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Desktop Amps item created by Nirmalanow, Mar 4, 2013
Pros - Clean Sound, Great Features, Excellent Build
Cons - Light, Volume Pot, Buzzing
iFi iCAN (Standard and SE) Power in a small package. << PREVIOUS REVIEW | REVIEW INDEX | NEXT REVIEW >>
GENERAL NOTES For those who have read some of my past reviews, you'll notice that I've changed up the format slightly. Graphically, this new review format looks more appeasing to the eye, while writing wise, I find that it is more fluid and natural. Hope you don't mind it too much, and feedback is appreciated!
INTRODUCTION As a somewhat regular visitor to Stereo (audio store here in Singapore), I’ve caught more than a few glimpses of iFi’s sleek product lineup. Svelte metal enclosures, tactile switches, and the wonderful iFi logo all exude an air of premium utility. Packed within these enclosures are trickle down components and technologies from AMR’s (Abbingdon Music Research) higher-end products. Rather compelling indeed –surprising that I hadn’t given these an extended audition. Until now, that is. Sitting on my desk are the original iCAN and the iCAN SE. Before going further, I’d like to thank iFi Audio and Stereo Singapore for providing me with a loaner unit of the iCAN SE for this now overdue piece. The iCAN was purchased subsequently, and might I add, independently. As before, I am neither an affiliate nor an employee of iFi or Stereo, and all media in this review is owned by me. If you’d like to reproduce it, or have any questions in general, feel free to drop me a line.
SPEC SHEET The iCAN is a Class A “Tubestate Amplification” hybrid (or as iFi likes to call it, tri-brid) amplifier. It is currently available in two models: the standard and special edition. There are several differences between the SA and SE editions. The SE features boutique components, an updated “sound signature”, refined XBass and 3D Holographic Sound, increased output power (from 400 to 4000 mW), new gain settings, and a brand new iPower. Rest assured, I’ll cover how the standard and SE compare in the coming paragraphs.
SPECIFICATION iCAN Standard iCAN SE
Gain0, 10, and 20 dB0, 12, and 24 dB
Signal To Noise Ratio>117dB(A)>123dB(A)
Frequency Response0.5Hz to 500KHz(-3dB)0.5Hz to 500KHz(-3dB)
Output Impedance<1 ohm<1 ohm
Output Voltage>5V (>600Ω)>10V (>600Ω)
Input VoltageAC 100 – 240V, 50/60HzAC 100 – 240V, 50/60Hz
PACKAGING/ BUILD QUALITY Packaging wise, the iCAN comes absolutely stocked right out of the box. Rubber feet, matching RCA cables, a 3.5 to 3.5 cable, jack adaptor, small screwdriver, quick start manual, warranty information, and the unit itself. The overall unboxing experience feels premium, and is reminiscent of the excellent product packages made more commonly for Mac products. The best part though is that all the accessories are well thought out and have good grounding in utility, and there’s nothing excessive or wasteful about it.
The design of the unit is similarly excellent. The rectangular metal enclosure is non-obtrusive and well made, but is also surprisingly light. Without the included rubber feet, the unit slides around quite easily, which is somewhat troublesome. The switches are well-made, with a solid click to them. However, the volume pot doesn’t feel quite as substantial as the rest of the unit, especially when compared to my DACmini. The upside is that the iCAN is easily transportable. Keep in mind that it will require a wall outlet for operation (look to the Nano series for battery-based portable devices), but if you’re looking for an amplification solution that is also both discrete and space-conscious, the iCan is the right way to go. Overall, the iCAN is a well-made piece of kit that succeeds both packaging and design wise.
FEATURES iFi Audio has packed a ton of features into the iCAN. This wide array of options is rather intimidating, and filled with extravagant terms like XBass and 3D Holographic Sound (sounds more like something you’d fine on a soundcard aimed at gamers). Don’t be put off though. The iCAN is strictly business, and I found a number of its various features to be impressive. I’ll cover them one by one, and share some insights on their respective utilities and functionalities. Nearing the end of my review though, I did notice that my iCAN SE started giving off a “buzzing” sound. I do suspect that this is just an issue with my unit, as my own iCAN did not have this. I will have to check more closely on my power supply, though I don’t think that’s the source of the problem. Nevertheless, I was able to get a fairly good sense of the unit's capability prior to this, and with music playing didn't notice it all that much.
