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Desktop Amps item created by Koolpep, May 31, 2016
Pros - Power, Flexibility, Resolution
Cons - Slides around? Cost might be prohibitive to some.
It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Just before my annual spring/summer hiatus from pursuing #AudioNirvana, I decided to part ways with my Eddie Current Balancing Act amplifier, HiFiMAN HE-6 headphones, and Schiit Yggdrasil DAC as part of a downsizing, capital-raising, not-quite-sure-why-I-am-doing-this selling spree. During the process, the buyers of the HE-6 and Yggy both asked me how they would perform with iFi Audio’s Pro iCAN. Of course, I hadn’t the slightest idea because I had never used an iFi product in any of my personal audio systems. Ironically, the first product I am offered to audition this fall turns out to be the Pro iCAN. So, thank you Lawrance at iFi Audio; now I’ll be able to share some real opinions about this desktop headphone amp the next time someone asks.
Prior to this audition, my experience with iFi stretched as far as a brief audition of the original Micro iCAN at a friend’s and seeing several iFi products compared against Schiit Audio’s. Much like Schiit’s USA-made wares, UK-based iFi has made a mark in the computer audio and headphone scenes for its small, silver, affordable amps, DACs, and power-purifying devices. You’ll often see these two brands going head-to-head in debates on audio forums across the web. Aside from competing in the same spaces with similar products, there’s another reason why these two brands are so well regarded among their fan bases: Quality—both brands benefit from R&D by veterans of high-end audio manufacturers. It doesn’t seem often noted, but iFi’s parent company is Abbingdon Music Research, or AMR. AMR is regarded for making ultra-high-end, reference-class stereo amps, DACs, transports, and other hi-fi wares. The Spirited Uncle Mactually cycles AMR’s DP-777 DAC through The Sound Lab on occasion, which I attest is one sweet piece of equipment. But I digress; my point is that iFi is able to later deploy tried-and-true technology from AMR at a fraction of the cost—enter the Pro series.
The Pro iCAN is iFi’s first flagship product released under the brand’s “Pro” or professional series line. Designed with some trickle-down technology from AMR, the Pro iCAN is iFi’s “studio-grade” headphone amp and preamp, chockfull of features not commonly found in desktop-sized amps, let alone ones priced at $1,699. I can see some iFi fans suffering from initial sticker shock, but this is a distinctly different product from anything iFi has put out before, and it brings far more value and flexibility than you’d first think.
You can read about all of the technically excellent details and specs—like the end-to-end, fully-balanced design, premium components, and incredible dynamic range—on iFi’s website, so I’ll just tell you about the features I liked most.
Do you like tube or solid-state sound? Don’t know? The Pro iCAN gives you a taste of both. The Pro iCAN houses individual solid-state and tube amplification sections. A switch on the front panel shifts the Pro iCAN between its Solid-State, Tube, and Tube+ modes, letting you select which circuit sounds best to your ears.
Solid-State mode is notably for you audio purists; employing a pure solid-state circuit using JFET transistors and a fully discrete, Class A power stage. Switching over to one of the two tube modes engages two top-grade General Electric 5670 tubes for an all-valve sonic presentation to give you that taste of tube flavor.
As a tube guy, I unsurprisingly preferred the Tube+ mode, which iFi says “reduces negative feedback to a minimum” and lets a “greater amount of the tubes’ natural harmonics” be produced. Still, I personally found the differences between the solid-state and tube circuits to be little more than subtle overall. My takeaway is that the Pro iCAN in Solid-State mode is crisp, clear, and precise. It has good reach and resolution without being overly dry or analytical. On the other hand, the 5670 tubes introduce a few degrees of mild but welcomed warmth and body to my ears. Bass lines and vocals seemed a touch richer and more involving, dynamics became a bit rounder and less pinpoint precise, and the sound stage opens up just ever so slightly, becoming a share wider and more holographic.
While clearly audible, I admit to wanting a greater sound variance between the different modes—more of that classic tube lushness, make-me-feel-euphoric goodness if you will—but the Pro iCAN remains a dialed and mostly analytical amp across the different modes. Don’t take this as a bad thing; iFi is clearly going for a notably resolving reference sound with the Pro iCAN—just don’t expect it to sound like three completely different amps by switching modes. I know this goes against what some other reviewers have touted, but I stand by my impressions that the solid-state and tube modes only let you subtly tweak the performance to best suit the gear and music you’re enjoying at the time.
In use, I also personally found the Pro iCAN’s wide dynamic range and sonic purity a challenge to describe in detail. Accuracy and neutrality are what come to mind most, which are pretty self-explanatory. Add in the amp’s ample power and the Pro iCAN is simply a lively performer that lacks any notable “house sound” coloration like my Eddie Current, Ray Samuels, and Woo Audio tube amps all had. Again, not a bad thing, just different. Neutrality and resolution in an amp can help a system’s synergy; by essentially getting out of the way, your sources, DACs, headphones, and speakers are given the opportunity to shine—providing they’re resolving enough.
That’s not to say the Pro iCAN is sonically boring. In fact, it’s quite engaging as it’s wide dynamic range and resolution draw out fine details and texture in the music that lesser spec’d amps gloss over. Add in the simple and surprisingly good sound tweaks for those that might need, scratch that, will need them, and you can an amp that packs a powerful punch.
I generally let my system speak for itself, avoiding digital equalization tools and adjustments that alter the voicing of my gear. But the Pro iCAN packs two very usable EQ-like features into its compact chassis that are impossible to ignore. “XBass” and “3D Holographic” are two proprietary circuitries that help correct two common headphone and loudspeaker shortcomings: sub-bass and imaging.
XBass is iFi’s solution to bass deficiency in reference headphones and loudspeakers. Through analog signal processing circuitry, XBass provides a 12dB boost at the 10, 20, and 40Hz frequencies through a convenient front panel knob that lets you dial in the desired level of bass correction on the fly.
iFi says this implementation is not like traditional tone or loudness controls and is “sonically superior to Digital Signal Processing (DSP) systems.” I don’t know-how to confirm this in a meaningful way, but I can say that I was pleasantly surprised by how well the controlled bass boost integrated into the resolving timbre of the amp. Results obviously vary by recording frequencies and headphone/loudspeaker responses: XBass filled in the nether regions of my Sennheiser HD650 gloriously up to 20Hz but quickly made my AudioQuest NightHawk bloated and boomy with most recordings. XBass is likely more useful for filling out a headphone like the flatter responding AKG K701 or Q701.
Turning to the recording side of things, I found XBass most useful in combating tipped-up rock and anemic live recordings. And while it would have been nice to have varying levels of decibel boosts, the appeal of the 12dB XBass boost is that this easy-on, easy-off feature breathes visceral life into bass-light recordings and headphones/loudspeakers at the turn of a dial, which turns out to be something pretty nice to have—especially for us bassheads.
While XBass helps correct for bass deficiency, 3D Holographic for Headphones helps correct for imaging and sound stage deficiencies when listening to stereo recordings through headphones, meaning that closed-in feeling when the sound is stuck right between your ears. In other words, 3D Holographic was designed to create an “out-of-head” headphone listening experience that parallels listening to loudspeakers in a normal room.
This is something other manufacturers have tried to achieve with software plug-ins and crossfeed features, but as iFi explains, 3D Holographic for Headphones “is not based on a standard crossfeed system, as found in some high-end headphone amplifiers. Many so-called ‘3D systems’ are usually DSP based that artificially effect the sound and add unwanted reverb in order to simulate a ‘spacious’ type of sound.
“It’s true that traditional crossfeed tends to produce an ‘out-of-head’ sound, but with much diminished spatial components and a narrower soundstage,” iFi continues, adding that these implementations often produce “unnatural, echo-like sound, which may initially be impressive, but soon becomes tiring.” By contrast, iFi claims 3D Holographic for Headphones, which was developed based on research extending back to the 1980s, is the first system in commercial production to achieve the desirable out-of-head imaging rendered without added reverb.
Because the Pro iCAN is the first amp I have tried with a feature of this kind, all I’m willing to say is that I generally liked whatever was happening when turning the 3D Holographic front panel dial from off to the 30°, 60°, and 90° Loudspeaker Angle settings. Much like the XBass feature, 3D Holographic has varying degrees of impact. In particular, I found 3D Holographic to gradually widen the sound stage in each increment, especially with must-own jazz classics like John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” where instrument localization is often strongly apparent. Studio recordings by Ben Howard and John Mayer’s various live albums also gained noticeably more depth and dimension by cranking the dial, although electronic tracks from the likes of Bonobo and Moderat seemed to benefit in lesser degrees.
During my time with the Pro iCAN, I often found myself cranking the 3D Holographic dial all the way to the 90° setting for the fun of it, which created a more lively listening experience at the expense of some precision. The 90° setting generally gushed with the greatest sense of space and width, moving the sound stage from dead center in my head to the edges of my ears. Admittedly, some tracks can get too busy and displaced sounding in this mode and in some instances cymbals and strings tacked on a strange artificial sounding tizzy-ness. So, it’s safe to say results will vary—implement as needed. As a guy who also has a listening room with a loudspeaker setup, I won’t say that 3D Holographic truly emulates properly positioned loudspeakers, but it takes welcomed and major steps in incrementally making headphones far more bearable and spatially believable, especially during long listening sessions when that “stuck in your head” feeling gets fatiguing.
Lastly, as I own and audition a lot of different headphones and IEMs with different types of cables, I thoroughly like the flexibility and scalability packed into the Pro iCAN. Never have I had a headphone amp that had every jack I needed, let alone one that could play well with every headphone or IEM I threw at it. The Pro iCAN never failed to impress here.
Armed with a host of balanced (3.5mm TRRS, two x 6.3mm, two x 3-pin XLR, and 4-pin XLR) and unbalanced (3.5mm and 6.3mm) headphone outputs, outside of some exotic cable types, the Pro iCAN has compatibility covered.
Better even, regardless of whether I had a sensitive IEM or a power-hungry full-size headphone connected, there was absolutely zero background noise or that annoying gain hiss—even in Tube mode with the volume knob cranked to the max.
What’s more, the Pro iCAN pumps out up to 20V via its balanced outputs, which is equivalent to 100W into a 4 Ohm speaker. Pair this ample power with the variable gain stages (0dB, +9dB, +18dB) and the Pro iCAN easily drives just about every headphone on the market with accuracy and ease—including the venerable HiFiMAN HE-6 and AKG K1000.
With plenty of single-ended and balanced inputs and outputs, pretty much every headphone jack you could ever need, a ton of power, a few unique tone-tweaking features, great specs, and packed-in premium components, the Pro iCAN packs a powerful punch, offering scalability, flexibility, and performance. Oh, and it sounds darn good. If you’re already an iFi fan, you’ll undoubtedly like the Pro iCAN. If you’ve never tried an iFi product, the Pro iCAN is unlikely to disappoint. Without a doubt iFi’s flagship Pro iCAN is a headphone amp and pre-amp I can live with.
Pros - loads of power
many features to play with
Cons - features don't live up to the hype
I had the iFi Pro iCAN on loan for a few weeks and have assembled my notes below. They will remain mostly in point form, because no one wants to read an essay. I ran it through a fairly extensive gamut of different headphones and speakers.
Since there is a lot of "stream of consciousness" in these notes, it would be prudent to not examine any particular section by itself. At the very least, read the section immediately above it so you know where the relevant comparison is coming from.
Also be aware that in point form, my notes are very nitpickish. I do not dispense with pleasantries here, and my editing will be minimal. This is simply the style of my note-taking, so don't get your knickers in a knot if you disagree with something.
Main equipment used for evaluation:
Hifiman HE-6: well known as the most power hungry brute in the headphone world, and serves as my main reference can, low-ish impedance and stupid low sensitivity
Sennheiser HD650: my other reference can, and should be well known by most headphone users, high impedance and medium sensitivity
Sennheiser HD598: little brother of the HD650; horrible impedance curve
Nuforce HEM8: multi driver iem, low impedance high sensitivity
Fostex TH-x00 Purpleheart: closed, low impedance medium-high sensitivity
Bryston B60 - integrated speaker amp and my primary amp for the HE-6
Prism Lyra and Prism Callia - both pro level dac/amp, the latter being the "hifi" version with a more powerful amp
RME ADI-2 Pro - pro level dac/amp
iFi iCAN Pro - well d'uh
Stereoknight transformer based balanced preamp
- leans to preferring dry/clinical sounds
- chassis overall very nice build quality; no complaints here
- casing is solid and feels good
- large rubbery pad on the bottom isolates it from the desk
- good feel to the volume knob
- very slight play to all knobs/switches, but nothing unreasonable
- gets warm but not hot; avoid stacking though, especially if it's a component underneath that needs to breathe since the rubber pad will insulate
- remote: cheap plastic thing, it works most of the time but doesn't seem to detect sometimes depending on angle
- switches are good, stick out just enough to be functional but not feel too fiddly or obtrusive
First listening impressions
- first: hey this is nice
- later: new toy syndrome has worn off, still good but not as enthused
- kinda brutish, not an ogre, but more Fezzik than Inigo Montoya
- I have a really hard time matching volume, because the iCAN "feels" louder all the time
- overall feels slightly on the V-shaped side (both warmer yet brighter)
On the inputs/outputs:
- the actual switching mechanism itself is quite seamless
- use the balanced XLR inputs; they sound so much better than the single ended
- I'm certain it's not my source, because mine does both and I've evaluated on other gear and found the differences to be marginal*
- single ended seems muted and loses energy (especially treble) and impact/punch compared to balanced inputs
* however, I cannot fully discount that this is a function of how my source is interacting with the iFi inputs
- but noise floor is higher with balanced input while using single ended output... not sure why this is; could be a cabling or power thing but it's unusual and I can't fully track it down
- switching inputs (both with nothing connected or the same source connected to both xlr and rca), there is a higher inherent noise from the balanced inputs which is opposite from expected
- however this noise is not affected by gain
- but it is affected by the pot... so the origin of the noise is coming from in between? It's not a huge problem, so I'm not chasing it down anymore after this
- balanced output is always quiet, regardless of input
- not detectable with HE-6 (no surprise there)
- very slight noise floor with HD650 on balanced low gain with volume turned up all the way (can't tell with music)
- more noticeable with HEM8, but again it's low enough that your music would be deafening by the time you reached audible levels of noise
Impressions with HE-6
Note that my primary amp with the Hifiman HE-6 is the Bryston B60 which is a speaker amp. Most of my comparisons will be against that unless otherwise noted. Yes the HE-6 is a power hungry beast, so that makes it a good stress test so to speak.
