iFi Micro-iCAN Headphone Amplifier, Special Edition

Average User Rating:
4.61111/5,
  1. glassmonkey
    4.0/5,
    "iFi Micro iCAN SE: Powerful, clear, excellent sound with some sonic flexibility"
    Pros - enough power to drive the HE-6/AKG K1000/name it to sufficient volume, very good sound, flexibility for different sound preferences, good value
    Cons - sounds dull without switches engaged, demanding headphones don’t reach potential in spite of power, lesser amps may sound better with less demanding
    Acknowledgment  

    Thanks iFi for lending me this review unit in exchange for my honest opinion. It was a good few weeks.

    This review was originally posted on audioprimate.blog.

    Introduction

    This is my fifth review of a piece of iFi gear. I’ve previously reviewed the Micro iUSB3.0 (own it), the Micro iDAC2, the Micro iDSD Black Label and the iPurifier2 (extreme value for money and good performance) (links are to the reviews). I’ve also had brief listens to the Micro iDSD and the Micro iCAN, so I feel like I’ve got a good idea of what iFi has to offer now, and it’s generally good, though only the Micro iDSD Black Label has reached anywhere near the wow factor of the first product I reviewed, the Micro iUSB3.0. That thing is audio voodoo and I don't practice Santeria.

    [​IMG]

    I think it is appropriate that reviews begin with an introduction to the author. While we who take up the click-clack board in front of the insomniac blue light glow of the monitor are not generally great writers of fiction or journalistic endeavours, our perspective is often as important. While our bias won’t shape the world like the bias of a talking head, a reviewer’s bias can lead to one miscalculating the value of expensive purchases. So make sure to check out my bio before reading on.

    Useability: Form & Function

    The iCAN SE comes in the same 2 ½ pack of cards size as the rest of the iFi Micro product line. This consists of a uniquely contoured aluminum chassis, some rubber stick on feet, and cables coming out the back and the front. The inputs on the back include a 3.5mm input and a pair of RCA jacks, all you need for some ear-blastin’ fun. The iPower adaptor feeds into the back of the amp, which I like much more than the front orientation on the iDAC2. On the front of the amp we have an iFi standard aluminum volume pot, the aforementioned switches for XBass and 3D HolographicSound, and a 6.3mm headphone jack. On the review unit that I received the switches weren’t perfectly flush with the front face of the case, one faced slightly down and the other slightly up. This cosmetic blemish had no effect on performance.

    The box includes the following:

    1. iPower 15w
    2. Generic 3.5mm to 3.5mm flat cable
    3. Generic RCA to RCA cable
    4. The Micro iCAN SE
    5. 4 clear rubber feet (thou shalt not countest 3…, and 5 is right out)
     
    [​IMG]
     
    The Micro series has two camps on portability, units requiring external power that aren’t really portable in the way I think of portable; and units that don’t need a wall wart that are on the big edge of portable. The iCAN SE falls into the former category for me. It needs the big wall wart and either an RCA cable or a 3.5mm to 3.5mm (or RCA) cable, which makes it something you can move about, but that you’ll most likely just keep at home. The iDAC2 and the Micro iDSD are truly portable, the iCAN SE is not, in my opinion.

    The gain is adjusted by some switches on the bottom. I found the switches to be clearly explained and the effect of the switches noticeable, but not always positive. With the HD600, 24db gain caused loud buzzing with the volume pot at zero. Even when driving the HE6, I didn’t switch the gain past 12db as it caused degradation of the sound. These have power to spare, that 24db gain is totally unnecessary. On more sensitive headphones and IEMs, I don’t think that the gain should be turned up. I heard buzzing and there was very little play in the volume pot. The volume pot has buttery smooth volume control; cheers, iFi, on a very well-selected component. The Heron 5’s stepped attenuator is not nearly as smooth with volume going in little leaps.

    This is where I would normally insert a table of all the sexy pictures, but “my dog at my homework.” Whilst sorting pictures of surfing and climbing the Cheese Ring with Trekasaurus on a recent visit to Cornwall and Devon I didn’t realise that I hadn’t already transferred my pictures of the iCAN SE to my computer and so deleted them from my memory card. This means I’ve only got one of my own pictures…from another review…heavily cropped…quite blurry—ick.

    However, life is about taking the lemons you got and making sweet sweet lemonade. There are a few other people who’ve reviewed the iCAN SE on HeadFi, so the pictures below function as citations to these other reviews. It’s good to read a variety of perspectives.




    From @thatonenoob’s excellent comparative review of iCAN and iCAN SE (my favourite of the current reviews)

    [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Ostewart’s very positive reviewDadracer’s quick impressionsMore Ostewart, that guy takes great pictures.

    Audio quality

    I should start with a caveat to this section. At the same time that I got the iCAN SE to review, I also had the Airist Audio Heron 5 on loan ($1000 desktop amp), which I loved so much that I bought it. The iCAN SE is something beautiful, but the Heron 5 just wanted to destroy it.



    The ample shadow of the Heron 5 probably biased me a little against the iCAN SE. I enjoyed the iCAN SE and think it is good for $299, but it didn’t make me look at my sagging empty wallet and ask “what happens to a dream deferred?”

    [​IMG]

    I tested the iCAN SE with some upper echelon headphones, and my humble HD600. Headphones tested during this review included the following: HD600 (tights/panty-hose mod), HD800 (modded and improved), HE6 (grills removed), the AKG K1000, and the ERIB-2a. I did comparisons between the iCAN SE and the Heron 5 diligently, and with a buddy.

    I found the iCAN SE to have a good soundstage that left me wanting more without engaging the 3D switch, my preferred sound was basically always with the 3D switch on. I found that I basically always wanted XBass and 3D switched on. It appeared to me that how 3D works is by boosting parts of the treble to make the sound more airy, but I don’t have the tools to measure this; it would be nice if someone who does, like Tyll Herstens had a go with these. I think that XBass works in a similar way, it boosts a few selected frequencies. I think iFi did well on their targeted ranges.

    Since the Heron 5 and the iCAN SE arrived on the same day, I basically went back and forth between the two amps at the beginning. When using the same headphone this can even be done with some crude volume matching. I did volume matching at ~80db using white noise when I compared with the HE6, and ran both out of the Chord Mojo fed from my Micro iUSB3.0 with a LH Labs Lightspeed 1 Micro USB cable. This means that each amp was being fed about as good material as was possible. Other setups won’t reach the level of clarity or soundstage you get with this combo.

    My initial listening with the iCAN SE was with the HD600 (without volume matching), which did not need any gain. In fact, applying gain was detrimental to the sound. At 0db gain the sound was clear and well-textured, 12db gain lost some clarity, and 24db introduced buzzing at low volumes. The 24db gain wasn’t necessary on the HE6 or the K1000, so I’m not sure it even needs to be a feature unless you just like to explode your ears into Nickelodeon slime. There is no question that the amp has lots of power. I found that the Heron 5 was more transparent, balanced, and had a larger more holographic soundstage, but it should for $700 more MSRP. The iCAN SE had more forward vocals that I think many people will enjoy, as I quite enjoyed them.

    On one of my favourite test tracks, Roger Waters – Late Home Tonight, Part I, I can hear a cow about 25 seconds into the mix with the Heron 5, I don’t notice it with the iCAN SE. The song has a domestic scene unfolding in Tripoli with transitions between rooms and the street. These transitions are less distinct on the iCAN SE and I can’t pick out the placement of subtle details anywhere near as well. After listening to the Heron 5 the sound of the iCAN SE isn’t as revealing. The iCAN SE was more forgiving of poorer source material, though, like The Darkness.

    Using the iCAN SE, the HE6 needed 12db gain to sound natural. The HE6 sounded muffled without it. The iCAN SE has an energetic signature with the HE6 and is forgiving of source material. Perla Batalla – Bird on a Wire from the I’m Your Man Official Movie Soundtrack exhibits some recorded hiss on the Heron 5, but not on the iCAN SE. Transitioning to Why – Strawberries the soundstage feels a bit flat on the iCAN SE, instruments share space rather than having their own designated position in the mix.

