Yes, almost perfect. Before anyone gets any ideas and start discounting the latest bag of tricks from iFi Audio in the ‘Mid-Fi’ Market Segment, it is almost impossible to have a ‘perfect’ offering out there. What consumers value will differ to their individual preferences and use case – that alone makes it an uphill task. The Bluesound Node 2i is not perfect. Neither is the Volumio Primo nor Roon Nucleus in case you are thinking those. The Raspberry Pi Model 4B is not perfect either. An Intel NUC Music Server/Streamer is definitely not perfect either. Any of the above might be perfect for you but not for everyone. With that out of the way, let’s take a look at what the new iFi Audio NEO iDSD brings to the party.
In one of my previous post, I compared the very well regarded Schiit Mani against the recently launched iFi Audio Zen Phono. I mentioned that I had purchased both units at full retail price and was not sponsored in any way. Well, iFi Audio did pick up on my post and reached out thereafter. They offered to send me a brand new NEO iDSD for review. I am going to be objective here so whether they will continue to send me future review units after reading this post I do not know. Yet, I had a solid 3 months with the iFi Audio NEO iDSD in my main stereo setup and it is now time to share my candid thoughts about the unit. All thoughts are my own, you do not have to agree but I hope it provides some measure of unbias real world usage for your consideration. Let’s start.
In the Box:
I have not purchased anything from outside of the Zen lineup so the packaging of the NEO iDSD is ‘different’ for me. It is a little more ‘refined’ but frankly, once it is out of the box, it will either be tucked away or thrown out so it does not matter to me if iFi went for a neutral plain carton box. What you do find in the box is a nice set of goodies. The main NEO iDSD unit is in there of course but iFi threw in the kitchen sink along with it. You get the very nice iFi Audio 5V iPower by default (this thing actually does what it says it does). You get a nice aluminum stand for the NEO iDSD should you decide to have it standing upright in your setup. There is the white detachable antenna for the Bluetooth reception. You could replace that with a black antenna if you prefer as it attaches via the standard screw-on connections (like you find on most PCs and wireless routers. I love their included rubber feet for the unit. They actually have the iFi branding printed on them too but these will likely discolor in no time.
Now if you are somewhat OCD like I am, iFi made very subtle ‘cross-hair’ markings on the underside of the NEO iDSD so you know where to attach the rubber feet. I swear the satisfaction of being able to ‘zero’ in on the right position was orgasmic. In case you are struggling, the takeaway here is iFi Audio’s attention to detail; as their fans have come to expect is very apparent on the NEO iDSD. The usual ‘Purple RCA Interconnects’ with iFi branding is included of course, together with the awkwardly short (read as: come on already iFi!) but otherwise very good quality USB 3.0 cable. The RCA cables are fine if you do not have snazzy ones or need something in between picking up a nicer cable. As for the USB 3.0 cable, I would suggest to stick with that unless you absolutely need a longer run. For those of you who absolutely need it, there is a credit card size plastic remote control included in the box. Without trying to boil an ocean, I do think manufacturers should stop including cheap plastics remotes like these. Either include something nicer built or remove it entirely. At this price point, that included remote control is a turnoff; maybe even a nasty joke from iFi but that’s just me. 😉
Features and I/O Connections:
Starting on the rear of the unit from left-to-right, you find both a pair of Balanced XLR and Single-Ended RCA Outputs. The Bluesound Node 2i only offers Single-Ended RCA Outputs which may not work for some folks. The Node 2i however does include a Subwoofer Out which you will not find on the NEO iDSD. You will find the standard SPDIF Coaxial and Toslink Optical inputs on the rear of the NEO iDSD in addition to the full size USB-B 3.0 port. I always preferred the USB-B connector in absence of USB Type-C so full marks to iFi for that. There is the usual 5.5mm/2.1mm power socket for 5V/2.5A which the included iFi iPower plugs into. Finally, you get the screw-on connector for your included Bluetooth connector. Frankly, I am not sure about ‘white’ antennas as they tend to discolor pretty easily too. The one glaring omission for me on the rear I/O is the absence of any analog inputs in the rear. I will get to that later but if you are thinking of a pair of XLR, RCA, 4.4mm or even the most basic 3.5mm input – you will be disappointed here (I was).
