iFi has been one of the major players in the enthusiast audio world for years, and its Diablo series quickly became one of its most exciting products after its launch in 2021. Its successor is upon us, and the iFi iDSD Diablo 2 promises mega power in a portable form factor, allowing it to become a mobile audiophile setup — or to replace your current DAC/amp stack. In this edition of Golden Ears, we’ll be taking a close look to see what exactly it offers and how it justifies its premium $1,299 tag.
Spoiler Alert: it offers a lot.
Current Price: $1,299 (Amazon)
A Quick Introduction to Golden Ears…
Welcome back to Golden Ears! This is our semi-regular column dedicated to the world of high-end audio. In this series, we look at premium audio products that all promise a next-level listening experience. But what exactly do you get when you spend a little, or sometimes a lot, more? That’s what we aim to discover, helping you to find out just what’s worth investing in to upgrade your listening experience for music and gaming alike.
For this article in particular, we’re looking at the iFi iDSD Diablo 2 Portable Hybrid DAC/amp, a product that currently retails for $1,299. At this price, it exists in the flagship, halo audio market. As such, discussions of value are more subjective than ever. For many listeners, that pricing is simply out of reach, and no matter how good they are, they will seem like a terrible value. For others, passionate audiophiles with plentiful expendable income who consider audio their primary hobby, may have a different opinion.For products like this, ideas of value are very subjective; one person’s steal might be another’s exorbitance, so we’ll largely be leaving that to the side today.
On the topic of scoring, it’s important to note a couple of things. First, while we wish we didn’t have to do it, it’s a reality in today’s search-driven publication space. Second, when dealing with “golden ears” caliber products that often cost great deals of money, we expect these products to be at least Good (7) but hopefully Great (8), Amazing (9), or even Masterpiece (10) level. Though there are certainly products tha aren’t very good at every price range, a quick review of web publications shows that the score range is usually a bit tighter with these next-level listening products. Fittingly so — they should sound great!
Given that expectedly tighter score range, it’s more important than ever to explore the nuances of what sets these products apart. What is their goal? Who are they for? How are they built? What are the intricacies of their listening experience? All of these things matter more and the number matters less. We are always going to be honest and forthright in all of our content, but take the time to hear the story each product is trying to tell, and you’ll understand it that much better.
Thanks for joining us again, and enjoy the article!
iFi iDSD Diablo 2 - Design and Features
The iFi iDSD Diablo 2 is a portable DAC and amp that’s powerful enough to replace many complete desktop audio setups in one small, wireless package. It’s enterprising and innovative, if imperfect in some ways. But one thing is for sure, it pushes the envelope and it sounds great doing it.
In this article, I’m not going to delve deeply into some of the controversy that has surrounded this product as they have by now been addressed. But it’s worth talking about power, because that’s the single biggest reason you would choose an amplifier like this. Not the only reason, mind you, but it’s a big selling point because it trumps the vast majority of the competition. If you’re driving high-end, insensitive headphones or even speakers, this is a compelling option for its sheer driving power.
When the product launched, there was a big push surrounding it delivering five watts of unmitigated power. Since then, it has come out that iFi’s method of measurement differed from measurements used by many other companies. Its peak output, in a single millisecond burst, is approximately five watts. In practical listening terms, it’s closer to two watts when going into 32 ohms (listed under RMS power). Still an absolute beast but far from the wattage that was boldly proclaimed on their marketing. On the second page of the specs gallery above, you can see iFi’s explanation for their own measurement methods above, seeking to emulate the dynamics of real music versus the sine waves used for power measurements.
What’s more, Headphones.com (who discovered the power rating issue) also states that the Diablo 2 is able to drive right up to that two watts with virtually no distortion whatsoever, while many of the competitors begin to degrade at such higher power levels. So — five watts, then. Grain of salt. Yes, in a single burst, it can hit it. No, you won’t be listening at that. Yes, it would make you deaf if you tried in nearly every circumstance.
With that out of the way, let’s look at the whole picture of the Diablo 2 because it’s genuinely become one of my favorite sources and does a lot of very interesting things. For starters, I was pleased to see that it arrives as a whole kit. You receive a nice zippered travel case, two sets of angled feet, multiple USB cables to connect to smartphones and PCs, a 3.5-to-6.35mm headphone adapter, a coaxial adapter, and a high quality power brick with a braided, shielded cable.
The unit itself is bulky. You won’t be pocketing the Diablo 2 along with a smartphone but could potentially carry it by itself. It really seems made to sit out on a desktop when in use. It’s built like an absolute tank with a heavy metal shell, colored red after its namesake with dark grey in the rear and a knurled metal knob for volume. There’s a volume lock to be sure it doesn’t get bumped if you do pocket it (IEMs can get loud very quickly).
As a device centered on versatility, there are plenty of connectivity options. On the front, you have 6.35mm single-ended and 4.4mm balanced outputs. There’s also a toggle switch to select your gain mode between Normal, Turbo, and Nitro modes. On the back, there are balanced and coaxial outputs, a Bluetooth pairing button, and two USB Type-C ports, one for connecting to a device and another for 5V power.
The device is also the first to support xMEMs headphones. This is an up-and-coming driver technology and is one of the most exciting advances in audio in some time. So far, the amount of headphones that feature this technology are limited but, according to iFi, they require a substantial amount of voltage to drive properly. The Diablo 2 is one of the very first to offer this compatibility.
It’s also the first to support Bluetooth aptX Lossless audio. So far, Bluetooth has always been a lossy connection method, even with high-res codecs like aptX HD and LDAC. You’ll need a source device that supports it, of which there are very few currently, but that will increase with time, making it an important forward thinking feature.
