These day's there are a plethora of excellent options to help get more out of a basic Computer Audio System and for a lot of music lovers these systems are excellent! But, if your like us, then your likely curious about that next level.
For this review we wanted to take a look at the iFi Audio iDSD Neo as an excellent gateway into the next level of Computer Audio playback!
While sound quality is often first and foremost what we're looking for from an upgrade or step into that "next level," features and added convince are also hallmarks of truly lasting upgrades! iDSD Neo in particular offers additional digital inputs and full size line out connections over the Zen Dac. In my own system I found these allowed me to integrate iDSD Neo with more than just my Computer, I was able to integrate it into my home theatre system using the optical input and a secondary work station via a coaxial SPDIF input. Additionally I found the full size dual 3-pin XLR jacks more accommodating to longer cable runs over the 4.4mm Pentaconn to dual 3pin XLR adapter I used with Zen DAC.
While it retains the iconic natural iFi house sound I did find iDSD Neo both more powerful and resolving than Zen Dac. This improvement in power output was particularly noticeable with the Audeze LCD-2 and the increased resolution was quite discernible with HIFIMAN HE-R10D dynamic closed-back headphone.
Additionally for this review we're going to take a look at iDSD Neo as both an All in One using it's built in 4.4mm balanced output section and as a standalone DAC when paired with our GS-X Mini balanced headphone amp hooked up using the full size dual 3pin XLR output section.
Playback for iDSD Neo utilized SPDIF Input via ASIO Output from FooBar2000. All files were locally hosted an sourced as either 16/44.1 Redbook CD Rips or 24/96 WEB Downloads. Zen DAC was fed USB Input via a Samsung Tab S4 running USB Audio Player Pro set to bit-perfect playing the same locally hosted files. Levels between all three output stages where matched for each comparison. Track-list is as follows:
Both Zen Dac and iDSD Neo have excellent timbre and tonality from their 4.4mm balanced outputs but what I appreciated about iDSD Neo over Zen Dac was the improvements to both the size and cohesion of the sound stage. iDSD Neo brings just a touch of openness with better micro-dynamic contrast to create a more believable presentation of music within recorded space. Additionally while I am enamoured with the slightly intimate charm of Zen Dac, iDSD Neo brought a much appreciate level of slam and punch that would likely over power Zen Dac's slightly more intimate presentation.
In particular with iDSD Neo it was easier to discern the unique tone and texture of each member of the Pistol Annies and still hear the depth of the space they recorded in. What we love about the vocal trio of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley featured in Lemon Drop is there position to one another on the recording and their use of harmony. This sense of space in relation to one another was more vivid with iDSD Neo without losing the magic of their harmony!
For those who want even more resolution, texture and realism GS-X Mini proves itself as an immediate linear upgrade. It retains and compliments the timbre and tone density of iDSD Neo while offering an elevated performance in comparison to an already amazing amp stage. The most immediate improvements we noticed were in the bass texture and extension, dynamic contrast and sound stage depth.
Ballad of the Runaway Horse as performed by Jennifer Warnes features an outstanding double bass performance, an we found ourselvs mesmerized by the balance of warmth, body and texture GS-X mini has with HE R10D. This natural timbre and texture alongside the distinctly open staging of HE R10D blend together to present a beautiful sense of realism and immersion. While iDSD Neo's built in amp stage sounds grounded and real it wasn't quite as addictive as the combo of GS-X Mini and iDSD Neo!
We also noticed a smoother more refined top-end presentation that really pulled us deeper into the music. The gentle trill of crickets, distant percussive sound and aimbent string work become easier to discern within the soundscape. GS-X Mini presented slightly less top end fatigue and better clarity which made it even easier to discern all of the intricate nuance present.
In terms of power iDSD Neo is no slouch offering a full watt into a 32ohm load and while this is sufficent for most modern efficent headphones there are a few instances where it's good but not quite the best option. GS-X Mini in comparison offers upwards of 6W into 32ohms, so six times as powerful, making it functionally and excellent compliment to iDSD Neo. The Audeze LCD 2 in particular has a good full bodied tone and clean texture with the 4.4mm balanced out of Neo, however there is a slightly softened sense of slam or immediacy in the lows. Moving up to GS-X Mini resolve this allowing us to retain the gorgeous tone of the headphone but also gain weight and power in the lows.
Heavier genres like Metal of rock will appreciate this added impact and weight, GS-X Mini whith Neo as it's source presents both the explosive quality of big drums and the nuance and sustained weight of their decay. Thus we find GS-X Mini to build on everything that we enjoy about iDSD Neo while serving as a better amplification option for less efficent harder to drive options.
The iFi Audio iDSD Neo makes an excellent option for any one looking to expand their Computer Audio system into the next level. It's lush detailed presentation and combination of input and output options alongs make it easy to integrate within existing systems as an all-in-one while also providing a solid foundation for future upgrades.
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