ifi-audio pro iCAN - any thoughts?

Discussion in 'Headphone Amplifiers and Combo (DAC/Amp) Units' started by AllanMarcus, Jun 3, 2016.

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  1. AllanMarcus

    AllanMarcus Too much posting, not enough reading

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    I assume the silver/White cable with the gold rims is the HDMI cable connecting the amp to the energizer. I wonder if any old HDMI cable will work. That certainly looks like a custom cable.

    I think I heard the energizer will be in the $1200 range. Does that seem overly pricey?
     

  2. bimmer100

    bimmer100 Rando

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    I don't know if that is true about the pricing. If so, WOW. i'm sold. As I thought it was quite impressive. I was under the impression it would be similar pricing to the iCan Pro. So 1200 is a bargain imho.

    The hdmi cable they are using is clearly custom and using larger gauge wires and fewer of them. SO, i wonder if they will offer such a cable. I doubt it will need more that 6-8 cables to complete the connection. It seems hdmi is ideal for quality connections. Truly my favorite of Hdmi i2s. I would imagine any SHORT hdmi cable would be ideal. longer is definite no no with i2s so would imagine it's similar with this system.

    It appears they may be using silver wiring for that hdmi cable, albeit unshielded. and simple depending on geometry from the braid may be enough due to its short length. I want to ask their tech more about this.
     
  3. gbeast

    gbeast Mighty Moral Power Ranger

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    I have the amp in the house right now.

    I do have some first impressions but I am afraid it is not a fair fight with the 650 and my TH2. I need some other headphones and really need for my HE-6 to arrive.

    So far the amp is very clean, has a very full midrange, is not bright, has present bass, and an automatically discernible "lack of grain". Also I am not detecting any airiness either yet because my th2 sounds more airy so far. I have never thought of it as an airy amp. But I need to hold back for the rest of my impressions. As per the tour rules I will need to post my full review on Head-Fi and it will be as full of a review as I can make it.

    I will most definitely post impressions here and will compare it to the Jotunheim, iHA6, and TH2. All amps that I have heard but not had in house together.

    Its heavier than I thought and I dont know what people are talking about when they say it slides around on their desks. The lack of feet, or the fact that the feed are replaced by this rubber pad thingy is actually really cool.
     
    Last edited: Oct 26, 2016
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  4. AllanMarcus

    AllanMarcus Too much posting, not enough reading

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    Can you plug/unplug a headphone without holding the amp?
     
  5. gbeast

    gbeast Mighty Moral Power Ranger

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    ohhh lol thats what they mean lol... to plug them in I have to pointer finger to hold it down and my thumb and middle finger to plug it in.
     
  6. Walderstorn

    Walderstorn Facebook Friend

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    Thanks for the impressions but since you didnt mention the M9 is that because you still havent received it?
     
  7. gbeast

    gbeast Mighty Moral Power Ranger

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    I ended up not buying it. I just looked into it and know its not the same as the 11 series amp.
     
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  8. Walderstorn

    Walderstorn Facebook Friend

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    Thank you very much, its a shame i was looking forward for more impressions since people seem to like it a lot. I will be further reading your new impressions on the iCAN.
     
  9. gbeast

    gbeast Mighty Moral Power Ranger

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    Second impressions
    repeat of above
    All in solid state mode... Sorry I dont care about the tubes... I will have to force myself to try it out.
    Pros so far:

    • Lots of body and tonal density
    • rich timbre
    • clean and grainless sound,
    • Analog and not sterile or bright
    • Good layering
    • Very full midrange
    • Good Macro dynamics
    Cons so far:
    • Soundstage seems a little narrow
    • Doesn't seem like the treble is airy enough to help the 650 in its weakness at sounding open enough
    • Sometimes sounds a bit too saturated and slightly flattering
    more to come and vs my TH2 but I need to do it when my amp warms up because I just realized how much more the dynamics change. I had been comparing it to a cold tube amp after being tired from work.
    .
     
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  10. gbeast

    gbeast Mighty Moral Power Ranger

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    Been at this amp with a better cable of the 650 and got to compare it to the Jotenheim.

    I didnt give it a fair enough shake and the stock cable running this amp fully balanced improved the bass quality. Here are my impressions so far.

    VS Jotunheim w/650

    • The Pro iCan had very very slightly more slam and texture, was as solid but not as tight and clean sounding and maybe slightly slower
    • The Jotunheim had a soundstage that seemed to be a little wider but a whole lot flatter with no depth in comparison
    • The Joti also sounded almost as clear. That instant clarity you get when plugging a headphone in to an amp that most of us listen for right away was actually more apparent especially since the Joti is brighter. However listening a bit and the ears pick up how the Pro has easily the blacker background and sounds cleaner
    • They both seem to have very similar Macro dynamics
    • The Pro has better micro dynamics
    • The Pro has worse treble presence and seems slightly rolled in the upper highs and the Joti still lacks treble extension compared to my Head 2 amp (both of which have a more solid and weighty bass)
    • The Pro sounds warmer in the lower -middle midrange and the Joti sounds stronger in the upper mids - lower treble
    W/modded HE-6
    • This amp does better with a lower impedance headphone. The joti is not even close of a match to the pro when trying to drive the 6 and no one should expect it to.
    • The combination of the 6 and the pro actually have their pros and cons of each almost equalized. I think the 6 on speaker taps like I heard in the past had more grunt and slam
    • The pro does grip the 6's bass fairly well and doesn't mask its texture
    • The highs still sound bright but aren't screeching like on the Cayin, Jotun, and even sound more in balance than on my TH2 (which does better than the Jotun and Cayin.
    Compared to the Cayin.... Umm see my FS add. I like the Cayin ... its a clean and tight sounding amp but the Jotunheim is more transparent, as is the Pro and my TH2. Bass control and slam is very similar on the Cayin and Jotunheim actually with the slight edge maybe going to the Joti. But I must say the pro bass is a little more satisfying for a person like me and that bass boos is official on the Pro.

