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. gbeast

    gbeast Mighty Moral Power Ranger

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    Nice work @Torq I can see now that compared to other TOTL solid states it holds its own since your opinion makes it pretty much unanimous. I haven't had as much experience with higher end amps as you so I was very leery of my enthusiasm of it. I also had a tough time understanding the Jot price to performance compared to the Pro as it came very close.
     
    Last edited: Dec 21, 2016
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  2. JWahl

    JWahl Acquaintance

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    Awesome review, Torq. You weren't kidding about long and in depth. I need to take notes for my future posts. Very helpful, though.

    I'm curious to hear whether you preferred the Yggdrasil or the Spring DAC with the iCan. I'm guessing it's more of a toss up/personal preference. You're review of the Spring DAC also caught my attention, along with others so it's now a candidate for a future DAC.


    A side note after my recent time with the Sangaku:

    I kind of wish the nutube came out sooner and iFi had a chance to prototype with them. In the Sangaku, I thought they were a pleasant coloration, but one I'd rather have the option of switching out of the chain like the iCan Pro. Not permanently in the chain.

    I'll have to send a message to Thorsten to recommend to try prototyping with the Nutube, and see if he likes it. The compact design would fit nicely into the compact design of the iCan Pro as well.
     
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  3. landroni

    landroni Friend

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    Phew, glad this was only the short first part of the full post... :)

    Does this claim come with a WLS* disclaimer in the official docs?

    * When Lightning Strikes.
     
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  4. Torq

    Torq Retired from SBAF

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    Thanks for the kind words!

    It's certainly in the ball-park with other high-end solid-state amps. Which goes to show just how amazing the value of Jotunheim is. Which of the two someone preferred, price not-withstanding, is as likely to be down to my preference differences and/or their preferred headphones.

    Thanks!

    Brevity was not with me this time ... must work on that.

    I can't say I had a preference for either. My mood, and what I'm listening too, more than anything, will dictate which of the two DACs I'll use. A small string ensemble will probably have me running the Spring DAC, where as if I'm in a Wagner or Mahler mood I'll likely be running it through Yggdrasil. Contemporary, especially electronic, stuff comes through Yggdrasil more often than not, and long un-broken, listening sessions land there more frequently as well. But there's no science to it ... I just select whichever I'm in the mood for at the time.

    LOL!

    It will do peak delivery at 14w ... it's just that making that the number they put on the spec sheet irritates me. It seems to be capable of about 8w continuos, which is still far more than anything short of the HE-6 is going to use (and maybe not even that), so why not just quote that instead?

    It's like those nasty HTIB processor/amps in the big-box stores ... with big star-stickers proclaiming they offer 1KW of power. In the unlikely event that they ever managed such a feat, at absolutely peak output, for a micro-second, and didn't simply detonate when doing so, the poor bloody cardboard and stables speakers they come with certainly wouldn't survive it.
     
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  5. Torq

    Torq Retired from SBAF

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    Updated my main post with some comments on the PSU and an updated head-stage diagram.
     
  6. loplop

    loplop Acquaintance

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    Thanks, @Torq, for all your effort in putting that together. It really does a nice job detailing out the amp's unique characteristics.

    I just received mine, I'm really looking forward to exploring it's various states of operation.
     
  7. Torq

    Torq Retired from SBAF

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    iFi Pro iCAN vs. Schiit’s Jotunheim and Lyr 2 (etc.)

    Quick Thoughts:

    I debated on whether I should post this in the "iFi Audio Pro iCAN" thread or the "Schiit Jotunheim Impressions" one. For now I'm putting it here, since it talks less about the specifics of the Jotunheim in detail and is more focused on the comparison. Maybe it'd be better elsewhere ... so feel free to move it as appropriate!

    If you want the broader, direct impressions/review (with less specific focus on how it compares to Schii'ts Jotunheim and Lyr 2) then you can find that write-up here.

    Chain:

    For this comparison, I’m sticking to a single source … Schiit’s Yggdrasil, fed via Roon into an Auralic Aries and into Yggdrasil via AES. All source material is 16/44.1 PCM or “better”. I am using both planar and dynamic headphones for this comparison, and I’m very deliberately including units from both ends of the performance spectrum. To that end, I’m using my pre-fazor LCD-2.2, both original HD-650** (from 2003/4) and the pair I bought new earlier this year, as well as Focal’s Utopia, the LCD-4, Abyss and HD-800S.

