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The long promised iFi iDSD Signature & NEO iDSD review (Part one)


I have re-read my 2021 review about these two iFi devices, which I wrote between December 20 and Mars 21,  and found that the work is likely worth to be published, even it is seemingly kind of old news, as the Neo iDSD has already received a revamp.

I will make a series of entries out of the material, starting today with Part 1
1. Review intro and overview
2. The Micro iDSD Signature - Great Expectations
4. The red elephant & the art of product life cycle enhancement

Great expectations, high hopes & the elephant in the room
iFi Audio Micro iDSD
Signature & NEO iDSD review


In 2020 most informed readers may have noted that top shelf DAC performance can be had starting 500 quids and climbing up the ladder gives you usually a plethora of choice on desired features, like build quality, architecture & implementation of DAC chip(s) in use, display, Pre-Amp functionality or headphone amp (HPA) integration, while balanced output design nowadays starts south of the 200$ coastline.

If a company like IFI Audio, which had brought us in 2020 already affordable & powerful devices like the ZEN series with balanced design and a HPA output of 1150mW per channel @32 Ohm below this magic price point, announces their first upgrade to the celebrated portable series Micro iDSD since 2017with the Micro iDSD Signature, these exciting news are welcomed with great expectations. The new designed DAC/PREAMP/HPAMP device iDSD NEO with balanced analog design & output - announced just 4 weeks later - likewise is greeted with high hopes.

Since December 2020 I have had both DAC / headphone amps on loan from IFI Audio/UK. The NEO iDSD is a desktop amp, best used close to your audio source in your main system or in your workstation environment. The Micro iDSD Signature, a more mobile device tagged portable by IFI, is a battery driven DAC and HPA powerhouse that allows you to drive even demanding headphones with ease. Both devices play in the 500-1000$ segment of combined DAC/HPA devices, with prices of 699$ for the Neo and 649$ for the Signature respectively at the time of writing. This  review aims to have a close look at both devices, the deployed technology and attempts to classify them within the portfolio of IFI devices under 1000$.

The review is not looking to compare overly the devices against each other thus to underline the distinct characteristics of each. In order to get familiar with some IFI specifics we make some excursions into history, portfolio, new & advanced technologies and the importance of firmware.

Manufacturer’s description

The Signature is a mobile DAC and headphone amplifier and the direct successor of the accomplished micro iDSD Black Label which was reviewed at CA/AS in 2017 here & here. ifi Audio says about the device:
“The micro iDSD
Signature is a micro iDSD BL, but internally streamlined and optimized, and externally equipped with several QOL (quality of life) improvements to be more user-friendly ... (it) features a Pentaconn 4.4mm headphone out, larger LEDs and a sleeker volume knob. Its internal circuitry is optimized and is more direct. (It) ... is better than micro iDSD Black Label in terms of functionality and ease of use.”

The NEO iDSD is a home audio device for desktop or full system use featuring technology from different iFi devices, a new type of enclosure and a balanced design for headphones and analog output.
iFi offers
this description:
“The NEO iDSD is our new desktop DAC/amp with bleeding-edge tech. Put simply, it is the first 3-in-one system at this price range to combine the following:
1. Hi-Res USB and S/PDIF DAC – PCM768/DSD512. Full MQA decoding.
2. Hi-Res Bluetooth DAC – 96kHz Hi-Res Bluetooth: LDAC, HWA/LHDC, aptx Adaptive/HD/LL, AAC
True Balanced circuit and headphone amp.”

The attached table includes the available information of both devices taken from the manual and ifi Audio’s website. I put them into relation with the Micro iDSD BL which offers DAC, battery driven headphone power plus preamp functionality. The differences in features are indicated in red. Both devices share the Pentaconn 4.4 mm balanced output technology, although two different balanced designs are in play for each of the devices: "S-balanced" for the Signature and "pure wave" for the NEO. I found it useful to dig a bit deeper into specifics provided with Exhibit 2.


Exhibit 1: Who is iFi-Audio

“iFi audio believes that innovative high-end audio should be available to everyone, everywhere, so iFi uses the latest technology, materials and consumer feedback to provide an audiophile quality listening experience at an affordable price.” (LinkedIn)

iFi Audio was launched in 2012 as the sister branch of AMR (Abbingdon Music Research), a British high end HiFi manufacturer, most famous for  their innovative  AM-777 designs, circa 2008. After a grace period during which iFi Audio blossomed into one of the most lauded and applauded manufacturers for portable & affordable HiFi equipment and accessories. The dormant  AMR brand was revived in 2019.  Trusting the Wikipedia information, AMR  and iFi are subsidiaries of Abbingdon Global Limited, which is directed and owned by iFi's Sales director Vincent Luk(e). Depending on which iFi product you own, you may have spotted the information for this product: “Technology licensed from AMR-Audio, UK  Assembled in China”.

Vincent Luke has explained roughly the design/manufacturing process - in 2018 to 6 Moons and in March 2020 to stereonet.au - as an internationally divided organisation between their home surf at Southport, UK, their manufacturing/assembly site in China, including their design team in France/China and component supply worldwide. While there may have been supply disruption by Covidian inertia, iFi Audio has bounced back strongly with major product overhauls and new product announcements nearly every two month since last summer holidays ended. The end of 2020 saw Abbingdon Global  establishing a subsidiary at the European mainland in France, where according to the articles mentioned above the new industrial design has its origins with the Studio Cocktail design company, which is officially located in the buzzing Dongguan region in China.

ifi's product design has won them several awards in the last decade, from the multiple EISA’s to the famous “adesign” award in Italy. And we haven't started talking about the 5* reviews and accolades in the Audio trade press.

