iFi Micro-iCAN Headphone Amplifier, Special Edition

General Information

Creating a one-box-fits-all-headphones amplifier was a challenge. That's because headphones are a diverse lot. So when iFi engineers designed the new iCAN, they didn't start with the amplifier; they started with the headphones. Unlike traditional headphone amplifiers, the design of the iCAN is based on the whole gamut of headphones. This atypical approach has bestowed upon the iCAN a unique ability to realise the full potential of each and every headphone. First and foremost, it was designed for the finest sound quality. With XBass you hear deeper, richer and cleaner bass. The 3D Holographic Sound system creates headphone-based music that is free-flowing rather than restricted. Recordings are made for speakers not headphones. This explains the oft-found 'inside your head' headphone listening experience. The 3D Holographic Sound system rectifies this to transport the performer from inside your head, to in your room. iFi wanted a headphone amplifier that recreates the most vivid music performance to let your imagination run free; similar to a live concert where the group is playing in front of you. Vibrant, dynamic and resolving: the music stirs you. Above all, with the 3D Holographic Sound system, iFi created a truly high-end 3D sound field without the use of any sound-damaging DSP# whatsoever.The only thing to come close? Only a few of the best professional-grade headphone amplifiers used in international recording studios. The iCAN is in a class of its own ma

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Pros: Warm, Powerful, Soft Clean Sound, Adaptable via Built in ASP Options, Small Solid Build
Cons: Susceptible to RF Noise, Inanimate
I've been hearing people sing praise's about iFi Audio for years. An for good reason, based out of London UK iFi Audio's has been know for it's excellent welcoming sound signature. I was fortunate enough to be able to get a hold of a demo unit directly though iFi Audio, my thoughts of it are my own and I have not been compensated for them.



The iCan SE retails for $299 presently via Amazon, it's also stocked in a wide variety of brick and mortar locations as well. Be sure to support your local audio shops if your fortunate enough to have one! Here in Myrtle Beach, the nearest shop is three hours from me, so I'm stuck ordering most everything online.


How is it built and packaged?
The including packing is subtle, clean, well thought out and colorful. The design is certainly retail shelf friendly, the colors pop and really draw your eye. The construction of the packing isn't too elaborate either, it's efficient, light weight and attractive.







The outer sleeve holds the inner box together, cradle inside is the amp on top with a spot for cables beneath it.







The included inter-connectors and power cable are tucked away neatly beneath the amp it self. Divided by a semi-hard foam insert in which the amp itself is nestled into.





The included cables are very colorful, light weight with a nice bit resistance when plugging them in.


What I found most unique about the operation of the iFi Micro iCan was that it lacked a power button! The Amp simply plugs in and runs, it's operational temperature stays cool despite being powered almost 24/7. Combine that with it's exceptionally low weight and sleek overall size, an you can confidently store your Micro iCan SE any where that's convenient! It's designed to fit into your space, requiring little to no fuss to get up and running.





Simplicity and efficiency in design carry over from the packing to the build and layout of the amp it self. All Inputs are placed on the rear, with outputs in the front.





Each of the mechanical switches for the xBass and 3D settings are heavy with a satisfying solid action. Again, there is little to no play in any mechanical component of this amp! The volume knob is weighted well an rotates smoothly. I had no issues adjusting the volume as needed.








Each of the inputs and outs have a good smooth resistance and grip on the cables fed into them. Additionally 4 small plastic gain switches are located on the very bottom of the amp. They can be set for 3 different configurations, low, med and high gain.



iFi Audio includes two analogue signal processing options, 3D for enhanced imaging and the xBass bass boost. The bass boost works as intended, when activated there is a marginal amount of noise added. I for the most part used the lower boost for EDM and some Drum n Bass tracks. It worked equally well with both tradtional dynamic and planar magnetic headphones. The 3D analogue signal processing settings worked spectacular with dynamic headphones, consistently creating a more spacious an defined image overall. My planar magnetic saw improvements irregularly, often times there was increased distortion, added noise and undesired changes to the frequency response. Though when it worked, it worked very well.


For the most part the iFi Micro iCan SE had a very black background, especially when fed a hot signal with the volume knob sitting between 9 and 5 o'clock. How ever, when set to either the minimum or maximum rotated position there was some audible interference, quite literally either TV or Radio. For reference, I don't have a TV or Radio receiver in my home but I do have two stations within a couple miles of me.



As per the iFi Audio site, the operational specs for the Micro iCan are as followed;










How does it Sound?
Before moving forward please kindly take a moment to refresh your self on the meaning of terminology I use to describe sound.


