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iFi iCAN headphone amplifier

Rating:
4.59375/5,
  1. thatonenoob
    [PMReviews] iFi iCAN (Standard And SE)
    Written by thatonenoob
    Published Apr 21, 2016
    4.0/5,
    Pros - Clean Sound, Great Features, Excellent Build
    Cons - Light, Volume Pot, Buzzing
    iFi iCAN (Standard and SE)
    Power in a small package.


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    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!​

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    INTRODUCTION

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

     
    SPEC SHEET​

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

     

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    PACKAGING/ BUILD QUALITY

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

     
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    FEATURES

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

     
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    SOUND IMPRESSIONS​

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

     
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    FINAL THOUGHTS

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

    1. View previous replies...
    2. mtr1
      Ok, thank you. I thought that it would be something like that.
      mtr1, May 13, 2016
    3. mtr1
      I have to return to my problem with the SE amp (left channel plays louder than right). It troubled me so much, that I told about this to retailer and he asked about this problem from Ifi Audio. Ifi was interested to get this faulty unit and I got the new one. And, yes, this new one sounds like it should. Retailer thought that problem is in gain adjusment switches or something like that. I hope that I get also the answer, what was wrong in the amp I first got. And sorry my english, not my native language.
      mtr1, May 25, 2016
    4. Pharmaboy
      I recently sold my iCan, only because I had too many amps & something had to go. Still, I was impressed with the competence, flexibility, and portability of this amp, particularly at its low price point. The tone adjustments IMO were "icing on the cake" -- I ended up not using either (I'd rather get bass from the headphone's design than an amp circuit or EQ; and I really didn't hear much diffence w/the 3D control), but it's nice to have them. I see the iCan as a killer entry-level HP amp. You have to spend 2-3X its cost to really move up in sound quality.
      Pharmaboy, Aug 29, 2016
  2. ClieOS
    Excellent sound, power, authority, and a well implemtened EQ system
    Written by ClieOS
    Published May 29, 2013
    5.0/5,
    Pros - Top notch SQ + EQ, transparency.
    Cons - No gain control (*see 'update'), shape of housing.
    iFi Audio is a new comer in the headphone amp scene, but it does share the same bloodline as the renowned U.K. based premium audiophiles brand AMR. While AMR already has some top end gears to offer to the speaker and full rig owner, its little sister brand seems to aim toward mainly the computer based headphone user as well as minimalist audiophiles. Their current ‘Micro’ line of devices includes the iDAC (headphone amp + USB DAC with line-out), iCAN (headphone amp), iUSB Power (USB isolator), iPhono (phone preamp) and the recently released iLink (USB to S/PDIF converter). We will cover the former three here, which are priced at US$299, US$249 and US$199 respectively (*price do vary quite a bit depends on region though).
     
    [​IMG]
     
    [​IMG]
    Front (from left): iUSB Power, iDAC, and iCAN.
     
    [​IMG]
    Back (from left): iCAN, iDAC, and iUSB Power.
     
    Spec
     
    [​IMG]
     
    iDAC
    DAC section:
    ESS Sabre ES9023 DAC chip, fully supports up to 24bit, 192kbps resolution
    XMOS based USB Audio Class 2 Asynchronous solution
    Signal to Noise Ratio: >111dB(A)
    Dynamic Range(-60dBFs): >111dB(A)
    Crosstalk: <-102dB(1KHz)
    Total Harmonic Distortion(THD): <0.005%
    Jitter: Below measurement limit
    Frequency Response: 3Hz to 33KHz + 0.1dB/0.3dB
    Output:  Line-out, RCA jacks
    Headphone amp section:
    Opamp: MAX9722
    Output Power: >150mW (15Ω)
    Output Voltage: >3.3V (>100Ω)
    Signal to Noise Ratio: >97dB(A) (400mV/300R)
    Total Harmonic Distortion: <0.003% (400mV/300R)
    Output Impedance (Zout): <1Ω
    Power Consumption: < 2.5W
    Dimensions: 158(l)x68(w)x28(h)mm
    Weight: 193g(0.43lbs)
    Output: 3.5mm Stereo Jack
     
    [​IMG]
     
    iCAN
    Gain stage: Fully discrete, Class A
    Buffer stage: TPA6120A2
    EQ: two levels selectable 3D Holographic Sound and XBass
    Signal to Noise Ratio: >117dB(A)
    Total Harmonic Distortion (THD): <0.003%(400mV/150R)
    Frequency Response: 0.5Hz to 500KHz(-3dB)
    Output Power: >400mW(32Ω)
    Output Voltage: >5V (>600Ω)
    Input Voltage: AC 100 - 240V, 50/60Hz
    Power Consumption: < 4W idle, 10W max.
    Dimensions: 158(l)x68(w)x28(h)mm
    Weight: 216g(0.48lbs)
    Input: RCA and 3.5mm stereo jacks
    Output: 6.4mm stereo jacks.
     