    I will post my review... I lost my notes on the Pro compared to the Jot but overall I do believe the Pro is the better amp, mostly because I hear more cleanly and deeply into the recordings and love the way its midrange sounds, especially with the 6.
     
    Last edited: Nov 3, 2016
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  11. cocolinho

    cocolinho Acquaintance

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    Thank you for your review. I have HD650 & Edition X V2, all with balanced cables. I wonder how big is the difference between Jot & Pro. Reading your comments I understand "not that much". Pro is like 5 times the price of the Jot so it seems that Jot has a much better value , especially with HD650. I guess Jot will also work fine with EDX V2, another "dark" headphones.
    I also wonder how big will be the difference between Mobi/Jot vs. GO V2A infinity (I currently have)... I believe the only way to know is to buy Jot & compare myself
     
  12. gbeast

    gbeast Mighty Moral Power Ranger

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    Below is my review on the sound.

    The Pro is definitely not worth 4 times the price of the Joti but I would consider it an upgrade. The Joti is a bit bright for my tastes and this pro is just a bit dark I would prefer a middle ground like my TH2 but a solid state version with tighter bass. The Pro worked well with the 650 it just wasn't bright to lift the veil per se but it was considerably deeper and 'blacker', better layered and is the better amp for sure. How high the Joti punches in price to performance is unfair.... or better yet how much others charge for amps is unfair.


    Sound

    [​IMG]

    Bass



    The bass is solid with a balanced amount of presence. It has a very very slight bloom with good texture. Bass slam is satisfactory and macro dynamics are easy to perceive in the low band. It has grip and control with good depth and detail. I personally won’t call it elevated or boosted but it does seem to have a very little bit more presence than those here present I have compared it to. Bass quantity is very reminiscent of the Nuprime HPA-9. There is no extra mid-upper bass warmth but it is linear and uniform. Those seeking an amp that provide adequate slam will find the Pro sufficient especially with the bass boost engaged. It is acceptably tight but is more natural than clinical. My initial impressions on the bass with the 650 in SE left somethings wanting. When used in balanced the bass is much better on my modded 6XX but still not as tight as I have heard it.



    Midrange
    The midrange is simply analog. I really like the bass of the iCan pro because its detailed and present with good punch but the midrange is what seems to draw the most attention to itself. It has what sounds to my ears as a warmth from the lower midrange to midrange proper without ever sounding muddy. The upper midrange is not withdrawn per se but it doesn’t sound accentuated. Tones resonate with a realistic strength and purity that justify its asking price. While this may not lift the breathe of the vocals high enough to make them sound like they project as convincingly as my TH2 which provides better harmonics, it does capture realism of tone and fullness of body exceptionally well. Body this amp has to spare without ever sounding too slow or syrupy. Textures are not smoothed over and instruments are a little sweet in timbre. I would be lying if I said that the iFi Pro doesn’t have a bit of sweetness to it and a welcomed dose of flattery. It is not flat or sterile by any means and is very tactful at displaying its musicality because this complimentary midrange fullness is not with the addition of any extra decay or soft tubey attacks. The sound is musical but accurate and insightful. Pianos, xylophones, strings, guitars, cellos sound as real as ever. In fact even if I don’t end up buying this amp I have a new standard now as to how much realism I should be expecting at this level. If I had to make a gripe about the midrange it would be that I would like a little more upper midrange presence and harmonics to balance out the lower to midrange section for better linearity but as is the midrange is charming.



    Treble
    The textures in the treble are crisp and solid without ever sounding splashy and the resolution throughout the whole frequency range is excellent. The details are all there but I would venture to say that this amp is a little more serene in the treble. It is non fatiguing and relatively insightful at the same time. It takes on a more ‘down-to-earth’ than aerial ambience. The tuning seems deliberate as to show the audio world that you do not need to artificially boost the treble for high quality sound. While I appreciate this, it may be a departure from the screeching, lit up tunings of more sparkly gear. You would think that the tube engaged would be dark and the amp would be bright but its not so.



    Compared to the Airist heron this amp will sound similarly balanced in the treble but less airy and extended and a whole lot more grounded in foundation. I often find my memory recalling the Heron because it has the best tonality of just about any amp I have heard to date but its lack of depth, dynamics, and bass slam held it back. The pro is sharper, more resolute, better separated and has much better density of tone than most amps so though the treble is not accentuated it always sounds organic, and realistic without any of that digital hash. Actually, in overall balance, this amp reminds me most of the Nuprime HPA-9 but in a whole other league of technical ability and realism.



    Performance
    The Pro is a very clean sounding amp with good transients and realistic decay. Its depths are utterly aphotic and sounds emerge from below with clarity, body, and individuality. Separation is excellent but could stand to be assisted by a wider soundstage. Layering (which is a consequence of body, separation, and depth) is very good. Textures are there as well. The tuning can make certain recordings sound a little more weighed down and saturated but the precision and holography keeps things from sounding (sorry to repeat myself) cluttered and thick. While not super fast, the Pro has some zip to it as well.



    Comparisons
    I am tempted to make a reference to the Nuprime HPA-9. The pro is better by all accounts but the the Pro is pretty much like a Numprime HPA-9 on steroids. They both have much in common. Punchy bass, full mids, smooth treble, good body. Only the Nuprime is not as powerful, is slower, not as clean, nor as clear or as articulate but within its price tier holds its own.





    [​IMG]



    Vs Trafomatic Head 2 w/ 75 HG Reflektors NOS 6922 tubes.



