iFi Audio xCAN

  1. jwbrent
    iFi Audio xCAN—A Beast of a Headphone Amplifier!
    Written by jwbrent
    Published Nov 13, 2018 at 8:14 PM
    Pros - Beautifully rendered balanced sound, good sub bass performance, detailed highs without any edginess, atmospheric soundstage, balanced operation with single-ended connection
    Cons - The alloy case is a fingerprint magnet, using two headphones simultaneously may be a problem due to the narrow spacing between the outputs, XBass II defaults on when the xCAN is powered up

    Wow! For those of you who like to scan down to the conclusions on product reviews, let me save you some time ... go buy the xCAN, it's that good—the Mojo of affordable headphone amps. For those who like the details, please read on, though, I do apologize for my lengthy review.

    iFi Audio is a British company that designs and engineers product mostly oriented towards the headphone audio market. Its sister company, AMR, began designing home audio gear in 2001, and after five years of development, released its first product in 2006 to much acclaim. The emphasis on its initial release of the 77 Series of products was to rid its components of soul robbing radio frequency/electrical noise that was commonplace in lesser gear of the day. Due to its continued success, AMR saw an opportunity in the headphone audio sphere, and iFi Audio was born in 2012.


    xCAN Details

    The xCAN is a battery operated headphone amplifier, diminutive in size, and employing fully balanced circuitry as well as a proprietary "S-Balanced" circuit for single-ended (SE) headphone users. This unique design provides the benefits of balanced topology without some of the drawbacks of a typical balanced design. Additionally, the xCAN is equipped with Bluetooth with two of the most popular codecs currently available—aptX+aptX Low Latency and AAC. aptX has been around for awhile, and with its greater bandwidth, it promises near CD like resolution. AAC is a similar performing codec but oriented more towards Apple iOS products since they do not support aptX.

    The xCAN includes iFi's proprietary XBass II, the latest version of this popular feature on other iFi headphone amplifiers which when turned on augments the bass, and now also adds a presence option for the midrange frequencies. Both analogue filters can be turned on at the same time, or each independently. Also included is the 3D+ feature which is along the lines of a crossfeed circuit that expands the soundstage of a performance.


    xCAN Unboxing

    The xCAN comes nicely boxed with the unit itself protected by a soft plastic sleeve. This is important since the xCAN has a beautiful magnesium alloy case that is very shiny with a smoky hue. The rear of the case is made from a silky feeling plastic that enables the Bluetooth feature to operate at its best with a wireless signal. Included in the box is a velvet bag for the xCAN as well as three cables, a 3.5mm to 3.5mm SE cable, a 2.5mm to 2.5mm balanced cable, and a USB C cable for charging the unit. Finally, there is a cardboard instruction sheet along with two other information cards about registration and how to use the included velcro like stick-ons for attaching your source component to the xCAN. Surprisingly, on the rear of this card there is xDSD info with the firmware version and MQA compatibility, clearly not meant for the xCAN.


    Use and Performance

    Pictured above is all the gear I used in my evaluation. I'd like to take this time to thank iFi Audio for lending me an xCAN for my review. I was excited to read about this product, and I decided to do a thorough review with familiar source components and headphones so readers could get a greater sense on the xCAN's overall performance.


    PonoPlayer ($399) ⇒ xCAN ($299) ⇒ AKG K702 65th Anniversary Edition ($649)

    Before I did any critical listening, I ran the xCAN for about 100 hours to ensure it was nicely burned in. Through this process, I would occasionally check the sound to hear how the xCAN was doing, and I did notice improvements in the entire frequency range, so I recommend new owners go through this procedure before making any final judgement about its performance. Finally, I did not use the analogue filters when I made my comparisons.

    I recently bought Neil Young's PonoPlayer for nostalgia's sake since I'm a long time fan going back to the 70s. How surprised I was when I realized this is a great sounding digital audio player (DAP) though its user interface leaves one a bit wanting. Too bad the company is now out of business. I initially connected the SE cable included with the xCAN, but after listening for awhile, I switched it out for the Headphone Lounge OCC Silver Type 2 Mini-Cable ($42). The improvements wrought were expected, greater midrange transparency with sparkling yet smooth trebles, well worth the modest cost.

