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iFi iCAN headphone amplifier

Posted

Pros: Top notch SQ + EQ, transparency.

Cons: No gain control (*see 'update'), shape of housing.

iFi Audio is a new comer in the headphone amp scene, but it does share the same bloodline as the renowned U.K. based premium audiophiles brand AMR. While AMR already has some top end gears to offer to the speaker and full rig owner, its little sister brand seems to aim toward mainly the computer based headphone user as well as minimalist audiophiles. Their current ‘Micro’ line of devices includes the iDAC (headphone amp + USB DAC with line-out), iCAN (headphone amp), iUSB Power (USB isolator), iPhono (phone preamp) and the recently released iLink (USB to S/PDIF converter). We will cover the former three here, which are priced at US$299, US$249 and US$199 respectively (*price do vary quite a bit depends on region though).

 

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Front (from left): iUSB Power, iDAC, and iCAN.

 

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Back (from left): iCAN, iDAC, and iUSB Power.

 

Spec

 

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iDAC

DAC section:

ESS Sabre ES9023 DAC chip, fully supports up to 24bit, 192kbps resolution

XMOS based USB Audio Class 2 Asynchronous solution

Signal to Noise Ratio: >111dB(A)

Dynamic Range(-60dBFs): >111dB(A)

Crosstalk: <-102dB(1KHz)

Total Harmonic Distortion(THD): <0.005%

Jitter: Below measurement limit

Frequency Response: 3Hz to 33KHz + 0.1dB/0.3dB

Output:  Line-out, RCA jacks

Headphone amp section:

Opamp: MAX9722

Output Power: >150mW (15Ω)

Output Voltage: >3.3V (>100Ω)

Signal to Noise Ratio: >97dB(A) (400mV/300R)

Total Harmonic Distortion: <0.003% (400mV/300R)

Output Impedance (Zout): <1Ω

Power Consumption: < 2.5W

Dimensions: 158(l)x68(w)x28(h)mm

Weight: 193g(0.43lbs)

Output: 3.5mm Stereo Jack

 

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iCAN

Gain stage: Fully discrete, Class A

Buffer stage: TPA6120A2

EQ: two levels selectable 3D Holographic Sound and XBass

Signal to Noise Ratio: >117dB(A)

Total Harmonic Distortion (THD): <0.003%(400mV/150R)

Frequency Response: 0.5Hz to 500KHz(-3dB)

Output Power: >400mW(32Ω)

Output Voltage: >5V (>600Ω)

Input Voltage: AC 100 - 240V, 50/60Hz

Power Consumption: < 4W idle, 10W max.

Dimensions: 158(l)x68(w)x28(h)mm

Weight: 216g(0.48lbs)

Input: RCA and 3.5mm stereo jacks

Output: 6.4mm stereo jacks.

 

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iUSB Power

Two USB sockets: one data and power and one power only (*for use with iFi Gemini cable)

Output Voltage: 5V±0.5%

Output Current: 1A

Output Noise: 0.1uV(0.0000001V)

High-Speed USB 2.0: 480Mbps

Input Voltage: AC 100 - 240V, 50/60Hz (Ultra Low-Noise Power Supply included)

Power Consumption: < 9W (includes powered USB device)

Dimensions: 158(l)x68(w)x28(h)mm

Weight: 195(0.43lbs)

 

Accessories and Build Quality

iDAC comes with simple user guide, some stick-on rubber feet, RCA cable and 2 feet of really good quality USB cable (A-to-B). iCAN comes with user guide, rubber feet, 6.4mm-to-3.5mm adapter, RCA cable, 3.5mm interconnecting cable, as well as a 9V power adapter. iUSB Power comes with the same 9V power adapter, rubber feet, user guide, USB cable as well as an USB-to-barrel plug cable. Oddly there is no mentioning anywhere about the function of the USB-to-barrel plug cable - but given the barrel plug has the same diameter as the 9V power adapter (which comes with both iCAN and iUSB Power) and it certainly can’t plug into itself, the reasonable assumption is that the cable is meant to plugged into the power only USB port at one end and iCAN on the other, serving as iCAN power supply – I tested it and it works just as assumed (* it might work with iPhono as well but I have no mean of testing it). Anyway, there seems to be no degradation of SQ by using iUSB Power as iCAN power supply based on brief listening. It is actually a very neat feature, especially when you are using iUSB Power to connect to iDAC then iDAC to iCAN. It helps to eliminate the need of an extra power adapter – however, it does come with a cost and we will discuss it on the next section. Another fun fact is that I can use this cable with a portable USB power bank to power up the iCAN and function almost like a portable amp – ‘almost’ because the sheer size and weight of iCAN + external battery are too much for portable use.

 

[UPDATE] From iFi: the USB-to-barrel plug is intended for Squeeze Box Touch.

 

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iDAC

 

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iCAN

 

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iUSB Power

 

Build quality is top notch. The whole Micro line use the same high quality, almost tank like aluminum housing, which is a bit too long if I am nitpicking. The real issue is that the long and narrow housing kind of limits where all the sockets can be placed. I can’t say these are the most sensible of design, but they are not terrible enough to stop me from using them. It is just that I have an urge to want to stack them up but the looping of the cable from front to back - well, isn’t exactly aesthetically pleasing. Beyond that however, I can say that all three units are excellent in quality. The (top and bottom) marking on the housing really gives them a premium look and they are not cheap, easy-to-scratch paint job.

 

Gain and Hiss

Gain on both iDAC and iCAN are on the high side. No official number that I know of, but my basic measurement shows that iDAC has a gain of around +15dB, with a max output of around 4.7Vrms. The line-out is a fairly standard 1.95Vrms. For iCAN, gain is about +17dB with max output of around 6.67Vrms (*iDAC as source).

 

With such high gain, volume tends to get too loud too fast when a low impedance, high sensitivity IEM (or similar full size) is used. With Shure SE530, I can barely go pass 8 o’clock on the iDAC’s volume knob. But on such a low position, the problem of imbalance inherent in all potentiometer becomes quite apparent. At the end, I have to lower the software volume on the PC to get them to play nice together. iCAN also doesn’t fare much better as well. It would have been great if there is a gain switch on both devices. On the upside, both have plenty of power to drive high impedance headphone without a problem. This is especially true for iCAN. [UPDATE: the newer iCAN now comes with gain switch, detail see last section of the review]

 

Hiss prone IEM (i.e. Shure SE530 again) can pick up minor hissing when the volume knob is turned close to 12 o’clock. However, this shouldn’t be too big of a deal since it is almost impossible for sensitive headphone to get this loud in actual use due to the high gain. In any case, IEM user must take note if your main IEM is low impedance, high sensitivity and hiss prone – while both iDAC and iCAN will still work, they might not be the best option in practice.

 

On previous section, we talk about using iUSB Power for both iDAC and iCAN at the same time to eliminate the need of an extra power adapter, but it comes with a cost – that cost is hiss, and in quite a noticeable level too. This is likely because any benefit of isolating the USB ground from the iUSB Power is lost. So at the end, it is still better to stick to the stock power adapter.

 

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On the topic of stock power adapter - iFi Audio seems to be especially proud of it. They call it the ‘ULN’, or Ultra Low-Noise adapter. It is based on switch mode circuit, which is traditionally considered to be much noisier* than linear circuit (*due to the ripple created by the fast switching nature of the switching circuit), but have the advantage of being inexpensive and more versatile in application. In the case of ULN adapter however, iFi Audio has taken the time to craft out an adapter of exceptionally low noise (and they have shown measurement done on various adapters with tech paper). Based on my poking around of the inner on all three models, I also notice they have put a lot of know-how into noise filtration and elimination on the power line – not just on iUSB Power, but also on iDAC and iCAN. All and all, I am pretty impressed by their attention to detail on the power section.

 

Sound Quality

RMAA measurement on both iDAC and iCAN show no issue. In fact, iCAN performance has excessed the resolution of my measuring setup so it looks pretty much perfect. While the headphone-out on iDAC doesn’t measure as well, it is still considered excellent by my standard (low noise, flat FR curve, etc). Output impedance on iDAC is too low for my measurement, which is of course a very good thing. On the iCAN, it is about 1ohm (*more on this later). Both have excellent current output into my usual 47ohm and 23.5ohm fixed load test so that’s not a problem as well.

 

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iDAC underbelly.