    In all cases I used the best input and drive-modes available. Which means if the amp offered balanced inputs, I used them. If it offered balanced output, I used that.

    Finally,I’m not going to make detailed comparative comments on sound-stage right now. This is hard enough to assess with headphones, and even harder to portray verbally, and I like to run things through my speaker rig before I make detailed comments in this area – something I’ve really not done with the little Schiit’s.

    Characterizing Amps & The Contenders:

    Compact-Amps.jpg


    Before getting into comparisons, it might be worth taking a moment for me to explain how I (broadly) characterize, or think about, the amps in question here – if for no other reason than I’m a wordy bastard and, well, the context might be useful later.

    Lyr & Lyr 2:

    The original Lyr was what I saw as the answer to the question “What amp do I buy if I want to run power-hungry planars and don’t want to spend thousands?”. This was back when the HE-6 was a new thing and Audeze’s was making it’s name. So, it didn’t matter if you wanted tubes or not as the alternatives were significantly more expensive.

    Lyr works so well with planars, in my opinion, because the things it does well play to the strengths of planar-magnetic designs (slam, macro dynamics), and the things it is less proficient at are the kinds of things that many planars tend to cover-up or smear-over anyway (micro-dynamics and resolution/plankton).

    Lyr 2 is a more refined, more flexible, iteration that addresses a similar market, but that can also work well with less power-demanding headphones, with the option to do so with a fully solid-state design if you desired, via LISST. And using LISST you got a better match with dynamic cans, trading off some slam and mild “tubeishness”* in exchange for better clarity, a darker background and improved micro-dynamics and resolution.

    Jotunheim:

    Jotunheim is, well, a surprise … even just from the perspective of it as “just” an amplifier.

    It has the raw grunt to easily fill the original Lyr’s spot and is right there alongside Lyr 2 as well. Yes, it gives up a little in slam and macro dynamics in doing so, but you get a lot more back in exchange, including a quieter background, significantly improved detail and micro-dynamics and the ability to get most of the best out of both planar and dynamic cans, without having to wait 20 minutes to swap tubes to do it.

    More amazingly, to me, is that in some areas Jotunheim steps just ahead of Ragnarok. And you get SE and balanced input/output … that suffers less than Ragnarok if you don’t keep everything balanced. Which makes me wonder if, should there ever be a “Ragnarok 2”, would it switch from being a Circlotron to using Pivot-Point?

    And, of course, if you want it, you can run a DAC or Phono stage in the thing for a super-compact, high-performing, all-in-one desktop system.

    Pro iCAN:

    This is really a “do it all” amplifier. “Do it all” is typical of iFi’s product line-up – there’s overlap between almost all their products – even ones you’d expect to use together.

    I can best sum it up by saying that it’s what you’d get if you put the best aspects of Lyr 2, Valhalla 2 and Jotunheim all in one box, made them all push-button hot-switchable, added a couple of tweaking options and refined things just a tad.

    This is the Pro iCAN’s strength.

    It is also it’s weakness.

    You’ll see how and why, shortly.

    How do they Compare?

    I’m going to consider the Pro iCAN “in aggregate” here, and not exhaustively break down every comparison individually into each mode the iCAN ran run in. You can look at the graph for the specifics there, as the differences, while discernible, are not so big as to really affect the outcome, and in the cases where they might I’ll comment on it specifically.

    And I’m going to start this by throwing in one of those nice Spider-Charts that @Marvey uses so effectively, including blatantly ripping off his titling/categorization. This one will include some amps I’m not going to do specific, narrative, comparisons about (at least not right now), for baselining.

    Numbers are relative. They should marry up to those in the Schiit Amp Compendium; I do not have a Valhalla 2, so those numbers are copied directly from there. I’m including numbers for Ragnarok and Vali 2, despite not writing up comparisons there just yet. I’ve done them (I own both), but they’re not the focus of this post. Oh, and I’ve added the Lyr 2 with LISST:

    Schiit-iCAN-Spider.jpg

    Take the above graph with a grain of salt as it is a composite, and is not based on the same chain as that built in the compendium.

