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The little Amp that can do any CAN...

A Review On: iFi iCAN headphone amplifier

iFi iCAN headphone amplifier

Rated # 2 in Desktop Amps
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Price paid: $249.00
bedlam inside
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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!

2 Comments:

I'm really enjoying the iFi iCAN too! I'm running my MacBook Pro/Amarra rig into the Bel Canto mLink Asynchronous USB-SPDIF converter into the SimAudio Moon 100 D DAC (as the SPDIF seems to be the input that really shines on that DAC) into the iCAN, and despite its power rating - it drives my LCD-3's without issue!!
Thanks for a great review, I bit the bullet and bought an iCAN on the strength of this, then enjoyed 3 days waiting for it to arrive while worrying if I'd done the right thing - I'm not a big fan of deviating far from the original sound, so I had some reservations.
I have a decent speaker based system (Anthony Gallo Ref III with Krell, and Chord DAC 64) and I often struggle with the imaging of headphones.
I'm really glad I made this purchase - the iCAN has considerably improved my enjoyment of music due to the more realistic imaging. It's fed by my DAC 64, and driving a pair of Fidelio X1 headphones. I really like the 3D mode and leave it on 99% of the time, despite it giving a slight EQ boost in the top end which my ears quickly adjusted to. Some music benefits from the bass boost as well - to my ears it's very musical and not overwhelming. It's certainly a good fit with the X1, and is clearly a very long way from breaking a sweat in terms of power capabilities. I am surprised at how good this sounds, especially for the price. There's no going back for me.
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