iFi Diablo Review - Portable DAC/Amp
Review written by @SenyorC
The iFi Audio Diablo has been loaned to me by iFi for the purpose of this review, for which I am very grateful. As always, I will be as impartial as possible giving my honest opinions of the device, however, it is always good to take into consideration that it has not cost me anything to try this device.
The iFi Audio Diablo is a very recent release from the company and is a portable DAC/Amp coming in at just under $900 (at the time of this review).
The price is obviously not cheap, however, the specifications and usability of this device may just make it a perfect all in one solution for many people.
This is not the first device of this style that iFi have released, their portable (or transportable) DAC/Amps are well known by the majority of those in the headphone world. I haven’t really had chance to try out the other models that they offer, although I did review the iDSD Neo recently (Review - iFi Audio iDSD Neo), but I am very interested to find out if something like the Diablo would fit my needs and use cases (which are many).
But anyway, let’s get on with the review!
As this is a review unit, I am not the first person to open it, however, I believe that the contents are complete and match those included with a retail model.
It arrives in a plain white box, covered with a cardboard sleeve showing an image of the product, along with some specifications and other information. The box is rather large and heavy in comparison to the unit itself, but that is due to the amount of accessories included.
Inside the box, under the top layer of foam, sits the Diablo along with a couple of quick start manuals. After opening such a large and heavy box, the small size and weight of the Diablo is a bit of a surprise.
Under the top layer, we get 2 smaller boxes and a rather nice carrying case that is large enough for the unit and it’s accessories. The accessories included are:
- Carrying case
- iFi USB Purifier
- 4.4mm pentacon to 2x XLR cable
- USB male to female cable
- USB-C OTG cable
- Power supply
- Power connector to USB-C adapter
- USB adapter
- 3.5mm to 6.35mm adapter
- Optic to 3.5mm optic
As you can see, there are quite a lot of accessories included, which is appreciated, all of them seemingly of good quality.
Build and Aesthetics
It’s red. Very red.
Now, I am not saying that as a bad thing (or a good thing) as colour preferences are just as personal as musical tastes, but let’s just say that it won’t be easy to misplace. In fact, a simple yellow hazard sticker would probably guarantee that I would have it inspected at every airport.
Forgetting the colour though (again, a personal preference thing), The unit seems to be very well built. The size is approximately the same size as my phone and about 3 times as thick. This is something that is not going to be comfortable in a pocket, at least while in use, so I would count it more as transportable than portable. It will fit nicely in a small bag, or even in a jacket pocket, but the carrying case included is large enough to fit all the accessories which then converts it into something that would be better in a backpack for transportation purposes, or just use the carrying case as a bag as it has the hooks to add the included strap.
The volume wheel is nice and smooth, being pleasurable to use. All in all, it is a very simple but well built unit.
The Diablo is a simple unit, however it does include more functionality than meets the eye at a simple glance.
Starting from the back panel, from left to right, we have an S/PDIF input, of the 3.5mm type, which allows you to use this with devices that are not USB.
To the right of this there is a 4.4mm balanced output. This allows the Diablo to be used with external balanced amplifiers. As noted in the accessories, iFi includes a 4.4mm to dual XLR adapter cable which is appreciated as it is not a cable that is very common in most setups.
In the center of the back panel, we have the USB-C port which is strictly for charging. iFi includes a 5v 2.4A charger, however, I am a little confused as to why the power supply terminates in a barrel connector and then a barrel to USB-C is included in the accessories. Maybe I am missing something here and this is for the PSU to be used in another way or with different equipment, but I can’t understand why it didn’t just terminate in a USB-C connector and skipped an extra adapter that could be lost. There is a small LED at the side of this connector that indicates battery level and charging etc.
Finally, to the right side of the back panel we have the USB data connection port. As is habit with iFi Audio on their portable products, this connector is a male A-Type USB connector that is recessed into the body of the unit. This means that the connector for the unit needs to be a USB Type-A female, like the ones found on USB extension cables. iFi again includes a decent USB cable with the Diablo, but finding decent alternatives in different lengths, if needed, may prove more difficult than if it were something like USB-C.
I can understand that this cable/connector setup is far more robust than USB-C, which is obviously a good thing, but the extra size of the connector and the thickness of the cable does add extra bulk and size, definitely tipping the scale from portable to transportable, in my opinion of course.
Moving around to the front of the Diablo, on the left there is a 6.35mm TRS for the unbalanced output. Due to the size and shape of the Diablo, I like the 6.35mm much more than other 3.5mm commonly found on anything in the portable category. It again adds to the robustness and an adapter to 3.5mm is probably the easiest audio connector to source in the world (iFi also includes a nice one anyway).