    Pro iCAN vs. Lyr 2 (Tubes, Stock):

    Beyond increased slam, bass impact, and raw macro-dynamic performance, the Pro iCAN convincingly outperforms the tubed Lyr 2. The Pro iCAN has, at least in Tube+ mode, a more classical “tube sound” in this mode than the Lyr 2.

    With TOTL cans the Pro iCAN offers useful additional plankton and better micro-dynamics but these factors will likely be lost on “lesser” planar cans. It’s much harder to make a compelling case for the iCAN using LCD-2.2c than it is with the Abyss, for example. However, using dynamic cans, be it the HD-650, HD-800S or the Utopia, the iFi unit is a significant improvement over the Lyr 2 across the board.

    Interestingly, the “darker” presentation I mentioned in my main commentary on the iCAN, is still quite discernible against the Lyr 2.

    Switching between modes (SS, Tube, Tube+) on the Pro iCAN does shift it’s performance around a bit, changing it’s technicalities somewhat, but the deltas are small and it’s more that tonality becomes a bit richer, with a discernible improvement in micro-dynamics, with respect to itself than any real diversion from how it compares to the Schiit amp.

    Pro iCAN vs. Lyr 2 (LISST):

    Switching the Lyr 2 to Schiit’s solid-state “tubes” has quite an impact. Dynamics compress a bit, and there’s a loss of slam, but resolution and micro-dynamics take meaningful steps forward. Despite it being about twenty minutes to swap from tubes to LISST, the differences are pronounced enough to be immediately noticeable. This is a much more agreeable setup if you’re driving dynamics cans and the improved resolution is distinctly noticeable with higher-end planars as well.

    With the stock tubes, Lyr 2 is not what I’d call a classically “tubey” sounding amplifier, but it is a bit rounder/warmer in that mode than it is with LISST. The little metal cans “dry” things up somewhat, but it doesn’t become particularly forward and overall tonality only shifts slightly to possessing increased treble energy.

    With LISST the Lyr 2 doesn’t quite catch up to the Pro iCAN’s ability to expose detail, nor does it exhibit quite as fast a transient response, and it’s still not playing from as coal-black-at-night background, it is closer than the tube-equipped unit.

    If you have a Lyr 2, and you have some decent dynamic cans, LISST is well worth trying.

    Pro iCAN vs. Jotunheim:

    Well … this could be awkward …

    Jotunheim is, without pulling any punches, much closer to the overall performance of the Pro iCAN than is sanely imaginable. Schiit’s latest balanced baby bests the iCAN in transient response, matches it for blackness and the ability to shed any veil that might be present elsewhere, is right on its heels in terms of macro dynamics and slam, essentially comparable in terms of expansiveness and lack of compression and very very close in terms of detail.

    From a technicalities perspective, the only area the iCAN is definitively, and un-missably ahead, is in terms of micro dynamics. But even then the difference is smaller than you’d expect.

    Now, that said, iFi’s all-in-wonder does have some benefits. For a start, it’s less aggressive sounding than the Jotunheim, and less in-your-face as a result. Joti’s forward-nature is very useful with lesser planar cans, and it seems to give it near-magical synergy with the HD-650, but it’s a little more up-front than I’d like with, say, the HD800S or Utopia. So the iFi unit seems to pair better with the more excitable/high-end dynamics.

    The Pro iCAN is also a little more refined overall and I find it’s general tonality, particularly in how it delivers treble information, to be slightly more realistic. Jotunheim has a more “unpolished steel” essence to its high-end, where as the iCAN, while not without fault, is perhaps better described as having more of a “slightly brassy sheen” up top. That works better for me, in this case, since it’s mostly on brass and cymbals that I notice it, and the “brassy” nature is more fitting with where it crops up in music.

    Again, with the HD-650, particularly my original pair, I find the Jotunheim is a better match, even with the slightly-steely treble and general forward/aggressive presentation (perhaps because of it).

    Both of these amps are entirely at home driving very-resolving dynamic headphones and completely comfortable playing balls-to-the-wall with hefty planars.

    Summary:

    The Pro iCAN clearly delivers the best all-around performance here. In direct comparisons, it trades punches and points, in different areas, vs. both the Lyr 2 and the Jotunheim, and even the combination of the two, but ultimately it gives either the best, or very close to the best, performance in every metric. If you look at pricing that is, perhaps, not unexpected; while price and performance aren’t always correlated, in this case you are getting a slightly higher tier of performance.

