by Andrew Allen Ballew
We cover a lot of iFi here at Euphonic Review, and the reason for that is simple. As a site dedicated to 'getting out the word' on the best budget products, iFi is simply one of the best in this market. They also stand out from the crowd with their engineering choices, sound preferences, and with their class leading, competition destroying honest interaction with consumers. Have a question? You won't get a canned answer. You will usually come away with something insightful and useful.
That approach has to start in the person of Thorsten Loesch, who though no longer with iFi, set a precedent from the beginning. It doesn't hurt that virtually everything iFi has for sale is built on Loesch's intellectual property, and new products that come out well after his company exit were likely influenced by him in the early development stages.
iFi to their credit continues to be open and interactive with their user base, which is very, very refreshing. If I have a product question, even a rather complex one, they will do their best to answer, even if they are a bit more guarded in those answers than in years past.
Those of us who were involved in the early days of the iFi community, (I was a so-called 'Octa-adopter' of the first iDSD Micro DAC) were tantalized by the coming 'iDSD MINI' that made the rounds at audio shows following the debut of the iDSD Micro. This eventually morphed into the iDSD PRO, and it took around 4 years to make it to market. Even then, the release was probably pushed; it was too early as it had buggy firmware. iFi seemed to be making a 'everything for everyone' type product loaded with features, even professional features (hence the name) like available external clock control. The price also bloomed to something higher than I believe the community expected. How many of us needed an external atomic clock option? Nothing even remotely within the price of the iDSD PRO was going to improve on the excellent internal clocking; atomic clocks are great at long term jitter and sync, which is of little concern for home/hi-fi playback. Cheap atomic clocks can even be WORSE when it comes to short period or random, non-reproduceable jitter. Eventually iFi righted the firmware issues, made some hardware changes such as adding a 4.4mm balanced Pentaconn headphone output, and eventually created a 'Signature' edition. The PRO is an excellent sounding product. Truly worthy of being categorized with the best in its class, even WITH the excess of features. But, there was a huge gap in the iFi product lineup. You had the new ZEN lineup for the budget conscious audiophile, but not anything (other than perhaps the Diablo which was more a niche product) in between until you reached eventually over 3000 US dollars by the time inflation had taken its toll.
Enter the NEO DAC / Headphone amplifier.
The $799 NEO came to market rather quickly as it is built on already mentioned pre-existing work of Thorsten Loesch, and could be mated with and programmed with higher end features (such as the GTO filter with later firmware) via the powerful XMOS 16 core chip common with the iDSD PRO. This allowed iFi to throw every existing Bluetooth codec in the mix, and allowed the new NEO to be a fully capable MQA renderer and decoder. The NEO will decode MQA up to 384khz, DSD to 512fs, and PCM to 768khz.
The industrial design is impressive. It is by far, in the opinions here at Euphonic Review, the best looking external design of any iFi product to date. It can be mounted horizontally or vertically, and has a 'neatly' implemented OLED information display that shifts its orientation along with the DAC/Amp.
When the DAC/Amp is placed in its upright mode with the included stand, it is very sturdy. Everything about the design says premium. Even if things are a little less fancy and busy than the iDSD PRO, the overall presentation evokes a sense of solidity that says 'expensive', 'upscale', etc.
This particular NEO is not a networked DAC, although there is a version of the NEO that integrates the iFi STREAM hardware along with an upgraded more colorful LED display. That particular version gains networking at the expense of the headphone amplifier, however. The rest of the inputs/outputs are rather par for the course, on the back panel including standard stereo XLR line outputs, RCA line outputs, Asynchronous USB input, and SPDIF inputs in both coaxial and toslink form. An external antenna is provided for the Bluetooth receiver. On the front panel, the headphone outputs come in form of a standard 1/4 inch single ended output terminal, and a 4.4mm balanced Pentaconn output terminal. The power supply provided and used in this test is the iPower2 5v Switching Supply that has iFi's proprietary noise cancellation technology.
As usual with iFi, everything was packed neatly and nicely in what I call 'Apple-Light' packaging, all the way down to the sticker. Doesn't everyone love stickers? Yes, No? Maybe it is only me, but there are Apple and iFi stickers abundant here in the lab. Although there is no actual Apple equipment other than an iPhone here at the moment. Finally, there is a 'credit card' sized remote control that has trickled down from the 'Pro' family of products to finish out this nice little package of audio kit.
