Pros: Great Build, Great Value in iCAN SE and iDAC2, Insane Degree of Versatility
Cons: Pricey to Stack All Units Together
iFi Audio is a company with products that I’ve had the pleasure of auditioning at multiple occasions, but never had the chance to really sit down and spend quality time with. Luckily for me, a good friend of mine recently started working for iFi and reached out to me to see if I would be at all interested in spending some time with some iFi products and doing a review of them. How could I say no to that? He got me in contact with Tyler, who sent me a whole box load of iFi goodies as soon as more shipment arrived. I was initially only expecting the Micro iDAC2 and Micro iCAN SE, so you can guess how excited and surprised I was to find the entire stack in the package. Communication with Tyler has been quick and painless. He was able to answer any questions I had and has been very pleasant to talk to.
Per iFi’s website, “iFi is a brand new line of electronics with trickle-down technology licensed from AMR and aimed primarily at the future, Computer Audio generation.” As someone who would categorize himself as part of the “computer audio generation,” I’m pretty excited to see how iFi’s trickle-down technology is transformed to fit the needs of those that demand great sound without costing an arm and a leg or need to dedicate half of a room to your audio setup.
Big thank you to iFi for the opportunity to finally spend some time listening to products from a company that has gotten quite a bit of praise since their inception.
Considering the fact that this is technically a 6 product super-review, I’ve done my best to keep this as informative, yet readable, as possible. Feel free to jump around and find the component you’re particularly interested in. I won’t be offended. Well, I wouldn’t know anyways.
Also, I won’t bother wasting space putting all the specs and fancy stuff here. Feel free to visit iFi’s website for all of that good stuff.
Finally, I apologize for the picture. They came out a bit darker than I expected.
Packaging and Accessories:
The packaging of the iFi products all follow a very similar design language - simple and clean. The boxes are white with an image of the product and the iFi logo in the front, while a side view of the product can be seen on the side left of the box. The right side of the box has a bunch of logos for the technologies that iFi implemented into each piece, and the back gives you a quick rundown of the products. The back is basically just a mini version of the products page on iFi’s website.
With the exception of the iDAC2, which receives its power via USB either from your computer or, in this case, the iUSB3.0, the iFi pieces come with iFi’s own iPOWER power supply which iFi claims has active noise cancellation technology which reduces the noise floor. I probably wouldn’t count on this making a world of difference on the sound, but I also don’t have any way of proving or disproving it. Something else to note is that the iCAN SE comes with a 15V power supply while the iTUBE and iUSB3.0 utilizes a 9V power supply.
Overall, I'm not super happy about the accessories and interconnects that come with the Micro products. I love that iFi offers a generous amount of accessories with each piece and the accessories are functional and gets the job done, but they feel fairly out of place when you’re using them with the fantastically well built Micro pieces.
The iCAN comes with a red and flat 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable that reminds me a whole lot of Beats by Dre. Despite the fact that Beats have upped their game a bit in terms of the quality of their products, I’m still not totally sure you want your users feeling like their connecting their phone, DAP, or DAC to the iCAN SE with a Beats cable.
The iTUBE and iDAC2 come with purple dual RCA cables, while the iUSB3.0 and iDAC2 come with a clear blue USB cable. The cables certainly get their job done, but the color choice is, again, just a bit odd. Putting the stack onto the iRack, you get a really nice looking setup. However, adding the color show that is the stock cables really takes away from that image in my opinion. Going with black might be a bit boring, but it's more low profile and brings out the nice chassis of the products.
Looking at the brighter side of things, iFi supplies a small screwdriver for the iTUBE and iCAN SE to make adjusting gain easier - a very nice touch. The rubber feet that are provided with the iFi pieces also have the iFi symbol on it. It’s nice to see little attention to details like this. The 3.5mm to 6.3mm adaptor is also one of the nicer stock adaptors I’ve come across.
A Giant Box of Goodies!
