Creating a one-box-fits-all-headphones amplifier was a challenge. That’s because headphones are a...

iFi iCAN headphone amplifier

Average User Rating:
4.59375/5,
  • 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.

Recent User Reviews

  1. thatonenoob
    4.0/5,
    "[PMReviews] iFi iCAN (Standard And SE)"
    Pros - Clean Sound, Great Features, Excellent Build
    Cons - Light, Volume Pot, Buzzing
    iFi iCAN (Standard and SE)
    Power in a small package.


     ​
    GENERAL NOTES

    For those who have read some of my past reviews, you'll notice that I've changed up the format slightly.  Graphically, this new review format looks more appeasing to the eye, while writing wise, I find that it is more fluid and natural.  Hope you don't mind it too much, and feedback is appreciated!​

     ​
     
    INTRODUCTION

    As a somewhat regular visitor to Stereo (audio store here in Singapore), I’ve caught more than a few glimpses of iFi’s sleek product lineup.  Svelte metal enclosures, tactile switches, and the wonderful iFi logo all exude an air of premium utility.  Packed within these enclosures are trickle down components and technologies from AMR’s (Abbingdon Music Research) higher-end products.  Rather compelling indeed –surprising that I hadn’t given these an extended audition. Until now, that is.  Sitting on my desk are the original iCAN and the iCAN SE.  Before going further, I’d like to thank iFi Audio and Stereo Singapore for providing me with a loaner unit of the iCAN SE for this now overdue piece.  The iCAN was purchased subsequently, and might I add, independently.  As before, I am neither an affiliate nor an employee of iFi or Stereo, and all media in this review is owned by me.  If you’d like to reproduce it, or have any questions in general, feel free to drop me a line. 

     
    SPEC SHEET​

    The iCAN is a Class A “Tubestate Amplification” hybrid (or as iFi likes to call it, tri-brid) amplifier.   It is currently available in two models: the standard and special edition.  There are several differences between the SA and SE editions.  The SE features boutique components, an updated “sound signature”, refined XBass and 3D Holographic Sound, increased output power (from 400 to 4000 mW), new gain settings, and a brand new iPower.  Rest assured, I’ll cover how the standard and SE compare in the coming paragraphs.   
     
    SPECIFICATION iCAN Standard        iCAN SE                 
    Gain0, 10, and 20 dB0, 12, and 24 dB
    Signal To Noise Ratio>117dB(A)>123dB(A)
    THD<0.003%(400mV/150R)<0.003%(400mV/150R)
    Frequency Response0.5Hz to 500KHz(-3dB)0.5Hz to 500KHz(-3dB)
    Output Impedance<1 ohm<1 ohm
    Output Power>400mW(32Ω)>4000mW(16Ω)
    Output Voltage>5V (>600Ω)>10V (>600Ω)
    Input VoltageAC 100 – 240V, 50/60HzAC 100 – 240V, 50/60Hz

     

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     ​
    PACKAGING/ BUILD QUALITY

    Packaging wise, the iCAN comes absolutely stocked right out of the box. Rubber feet, matching RCA cables, a 3.5 to 3.5 cable, jack adaptor, small screwdriver, quick start manual, warranty information, and the unit itself.  The overall unboxing experience feels premium, and is reminiscent of the excellent product packages made more commonly for Mac products.  The best part though is that all the accessories are well thought out and have good grounding in utility, and there’s nothing excessive or wasteful about it.
     
    The design of the unit is similarly excellent.  The rectangular metal enclosure is non-obtrusive and well made, but is also surprisingly light.  Without the included rubber feet, the unit slides around quite easily, which is somewhat troublesome.  The switches are well-made, with a solid click to them.  However, the volume pot doesn’t feel quite as substantial as the rest of the unit, especially when compared to my DACmini.  The upside is that the iCAN is easily transportable.  Keep in mind that it will require a wall outlet for operation (look to the Nano series for battery-based portable devices), but if you’re looking for an amplification solution that is also both discrete and space-conscious, the iCan is the right way to go.  Overall, the iCAN is a well-made piece of kit that succeeds both packaging and design wise.