    City of the Sun – To the Sun and All the Places in Between sounds much better on the Heron 5. The iCAN SE doesn’t have nearly as deep an image or as refined a sound. It does do the ethereal backing vocals on this track beautifully. The iCAN SE will drive the HE6 to earbleeding volumes. It is all I want for volume at a bit past noon on the volume pot. Switching to the AKG K1000, the volume pot is jacked to 2/3 on the same 12db gain. The iCAN SE gives the K1000 all the power it needs. The HD800 sounds best on this track. It has the best soundstage, the most precise crisp notes, and the ethereal backing vocals absolutely soar. At this point I started doing more experimentation with the switches. The 3D switch made the sound more engaging, and was consistently an improvement. It also improved soundstage depth. Another listener observed that the sound was ‘dull’ without the 3D switch. I didn’t think it was dull (with the HD800, at least), but it was much more interesting with it engaged. XBass to one dot was an improvement in the sound, especially on drum strikes. XBass at three dots was overbearing and unpleasant to me with the HD800, specifically (ERIB-2a liked three dots). I like lean muscular bass—Brad Pitt bass, not lasagne eating Garfield on the couch bass (Trekasaurus challenged me to work lasagne into a review, victory is mine). Don’t worry, the iCAN SE isn’t flabby like Garfield, and it’s smarter than Odie or John Arbuckle. It also has some punch like our dag slinging caravan selling friend in Snatch.

    Brad: [​IMG]Garfield: [​IMG]

    I only had a short amount of time with the HE6/K1000/HD800 pantheon of headphones, but I did have a lot of time with one of my favourite IEMs, the oBravo ERIB-2a (a polarizing IEM, listen before buying). The ERIB-2a’s notable characteristics are an open-headphone expansive soundstage, well defined beautiful mids, excellent instrument placement, with nice treble sparkle, but a bit bass shy. The bass has good quality (texture, decay, etc…) but is low in quantity. My initial listening with the iCAN SE was with the LH Labs Geek Out V2. It took about 52% on the volume knob with 0db gain to power the ERIB-2a to where I like them. I cycled through switch settings more when doing this listening session.

    With no switches engaged, the sound is a touch bass light. The soundstage has good width, but is a bit flat. The treble sounds a touch dull. Flipping the 3D switch to one dot makes the sound a bit brighter. Flipping the switch to three dots makes the sound airier with better depth and height and crisper treble. Three dots is a big improvement, I really enjoyed the amp with full 3D engaged. One dot on the bass gives a slight increase in drum presence. Three dots makes the ERIB-2a sound more like I want them to sound, the ERIB-2a would definitely be described as bass shy and need a good pairing. On City of the Sun – Brothers the iCAN SE sounds a bit dull without the switches flipped.

    I did further comparisons with some stuff that is more in the price range of the iCAN SE. Compared to the LH Labs Geek Out 1000, the iCAN SE has better soundstage depth and clarity. It sounds pretty darn good. I like both of these amps, but the iCAN SE is better. Listening to the not great recording of The Darkness – Black Shuck, the guitars sound brittle on both amps (again, not a great recording, not the fault of the amps), but better on the iCAN SE. Here I note that 3D enhances width more than depth, and that the central image benefits most from the depth increase. When listening to The Beats, Man – Yummmmm, I need to have the switches engaged. The sound feels a bit dull without them, and truly lovely with them. The sound without the switches is almost like the music has been turned down. So I tested turning the volume up and it confirms this observation. I think that the switches selectively raise the volume of some frequencies. iFi has generally done a very good job placing these boosts.

    I also preferred the iBasso DX50 without the iCAN SE to the DX50 feeding the iCAN SE, regardless of iCAN SE settings when listening to the ERIB-2a, but I think the ERIB-2a had some synergy going with the DX50 that I didn’t get on other sources.

    Specifications

    The folks at iFi Audio do a fantastic job describing their tech, and the tech description always sounds like foreign governments will be contracting them for their latest espionage endeavours. With all their stealth technology, I think they might actually be ninjas.

    [​IMG]

    For the full skinny on the fat amplification power of the iFi Micro iCAN SE, you can check out iFi’s website—they have better graphics than me anyway. Here’s what iFi has to say, in brief:

    The iCAN – Special Edition is a ‘specially-tuned’ version of the top-selling micro iCAN. Sonically, it boasts Class A, DirectDrive® and TubeState®. Features wise, it features a newly-refined XBass®, 3D Holographic® for headphones and 0dB, 12dB and 24dB Gain adjustment. Powered by the all-new iPower (15V), the special Turbo headamp® circuit pumps out 4,000mW to drive even the most demanding of headphones.

    So let’s go over the differences:

    1. iCAN SE has ten times the wattage of the original iCAN (4000mW versus 400mW)
    2. The iCAN SE has cleaner power due to active noise cancellation on the 15w iPower that comes with the iCAN SE. The iPower tech is based on some French fighter jet technology designed to cancel out the sound of a jet engine. What chance does noisy wall power have?
    3. The 3D HolographicSound® feature has been tweaked to not just expand the soundstage width, but also give a more ‘frontal location’. The claim is that this reduces fatigue in listening.
    4. Class A tubestate: the sound is meant to emulate the sound of tubes in a solid state amp
    Some elements are shared:

    1. DirectDrive®: there are no output coupling capacitors in the signal path, and output impedance is 0.1 ohms.
    2. XBass: a switch to boost normal bass headphones and bass shy headphones
    3. Class A amplification for always on pure amplification
    Specifications 
    Gain0, 12, and 24 dB
    Signal to noise ratio>123dB(A)
    Total harmonic distortion<0.003%(400mV/150R)
    Frequency response0.5Hz to 500KHz(-3dB)
    Output impedance 
    Output power>4000mW(16Ω)
    Output voltage>10V (>600Ω)
    Input voltageAC 100 – 240V, 50/60Hz

    Conclusions

    I have mixed feelings about the iCAN SE. The price is excellent, and the performance is pretty good for a semi-portable amp with 4w of power. At its best it has a good soundstage with more width than depth. It is fairly clear and has a good sound. It has shedloads of power (two-sheds full at least) Given the great power of the iCAN SE, and there can be no doubt of that, I expected the top-of-the-line headphones to sing a bit more, but I was left in search of more blackbirds.

    Yes, you can drive an HE6 or a K1000 with this (and probably the Abyss and LCD4), but if you are printing money to buy those headphones, you probably want to hear them at their best and probably have heard them at or near their best. I can’t imagine using my top-tier power hungry full-size cans while traveling, unless I had an amp that made them sing enough to make me feel like I couldn’t part with them. The iCAN SE is not that amp for me. It is an excellent amp for $299, but it is probably unreasonable to expect it to make the rare beasts above sound their best.

    It’s a good amp. The XBass is a very nice feature for helping with slightly bass light headphones like the HD600. Whilst 3D sounded good, I didn’t like that I felt the need to have it on no matter what.

    For me, the amp wasn’t at its best driving demanding headphones in spite of its copious amounts of power. This leaves the amp being judged on what it does with headphones that don’t need 4000mW of juice. While it outperforms my LH Labs Geek Out 1000 with less demanding headphones and not by a little bit, it didn’t outperform the DX50 for me on the ERIB-2a (which likes a lot of power).
     