 

Let talk about iDAC first. The internal DAC chip is the ESS Sabre ES9023, which is the most common DAC among the ESS line-up. We have seen it on really budget USB DAC like the HiFimeDIY’s Sabre USB DAC and Stoner Audio UD100, to the more modestly priced ODAC and some really expensive DAC. On the DAC section alone, some of the more standout features of iDAC include the full 24bit, 192kbps resolution and USB asynchronous mode. These are done by employing a XMOS microcontroller with 3 reference clocks (one for USB and two for sampling rates). The USB power line also seems to be internally regulated so a little bit of ‘dirty’ USB power shouldn’t be an issue. While these are all good on paper, I have to say that these features are not something obvious to the listening. To be honest, how many can tell a good jitter from a great jitter, or a somewhat dirty USB power line from a clean USB power line? I am not sure I can. If we were to talk about just the actual sound of the line-out, it does closely resemble that of ODAC or UD100. It is not a case where you will say ‘wow, this ES9023 sounds better than the rest’. No, they all sound darn good – clean, transparent, well resolved, and those are things you can expect from any well implemented ES9023.

 

The real interesting bit about iDAC is in its headphone amp section. It uses a MAX9722, which is hardly a top range opamp. But the key is in its implementation, as it sounds good enough to give me the impression of iDAC being ‘ODAC + O2 roll into one device'. Okay, frankly speaking the headphone amp section still isn’t quite beat the O2 in overall performance, but it is really close. It carries the same flavour of top quality transparency in its sound. The only two noticeable areas that are not quite on par are: First, the overall image on the iDAC headphone amp not being quite as large and grand as O2. Second, the bass hit is a tad softer. Try to scale the O2 down 10%~15%, and that’s what you will hear on iDAC. Still, it is admirable and could even compete head-to-head with some standalone sub$150 amp on its own. I’ll call that a win for any headphone amp section built into an USB DAC. If I were a minimalist, I would have been very happy with just the iDAC alone.

 

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iCAN underbelly

 

iCAN is also an very interesting piece of gear of its own right. By looking on the inner, the ‘Class A TubeState’ section is, as far as I can tell, a fully discrete gain stage, then it employs TPA6120A2 as the buffer stage. If anything, TPA6120 has a good reputation on its sound quality and raw power, but almost always being dissed for its high output impedance. The minimum 10ohm output resistors needed for stability put TPA6120 into obvious disadvantages when it comes to low impedance headphone (*lack of electrical dampening) and even worst, low impedance multi-driver headphone with passive crossover (*coloration). But iFi is clever enough to use inductor bypassed by a small value resistor to achieve the same stability without any of the downside.

 

So how does it sound? In sum, identical to O2 – and that’s the highest possible complement I can give to any headphone amp(*for those who don’t know the O2 – it is a headphone amp designed with measurement to deliver the best possible transparency and performance to any sub 300ohm headphone). It is hard-pressed to find any difference in their sound when volume matched. The same authority, control, power, resolution and soundstage are shared between the two. There is no sound signature to speak of, as both are totally transparent and neutral in flavor. With the 30+ amps I have owned, just  a small handful of them are able to partially match O2 in overall sound quality, and only iCAN can deliver near identical performance. They are, in my opinion, true ‘reference level’ headphone amp for others to measure up to. But the story doesn’t end there – beside top-notch sound quality, iCAN has two very functional EQ as well: the 3D Holographic Sound and XBass. We will discuss more on them in the EQ section.

 

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iUSB Power underbelly.

 

Confession: it is never my intention to get the iUSB Power to use with iDAC (or iCAN) in the first place. I needed a good USB isolator for other application and iUSB Power fits the bill. So there is no expectation that it will improve the SQ of iDAC. In fact, my PC has really clean USB power so I never run into trouble with any of my USB DAC before. But since I have it, might as well use it for its original intended purpose. RMAA measurement is carried out on both iDAC’s line-out as well as on UD100, with and without the iUSB Power, plus with and without isoEarth (ground noise elimination system) engaged. Result? Well, nothing is really different between the measurements. Audibly, I also can’t detect any difference on both UD100 and iDAC line-out as well. My conclusion is, since I know I have really clean USB port in the first place, any benefit from the iUSB Power should be minimum at best. But the story didn’t end there – does iUSB Power brings any improvement to the setup? Yes, it is to the iDAC’s headphone-out. As I have said previously, iDAC headphone amp section is like a scaled down O2. With the iUSB Power however, the soft hitting bass get turn up a notch and the overall soundstage opens up, especially in the depth. It seems to take on a slightly different personality than just a ‘baby O2’. It kind of reminds me of JDS Labs’ C421-AD8620 more than O2, but it is certainly closer to the performance level of O2 than before. My guess is, since PC’s USB port is limited to 500mA while the iUSB Power can supply up to 1A, the improvement of the headphone amp section is a sign of the extra juice. The reason why neither UD100 (which only outputs line-out) nor iDAC line-out show any difference is because neither of them is designed to output current, so the extra current supply make no difference. Well, that the best theory I have anyway.

 

The big question is, does it worth getting the iUSB Power? As I have said before, I would have been very happy with just the iDAC alone. The improvement from iUSB Power is noticeable, but not quite the doubling of total price. If you are looking for the best bang for the buck, I would think iDAC alone is more than suffice. iUSB Power is the option for those who really want the best of the best at any cost. Also, as I have mentioned, iUSB Power will likely to be more beneficial to those USB DAC that has a headphone amp or meant to drive headphone directly. So if you are only using iDAC as line-out (or USB DAC like UD100, which is limited to line-out only), you might not get a clear cut result.

 

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Triple Stack (from top): iCAN, iDAC, and iUSB Power.

 

EQ

iCAN comes with two EQ: 3D Holographic Sound (3DHS) and XBass. Both have two levels of adjustments.

 

The first level of 3DHS is pretty much the same as most crossfeed implementations I have heard before (HeadRoom BitHead, Meier Audio Corda 3MOVE, FiiO E12, etc), neither better nor worst. I generally don’t find crossfeed of this type to be particularly useful or enjoyable, so I usually don’t use it. The 2nd level of 3DHS on the other hand is a completely different beast. It sounds much closer to a full 3D simulation, like a cross between SRS and BBE in a very good way. It gives a very ‘surround sound’ effect without overdoing anything or making it sounds fake. It is good enough that I first thought that it must have some kind of DSP processing involved, but it is actually all analog based, which is actually quite impressive.

 

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XBass: light and heavy boost.

 

The two levels of XBass are closer to a sub-bass boost. First level starts just under 200Hz and peaks around +7dB @ 20Hz. The 2nd level starts just under 800Hz and peaks around +9dB @ 20Hz. Both are strong at boosting sub-bass but have minimum effect over the rest of the frequency range. Overall, they perform very well.

 

Both 3DHS and XBass can be engaged at the same time with different combo. They are quite fun to play with and can be very useful to some headphone. They are really icing of the cake to the already great sounding iCAN.

 

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Size comparison: iCAN, iDAC and iUSB Power with O2 (left), FiiO E12 (right) and FireStone Auido Fireye HD (lower right).

 

…in Summery

All and all, I am quite impressed by all three iFi ‘Micro’ gears. They perform well and priced reasonably. You can probably get an ODAC + O2 combo that is a little cheaper and offer similar sound quality, but you won’t get as much features as either iDAC or iCAN. The only thing I wish to have is a gain switch on iDAC and iCAN most because I am mainly an IEM user. Too much gain makes for much lesser control over volume. Beyond that, I have no problem recommending them. iDAC is a great option as an all-in-one solution while iCAN is an fantastic headphone amp. As for iUSB Power, it is not a ‘must have’ unless you are pushing for the last few percent of the performance, but it does its job as claimed. For a relatively fresh brand, iFi has made a good name for itself with these Micro gears and proven that it has the same audiophile blood in its veil as its higher-end sibling.

 

A thank to iFi Audio for the iDAC and iCAN review unit.

 

[UPDATE June 5th, 2013]

Just received a press release from iFi that they have revised the iCAN and now it comes with gain switch for user selectable 0dB, 10dB and 20dB gain setting. Those who own an older iCAN can send their back and upgrade to the newer version with a fixed US$50 / £40 fee + shipping. The MSRP of the new version of iCAN is however the same as the old model, which is US$249. You'll need to contact the original seller / retailer for the upgrade program.

 

Must give praise to iFi for listening to their customer and implemented the gain switch at last. With the new gain switch, the iCAN is near perfect.