    [​IMG]
     
    iUSB Power
    Two USB sockets: one data and power and one power only (*for use with iFi Gemini cable)
    Output Voltage: 5V±0.5%
    Output Current: 1A
    Output Noise: 0.1uV(0.0000001V)
    High-Speed USB 2.0: 480Mbps
    Input Voltage: AC 100 - 240V, 50/60Hz (Ultra Low-Noise Power Supply included)
    Power Consumption: < 9W (includes powered USB device)
    Dimensions: 158(l)x68(w)x28(h)mm
    Weight: 195(0.43lbs)
     
    Accessories and Build Quality
    iDAC comes with simple user guide, some stick-on rubber feet, RCA cable and 2 feet of really good quality USB cable (A-to-B). iCAN comes with user guide, rubber feet, 6.4mm-to-3.5mm adapter, RCA cable, 3.5mm interconnecting cable, as well as a 9V power adapter. iUSB Power comes with the same 9V power adapter, rubber feet, user guide, USB cable as well as an USB-to-barrel plug cable. Oddly there is no mentioning anywhere about the function of the USB-to-barrel plug cable - but given the barrel plug has the same diameter as the 9V power adapter (which comes with both iCAN and iUSB Power) and it certainly can’t plug into itself, the reasonable assumption is that the cable is meant to plugged into the power only USB port at one end and iCAN on the other, serving as iCAN power supply – I tested it and it works just as assumed (* it might work with iPhono as well but I have no mean of testing it). Anyway, there seems to be no degradation of SQ by using iUSB Power as iCAN power supply based on brief listening. It is actually a very neat feature, especially when you are using iUSB Power to connect to iDAC then iDAC to iCAN. It helps to eliminate the need of an extra power adapter – however, it does come with a cost and we will discuss it on the next section. Another fun fact is that I can use this cable with a portable USB power bank to power up the iCAN and function almost like a portable amp – ‘almost’ because the sheer size and weight of iCAN + external battery are too much for portable use.
     
    [UPDATE] From iFi: the USB-to-barrel plug is intended for Squeeze Box Touch.
     
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    iDAC
     
    [​IMG]
    iCAN
     
    [​IMG]
    iUSB Power
     
    Build quality is top notch. The whole Micro line use the same high quality, almost tank like aluminum housing, which is a bit too long if I am nitpicking. The real issue is that the long and narrow housing kind of limits where all the sockets can be placed. I can’t say these are the most sensible of design, but they are not terrible enough to stop me from using them. It is just that I have an urge to want to stack them up but the looping of the cable from front to back - well, isn’t exactly aesthetically pleasing. Beyond that however, I can say that all three units are excellent in quality. The (top and bottom) marking on the housing really gives them a premium look and they are not cheap, easy-to-scratch paint job.
     
    Gain and Hiss
    Gain on both iDAC and iCAN are on the high side. No official number that I know of, but my basic measurement shows that iDAC has a gain of around +15dB, with a max output of around 4.7Vrms. The line-out is a fairly standard 1.95Vrms. For iCAN, gain is about +17dB with max output of around 6.67Vrms (*iDAC as source).
     
    With such high gain, volume tends to get too loud too fast when a low impedance, high sensitivity IEM (or similar full size) is used. With Shure SE530, I can barely go pass 8 o’clock on the iDAC’s volume knob. But on such a low position, the problem of imbalance inherent in all potentiometer becomes quite apparent. At the end, I have to lower the software volume on the PC to get them to play nice together. iCAN also doesn’t fare much better as well. It would have been great if there is a gain switch on both devices. On the upside, both have plenty of power to drive high impedance headphone without a problem. This is especially true for iCAN. [UPDATE: the newer iCAN now comes with gain switch, detail see last section of the review]
     
    Hiss prone IEM (i.e. Shure SE530 again) can pick up minor hissing when the volume knob is turned close to 12 o’clock. However, this shouldn’t be too big of a deal since it is almost impossible for sensitive headphone to get this loud in actual use due to the high gain. In any case, IEM user must take note if your main IEM is low impedance, high sensitivity and hiss prone – while both iDAC and iCAN will still work, they might not be the best option in practice.
     
    On previous section, we talk about using iUSB Power for both iDAC and iCAN at the same time to eliminate the need of an extra power adapter, but it comes with a cost – that cost is hiss, and in quite a noticeable level too. This is likely because any benefit of isolating the USB ground from the iUSB Power is lost. So at the end, it is still better to stick to the stock power adapter.
     
    [​IMG]
     
    On the topic of stock power adapter - iFi Audio seems to be especially proud of it. They call it the ‘ULN’, or Ultra Low-Noise adapter. It is based on switch mode circuit, which is traditionally considered to be much noisier* than linear circuit (*due to the ripple created by the fast switching nature of the switching circuit), but have the advantage of being inexpensive and more versatile in application. In the case of ULN adapter however, iFi Audio has taken the time to craft out an adapter of exceptionally low noise (and they have shown measurement done on various adapters with tech paper). Based on my poking around of the inner on all three models, I also notice they have put a lot of know-how into noise filtration and elimination on the power line – not just on iUSB Power, but also on iDAC and iCAN. All and all, I am pretty impressed by their attention to detail on the power section.
     
    Sound Quality
    RMAA measurement on both iDAC and iCAN show no issue. In fact, iCAN performance has excessed the resolution of my measuring setup so it looks pretty much perfect. While the headphone-out on iDAC doesn’t measure as well, it is still considered excellent by my standard (low noise, flat FR curve, etc). Output impedance on iDAC is too low for my measurement, which is of course a very good thing. On the iCAN, it is about 1ohm (*more on this later). Both have excellent current output into my usual 47ohm and 23.5ohm fixed load test so that’s not a problem as well.
     
    [​IMG]
    iDAC underbelly.
     