     
     

    FEATURES

    iFi Audio has packed a ton of features into the iCAN.  This wide array of options is rather intimidating, and filled with extravagant terms like XBass and 3D Holographic Sound (sounds more like something you’d fine on a soundcard aimed at gamers).  Don’t be put off though. The iCAN is strictly business, and I found a number of its various features to be impressive.  I’ll cover them one by one, and share some insights on their respective utilities and functionalities.  Nearing the end of my review though, I did notice that my iCAN SE started giving off a “buzzing” sound.  I do suspect that this is just an issue with my unit, as my own iCAN did not have this.  I will have to check more closely on my power supply, though I don’t think that’s the source of the problem.  Nevertheless, I was able to get a fairly good sense of the unit's capability prior to this, and with music playing didn't notice it all that much.  
     
    XBASS
     
    Let’s tackle the XBass first.  After all, everyone could use just that little extra bass in their lives.  I found the XBass to overall be a rather impactful, but tactful bass bump.  It focuses on the lower-mid to subbass region, providing more of a grumbling “under-your-skin” boost that plays well with most headphones.  Both levels worked equally well, and it simply depends on the listener’s sound signature preference.  The standard edition has a more forward XBass boost, but one that is lesser in quantity and less enveloping than that on the SE. For me, there really wasn’t all that much need for bass boost anyways, but it'll come down to personal preference.
     
    3D HOLOGRAPHIC SOUND
     
    I was somewhat skeptical when I first came across this setting –especially about its efficacy.  A small introduction for those who are unfamiliar with the feature.  The idea behind 3D Holographic Sound isn’t entirely new –at its heart, it is iFi’s take on crossfeed application in a headphone amplifier system.  Crossfeed is the blending of right and left channels to create a more cohesive sound image, something that is naturally occurring in most speaker systems, but rather limited in headphone settings due to the physical structure.  Older implementations often featured disruptive digital processing, something iFi is quick to point out.  In contrast, the iCAN utilizes only analog processing.  The first setting for the 3D Holographic Sound didn’t stand out that much to me.  The center image was quite strong, and it was obvious that there was blending going on.  However, the iCAN shined when put to the second setting. Headspace becomes an empty vacuum, and the general image is expanded forward and around the listener.  The end result is excellent, as the sound image becomes an audio panorama (excuse the rather unwieldy comparison).  Ensemble jazz/classical pieces work great with this feature.  Vocal tracks are for the most part, excellent as well.  One never gets the sense that items are too far apart on the soundstage, and I left this feature on most of the time.
     
    I will say that I preferred the SA’s 3D Holographic Sound feature to that on the SE.  I found it to be airier and more spacious, whereas the SE was smoother but less immediately striking. It didn’t quite have the same sense of expansion as the SA does. Both implementations (on the second setting) are excellent though, and I would heartily recommend purchasing an iCAN simply to give the 3D Holographic Sound a spin.

     
     ​
    SOUND IMPRESSIONS​

    The iCAN is a clean, albeit slightly warm, amplifier.  It features an excellent amount of power, driving the T1 to fairly uncomfortable levels very easily (at around 1 PM is enough to make one cringe).  It also played very nicely with my R70X and M50X, especially with the 3D Holographic Sound which opened up the sound signatures of these two relatively “closed” headphones.   Do not be fooled by the unit's diminutive size -it drives with serious authority. I personally found that the iCAN SE was more closed, intimate, and fuller sounding, whereas the iCAN standard was more strident and airy.  It’s more a matter of personal preference, but I found both amplifiers to be very agreeable with most headphones.   Both amplifiers will work with IEMs, though there is noise on the more sensitive ones and you do get very little play on the volume pot.