    • Instruments sound more free flowing and eloquent on the Trafomatic Head 2.
    • Instruments seem to rise and decay with more intensity on the TH2
    • Details are close but resolution seems negligibly better on the iCan Pro
    • The vocals sometimes sound a bit too weighed down on the pro in comparison; just a little too heavy in the lower to middle midrange and they place the vocalist closer to you than the TH2 does.
    • Tones have more density and body on the iCan and that is saying a lot because in my home the TH2 usually has more body compared to other amps and is far from thin. It is here that the ifi amp gains back grounds in realism.
    • Soundstage is very easily wider on the TH2. This is regardless of headphone and even with the HE-6. Its not even close... even with the 3D engaged. When the 3D is engaged the pro can come closer but the center image sounds more hollow than the TH2 and more peaky in the upper midrange.
    • Soundstage depth seems tied but the fact that the Pro is deep and has a much blacker background makes it seem better layered.
    • Even with higher impedance headphones the Pro has a heavier bass but the TH2 makes those headphones sound more dynamic and natural.
    • Treble presence goes to the TH2 as well as airiness. I have never appreciated the TH2 in this aspect and really thought it to be only average but it handily bests the Pro.
    • Clarity barely goes to the ifi amp and it took a few days to come to this conclusion. I feel the Pro makes instruments resonate more strongly and even though the TH2 is very clear its sounds aren’t nearly as clean as the Pro overall. The trafomatic is a tube amp and when the "tube+' option is engaged on the Pro the TH2 takes the win but in solid state mode the Pro is ever so modestly clearer.




    Vs Schiit Jotunheim

    So why compare a 399 amp to a 1699 one? Because the Schiit Jotunheim disrupts all expectations of price to performance. However, in almost literally every area the Jotunheim shows a weakness the Ican Pro shines.



    • Soundstage depth goes to the Pro without dispute.
    • Microdynamics go to the Pro.
    • Nuance goes to the Pro.
    • Refinement goes to the Pro.
    • Blackness of background goes to the Pro over any amp I have heard bottom line. However that instant perception of clarity we listen for in the first few moments of plugging our headphones into an amp is actually more instantly apparent on the Jotunheim because of the treble presence and its clean nature. After a few songs it becomes apparent that the Pro is more refined, cleaner, and clearer. The Jotunheim has very low distortion, even lower than much more expensive amps but not the iCan.
    • The lower midrange sounds more rich and wholesome on the Pro while the upper midrange to lower treble is more pronounced on the Jotunheim for better vocal harmonics.
    • The bass is cleaner and a little tighter on the Jotunheim regardless of headphone.
    • Stage width may even go to the Jotunheim as the Pro lacks a bit of width but its barely discernible when comparing and could sound that way because the Jotunheim has very little depth. If it were not for my bias towards black backgrounds and depth of soundstage the Jotunheim would be my pick for the 650. However, to those less biased I would actually say the Jotunheim is the better pairing because it lifts the veil better and controls the bass a tad better.
    • The Jotuheim cannot properly handle the 6. It can get it loud but its a splashy, trebly mess of uncomfortable listening. The Pro is much better at taking on such a beast.
    • Bass slam is stronger on the Pro as well as macro dynamics but only by a hair.










    [​IMG]

    Vs Cayin iHA6

    As far as balance goes the Cayin is very similar to the Jotunheim.

    • Bass quantity goes to the Ican pro
    • Bass control is mostly equal but slightly less boomy on the cayin.
    • The pro is a much cleaner sounding amp but is a lot darker in comparison. The iHA-6 has enough power to drive the 6 well but like the Jotunheim the treble is a bit too much and the pairing is not ideal for my tastes.
    • The iHA-6 sounds thinner than the Pro but is more airy and has better sparkle and overall would sound more linear apart from being more bright than I personally consider truly neutral. My idea of neutral treble lies somewhere in between the two.
    • Layering and depth is much better on the Pro and it sounds more holographic overall while the iHA-6 sounds more flat.
    • I felt that when I compared the iHA-6 directly to the Airist Heron 5 that the iHA-6 when used balanced was more dynamic than the Heron but had a relatively small soundstage in comparison. Also that the Heron had better tonality but worse technicalities besides soundstage. The pro would sound stronger in the midrange than the Heron and less open but a lot better layered and realistic.
    • The Pro has a more realistic and full midrange than the iHA-6 and is more musical all while being a little better overall in performance.


    Pairings


    [​IMG]

    Pro and the HD6XX (modded)

    Ifi's flagship amp controls the 6XX bass decently when used balanced. The 650 suffers no harm from the midrange warmth of the Pro but the veil is not lifted. The holography and soundstage depth is easily perceivable with the 650 as is the low distortion. Bass boosts, 3d, are fun with the Senn but the tube option is a little less desirable since it increases the ‘veil’ effect of the 650. The Sennheiser doesn’t sound slow but becomes richly musical; just less open than with my tube amp and the Jotuhheim.







    [​IMG]

    Pro and the HE-6 (modded)

    This is a match made in heaven…well almost. The 6 largely benefits from how the iCan is tuned. Also, the 6 doesn’t suffer in the ways that it usually does when being under amped (treble sharpness, lack of dynamics, weak bass). The he-6 has been better served in the bass department by some speaker amps I have heard and I have heard the 6 slam harder but I still find the 6 to have body and decent dynamics through the ifi iCan Pro. The treble is still bright, after all its an HE-6, but the sharpness gives way to better articulation and a more controlled and enjoyable treble. On high gain the the HE-6 has more than enough power and I can’t go past 12 o’clock before cringing. The Pro does better with lower impedance headphones and the 6 is a testament to that as it sounds adequately fast, very clear, controlled, and holographic. Were I to choose a desktop headphone amplifier for the sole purpose of driving the 6 I would most likely pick the Pro over the vast majority of dedicated solid state headphone amps. Compared to my Trafomatic the Pro still sells the 6 a little short on soundstage width but I find my modded HE-6 to have more than enough soundstage on the Pro. The low distortion of the 6 as well as the clean black background of the iCan Pro make an excellent way of hearing music as clean and as clear as the high standards of most audiophiles can demand. This pairing will be rewarded by a clean and balanced DAC.