Let’s tackle the XBass first. After all, everyone could use just that little extra bass in their lives. I found the XBass to overall be a rather impactful, but tactful bass bump. It focuses on the lower-mid to subbass region, providing more of a grumbling “under-your-skin” boost that plays well with most headphones. Both levels worked equally well, and it simply depends on the listener’s sound signature preference. The standard edition has a more forward XBass boost, but one that is lesser in quantity and less enveloping than that on the SE. For me, there really wasn’t all that much need for bass boost anyways, but it'll come down to personal preference.
3D HOLOGRAPHIC SOUND
I was somewhat skeptical when I first came across this setting –especially about its efficacy. A small introduction for those who are unfamiliar with the feature. The idea behind 3D Holographic Sound isn’t entirely new –at its heart, it is iFi’s take on crossfeed application in a headphone amplifier system. Crossfeed is the blending of right and left channels to create a more cohesive sound image, something that is naturally occurring in most speaker systems, but rather limited in headphone settings due to the physical structure. Older implementations often featured disruptive digital processing, something iFi is quick to point out. In contrast, the iCAN utilizes only analog processing. The first setting for the 3D Holographic Sound didn’t stand out that much to me. The center image was quite strong, and it was obvious that there was blending going on. However, the iCAN shined when put to the second setting. Headspace becomes an empty vacuum, and the general image is expanded forward and around the listener. The end result is excellent, as the sound image becomes an audio panorama (excuse the rather unwieldy comparison). Ensemble jazz/classical pieces work great with this feature. Vocal tracks are for the most part, excellent as well. One never gets the sense that items are too far apart on the soundstage, and I left this feature on most of the time.
I will say that I preferred the SA’s 3D Holographic Sound feature to that on the SE. I found it to be airier and more spacious, whereas the SE was smoother but less immediately striking. It didn’t quite have the same sense of expansion as the SA does. Both implementations (on the second setting) are excellent though, and I would heartily recommend purchasing an iCAN simply to give the 3D Holographic Sound a spin.
SOUND IMPRESSIONS The iCAN is a clean, albeit slightly warm, amplifier. It features an excellent amount of power, driving the T1 to fairly uncomfortable levels very easily (at around 1 PM is enough to make one cringe). It also played very nicely with my R70X and M50X, especially with the 3D Holographic Sound which opened up the sound signatures of these two relatively “closed” headphones. Do not be fooled by the unit's diminutive size -it drives with serious authority. I personally found that the iCAN SE was more closed, intimate, and fuller sounding, whereas the iCAN standard was more strident and airy. It’s more a matter of personal preference, but I found both amplifiers to be very agreeable with most headphones. Both amplifiers will work with IEMs, though there is noise on the more sensitive ones and you do get very little play on the volume pot.
FINAL THOUGHTS I did enjoy my time with iFi quite a lot. It's a great amplifier, and its features are truly well implemented and do provide a meaningful value added. If you're looking for a new headphone amplifier, I'd heartily recommend the iCAN. It's discrete, well-built, and most importantly, sounds excellent. I must say that a purchase to test out the 3D functionality alone would be warranted. Put simply - there's a lot going on at a highly reasonable price point, and iFi did a job well done with this amplifier.
Pros - Improved sound at each end of the spectrum Better separation of images
Cons - Need to add another layer to the iRack
Hi there this is by way of an initial impression only as I'm supposed to be putting up our Christmas tree but instead I am listening to music!!! UPDATE is down in the last paragraphs below.
Anyhow I got the chance to borrow a new iCAN micro SE from those kind ifi Audio folks to add into my desk top ifi based computer system and to see how it compares with the amp section of my pre existing micro iDSD.
The system now stands at elderly Toshiba laptop to ifi Mercury to iPurifier2 to iUSB power to Gemini cables to micro iDSD to iCAN micro SE to Sennheiser HD700s.