     
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    FINAL THOUGHTS

    I did enjoy my time with iFi quite a lot. It's a great amplifier, and its features are truly well implemented and do provide a meaningful value added.  If you're looking for a new headphone amplifier, I'd heartily recommend the iCAN.  It's discrete, well-built, and most importantly, sounds excellent. I must say that a purchase to test out the 3D functionality alone would be warranted.  Put simply - there's a lot going on at a highly reasonable price point, and iFi did a job well done with this amplifier.

  2. Dadracer
    4.5/5,
    "iCAN micro SE (Special Edition) UPDATE"
    Pros - Improved sound at each end of the spectrum Better separation of images
    Cons - Need to add another layer to the iRack

    Hi there this is by way of an initial impression only as I'm supposed to be putting up our Christmas tree but instead I am listening to music!!! UPDATE is down in the last paragraphs below.
     
    Anyhow I got the chance to borrow a new iCAN micro SE from those kind ifi Audio folks to add into my desk top ifi based computer system and to see how it compares with the amp section of my pre existing micro iDSD.
     
    The system now stands at elderly Toshiba laptop to ifi Mercury to iPurifier2 to iUSB power to Gemini cables to micro iDSD to iCAN micro SE to Sennheiser HD700s.
     
    As I understand it the key differences between the iCAN and iCAN SE are upgraded components and refining of the Xbass and 3D controls. I don't have the full specification sheet for the SE but it is my belief it will be effectively the same as that of the iCAN itself which is on the ifi audio web site here http://ifi-audio.com/portfolio-view/micro-ican/
     
    I have not heard the iCAN so can't comment on any differences but I have compared the iCAN SE and amp section of the iDSD.   
     
    Listened to a range of music as follows
     
    Aretha, Chain of fools
    James Bay, Chaos & the calm
    Dusty, In Memphis
    Eagles, Hotel California
    Keb Mo', Keb Mo'
    Leon Bridges, Coming Home
    Lou, Transformer
    Rickie Lee Jones, RLJ
     
    but most of all Gregory Porters Liquid Spirit which is just delightful.
     
     
    Anyhow and most importantly was there a difference? Let me preface this by saying I was a bit biased going into this as I was hoping that the difference would be minimal and I would not need to reach for my credit card (especially at this time of the year when its feeling worn out).
     
    Sadly I hear the difference and it is not tiny but neither is it massive. It feels like there is more top and bottom. Even with the Xbass and 3D set to direct I can hear a more extended bass and a clearer treble. The bass adds some foundation and warmth over the iDSD. Adding in one spot of Xbass is more than enough for me. If you really love bass then the full fat three spot Xbass might suit you and it still doesn't sound flabby but just feels too bass centric for me. The choice is yours but my preference was one spot max.
     
    At the other end it feels like cymbals are more realistic sounding. There is no harshness as far as I can tell or sibilance but just a clarity which is quite compelling. There does not appear to be any affect on the mid band from these extensions in bass and treble.....which is not what you might expect.  
     
    Now the 3D was a bit surprising in that the sound stage did not seem to be changed but the individual instruments and vocals were better defined.........does that make sense? I am not sure I can explain it better but I will add more thoughts once I spend more time on it. I could not hear a great deal of difference on the various 3D settings so stuck with direct as the HD700s are not short on imaging themselves, so maybe there would be more variation on other headphones. I will take my other headphones from my main vinyl centric system and try them and see if I can hear a difference.
     
    So that's all right now and I remain conflicted. The addition of the iCAN SE is an improvement in the areas I have mentioned above but adds more gear to my stack and I am currently under embargo ahead of the festive period.
     
    UPDATE  NEWS
     
    Ok now that the festive period is over and everyone has gone back to work and/or home I have had the chance to try 2 new things with the iCAN micro SE which I still have on loan from the lovely ifi Audio folks.
     