    The AKGs are definitely my cup of tea, so that should give everyone an idea on my sound preferences. Using them with the Pono only, beginning at the bottom of the frequency range, the bass is lean sounding but defined, with a forward midrange and highly detailed trebles. Depending on the source material, the AKGs can get a bit tiresome over extended listening sessions, but with other types of music like acoustic, jazz, or classical, the Pono drives them well, albeit not as loud as I would like. Adding the xCAN in the chain brought improved bass, especially the sub bass frequencies below 60Hz. The midrange retained its forward character, but vocals were better delineated, and subtle cues like a singer's lips moving came across with ease. The trebles remained detailed, but were less edgy, smoother, and now less than perfectly recorded rock/alternative music was more engaging. AKG K702s are known for having a huge, sometimes artificial soundstage, but I like this quality a lot. With the xCAN driving them, the soundstage was even more atmospheric and immersive. What a beautiful sound!


    PonoPlayer ⇒ xCAN ⇒ Sennheiser HD 6XX ($199)

    I think everyone who is a headphile should own the Sennheiser HD 6XX (or HD 650), they really are good sounding and a great headphone to use as a reference. Some listeners are turned off by the darkish high frequencies when unamplified, but if they heard them with the xCAN, they may have different thoughts altogether. Let's start off with the trebles first—there is no veil here at all. The xCAN's detailed but smooth sounding high frequencies are a perfect match, in my view. The HD 6XX retains its reference level resolution, but the sound is more transparent, more even balanced throughout the frequency range. The purity of the midrange, perhaps the most notable aspect of the HD 6XX, is further improved coming at you like a big wet kiss from a new love, liquidy and blissful. As in the AKGs, the bass tightens and is less obscure with good dynamics. Soundstage improvements abound as well with greater separation. Add a DAP/phone/computer to this combo and you will have a killer setup without mortgaging your future.

    I should add for those who are eagle-eyed that I used a Headphone Lounge OCC Copper Type 2 Balanced Cable ($150) for this particular evaluation. iFi makes a big deal about the S-Balanced feature, and I wanted to try out the balanced output while using the SE input. Yes, you can use an SE input and still get fully balanced sound since the balanced output functions exactly as that regardless of which input you use, even Bluetooth (according to iFi).


    Astell&Kern AK240SS ($3,000) ⇒ Chord Electronics Mojo ($599) ⇒ xCAN ⇒ Sennheiser HD 6XX

    Let's change it up a bit and add some more serious hardware. I was very interested in how the xCAN compared to the Chord Mojo in driving headphones, so out came my beloved AK240SS connected via a Penon Audio Silver OTG Cable ($32) to the Mojo.

    This is why the HD 6XX is such a killer headphone: I've upped the gear and the Sennheisers readily showed off the improvements. No noise. At all. Blackness from which the music emerged showing off the finest details. Micro dynamics (low level detail that retains a sense of dynamic contrasts) clearly improves. Macro dynamics (same as above but with musical peaks), too. We now have a sound that approaches the kilobuck systems, in my view. The xCAN scales with better gear, good for upgrades down the road.

    So what about the Mojo? My understanding is Chord designed the Mojo with a warmer signature than the pre-existing Chord Hugo ($2,395) since it was designed to be used with phones, and the gritty nature of such a source device (at least back in 2014 when the Mojo was in the design stage) warranted a toned down top end to make it more listenable. The Mojo's tonal color never bothered me, but it did bother others who preferred the top end of the Hugo with its more detailed, hence, brighter presentation. Well, that's where the xCAN comes in ... the Mojo warmth is gone. In my view, the xCAN perfectly compliments the Mojo in that the upper frequencies now sound extended yet not harsh as sometimes would happen when I owned my original Hugo. The dimensionality is improved as well, as previously noted with the xCAN. For those Mojo owners who have been contemplating selling theirs to buy a used Hugo now that they're so cheap. don't do it! Buy an xCAN instead and Hugoize the sound of your Mojo, plus you get the xCAN's analogue filters the original Hugo lacked. And you save a bunch of money and hassle.


    Astell&Kern AK240SS ⇒ xCAN ⇒ Focal Utopia ($3,995)

    I love the Utopia. I love how its made, its design, and of course, its sound. Just a well balanced headphone that will always remain in my headphone inventory for those special listening sessions where I want to be swept away with the emotional message an artist conveys with their music.

    The AK240SS was loaded with hi res files and joined to the xCAN with the Headphone Lounge OCC Silver Type 2 Balanced Cable ($42). My thanks to Ted at Headphone Lounge for loaning me this cable for my review.

