iFi NEO iDSD Review


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The NEO iDSD was a really interesting product release from iFi when they first showed it off. A modern and good looking all in one DAC/amp combo with 4.4mm pentaconn and single ended and balanced pre outs really caught my attention. I was the first in my tour group to receive a unit. After some slight design hiccups causing some electronic noise, iFi recalled my tour unit and came out with a new revised version of the NEO. While I didn’t hear anything about the NEO getting a revision, there was quite a difference in a few areas vs my initial review I had written out.


Thanks to iFi for hooking me up with a tour unit. While I always appreciate stuff being sent in to test and review, It never affects the rating of my review.

Looks and Feel​

The casing is a really nice matte/bead blasted finish on the metal. The design is nice and small while still making good use of space by still including a full set of inputs, single ended and balanced outputs. The front has a nice little OLED white text display that rotates depending on orientation. The volume knob is fairly big and has a nice feel when adjusting volume. The power and input buttons feel fine but they have a bit of play and rattles when you pick up the unit or give it a romantic shake.

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Accessories and unboxing​

A nice chunk of stuff comes with the NEO. We get a nice little remote, stand to make the NEO sit vertical, RCA cables, rubber feet for the NEO, a power adapter and finally the shortest and most useless 3.0 data cable that could have been included for a desktop unit. The Signature comes with a longer usb cable and its a portable/transport device. Why they included such a short usb cable is beyond me.

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UI​

The UI isn’t very complex as there isn’t really a menu system and everything is either done while turning the unit on or by pressing the volume knob which also functions as a button as well.


Sound(overall)​

These final impressions were done off the NEO iDSD with no external amp usage. This will be what the NEO iDSD sounded like with all the headphones I used. Things like headphone pairings or using different external amps will produce different results and impressions vs what my ears hear on my specific gear.


Lows are fairly neutral sounding but there is a light warmth that keeps the NEO from sounding dry or lean. When paired with headphones that do low end well, the NEO is able to keep the speed up and deliver a somewhat lush sound(when running easy to drive headphones). Mids are still somewhat boosted near the upper area and this can sound fine with headphones that don’t already have boosted mids. It came off too sibilant on some IEMs I used such as the LUNA and ZEN. Highs are fairly neutral sounding and don’t have any extra zing up top. I like an amp that gives a little sparkle in the treble region but the goal of the NEO is to sound reference and different from the normal iFi line of products.


Imaging/Soundstage​

While the soundstage is decently wide, I find the depth to be somewhat lacking. This gives the “music in your face” effect that I don’t really like personally. Imagining I believe is more headphone dependent but I had no issues with all the headphones I tested.


Inputs and outputs​

There’s a nice set of inputs one the back. We have options for USB-B 3.0, coaxial, Bluetooth and finally optical. For the pre outs, we get RCA and XLR outs.


Personal grips with the NEO iDSD​

The only real issues I have with the NEO were mostly on my original tour unit. There was a glaring issue with an electronic whining noise that was extremely noticeable and the 4.4mm port was super noisy. Both those issues were fixed with this new unit I received. Now the only issue I have with the NEO is the power output for full size cans. I’ll get into the power output shortly but the NEO had big problems running more “needy” headphones. Outside of the power issues and the USB cable not being long enough, I think the unit is very good overall.


Single ended/balanced power outputs and gain​

I’ll straight up say it…. The NEO iDSD is a potato when it comes to power output via single ended by modern 2020/2021 standards. Even compared to the iDSD Signature which is almost the same price, it’s weird that the NEO lacks power or even gain settings. Enough of my complaining though, let’s get into some numbers and compare. We get 295mW at 32ohm via single ended and 1040mW at 32ohm via balanced. This wouldn’t be so bad if there were gain settings. While I had no issues powering IEMs and easy to drive full size cans. Things like the HEDD HEDDphone would barely get to a decent volume at -8. When quieter songs played, the NEO wasn’t able to get the HEDDphone up to a regular volume I personally liked. This is all out of single ended. Once I ran things balanced I felt the volume levels were fine for pretty much everything. I think iFi missed an opportunity here by not having any type of gain switch.


