iFi Audio micro - iUSB 3.0
Dimensions (L x W x H): 158mm x 68mm x 28mm
Weight: 285g (0.63 lbs)
Availability: Online and through authorized dealers
USB audio has become the most popular standard for computer audiophile DACs in recent years. Although most manufacturers have added circuits for isolation of computer noise as well as other methods of dealing with the shortcomings of USB audio, a number of innovative designers have come forward with accessories that they feel improve the audio performance of USB DACs. Gordon Rankin, John Swenson, and Thorsten Loesch are some of the best known designers to address the issues that degrade the performance of USB audio.
iFi Audio was one of the first to address the noise issue that computers contribute to a DAC with the popular iUSB Power. Along with their iPurifier, the iUSB Power improved the sound of USB DACs as was chronicled here at AudioStream. Michael Lavorgna reviewed the iUSB Power in 2012 (see review), while I evaluated the iPurifier with the iPower in 2014 (see review). Both Michael and I found these products to be worthwhile additions to USB audio systems.
But since those early reviews, a number of new products have entered the market with new approaches to improving USB audio performance. The Schiit Wyred, the AudioQuest JitterBug, and the Uptone Audio REGEN are among the devices that have been reviewed here at AudioStream (review and review 2). iFi Audio has not rested on their laurels and has released a new series of products that they feel outperform their previous efforts. The new iUSB3.0 represents everything that iFi Audio has learned from their previous designs in the non-ending quest for audio perfection.
While iFi Audio recommended the use of their iPurifier with their iUSB Power, they do not suggest using the new iPurifier2 with the iUSB3.0 as the iUSB3.0 incorporates the features of the iPurifier2.
What does the iUSB3.0 accomplish for USB Audio?
Unlike the previous iFi Audio products that focused on clean power for the DAC or filtering of noise, the iUSB3.0 has been touted as a “Total USB Audio Solution”. Among other functions, the iUSB3.0 utilizes active noise cancellation, clean power to replace the noisy 5v computer power, re-clocking and regenerating of the USB signal to decrease computer jitter, re-balancing the USB audio signal, and removing DC offset noise. iFi Audio claims that the iUSB3.0 address the following:
- Corrects signal balance
- Suppresses frame noise
- Suppresses packet noise
- Ultra clean power
- Eliminates ground noise
- Corrects impedance mismatch
- Eliminates USB Jitter
- Restores signal integrity
Why did iFi Audio select a USB 3.0 interface for the iUSB3.0?
A. USB 3.0 vs. USB 2.0 chipsetWhat improvements are offered in the iUSB3.0 over the earlier iUSB Power?
The USB 3.0 chipsets are more of a recent development than the USB 2.0 chipsets. USB 2.0 chipset technology has pretty much been static for the last 10+ years. Naturally, advancements have seen things move-on.
The USB 3.0 chipsets are designed for a much higher data-rate and in our experience, are more tolerant of USB 2.0 connections. In some ways, the 2.5GHz capable silicone processes draws parallels to having a 1MHz bandwidth amplifier, even if the 1MHz bandwidth of the amplifier is not used, it will usually do a better job at lower frequencies.
In comparison to the USB 2.0 chipset based iFi iPurifier2, customers who have compared both, USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 devices, have reported that they found the USB 3.0 based devices "fuller sounding (especially on bass)" as well as offering "better sound-staging" and "better separation". This matches our own listening experiences as well.
B. iUSB3.0 products vs. original iUSB PowerOperation of the iUSB3.0
Launched in October 2012, the iUSB Power was strictly a new power-supply source with an additional feature to eliminate ground/earth loop issues.
The iUSB3.0 on the other hand, is a ground-up re-design and brings a huge focus to USB signal integrity in addition to the power supply function. The whole USB signal from the computer is completely re-constructed, re-clocked and re-balanced before being passed on to downstream devices (e.g. DAC's but not limited to those) and this is done for both USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 connections.
We have included all of our latest research and know-how into improving USB audio as well as implementing many of the requests we received from iUSB Power users.