When I received my NEO review sample, it came with firmware 3.18, which was more basic in its functionality than the most current firmware, 3.33. The largest change from 3.18 to 3.33 is the increase in available PCM digital filters. While the original NEO, with up to firmware 3.18, came with only the 'Standard' filter, the new firmware allows the choice of an additional 3 filters. 'Minimum', which is not a minimum phase filter as the name suggests, is along with 'Standard' one of the oversampling filters native to the DSD1793 DAC. 'Minimum', like 'Standard', is a FIR linear phase filter; the difference between the two being the number of taps. 'Minimum' has a slower roll-off and less ringing than 'Standard'. Also made available is the 'Bit-Perfect' filter, which is actually the absence of any oversampling filter, and will render the 6 Most Significant bits of the DSD1793 segment DAC as bit-perfect. Finally, the in-house created iFi filter, known as the 'Gibbs Transient Optimized' filter, or 'GTO', is made available via the aforementioned XMOS chipset.
Well, you may be asking, "That is all good and well fine sir, but how does she perform?" I am glad you asked. First, we will begin with the NEO as a standalone DAC via the XLR line outputs. Fortunately, in this part of the evaluation I can get straight to the point and save us all a lot of time. If you wish to read in depth how the line output sounds, all you need do is read my review of the iFi ZEN DAC V2, linked Here.
What? Am I just being lazy? Actually no, because the DAC sections of the NEO and the ZEN V2 measure virtually identically. As I oft say, measurements don't tell the whole story though, so what about sound? Maybe I can identify things one DAC does slightly better than the other on a particular test track, while I also find things the other DAC does slightly better on a different test track. To my ear, they simply sound identical, and I gave an in depth review of the sound of the ZEN DAC V2 once already. Reviewing the line output of the iFi NEO would lead to a near carbon copy of the iFi ZEN DAC V2 review, with just a few extra thoughts added in. Furthermore, I am told the schematics of the NEO and ZEN DAC are identical too.
However, the availability of the GTO and Bit-Perfect filters in the NEO can make for a different listening experience. The most obvious difference one will notice with 'Bit-Perfect' engaged on 44.1 or 48khz files is the treble roll-off. Perhaps this filter offers best service at higher sample rates if one finds the roll-off objectionable. The extremely natural sound that is result of the filter, especially when paired with high resolution files of 88.2khz and higher, is very addictive. Often the jargon 'digititis' is used to describe the sometimes cold, hard, harsh and metallic sound of digital audio. It is a problem audio engineers have sought to remedy since the very beginning of digital audio. While it is mostly a thing of the past, listening to audio without digital filtering as with the 'Bit-Perfect' filter demonstrates that more sonically pleasing digital playback can still be achieved. We have not yet arrived at digital perfection.
As the NEO has no 'Bit-Perfect Plus' filter as found in the iFi iDSD PRO, the best filter solution for 44.1 and 48khz file playback may indeed be the 'GTO' filter. The GTO filter will not cause the same degree of treble roll-off at these sample rates, and is designed to maintain an impulse response short enough that the human ear will not experience the kind of negative response that is thought by some to be largely responsible for 'digititis'. Furthermore, the GTO filter is a minimum phase filter with no unnatural pre-ringing. (Any pre-ringing in the measurements are artifacts of the test system rather than a filter property.) You can click HERE for more information on the iFi GTO filter.
The GTO filter above is the filter I chose to stick with in my listening tests. Other equipment used in the test are as follows: HP All-in-One PC running Roon software, Wireworld Chroma USB cables, iFi iSilencer 3.0, iFi USB iPurifier 3, 5v iPower2 PSU, iFi DC iPurifier2, Sennheiser HD650 Headphones, Hifiman HE-560 headphones. Also on board was the iFi ZEN CAN for comparisons. (It was also used in the earlier review of the ZEN DAC V2 line output.) All comparisons are in balanced mode and all headphone listening is via the balanced Pentaconn output.