Posted

Pros: Good sound, sane price, drives pretty much everything you throw at it, 3D sound and XBass work well to help out otherwise deficient headphones

Cons: Not portable/battery power, could sound a touch warmer and more tubey for me

When you listen from the loudspeakers, your right ear not only hears the sound from the right loudspeaker, it hears the sound from your left loudspeaker too and the same for left. When using headphones, you right ear ONLY hears the sound from the right headphone, nothing from the left headphone and the same reverse.  That’s why the music is always inside your head when listening through headphones.  But with loudspeakers, you hear sound coming from the front and around you just like inside a concert hall. To me this is a major problems with headphones and makes me listen to them as little as possible, until recently.

At the recent National Audio Show in September I came across a refreshing new feature, the “Headzones”, even though the mostly shockingly young people hanging out there made me feel a right old fogie. I rather enjoyed having a butchers at the latest top of the line Stax Headphones, but they are still no more practical, portable or less dear than ever. The so-so sounding entry level model is already 750 squid.

I also rather fancied a dishy looking Headphone Amplifier called the SPL Phonitor.  It’s got lots of twiddley knobs and switches and those groovy meters. The guy on the Decent Audio stand was great, allowing to twiddle the knobs to my heart’s content. With all them knobs and switches set somehow right, the Phonitor was able to pull the music right out of my head, which is where it belongs. I never heard anything like it! But the price is a wee bit rich even for my salary…

Later I saw something else though, the iFi Components and especially the iCAN on Demo with a small Laptop and Sennheiser Headphones. I pulled out my own JVC’s and listened. The one good thing of Cans that I will begrudgingly admit is that you can take your Cans and have a personal demo there and then. You don’t need to take it home and set things up to see if you have a chance of liking it!

This little box did pretty much the same “out of my head” trick as the SPL Phonitor, added some bass processing that the Phonitor lacks (did good on my JVC’s) and sounded generally the bees knees and the whole little set of components included not only a DAC and an extra upgrade power supply for the DAC (like my Naim CD-Player! ). Best is they came in for a bit over halve the cost of the Phonitor and included a DAC in the bargain. I was there when I overheard a guy from an e-zine and he seemed to really like the iFi sonics.

The iCAN headphone amplifier with its “3D Sound” and “X-Bass” helps me to enjoy music from my headphones EVER so much more. I again listen to music throughout much of the day. The little stack of iFi gear on my desk has quickly become a bit of talking point in the office and I occasionally get to demonstrate what they do to a colleague. I have tested many Headphones using this Amp and have yet to find something it cannot drive.

I have used high impedance Sennheiser HD-600, low impedance Audio Technica's, HiFiman Planars and now even Micro Seiki electrostatic headphones via their "Power Source" interface box. Sometimes a hair more power would be nice, but this is rare, for all the phones I tried and most music in most situation there is Loudness to spare.

I leave the 3D Sound processing mostly on and on max. I have yet to find a set of 'cans that I like better without it. The presentation is not like listening to a band in front of you or even listening through speakers, but it is a major step in the right direction. I really miss the 3D Sound feature with my Smartphone and really wish iFi would make a smaller, battery powered portable amp with the same feature, or even better a player plugin for either Android Phones or iPhone (I'd actually buy an Apple Phone just to get 3D Sound on the go).

XBass is a lifesaver for bass-shy headphones! Where you would normally just write them off as sad, bad and criminally bass shy. Set XBass to restore the balance to "normal" and you can appreciate what these headphones do really well. With my recent Charity Shop find, the Micro Seiki MX-1 electrostatic headphones XBass makes the difference between 'cans with terrific mids and treble, very open but lacking bass and sounding think and weedy to well balanced 'cans that handle natural acoustic bass (Jazz, Classical) very well and are hard to put down. Of course, headphones that already have killer bass (e.g. HiFiman HE-500) do not need XBass and it gets turned off with these.

Overall tonality is nice and slightly warm, but to my ears a touch more "tube like" sound would not go amiss. As it stands the iCAN helped me to really re-discover and re-like Headphone listening. Nothing before it did that for me since I graduated from headphones to speakers in my teens and non of the other headphone Amp's I had a chance to test so far (Carot One Ernestolo, FIIO E17, Musiland HP-11, Naim Headline and Rega Ear) except the > 2 Grand Phonitor (not auditioned outside shows) have ever come close to giving me that enjoyment. With the Electrostatic Headphones I now have it provides some of the best and most enjoyable sound from headphones ever.

Note, I paid 249 Pound, not the 249 Dollars one pays in the US, bloody rip-off Britain - an extra 30% on top of the US price in taxes and other bollocks!

Posted

Pros: 3D sounds, bass boost, small form factor

Cons: No power switch, could use more power

There’s an amp that’s been making its rounds on Head-Fi for a while now, the iFi iCan. I’ve seen it pop up around various threads and I’ve always been curious but I never saw myself really wanting it.

 

The iCan’s 3D HolographicSound system is what intrigued me most about this amp. It’s nothing new, by any means, as it’s a ­variable crossfeed switch. It’s the execution that makes this little guy so impressive. There are three stages to the crossfeed: no crossfeed, a mild crossfeed, and a more liberal crossfeed. Per the user’s guide, iFi recommends using the first crossfeed level for recordings with “excessive” stereo effect and the second level for more flat recordings.

 

I found that which 3D setting I used depended on the source material I feeding into the iCan. For example, I had a few Ray Charles recordings where I heard no difference whatsoever with the 3D switch on or off. But then when I put on some Daft Punk each 3D step made an improvement on the soundstage. And when I had some Ellington and Coltrane playing I preferred the middle setting, as when it was fully on it felt too big and almost artificial.

 

The second switch on the iCan is a bass adjustment. Like the 3D switch it also has three different stages; no boost, a mild boost and a slightly more aggressive boost. When I was using the bass boost I found that the mild boost was the most pleasing with both my Sennheiser HD650 and MrSpeakers Mad Dogs. Since the 3D switch adds more air to the sound the bass boost is a welcomed addition.

 

For gaming I didn’t care much for the 3D switch when positional queues are critical. I could get a general location for the source of the sound but it let me down on more than one occasion while playing multiplayer shooters. That said, I did enjoy having the 3D on when playing immersive games. Playing Borderlands 2 and Skyrim it seemed to help smooth the ambient sounds when I moved and made the game more immersive. And for games like Skyrim, which are all about immersion, better sound makes a world of difference.

 

There are a couple of downsides to the iCan. The first is that there is no power switch. This is an inconvenience for me as I don't want to leave an amp sitting on all the time and I'd prefer to have a button rather than to plug/unplug the amp whenever I'm using it. It's inconvenient and could cause unnecessary strain on the power connections, possibly even permanent damage. Another drawback is the power output. For the price of the iCan, you can get amps like the Schiit Asgard 2, Matrix M-Stage, Bottlehead Crack and many more. The $250 range is pretty well catered for in the amp market. The iCan doesn’t have as much power as another amp of mine, the Aune T1; in fact it has less than half the power. But when you factor in the bass boost and the 3D switch I find the iCan more enjoyable even considering the power difference. Even so I would still love to see more power behind the signal.

 

I want to thank Chicolom for loaning out his iCan for my use. Without his loan I doubt I’d have heard one of these anywhere else on my own. And thanks to his loan I’m now considering purchasing one myself.

Posted

Pros: Sound, 3D setting, XBass setting, Gain settings, well thought out design

Cons: no on/off switch, some may not like the shape

I would like to thank Vincent at iFi for sending me this sample for review, I will try to write an honest review, this unit received well over 100hrs of burn-in.

 

The iCan was tested with various headphones including the German Maestro GMP 8.35D + GMP 400 and also IEM's like the Westone UM Pro30 and Final Audio Design Piano Forte X-G.

 

I used many different configurations, just the iCan, just the iDAC + iCan, the iDAC + iTube + iCan and the iTube + iCan (most used when not at a computer).

 

 

Packaging, Build Quality and Accessories:

Packaging is a simple white box, very elegant and simplistic, it has a picture of the iCan on the front, on one of the sides it has a list of the features, on the other side a picture of the side of the iCan, and on the back you will find all the technical information. This is just a sleeve, out of this slides a white box with iFi in silver pressed on the top of the box. Once you open this you are presented with the iCan in a card in tray, and underneath this you will find the accessories included. The packaging is a little Apple-esque but I do like the simplistic design.

