iFi iUSB 3.0 USB power and signal conditioner

[iFi iUSB 3.0 USB power and signal conditioner]

Quiet please - the music is starting

Product name: iFi iUSB 3.0
Manufacturer: iFi iUSB 3.0
Cost: 325 UK pounds. (Currency conversion)

Reviewer: Nick Whetstone - TNT UK
Reviewed: September, 2016

It appears that the guys at iFi never rest, always looking to squeeze a bit more performance out of their gear. Of course it helps that their parent company, AMR, design and produce equipment for the top end of the market, and the research and design trickles down into the iFi stuff as well. The subject of this review is the iFi Audio Micro iUSB 3.0 power supply, a device to optimise not only the power supply to a USB DAC or converter, but the signal supplied to it as well.

Apparently much of the technology used in the iUSB 3.0 comes from the world of military radar, and iFi claim is original in this type of USB equipment. Boasting active noise cancellation, it re-clocks, re-balances, and regenerates the USB signal, and provides an improved power supply over its predecessor. iFi claim that the noise floor of the iUSB 3.0 is at the lower limit of what is measurable. Additionally, as its name suggests, the iUSB 3.0 is designed to work with the latest USB specification. With increasingly higher usage of hi-res music files, the added speed of USB 3 will surely be an advantage in playing the very large (high resolution) files.

The iUSB 3.0 has yet another trick up its sleeve. It's called 'ISOGround', and this is how iFi describe it:

Another feature that I think shows iFI's attention to how their products are actually used, is the second pair of USB ports. That enables the user to connect not only their USB DAC or converter, but also an external hard drive. Noise can 'leak' into the system from any piece of equipment connected to it, so providing a very quiet source of power for the hard drive makes sense. You could also run two USB DACs through the iUSB 3.0 at the same time if you wanted to make a comparison of them using the same power source.

If all this isn't enough, the iUSB 3.0 will also charge mobile phones or tablets. Here are the specifications:

With the many features of the iUSB 3.0, you may feel that it would require quite a lot of user input to get it up and running. But you can actually just use it as a plug-and-play item, and it will work perfectly. It involves nothing more than plugging in the wallwart, plugging in the source (USB lead from computer), and then the USB DAC or converter (or hard drive). You can toggle the switch for the ISOGround, and simply sit back and listen to ascertain which position the switch is best left in. I suspect how much, if any, improvement it makes will depend on the quality of your home's electrical wiring.

So, how does it sound (if we can say that something that is designed to produce more quiet can sound at all)? I used it with several USB DACs, and a USB converter, in two systems. In my test system, I struggled to hear much improvement, until I remembered that that system is powered through the excellent James Audio mains conditioner. When I took that out, and replaced it with a bog standard four gang trailing socket, I was able to hear that the iUSB 3.0 was doing much the same as the James Audio mains conditioner, although to a lesser degree.

Let me state straight away that we are not comparing like with like here, as the James Audio unit provides exceptionally clean mains power for the whole system, while the iUSB 3.0 is dealing with just the computer source items. So when I say that they do much the same thing, it is the removal of noise from the music that they both achieve. At first this can sound a bit odd as this appears to take away something from the music.
It's only when you realise that it is the noise that has gone that you start to appreciate what lowering the noise floor does for hi-fi listening. We often hear people say that there is no substitute for listening to live music, and as most live (amplified) music has quite a high noise floor, that may explain why the same performance listened to through a hi-fi sounds so different. When the noise floor is lowered, the music can fool us into thinking that the sound is a bit less exciting, until we get used to it.

Anyway, the iUSB 3.0 does what it says on the tin (if iFi will forgive me for describing their very stylish case as a tin). I went back and forth between the iUSB 3.0, and using the James Audio conditioner for the whole system, and using either a Paul Hynes SR5 or Astin Trew power supply for the USB DAC. I think that I just preferred the latter (at nearly five times the cost), but each time that I went back to the iUSB 3.0, I very quickly forgot any difference, and really enjoyed what was coming from the speakers.
As I said, we can't directly compare items like the iUSB 3.0 with a whole system mains conditioner, but the fact that the sound was so close using the iUSB 3.0 speaks volumes for what it achieves at its price. As it includes signal improvement technology, and the two pairs of USB ports, I would suggest that his item should be very near the top of your shopping list when searching for a better USB DAC power supply.

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© Copyright 2016 Nick Whetstone - nick@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com