As I understand it the key differences between the iCAN and iCAN SE are upgraded components and refining of the Xbass and 3D controls. I don't have the full specification sheet for the SE but it is my belief it will be effectively the same as that of the iCAN itself which is on the ifi audio web site here http://ifi-audio.com/portfolio-view/micro-ican/
I have not heard the iCAN so can't comment on any differences but I have compared the iCAN SE and amp section of the iDSD.
Listened to a range of music as follows
Aretha, Chain of fools
James Bay, Chaos & the calm
Dusty, In Memphis
Eagles, Hotel California
Keb Mo', Keb Mo'
Leon Bridges, Coming Home
Rickie Lee Jones, RLJ
but most of all Gregory Porters Liquid Spirit which is just delightful.
Anyhow and most importantly was there a difference? Let me preface this by saying I was a bit biased going into this as I was hoping that the difference would be minimal and I would not need to reach for my credit card (especially at this time of the year when its feeling worn out).
Sadly I hear the difference and it is not tiny but neither is it massive. It feels like there is more top and bottom. Even with the Xbass and 3D set to direct I can hear a more extended bass and a clearer treble. The bass adds some foundation and warmth over the iDSD. Adding in one spot of Xbass is more than enough for me. If you really love bass then the full fat three spot Xbass might suit you and it still doesn't sound flabby but just feels too bass centric for me. The choice is yours but my preference was one spot max.
At the other end it feels like cymbals are more realistic sounding. There is no harshness as far as I can tell or sibilance but just a clarity which is quite compelling. There does not appear to be any affect on the mid band from these extensions in bass and treble.....which is not what you might expect.
Now the 3D was a bit surprising in that the sound stage did not seem to be changed but the individual instruments and vocals were better defined.........does that make sense? I am not sure I can explain it better but I will add more thoughts once I spend more time on it. I could not hear a great deal of difference on the various 3D settings so stuck with direct as the HD700s are not short on imaging themselves, so maybe there would be more variation on other headphones. I will take my other headphones from my main vinyl centric system and try them and see if I can hear a difference.
So that's all right now and I remain conflicted. The addition of the iCAN SE is an improvement in the areas I have mentioned above but adds more gear to my stack and I am currently under embargo ahead of the festive period.
Ok now that the festive period is over and everyone has gone back to work and/or home I have had the chance to try 2 new things with the iCAN micro SE which I still have on loan from the lovely ifi Audio folks.
The first was a simple swap of headphones from HD700 to HD800, and not only is the ICAN SE able to drive them but it does so very well indeed and opened up another level in terms of sound quality most apparent at each end of the audio spectrum and also very noticeably in terms of sound stage presentation but more to do with the definition of individual performers or instruments.
So that then led to the final challenge of putting the iCAN micro SE up against my main system headphone amplifier the Auralic Taurus mk2. This is also a class A solid state headphone amp but can also be run in balanced mode. It is however approximately 4 times the price of the iCAN and so I was expecting a significant difference.
Well in fact while there is a difference it took me more time than I expected and several swap overs of amps to confirm what I was hearing. The sound balance it very close and if the Auralic was more extended it was only a fractional thing. The biggest differential was in the sound stage. I tried a small number of recordings which I am familiar with and made the comparison several times and even then it was not a vast gulf in performance. To be as fair as possible I was using the Auralic in SE mode to make it more a like for like so the Auralic in balanced mode yields a better still performance.
On a rough scale of performance versus cost I would have to say that the iCAN gets to 85-90% of the overall sound quality of the Auralic (in SE mode) which is far closer than I had expected and maybe its actually closer still but I don't want to admit it given the four times price difference!!!
In any event if you are thinking that the iCAN micro SE is not a serious headphone amplifier as it is too inexpensive then think again.........no really. If on the other hand you are starting out then this is a scorchingly good amp for the money and will make the best of any headphones you are likely to be starting out with.
More later when I am recovered from this shock..........
Pros - versatility from IEMs to Planars, powerful sound, XBass and 3D switches
Cons - sound could be airier and more natural, hiss at some worse quality recordings
I have been using my Fiio X3 first gen. with Schiit Vali and HD600. I like the line out of the X3, as it has a much cleaner, more detailed superior sound to the headphone out. I also use the headphone out sometimes if I am after some extra bass. (Hardware bass eq on X3 works only via headphone out, not line out.)