    [​IMG] 
    jinxy245 likes this.
  2. TM0NEY
    4.5/5,
    "Powerful and comes with AMAZING switches"
    Pros - Drives all the headphones I have with the ability to customize sound
    Cons - Power plug is kind of "sketchy". No power switch.
    Clean, powerful, and portable what more can I say about this little monster. I was surprised to see the size to power ratio this amp has. I love spending hours on end switching headphones and flicking the switches, although the 3D switch is still audible it doesn't make a huge impact like the bass feature. The only down side to this amp is the power cable. When plugging in my amp it caused sparks to fly out. I am not sure how dangerous or common this kind of problem is in amps, but the problem can be avoided altogether by plugging in the power brick in last. I only wish the amp comes with a power switch. The does get a little warm.
  3. Aornic
    4.5/5,
    "A very powerful and clean experience with some interesting bonuses"
    Pros - Very powerful. Very transportable.Hardware bass boost XBass' synergy with the HD800. Solid build quality.
    Cons - No power toggle. XBass and 3D switches aren't consistent. 3D holographic sound implementation a bit underwhelming.
    [​IMG]
     
    As I switch back and forth between the various amps in my possession, all plugged into my Schiit Gungnir DAC simultaneously, I come to further appreciate the nuances in different options of driving headphones. Each amp gives me a certain sound to it, and all are driving my headphones and earbuds well enough, but there is more to it than that.
     
    I’d like to thank IFI for sending me this review loaner for my honest opinion.
     
     
    Specifications
     
    Gain: 0dB, 12dB and 24dB user-selectable
     
    Signal to Noise Ratio: >123dB (A)
     
    Total Harmonic Distortion (THD): <0.003% (400mV/150R)
     
    Frequency Response: 0.5Hz to 500KHz (-3dB)
     
    Output Impedance: <1 ohm
     
    Output Power: >4000mW (16Ω)
     
    Output Voltage: >10V (>600Ω)
     
    Input Voltage: AC 100 – 240V, 50/60Hz
     
    Power Consumption: < 5W idle, 12W max
     
    Dimensions: 158(l)x68(w)x28(h)mm
     
    Weight: 216g (0.48 lbs)
     

     
    Build
     
    Metal. This amp is pure metal, not unlike the Schiit Magni 2 but quite a bit more sturdy. Could it be used as a weapon? Probably.
     
    The volume knob at the front is around the same size as you’d expect from a full-sized amplifier, which makes its placement on the micro iCan especially conspicuous. That being said, it handles effectively and increases volume in a smooth manner with no distortion whatsoever. To its right are the two switches for XBass and 3D sound. Under the two are signs indicating at which placement you can choose one of the three settings for each. In a strangely anti-uniform manner, what is full setting on one does not match what is full setting on the other, leading to it feeling like a strange design choice overall. To the right of that is a gold plated output for a single-ended ¼ cable.
     
    On the back there is a spot to plug in the wall-wart power connector, along with a single pair of RCA inputs. There is also a 3.5mm input, for those who probably want to attach a digital audio-player to the micro iCan.
     

     
    The underside of the chassis makes one wonder why they even bothered to include a manual in the box. There is so much literature printed there that you won’t ever forget the basics if you take this one the go. Interestingly, it gives advice as to which of the XBass and 3D sound settings one should use with what kinds of headphones. Most importantly, to the right exist four dip switches that control the very powerful gain options that this amp possesses. As the gain is so very powerful, it’s good that they opted for this method because an easier to flip gain switch could possibly damage headphones. I have the gain on half setting, +12dB, and that is all I need. Anything more and my sensitive headphones pick up sound at 0 volume.
     
    I have not, and will not, open the iCan up to poke around inside but the press release says that it possesses “ELNA Silmics, MELF resistors and C0G capacitors.” I have not an inkling what those mean, but I assume it has something to do why I hear a slightly richer sound than secondary amp that I had before.
     
    Sound
     
    The iCan SE takes what I enjoy about my Schiit Magni 2 and refines it, while greatly upgrading the power it can emit. This amp is so powerful, in fact, that I dare not go past the halfway gain point – a setting where even 0 volume on some more sensitive headphones can pick up sound. The halfway setting, specifically +12 dB, is more than enough for both my Sennheiser HD800 and Focal Elear.
    The sound characteristic itself is similar to the clean output of the Magni 2, but with a slightly less of a hard edge to it. It’s not “tube” ish, but it isn’t the rigid and neutral sound that the Schiit amp has gotten me used to. The best test for this is how it couples with the notoriously picky HD800, which is a bad pairing with the Magni 2 – in my opinion. The reason for this is that the treble peaks and, at times, thin sound of the headphones are left unchecked (if not exacerbated).
     
    When paired with the iCan SE, with both XBass and 3D sound turned off, the HD800 mellows out but retains a clean sound. It is not as sparse as before, but it is not particularly lush and warm either. The highs, while not as peaky as on the Magni 2, are not as tamed as on the likes of my other amp – the Cavalli Liquid Carbon. The iCan SE occupies an effective and interesting middle ground between my two other options – and that is only on the default setting.
     
    Bringing the Focal Elear into the mix yields easier to describe results – it is just driven very well. Unlike the fickle HD800, the Elear sounds like itself out of every source and amp I have thrown at it – and the iCan SE is no exception to this. Hearing how alike it sounds to the Magni 2, I remember my days with my ZMF Omni and Hifiman HE-500 and wish I still had those on hand to compare. However, it is with the two toggle switches that matters get interesting.
     
    XBass
     
    The concept of XBass seemed suspect to me at first, and I do not know why. Surrounded by the words of audio purists for a while now, I have come to expect an eschewing of equalizer and a reliance on sound-morphers like tube amps instead. Even my own forays into using equalizers, particularly when trying to tame the sibilance of the Massdrop x Fostex TH-X00 several months ago, led to mixed results. I found that there was often always a trade-off in clarity or balance whenever I attempted the process.
     
    XBass is a hardware boost and is said to bypass some of the limitations of software equalizer. I first tried it with my Focal Elear, the first headphone I plugged into the amp, on the low setting. Yeah, definitely an increase in bass but not one I felt like I particularly needed – as the sound of the Elear is already quite thick and punchy. High setting felt like a direct downgrade, the low end became muddy and displeasing. Despite that, I recognized the XBass to be powerful, but one that relied heavily on the sound signature of the headphones paired with it. I needed to be sure of its power, I needed to bring out my HD800.
     
    The HD800 has precise bass, unlike its woollier/looser brother the HD800S, but it is very subtle in its presentation. When I reviewed my model, a superdupont-modded one, it became obvious that the bass extended impressively low – but it could not be brought out further, volume-wise, without equalizer…which distorted the rest of the incredible characteristics of the headphones. Flipping the XBass feature on, to low, didn’t make too much of a noticeable difference to me. I theorized, while listening, that the HD800 might just be beyond the capabilities of a bass-boost. Then I switched the XBass to the high setting.
     
    Suddenly, a headphone that I had known so well transformed before my eyes…ears? All the sub-bass extension that I knew was lurking beneath the sheets was suddenly loud and proud. To my ears, it made the headphone far more of an all-rounder than I had considered it before – but I needed to be absolutely sure about the trade-offs. I spent several days listening to my entire music library, from hip-hop to classic rock, to try and find an area where the high XBass setting would make the headphones stumble. I did not find one, and that surprised me immensely.
     
    The delicately recorded In the Court of the Crimson King album by King Crimson is one that demands absolute resolution and clarity from an audio setup. It is an album I prefer my HD800 for, for this reason, and I’m happy to report that the XBass only enhanced the experience instead of detract from it. The shimmering cymbal work remained intact and crisp while the delicate guitar stabs, improvised noodling and (above all) the vocals were all injected with a sense of body that served them well. I turned to my Pink Floyd albums, also reliant on clarity, to investigate further and found that it was the same story – the low end was brought to a musical level without taking away from the midrange or treble clarity.
     
    So, essentially, I could listen to Dr. Dre’s The Chronic album and not feel left wanting of low-end with my HD800. That is an incredible achievement, and the second strongest feature of this amp after the large amount of power it provides. It just takes a “bright” pair of headphones to bring it out, as it can pair quite badly with headphones that do not need it.
     
    3D HolographicSound
     
    While I don’t particularly care for the term used to describe what this setting does, I can’t think of a better one myself – so 3D HolographicSound it is. Promising an expansion of soundstage, it does achieve that but with some slight trade-off (on the low setting) where some headphones lose their impact. With the HD800, it just diffuses the impact of the headphone itself to thin out the sound even further, something you absolutely want to avoid with the Sennheiser flagship/former flagship.
     