 

Accessories included are just the necessary, 4 adhesive rubber feet, a RCA-RCA cable, 3.5mm - 3.5mm interconnect, 6.3mm to 3.5mm adaptor, power supply (ultra low noise, nice to see they don’t forget the small details) and a little flat head screw driver for changing the iCan's gain settings.

 

Build quality is good, the casing is aluminum, and feels great, I really like the finish, semi matte and it also doesn’t scratch easily which is great.  The switches on the front are high quality and actually quite stiff, the volume knob is custom built for iFi measuring better than the equivalent Alps pot. One thing that is missing is an on/off switch, which some people have already mentioned. This is the only fault I can find with this device.

 

 

A little info:

The  iCan has a gain switch for 0dB, 10dB and 20dB, it is a class A amplifier and has Xbass bass boost and 3D sound switch. The 3D settings are tuned for headphones on the iCan, it is a very well implemented, the low setting makes the sound more coherent and less hard L and R, mids take real centre stage and the instruments surround them, without messing up the sound or taking any detail away. It gives you a bit more of a speaker like sound.

 

On the high setting the sound becomes a tad brighter (remedied with the Xbass if needed) but the sounds do come from further apart and are very well separated with excellent sense of air and space, it does create a wider perceived soundstage. For most listening I prefer the low setting, but using the high + lowest bass boost, it does sound very good.

 

 

Sound:

Well this amp may not put out as much current into the same load as my O2 or Bravo Ocean but it does have a lot more gain options and also has 3D sound and Xbass. With no settings applied it sounds nearly identical to my O2, compared to the O2 it may have an ever so slight hint of warmth (not a problem) and maybe a slightly smaller soundstage. That is it, so it is as good as the O2, which is very impressive, if it isn't loud enough on unity gain just switch it to 10dB or 20dB gain and this will power a lot of headphones without problems. So we have established that the sound is very linear, it also has very good soundstage but not quite as expansive as the O2's.

 

Where it has the upper hand is in features, this is a desktop amp that cannot be used with batteries, it has RCA and 3.5mm inputs, it has a 6.3mm headphone output and more gain settings than the O2. It has the 3D setting which has been explained in the info section above, now what about the Xbass, well as all the other features are all well thought out and implemented, it is no surprise that the Xbass also is. The lowest setting adds a little sub-bass presence with a little added mid-bass thump, it adds a little warmth and body without affecting the mids or veiling the sound. I love this setting on my German Maestro GMP 400 and 8.35 D as both lack a little body (8.35 D has velour pads).

 

The high setting now brings out the rumbling sub bass with excellent realistic mid-bass punch, the only problem with the higher setting is that it now encroaches on the lower mids, but it still doesn't veil the overall sound. Bass guitars have excellent articulation and are in your face, kick drum punch with authority, a very fun energetic bass boost without sacrificing the mids or veiling the overall sound.

 

 

So there we have it, an excellent amp that is transparent and has added features over the O2.  It is no surprise that this is now ranked #1 in the Desktop amp section of Head-fi, it has been getting a lot of good reviews and this is another, the only thing I would change is putting a on/off switch on it.

 

Sound Perfection Rating: 10/10 (pairs well with everything and has many great features)

 

 

Tracks Used:
Skrillex – First Of The Year (Equinox) (320kbps MP3)
Paramore – Franklin (320kbps MP3)
Diana Krall – The Girl In The Other Room (FLAC)
Deolinda – Passou Por Mim E Sorriu (live) (ALAC)
Suicide Silence – Unanswered (FLAC)
Massive Attack – Angel (ALAC)
Eat Static – Dzhopa Dream (ALAC)
The XX – Crystalised (FLAC)
Funeral For A Friend – Bend Your Arms To Look Like Wings (ALAC)
Mumford & Sons – Little Lion Man (FLAC)
The Scene Aesthetic – Humans (259kbps MP3)
A Hero A Fake – Swallowed By The Sea (254kbps MP3)
Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, Spring Allegro (ALAC)
Johnny Craig – Children Of Divorce (161kbps MP3)
Deadmau5 + Kaskade – I Remember (Caspa Remix) (320kbps MP3)
Black Uhuru – Utterance (ALAC)
We Are The In Crowd – Never Be What You Want (226kbps MP3)
Silverstein – Discovering The Waterfront (320kbps MP3)
Concept Of Thought – Our Thought (FLAC)
Nirvana – Something In The Way (Unplugged) (ALAC)

Posted

Pros: Powerful, transparent, fantastic soundstage

Cons: No power button

Let me first make it clear that I am using a demo version of the ICan, sent to me by Vince at IFi. The reason for this is that as well as being a part time audiophile, I also run a video production company and we will be working with IFi to produce some videos later this year. Vince sent me the unit to get an understanding of how their technology works. 

 

So onto the device itself... Wow! I must confess I was expecting this to be a fairly standard amp, and that the extra features (X-Bass and 3D) would be nothing more than gimmicks... I am happy to be proved very wrong. The amp itself is powerful enough to run both my IEMs (Heir 8as) and my full size cans (HD650s) without a problem. It is also transparent, which I always favour in an amp, as I don't like unnecessarily colouring the sound of my headphones.

 

The X-Bass works well, but to be honest with you, not something I use an awful lot as my 8as are bassy enough already. I do use the first setting on the HD650s though to add a touch.

 

The 3D setting... now this is the bit that impressed me! It really does expand the soundstage in a realistic manner, which I just didn't expect. I guess this is the bit I thought would be all gimmick and no substance and at best that it would add an unrealistic effect, at worst it would degrade the audio quality. Nothing could be further from the truth, to the point I now listen to most of my music with the highest setting on ;)

 

One slight omission in my opinion (and has been stated by a few others) is a power switch. I just don't like having things switched on all the time and without this the only other option is to unplug it from the mains. This is nitpicking really though and could be a consideration for an updated design later on down the road. 

 

So do I like the ICan... Err, yes! This little box of tricks has delivered way above my expectations, with some great features I just hadn't anticipated. In fact I like it so much I am now planning to buy the new nano portable version to pair with my AK120 :D

Posted

Pros: Small, Transparent but not cold/analytical, Smooth treble, RCA AND 1/8" input

Cons: No power switch, Somewhat narrow soundstage, Price could be $50 lower, Weird switch labels

This will be a short review based on maybe on 12-15 hours of use. If you think that's not long enough you can skip it.

 

I was a bit worried that this would be some cheap gimmicky toy amp because of the name. This is instead a seriously good amp! I love it.

 

  • Sounds great with ALL my headphones and does not add any major coloration to any of them. It works equally well with the HD-598, HD-650, K400, DJ100 and modded Q701. It sounded especially good with the hard to drive K400! All my headphones and music sounds as it should.
  • Sounds transparent but it's not cold/analytical/thin sounding. There is a subtle touch of warmth in there. It will be nice for even a DT-990 or SR-325is. This warmth is only noticeable on specific headphones and harder on others. I noticed it on my DJ100 and HD-650. It never ever sounds thin unless it's due to the recording.
  • The treble is well extended and not rolled off. It's much smoother than the treble of the O2 or Magni. About the same as my Headroom Micro Amp.
  • Bass is well controlled and neutral. There is no emphasis I've heard in any area.
  • Soundstage is lacking in width somewhat. With the HD-650 it's less spacious/open and airy sounding than with my O2/Micro Amp. The O2 is less warm though and has more treble sparkle (less smooth). It's possible my brain is just being fooled, but I'm pretty sure it's not. It's still pretty good and not as bad as it sounds. Nit-picking really. I got similar results on many difference sources.
  • To my ears it's a better "all-rounder" amp than the O2/Magni/Asgard/Vali/E9. It does cost more though.
  • It's the 2nd best amp i've heard. It's not as good as the Headroom Micro Amp + Astrodyne but that cost $350 new. It's the closest i've come to it's sound. The iCAN might be a tad warmer though.
  • I have an O2 for my bedroom (backup) and it's not worth upgrading to this as a backup. If I didn't have my Micro Amp I'd be using this as my main amp. It's that good!
  • I'm able to hear changes in all the sources I connect up to it. There is really no real coloration coming from the amp. Just that touch of warmth.
  • If you found the O2 too sparkly, try this (or the Micro Amp)! Is it worth the $140 price premium? Well if you nit-pick about tiny things like me, then yes. If iFi can get it down to $200 in the USA it'd be a STEAL!