    The headphone cable I used is the Norne Audio Draug Silver Balanced ($420) which is made on a special order basis. The sound is fantastic, compliments the Utopia, and is better built than any other specialty cable I've owned. Highly recommended!

    I wanted to try this combo so I could compare the SE input to the balanced on the xCAN. iFi highlights its proprietary S-Balanced circuitry, how this feature provides all the benefits of a fully balanced design without the potential problem of amplifying noise due to the added gain of a truly balanced input/output stage. When I read this in the xCAN thread here on Head-Fi, I wondered why then have a balanced input/output at all? Besides marketing reasons, I then realized all my headphones are fairly easy to drive. I imagine a pair of Audezes might suck the xCAN dry if not for the balanced input/output stage.

    All the hallmarks observed earlier about the xCAN apply here as well, just notched up because of the resolving power of the Utopia. I don't own a dedicated headphone amp, never needed one, I thought. But the xCAN makes listening to the Utopia even better, especially since the xCAN is so good in the bass department where the Utopia arguably could use a bit more oomph. How can this be? How can a $300 amp work so well with a $4,000 set of headphones? I don't know how iFi does it, but that's why I began this verbose review with a Wow!

    So after picking my tongue up off the floor, I switched the balanced silver cable with the SE version. Way more gain! That was a surprise. I would've thought a balanced input would provide greater gain than an SE input, but not here. As a result, it was very difficult to do a sound comparison because level matching such a big difference between the two inputs proved to be more of a challenge then I wanted to undertake. Suffice it to say, I find using the SE input more than satisfactory, so I'm sticking with that.


    Final Thoughts

    I've written several reviews on Head-Fi, but never one as long as this one ... again, my apologies to those that have made it this far. It would have been even longer if I included my iPhone SE/Mojo combo as I originally planned on doing, or the Astell&Kern AKR02 in ear monitors (IEM) just to see how an IEM works with the xCAN. And what about Bluetooth? Nope, not enough time since I promised to send the xCAN back to the US distributor. I'll leave IEMs and Bluetooth to the rush of reviews I'm certain will follow ...

    So, how about any niggles? Well, the magnesium alloy case is a major fingerprint magnet, and a bit difficult to clean completely. The two headphone outs are spaced closely together, so I had an issue with the AKG and Sennheiser cables connecting at the same time, not a big deal since many would use only one output at a time, but for me, not having to disconnect and connect sometimes is helpful, especially in the dark. The XBass II defaults on when powering the xCAN on, but that was only a bother because I didn't want to use this feature in my review. The included balanced cable initially didn't fit, but after I took a close look at it, I saw that the plastic spacer between the two uppermost connections on the male plug was oversized, so I took a razor blade and carefully shaved off the excess. Nothing else, really.

    Summing up, what we have here is a very attractive, highly capable, headphone amplifier. Strongly recommended, but I fear there will be some with expensive headphones whom will prejudge the xCAN feeling how can such a low priced amplifier be commensurate. In my view, it can.
      barondla likes this.
  2. sarfdawg
    xCAN can make anything sound great!
    Written by sarfdawg
    Published Nov 11, 2018 at 6:57 PM
    Pros - Versatility, filtering, form factor, Bluetooth!
    Cons - lack of a true battery indicator and slight difficulty switching from Bluetooth to wired.
    I have been using the xCAN for just over a week, and I must say that I truly love this device.

    I will state for the record. I'm a newbie on the audiophile spectrum; so bear with me as some of my terminology may sound overly simplistic or amateurish.

    I have been testing the xCAN with the Sennheiser HD650, the Hifiman HE-400i, and (to a lesser extent) the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 2.0 over ears. The following comments are not to be critiques of headphones themselves, but to be a critique of the versatility of the xCAN.

    First, with the HE-400i headphones, they can be powered by phone or computer without a dire need of an amp. However, I feel like those cans are a little bright for my taste and not quite as warm on the bass end as I'd like. That's not really a knock on the headphones as they are a lot of fun, particularly with plain ol' rock and roll. The xCAN obviously powers them easily and brings out a lot of background I've never noticed before in very familiar songs. For example, I've been listening to Sister Hazel for over 20 years, and I'm acutely aware of their sound - or at least I thought I was. The xCAN brought the background vocals forward to the point of making me smile as if I'd heard a sparkling, fresh version of the songs I'd never heard before. As I mentioned, for the bass the HE-400i are lacking, the "XBass II" button on the front, coupled with the "bass" option on the back add the "oomph" (bass only setting) I think it needs, creating a near-studio sound. As I type, I'm listening to "Look out any Window" by Bruce Hornsby and the Range, and the "presence" setting really emphasizes his vocals. Using the "bass + presence" setting really knocks this out of the park. The soundstage on the Hifiman is solid without amplification, but the xCAN again takes it to a whole different level.