    [​IMG]



    Pro and my modded Pioneer HRM-7

    It may not hurt to mention that my Pioneer HRM-7 has gone through several modifications, has been tested with many different amps, and has been in my stable for quite some time. When I got my Pavane DAC it was all I had and I easily noticed the difference of the Metrum in my system. It has been the reason for me not missing much when I sell a headphone because it can suffice(for short a short time). Well with the Pro the bass can be tight and punchy and the lower impedance of my HRM-7 worked much better with the pro than even the 50 ohm setting of my TH2 when it came to dynamics and speed. On a few rare songs I still prefer the TH2 pairing because of the tonality and spaciousness that seems to help headphones of this type sound more open. More often I prefer how the Pro grips the HRM-7 and drives it with better authority for more potency and articulation. The midrange warmth of the Pro helps with the HRM-7's deficiency in the midband. I listen to a lot of old school hip hop and some of those recordings were… well downright low quality. The bass boost on the Pro and muscular sound of my bass modded 7 makes for the most fun I have had in a while, a little over the top but hey whatever…thats what I like sometimes.
     
    Last edited: Nov 26, 2016
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  13. Torq

    Torq Retired from SBAF

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    Very nice write up!

    Just got my hands on this today (picture is purely for size comparison/provenance) ...

    iFi-Pro-iCAN.jpg

    Much too early to make any comments on how it sounds, but I'll be giving it a thorough going over in the next few days. The unit is on loan to me, so I have no investment in it.

    Sources will be Yggdrasil, Spring DAC (KTE) and Modi MB; headphones will be Abyss, LCD-4, Utopia, HD800S, HD650, THX-00 Purpleheart and SE846. And everything will be tested in both balanced and single-ended operation (excepting the Modi MB which is, of course, SE-only).

    I may even break out the proper camera and take some decent pictures this time ...
     
  14. gbeast

    gbeast Mighty Moral Power Ranger

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    Thanks!

    Id expect it to go great w the Utopia. Id like to see if it compares to the rag.
     
  15. khragon

    khragon Acquaintance

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    Let me know how it goes with Yggy -> Ican -> Utopia, this is the chain I am interested in.
     
  16. es.fran

    es.fran Rando

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    I've spent some days with this amp, as my previous amp (and dac) broke the black friday week, so on thursday night I jump at a pretty good offer, with the hope of not losing too much money if I finally didn't like it. I've also always been attracted by the idea of using my headphone amp as a preamp, so that made the deal. First I have to say that my experience is pretty limited and apart from my previous amp, an audio-gd NFB-10.33, I've only had an rPAC (that I now use as a dac until I get a proper one). The headphones that I've used are some good old Alpha Dogs, and a new kid in the city, the Sony MDR-Z1R (that I received a pair of days after the amp).

    My first thought when I connected, XLR balanced, the Alpha Dogs was, well, I've never heard nothing like this, so a complete black background, and the harshness I remembered with the audio-gd was completely gone, but there was also some veil, so I let the amp run for a couple of days. After the burn in the veil was almost gone, and it sounded good, quite better than the audio-gd, more clear, detailed and musical in some way, but it was slower and I also felt it lacked air, and could be more engaging.

    After the Alpha Dogs, I connected the MDR-Z1R, and I have to say that I think it's not a good pairing. First they're too efficient and even in low gain there's not too much room, and the bass is sometimes too much powerful, and not controlled (this could be a problem with the headphones but until I have another reference I'd say it's half and half). It's not that they don't sound good, because when they do, they sound exceptionally good, but sometimes the bass is too much. I'm waiting for a balanced cable, that I think will resolve partially the problem with the bass, but the the gain will only be worse. Nevertheless... I tried to connect the headphones with the 3.5mm connector (I was using the 6.3mm adaptor), and... I thought I was listening to a different amp. Part of the blackness of the background was lost and I started to feel the air, I could use the medium gain, and the bass was not too much powerful anymore.

    In resume I'd say that it's an amp I could live with, I like its blackness, but at the same time I think it could be more emotional. I have the feeling that it would be a good pairing for some inefficient and kind of bright headphones. All my impressions are with the solid state mode. I've not really tried the tube mode, but for the little I've heard I'd say that it softens the sound and blurs the image a bit.

    Like a preamp, I like it quite a lot, and I think it works pretty well in my system, with a Benchmark AHB2 power amp, and ATC SCM-11 speakers. It projects an holographic sound, and maintains the good things I've heard with the headphones, and at the same time I feel it quite engaging. I have an issue, I cannot connect the power amp (even powered off) and headphones at the same time, or I hear some interference in the headphones. In the user manual it's not recommended to use both at the same time, so that's it.

    I'll try to update my impressions when I get a new dac, because I think the iFi amp could benefit a lot from a better and more dynamic one.
     
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  17. Torq

    Torq Retired from SBAF

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    It is a very nice pairing with the Utopia, in all three operating modes.

    Thoughts on how it compares with the Ragnarok will be forthcoming when I get my impressions properly written up ... ;)

    That chain, among others, will be included in my write-up.