I’ll start by going over the easiest thing to cover out of the iStack. The iRack forms the backbone of the iStack. It’s made from a solid and sturdy feeling organic glass, AKA thermoplastic, and stainless steel pillars. The organic glass component has the iFi logo cut out in the center and the pillars feel very solid. Assembling the iRack was a breeze and every component of the iRack comes together to form a impressively sturdy and stable architecture for the stack. The feet of the stack are machined spikes with matching cups to prevent the spikes from scratching anything. A very nice looking design indeed.
The only odd thing I find about the iRack are the o-rings that come with the iRack. I’m not totally sure why they come in a separate bag, but you have to install them onto the pillars yourself. A little odd but I don’t exactly care all that much either.
Something else worthy of noting is that while the Micro pieces come with all the interconnect cable you may need, the iRack comes with 3 sets of “upgraded” RCA cables - one 20 cm and two 43 cm. The cables are OFC copper. I’m not sure how much better the material inside the cable itself is compared to the stocks, but the exterior does look a bit nicer than the stock cables that come with iFi products. Does it exude quality and craftsmanship? Not really. It’s no where near as nice feeling as the Mercury or Gemini cable that you can purchase from iFi.
The iRack is certainly a good home for the iFi components. Well, it was kind of designed for that. Each component of the Micro series is just slightly longer than the iRack, allowing for the front and back plates of the chassis to lock into place nicely on the rack, preventing it from slipping. I’m not totally sure if that was the intention of the design, as each device also comes with plastic feet. I prefer just keeping the feet off so the chassis stays in place better. Just my own personal preference. The rubber o-rings on the pillars, in addition to its aesthetics, also prevents the chassis from rubbing and scratching against the pillars.
Say whaaa?? Does the iRack improve the sound quality of the iStack? Well, iFi states that the iRack “is resonance dampened [and] minimizes microphonics.” Get ready for some hype my friends.
Okay all kidding aside, I certainly don’t hear a difference and I’d be impressed if anyone hears any changes that’s worth noting. It’s a great looking place to put your iStack though. If you’re already spending the money for the entire iFi set, you might as well pull out the extra 160 bucks and give it a nice home right?
Stainless Steel Pillar with O-Rings
The Gemini Cable
The basic principle of the Gemini cable and iFi’s iUSB3.0 is to separate the audio signal from the power source. Thus, the Gemini cable, appropriately named, has two USB A’s on one side, one handling the power and one handling the signal, and a USB B on the other. The housing around the USB plugs are custom designed and quite outstanding. It’s made to match the housing of the rest of the iStack. It feels sturdy and looks awesome. The cable itself has a nice black woven exterior that can be a little stiff, but the quality and feel of the cable is very nice.
Oh boy. So do USB cables make a difference. Well in this scenario, I actually cannot make a conclusion on that. Since the Gemini is so unique in its design and purpose, I don’t have anything to compare it to. Any other USB cable I have takes power and audio signal through the same port. I guess you can say I dodged a bullet on that one. I’ll discuss whether the cable does it job and improves the sound by separating the power and audio signal when I get to the iUSB3.0.
Looks and Feels Great!
The 4 Micros
Now that we’ve gone through the Gemini and the iRack, we can talk about the good stuff.
Design and Build Quality:
The design and chassis of the all 4 Micro components are identical besides the changes in inputs, outputs, switches, and volume knobs. Since the idea was to stack them up together, it certainly makes sense that they have the same design language and footprint.
iFi’s goal is to target “young audiophiles” and those that are looking for a desktop system to use with their computer. With that in mind, I think the longer design of the Micro products makes sense as it does a good job to conserve space on the desk or shelf that you put the stack on. The ability to stack them of course saves even more space. The products are also small enough that they’re certainly within the realm of transportable gear. I think iFi did a great job designing a set of products that are very good at performing the function that they were designed to do - provide solid audio performance while occupying a minimal amount of space.
The bottom of the Micro products have quite a bit of information on them. They list the technologies involved in each product and have a quick description of what it’s intended to do. Most of this information you’ll usually find in a manual. I think it’s an interesting touch for iFi to include them on the chassis itself, although think some may feel that it’s disrupting the clean look of the chassis. For the iCAN SE and iTUBE, the bottom of the chassis also has directions for adjusting gain. I think that’s way better than to have to check the manual. I really like the practicality of it! I also happen to think it looks pretty cool.