The list of audio-enhancing technologies incorporated into its design is even lengthier. It features PureWave dual-mono circuitry to deliver clean balanced audio signals with low noise. DirectDrive removes the need for coupling capacitors, cleaning up the audio further. It features a timing clock that’s accurate down to femto-seconds (that’s one quadrillionth of a second) to ensure that the audio signal is perfectly in phase and free of timing distortion known as jitter.
Like many iFi products, the Diablo 2 utilizes a Burr-Brown multibit DAC. It’s able to reproduce audio with incredible fidelity up to a bit-perfect 768kHz for PCM audio, DSD512, and supports MQA audio for Tidal’s highest quality tracks. The amplifier utilizes custom OV-series op-amps to deliver its wattage — enough to drive the most demanding headphones and then some — that offer vanishingly low levels of distortion (0.0001%).
Another feature that I particularly enjoy is IEMatch. This is controlled via a switch on the bottom of the device, allowing you to select from 6.35mm, 4.4mm, or OFF. This allows the device to intelligently match the impedance of your listening device and adjust accordingly. For IEMs, this is important to ensure that the noise floor is below the audible level and that it remains whisper quiet. Offering as much power as it does, without this feature, very sensitive IEMS could pick up on white noise simply due to the output. IEMatch saves that and helps to ensure channel balance even at low volume levels.
iFi iDSD Diablo 2 - Listening Impressions
The iFi iDSD Diablo 2, like most DACs and amps, doesn’t aim to color your audio. With that said, I’ve found it to be one of the most fun DACs I’ve had the chance to listen to. While it doesn’t redefine the character of the headphones, I’ve found the it makes them sound fuller, richer, and with a wider soundstage. It’s audible in A/B testing with my similarly-priced HIFIMAN Prelude desktop DAC/amp (review forthcoming). This amplifier has character and I’ve found it to be almost a universal enhancement for my listening tastes.
One of the interesting things with this set is that, depending on what you’re listening on, the single-ended output can actually put out more power than the balanced output. At 32 ohms, this is the case on the spec sheet. There is some disparity as you scale up and down in impedance, but it’s uncommon and not what you would expect.
With that in mind, balanced output, while usually more powerful, isn’t “double the power” like some devices offer. Whether this matters will depend on what you’re listening to, but I would contend that for most people that generally won’t matter in real world listening. There’s enough power overhead here that both balanced and single-ended are able to deliver more than enough power to saturate just about any headphone you would care to plug in.
I was pleasantly surprised by the channel balance at lower volumes too. It’s very common for there to be channel imbalances at low volume when connecting sensitive IEMs to powerful amps. The IEMatch really helps this. There is some imbalance but it disappears quickly. My only qualm here is that at the lowest volumes, the signal gets cut entirely so it seems to suddenly “pop on” when gradually turning the knob. It’s minor — you’d never listen that low expecting to hear anything — but it’s not the smooth gradient I expected.
Back to the listening experience. While the controversy around the Diablo 2 may have marred some people’s opinion of it, I would encourage anyone to actually listen to it before drawing any conclusions. Not as the dramatic powerhouse the early marketing played up, but as the portable sound system it is. Because it sounds fantastic with the right IEMs and headphones.
The tonal character adds a slight amount of warmth and a beautiful richness to the listening experience. Listening to the Thieaudio Hype 10, which I’ll be reviewing this week, it added a fullness to the sound that wasn’t there on my HIFIMAN DAC or Xduoo XD-05 during listening tests. The mids remain crisp and the highs airy. It adds dynamics and musicality to listening experiences that are quite fun.
I listen to a lot of progressive rock, post-hardcore, math rock, worship music, and chillstep, on top of gaming. The Diablo 2 seems perfectly suited to these genres. There’s enough of a low-end enhancement and crispness in the upper-mids that it presents a great sense of clarity and detail. For other genres, like jazz, and even in first-person shooters when gaming, that crispness can sometimes seem slightly over-emphasized — almost like a modest sharpening filter on an image.
I personally really enjoy this, especially with the mix of hybrid, tribrid, and planar magnetic IEMs and full-size headphones I tried. It’s most synergistic with headphones that already have a bit of warmth, these genres and plays right into my tastes.
For gaming, it works wonderfully. The expanded soundstage and fullness work wonderfully. You’re not going to go wrong using these for all of your listening at your PC and won’t need to turn on spatial audio solutions, like Dolby Atmos, to have great gaming and wider entertainment experiences.
One of the most appealing qualities of the Diablo 2, and one of the reasons it costs as much as it does, is that it can genuinely replace a full-sized desktop audio setup. Granted, it doesn’t have the array of output options a full-size DAC/amp setup offers, but it’s able to deliver a hi-fi listening experience in a comparatively small size, while also offering advanced features like xMEMs and high-res Bluetooth 5.4 support.
$1,299 is hardly cheap but given its power and capability, it’s able to replace two bulkier devices that could easily cost around the same when you’re shopping in this price/performance bracket. Add in the portability, advanced features, and the additional power over the other portable competition, and the premium iFi places on it begins to make sense. Like most Golden Ears products, the iFi iDSD Diablo 2 is a niche product but one that isn’t outlandish in the context of its market and acoustic performance.
It was a treat to be able to experience the Diablo 2 for myself. It genuinely brought some of my headphones to life in a way I didn’t expect, even having tested a number of other DACs and amps. It sounds great and lets you take a full audiophile setup anywhere you may go. That’s a winning formula.
The product described in this article was provided by the manufacturer for evaluation purposes. Some articles may contain affiliate links and purchases made through this will result in a small commission for the site. Commissions are not directed to the author or related to compensation in any way.