Brief Summary: To get right to the point, the iCAN amp by iFi is a great performing small desktop amp with amazing features at its price point of $249. Anyone who wants more bass or more soundstage, space and detail from their headphones might find this affordable amp to be the answer to their prayers. The included "X-Bass" and "3D" features of this amp offer an effective bass boost and soundstage/detail enhancement that literally take the sound to a whole new dimension, while the overall sound of the amp itself is detailed, powerful and smooth.
Background and Setup: Recently, I contacted Vincent at iFi to ask about whether it was possible to use a battery with their new desktop amp to make it more of a transportable amp, and also asked if they would consider loaning me a unit for review. He replied that it is possible to use a battery and that they are even considering offering one as an option. Even better, he suggested I get in touch with Avatar Acoustics in Georgia which is their US importer, and sure enough they were glad to send along an iCAN for me to review. (Note: I have no affiliation, financial or otherwise, with iFi or Avatar Acoustics.)
I mostly listened through Sennheiser HD650s with a Plussound silver/gold cable as these turned out to be a great match with the iCAN and also are a headphone a lot of people are familiar with. I also tried out several other headphones with the amp and will comment on them also. For source, I mostly used an iBasso DX100 with WAV and lossless files. I will also compare the iCAN to the ALO Continental V2 and the Tralucent T1 amps for reference points. I burned the iCAN in for 7 days before coming to any firm conclusions about its sound, although I was not patient enough to wait that long to start listening.
Packaging, Accesories and Build: I do not want to waste time rehashing info that is available elsewhere, so suffice it to say that the packaging was fine and the build of the amp is attractive and solid. For more info of this sort and lots of nice pictures, here is another helpful review by mrinspire.
One brief note about the design/build: The 1/8 inch input on the back of the amp is very slightly recessed. As a result my RAL mini to mini interconnect did not always seat fully as the plug is a little bigger in diameter than the recessed area on the amp. I finally switched to another mini to mini cable as the RAL had a tendency to come loose when I adjusted the volume or switched one of the switches. With the thinner diameter plug on my other cable, the problem has not reappeared.
And just for convenience here are the rather impressive specs taken directly from the iFi website (http://www.iFi-audio.com/en/iCAN.html):
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.
Sound: To start out, I listened some to the amp with all of the extra features turned off to get a baseline of the amp's sound. Most reviews would now offer an overview of the bass, mids and treble. Well I am going to keep it simple and say that this amp does reproduce the bass, mids and treble very well. I am stating it so simply because in general I find the differences among the amps I have on hand to be slight and they all get the basics very right. The differences are a matter of the slightest flavoring (which I find is often the case with the gear I try), and I can easily believe I might not be able to identify them in one of those ABX blind tests.
Even though the differences are incredibly slight, in comparing the iCAN to the ALO Continental V2, the Continental is a warmer, lusher amp. It evokes a smoky jazz club with a little alcohol in the bloodstream. I sometimes want to turn it up to hear a little more deeply into the music as the edges are soft. In contrast, the Tralucent T1 is all power and business. Each note is controlled and delivered with precision. It evokes a well damped studio or a concert hall with perfect acoustics. I sometimes find myself turning it down as I can do so without losing any details.
The iCAN is more in the Tralucent power and clarity camp with all of the extra enhancements turned off. It has plenty of power and so can take complete control of the headphones leaving no sound unheard. Again this flavoring is slight but noticeable. Years ago I drove a Saab 900 on the weekends and a small underpowered Mazda sedan during the week. Every Saturday, I would be amazed at the solidity and power of the Saab, and then after about 10-15 minutes I would just be driving. Then on Monday I would remark to myself about the relative roughness and sluggishness of the Mazda, and then after about 10-15 minutes I would just be driving. These three amps are much closer in quality: more like entry level BMW, Mercedes and Lexus models. When I go from one to the next, the differences are there, but with all three amps after a few minutes, I am just listening to music.