As we have established earlier, the NEO and the ZEN V2 DAC sound identical via their lineouts. This is not the case via headphone output. The ZEN DAC V2 headphone output is a nice sounding headphone output for the price, and it's quite amazing iFi was able to squeeze in such a great DAC and a headphone amplifier at $200 US. The ZEN does have a very functional bass boost that can really add punch to some recordings. This feature is missing on the NEO.
Not that it was needed. The headphone output on the NEO is a definite upgrade over the headphone output of the ZEN DAC V2. Bass is strong and full. Perhaps at times A bit too full via the Sennheiser HD650 headphones. Compared to my reference ZEN CAN headphone amplifier, the bass on the NEO lacks the last degree of tightness and articulation. Other than this observation, the NEO has no trouble whatsoever driving the high impedance Sennheisers. As a matter of fact, I have always found the HD600/HD650 headphones to be excellent matches for iFi headphone amplifiers.
This is not so much the case for low impedance/lower sensitivity headphones. The Hifiman HE-560 is not the most difficult headphone to drive in the world. It isn't even the most difficult in the Hifiman lineup. However, it is deceptively difficult to drive in its own right, and requires a fairly hefty amp with good current supply to drive it with the dynamics and low end response of which it is capable.
The Neo headphone amplifier struggled a bit with the Hifiman HE-560. Even when I changed out to an experimental 5 volt power supply with larger capacitors and (allegedly) more current in reserve than the iPower2 PSU, bass still fell a little short, and recordings with large dynamic swings, such as Polyhymnia's (for Decca) recording of Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47 performed by violin virtuoso Akiko Suwanai with the Birmingham Symphony, were somewhat lackluster. Full volume was necessary to achieve a proper presentation via the HE-560. Switching back to the Sennheiser HD650 was a completely different experience. The experience was more glorious, more like I recall from my review of the iFi ZEN DAC V2, the NEO now presenting here the same piece of music in such a way that made me drop my reviewer hat and just melt into the music. As before, brass crescendos are scintillating, and not a hint of any kind of distortion one would find negative. On the contrary, the orchestra is presented with outstanding timbre and realism across the entire dynamic, soft to loud and back again. I also took a specific note highlighting the very realistic articulation and expression of the woodwinds.
I must counter this praise, however, by saying there is, compared to the ZEN DAC V2 driving the ZEN CAN amplifier, a bit of the HD650 stereotypical 'haze' over the sound via the NEO headphone output. The HD650 is NOT a veiled or hazy sounding headphone. Virtually always any veil that is heard belongs to the equipment driving it. The issue here is not serious; the NEO still produces a fine sound via its headphone output. So far however, while handily exceeding the capabilities of the ZEN DAC V2 headphone output, the NEO internal headamp is falling short of the iFi ZEN CAN dedicated headphone amplifier.
Staying with the Sennheiser HD650 for the remainder of the review, I queued up one of my favorite 'audiophile' recordings; "The Constant" by the Jim Black Trio. Starting with the opening track 'High', this is an excellent recording to evaluate transients, and both macro and micro dynamics and detail. Via the NEO headphone output, the opening bass plucks are well produced and defined. Micro details such as the bassist's finger pads passing over the strings are well delineated and easily identified. As has been the case so far, lower bass notes are just a bit indistinct and lack the tightness and refinement that exists on this recorded track. The drum entrance is very nice with good snap and realism. It sounds very natural, which is a trait of the iFi sound. The piano began with a lovely entrance, but then went to another level literally and figuratively, displaying exquisite varieties of tone in the two octaves above A440. It was soft and delicate when called for, but in just an instant transients could be biting and hard. This was very well done by the NEO headphone amp drawing out what it could from the excellent DAC onboard. Any shortcomings were in the area of soundstage and stereo separation. Things could have been just a bit bigger, just a bit more expansive, and transients could have been even a bit quicker, as they were when listening to the NEO via balanced line output via the iFi ZEN CAN Headphone Amplifier. (Formal review coming soon.) Overall, however, as an all-in-one product that is of excellent build quality, with good 'solid state' aesthetics that carries an amazing DAC inside, the relative shortcomings of the headphone stage do little to dampen my overall enthusiasm for this product.