Posted

Pros: Detailed, Exciting, Awesome Bass and Soundstage. Sounds much more than £225, feels like much more than £225

Cons: No on/off switch

 

 

In Audiophile world most people think then more expensive its better, iCAN proves its not always true.

iCAN is a great performing small desktop amp with amazing features at its price point of £225. Anyone who wants more bass or more space and detail from their headphones will be happy.

 

headphones used:

HD650

HD800

 

Amp used:

Graham Slee Novo £255

Graham Slee Solo SRG II £377

Lehmann Rhinelander £349

Lehmann Audio Black Cube Linear £649 good sound but compare to price 3 times as iCAN

Sennheiser HDVD-800 (but that the other story, I almost cry!!!) clear perfection!! £1499

 

Comparing to amps in the same price range and above this is a true winner.

Posted

Pros: Sound quality and price, performance and features.

iFi iCAN reached Earmass!
iFi iCAN reached Earmass!

iFi Audio stunned me from the very first time that I saw local distributor E1-AKG posted info regarding their products line-up in our local forum. Why? Because the line-up is quite special,and for me they are innovative enough and offer audiophiles line-up that is really important and useful in everyone setup,and those often been forgotten,such as iUSB and iDAC. I am actually interested to know more on the other products in the line-up,but start from the iCAN,I feel nothing but impressed from head to toe,what iFI have been produced here,at least iCAN (I have not yet experienced with iDAC and iUSB),is really astounding.

I am a big believer of 'clean' power supply,

Sincerely thanks Vincent from iFi for providing me this unit of iCAN to accomplish this review. I will be concentrate on the sound/audio performance in this write up.

Description,Packaging and Outlook

Fruit phone alike packaging box
Fruit phone alike packaging box,good looking and simple.

iFi website has stated the specification and description of the iCAN clearly. And this is what Vincent told me:

iFi pronounced i and Fi  - so “interactive fidelity”

1.       The analogue sections of the iFi gear (iDAC, iCAN and iPHONO) all run Class A (which is quite unusual at this price point.

2.       They are directly coupled (and a bit more) so there are no output coupling capacitors

Our philosophy is that we do 95% of the hard graft and leave the last 5% for the customer to choose – audio is subjective after all.

Eg iCAN.

-          Each user has different headphones

-          Each user may have multiple headphones

So the XBass is to all fine adjustment of the headphone to suit.

Recordings are largely created for speakers, not headphones, hence the “in your head” aural sensation

The 3D Hologographic Sound System is not ‘just crossfeed”. We are quite meticulous about understanding the sound reproduction process. So we understand how recordings are made and how the human ear ‘hears’. The 3D is a way to redress the recording to suit listening “in the ear”.

Last but not least, our technology comes from AMR and they make US$5,000 to US$15,000 high-end audio equipment.

----------Vincent from iFi Audio

Rear view of the box
Rear view of the box
Box and iCAN
Box and iCAN

iCAN come with a trendy,clean and simple box. The box reminded me some kind of fruit phone's packaging box. While the packaging box is quite good,opened up and the accessories included are also impressive,a Ultra Low Noise Ac/DC adapter (this unit is no ordinary adapter that you might find,this is a truly low noise and high quality Ac/Dc adapter according to iFi),RCA (Female to male) cable,3.5mm cable (Male to Male) and some sheet,impressive and well done! I should have mentioned that iCAN accept 3.5mm inline and RCA jack.

Ultra Low Noise Ac/DC adapter,bravo for iFi to provide this good Ac/Dc adapter,clean power is everything!
Ultra Low Noise Ac/DC adapter,bravo for iFi to provide this good Ac/Dc adapter,clean power is everything!
Accessories included are impressive as well,cable are accessories that most of the manufacturer won't be giving to you,I am not using the original cable as I have some better cable.
Accessories included are impressive as well,cable are accessories that most of the manufacturer won't be giving to you,I am not using the original cable as I have some better cable.

From the price perspective, I don't think iCAN is a expensive headphone amplifier. All right,I do earn hard money but please consider this headphone amplifier is designed together/by AMR, the accessories included in the package, and the build quality of this amplifier is excellent,solid and built like tank.

Front PanelFrom left,you can find a volume knob,'XBass' features toggle switch,'3D' feature toggle switch,and a 6.25mm headphone jack.
Front Panel
From left,you can find a volume knob,'XBass' features toggle switch,'3D' feature toggle switch,and a 6.25mm headphone jack.
Ignore the black round sticky,this is what I do to headphone amp to vent the hot air more efficient.
Ignore the black round sticky,this is what I do to headphone amp to vent the hot air more efficient.

The volume knob,and the toggle switch are all constructed by high quality and robust material, the design is simple and straight forward. I have some minor compain though,the volume knob is a little bit stiff to turn and the marking of XBass/3D level is not same and clear (I have to look closely to see,but I have get used to this after some short time,but I think this can be corrected by next product,first stage of XBass is 'off',but first stage of 3D is 'strongest',this is quite confusing at first,and I am wondered why they design iCAN toggle switch position like this),but these are all small problem,and nothing to do with audio performance of iCAN. I have 98% to like the iCAN,and only 2% to dislike.

Audio Performance

I have paired Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro 250 Ohm, Focal Spirit One,Creative Aurvana Live!, Goldring DR150,Shure SE425 along with Yu Long D100II Dac section and Stoner Acoustic UD100 DAC. Connected through Monster RCA cable.

Please see the marking level is different,sometimes it is a little bit confusing
Please see the marking level is different,sometimes it is a little bit confusing

Now lets moved into the more fun and most important section of the iCAN.

I know that some of you are getting really itchy to know how this beast sound,iCAN has some of the very good sound quality. Let me elaborate more below.

Side view
Side view

As I have already mentioned and maybe you have already know,iCAN has bass boost feature,which iFi named them 'XBass',well,this is a good and favourable feature. If you have followed my review,you must already know that I am a big fan of the bass boost function,I am not a basshead,also I hate those bass boost simply cut too much treble response or any closed sound signature,but for those bass boost that just boost the bass and give you good frequency response for mid and high,I am glad to tell you that iCAN bass boost is the kind that fits my and most of us liking.

Rear view of the amp,from left,there is the power input,RCA input Jack and 3.5mm Jack.
Rear view of the amp,from left,there is the power input,RCA input Jack and 3.5mm Jack.

When I paired the Focal Spirit One with iCAN particularly,the bass impact and depth of the bass is remarkably good,it shakes my head with or without turning on the 'XBass' features,the bass is clear and whole spectrum is just nice,you won't get bloated or too much bass when the 'XBass' features are turned off,what you will get is clear and good presentation of bass. Turning on the bass boost features,it turn my world around and became a bass monster.

Clean and simple design,operated easily as well.
Clean and simple design,operated easily as well.

Afraid of recessed or bad treble response from iCAN? No worries! Treble is good and sparkly, I paired it with Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro250 ohm,played 鸭子拌咀 by chinese master 阎学敏,the response is good,with good sense of detail and response,not recessed at all. But this is not the best pairing for this song,I paired it with Goldring DR150 and this pairing give me much better and revealing treble. In short,high frequency and treble response is really good,added some warmth and richness to the music,blessed with enjoyable music experience. 

iFi iCAN

I double confirmed this by playing Milestone (The Fred Hersch Trio Plays),the high frequency and treble is there with good presentation,it is never too much. Played 'The Fred Hersch Trio Plays' album,and I am immersed in the music.

iCAN

iCAN do give me some rich sound,this will be a great pairing if you have a thin sounding headphone just like DR150,make DR150 a truly enjoyable headphone than I thought it was really is.

Smooth,rich and up-front sound

When you switched it on,the indicator light will light up. There is no on/off switch.
When you switched it on,the indicator light will light up. There is no on/off switch.

Yes, from what I have listened, I do think that sound signature of iCAN is smooth,rich and up-front,iCAN can be a naughty and fun headphone amp if you slip your hand to the 'XBass' toggle button,without turning 'XBass' on,the sound is already enjoyable and bass has already in good presentation. Also,iCAN is clean sounding with good speed.

So I played Patriot Games album by James Horner,I have been attacked by deep and robust bass,and surround by the fast pace music. Especially the forth tracks,the hits.

3D

Close view
Close view

This is a feature that appeared on the iCAN,done very nice and I do heard some expansion in soundstage when I switched it on. But strangely,I do think that switch it off I can get better soundstage than turning it on,and I do get some audible noise when I turn it on,but nothing significant.