But saying the iCAN has a powerful and clear sound is like saying that a Ferrari can keep up with traffic on the freeway. Things get much more interesting with this little amp when you metaphorically take it off the crowded freeway and start up a winding mountain pass. And unlike in a car where finding an empty, curvy road is hard, unleashing the full potential of this amp only requires flicking a couple of little innocuous looking switches on the front panel...
X-Bass: The switch on the left is for the X-bass which as the name suggests is a bass boost. Without it engaged the bass is all there but very polite like I find most headphone bass to be. But move the switch to the lower of the two levels of boost and there is a definite but subtle filling in of the lowest bass sounds which is very satisfying. And with headphones that can take it, switching on the higher level of bass boost evokes something less printable than "Holy Mother of God!" We are definitely not in polite territory anymore, especially on reggae and other music with a driving bass beat. It has been a while since I literally got up and started dancing with my headphones on, but this bass feature regularly gets me up out of my chair and shaking my joints loose.
With the HD650s I mostly leave the switch in the lower boost setting according to an audiophile standard where a subwoofer should only be noticed when you turn it off, but sometimes my hand slips over to the switch and cranks up that full on, mega-bass, earth mover setting when the music seems to call for it. However, it is not just on bass heavy music that this X-Bass feature comes into play, even though the bass boost effect is clearly in the lowest frequencies and does not mess up the mids. I will quote Srajan from a recent review of the Zu Audio Submission sub-woofer on his 6moons.com website as he describes very clearly why low bass matters even with music that has little or no bass frequencies:
If you're still out in the cold wondering why one would even want 20Hz bass—surely that's fit only for the boom-truck brigade—the answer is simple. It's not about any rave, disco or reggae excess. It's about scale, soundstaging, ease, color saturation and rhythmic grip when kick/bass drums and related beat makers add weight, kick and pitch intelligibility. It might have been British REL subwoofer firm who first did girl+guitar type dealer demos with and without subwoofer. This demonstrated how recording-venue cues are seemingly associated with very long wavelengths at very low amplitude even on material that's apparently devoid of any real bass. That effect is very real. It's the first thing Martin Gateley, designer of the Wave 40, said when we added the Submission. More scale. Aside from the primitive obvious of more extended bass, the far more impressive transformation related to space and size. Everything instantly grew bigger and deeper. Save for hearing synthesized infrasonic chicanery on ambient and electronic albums which regular speakers can't reproduce fully, the primary benefit of building out the lowest octave thus isn't about more bass per se. It's what mostly instinctual (rather than directly audible) bass adds to dimensionality and participatory involvement.
I think the above explains part of what I am hearing with the X-Bass engaged. On some music with a strong low bass component, the effect is obvious and quite enjoyable. But on less bass heavy music, I still hear a fullness and completeness to the sound that perfectly complements the added air and space of the 3D effect (see below). The two together create a more realistic sense of music being played in a venue instead of inside my head. The added presence in the low frequencies gives the sense of how music pressurizes the air inside the room when using speakers, and without it the music seems thin and lifeless in comparison.
3D effect: The other toggle switch on the front panel has an effect on the holy grail of headphone listeners: a more realistic soundstage. Again there are three settings but they are not just different levels of effect. The off is obviously a bypass setting. The down or one dot position sounds like a typical crossfeed which brings the music into a more central and unified whole. For a lot of music this sounds a bit like mono, but it is pretty nice on music with excessive stereo separation like old Beatle's songs. Someone who does not like "headphone sound" because of the excessive separation of the right and left channels might find this setting to be a useful one. It also can be easier on the brain to listen to very complex music like large orchestral pieces with this setting as it becomes effortless to hear the entire gestalt of the music without trying to sort out everything that is going on to the right and the left of my head. There is more of a back of the hall perspective, instead of a sitting in the middle of the band perspective that headphones can have.
However, flick this little switch up to the three dot position and prepare to enter into a whole new dimension of space and time and detail. The sound is spread wider, moved out of the head and the level of micro-detail goes up a couple of notches.
