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iFi Audio iCAN Headphone Amplifier Review

iCAN Amplifier 5

Introduction

I’d like to thank the folks at iFi Audio and Avatar Acoustics for the review sample.

iFi Audio is something of a newcomer in the mainstream consumer audio market, but one that has had its roots firmly planted in the professional audio industry for years, British firm Abbingdon Music Research, which produces a range of audiophile grade (read: expensive) sources, amplifiers and whatnot. iFi Audio was created with the promise of offering top quality products at much lower prices and has created a number of products since their inception. Up for review today is the iFi Micro iCAN headphone amplifier.

Does the iCAN measure up to the stiff competition in the budget amplifier market? Read on to find out.

Technical Specifications

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

Accessories

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

Design and Build Quality

With a long but sleek aluminum chassis, the iFi is an attractive addition to a desktop audio setup that blends in nicely, especially if you favor Apple computers and their aluminum designs. I don’t, but that’s another issue entirely.

The iCAN features gold plated and nicely spaced RCA connectors and a 3.5mm jack for audio inputs along the rear and, of course the DC 9V input jack. Around front, there’s a gold plated 1/4” (6.3mm) output jack, a polished metal potentiometer and two metal flip switches to control the XBass and 3D sound enhancements. These switches are nice and serve their purpose well but it is odd that the switches themselves aren’t mirrored. What I mean by that is the neutral position for the XBass and 3D are different, with the XBass being neutral or “off” with the switch all the way up while the 3D switch is neutral at the middle position. Not really a big deal, but worth mentioning.

The polished metal potentiometer is quite good, with the absolute smoothest tracking of any potentiometer I’ve ever used, which aids in making tiny volume changes, a welcome addition as the volume on the iCAN ramps up quicker than any other amplifier I’ve tried. But more on that in a moment.

Also, the iCAN lacks a power switch, which means the only way to power down the unit is to unplug it, and you’ll probably want to as the amplifier can consume up to about 4W while idle.

iCAN Amplifier 12

Sources Used

iPhone 4S/iPod Classic – Pure i-20 DAC – iCAN

iPhone 4S – Fiio L3 Line out – iCAN

Gain and Amplification

One thing I know for certain about the iCAN is that it can drive headphones to ridiculously loud levels. Even with my most power hungry headphones, the Sennheiser HD 600, I rarely found myself going beyond 10 o’clock or so on the potentiometer. Suffice to say, I doubt anyone will run into problems powering all but the most demanding headphones on the market like HiFiMan’s HE-6 or other particularly hard to drive planar magnetic orthodynamic headphones and even then, I can’t imagine even those will be much of a problem for the iCAN at least in terms of pure volume.

Because of the high power output and high gain, the iCAN is not the best choice for use with in ear monitors in general, especially those that have low impedance and/or high sensitivity. With my RE-400s, I was barely able to move past 8 o’clock before they were more than loud enough for me.

UPDATE 6/1 – I have been told that iFi has updated the iCAN to include variable gain switches, which allow it to function well with IEMs, which can be seen here.

One strange thing I noticed about the iCAN is that, with the volume at its lowest, instead of dead silence, I get, not only a low level hum, but…voices. Peculiar. I barely heard the hum with my HD 600s and there was no way to boost the volume on what I was hearing as raising the volume to normal listening levels got rid of the interference. So, I broke out my most sensitive IEMs, the Creative Aurvana 3, which I regularly use to test amplifiers and sources for audible hissing and lo and behold, I was tuned in to the local Christian radio station, 103.5 FM – The Light.

Don’t consider that an advertisement. I’m just pointing out what I was hearing and, for the record, I didn’t like it.

