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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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