    With the HD 650s, it is well documented that amplification is necessary (300 ohm), and the xCAN delivers in a big way. The already strong midrange in the Senns are more profound with the xCAN. I enjoy this with my taste of singer-songwriter music. Along with a few Bruce Hornsby songs, I use Marc Cohn's "Street of Windows" as another test song for this kind of music, and again, this song sounds beautiful in a way that I've never heard before. I feel like I'm in the front row of a stage, hearing notes that I never have heard so profoundly. If I use the "3D+" button on the front, the width of the stage is expanded without the expense of thinning the sound. The HD650 headphones already have about as much bass as I'd like in a headphone, and unlike the Hifimans, I don't need the extra bass the xCAN provides; so just going with the "3D+" setting is enough as the extra bass option is not my cup of tea with these 'phones.

    The most pleasant surprise match with the ifi xCAN is with the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless Circumaural. I love the versatility of these headphones, and the punchy bass that they provide. I'm not sure how audiophile-reference they would be considered, but they are FUN! As much fun as they are, the xCAN makes them magical. The punchy bass is emphasized, and the highs are clean and bright. I feel like the xCAN does an equally amazing job in both Bluetooth and wired settings of bringing the best of my AC/DC, Journey, Van Halen forward and giving me a sound from these headphones I've never experienced. Since the impedance is already low on these headphones, there is no need to really crank up the volume the xCAN. The clean sound is beautiful without worrying about the amplification. It is notable the with a wired or Bluetooth connection, the xCAN makes these headphones sound amazing.

    Lastly, the battery life: It seems like I read that the xCAN is rated to work for eight hours between charges. I have found that is an understatement. I know for certain that I have had it on for well over 10 hours in my office, on my home computer, and on my phone, and I have not had it die on me yet. I would like to see a little better indicator how much charge is left at any given time, but the battery's running out has been of little to no concern.

    Overall, I love the xCAN. I have a couple of minor criticisms, but I can't emphasize enough - they are minor.

    Switching from Bluetooth to wired, and vice versa, on the xCAN is a little trickier than I would like it to be. I wish it were simply a slider like the corresponding "bass" and "presence" options for "XBass II" are on the back, but that may be a bit nitpicky. It just takes a little bit to get used to. I would also have liked to have seen a USB or optical option to make it a little easier to connect to my home A/V receiver. That's not that big of a deal, and 90 percent of my usage with it are going to be either with my desktop computer or my phone.

    Speaking of using with the phone, I love the form factor. It is slightly smaller than my Essential PH-1 Android phone, and it easily fits in my pocket. I haven't tested this part out, but it appears to be a pretty durable piece of equipment, but I wouldn't want to find out the hard way. I like its sleekness, and its portability. On my wishlist, the ability to clean up not-so-great song files (.mp3 & streaming from anyone other than Tidal), drive higher impedance headphones, and fit in my pocket (Bluetooth!!!) are must. The xCAN resoundingly checks ALL of those boxes. I know that there are dozens of other reputable brands out there, but none of them fit the bill for me like the xCAN does.

    If you are in the market for a DAC/Amp, and you are looking for versatility and Bluetooth, look no further. This is your product.
      MaceHane2, Faber65 and blackyangell like this.
  3. Faber65
    Written by Faber65
    Published Nov 6, 2018
    Pros - Plenty of power, fun, form factor.
    Cons - None
    I had the opportunity to test the xCan last weekend at the CanJam in Shanghai.
    Input from the Fiio 5II and output to MrSpeakers Aeon Flow C; FLAC files, standars resolution.
    Comparing it with my iCan nano, my first impression was that the new xCan has more dynamic and it is slightly faster on the transients.
    I heard also a better sense of clarity on the details and spaciousness, even without the usage of the filter 3D.
    The sounds flows smooth and there is no harshness in its high, which it's important for long trip listening.
    To me it is more engaging than his previous sibling.

    The improved form factor is another big plus for being a portable amp.

    I was told that it will be launched in China on November 22nd, and I am counting the days.

    Once again the iFi Audio team did a great job.

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