Overall I found the sound signature of the iFi Audio Micro iCan Special Edition to be;



  • Warm intimate and relaxed
    • Touch of added decay in the lows and mids
    • With a smooth top end
  • Adaptable
    • 3D ASP offers enhanced imaging, a more energetic top end and clearer macro detail when needed
    • The default circuit provides black background, slightly warmer sound and excellent micro detail
iFi Audio's Tube State technology brings a very natural sound alongside the superior THD output of traditional solid state amplifiers.


For the purpose of this review, I sourced the iFi Audio iCan Micro SE from my Audio GD NFB10ES2 which is it self fed via FooBar 2000 ASIO Out into my Schiit Etir. I've got Pagnea Audio Power Cables for my Dac and I'm using Blue Jean Cable's Coaxial and RCA interconnects. My listening impressions were done at an average of 85 dBs and all comparisons were level matched beforehand.


Pairing the iCan SE is super easy! The ASP functions make minor enough adjustments to give the amp flexibility with a variety of sound signatures. I enjoyed my Nhoord Red V1 the most with the iCan SE.






The Nhoord Red v1 is a DIY Grado style headphone, it's sound is very similar to the Grado RS1i, as such it's my go to can for relaxed fun listening. As such, the two paired together well. Offering a very smooth beautiful organic sound. The Tube State iCan SE helped to alleviate some ringing in the mid range and some harshness up top for the Nhoord Red V1. I found the dynamics remained punchy and both ASP 1 and xBass 1 gave the Nhoord Red V1 a more spacious and balanced sound overall! Each of the ASP settings made a noticeable improvement to the sound of the Nhoord Red V1, and the noise introduced was very minimal if any. The 3D ASP Lvl 1 setting in particular really opened up the sound stage for me, giving me both gains in vertical space as well as front and rear space. The iCan SE was able to tackle and mitigate many of the Nhoord Red V1's weaknesses.


I really love listening to the live rendition of Hotel California from the Hell Freeze's over album. Without the iCan SE, the Nhoord Red V1 compresses the very large sense of space I know the recording originates from, activating the 3D ASP Lvl 1 restores a great sense of front/rear depth. Putting the audience slightly behind and the guitars more so in front, creating a very real sense of 3D space! While retaining a good creamy slightly intimate presentation to the guitars. Using the xBass Lvl 1 also helped pull out a little more of the deeper lows from the big drum present during the intro. The only draw back was the bass guitar as then a little more forward than I personally like.


Mid Range Dynamics headphones like the Nhoord Red V1 are were I feel the iCan SE shines the most! Many of these headphones have similar level's of resolve but differ vastly in sound signature and imaging abilities. The iFi Audio Micro iCan SE ASP settings make it easy to pair your favorite sound signature with more balanced imaging.







With my ZMF Eikon I was impressed by how much more power I had to get it loud though I was less impressed with the quality of sound. For starters the 3D ASP Lvl 1 was required, as with it off the sound stage was too intimate and compressed. Additionally the xBass ASP settings were noticeably nosier with the more resolving Eikon. Ultimately I feel the iCan SE sound signature was a poor match for the Eikon, as the relaxed sound of the amp didn't pair too well with the relaxed tilt of the headphone. Ultimately, while the tonality was wonderful the timbre was off and there was a noticeable lack of dynamics.




Another LOUD but less than ideal combo. If you currently own an inefficient hard to drive planar magnetic like the HE 4 then iFi Audio iCan SE has the power to get loud but doesn't have a the response time necessary to preserve detail at the level I know the HE 4 can operate at, I'll get more in depth on that during my the comparison section. While it's tonally very pleasing, the sound lacked the detail and dynamic range I expect from my HE 4. But out of everything I own the iFi Micro iCan SE had the most head room! It got my HE 4 louder than anything else I own. Additionally, both the xBass and 3D ASP settings resulted most often in undesirable changes. 3D ASP Lvl 1 worked positively for about 1/10 songs. Most of the time it degraded the overall imaging for the HE 4 as opposed to improving it.




The more efficient LCD XC pair'd beautifully with the iCan SE. The smoother warm sound of the iCan SE helped to tame the XC shouty mid range and sharper top end. Additionally the sheer power output of the iCan SE kept the lows very taut and lean.


Listening to Miles Davis's So What I'm used to the XC presenting a very metallic sounding horn, with the iCan SE the mid range mellows out nicely, yielding an overall more natural sound. Again the 3D ASP Lvl 1 opens up the sound stage, adding a very real 3D sense of space. It adds a touch of vertical space to the horns and the double bass, while also adding some rear depth to the double bass. The 3D ASP also adds a bit of energy up top allowing the percussion and high hats to pop a little more, without the harshness I'm used to from the XC. I wasn't a fan of the xBass boost though, it softened an otherwise lean tactile bass.


How does it compare?
For comparisons I have the amp section of my Audio GD NFB10ES2 and my Project Ember II. For every comparison I level matched the output of each amp within .1 dB using a pink noise mono track.