- in single ended mode, Callia and iCAN are somewhat close, with iCAN carrying more grunt but Callia feels more refined
- in balanced the iCAN pulls closer to the Callia in refinement
- Callia headamp is cleaner (single ended) while iCAN seems stronger and punchier (same impression from both HEM8 and HE-6)
Initial thoughts on Balanced vs single ended (HE-6) with the various options:
- no issues with power in either single ended or balance, it gets plenty loud
- initial feelings on all the various options and knobs: I am not a fan
- the character of the various settings actually changes depending on single ended or balanced
- typically I found myself preferring balanced solid state
- the two tube modes seemed stronger in single ended mode; going to balanced seemed to take out some of that tubeyness or changed the tone to something odd
- on Xbass and 3D most of the time the first setting is ok-ish, but anything higher I did not like
Mode: Solid State (single ended)
- does not hit as hard as the Bryston B60 (but more than Prism Callia)
- slightly more sibilant yet softer at the same time; the initial "sss" is stronger but the trail is softer or drawn out
- midbass has a slightly hollow impact (sort of like emphasized at both edges); I can see how this might make people feel it is more detailed and impactful
- so maybe this is simply how it handles a transient; harder front edge, perhaps more overshoot then followed by ringing?
- initial feeling is more air and more zing, but this fades after some time
- coming back to B60 immediately feels fuller and more balanced, even though it's hard to quantify and doesn't have the same "kick" as the iCAN
- overall prefer solid state over tubes after listening back and forth
Mode: Solid State (balanced)
- more power, seems to have more control
- feels a bit more full bodied, but it's a very slight difference here
- midrange presence seems slightly smoother, but marginally so
- upper range unaffected
- still doesn't feel as full as the B60, but brings a bit more kick to the game
- if I had to pick one mode of the six possibilities, it would be this one
Mode: Tube (single ended)
- definitely not neutral
- you can easily tell there's a bass hump/harmonics
- more thump (different from kick), but softer on edges
- pretty much what you expect of a stereotypical tube sound
- you'd think this would be nice on music that was a little bass light... but adding those harmonics into stuff that doesn't have it in the first place doesn't work and you get a harmonic warmth but not any actual body; it actually makes those mids feel... not quite honky, but too thick
Mode: Tube (balanced)
- less hump, less thump
- seems like less of a deviation from normal compared to single ended
- still warmer compared to solid state, but in a different way than the single ended mode
- let me rephrase... feels like warmer with a tilt?
- perhaps slightly cleaner sounding than single ended, but tone is slightly offput
- I find myself marginally preferring single ended over balanced in tube mode
mode: tube+ (balanced)
- so I thought: ok if you're gonna go tube, might as well go all the way???
- seems like richer deeper sound? nope I lied, that's not what I get
- not any thumpier or softer
- but definitely an extra harmonic or something that pulls on the ear in an odd way; I'm guessing it's odd order harmonics here
- upper end feels less refined
- it's not a treble glare, but maybe a high order distortion product
- I actually feel like this one is more fatiguing than regular Tube mode
- not sharp, but seems kinda hissy/sibilant
- feels like... a delay in the upper registers? (rather than harmonics?)
mode: tube+ (single ended)
- ok this one seems richer compared to balanced
- adds more warmth
- too much of a "good thing"
- midbass steps forward
- does not tame bright recordings; just smooshes it out
- feels like a reverb
- even as an outside listener while someone else is wearing the headphones, I could tell this sounded different
Crossfeed / 3D Holographic:
- bleh? maybe I'll try a different song... nope, still bleh. Maybe a different setting, wow nope wtf is going on. Let's try a mono recording... nope, now it's just further away.
- loses impact and sharpness
- I do consistently feel that there's less "centre", but it comes at the expense of everything else.
- Let's not pretend that we're emulating speakers here. I prefer the stock crossfeed plugin on Jriver, or better yet just get the free ToneBoosters Isone Pro vst plugin (but this requires all the software shenanigans)
30: dips the middle
60: dips the middle more
90: boosts the edges
- really not much more to say here; overall this mode did nothing for me
- but note for later, this feature redeems itself a bit on the preamp outputs
- oh the lowest setting is kinda nice... but the others are just too much; in fact distractingly so
- even with metal recordings which I find are typically mastered bass light, the boost just didn't seem right
- you can't use this to correct for bass deficient headphones, because then you're pushing past what the headphones are really capable of and it turns into a muddled and distorted mess
- on bass-light recordings... eh I guess sorta it works, but you can't really amplify something that isn't in the recording
- so really this is only ok with bass capable headphones but bass-light recordings, and only on the first setting
- this feels like a bit more than just a typical EQ bass shelf, like maybe there's a tiny bit of harmonics added in too? I wouldn't be surprised if there were some crossfeed effect happening too, but don't know that for certain and am purely guessing here
- I suppose if you're in the "MOAR BASS" category of listeners then you'll be happy with this; I tried this using some bass heavy Fostex TH-X00 Purplehearts which are already bass heavy and this was simply too much
Gain (level match as much as possible by ear and multimeter)
- I'm surprised that it seemed like there were differences here
- low: kinda weaker? vocals seem slightly strained, but smoothest mid and treble, least impact
- med: "stringier" (not necessarily bad per se) upper end, impact seems cleaner
- high: hissier and slightly more sibilant, impact same as medium or ever slightly stronger, feels a bit like midbass boost again
- overall I stuck with Medium gain as my favourite and most of my listening was done here
Impressions with Sennheiser HD650
- all the fiddly knob stuff is less disagreeable on HD650 than the HE-6, like it's not as sensitive/resolving
- initial impressions seemed positive, but this dissolved after fifteen minutes
- soft touch/edges
- I thought it would be warmer but that's not the case
- still sounds brighter compared to my Bryston, it's not a "tss" sound but the trailing edges have a slight upturn to them
- resolution is ok, but not the best I've heard with the HD650
- Lorde - Royals: good kicks, but metallic, snaps don't have the body that they should
- all above impressions in solid state mode (balanced)
- Tube mode (balanced): ahh wtf?? distorted wonk wonk wonk
- Tube+ mode (balanced): huh better, like returning more to solid state, less sibilant, but slightly more fatiguing than regular tube mode
- SS mode (SE): sounds about the same as balanced, maybe a touch more metallic
- Tube mode (SE): warmer, hazier, this is the softest sound of all the modes and configs
- Tube+ mode (SE): too much harmonic, almost feels like an echo? even fuzzier, loses kick; vastly prefer balanced in this mode
- overall I do no not recommend the HD650 with this amp; it was not an ideal pairing
Fostex TH-X00 Purpleheart (single ended only)
- this is a bassy headphone going into what I feel is a somewhat bassy amp...
- as expected combo produces too much bass overall for my tastes, but could be fun for others
- Xbass: too much; it overwhelms
- crossfeed: meh... too mushed with all the bass, it just makes things feel hollow in the middle and flabby everywhere else
- tube mode: is ok, definition goes down, but rumble and thump increase (no surprise there); if I wanted to go for a stereotypically tubey sound with lots of warmth, this is it
- tube+ mode: also ok; it's just softly thumpier, same definition as regular tube mode but has a softer tonality, not warmer but low end feels stretched out, upper end
- this would be a basslover combo
Fostex T50rp (single ended)
- just not a good match
- top end feels withdrawn regardless of setting
- midrange is there, but feels detached
- bass hits quite hard, this was about the only part I lked
- tons of power, but it simply didn't mesh well
- I gave up on this
- very similar tone as the HD650
- similar changes with the various settings, but overall effects are less so and this seems to work in its favour
- I would pick the 598 over the 650 with this amp
- solid state: single ended is good, balanced feels somewhat tubbier
- tube balanced: not as wonky as the HD650; I can tolerate this one
- tube SE: warmer, softer, lazy-ish
- tube+ balanced: like a slightly edgier solid state
- tube+ SE: mush mush mush, stick with balanced
- crossfeed is actually no too bad, the middle doesn't dip as much, overall feel is more like a sideways stretch
- Xbass: it's weird that the 598 feels more comfortable boosting bass than it's big brother 650; still not my cup of tea, but it's workable here
NuForce HEM8 (from the 3.5mm jack)
- the 3.5mm jack is lower in volume compared to the 6.5mm
- congested? what the heck is going on? I'm having trouble trying to do a volume match because something doesn't sound right
- no seriously, what's wrong with this thing... is it broken?
- loses cohesion
- snaps and plucks are in the wrong place in time???
- is this just some sort of L-pad going on to bring the level down? feels like something more than that
- in any event, the sound is a mess and I'm abandoning this
- reading the manual... oh this is the iEMatch thing? I have no idea what that's supposed to be, but it's clearly not working for me
3.5mm jack with Fostex T50rp
- not as messed up as the HEM8, but still feels slightly muted
NuForce HEM8 from regular TRS
- ok, so right away this is miles better than the 3.5mm output
- seems a bit bassier
- does not feel as neutral as my NuPrime uDSD
- midrange is flatter, treble has good extension if very very slightly upturned
- slightly cloudy in resolution...
- REVISED: balanced inputs cleans this up (don't know why, but the above when I was using single ended inputs the sound sucked)
- overall tone still slightly fuzzy, but not cloudy like before
- overall tone balanced is restored
- Callia headamp is less stuffy, like a veil has been lifted
- midrange clarity improved, feels much better and breathes
- bass hits harder and cleaner now
- all above noted with solid state mode
- tube mode: there's a tradeoff here... seems cleaner up top but muddier down low
- tube+ mode: wow big pop when switching mode here so be careful; did not get any cleaner like tube mode but did not get muddier either... but sounds withdrawn
- actually just be careful with sensitive iems with the knobs; they all seem to produce pops when changing modes
- Xbass: even 1st notch seems too much, 3rd notch gets distorted
- 3D: 1st notch collapses the middle stage and becomes withdrawn, 2nd notch not much different, 3rd notch adds elements to the side (but lower, unlike speakers which was placed higher) but still sounds artificial; overall staging feels better with this turned off
- Callia headamp is cleaner (single ended) while iCAN seems stronger and punchier
Impressions on Speakers
Speaker "3D Holographic" settings from the preamp outputs:
- does not have the middle dip like with headphones; general balance is better
- staging is better preserved than with headphones
+ mode: it's ok, seems to add more air? very tiny smear but yeah I guess it feels like a different room or speaker setting; placement of side instruments moves further out and slightly up; with a mono vocal and my speakers slightly offset, I can hear this distortion effect like a comb filter? (yes this happens with offset, but I've never heard it this apparent before and it disappears with the crossfeed turned off)
30+: feels like a reverb now, angle doesn't really change but speakers have moved further away
60+: really pulls it out to the side, it's gone past reverb and is almost like an echo; instrument location has moved further behind and up, a bit like I have some satellite speakers in a surround mode behind me; the middle is a bit of a weird null zone
- overall 3D effect is less noticeable in Tube and Tube+ mode
- with desktop speakers the effect is very noticeable; likely most of the processing occurs in the upper registers of the frequency range, so the entire speaker and staging flies out to the side
- the various bookshelf speakers I tried exhibited mostly similar behaviours (main ones I had on hand: Celsus Sound SP-One, Centrance Masterclass 2504, John Blue JB3)
- the one that sounded best was my John Blue JB3 which feels like a horn and has a very narrow sweet spot; the + mode expanded this and gave it more space (almost too much air, though the speaker veers that way to begin with)
Larger speakers used: Genelec 1030, Yorkville YSM8, Yorkville U15 (full sized PA cabinets), a couple Paradigm bookshelves
- with larger full range speakers that have a deeper reach, the 3D spatialization is not quite so drastic since the lower energy range doesn't move, thus helps keep things in place
- but the effect here is that I felt like I moved closer to the speakers (increasing effective angle) rather than have the speakers widen out
- it's still a bit hazy and/or feels buzzy out at the furthest edges and raised up higher (again like I have some small satellites above and behind me, though their location is much higher here than compared to the desktop movement); the middle isn't a null zone like with bookshelf speakers, but does feel squishy
- the better the bass reach of the speaker, the less egregious the effect of the spatialization
- sub integration is kinda odd though; I feel like I'm getting phase discrepancies and walking around the room feels weird, so it's probably better to stick with a regular 2.0-ch setup rather than 2.1
- but overall I find it easier to adjust my ears to the speakers with the 3D effects; with headphones it just doesn't work for me
- if you're trying this on desktop speakers, you're gonna push them past what they're capable of and get a horrible mess because you're just distorting the speakers
- this did not sound good with any of my small bookshelf speakers
- on speakers with very good bass extension, you'll get rumble but not impact, it does feel deeper but also like you're in a bass bubble
- my Genelecs gained body, but still the strain was showing
- with my full range Yorkville PA speakers, this was generously room filling
- like on headphones, I find the first notch ok, 2nd is passable, but third is way way too much
- also similar to my headphone assessment, this setting really only works when you have bass-capable speakers and bass-light recordings.
How about as preamp?
- I wish there were a way to mute the preamp outputs
- all the fiddly knobs pass through in their own way
- not as transparent as the Stereoknight (but this is one of the best preamps I've ever heard); feels slightly mushier in comparison
- SS (balanced out) - soft yet a bit hard somehow; feels like a slight V emphasis
- tube (balanced out) - softens the sound, sharp plucks and twangs are smoothed out
- tube+ (balanced out) - actually less soft than regular tube mode; there's roundness to the sound but not warmth
- SS (SE) - same as balanced; maybe just a tiny bit more definition?
- tube (SE) - ever so slightly different flavour from balanced but hard to describe
- tube+ (SE) - more warmth than balanced
- no, I didn't hate it, despite my snarkiness
- I did not read other reviews before taking my notes, so my observations are fairly untainted
- solid state mode strikes me as a very competent amp
- preference for balanced vs single ended depends on the mode used
- there is an impressive amount of power on tap; it is rare that I find an amp that can handle the HE-6 and not struggle
- all the variable functions strike me as trying to do too much in such a small space; I understand the appeal and it's a tweakers' delight, but for me those added features were detractors
- just because I didn't like the Xbass or 3D spatialiazations doesn't mean others wouldn't enjoy them; the only feature that baffled me was the iEMatch
Pros - Drives every earphone under the sun (including electrostatics when the ESL adapter is launched), Options of Tubes or Solid State, Lots of extras
Cons - Remote is cheap and functions poorly, Delays when switching from solid state to tube mode, High price tag & still needs a DAC to maximize performance
At the time this review was written, the iFi Pro iCan was listed for sale on Amazon’s website. Here are some links for purchase and information:
Are you looking for the ideal headphone amplifier? What are your requirements?
