The iFi NEO iDSD arrived as somewhat of a surprise – but most certainly a welcome one. It’s basically a downsized version of the iFi Pro iDSD: a simple, powerful desktop DAC and amp, that also includes MQA decoding and wireless streaming capabilities. Priced at $699, it almost sounds too good to be true. Let’s take a closer look and see if the truth is every bit as good as we could hope.
The Build and Design
The NEO iDSD has a sleek, simple design, featuring well molded aluminum chassis with the only controls being a single large smooth volume knob, the input select button, and the power button. There’s a small OLED display which shows the volume, bitrate, and the current channel being used. It has outputs for 4.4mm balanced and 6.3mm unbalanced (it also includes an adapter for 3.5mm.) On the back, there’s USB, optical, and digital coax inputs, along with RCA and XLR outputs. It also includes a remote control for added convenience.
Simplicity isn’t just one of the main visual design principles, it’s also a big part of the NEO iDSD functional design. There are no digital filter selections, none of the iFi standard Xbass+ or 3D+ options, and no DSP. In this way, the Neo iDSD stands as almost the complete opposite of the also newly released iDSD Signature. While the iDSD Signature has switches galore, allowing you to adjust DAC filters, power output, and more, the only control option on the Neo is the volume knob. You just connect to your source, plug in your headphones, and turn it up as loud as you want it.
The Bluetooth setup is also a clear highlight. I was able to connect my phone within seconds and stream 44kHz (CD Quality) audio with no trouble, and 48kHz from my laptop. While the specs state that it supports up to 96kHz I’m not sure if that’s relying on a specific codec or outside option to achieve, but achieving true Hi-Res streaming with instant setup is definitely a win. I would note that the Bluetooth output was noticeably quieter than the USB (about 10 ticks on the volume knob), but there was no discernible difference in quality.
The NEO iDSD has a slightly warm tone and smooth treble response. The soundstage is very solid, and I found it enhanced the feeling of space in virtually everything I plugged into it. It provides excellent detail and scales up nicely with high resolution audio. While it supports files with resolution up to 768kHz 32-bit PCM, the highest I had available was 192kHz 24-bit, but the NEO iDSD was still able to provide a noticeable improvement in detail and resolution over CD quality versions of the same track.
I tested the NEO iDSD with a variety of headphones, ranging from more budget conscious sets like the Meze 99 Classics and iBasso SR2 to the Endgame level Meze Empyrean and HIFIMAN HE1000 V2. I also tested a number of IEMs, including the 64 Audio Nio, Noble Tux 5, and Campfire Audio Vega. I was initially concerned that headphones and IEMs with a warmer or darker signature might seem overly warm with the NEO, but I didn’t experience any muddiness or smearing in the low end with anything that I tested. The 99 Classics didn’t feel that the low end became congested, and were notable in particular for the excellent feeling of headroom and space that the NEO provided.
I was also particularly impressed by the pairing of the iBasso SR2 and NEO. The iBasso SR2 is a solid neutral headphone, but it’s not particularly exciting. Using it with NEO clearly enhanced the SR2’s soundstage, and provided a touch of color which made the SR2 feel more musical and engaging. The Meze Empyrean also felt like a surprisingly good pairing. While you could certainly use a bit more juice to really get the most out of the Empyrean, the overall character and impact with NEO was quite good.
While my initial impressions were very positive, some of the more power-hungry planars presented my first problem, and the IEMs presented another. For a desktop unit, the 6.2V output from the balanced channel isn’t particularly high, and even with the balanced output, it just didn’t have enough juice to provide satisfactory power to some planar magnetic headphones like the HIFIMAN HE1000 V2. On the IEM front, there was a significant amount of background noise – even with less sensitive IEMs – eventually I connected the iFi IEMatch which solved that problem.
After I plugged in the IEMatch, the NEO proved to provide an incredible pairing with a broad selection of IEMs. The Campfire Audio Vega’s soundstage and somewhat recessed mids felt significantly improved with the NEO. The 64 Audio Nio had a warm, musical feel, and the low end and mids were particularly tight and coherent.
If I had to pick two characteristics to highlight on the NEO, it would be the soundstage and musicality. The technical capabilities of the DAC, including the detail retrieval and resolution are excellent for its price range, but this is not a “reference” DAC/amp. It’s very much a warm, musical unit with an addictive sound. The other key point is the full MQA support. For TIDAL users, the NEO iDSD's MQA decoding adds exceptional value.
Comparison: iFi ZEN Stack
For a few bucks less than the NEO iDSD, you could pick up the complete ZEN stack: ZEN DAC, ZEN CAN, and ZEN Blue. While the NEO iDSD is clearly the better overall performer, the ZEN series scores a couple points too.
In terms of the DAC, the NEO iDSD is the clear winner. While both share a warmer character, the NEO iDSD provides support for a broader range of files and formats as well as a better sense of detail and resolution. The amp section is the one place where the ZEN stack provides some real competition for the NEO. The ZEN CAN can produce 2.5x the power output to drive over-ear headphones, and has a much lower noise floor with sensitive IEMs. While the ZEN CAN has the power advantage it also has more coloration in the sound and adds a bit more warmth to the signal than the NEO. The NEO is also the clear winner in the Bluetooth streamer category. While the ZEN Blue is an excellent streamer for the price, the NEO provides a higher level of resolution and a clear improvement in sound quality over the ZEN Blue.
The Bottom Line
While not without flaw, the iFi NEO iDSD certainly impresses. Underneath a simple, elegant exterior, it’s an extremely capable unit, especially when you consider its Bluetooth connectivity options. Put it all together and its design, connectivity, and high quality construction, coupled with its musical presentation and excellent soundstage make it an excellent choice for a desktop DAC/amp under $1000.