iFi Audio is a very interesting new manufacturer of affordable transportable audio gear created by Abbingdon Music Research Audio. iFi (and Avatar Acoustics).
Thank you so much for allowing me to borrow these for an extended period of time, longer than expected) has graciously loaned me their entire Micro product line, which includes the iCan headphone amplifier ($249), the iDAC…DAC ($299), the iPhono phono preamp ($399), and the mysterious iUSB ($199), which I will describe in great lengths.
So, for about $750, you can have a complete computer system, not that bad at all.
It is clear that minimalism is one of iFi’s goals, even with packaging. The boxes are compact and elegant; they are made of cardboard with a cover piece. Inside the boxes is exactly what is needed for the products to work as intended. It is clear that iFi decided to invest more money into their products than extraneous packaging material.
All of the iFi products have the same housing. The enclosures are aluminum, compact, and sturdy; they certainly feel more expensive than they cost. If I may have one complaint, since the top corners of the enclosures aren’t flat, they aren’t very easy to stack, which is a shame because the stacked system would take up very little horizontal space, a useful feature in a place like a college dorm or an apartment.
Initially, I didn’t expect all that much from the iFi stack. Since their footprint was so small, and the expectations so lofty, anything above middle-of-the-road would please me. It turns out I had so much to say that I’ve dedicated a page to each product. This entire review is about 4,500 words. It’s a lengthy read, but iFi deserves it.
One of my favorite things about iFi Audio is that its staff is incredibly transparent regarding their products. They’ve even gone to the trouble of opening up their products and showing what their circuit boards look like.
The iCan is iFi’s vision of the transportable sub-$300 amplifier. Right off the bat, iFi is at a bit of a disadvantage. The iCan is small, but not exactly small enough to use as a portable (excepting people that use the LISA III).
Then again, that isn’t the iCan’s goal. iFi’s goal with this product line is to allow people to have a system that’s both more powerful than most portable headphone amplifiers, but at the same time, have only a slightly larger than a “big” portable amplifier so the iFi stack can be transported outside of the house.
Let’s be honest, while I love my home amplifiers, there is absolutely no way I’d bring them on a trip, but invariably, there will be downtime on said trip in which I’d have nothing better to do than listen to music.
The iFi stack, T50RP, and laptop filled with music get me 80% of the goodness I have at home. Not to mention, the stack is also much, much better than plugging my IEMs into my phone.
The iCan also has a couple of nice features that make it a little more interesting than most other amps in the iCan’s price range. It has a crossfeed system called, “3D Holographic Sound.”
Since any explanation of the system I could give would be crude, to say the least, I’ll just share a quote from Vince at iFi:
“The three settings are “direct,” “3D for flat recordings,” and “3D for recordings with excessive stereo effect.”
According to Thorsten Loesch, “Our 3D Holographic Sound circuit is not based on the Linkwitz crossfeed everyone else seems to copy with slight adjustments. We did not find the Linkwitz circuit adequate to provide even a crude first-order approximation of the time and frequency domain responses needed.
Further, for both operations the sets of coefficients are based on internal research and listening tests and in part derive from work I was involved with in the 1980s at the RFZ (then East Germany’s equivalent of the IRT). The coefficients are fairly complex and not simply expressed by a simple number of XdB at YHz.”
I’ll go more in-depth on how it actually sounds in practice later on in the review. The iCan also has a bass boost toggle called, “XBass.” There are three levels: flat, “compensation for gentle roll-off,” and “compensation for severe roll-off.” Like the “3D Holographic Sound” system, I’ll go more into detail later.
I’m assuming the reader would prefer to know how the amp sounds flat before adding some embellishments.
Now for what the iCan actually sounds like. I used a plethora of headphones with the iCan, and I’ll discuss how well the iCan pairs with them in a bit. Since I’ve established the iCan doesn’t really sound like the Objective2, some may claim that it, therefore, isn’t neutral. It really isn’t neutral, but at this level, that’s okay.
