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. 

Sound Quality
8.5
Design
8.1
Features
8.4
Synergy
8.3
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7.5
8.3
Editorial Score

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 x7 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.

iFi Audio hip-dac

Copyright iFi Audio

Tech Inside

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 a 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
  • DXD 384/352.8kHz
  • PCM (384/352.8/192/176.4/96/88.2/48/44.1kHz)
  • MQA

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.

XMOS

XMOS

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.

iFi Audio hip-dac

Copyright iFi Audio

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 IEM’s 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 IEM’s 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.

TDK Capacitors

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.

iFi Audio hip-dac

Features

4.4mm Pentaconn

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 connections types are game on the hip-dac.

3.5mm S-Balanced

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 headphone 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.

X-Bass

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 headphone. It sounds like it is doing impedance matching similar to what iFi’s own IEMatch product does.

iFi Audio hip-dac

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 to 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.

GTO Filter

The hip-dac can be upgraded with a firmware 5.30c that 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 up more on the GTO Filter here.

iFi Audio hip-dac

Copyright iFi Audio

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.

Design

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 the two USB connections.

iFi Audio hip-dac

Volume Control

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.

Battery

The iFi hip-dac has a built-in Lithium Polymer 2200mAh battery and iFi claims you could get 12 hours 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.

LEDs

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.

Packaging

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 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.

Accessories

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.

Click on Page 2 for sound impressions and comparison notes.

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7 Responses

  1. Loz

    Thanks for the review, very informative. I’m considering getting something like this or the Dragonfly Cobalt, but am not sure if my ears would notice much difference. I was however able to hear the fart quite clearly with both my AKG N60 Wireless using Bluetooth, and my Beoplay H6 S2, plugged into my Pixel 2 XL with the its supplied USB C to 3.5 connector, both through Spotify on the phone. Would I have heard the fart if you hadn’t told me, not sure, but it’s very obvious to me with my existing options. I’d appreciate any other examples you may have of detail to look out for that might not typically be there without a DAC like this. Thanks again.

    Reply
    • Loz

      On a side note why does the score of 5 appear when I specifically said this wasn’t a review and provided no scores?

      Reply
      • Marcus

        Yeah, that is weird, we have disabled review scoring from readers for now until the developer fixes that – thanks for spotting that one.

  2. InexactScience

    Pros:
    + Balanced output
    + Analogue volume
    + Wide device compatibility
    + GTO filter (personal preference)

    Cons:
    – Spurious iFi claims (battery life)
    – Low volume channel imbalance
    – Separate charging port introduces noise if charging and listening
    – High noise floor on both 4.4mm and 3.5mm jacks

    Thoughts:
    Take a look at what headgear you’re going to be plugging into the Hip-DAC. Does it go in the ear, on the ear, or over the ear?

    Unless it’s over the ear, take a hard pass on the Hip-DAC.

    Now, take a look at these headphones and check the sensitivity and impedance. High sensitivity and low impedance? Take a hard pass.

    This is not for IEMs, earbuds, or sensitive headphones.

    But if you want to drive more demanding headphones, the Hip-DAC has you covered.

    I enjoy the Hip-DAC with the GTO firmware, and I’d recommend you give it a shot. It works nicely for classic rock, metal, synthwave, and electronica if you share my eclectic taste.

    Generalizing heavily, the sound quality is good, and is a definitive asset for the Hip-DAC.

    But…

    iFi has made some claims with regard to the Hip-DAC that are either false or misleading.

    False Claims: Battery Life of 8-12 hours.

    The Hip-DAC cannot get 8 hours of battery life with any headphone. 7 hours, 35 minutes is the max on the absolute lowest volume setting out of the 3.5 mm jack. The 4.4 mm jack gets less.

    Misleading claim: It’s the smallest DAC/Amp around.

    It’s iFI’s smallest. The Earstudio ES100 is smaller and lighter with better battery life. (And a whole different set of features). iBasso has a balanced dongle and E1DA also offers portable balanced DAC/Amp. Both are smaller than the Hip-DAC.

    iFI had made other misleading (in my opinion) claims on other sites I won’t go into here.

    The Hip-DAC also has a moderate noise floor and needs an impedance adapter for sensitive headphones. And iFi makes a couple.

    These adapters might come in handy for your low-volume listener, because at low volume levels, there is a significant channel imbalance, where one ear gets the full volume, and the other gets… to barely a whisper.