Moving on, we have a 4.4mm balanced headphone output. Again, it is nice to find robustness in the connectors and a 4.4mm is much better than a 2.5mm, especially as we already have a 6.35mm on the unit which means there is more than enough space for it.
In the center of the front panel we have the gain switch, or mode switch in the case of the Diablo. This is a very small 3 position toggle switch that you will find easier to switch using your nail but can be done with a finger without issue, except for when the 4.4mm port is being used, which makes it a little more difficult but still doable. It is great that the switch is not easily accessed as we will see in just a moment.
The three mode levels are ECO, Normal and Turbo, which are basically low/medium/high gain modes. ECO mode reduces power to enable the Diablo to be used with more sensitive headphones and IEMs. In Normal mode, this amplifier is already pushing as much power (or more) as most portable options, or even desktop units, and once switching to Turbo mode, well, the specs speak for themselves:
- Balanced output: Over 19.2V/611 mW (@ 600 Ohm) and over 12.6V/4,980 mW (@ 32 Ohm)
- Single Ended: Over 9.6V/153 mW (@ 600 Ohm) and over 8.8V/2,417 mW (@ 32 Ohm)
So in Turbo mode, with balanced out, this unit is approaching 5W at 32 Ohms! It is highly recommended to check the mode setting before turning on the Diablo!
Continuing with the front panel, there is a large LED that indicates the unit is on and also changes colour to indicate the format of the signal being received. While the LED is large, it is not overly bright which is nice when using the Diablo in low lighted areas.
Finally we have the volume knob which also serves to turn the unit on or off. The knob is nice to use and they have left enough of a gap at the bottom of the unit to make it easy to use when the Diablo is sitting on a table.
Well, after all of that, I haven’t really mentioned functionality, just the connections and controls. So, let me briefly say how all of this works…
- Connect USB or S/PDIF cable, depending on your use case.
- Connect headphones or IEMs
- Check the Mode level
- Turn on and adjust volume to taste
The Diablo is a very simple to use device that still has all the necessary options. The only function I could see this unit missing for some is the possibility to use it as an amplifier only, being fed from a different DAC. I can understand this being very useful to some, although not for me personally.
Now, before I get to the sound, which I will in just a moment, even though the sound differences of DACs and amps are something that I dread having to explain, I want to first mention how I have been using the Diablo and finding it to be a very versatile product.
My main listening stations are at my PC at home and also at my desk at work, in which case, the Diablo is quite easy to implement. Just plug into a USB port and I have enough power and quality to run any headphones that I own (and I should imagine that enough for 90% of headphones that exist).
However, at my desk I have complete systems already and apart from taking up less real estate (which is not an issue) or any differences in sound (again, I’ll get there in a moment), it really doesn’t add any benefit.
As soon as I am away from either of those places, that is where the Diablo starts to shine. My house has RJ45 network ports distributed in various locations of all the rooms, so paired with a Raspberry Pi running RopieeeXL, I have a perfect set up to play all of my local content, easily controlled by any of my phones/tablets/pc’s. I can literally experience the same quality of reproduction and power in any room of my house in a package that is easily transported in one hand.
Another great use for the Diablo (in my case) is travel. Admittedly travel has been very limited over the past year or so but my job entails a lot of travelling and the Diablo comes in perfect for my use case. Not so much during the actual travelling itself (I don’t see me using the Diablo on a plane) but as having the same SQ available everywhere, whether it is in a hotel, on a ship or just at the beach house. The Diablo connected to a DAP or phone/tablet gives me a perfect reference set up for trying out headphones and IEMs no matter where I may be, or just for sitting back and relaxing.
There are more situations in which I can see it being a great solution but I think I gave you enough of an idea already, so, finally, on to the sound.
As I have mentioned in other reviews of DACs and amplifiers, I find describing the sound to be a very difficult thing to do, as I am never sure what I am really hearing and what my brain is adding to the equation. But anyhow, I will share my subjective opinions on the Diablo.
As is usual with iFi Audio, the Diablo is based on a Burr-Brown chip, as was the NEO iDSD I reviewed previously. With the NEO I found it to be smoother than the set ups I usually use for reference and in the case of the Diablo, I again feel that it is smoother than my other current options, although (going totally by memory) I don’t find it to be quite as obvious as with the NEO.
For the comparison tests, I currently only have one SS amplifier which is the JDS Labs Atom (which I always use for comparisons anyway) being fed from an SMSL SU-8. My other amps are currently hybrid so are not really a relevant comparison, although I did do some quick references against the CTH fed by a Modi 3, using S/PDIF.