The iCan’s sound signature is a little odd. There’s a definite, though slight, bass accentuation even in “bass neutral” mode. The bass is ever-so-slightly uncontrolled, and the timbre is a bit flatter than it should be. The combination shows that it’s not the best amplifier for headphones that already suffer from bass issues, especially for listeners of classical or folk music, but for a lot of electronic music, it works, as long as slightly loose bass doesn’t destroy the reader’s enjoyment of electronic music.
The iCan’s midrange is, to my ears, laid-back. The iCan smoothened out the midrange of every headphone I tried with it, which can make or break some headphones. Like the bass, timbre is slightly off, which is annoying.
Male vocals tended to sound a little better than female vocals, mostly because of the fleshed-out bottom end and slightly recessed upper mids. I thought the combination would work well with the AKG K702, but, alas, the K702’s already less-than-neutral midrange was made even worse by the iCan.
However, with another AKG, the K240 Sextett, the iCan did wonders. Vocals sounded fantastic with the iCan, smoothening out the already smooth midrange and making it more romantic.
The same applied to the AKG K271. Definitely pair the iCan with a midrange-heavy headphone, as the synergy is quite fantastic. I wish I had a Grado to test the iCan with since I have a hunch that they’d pair just as well. On the flip side, pairing the iCan with a midrange-light headphone may not be the best of ideas.
In my impressions of the iCan treble, scattered about the internet, I described the iCan as bright. Something must have happened between then and now because the iCan isn’t nearly as bright as I thought it was.
There are a few odd dips in the treble that makes the iCan more relaxing to listen to than the Objective2, which is probably the more ideal sound signature for someone that’d bring the iFi stack with them on a vacation: it’s as relaxing as a tired traveler may want their sound. But if that’s not the ideal sound signature, bright headphones’ treble isn’t tamed too much by the iCan.
My Fostex T50RP is a bit on the bright side (too much for some music) but the iCan didn’t exactly recess the treble, it just made it more bearable. There is still some of the natural low-end solid state glare, but it’s less noticeable with the iCan than the Objective2.
Now for the super-cool tech, the iCan has. Level One for XBass is described on the amp to be for full-size headphones. Naturally, I intend to be difficult and use my K702 for this test, since it is a full-size headphone.
Thankfully, the system doesn’t only increase bass for the sake of increasing the bass and making the sound muddier. It works like most contour systems in that the entire lower range is warmed up.
For those unfamiliar with the system, it works like a ZO amplifier (Google it). It’s cleaner than the ZO’s (Note: I have a ZO, not a ZO2) low range accentuation and actually is something I’d leave permanently switched on for the K702 since it gives the K702 the right amount of oomph for music that it didn’t have enough body to play prior to the iCan’s interference.
Kudos to iFi for creating a bass boost that doesn’t muck up the rest of the sound in the process. I wish I could say the same about Level Three (Yeah, iFi skipped Level Two).
The bass boost is, I think, equal to my ZO’s max settings. But with the drastic increase is bass, gone is the control that Level One kept. For the first time, my K702’s bass is muddy. Even for the bassiest of electronic music, it’s too much to handle. I’m giving this a pass for all but the most dedicated of bassheads.
3D Holographic Sound
3D Holographic Sound, as I mentioned earlier, is basically a refined crossfeed that, according to iFi, is better than most other integrations of crossfeed. I tested 3D Holographic Sound (you know what, I’m calling is 3DHS from here on out because that is a pain to type) with my Fostex T50RP because they’re one of my only headphones that don’t have a huge soundstage already.
Testing 3DHS with my K702 was kind of hilarious, but in the end, not very helpful for describing it. Level One for 3DHS is described to be for “naturally spacious recordings” such as classical, jazz, and rock. I didn’t notice too much of a difference in sound other than that I was suddenly sitting two rows back.
It’s not the most impactful setting, but it definitely increases soundstage, however slight. Level Three is apparently for “modern recordings.” Like Level Three of XBass, Level Three of 3DHS really only makes the sound worse.