So the big question I had when I heard about the iCan SE's "Tube State" Class A amplification stage was how does it compare to a tube amp? My Ember II is only a Hybrid Tube but even so it does have a big ole tube in it.


The Ember II is my primary amp for the ZMF Eikon, a large part of why is how the 35R output changes the Eikon. With a lower output impedance the sound is very a little disjointed. The iCan SE's less than 1ohm output was no exception, compared to the Ember II, the iCan SE held back the ZMF Eikon's resolve, dynamics, tactility and beautiful timbre. Additionally the 3D ASP circuit created a artificially large but disjointed image and the xBass boost was just noisy.


Moving to the HE 4, I found only 2 songs that benefited from the 3D ASP. In every other instance the Ember II presented a larger more cohesive 3D image. Additionally, the Ember II brings the HE 4 a more natural sense of warmth without losing to much of it's hyper aggressive sound. The Ember II sits in the middle, not as soft and smoother as the iCan SE while not as hard and exaggerated as the NFB10ES2.


Compared to the Ember II the iCan SE had a slower more simplified decay and drier sound with the LCD XC. There was a lack of sweetness and naturalness. Though the macro detail was on par with both units! The Nhoord Red V1 did a little better, with the 3D ASP Lvl 1 I got a larger sound stage and more precise image with the iCan SE, how ever the Ember II resolved more micro detail and better defined the individual timbre of instruments.


Sadly, the Tube State did not capture all of the magic of the real thing. But here's what it does do! It provides a good tube like sense of warmth that's consistent. The problem with tube amps are the tube's them selves. Each of the different tube types and models make small changes to frequency response and imaging, none of them make a night or day difference but fine tune the nuance of the amp they are pair'd with. So even with recommendations, I had to roll around 7-8 different tubes within the same family before I found the combination that was magical for me. So, if you don't have the time to purchase, listen to, compare and document the sound of dozens of tubes. Than a tube amp may not be the best solution for you. I was fortunate to be able to work with vendors that offered me an exchange seeing as I was buying used, but I was still left with pouring upwards of almost 100 hours of combined listening and research before I found the tube that worked best for me.


iFi Audio's Tube State technology as found in the iCan SE does offer a much more convenient way to enjoy the some of the magic found in tube amps without the hassle.





Moving to the NFB 10ES2 the most obvious difference here is size! My NFB10ES2 is huge, so much so it's housed in my own little make shift wood shelf/box. It's a component you make a space for unlike the iFi Micro iCan which fits where ever you'd like it. So forgive the less than optimal picture!


An important note, I have balanced cables for all of my headphones hence I compared the native balanced output of the NFB10ES2 to the Native SE Output of the iCan SE. I also have an OCC Copper 4pin XLR to 6.5mm Adapter, which I've found to be the most transparent cable choice for that inter-connector.


To preface, the SE Output of the NFB10ES2 is HORRIBLE, in every instance the Single End Output of the iCan SE is noticeably improved over the SE output of my NFB10ES2. Again the NFB10ES2 functions best as a balanced head amp.


Now starting with the bad, moving to the NFB10ES2 from the iCan SE with the HE 4 netted a noticeable improvement to almost all aspects of the sound. The harder to drive legacy planar really opened up with the more powerful and quicker output of the NFB10ES2. The smoother more balance tonality of the iCan SE with the HE 4 is not an acceptable compromise, given how soft, unresolved and slow the headphones sounds from it. Though while seldom, there were times were the 3D ASP function did improve the imaging.


Moving to my more efficient LCD XC and Nhoord Red V1, each lacked both micro dynamics and some micro detail when pair'd with the iCan SE. The transition in Hotel California from a single guitar features an immediate eruption of applause from the crowd but the guitars them selves very gradually increase in volume. That complicated transition was simplified with the iCan SE. By the time the crowd settled down the guitars were louder, but you couldn't follow that gradual increase, the sheer noise of the crowd drowned out that change. With the NFB10ES2, the transition was resolved more clearly, you could appreciate the crowd and the gradual transition of the guitars. Additionally, with the NFB10ES2 I noticed when the guitar's reach their peak volume the crowd livens up even more so just before settling down. With 3D ASP level 1 the sound stage of each was very similar, with the iCan SE being marginally noiser.


The NFB10ES2's has a harder presentation, sometimes this worked to it's advantage other times it worked against it. Like wise the iCan SE was softer, which at times was an advantage. There were times too when the softer but blacker presentation of the iCan SE resolved a bit more macro detail than the NFB10ES2 and other times the harder but more dynamic NFB10ES2 resolved more ambient noise. Ultimately I felt these differences were neither good nor bad in reference to fidelity. Just a difference in presentation.