    Let talk about iDAC first. The internal DAC chip is the ESS Sabre ES9023, which is the most common DAC among the ESS line-up. We have seen it on really budget USB DAC like the HiFimeDIY’s Sabre USB DAC and Stoner Audio UD100, to the more modestly priced ODAC and some really expensive DAC. On the DAC section alone, some of the more standout features of iDAC include the full 24bit, 192kbps resolution and USB asynchronous mode. These are done by employing a XMOS microcontroller with 3 reference clocks (one for USB and two for sampling rates). The USB power line also seems to be internally regulated so a little bit of ‘dirty’ USB power shouldn’t be an issue. While these are all good on paper, I have to say that these features are not something obvious to the listening. To be honest, how many can tell a good jitter from a great jitter, or a somewhat dirty USB power line from a clean USB power line? I am not sure I can. If we were to talk about just the actual sound of the line-out, it does closely resemble that of ODAC or UD100. It is not a case where you will say ‘wow, this ES9023 sounds better than the rest’. No, they all sound darn good – clean, transparent, well resolved, and those are things you can expect from any well implemented ES9023.
     
    The real interesting bit about iDAC is in its headphone amp section. It uses a MAX9722, which is hardly a top range opamp. But the key is in its implementation, as it sounds good enough to give me the impression of iDAC being ‘ODAC + O2 roll into one device'. Okay, frankly speaking the headphone amp section still isn’t quite beat the O2 in overall performance, but it is really close. It carries the same flavour of top quality transparency in its sound. The only two noticeable areas that are not quite on par are: First, the overall image on the iDAC headphone amp not being quite as large and grand as O2. Second, the bass hit is a tad softer. Try to scale the O2 down 10%~15%, and that’s what you will hear on iDAC. Still, it is admirable and could even compete head-to-head with some standalone sub$150 amp on its own. I’ll call that a win for any headphone amp section built into an USB DAC. If I were a minimalist, I would have been very happy with just the iDAC alone.
     
    [​IMG]
    iCAN underbelly
     
    iCAN is also an very interesting piece of gear of its own right. By looking on the inner, the ‘Class A TubeState’ section is, as far as I can tell, a fully discrete gain stage, then it employs TPA6120A2 as the buffer stage. If anything, TPA6120 has a good reputation on its sound quality and raw power, but almost always being dissed for its high output impedance. The minimum 10ohm output resistors needed for stability put TPA6120 into obvious disadvantages when it comes to low impedance headphone (*lack of electrical dampening) and even worst, low impedance multi-driver headphone with passive crossover (*coloration). But iFi is clever enough to use inductor bypassed by a small value resistor to achieve the same stability without any of the downside.
     
    So how does it sound? In sum, identical to O2 – and that’s the highest possible complement I can give to any headphone amp(*for those who don’t know the O2 – it is a headphone amp designed with measurement to deliver the best possible transparency and performance to any sub 300ohm headphone). It is hard-pressed to find any difference in their sound when volume matched. The same authority, control, power, resolution and soundstage are shared between the two. There is no sound signature to speak of, as both are totally transparent and neutral in flavor. With the 30+ amps I have owned, just  a small handful of them are able to partially match O2 in overall sound quality, and only iCAN can deliver near identical performance. They are, in my opinion, true ‘reference level’ headphone amp for others to measure up to. But the story doesn’t end there – beside top-notch sound quality, iCAN has two very functional EQ as well: the 3D Holographic Sound and XBass. We will discuss more on them in the EQ section.
     
    [​IMG]
    iUSB Power underbelly.
     
    Confession: it is never my intention to get the iUSB Power to use with iDAC (or iCAN) in the first place. I needed a good USB isolator for other application and iUSB Power fits the bill. So there is no expectation that it will improve the SQ of iDAC. In fact, my PC has really clean USB power so I never run into trouble with any of my USB DAC before. But since I have it, might as well use it for its original intended purpose. RMAA measurement is carried out on both iDAC’s line-out as well as on UD100, with and without the iUSB Power, plus with and without isoEarth (ground noise elimination system) engaged. Result? Well, nothing is really different between the measurements. Audibly, I also can’t detect any difference on both UD100 and iDAC line-out as well. My conclusion is, since I know I have really clean USB port in the first place, any benefit from the iUSB Power should be minimum at best. But the story didn’t end there – does iUSB Power brings any improvement to the setup? Yes, it is to the iDAC’s headphone-out. As I have said previously, iDAC headphone amp section is like a scaled down O2. With the iUSB Power however, the soft hitting bass get turn up a notch and the overall soundstage opens up, especially in the depth. It seems to take on a slightly different personality than just a ‘baby O2’. It kind of reminds me of JDS Labs’ C421-AD8620 more than O2, but it is certainly closer to the performance level of O2 than before. My guess is, since PC’s USB port is limited to 500mA while the iUSB Power can supply up to 1A, the improvement of the headphone amp section is a sign of the extra juice. The reason why neither UD100 (which only outputs line-out) nor iDAC line-out show any difference is because neither of them is designed to output current, so the extra current supply make no difference. Well, that the best theory I have anyway.
     
    The big question is, does it worth getting the iUSB Power? As I have said before, I would have been very happy with just the iDAC alone. The improvement from iUSB Power is noticeable, but not quite the doubling of total price. If you are looking for the best bang for the buck, I would think iDAC alone is more than suffice. iUSB Power is the option for those who really want the best of the best at any cost. Also, as I have mentioned, iUSB Power will likely to be more beneficial to those USB DAC that has a headphone amp or meant to drive headphone directly. So if you are only using iDAC as line-out (or USB DAC like UD100, which is limited to line-out only), you might not get a clear cut result.
     
