The iFi Audio hip-dac is a new portable integrated amplifier and DAC designed to replace your smartphone’s audio output. Featuring a BurrBrown DAC and MQA decoding, the hip-dac is priced at $149.
Disclaimer: The iFi Audio hip-dac sent to us for the purposes of this review is a sample and does not have to be returned. Thank you to iFi Audio for giving us this opportunity.
You can read more about iFi Audio products we reviewed on Headfonics by clicking here.
Note, this review follows our new scoring guidelines for 2020 which you can read up on here.
iFi Audio hip-dac
The iFi Audio hip-dac is a small hip flask device full of technology that is also used on their more expensive units. It has great sound quality with flexibility and usefulness for days and the features list is long and does it all without a hitch.
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Since 2012 iFi has been making excellent award-winning audio gear. The hip-dac is one of iFi’s latest offerings. It is a small, portable battery-powered USB Dac and headphone Amp combo that works with OTG-compatible Android phones, Apple products, laptops, and even on a home PC.
The hip-dac has lots of technology that is borrowed from iFi’s more expensive units but at a lower price and in a smaller form factor.
It measures 10.2 x 7 x 1.4cm, weighs 125 grams and it resembles a small hip flask, hence the name hip-dac. iFi claims the hip-dac is the smallest balanced dac amp around and I think it is as well. It is a pocket-size portable with many features and lots of technology inside so let us quickly dive in. The cost of the hip-dac is $149 at the time of writing this article.
Burr-Brown D/A Converter
At the heart of the hip-dac, iFi decided to use the same Burr-Brown chip they used on their more expensive micro iDSD Black Label model. It is a Texas Instruments Burr-Brown DSD1793 stereo audio D/A converter chip with custom firmware developed by iFi.
The Burr-Brown DSD1793 true native DSD chip brings to the hip-dac native support for up to DSD 256 / DXD 384 / PCM 384k and handles TIDAL’s Master Tier Master Quality Authenticated Audio MQA playback as well.
I had no issues with any of the many formats of digital music I threw at it. Here is a list of the many formats supported.
DSD 256/128/64, Octa/Quad/Double/Single Speed DSD
This chip uses two signal pathways for PCM or DSD separately in what iFi calls a best-of-both-worlds scenario. It can operate in either Multibit for better dynamics and slam or in Delta Sigma for lower linearity.
Running next to the Burr-Brown is an 8-core XMOS 500MIPS XMOS1 transputer-derived main processor with version 4 AMR XMOS implementation.
This XMOS chip handles high bit rates of up to 384k/ bit and 11.2 MHz single bit on DSD. Once again, this chip runs iFi’s own custom Star Clocking firmware which is also used in their micro iDSD.
AMR Global Master Timing
This is similar to what is in iFi’s own SPDIF iPurifier but it is a different version that is inside the hip-dac. In a nutshell, it takes the internal clocks and synchronizes them to GMT or global master timing.
The advantage from what I understand of this system is that it could take a square sine wave and turn it back to a perfect waveform while at the same time removing Jitter. There is a document on this and other subjects on iFi’s website on how it really works.
Custom Quad J-FET
When a company goes as far as making its own electronic components you know they are serious about their products. Proprietary High performance, low noise quad J-FET OV4627A OP amplifiers form part of the output circuitry.
Balanced Amplifier Topology
Dual mono and dual Direct-coupled outputs are in a nutshell what iFi means by balanced amp topology. In a single-ended scenario, it uses a single output stage and doubles up on balanced output mode. By doing this iFi can claim lower noise in single-ended and higher power in balanced mode with a slightly higher noise floor.
It tends to work out fine because overly sensitive IEMs that are prone to picking up hiss or noise will not and will be inaudible in the single-stage scenario. At the same time in balanced mode, the higher noise floor does not matter because it is where you run inefficient headphones.
You do not need to run your sensitive IEMs on balanced because this little unit has lots of power even on the single-ended side. Distortion and noise levels are extremely low regardless of balanced or single-ended mode.
If you look at the circuitry of the hip-dac you will notice one thing. Those fat electrolytic capacitors are gone. There are capacitors but they’re TDK High stability COG surface-mounted capacitors. I believe they are at the signal level and not at the output stage making this amp extremely reliable and durable.
The hip-dac sports a 4.4 Pentaconn balanced output. I really like the fact that they used a 4.4mm connector and I feel it should become the universal standard for balanced headphone outputs, especially in the portable audio market.
With the implementation of the Pentaconn and the 3.5mm connector with the S-Balanced configuration, there are not many headphones you cannot use with the hip-dac. You cannot use a 6.35mm or XLR of course but they were not made for portable use anyway.
The only other type of connection missing is 2.5mm. All the other headphone connection types are game on the hip-dac.
Next to the Pentaconn connector is a 3.5mm connector with something iFi calls S-Balanced. S-Balanced from what I understand is an iFi exclusive feature and I really like it.
