My Review of the iFi Pro iCAN
Many thanks to Lawrance over at iFi - who has been patient and supportive of getting me info and started with product the past few years.
This is my purely subjective review – based on my gear, my ears, and my experience. Please consider and respect this - especially if my impressions do not match your own.
I have used the iFi Pro iCAN extensively over the past 6 months, and I have clocked a lot of hours with the amplifier in the last 3 months in particular.
You can read specs anywhere, so for the sake of brevity, I will stick to how my experience went and how the Pro iCAN fit into my stable of audio devices and headphones.
For this review, I used the PRO iCAN PRIMARILY from PRO iDSD (Also on loan from iFi) Opus #1S, and iBasso DX90. I tested against other amps, (iFi xCAN, iDSD Micro, iCAN SE, Massdrop Liquid Carbon X +SDAC, & Schiit Asgard II) to see differences in performance with various headphones.
Pro iCAN (Bottom) with the Pro iDSD and assorted headphones
WHAT IT IS
The Pro iCAN is the combo solid-state and tube amp section of iFi’s PRO line of products which also includes the dedicated DAC and multimedia hub (Pro iDSD), and the transformer/energizer (Pro iESL) which is specifically for electrostatic headphones.
POWER TO SPARE (0db LOW, 9db MEDIUM, 18db HIGH)
The Pro iCAN is iFi’s flagship headphone/speaker amp blessed with a surplus of power, (Up to 14W for headphones and its 20V mode can output up to 100W into 40 Ohm speakers!) allowing for the proper driving of the most power-hungry headphones. I never felt the need to raise the volume dial past 10 o’clock in HIGH gain or noon in LOW gain with my hardest to drive 300 or 600 Ohm headphones.
SOLID. 213(l) x 192.5(w) x 63.3(h) mm metal casing and weighing 1.93kg (4.3lbs) indicates that this is a sturdy and substantial desktop component that was designed to last.
My planar magnetic headphones respond well to the Pro iCAN
Of particular note: The widened soundstage on my Sendy Aivas!
Solid-State - The PRO iCAN was able to drive my old Sennheiser HD-650s to louder volume levels than I am comfortable with even on LOW gain, and both MEDIUM and HIGH gain drove them ridiculously louder! This is my preferred way to listen to the HD-650s. The brighter sound and tighter dynamics of the solid-state mode perfectly balances the HD-650s darker tuning and eradicates any veiling tendencies. While the balanced connection offered more power, the single-ended connections also sounded full and well-rounded.
Tube Mode - I really enjoyed the first tube mode, finding it the ideal balance of “tubey goodness” to enrich slightly thinner sounding headphones and tracks. I especially enjoyed listening to AKG 550s, Thieaudio Phantoms, and (on LOW gain) my Etymotic ER4XR extended response iems. Classical and orchestral pieces found their stride in this mode, filling-in the sound signature without muddying or dulling the performances.
Tube+ Mode – I enjoyed this mode the most on my Beyerdynamic T1 (2nd ver.) and the Sennheiser HD-800. While taming the most punishing tones and ringing in the highs, it simultaneously filled-out the mids to lessen to purely clinical and sterile natures of their presentations while adding a bit of weight to the low end. Just what I want when I want to just relax and enjoy, and I love that I have the option to turn the tube+ mode off if I want to dig-in and examine a piece or a component’s effect on the audio chain.
AMP SOURCE RESULTS BREAKDOWN
In order of performance:
1. Phones – (RCA input) Each sounds about the same.. (Apple or Android) Basic, low detail and flat sounding unless you play with DSP apps. Plenty of volume with low distortion if you adjust your phone’s volume to its particular “sweet spot”.
2. Tablets - (RCA input) Same as phones, but a little more source power. Louder, but still need to adjust volume to prevent distortion.
3. Fiio e17 DAC - (RCA input) Adds a bit of “fullness” to the sound and increased detail over early model phones. Newer phones (iPhone 7 and newer, Note 8) sound about equal with tradeoffs for and against each. The Pro iCAN reveals the strengths and weaknesses easily.
4. iBASSO DX90 DAP - (RCA input) The player offers better detail and resolution than any of the previous choices in the list, and the Pro iCAN easily demonstrates this.
5. Radsone E100 - (RCA input/2.5mm to XLR) The E100’s app gives you great customization choices, EQ, Crossfeed, Filters, etc.. I didn’t feel the need to alter the signature much, but the Pro iCAN handled changes across the full EQ range with no evident distortion. More dependent on original Bluetooth source quality than I wanted, but has plenty of innate resolving capability and clean clarity of sound if the source has it to begin with.
6. iFi iDSD Micro - (RCA input) Increased clarity and resolution due to the DAC improvement over all my previous choices. Additions of XBass and 3D were easily-tolerated with no sense of distortion, but the Pro iCAN’s onboard XBass and 3D settings sound a bit cleaner and more refined.