    --

    I think what's going to be the most challenging aspect of this amp for most people is that you're effectively paying for the most important parts of two amplifiers in one, since the solid-state and tube sections are full-blown amplifier stages, rather than it just being a switchable tube-buffer. That's either going to translate into pretty good value for those that want both (since the rest of the parts are shared), and might well go the other way somewhat for those that won't use both modes fully (one of the amps is effectively "wasted").
     
  18. Torq

    Torq Retired from SBAF

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    *Sigh*

    It's going to be sometime tomorrow before I finish writing up my impressions here. 3,000 words and counting ...
     
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  19. khragon

    khragon Acquaintance

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    How about a sneak preview of the first 2000 words? :)

    Looking forward to the write up.
     
  20. Torq

    Torq Retired from SBAF

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    iFi Audio - Pro iCAN Impressions

    Pro-iCAN-with-4-Cans.jpg

    General Notes:

    Because this is already going to be quite a long post, I’m going to break my impressions down into a couple of separate posts. The first of those (this one) will be the bulk of my impressions of the iCAN itself; the second will be a detailed comparison specifically to the Jotunheim and Lyr 2 (in both tube and LISST configurations). Why call out Jotunheim and Lyr 2 separately? Well, beyond wanting to get this posted, there’s another factor that’ll become clear towards the end of this post.

    My initial impressions were formed using a loaner Pro iCAN unit (that had some number of burn-in hours on it). Excepting comparisons to Schiit’s Jotunheim and Lyr 2, all commentary is based on that loaner unit. Most comparison/commentary is based on listening via Abyss, Utopia, HD800S and LCD-4, sourced via Schiit Yggdrasil (AES via Auralic Aries/RedNet 3) and Holo Audio Spring DAC (microRendu -> Singxer SU-1 -> I2S). Redbook lossless files or “better”. I'll break this down a bit in a follow-up if there's interest.

    Pro-iCAN-with-4-Cans-Oblique.jpg

    Other thoughts …

    I don’t put much stock in more-than-minimal burn-in. If that’s a real factor, manufacturer’s or dealers are welcome to burn-in units before I listen to them. Otherwise, they’ll generally be evaluated as-is. For what it’s worth, I’ve never personally heard something I didn’t like initially become something I did like after XX(X)-hours “burn-in”.

    I will, variously, refer to the iFi Audio Pro iCAN as just “iCAN”, “Pro iCAN” (and maybe* “Susan”) … hopefully this won’t prove too confusing as I am not including listening impressions about any other iFi products, such as the iFi Micro iCAN or iCAN SE in these notes.

    Finally, I expect to add to this a little post initial “publication”. I want to get “it out there” before my holiday plans/travel take me away. But there is more I want to add (e.g. extra detail/comparison to my other high-end amps, and specific thoughts on pairings with my list of headphones) … including some thoughts on the upcoming Electrostatic Energizer designed to work in conjunction with the Pro iCAN.

    Quick Personal Thoughts on iFi Audio:

    iFi Audio’s products are often highly-multifunctional. This can be both a boon, or a bit of a boondoggle, especially from a value perspective. There’s always some differentiation, but there’s also often a sizeable degree of overlap in utility or application.

    For example, if you wanted to build a small stack of iFi “Pro” series components, say the Pro iCAN and the upcoming** Pro iDSD DAC, you’ll wind up, effectively, paying for two headphone amplifiers, as the iDSD will include both solid-state and dual-mode tube driven headphone outputs. Great if you just want the iDSD, but not as good, from a value perspective, if you have the Pro iCAN and only ever used the iDSD as a DAC.

    I’m not a big fan of iFi Audio’s marketing/sales copy. While I don’t believe they are claiming anything that isn’t true, at least as long as you read the fine print, there’s a certain style and approach to it that just rubs me the wrong way. It’s good for a chuckle, but often misses out on communicating some genuinely interesting/useful information – which is true of the manuals as well, as it happens, but the short version here is to take it with a grain, or a pinch, of salt.

    About the Pro iCAN:

    In typical iFi style, this is a very versatile piece of kit. This makes it quite interesting and involved to properly evaluate and it also makes assessing value quite tricky (something I’ll come back to a bit later). At its core it’s a compact, high-power single-ended and balanced headphone amplifier and proper-pre-amp, with selectable tube/solid-state input stages and variable gain suitable for super-sensitive IEMs all the way up to the HE-6. To that, it adds tweakable bass and soundstage settings (implemented differently for speakers and headphones).

    Solid-State and Tubes:

    One example of the Pro iCAN’s versatility is that it combines switchable solid-state and tube amplification (with two selectable levels of feedback). This is its most interesting feature for me; I think it’s worth spending a moment or two looking at what this actually means (it’s not immediately obvious from the product page).

    It is the INPUT stage that is switchable between tube and solid-sate operation. The 2nd and power stages are pure solid-state. And when in tube mode you can choose your level of feedback, which has the effect of altering the distortion numbers significantly. By the numbers, just switching from solid-state to tube barely moves the distortion figures (from 0.0015% to 0.002% THD); going into “Tube+” mode increases this six-fold to 0.012%). I’ll come back to what this means from an audible perspective shortly, but for now it’s enough to say that the difference between solid-state and tube mode is more subtle than between tube and tube-plus mode.

    Outputs and Connectivity:

    Another area of flexibility is the number of output options on offer. Both single-ended and balanced outputs are available, and with multiple connection options:

    • For balanced connections, which is my preference, you can use a single 4-pin XLR connection, dual 3-pin XLR connections (how I’m running it at the moment), dual 6.3mm (1/4”) TRS connections (not dissimilar to the “Pono”, but with full-size jacks instead), or with a 3.5mm TRRS connection.
    • Single-ended outputs are also represented via two 6.3mm (1/4”) TRS jacks (use the right-hand connector if you’re only running one headphone) and a 3.5mm TRS socket. As a bonus, iFi Audio’s “IE Match” capability is built into both of the 3.5mm (1/8”) connections, which is rather useful if you want to run sensitive IEMs off the thing.
    In other words, unless it has an RSA/ALO plug on the end, or is electrostatic (more on that in a bit), you’re going to be hard pressed to find something you can’t connect directly to the Pro iCAN.