It basically simulates a balanced connection from the 3.5mm connector and it is done by just adding one extra ground connection. If you have any 3.5mm headphones it will work here regardless if balanced 4-pole or 3-pole so the connection is flexible and not fixed for balanced 3.5mm only.
Did iFi bring back my beloved Loudness button back? X-Bass is a totally analog bass boost implementation according to iFi. This button does more than just raise the bass frequency curve. Heck, you could do that yourself with an equalizer. This is something different.
iFi claims that it is an analog bass restorer. Whatever it is I like it. I found it addicting and it is probably the best and most tasteful bass boost I have ever used. It makes all those bass-light headphones bass light no more. However, it does not take them into boomy territory either. I want this on everything now.
Power Match Button
This is not a simple gain activator but a switchable gain. In addition, it matches the level of the drive to the load presented by the headphones. It sounds like it is doing impedance matching similar to what iFi’s own IEMatch product does.
Separate USB Connectors
The hip-dac has separate USB connections for power and signal. It is a good idea to isolate them in order to control any type of interference between the two.
Power and charge are handled by the new type USB C connector which is a plus to me and the signal is handled by a full-size male USB connector counter sunken into the unit itself. There is also a charging LED.
My only criticism of the hip-dac is the counter-sunken USB male connector and ask why not a female connector. If it were a female connector you could basically use any wire you have at home and that is included with almost every USB device out there. As it stands most people will have to hunt down a compatible wire for some of their devices.
For example, I had to use a gender changer to use my iPod Touch with the hip-dac because although it is shown many times side by side with an Apple product, the Apple wire was not included with the unit.
User Upgradeable firmware
Different flavors of firmware versions are available and are user-upgradeable with names like Gelato, cookies and cream, limoncello plus a 5.0 version in Vanilla, Strawberry, and Chocolate chip versions. There are subtle differences and you must read up on them to see each of their benefits.
The hip-dac can be upgraded with firmware 5.30c which has the Gibbs Transient Optimized Filter. This filter from what I gather adjusts the latency to the ear’s transient response. iFi has a complete document on the subject and makes an interesting read. You can read more on the GTO Filter here.
USB Control Panel
You can go to iFi’s website and download an application called iFi by AMR HD USB Audio Control Panel. This application gives you lots of information about the hip-dac. But what I like about it is that you can adjust the ASIO Buffer size along with the USB streaming mode.
The iFi hip-dac is a very well-made unit. Its case has a seamless all-metal construction with a metallic flake blue finish and black resin-type end caps on both ends. The finish seems exceptionally durable.
On the front, there is a volume control knob sitting dead center with 2 metal push-to-activate buttons that are for the X-Bass and Power Match features. They feel great to operate and have a positive click feedback feel. On the other side of the volume control are the 3.5mm and 4.4mm Pentaconn connectors. The back of the unit sports two USB connections.
The volume control knob is also made of metal. It is knurled and is very smooth to operate. It’s also a totally analog volume control potentiometer which I really like because of the precision in volume adjustment you get.
You don’t get the step volume increments as you get with a digital volume knob plus you don’t get any of the compression traits you get with a digital knob. The volume control also acts as the power on/off switch.
The iFi hip-dac has a built-in Lithium Polymer 2200mAh battery and iFi claims you could get 12 hours of use from a single charge. I only got about 6 to 7 hours but then again I like the volume up high and with X-Bass enabled so I guess you get 12 hours if you listen to it at low or moderate levels of volume.
It is still acceptable and that’s still enough time for most situations. After all, I use planar headphones and they are notorious for sucking up the power. The battery takes about 2 hours to charge.
There is a small LED indicator for each of the metal push-to-activate buttons. LED on indicate X-bass on and High power match on. There is also a charging LED.
The volume control also has 2 led lights on each side of the knob that change colors to indicate what format music is being played. Green and Yellow for PCM, Cyan, and Blue for DSD, and Magenta for MQA.
LEDs are subject to change according to iFi and depending on firmware but those are the general colors used by the LEDs to indicate what format it detects and is playing back.
The hip-dac comes in a printed box 5”x 3.75” x 1.5” in diameter with a white cardboard cradle inside that holds the hip-dac along with some accessories.
I like it when a manufacturer minimizes their packaging. It makes me feel like I bought a product and that a high cost was not paid for the packaging and then passed on to the customer. Pretty and fancy boxes are fine but to me, they are a waste of money, add cost, and are only good for showing off a product.
When you open the box, you will find 3 short wires inside the box. One PC signal female USB to male USB of slightly over a foot in length, one signal female USB to male USB/C that’s about 5 inches long, and one Male USB to male USB/C for charging the unit that’s about 6 inches long.
You also get an MQA setup pamphlet, a small instruction pamphlet, and four 3M stick-on clear rubber feet.