you’d have the RNHP, Geshelli JNOG and Erish stacked in a pile to get ruffly the same sound single-ended and slightly better balanced (IMO) … but you’d lose the remote for control, the slim elegant package, and completely lose Bluetooth.
Logically it would make more sense to buy the ifi NEO iDSD and just adjust the bass levels slightly in an equalizer app/software and sound exactly the same as the Geshelli stack balanced and maintain all the features packed into the ifi NEO iDSD.
My Use Case
So, maybe you know by now if the NEO iDSD is for you, but let me tell you about my use case.
I have a windows desktop that has the optical output, I have the new M1 Mac Mini that can be connected through USB and the Bluetooth connection from IPad Pro or from my Pixel 4XL which is LDAC. What I’m saying no matter the system I’m working on I can easily press the source button and instantly be listening to any source. This is amazing and effortless. Not something I can say for any other setups that I’ve had.
I normally run the Optical and USB from the Mac and Windows desktop to the JNOG and it works. I have to press the source some amount of times until I get the right combo of inputs to the output I want. It’s not the slickest of operations. If you’re keen then you’d notice I didn’t say what I do about Bluetooth from my phone or Ipad… We’ll I simply don’t play music into my desktop headphone amp from Bluetooth, I can’t… so again a big win for flexibility when you have something like the ifi NEO iDSD in your setup. I use the DROP Panda as my Bluetooth phone and Ipad solution so don’t feel too bad for me..lol if you haven’t seen our review on the Panda go check it out… Linked here!
So my final thoughts about the ifi NEO iDSD. It is the real deal and the complete package. Is it worth the $799 price tag, honestly yes, yes it is!
I tried to demonstrate it above, but buying all the components to get the same quality level of sound will cost you around the same price at best and would likely consist of at least 3 separate components vs the very slim package of the NEO iDSD. So who is it for? If you have a variety of headphones including IEM, and you need or want to stream to your listening area via Bluetooth. If you want to connect multiple systems at the same time as I did, then the NEO iDSD is for you. Or you want it all in one clean package I’ll say it’s the only option for you.