    Only the most closed headphones, with the most intimate soundstage, will benefit truly from this switch – also depending on how good the seal is to preserve the bass impact that using it lessens in general. It’s an interesting concept, but not one I would purchase this amp for.
     
    Conclusion
     
    I have to hand it to IFI, this amp is a clean and effective punch-in-your-headphones’ sensitivity/impedance in a small form factor that does not try to overstep its boundaries – in terms of aesthetics or showmanship.
     
    On one hand, this is an amp for that utilitarian individual who just wants to drive their headphones through a SE output jack without the bells and whistles that come with visible tubes (and, at times, their fetishization) – but on the other hand it’s an amp for those who do want to add a bit of manipulation to their listening experience. It’s certainly a pairing that I really like with my HD800, and that alone is a staggering achievement due to the notoriety of this headphone’s amp pairing process.
     

    HungryPanda likes this.
  4. knorris908
    4.5/5,
    "Presents a rich and refined experience that brings out the best of your source audio."
    Pros - EASY to Use and has TONS of power in a very small form factor. Works a treat with even "amp-picky" headphones I've tried.
    Cons - I want a POWER button. I just love power buttons easily letting me know if I've turned a component "OFF" or not before I leave the music room...
    Disclaimer:  I was loaned the iFi iCAN SE so that I could have more audio equipment samples to evaluate the iFi iTube, & iPurifier 2 with.  Long after I completed my reviews of those components, I have continued to enjoy using the iCAN SE on a daily basis, and am now writing-up my experience with it as a courtesy, as I must now finally return it.  :frowning2:  The past few months have been incredible with it, and I will be purchasing a unit for myself with my own funds as I already know that I am going to miss having it in my audio rack.  I am receiving no discounts for my opinion on this, or any other equipment.  I like what I like, and don't what I don't....  
     
    Part 1 - TORTURE TEST

     
    I didn't originally intend for my sojourn with the iCAN SE to become an endurance & torture test, but I kept having new headphones that I wanted to try continually "on the horizon".  My birthday was earlier in July, so I finally received the last headphone that I was holding-out for, and was able to run it through its paces with the iCAN SE at long last!
     
    Part 2 - THE ACTUAL REVIEW
     
    I evaluated the iFi iCAN SE with/against the following equipment:
    SOURCE - Dell XPS 8500, Dell Inspiron 530 (Both running Windows 10 PRO 64-bit)
    DAC - iFi iDSD (DAC) FIIO e17 (DAC) ONKYO TX-NR636 (DAC) iBASSO DX90 (DAC)
    AMP - iFi iDSD, iFi iCAN, FIIO e17, Schiit Audio ASGARD 2, iBASSO DX90 (AMP) & ONKYO TX-NR636
    HeadPhones - Beyerdynamic T1 (ver.2), HifiMan HE400i, HE560, Sennheiser HD-650, HD-800, & HD-800S
    Player Suite - Foobar 2000, & JRiver Mediacenter 21
     
    Again, I'm not going to throw a bunch of specs at you as they are NOT my strong point, so as per usual, I will limit this review merely to "what I experienced personally":
     
    When I listen to music over my DLNA server, or when I go directly from my media PCs using FOOBAR or MediaCenter 21, the iCAN SE is best enjoyed (in my opinion) at moderate levels at medium or high power settings.  No matter which headphone I tried,  I never was wanting for more power, or more refined detail from that particular set of cans.  The iCAN SE brings out nuances and "Body" in instruments as well as any amplifier I've heard in memory.  (I've heard up to Chord HUGO-level performing components, which may not be the "End-all and Be-all of what is out there if budget is no concern, but its remarkable performance characteristics are nothing to sneeze at in my book either.)  The only things that any of my equipment even partially surpassed the iCAN SE with were:
        
    Width of soundstage  - The ASGARD 2 was able to drive the Sennheiser HD-800 & HD-800S
                                          headphones to greater spacialization heights.  
                                          The HD-650 HifiMan HE400i & HE560 increased soundstage width a little, but
                                          the Beyerdynamic T1 ver.2 cans gave me their max soundstage size almost
                                          no matter what amp they were fed by.  Only when they were fed by an
                                          iPhone, iPad or basic consumer-grade MP3 player, did they not do their
                                          best for me.
     
    Fullness of sound  -     The Onkyo TX-NR636 was my only amp that gave the impression of a
                                          "fuller sound", but the loss of detail and almost sluggish feel the amp
                                          had made it feel like it was always struggling to keep pace in parts.
                                          (Mostly Holst, and surprisingly, even Wagner!) 
     
     
    So what did I hear?  
    1. In my mp3 low-res files, it left the "edge" of some of my harsher low-quality 16-bit recordings unchanged. (If you've got bad source material, you'll pay for it!)  The iCAN SE REVEALS ALL!
    2. In my basic 14.4 FLAC files, the iCAN SE leaves little to be desired.  (There seems to be greater resolving power than 14.4 can offer-up if your headphones are up to the task.) 
    3. In my Hi-res FLAC rips from CD there was just more of everything.  The iCAN SE clearly showed me which of my rips were superior.  (I had never noticed so much before the HUGO,
    ​               so I was pleasantly-surprised to see the differences so clearly laid-out again with the iCAN
                   SE.  It also prompted me to re-rip recordings that I had been perfectly-happy with before.
    1. In my DSD 2.8MHz & 5.6MHz files were the easiest to hear the differences with.  There was much less to correct/forgive, but what was GOOD just sounded great!  
                   Holst, Wagner, Clapton, Genesis, Yuki Kajiura, Toshiro Masuda, Kitaro, & Peter Gabriel
                   just sound the best that I've heard in my home, or outside of a professional sound stack.
     
     
    Part 3 - THE BUILD QUALITY
     
    The iCAN SE is built exactly like the other "MICRO" class offerings from iFi.  Sturdy, metal casings fitted in a manner that allows them to stack with each other.  If you dropped one of these on your ceramic floor, I'd wager that your tile would shatter before these Micro cases would be damaged.  The equipment has run on an almost daily basis, and often over-night with no degradation of functionality or appearance.  In short, these things are TANKS.
     
     
     
    So is it worth it?
     
    For me, the iCAN SE represents tremendous value when compared to other amps I've borrowed or auditioned.  Can I think of an amp that I'd lust after over this?  Sure!  I'd love to have a Grace m920 or SPL Phonitor, but I'm not to the point of looking in the $2K US Dollar neighborhood for amplifiers just yet.

    chillaxing, Hawaiibadboy and Vartan like this.
  5. Cotnijoe
    4.5/5,
    "iFi Audio Micro Series Super Review - iCAN SE, iTUBE, iDAC2, iUSB3.0, Gemini, and iRack"
    Pros - Great Build, Great Value in iCAN SE and iDAC2, Insane Degree of Versatility
    Cons - Pricey to Stack All Units Together
    Introduction:
    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!
     
    The iRack
    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.
    iRack!
     
    Sound Quality:
    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.
     
    Gemini Cable
     
    Sound Quality:
    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 Impressions:
    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.
     
    Micro iUSB3.0
    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.
     
    Micro iDAC2
    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.
     
    Micro iTUBE
    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
     
    Final Thoughts:
    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.
  6. ClieOS
    5.0/5,
    "Excellent Desktop Sized Headphone Amp"
    Pros - Excellent SQ, Good EQ.Implementation, Tons of Power.
    Cons - Included 15V iPower adapter received interference from main on rare occassion.
    It has been 3 years since my original review of iFi Audio’s original micro iUSB Power, iDAC and iCAN. Fantastic when they are first released and, in my opinion, still quite relevant after all these time (*with the testimony that they still form part of my PC audio chain), the competition has however certainly stiffen up a bit. In respond to the fast pace of the current digital audio gears market, iFi Audio has decided to update the original models with newer parts, better tech, still excellent sound quality and always a big bang for the buck. The nano iUSB3.0, micro iDAC2 and iCAN SE are priced $199, $349 and $390.
     