7. Opus #1S DAP - (RCA input/2.5mm to XLR) Best mobile source I have, and the PRO iCAN really shines with it. The player has a little darker coloring than the DX90 does, which the PRO iCAN displays transparently and perfectly.
8. iFi Pro iDSD – (RCA input/2.5mm to XLR/& XLR to XLR) Clearly made to match the Pro iCAN. A good bit of clarity, fullness, and detail added to music which demonstrates my first REAL experience with higher-grade audio equipment.
SONIC COMPARISONS (Solid-State mode only - No tube options to compare against)
l iFi xCAN - Do you want fun or accuracy? The xCAN is bouncy, robust, energetic, and just plain enjoyable to listen to. Not nearly as accurate, detailed, nuanced, or balanced as the Pro iCAN. Think top of consumer-grade (xCAN) vs hi-end grade (Pro iCAN).
l iFi Micro iDSD – The Micro has a more congested sound than the Pro iDSD does. The Pro iDSD has better presentation, placement, and more “space” between sounds. It’s clearly easier to place instruments within the soundstage. The Pro iDSD has a wider stage and manages to place vocals in front of you better than both the Micro iDSD and Micro iCAN amps do. Vocals sound clearer and more nuanced on the Pro.
l iFi Micro iCAN SE - Out of all my amp choices, only the Micro iDSD & iCAN SE output close to the amount of power the Pro iCAN is capable of. (Though still less than 1/3 of the balanced and only 80% of the single-ended capabilities.) Same as the others, narrower soundstage, less instrument separation, and more of a “wall of sound” than a dynamic soundscape than the Pro iCAN provides. Still, excellent showings for portable amps!
l Schiit Audio Asgard II - This, in the beginning, was my reference for benchmarks. Along with slightly elevated bass, the Asgard II is slightly less neutral and analytical than the Pro iCAN. The exact opposite of the Micro iCAN & iDSD, which I consider more enjoyable for daily driver roles. Narrower soundstage. The lowest dynamic range of the desktop amps compared.
l Liquid Carbon X +SDAC – Closest match I own to the Pro iCAN when run in solid-state mode. MUCH less power, and slightly less detail revealed by the Liquid Carbon. Also, the bass range is much looser than found on the Pro iCAN, but the amp still works as an option for the enjoyment of relaxed and smooth sound signatures. A narrower soundstage, and oddly-offset instrument placements in the soundscape. Not offensive, but inaccurate.
l Pro iDSD – Closest match of all. Truly, the differences are very subtle and require very resolving headphones to really demonstrate the differences. To my ear, the Pro iCAN’s overall presentation seems a bit smoother, but with no actual loss in detail. The soundstage is also slightly wider when listening to certain tracks on the Pro iCAN.
REFERENCE MUSIC BY GENRE
1. “Kryptonite” – 3 Doors Down
2. “Du Hast” – Rammstein
3. “Why Me?” – Planet P
4. “Hotel California” – The Eagles
5. “Money For Nothing” – Dire Straits
6. “Amaranth” – Night Wish
7. “Money” – Pink Floyd
8. “Lucy” – Skillet
9. “Layla” – Eric Clapton
10. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – Jeff Healey
1. “Round Midnight” – Thelonious Monk
2. “Smoking Gun” – Robert Cray
3. “A Night In Tunisia” – Dizzy Gillespi
4. “Mood Indigo” – Duke Ellington
1. “Lose Yourself” – Eminem
2. “When Doves Cry” – Prince
3. “Bad Romance” – Lady Gaga
4. “No One” – Alicia Keys
5. “Royals” – Lorde
6. “Ride On Time” – Black Box
7. “O Fortuna” – Apotheosis
8. “Obsession” – See-Saw
9. “Guren No Yumia” – Linked Horizon
The Pro iCAN is a truly amazing product that has afforded me my first REAL exposure to “the next level” of audio. Just a few years ago, I was blown away by the performance of expensive devices that are now collecting dust because inexpensive devices easily-surpass their capabilities. So, for me, this is a great product that I can’t recall another amp that I’ve heard beating outside of tradeshow booths or swap-meets. Certainly, nothing that I have ever had the pleasure of listening to with my own gear, and in the comfort of my own home. I can easily HIGHLY recommend it!
To me, there are 3 main benefits:
l Great sound – This amp simply stomps any other device that I’ve reviewed.
l Clean power – While I didn’t go into detail about this, the Pro iCAN has great power conditioning built-in. When I connected all devices to bare power mains, there was clearly-discernable audio noise in my Liquid Carbon X and especially my Asgard II that remained until I put them behind an iFi PowerStation that was also on-hand for review. The Pro iCan’s power supply removed all signal interference no matter how I plugged it to mains power.
l Flexibility – The Tube, 3D, and XBass offerings aren’t just “gimmicks” or cheesy afterthoughts. They legitimately offer options to cater to what I want to hear no matter the characteristics of the source, headphones, or just my mood. It’s like getting 2 equally implemented and customizable amplifiers in one device. The Pro iCAN is not a tube amp with an okay solid-state section bolted on. Both flavors are equally capable and very powerful.