    That said …

    You really have to want, maybe even crave, that last few points of performance, and the ability to easily switch between solid-state and tube operation, and a desire to run both planar and dynamic cans optimally, AND want to play with the X-Bass and 3D+ functions to warrant stepping up to the Pro iCAN.

    As I said at the start of this … the Pro iCANs ability to be a chameleon, that doesn’t give up much in any area to pull that off, iss both a strength and a weakness:
    • It’s a strength because it really is VERY good, EXCELLENT in fact. For me, personally, the flexibility is hard to ignore – as I’ll use most of it.
    • It’s a weakness because all that ability and flexibility comes with a penalty.
    And it’s quite a BIG penalty. It is 4.25x the price of the Jotunheim. Double the price of a Jotunheim + Lyr 2. Hell, you’ll still come away $500 better off if you added a Valhalla as WELL.

    While the Pro iCAN is a small, if confident, step up … if you’re not running TOTL/flagship cans, I can’t see why you’d not just go with Jotunheim here as it offers way better value*** and astonishingly close performance.

    --

    *My original HD-650 are on their third set of pads and their fourth cable (two failures, and then the addition of a custom-built balanced cable). Probably the best value audio component it’s ever been my fortune to purchase.

    **I don't really think of the "Lyr 2" as being particularly tube-like ... at least not in comparison to things like Valhalla 2, or the other tube amps that have passed through my hands or sit on my rack.

    ***Rationalizing Jotunhiem’s incredible value really puts the “direct sales; no dealer” model in the spotlight – this thing would have to be at least twice the price to be viable there. And even if it were $800, it’s STILL completely competitive here.
     
    Last edited: Feb 7, 2017
  8. Kattefjaes

    Kattefjaes Mostly Harmless

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    Lovely write-up, but easy on the crazy colours. That bright green is virtually unreadable on the pale grey site skin. Let the page templates ruin the colours for us :)
     
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  9. loplop

    loplop Acquaintance

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    Thanks for the additional thoughts, @Torq ; very interesting. I clearly need a Jot for my office rig...

    In any case, I have less than 24 hours experience with the iCAN Pro and I'm curious about a few things:
    1. Did you try "rolling cables" with the I.E.C power cord adapter? I'm starting off with the stock cable, but plan to try a few audiophile cables I have lying around. Curious if you noticed any benefit to that.
    2. I quickly identified that the iCAN is pretty revealing of upstream cables. I normally use copper, but found a bit better synergy with a silver hybrid I had lying around. Sadly, I don't have any solid silver interconnects anymore, so I'm curious if it's worth hunting some down. Most notably, I found the added tautness and definition in the bass region useful with the hybrid, with most of the coppers I tried being a bit too warm and loose for my tastes.

    Of course, this is fresh out of the box. I'll let it settle in for a week or so before going crazy there. Just curious what your experience has been.

    On another note, the 3D implementation is different from the iDSD BL. It doesn't change treble energy nearly as much. I find the iDSD implementation more amenable to midfi or less expensive cans, and perhaps that's the point/design decision.

    Forgot to mention: I like the crazy colors. The blue really f's with my eyes on my iPhone. That's fun.
     
  10. gbeast

    gbeast Mighty Moral Power Ranger

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    That's interesting that you find tube + mode more clear than solid state.
     
  11. Torq

    Torq Retired from SBAF

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    No, that wasn't something I tried - but then I'm not much of a cable "roller". Instead, I tend to buy, or build, quality cables that look good, and that I'm familiar with, and leave it at that. The differences, when I've heard them, with one exception, have never been more than subtle.

    In this case, the PSU is a very high frequency switcher, with internal filtering and active noise reduction, and it's output runs down a little wire that looks pretty much identical to 5A lamp-flex, and so far I've not ever heard a difference with changing power cables for any device using an SMPS so I didn't even consider it here.

    Agreed, the degree of treble lift is different and not always immediately apparent on the Pro iCAN. It's certainly much less audible than the iDSD BL, which is immediately brighter and unmissable when 3D+ is engaged.

    --

    Hope you're enjoying it!
     