    [​IMG]
    Triple Stack (from top): iCAN, iDAC, and iUSB Power.
     
    EQ
    iCAN comes with two EQ: 3D Holographic Sound (3DHS) and XBass. Both have two levels of adjustments.
     
    The first level of 3DHS is pretty much the same as most crossfeed implementations I have heard before (HeadRoom BitHead, Meier Audio Corda 3MOVE, FiiO E12, etc), neither better nor worst. I generally don’t find crossfeed of this type to be particularly useful or enjoyable, so I usually don’t use it. The 2nd level of 3DHS on the other hand is a completely different beast. It sounds much closer to a full 3D simulation, like a cross between SRS and BBE in a very good way. It gives a very ‘surround sound’ effect without overdoing anything or making it sounds fake. It is good enough that I first thought that it must have some kind of DSP processing involved, but it is actually all analog based, which is actually quite impressive.
     
    [​IMG]
    XBass: light and heavy boost.
     
    The two levels of XBass are closer to a sub-bass boost. First level starts just under 200Hz and peaks around +7dB @ 20Hz. The 2nd level starts just under 800Hz and peaks around +9dB @ 20Hz. Both are strong at boosting sub-bass but have minimum effect over the rest of the frequency range. Overall, they perform very well.
     
    Both 3DHS and XBass can be engaged at the same time with different combo. They are quite fun to play with and can be very useful to some headphone. They are really icing of the cake to the already great sounding iCAN.
     
    [​IMG]
    Size comparison: iCAN, iDAC and iUSB Power with O2 (left), FiiO E12 (right) and FireStone Auido Fireye HD (lower right).
     
    …in Summery
    All and all, I am quite impressed by all three iFi ‘Micro’ gears. They perform well and priced reasonably. You can probably get an ODAC + O2 combo that is a little cheaper and offer similar sound quality, but you won’t get as much features as either iDAC or iCAN. The only thing I wish to have is a gain switch on iDAC and iCAN most because I am mainly an IEM user. Too much gain makes for much lesser control over volume. Beyond that, I have no problem recommending them. iDAC is a great option as an all-in-one solution while iCAN is an fantastic headphone amp. As for iUSB Power, it is not a ‘must have’ unless you are pushing for the last few percent of the performance, but it does its job as claimed. For a relatively fresh brand, iFi has made a good name for itself with these Micro gears and proven that it has the same audiophile blood in its veil as its higher-end sibling.
     
    A thank to iFi Audio for the iDAC and iCAN review unit.
     
    [UPDATE June 5th, 2013]
    Just received a press release from iFi that they have revised the iCAN and now it comes with gain switch for user selectable 0dB, 10dB and 20dB gain setting. Those who own an older iCAN can send their back and upgrade to the newer version with a fixed US$50 / £40 fee + shipping. The MSRP of the new version of iCAN is however the same as the old model, which is US$249. You'll need to contact the original seller / retailer for the upgrade program.
     
    Must give praise to iFi for listening to their customer and implemented the gain switch at last. With the new gain switch, the iCAN is near perfect.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. pb8185
      Great review! Although I saw that ifi recently came out with the ifi idsd micro, which seems to be both idac and ican rolled up into one with a much more powerful amp section. Hope you will get a review unit and give us some impressions.
      pb8185, Aug 29, 2014
    3. ClieOS
      Definitely, I'll be reviewing the micro iDSD as well.
      ClieOS, Aug 29, 2014
    4. jaco61
      Thanks for the review - well done
      I have an Ifi iCan micro since some days and it plays my old AKG K401 very well (I almost wanted to sell them...glad I didn't :wink:
      jaco61, Apr 8, 2017
  3. AxelCloris
    A fun, small form amp
    Written by AxelCloris
    Published Jan 3, 2014
    4.5/5,
    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.
    1. Army-Firedawg
      Good quick review, though over 26,000 views, without anyone leaving a comment! Little bit overdue, these quick summaries are a good change up over all the super long reviews often seen. 
      Army-Firedawg, Aug 24, 2015
  4. bedlam inside
    The little Amp that can do any CAN...
    Written by bedlam inside
    Published Mar 19, 2013
    4.5/5,
    Pros - Good sound, sane price, drives pretty much everything you throw at it, 3D sound and XBass work well to help out otherwise deficient headphones
    Cons - Not portable/battery power, could sound a touch warmer and more tubey for me
    When you listen from the loudspeakers, your right ear not only hears the sound from the right loudspeaker, it hears the sound from your left loudspeaker too and the same for left. When using headphones, you right ear ONLY hears the sound from the right headphone, nothing from the left headphone and the same reverse.  That’s why the music is always inside your head when listening through headphones.  But with loudspeakers, you hear sound coming from the front and around you just like inside a concert hall. To me this is a major problems with headphones and makes me listen to them as little as possible, until recently.

    At the recent National Audio Show in September I came across a refreshing new feature, the “Headzones”, even though the mostly shockingly young people hanging out there made me feel a right old fogie. I rather enjoyed having a butchers at the latest top of the line Stax Headphones, but they are still no more practical, portable or less dear than ever. The so-so sounding entry level model is already 750 squid.

