The iFi Audio iCAN SE and Micro iDAC 2 are the latest slimline amp and DACs in their new ‘I’ range of portable amp/DACs. They are priced at $309 and $349 each.
Disclaimer: The iFi Audio iFi Audio iCAN SE and Micro iDAC 2 sent to us for the purposes of this review are loan samples and were returned after this review. 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.
Not too long ago, iFi released some new products in their Micro series that really satisfied my musical backbone. Didn’t at all see this one coming, but I am sure glad these two products from iFi made their way into my home: The Micro iCAN SE and the Micro iDAC2.
For $309 or so, you can grab yourself the iCAN SE, complete with a 4watt, Class A output. For around $349, you can also snatch up a new iDAC 2. It has been a very long time since I’ve experienced an absurdly powerful amplifier with such a small physical footprint like this iCAN SE.
Planar users should be eyeballing this, especially so if you are a college student or office Audiophile who needs to keep space saving in mind. This sucker is small, roughly 6x3x1.7 inches, which is around the size of a Rice Krispy treat.
Both the iCAN SE and the iDAC 2 share the same chassis, so build quality is identical between them. Solid and hefty aluminum, solid metal flip switches and knobs, as well a USB 3.0 port on the iDAC 2 makes for an excellent, all-around fantastic build.
No cheap feeling anything here, could not be happier with it. Although, I would stop by Amazon and pick up some cheap rubber feet sticky back dots to place on the underside of each model. That way, you’ll not scuff off your desk or the bottom of the metal exteriors of the Amp and DAC accidentally. Shame neither comes with protective feet, but then again they cost like $3 online, so it really isn’t a big deal to just go buy your own.
The Musical Experience
If musicality with a pinch of warmth is your style, go grab the iDAC 2 immediately. This product meshes so well with my personal rig, that I’ve been consistently pelted with peer audiophiles insisting I bring it back to more audio gatherings. I made the happy mistake of toting it to a gathering about 2 months ago and ever since then, friends in the audio community have not stopped talking about it.
Sometimes, a system you experience really makes an impression on you and those around you that come to visit your rig. In this case, the iDAC 2 is probably the only DAC that I’ve ever heard that seems built specifically for usage in my personal rig, which is composed of a Focal Elear and the Airist Audio Heron 5 amplifier. This combination is an immense win for me and I simply do not wish to be without it.
It has nothing to do with clarity or purity or the potential accurate response potential of the DAC. Nope. It has entirely to do with musicality and simply breathtaking rig pairing that has occurred. We audio-nerds spend years to find components that mesh with each other, praying nightly to find that one DAC out there that may mesh perfectly with your amplifier and headphone combination.
I found such a pairing that is worthy of note to the audio community and I have a lot of audio friends who agree with me. There simply is no doubting that both the iDAC 2 and the iCAN SE also pair very well, but when you take the DAC model and pair it with a much more expensive and higher tier amp, you might expect the DAC to be the weak link in the chain…but, you’d be wrong in this case. The iDAC 2 soars with flying colors as a near-perfect mesh with my Heron 5. If Musicality is your thing, as well as a flagrant uncaring for neutral or accurate tone, this is for you.
The iDAC 2
Don’t take that as this being a severely, overly exaggerated DAC. It certainly is not. It has just the right pinch of flavor to it to make it interesting. This DAC has its own 3.5mm output, so you can use it as a DAC/AMP on its very own without bridging to another amplifier. Direct out of the iDAC 2, the sound is definitely just a bit warm down below in the bassy regions, but also offering a gentle sheen to the treble experience.
This is why it meshes so well with headphones like the HD650, the Focal Elear and other well regarded, musical headphones. I would stray from using the HD800 and similar neutral headphones, you can do better elsewhere. But, if need be, the iDAC 2 will suffice and you’ll definitely achieve just a little more than neutral sound signature with those clinical headphones out yonder. My HD800 right out of the iDAC 2 is just fine and doesn’t become overly uncolored. In fact, I don’t really hear much of a difference from the very neutral Plenue M DAP from Cowon vs the iDAC 2.
I am able to get the Plenue M’s EQ to dish out just a little bit of warmth with excessive bass equalization, so I find it very interesting that the iDAC 2 can handle musical headphones, as well as neutral ones without mucking up the clinical appeal of the latter too much. Yes, it does change the tone a bit, so you purists out there should be seeking another product entirely.
These iFi’s really aren’t for you if your amplifier is a truly pure sounding, something with immense neutrality that will negate the slight warmth of the iDAC 2. The iDAC 2 is a chameleon in this regard and able to have its warmer potential exaggerated further by very warm and musical amps, as well as that warmth potentially removed with a very clinical amplifier if that is what you prefer.
The iDAC 2 > Heron 5 = in a very soft, very warm tone that is well suited for HD650/Elear enthusiast types.
The iDAC 2 > RSA F35 = quite clinical, razor-sharp tone and texture
I don’t own many DSD256 files. Most of my collection is x64, but the iDAC 2 can handle up to DSD256 files and also run buttery smooth. One of the biggest and most severe problems with my Cowon Plenue M was its sluggishness while playing files back through Foobar2000.
If I tap my track skip button too fast, it will just stop working entirely. File skip functionality is awful on the Plenue M, despite it being a $900 unit at one point. While playing DSD, this problem gets worse if I tap skip too fast. The M will just cut off and disconnect itself and the system will lag …and I’ve an absurd home PC rig.
The iDAC 2 is blazing fast with smoothness and power, allowing me to track skip and retain the connection, even when cycling through DSD file tracks quickly. I am impressed by its ability to stay in control and not lag out like pretty much every other DAC I’ve come across when I try to randomize or track skip my music.