At first it is hard to pin down everything that is going on. There is definitely more air and perhaps a bit of reverb that better mimics the acoustics of a large room versus the space inside your headphones. In addition, the micro-details jump out at you and almost bite you in the ears. I have a TDS sound enhancer on my speaker system that boosts the volume of softer sounds relative to the rest of the sounds in the music, and it seems that this 3D effect on the iCAN is also doing something like that. You can hear every little shimmer, rattle, texture of the sound and performer's breath. Hearing this much detail makes the sound without the 3D effect again seem a little lifeless and flat.
Unfortunately this switch also boosts the high end frequencies a bit and so if your headphones or music are already kind of bright, it can be a bit too much. Also, this boosting of low level sounds includes any hiss in the recording. I am not talking about hiss coming from the amp as the amp is dead quiet even with high sensitivity phones, but any hiss that is in the recording also gets boosted. Another occasional drawback is the added reverb can get a little echoey on certain songs. All of these problems only appear very occasionally, and most of the time the overall effect is worth it even when these little drawbacks appear. Of course you can also turn off the entire 3D effect with a flick of the switch. And simultaneously engaging the bass boost seems to balance things out and make the high end boost fit into the overall gestalt of the music without things getting too bright. I tend to leave the 3D on 90% of the time now that I have played with it enough to hear what is going on.
As for instrument separation, you can switch the 3D on and off and actually hear individual instruments move further to the right or left and separate from other instruments. I find most of the time with headphones when two or more people are singing it will sound like one person with more than one voice, or with instrumental music, it will sound like several instrumentalists are all sitting on each other's lap. The shift in position when the 3D effect is on separates the voices or instruments into clearly defined locations in the soundstage. Sometimes when I switch on the 3D, I notice more voices that I had not realized were there, as in "Oh, there are two backup singers, not just one."
And speaking of soundstage, things definitely get a little wider, taller and more spacious. If you like a lot of air and space when you listen to music you are going to want to take an extended flight at the higher altitudes available on the iCAN with this 3D feature engaged. (Sorry for mixing in an aviation metaphor with all of my automotive references.)
Another reviewer suggested that it also moved the sound a little further in front of you, and at first I just did not hear anything like that. Then I realized what was going on. When I listen to headphones, the soundstage I am hearing wraps around the back of my head, although most of the time it is also still inside my head. When I engage the 3D effect the soundstage is further out of my head...to the rear, not further in front of me. Once I recognized what was happening, it was clear why the soundstage felt more realistic. I do not mind having the venue behind me as long as that is what I am expecting to hear. Although I do remember reading how if you wear glasses that turn the world upside down long enough, your brain adjusts and sees the world right side up. Then when you take the glasses off the world is upside down until your brain adjusts again! Maybe some people unconsciously hear the sound as being further in front of them when it is just further away (but in back of them). It is like their mind does a mirror image thing and interprets the sound as being more out in front. Even with the K1000s I used to have, the soundstage was always behind me. Just to be clear, the ICAN amp does not turn the HD650s into K1000 soundstage champions, but it does lift the sound out of the head a noticeable amount.
Xbass and 3D: Put these two little features of this amp together and it all falls into place. More low end weight, more subliminal body to the mids, more detail, air, space, separation, and soundstage. In other words: more, more, and more! As mentioned when the two available effects are both switched on, they nicely balance each other out. Another positive side effect is that the music comes alive and has full body at a much lower listening volume which should be good for the long term health of my ears. Anything that makes it easier to hear the emotion and detail of the music with the volume at a reasonable level is a great hearing saver. Unfortunately, the sound is so good, that I still end up sometimes cranking up the volume, but this tendency might fade as I become more used to hearing sound that is so good.
In case you are still wondering if I like this amp, I can only say that this review unit is never going back to Avatar Acoustics. I will be buying my unit. And that is in spite of the fact that it is not portable because of the need for a power outlet, although that might change if iFi comes out with an external battery pack like the ALO Passport for the Pan AM. My setup is transportable and I like taking it outside in the beautiful weather that we have here in Arizona, so I will be giving up some flexibility to use this amp. I may wait for iFi to solve my problem with a companion battery pack or I may buy the battery listed here to regain my transportability...Or I might just run an extension cord out into the yard.