    [​IMG]
    (nano iUSB3.0 package not show)
     
    Spec
    [​IMG]
    (Accessories not fully show)
     
    Nano iUSB3.0
    Output Voltage: 5V±0.5%
    Output Current: 2.1A
    Noise floor: 0.5uV (0.0000005V)
    USB 3.0: Ultra-speed 5.0Gbps
    Input Voltage: AC 100 – 240V, 50/60Hz (iFi iPower included)
    Power consumption: Less than 15W (includes powered USB device)
    Dimensions: 87(l) x 68(w) x 28(h) mm
    Weight: 141g (0.31 lbs)
     
    [​IMG]
     
    Micro iDAC2
    Input: USB3.0 (USB2.0 compatible)
    Output:
        SPDIF RCA (only PCM up to 192KHz)
       Audio RCA
       3.5mm Headphone
    Formats:
        44.1/48/88.2/96/176.4/192/384KHz PCM
        2.8/3.1/5.6/6.2/11.2/12.4MHz DSD
        353/384KHz DXD
     
    DAC: Bit-Perfect DSD & DXD DAC by Burr Brown (1-DAC Chip; 2-Channel; 4 Signals)
     
    Filters:
    -PCM: Bit-Perfect/Minimum Phase/Standard, Digital filters selectable
    -DSD: Extreme/Extended/Standard, Analogue filters selectable
    -DXD: Bit-Perfect Processing, Fixed Analogue filter
     
    Line Section:
    Output: 2.1V (+/-0.05V) fixed
    Zout: Under 39 Ohm
    SNR: Over 114dB (A) @ 0dBFS
    THD+N:
        Under 0.0025% @ 0dBFS (100k Load)
        Under 0.025% @ 0dBFS (600R Load)
     
    Headphone Section:    
    Output:
        Over 350mW (2.40V) into 16R (<10% THD+N)
        Over 34mW (3.20V) into 300R (< 0.1% THD+N)
    Zout: Under 2 Ohm
    THD+N: Under 0.0025% (1V into 16 Ohm, 0dBFS)
    SNR: Over 114dBA (3.2V into 16 Ohm, 0dBFS)
    Power consumption: Less than 1.5W
    Dimensions: 158(l) x 68(w) x 28(h) mm
    Weight: 265g (0.58 lbs)
     
    [​IMG]
     
    Micro iCAN SE
    EQ: Two levels selectable 3D Holographic Sound and XBass
    Gain: 0dB, 12dB and 24dB user-selectable. Full discrete, Class A
    Buffer Stage: TPA6120A2
    SNR: Over 123dB (A)
    THD: Under 0.003% (400mV/150R)
    Frequency Response: 0.5Hz to 500KHz (-3dB)
    Output Impedance: Under 1 ohm
    Output Power: Over 4000mW (16Ω)
    Output Voltage: Over 10V (over 600Ω)
    Input Voltage: AC 100 – 240V, 50/60Hz
    Power Consumption: Under 5W idle, 12W max.
    Dimensions: 158(l) x 68(w) x 28(h) mm
    Weight: 216g (0.48 lbs)
     
    Accessories and Build Quality
    Design, accessories and build quality wise, the new offerings are pretty much top notch and on par with their older sibling. I have said in the past that I am not that biggest fans for iFi long and narrow Micro casing, but that has become part of iFi identity. With micro iDAC2, you will get some rubber feet, a short USB cable and RCA cable. Micro iCAN SE, there are the power adapter, short RCA cable, 6.4mm-to-3.5mm stereo adapter, a flat head screw driver for adjusting gain, 3.5mm interconnecting cable and rubber feet. With nano iUSB3.0, there are USB3.0 cable, rubber feet and power adapter. One thing to note is that the power adapter of all of current iFi has been upgraded to the iPower adapter, which offer even cleaner power than the original ULN adapter. To nit-pick, I am not too fond of the new customized 3M rubber feet that is lower than the original 3M feet, making it harder to stack the iDAC3 and iCAN SE on top of each other as the metal casing are touching each other. At the end, I end up getting some taller original 3M rubber feet so I can stack them up for a cleaner looking. Of course, whether this will bother you or not totally depends on how you like to arrange your iFi gears.
     
    Gain and Hiss
    Line-out on iDAC2 is the fairly standard 1.98Vrms, headphone-out gain is just over 5dB, or about 3.6Vrms at max. Gain on iCAN SE is however selectable at either 0dB, 12dB or 24dB. Assuming iDAC2 as source, most headphone and IEM will be more than enough with 0dB gain. Hard-to-drive full sized might benefit from the 12dB gain, where 24dB gain with just over 11Vrms output is probably reserved for really low sensitive headphones.
     
    Hiss is very well behaved on the IDAC2. With the hiss-prone Shure SE530, I didn’t notice any hiss until around 2~3 o’clock on the volume knob – which is of course impossible to actually listen on such a high volume during music playback. I think it is safe to say there is little to no chance you will notice any hiss with sensitive IEM on normal use.
     
    Hiss on iCAN SE is mostly positive. I say ‘mostly’ because as far as hiss goes, it is on par with the original iCAN where low level hiss is only noticeable with volume knob going pass 12 o’clock. But I also noticed the 15V iPower seems to be more sensitive to voltage irregularity and ground loop from the main, which could give a very faint switching noise in rare occasions. If I switched to using the 9V iPower to power the iCAN SE, the faint switching noise will go away. Not really sure if that’s due to the particular 15V iPower adapter I have as I don’t have another 15V iPower adapter to compare it to, plus I can’t replicate the situation easily. Will probably have to wait till I get another 15V iPower to double check though I think it is more likely a freak incident.
     
    Sound Quality
    As usual, we start with the look at some basic measurement. As far as RMAA goes, both iDAC2 and iCAN SE pass with flying color with flat frequency response end-to-end, and great looking numbers on crosstalk, SNR and IMD. Then again, these result are to be expected, given the original IDAC and iCAN already measure quite well. Output impedance on iDAC2 headphone-out is measured and calculated to about 1.9ohm, in line with the listed spec, and it has plenty of output power to my dummy load. iCAN SE fairs even better with just 0.9ohm output impedance and higher output power. All and all, the technical side of both iDAC2 and iCAN SE seem very solid.
     
    [​IMG]
     
    [​IMG]
     
    Let begin with iDAC2. Besides sharing the same name with the original iDAC, there is really nothing really similar between the two. Where the original iDAC is meant to be a step beyond entry level USB DAC, the iDAC2 simply takes it to the next level. Instead of the entry level ESS chip, the iDAC2 uses the same DAC chip as better sounding iDSD series. I think it is fair to say iDAC2 is really more of a desktop version the iDSD series, where performance is in between the nano iDSD and Micro iDSD. On the DAC section, it shares many of the same features as nano iDSD like native DSD playback and filter selection (see my micro iDSD review for more detail on these features). On the analog section, it is a noticeable improvement over nano iDSD but not as robust as the flagship micro iDSD. One of the minor complaint I have with nano iDSD is that its headphone amp section is kind of the weakest link. But that is not the case on iDAC2. The bigger size and no need of portability means a better implemented analog section after than DAC stage, which no longer give me the feeling that there is a noticeable weak spot in the chain. While it is still not the best sounding amp section you will find on a DAC/amp, it is at least not a let-down in anyway and should drive most headphone quite well. I would think the word ‘content’ is what coming to my mind when using iDAC2 as a standalone unit – that I can be quite happy to use it as it is and there isn’t the need to ‘fix’ it in some way to make it better. Where with the original iDAC, I am more incline to use it with the iCAN because I know on the back of my head that I want just a bit more.
     
    [​IMG]
    micro iDAC's FR curve
     
    So how is the subjective difference between iDAC2 and iDAC? Gone is the clean, slightly sterile sound of the ESS chip and in is the more musical presentation of the Burr Brown DAC that I am quite fond of. Same can be said on the headphone amp section as well. While it is still reference flat on FR curve, the overall tonal is richer and more musical than the colder sounding iDAC’s headphone-out. The dual-mono like implementation of two MAX97220 headphone driver gives plenty of power and control. The lower in overall gain makes it a bit more IEM friendly than the iDAC. It doesn’t have the output to handle really hard-to-drive headphone but that is what iCAN SE is for. All and all, the iDAC2 is a solid upgrade over the original model. I’ll dare to even say it is almost a quantum leap in design.
     