However, in addition to applying so much effort to the USB data, the power supply function has also been massively improved. The iUSB3.0 offers much higher levels of output current (past even already high USB 3.0 requirements). Thus, the iUSB3.0 supports the various ID systems that allow DACs, which are suitably equipped (like the iDSD micro) to recognize when they are attached to a "super power" port, to draw up to 1.5A when needed. Another benefit of the iUSB3.0 is the option to shut the device down when the attached Host (PC, Mac etc.) is turned off or to keep the power supplied to the USB device(s) even while the PC is off (e.g. for re-charging batteries or to keep DAC's "warmed up").
1. Two sets of ports
By offering two high-grade USB ports many other options become available. For those who use a laptop or tablet with only one USB Port can utilize the hub function of the iUSB3.0 which would allow for a USB 3.0 hard drive and a USB 2.0 DAC to be combined at the same time, without any interference between the two devices.
2. Car audio
The iUSB3.0 may even be applied in a car audio setup as it is fully compatible with 12V DC from a car's electrical system (including protection). A USB DAC with a USB 3.0 hard drive controlled via a tablet computer can be made into an exceptional car audio system.
3. USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 runs on different data lines
USB 3.0 utilizes a different run of wires and has a dedicated hub function in parallel with the USB 2.0 run of wires. The two do not share anything except being bundled into a single connector and cable loom in the connection to the PC.
4. DAC Head-to Head comparisons
We also find the USB Hub function very useful when comparing DACs. Two DAC's can be attached to one iUSB3.0 simultaneously, and with suitable software (e.g. J-River), it is possible to synchronize and to send the same audio stream to both DACs. Direct AB Switching is not just possible, but trivial with the iUSB3.0.
iFi Audio includes a .5 meter USB 3.0 cable for connection of the iUSB3.0 to the computer. Two sets of outputs are provided with Signal/Power and Power for single lead USB cables and dual lead cables such as the iFi Audio Gemini. There is a USB power Auto / On switch and an IsoGround switch that eliminates ground loop / noises from the computer.
Products Used In the Evaluation
I used my Asus G501 JW laptop running Windows 10 Pro 64 bit for the evaluation of the iUSB3.0. The Asus G501 JW possesses an Intel Core i7 4720HQ 2.6 GHz processor with 16 GB RAM and a very fast PCE Express X4 SSD. This laptop has 3 USB 3.0 ports as well as a Thunderbolt port. The Asus laptop was plugged into a Shunyata Research Hydra DPC-6 v2 distribution center to firewall the noise generated by this computer from contaminating my AC line.
The Asus was placed on a Synergistic Research Tranquility Base UEF grounded with the Synergistic Research High Definition Ground Cable / Grounding Block as was the computer. Two 8 TB GRAID Thunderbolt drives were connected; one for PCM and the other for DSD files. The GRAID Thunderbolt drives were powered by HDPlex 100w linear power supplies plugged into the Shunyata Hydra DPC-6 ver 2.
Music software included the use of Roon 1.1.
I decided to use the MSB Technology Analog DAC with Analog Power Base with the new Premium Quad USB2 Module for this review. The Premium Quad Module represents MSB Technology’s most advanced implementation of USB for their DAC with superior isolation compared to their previous efforts. The Analog DAC was plugged into a Shunyata Research Triton v2 / Typhon using Shunyata’s Sigma Digital AC cable.
USB cables utilized in this review were the iFi Audio Gemini and the Wireworld Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0 cables.
It didn’t take me long to determine that the iUSB3.0 made a positive contribution to the sound of my MSB Analog DAC. A number of sonic characteristics were enhanced when listening to music played through the iUSB3.0. The sound appeared to be clearer with less congestion or veiling. Highs were better defined as was bass impact. Background noise was decreased with a greater sense of a deep black background. The size of the soundstage also seemed larger using the iUSB3.0.The sound seemed less involving and more 2-dimensional when the iUSB3.0 was taken out of the system.