I am one of the guy that appreciate simplicity,so most of the time I just turned it off.

Wait!! How is the midrange and soundstage performance??

Vocal is forward,not those will split right in your face,but vocal definitely has good presentation. Guitar sounded nicely as well,midrange performed nicely. I don;t find any of the frequency spectrum is boosted (When you switched off the 'XBass' feature). Really I have no complain for the performance of the iCAN as a desktop amp.

Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro 250 Ohm which I borrowed from audio buddy,Alan.
Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro 250 Ohm which I borrowed from audio buddy,Alan.

Soundstage wise,tested with some live recording (Hell Freezes Over and Jack Cheung Live concert) along with Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro 250 Ohm,it has some average width but decent ambience,the ambience is there,sound stage is quite good,positioning and imaging wise,is good. Instrument separation is great,when i played 'Paganini for Two' ,I can listen to each of the instrument clearly.

Quite small in size when I compared to other desktop amp.
Quite small in size when I compared to other desktop amp.

When I played 'The Cleveland Orchestra Pierre Boulez - Strawinski -  Petrouchka Le Sacre du Printemps',each of the instrument get thier position and play with clarity.

Vivere Album by Andrea Bocelli played with emotion and expressive,vocal is great. Vocal has enough of air and space.

The Pairing and Synergy

iFi

i thought this will be only a great paired for thin sounding headphone,but I am wrong as ICAN has gave me some really good and enjoyable music along with Creative Aurvana Live! and Focal Spirit One,which those two are quite thick and rich sounding

What I don't like

Well, they are good. But personally think that it lack some kind of spacious and width,I think that if iCAN can improve on this,this will be the top quality desktop amp. No,don't get me wrong, they are  good in this section,but it can be better,for the price, I have no complain though. I just hope that it can be better.

Simply a beauty
Simply a beauty

Nothing being created in this world come without shortcomings,so iCAN has shortcomings as well,don't look this with a magnifying glass,but just a note. iCAN might not be the most revealing and biggest,widest,open soundstage amp. it is good,but not the best,I do hope music can flow more free.

Also,might be great for some,but personally I do think that we should have some gain control on iCAN,it is TOO POWERFUL for portable amp and most of the iem I threw at it. Even with the 250 ohm Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro, I don't have to turn the volume to 50%,35% of the maximum volum give me above listening volume.

All of the 'flaws' I stated here not really the flaw,with the price,it is easily forgivable.

Comparison

Compared

I don't have headphone amp with me now,except iCAN,most of my item have been sent out to my friends and lend them. But when I compared iFi iCAN with YuLong Audio D100 II internal amp,iCAN has somewhat obvious more up front sound than my D100 II,I can't say which is better,but iCAN has more refine and warmer presentation. To be fair,D100 II's headphone amplifier section is just a bonus,the DAC is already worth how much it sell.

And when I compared to Bravo Audio's Rock,which personally I haven't found love with,iCAN obviously is better. Refine and smooth,with good impact also insightful.

I can add in few to compare,but pointless as iCAN has some kind of up-front and forward sound,which is very energetic. Meanwhile,I found the sound signature is really favourable.

Conclusion

iFi have done a good job!
iFi have done a good job!

AMR have respectable experience in design audiophile stuffs,and iCAN didn't come with disappointment. It is good and up to my expectation,I thought the Class A performance might make it very hot after sometimes of use,but reality prove me that I am just worry too much,it do get hotter when I use it,but nothing really big deal.

iFi

While I am actually like how iFi iCAN sounded,I am respect even more with iFi's spirit,they aimed to produce better sound for desktop,computer might be our next trend in audio world,every track of mine is in lossless digital files format,and iDAC,iUSB and iCAN in this entry,I can clearly see that iFi has created some stuffs that is great,especially they emphasised on what other manufacturer often forgot or refuse to give,such as the ultra low noise AC/DC adapter (and come with adapter that fit your country wall plug standard),also RCA and 3.5mm cable. The cable is nothing of the exotic material,but it is a bonus that iFi do including these cable to consumer,for starting,price of a good cable might burn some consumer's ass.

iCAN and the box
iCAN and the box

I am agreed that iCAN might not be a budget headphone amplifier,but it is worth the money in my opinion,in Malaysia it only cost RM1050 (330 USD),and our well known Malaysia and Singapore distributor have long time a good supplier,I am not worry on the back-up service. iFi do have some responsive and good customer service,and I hope they will keep this up,also produce better products in future.

The reason I love this headphone amplifier is simple though,good sound with good look.

Posted

Pros: Flat Frequency Response, Warm Sound, Excellent Sound Enhancements, Well Built, Plenty of Power

Cons: Slight Interference at Lowest Volume, High Gain Not Suited for IEMs,

iCAN Amplifier 5

Introduction

I’d like to thank the folks at iFi Audio and Avatar Acoustics for the review sample.

 

iFi Audio is something of a newcomer in the mainstream consumer audio market, but one that has had its roots firmly planted in the professional audio industry for years, British firm Abbingdon Music Research, which produces a range of audiophile grade (read: expensive) sources, amplifiers and whatnot. iFi Audio was created with the promise of offering top quality products at much lower prices and has created a number of products since their inception. Up for review today is the iFi Micro iCAN headphone amplifier.

 

Does the iCAN measure up to the stiff competition in the budget amplifier market? Read on to find out.

 

Technical Specifications

Signal to Noise Ratio: >117dB(A)
Total Harmonic Distortion(THD): <0.003%(400mV/150R)
Frequency Response: 0.5Hz to 500KHz(-3dB)
Output Power: >400mW(32Ω)
Output Voltage: >5V (>600Ω)
Input Voltage: AC 100 - 240V, 50/60Hz
Power Consumption: < 4W idle, 10W max.
Dimensions: 158(l)x68(w)x28(h)mm
Weight: 216g(0.48lbs)

 

iCAN Amplifier 3

Accessories

Alongside the iCAN Amplifier, iFi includes a number of accessories, including standard instruction manuals and documentation, a white, flat cabled 3.5mm mini to mini cable, an RCA cable, a set of four rubber feet, a 3.5mm to 6.3mm adapter and, something iFi makes a big deal of, an ultra-low noise AC adapter, promising cleaner power to the iCAN amplifier. Now I’m not sure how big a deal this is, if it matters at all, but the fact that iFi has included the ULN adapter in the case that it does matter is a nice touch.

Design and Build Quality

With a long but sleek aluminum chassis, the iFi is an attractive addition to a desktop audio setup that blends in nicely, especially if you favor Apple computers and their aluminum designs. I don’t, but that’s another issue entirely.

 

The iCAN features gold plated and nicely spaced RCA connectors and a 3.5mm jack for audio inputs along the rear and, of course the DC 9V input jack. Around front, there’s a gold plated 1/4” (6.3mm) output jack, a polished metal potentiometer and two metal flip switches to control the XBass and 3D sound enhancements. These switches are nice and serve their purpose well but it is odd that the switches themselves aren’t mirrored. What I mean by that is the neutral position for the XBass and 3D are different, with the XBass being neutral or “off” with the switch all the way up while the 3D switch is neutral at the middle position. Not really a big deal, but worth mentioning.

 

The polished metal potentiometer is quite good, with the absolute smoothest tracking of any potentiometer I’ve ever used, which aids in making tiny volume changes, a welcome addition as the volume on the iCAN ramps up quicker than any other amplifier I’ve tried. But more on that in a moment.

 

Also, the iCAN lacks a power switch, which means the only way to power down the unit is to unplug it, and you’ll probably want to as the amplifier can consume up to about 4W while idle.

 

iCAN Amplifier 12

Sources Used

iPhone 4S/iPod Classic – Pure i-20 DAC – iCAN

iPhone 4S – Fiio L3 Line out – iCAN

Gain and Amplification

One thing I know for certain about the iCAN is that it can drive headphones to ridiculously loud levels. Even with my most power hungry headphones, the Sennheiser HD 600, I rarely found myself going beyond 10 o’clock or so on the potentiometer. Suffice to say, I doubt anyone will run into problems powering all but the most demanding headphones on the market like HiFiMan’s HE-6 or other particularly hard to drive planar magnetic orthodynamic headphones and even then, I can’t imagine even those will be much of a problem for the iCAN at least in terms of pure volume.

 

Because of the high power output and high gain, the iCAN is not the best choice for use with in ear monitors in general, especially those that have low impedance and/or high sensitivity. With my RE-400s, I was barely able to move past 8 o’clock before they were more than loud enough for me.

