So, how does it sound?
Build quality, portability and features are all good and well, but the most important aspect of a device like the Nano BL is sound quality. After all, if it doesn’t sound better than hooking your headphones to your phone, what’s the point?
I’ve been using the Nano BL on and off for the past few months to get a good feel on how it sounds with my phone, comparing it to using my phone directly (the LG V30+ is one of the few smartphones that not only retains a headphone port, but also features a hi-fi quality DAC and amp), and comparing the combination of phone and Nano BL to a dedicated music player (the HiBy R6 Pro).
All my listening was done with a pair of 64 Audio U12t IEMs – reference-grade, professional IEMs that are extremely revealing of source gear. I did not use the IE Match port since the U12t’s are fairly resistant to hiss, so the following impressions are based entirely on direct output. I also didn’t have a cable that supported the Nano BL’s rare 3.5mm TRRS S-balanced feature, so please take this into account when reading further.
The Nano BL is not my first experience of an ifi player. One of my first ‘serious’ playback devices was ifi’s original (non-BL) Micro iDSD, so you could say I’m fairly familiar with the smooth, natural sound of the Burr-Brown PCM1793 DAC in the Nano BL. Compared to the ESS Sabre DAC in my phone, the Nano BL was immediately more euphoric sounding, taking some of the ‘edginess’ off sharper sounds, but not detrimentally so. Strings and cymbals are still rendered sharply, with enough bite to satisfy, but perhaps not with as much etched detail from more analytical-leaning DACs.
Vocals – particularly female vocals – are silky and soft, in a good way. Lily Kershaw’s ‘Always & Forever’ from her exceptional Arcadia album sounds as sultry and vulnerable as I know it to be, although the mix of vocals and instruments is rendered with more authority on the HiBy.
Staging is good, if not outstanding. With the right source the U12t has a holographic, layered stage that’s difficult to describe in words, and while the Nano BL does it justice, it’s not quite as spacious as I hear it with the HiBy. That said, the presentation, while more intimate, is never congested, helped by the laid-back tonality of the Burr-Brown DAC that relaxes the vocals and lets the music wash over you without drowning you in microdetails.
I’m a big fan of ifi’s ‘house sound’, and the Nano BL follows in the footsteps of its bigger brothers in this regard. Bass notes are deep and full, with a warmth that infuses the rest of the FR range without getting too dark or muddy. Mids are not the most eloquent or detailed by any stretch, but more than a match for the more clinical output from my phone, and treble is smooth and airy without every becoming harsh or sibilant.
It’s what I’d call a very pleasant sound signature that makes listening easy but that also reveals just the right amount of detail from most recordings.
Coming up, final impressions…