As a first gen X3 owner I had the offer from Fiio to upgrade to X3II with 40% off. Irresistible offer.
The sound of X3II is much better than the first gen., I loved it immediately. Cleaner, more refined, more detailed. With the Schiit Vali however I felt, I lost some bass, as the 2nd gen X3 does not have the hardware bass eq, just the software one, which I do not like. And again, the line out has a much cleaner signal output anyway. I enjoyed the more refined, detailed sound of the X3II with my Vali, but sometimes I was missing some extra bass, so I started to look for solutions.
I did not like any software eq I tried, so I started to look for an amp with hardware bass eq. There is not too many options in this price range. I checked some portable ones, but I wanted a desktop amp. I did not want to bother with charging battery, etc.
After forgetting Fiio E12A and Headstage Arrow, decided to buy the iCan.
Did some A/B comparison with my Vali, and the iCan came out as a clear winner.
I liked my Vali, it has a great, opened, airy, natural sound. I just need some more bass sometimes. Also it often sounded 'thin' compared to the iCan. iCan has just such a rich and full sound. There is more body and weight to the sound. I liked the openness and airiness of the Vali. Like sound existed in an infinite space, while on iCan the space is "limited", although still huge. Strange thing is, I never heard any hiss on the Vali, while on the iCan there is some hiss sometimes on certain recordings. Without the 3D and XBass functions, iCan is not that impressive after Vali. But with these functions on, the difference is undeniable. I feel, finally I got what I wanted. A great, big, full sound with a lot of bass if needed, and no compromise need to be made for having recessed mids, or less detailed treble. All the details and refinement stays the same, just the bass gets more juice.
Recommended for any kind of electronic music. Lively, full sound. Worth its asking price.
Pros - Very musical and smooth sounding. Great XBass and 3D implementation. Gain setting is very useful.
Cons - would be cool to have internal battery and an off button
Have been listening to my new iCAN Micro for couple weeks now. Before that I use the headphone output directly out of my iDSD Micro.
First of all i just want to say that iDSD Micro is great. One of the best gears i have ever bought. I buy and sell headphone gears pretty often just to try different things. that's what this hobby is all about, right? iDSD Micro is one thing i think i will never let go. It is just so flexible and good looking. Not to mention that it sounds great. I don't know how iFi guys were able to pack so many great features in such a small and beautiful package and sell it for a very reasonable price. Btw, they weren't joking about using iDSD Micro to drive the mighty HE-6. I tried and it sounds pretty good for such a small device.
Going back to the iCAN Micro. A lot of people will ask why one would even need the iCAN if you have already got iDSD Micro which has a very capable headphone output. After adding the iCAN Micro after iDSD Micro the sound becomes sweeter and warmer. The only complaint i had with iDSD Micro before is that it could sound a bit dry from time to time, and looks like iCAN is the perfect cure for that. I think it might have something to do with its Class A circuit. I am a Class A guy. My main stereo has a set of Pass Labs XA60.5 Class A mono amps, and i also use First Watt J2 Class A amp for my desktop system. To me a class A amp (well designed of course) just sounds more musical and more effortless. It brings you closer to the music. iCAN did exactly that. I also enjoyed the 3D and Xbass feature. For 90% of the time i listen at Xbass Mid setting and 3D Max setting. I really like iFi's implementations with both as their effects are subtle.
I am currently using this set as my office setup. I am completely satisfied and have no intention to make any change, nor do i think that i can do any better without spending significantly more money. I highly recommend this combo to anyone who is looking for a good and flexible desktop setup as well as with some portability. (i just took this set to London for a business trip and they worked beautifully. They didn't take much space in the bag and you can use iDSD Micro on the plane. )
oh, forgot to mention that i use this set to drive my Yuin OK1 earbuds as well as Hifiman HE-560. Both were driven beautifully by this combo.