Onto the build quality. I’ll start with the two fairly minor concerns I had with the pieces. The first was that one of the screws on my iTUBE was loose when I took it out of the box. Luckily I have a set of screwdrivers and found one that fits the screw, so I popped the screw right back in. Not the end of the world. The other issue was that the “Off” next to the volume knob of the iTUBE has rubbed off a little bit. I’m not about to go trying to scratch off the words and logos off the chassis, but it seems that you might lose a few letters here and there through the years, especially if you’re using the pieces as a transportable setup and bringing it wherever you go. For the most part, it seems that the words on the chassis and the chassis itself are fairly resistant to scratches. (NOTE: The iTUBE I received was an open box unit. I have no clue whats its been through. For all I know, the person who had it before could have threw it against a wall. The other units were all new and absolutely flawless).
Besides that, there’s not a whole lot of negatives to say about the build, and there’s a lot of good things going on here. The pieces feel sturdy and surprisingly hefty in your hands. Nothing feels loose or inconsistent. I’m personally a huge fan of anodized brushed aluminum and I’m a little sad that the chassis isn’t that, but the pieces make a strong case for itself with a clean and sturdy look. The volume knobs are smooth and have a very slight amount of resistance - enough that the volume knob isn’t going to go haywire if you accidentally brush up against it, and enough to make the knob feel solid but smooth. I’m not the biggest fan of the switches that iFi opted for toggling the likes of their 3D and XBass, as I find them a bit old school and not particularly attractive, but, personal preferences aside, the switches have a satisfying and solid click to them.
Honestly, I feel that there aren’t many respectable companies out there these days making components with genuinely concerning build quality - at least on the outside. I think most of them know how to make a well-made consistent product. iFi is certainly no exception. Through and through, the Micro pieces feel very solid - maybe even more so than many portable components since weight isn’t much of an issue for them.
Left to Right: iTUBE, iDAC2, iCAN SE, iUSB3.0
Listening was done mostly with my Sennheiser HD800 with EQ from Foobar. Some of the albums used during my listening were:
Zac Brown Band - The Foundation (16/44.1)
The Eagles - The Very Best of the Eagles (16/44.1)
Billy Cobham - Spectrum (16/44.1) (Really cool album by the way)
Norah Jones - Come Away with Me (24/192) (Also because Norah Jones)
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra - Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (24/96)
And my personal singing group: The Stereotypes - All Tied Up (16/44.1)
It’s certainly far from being the epitome of master audio engineering, but it’s there mostly because I arranged some of the music myself and am very familiar with them.
Of course, many more albums were included in the listening, but those are just some of my favorites.
Before getting my hands on the iUSB3.0, I used a Schiit Wyrd with my Asus Essence III DAC/Amplifier as I had some noise issues with my old laptop which the Wyrd resolved nicely. While my new laptop doesn’t cause any problems for me, I didn’t find much reason to sell the Wyrd considering the resale value, so it stuck around.
Schiit makes no claims as to whether the Wyrd improve the sound or not, although Jason Stoddard did mention that he felt it did something to the sound in one of the chapters of “Schiit Happens.” iFi makes a very different claim about their USB audio solution. They’ve put in a lot of different technologies which they state will improve the audio signal and sound. At 4 times the price, does the iUSB3.0 do what iFi reports it does with all its fancy technologies like the PowerStation+ and ANC+? To really get a sense of what the iUSB3.0 does and how separating the power and audio signal affects the sound, I ran the iUSB3.0 with the power and audio signal separated, the iUSB3.0 with the power and audio through 1 USB port, and the Schiit Wyrd with my laptop and to the iDAC2 and iCAN SE.
Okay, so I’ll admit that I was really surprised by my findings. My guess was that there would probably be some difference running the iUSB3.0 with the signal and power separate and the iUSB3.0 with the power and signal together, but not all that much of a difference between the iUSB3.0 with the signals together and the Wyrd. My train of thought was that separating the power and audio signal was what really changes the game. Things didn’t turn out exactly as I expected though.