On the front, you gets a sufficiently large OLED Screen to the left. The huge metal volume knob controls more than just the volume and is of good size with equally smooth yet offers nice resistance as you turn it. Next to it are 2 small tactile buttons, one for selecting source and other for powering on the unit. All 3 user input selectors on the front are used to control and change settings on the NEO iDSD. Getting into the settings menu on the unit through those 3 is simple, straight-forward and quite frankly very intuitive. I do not expect any premature hair loss with a user pulling them out. Something some manufacturers miss here is another point to iFi – the simplicity. Finally, you find the standard 1/4″ Headphone Output on the right including iFi Audio’s implementation of the a 4.4mm Balance Headphone Output. All in all, the NEO iDSD’s I/O on both the front and rear are very nicely thought out, clean and not overly complexed. It is nice!
Limited Analog Inputs:
Before we proceed further, I did point out earlier that the NEO iDSD lacks any form of analog inputs. That means you will have trouble trying to connect anything like a turntable or even the iFi Audio Zen Phono. You might wonder why does that even matters but I think it does as the NEO iDSD has an additional party trick – the ability to push both Fixed/Variable signals via its Line Outputs. The lack of Analog Inputs as a result in my perspective is a glaring miss which limits the NEO iDSD to just digital preamplification duties. Yes, you could still connect digital components via any of the 3 digital inputs but not a turntable or a Line Switch for example.
DAC/Analog Output Section:
Quite frankly, the DAC/Analog Output section is what I would consider as the main highlight of the NEO iDSD. I hooked everything I could possibly into the NEO iDSD from my Intel NUC and Raspberry Pi to my NAD and TEAC CD Players. Then compared the Analog Output Section of the NEO iDSD to the Elekit TU-8500 which is my main Preamplifier including the Schiit SYS I took out from storage. I then fed the signals into both my DIY ICEPower 200ASC/AC and XTZ EDGE A2-300 Power Amplifiers. The sonic capabilities and muscle of the NEO iDSD did not go unnoticed. I tested the various combinations largely with standard 16bit/44.1k FLAC files and on occasion with DSD files.
My cheap and cheerful HiFime DIY Sabre ES9023 dongle is happy up to anything not exceeding 24/96k. It runs along happily with Foobar2000 in Windows and does not require any drivers. I could say the same of the Schiit Modi 2 Uber (AKM4490) and the PCM5122 DAC Board I installed on the Raspberry Pi Model 4B (2GB). The iFi Zen DAC and NEO iDSD both work fine being connected to the Raspberry Pi and never threw up a fit in my 3 months of testing.
HiFime DIY Sabre ES9023 vs. iFi NEO iDSD (DSD1793)
Well, this is not even a fair fight to begin with. Yet, I had to test this myself just for kicks to confirm that one would be getting an upgrade in sonic experience from a $30 USD DAC in a plastic dongle to something like a properly built external DAC in a nice enclosure with a breath of I/O Connections and Features. In about 3mins, it was clear the ES9023 had some serious limitations in this setup. For an absolute budget and no frills setup, it works absolutely fine but that is about as much as you should be expecting from it. One thing did stand out even when comparing playback of standard 16/44k FLAC files – that sterile sound from the ES9023. Some describe it as accurate, clinical, detailed, harsh – you get what I mean. The NEO iDSD had none of those traits and was far more pleasant to listen to (I will get into more details later) over extended periods. Even to untrained ears, the sonic improvement would be obvious.
PCM5122 DAC Board vs. iFi NEO iDSD (DSD1793)
I was very keen on this comparison for one, I am biased to Burr-Brown DAC chips. Both the PCM5122 and DSD1793 are manufactured by Texas Instruments (Burr-Brown). The DSD1793 chip is found in all of iFi Audio’s product range including on the Zen DAC. My TEAC CD Player spots the PCM1796 chip instead. Now anyone who believes all DAC chips sound the same, I have to politely disagree with you. Listening to both the PCM5122 and the DSD1793, you will quickly pick-up that the PCM5122 lacked zest. At some level, I found it sounded rather flat and lacked expression – very unlike most Burr-Brown chips I heard in the past. To be fair, without being able listen to both DAC comparatively, I think I would have been ‘fine’ with the PCM5122. While I thought the PCM5122 was less harsh than the ES9023, it suffers from being able to adequately express the music in the ‘right’ way. It actually sounded sloppy if that made sense.
