The new release of the iFi-audio.com mobile DAC product Nano iDSD BL (Black Label) is so impressive I can’t do it justice here without writing a treatise.
Suffice to say this small gem of a product provides anyone (at a great price for everyone) with a solution to any and all types of high quality digital recordings, whether they be downloaded, ripped or streaming from popular sites like TIDAL, Spotify or Apple Music.
I’ve had and used the original Nano iDSD product from iFi for several years now. It’s been upgraded several times and the latest incarnation known as Black Label now supports MQA!
It’s retailing in the US on Amazon right now for $199 as well as other outlets.
What does this DAC do for you?
Plays 1-bit DSD (up to DSD256) without PCM conversion (ie, native DSD!)
Plays MQA up to 24/384k encoded masters
Provides up to 10hrs of battery to operate on the go
Connects to your iPhone or Android to play music including STREAMING without using the phone battery to operate
Will stream MQA from places offering it like TIDAL today and many more tomorrow
Includes the iFi heralded iPurifier as a built-in protection against interference and noise on the USB connection
Supports true balanced headphones with a separate output and lots of power
Provides headphone amplification giving you plenty of volume headroom on smartphone use
Uses an analog volume control (dial) for the highest level of sound quality and convenience
Provides easy LED color indicators identifying the exact type of music (PCM, DSD, MQA) being played and its bit rate.
There are no doubt many more reasons this could be a very good affordable solution both at home via computer, with laptop, or with a smartphone to gain a future proof approach to high quality recording playback.
Take a look at their website and documents to read more about the Nano iDSD BL!
Well I’d say in these modern days of tech not enough things work well together, at least not as expected given the decades of preparation those science/art folks have had to interoperate and optimize efficiencies for best results at lowest cost.
Do I expect too much? Maybe I don’t know. But I know I have been using two perfect examples of that kind of interrelated power with these two devices.
From Pioneer last year came the XDP-100R a High Resolution Audio (HRA) player with its own storage for audio files. The “gotcha have to try that” incentive for me was that this was one of the very first (and still one of the only) portable audio players that supported native DSD (1-bit to analog via DoP, or conversion to PCM up to 192 on the player itself and PCM to 384 via USB) as well as full res MQA decoding (up to 24/384kHz).
The OPPO HA-2 (now supplanted by the HA-2SE) is a “simple” headphone amplifier (analog circuitry) as well as a supreme native DSD DAC as well as PCM — both convert to analog and presented to either a headphone jack (with amplification) or a line out jack (for home stereo/studio use). In addition it is a lithium battery pack capable of charging other devices (like a Pioneer XDP-100R or iPhone/Android smartphone).
I’m working with DSD as a recording media for my music over 15 years now and MQA as a mastering with authentication PCM encoding for over 1 year. To me these don’t compete! I am not surrounded by people of that same persuasion but then again, I’m not sure that matters to me either.
There’s a lot more to this story of the Mighty Duo…
Given that these 2 devices work independently of each other and the XDP-100R is a standalone player with a headphone/line out jack and 161 position volume control, it is not that obvious why I might want to pair them together.
Granted the HA-2 needs a player attached as its role is to do digital to analog conversion (DAC) and amplify the resulting signal as needed.
However in addition to the fact that the XDP-100R decodes MQA as studio authenticated masters up to the maximum resolution of masters out there today (24/384kHz), it can also upsample the resulting PCM to DSD and pass it on to the HA-2 via DoP!
The result for me (MQA decoded then upsampled to DSD at 5.6mHz Real Precision and sent to HA-2 for 1-bit conversion to analog) is absolutely some of the best sound quality I have ever heard.
I typically listen to these devices using OPPO PM-1 (open planar magnetic) though also PM-3 (closed planar magnetic) as well as earbuds (typically travel with Zipbuds Pro at about $25 on Amazon – amazing!).
If I play DSD tracks on the XDP-100R they get sent as-is to the HA-2 for 1-bit conversion and off to the headphones/stereo. Again both components doing exactly what they were made to do and doing it expertly well. This is really what I consider the best sound possible: A native DSD master played from the linked XDP + HA-2, as DSD via DoP, with no conversion except to analog out the headphone jack on the HA-2.
