iFi Pro iCan Mixed Tube and Solid-State Headphone Amplifier Page 2

With the enormous number of permutations available—Tube, Tube+, or Solid-State operation, three different XBass selections, multiple levels of 3D Holographic enhancement, balanced or single-ended output, not to mention pre-amp functionality—there's no way I could thoroughly nail down every single combination the Pro iCan has to offer. I did try a great many headphones and listening situations though, and will discuss the ones I found noteworthy, for better or worse. It might come out a bit "stream of consciousness" so bear with me. Hopefully the reader can identify with one or more of these scenarios and thus get an idea of what to expect from this complex device.

Fed by an Exemplar Audio modified Oppo BDP-93 universal player and driving the Sennheiser HD650 in single-ended mode: This source is very tonally rich, with excellent detail-retrieval that still ends up taking a back seat to overall warmth and musicality. And I'm sure most readers are familiar with what the HD650 is capable of—I actually used the Massdrop HD6XX version, but since the sound is identical I'll just use the more familiar HD650 name.

With this setup I loved Solid-State mode on the Pro iCan, as it helped tease out more air on the SACD release of "Cantos De Agua Dulce" by Marta Gomez. Tube mode was interesting in that it seemed to enhance the body of her voice, providing more density in exchange for a bit of "breathiness". I also felt the percussion was more engaging in Tube mode—not necessarily louder or more impactful, it nonetheless commanded my attention in the mix more so than it had with the Solid-State mode. Enjoyable as Tube mode was, Solid-State still seemed more "correct" to my ears. Choosing Tube+ was not a good match with this particular chain, sounding too colored and syrupy on this already very musical system. I preferred to leave XBass disabled in this case, while 3D Holographic worked decently enough on the lowest setting—I could take or leave it though.

I switched to a DVD-A disc of "Sinatra at the Sands", featuring Count Basie and The Orchestra, and this time around Tube mode was the more appealing option by a small margin. There was simply more meat on Frank's bones, which seemed like the more authentic presentation. Tube+ was interesting if a bit overdone, and Solid-State was excellent though perhaps a tiny bit thinner than ideal. XBass at 10Hz was welcome here for a subtle increase in low end solidity, and again I was conflicted about 3D Holographic—but only at the lowest setting. Anything beyond that sounded wonky to me, though I suppose I can understand why some might enjoy it.

Fed by RCA interconnects from a HiFiMAN HM-901S in the DOCK-1 cradle, driving the Sennheiser HD800 via aftermarket 4-pin balanced output: The HM901S is brilliantly resolving, as is my (unmodified) Sennheiser. Running the Pro iCan in Solid-State mode with all enhancements deactivated made for an extremely clear presentation. Highly detailed, with precise imaging and large yet well-defined soundstage, this system was wonderful for classical works. A DSD release of Schubert's Symphonies No. 3 and 8 as played by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Kubelik (ripped from the SACD) sounded natural and lifelike, particularly in the upper registers which can be somewhat dull compared to modern recordings (these performances are approaching 50 years old by now, so that's not unexpected). By way of comparison, I thought the HiFiMAN/iFi combo clearly outperformed the big Simaudio 430HAD, which seemed a bit flat and uninspired with this particular recording—even on the bright HD800.

Switching to Tube mode, the presentation relaxed a bit, which ended up being an undesirable trait on this material. But when I moved to Jenee Halstead's "The River Grace" (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC) I felt Tube mode was the better choice, as Solid-State mode got a bit too hot up top when Jenee let the vocals loose. I also settled on XBass enhancement at the 10Hz setting which added some welcome sub-bass heft to the presentation. The other XBass choices were not terrible in this case but 10Hz was the most natural, or to put it another way the least obtrusive of the three.

I then went in a completely different direction, playing selected tracks from highly-technical death metal band Obscura (all ripped to FLAC from the original CDs). In this rather aggressive scenario I found Solid-State mode somewhat abrasive, Tube mode relatively enjoyable, and Tube+ just about ideal. It didn't really seem any darker than tube mode, but somehow possessed a magical "rightness" that I can't quite put my finger on. Note that this was not an overly mushy, slow sound—if it was, the life would be sucked right out of this fast-paced and heavy material.

