My hip-dac came with firmware 5.30 and I felt no need to change it. I probably will in the future just for curiosity’s sake and try 5.30c later on. I just did not do it at this time because I really liked the sound signature as it was and wanted to judge it as customers would receive the unit.
The hip-dac has a very dynamic sound signature. It is not a subtle amp and is pretty forward in the presentation. It is balanced in tone with a touch of aggressiveness. Snares hit hard and sound snappy. The bass response is excellent, especially with X-Bass on.
Oh, and detail retrieval is extremely good. So good I have a story to tell you that will make you laugh, and it is an experience I had testing the hip-dac.
First off if you do not have a copy of Steely Dan’s “Everything must go” from 2003, get it. It is a well-recorded CD. Get it just so you can verify what I am about to say if not for some of the great tracks it has. Please get the FLAC version or the CD.
There is a track on that CD called “Godwhacker” and it is the fourth track. At about 15 seconds before the fade to end you could clearly hear someone fart in the studio. I never heard that fart before until now and I heard that track many times before.
Yea I know it is extremely funny but if you were the recording engineer would you retake and redo the section for that one “human” error? I would not, especially if it was a perfect take. Or maybe he or she did not hear it because they didn’t have a hip-dac handy or just wasn’t paying attention.
Why am I speaking about farts in an audio equipment review? Because that is called detail retrieval my friends. On this dac amp you could hear the singer’s breath, the lip flapping of the trumpet player, and yes, farts in the studio.
On a more serious note imaging is pinpoint with height, width, and depth for days. Highs have great separation and air and the midrange comes through clear and concise.
This unit has some great flexibility. I was successful using this unit with an iPod Touch 5th generation, Lg’s Stylo 5 android phone, Samsung’s Galaxy S8 along with my custom Intel I7 home PC flawlessly.
It did not work with two ZTE phones I have but it was not the hip-dac’s fault. I later found out these ZTE phones are not OTG compatible which reminds me to never buy another ZTE phone again.
I used about 6 different types of headphones, earbuds, and IEMs with the hip-dac and it seems it did not care about the efficiency of the headphone because it drove them all very well. It powered my Hifiman Sundara with authority on the 3.5mm side. On the balanced side, it was nothing short of extremely loud. The X-bass totally fixed the bass light characteristics of the Sundara.
I was also able to use Hifiman’s RE600 with the balanced 4 pole 3.5mm plug directly with no adapter necessary. The hip-dac actually made them sound better than I ever heard them before.
Another headphone I pulled out of the closet just for curiosity was the Phillips SHP9500. These are excellent budget headphones but with weak bass. The X-bass once again came to the rescue and totally improved this low-end performance 2-fold.
The hip-dac also improved the sometimes-grainy highs the 9500s are notorious for and I think the power match system is partly responsible for that. These headphones are overly sensitive to amplifier impedance and can sound pretty bad on the wrong amp.
Can the iFi hip-dac compete with units more than twice the price? I think it can. Let’s look mostly at performance and features. Both have XMOS. They both have a 3.5mm plug and the 4.4 Pentaconn but the Q5s has a 2.5mm and you just have to ask yourself if you really need it or not.
The Q has Bluetooth but once again, do you really need it in a portable scenario and especially if you carry the source with you?
The Q has changeable modules for upgrades and the hip-dac does upgrades with just a firmware change. Just remember there are always risks involved in installing firmware but if you are careful and follow the instructions, you will be fine. But the fact that an upgrade does not cost you anything is a plus.
What about power? The hip-dac lists 400mW versus the Q’s 560mW in balanced mode under a 32Ω load. The Q5s spec is at 220mW on the single-ended side on a 32Ω. Specifications for the hip-dac are unclear because iFi only lists the S-BAL(SE) 280mW@32 Ohm rating but the single-ended side seems more powerful than the Q5s unbalanced out.
The Q5s has a higher bit rate on PCM at 768khz/32bit and both decode up to DSD256 so there is an edge on common decoding capability for the Q5s including LDAC BT whereas the hip-dac has none. However, the hip-dac does offer MQA unfolding whereas the Q5s is not MQA compatible at the time of writing. The hip-dac is more suited to TIDAL lovers.
I find FiiO products to sound to be a little too smooth for my taste. FiiO’s bass boost also to be a bit too colored for my tastes and can often sound bloated and unbalanced. By comparison, I am hooked on iFi’s X-bass button and the power match works better than any simple gain switch I have tried.
The hip-dac is the perfect solution for those who have Android phones or iPhones, tablets, laptops, or a home PC and hate the inferior sound quality of these devices.
Is there anything I can complain about the hip-dac? Of course, there is because nothing is perfect in life, right? Why the male counter sunken USB port? Once again if this had a female USB port you could then use any wire you have at home which will increase the out of the box usefulness of this unit. Maybe a gender changer should be included.
I could also nitpick at the hip-dac and say how come there is no line in or out? Bluetooth would have been nice too.
However, the iFi hip-dac goes beyond its portable usefulness and can also be used as a desktop unit so that balances the negative points and puts it into the green. I would be more than happy to rip out my Sound blaster Z sound card out of my PC and use this exclusively because the sound quality is so much better.
With the hip-dac, I see no need for a sound card any more. So, if you need a sound card do not get one, get this, or perhaps iFi’s Zen Dac which has similar specs but designed to be a desktop unit and you will be much happier with your purchase.
Need I say more? The 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.