With the Wyrd, the sound is a little warmer and slightly thicker, with a slower low end, a more forward midrange, and an overall softer tonality with imaging and soundstage that’s just slightly behind the iUSB3.0. Feeding both audio signal and power to the iUSB3.0 through the same port, you get an overall flatter sound compared to the Wyrd with a cleaner bass, more extended top end, and just a tad more headspace and air for an overall crisper sound. Running the power and signal separate and you don’t get too much of a change in sound signature compared to running the power and signal together. You do, however, get crisper imaging, separation, and speed.
When I say things like “a little,” “slightly,” “a tad,” I really do mean that. There's without a doubt noticeable change between these products and configurations, but not exactly a world of difference. Is iFi selling snake oil with the iUSB3.0? Certainly not. I think it does exactly what it claims it does. Is what iFi claims the iUSB3.0 does worth the 400 dollar premium? Eh, well, not for my current setup at least. It’s like what many people before me have said already - there are more important things to upgrade. You’ll get a hell lot more of a difference in sound quality jumping from an HD700 to an HD800, for example, than you will adding the iUSB3.0 to your setup.
But what if you already have the HD800 and an awesome amplifier and DAC and all that good stuff? Are you missing out without the iUSB3.0? A little bit. It’ll certainly improve what you already have. Will you want this product? If you’ve dropped that much cash already, I assume you’d at least be slightly interested in knowing how you can improve your setup even further. Should you get this product? Well if you’ve already spent so much on your setup, I think the 400 dollars may be a worthy investment.
I actually got the chance to spend some time chatting with some guys over at iFi. One of them hinted to me that the Micro iUSB3.0 is really designed for ultra high-end setups. For my setup of my approximately 2,000 dollar Essence III and my HD800, he said that the 200 dollar Nano iUSB3.0 would be more appropriate and give me very similar results for 200 dollar less. If this is true, I certainly think that the Nano iUSB3.0 would be worth a serious consideration, as there is undoubtedly an improvement in sound quality. However, it also confuses me as to why the iUSB3.0 is considered to be part of the Micro stack. Afterall, the iDAC2 and iCAN SE will only run you around 700 dollars or so, and while they’re certainly good product, they’re not ultra high-end. It seems the Micro iUSB3.0 is actually overkill for the Micro stack, but I’d hate to ruin the clean look of the Micro stack with a random Nano in the mix.
The iUSB3.0 is definitely one of the last things that you should considering adding to your setup. If you’re really happy with how everything sounds already, then I would feel that the iUSB3.0 is worth looking into to get a little bit more out of your system. I think for most people though, the Nano may be the way to go over the Micro.
To test the iDAC2, I compared the DAC section to the DAC of my Essence III, iBasso D14, and Lotoo Paw Gold using the iCAN SE as the amplifier. Of course, the iDAC2 also works as a DAC/Amplifier all-in-one device, so I’ll compare the amplifier section of it to the iCAN SE as well to see how much of a step up the iCAN SE brings to the table.
To be honest, comparing the iDAC2 to the DAC of the Essence III isn’t all that much of a comparison. The E3 is more refined by a fairly substantial margin, which should come as no surprise since the E3 is an approximately 2,000 dollar product designed with being a DAC as its primary function. The E3 is more spacious with better height, width, and much better depth along with better low end extension. The iDAC2, on the other hand, has a more energetic sound. The treble has more sparkle to it but it doesn’t have the control that the E3 has, making the high end sound a little splashy in comparison. So the conclusion you can get from this is that the iDAC2 is certainly not setting some super crazy new standard with its performance at its price.