Well made recordings as native DSD masters (not upsampled to DSD but recorded/mastered as DSD or transferred from analog tape masters) will translate perfectly well as needed to any other media format.
To me PCM with MQA encoding is a perfect media format for today’s media environment as it delivers hi-res up to 24/384k (19mbps) in right around 1.5 mbps streams or audio files in a lossless FLAC or ALAC format at 24/48k or 24/44.1k folded MQA. That’s smaller than 1/10th the size of the hi-res file or stream it becomes when it plays! The MQA DAC unfolds the hi-res on playback after the file or stream is downloaded or received.
Dare I say that when MQA decoding can be done from a Smartphone app, the cell network bandwidth required to stream MQA masters at 24/96 to your phone will not be a problem…even if you are not on an unlimited plan. If you are on an unlimited plan most of those get restricted around 22GB anyway.
So the differences between 1.5 mbps and say 5mbps for hi-res audio streaming have big effects on what someone might do with great quality music playing anywhere they go. Remember MQA in a FLAC format is not just smaller (about 1/5th the size of a 24/96 WAV/AIF file or DSD64 file for that matter) it is time corrected as well, so it sounds much better than the original PCM master did.
The same master images can also be delivered on standard CD discs which again on playback or when ripped can be MQA decoded to full high resolution. These are then 16-bit depth with the same excellent sound quality to my ears as others. They can play on any CD player and to be honest sound very very good with no MQA decoding or unfolding at all. Pretty nifty. These stream at well under 1mbps!
Back to the Mighty Duo…
What is unusual about this combo of devices is that the XDP-100R as a audio player, is able to play and decode the MQA audio file and then upsample and convert it to DSD and pass it on (DoP) to a DSD DAC to be played as an analog signal.
This dual function is not possible with the typical MQA/DSD DAC such as the very capable Mytek Brooklyn. It (the typical MQA/DSD DAC) is not an audio player, it only can decode MQA and convert to analog or it can convert DSD to analog to play. It can’t do both functions (decode MQA and then convert to DSD) in series as the XDP-100R does before handing it to a DAC to play as an audio signal.
Nor can any other strict DAC that I’m aware of (though I’m sure they could if minds were put to it).
So what I’ve found is 2 devices of very similar dimensions and weight that can inter-operate such that the resulting sound is as good or better than most pro setups out there.
By maxing out the storage support for media on the XDP-100R by buying and inserting 2 SD Micro chips at 200GB each, I arrived at a full 432GB storage that I can carry around on a device as big as a slightly fat smartphone. If I wanted to add 200GB, 400GB, … etc. I could just buy other SD Micros to swap as needed. Unlimited storage in other words with no USB drives to carry around, and certainly not a laptop.
The total package (XDP-100R and HA-2) with extra RAM, water resistant case for both devices ($10) and all cables and still easily fits with notepad in my day pack all cost me well under $1000 US, closer to $800 really. That also includes about $150 of the extra memory (400GB) which is of course optional. The XDP comes with 32GB and you could add any additional amount of storage via SD Micro chips as you wished.
Hard to believe but I found the XDP-100R for a very low price special. It was last year’s model, as the newer XDP-300R has 2 Sabre chips (left and right channel) as well as a separate balanced headphone jack. Not sure what retail prices and specials are today but suggested retail is probably somewhere in the $500-600 range which means you can find it for less.
I think the OPPO HA-2SE followup to my HA-2 is still retailing at $199. I didn’t check.
I shouldn’t go into some of the other enormous capabilities of the XDP-100R but suffice to say it is a full blown Android palm computer. It hosts and runs any Google Play app. I regularly use email (BlueMail), Dropbox, Skype, some internet browsing and a few other apps. The only thing it isn’t is a cell phone and a camera. It stores and plays (on a very nice display) pretty much any video format as well.
There is a TIDAL app for streaming MQA if you buy the account. The number of MQA (Warner and perhaps UMG now) masters released on TIDAL for streaming at this point is in the thousands including Zeppelin, Doors, Petty, Talking Heads, Costello, Black Sabbath, CSNY, Neil Young and many many other pop/rock legends.
Playing DSD and having it sound par excellence is easily achieved here.
Playing Studio Authenticated MQA on audio files or streaming is easily achieved here.