Finally the good! With both headphones, the loss of some tactility was an acceptable compromise for a much more balanced tonality. The LCD XC had a more natural mid range, especially obvious in the vocals and with horns. The Nhoord Red V1 was exceptionally more balanced and enjoyable with the iCan SE. With the 3D and xBass ASP set to level 1 the iCan SE replicated the sound-stage and sheer bass impact that the NFB10ES2 offers. Guitars in particular were creamier with the Nhoord Red V1/iCan SE combo. Ultimately the NFB10ES2 sounds a little harsh and exaggerated when pair'd with both my Nhoord Red V1 and the LCD XC.


These two more efficient headphones pair'd very well with the iCan SE. It's only the harder to drive HE 4 that really benefited from the NFB10ES2 balanced design.



In conclusion the iFi Audio iCan SE brings a warm tube like sound without the hassle of tubes them selves. While it doesn't offer the same level of sound quality as my Ember II pair'd with a 1944 Sylvania 6sn7 GT Tall Bottle White Label, it's also more affordable at only $299 vs $450 respectively. It's flexibility, small footprint and competitive price point are the shining achievements of the iCan SE. The 3D ASP and xBass features allow you to make adjustments to how the amp operates, much the same way rolling different tubes does for a traditional tube amp. The difference is with the iCan SE you can customize the sound of your amp without any additional purchases, without having to power it down, carefully remove a hot fragile glass bottle and try your best not to break anything or burn your hands.


iFi Audio's Micro iCan presents a very relaxing, powerful, stress free, instantly gratifying amp with a warm welcoming sound that you can easily adjust to what ever headphone your listening to. Mid Range Dynamics, headphones like the Grado SR 325, the Beyerdynamic DT 880, Sennhesier HD 600 and Audio Technica AD 900X are were I feel the iCan SE shines the most! Many of these headphones have similar level's of resolve but differ vastly in sound signature and imaging abilities. The iFi Audio Micro iCan SE ASP settings make it easy to pair your favorite sound signature with more balanced imaging, and if you happen to have a small collection they iCan SE can adapt and compliment each of them. That ease of ownership and out of the box flexibility make this a real gem to some one whose aim is to just enjoy their music.
Pros: enough power to drive the HE-6/AKG K1000/name it to sufficient volume, very good sound, flexibility for different sound preferences, good value
Cons: sounds dull without switches engaged, demanding headphones don’t reach potential in spite of power, lesser amps may sound better with less demanding
[size=24.57px]Acknowledgment  [/size]

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

This review was originally posted on audioprimate.blog.

Introduction

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



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

Useability: Form & Function

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

The box includes the following:

  1. iPower 15w
  2. Generic 3.5mm to 3.5mm flat cable
  3. Generic RCA to RCA cable
  4. The Micro iCAN SE
  5. 4 clear rubber feet (thou shalt not countest 3…, and 5 is right out)
 

 
The Micro series has two camps on portability, units requiring external power that aren’t really portable in the way I think of portable; and units that don’t need a wall wart that are on the big edge of portable. The iCAN SE falls into the former category for me. It needs the big wall wart and either an RCA cable or a 3.5mm to 3.5mm (or RCA) cable, which makes it something you can move about, but that you’ll most likely just keep at home. The iDAC2 and the Micro iDSD are truly portable, the iCAN SE is not, in my opinion.

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

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

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

quote-good-poets-borrow-great-poets-steal-t-s-eliot-65-6-0610.jpg


From @thatonenoob’s excellent comparative review of iCAN and iCAN SE (my favourite of the current reviews)
Ostewart’s very positive reviewDadracer’s quick impressionsMore Ostewart, that guy takes great pictures.

Audio quality

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specifications

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



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

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

So let’s go over the differences:

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

For me, the amp wasn’t at its best driving demanding headphones in spite of its copious amounts of power. This leaves the amp being judged on what it does with headphones that don’t need 4000mW of juice. While it outperforms my LH Labs Geek Out 1000 with less demanding headphones and not by a little bit, it didn’t outperform the DX50 for me on the ERIB-2a (which likes a lot of power).
 
 

Pros: Drives all the headphones I have with the ability to customize sound
Cons: Power plug is kind of "sketchy". No power switch.
Clean, powerful, and portable what more can I say about this little monster. I was surprised to see the size to power ratio this amp has. I love spending hours on end switching headphones and flicking the switches, although the 3D switch is still audible it doesn't make a huge impact like the bass feature. The only down side to this amp is the power cable. When plugging in my amp it caused sparks to fly out. I am not sure how dangerous or common this kind of problem is in amps, but the problem can be avoided altogether by plugging in the power brick in last. I only wish the amp comes with a power switch. The does get a little warm.

Comments

You can search for a single outlet power switch to use... there should have been a power switch though.
 
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