The “h” is silent
By Brian @ Audio-Head
iFi Audio is a relatively new company that produces digital audio components with the budding audiophile in mind. The iFi brand is a subdivision of Abbingdon Music Research (AMR), which oversees most of the design and engineering elements of production. The new “micro” line from iFi features several components with the same 6” by 2.5” form factor and brushed aluminum styling. While the full lineup also includes a phono stage and USB to SPDIF converter, we will be taking a closer look at the iDAC ($300) and iCAN ($250) headphone amplifier for the purpose of this exercise.
If iCAN, you can
The iCAN shares the same footprint as the rest of the “micro” line, making it relatively small compared to full size components, but not quite as compact as some of the newest portable head-fi is trending. The lightweight casing isn’t particularly heavy for its size; it takes up about as much space as an oversized remote when it sits on your desk. Analog inputs allow for both 3.5mm and standard RCA connections. Three small indicator lights grace the top of the device and (unique to the iCAN) two three-level switches cover the front panel in addition to the volume control. One of these switches controls iFi’s brand of bass boost, the “XBass Sound Enhancement” and the other controls the “3D HolographicSound system”. The headphone amplifier in the iCAN is a class A design that ran very cool, barely warm to the touch. The corresponding iDAC emitted no heat that I could discern. Actual headphone volumes were very impressive for full size headphones. The iCAN specs come in at 150mW (15 ohms) for output power, and had no trouble driving any of the headphones I had on hand. Considering the overall size of the unit and comparable competition, I would say that this is where the iCAN really shines; the considerable power output was able to face off with higher priced amps like the ALO Audio Pan Am ($500). The 300 ohm Sennheiser 650s were loud by the time they barely reached noon on the volume dial. According to the specs, the iCAN and iDAC don’t have the same power rating, but I found them to be nearly the same when driving headphones. Both products only implement one level of gain, which comes as a trade off with sensitive IEM or headphones. When I attempted to use a pair of Jerry Harvey JH16s IEMs the jump from no volume to loud was very quick and not something that I consider a proper pairing.
It’s coming in 3D
Some early adaptations of stereo augmentation effects can be found in a few portable amplifiers currently on the market. One of the first portable headphone amplifiers was the Headroom Bithead, which included a crossfeed effect that was intended to help alleviate the audio awkwardness of odd stereo mixes (think early Beatles recordings with drums fully pinned to one ear). The “3D HolographicSound” is derived with a slightly different goal in mind. Designed to help elevate that “in your head” feeling that often accompanies the headphone listening experience, the effect is more akin to some of the Dolby surround modifications. The iFi site says the system creates “a truly high-end 3D sound field without the use of any sound-damaging DSP”, so what does this equate to in execution? The 3D experience is available in two tiers from the front switch and is successful in giving you “just a taste” and then the full effect. With the switch resting firmly on full tilt, I did notice some of the instruments were pinned much harder to the left and right when compared to the original stereo field as part of the 3D effect. Like many things in audio, outside effects at the amplifier stage are subject to the listener’s personal taste. 3D HolographicSound is not an effect I would substitute for ultra fine resolution and perfect reproduction, but the auditory shortcut does provide something interesting to listen to and is successful in creating a more 3 dimensional experience with marginal negative backlash. Overall I found the effect to push vocals and treble a bit forward in the mix. This occasionally resulted in cymbals crashes that were a bit shrill with high intensity recordings when the 3D effect was at its highest level.
You say you like bass?
It’s no secret that bass modifications at the portable amplifier level haven’t always been refined art form. Bloated, soggy bass or just way too much of a boost are just a few of the many wrong turns the low-frequency adjustment can go. More recently the ALO Rx MK3-b gave it a shot with an adjustable knob for more control. Their secret sauce seemed to include more than just the bass frequencies and was still pretty tame at its maximum implementation.
iFi’s “X bass” on the iCAN isn’t the worst thing I’ve heard. In fact, most boosts I’ve heard are far, far worse. Like the 3D switch, there are two gain settings for the bass. I had a difficult time identifying any change on the first setting. There was perhaps a big more low-end rumble, but it wasn’t nearly as significant a jump as level 2. At level two both bass and thump were noticeably increased with little wooly or cloudy aftertaste. Even better, the mids and treble appeared relatively untouched. As with the 3D, it’s not something that I usually get involved with over the long haul, but still provides a little extra fun and definitely something you might want to consider if bass is your passion. With both switches at full throttle things did seem get quite busy and a little brittle at times.