To use the DAC of the D14, i used a 3.5mm to dual RCA cable in order utilize the line out of the D14. Priced at around 230 dollars, it’s a bit less expensive than the iDAC2 but its performance is also more in line with the iDAC2 than the E3 is. I really like the sound of the D14 and I think it's a fantastic performer at its price. The iDAC2 certainly kicks things up a few notches though. Most obvious to me is the low end of the iDAC2. While the iDAC2 doesn’t quite have the last bit of extension that you get from the E3, it demonstrates that it still maintains a great sense of low end texture and extension which the D14 can’t keep up with. Other noteworthy improvements include slightly better depth and width to the music. In addition, the iDAC2 has better detail and texture than the D14 throughout the frequency range. Compared to the iDAC2, the D14 sounds just bit too soft and smooth to compete with the detail and texture of the iDAC2. A common theme comparing the iDAC2 with the E3 and D14 is that the iDAC2 is a very engaging DAC to use. It’s got just the right sense of crispness and edginess to make the music exciting, but it doesn’t sound harsh, forward, or distracting in the least bit. I’m pretty impressed with how much improvement in the sound comes from spending around 130 dollars to step up to the iDAC2 from the D14. But then again, the D14 is much smaller and has a killer battery life, making it a true portable device while the iDAC2 remains chained to your desk.
The amp section of the iDAC2 is impressively quiet. Like, really impressively quiet. With my Zeus-R, the background hiss is almost inaudible. That is a REALLY big deal. Unfortunately, despite it having such a great noise floor, the iDAC2 isn’t the most IEM friendly. It has a bit of channel imbalance and is a bit too loud to use with an average IEM once you get past the imbalance. For those using more difficult to drive IEMs or headphones though, the iDAC2 has a lot going for it.
As an all-in-one combo, the iDAC2 is a very transparent sounding piece. While it’s nowhere near pushing the HD800 to its fullest in terms of the size of the soundstage, the iDAC2 is very open sounding with accurate imaging. The high’s are a tad accentuated, but well-controlled. The midrange to me suffers a little bit to me and is a little bit on the thin side. Finally, the bass is tight and clean, but doesn’t exude the most confidence when it comes to extension. This is, of course, coming from a guy who’s used to listening to his HD800 on a much more expensive setup. Overall, the iDAC2 as a DAC/Amplifier is perhaps a little sterile in its sound, but is an absolute killer product at its 350 dollar price.
Switching the amplifier duty to the iCAN SE, and a lot of the little issues I have with the iDAC2 as a DAC/Amplifier is resolved. The sound is smoother, more organic sounding, and more linear as a whole. The treble is more controlled, so you don’t get the sense of air that the iDAC2 amplifier gives you, but treble detail is cleaner and you still get an open sound. The midrange is the biggest improvement without a doubt. Midrange sounds fuller and a good bit more natural. Separation is also a better and the iCAN SE is able to push the soundstage of my HD800 out further. Bass also hits with more authority, texture, and extension. The iCAN SE is a clear and obvious upgrade to having just the iDAC2 on its own. No surprise there though.
The only thing I’m not totally sold on the iDAC2 is the 3.5mm headphone output. Since it’s not particularly in-ear friendly, why not go for a 6.3mm. I guess it works fairly well with portable headphones, but I can see a lot of people wanting to drive something like the HD650 or AKG 7XX with these. Just a thought though, as it’s nothing a 5 dollar adaptor can’t resolve. Again though, seriously solid performing product.
The iTUBE is a bit more of an interesting product as it’s not something you see as commonly in a headphone setup as you would in a speaker setup. It's a buffer stage/pre-amplifier that gives you the option of adding some tubey goodness to your setup.
The goal of iTUBE’s Digital Antidote Plus technology is certainly not a new idea, but it’s an interesting one. The battle between digital and analog sound continues, and many people prefer a tube sound to smooth out the harshness of digital files. Of course, others camp say that tubes introduce distortion into the audio signal and all hell breaks loose, but that’s a different story. The Digital Antidote Plus looks to address that harshness of a digital signal. When I first flicked it on, it was apparent right away that something was different, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. The sound didn’t sound as crisp, and I almost wanted to say that the sound was perhaps darker, but that wasn’t the case. I tried to convince myself that the sound was less detailed with the switch on, but the textures in the music held strong. Simply put, a crisper sound doesn’t necessarily mean better or more detail. What the Digital Antidote Plus does is smooth out the edges in the music. Detail levels aren’t affected, presentation doesn’t change, and the sound signature remains intact. I was convinced that the sound isn’t as detailed or airy with it turned on, but that’s just not the case. I think a lot of people will come to enjoy this as the sound is just a bit more fluid and smooth as well as being less harsh and fatiguing in the long run. It’s a small change to the sound, but a good one.