This is a God-send for me because I often have other audiophiles running through my rig at home who like to press the Random button to track skip, so it feels nice to know I don’t have to worry about them sitting there for a while skipping through my library and hoping the USB connection doesn’t cut out entirely, or the experience is too sluggish for the user.
Quality Of Playback
The quality of the playback of the higher end DSD files are something I can’t justify. I don’t see a need for it. My DSD x64’s are just fine to me and I cannot hear a difference between the higher res and the lower res DSD files that I do have, which are far and few above x64.
Despite that, the experience is like butter, effortless and pristine. This is especially true through the iDAC 2 > Heron 5 pairing. Not so true through the iDAC 2 > iCAN SE, which I find to be the weak link in the chain and limiting the potential clarity of the iDAC 2 a bit too much for me to justify continued usage with.
For the price, this amp is just fine and does a marvelous job powering inefficient headphones. 4Watts of power in such a little chassis is actually horrifying to me, knowing that this little thing is essentially a nuclear reactor in audio form. I can power 300ohm headphones to deafening levels and then some, so don’t worry if you have power issues. The iCAN SE also pairs nicely with Planar’s. My Audeze Sine feels immensely weighted and authoritative, as do most of my headphones that I’ve tested for this review.
Power is not the problem, its that the iCAN SE is almost rendered futile if you also have the IDAC 2. If you already have a DAC you like, I’ll recommend you grab this amp all day long.
However, if you already own the iDAC 2, or an equally great DAC with sufficient power, then you shouldn’t take a swing at the iCAN SE. If you don’t need that extra, absurd 4Watt power output, then stick with what you’ve got. I find the power output on the iDAC 2 to be sufficient for most of my more efficient headphones, such as the ESW11LTD or really anything sub 80ohm, which is essentially 99% of all portable headphones out there.
In terms of clarity, the $309 iCAN SE fairs well, but not very well. This is a good product, make no mistake, it’s just not punching above its weight class at this price point and I expect to pay as such for what it offers. $300 is what I would expect to pay for the quality of the iCAN SE outputs. Schiit’s Asgard, by comparison, actually sounds noticeably harsher around the edges, also with a higher dynamic and physical impact over the iCAN SE. By comparison, the iCAN SE houses a softer appeal.
The literal clarity of the amp is nice, but I don’t see the need for the excessive switches and EQ knobs that adorn it. The iCAN SE has an Xbass and a 3D enhancement switch that manually adjusts the low-end quantity, as well as offering more of a spacious feel.
Unfortunately, neither are justified here and I question why even bother even implement them. Anyone not using a computer with software based music libraries may want this, but I can’t see anyone using Foobar2000 actually opting to use these switches, instead of the vast and free DSP downloadable presets and functions that come with computer-based music sources.
The Xbass and 3D switches simply do not do as grand of a job as what software can achieve, but they are functional. The Xbass certainly adds more thump, but not that much. The 3D switch feels like filtered Crossfeed DSP’s in Foobar2000, but not nearly as good as the free Bauer Stereophonic Crossfeed DSP in Foobar2000. I never use these switches on the iCAN 2 and keep them forever disabled.
Sound staging properties between them feel neigh identical. Oddly, I am able to output both RCA and the 3.5mm of the iDAC 2 at the same time. So, I’ve been able to compare directly to 2 amps at once, using the iDAC 2 as the source. I love products like this that make my job easier and swapping between the iDAC 2 and the ICAN SE results in the same sound imaging experience. There is a noticeable elegance to the experience, something not too soft and not too pounding…but just right for tonal impact level. When my ears are free of wince-worry, I feel more relaxed and I pick up on more details in the void.
Due to that, I’ve experienced both good depth of field and airiness, but a relatively normal and average level of width and height overall. I do not consider them imaging titans, as there is a noticeable increase in my void bubble of imaging when swapping to my Burson Soloist MK2. This is especially an issue when comparing the iCAN SE to my Heron 5, which showcases vastly superior imaging all around by comparison.
I sometimes feel like most modern audio companies pay too much attention to the measurements and purists crowd, totally neglecting those like me who just don’t care for that and who just want to enjoy music to the fullest. I don’t want to wince and blink each time the track artist smacks a cymbal or strikes a piano key harshly.
This is not fun for me. What is fun to me is being able to kick back in my Eames chair with a shot of good Bourbon and leave this world entirely for a while. I want accurate tone and presence, realism and varying potential texturing as per the artist or instrument. I do not want accurate wince factor or brightness, nor harsh slam and kick.
No artist wants you to gawk and gaze in amazement at how harsh their guitar sounds and no real artists want their fans and listeners to get sore ears from painful treble just for the sake of saying you are being accurate to the track.
Thankfully, iFi purposely designed a spot of musicality into their products and I love the hell out of them for it. I regard neutral products and clinical, accurate headphones or amps as fantastically pure and clear, but this means nothing to me. I’ve rated those types of products well when I feel they are very good, but subjectively I don’t enjoy them. I do enjoy musical products and that seems like a lost art these days.
I feel this is very important to reiterate to a lot of Hifi’ers out there shopping this year because 2016 has been proven repeatedly to have produced numerous fun, musical products that left an impression on me. So far, near the end of the year, just one DAC of all the DAC’s I’ve messed with has really grounded itself in my home.
That iDAC 2 belongs right where it is and on top of my Heron 5. No doubting it. Sure, there are better sounding DAC’s in terms of raw quality, but I just don’t care. I like all the qualities combined of this DAC and it just hits the spot so well for me…I couldn’t be happier.
USB3.0 (USB2.0 compatible)
SPDIF RCA (only PCM up to 192KHz)
Bit-Perfect DSD & DXD DAC by Burr Brown (1-DAC Chip; 2-Channel; 4-Signals)
Bit-Perfect/Minimum Phase/Standard, Digital filters selectable