High Fidelity For All
The budget DAC landscape is a competitive field. Desktop and headphone audio continues to see prolific growth. Head-fi.org lingers as the most frequented audio related forum, outpacing its loudspeaker counterparts. For these are exciting times in the land of digital audio and the $250-$300 range seems to be the budget train stop for a firm balance of fidelity and cost efficiency. Just a very few short years ago small mainstream affordable USB DACs were quite limited, and anything over CD quality was still yet a dream. Early efforts made by companies like Headroom and HRT may have satisfied the early adopter crowd but inevitably left some room for growth. More recently, even more high-end manufactures have started to take notice and produce their own takes on the desktop. Last year AudioQuest released a USB-stick sized DAC called the Dragonfly to much critical acclaim and more recently high-end audio manufacture Meridian followed suit with their Explorer. The times still continue evolve at very fast clip, once premium or niche digital technologies are being associated with lower and lower price points. Even now we are seeing the elusive DSD file format start to come down from its perch high atop the upper crust of computer audio components. Smaller, better and more fiscally responsible portable DACs like the iDAC are all the rage now.
DAC for the smart masses
While the outer aluminum shell of the iDAC is nearly identical to the rest of the product line, the back of the unit features a solitary USB port. This USB port also powers the unit and does not require an additional wall wart, which is very handy in portable situations. (iFi also offers a USB power regulator unit called the iUSBPower that sits in between your computer and the iDAC for cleaner power). The front of the iDAC sports a 3.5mm headphone output and gives you access to the DAC directly via RCA analog outputs. Volume knob resistance varied across the multiple units I received, from fairly tough to turn to very easy. The headphone jack on the iDAC was a little wobbly for my tastes, but overall the build felt still like a solid piece of audiophile equipment. The three indicator lights in this case let you know when the unit is receiving power, connected, and playing music. There are no on-board indicator lights for music file resolution, but if you are really interested in what is being played, a computer software player like Audirvana Plus will let you know what your file resolution is, both from the native file and what is being sent to your DAC.
As is the popular trend as of late, the iDAC is equipped with an ESS Sabre DAC chipset who’s “Hyperstream technology provides up to 10x better signal-to-noise ratio, superior dynamic range and unrivalled jitter rejection” according to the iFi website. Still, implementation is a major contributor to overall sound and design sometimes has a way of taking a nasty turn…but not in this case. The DAC section of the iDAC is crisp, energetic and enveloping. Compared to the budget HRT Microstreamer ($190) DAC, the iDAC provided an enhanced sense of realism and texture. While listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Never Going Back Again off of the HD Tracks 24/96 kHz Rumors download, I noticed less digital grain in Lindsey Buckingham’s vocals and a better separation between each staccato guitar string pluck and the vocal tracks, especially as the song reaches its most intense levels around the 1:50 mark. In fact, the iDac went toe to toe with the current audiophile darling the AudioQuest Dragonfly in terms of clarity and overall resolution. While I did notice just a hair more top-end sparkle from the Dragonfly during the same song passage, the new iDAC actually trumps the specs of the Dragonfly’s ESS Sabre DAC with its 24/192 kHz maximum resolution and higher headphone output (the Dragonfly tops out at 24/96 kHz). Both units have fairly comparable sonic retrieval from their DAC section and for many of the test songs I put the iDAC though performance was similarly balanced, which is a complement given the Dragonfly’s historic ability to stand out from the herd. While neither unit allows for exclusive use of the headphone amp separate from the DAC section, I would give the iCAN the edge on amplification, not only for higher volume capabilities but also for improved dynamics and speed for direct headphone listening.
Two for the road
Overall both the iCAN and the iDAC deliver on performance for the given price range. The auditory reproduction of these two products is not the same however. I found the iCAN to be a little more organic and rich, where the iDAC was more analytical and detailed. This signature remained consistent for the iCAN regardless of which DAC I paired it with. If I had to choose which signature I prefer, in this case I would lean towards the iDAC. For $50 more you get a powerful, clean headphone amp with a DAC that can keep up with the best of them. USB power is just icing on the cake. There are more portable options on the market, but they don’t carry the same power that the iFi family does for full-sized headphones. And while nether product is the final word in low-end dynamics/impact (you can get some of the best this hobby has to offer with the recently reviewed [the Burson Conductor] in that category), it does offer up a unique opportunity to sit back and get lost in your favorite tunes for the price of weekend away from the city (or into the city). Both the iCAN and iDAC deliver a very lean-back-and-listen type of richness to the desktop experience.
Check out the iCAN if you need a high output portable headphone amplifier and you aren’t afraid of audio effects at the amp level, especially bass boost. For bass lovers the iCAN might just be your huckleberry. The class A amplifier has what it takes to push some of the pickiest headphones around, although it comes at the cost of super sensitive cans and IEMs. Check out the iDAC if you want to hear one of the latest competitors to the portable DAC race, a real solid contender in the $300 weight bracket. USB power, analog outputs and a powerful head amp make this entry something to pay attention to. Its clean, detailed sound, 1 ohm of headphone output impedance and solid build doesn’t hurt either. Both products are welcome additions to the budget audiophile lineup. As the computer/portable audio category continues to swell, I think iFi Audio has started with a solid footing for the rest of the climb.