It’s cool for a song, but then it gets annoying. I really wish there was a Level Two for both because I feel a medium would make for the best setting. At times I felt Level One was not enough, and 100% of the time, Level Three was too much. Maybe iFi will release an iCan 2 with a Level Two.
However, my biggest niggle with the iCan is that it just wasn’t as powerful as I wanted it to be. Even with 400mW of power, my K702 always sounded under-driven, confirmed when I plugged it into my big Audio-GD SA-31.
Now, I know that the iCan is small and it really isn’t feasible to give it much more power, I can’t help but feel there isn’t much incentive in getting the iCan if it isn’t powerful enough to drive even my Fostex. Don’t get me wrong, it drove the K271 and even Sextett moderately well, but anything that was low in sensitivity, the iCan struggled.
Not to say the iCan didn’t get loud enough, I couldn’t go past 11 o’clock on the volume knob with my Fostex or K702, but that’s only because the iCan’s gain is quite, quite high. Going past 8 on most IEMs that I tried with the iCan was a recipe for hearing damage, and my ESW9 couldn’t go past 9 but was too quiet at 8.
High Impedance Headphones
The iCan pairs best with high impedance headphones in my experience because it has the volume to spare, but not necessarily power, like the Objective2. Apparently, since I’ve received this iCan, iFi has released a version with adjustable gain, which should help with IEMs and other sensitive headphones, such as the ESW9 I wasn’t able to use very well with this.
My review of the iCan doesn’t seem the brightest, and it really isn’t meant to be. My apologies to iFi, but the iCan left me kind of underwhelmed. Its sound signature is respectable, but not enough to sway me to pay $250 for an amp that is underpowered for any headphones with low sensitivity. But I’m in the low ohm, low sensitivity camp. I have a sneaking feeling that Beyerdynamic owners will have an affinity towards the iCan, but since I don’t have a pair on me to test my theory, I’m leaving it as only a hunch. However, the biggest threat to the iCan, to me, is the iDAC.
Time for a huge contrast between the lukewarm review of the iCan and my favorite product in the iFi range: the iDAC. The iDAC uses an ESS Sabre ES9023 DAC, which deterred me at first because it’s the same DAC used in the super cheap eBay DACs that brag about having a Sabre DAC. But thankfully, the iDAC hardly sounds cheap.
Unlike the iCan, the iDAC doesn’t have any esoteric naming schemes for its features. It features asynchronous USB and 24Bit playback, as is described by iFi. It also features its own amplifier, which I will go into detail later.
I’ll be honest; I’m not the best at describing the merits to a DAC without directly comparing them to other DACs. Luckily, I have a DAC that is in the iDAC’s price range: Ti Kan’s Gamma2. For those unfamiliar with the sound of the Gamma2, it is very slightly on the warm side but is a fantastic DAC for the $300ish, with excellent timbre and midrange.
In contrast, the iDAC is brighter, more detailed (or it seems so due to its brightness), and louder, due to the higher output voltage. The iDAC’s brightness makes for a great combination with the iCan, which explains the laid-back nature of the iCan.
However, calling the iDAC bright may lead the reader to think I’m not very satisfied with it. Au contraire. While the iDAC isn’t as good as my Gamma2, its timbre is almost as good as the Gamma2’s, and I might even go as far as to say some female singers sounded better with the iDAC than my Gamma2 because of its brighter sound.
Cymbals and electric guitars also had much more bite than the warmer Gamma2, so rock listeners, take note. While it’s less accurate than the Gamma2, I can’t deny that for $300 it’s a pretty good portable DAC. One of my favorite features about the iDAC is that can be powered by a laptop—no need for a wall-wart here.
The iDAC is a truly transportable piece of equipment. Traveling audiophiles have no need to debate on if charging their electronics is more important than listening to music.
The $300 DAC field is admittedly rather large, and to stand out, the iDAC must have compelling features. Well, the iDAC does have two, very important features: its headphone out combined with its portability. It may only have 150mW of power, but…it almost eliminates the need for the iCan.