IEM pairing opinions​

IKKO OH10/Sennheiser IE 300​

Both are somewhat bass elevated IEMs and I tend to use that as my daily drivers. I prefer both on a somewhat neutral sounding amp so I was fairly happy with how they sounded out of the NEO. The OH10 sounded warm but somewhat balanced still and the wide soundstage worked well with this pairing. The IE 300 sounded like a bass cannon and the mids bump the NEO provided helped even the lack of mids the IE 300 has. Both were good pairing on NEO IMO.


DUNU EST 112​

The EST 112 is one of my new favorite IEMs for regular use around the house. I found the NEO provided just a bit more bass that 112 somewhat needs. Treble was somewhat boring from the NEO and the treble can use the extra help in general. I ran this balanced via 4.4mm pentaconn jack and had zero hiss on this new unit. Overall I no issue with any of the different IEMs I tried on the NEO.


Over ear pairings​

HEDD HEDDphone​

I complained above about the lack of power for the HEDDphone. Going balanced solved the issue though I felt the HEDDphone doesn't sound as fast or interesting as it does off some of my other gear at home. Everything sounded somewhat lean and lacking even balanced and I was bummed to say that the pairing wasn’t my favorite at all. For super hard to drive headphones, grab something with a bit more power.

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Audeze LCD-GX​

The GX is the complete opposite and doesn’t need much power at all to run to its fullest potential. The GX sounds somewhat neutral and boring to me most of the time so the little bit of warmth from the NEO did help make the GX sing to my tastes a little more than usual. Staging was ok off the pairing and I didn’t have to push the NEO hard to get a volume I liked off balanced or even single ended.

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Amps comparisons​

iFi iDSD Signature​

The Signature comes in around the same price as the NEO. How does it compare sound wise? I think the Signature sounds way better than the NEO. The stock tuning from the amp is somewhat warm but with a nice airy sound. There seems to be more life to whatever headphones I plugged into the Signature after using the NEO. The biggest difference between these two devices will mostly be the inputs and outputs. More input and output options for the NEO which make it a better desktop amp. If you could care less about XLR outs, bluetooth in or coaxial in then I would say grab the iDSD Signature. I think it's worth it over the NEO if you can live without the things I just mentioned. You also get around 4 watts at peak with the Signature which is wonderful for a device so small.


S.M.S.L. SH-9/SU-9​

I think the biggest difference between the SMSL stack and the NEO comes down to how much space you have and what sound sig you’re looking for. I find both have about the same low end performance. The mids are a personal preference and I never really liked a mid focused amp. I rather have the energy up top which is where the biggest amp differences are. The SH-9 has a better sounding and clear top end with the NEO coming in somewhat boring sounding and flat. The staging is also fairly different. With the SMSL stack you get a decently balanced width and depth. The NEO has a prominent “It’s all wide but in your head” stage which wasn’t my personal preference. If you don’t mind a stacked DAC/amp then I think the SMSL stack sounds a hair better. If you need the option for XLR and RCA outs then the NEO will win hands down since the SH-9 lacks any outputs.

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Overall thoughts​

Well at $699 is the NEO iDSD worth it? Since the iDSD Signature comes in $50 less, I don’t see the point of the NEO for sound quality only. That XLR pre out, bluetooth in and coaxial make the NEO worth it as a desktop only unit for sure but if you can live without those features then the Signature well worth it over the NEO. I won’t be giving the NEO iDSD a recommendation unless you really need the XLR pre outs and bluetooth in your setup. Both the SMSL SH-9/SU-9 stack and iFi iDSD Signature both make me smile when I listen to headphones on them. The NEO always leaves me feeling lukewarm after listening sessions which is a bummer. Thanks for reading!

Comments

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