    I also rather fancied a dishy looking Headphone Amplifier called the SPL Phonitor.  It’s got lots of twiddley knobs and switches and those groovy meters. The guy on the Decent Audio stand was great, allowing to twiddle the knobs to my heart’s content. With all them knobs and switches set somehow right, the Phonitor was able to pull the music right out of my head, which is where it belongs. I never heard anything like it! But the price is a wee bit rich even for my salary…

    Later I saw something else though, the iFi Components and especially the iCAN on Demo with a small Laptop and Sennheiser Headphones. I pulled out my own JVC’s and listened. The one good thing of Cans that I will begrudgingly admit is that you can take your Cans and have a personal demo there and then. You don’t need to take it home and set things up to see if you have a chance of liking it!

    This little box did pretty much the same “out of my head” trick as the SPL Phonitor, added some bass processing that the Phonitor lacks (did good on my JVC’s) and sounded generally the bees knees and the whole little set of components included not only a DAC and an extra upgrade power supply for the DAC (like my Naim CD-Player! ). Best is they came in for a bit over halve the cost of the Phonitor and included a DAC in the bargain. I was there when I overheard a guy from an e-zine and he seemed to really like the iFi sonics.

    The iCAN headphone amplifier with its “3D Sound” and “X-Bass” helps me to enjoy music from my headphones EVER so much more. I again listen to music throughout much of the day. The little stack of iFi gear on my desk has quickly become a bit of talking point in the office and I occasionally get to demonstrate what they do to a colleague. I have tested many Headphones using this Amp and have yet to find something it cannot drive.

    I have used high impedance Sennheiser HD-600, low impedance Audio Technica's, HiFiman Planars and now even Micro Seiki electrostatic headphones via their "Power Source" interface box. Sometimes a hair more power would be nice, but this is rare, for all the phones I tried and most music in most situation there is Loudness to spare.

    I leave the 3D Sound processing mostly on and on max. I have yet to find a set of 'cans that I like better without it. The presentation is not like listening to a band in front of you or even listening through speakers, but it is a major step in the right direction. I really miss the 3D Sound feature with my Smartphone and really wish iFi would make a smaller, battery powered portable amp with the same feature, or even better a player plugin for either Android Phones or iPhone (I'd actually buy an Apple Phone just to get 3D Sound on the go).

    XBass is a lifesaver for bass-shy headphones! Where you would normally just write them off as sad, bad and criminally bass shy. Set XBass to restore the balance to "normal" and you can appreciate what these headphones do really well. With my recent Charity Shop find, the Micro Seiki MX-1 electrostatic headphones XBass makes the difference between 'cans with terrific mids and treble, very open but lacking bass and sounding think and weedy to well balanced 'cans that handle natural acoustic bass (Jazz, Classical) very well and are hard to put down. Of course, headphones that already have killer bass (e.g. HiFiman HE-500) do not need XBass and it gets turned off with these.

    Overall tonality is nice and slightly warm, but to my ears a touch more "tube like" sound would not go amiss. As it stands the iCAN helped me to really re-discover and re-like Headphone listening. Nothing before it did that for me since I graduated from headphones to speakers in my teens and non of the other headphone Amp's I had a chance to test so far (Carot One Ernestolo, FIIO E17, Musiland HP-11, Naim Headline and Rega Ear) except the > 2 Grand Phonitor (not auditioned outside shows) have ever come close to giving me that enjoyment. With the Electrostatic Headphones I now have it provides some of the best and most enjoyable sound from headphones ever.

    Note, I paid 249 Pound, not the 249 Dollars one pays in the US, bloody rip-off Britain - an extra 30% on top of the US price in taxes and other bollocks!

    1. mikemercer
      I'm really enjoying the iFi iCAN too! I'm running my MacBook Pro/Amarra rig into the Bel Canto mLink Asynchronous USB-SPDIF converter into the SimAudio Moon 100 D DAC (as the SPDIF seems to be the input that really shines on that DAC) into the iCAN, and despite its power rating - it drives my LCD-3's without issue!!
      mikemercer, Mar 20, 2013
    2. Threeek
      Thanks for a great review, I bit the bullet and bought an iCAN on the strength of this, then enjoyed 3 days waiting for it to arrive while worrying if I'd done the right thing - I'm not a big fan of deviating far from the original sound, so I had some reservations.
      I have a decent speaker based system (Anthony Gallo Ref III with Krell, and Chord DAC 64) and I often struggle with the imaging of headphones.
      I'm really glad I made this purchase - the iCAN has considerably improved my enjoyment of music due to the more realistic imaging. It's fed by my DAC 64, and driving a pair of Fidelio X1 headphones. I really like the 3D mode and leave it on 99% of the time, despite it giving a slight EQ boost in the top end which my ears quickly adjusted to. Some music benefits from the bass boost as well - to my ears it's very musical and not overwhelming. It's certainly a good fit with the X1, and is clearly a very long way from breaking a sweat in terms of power capabilities. I am surprised at how good this sounds, especially for the price. There's no going back for me.
      Threeek, Apr 9, 2013
  5. betula
    iCan Micro - power and bass to your headphones
    Written by betula
    Published May 10, 2015
    4.0/5,
    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
    IMG_20150510_181429.jpg
     
    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.
    IMG_20150510_181508.jpg

    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.
      Wilashort, Light - Man and Vartan like this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. betula
      Yes Vartan, it is indeed a nice cable. Unfortunately I can not give you link, I bought it 5-6 years ago in a different country... And I can't remember the online retailer's name... It is a handmade cable, 3m long, and that time in Eastern Europe it cost me ~£20... But there is no written name on it..
      betula, May 11, 2015
    3. Vartan
      Thank you anyway!
      Vartan, May 11, 2015
    4. Two Ton Ted
      Nice one! I'll probably get this then.
      Two Ton Ted, May 11, 2015
  6. Dadracer
    iCAN micro SE (Special Edition) UPDATE
    Written by Dadracer
    Published Dec 18, 2015
    4.5/5,
    Pros - Improved sound at each end of the spectrum Better separation of images
    Cons - Need to add another layer to the iRack
    iCAN-Amplifier-12-550x412.jpg
    Hi there this is by way of an initial impression only as I'm supposed to be putting up our Christmas tree but instead I am listening to music!!! UPDATE is down in the last paragraphs below.
     