While 150mW of power is not very much at all, its gain is high enough to be able to use even 600ohm headphones. In fact, the gain is about equal to the iCan’s. I won’t pretend the iDAC’s headphone out isn’t as good as the iCan’s—it isn’t nearly as good. But it was only a little bit inferior (15%ish) to the iBasso D12, a portable amplifier.
Obviously, few people will use the iDAC as their sole headphone amplifier, but for cases in which a desktop rig is impossible to carry, the iDAC is an excellent portable audio rig, especially since there are phones (looking at you, Samsung) that take up as much space as the iDAC. And upon return home, the iDAC will happily function as a capable DAC (about the same 15% better than the D12 as a DAC).
I won’t beat around the bush, the iDAC’s headphone out is bright, like Objective2 bright. Actually, since I’ll probably get this question, I might as well address it now. The Objective2’s amp section is superior to the iDAC’s. The iDAC’s headphone out is bright, sometimes to the point of being shrill, lacks body, and has a smaller soundstage than even the Objective2.
The iDAC is clearly a product that was designed as a DAC, but with a headphone out shoehorned in to make it seem like a more capable product. The marvelous thing is that it kind of works in the iDAC’s favor. There is no world in which the iDAC’s headphone out will replace a full-out headphone amplifier that is priced at even half of the iDAC. But one is paying for the complete package with the iDAC.
While it’s not the best in its price range for its DAC or headphone out, the fact that the DAC sounds pretty good, the headphone out isn’t terrible, and is in a package that is easily (cargo pants) pocketable, the iDAC should be given serious consideration for travelers and college students alike.
Of course, one could probably buy a two-part system for cheaper, but that makes for a significantly more unwieldy system. It isn’t the best value, of course, but it is one of the most convenient.
Now for the most interesting of iFi’s products: the iUSB. What is it? It’s a power conditioner. For USB. It makes very little sense, and because of it, I love iFi for creating it.
There is only one switch on the iUSB: the IsoEarth switch, which allegedly reduces ground noise times 10. The iUSB also has two USB ports: one for audio (Like DACs) and one for “power” only.
I found that I could plug the iCan into the “power” USB port using the included 9V to USB cable, which is quite handy. In addition, I didn’t detect any degradation of sound. So as it stands, the iUSB seems to be at least a working product. Does it actually make music sound better? It’s hard to say.
I want to err on the side that it makes a very slight difference because I think I heard slightly better decay and timbre, but to be completely honest, in the system I usually used the combination (SA-31+iDAC+iUSB), I heard very little difference.
But I thought that idea was preposterous. This aluminum box costs $200. There can’t be any situation in which the iUSB doesn’t improve anything. So I tried swapping components. Switching the iCan in for the SA-31 yielded slightly more of a difference in timbre and decay, but the difference was still small enough to make me think it’s expectation bias and not an actual difference.
Paired with iUSB
Then I remembered in ClieOS’s review, he noticed there was an improvement using the iDAC’s headphone out paired with the iUSB. He was right. My main issue with the iDAC’s headphone out other than the brightness is the significant lack of body.
While the iUSB doesn’t magically warm up the sound as much as I’d have liked the iUSB to warm it, the improvements in timbre make the iDAC’s headphone out much more tolerable. I’d even venture to call it good.
With the iUSB, the iDAC’s headphone out is superior to the Objective2’s in terms of “musicality.” But it still has a smaller soundstage and is less detailed than the Objective2. And the package costs about $500, which is four times the price of an Objective2. It’s not the best of values.
I hate to sound overly negative about two out of the three iFi products I’ve reviewed so far, but I really can’t recommend the iUSB to people looking to use the iUSB for just listening to music. However, just listening to music isn’t exactly what the iUSB’s main duty. Since the iUSB’s enclosure could probably survive thousands of drops and bangs, it’d work fantastically at removing ground noise in a studio.
For the last, and best iFi product: the iPhono. I’m really not that qualified to do a review on phono preamps considering the nicest one I’ve ever had is the one that’s built into my receiver, but since Avatar Acoustics sent one, I can have a go regardless right?