    Drive and Power:

    The Pro iCAN has lots of this.

    However, this is one area in which I think the marketing copy is, shall we say: “a bit over exuberant”. The claim of 14 watts of output power is, per iFi Audio, a very-short-term (milliseconds) peak. I don’t appreciate claims of that nature and feel it casts an unnecessarily questionable pall over a product that doesn’t need such hyperbole to be convincing.

    That said, there’s plenty of power here. It drives my Abyss, LCD-4, HD800S and Utopia with great authority. Only my WA5-LE, in high-power mode (7.5 watts into 200 ohms), exhibits a noticeably stronger grip on those drivers. Think in terms of “You! Here … NOW!” and you’ll get the idea. Only the Abyss has warranted switching from low-gain to medium, and even that’s not strictly necessary, I just find it’s a bit more dynamic that way.

    This is a VERY long-winded way of saying that I cannot imagine an existent headphone or IEM that the Pro iCAN would not be able to drive completely convincingly.

    While I’m on the subject of power, I’m going to touch on amplifier implementation momentarily …

    Most of the description/commentary on the Pro iCAN talks about the class-A power stage. It’s really more “proper” to describe it as class A/B but with VERY heavy bias into class A operation. That bias is so heavy, in fact, that unless you’re trying to frag some very low impedance cans, you’re unlikely to move out of class-A operation. The unit runs suitably warm as a result (31c/88f); not quite Ragnarok (43c/109f) or Lyr 2 “warm”, but warm nonetheless.

    This is mostly irrelevant, since it’s how the thing sounds that is (or should be) most important here, but just before I get to that there are a couple of other features I should touch on …

    X-Bass:

    This is billed as a “bass correction system” rather than as “bass-boost” or some kind of tone control. It is, like everything else on the Pro iCAN, implemented purely in the analog domain. It has four settings, from “off” (where it is completely out of the audio-path) and then 10, 20 and 40 Hz settings which, somewhat strangely, don’t correlate directly to where the adjustment occurs.

    It’s a lot more useable and subtle than the on/off implementation in iFi’s Micro iDSD BL, but how much actual use it is, in real terms, is going to depend on a number of factors – including the composition of your total chain (your cans in particular) and the music you’re listening too.

    With the Abyss or LCD-4 it’s just unnecessary. In fact, with the LCD-4, it’s bordering on obnoxious. It’s just not necessary. This is not a bass-shy amp.

    With the HD800S it does have some value. It’s a bit hard to assess real bass-quality-impact with the HD800S due to the innate distortion at that end of the frequency spectrum those cans exhibit, and having HD800 would make it easier to assess. Maybe I’ll get to compare those in the near future.

    There’s a lot less bleed into the mid and upper-bass with this implementation than with the Micro iDSD BL version. But it can muddy things in some situations.

    So, a useful feature, but one that ultimately I’ve found myself just turning off and not missing it.

    3D+:

    Think of this as a cross between cross-feed and a sound-stage expander. And note that it is implemented rather differently for the headphone outputs vs. the pre-amp outputs!

    There is a limit as to how “3D” of a presentation that headphones can yield. The Sennheiser HD800(S) and Abyss do a significantly better job here than the LCD-4 or Utopia, but they’re all still relatively (or completely) “flat” compared to a half-decent speaker setup.

    I’d be lying if I said this didn’t have an immediate, and obvious, effect on most tracks and with all the headphones I used while listening to the iCAN. It is, by no means, always beneficial – but it is always audible. In some cases all you get is a sense of slight lower-treble lift (good with the LCD-4, less so with the HD800S or Utopia). In others - the stage changes, sometimes quite markedly.

    With 3D+ off (again, it’s totally out of the circuit in this state), and via headphones, the general presentation is “right at my eyes” and pretty much wrapped around my face, but with pretty good left-to-right delineation there … I wouldn’t describe it as “three blob”.

    Progressively engaging 3D+ has two effects … first it moves the presentation a little further in front of my face with each increment; second, it warps the image outwards from the edges. By which I mean the extreme left and right sides of the image are increasingly further forward, the stage widens somewhat and the sense of depth increases slightly.

    Below, is a crude illustration of what I’m trying to describe:

    Head-Stage-1.jpg

    That’s with headphones … now for speakers …

    Things are handled differently via the pre-outs – in other words the processing (all still analog) is different on those outputs and is biased towards speaker systems. The stage is already very convincing via my speaker rig and the 3D+ setting really doesn’t do anything there but exaggerate things somewhat unnaturally in my rig. If you have a setup that has a narrow and shallow stage, this function might be very entertaining, but for me - I’d rather leave it off. It resulted in a progressively wider image, but with slight diffusion of the sound and a reduction in tonal density.

    Gain:

    Not much to say here … three settings, “low” is AMPLE for most cans. Short of HE-6 or AKG-1000 it’s hard to imagine needing more than “medium”. Even Abyss is quite impressive on “low”, though I generally wound up punching that up to “medium”.

    NOW THEN!

    So … this might be a, somewhat unfortunate, record ... 1,900 or so words and I haven’t started to talk about how the bloody thing SOUNDS! Let’s fix that right now …

    Sound:

    In a word, excellent.