    Anyhow I got the chance to borrow a new iCAN micro SE from those kind ifi Audio folks to add into my desk top ifi based computer system and to see how it compares with the amp section of my pre existing micro iDSD.
     
    The system now stands at elderly Toshiba laptop to ifi Mercury to iPurifier2 to iUSB power to Gemini cables to micro iDSD to iCAN micro SE to Sennheiser HD700s.
     
    As I understand it the key differences between the iCAN and iCAN SE are upgraded components and refining of the Xbass and 3D controls. I don't have the full specification sheet for the SE but it is my belief it will be effectively the same as that of the iCAN itself which is on the ifi audio web site here http://ifi-audio.com/portfolio-view/micro-ican/
     
    I have not heard the iCAN so can't comment on any differences but I have compared the iCAN SE and amp section of the iDSD.   
     
    Listened to a range of music as follows
     
    Aretha, Chain of fools
    James Bay, Chaos & the calm
    Dusty, In Memphis
    Eagles, Hotel California
    Keb Mo', Keb Mo'
    Leon Bridges, Coming Home
    Lou, Transformer
    Rickie Lee Jones, RLJ
     
    but most of all Gregory Porters Liquid Spirit which is just delightful.
     
     
    Anyhow and most importantly was there a difference? Let me preface this by saying I was a bit biased going into this as I was hoping that the difference would be minimal and I would not need to reach for my credit card (especially at this time of the year when its feeling worn out).
     
    Sadly I hear the difference and it is not tiny but neither is it massive. It feels like there is more top and bottom. Even with the Xbass and 3D set to direct I can hear a more extended bass and a clearer treble. The bass adds some foundation and warmth over the iDSD. Adding in one spot of Xbass is more than enough for me. If you really love bass then the full fat three spot Xbass might suit you and it still doesn't sound flabby but just feels too bass centric for me. The choice is yours but my preference was one spot max.
     
    At the other end it feels like cymbals are more realistic sounding. There is no harshness as far as I can tell or sibilance but just a clarity which is quite compelling. There does not appear to be any affect on the mid band from these extensions in bass and treble.....which is not what you might expect.  
     
    Now the 3D was a bit surprising in that the sound stage did not seem to be changed but the individual instruments and vocals were better defined.........does that make sense? I am not sure I can explain it better but I will add more thoughts once I spend more time on it. I could not hear a great deal of difference on the various 3D settings so stuck with direct as the HD700s are not short on imaging themselves, so maybe there would be more variation on other headphones. I will take my other headphones from my main vinyl centric system and try them and see if I can hear a difference.
     
    So that's all right now and I remain conflicted. The addition of the iCAN SE is an improvement in the areas I have mentioned above but adds more gear to my stack and I am currently under embargo ahead of the festive period.
     
    UPDATE  NEWS
     
    Ok now that the festive period is over and everyone has gone back to work and/or home I have had the chance to try 2 new things with the iCAN micro SE which I still have on loan from the lovely ifi Audio folks.
     
    The first was a simple swap of headphones from HD700 to HD800, and not only is the ICAN SE able to drive them but it does so very well indeed and opened up another level in terms of sound quality most apparent at each end of the audio spectrum and also very noticeably in terms of sound stage presentation but more to do with the definition of individual performers or instruments.
     
    So that then led to the final challenge of putting the iCAN micro SE up against my main system headphone amplifier the Auralic Taurus mk2. This is also a class A solid state headphone amp but can also be run in balanced mode. It is however approximately 4 times the price of the iCAN and so I was expecting a significant difference.
     
    Well in fact while there is a difference it took me more time than I expected and several swap overs of amps to confirm what I was hearing. The sound balance it very close and if the Auralic was more extended it was only a fractional thing. The biggest differential was in the sound stage. I tried a small number of recordings which I am familiar with and made the comparison several times and even then it was not a vast gulf in performance. To be as fair as possible I was using the Auralic in SE mode to make it more a like for like so the Auralic in balanced mode yields a better still performance.
     
    On a rough scale of performance versus cost I would have to say that the iCAN gets to 85-90% of the overall sound quality of the Auralic (in SE mode) which is far closer than I had expected and maybe its actually closer still but I don't want to admit it given the four times price difference!!!
     
    In any event if you are thinking that the iCAN micro SE is not a serious headphone amplifier as it is too inexpensive then think again.........no really. If on the other hand you are starting out then this is a scorchingly good amp for the money and will make the best of any headphones you are likely to be starting out with.
     
    More later when I am recovered from this shock..........
     
     
     
     
          
      Koolpep and Hawaiibadboy like this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. canali
      very interested...has anyone had the chance to compare it with the mapletree audio design 'ear plus purist' headphone tube amp?
      canali, Jan 16, 2016
    3. humzebra
      How to get Special Edition?
      humzebra, Feb 3, 2016
    4. Promenadeplatz
      Is it driven by 9V DC as well as the iCan Micro?
       