 

One strange thing I noticed about the iCAN is that, with the volume at its lowest, instead of dead silence, I get, not only a low level hum, but…voices. Peculiar. I barely heard the hum with my HD 600s and there was no way to boost the volume on what I was hearing as raising the volume to normal listening levels got rid of the interference. So, I broke out my most sensitive IEMs, the Creative Aurvana 3, which I regularly use to test amplifiers and sources for audible hissing and lo and behold, I was tuned in to the local Christian radio station, 103.5 FM – The Light.

 

Don’t consider that an advertisement. I’m just pointing out what I was hearing and, for the record, I didn’t like it.

 

My best guess as to why this was happening is due to inadequate shielding from radio interference. The amplifier itself must be acting as an antenna of some kind and some of the radio signal is being dumped into the audio path. Peculiar but, all in all, a minor annoyance.

 

iCAN Amplifier 7

Sound Quality

The iCAN has a slightly warm sound thanks to what iFi refers to as "Class A TubeState amplification", claiming that it blends the warmth associated with vacuum tube amplifiers with solid state technology. With both sound enhancements off the sound is indeed slightly warm and "Tubey" but it doesn’t skimp on detail. It sounds perfectly flat to my ears, as an amplifier should. There isn’t much to say about the iCAN’s performance. It sounds like a quality desktop amp, no buts about it. So, let’s move on to the more unique aspects of the iCAN, the two sound enhancements that one can activate with the flip of a switch.

XBass

Oh I love this feature. No qualifications, no ‘buts’, I just…love it. On a basic level, this functions similarly to bass boost options on other amplifiers I’ve used like the CMoy BB and just about every Fiio amplifier I’ve used but the iCAN has the best implementation of a bass boost that I’ve ever heard in the XBass switch. At its first setting, it boosts the sub bass regions (IE 100Hz and below) significantly adding to the sub bass presence and rumble while the second setting, for bass shy headphones, boosts sub and mid bass regions without negatively impacting upper frequencies or low end resolution.

 

The result is an extremely satisfying low end performance in every headphone I’ve tested with the iCAN. I’ve never heard a cleaner bass boost on any amplifier I’ve tried and as a result, I couldn’t be happier with the XBass option on the iCAN. It boosts my bass-light (which might be bass adequate for anyone else) headphones like the Sennheiser HD 555 and IEMs like the HiFiMan RE-400 to levels I find just perfect and with my Audio-Technica Pro700MK2 and M50 headphones, sent them into the realm of truly seismic, almost headache-inducing levels of bass, which has always been a guilty pleasure of mine.

3D Holographic Sound

Now this is an interesting addition, as it claims to widen the sound field and create a listening experience that’s more akin to listening to a good speaker setup than a pair of headphones. The low setting is claimed to be best for “naturally spacious recordings” like classical, jazz and rock music while the higher setting is best for “flat sounding recordings” like more modern music.

Generally, I found these claims to be accurate. The holographic effect is akin to what many know as “crossfeed”, but rather than being a standard DSP, which can be destructive to music, it isn’t a DSP, so resolution remains unaffected. One thing I will note is that the highs were a tiny bit more sibilant with either of the 3DHS modes engaged but that’s a rather small annoyance that most people might not even notice, especially once they got absorbed in the music, as I did.

 

Both settings are fun to play with in different combinations and they do indeed make the iCAN a surprisingly versatile amplifier that pairs well with just about any headphone.

 

iCAN Amplifier 13

 

Now comes the inevitable question I always knew was going to come up sooner or later. Is this as good as the Objective 2? Well, I don’t have the measuring equipment to properly examine the two amps on a purely technical or “Objective” level (sorry) but to my ears, I’d say the iCAN and O2 are about equal in terms of resolution and overall performance. The iCAN is a bit warmer than the O2 but, as I explained earlier, that’s by design.

 

But with each amplifier comes a tradeoff. The iCAN offers those very nice sound enhancements (if you’re into that sort of thing) and may sound a tad more “musical” than the O2 because of the warmer tone but due to the high gain, it doesn’t work as well as the O2 with IEMs. Most iterations of the O2 are a good bit cheaper than the iCAN for the amp only, is more portable (actually, more “transportable”) because of its battery powered design and probably offers the most objectively accurate sound you’ll get from an amplifier below $1000 but many versions lack the RCA input and 1/4” output some audiophiles swear by (I don’t) and isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as the iCAN.

 

So picking a winner between the two is far from clear cut, so I’ll let you decide which suits your specific amplifier needs better.

 

iCAN Amplifier 14

Conclusion

I like the iCAN. I like it quite a bit. It has a flat frequency response, ample power and gain for just about any headphone you can think to throw at it, a slightly warm and pleasing sound and a couple of sound enhancements that don’t compromise resolution when active. Its downsides are relatively minor (though the interference could be a problem if you have especially sensitive headphones) and while I can’t say this is the best choice for IEM users due to the massive gain, this is a very versatile amplifier that should suit a wide array of headphones and user preferences.

 

The going rate of the iCAN is $249 but finding one might be a bit difficult if you’re based in the Americas. Personally, I think that’s a good price and a reasonable one for the kind of performance you’re getting in the iCAN, especially for the sound enhancements. I really do like what they do to the sound in pretty much every case and I usually listen with at least one engaged at all times because they work so well. So, if you’re in the market for a new desktop amplifier, give the iCAN a look.

 

This review was re-posted from my site Musical Musings

Posted

Pros: Transparent, Detailed, Exciting, Awesome Bass and Soundstage / Imaging Controls, Interesting Design

Cons: No on/off switch, a little fiddly with sensitive headphones, order of tone controls could be a little more intuitive

This review was pasted from my blog: http://noblehifi.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/ifi-ican-review.html

 

 

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Disclaimer: A big thank you to Ifi for loaning me the iCan for this review!


Before I talk a little bit about the iCan, let me first address the company behind it. iFi-audio have a small, yet intriguing line of stylish electronics, aimed at computer audio and using technology licensed from Abbingdon Music Research. They make a point of environmentally friendly materials and packaging (which is always nice). Their tag line: "Small in size, big on performance" seems pretty spot on, boasting "Class A analogue circuitry, no DSP and ‘Bit Perfect’ signals throughout" for their entire line-up (where it's relevant). 


In case you didn't know or hadn't guessed the iCan is a headphone amplifier. It costs £225 and is powered by a low-noise 9v power supply that provides 400mW of output power (@32 Ohms). Although there are no batteries inside the iCan Ifi are working separate on a battery unit to go with it. Audio inputs should cover most people's needs, with one 3.5mm audio jack and two RCAs. On the front you get a full size (6.35mm) headphone output only, which is my personal preference. It has a (S-NR) Signal to Noise Ratio of 117dB and a (THD) Total Harmonic Distortion of 0.003%. 


OK now for the really fun Stuff - The iCan has two switches (next to the volume dial), these control low frequency (XBass) and soundstage (3D). There are no destructive DSP (Digital Sound Processing) effects in use here. This really interested me because I do sometimes play with EQ (which is destructive) to make my headphones sound better with certain music.

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The above image shows the bottom of the iCan, it neatly lays out the six options for it's sound controls and what music that they might suit. I thought this was a nice touch. It exemplifies the companies reasoning behind the sound controls and maks this a very versatile amplifier. Acknowledging the differences between headphones & music while offering the ability to manipulate that to the user's preference is a brave move since some audio enthusiasts shun this kind of control. 


   SOUND

I am really impressed by the sound of the iCan! Ignoring the sound controls for a moment, I found the iCan's sonic attributes to be very nicely balanced. It has an impressive authority to the low frequencies without feeling bloated, there's a nice feeling of delicacy to the detail and a smoothness which brings very little fatigue. There is a great sense of air and detail and an abundance of power on tap, in fact everything that I could hope for from a headphone amplifier of this price is here. There are no nasty surprises in the signature and a great deal of excitement.


If you find yourself looking for a different sound signature now and then, be it more weight to the low end or some control over the soundstage, then I urge you to take a good long look at the iCan. Adding extra weight to the low frequencies is nice touch even if you are pretty happy with the overall sound quality of your headphones. With a well balanced headphone I like the sound controls off when listening to most music, but switching to some Electronic music with heavy bass often makes me want to make that bass a bit more accentuated and normally I would look for a different headphone at that point. The beauty of the iCan is that it can bend a headphone to suit both needs, with no destructive EQ adjustment, just the flick of a switch and no need to take your headphones off. Of course this is doubly impressive if you only have the one pair of headphones. 