Pros - Excellent warm sound, Powerful, Detailed, Transparent, Black silent background, Form factor and design
Cons - I don't know why they didn't design the amp with an on/off switch, Slight interference at lowest volume
There were many amps in 250$ range to choose from, but I liked iCAN's unique design and the shape. I don't have many headphones to do a comparison. I'm not a big fan of bass boost and 3D, but sometimes I do use bass boost on one dot position (by the way, I'd like the one dot setting to come after the direct setting).
The bass boost works perfectly and doesn't bleed to mid range (in one dot setting). The 3D holographic effect works fine with some tracks, you have to figure out on your own.
I'm very much pleased with this amp, if you are looking for an amp in 250$ range, do consider the iCAN micro, because it's very powerful and very smooth sounding amp.
✔ ifi audio makes Hi-Fi quality audio (or even audiophile quality) stuff for affordable prices!
Pros - Fun settings to play with, good amp for the new enthusiast looking for his/her first amp,
Cons - can sound a little hot in the treble with some headphones when 3D boost is used, slight bleed into lower mids when max bass boost is used
Pros - Powerful, transparent, fantastic soundstage
Cons - No power button
Let me first make it clear that I am using a demo version of the ICan, sent to me by Vince at IFi. The reason for this is that as well as being a part time audiophile, I also run a video production company and we will be working with IFi to produce some videos later this year. Vince sent me the unit to get an understanding of how their technology works.
So onto the device itself... Wow! I must confess I was expecting this to be a fairly standard amp, and that the extra features (X-Bass and 3D) would be nothing more than gimmicks... I am happy to be proved very wrong. The amp itself is powerful enough to run both my IEMs (Heir 8as) and my full size cans (HD650s) without a problem. It is also transparent, which I always favour in an amp, as I don't like unnecessarily colouring the sound of my headphones.
The X-Bass works well, but to be honest with you, not something I use an awful lot as my 8as are bassy enough already. I do use the first setting on the HD650s though to add a touch.
The 3D setting... now this is the bit that impressed me! It really does expand the soundstage in a realistic manner, which I just didn't expect. I guess this is the bit I thought would be all gimmick and no substance and at best that it would add an unrealistic effect, at worst it would degrade the audio quality. Nothing could be further from the truth, to the point I now listen to most of my music with the highest setting on
One slight omission in my opinion (and has been stated by a few others) is a power switch. I just don't like having things switched on all the time and without this the only other option is to unplug it from the mains. This is nitpicking really though and could be a consideration for an updated design later on down the road.
So do I like the ICan... Err, yes! This little box of tricks has delivered way above my expectations, with some great features I just hadn't anticipated. In fact I like it so much I am now planning to buy the new nano portable version to pair with my AK120
Pros - 3D sounds, bass boost, small form factor
Cons - No power switch, could use more power
There’s an amp that’s been making its rounds on Head-Fi for a while now, the iFi iCan. I’ve seen it pop up around various threads and I’ve always been curious but I never saw myself really wanting it.
The iCan’s 3D HolographicSound system is what intrigued me most about this amp. It’s nothing new, by any means, as it’s a variable crossfeed switch. It’s the execution that makes this little guy so impressive. There are three stages to the crossfeed: no crossfeed, a mild crossfeed, and a more liberal crossfeed. Per the user’s guide, iFi recommends using the first crossfeed level for recordings with “excessive” stereo effect and the second level for more flat recordings.
I found that which 3D setting I used depended on the source material I feeding into the iCan. For example, I had a few Ray Charles recordings where I heard no difference whatsoever with the 3D switch on or off. But then when I put on some Daft Punk each 3D step made an improvement on the soundstage. And when I had some Ellington and Coltrane playing I preferred the middle setting, as when it was fully on it felt too big and almost artificial.
The second switch on the iCan is a bass adjustment. Like the 3D switch it also has three different stages; no boost, a mild boost and a slightly more aggressive boost. When I was using the bass boost I found that the mild boost was the most pleasing with both my Sennheiser HD650 and MrSpeakers Mad Dogs. Since the 3D switch adds more air to the sound the bass boost is a welcomed addition.
For gaming I didn’t care much for the 3D switch when positional queues are critical. I could get a general location for the source of the sound but it let me down on more than one occasion while playing multiplayer shooters. That said, I did enjoy having the 3D on when playing immersive games. Playing Borderlands 2 and Skyrim it seemed to help smooth the ambient sounds when I moved and made the game more immersive. And for games like Skyrim, which are all about immersion, better sound makes a world of difference.