I used my usual three headphones, the Sennheiser HD6XX, Beyerdynamic DT1990 (with foam discs) and Hifiman Ananda, along with a selection of my IEMs. However, as I have a few recent arrivals that I will be reviewing in the coming weeks, I also tried the Diablo with the Hifiman Arya, Hifiman HE1000SE and a couple of recently received IEMs such as the Moondrop Blessing 2 Dusk and the Audeze iSine LX.
Throughout the majority of my listening periods, I felt that I could hear a smoother sound from the Diablo in comparison to my SU-8 + Atom, however, it is just as detailed (or more) and was a great improvement with some headphones, whereas it wasn’t as noticeable on other sets.
With the Hifiman Ananda, which is really my favourite headphone out of those that I own, I found it to match great. I really love the Ananda for its sound stage and details (you can read my Ananda review here: Review - Hifiman Ananda) and while plugged into a hybrid it does sound nice and smooth, I like the cleanliness of a solid state with it. In the case of the Diablo, the Ananda are as clear as ever but seem to be smoother. There is no lack of detail, but it all seems to flow better, if that makes any sense.
I found I preferred the Ananda on “Normal” mode with a lower volume level on the knob than on “ECO” with the volume raised to match. This could again be just psychological, I am not saying it isn’t, but it seemed to provide better performance on “Normal”.
Plugging in the Sennheiser HD6XX, a headphone that I have a love/hate relationship with (see details here: Review - HD6XX), I was greeted with great sound. Now maybe it was one of my inspired moments with the HD6XX (you will understand if you read the review) but I feel that it is possibly the best pairing I have heard with these headphones yet, at least in my experience with SS and Hybrid amps.
With the Sennheisers I got them to around 11 o’clock on Turbo mode but that was way above my usual listening levels. My usual listening levels were just below 9 o’clock on Turbo or just above 10 o’clock on Turbo, pushing up to around 1 o’clock if I wanted to stay in ECO mode. Again, it could just be me and my brain, but I found I preferred Normal mode over ECO mode for the HD6XX, even when matching volumes.
The last of my usual three, the Beyerdynamic DT1990 Pro, well, these sounded like the DT1990 Pro. These headphones really don’t exhibit much change at all, they sound just like they always do but with the possibility of reaching ear bleeding levels, especially as mine are modified to run balanced and have the foam discs to tame that 8.5k.
As far as IEMs, I tried a few but more to get a feeling for how the Diablo performs with IEMs rather than in search of sound differences. My IEM collection is mostly all budget aimed stuff and I do not feel that any of my IEMs are detailed enough to spot differences between good amplifiers (unless an amplifier has a high-impedance output, which is not the case).
Here are the volume levels that I consider to be my usual listening levels (I do not listen loud) with what are probably my most sensitive IEMs at the moment, I did not experience any background noise with any of them:
- Moondrop Blessing 2 Dusk (22 Ω / 117dB) - Below 10 o’clock in ECO
- Moondrop Starfield (32 Ω / 122dB) - Below 10 o’clock in ECO
- Audeze iSine LX (16 Ω / 110dB) - Just over 10 o’clock in ECO
As you can see, I didn’t have much of a volume control but, as I said, I don’t listen very loudly. Anyone who listens at higher levels than me will obviously have more travel. I am told (by iFi) that for very sensitive IEMs or for low levels like I listen at, an additional iFi IEM match would be recommended. To be honest, I don’t have any complaints as, although I don’t get much travel, there is zero background noise and my listening levels are above any channel imbalance issues (found only at the very bottom of the range).
The iFi Audio Diablo is a very practical device that is a great option for many situations. For someone who takes their headphones set up to and from the office every day, this is a great sounding and extremely powerful all-in-one solution that will easily fit in a bag.
For those who travel, for pleasure or for work, this is again a great set up that will not condition the headphones you want to use. It will also be difficult to forget in a hotel room due to the colour!
With IEMs, if you don’t listen at very high levels, then I would say that an IEM Match would be a good thing to have. Although I have found it very usable as is.
The Diablo accepts almost any format you will think of throwing at it and also does the complete unfolding of MQA if that is something you use. The included accessories are also a nice option, even the USB Purifier. I personally did not find I needed to use the purifier, or rather, I did not notice a difference when not using it because my system doesn’t suffer noise via USB but it will certainly be useful for many.
I hope after all this time rambling on, there is some useful information for those interested in the Diablo but to recap briefly, it is a great (trans)portable device that should offer a great solution for anyone looking to have great SQ anywhere.
Buy the iFi Diablo at headphones.com for the best available price.
Discuss the iFi Diablo on the HEADPHONE Community Forum here.