Headphone pairings: As mentioned the HD650s really shine with this amp. Like most headphones, there is a bit of a drop off in the lowest octaves with these headphones, but the Sennheisers naturally have a nice euphonic boost in the upper-bass and lower mids. To my ears, this gives them a wonderful tone and fullness. However, if you give them a boosted low bass signal from the iCAN, then the bottom end fills in nicely, and the headphones are able to make low bass that is not muddy or bloated while still providing that warm rich tone in the mids. In addition, the extra detail and sparkle added by the 3D effect really obliterates any Sennheiser veil. Suddenly these headphones keep up with my Beyer T1s in both detail and soundstage.
As for the Beyerdynamic T1s, these headphones already have lots of detail and a surprisingly good soundstage that actually seems to place the sound slightly outside of my head. So the benefits of the 3D effect are not as dramatic and can even veer into being too much on some overly bright music, which however is easily corrected by turning it off. However, the bass boost is a definite plus on all music as these headphones seem even more polite in the bass than the HD650s. I found I could leave the bass boost in the high setting most of the time with the Beyers as they have such a tight and controlled bass that the sound never got muddy, and the bass on these headphones can use the extra oomph. Or maybe I am just becoming a basshead since the bass sounds so good with this amp. These are high impedance (600 ohm) and yet the iCAN amp still has power to spare. I do not have any extremely hard to drive headphones, but I did read this post where the iCAN was reported to work well even with the HE-6: http://www.head-fi.org/t/648968/a-headphone-shootout-from-a-speaker-listener-testing-eight-headphones-from-80-to-1-200/75#post_9207390. (As an aside, I am trying to decide between keeping the HD650s and the T1s. Right now with this new amp, the HD650s are on top, but I am waiting until I get the Altmann Tera Player on its way to me to decide for good. Note added: The Tera arrived and it does warm up the T1 headphones a fair amount which is making it hard to decide again. Someone who likes a cleaner more analytical sound would probably find the iCAN/Beyer matchup to be ideal especially with the ability to boost the bass on the T1s which goes a long ways to balance out their highly technical sound. And while the 3D effect is not as dramatic an improvement on these phones, I must say that with it engaged, I have had more than a few of those moments where the sound seems so real and in the room that it is kind of spooky. I like being spooked that way!)
I have a pair of AKG K550s that are a little harder for me to pin down. I am still trying to figure out what I think of them. Not sure if I really like their tone as it does not sound completely natural to me on any amp I have tried so far. I will say that the bass boost is much less important on these cans, as they already have a inherent bloom in the low end as long as your head is the right size to get a good seal from these closed cans. Turn the X-Bass up to the higher setting on these cans and bass starts to sound like an elephant that has eaten too many peanuts. As for the 3D effect, these cans do not respond as well to it. The detail increases but I can't hear much difference in soundstage width or depth when I engage the 3D effect. So maybe the increase in soundstage does not work as well with every headphone. The added detail is nice though and does bring the headphones more alive.
I hooked up my REO iems and these are detailed but bass light headphones, so once again the bass boost was a big help, but the 3D effect is not as dramatic. I guess when you can already hear lots of detail, it does not make much of an impression when you add in more. And while the 3D effect does widen the soundstage a little, the effect is not enough to make these in-ear headphones sound like open full sized cans.
I borrowed my wife's Yamaha EPH-100 iems. I find these in ears have a surprising amount of bass and so I did not need to boost anything down there. However, the uplift from the 3D switch was a nice injection of detail and space, although again as with the REOs, the soundstage did not quite make it out of my head. These are 16 ohm headphones and so the volume control comes on pretty strong. I never got above 10 o'clock and mostly 9 o'clock was plenty. This is a desktop amp, so it might not pair up ideally with easy to drive iems, although both iems I tried were fine and I could still control the volume as needed. It is too bad that iFi did not include a gain switch, but then you can't get everything in any one amp, especially at the $249 price point.