The answers to these two questions varies, sometimes significantly depending on the person asked. The simple fact that we as audio enthusiasts have to be specific in our answer tells me that there’s room for improvement in one particular area, VERSATILITY. That’s where the Pro iCan steps in.
There are arguments about amps that carry on in audiophile circles…
“Is balanced worth the leap in price?”
“Solid state or Tubes?”
“High impedance and power hungry cans or low impedance portable gear with sensitive in-ear monitors?”
...as well as many others.
The truth is that there’s no wrong answer. As our gear and preferences evolve and change, so too does our demands and opinions of what’s ideal. What is agreed upon is the fact that we want to get the biggest return on the dollars we spend.
What if I told you that the answers to just about every single listening preference were answered in one amplifier? The folks at iFi have been listening, and the result is the Pro iCan. I said iCAN, not iCAN’T!
Let’s take a look at the amplifier that is versatile enough to eliminate specific preferences and go over it with a meat and potatoes review, shall we?
The Pro iCan was borrowed from iFi in exchanged for a comprehensive review. I would like to thank my good friend Lawrence for the opportunity to spend some time with the unit and share my experience with the iFi community.
The Pro iCan comes in a white sleeved box about the size of the average men's shoebox. A nice photo of the front of the unit is featured along with a brief description. The back of the box displays a photo of the rear portion of the device along with some key features.
Removing the sleeve I’m greeted to a simple white box with the iFi logo.
Specifications and Accessories
Gain: 0dB, 9dB and 18dB user-selectable
Frequency Response: 0.5Hz to 500kHz(-3dB)
Total Harmonic Distortion (by output setting):
Solid-State: Balanced: ≤0.0015% Single Ended: ≤0.005%
Tube: Balanced: ≤0.002% Single Ended: ≤0.005%
Tube+: Balanced: ≤0.012% Single Ended: ≤0.2%
Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR, Balanced/Single-Ended): >147dB(A) / > 137dB(A)
Output Power (16Ω, Balanced/Single-Ended): >14,000mW / >4,800mW
Output Voltage (600Ω, Balanced/Single-Ended): >23V / >11.5V
Input Voltage (Pro iCAN): DC 9V/6.7A – 18V/3.35A
Input Voltage (iPower Plus): AC 85 – 265V, 50/60Hz
Power Consumption: ≤ 22W idle, 50W max.
Dimensions: 213(l) x 192.5(w) x 63.3(h) mm
1X Pro iCan
1X Power Supply (15 volt, 4 amp)
1X Wireless Remote
1X Pair RCA jacks
Design, Build, Functionality
The Pro iCan is an all metal chassis. For a desktop amplifier it’s on the smaller side. The size is comparable to the likes of the Schiit Jotunheim or Asgard. For its size, the iCan Pro is fairly heavy.
I paired the Pro iCan with its older sibling, the micro iDSD. I ran line out in preamplification mode from the iDSD (used the iDSD as my DAC). Hooking the Pro iCan up was simple. Power adapter and two RCAs is all it took. As if I had to mention, the iDSD did a great job and paired well with the iCan Pro.
Looking at the back of the unit, there’s multiple inputs and outputs. The Pro iCan has left and right three pin XLR balanced inputs and THREE sets of unbalanced RCA inputs. For preamp output purposes, the unit has left and right three pin XLR balanced outputs as well as a set of unbalanced RCAs. Also located on the back is the power adapter input, a DC loop output, and a ESL link (special connection for a special iFi electrostatic add-on, not yet released).
Taking a look at the front, there’s a TON of stuff to go over (I will cover the front of the unit from left to right).
Top left we have a iFi Pro indicator light. Depending on what internal amplifier you’re using, the light will change color. The unit’s power button is discretely located on the lower left part of the front. A large dial is also located on the left side. This dial allows users to choose between the three analog RCA inputs and the dual three pin XLR balanced input. To the right of the input selector dial, there is an XBass selector dial. XBass options range from off, to a 12dB boost at 10Hz, 20Hz, or 40Hz. The XBass is definitely a useful tool that adds depth and lower frequency to leaner headphones, or gets the bass bumping when called upon. The boost is powerful, controlled and tastefully done from what I’ve heard. To my ears, each setting adds a noticeable emphasis that can give even the leanest headphones a nice amount of added oomph. Underneath the XBAss dial, a small metal three way lever switch can be found. This is the amplifier selector switch. I can choose to go from solid state, to tubes (with class A amplification), to a tube+ setting (even more “tube-ish” sounding).
The middle portion of the amplifier has several output jacks. Let's use the next to paragraphs to explain single ended and balanced modes.
Outputs- Single Ended
In the middle of the device, there are up to FIVE OUTPUTS THAT CAN ALL BE USED SIMULTANEOUSLY (in single ended operation). With single ended operation there are two ¼ inch output options, a four pin XLR balanced output, and two single ended 3.5mm outputs that are wired with IEMatch technology. Simplified, the two 3.5mm outputs are ideal with more sensitive earphones (like IEMs, and sensitive low impedance headphones). I find this many output options to be a very useful tool for someone like myself who does multiple comparisons, writes reviews and goes to shows. The amount of outputs the Pro iCan has is fantastic, and what I consider to be one of the device’s biggest strengths.
If you use the balanced input, the outputs change to balanced as well. Instead of having five different single ended stereo outputs (in unbalanced mode), the Pro iCan outputs change to three different balanced signals. Options are dual three-pin XLR (or dual ¼ inch outputs) which split the signal into left and right channels. The four pin XLR runs in balanced. The two 3.5mm outputs split the left and right signals as well. When using the Pro iCan in balanced mode, the output power is increased as well.
On the far right a large dial is placed to control volume. The Pro iCan also comes with a small wireless battery operated remote that changes the unit’s volume. The remote is a simple two button remote to be used for volume only. There is no power or input buttons on the remote. To the right of the outputs another smaller dial can be found. This is the 3D switch. To my ears this is an “awesomifier” for warm headphones and headphones that seem to struggle in terms of soundstage and imaging. Here’s iFi’s definition of this technology:
“The 3D Holographic for Headphones is not based on a standard cross-feed system, as found in some High-End headphone amplifiers. Many so called ‘3D systems’ are usually DSP based that artificially affect the sound and add unwanted reverb in order to simulate a ‘spacious‘ type of sound. It’s true that traditional cross-feed tends to produce an ‘out of head’ sound, but with much diminished spatial components and a narrower soundstage, sometimes almost approaching mono. Most DSP based 3D designs produce an unnatural, echo-like sound, which may initially be impressive, but soon becomes tiring. By contrast, 3D Holographic for Headphones, provides not only ‘out of head’ placement of the sound sources, but renders the whole 3D sound field in a manner that strongly parallels listening to loudspeakers in a normal room, all achieved without the added reverb. This is the first system in commercial production to achieve this.”
Underneath the 3D dial is another three way lever switch. This controls the amplifiers gain. There are three gain settings (0, +9dB, +18dB). Just a heads up, the gain settings increase the sound output quite a bit, and the Pro iCan gets insanely LOUD. How loud you ask? It’s capable of putting out up to 14,000mW. This device is literally is capable of pushing any headphone on earth including Electrostatics (with the electrostat add-on component, not yet released). In the same breath it can drive the world’s most sensitive IEMs with minimal to no background hiss (via the 3.5mm outputs).
Do you want the lean and clinical sound of a TOTL solid state amplifier? CHECK (solid state amp setting)
Do you want the best of both worlds with a class A tube amplifier? CHECK (Tube amp setting)
Do you want a warm expansive sound of a creamy tube amp sound? CHECK (Tube+ setting)
Do you want to use all three of these amp variations with anything from sensitive in-ear monitors to power hungry full sized headphones (and eventually electrostats)? No problem!
This amp is absolutely fabulous. Don’t get me wrong, this thing isn’t going to slay every summit-fi full sized headphone amp that exists. In some cases there are going to be elite headphone amps that have higher quality internals and perform better with full sized (primarily power hungry) headphones. Just the same, I’ve heard some multi-thousand dollar tube amps that will outperform the Pro iCan’s tube amp setting as well (as well as provide a larger panel for tube rolling). HOWEVER, these higher priced models don’t come close to the Pro iCan in terms of VERSATILITY. It’s really hard to ask for more considering the fact that this thing is under two grand and can push every earphone on the planet.
Because of the various settings and MULTIPLE amplifiers packed into the Pro iCan, I can’t give the unit a definitive sound signature. This device has multiple sounds once you factor in the various amplifiers and adjustable bass and 3D settings.
There are some basic observations I made when using the device. I found that neutral and semi open headphones sounded better with the amp in the “Tube” or “Tube+” setting. I found myself using the “Tube+” setting in combination with the Xbass setting on headphones like the Sennheiser HD600 and Philips SHP9500. I was able to really dial it in for my preference using the amp with this setting and added luxury of the Xbass dial.
Just the opposite, I enjoyed pairing the iCan Pro in solid state setting with warmer, bassier and closed full sized cans. Using the 3D dial seemed to add air and improve imaging with headphones like the ZMF Atticus, Meze 99 Neo and NAD Viso HP30.
Using the iCan Pro with in-ear monitors was a great solution for desktop use. I had fun using all the settings the amplifier had when using it with IEMs. Truth be told, not many amps are made to work with IEMs and as a result there is a fairly large amount of background noise and hiss. Not only did the iCan Pro avoid this phenomenon, it also gave me the luxury of dabbling with amplifier and sound settings like no other amplifier can. The single ended 3.5mm jacks are equipped with iFi's IEMatch technology found in the micro iDSD, making these outputs ideal for sensitive earphones.
Factor in price and I can guarantee sound of the iCan in every amp setting will give everything in its range a run for its money. I still love my micro iDSD and think it’s one of the better devices out there, but the iCan Pro’s amplifier section destroys whatever amplifier is under the hood of the iDSD.
The iCan’s biggest competition is the fact that there are amps in the five hundred to one thousand dollar range that will give it a run for it’s money if we’re talking about performance (based on preference) with one type of amp or the other (solid state or tube, but NOT both). The Brands and offerings that come to mind are Cavalli, Violectric, Woo Audio, Aune, and Schiit. At the same time, that’s the beauty of the iCan Pro. You don’t have to settle for one amp or have to buy multiple desktop amplifiers, you have them all in one!
Each amplifier setting flirts with or achieves excellent to TOTL fidelity. You want the clinical and balanced sound of a high end solid state amplifier? Flip a switch… You want the warm and expansive sound of a tube amplifier? Flip a switch…You want more bass? Turn a dial… You want a more spacious sound from your headphones? Turn a dial… You want to listen to your 400 ohm planars? There’s a jack for that… You want to listen to your highly sensitive multi driver in-ear monitors? There’s a jack for that… It goes on and on and on…
While the Pro iCan doesn’t rule the headphone world at any one thing in particular, the amp's fantastic performance and versatility makes it an epic piece of gear. Ifi has pretty much “cracked the code” and made what I would consider the most versatile headphone amp on the market today. It has an output and setting ideal for any headphone you have. As long as you have a decent DAC to feed it music files (which is an added cost you must consider to maximize the Pro iCan performance), the Pro iCan has the amplifier part down to a sweet science. Much of the magic that was used in the micro IDSD has been utilized with the Pro iCan, and they've also added a phenomenal amplifier section with loads and loads of power.
The iCan Pro is several amplifiers in one chasis. Owners can use the device with every pair of earphones they have. This provides tremendous value to those who want an all in one amplifier solution.
Thanks for reading and happy listening!
Pros - Large amount of power, neutral and un-coloured sound in solid-state mode, XBASS pairing with some headphones, many simultaneous outputs, transportable
Cons - Overly indistinct sound between the solid-state, tube and tube+ modes
iFi's response to my criticism as a disclaimer for this review:
'The unit may have needed to be run in longer in each mode. It requires 24/7 burn in for each mode (3 weeks total) so this maybe why he says the sound wasn't a big jump between the settings'.
I had the Pro iCan in my possession for almost a month and ran it near non-stop, mostly in tube mode.
Having previously found the IFI Micro iCAN SE impressive with its small factor yet high power, along with the synergy between its XBASS hardware bass boost and the Sennheiser HD800, I was greatly looking forward to tackling the company’s flagship amplifier. The elder brother of the Micro iCAN is called the Pro iCAN and it retails for $1700.
I’d like to thank IFI for sending me this unit of the Pro iCan for my honest impressions and a review.
Gain: 0dB, 9dB and 18dB user-selectable
Frequency Response: 0.5Hz to 500kHz(-3dB)
Total Harmonic Distortion:
Solid-State: ≤0.0015% (Balanced) ≤0.005% (SE)
Tube: ≤0.002% (Balanced) ≤0.005% (SE)
Tube+: ≤0.012% (Balanced) ≤0.2% (SE)
Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR, Balanced/Single-Ended): >147dB(A) / > 137dB(A)
Output Power (16Ω, Balanced/Single-Ended): >14,000mW / >4,800mW
Output Voltage (600Ω, Balanced/Single-Ended): >23V / >11.5V
Input Voltage (Pro iCAN): DC 9V/6.7A – 18V/3.35A
Input Voltage (iPower Plus): AC 85 – 265V, 50/60Hz
Power Consumption: ≤ 22W idle, 50W max.
Dimensions: 213(l) x 192.5(w) x 63.3(h) mm
Weight: 1.93kg (4.3lbs）
Gain = 0dB, 0.775V(0dBu) with 300 Ohm load unless stated otherwise
SNR Balanced: re 23V
SNR SE re.: 11.5V
Build Quality & External Features:
I do not know why I expected the actual unit size to be substantially bigger, as it really is not large at all – especially compared to the size of the Audio-GD NFB-28 that I bought recently. I really do not care much for the looks of the Micro-series by IFI, but I had to admit that they were built like little tanks. The Pro iCan takes that robustness and gives it a chassis that one can proudly display as a member of their audio chain with its textured metallic look.
The front panel has two dials and seven outputs. The large dial on the far left is to select the input feed, as the Pro iCan has the capability of three pairs of RCA in and one balanced XLR input. Also implemented is one pair of RCA and XLR outputs each, all on the back of the chassis. The next dial on the front, a smaller one, selects the four settings for IFI’s hardware bass boost – known as XBASS. The settings are off, 10 Hz, 20 Hz and 40 Hz.
