In high-end audio, context can be everything. Directly following this review, I have also prepared a review of iFi Audio’s Nano iDSD portable DAC/headphone amplifier, in which I observe that the iDSD can be a very fine-sounding headphone amplifier if—and this is a big ‘if’—it is used with the sorts of high-sensitivity headphones and earphones that it is capable of driving well. But this observation naturally invites a question? What happens if you want to listen through not-so-easy-to-drive headphones? The simple answer is that the iDSD runs out of sonic steam in such contexts, meaning you might want to consider using a more powerful auxiliary headphone amplifier such as iFi’s portable Nano iCAN amp (£149), so as to have more sonic ‘muscle’ at your disposal.
“But hold on a second,” I can hear the diehard specifications readers interjecting, “iFi says the Nano iDSD makes almost as much power as the Nano iCAN does, so what good will adding an iCAN do?” It’s a fair question because iFi’s published technical specifications claim the Nano iDSD’s amp puts out about 130mW of power (at 16 Ohms), while the Nano iCAN’s amp produces 150mW of power (at 32 Ohms). So, the iCAN is nominally the more powerful product, but not by so large a margin as to lead us to expect significant sonic differences, or so it might seem at first glance. However, in practice the Nano iCAN sounds demonstrably and substantially more powerful than the iDSD does, which is why I think it makes a terrific add-on—or a fine choice for those who need a good, versatile, low-cost portable headphone amp, whether they use portable DACs such as the iDSD or not.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand the Nano iCAN is to picture it as a portable model roughly half the size and less than half the price of iFi’s bigger and more potent (but non-portable) Micro iCAN headphone amp. And, though the Nano iCAN offers less power output, it preserves many (perhaps even most?) of its bigger brother’s sonic virtues. If you’ve read our Hi-Fi+ review of the Micro iCAN (from issue 97), then you know we regard it very highly and consider it a benchmark in its price class.
The prospect of achieving very similar sound quality from a unit that’s smaller, less expensive, and portable to boot can only be considered a good thing.