Music seemed to have more weight and body with the iUSB3.0. This resulted in a more relaxed sound that was more engaging and pleasant to listen to for extended periods. Using the supplied USB 3.0 cable to connect the iUSB3.0 to the computer, there was, in my opinion, a bit of excessive warmth and mid bass prominence to the sound. Some of you will probably love this balance, but I felt that this USB 3.0 cable might be an issue for my system.
I asked David Salz of Wireworld Cable Technology for his Starlight USB 3.0 cable (.5 meter) to see if an improvement to the overall performance of the iUSB 3.0 was possible. This $105.00 cable put the sound of the iUSB3.0 over-the-top for my system and my sonic preferences. The bit of excessive warmth and darkness was replaced with a more neutral sound that was better defined from top to bottom. Deep bass and mid bass performance was improved as was overall definition. The perceived soundstage was wider and deeper with the Starlight USB 3.0 cable.
Sound with the dual lead iFi Gemini cable was quite good with the iUSB3.0. I felt that the Wireworld Platinum Starlight 7 USB cable provided even better sonic performance in my system.
I loved what the iUSB3.0 did for my music
Natalie Merchant’s new release Paradise Is There - The New Tigerlily Recordings (24/48) benefited from the use of the iUSB3.0. This album is a new arrangement and recording of Merchant’s multi-platinum 1995 release of Tigerlily. I felt that there was greater purity and liquidity to Natalie’s voice and that a superior black-velvet background was present when listening through the iUSB3.0.
Emilie-Claire Barlow’s Clear Day also benefited from the contribution made by the iUSB3.0. This Canadian jazz singer’s album features the Dutch orchestra Metrople Orkest conducted by Jules Buckley. In this album she performs folk and rock standards that tell different parts of her personal story. The DSD128 recording was made from the original 192 bits resolution master to analog. DSD128 was done with an Ayre QA9 Pro. The resolution and transient detail were excellent using the iUSB3.0. There was greater immediacy and palpability to the sound with the iFi device.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Let Me Get By (24/88.2) release had excellent grip, definition, and impact listening with the iUSB3.0. This recording plays a mix of rock, soul, gospel, and blues. The dynamic life and detail of this recording was enhanced using the iUSB3.0.
The iPower Ultra Low-Noise AC/DC Adapter II
The iUSB3.0 includes iFi’s new iPower AC/DC Adapter. This is one fine unit and a big improvement compared to the older supply that came with the iUSB Power. iFi Audio states that the new iPower is up to 10X more quiet than the previous model. There was no detectable coloration or brightness to the sound with the new iPower. I did compare the new iPower with my HDPlex linear power supply; both plugged into a Shunyata Research DPC-6 v2 filter. The sound of the iPower was quite close to the HDPlex. The HDPlex did have a larger soundstage with slightly more detail and focus to the sound. But I was very impressed with the sound quality of the new iPower.
I installed the older iUSB Power and iPurifier and compared this combination to the new iUSB3.0. I felt that the iUSB3.0 was far superior sounding and less colored than the former models.
I then compared the iUSB3.0 with its iPower adapter to the Uptone Audio REGEN with its power adapter. Keep in mind that I used the USB 3.0 cable supplied with the iUSB3.0. The sound of these two devices was quite different in their stock form. The REGEN was lighter sounding with less warmth than the iUSB3.0. I felt that the iUSB3.0 was quieter sounding with its stock power adapter. Replacing the stock USB 3.0 cable with the Wireworld Starlight USB 3.0 cable delivered a lighter-faster sound somewhat akin to the REGEN, but superior in instrumental and vocal weight or fullness with better soundstaging and focus within the soundstage.
In a Perfect World
In a perfect world, our DACs should be so well designed that products like the iUSB3.0 would be unnecessary. But it appears that these USB enhancement products are necessary to achieve the ultimate sound quality from USB interfaces as there are very few, if any, perfect DACs. I found the performance of the iFi Audio iUSB3.0 to be not only impressive in my system, but a significant improvement over iFi Audio’s previous efforts with the iUSB Power and the iPurifier. Your final sonic outcome using the iUSB3.0 will, no doubt, be system dependent. But given my experiences with the iUSB3.0, I would strongly recommend that computer audiophiles give this excellent product an audition.