There are a couple of downsides to the iCan. The first is that there is no power switch. This is an inconvenience for me as I don't want to leave an amp sitting on all the time and I'd prefer to have a button rather than to plug/unplug the amp whenever I'm using it. It's inconvenient and could cause unnecessary strain on the power connections, possibly even permanent damage. Another drawback is the power output. For the price of the iCan, you can get amps like the Schiit Asgard 2, Matrix M-Stage, Bottlehead Crack and many more. The $250 range is pretty well catered for in the amp market. The iCan doesn’t have as much power as another amp of mine, the Aune T1; in fact it has less than half the power. But when you factor in the bass boost and the 3D switch I find the iCan more enjoyable even considering the power difference. Even so I would still love to see more power behind the signal.
I want to thank Chicolom for loaning out his iCan for my use. Without his loan I doubt I’d have heard one of these anywhere else on my own. And thanks to his loan I’m now considering purchasing one myself.
Pros - Small, Transparent but not cold/analytical, Smooth treble, RCA AND 1/8" input
Cons - No power switch, Somewhat narrow soundstage, Price could be $50 lower, Weird switch labels
This will be a short review based on maybe on 12-15 hours of use. If you think that's not long enough you can skip it.
I was a bit worried that this would be some cheap gimmicky toy amp because of the name. This is instead a seriously good amp! I love it.
Sounds great with ALL my headphones and does not add any major coloration to any of them. It works equally well with the HD-598, HD-650, K400, DJ100 and modded Q701. It sounded especially good with the hard to drive K400! All my headphones and music sounds as it should.
Sounds transparent but it's not cold/analytical/thin sounding. There is a subtle touch of warmth in there. It will be nice for even a DT-990 or SR-325is. This warmth is only noticeable on specific headphones and harder on others. I noticed it on my DJ100 and HD-650. It never ever sounds thin unless it's due to the recording.
The treble is well extended and not rolled off. It's much smoother than the treble of the O2 or Magni. About the same as my Headroom Micro Amp.
Bass is well controlled and neutral. There is no emphasis I've heard in any area.
Soundstage is lacking in width somewhat. With the HD-650 it's less spacious/open and airy sounding than with my O2/Micro Amp. The O2 is less warm though and has more treble sparkle (less smooth). It's possible my brain is just being fooled, but I'm pretty sure it's not. It's still pretty good and not as bad as it sounds. Nit-picking really. I got similar results on many difference sources.
To my ears it's a better "all-rounder" amp than the O2/Magni/Asgard/Vali/E9. It does cost more though.
It's the 2nd best amp i've heard. It's not as good as the Headroom Micro Amp + Astrodyne but that cost $350 new. It's the closest i've come to it's sound. The iCAN might be a tad warmer though.
I have an O2 for my bedroom (backup) and it's not worth upgrading to this as a backup. If I didn't have my Micro Amp I'd be using this as my main amp. It's that good!
I'm able to hear changes in all the sources I connect up to it. There is really no real coloration coming from the amp. Just that touch of warmth.
If you found the O2 too sparkly, try this (or the Micro Amp)! Is it worth the $140 price premium? Well if you nit-pick about tiny things like me, then yes. If iFi can get it down to $200 in the USA it'd be a STEAL!
Pros - Detailed, Exciting, Awesome Bass and Soundstage. Sounds much more than £225, feels like much more than £225
Cons - No on/off switch
In Audiophile world most people think then more expensive its better, iCAN proves its not always true.
iCAN is a great performing small desktop amp with amazing features at its price point of £225. Anyone who wants more bass or more space and detail from their headphones will be happy.
Graham Slee Novo £255
Graham Slee Solo SRG II £377
Lehmann Rhinelander £349
Lehmann Audio Black Cube Linear £649 good sound but compare to price 3 times as iCAN
Sennheiser HDVD-800 (but that the other story, I almost cry!!!) clear perfection!! £1499
Comparing to amps in the same price range and above this is a true winner.