So here I was learning more about iFi audio and its well-earned reputation in the consumer audio community for its DACs, amplifiers, and even some cool analog effects because I anticipated this to be the first iFi audio product review to go up on TechPowerUp. Having done my homework, I set the base for this review only to find out that I had again been beaten to the punch with the 2017 review of the iFi audio nano iDSD LE. In hindsight, I should have probably done a couple of things differently, including resuming coverage of the brand with the second iFi audio product here since it is much more a successor to that nano iDSD portable DAC/amplifier.
But such is the world of consumer tech today, especially portable tech, that things have massively changed since that original iFi audio review was published. Smartphones have become de-facto music players, and they have all but lost the venerable 3.5 mm audio jack. Portable DAC/amps today tend to be much smaller and connect to your phone via Bluetooth, reintroducing the 3.5 mm jack while hopefully enhancing your audio listening experience. Today, we examine iFi audio's first such attempt to take on the pocket-friendly portable DAC/amps out there, including those we have previously covered from the likes of FiiO, Qudelix, EarMen, and IKKO. Thanks to iFi audio for helping arrange a review sample for TechPowerUp!
Balanced: <0.009% at (6.5 mW/2.0 Vrmsv@600 Ω); SE: <0.03% at (100 mW/1.27 Vrmsv@16 Ω)
20 Hz–45 kHz (+/-3 dB)
Lithium-polymer 450 mAh approx. ~8 hours (depending upon volume and headphones)
54 x 32 x 13 mm
27 g / 0.95 oz
Unboxing and Closer Examination
I decided to combine the Unboxing and Closer Examination pages into one given the relatively simple unboxing experience. The box is slightly larger than average for such portable DAC/amps, with a white base for better contrast with items of interest. On the front is the iFi audio logo, customary Hi-Res audio badge, and render of the product, with salient marketing features below. We see more features and specifications on the back, which are in Mandarin on this Chinese market sample. The regular international version will have these in English, but you can refer to page one for that anyway. I do like that there are renders of the product's sides on the side, which is a neat touch, and we now see that this is an outer sleeve that can be pushed off the inner box as seen above.
The inner box is similarly white in color and goes with just a simple iFi logo on the front. The lid opens up to reveal the contents inside, where we see a QR code card that leads you to the product page, where you can find the user manual (online copy here). I would rather see iFi audio include a folded, printed copy given the various buttons and features aboard this hardware-only set that has no mobile app support. In addition to a sticker of the iFi audio logo, the other accessories are found separately in a cardboard box, which includes a soft, branded drawstring pouch for the GO blu and short USB Type-A to Type-C cable for wired connectivity and charging the internal battery. The cable comes pre-kinked out of the box, so you don't have to worry about kinking it yourself given its thin insulation—no idea why iFi audio decided to package it like this! The Go blu itself comes inside a wax paper wrap, and the combo is placed inside a cutout in a thick foam sheet for added protection.
All that protection comes in handy since the iFi GO blu leaves a strong first impression in your hands. It's tiny, but within the realm of other tested portable DAC/amp units, at 54 mm long, 35 mm wide, and 13 mm thick while weighing just 26 g to make for an extremely portable device that is easily palmed to perform double duty as a magician's prop. It adopts a black and bronze color scheme, with the enclosure itself composed of soft-touch plastic polymer for durability without affecting Bluetooth reception, or at least that was iFi audio's original plan. But more on that later as we now examine the brushed aluminium fascia on the front that flows over the top and onto the back. The iFi audio logo is etched into the front for branding, and we see most of the other logos and certifications restricted to the darker back. The expected Hi-Res Audio Wireless badge makes a showing, as does the QR code from before. I do like that iFi added some legends to indicate what the side buttons do, which can otherwise be confusing in the absence of a manual in the box. On the flip side, the manual is handy enough, and iFi even has a dedicated set-up video guide if interested.
The two shorter sides will see most of the action when it comes to the iFi GO blu, with the bottom side hosting the Type-C connector the provided cable plugs into for wired connectivity. You can also get a Type-C adapter cable for other source options (Lighting, Type-C) if Type-A does not work for you, just make sure it is a USB OTG cable. There is also a reset button, battery status indicator LED, and microphone. The other side is where you will find headphone and earphone outputs, and this is where the iFi GO blu first distinguishes itself from everything else I've reviewed to date by including not only a 3.5 mm TRS single-ended output, but also a 4.4 mm TRRS balanced one. This is great for future-proofing your needs, with the 2.5 mm balanced output clearly on the way out, having been overshadowed by the more durable 4.4 mm Pentaconn connector. I do not know if this is an official Pentaconn connector or not, but I do know it costs more than the 2.5 mm connector. Both outputs are gold-plated for oxidation resistance and to minimize tarnishing over connection cycles. There is another indicator LED here we will discuss in more detail on the next page.
I do like the attention to detail and finish throughout, especially on the front with the logo barely felt on the brushed metal finish, but we haven't even discussed the pièce de résistance on the GO blu: the multi-function knob on the right side as seen from the front. It's a chronograph-inspired design with a cohesive mix of brass, steel, and aluminium making for a robust, large, and tactile volume knob. The ridges help with the user experience, and it would easily be the best such volume-control implementation I have tried out to date of any such portable wireless DAC/amp were it not for turning it more than you'd think for significant volume changes, especially in Windows OS because volume control on the GO blu is volume control on your source, too. I prefer independent control, but know others who prefer this simpler implementation. A multi-functional CNC-machined push button with the iFi logo goes with this, but the iFi logo unfortunately does not line up perfectly with the side and ends up angled one way or the other owing to the discrete steps of the knob assembly. This is the only issue I have here, as build quality and detail are excellent otherwise, including with the two brushed metal buttons on the sides that have a satisfying click and highly sensitive CMOS-MEMS microphone that makes the iFi GO blu conducive for voice calls and communication.
There are screws under the brushed metal face plate, if you will, which hold the plastic enclosure together. But I could not guarantee removing the plate without damaging it, so I shied away from disassembling the iFi GO blu. My decision was helped by iFi providing a clear picture of what's inside, and this is where the iFi GO blu further separates itself from the pack. AKM, at least before the factory fire last year, and ESS are still the go-to DAC makers for such products, and everything I've seen used in review samples provided recently has gone the ESS route. Turns out iFi is not one of those, and we find a Cirrus Logic CS43131 digital-to-analog converter with integrated headphone amplifier. It competes favorably with the ESS premium portable stereo DACs we've seen used before, and the power circuitry employs a mix of TDK C0G (Class 1 ceramic) and muRata control-type, low-ESR high-Q multi-layer capacitors. Power output is amplified with iFi audio's custom OV (presumably overvoltage, as in voltage amplification) series operational amplifiers, with a twin mono setup used as seen above. As with pretty much anything decent today, the DAC is also associated with a low-jitter oscillator, which makes for the impressive SINAD figures mentioned on page one.