Neatly placed at the front are no fewer than three balanced output options – dual XLR, 4-pin XLR and a 3.5mm. There are also slots for two 6.35mm plugs contained in the centre of dual of the dual XLR, as well as two pairs of 3.5mm jacks – one balanced and one unbalanced.
At two points on the front panel are small switches, each with three settings. The switch on the left selects between solid-state mode, tube mode and a mode that IFI calls “tube plus.” The next switch, on the right, toggles between 0, +9 dB and +18 dB gain. The smaller knob on the right toggles between 30/+, 60/30+ and 90/60+.
I found that the unit ran quite cool in solid-state mode, but heated up a bit when the tubes were activated – showing a picturesque orange glow emanating from the stylized vents of the chassis. This heat is expected from a tube amp, and as there is no exposed tube – there is no chance of burning yourself by accidentally (or deliberately, if you’re into that) touching it.
Finally, a remote is also included which can control the volume.
Just like I found to be the case with the Micro iCan SE, the solid-state mode of the Pro iCan provides a very clean and powerful amping experience. There is no colouration to the sound of any sort, to my ears, and it is designed to take the sound signature of your headphones and simply make it louder. However, I honestly could not hear much of a difference in the presentation of the solid state mode between the Micro iCan and its elder brother. Keep in mind that the Micro iCan SE’s wattage was strong enough to power most headphones on its own, so Pro iCan only feels like an upgrade in this mode if you have severely hard-to-power headphones. I wish I had a Hifiman HE-6 on hand to test this, but alas I do not.
The tube mode is where matters get a bit more interesting. The stereotype of tube amps is that they colour the sound, adding a little distortion and warmth to make the overall experience more “musical.” Other characteristics of tubes is that bass thump is slightly reduced, with the trade-off being increased soundstage and a wetter sound. Allow me to go through this one-by-one:
Distortion is only really audible on really revealing headphones, like my Sennheiser HD800. Even then, it is very low and barely noticeable unless you are actively looking for it.
There is not much more warmth compared to the solid-state mode. On headphones like the ZMF Atticus, itself a very mid-bassy and warm can, a change can be heard but it is not very distinct.
Bass thump is indeed reduced slightly, but a low setting of XBASS can be added to counter this.
With more analytical headphones, such as the Sennheiser HD800 and the ZMF Eikon, a wetter sound is definitely heard over the dry presentation of the solid-state mode. What this means is that music becomes more laid back, with frequencies gelling slightly to achieve a less stark and analytical and more thick and rich tone. However, the change is very subtle once again.
The tube+ mode is meant to bridge the gap between the dry and analytical solid-state mode and the wet and musical tube mode – with less-reduced bass thump while maintaining some characteristics of the tubes. The most noticeable change between it and the tube mode is that the low distortion is further reduced, providing a blacker background to the audio. However, it does lose some soundstage and the feeling of there being more space in the mix – but adjusting the crosstalk/3D holographic sound setting can adjust this to what you enjoy.
Ultimately, it took a lot of careful listening to distinguish the three modes with all four of my main headphones as nothing overt comes about from switching between them. I can, however, attest that the biggest difference is between the solid-state and tube mode, but it is still so slight that the tube+ mode being a middle ground is a little baffling. If I could make any changes, I would have picked a tube that is more distinct from the solid-state mode. The current tube mode might have been more suitable for the tube+ mode, a subtle change that bridges the gap between solid-state cleanliness and a very coloured sound.
That being said, I do have favourite modes for each of my main headphones.
DAC used: Schiit Gungnir Multibit with XBASS and 3D Holographic Sound Turned Off. All testing done on 4-pin XLR balanced output.
Sennheiser’s former flagship is a very clinical listening experience with vast soundstage and imaging capabilities. I find it difficult to pair with many headphone amplifiers, as the treble glare can get too painful to me with bad pairings. One such painful pairing was when I tried it with the Rupert Neve amp at the London Can Jam 2016 – and that is with the superdupont-resonator mod added to it too.
In my delta-sigma Schiit Gungnir days, I would find the treble presentation of the DAC to be a bit harsh when paired with the HD800. However, since upgrading to the more natural sounding Multibit version, I have found it to be an easier pairing with some amplifiers due to its less reliance on pushing air out to the listener.
The solid-state mode did not bring me any sort of glare or pain, but was still a bit treble-peaky at times depending on the source material. I did find the sound to be too dry for my taste, especially since I am used to the more coloured and warm Cavalli Liquid Carbon being paired with the headphones.
Tube mode brought about subtle changes that I preferred in this pairing. The sound became more laid back, and while not nearly as warm as I am used to – it was not as stark or alert in its attempt to dispense audio. Details, particularly in heavily layered rock and classic rock recordings, seemed to be brought out better in the mix and any distortion was barely noticeable after listening to music rather than deciphering the capabilities of the amp itself. I would actually classify this mode as being more detailed than the richer and more syrupy Liquid Carbon – but with reduced low end.
Tube+ mode was quite similar to the solid-state mode, too much on this headphone for my tastes. Thus, the winner of the three modes with the HD800 was tube mode.
ZMF Eikon (Padauk)
ZMF’s new flagship is a slight departure from their headphones in the past, opting for a more resolving and detailed sound while maintaining a punchy and fun sound signature with well extended and audible sub-bass. Since I’ve had this headphone, I’ve found myself drawn to the possibilities of tube amplifiers for their sound-shaping features.
While the tube mode of the Pro iCan is not quite a stark departure from the sound I can obtain on the Eikon using the Audio GD NFB-28 solid state amplifier – it provides a more laid sound to the very dynamic headphone. The tube mode rounds off some of the edges in airy instruments such as strings and horn sections, and provides slightly more soundstage to boot. I much prefer this combination with smooth jazz recordings and classic rock, but not so much with electronic genres due to slightly reduced sub-bass performance. Vocals, particularly female vocals, have slightly reduced airiness than the solid state mode but more body to the lower tones.
Tube+ mode, in this instance, can be used to offer a slightly wetter sound while maintaining the bass impact needed to enjoy genres more reliant on it. However, because it would seem that I indeed prefer the pairing of the Eikon with tubes (no matter how subtle the effects may be) I would say that the tube mode is my preference with the ZMF Eikon.
To my ears, the Elear was not designed to be used for laid back and easy listening. My go-to can for metal music, the dynamic and aggressive nature of the Elear makes it stand apart from the other headphones I am using today. However, due to these characteristics, I would not choose to try and modify the Elear’s sound to be anything other than what it is normally. Tube mode with the Elear does not do this much, but it is still at a level where I feel that it would be better served with the cleaner amping experience of the solid-state mode.
ZMF Atticus (Cherry)
ZMF’s new Atticus headphone is a mid-bassy experience with a lush and smooth midrange. It is quite picky with amp pairings, absolutely refusing to play nice with my Cavalli Liquid Carbon for instance, as a warm amplifier causes it to become overly muddy in presentation – with the mid-bass becoming overpowering and causing bleed that detracts from any details and accuracy.
None of the modes of the Pro iCan are a bad pairing with the Atticus, but I opt for the cleanest experience in this regard. The airiness of the solid-state mode, coupled with the lower distortion than the tube modes (once again, no matter how subtle they may be) make it the best pairing with the Atticus. However, I must admit that the amp of the Audio-GD NFB-28 (solid-state) controls the bass of the Atticus far better, bending it to its will. Comparisons, once again, made with the Schiit Gungnir Multibit DAC being fed into both amps.
XBASS & 3D Holographic Sound
While also being present on the Micro-iCan SE that I reviewed previously, both these modes have been upgraded substantially for the Pro-iCan’s usage. In my honest opinion, these two settings are the main selling point of this amp – and its true character, geared towards those wanting customization in their sound.
XBASS is a hardware bass boost that pairs very well with the Sennheiser HD800, something that I noticed while reviewing the Micro-iCan a few months ago. On the Pro iCan, however, it is a far more customizable experience with more texture and reach. Offering 10 Hz, 20 Hz and 40 Hz settings, it ranges from giving a slight kick to the low-end of your listening experience to making it a basshead’s dream. As it is a hardware boost, any trade-off to its usage is heavily reliant on the headphones being used and their ability to separate the frequencies well.
XBASS on the HD800 alerted me to just how well the sub-bass on the Sennheiser extended, just not very audibly due to the low volume of its low end. A HD800 with XBASS turned on full transforms the headphones into a punchy and bassy experience while retaining its crispness in the mids and highs – and most importantly the fantastic soundstage and imaging. It is a result that would make purists balk, however, as you are essentially making the headphone “lie” to you in a manner that goes far beyond mere tube colouration. Despite that, it is my favourite pairing of this amplifier – just an expensive one.
3D Holographic Sound is meant to add more panning distance and area into the soundstage of headphones. Using what I assume to be crosstalk, it widens the soundstage to varying effects depending on the headphones. I found the same function on the Micro-iCan to be a bit eerie, ethereal and whispery in nature – removing any impact or depth from the sound. On the Pro-iCan, however, the experience has been made more robust so that this is avoided.
Looking to try it, on full setting, with the HD800? Don’t bother, it does not benefit much at all. Closed headphones, like the ZMF Eikon and Atticus, do experience some widening of soundstage – and it is definitely interesting but something that is heavily dependent on the listener’s preferences.
Some combination of the two settings could fine-tune the Pro-iCan into sounding how you want, making the amplifier a consideration for those who are into such levels of customization.
Observant readers might notice that I did not touch very much on how the Pro-iCan simply “drives” headphones in this review. That is because it simply does so, driving most headphones is no problem for it with its ample wattage. Once again, I do not have a Hifiman HE-6 on hand to test how it does with that notoriously low-sensitivity headphone, but it handled my three 300 ohm and one 80 ohm headphones with ease. Through the 3.5mm output, it drove the 320 ohm VE Zen 2.0 easily too. I never had to make use of the gain switches.
I also have to praise the small form factor of the Pro-iCan, which is especially small compared to my gigantic Audio-GD NFB-28. It is quite transportable, and if it had a DAC component then it would have been all you need for a transportable setup.
However, ultimately, I find that the Pro iCan (when used in its pure solid-state, tube and tube+ modes) lacks a distinctive flavour that sets it apart from other amps that I have tried. While the XBASS and 3D Holographic Sound settings exist to customize your experience, I feel that IFI played it a bit too safe with the difference between the three modes – with tube+ mode feeling redundant with some headphones and it was too indistinct from solid-state mode.
That being said, there is nothing wrong with this amplifier. Anyone seeking a cleanly amped experience that comes with the bells and whistles of customizable hardware bass boosts and crosstalk settings will find it here – if they are willing to spend the aforementioned $1700 for it.
I would imagine that even the subtle differences would suffice for some, but I would personally want a tube amplifier for this price in which it was possible to roll several different tubes for customization in a different way – so the switching mode isn’t a selling point for me.
So, in summation, the Pro-iCan is a solid product that will drive any of your headphones and give you the ability to customize your experience with features that are, frankly, not present on most amplifiers.
Pros - Reference clean sound, unbelievable I/O flexibility, unique and rewarding 3D holographic system, luscious tube mode
Cons - XBass knob should be used with extreme caution, no tube rolling fun
As I sure many of you are already acutely aware of, we're big fans of iFi Audio. You see unlike a lot of vendors who treat their circuit designs as if they were highly classified secrets, iFi is very open and honest about all of their products. In fact, iFi is one of the few companies I know of that even freely shares high-resolution pictures of every circuit board they fabricate. Couple that with the fact that these Brits are very community focused, vetting feature and collecting feedback constantly, makes iFi, at least to our ears, one of the defacto leaders in the low- to mid-tier marketplace.
So when iFi announced their "Pro" line, aimed squarely at the high-end market, I was stoked. I already use their now well respected micro iDSD ($499) on a daily basis, which I still maintain is one of, if not the best sounding headphone amp/DAC combos you can buy at its price point. But despite my affinity for the micro iDSD, I'm quite aware of its limitations too.
First off, the micro iDSD is without question a "jack of all trades" type of device than a truly dedicated component, and as such, comes with all the benefits and limitations that entails - no balanced outputs, only one input, solid-state only, etc. Secondly, I've always felt the micro iDSD is more DAC than amp, with the overwhelming majority of its feature set focused on accommodating headphones with a vast array of juicing requirements than outright performance. Finally, and most importantly, iFi can only squeeze so much performance out of a device that isn't exactly desktop sized and designed for portable use. Put simply, there is room for improvement (literally).
But going "Pro" also means having a pro price tag as well, with iFi's first offering in this line, the Pro iCAN headphone amplifier, clocking in at a hair under $1700. Not outrageous in the high-end headphone amplifier market by any means, but certainly a price tag that puts it squarely in the prosumer market nevertheless. So with all of that in mind, is the new Pro iCAN all go or just for show? Read on and find out.
Living A Truly Balanced Life
I think given all the features the Pro has, the most important one bar none is that it is a fully balanced design. What that means in a nutshell is that from end-to-end this amplifier has two discrete channels, one for the left and the other for the right that the signal propagates through. Why is this so important? Because many manufactures claim that they have a balanced design when in reality it is "balanced" in name only, with just the output stage splitting the single-ended signal into two outputs. And thus won't reap the full rewards of a truly balanced design, which includes higher dynamic range and lower overall THD and cross talk.
The Pro is what iFi likes to dub as "True Differential Balanced" which is a very fancy way of saying that both the left and right channels go through discrete circuit sections. That also means double the parts since each chain has to go through their own input and output stages during amplification while keeping both channels matched. To that end, iFi has designed their own special potentiometer that is built custom by ALPS Japan exclusively for the Pro. It features 6-tracks with two sets of two tracks each to control the left and right channels respectively, and the last two tracks used to monitor volume operation. In English, when you turn the volume knob on the Pro, you are changing the volume of both channels simultaneously while keeping each channel in sync so one side doesn't sound louder or softer than the other. Again, a mark of a truly balanced design. It's also motorized too so you can use it with the included IR based remote as well. Slick.
The Eye of Sauron
If you wanted to live the valve life and still stick with iFi, then your only option was the micro iTube. However, with the Pro, iFi gives you a choice, with the ability to in real-time switch back and forth between the valve and solid-state input stages. Historically, hybrid amplifier designs would usually tack on a tube output stage on top of a solid-state one as an added effect. With the Pro, both the solid-state and tube-side are completely separated from each other and once switched over, the signal path continues to maintain the shortest route to the output stage through each. Nice.