      Promenadeplatz, Mar 5, 2016
  7. blankdisc
    iCAN is a keeper. Paired with iDSD Micro you have got a winner combo. Highly recommended!!!
    Written by blankdisc
    Published Mar 26, 2015
    5.0/5,
    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.
     
    Eric
     

      Music Path likes this.
    1. earfonia
      Agree! iCan micro is the cure for the dry sounding iDSD micro headphone output.
      Nice review! Thanks!
      earfonia, Mar 28, 2015
  8. Vartan
    My short review :)
    Written by Vartan
    Published Aug 15, 2014
    5.0/5,
    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. securedownload.jpg
     
     ✔ ifi audio makes Hi-Fi quality audio (or even audiophile quality) stuff for affordable prices!
      Wilashort likes this.
  9. CraftyClown
    A cracking little amp, with some fantastic extra features
    Written by CraftyClown
    Published Jan 16, 2014
    5.0/5,
    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 :wink:
     
    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 :D
      Wilashort likes this.
  10. TheGame21x
    Plenty of Power, a Warm Sound, Sound Enhancements and a Reasonable Price Make this a Great Amplifier
    Written by TheGame21x
    Published May 29, 2013
    4.5/5,
    Pros - Flat Frequency Response, Warm Sound, Excellent Sound Enhancements, Well Built, Plenty of Power
    Cons - Slight Interference at Lowest Volume, High Gain Not Suited for IEMs,
    [​IMG]

    Introduction

    I’d like to thank the folks at iFi Audio and Avatar Acoustics for the review sample.
     
    iFi Audio is something of a newcomer in the mainstream consumer audio market, but one that has had its roots firmly planted in the professional audio industry for years, British firm Abbingdon Music Research, which produces a range of audiophile grade (read: expensive) sources, amplifiers and whatnot. iFi Audio was created with the promise of offering top quality products at much lower prices and has created a number of products since their inception. Up for review today is the iFi Micro iCAN headphone amplifier.
     
    Does the iCAN measure up to the stiff competition in the budget amplifier market? Read on to find out.
     ​

    Technical Specifications

    Signal to Noise Ratio: >117dB(A)
    Total Harmonic Distortion(THD): <0.003%(400mV/150R)
    Frequency Response: 0.5Hz to 500KHz(-3dB)
    Output Power: >400mW(32Ω)
    Output Voltage: >5V (>600Ω)
    Input Voltage: AC 100 - 240V, 50/60Hz
    Power Consumption: < 4W idle, 10W max.
    Dimensions: 158(l)x68(w)x28(h)mm
    Weight: 216g(0.48lbs)

     ​
    [​IMG]

    Accessories

    Alongside the iCAN Amplifier, iFi includes a number of accessories, including standard instruction manuals and documentation, a white, flat cabled 3.5mm mini to mini cable, an RCA cable, a set of four rubber feet, a 3.5mm to 6.3mm adapter and, something iFi makes a big deal of, an ultra-low noise AC adapter, promising cleaner power to the iCAN amplifier. Now I’m not sure how big a deal this is, if it matters at all, but the fact that iFi has included the ULN adapter in the case that it does matter is a nice touch.

    Design and Build Quality

    With a long but sleek aluminum chassis, the iFi is an attractive addition to a desktop audio setup that blends in nicely, especially if you favor Apple computers and their aluminum designs. I don’t, but that’s another issue entirely.
     
    The iCAN features gold plated and nicely spaced RCA connectors and a 3.5mm jack for audio inputs along the rear and, of course the DC 9V input jack. Around front, there’s a gold plated 1/4” (6.3mm) output jack, a polished metal potentiometer and two metal flip switches to control the XBass and 3D sound enhancements. These switches are nice and serve their purpose well but it is odd that the switches themselves aren’t mirrored. What I mean by that is the neutral position for the XBass and 3D are different, with the XBass being neutral or “off” with the switch all the way up while the 3D switch is neutral at the middle position. Not really a big deal, but worth mentioning.
     
    The polished metal potentiometer is quite good, with the absolute smoothest tracking of any potentiometer I’ve ever used, which aids in making tiny volume changes, a welcome addition as the volume on the iCAN ramps up quicker than any other amplifier I’ve tried. But more on that in a moment.
     
    Also, the iCAN lacks a power switch, which means the only way to power down the unit is to unplug it, and you’ll probably want to as the amplifier can consume up to about 4W while idle.

     

    [​IMG]

    Sources Used

    iPhone 4S/iPod Classic – Pure i-20 DAC – iCAN
    iPhone 4S – Fiio L3 Line out – iCAN

    Gain and Amplification

    One thing I know for certain about the iCAN is that it can drive headphones to ridiculously loud levels. Even with my most power hungry headphones, the Sennheiser HD 600, I rarely found myself going beyond 10 o’clock or so on the potentiometer. Suffice to say, I doubt anyone will run into problems powering all but the most demanding headphones on the market like HiFiMan’s HE-6 or other particularly hard to drive planar magnetic orthodynamic headphones and even then, I can’t imagine even those will be much of a problem for the iCAN at least in terms of pure volume.
     
    Because of the high power output and high gain, the iCAN is not the best choice for use with in ear monitors in general, especially those that have low impedance and/or high sensitivity. With my RE-400s, I was barely able to move past 8 o’clock before they were more than loud enough for me.
     