    [​IMG]
     
    [​IMG]
     
    Different from the radical change between iDAC and iDAC2, there are more similarities between iCAN SE and iCAN. Their basic topology shares the same DNA with TubeState Class A discrete gain stage followed by TPA6120A2 headphone buffer stage. Of course, the excellent 3D Holographic Sound (3DHS) and XBass are there as well. The main difference is that the iCAN SE, with a higher voltage supply from the 15V iPower adapter, can pump out 10 times the power (4W vs. 0.4W) over the same 16ohm load when compared to the original iCAN as well as having a higher maximum gain for the most demanding of headphone.
     
    [​IMG]
    micro iCAN SE's FR curve
     
    So does the iCAN SE sounds the same as the already great iCAN? Well, yes and no. It is easy to tell that iCAN SE inheres the same underlying tonality and transparent presentation from iCAN, but there are a few subtle improvement. First, the overall image is about 10% larger on the iCAN SE, which isn’t much but enough to paint out a larger sonic picture and result in a slight improvement over positioning. Secondly, the extra power really helps to tighten up the presentation with crispier top notes and harder hitting low notes, which gives better definition. These improvements are not night and day by any mean, but enough to be noticeable in a volume matched comparison. I guess it is rather befitting that iFi has managed to make the iCAN SE even more ‘special’ than the original iCAN.
     
    [​IMG]
    micro iCAN SE's XBass
     
    Lastly, the implementation on iCAN SE’s 3DHS and XBass seem to be identical to that of the original iCAN. 3DHS can’t be easily measured using my equipment but I did measure the XBass EQ and they are indeed the same as the original iCAN. 3DHS, on my ears, also sounds extremely similar (if not identical) too. Like they said - if it didn’t break, don’t fix it. I am glad to see iFi has kept the excellent 3DHS and XBass intact.
     
    [​IMG]
     
    [​IMG]
     
    I have said on my original iUSB Power’s review that I didn’t actually get it for the use with the original iDAC, though the end result does show improvement for the pairing. Compare to the iUSB Power for only cleaning up the USB power line, the new nano iUSB3.0 is also a fully suited up USB3.0 hub that not only clean up power line, but also clean up the USB data signal as well as supporting BC1.2 profile. It is pretty much as audiophile as USB hub can ever be. Of course, whether you will detect an improvement with or without nano iUSB3.0 depends on how good or bad your PC’s USB connection is. If it doesn’t have much problem to begin with, then you might not notice much improvement. If it does have problem, then the nano iUSB3.0 will prove to be a good fix. My main use of the nano iUSB3.0 is to connect my micro iDSD to the PC so the iDSD can get a clean BC1.2 power supply line and won’t drain its internal battery over time - and It does a fine job there. Like the original iUSB Power, the nano iUSB3.0 is at best a minor optimization to your rig after you have improved on other aspects. It will worth it if you already own a mid to higher end USB DAC, but probably not the best idea to pair it with a cheap USB DAC and expect it to do miracle.
     
    [​IMG]
    From left: micro iDAC2, nano iUSB3.0, and micro iCAN SE
     
    Summery
    Since my review for iDAC, iCAN and iUSB Power some 3 years ago, the market for desktop audiophiles gear has blossomed and then somewhat shifted more toward smartphone oriented OTG products. It is rather a delight to see iFi Audio has continued to refine its nano and micro products line-up and push the envelope of offering audio gear with exceptionally good price-performance ratio, not just a mad dash to keep releasing the latest and greatest purely to meet the bottom line.
     
    A thanks to iFi Audio for the iDAC2 and iCAN SE sample.
  7. conquerator2
    5.0/5,
    "Size does not tell the whole story"
    Pros - Price - performance, compact size, power to drive anything, transparent sound, light and well designed
    Cons - Gimmicky features, inconvenient gain adjustment and a slightly lean sound
    Big things come from small enclosures – The iFi Audio iCAN SE
     
    Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with iFi Audio in any way nor am I being paid for this review.[​IMG]
     

     
    While not as established as some of the front-runner audiophile brands, iFi Audio is perhaps best known for their small yet affordable range of products, including the popular Nano line, spanning products like the iCAN and iDSD, serving as tiny portable amplifiers and DACs respectively. Further on offer is a range of useful accessories, such as the iPurifier and iPower, which both serve to isolate circuits from external negative influences of dirty power. The iCAN SE, hails from the “largest” Micro line, which offers small desktop solutions that promise to bring excellent performance in compact sizes at low prices. iFi also make sure they are buzzword packed by coining up bold, exotic features such as Class-A TubeState, DirectDrive or 3D HolographicSound. Boasting some of these and retailing for a relatively modest 299$, this Special Edition iCAN promises a lot for less. Intrigued with my eyebrow raised, I asked iFi for a review opportunity and they complied. So with my thanks and without further ado, let’s hear the truth!  
     
    The packaging was standard business as I discovered when a smaller-than-expected shipping box graciously landed on my door step, kindly sent by one of iFi’s local dealers. Slightly reminiscent of Apple-style packaging, I slid the box out of its paper shell and lifted the top lid to see what’s inside. Underneath the compartment hosting the amplifier, I was greeted by a plethora of accessories not expected at this price, spanning nice looking sets of RCA and 3.5mm interconnect cables, the taunted linear power supply, manual and warranty cards, a fine adjustment tool, a ¼ headphone adapter as well as four small rubber feet! Now, this is what I call accessories! It’s literally everything to set you up and then some. In a time where including a power cord is slowly becoming a novelty and everything comes at an extra, this array of accessories from a budget product I consider very impressive to say the least.
     

     

    [​IMG]
    Overall design & build quality is pretty outstanding. The first thing that positively stands out are its miniature dimensions. This is the smallest desktop amplifier that I have ever tested, measuring less than 16 x 7cm (6 x 3") across, so you would be forgiven for mistaking it for a portable unit. Also weighting just over 200g (0.4lb), this practically weightless, all-aluminum pipsqueak takes the lightest footprint of all my audio devices. From left to right, on the slightly curved front plate, sits a smooth volume pot, with two HolographicSound and XBass (more on those later) switches facilitated next to it, with a traditional ¼ headphone output awaiting us by the end of the right edge. On top we have the signature iFi logo engraved, along with three green status LEDs, each for power, DirectDrive and signal. On the back we get two sets of inputs, RCA and [sup]1[/sup]/[sub]8[/sub], and a power input for the proprietary iPOWER external power supply. The gain is adjusted via dip switches, which are located on the bottom of the unit and even though a schematic is printed right next to them, it took me a bit to figure it all out. Although slightly inconvenient, the adjustment range is solid providing a gain selection of 0, 12 and 24dBs. Coupled with watts of class-A power on tap, it pretty much guarantees enough swing for all but the hungriest of headphones.  
    [​IMG]

     

    [​IMG]
    For music listening, I used my newest headphone addition, Mr. Speakers Ether 1.1, which offers an extraordinarily balanced presentation and a signature I enjoy quite a lot. As I will discuss in more detail, this amplifier should work well with most headphones and sources and contrary to its size, provides as much power as some many times bigger, more expensive offerings. One thing to point out is that iFi’s solution to keep the footprint smaller is a proprietary linear power supply, which lacks standard grounding, introducing a constant hum into the chain which I was unable to remedy. Curiously, it only introduced noise to other amplifiers in the circuit, while the iFi itself remained dead silent.
     
