Sound impressions

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.

Detail Retrieval

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.

iFi Audio hip-dac

Synergy

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.

iFi Audio hip-dac

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.

Selective Comparison

FiiO Q5s

Features

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.

FiiO Q5s

Power

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) [email protected] Ohm rating but the single-ended side seems more powerful than the Q5s unbalanced out.

Decoding

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.

iFi Audio hip-dac

Copyright iFi Audio 2020

Our Verdict

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.

Beyond Portable

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.

iFi Audio hip-dac Specifications

  • Formats supported DSD256/128/64, Octa/Quad/Double/Single-Speed DSD DXD(384/352.8kHz), PCM(384/352.8/192/176.4/96/88.2/48/44.1kHz) MQA
  • Digital Inputs USB 3.0 type ’A’ High-Speed Asynchronous USB 2.0, (32bit/384kHz)
  • Headphone Outputs Balanced 4.4mm S-Bal (SE) 3.5mm
  • Power Output (@1% THD) BAL: [email protected] Ohm ; S-BAL(SE): [email protected] Ohm BAL: [email protected] Ohm ; S-BAL (SE): [email protected] Ohm
  • Battery Lithium-polymer 2200mAh
  • Power System Charging via USB-C, BC V1.2 compliant up to 1000mA charging current
  • Power (max) <2W idle, 4W max
  • Dimensions 102(l) x 70(w) x 14(h) mm
  • Weight 125g (0.28 lbs)
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12 Responses

  1. Alexander

    Hello Louis, first of all thank you for the review. I am a novice with respect to audio, I would like your recommendation, between choosing the ifi hip-dac or the hibby r3 pro player, since I usually listen to flac music on my xiaomi smartphone and my laptop. With which will I get a better sound? Thank you

    Reply
    • Louis Gonzalez

      Thank you for taking the time to read my review. The Hiby is a DAP and won’t work to amplify your laptop’s sound chip. I never got to use it but it seems like a great unit and Marcus gave it a very good score so it must be. The Hip Dac is more powerful and the Xbass is great to have for bass anemic cans. If you want less bulk and more compact the Hiby is fine and will push most cans and IEMs well. If you want more power and versatility plus possibly better sound then get the Hip Dac. Either way you’ll be rocking. Just make sure your phone is OTG ready if you plan to get the Hip Dac. You could use USB OTG checker from the Playstore to verify if it is.

      Reply
  2. Kenny

    Hi, the funny thing is, I can hear that fart from my iphone speaker too :) But it’s well written review btw. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Louis Gonzalez

      Thanks for the compliment.You could only hear it when you have equipment that reveals detail and the average phone doesn’t. There’s another at the beginning too.

      Reply
  3. 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.

    • Louis Gonzalez

      Thanks for the compliment and sorry for the delayed response. If size matters then the Cobalt is fine if your headphones are sensitive/ efficient. I never used those B&O model so I can’t say. If you need lots of portable power go with the Hip. Don’t buy anything to listen to farts. HEHE.

      Reply
  4. 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!

  5. 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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