    The Hip-DAC is not a good value for most use cases as such. Instead, it shines in specialized situations and should only be used with demanding gear. If that’s your use case, and you’re ok with battery life being about half of what iFI claims, then the Hip-DAC is a good buy.

    Reply
    • Louis Gonzalez

      Hello everyone my name is Louis and I’m the author and I hope you liked my review. I just want to speak about couple of your comments and concerns. I’m not perfect so be easy on me. ;- )
      First off, yea the battery life is not what iFi says it is and for me I got about half of the 12 hours listed on their website. You have a right to complain and so did I. I got about 6 hours and honestly it’s okay for most situations except for very long trips. Perhaps iFi should list it as 6 hours max so there’s no misunderstanding.
      The noise floor is highest when you use the Pentaconn balanced and the second stage of the amp kicks in. It’s a characteristic of the Dual Direct Coupled Output stage. If you IEM’s or headphones are sensitive I’d suggest using the 3.5mm out because it’s powerful enough. I used about four 16 ohm IEMs with the Hip Dac and didn’t hear any hiss on the 3.5mm single ended side even on high power match. Use the Pentaconn only if you have IEMs or headphones that are not very sensitive and the noise floor will be negligible.
      The claim of the smallest Dac Amp? Its the smallest dac amp with a balanced pentaconn connection at the time it was made. The 3.5mm connection is just an added bonus. There are smaller but not with a 4.4 and a 3.5 also. You want small? Then you ain’t seen nothing yet. Spoiler alert.
      The volume control has a very slight channel imbalance on mine but it’s only detectable with the most sensitive IEMs. It’s at the very bottom of the volume but I really don’t want to listen to music that low ever so it doesn’t bother me. The volume control is smooth like butter though. I always use it with the volume turned up anyway and used the volume on the source. However that defeats the whole use an analogue volume knob cause it’s the best thing doesn’t it?
      Oh yea and I personally liked the 5.30c firmware that has the GTO filter. But if you want a head banging session then it’s best to use plain 5.30 firmware because its more aggressive sound signature and it has more Slam. The C variant 5.30 firmware with the GTO filter is smoother with just a tad more width.

      Reply
      • InexactScience

        Hi, Louis!

        Yes, I did enjoy your review, thank you!

        I will stand corrected: yes, the Hip-DAC is the smallest DAC/Amp with the 4.4 mm balanced jack. Beats the Sony PHA-2A, certainly. And you’re right: coming soon is an even smaller DAC/Amp with the 4.4mm balanced jack! Though the one I know of isn’t exactly a competitor to the Hip-DAC.

        I am also in agreement that the volume control is an asset. I like that I can get so precise with it over digital volume control.

        Using an Android source, I had problems with channel imbalance when using UAPP. When the Hip-DAC is properly initialized, or when using bit-perfect mode, the volume on the Android source is extremely high, even at the lowest setting. On high sensitivity IEMs, this creates a problem for low volume listeners with the channel imbalance (and noise).

        I know you listed the impedance on the IEMs you tested at 16 ohm, but how sensitive are they?

        For example, I was using a 32 ohm, 103dB(+/- 3 dB) @ 1 kHz sensitivity (for lack of better phrasing) IEM today. I did have to look that info up. I had to use EQ on UAPP to minimize the preamp gain, on the lowest volume setting (no bit-perfect, FYI) from my Android source just to overcome the channel imbalance and have a listenable volume (low, in my case). This is not an elegant solution. Perhaps my unit has an exaggerated imbalance?

        I’ll also test out of an iOS device when I have the time later (and can convince someone to lend me their phone…). Maybe I’m experiencing an Android specific problem, or one that’s unique to my phone. I’ve been using a Pixel 4. FWIW, I also can’t reliably get MQA from UAPP without bit-perfect mode; Tidal doesn’t always work as expected though UAPP or standalone. But that’s not a Hip-DAC issue, I don’t think.

        In any case, as you can tell, I greatly enjoy what I hear out of iFI’s junior offering. I wouldn’t be listening to it still if that weren’t the case.

        So it doesn’t go without saying: keep up the good work on your reviews!

  3. Dmac

    It got good sound,but the battery life is piss poor,sent the first one back because of it, second one I just accepted the poor battery life, I don’t use full size headphones with portable equipment,but have tested them with this,if you’re familiar with iFi and Burr Brown it’s that sounds signature,heavy,it’ll stay in my portable rotation.

    Reply

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