If I was to guess, I would say that the 3D HolographicSound system of the iTUBE was designed more for speakers in mind. First off, the diagrams on the iTUBE product page depict and discuss a speaker setup while the diagrams of the technology on the iCAN SE page depict and discuss headphones (yes’ I’m a genius right?). The description of how it functions is also different. Secondly, the 3D effects of the iTUBE is very different from the iCAN SE, and the 3D effects from the iTUBE can sound pretty wonky through my HD800. I like that iFi took the time to actually design these settings to work for their intended application. They easily could made the two work exactly the same and called it a day. They didn’t take the gimmick route though, which is nice to know.
The 1 setting of the iTUBE gives the sound a bit more air between instruments and more height and width. The overall sound is also a little more forward. It’s not a huge world of difference like many digital 3D processes. The 3 setting is what gets kind of wonky. The sound is quite a bit more forward, and the soundstage becomes very “around your head.” Instruments in your right and left field actually get pushed slightly behind your ears, and everything sounds very open. The upper end is a bit more pronounced, while the low end loses a bit of impact. You end up with a surround-sound sort of presentation with your headphone that’s honestly pretty cool but gets tiring pretty quickly. The sound is fairly aggressive and forward so you’re kind of constantly bombarded as everything demands your attention. I will admit that I had some fun with this, but it’s not something I’ll be using long term.
Oh, also, all of iFi’s switch settings for 3D and Xbass are either off, 1, or 3. 2 is just kind of out of the equation. My guess is to differentiate 1 and 3 more easily on the chassis, as the settings are marked by dots and "off" is marked by a dash.
So other than the neat technology that the iTUBE has, what does the iTUBE do? Well, it brings a nice tube sound to your solid state amplifier! While I wouldn’t say the changes with the iTUBE are dramatic, it’s certainly not subtle. The iTUBE gives a smoothness to the sound while taming the high’s just a tad. It definitely doesn’t destroy the integrity of your setup - you’ll still feel like you’re listening to your rig, but it does add that tube flavor you’d expect. Overall, certainly not a must have device, but a good and insanely versatile product that’s worth looking into.
Closer Look at the Gain Adjustment Settings of the iCAN SE and iTUBE
Micro iCAN SE
To test the iCAN SE, I used my Essence III as the DAC and compared the amplifier section of the Essence III to the iCAN SE. To put it bluntly, while there was quite a gap between the iDAC2 and the E3’s DAC, the 300 dollar iCAN SE’s performance is dangerously close to that of the E3’s amplifier section. Of course, the E3 was designed as a DAC first, and it happens to have a good, but certainly not end-game, headphone amplifier.
The sound signature of the two are more similar than they are different. Both are very linear with a very slight hint of warmth to keep the sound from being too sterile. The E3 has a little bit more extension in both ends with more prominent bass texture and air. Besides that, the presentation of the two really are quite similar.
Where the E3 does flex its guns a bit is in soundstage and imaging. The E3’s sound just feels more coherent overall. The E3 continues to expand on the HD800’s soundstage, and the pin point accuracy of the imaging as well as the sense of depth, in particular, are clearly superior on the E3. Detail levels are a little better on the E3 across the board, but the fact that I’m not simply dismissing the iCAN SE as being inferior is quite an accomplishment. The scaling potential of the HD800 is incredible. Give it a really good setup, and it can be an absolute monster. The iCAN SE is certainly not that, but considering its price and size, it’s pretty awesome how much it can squeeze out of the HD800. This is a product to seriously look at when you're lacking space.