In a nutshell, the iFi products - as we know them - are outstanding in design and technology, value for the money that often comes with the enthusiast's pleasure of selecting personal adjustments for the greatest audiophile enjoyment.

The mobile audio branch has provided a steady stream of devices, enhancers, applications and even strictly @home devices like the Pro series or the wonderfully designed AURORA all-in-one music system to their customers. Having had DAC technology and headphone amplification as focal points for most of their gear in the beginnings, iFi Audio have introduced as well new product lines that may help their valued clients to overcome perceived quality issues with existing audio gear, power supplies and cabling.

While most of us would think a company under influence from engineers like Thorsten Loesch and John Curl would be dominated by engineering, we have noticed over time that their marketing drive is quite remarkable, too. iFi audio has - for example - proved to be a vivid member of important audio forums throughout the last years, organizing product tours and crowd design calls .

Being a company that is in full support of MQA technology’s “full ‘three unfold’ decoding process”, iFi/AMR - in 2019 - consequently have left our forums where they were highly entertaining for a couple of years (in my personal opinion). During the last two years of their sponsored forum presence here, they have faced many challenges from AS members that have left for more "objective" forums. iFi Audio's audio forum activity naturally went in the opposite direction.

Since the last Munich High End in May 2019 Ifi has launched the Aurora wireless music system, some ZEN devices & the HIP DAC and overlooked the re-launch of the flagship iDSD pro 2020 4.4mm version.
Then,  they went into overdrive. Since the last quarter of 2020 the product pipeline didn't stop:

We saw the launch of the iDSD Signature in October, a minor upgrade version of the beloved iDSD Black label and the new kid in town, the NEO iDSD, just 14 days later. 2021 has started with the iDSD DIABLO on Jan.15th plus a Signature edition of the ZEN series has been announced in February.


It is a challenge to stay up-to-date with this pace because some devices are pure DACs or pure HPAs, although most of them are both. In case you find it sometimes difficult to digest the difference between these products I have prepared this overview for iFi DAC & HPA under 1000$, dated 31st January 2021.

The Aurora and PRO devices are beyond the 3 digits $$$ edge, Zen & Hip below 200 and Micro iDSD are usually located above 600$.For the market space in-between the Nano iDSD and  xCan/xDSD are IFI’s choice. It’s not an untamed jungle to cross although we face a serious variety of gear with different skill sets in accordance to the respective price bracket.

You might be not completely on the wrong side of engineering if you think that the iFi toolbox & portfolio strategy looks like a smaller version of the Volkswagen Group modular matrix system for cross-engineering platforms & products. I.e. the iDSD pro uses a 4 x Burr Brown DAC interleaved installation, while the iDSD Micro has a double-mono set up of the DSD1793 and the NEO iDSD performs through a single BB chip, as does the XDSD.

A look at mainstream* retail - main street sounds a bit flawed in these pandemic times - sites in France and the US revealed iFi Audio's marketing has made an excellent job to place these two devices in the bracket between 500 and 1000 $/€, because the fierce competition is either above or below, and nearly no other competitor can offer the range of skills & features like IFI does. Obviously some Chi-Fi devices are waiting in the shadows and I would see at the upper end the Matrix mini and the Mytek Liberty may be competing with a 30% markup to the Neo iDSD, while around the 700$/€ price point you may find brand-conscious devices from Shure or McIntosh that can’t stress the micro iDSD Signature on technical terms.
*mainstream audio shops: Audiophonics, SonAudio, Bestbuy, Crutchfield, Audioadvisor, one thing in common, they have at least one of the devices under review on offer

Executing a reality check where IFI Audio as a company stands in the audiophile DAC/HPA department, I had a look into the recent Headfonia poll featuring that precise market segment, which creates a pretty good impression about iFi’s strategy and success:
From 69 DAC/HPA devices enlisted, 7 were from Chord (incl. DAVE, TT, TT1, Hugo1 / MScaler and Hugo2 / MScaler which imho are in a different universe, pricewise), equally 3 devices were presented by FIIO and SCHIIT respectively, while 6 devices in that list are manufactured by iFi Audio, although we miss out on the NEO iDSD here. Including the NEO and discounting the iDSD PRO from that list makes IFI Audio probably the “market leader” in the segment for devices between 100$ and 1000$,. With half of the units below 500$ - in my opinion - a real competition with CHORD is visibly not on the cards.

In the aftermath of 2020 year’s end BREXIT, IFI Audio as a British manufacturer faces some new hills to climb regarding supply, shipping and service on European Mainland and elsewhere applying to new rules and procedures. It is fair to assume that the incommodities will sum up at a certain point into rising prices, which in turn means in order to support your favorite manufacturer: 

BUY NOW, prices may not drop further ... ( ... sorry that was March 21 )

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

I did not check if all the links are still valid, sorry if one or the other doesn't work anymore. Especially the iFi website has overhauls regularly, that's why I will follow up with some of their documents I have either on PDF or as saved graphics.

Last year, shortly after I finished my work on this review, when the slow dying of my Mum began and changed my perception of important things for the time I accompanied her and her estate. I did not follow up an Audio things back then, and when I came back from Germany in July ‘21 I had to fight many other demons rather than to concentrate on writing or publishing any review.
With my mind slowly opening up again for my audio hobby I am starting to participate with refreshed energy in the forums and diving in my freelance hobby, which is represented in this blog and by being a contributor to the AS front page (Thanks, Chris!).



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