  12. Torq

    Torq Retired from SBAF

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    I was very surprised when I was listening for hiss in the various gain and SS/Tube modes and found that the unit was quietest and blackest in Tube+ mode. Surprised enough to re-test that several times. It makes me wonder if/how much the design was targeted as being "tube first" - there's certainly a lot of attention to detail there, down to picking very specific variants of the tube they wanted to use and then building adapters to make them work.
     
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  13. gbeast

    gbeast Mighty Moral Power Ranger

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    Thats crazy cause I found the opposite when going balanced with the He6 and 650.


    But I didn't listen for hiss at various gains etc cause I didn't hear any. I just listened for which sounded the cleanest between the three.

    Thats cool though.
    It makes me want to hear it again.
     
  14. haywood

    haywood Facebook Friend

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    Might want to update that "crude illustration" remark to say "totally awesome" then. ;)
     
  15. khragon

    khragon Acquaintance

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    Very comprehensive review. Thanks for taking the time. I've been using the Pro iCan for 2 weeks now and find that it's a very enjoyable amp, a great pairing with Yggy and the Utopia. Even in SS mode, it has a bit of tube warmth but doesn't compromise on clarity and dynamics. The reason I purchase the iCan is because I wanted to find an SS amp that I can listen to during the weekdays when it's just too much trouble to listen to my Glenn 300B amp. The Pro iCan is very close, and I mean very close to the Glenn 300B with a set WE300B tubes. That's saying a lot! It only give up a bit to the WE300B magical mid-range, in return it provided a bit extra bass and treble (between SERP 300B and WE300B). I can definitely live with it for 5 days and then get my WE300B fix in the weekends (also a great way to extend the tube life).

    I haven't get too much chance to try tube or tube+, but I find that they are implemented well and doesn't seem to be such a gimmick.

    What I'm curious about now is: which is better, Freya + Jotenheim or iCan Pro? I guess Freya + iCan Pro will be interesting and basically allow for limitless tweaking.
     
  16. jexby

    jexby Raised by Carthusian Monks - Friend

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    i concur @Torq getting a Freya hooked up to Jotunheim would be the final nugget to compare with iCan Pro.
    especially considering the schiit combo would still be cheaper!

    side commentary:
    hm, would Freya + Jotun now best the Mjolnir 2?
     
  17. khragon

    khragon Acquaintance

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    iCan Pro can be had for much less than MSRP if you buy from Adorama at their holiday bundle with the LCD3, or purchase from those that only want the LCD3. The big unknown is tube cost for Freya, since 6sn7 x4 can get pretty expensive pretty quickly, if buying 6sn7 TSRP x4, you're looking at +$800 to $1000 extra on top of the preamp itself. Woo Audio usually require top tubes to sound good, I hope this won't be the case with Freya.
     
  18. Logan Ross

    Logan Ross Rando

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    Hi Torq,
    Have you had a chance to compare the iCan in tube/tube+ mode to your tube amps? If so, what are your thoughts? Thanks in advance.
     
  19. Torq

    Torq Retired from SBAF

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    I've done some preliminary, back-to-back, comparisons of that nature but nothing in depth as of yet. I only have one pure tube amplifier at present, which is a loaded 2nd generation WA5-LE with Takatsuki 300B/274B and Sylvania 6SN7GT tubes; it didn't take much listening at all to know that the Pro iCAN, as good as I think it is, was not going to unthrone that as my primary headphone amplifier - so I focused my attentions elsewhere.

    Also, at the point I had completed my general impressions of the Pro iCAN, as well as detailed comparisons to Ragnarok, Jotunheim and Lyr 2, I'd returned the loaner and already purchased my own unit. Thus there was no rush to compare it to anything else. And, when I do compare it, formally, to the WA5-LE, I want to be able to do so starting with the Woo's stock tubes and progress through the tubes I have and see how things stack up there. If I can secure loans of them, I may add a couple of other pure tube-amplifiers to that comparison, but either way it's going to be aways out before I get to it.
     
  20. Logan Ross

    Logan Ross Rando

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    Hi,
    Your comments are much appreciated. What I am most interested in is whether the a Jot, or iCan, or Rag, rises to a level such that anything above it is a question of the last 2 percentage points and/or finishing returns (for a headphone setup). I may have to see for myself :)

     

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