When pairing the iCAN SE with my Zeus-R, for some reason, there’s actually a bit of electrical noise. I’m not sure why it’s there, because I don’t have this issue with any other IEM I have. It' s just kind of an unsolved mystery to me. The iCAN SE actually plays pretty well with IEMs. It has a clean, dark background and the inclusion of a gain setting means that, unlike the iDAC2, there’s more room to play with. When iFi says that the iCAN SE “can handle them all,”” they weren’t messing around. Versatility - check!
Speaking of versatility, the XBass bass boost of the iCAN is impressively usable. Bass boosts have gotten the reputation for being basically useless, but it’s not the case here, and I encourage users to give it a chance. At the 1 setting, the bass has a relatively gentle boost that very much keeps the integrity of the music intact. Bass speed and resolution remain good, and you get a noticeable, but not distracting, bump in bass impact. I have to admit that I find this setting pretty useful and do find myself flicking it on every now and then. At the 3 setting, the boost is more prominent and I do start to hear the bass quality deteriorate a little bit. The bass feels a bit slower and overall resolution takes a bit of a hit as well. The extra bass is fairly moderate and not overwhelming by any means, but I personally don’t find myself needing this much of a bump in the bass.
With versatility in terms of both sound adjustments and drivability, you’re really getting a whole lot in terms of value and size.
Putting it All Together
What I really appreciate about the iFi stack, is the amount of versatility it has as a set. With all the technology iFi put in each device, you get a setup that has the ability to present music in many different ways - I would say technically 54 actually. You can be sure that you’ll be able to play around with all the different settings to find one that you works for you - even if that means having everything turned off. Each switch is significant, but gentle, so you have quite a wide spectrum of sound to choose from. For example, the 3D setting, between the iTUBE and iCAN SE, gives you a spectrum of 9 possible 3D settings, ranging from normal, to super crazy weirdness around your head. The in-betweens are impressively usable and I would definitely suggest you play with it before you come to the conclusion that any sort of 3D or bass boost is blasphemy and ruins the integrity of the music.
Putting it All Together
Recommending the Micro iStack is a bit of an interesting dilemma. Individually, I think they’re good products, but when you put the stack together, you’re looking at around 1,500 dollars or so. At that price, you’re competing with some very good DAC/Amp devices. For example, I would probably suggest someone spend the extra 500 dollars and get a E3 if they can find one around.
Breaking it down, I think the iDAC2 and iCAN SE are strong performers with good value. These are products I can recommend with relative ease. At 650 for the combo, you get solid performance with some versatility in a small package. The iDAC2, especially, is a good DAC at the 350 price point, and the included headphone amplifier is just icing on the cake.
The iUSB3.0 and iTUBE, on the other hand, are more sort of luxury add-on products. In comparison to the iDAC2 and iCAN SE, they don’t bring nearly as much bang-for-your-buck to the stack - especially when you realize the iUSB3.0 and iTUBE together constitutes over half of the cost of the iStack. However, they can do some good things to your sound, and I think pairing them with some reference level products will create very positive changes for a relatively affordable price. For example, when I look at pairing the iTUBE with the iCAN SE, I think it may be wiser getting a tube amplifier at the combined price at the cost of some versatility and transportability since the improvement isn’t really worth doubling the cost. In contrast, if you’re pairing your HD800 with a highly detailed setup, the iTUBE suddenly seems like a no brainer if you’re looking to bring more life or smoothness to your sound without any significant compromises. And I’ve mentioned earlier, I think most people will probably find better value with the Nano iUSB.30 at half the price of the Micro.
So in conclusion, I feel that each of the Micro products deserves some attention, especially the iCAN SE and iDAC2, but the Micro products as a stack is perhaps an odd combination of products. What you’re paying for with a fully loaded stack is good, but not mind-blowing, sound with an incredibly degree of versatility both in sound and in function and size. If you’re looking for the stack with amazing value, then stack up the iDAC2 and iCAN SE and be impressed with what these two little boxes can do together. On the other hand, if you have a mature audio system, I think you’ll be happy with what the iUSB3.0 and iTUBE can do for you.