I suspect my enjoyment had to do with the exceptional transient response plus the more forgiving nature of the tube input stage at play. I again enjoyed XBass at the lowest setting but this time around got hooked on the 3D Holographic option set to 30 degrees, which is the middle setting in terms of perceived stage width. With the classical and folk material in the above paragraphs I felt the HD800 was plenty expansive and thus didn't benefit from the 3D enhancement, so I really didn't expect to enjoy it with metal...but I absolutely did. It made the presentation come alive, perhaps due to the mix being more direct or flat in stock form. Whatever the case, this one really did it for me, and I confess to staying up way too late with "just one more song" syndrome. That's always a good sign.

Fed by a Cayin iDAC-6, driving Audeze LCD-3: I typically pair iDAC-6 with the matching iHA-6, a Wall-of-Fame amplifier in the $999 price category. It's a neutral, potent solid-state design that does just about everything I could possibly ask of it. The iFi Pro iCan actually sounded quite similar when used in Solid-State mode. Clarity and refinement were easily on par with the Cayin amp, and in a few fleeting instances I thought the iFi might even be superior in micro-detail retrieval.

Thats already quite impressive, but the real fun began when mixing and matching various sound modes. Remember, the Cayin DAC is very tweakable as well, with a defeatable tube buffer stage and numerous digital filters to choose from. These two devices together made for a nearly endless number of variables—from extremely quick, incisive sound to ultra-relaxed euphonic goodness, with many intermediate steps along the way.

With my LCD-3 (non-Fazor) I settled on the most neutral settings the DAC could offer (tube buffer defeated, linear phase filter) along with Tube mode on the Pro iCan for a bit of added midrange magic. Once again I enjoyed the XBass 10Hz setting as it brought back a bit of the more visceral "classic" Audeze house sound which they seem to have deliberately moved away from these days. I mostly left 3D Holographic disabled in this setup, as it seemed to do more harm than good with most music. The exception, again, seemed to be metal and other very heavy/aggressive music. Witherscape, Bolt Thrower, Suicidal Tendancies, Unleash the Archers, Shai Hulud... these all took very well to the medium 3D setting, really opening up their sound over the usual flat experience. This is probably the one area where I miss the Pro iCan the most after having sent the review unit back.

Fed by Resonessence Labs Veritas, driving Noble K10: I wouldn't normally associate a powerhouse amplifier, topping out at a full 14 Watts per channel, with sensitive in-ear monitors. It's overkill by a massive factor, and typically makes for background hiss and gain levels unsuited for IEM use. Yet iFi aimed to make a truly universal amp solution and I can say with confidence they succeeded at that goal. Using the 0dB gain selection, I got inky black backgrounds, perfect volume tracking with no imbalance at low levels, and zero hiss—pretty much the ideal scenario for IEMs.

I enjoyed Solid-State mode the most with the full-bodied Noble K10. Switching to a thinner and more lit-up IEM from Phonak, Etymotic, or HiFiMAN would definitely showcase the benefits of Tube or even Tube+ modes with respect to midrange body and treble control. XBass was unnecessary with the K10, and once again I found myself with mixed feelings about the 3D Holographic enhancement. In the end I chose to engage it for the previously-mentioned metal, plus hard-panned jazz and classic rock, while leaving it turned off for most everything else.


The Take Away
At this point you hopefully see something of a pattern. In many, but not quite all cases, I preferred the 10Hz XBass setting, owing to its very subtle boost in authority without sounding obvious. The other two XBass settings seem more geared towards bassheads. Which is fine, but I do wish iFi had perhaps gone with a 3dB or 6dB boost on those rather than 12dB, as that would make them more appealing to my particular tastes.