Forgive me for I am going to knock the Bluesound Node 2i here. While the analog section of the Bluesound Node 2i would clearly be more refined and elaborate than my cheap PCM5122 DAC board off eBay, they both use the same DAC chip; the TI PCM5122. There appears to be common consensus that the built-in DAC on the Node 2i is probably the weakest link in an otherwise very accomplish product offering. I have to agree here considering the above. To be clear, I was (am) a NAD fan. Till this day, I do recommend NAD components to mates and anyone asking where they should start their HiFi journey. I had the NAD C162, C275, C442 and up till most recently the C542. The NAD C542 spots the older PCM1732 DAC chip internally (yes, its a Burr-Brown) and that alone is audibly superior to the PCM5122.
So yes, different DAC chips from the same manufacturer do sound different. Even if the chips were the exact same model, different implementations will change how they sound. I will touch on that again shortly but consider this. If there is common consensus that the built-in DAC chip on the Node 2i by multiple reviewers and similarly discussed on forums, there is likely some truth to it. Many have even suggested a fairly affordable external DAC such as a Topping D30s or a Schiit Modi 3+ at about $100-120 USD will sound superior to the PCM5122 in the Node 2i. The takeaway here is this – the Bluesound Node 2i is a very accomplished streamer no doubt especially at $549 USD. To get the most out of it however, you want an external DAC. The D30s goes for about $99 USD, the Modi 3+ for $119 USD on Amazon and the iFi Zen DAC starts at $129 USD ($169 with 5V iPower included). Add-on an external DAC to the Node 2i and you are well into the same price territory with the new NEO iDSD. Again, we will pick that up later.
Schiit Modi 2 Uber (AKM4490) vs. iFi NEO iDSD (DSD1793)
Here’s another disclaimer. I like Schiit products. I really do not give a Schiit’s ask about what you think otherwise if you have not owned a Schiit product in your audio journey. The Schiit Mani, Magni and Modi lines are perhaps the biggest (punt intended) and best things that happened to Schiit. These 3 products literally put Schiit on the map and yes that Schiit sounds good. I found a very nice Schiit Modi 2 Uber which was once a demo unit. I figured the updated AKM4490 DAC chip would be a good place to start (I never heard AKM chips before this). The Modi 2 Uber at one point retailed for $150 USD compared to the regular Modi 2 at $99 USD. Given it has a proper sized USB-B port on the rear panel, I could use the same ‘audiophile’ USB 2.0 cable I had across the Modi 2 Uber, Zen DAC and NEO iDSD. Now that is what I call nice ‘Schiit’.
Yes, the Modi 2 Uber and the NEO iDSD are priced in different categories. This is still an applicable comparison since I am focused on comparing their DAC/Analog Output Sections. Bear with me and you will see where I am going with this. Starting with the Modi 2 Uber, the words “neutral, tonally accurate, just right” came to mind the first time I heard the Modi 2 Uber. Compared to my cheap ES9023 DAC, the Modi 2 Uber truly shines and outpaces the cheap plastic dongle. The nice 1/3 utilitarian enclosure in Schiit’s product lines are one of the best ideas ever from them too.
Listening to the NEO iDSD, I think this is where the first real sound comparison starts. While the Modi 2 Uber will do nicely as a proper separate outboard DAC unit, the NEO iDSD with all the features built-in does put the Modi 2 Uber in its place. The NEO iDSD has an expansive presentation of depth and space that the Modi 2 Uber simply does not possess I call that the Burr-Brown ‘house sound signature’ but clearly after hearing how the PCM5122 fall flat, that may not always apply. That same ‘house sound’ from the DSD1793 DAC chip adds a very obvious tone to the body of the music. Sub bass notes hit harder and deeper but that bodied tone is very noticeable from the lower treble region and all the way down the rest of the frequency spectrum. No, the tonal superiority of the NEO iDSD is not limited to it’s mid-range frequency. So, this is not a case of hearing a ‘slight bump’ in the mid-range. Rather, you will hear the NEO iDSD and its immersive expression all the way through.