    While there is a definite signature, vs. my normal references, the presentation is entirely agreeable and generally quite impressive. This remains true for all three operating modes (herein referenced as SS, Tube and Tube+).

    My very first impressions, upon first power-up, were of a darker rendering with a high-degree of tonal density. I don’t mean congestion here … articulation and detail were both immediately very good, but there was a definite “weight” or “density” to how the music was presented. This was delivered without any lack of speed or detail. Perhaps “solidity” is a good term here. The music has body, depth, presence, and power – yet things remain quite effortless in their delivery.

    Schiit’s Ragnarok, in comparison, is a little more open and a little more forward. Post-power-on “air” definitely favors Ragnarok here.

    While the sense of “darkness” and “density” abates a little after a bit of warm-up time, it is, I feel, characteristic to the presentation of the Pro iCAN. I don’t find this to be a negative thing and wouldn’t go as far as to call it a “dark sounding” amp, just “darkER” than my others. It was never bothersome. But, again, at first-power-on, it’s an immediately noticeable thing. If you’ve ever heard any of the RSA amps, the DarkStar in particular, it’s weight, signature and density of tone is initially very similar … yet still manages to be more vivid overall.

    Tonal Profile:

    Neutral/Neutral-Dark. Beyond that slight slant, there’s no real emphasis anywhere in the FR spectrum. Bass is portrayed with suitable weight, articulation (very evident with the Abyss) and authority. The mid-range is detailed, nuanced and fluid. Treble is inflected, subtle, with the merest hint of “solid-state sheen” (as opposed to “steel”) in solid-state mode, with brass/cymbals, but otherwise quite realistic.

    This profile doesn’t vary much regardless of which “mode” you’re running the iCAN in. I think that’s a good thing. Tonality really doesn’t change among SS/Tube/Tube+ modes, although “richness” does.

    Resolution, Detail and “Plankton”:

    Excellent.

    Nothing is getting covered up or smeared over here. Presentation is detailed, resolving, and exhibits suitable micro-detail and texture. Not necessarily ahead of Ragnarok here, but in the same ball-park. Switching between SS and Tube+ mode really doesn’t change my evaluation either; sonics become a bit richer and a tiny bit sweeter in Tube+ mode, but that doesn’t come at the expense of detail.

    It’s worth noting that the Pro iCAN doesn’t cover up any warts from your source (gear or software). Don’t be tempted to think putting it in either of the Tube/Tube+ modes will make it more forgiving – it really won’t.

    Another interesting point here is that, the iCAN will out resolve Ragnarok if you don't run the Schiit amp balanced in and out.

    Bass:

    Weight, authority, articulation and depth are all handled with ease. Paired with the Abyss, it really shows where JPS’ product excels (bass articulation – as the LCD-4 plays deeper, but with less resolution). Little, to nothing, is lacking here. Compared with the best … say, serious, pure and high-power-tube amplification, only “slam” is very-slightly limited.

    Ragnarok exhibits a little more slam in the lower registers. The WA5-LE even more so. But I can’t describe the iCAN as in anyway “lacking” here. It’s probably as good, or better, than most other options. And, going on distant-memory-alone I’d say it’d handily beats the Moon 430 here (I’m not that much of a fan of that unit, to be honest … it’s good … but I think VERY over-priced).

    Interestingly, for me at least, Lyr 2, with stock tubes, also meets or beats the iCAN in terms of bass-SLAM, though not in articulation. And that is, for me, where Lyr 2 w/ tubes ceases to seriously challenge the iFi unit.

    Mids:

    Sonorous, lucid and musical.

    Yes, the WA5-LE with Takatsuki 274B and 300B does it better … it’s also several times the price.

    Things, here, are directly comparable to Ragnarok. There are differences, to be sure, but evaluating the whole, you’re making minor trade-offs in either case. In pure solid-state mode, I’d give the nod to Schiit’s amp – I think it’s more convincing there. But … I’m a tube-guy, fundamentally, and personally I’d spend more time with the iCAN in Tube+ mode and the timbral warmth/richness, while clearly artificial, is quite seductive.

    If you’re more of a purist, or a running cans with richer mids (say, Audeze’s LCD series) Ragnarok is a better deal here.

    Regardless of whether I paired things with the LCD-4, Utopia, or Abyss, I’d have to call it as a resolutely impressive rendering.

    Treble/Highs:

    Smooth, detailed, and clean/pristine … and if I had to characterize it specifically then I’d say that if/where the treble deviates from that it is more in the direction of “sheen” than “steel” in solid-state mode. This is more natural in Tube mode and quite rich and seductive in Tube+ mode.

    I could get lost here very easily.

    Dynamics:

    Excellent, both at the macro and micro level.

    It’s very easy to follow the decaying modulation of a single string as it ebbs into nothing, or the subtle changes in volume as a brush crosses a cymbal. Emotionally-driven micro-changes in volume that you hear in a performer’s voice as it wavers slightly with what they’re feeling is portrayed clearly. This thing is capable of great dynamic subtlety. And then it’s able to turn around and make you jump with large swings in big orchestral passages, or rattle your head with ultra-fast electronic “percussion”.

    The only negative here is that, initially, the slightly darker presentation compared to Ragnarok or Jotunheim, can give a slight false sense of compression. And this wasn’t a consistent thing.

    Transient Response & Control:

    I mentioned the degree of grip the Pro iCAN exhibits over the drivers in the section about power, earlier on, and it really does an excellent job there. This is a particularly good thing because the transient response realized by this little amp is quite surprising and it’s not hard to imagine driver overshoot being a problem if there was less grip.

    Start-stop of electronic instruments is instantaneous when it is supposed to be, without getting in the way of the proper decay of notes in acoustic piece. And these notes emerge from a completely black backdrop …

    Background:

    How black is that background?