The 3D setting is similarly interesting, the high holographic setting widens the stereo imaging effect quite noticeably (on most tracks), claiming best comparability with Classical, Jazz and Rock. This setting also made the high frequencies a bit brighter and more harsh with some tracks. This wasn't overly annoying, but in the odd case that it wasn't welcome a small volume reduction seemed alleviate the annoyance without ruining the experience. The low holographic setting is supposed to work better with most modern music. Although it's an interesting effect I have yet to find a good genre and/or headphone to appreciate this with as much as the high setting.


Power wise the iCan is very well endowed. I was recently very impressed by the Schiit Magni by just how well it can drive demanding headphones and the iCan is just as good, possible a little more impressive actually and that's really saying something. The only down side to this is that on a headphone like the Sennheiser Momentum only the first couple degrees of turn are needed to drive the headphone to loud levels. This was a little fiddly at times, but I could still always find the desired volume position so it wasn't terrible. 

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    SOURCES

I decided to forego the usual list of music tracks to help explain how the amplifier affect the headphone's overall sound. There are a couple of reasons for this, firstly talking about specific  tracks took the focus away from the headphone's general signature. The second reason was an over-abundance of variables. In fact I want to keep the variables to a minimum, especially with this amp, I could compare the iCan connected to some smartphones and various DACs, but once I start talking about different headphones and then introduce the iCan's sound controls as well the possibilities and conclusions become pretty overwhelming. So for the bulk of this review I will stick to describing the iCan while using one good DAC.


Despite not wanting to focus on it, I did try the iCan with a few different DACs. I started with the Arcam rPAC, played a little with the Arcam rLink, then moved to the Audiolab M-DAC and finally settled on the the Schiit Modi. The rPAC's DAC does not compare well to the Modi here, perhaps because the rPAC is already paired with an amp, or perhaps the synergy of that amp with it's own DAC makes more sense. The Audiolab M-DAC didn't make such economic sense as a combo, I can't see why you would pay all that money for a combined DAC and headphone amp only to bypass it's amp. The main reason why I didn't choose it though is that it just didn't sound as good as the Modi and I don't mean just relative to it's price. I think the ES9018 Sabre DAC pushes many headphone amps in the  wrong direction for headphones, for me it's just a bit too harsh, it over-emphasises unpleasant details and lacks smoothness. I was very impressed by the Modi and bought it straight after I reviewed it.


    HEADPHONES

The Sennheiser HD650 gave a beautifully clean presentation, with all the sound controls off of course. The amplification was so neutral in fact that it made me long for the slightly better balanced HD600 (slightly less plump in the bass) over the HD650, but it wasn't a dissapointing match with the iCan. Using the bass enhancements with the HD650 was very fun with Dubstep and other heavy Electronic music for a while, but it did get fatiguing eventually. Plus this bass boost came in handy for emphasizing movies and soundtracks so it wasn't completely . The 3D 


I just got the new SoundMAGIC HP200 so really put it through it's paces with the iCan. Despite it getting the least use out of the sound controls it does sound really wonderful here. It's possibly the closest sound quality and signature to the HD650 and for it's price is an absolute steal. With most of the HD650's strong points and a little more excitement I can see some even preferring this over the classic Sennheiser, but I still just prefer the latter because it suits soundtracks a little better and that is my music listening staple. Either of these headphones make a great combination with the iCan, with or without the sound controls.


When I started to fully realize the potential of the iCan's sound controls I ran to get the AKG Q701. These headphones have been left on my shelf for too long, only occasionally coming out for a review. I always knew there was something special about this headphone's sound, with it's clarity and flat response. I just couldn't quite appreciate the signature because of an extreme lack of bass body. I was hoping that the bass boost would make these headphones sound a lot more fun and wasn't disappointed!


The Denon AH-D7000 was a very interesting unit to test here. It has a very powerful sub bass and to use the bass controls with this headphone bordered on the ridiculous, but I can see some people absolutely loving this. The D7000 is still one of my favourite headphones (for the price I bought it for), although it's rather difficult to find now I still like mentioning it because there are some other similar sounding headphones out there that are still available (like the Denon D7100 or Fostex TH600 / TH900). After a bit of experience with the D7000 I have found it a little demanding of good quality amplification. While connecting them to the iCan they really made me smile and not just because of the crazy bass setting, in fact I mostly had the bass control off with the D7000. With all the controls off it was a really impressive sound and the 3D setting on high I noticed a huge difference, it was extremely impressive with some music!

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    BUILD + DESIGN

Ifi Audio make a striking looking chassis, especially considering they have followed such a common design principle (essentially a tube with front and rear bolted panels), a la HRT, Audinst, Epiphany etc. All of Ifi's models share this same design too, which acts as a strong brand identity, but also looks to give a nicely stackable shape. This makes a lot of sense when you look at the possibilities of their catalogue, you could effectively stack up to three Ifi models together (USB Power - USB DAC - Headphone Amplifier). 


The volume dial is solid and smooth, which is very much appreciated given that there's so much power available here, the more sensitive headphones can get loud with only a few degrees of turn, but I never had any problems controlling them to the desired volume. The sound control switches are also solid and provide a very satisfying click. Their positioning is a little confusing however. The '3D' switch being off in the middle, 'Bass' being off at the top. Then there's the fact that maximum bass is on the first position and the slight bass boost is on the bottom, that's odd, but off and maximum were the settings I used most, so it kind of makes sense when you get used to it. The effects of the 3D switches seem more progressively placed and having off (or normal) in the middle means that you'll usually be only moving it one position. With this theory it would have made more sense to put the Bass's off position in the middle also, but this is a pretty minor niggle. 


With the amplifier being class A it seems a little odd that there is no power switch here, so if you are not using it you will most likely be yanking the power cable out all the time. Being a rather glaring omission, given the circumstances I wonder if having a power switch would have introduced some kind of compromise into the circuitry that Ifi just didn't want to make. That being the case I'm fine with it also, quality audio never comes easy.


    FINAL WORDS

The iCan is a tough, well styled chassis with a nice volume dial and solid connections. Although I was a little dubious about the sound controls before I'd heard them, they are very well implemented and don't impact the final sound quality much (if at all). They not only fine-tune your headphones in general, but can be used to get the best from various genres of music and for me this was worth it's weight in gold!


Even with these enhanced abilities turned off the iCan's sound is powerful, engaging, delicate, spacious and smooth. I would highly recommend the iCan to anyone on the hunt for a headphone amplifier, even if you have more to spend. Very highly recommended!

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    EQUIPMENT USED

Desktop PC, Dell Vosto Laptop, Audiolab M-DAC, Schiit Modi, Arcam rPAC, Arcam rLink, Denon AH-D7000, Sennheiser HD650, SoundMAGIC HP200, Sennheiser Momentum, AKG Q701

iFi iCAN headphone amplifier
By:
Description:

Creating a one-box-fits-all-headphones amplifier was a challenge. That’s because headphones are a diverse lot. So when our engineers designed the new iCAN, they didn’t start with the amplifier; they started with the headphones. Unlike traditional headphone amplifiers, the design of the iCAN is based on the whole gamut of headphones. This atypical approach has bestowed upon the iCAN a unique ability to realise the full potential of each and every headphone. First and foremost, it was designed for the finest sound quality. With XBass you hear deeper, richer and cleaner bass. The 3D Holographic Sound system creates headphone-based music that is free-flowing rather than restricted.

Details:
DetailValue
Models:
Model Name/TypeMPNEAN/UPC

Related Media/Links:

http://www.ifi-audio.com/en/iCAN.html



Troubleshooting/Known Issues:

Does not work with Energiser XP-8000 Battery Pack, the 9-12V output is 12V and will cause protection circuitry to shut the amp off after a short time.

 

Specifications:  
Signal to Noise Ratio: >117dB(A)
Total Harmonic Distortion(THD): <0.003%(400mV/150R)
Frequency Response: 0.5Hz to 500KHz(-3dB)
Output Power: >400mW(32Ω)
Output Impedance:(Zout): <0.5Ω
Input Voltage: AC 100 - 240V, 50/60Hz
Power Consumption: < 4W idle, 10W max.
Dimensions: 158(l)x68(w)x28(h)mm
Weight: 216g(0.48lbs)

 

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