Some audiophiles assume that price and performance go hand in hand in the world of audio components; in short, they assume you can’t possibly enjoy upper-tier sound quality without paying an ultra-premium price. Well, I’ve got what may be shocking news for those accustomed to pre- judging components by their price tags. The good people at iFi Micro have – with the help of the design team at Abbingdon Music Research – created a £225 headphone amplifier called the iCAN that flat out demands to be taken seriously, and for all the right reasons. We’ll talk about the iCAN’s sound in a moment, but first let’s start with the basics.
The iCAN is small (28 x 68 x 158mm) and lightweight (216g) that is intended for desktop use, and that is powered by what at first appears to be an unassuming wall wart- type power supply. As it happens, though, the wall-wart houses what iFi terms a ULN (ultra low-noise) switched mode power supply purpose-built for audio applications – a supply that not only is quieter than most other SMPS designs, but also is quieter than many costly linear power supplies.
On the inside, the iCAN features a directly coupled, Class A amplifier section that uses what iFi calls a “tri-brid” circuit said to combine the best of bi-polar, J-FET, and “Advanced Discrete” devices. In practical terms, the little amp proves to have the heart of a lion, putting out a healthy 400mW at 32 Ohms, while also claiming vanishingly low- distortion (< 0.003% THD) and unexpectedly wide bandwidth (0.5Hz – 500kHz, -3dB). These would be exemplary specifications in an amp several times the iCAN’s price, so I deem them to be crazy good for an amp that can be had for roughly the price of an iPod Classic.
The iCAN is surprisingly full-featured. The rear panel of the amp sports an inlet socket for the power supply, plus two stereo analog inputs, while the faceplate presents a volume knob, a 1/4-inch headphone jack, and mini-toggle switches that control two special, iFi-developed sound enhancement features.
The first sound enhancement feature, called “XBass”, is a headphone- specific bass EQ system that offers two degrees of bass lift, plus a “Direct” (or bypass) setting that provides no boost at all. iFi created this circuit to address the problem of otherwise excellent headphones that exhibit small or, in some cases, not-so-small degrees of low-end roll-off. Thus, the XBass system aims to restore missing low-end response for ‘phones that need a judicious touch of bass lift, while the “Direct” setting works best for ‘phones that already provide flat bass response. I used the “Direct” setting for most of my listening, but the circuit did help some bass-shy ‘phones achieve greater depth and did so without spoiling the clarity of the rest of the audio spectrum.
The second enhancement feature, called the “3D Holographic Sound” system, tackles the familiar headphone problem of soundstages that remain stuck “inside the listener’s head.” In a background paper on the 3D system, iFi’s Thorsten Loesch said that, “to us it was unthinkable to offer a dedicated headphone amplifier and not address this fundamental flaw.” iFi designers were aware of various left/right-channel “crossfeed” circuits that attempted to solve this problem in the past, but they wanted a different and better solution for the iCAN – one that would “provide a stereo image that is truly out of your head, offer realistic depth and width to the sound image, do so without introducing colorations of loss of resolution, and do so using only analogue circuitry...” Accordingly, the system provides two settings that claim to shift perceived soundstages from “inside your head, to in your room” creating – to a degree—the illusion of performers “playing in front of you.”
Does the 3D Holographic Sound system work as advertised? I give iFi’s 3D system high marks for pulling soundstages outside the listener’s head, but somewhat lower marks when it comes to placing soundstages out in front of the listener. Even so, iFi’s 3D system is one of the most effective and least “gimmicky” of its kind that I’ve yet heard. One tip I would offer is to make sure you try both 3D enhancement settings (comparing to the “Direct” sound as you go along); one setting gently expands soundstage depth, width, and cohesiveness, while the other helps tighten overly diffuse soundstages while enhancing image focus and specificity.
My point is that both XBass and 3D Holographic Sound systems are pragmatic solutions to real-world sonic problems. If you like what the circuits do, then by all means use and enjoy them; if not, just engage the “Direct” switches and carry on in purist mode – simple as that.
How does the iCAN sound? It sounds surprisingly muscular and dynamically alive – especially so for an amp in its price class. Many lower cost headphone amps have merits but also a few caveats, especially in terms of somewhat limited capabilities for driving today’s most demanding and amplifier-sensitive headphones. But it is in precisely this area that the iCAN excels; quite frankly, the aptly-named iCAN really can drive pretty much any headphone you’d care to throw at it, up to and including the notoriously power-hungry HiFiMAN HE-6s. I mention this point because the superb but demanding HE-6 is widely considered one of the most difficult-to-drive headphones on the planet. Imagine my surprise, then, when the little iCAN grabbed hold of the HE-6s (and every other headphone I tried) and simply made them sing in a rich, vigorous, and dynamically expressive way. With the iCAN in play, there will be no sonic whimpering, whining, or pouty bouts of edginess or stridency. Instead, there’s just rich, free-flowing power and plenty of it. Granted, if you push volume levels to the extreme with the HE-6 (not recommended in the hope of preventing hearing damage), you might hear signs of clipping from the iCAN, but at more sane volume levels it’s a stouthearted powerhouse of an amp.
To hear what I mean, try this acid test: plug a pair of HiFiMAN HE-6’s (or other tricky-to-drive ‘phones) into the iCAN and then put on a compelling electric blues track like Hadden Sayer’s “Back to the Blues” from Hard Dollar and note what happens. You’ll find that Sayer’s warm but also slightly gritty-sounding vocals are just as rich and evocative as could be, while his scorching hot electric guitar solos have real fire and expressiveness. At the same time, Ruthie Foster’s earthy yet achingly beautiful vocals form a perfect complement, in part because they are infused with the iCAN’s uncanny qualities of warmth, three-dimensionality and depth. But perhaps the most surprising part of all is that the electric bass and kick drum have serious extension, weight, definition, and slam. As you listen to the iCAN, then, you might feel – as I did – that its sound would be praiseworthy in an amp two to four times its price. It’s that good.
In terms of timbre and overall presentation, the iCAN has a contemporary amp’s emphasis on wide bandwidth and extension at the frequency extremes, but tempered with what I consider a characteristically British emphasis on such essential musical priorities as natural warmth, smoothness, midrange subtlety and finesse, and over-arching three-dimensionality.
While there might be a few comparably priced amps that could give you slightly more detail or more crisply delineated transient sounds, you will be hard pressed to name a like-priced competitor that can even come close to the iCAN in terms of real-world power, versatility, or overall musicality.
I consider the iCAN a new benchmark in its price class and would add that it makes a perfect entry point for high-enders who would like to experiment with top-tier headphones, yet without investing an arm and a leg in dedicated headphone electronics. Enthusiastically recommended.+
Accessories: Low-noise wall-wart-
type power supply, 1/4-inch phone jack to 3.5mm mini-jack adaptor, two interconnect cables (1 terminated with RCA plugs, 1 terminated with 3.5mm mini-plugs), four adhesive rubber feet
Inputs: Two stereo analog inputs (1 via RCA jacks, 1 via 3.5mm stereo mini jack) |
Output: One stereo headphone output (via 1⁄4-inch phone jack)
Frequency Response: 0.5Hz to 500kHz (-3dB)
Total Harmonic Distortion: <0.003% (400mV/150R)
Power Output: >400mW @ 32 Ohms
Dimensions (H x W x D): 28x68x158mm
Weight: 216 grams (0.48 lbs.)
Tel: +44(0)1900 601954