The tube of choice as you can see is the venerable and well regarded General Electric NOS 5670, and the Pro ships with two of them (again, balanced). This is a premium version of the 6922 with a slightly different pin-out. With the Pro, you actually get two different tube playback modes, Tube and Tube+. The difference between the two is that in Tube+ mode the signal has less overall loop-gain because the J-FET circuitry is switched out for all-valve operation and thus sounds more "tubey" compared its non-plus counterpart, which tries to balance preserving the 5670's natural harmonics with transient response.
On the solid-state side of things, the Pro offers a fully discrete MOSFET-buffered bipolar Class A output stage. The circuit is also purely DC coupled with no coupling capacitors insight. For very sensitive IEMs and low impedance headphones, the Pro operates in Class AB mode.
Speaking of power, the Pro's output is insane. You have three gain stages, 0db, 9db, and 18db respectively. In 20V balanced-mode, it can output the equivalent of 100W into 4 ohm speakers! In fact, the Pro is so powerful that iFi had to put protection circuitry in it. Don't worry though, the added circuit is not in the audio path but rather implemented in the power supply. Basically, this circuitry allows short term, unrestricted peaks but will progressively limit the available current when the amp reaches a certain operating temperature or starts to clip. If the amp does find itself in this mode, it will continually step back the flow of electrons until it completely shuts off to avoid damage. With all that said, be very careful with this amplifier if you are using multiple headphones with vastly different amperage requirements, since very bad things can happen if you use the wrong gain stage or turn the dial too high, especially if you are in balanced mode.
Again, sticking with the theme of choice, the Pro offers an insane level of I/O flexibility. You have have several balanced and single-ended inputs and outputs to choose from. The large left knob can select from three singled inputs and one balanced one on the back. You even have one 3.5mm TRRS jack if you happen to own an IEM and want to run them in balanced mode. The two 6.3mm jacks can also run in balanced mode too, which is why you see an "L" and "R" above them. The manual states for single-ended headphones you should use the "R" jack which is what I used when I wasn't in balanced mode.
In addition to supporting highly sensitive IEMs, the Pro also inherits iFi's XBass Bass Correction System and 3D Holographic technologies too. Both are implemented as purely analogy circuitry, with XBass boosting bass 12db at 10Hz, 20Hz, and 40Hz respectively. This is a great feature if you have very bass light cans or are a self-proclaimed bass head. Otherwise I'm going to be the first one to say to you to should never ever have to touch that dial. Never.
On the other hand, the 3D Holographic system they've implemented in the Pro is fantastic and can single-handily make hypercompressed music sound a lot more alive. Take note, this isn't your typical Bauer crossfeed circuit which I find unbelievably annoying. Rather, iFi has developed their own proprietary matrix that can translate a spacious stereophonic recording with good imaging when replayed on speakers into its equivalent when listening to headphones. I'll have more to say about this knob below.
The general fit and finish of the Pro just screams "pro" too, from the golden ratio variable thickness chassis to its nylon based quad damped isolation base mount. I also appreciate its overall size too, which can easily fit on any desktop. When its co-conspirator is released in the next couple of months, the Pro iDSD, iFi plans to make a rack that will accommodate both. Sweetness.
The Miracle Knob
I thought the best comparison would be to actually compare the micro iDSD with the Pro. That way both chains are using the same DAC and I can simply plug headphones in and out under the same approximate volume level to get a sense of what another $1100 buys you. I used a pair of Focal Utopia ($3999) and Audeze LCD-4 ($3999) for the overwhelming majority of this review.
LORN's Arrayed Claws is just a phenomenal record and definitively an early contender for AOTY. What really sets this album apart from your prototypical black metal offering is this hypnotic, almost trance like quality to it. Couple all that with the fact that occasionally the album goes all Random Access Memories on you in a few spots, makes for a riveting yet unique listening experience to say the least.
Right out the gate, the main sonic difference between the iDSD and Pro is refinement - bass sounds deeper and more controlled, the midrange blossoms with all of Claws' distortion and reverb on full display, and the treble is crip and clean. In fact, I've read a few impressions where the reviewer found the Pro somewhat clinical and I do hear that given the Pro's level of cleanliness. But I'd argue that at least in solid-state mode, neutral would be a better description as I found the amp just let the Utopia do its thing. I can't say the same thing with the iDSD, which compresses the Utopias' already middle-of-the-road soundstage.
However, if the stock solid-state sound just isn't doing it for you, no problem. Flip the Pro into Tube+ mode, wait for the light to turn orange, and bathe in all that tube glory. I found Tube mode isn't really much to speak of, since the differences between it and solid-state is in the noise. But in Tube+, the Pro just sounds so luxurious, with a nice sheen of second harmonic goodness felt throughout that really livens things up considerably. In fact after deciding that the iDSD's amp stage was really no match for the Pro, I did most of my listening in Tube+ since I think it sounds a lot more musical with majority of my favorite metal recordings.
One thing that I also took me by surprise was just how much more spacious everything sounded. Which brings me to that 3D holographic knob on the right. As I stated above, iFi's 3D system is not just a simple crossfeed circuit, but their own proprietary design. And after playing with it for several weeks it is now what I like to call the "miracle knob." Turning the "miracle knob" to the 90 degree mark, which simulates a wide loudspeaker placement, felt like it added back a few points of dynamic range to Claws instantly (and this isn't even that compressed by DR standards). In fact, I was so impressed on how it transformed the sound, I thought to myself, "What could it do for Ulcerate?"
So if you're regular around these parts, then you already know how I feel about Ulcerate's latest, Shrines of Paralysis. This is an incredible record and easily could have made my year end list if it wasn't for its abysmal DR3 mastering job. I threw the 3D knob back to the zero mark and gave Paralysis another shot figuring the Pro could liven it up a bit. Yeah, still awful. But with that knob flipped to the 90 degree mark, not bad at all. The record suddenly felt like it had more sonic depth and sounded generally less crushed overall. In fact, for the first time ever, I was able to listen to Paralysis all the way through without suffering any ear fatigue. It's a miracle! If there is one aspect of the Pro you just have to try it is this one - flip that knob over to the 90 degree mark and prepared to be amazed!
Is it me or has Canada become the place for high-quality technical death metal these days? Must be something in the maple syrup. Anyway, Gomorrah's The Hauspex was one of the unsung tech death metal heroes of 2016 and still manages to climb its way back into my rotation every so often. For this outing with the Pro, I went with the LCD-4 and listened to Hauspex in both balanced and unbalanced mode to compare the two. Unlike the Utopia, the LCD-4 requires a lot of juice given its 200 ohm impedance. Full disclosure: I don't think balanced mode makes that much of a difference with the overwhelming majority of headphones. With that said, I thought balanced mode did improve the LCD-4 slightly, mainly in the bass department. Bass was just outright thunderous on tracks like "Sitra Achra" and "Cerulean" in balanced mode to the point that I thought I had the XBass knob turned up. I didn't. The LCD-4's bass is just incredible when driven to the fullest. And that's what balanced mode gives you. Unfortunately, my custom Utopia balanced cable was not ready in time for this review so I can't comment if there are any improvements in running the Utopia in balanced mode or not. My guess is like the LCD-4, bass extension would improve substantially since as Tyll over at Inner Fidelity reported, there is a big jump to 300 ohms at 50Hz from its nominal 85 ohm impedance. In other words, even though the Utopias are very easy to drive, they do require a lot of on-demand juice to extract every drop of performance out of them and the Pro is more than up to the task.
Is the Pro a reference level component? No question. I think $1700 is actually quite a fair asking price given its sheer sonic performance and flexibility. And it certainly sounds better than all of its cheaper siblings by a wide margin. Moreover, iFi's proprietary 3D holographic system is just a godsend for the audiophile headbanger at large. I must have listened to hundreds of metal records over the course of this review, most of which were all hypercompressed, but with a simple turn of the knob, all of these recordings sounded significantly more open and dynamic. That in itself might be worth the price of admission alone.
If I had to nitpick though, I think some of its features could have been removed to save cost. For example, having a 3.5mm output is more or less superfluous on a system like this. If you bought the Pro for your expensive IEM or CIEM, you're audiophiling all wrong! And though I'm quite aware that bassheads will love cranking up that XBass knob, it is definitely not for me. Finally, even though I think serving the 5670 as the main course every night is fine and dandy, I still prefer a la cart. Especially since the 5670 won't last forever and eventually will need to be replaced.
Still, it's hard to argue with the Pro since it is such a joy to listen to and use. That's why I have no qualms giving it our highest honor even with its lofty price tag. The new Pro iCAN is definitely all go and no show (well, maybe a little show).
This review was originally featured on Metal-Fi.
Pros - Both SS & Tube amp., beautifully well built, plethora of input/output options, truly superb sound, plays and powers ANYTHING
Cons - I hate it when I can't find any, but I honestly couldn't think of any negatives present with this product
I was introduced to the iFi brand during the Carolina CanFest 5 head-fi meet back around March of 2016 and was seriously impressed with how powerful and clean their products performed. It didn’t matter if I used my personal hyper sensitive ciems (Empire Ears Hermes VI), mildly power hungry Sennheiser HD650, high demanding headphones such as the Hifiman HE1000v1 or any of the Audeze line. iFi met every challenge with a smile and delivered one just as big to the listener. The product I’m most specifically referencing was their iFi Pro iCAN. The ability to cover the vast array of products and functionality blew me away then, so when I was finally able to review it almost a year later my fingers couldn’t begin to type my application fast enough.
It goes without saying but I will make it a point to regardless; thank you iFi for allowing me to be a part of trying out your flagship product. My time spent with it was thorough and very well enjoyed. Now, with all that said and the pleasantries aside, allow to me explain my thoughts on what is the flagship of the iFi brand.
Spoiler: A little about me
I would like to say that first and foremost I am NOT an “audiophile” but rather an audio enthusiast. I listen to music to enjoy it. Do I prefer a lossless source? Yes, of course. But I can still be very happy streaming from Pandora or even my YouTube “My Mix” playlist. I also prefer equipment that sounds the best to me personally regardless of what frequency response it has or rather or not it's “sonically accurate” and I always have and shall continue to encourage others to do the same.
I'm a 25 year old firefighter, for the City of Concord North Carolina as well as the U.S. Army North Carolina National Guard. The cliché of wanting to do this since I was born couldn't be more present with me. I've worked hard over the last several years to earn this position and now it's time for me to work even harder to keep it.
My interests/hobbies are power lifting, fishing and relaxing to audio products and reviewing them to help other decide on what products would work for them. Few things make me as an audio enthusiast/review feel more accomplished than when someone tells me that I helped them find the type of sound they've always been looking for.
Now, the sound signature I personally favor is a relaxing, warm and sensual sound that just drifts me away in the emotional experience of the music being performed. Yes, accuracy is still important but I will happily sacrifice some of that if I'm presented with a clean, warm sound that can wisp me away into an experience that makes me yearn for more.
My ideal signature are that of respectably forward mids and upper bass range with the bass being controlled but with some slight decay. I like my treble to have nice extension and detail reveal with a smooth roll off up top as to not become harsh in the least. Examples of products that have given me chills and keep giving me the yearning for more feels are the (in no particular order) Bowers & Wilkins P7, Oppo PM-1/2, Empire Ears Hermes VI & Zeus XIV, Audeze LCD-XC, Meze Headphones 99 Classics.
Spoiler: Equipment used at least some point during the review
-Empire Ears Hermes VI
-Meze 99 Classics
-Schiit Bifrost 4490
-HP 15634 Laptop
-Sony Playstation 4
-iFi Nano iUSB3.0
-Final Fantasy XV
I am by no means sponsored by this company or any of its affiliates. They were kind enough to send me a product for an arranged amount of time in exchange for my honest opinion. I am making no monetary compensation for this review.
The following is my take on the product being reviewed. It is to be taken “with a grain of salt” per say and as I always tell people, it is YOUR opinion that matters. So regardless of my take or view on said product, I highly recommend you listen to it yourself and gauge your own opinion.
The Opening Experience
Spoiler: Why I feel so strongly about the initial unboxing experience
Please allow me to explain why I feel so strongly about the initial unboxing experience with a product. Maybe it’s due to my southern roots in the hills of eastern Kentucky, but I’ve always been raised under the pretense of when you introduce yourself to someone for the first time you present yourself with confidence, class, character, pride, and competence. You greet the other person with a true warm smile, eye contact and a firm handshake. Anything less or short implies to other person that you either don’t care about them, are too full of yourself, too busy to be bothered by the likes of them, or worse, just generally disrespectful.
As a consumer, I take this same belief to when I open a new product. Why? Because think about it this way. How else can a company introduce themselves to their customers? How do they present their products? Are they packaged with pride and presented in such a way that makes the listener eager to listen to them? Or maybe they’re just wrapped up and placed in an available space. How about the box itself? Is it bogged down with jargon that says look at this, look what I can do. I’m better than anything on the market and here’s why read this and check out that. Or, is the package clean, simplistic and classy? As if saying to the customer ‘Good day, pleasure to meet your acquaintance. Please give me a listen and allow me to show you what I can do and allow my actions to speak louder than my words.’
This is why I feel so strongly about the initial presentation of a product, and I feel it’s truly a shame more people don’t. But with all that aside, let’s discuss how this products introduced itself shall we?
Like the previous iFi iUSB3.0 the Pro iCAN is packaged in a wonderfully simplistic and straightforward way. The front has only a picture of the product, the brand name, and what the product is. The back has a few show points about the product but doesn’t bog down the entire thing (my personal preference is for it to be in the intro guide because people who are shopping for products in this price point have likely done a fair bit of research into what the product can do).
The product itself is inside the box that is inside the wrapping (where all the pictures and words are, the only thing written on the box box is iFi. Upon opening the box you’re immediately greeted with the iFi Pro iCAN right up front and centered, though it’s a little bit smaller than what the size of the box made me think to believe. Under the main showpiece you’ve a the traditional instructions and warranty information as well as the power cable and iFi branded dual coaxial cable.
Quite a short section but really there wasn’t much to the unboxing of the iFi, it was rather straightforward. I don’t feel like I was shafted a great experience nor was I given a breathtaking memorable experience either. I do believe it was a good one however and the pride of the iFi brand still made itself known; and with that I am happy with how the unboxing is.