    As for what kind of sound to expect was a bit of an enigma for me as I read through iFi’s exotic list of features. On one hand DirectDrive promises amazing transparency, while on the other TubeState technology claims to replicate the way tubes amplify audio to create a warm and spacious sound. I do agree with the former and the iCAN indeed is the most transparent amplifier that I ever had here, revealing minute details that others failed to show with the same clarity. With regards to TubeState, I will simply say that the Liquid Carbon is the most tube-like amp that I’ve had in house and that the TS does not sound anything tube-like at all. While on the same page, let’s discuss the effects of HolographicSound and XBass. They both offer 3 settings, bypass, + and -, where + adds the desired effect and – reduces it to less than bypassed. According to iFi, they should enhance / shrink the soundstage or add / subtract the right amount of bass, by means of a sophisticated circuitry built within. However, in practice they turned out to be mere convenience extras, sounding like average treble and bass boosts respectively. The issue I take here is that most of these features are touted as technical marvels that in reality never actually happen and represent something that does not justify the grand words put behind them. So, in the future, I would appreciate if iFi cut back on fancy-smanshy marketing descriptors on their website to be a bit more reasonable in managing expectations. In my opinion, the iCAN does not need a dozen of features to be perceived more appealing and there is a point where some of these could be taken as somewhat deceptive or misleading.
     
    With that off my chest, let’s go back to juicy-soundy stuff. The iCAN proves a solid performer from top to bottom, where words like neutral, even and reference sprang instantly to my mind. The overall bass is very linear with excellent differentiation and extension. The mid-bass and upper kick also sounds very adequate, not lacking in any way compared to bigger amplifiers. Lower midrange is a bit less grippy, smooth all the way to upper midrange, with tiny hints of compression here and there, manifesting in slightly digital sounding cymbal crashes. Treble is smooth, but extends naturally almost as far as my treble-happy Audio-gd. The iFi offers an incredibly layered and spacious presentation, where every sound cue is easily picked and located. In its detail retrieving capabilities the iCAN goes beyond its competitors. The one undesirable trade-off that I perceive is a slight constraint of dynamic range and what I would describe as lean sounding, where nothing ever quite gets spotlighted. The areas where the other amplifiers bring hints of extra punch or air, the cool and collected iFi does not, producing a sound slightly less engaging. Regardless, the iFi stays far from embarrassing itself in any way and these are just minor shortcomings in an otherwise exquisite performance. Though as should be clear by now, those hoping to find any added richness of tubes in this solid TubeState offering will have to look elsewhere. Probably to real tubes.
     

    [​IMG]
    Now, to compare to my favorite amplifiers:
     
    Head to head with the Cavalli Audio Liquid Carbon (599$ original, 799$ second run) – The Cavalli Liquid Carbon is what I was initially expecting the iCAN to sound like. However, these two amps can’t practically sound further apart. The LC gives a dynamically rich sound with potent oozing bass, encapsulated in an intimate soundstage. It also happens to be one of the less revealing and detailed offerings I have had the opportunity to hear, with its greatest weapon being rich, natural and warm sound that teases at what the bigger and pricier Cavalli models have to offer. The vocal presentation is amazing, with bass hitting as hard and deep as anything. It is a joy to rock out to, but those looking for a detailed and neutral sound, the iCAN gets my nod. It offers better separation, is much better at revealing micro details, offers a more neutral and realistic soundscape where instruments evenly pan across a spacious, holographic stage. The treble extends noticeably further and reveals more information. The Carbon is the go-to amp for many Sennheiser HD800 lovers and others who like spacious, neutral to bright sounding headphones, as it provides any extra desirable warmth and intimacy and complements their traits perfectly. And although something like my Ether works great with both, for the wider range of headphones the iCAN shows to be the preferable partner. Unless you just love to rock out and want to bang that head all day. Then by all means get the Carbon, or save for a Cavalli LAu. The iCAN is about half the size of the Carbon, for inquiring minds.
     
    Versus the Jazz (325$ standard / 405$ for ff version) – For the differences between the ff and non-ff versions I go into more detail in my review at Headphone.Guru (http://headphone.guru/a-budget-blast-from-germany-meier-audio-corda-jazz-and-jazz-ff), where I compared them side by side. For the purpose of this review, either model will do as the sound signature does not deviate much. They also do happen to be the closest match for the iCAN, where there is relatively little that separates them in terms of signature. The iCAN has an edge in detail retrieval and instrument placement but it lacks a bit in dynamic reproduction, where the Jazz sounds just a tiny bit more engaging and snappy. As extra, the Jazz does offer a surprisingly well implemented cross-feed function, which is useful with hard left-right panned music. In terms of value, these go as close as any other pairing here. One offers better detail retrieval and a third smaller form factor while the other sounds just a hair more lively, with a useful CF function. Given their price, I could happily stack either on the top of my desk next to the bigger boys as they both punch high above their price tag. It really just boils down to which of their traits are more important to you.
     
    Pitted against the Audio-gd SA31SE (525$, discontinued) – And here in comes the amplifier that has been with me the longest. This now discontinued Audio-gd product which I hope to finally formally review in the near future, has been a reference level amplifier for me since the wee days of dipping my toes in this audiophile ocean. It’s a big and bulky amplifier, stuffed to the brim with parts and a huge R-core transformer and which to me represents one of the Chinese company’s best for its price. How does the iCAN fare? Well, it depends. Just like with all the other amplifiers it competes in most things and doesn’t really do badly anywhere else. Its consistently top performing area has been the way it evenly places and pans all instruments and other cues in its vast soundstage and just how remarkably well balanced, clear and present they all remain all the time. The Audio-gd gets close but it doesn’t quite match the spaciousness. In vocal reproduction, the SA31SE shows added clarity and extension, making voice stand out every time in a mix. Whether that is accurate or true I leave for interpretation but I do like it as it also adds an airy quality to instruments, while highlighting the different styles and presentations of those who sing. Bass is just a bit tighter too, with a bit more impact and oomph down low. The one attribute this Audio-gd has unlike any other amplifier is a bigger sense of dynamic scale and swing. The immediacy of a violin plucked through the air. The impact as double bass cuts through the mix. It has the ability to make sudden dynamic changes stand out more than any other amplifier, consistently giving more boldness to instruments that lead. This coloration does bring some drawbacks, such as minor detail loss in lead instrument busy passages, resulting in a slightly constrained image, which the iCAN never develops.
     

     

    [​IMG]
    Now, with all comparisons out of the way, a note, as just like any other reviewer, I am just a guy who likes a particular sound. It is sometimes difficult to put into words the emotions and feelings a particular piece of gear elicits within me. As although technical specifications and distortion charts make all these amplifiers look remarkably similar, I hear a distinct difference between them. Be it iCAN’s detail-revealing prowess, Liquid Carbon’s musical panache, Jazz’s neutral finesse, SA31’s vocal brilliance, or the different sound of tubes all-together, these are all distinguishing traits that usually make me buy one particular audio product over another and where individual perception and taste makes all the difference. As the golden Head-Fi saying goes, “we all hear differently” but I do think that all the amplifiers I have tested here have demonstrated their solid price to performance ratio, allowing for everyone to find their favorite pick. From the warmer LC, over the neutral iCAN/Jazz, to the brighter SA31SE, these all represent outstanding value some of the budget-friendly hidden gems have to offer and while they ain’t perfect, they all strive for greatness in different ways.
     
