iFi Audio Pro iCAN balanced, hybrid valve/solid state headphone amp/preamp

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Solid-state preamplifiers,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
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iFi Audio Pro iCAN
iFi Audio Pro iCAN balanced, hybrid valve/solid state headphone amp/preamp

My very first exposure to the iFi Audio brand, which is a spin-off of the British high-end audio electronics manufacturer Abbingdon Music Research (AMR), came at an audio show a number of years ago. I still remember the experience vividly. Indefatigable brand ambassador Vincent Luke had invited some audio journalists to come hear his firm’s new phono stage, though he had cleverly neglected to say exactly which of his firms had produced the unit. We entered the room and listened to the suave, sophisticated sound of the new phono stage on some choice vinyl tracks, all the while convinced the phono stage on demonstration was surely some new, full-size AMR component. Only near the end of the demo did Vincent reveal that the phono stage we were hearing was not an AMR product at all, nor did it cost thousands of pounds as full-on AMR components typically do. Instead, Vincent explained, we were listening to a beautifully made but decidedly pint-sized and budget-priced component called an iFi Micro iPhono, which at the time sold for about $429 US. Right then and there a lasting impression was formed: ever afterward I came to expect that iFi Audio components would be small and beautifully made, and would somehow manage to deliver a big taste of the famously musical Abbingdon Music Research sound for a pence-on-the-pound price!

Now let’s fast forward to the present day. Over time, iFi Audio has created two ranges of compact components: the Nano-series models, whose chassis cases are about the size of an extra-thick deck of playing cards, and the even larger and more capable Micro-series models, whose enclosures look roughly like double-depth Nano models (still small, but a bit too long to be considered truly ‘pocket sized’). And both the Nano and Micro models hold true to the original iFi Audio design brief: they are small, offer fine quality of build, sound much like far more expensive AMR components, and remain extremely affordable—all of which are good things. But let’s face it; we audiophiles are an upward reaching, aspirational lot so that there probably has never been a set of sonic performance parameters that we have not yearned to see pushed to higher levels. And so it happens that many cast an appreciative eye at iFi’s Nano and Micro-series products, yet could not help but wonder what would happen if the firm ever decided to build a range of big (or at least bigger) components designed with the intention of pulling out all the stops so as to push the performance envelope harder than ever before. Apparently, iFi Audio was thinking along much the same lines as it has now launched a new range of Pro-series components, starting with by far the most ambitious headphone amplifier/preamplifier the firm has ever offered: namely, the iFi Pro iCAN, priced at £1,695.

The Pro iCAN is a half rack-width component (a component size commonly seen in the pro sound world) in which is contained some very sophisticated circuitry, lending credence to iFi’s claim that the Pro iCAN is at once “a Professional Headphone Amplifier” and a “fully fledged, High-end Preamplifier”. The headphone amp/preamp is a fully balanced, hybrid valve/solid state design that offers users a choice of three gain settings (0db, 9db, and 18dB) and three front-end operational modes (Solid-State, Tube, and Tube+). The Solid-State circuit, says iFi, uses J-FETs and is fully-discrete Class A, while the Tube and Tube+ circuits use dual NOS GE5670 valves that are “engaged with the J-FET circuitry switched out for an all-valve Class A operation.” iFi adds that the difference between the Tube and Tube+ mode is that the latter “reduces negative feedback to a minimum” meaning “a greater amount of the tube’s natural harmonics are produced.” The amp delivers very high power output (14,000mW @ 16 ohms in balanced mode or 4,800mW in single ended mode), admirably low distortion (<0.0004% THD when operated in Solid-State mode and <0.0005% THD in Tube mode), and impressive signal-to-noise ratio specifications (>147dB A-weighted in balanced mode and >137dB A-weighted in single-ended mode).

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