With bright recordings and/or headphones I tended to favor the Tube+ setting. Solid-State mode was generally more desirable for darker combinations while Tube mode often seemed ideal for neutral headphones. This is by no means a definitive set of rules though, I very much enjoyed having different options at my fingertips to suite my music and my mood.

I wavered on the 3D Holographic option—at times I really got a lot out of it, but in many cases I found it threw off my immersion and thus became undesirable. I notice some correlation where headphones and music with good spacial information didn't do as well with 3D enhancement, while flat recordings and headphones with smaller presentations were more likely to benefit. This was not always the case though. I suspect users who are accustomed to lots of speaker listening might get more enjoyment from the 3D option, while others (like me) who use headphones more often might find it hard to come to grips with on most music. Still, I have to admit it's one of the best variations of crossfeed I've ever encountered, and I love the selectable levels for dialing it in just right.

Again, this whole thing was a variable process where I actually rather enjoyed switching back and forth to see what I could come up with. While there are patterns to my preferences, they don't apply in every case, which I suppose is part of the fun.

I confess to not having spent an adequate amount of time evaluating the Pro iCan as preamp in my speaker rig. I did throw it in my desktop system driving the Adam Audio F5 active monitors where it did an exceptional job, but I suspect the little Adams are not enough to let the iFi truly shine.

I did, however, find much enjoyment inserting the device in my Stax rig, which at the moment consists of a B.M.C. UltraDAC driving a custom built KGSShv which powers SR-007 mkII or the rare SR-4070 earspeakers. Tube+ was a killer addition when using the extremely neutral SR-4070. Though I love their accuracy on reference caliber material, they can be pretty brutal with a lot of recordings, and Tube+ took the edge off in just the right proportion without completely dulling the sound. I also really appreciated the XBass option in this setup—the 4070 is capable of kicking like a mule under the right circumstances, but certainly doesn't do so without some assistance. I could really get used to this thing in my Stax rig.

Remember the SPL Phonitor? Back in 2009 or so, I purchased a dealer demo for $2,000 which was a few hundred dollars off MSRP. Spending that much, I thought I would be set for many years. Unfortunately, I was mistaken. While I very much enjoyed the various sound enhancement properties of that device, I found the actual amplifier itself to be clearly lacking considering its price. My more recent experience with the updated Phonitor models is that they are getting better on the amplification side of things, but still not enough to keep pace with the best amps on the market.

Having spent time with the iFi Pro iCan, I can confidently say the device captures everything I had been looking for with my Phonitor purchase...and then some. At its core lies a very obviously superior amplifier, not to mention the smaller size, lower price, vastly better connectivity, and arguably more useful sound tweaking characteristics. If this thing had been available back in 2009 I would have been a happy guy.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that I only enjoy this device due to its various sound enhancements though. It's just an excellent amp even without the extras. During my time with the iFi I just happened to have quite a few very highly regarded headphone amps on hand for comparison. In the company of heavy hitters like the Violectric V281 ($2,879 with relay-based volume control), Simaudio Moon 430HAD ($4,300 with optional DAC add-on), Auralic Taurus MKII ($1,899), and Pass Labs HPA-1 ($3,500), I'd place the Pro iCan about mid-pack when it comes to raw performance, without any consideration for additional features.

While I do think the Pass and Violectric are somewhat better amplifiers, the delta is not all that large. I slightly prefer the iFi over the Auralic Taurus and even the Simaudio 430HA much of the time, just for straight forward listening. That's not bad company to be in. When you consider the price and the plethora of extra features offered on the iCan, it starts looking like the value buy of the bunch—assuming that term applies in the context of expensive amplifiers.

I heard several prior iFi products and always came away impressed with the value on offer for the money. To be honest, their marketing habit of naming everything with a registered trademark sort of rubs me the wrong way. But I can't fault their honesty when it comes to freely posting measurements and detailed internal photos—very few of their contemporaries do either of those things.