    The first was a simple swap of headphones from HD700 to HD800, and not only is the ICAN SE able to drive them but it does so very well indeed and opened up another level in terms of sound quality most apparent at each end of the audio spectrum and also very noticeably in terms of sound stage presentation but more to do with the definition of individual performers or instruments.
     
    So that then led to the final challenge of putting the iCAN micro SE up against my main system headphone amplifier the Auralic Taurus mk2. This is also a class A solid state headphone amp but can also be run in balanced mode. It is however approximately 4 times the price of the iCAN and so I was expecting a significant difference.
     
    Well in fact while there is a difference it took me more time than I expected and several swap overs of amps to confirm what I was hearing. The sound balance it very close and if the Auralic was more extended it was only a fractional thing. The biggest differential was in the sound stage. I tried a small number of recordings which I am familiar with and made the comparison several times and even then it was not a vast gulf in performance. To be as fair as possible I was using the Auralic in SE mode to make it more a like for like so the Auralic in balanced mode yields a better still performance.
     
    On a rough scale of performance versus cost I would have to say that the iCAN gets to 85-90% of the overall sound quality of the Auralic (in SE mode) which is far closer than I had expected and maybe its actually closer still but I don't want to admit it given the four times price difference!!!
     
    In any event if you are thinking that the iCAN micro SE is not a serious headphone amplifier as it is too inexpensive then think again.........no really. If on the other hand you are starting out then this is a scorchingly good amp for the money and will make the best of any headphones you are likely to be starting out with.
     
    More later when I am recovered from this shock..........
     
     
     
     
          
    Koolpep and Hawaiibadboy like this.
  3. betula
    4.0/5,
    "iCan Micro - power and bass to your headphones"
    Pros - versatility from IEMs to Planars, powerful sound, XBass and 3D switches
    Cons - sound could be airier and more natural, hiss at some worse quality recordings

     
    I have been using my Fiio X3 first gen. with Schiit Vali and HD600. I like the line out of the X3, as it has a much cleaner, more detailed superior sound to the headphone out. I also use the headphone out sometimes if I am after some extra bass. (Hardware bass eq on X3 works only via headphone out, not line out.)
    As a first gen X3 owner I had the offer from Fiio to upgrade to X3II with 40% off. Irresistible offer. :)
    The sound of X3II is much better than the first gen., I loved it immediately. Cleaner, more refined, more detailed. With the Schiit Vali however I felt, I lost some bass, as the 2nd gen X3 does not have the hardware bass eq, just the software one, which I do not like. And again, the line out has a much cleaner signal output anyway. I enjoyed the more refined, detailed sound of the X3II with my Vali, but sometimes I was missing some extra bass, so I started to look for solutions.
     I did not like any software eq I tried, so I started to look for an amp with hardware bass eq. There is not too many options in this price range. I checked some portable ones, but I wanted a desktop amp. I did not want to bother with charging battery, etc. 
     After forgetting Fiio E12A and Headstage Arrow, decided to buy the iCan.
     Did some A/B comparison with my Vali, and the iCan came out as a clear winner.


    I liked my Vali, it has a great, opened, airy, natural sound. I just need some more bass sometimes. Also it often sounded 'thin' compared to the iCan. iCan has just such a rich and full sound. There is more body and weight to the sound. I liked the openness and airiness of the Vali. Like sound existed in an infinite space, while on iCan the space is "limited", although still huge. Strange thing is, I never heard any hiss on the Vali, while on the iCan there is some hiss sometimes on certain recordings. Without the 3D and XBass functions, iCan is not that impressive after Vali. But with these functions on, the difference is undeniable. I feel, finally I got what I wanted. A great, big, full sound with a lot of bass if needed, and no compromise need to be made for having recessed mids, or less detailed treble. All the details and refinement stays the same, just the bass gets more juice.
    Recommended for any kind of electronic music. Lively, full sound. Worth its asking price.
    Vartan and Light - Man like this.

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