What the NEO iDSD offers you is a truly expansive and immersive listening experience. While the Modi 2 Uber would simply trod all over my cheap little ES9023, it sounded flat and lacks perceivable depth (something I noted in the Schiit Mani vs. Zen Phono) when compared to the NEO iDSD. While it sounds less harsh than the ES9023, the Modi 2 Uber’s presentation can be rather cold. This I was hearing while running them through my Tube Preamp. My sense is even if it was not compared with the NEO iDSD which seems to envelop and hug you in its presentation – the Modi 2 Uber will work fine for me in shorter sessions. It will also work fine when I need to have decently clean music piped around the house. My Onkyo TX-NR696 in the Family Room will not be able to keep up with the Modi 2 Uber. Next to the NEO iDSD in my main setup of the Music Room, the strength of the latter is hard ignore. So, the Zen DAC similarly features the seemingly superior DSD1973. Will it will sound the same as the NEO iDSD right? Well, yes and no.
iFi Zen DAC (DSD1793) vs, iFi NEO iDSD (DSD1793)
Common logic will have it that both the Zen DAC and NEO iDSD should sound similar especially since they come from the same manufacturer (same implementation). Yes, to an extend they do. The reality however is they do sound different enough. It ultimately comes down to the internal analog section and design implementation. Between the 2, I am sure there are difference on what goes where on the PCB. Frankly, I would wish to be able to tell you they both sound the same and hence the Zen DAC is all that you need (and you can save some cash) but the truth is they do sound rather different.
How different to they sound? If we think about the Modi 2 Uber vs the NEO iDSD, you will typically be able to pick up the difference in a 5 second music segment. You just need to alternate the same segment through both devices and there is no denying it. For the Zen DAC, you might still be able to pick it up in a 15 seconds segment (depends on which segment). I found that most folks will be able to pick up the differences which are not subtle by any measure, in a single track at different points of the musical passage. Now if I had to place the Modi 2 Uber and the NEO iDSD at different ends of the continuum, the Zen DAC will be in the middle but closer (70:30) to the NEO iDSD. The NEO iDSD still has an audible edge over the Zen DAC. You do not need golden ears to hear the difference. I did disclose my bias to Burr-Brown DAC chips at the beginning of this post. Yet a separate PCM5122 DAC Board pales by comparison to everything we discussed thus far except maybe the ES9023 plastic dongle DAC. I never heard an AKM based DAC chip until most recently in the Modi 2 Uber. I will not be surprised that it outperforms the Node 2i in that department. Perhaps the weakness of the Node 2i has to do with all the internal circuitry with less than ideal internal shielding.
Similarly, the NEO iDSD is cramped packed with features except it has no WiFi capabilities but rather, it runs all the latest ‘HiRes’ codecs via Bluetooth instead. I do not stream via Bluetooth but the iFi Zen Blue has won much praised by the audiophile community for its Bluetooth capabilities. Some have even went as far to claim that ‘HiRes’ Bluetooth in HiFi has come of age. In all fairness, I think that must mean something at the very least. That in mind, the Bluetooth section of the NEO iDSD cannot be at all that shabby even if it was a lift and drop from the Zen Blue. Finally, while both the Zen DAC and the Node 2i have MQA capability baked in, the NEO iDSD does full MQA unfold natively. I do not subscribe to MQA but if that is something that is important for you, the NEO iDSD will tick that box squarely for your full MQA experience.
Value vs. Performance:
Now, lets talk about what you give for what you get here. This is always an important consideration before I make any purchasing decision and I think it will be the same for many others as well. True, it is not always about the “cheapest is the best deal” and conversely, the most expensive piece of kit does not naturally mean you are getting a ‘better experience’. The NEO iDSD is a Digital-to-Analog Converter, houses a powerful Headphone Amplifier and a works like a charm as a Digital Preamplifier; enclosed in a sleek 2/3 unit. That slight indentation on the front panel where the volume knob is located frankly does not immediately speak to me but that has nothing to do with neither value nor performance.