Then there's the budget aspect: I really didn't know what to expect from the Pro iCan given the huge difference in price over prior iFi models. As a result approached it with a bit of caution. That caution didn't turn out to be necessary at all. The Pro iCan is one highly capable headphone amplifier! On base-level sonic merit, just running straight ahead in Solid-State mode without any enhancements activated, the amp turns in a pleasing performance worthy of its asking price. Then factor in the completely variable sound, the universal headphone compatibility, the massive power on tap, and yes, even the uniquely attractive enclosure, and the Pro iCan is very easy to recommend. I can't imagine a user not being able to find a sound they love from this thing, no matter where their preferences fall.

Taking stock of our current Wall of Fame, it strikes me that the $1,500 to $2,500 category is not very well represented. I'd like to investigate a few more offerings in this price range before I come to a conclusion, and have a few things on the way right now for further exploration. For the moment, the iFi Pro iCan earns a "Stuff We Like" award, with a spot on the Wall of Fame being a very strong possibility in the near future.

iFi home page and Pro iCan product page.
Head-Fi.org reviews and thread.

iFi Audio USA
5007 C Victory Blvd. #403
Yorktown, VA 23693

tony's picture

Why are some Companys so shy about where they make their products?

I checked iFi's web page, they don't mention where the place is located or where they make things.

If they simply put "Made in USA" on their stuff their sales would increase 25%. If they can also suggest that they use Recycled materials they'd pick up plenty more percentages.

So, why hide it?

Tony in Michigan

Brown Sound's picture

British company and manufactured in China, like so many others now days. I own an iFi iDSD Nano, which does good by me.

tony's picture

I just had a look at the iFi product range, the RETRO 50 System has me interested as does the Pro iCAN.

I'll have a close read of the above Review.

The Pro-Audio people are the ones selling iFi here in the States, is this a Pro-Audio level Company?, seems so.

Mr. Brown Sound thank you for writing.

Tony in Michigan

John Grandberg's picture
iFi is affiliated with AMR (Abbingdon Music Research) out of the UK. They make stuff like the $5.5k DP-777SE DAC/preamp. iFi is sort of a way for them to bring their tech to the masses via budget products, and yes, even the $1699 Pro iCan is affordable in light of the AMR products.
detlev24's picture

That would be a great contender for $1,999 and it comes with some unique features. :)

https://www.rme-audio.de/en/products/adi_2-pro.php [measurements to be found in the manual]

Yep, regarding tubes it always is about liking (...or not) the specific euphonic distortion.

Phoniac's picture

I wanted to point to that RME unit already in Bob's article. This device seems to be the best tool on the market right now to compare headphones as it has two independent stereo outputs with all the FX stuff (EQ etc) also independent...no need for cumbersome and fault-sensitive setups like described by Mr. Katz.

tony's picture

Phew, this device seems to have the tools a Mastering Engineer ( Bob Katz ) uses to get the desired result.

Is this a Pro Tool packaged and presented to us Consumers? or is it intended for the Pro market?

I think I like what I'm reading.

Thanks for introducing us to this product.

Tony in Michigan

PAR's picture

Other reviews of this product have all liked the sound but have criticised the fact that it is so light in weight that any tension on the headphone cord moves the amplifier around. Did you find that?

As a Phonitor 2 user and very much liking many of its attributes ( especially its very sophistacted implementation of a cross feed circuit) I nevertheless have sympathy for your views on its sound in comparison. Very good but could do better as I read it. However the price differential over here in the UK between the two is significant, the i-fi costing almost half as much again as the Phonitor which puts another perspective on it and seems the reverse of the situation in the USA.

John Grandberg's picture

That was my experience as well. Not a huge deal imho, as I find many smaller/lighter components have that same issue. I don't really think it has to do with this thing being overly light though (it's not), but rather their solid rectangular "non-slip" thingy on the bottom. It's similar in concept to what Arcam uses on their rHead and other r-series components, and it's just not as anti-slip as traditional feet in the corners would be.

Regardless, this just means I give it extra support when plugging or unplugging a headphone. It's not an issue while in use unless you roam around the room and count on the amplifier to reign you in - not a good idea regardless.

Too bad about pricing though. International markets are weird that way.