    One strange thing I noticed about the iCAN is that, with the volume at its lowest, instead of dead silence, I get, not only a low level hum, but…voices. Peculiar. I barely heard the hum with my HD 600s and there was no way to boost the volume on what I was hearing as raising the volume to normal listening levels got rid of the interference. So, I broke out my most sensitive IEMs, the Creative Aurvana 3, which I regularly use to test amplifiers and sources for audible hissing and lo and behold, I was tuned in to the local Christian radio station, 103.5 FM – The Light.
     
    Don’t consider that an advertisement. I’m just pointing out what I was hearing and, for the record, I didn’t like it.
     
    My best guess as to why this was happening is due to inadequate shielding from radio interference. The amplifier itself must be acting as an antenna of some kind and some of the radio signal is being dumped into the audio path. Peculiar but, all in all, a minor annoyance.
     
    [​IMG]

    Sound Quality

    The iCAN has a slightly warm sound thanks to what iFi refers to as "Class A TubeState amplification", claiming that it blends the warmth associated with vacuum tube amplifiers with solid state technology. With both sound enhancements off the sound is indeed slightly warm and "Tubey" but it doesn’t skimp on detail. It sounds perfectly flat to my ears, as an amplifier should. There isn’t much to say about the iCAN’s performance. It sounds like a quality desktop amp, no buts about it. So, let’s move on to the more unique aspects of the iCAN, the two sound enhancements that one can activate with the flip of a switch.

    XBass

    Oh I love this feature. No qualifications, no ‘buts’, I just…love it. On a basic level, this functions similarly to bass boost options on other amplifiers I’ve used like the CMoy BB and just about every Fiio amplifier I’ve used but the iCAN has the best implementation of a bass boost that I’ve ever heard in the XBass switch. At its first setting, it boosts the sub bass regions (IE 100Hz and below) significantly adding to the sub bass presence and rumble while the second setting, for bass shy headphones, boosts sub and mid bass regions without negatively impacting upper frequencies or low end resolution.
     
    The result is an extremely satisfying low end performance in every headphone I’ve tested with the iCAN. I’ve never heard a cleaner bass boost on any amplifier I’ve tried and as a result, I couldn’t be happier with the XBass option on the iCAN. It boosts my bass-light (which might be bass adequate for anyone else) headphones like the Sennheiser HD 555 and IEMs like the HiFiMan RE-400 to levels I find just perfect and with my Audio-Technica Pro700MK2 and M50 headphones, sent them into the realm of truly seismic, almost headache-inducing levels of bass, which has always been a guilty pleasure of mine.

    3D Holographic Sound

    Now this is an interesting addition, as it claims to widen the sound field and create a listening experience that’s more akin to listening to a good speaker setup than a pair of headphones. The low setting is claimed to be best for “naturally spacious recordings” like classical, jazz and rock music while the higher setting is best for “flat sounding recordings” like more modern music.
    Generally, I found these claims to be accurate. The holographic effect is akin to what many know as “crossfeed”, but rather than being a standard DSP, which can be destructive to music, it isn’t a DSP, so resolution remains unaffected. One thing I will note is that the highs were a tiny bit more sibilant with either of the 3DHS modes engaged but that’s a rather small annoyance that most people might not even notice, especially once they got absorbed in the music, as I did.
     
    Both settings are fun to play with in different combinations and they do indeed make the iCAN a surprisingly versatile amplifier that pairs well with just about any headphone.
     
    [​IMG]
     
    Now comes the inevitable question I always knew was going to come up sooner or later. Is this as good as the Objective 2? Well, I don’t have the measuring equipment to properly examine the two amps on a purely technical or “Objective” level (sorry) but to my ears, I’d say the iCAN and O2 are about equal in terms of resolution and overall performance. The iCAN is a bit warmer than the O2 but, as I explained earlier, that’s by design.
     
    But with each amplifier comes a tradeoff. The iCAN offers those very nice sound enhancements (if you’re into that sort of thing) and may sound a tad more “musical” than the O2 because of the warmer tone but due to the high gain, it doesn’t work as well as the O2 with IEMs. Most iterations of the O2 are a good bit cheaper than the iCAN for the amp only, is more portable (actually, more “transportable”) because of its battery powered design and probably offers the most objectively accurate sound you’ll get from an amplifier below $1000 but many versions lack the RCA input and 1/4” output some audiophiles swear by (I don’t) and isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as the iCAN.
     
    So picking a winner between the two is far from clear cut, so I’ll let you decide which suits your specific amplifier needs better.
     
    [​IMG]

    Conclusion

    I like the iCAN. I like it quite a bit. It has a flat frequency response, ample power and gain for just about any headphone you can think to throw at it, a slightly warm and pleasing sound and a couple of sound enhancements that don’t compromise resolution when active. Its downsides are relatively minor (though the interference could be a problem if you have especially sensitive headphones) and while I can’t say this is the best choice for IEM users due to the massive gain, this is a very versatile amplifier that should suit a wide array of headphones and user preferences.
     
    The going rate of the iCAN is $249 but finding one might be a bit difficult if you’re based in the Americas. Personally, I think that’s a good price and a reasonable one for the kind of performance you’re getting in the iCAN, especially for the sound enhancements. I really do like what they do to the sound in pretty much every case and I usually listen with at least one engaged at all times because they work so well. So, if you’re in the market for a new desktop amplifier, give the iCAN a look.
     
    This review was re-posted from my site Musical Musings
      rocksteady65 likes this.
    1. mikemercer
      Excellent review!
      I've been using one lately to drive my LCD3's - and I can't believe it!
      I'll be writing a review for Positive Feedback soon.
      mikemercer, May 29, 2013