We have touched sufficiently on the Bluesound Node 2i and while it is a very capable streamer in pretty much the same form factor as the NEO iDSD, it’s weak link is the built-in DAC section. To bring its performance on par or close to the NEO iDSD, I would minimally pickup the iFi Zen DAC at $169 USD (with 5V iPower). The additional Zen DAC will power my selection of 5 budget headphones (M40x, MDR-7506, SHP-9500, HE-400i (2020) and the MH751). While it does not pack as much power as the NEO iDSD or a separate Zen CAN to drive inefficient headphones, it will drive my HiFiman HE-400i (2020) just fine at reasonably loud volumes. The combined cost for both the Node 2i and Zen DAC with 5V iPower brings us very close to NEO iDSD territory, maybe just a hair over ($549+$169 = 718 USD). The iFi NEO iDSD retails for $700 USD on Amazon. Between a 2 box setup or a single NEO iDSD unit setup, it might come down to feature set. Example, do you value WiFi + Subwoofer Output or will ‘HiRes’ Bluetooth and more Powerful Headphone Section be more sensible for your use case?
I do not think we have a meaning setup from Schiit Audio we can use here for direct comparison (I really wished we did). The latest Magni 3+ and Modi 3+ are superb components but Schiit has nothing in their lineup for Wireless Streaming at this time so we will have to wait it out awhile more. Yet within iFi’s own product line up, we have the highly acclaimed and well regarded Zen Series. I think the Zen DAC, Zen CAN and Zen Blue in combination will suffice to cover all the feature sets of a single NEO iDSD. Maybe not quite on the full MQA unfold section but the Zen DAC does have some MQA capability (similar to the Node 2i). The trio will set us back a total of $470 USD ($170+$170+$130) assuming you pickup the Zen DAC with 5V iPower, the Zen CAN Launch Edition (includes the 5V iPower) and the standard Zen Blue. With an additional $50 USD if you can pickup another 5V iPower separately for the Zen Blue too ($520 USD total). Now you are probably sizing up on this by now. 3 Box setup from the Zen Series with accompanying 5V iPower for each unit lands you at $520 USD total. To top it off, the Zen CAN opens up additional Analog Input possibilities for you via RCA/4.4mm/3.5mm I/O on the rear. If like me, your music is spread across a wide variety of mediums, you might have a turntable too. Adding the Zen Phono + 5V iPower will cost another $200 USD bringing your grand total to $720 USD.
At $718 USD for the Node 2i + Zen DAC (with 5V iPower) vs. $720 USD for all the 4 Zen DAC/CAN/Blue/Phono (with individual 5V iPower) is a no brainer. You do not need to ask me what I would pick. For $2 USD more, I get a truckload more of features and functionality. Of course, if you do not need a separate Zen Phono for whatever reasons, the iFi Zen route costs you $520 for the same basic capabilities of a Node 2i. Take $80 USD and get yourself the Raspberry Pi Model 4B (8GB) and you are still $120 USD in the green. So in my mind, the Zen Series route is a winner no doubt.
Trick question now. Are 3 smaller Zen Series components better than a single NEO iDSD? For $520 USD (no Zen Phono), you get pretty much everything the NEO iDSD is capable of but it does not mean it will sound better (the NEO iDSD sounds better). You are getting 3x 5V iPower adapters at the same price too – which I highly recommend. Here is where you might weigh value vs. performance. Yes, $520 USD is a good wad of change less than $700 USD. Note that the 3x 5V iPower need to go into some kind of power outlet – you need 3 of them of course. Each Zen Series component is about 1/3 width so you could either line them up next to each other making it a full width set; or stack them up (whichever looks or works best in your setup).
The NEO iDSD is $700 USD. For the $180 USD more, it removes the need of having 3 separate Zen Series components as long as you do not need Analog Inputs. I can safely tell you that you are getting a much better sounding unit. You get full MQA unfold experience, not partial unfold. You can use your preferred Balanced XLR cables into a Balanced XLR Input on your Power Amplifier (eg. my DIY ICEPower 200ASC/AC Dual Mono) on top of normal Single-Ended RCA (eg. My XTZ EDGE A2-300). You need just 1 power outlet for the single unit, not 3. You can lay the NEO iDSD flat and take up just 2/3 width of what most full sized components will. You could stand it up if you can afford the height for more table top space. It is all wrapped up in a nice shiny case regardless.