What I’ve found and written about elsewhere is that there are some huge gains to my ears in sound quality improvements when MQA Masters at the CD Red Book resolution (16/44.1) are upsampled to 2.8 or 5.6mHz DSD and played via a DSD DAC like the OPPO HA-2. Other DACs supporting DoP (DSD over PCM) should work with the XDP’s in the same way.
The reason I think the MQA gains in reducing edgy, compressed CD-like sounding masters are greatest at this low resolution are due to the steepness of the brickwall filters used to cutoff frequencies above 20kHz. The backlash of this industry common way of filtering PCM is that it introduces large pre- and post-ringing echos on the digital signal.
This ringing also referred to as time smearing or blurring effect lessens with the increased resolution of the master recording (88.2k or 96k, 176.4k or 192k, 352.8 or 384k). DSD also measures very low in this ringing effect right out of the box.
MQA practically removes these echoes in its careful PCM technology and so the image you hear as a result is much more natural sounding and easier to listen to for longer periods of time. Instruments and voices are much more naturally located in space (left to right, up and down) as well as less confusion in our brain as to what is going on with these echos we’re hearing before the note or pulse actually gets to us. The ear is much more sensitive to location than it is to pitch! Thank you Darwin.
What’s commonly referred to as ear fatigue then gets reduced greatly and you can continue to hear the music without having to give your ears breaks.
Upsampling to DSD is now also a common feature on audio players both software and hardware. Doing this with a decoded MQA digital signal is something I’ve found to be nothing short of magical in terms of what you end up hearing from the DSD DAC as an analog signal (ie, music).
So Mobile and Home HRA has made some mighty gains in what it can do for all listeners at prices that really most if not all listeners can afford if they are looking for audio gear to feed their music habits.
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When I first began attempts at digitally recording my acoustic music as a CD it was a homemade project inspired by two mentor friends Roger Powell and Gus Skinas. They helped set me up with gear in a spare bedroom. It included an 8-track Tascam DA-88, and a couple very good mics for vocal and guitar and a Sony TCD-10 DAT to mix to. I had a budget Mackie mixer.
At the time I was trying to capture the coffeehouse sound of my style and performances in as honest and accurate a fashion as possible. No effects, just the room.
I remember asking Roger who had recorded as Utopia with Todd Rundgren as well as other big industry names like Meat Loaf and Bowie how to make sure what I was recording at 16/48 and mixing to 16/44.1 was good enough for what would become my first CD release in 1995.
His answer was simple: If it sounds good it is good.
This from a technocrat musician on the cutting edge of gear and synth applied to rock since the early 70′s.
I took his advice to heart and haven’t changed that approach as my experience moved from PCM to DSD in 2000 still working towards the best natural acoustic representation (recording and playback).
I have no idea how measurements would apply to prove or disprove the quality of some of my recordings but I’ve been moved and inspired only by the effects on my own and other people’s ears for 20 years since taking Roger’s advice.
Changes in HRA approaches to playing music have been so enormous in the past 18 months linked historically to Gus Skinas’ work with Acoustic Sounds and Sony’s HRA announcement in 9/2013.
Now a short time later there are over 300 products that are mostly mobile portable and often battery operated and very high if not studio quality playback devices. Amazing.
Today the on ramp to High Resolution Audio (HRA) is easy to find. It is for all ages. It is for all lifestyles. It is not that expensive and will play the very best of the best remastered analog tapes from the Sony and other label vaults or any new recordings including native DSD.
In my day pack I carry a notebook with JRiver v20, OPPOPM-3 headphones and HA-2 HP amp/DAC/recharger as well as iPhone with Onkyo HF player app. I can play DSD native through closed planar magnetic headphones in a noisy plane or airport. I can plug the same system into any sound setup in any room anywhere. The audio files playing on my iPhone are the exact same studio DSD masters released for audiophiles.
I have a library of 45000 songs on the notebook (1TB, quad core, 5lbs) that can do the same with 24-bit PCM up to 384k or DSD64 and DSD128 audio files. This can also plug into a car stereo.
Total cost of all the above (not including smartphone but including laptop) is right around $1k.
So being disconnected from a studio is no longer an obstacle to working with studio quality SQ.