I’ll be completely honest. I’m not that into vinyl, mostly due to the cost of records that aren’t mostly destroyed and the fact that records take up a lot of space. I have a cheap Beogram 2402 that I think sounds nice, and a box of records, but take anything I say with a grain of salt because I really don’t know much about vinyl gear. I won’t be offended if you completely skip this section, I promise.
Under the iPhono is a bunch of switches. I’ll just show them because, to be honest, I’m not adept to explain them all and I’m assuming most people looking at a $400 phono preamp (not me) know what functions they have.
Best Of The Bunch
So after floundering through that section, I’ll just get to sound. I only have a cheap TEC TC-753LC and the phono section of my Harman Kardon HK430 to compare the iPhono to, so from the start, I’ll give a spoiler. The iPhono wins by a landslide.
Most of my records are classical music, so anything I say from here on will be in regards to classical music. The first thing I noticed with the iPhono is that there’s a sense of immediacy to the sound in comparison to the inferior preamps. Dynamics were fantastic as was the detail. I did notice that there was a certain quality about the midrange that I found superior in the cheaper, much warmer HK430 though.
Yeah, I’m going to avoid saying much here because I just feel like a total newbie talking about this. I’m just going to let the reader know this exists and I think it’s a pretty good product, not that I know what else is in the market. But yeah. This exists and I like it, so those in the market, consider the iPhono.
That leaves me satisfied with half of iFi’s current products. I truly think that the iDAC is worth its money if one is in need of a transportable DAC, and especially if one has sensitive headphones that the iDAC would not have a problem driving.
Even at $299, it’s quite easy to recommend for a transportable setup. For a home setup, it’s a little harder to recommend unless it will be paired with a very warm amp. With a bright amp, such as the Objective2, it was almost unbearable. I also loved the iPhono, but as I said before, I don’t feel as qualified to recommend the iPhono since it’s the first nice phono preamp I’ve ever used, but it is definitely a product to try if possible.
Then comes the products I’m less than satisfied with, starting with the iCan. Don’t get me wrong, the iCan isn’t a bad product, but with the headphones, I used it with, it’s less than impressive for the price. But if I had to praise the iCan for something, it would have to be its prowess with high impedance headphones.
Even the Sextett couldn’t go much further than 12 o’clock for me, and since the Sextett has decent sensitivity, the iCan actually drove it sufficiently. But its warmness didn’t work well with the already warm sound of the Sextett. I’d imagine the iCan would pair wonderfully with the high impedance Beyerdynamics though.
For those looking at the iCan still, be sure that the headphones being paired with it aren’t already veiled-sounding. Who knows; maybe I just had bad pairings. But I will miss the various additional functions the iCan has—the bass boost was definitely my favorite part of the iCan. But…I expect more for $250, even in such a portable package.
The iUSB’s real function eludes me. While I think I noticed an improvement with the iUSB, with most amps, the difference wasn’t enough to justify paying an additional $199 for such little improvement.
For home listening, it’s hard to recommend the iUSB based on my experiences. But for recording uses, it gets a bit stickier. A cursory look at other USB ground isolators shows that they cost about $130 and look more utilitarian and only have one USB output. The iUSB has two, but only one has audio.
The iUSB is starting to make more sense in that context. But then, I don’t really know much of what I’m currently saying, so everything I’ve said in this paragraph could be totally incorrect. The point is, most of the people that are looking at the iUSB in the first place will probably think it’s a good deal. For the rest of those reading this review, pass on this unless you’ve found your perfect headphones, amp, and DAC but want to try to extract that last 5% of the detail.
All in all, for a first try, iFi has done a fantastic job in the micro-series. It’s nothing short of incredible that iFi has created a powerful (well in gain at least) headphone amp, a very impressive DAC, and a phono preamp in packages that can fit in a pocket.
All these products are truly good, there’s no mistake about that. My only problem with them is that the market is just so active now that while the $250 iCan would have been a great value a few years ago, $250 gets one very far in the game now. I wouldn’t say any of these products are bad buys by any standard, especially the iDAC, but as always, do some research before buying and remember: synergy is very, very important.