The total build quality to the iFi Pro iCAN it freaking top notch in every single aspect I can even start to critique it on. This beautiful piece (both metaphorically and literally) is completely aluminum build and competently put together at that. I personally really enjoy the functional aspect to the artistic design of the wavy pattern to the top plate. In addition to looking really nice it also disperses heat more effectively than a flat panel, and I like that nudge to look and functionality so very well done iFi. While I’m talking about the top plate it also has a single glass bulb that allows you to somewhat look through and view the 2 General Electric 5670 tubes. Oh yeah, in case you already didn’t know, the iFi Pro iCAN is a hybrid solid state (which may also be listed as SS as well from this point forward) & tube amplifier, but I digress. Circling the bulb is a circular vent pattern that allows the pretty high heat this can make to vent easier. The sides, just to knock these out right quick, follow the wavy/circular pattern with its vent ports to further allow the iCAN to breath. The bottom of this device has a nice rubber padding that now only helps prevent scratches but also reduces noise from whatever it may be resting on, another functionally applicable piece iFi added.
The back of this monster has an absolute smorgasbord of input and output options for the user. From left to right (from looking at the back of the iCAN) you’ve a balanced L&R input and not 1 or even 2 but 3 unbalanced coaxial inputs. This is an awesome feature for I can use this one endgame amp. for so many of my setups (PS4, DAC, etc…) without having to unplug anything. Continuing onwards, you’ve a L&R balanced output as well as an unbalanced coaxial output; oh, wait, in addition to being a hybrid solid state and tube amp. this beast is also a preamp; I did mention the endgame potential of this right? And finally you’ve the power, DC loop-out and DSL Link ports (I was unable to try either of the later two).
Now onto the business end of the Pro iCAN, the front. And my goodness, you thought the back had option. From left to right (again facing the device), you’ve the power button, input selection knob which allows you to choose which of the 4 input option you want to use instantaneously, a bass booster knob (which I will discuss in the features section), SS/Tube/Tube + selector switch (also to be discussed in the features section), your first 6.5mm(¼”)/3 pin XLR input port, unbalanced 3.5mm (⅛”) port, the 4 pin XLR port, your second 6.5mm(¼”)/3 pin XLR port, and finally your balanced 3.5mm (⅛”) port. My goodness that’s 5 individual ports that allows for up to 5 different headphones to be played and the exact same time, and with 14amps of power the Pro iCAN can most certainly handle it. But continuing on because we’re not quite finished yet. You’ve the 3D holographic headphone selector knob (to be discussed further in the features section), the gain switch (to choose between a 0, 9, or 18db gain), the silky smooth volume knob, and finally, bringing in the very rear is something I’ve personally never even thought about to have on a headphone amp., and that’s a IR (infrared) sensor for the supplied remote control.
I didn’t mention while listing the grand menu this product offers its users but all the knobs and switches are made of premium aluminum while the ports are made of a premium plastic that looks and feels super durable. I really don’t have a single thing to complain about in the construction of the Pro iCAN. I really tried thinking of one but iFi really did a splendid job in how they crafted this device. Everything they did had a function to it and everything was built super well. I feel that all I can do is babble about how good this thing looks and is built so I’ll just end this section here.
The Pro iCAN is practically bursting at the seams with all the things it can do. Starting with, in my opinion, the coolest feature, and that’s the 3D dual holographic processor for headphones and speakers. This knob, located directly left of the volume knob, has 4 selections to choose from; off, 30 degrees (+ for speakers [which essentially just activated the processor]), 60 degrees (30 for speakers), and 90 degrees (60 for speakers). I REALLY loved this, for everything from music to media and even gaming (dear goodness what it does for gaming). The aspect of imaging and spacial awareness is often used to place the listener inside the performance and make you really feel apart of whatever you’re listening to, but with the iFi 3D dual holographic you might as well be in the game you’re playing, performance you’re listening to, or movie you’re watching. I personally prefer the 90 degree setting when I’m playing games or watching movies because, to me, it adds the most sense of realism and a many of times has made me take my headphones off to see if Christina (my wife) is talking to me across the room it’s that spot on. When I’m listening to music I prefer either the 90 degree or 60 degree if I want a more intimate experience with my performance. I will say that going from this back to my Schiit Lyr 2 was immediately noticeable on just this aspect alone (for now anyways). So be warned those who wish to try the Pro iCAN, once you’ve experienced the clarity of surround sound from headphones, it’s never the same going back.
A feature that I believe a lot of people will really enjoy, that I even used a few times myself, is the Xbass (bass booster) setting. This allows the user to add 10, 20, or 40hz to the bass (more specifically the mid bass) to give it a harder punch to whatever you’re listening to and through. I say I myself earlier because I’m not a big bass nut and have purchased headphones that have the response that I enjoy the most. But, with that said, when I’m in a fun kind of mood and wanna get my club/dance/dub/EDM on I’ll certainly crank that up to 40hz and ravel in the extra hit given. Also, I like using these for action movies; they make for some really fun booms.
Finally, the last feature of the Pro iCAN that is worth showing extra spotlight is the SS/Tube/Tube + selector switch. Without discussing the overall sound of the iCAN (for it’ll of course be discussed in the Sound section) this allows the user to choose between the accuracy and quickness of a solid state amplifier or the relaxing and musical aspect of a tube amp.There’s also a feature that’s called the Tube amp + that
Specifications (copied straight from the iFi website)
0dB, 9dB and 18dB user-selectable
0.5Hz to 500kHz(-3dB)
Total Harmonic Distortion (THD, Balanced/Single-Ended):
Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR, Balanced/Single-Ended):
>147dB(A) / > 137dB(A)
Output Power (16Ω, Balanced/Single-Ended):
>14,000mW / >4,800mW
Output Voltage (600Ω, Balanced/Single-Ended):
>23V / >11.5V
Input Voltage (Pro iCAN):
DC 9V/6.7A – 18V/3.35A
Input Voltage (iPower Plus):
AC 85 – 265V, 50/60Hz
≤ 22W idle, 50W max.
213(l) x 192.5(w) x 63.3(h) mm
Gain = 0dB, 0.775V(0dBu) with 300 Ohm load unless stated otherwise
SNR Balanced re 23V, SNR SE re. 11.5V
My goodness, I’ve yet to come up with a single complaint to the iFi. How about the sound? They’ve put all their resources into its functionality and features that surely they’ve sacrificed the sound right? Nope, not in the very least. The Pro iCAN delivers audio swiftly, accurately, and transparently. It didn’t matter if I was powering the respectably hungry ATH-W5000 (like planars they’re lower impedance but they need some juice to really sound their full potential) or my hyper sensitive ciems. Everything was incredibly detailed and revealing with a pitch black background that, especially when paired with the 3D feature, does a job of putting you at the performance or inside the movie or video game that I’ve never experienced before.
For the gamers out there, I’ve also an Astro MixAmp Pro 2011 edition that I use for gaming (my thoughts on that shall be reserved) and the positional abilities that are present within the Pro iCAN just destroy every single thing about the Astro. In fact if I had a viable method to use an external mix with this device I would have likely left it unplugged throughout my entire time with this unit. So just in terms of its gaming capabilities, consumers should really take note of this unit (if of course their wallet can handle it, this booger isn’t cheap). I’ll use this one example so that this paragraph doesn’t go too long, when playing Final Fantasy XV there was a mission where I had to find some frogs. Well these stupid things are pretty well hidden and took me long enough to where I had an idea to try out the iCAN to try and find them that way (was using the Astro before). And when I switched over it was like switching from 360i to 1080p difference. I was able to EASILY and accurately find where each frog was just by listening to their croaks (which I heard with the Astro but wasn’t able to identify where).
Getting back on track with the musical abilities. As of this very second while writing this I’m listening to one of my favorite tracks of all time (that unfortunately is ONLY on YouTube because they’ve never [to my knowledge] released a track so I can only imagine how it COULD sound) Pirates of the Caribbean by the Rhapsody Philharmonic, and the separation present is just incredible. I can easily identify where exactly what instrument is playing where, in addition to that I can actually hear the reverberation of certain instrument strings (in this case the double bass and occasionally a violin) when they’re closer to the recording microphones. This type of detail retrieval was consistent throughout my time with the Pro iCAN and made me close my eyes in enjoyment each and every time.
To finish, this may be a good or a bad thing depending on how you look at it but the Pro iCAN didn’t really favor any headphone sound signature. It remained unbiased and played anything the same as everything else. For example, my Sennheiser HD650 pairs very well with my Schiit Lyr 2 (with NOS tubes I purchased) but not as sublimely with the Audio-Technicas. They don’t sound bad by any means but it just doesn’t mate as well as with headphones that are more relaxed and laid back (such as the HD650, 99 Classics, P7’s etc…).
To sum up my thoughts on the iFi Pro iCAN, is that this is truly an outstanding unit in every single aspect I could think to test it out on. It had enough power to easily and effortlessly power anything I had at my disposal to try with it all while being finess enough to silently power my hyper sensitive ciems. The build quality is not just artistic but functional and extremely durable. The iCAN is finally a device that ends my thoughts of wanting to have both a tube amp. for personal enjoyment and relaxation as well as a solid state for accurate interpretation of the equipment I’m to be reviewing. The sound, to me, was ghostly transparent while giving me full confidence that it was revealing all the detail the DAC was giving to it. I greatly enjoyed my very quick two weeks with it and absolutely recommend this amp for honestly anyone who’s in the market for an endgame amp. I’m also confident enough to say it’ll satisfy basically any needs you’d think of. Very, very well done iFi; you’ve yet again created a product that others should certainly make note of and respect.
Also, make sure to check out my unboxing and review videos. They’re pretty awesome AND you getta put a face to the Army-Firedawg name. If this review helped you out at all please hit that thumbs up button for it really helps me out a lot. Till next time my friends, stay safe.
Pros - Build Quality, Aesthetics, Sound Quality, Versatility, Fully Balanced, Black Background
Cons - Tends to slide easily on desktop (minor quibble)
INTRODUCTION Disclaimer: As part of the Pro iCAN USA Tour group, iFi provided me a demo unit for a brief time in exchange for my opinion. My thanks to iFi Audio for this unique opportunity.
BUILD & SPECS One word for the build: Impeccable.
Like all of the other iFi Audio products I've come across, the Pro iCAN is built with longevity in mind. It is definitely heavier than it looks. Upon first glance at its front and back panels, it may also come across as overwhelmingly complicated. However, after a quick review of the user manual, all of the connectors, knobs, and switches begin to make sense and operation is fairly simple and straightforward. It also helps that I previously owned the iFi Micro iDSD.
As far as the specs go, I am always amazed at how much tech iFi is able to thoughtfully fit within their products. For detailed specs, I won't regurgitate that information here since it is readily, and more accurately available on iFi Audio's Pro iCAN web page. Plus, the page is well designed and provides an excellent overview of the versatility of this all-in-one.
Note: This section is where I planned to post pictures I took of the amp and accessories, however, my camera's memory card has been "misplaced". Until I find it, the reader can enjoy the fantastic pictures taken by other reviewers of the Pro iCAN. Honestly, some of these Head-Fi reviewers take damn nice photos!
SOUND Headphones used for this review included Focal Elear, Mr Speakers Ether C v1.1, Focal Sphear, and Noble Savant Universal IEM Wizard Edition. Throughout my time with the Pro iCAN, I mostly reached for the Focal Elear headphones. Maybe it was the intimate soundstage of the Elear's, but something just seemed to "click" between this pairing. I was also able to more easily discern the sound quality differences between the various modes of the Pro iCAN using the Elear's.
Before going on, I do want to mention that I am highly impressed with the black background conveyed by this amp while auditioning with my Focal Sphear and Noble Savant IEMs.
I only used the 3D/XBass features when watching movies with the Pro iCAN. For music, I kept these features OFF as my preference. Your mileage may vary, especially dependent on your source material and equipment chain which may benefit from these enhancements. I can say they are very beneficial when watching movies making the experience much more engaging.
BALANCED VS SINGLE-ENDED
Go balanced if you can. Bass had more punch, Mids were richer, and Treble had more sparkle. Single-ended is no slouch here, but the balanced output just seemed to make my music more enjoyable. I tended to get "lost" more often when listening via balanced vs single-ended.
To me, the audible differences between the SS and TUBE modes were notable. However, I could not hear any notable difference between TUBE and TUBE+. I don't know, maybe my gear (or ear) limitations are to blame. The SS mode was the fastest of the three, as to be expected. Its tonality reminded me of my iFi Micro iDSD, though I felt the Pro iCAN had an edge in detail and dynamics. If you like the sound of the iFi Micro iDSD, then you will love the sound of the Pro iCAN's SS mode. Switching from SS to TUBE/TUBE+ modes, the overall soundstage and dynamics remained the same, however, the low-end and mid-range became fuller, rounder and richer in tonality with a longer decay. The treble, to me, remained largely unchanged. This was a very pleasant experience with the Focal Elear headphones, especially on tracks (and on days) when the Elear's hit a little too hard and fast. Overall, the sound quality of this amp is superb and allowed me to more easily immerse myself in the music.
FINAL WORDS Another great product from iFi Audio that I'm sure will be a hit, especially with current or previous iFi owner's looking for an upgrade. Given its versatility and ample power, some may consider this amp overkill for their needs. I consider the Pro iCAN a solid choice to future-proof one's audio needs, especially given the quality and robustness of the build. I very much enjoyed my time with the Pro iCAN and I am sure those lucky enough to own one will too.
Pros - Tons of power, very clean and deep. Black background, analog sound with good body.
Cons - May not be best for very dark headphones.
iFi audio Pro iCan Review
Intro I am part of a loaner tour that iCan has put together and am thankful to finally get to hear it.
Spoiler: Warning: Spoiler!
This is a very good piece of gear. I am impressed.
Imac>Focusrite Rednet3 via AES>Metrum Pavane balanced>iFi iCan Pro
0dB, 9dB and 18dB user-selectable
Frequency Response: 0.5Hz to 500kHz(-3dB)
Total Harmonic Distortion (THD, Balanced/Single-Ended):
*Solid-State: ≤0.0015% ≤0.005%
Tube: ≤0.002% ≤0.005%
Tube+: ≤0.012% ≤0.2%
Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR, Balanced/Single-Ended): >147dB(A) / > 137dB(A)
Output Power (16Ω, Balanced/Single-Ended): >14,000mW / >4,800mW
Output Voltage (600Ω, Balanced/Single-Ended): >23V / >11.5V
Input Voltage (Pro iCAN): DC 9V/6.7A – 18V/3.35A
Input Voltage (iPower Plus): AC 85 – 265V, 50/60Hz
Power Consumption: ≤ 22W idle, 50W max.