The Koss Porta Pros modded by Hiflight Audio that I picked up to try with my incoming Tera Player are a lot like the HD650s; a warm sound signature that benefits from the added detail and sparkle of the 3D effect. These little on-ear headphones have a surprising amount of bass and so do not need the X-Bass boost, unless you are in the mood for a lot of bass.
I also have a pair of Sony MDR-XB500s which are lower priced headphones with too much bass that tends to overpower the mids and treble. I got them for next to nothing and I use them for audiobooks and other non musical listening. However, when I hooked them up to the iCAN, they became quite listenable. This little amp is not a miracle worker, but a bad set of headphones may become usable. Obviously I did not use the X-Bass, but the 3D soundstage and detail boost did lift the rest of the spectrum up out of the mud where I could then hear it.
I hope you can see how the iCAN does have a unique ability to tailor its sound to each headphone's strengths and weaknesses. It is great to be able to switch the effects on and off until I find the sound that fits in with the particular headphones I am using. Similarly, it is handy when listening to be able to tailor the sound on the fly. If an overly bright song comes on, I can reach over and tone it down a bit. Or if I am in the mood to move the earth some, I can always give even my bass heavy headphones a kick in the butt.
Overall, the iCAN probably pairs the best with warm, mid-centric headphones like the HD650; subtly adding in some more lows and highs on those phones results in a wonderfully balanced sound. For more info on individual headphone pairings, Bedlam Inside's headphone shootout compares a wide range of phones using this amp here. With any headphone, the ability to add to the soundstage and separation is a rare feature among amps of any price, and there are also not many amps I am aware of at this low price point that also have a very well executed bass boost. However, with all of the emphasis in this review about the extra features, I will mention again that the basic sound of the amp is also top notch. This is not just about some gimmicks, and the extra features only add to the clear, musical sound of this little amp.
In conclusion: In my work as a spiritual teacher I point to an experiential definition of the truth: The truth is what opens your heart and quiets your mind. When an insight or realization moves us into a more complete experience of reality, it opens and expands our awareness and our sense of self or identity, which I refer to as the heart. And naturally when we touch a larger truth, we have less to think about or figure out so the mind gets relatively quiet. In this open, expanded and quiet state there is an ease and flow to our being that allows our essential peace, joy and love to be experienced and expressed more freely. (You can read more about this perspective in the long excerpt from one of my books here)
In relation to the audiophile journey, this principle is experienced when we hear reproduced music that is more real or true. Something about being in contact with the more real and authentic sound allows us to open up and also be more authentic and real ourselves. Specifically we relax, expand and are more effortlessly aware of the music.
Unfortunately in my experience, the moments of an "aha" in trying out new audio equipment are fairly rare, and the differences between different gear can be incredibly slight. It is similar to how in the spiritual journey, there can be long stretches where not much seems to shift or change. And yet every now and then, it seems that divine grace touches me and I am deeply moved by a glimpse of a bigger or truer reality.
In search of these "aha" moments, I have tried lots of equipment over the years and have even tried some pretty far out setups (such as this one) to try and get more of that authentic sound we all are seeking. My budget is limited so I have not been able to play with the very highest priced gear, and perhaps some of that would get me to the place where the music is so real that I could just relax and be. Meanwhile, it is a real treat when something I can afford does bring about a noticeable shift into a higher "reality."
The iCAN is one of those treats. The two biggest hurdles facing the headphone user compared to a speaker system are the physical limits of headphone soundstage (and the related issues of imaging and separation) and limited headphone bass. The iCAN with its two relevant extra features takes my music to a more realistic dimension in both of these qualities, along with a healthy dose of added detail. So far it does not seem to do so in an artificial manner (all of the effects are accomplished without digital manipulation of the sound as the amp works completely in the analog domain) and it is rarely fatiguing, (and when it is, relief is just a flick of a switch away). The added naturalness is both engaging and relaxing. I forget about my equipment for a while and just enjoy the music. There is not much more I can ask for than that.
Edited by Nirmalanow - 3/8/13 at 8:04am