    Blacker than the inside of a coal-miner’s colon, after a barrel of Guinness - in the dark***.

    With my full-size cans, in low-gain, and at full-volume, I hear no hiss at all. The same is true in medium gain. All amplifiers exhibit some noise, but to find it here you must put the thing in high-gain and wind the volume up to the point where you’d destroy your hearing (And possibly your headphones) in very short order.

    With IEMs, specifically the Shure SE846 here (9 ohms, 114 db SPL/mw), there’s absolutely no noise or hiss in low-gain at full volume, and the merest hint at full-volume in medium gain. Again, you can hear hiss in high-gain here, and it starts a bit earlier on the dial than with full size cans, but since low-gain is more than enough to drive these to hearing-damage inducing levels, this is a moot point.

    The above statements hold true for all the operating modes … and, curiously, Tube+ mode is actually quieter than when the unit is in SS mode.

    Other Thoughts/Comments:

    Value:

    Evaluating where this thing sits from a value perspective is complicated by the fact that it will have different levels of utility and capability depending on the prospective buyer.

    If you’re a single-headphone, single-source type of listener then it’s a very different proposition than to someone that has a stable of headphones, wants to drive some with tubes and others with solid-state, needs a pre-amp and that might also desire some level of bass correction and sound stage manipulation/cross-feed.

    In the first case, unfortunately, I think the value proposition falls a bit out of whack compared to the competition.

    One of the reasons I was anxious to get my hands on a Jotunheim last week was so I could see how close it was possible to get to the flexibility of the Pro iCAN in other ways. In this case, I wanted to compare the iFi unit to the combination of Jotunheim and Lyr 2 both from a sonic perspective and from one of value.

    Compact-Amps.jpg

    The detailed specifics of those comparisons will have to wait for a follow-up post, but I won’t make this a complete cliff-hanger:

    If you’re running top of the line transducers, the Pro iCAN steals the show there. It doesn’t run away with it though. In solid-state mode the difference between Jotunheim is not that big. The best way to describe it is that it’s a bit less “in your face” than the Schiit amp. It IS a lot more convincing than Lyr 2 (with tubes), and still ahead when running with LISST, and the differential here is a fair bit wider than the SS vs. Jotunheim state of affairs.

    That’s a long winded way of saying that, if you want that last few-percentage points of performance, you’ll find them here – IF your cans are good enough … but they come at a cost.

    The Pro iCAN is $1699 … a Jotunheim + Lyr 2 is $898, and you could add a Valhalla 2 if you wanted tube-presentation with more resolution and delicacy than the Lyr 2 will give you, and still be $500 ahead. And you can step into it over time.

    That’s a tough call.

    With “lesser” headphones, and if you don’t value the convenience of having all of those signatures and capabilities in a single, compact, box, the Schiit amps offer better value and probably indistinguishable performance. With TOTL cans, you’re going to notice, mostly, and are probably better served with the iFi unit.

    The value proposition is something to consider, for most here, I think.

    Power Supply:

    I meant to touch on how the Pro iCAN is powered. This is more of academic interest, I expect, but if you're looking at this as a transportable amp, you'l want to be aware that it uses an external power-brick to feed it. It's a 15v/4A unit, which iFi denotes as an "iPower+" unit. It's about a fifth, maybe a quarter, the size of the amp itself.

    You can technically use any sufficiently alternate power-supply if you're so inclined. It's a standard barrel connector, so that is not going to be that hard to do.

    The PSU is a high-frequency (1.2 MHz) switch-mode unit with internal power-filtering and, as typical with iFi's products, some of the technology used in their other, similar products.

    On one hand, I'm not keen on external PSUs. On the other, that fact that its an SMPS means that a) I'm glad it's outside the main chassis and b) it offers a chance to use something else if you're SMPS-averse (they're not my preference, by default, but the proof is in the pudding).

    Summary:

    I thoroughly enjoyed the Pro iCAN with all of my headphones.

    So much so that I bought one.

    I find it a particularly enjoyable combination with the Focal Utopia and seem to spend most of my time using it in Tube+ mode.

    And, to that end, it’s going to spend it’s time married to my 2nd pair at one of my other homes. It’s a super convenient, and very high-performing, combination and much more practical than duplicating my main listening-rig (which includes a WA5-LE and a Ragnarok to cover both SS and tube duties) there.

    It’s strong on the technicalities while remaining a thoroughly enjoyable, involving and emotive listen. I was very skeptical about its performance coming into this, particularly given my general thoughts on iFi Audio at the time, but that skepticism didn’t last very long.

    X-Bass might be useful to some people, with some music, but it is not something I will, personally, use. 3D+ might get a bit more use with the Utopia in some, limited, scenarios, but neither feature is much of a factor for me.

    Yes, the question of value is a serious and unavoidable one – Schiit’s Jotunheim is awfully close to the Pro iCAN in solid state mode, and it’s really only a little refinement, a hint of resolution and a less forward-presentation that separates them sonically, which is entirely remarkable since the Jotunheim is a fraction of the iCANs price.

    If you’ve been interested in the Pro iCAN, I can’t think of a good reason not to give it a serious audition. But I will say that you really should look at the Jotunheim (or combination of Schiit amps) at the same time if you don’t need the all-in-one solution or only want solid-state.

    In fact, my “day job” office rig is going to be just that … a Jotunheim and Lyr 2 (with tubes), driving my LCD-2.2c and one of my pairs of HD-650:

    Joti and Co.jpg

    --

    *Maybe not.
    **The Pro iDSD currently features a gestation period that rivals Magrathean planet-building.
    ***Not speaking from personal experience.
     
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2016
    Turdski, FL Guy, Priidik and 21 others like this.

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