    The iFi ICAN SE retails for 299$, so realistically I only expected it to compete with the Meier Audio Corda Jazz. Where this little gem proved itself and more was the ability to extract as much information from a recording as possible, without sacrificing much in the way of musicality or dynamics and throwing it all into an impressively cohesive sonic image. What’s more, it also comes in the smallest form factor of all these amplifiers, while having the power to drive virtually any headphone. In the end, it managed to compete with twice as expensive offerings without selling itself short and making itself the first choice for those who move regularly or need a modern, inexpensive yet capable device for most any home or studio use. And while the still excellent Corda Jazz holds the rank for the first amplifier to do that, iCAN now also put the SE right up there as one of the most impressive all-round budget devices that I had the pleasure to hear. Now my sole wish remains for iFi to cut back on their marketing jargon just a teeny bit…
     
    Technical specifications:
    Gain: 0dB, 12dB and 24dB (user-selectable via dip switches)
    Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR): >123dB (A)
    Total Harmonic Distortion (THD): <0.003% (400mV/150R)
    Frequency Response: 0.5Hz to 500KHz (-3dB)
    Output Impedance: <1 ohm
    Output Power: >4000mW (16Ω)
    Output Voltage:  >10V (>600Ω)
    Input Voltage: AC 100 – 240V, 50/60Hz
    Power Consumption: < 5W idle, 12W max.
    Dimensions: 158(l) x 68(w) x 28(h) mm
    Weight: 216g (0.48 lbs)
    Warranty: 12 months 
    Dsnuts, Hawaiibadboy and buckles29 like this.
  8. doughead
    4.5/5,
    "Get this if you're a Basshead who wants the best headphone amp at a very good price"
    Pros - Powerful Class A 4watt amp with max +24dB gain, 3 levels of Bass Boost & Virtual 3D, value for money
    Cons - No power on/off switch, no internal battery (not portable), loose Headphone-out socket
    My friend loaned me his unit to audition at home for a few days and I've been thoroughly impressed with it and just bought one for myself yesterday. This a very good value for money headphone amp when you look at its specs (Class A and 4 watts @ 16 ohm) versus its price. No complaints about its overall build quality except I found the headphone-out socket to be a bit loose after repeated use. I especially appreciated the 3 levels of Bass Boost and Virtual 3D features (I'm a basshead). The highest bass boost setting was very good for EDM/Pop/Rock music but may be a little overwhelming for more gentler types of music, but to its credit, it added body/weight to the low frequencies w/o introducing bloatedness/boominess into the mix. But I found the highest Virtual 3D feature did add a little more treble while expanding the soundstage. The slight boost in the high frequencies may not be welcomed especially if you have a headphone which has a bright signature, although you can switch this feature to the lower setting or off it altogether to negate this problem if you have a headphone which leans to the bright side. 
     
    This thing has no shortage of power, at its max +24dB setting you'll find you can't go beyond 9/10 o'clock for most recordings without hurting your eardrums! I would say it leans slightly to the warm side in its overall sound quality, but the Bass Boost really adds a lot of body and heft to the bass, making the overall sound quality very robust and hard-hitting, perfect for EDM/pop/rock and full orchestral classical music. The Bass Boost is truly chest-thumping at its max setting (similar to listening to a stereo setup with 2 subwoofers) while the Virtual 3D feature added width to the soundstage moderately (although also introducing added treble especially at the highest setting).
     
    The only negative aspect of this amp is that it does not have a built-in battery, it would truly be the best overall headphone amp if it did as it would be excellent as both a desktop and portable amp (I don't understand why iFi did not put an internal battery in it since the similarly sized iDSD Micro - which is also Class A/4 watts and has even more features than the iCan SE, has an internal battery making it portable. It would be good if it has a Power on/off switch but I understand that most Class A components does not have one. Don't let its looks (compared to true full-sized desktop amps) fool you - this is one heavyweight champ of a headphone amp and truly great value for money for its top class performance at its price. Highly recommended (especially for bassheads!).
    Hawaiibadboy and Vartan like this.
  9. ostewart
    5.0/5,
    "More power in the same CAN"
    Pros - Excellent resolution and power with some great features
    Cons - None that I can think of
    Firstly I would like to thank iFi Audio for lending me this sample to review, I try to write honest reviews. This unit has had over 50hrs of burn-in, no differences were noted.
     
    Gear used:
    Dell XPS15 > Matrix Quattro II > iFi iCan SE > German Maestro GMP 400 / Fostex TH-500Rp
     
    [​IMG]
     
    Tech Specs:
    Specifications:
     
    Gain:
    0dB, 12dB and 24dB user-selectable
    Signal to Noise Ratio:
    >123dB(A)
    Total Harmonic Distortion(THD):
    <0.003%(400mV/150R)
    Frequency Response:
    0.5Hz to 500KHz(-3dB)
    Output Impedance:
    <1 ohm
    Output Power:
    >4000mW(16Ω)
    Output Voltage:
    >10V (>600Ω)
    Input Voltage:
    AC 100 – 240V, 50/60Hz
    Power Consumption:
    < 5W idle, 12W max.
    Dimensions:
    158(l) x 68(w) x 28(h) mm
    Weight:
    216g (0.48 lbs)
    Warranty period:
    12 months

     
    Packaging, Build quality and Accessories:
    The packaging is the same as the rest of the iFi Micro line up, a slim white box which is a little Apple esque. The outer sleeve has all the info you need on the product, slide this off and you have a 2 part box. Once you slide the top off the box you are greeted by the iCan itself, which has the same form factor as all the Micro range. Underneath the intray you will find the accessories. I really like the sleek packaging, which serves its purpose to protect and house the product, whilst being one of the more attractive designs out there.
     
    Build quality is on par with the other products in the range, a very nice aluminium case, super smooth volume pot, high quality inputs/outputs and also tough looking switches. iFi Audio do know how to build a sleek, yet very well built product. There is nothing on the design that feels cheap, and nothing that feels like it will wear out quickly.
     
    [​IMG]
     
    Accessories are good, you get a small RCA-RCA interconnect, a power supply (which is the ultra low noise and ripple iPower 15v PSU), a 3.5mm-3.5mm aux cable and a small screwdriver which is needed to change the gain. Overall a good package of included accessories, and everything you need.
     
    [​IMG]
     
    Features:
    The iCan has always been a great headphone amp not just for its sound quality but also for its features, it comes with a 3.5mm and RCA inputs, 1 single 6.3mm headphone output but also has different gain settings. This new version of the iCan is similar to the original where it has the xBass switch and also a 3D HoloGraphic sound switch, more on these later. This does make the iCan SE a very versatile device, powering the most sensitive IEM’s to power hungry electrostats with no problems.
     
    [​IMG]
     
    Sound:
    I will write about this amp as a whole, not split into categories.
    The fantastic thing about the iCan is that it doesn’t really have a sound signature as such, it lets the source material pass through without adding much flavour. And I for one appreciate it’s honest sound, but unlike some other amps, it has some interesting features.
    First off the sound is very neutral, with maybe a hint of smoothness which to me makes it a lot more enjoyable, I found the same to be true about the JDS Labs Element, neither of these amps are as unforgiving as the Objective2 amp, but I prefer both due to that tiny bit of smoothness. From lows to highs this amp excels, it has the power and authority to drive almost any headphone on the market, lows are tight yet have the right amount of body and decay, mids are detailed and highs shimmer as they should, very natural and neutral with nothing out of place.
     
    [​IMG]
     
    Now when you turn the xBass on things start to get fun, the iCan has a very well implemented bass boost, it adds punch and extension without bloat. I don’t usually like bass boost, but the lowest level with my German Maestro GMP 400’s make them a lot more enjoyable to listen to. This feature is great for when you want to listen to some EDM with your usual headphones and crave that extra bit of punch.
     
    The 3D HoloGraphic switch is a very different beast. It is interesting and also very track dependent, it is quite a subtle change, but can make some tracks sound more coherent rather than the hard panned L/R that headphones tend to portray. My headphones already have great soundstage, but this add a little width and vocals are not as hard centre, it can make for a more stereo/hifi setup sound and when used right can add to listening enjoyment.
     
    [​IMG]
     
    Conclusion, just like the original iCan, the iCan SE is a great headphone amp, it now comes with more power under the hood, but with the same functionality and great sound the original was known for. All in a very sleek package, I didn’t need to change to high gain, I was using it at around 1 to 2 o’clock on the volume knob and it powered to relatively hard to drive TH-500rp and GMP 400’s with ease. I really like the bass boost, it adds body where it is needed without muddying the rest of the sound, and the 3D HoloGraphic switch can make some tracks a whole lot more enjoyable.
    I cannot fault this little device, especially for the price.
     
    Rating: 10/10 (just like its sibling, fantastic value and sound, with excellent features)
    Vartan and snellemin like this.