I think the iFi NEO iDSD does represent exceptional Value vs. Performance if you are looking to streamline your setup and music consumption patterns. If that alone ticks a huge box for you, the NEO iDSD is a great sounding component and a right step forward into the segment for iFi Audio. I would have liked to see a couple of Analog Inputs here. I think omitting those is a missed opportunity in their part. These should not be hard to implement hence I do hope are included in subsequent revisions to the next update.
Comparative Listening Gear: (may contain affiliate links)
To put the iFi Audio NEO iDSD through it’s paces, I did acquire additional components on top of what I had in the setup including some stashed away for when the ‘need arises’. Below is the full list.
Music Server/Streamer: Synology DS220j NAS, Intel NUC 7PJYH, Raspberry Pi Model 4B (2GB)
Digital-to-Analog Converter: HiFimeDIY UAE23 USB DAC (ESS Sabre ES9023), iFi Zen DAC (DSD1793), Schiit Modi 2 Uber (AKM4490), Raspberry Pi DAC Board (PCM5122)
Preamplifier: Elekit TU-8500 (RFT ECC82), iFi Zen DAC, Schiit SYS (passive)
Power Amplifier: DIY ICEPower 200ASC/AC Dual Mono, XTZ EDGE A2-300
Speakers: Triangle Borea BR08, Wharfedale Crystal 4.3
Headphones: Audi-Technica M40x, Hifiman HE-400i (2020), Philips SHP-9500, Sony MDR-7506, Cooler Master MH751
Miscellaneous: Dual CS 601 Turntable, Pro-Ject T1 Turntable, iFi Zen Phono, TEAC PD-H600 CD Player (PCM1796), Onkyo TX-NR696
Unavailable: Inno-maker DAC Board (PCM5122), Bluesound Node 2i (PCM5122), Fiio K5 Pro (AKM4493)
*NOTE: I would have preferred to acquire the Inno-Maker PCM5122 Board for the Raspberry Pi Model 4B but it was not available at that time. None of my mates still had the Bluesound Node 2i in their possession and I was not prepared to pickup a Bluesound Node 2i at $549 USD just for the PCM5122 DAC Chip. I ended up picking up a Raspberry Pi PCM5122 DAC Board off eBay instead for the short test. The main purpose was to compare the PCM5122 natively on the Raspberry Pi board against external DACs – not to test streaming capabilities. The Node 2i does WiFi (so does my Raspberry Pi Model 4B) while the NEO iDSD does Bluetooth instead.
As part of the review, I ended up spending more time comparing the DAC/Analog Output Sections. As for headphones, all were tested via the 1/4″ output only. I am usually Just-over-Broke and do not have proper Balanced Headphones on my desk so I left the 4.4mm section alone for now. I did throw the MH751 into the mix just for fun and because I could as they are actually a decent pair although they are marketed as ‘gaming headphones’. I do think the Cooler Master MH751 are probably the best value ‘multi-purpose’ pair of ‘gaming’ headphones that performs well for ‘monitoring’ purposes without need to clutter your desk with 3 different pair of cans (for audio, gaming, monitoring). Finally, I am your typical ‘Starving Audiophile’ and will usually pick ‘Bang-for-Buck’ above all else but it does not limit me from the ‘Little Extra’.
*p/s: folks ask me why do I still have my $30 USD ES9023 DAC around? This little dongle is the most fuss-free DAC I encountered. It just needs a standard USB-A port to plug it into. Works with my Windows PC, Work Laptop, Raspberry Pi, Synology NAS and just about anything I plug it into. Plus, it has a couple of tricks up its sleeve. This unassuming plastic dongle will take Toslink too. Last but not least, my unit has an unexpected Line-In functionality under Windows environment which is great for creating 24/96k digital backup of my vinyl records via Audacity. Talk about Bang-for-Buck!