Dimensions: 213(l) x 192.5(w) x 63.3(h) mm
Weight: 1.93kg （4.3lbs）
Gain = 0dB, 0.775V(0dBu) with 300 Ohm load unless stated otherwise
SNR Balanced re 23V, SNR SE re. 11.5V
This little beast is quite small but is thoroughly and thoughtfully designed with tons of little details. Something this expensive shouldn’t be showing bolts all over the place if its going for a modern look and the iCan is a clean and smooth piece of equipment that a beauty to behold.
The dial is smooth with with it’s resistance to ease of turn ratios nicely balanced. No matter the gain settings I faced no issues trying to dial in my ideal volume. I must confess an epic fail. I did not try the remote. I had opened the Pro iCan and left the remote inside of the box thinking I would try it later and totally forgot it.
Quad-Damped Isolation Base Mount
Underneath the amplifier is a rubber or silicone pad that is used instead of traditional feet. What a welcomed change of practice since I imagine it to not only provide isolation but also prevents scraping or rub marks on surfaces. Ingenious really! I will mention that since the amp is small it will slide a little when trying to plug a headphone in. You have to use two hands.
If someone were to want to compare DAC's at the twist of a knob you could easily do so. With the iCan you have three different single ended inputs as well as balanced inputs, balanced and single ended outputs and more. I don't think they can fit one more input or output on this amp. If they could have I am sure it would be there. It even has out put for an electrostatic amp to hook up to it.
Single ended Still more than enough power to drive my HE-6 to normal listening levels and the tonal aspects of the amp work very well with it but the sound quality takes a hit. If you try to go too loud the protection circuitry will kick in. The hit in sound quality is evident with the 650 and my Pioneer HRM-7 as well.
Balanced Do trust the specs with this amplifier. It sounds cleaner, deeper, and more dynamic from the balanced jack.
This amplifier has a lot of features and not all of them work when trying to drive the HE-6 at moderate levels. When attempting to bass boost the HE-6 while on the third level of gain the amplifier turned red and then shut off.
Yes… I did attempt to bass boost the HE-6 while it was at a moderate listening level on high gain. I emailed the ifi rep and his response was as follows.
“The iCAN Pro is best considered like a racing car. It does not have most fluffy consumer system safeties. So it will allow you to combine settings (e.g. high gain, high volume setting, high bass boost added to a high 3D setting) that will cause a crash. Except in the iCAN Pro the protection circuitry will shut it off at the edge of crashing to avoid damage to either the Amp or Headphone. So take the foot of the gas and it will start up again.”
Turning the HE-6 to medium gain and the bass boost to 40hz and the amp turned off after half way through a song. But turning the amp to high gain with the bass boost at an average listening level had no issues. The bass boost sounds really good. Nice and solid with a bit of bloom added like you would expect but distortion seems minimal.
The tube function must be used responsibly with the HE-6 as well as the added level of harmonic distortion can make the amp clip a little earlier. Now I will let you know that I listen fairly loud for my first few songs usually and then later settle in for the rest of the session at a lower volume. I am the guy at the meets that turns it up from the previous person usually listening before me but then I turn the pot down for the rest of my listening. At my normal listening levels I can engage the tube function, 40hz bass boost, and high gain with no issues at all.
Other headphones had no hiccups and proved to be one of the best bass boost implementations I have heard. Nope no digital signal processing here... this is how it should be done!
Tubes Since the amp itself doesn’t have the tonality to pierce through the 650 veil in solid state mode I didn’t enjoy it with the Senn. With the HE-6 it was a help in the needing to remedy the bright treble of the HiFiman but it makes the wonderful clarity of the 6 take a hit as is expected since tubes simply add 'useful' distortion. I became addicted to the super clear sound of the combination without tubes but and in this case though it dropped the level of transparency a bit with 'Tube+' , 'tube' mode made a slight difference but maintained most of the transparency while still providing a noticeably rounder treble. It doesn't change the overall nature of the amplifier but is a welcomed option. For the best results it is recommended to use the lowest gain setting. Unfortunately I can't use the lowest gain setting with my HD6XX to sound right, nor my HE-6 and my modded Pioneer does not benefit from tubes except to help smooth out some of its graininess.
It doesn't sound like the soundstage is actually wider when you listen for width but the center image seems pushed back and more speaker like. When engaged dynamics seem to take a hit as well as bass quantity (not quality). Vocals sound a little more hollow but overall still have a really good timbre with the exception of the upper midrange sounding a bit tingy or sharp. If you turn the knob all the way these negative aspects worsen. Hi hats become a bit more tizzy and sibilants/ consonants sound more stressed while the body of the voice takes a hit. The plus is that there is no extra reverb or lingering sound waves that make the music more cavernous. All of the technical aspects of clarity, resolution, detail and speed remain intact. So though it loses a bit of punchiness, overall fidelity is maintained. If you find the negative effects mentioned above to be bothersome you can select a lower setting.
It did help make the 650 sound less congested and made it a little more competitive with my Trafomatic head 2. The He-6 got a bit too sharp for easy listening. With the HE-6 I used the 30/+(the first setting) with good results but overall found it unnecessary. I wish I would have had the Kennerton Vali on hand because that headphone would have actually benefitted from this option.
The bass is solid with a balanced amount of presence. It has a very very slight bloom with good texture. Bass slam is satisfactory and macro dynamics are easy to perceive in the low band. It has grip and control with good depth and detail. I personally won’t call it elevated or boosted but it does seem to have a very little bit more presence than those here present I have compared it to. Bass quantity is very reminiscent of the Nuprime HPA-9. There is no extra mid-upper bass warmth but it is linear and uniform. Those seeking an amp that provide adequate slam will find the Pro sufficient especially with the bass boost engaged. It is acceptably tight but is more natural than clinical. My initial impressions on the bass with the 650 in SE left somethings wanting. When used in balanced the bass is much better on my modded 6XX but still not as tight as I have heard it.
Midrange The midrange is simply analog. I really like the bass of the iCan pro because its detailed and present with good punch but the midrange is what seems to draw the most attention to itself. It has what sounds to my ears as a warmth from the lower midrange to midrange proper without ever sounding muddy. The upper midrange is not withdrawn per se but it doesn’t sound accentuated. Tones resonate with a realistic strength and purity that justify its asking price. While this may not lift the breathe of the vocals high enough to make them sound like they project as convincingly as my TH2 which provides better harmonics, it does capture realism of tone and fullness of body exceptionally well. Body this amp has to spare without ever sounding too slow or syrupy. Textures are not smoothed over and instruments are a little sweet in timbre. I would be lying if I said that the iFi Pro doesn’t have a bit of sweetness to it and a welcomed dose of flattery. It is not flat or sterile by any means and is very tactful at displaying its musicality because this complimentary midrange fullness is not with the addition of any extra decay or soft tubey attacks. The sound is musical but accurate and insightful. Pianos, xylophones, strings, guitars, cellos sound as real as ever. In fact even if I don’t end up buying this amp I have a new standard now as to how much realism I should be expecting at this level. If I had to make a gripe about the midrange it would be that I would like a little more upper midrange presence and harmonics to balance out the lower to midrange section for better linearity but as is the midrange is charming.
Treble The textures in the treble are crisp and solid without ever sounding splashy and the resolution throughout the whole frequency range is excellent. The details are all there but I would venture to say that this amp is a little more serene in the treble. It is non fatiguing and relatively insightful at the same time. It takes on a more ‘down-to-earth’ than aerial ambience. The tuning seems deliberate as to show the audio world that you do not need to artificially boost the treble for high quality sound. While I appreciate this, it may be a departure from the screeching, lit up tunings of more sparkly gear. You would think that the tube engaged would be dark and the amp would be bright but its not so.
Compared to the Airist heron this amp will sound similarly balanced in the treble but less airy and extended and a whole lot more grounded in foundation. I often find my memory recalling the Heron because it has the best tonality of just about any amp I have heard to date but its lack of depth, dynamics, and bass slam held it back. The pro is sharper, more resolute, better separated and has much better density of tone than most amps so though the treble is not accentuated it always sounds organic, and realistic without any of that digital hash. Actually, in overall balance, this amp reminds me most of the Nuprime HPA-9 but in a whole other league of technical ability and realism.
Performance The Pro is a very clean sounding amp with good transients and realistic decay. Its depths are utterly aphotic and sounds emerge from below with clarity, body, and individuality. Separation is excellent but could stand to be assisted by a wider soundstage. Layering (which is a consequence of body, separation, and depth) is very good. Textures are there as well. The tuning can make certain recordings sound a little more weighed down and saturated but the precision and holography keeps things from sounding (sorry to repeat myself) cluttered and thick. While not super fast, the Pro has some zip to it as well.
Comparisons I am tempted to make a reference to the Nuprime HPA-9. The pro is better by all accounts but the the Pro is pretty much like a Numprime HPA-9 on steroids. They both have much in common. Punchy bass, full mids, smooth treble, good body. Only the Nuprime is not as powerful, is slower, not as clean, nor as clear or as articulate but within its price tier holds its own.
Vs Trafomatic Head 2 w/ 75 HG Reflektors NOS 6922 tubes.
Instruments sound more free flowing and eloquent on the Trafomatic Head 2.
Instruments seem to rise and decay with more intensity on the TH2
Details are close but resolution seems negligibly better on the iCan Pro
The vocals sometimes sound a bit too weighed down on the pro in comparison; just a little too heavy in the lower to middle midrange and they place the vocalist closer to you than the TH2 does.
Tones have more density and body on the iCan and that is saying a lot because in my home the TH2 usually has more body compared to other amps and is far from thin. It is here that the ifi amp gains back grounds in realism.
Soundstage is very easily wider on the TH2. This is regardless of headphone and even with the HE-6. Its not even close... even with the 3D engaged. When the 3D is engaged the pro can come closer but the center image sounds more hollow than the TH2 and more peaky in the upper midrange.
Soundstage depth seems tied but the fact that the Pro is deep and has a much blacker background makes it seem better layered.
Even with higher impedance headphones the Pro has a heavier bass but the TH2 makes those headphones sound more dynamic and natural.
Treble presence goes to the TH2 as well as airiness. I have never appreciated the TH2 in this aspect and really thought it to be only average but it handily bests the Pro.
Clarity barely goes to the ifi amp and it took a few days to come to this conclusion. I feel the Pro makes instruments resonate more strongly and even though the TH2 is very clear its sounds aren’t nearly as clean as the Pro overall. The trafomatic is a tube amp and when the "tube+' option is engaged on the Pro the TH2 takes the win but in solid state mode the Pro is ever so modestly clearer.
Vs Schiit Jotunheim
So why compare a 399 amp to a 1699 one? Because the Schiit Jotunheim disrupts all expectations of price to performance. However, in almost literally every area the Jotunheim shows a weakness the Ican Pro shines.
Soundstage depth goes to the Pro without dispute.
Microdynamics go to the Pro.
Nuance goes to the Pro.
Refinement goes to the Pro.
Blackness of background goes to the Pro over any amp I have heard bottom line. However that instant perception of clarity we listen for in the first few moments of plugging our headphones into an amp is actually more instantly apparent on the Jotunheim because of the treble presence and its clean nature. After a few songs it becomes apparent that the Pro is more refined, cleaner, and clearer. The Jotunheim has very low distortion, even lower than much more expensive amps but not the iCan.
The lower midrange sounds more rich and wholesome on the Pro while the upper midrange to lower treble is more pronounced on the Jotunheim for better vocal harmonics.
The bass is cleaner and a little tighter on the Jotunheim regardless of headphone.
Stage width may even go to the Jotunheim as the Pro lacks a bit of width but its barely discernible when comparing and could sound that way because the Jotunheim has very little depth. If it were not for my bias towards black backgrounds and depth of soundstage the Jotunheim would be my pick for the 650. However, to those less biased I would actually say the Jotunheim is the better pairing because it lifts the veil better and controls the bass a tad better.
The Jotuheim cannot properly handle the 6. It can get it loud but its a splashy, trebly mess of uncomfortable listening. The Pro is much better at taking on such a beast.
Bass slam is stronger on the Pro as well as macro dynamics but only by a hair.
Vs Cayin iHA6
As far as balance goes the Cayin is very similar to the Jotunheim.
Bass quantity goes to the Ican pro
Bass control is mostly equal but slightly less boomy on the cayin.
The pro is a much cleaner sounding amp but is a lot darker in comparison. The iHA-6 has enough power to drive the 6 well but like the Jotunheim the treble is a bit too much and the pairing is not ideal for my tastes.
The iHA-6 sounds thinner than the Pro but is more airy and has better sparkle and overall would sound more linear apart from being more bright than I personally consider truly neutral. My idea of neutral treble lies somewhere in between the two.
Layering and depth is much better on the Pro and it sounds more holographic overall while the iHA-6 sounds more flat.
I felt that when I compared the iHA-6 directly to the Airist Heron 5 that the iHA-6 when used balanced was more dynamic than the Heron but had a relatively small soundstage in comparison. Also that the Heron had better tonality but worse technicalities besides soundstage. The pro would sound stronger in the midrange than the Heron and less open but a lot better layered and realistic.
The Pro has a more realistic and full midrange than the iHA-6 and is more musical all while being a little better overall in performance.
Pro and the HD6XX (modded)
Ifi's flagship amp controls the 6XX bass decently when used balanced. The 650 suffers no harm from the midrange warmth of the Pro but the veil is not lifted. The holography and soundstage depth is easily perceivable with the 650 as is the low distortion. Bass boosts, 3d, are fun with the Senn but the tube option is a little less desirable since it increases the ‘veil’ effect of the 650. The Sennheiser doesn’t sound slow but becomes richly musical; just less open than with my tube amp and the Jotuhheim.
Pro and the HE-6 (modded)
This is a match made in heaven…well almost. The 6 largely benefits from how the iCan is tuned. Also, the 6 doesn’t suffer in the ways that it usually does when being under amped (treble sharpness, lack of dynamics, weak bass). The he-6 has been better served in the bass department by some speaker amps I have heard and I have heard the 6 slam harder but I still find the 6 to have body and decent dynamics through the ifi iCan Pro. The treble is still bright, after all its an HE-6, but the sharpness gives way to better articulation and a more controlled and enjoyable treble. On high gain the the HE-6 has more than enough power and I can’t go past 12 o’clock before cringing. The Pro does better with lower impedance headphones and the 6 is a testament to that as it sounds adequately fast, very clear, controlled, and holographic. Were I to choose a desktop headphone amplifier for the sole purpose of driving the 6 I would most likely pick the Pro over the vast majority of dedicated solid state headphone amps. Compared to my Trafomatic the Pro still sells the 6 a little short on soundstage width but I find my modded HE-6 to have more than enough soundstage on the Pro. The low distortion of the 6 as well as the clean black background of the iCan Pro make an excellent way of hearing music as clean and as clear as the high standards of most audiophiles can demand. This pairing will be rewarded by a clean and balanced DAC.