My best guess as to why this was happening is due to inadequate shielding from radio interference. The amplifier itself must be acting as an antenna of some kind and some of the radio signal is being dumped into the audio path. Peculiar but, all in all, a minor annoyance.

iCAN Amplifier 8

Sound Quality

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

XBass

Oh I love this feature. No qualifications, no ‘buts’, I just…love it. On a basic level, this functions similarly to bass boost options on other amplifiers I’ve used like the CMoy BB and just about every Fiio amplifier I’ve used but the iCAN has the best implementation of a bass boost that I’ve ever heard in the XBass switch. At its first setting, it boosts the sub bass regions (IE 100Hz and below) significantly adding to the sub bass presence and rumble while the second setting, for bass shy headphones, boosts sub and mid bass regions without negatively impacting upper frequencies or low end resolution.

The result is an extremely satisfying low end performance in every headphone I’ve tested with the iCAN. I’ve never heard a cleaner bass boost on any amplifier I’ve tried and as a result, I couldn’t be happier with the XBass option on the iCAN. It boosts my bass-light (which might be bass adequate for anyone else) headphones like the Sennheiser HD 555 and IEMs like the HiFiMan RE-400 to levels I find just perfect and with my Audio-Technica Pro700MK2 and M50 headphones, sent them into the realm of truly seismic, almost headache-inducing levels of bass, which has always been a guilty pleasure of mine.

3D Holographic Sound

Now this is an interesting addition, as it claims to widen the sound field and create a listening experience that’s more akin to listening to a good speaker setup than a pair of headphones. The low setting is claimed to be best for “naturally spacious recordings” like classical, jazz and rock music while the higher setting is best for “flat sounding recordings” like more modern music.

Generally, I found these claims to be accurate. The holographic effect is akin to what many know as “crossfeed”, but rather than being a standard DSP, which can be destructive to music, it isn’t a DSP, so resolution remains unaffected. One thing I will note is that the highs were a tiny bit more sibilant with either of the 3DHS modes engaged but that’s a rather small annoyance that most people might not even notice, especially once they got absorbed in the music, as I did.

Both settings are fun to play with in different combinations and they do indeed make the iCAN a surprisingly versatile amplifier that pairs well with just about any headphone

iCAN Amplifier 13

Now comes the inevitable question I always knew was going to come up sooner or later. Is this as good as the Objective 2? Well, I don’t have the measuring equipment to properly examine the two amps on a purely technical or “Objective” level (sorry) but to my ears, I’d say the iCAN and O2 are about equal in terms of resolution and overall performance. The iCAN is a bit warmer than the O2 but, as I explained earlier, that’s by design.

But with each amplifier comes a tradeoff. The iCAN offers those very nice sound enhancements (if you’re into that sort of thing) and may sound a tad more “musical” than the O2 because of the warmer tone but due to the high gain, it doesn’t work as well as the O2 with IEMs. Most iterations of the O2 are a good bit cheaper than the iCAN for the amp only, is more portable (actually, more “transportable”) because of its battery powered design and probably offers the most objectively accurate sound you’ll get from an amplifier below $1000 but many versions lack the RCA input and 1/4” output some audiophiles swear by (I don’t) and isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as the iCAN.

So picking a winner between the two is far from clear cut, so I’ll let you decide which suits your specific amplifier needs better.

iCAN Amplifier 14

Conclusion

I like the iCAN. I like it quite a bit. It has a flat frequency response, ample power and gain for just about any headphone you can think to throw at it, a slightly warm and pleasing sound and a couple of sound enhancements that don’t compromise resolution when active. Its downsides are relatively minor (though the interference could be a problem if you have especially sensitive headphones) and while I can’t say this is the best choice for IEM users due to the massive gain, this is a very versatile amplifier that should suit a wide array of headphones and user preferences.

The going rate of the iCAN is $249 but finding one might be a bit difficult if you’re based in the Americas. Personally, I think that’s a good price and a reasonable one for the kind of performance you’re getting in the iCAN, especially for the sound enhancements. I really do like what they do to the sound in pretty much every case and I usually listen with at least one engaged at all times because they work so well. So, if you’re in the market for a new desktop amplifier, give the iCAN a look.

UPDATE 6/1 – The iCAN will soon be available from Amazon, which should help availability immensely.

UPDATE 7/14 – The iFi Micro iCAN Headphone Amplifier is available at Amazon!

 

About Justin McBride

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