The addition of the filter choices only strengthened this product, and I commend iFi for releasing the 'NEO Performance Edition' firmware to everyone who bought an original NEO. The ability to have a choice in digital filter is no small thing, because the GTO filter makes for a notably better listening experience than the Standard filter, and the Bit-Perfect filter gives the end user one more option that also provides a notably different sound that will appeal greatly to those who yearn for non-oversampling (NOS) DACs and their specific, unique tonality.
TECHNICAL NOTES, MEASUREMENTS AND FINAL THOUGHTS
One of the major audio publications reported less than stellar jitter performance from the iFi NEO DAC. Later, the same DAC when driven by a cleaner source by the same publication responded with virtually no jitter at all, which makes one go hmmm. The NEO is not galvanic isolated like the upscale iDSD PRO, however in our lab at Euphonic Review, our test computer, which has no special properties to lower jitter, could not reproduce the high jitter levels reported. Because it is not fully isolated, yes, the NEO may respond positively or negatively via the USB input to source jitter, EMI, and stray RF. Again, our average sources, however, showed no signs of excessive jitter via the NEO. Our sources are an HP 'Wintel' All-in-one PC, and a Microsoft Surface 4 laptop with AMD Ryzen Processor.
In addition to the excellent jitter performance, the NEO measures well overall.
Noise = -117.4db (A)
Freq. Response (Standard Filter) = -0.65, +0.02 (20hz to 20khz)
THD = -111db or 0.000282%
THD+N = -101.5db or 0.000841%
SINAD = 101.5db
IMD 19khz+20khz = -109db
LINEARITY -100db = within 0.25db
LINEARITY -110db = within 3.5db
The iFi NEO DAC/Headamp measures well. All our tests came back close to or BETTER than the specifications advertised by iFi. Jitter rejection is INDEED very good here. The only negative we see, that falls slightly short of other iFi products is the low level linearity. The less expensive ZEN has better low level linearity, and as we will see in the next part of this comparison, the iFi iDSD PRO has notably better low level linearity.
I am very impressed with the iFi NEO DAC and Amp. It looks great, feels great to the touch, and is a truly excellent standalone DAC with remote control allowing for installation in a primary 'non-desktop' system. The DAC quality is good enough to be competitive with many more expensive options. If your ear is inclined to the non-oversampled sound, you have that option here with the 'Bit-Perfect' filter. The NEO makes for a very good desktop product as well, however its headphone amp doesn't quite reach the level of the ZEN series CAN headphone amp.
There is a legitimate choice to be made here. Should one go with the NEO and its perks; the excellent build, good looks, top notch DAC, multiple filter choices, or is one better off with a ZEN DAC V2 combined with ZEN CAN headamp? (Or if you need Bluetooth as well, you could sub the ZEN One Signature, but based on iFi's own specs, perhaps a slight loss in DAC performance.) One could conceivably save some money, have a DAC with equal quality (ZEN DAC V2), slightly better sounding headphone amp (in-depth review of ZEN CAN forthcoming), but give up the previously mentioned unique features of the NEO, as well as MQA 384, PCM 768khz, and DSD512 capability.
As is my reviewer mantra, you really need to HEAR the products. YOUR EARS and YOUR ENJOYMENT is paramount. Hopefully reviews like mine can help, but nothing is a substitute for listening. What I can tell you is this. The NEO is a special piece of kit, and if you are looking for an all in one DAC and headphone amp with Bluetooth capabilities, that is exceptionally well built, and will decode every format I can think of, you cannot go wrong with the NEO. And later, if you like, you can then upgrade and add an external headphone amplifier.
OUR RATING: (0-10 scale. 8 or higher numbers represent best of industry. For the final score calculation, each category is given a (undisclosed) weighting and is tallied for final score. Although perfect 'fairness' is unlikely, our system tries to be as unbiased as possible.
sound quality: 8.7
build quality: 9.6
ease of use: 9.3
TOTAL RATING: 89.5
note, you can click the MEASUREMENT GRAPHS below to enlarge.
Mobile devices may treat this in unpredictable ways. It seems 'landscape' mode, phone or tablet turned to the side, gives best results. Note that on mobile devices, clicking to enlarge may not be necessary and may cause issues.