Pro and my modded Pioneer HRM-7
It may not hurt to mention that my Pioneer HRM-7 has gone through several modifications, has been tested with many different amps, and has been in my stable for quite some time. When I got my Pavane DAC it was all I had and I easily noticed the difference of the Metrum in my system. It has been the reason for me not missing much when I sell a headphone because it can suffice(for short a short time). Well with the Pro the bass can be tight and punchy and the lower impedance of my HRM-7 worked much better with the pro than even the 50 ohm setting of my TH2 when it came to dynamics and speed. On a few rare songs I still prefer the TH2 pairing because of the tonality and spaciousness that seems to help headphones of this type sound more open. More often I prefer how the Pro grips the HRM-7 and drives it with better authority for more potency and articulation. The midrange warmth of the Pro helps with the HRM-7's deficiency in the midband. I listen to a lot of old school hip hop and some of those recordings were… well downright low quality. The bass boost on the Pro and muscular sound of my bass modded 7 makes for the most fun I have had in a while, a little over the top but hey whatever…thats what I like sometimes.
This little thing is a BEAST. Its got a lot of muscle, a lot of articulation and definition with a clarity and black background that few amps pull off. I have read previous reviews of this amp and some of the negative reviewers must be tricked by the ‘more treble=more-fi’ foolishness. There is nothing wrong with bright equipment and it has its purpose but it doesn't equal high quality. Developers are pulling away from that ideology now and ifi is ahead of the curve in regards to the need of a turn around. More and more people are coming to expect balanced treble and natural mids as well as inner detail.
Initially I was very apprehensive about a small amp like this packed full of features being able to deliver true sound quality. My gimmick flag went up. But since I heard the ifi Micro SE I knew they could deliver sound quality. I wasn’t expecting this much inner clarity but am pleasantly surprised. This sets a new standard for me in a few ways.
Will I purchase one… I don’t know but its now on my shortlist between only two other amps. I have scratched quite a few off and this is now number 2 on that list. The Pro is an end game amplifier with its own flavor. Just don’t look at the features as its main attraction or detraction from what it is at it's core. An excellent solid state amp. The rest are bonus features and cherries on top. If you audition gear before you buy it… do yourself a favor and give this one a listen.
Pros - Sound, Features, Build Quality
Cons - It slides around on your desk
Firstly I would like to thank iFi Audio for the loan unit for review, I have been using it for about 3 weeks and as always I will try to write an honest review.
Dell XPS 15 / Marantz CD5400 / Audio Opus #2 > Matrix Quattro II DAC > XLR Out > Pro iCan
Headphones: Hifiman HE-500 (4-Pin XLR Balanced) / AAW Nebula 2 IEM’s / Fostex TH-500rp
Very comprehensive list on their website: http://ifi-audio.com/portfolio-view/pro-ican/
Packaging, Accessories and Build quality:
The packaging is similar to other iFi offerings just bigger, it is white, with actual size pictures on the side, and product info and specs on the back. Once you remove the outer sleeve you are greeted by a thick car box, which holds the amp in place well during transit, and underneath you will find the accessories. I really like the simple yet effective packaging, it doesn’t look cheap or cluttered. iFi is embossed in silver on the ends of the box, a classy touch in my opinion.
Accessory wise you get a pair of RCA interconnects and a remote control which controls the volume only, you also get a very good user manual. Nothing else is needed to complete the package.
Build quality is on par with other offerings, an impeccable finish on the amp itself all laid out in a very symmetrical manner. It is not the best looking amp, but what it lacks in looks it makes up for in features, I like the more understated look. All inputs and outputs are built to a very good standard, the volume knob is very smooth to operate and the switches are tight so you won’t accidentally increase the gain for example. On the top of the amp there are holes which help keep it cool and lets you see a little of what is inside, there is also a small window through which you can see the GE valves. The only thing I would like improved would be the bottom, it has a big rubberised patch, but I find the amp is a little light and still moves quite easily on a desk, so you have to hold it tight when plugging anything in. I think soft rubber feet on each corner may have been better.
This amp is packed full of features, and I don’t quite know where to start.
Input wise you get 3 sets of unbalanced RCA inputs, and a set of balanced XLR inputs, the input is selected with the big knob on the left hand side of the amp.
You also get a set of XLR outputs and a pair of RCA outputs, so you can use this as a pre-amp.
On the front you have the source select knob, next to this there is a smaller knob which controls the Xbass boost, then you have a jack/XLR combi socket for normal stereo 6.3mm unbalanced output or as the L balanced channel (jack or 3-pin XLR).
In the middle you have a balanced 4 pin XLR socket, and next to this you have another jack/XLR combi socket for normal stereo unbalanced 6.3mm jack or as the R balanced channel (jack or 3-pin XLR). The next small knob is the 3D sound switch, then the volume knob.
Underneath these there is another layer, with the mode select (solid state, tube, tube+), normal unbalanced 3.5mm output, a balanced 4-pole 3.5mm output and then the gain switch (0dB, 9dB, 18dB).
As you can see it is packed full of features but they are easy to find and get used to their placement on the amp.
So more about the Xbass, it is not a traditional bass boost, all analogue circuitry and it provides a minimum of 12dB boost at 10/20/40Hz (selectable). It works well in combination with the 3D sound and also for leaner headphones. It is not a big increase, and doesn’t muddy the sound, and obviously will affect different headphones differently. I personally didn’t find myself using it when using Tube or Tube+ with the HE-500, but if I engage the 3D sound at 60 (solid state) I used the 20Hz boost to fill the sound out a little.
The 3D sound settings are also an interesting feature, I can’t really explain it so read on their website: http://ifi-audio.com/portfolio-view/pro-ican/
What I can say is that it is subtle but makes a difference, it takes a while for your ears to get used to the sound but is does become a little more like speakers, the centre image is more focused. Using the more extreme settings on headphones does make them sound a little leaner which is where the Xbass comes in handy. The main difference is when you switch the 3D settings off and the sound just sounds a little odd and panned right and left in comparison, also the sound is slightly less fatiguing with the 3D engaged.
Now on to the main part, unfortunately I don’t have any other high end amps to compare this to, but I will try to describe this amp as best as possible.
Lets start off with running it in SS mode, this is a very reference amp with no added flavour. This does mean it will show up any flaws in your music and also source, so I recommend pairing it with a good DAC. I am running it balanced from my Matrix Quattro II DAC, and I have not needed to increase the gain at all with the HE-500’s, and the volume knob is sat around the 9o’clock position.
This amp handles everything with ease, never a hint of strain or harshness, it really brings out the best in the HE-500, you get the deep controlled bass that lesser amps cannot provide, but also the soundstage improves. Not artificially but one things the HE-500 lacked a little is width, which this adds, the layering is also superb. On some brighter headphones some people may find this a little fatiguing as it doesn’t take anything away from the highs, so be careful with bad recordings. But when paired with good headphones and good recordings it will let you hear every nuance and bring you sonic satisfaction.
Now lets change it to the Tube mode, like this you get a richer sound, more body and it just sounds fuller. This works wonders on the slightly brighter headphones out there, or just those who want that smoothness of tubes but without sacrificing fine detail. I find the tube mode better for just sitting back and enjoying my music, the good thing about the tubes in this is that they don’t alter the overall clear sound of the amp, they just add a touch of warmth and body.
So what about the Tube+ mode? Well with this sounds a little grainier than the Tube mode, and fuller too, but it sounds ever so slightly closer in presentation (the soundstage isn’t quite as wide) the differences are not huge between Tube and Tube+, and it will depend largely on the headphones you have and on your preferences. I find Tube+ to be a little richer in tone, and a little grainier, whereas the normal Tube mode offers the added richness I like with the HE-500.
Conclusion: I don’t even know where to start, this is a feature packed amp that has an understated look but does not disappoint on the sound front. A few people have thought this amp is jack of all trades, master of none, but in my opinion iFi have made the perfect all in one amp for all headphones and have not failed in any area. Whether you want reference sound from the SS mode, or a richer sound from the Tube mode you have it all in one neat package. Add to that the possibility of using it as a pre-amp, and being fully balanced throughout and you have a very impressive array of features for the money.
The price looks high, but if you factor in buying a good solid state amp, and a good valve amp, you are looking at the same price if not more, and most likely they won’t be able to drive pretty much every headphone on the market.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Pro iCan, and I wish it could stay in my permanent collection, it just works so well with anything you throw at it and has the perfect form factor too.
Sound Perfection Rating: 10/10 (You won’t find this amount of power and features on another amp in this, or any other price range, and sonically this amp exceeds all expectations)
Pros - Covers most peoples input/output requirements. Bags of power!. Has lots and lots of buttons and features, extremely configurable.
Cons - Remote control is a bit 'cheap' and sometimes doesn't respond well. Maybe too much configuration for some? (stretching here....)
Firstly, many thanks to iFi for the loan of this amp. I am not affiliated with iFi, just a regular Head-Fi addict to happens to be lucky enough to get loan units now and again from the generous iFi team. As I've had this for a few weeks now it's time to jot down some brief thoughts and observations.
Up until very recently, my main desktop rig consisted of iFi Micro iCan, Micro iDAC and Micro iTube housed nicely in the iRack. I've been using this for a couple of years to drive my HE500s (now sold), AKG K3003 and laterally my Beyerdynamic T1 Gen 2 so I'm familiar with the iFi sound. These days I own the HUGO and Beyerdynamic A2 as my desktop rig and Lotoo PAW5000 with Mojo as my portable setup..
The iCan Pro comes in the same type of packaging as the other iFi gear, just larger! so same great unboxing experience and enough accessories to get you going. The unit itself is satisfyingly weighty and looks to be very well made. I like the size and design quite a bit, everything is machined well, no rough spots and you immediately get the impression this thing is built to last. This amp also has some power, 14,000 mW @ 16 Ohms! Also included in the package is a faitly basic remote which is not really the quality I'm used to compared to the Beyerdynamic A2's remote but it'll do the job. If you plan to use the remote a lot you might be a little dissapointed as I found it didn't always respond if it's not in perfect line of sight but YMMV. The volume knob itself on the iCan feels luxurious and smooth, no worries there!
On the front you have an array of outputs, single ended 3.5mm, Balanced 3.5mm, Balanced 4-pin xlr and twin single-ended 6.35mm sockets, so plenty of options.
There is a large input selector on the left (mirroring the Volume knob in the right). The amp accomodates 3 analogue inputs and a balanced input.
Also on the front are what really sets this amp apart from others, knobs to tweak in the form of XBass and 3D settings. These are extremely well implemented on this amp, quite subtle but effective. If you have a neurtal source or bright cans, the XBass can provide a nice balance to the audio. It jumps in 3 increments, 10, 20 or 40 Hz depending on how much you need. Similarly the 3D has 3 'stages' depending on your preference. Similar to my experience of the iCan (which has a 2 stage 3D switch) I found for accoustic tracks it works noticably better at bringing the audio to the forefront (like speakers) but it doesn't always work so well with other tracks, in fact it makes some tracks sound 'off', you need to experiment but when it works I like it a lot.
There are also 2 slider switches on the front:
- Gain - 0db, 9db or 18db. I personally found 0db to be fine with the T1 (600ohms).
- AMP selector switch - Here you can select purely solid state amp, the tube stage or Tube+ mode which is a bit of a hybrid mode. As I am used to the iTube and iCan in combination this is great to see. In my experience the iTube does not provide an immediate wow factor, but if I remove it from the chain, my enjoyment of the music appears to lessen. It's difficult to quantify but noticeable to me never-the-less. For this reason I chose to use the Tube+ output the most.
iCan Pro feeding the Beyerdynamic T1 Gen 2 using the 4-Pin XLR Balanced output. Source is Lotoo PAW5000 and Mojo.
Here you will find everything you need:
L + R Balanced 3-Pin XLR female input
3 x RCA Stereo inputs
L + R Balanced 3-Pin XLR Male output
1 x RCA Stereo output
Energiser output for 'stats (sorry no more info on this).
Power Passthrough ( I assume for the energiser module?)
This unit is a good size for desktop needs, fairly shalow and not too wide. It's actually almost identical in width and height to the Beyerdynamic A2 amp, less deep however:
The first time I used the iCan (and most amount of time I spent with it) I had it paired with a Chord Hugo connected to my Gaming PC. I also had a Jitterbug in the chain to attempt to compensate for USB noise.
Immediately I felt at home. This has the familiar sound I am used to with the Micro iCan/iTube only much, much more so. Sound stage is a little fuller and it really drives the T1's well. I would never call the sound I acheived from the 'Micro' set-up 'thin', but this is a ritcher sound with more weight and more space. I'd love to try some HE-6 on this, I have a feeling it would do them justice. After some time listening I settled upon my desired xBass setting , 20Hz, this seemed to sound about right with the T1/Hugo combo. I tend to keep the 3D off until I know I need it (accoustic mainly).
I think the Beyerdynamic A2, to my ears has a slightly more detailed presentation and more 'real' bass tonality but I'm being super critical here, there is nothing wrong with either of these aspects on the iCan Pro. It's really nice. The problem with comparing this with most other amps is the you can make a big or small difference to the sound just by tweaking some dials. On the A2, aside from Gain control, you get what it offers, period. If you want to add flavour or change the presentation you need to add a warmer DAC or a Tube stage. With the iCan it's almost too configurable, too tempting to keep pressing stuff! which can distract from the ultimate goal here, enjoying the music. Maybe it's just me but I found it hard to stop playing with it, I guess that urge would lessen the longer I used it.
If I didn't already have a top shelf amp, this would be on my shipping list. Even though it's expensive, if you think about all the technology and configurability this brings to the table in one unit, it's pretty much in the right place.
Thanks again to iFi for the loan, it was a great few weeks. I would recommend this amp if it's within your budget. Very flexible, well designed and great sounding amplifier capable of driving hungry Cans or sensitive IEMs.