iFi Micro-iCan SE

iFi Micro-iCan SE

As I switch back and forth between the various amps in my possession, all plugged into my Schiit Gungnir DAC simultaneously, I come to further appreciate the nuances in different options of driving headphones. Each amp gives me a certain sound to it, and all are driving my headphones and earbuds well enough, but there is more to it than that.

I’d like to thank IFI for sending me this review loaner for my honest opinion.

Specifications

Gain: 0dB, 12dB and 24dB user-selectable

Signal to Noise Ratio: >123dB (A)

Total Harmonic Distortion (THD): <0.003% (400mV/150R)

Frequency Response: 0.5Hz to 500KHz (-3dB)

Output Impedance: <1 ohm

Output Power: >4000mW (16Ω)

Output Voltage: >10V (>600Ω)

Input Voltage: AC 100 – 240V, 50/60Hz

Power Consumption: < 5W idle, 12W max

Dimensions: 158(l)x68(w)x28(h)mm

Weight: 216g (0.48 lbs)

Build

 Metal. This amp is pure metal, not unlike the Schiit Magni 2 but quite a bit more sturdy. Could it be used as a weapon? Probably.

The volume knob at the front is around the same size as you’d expect from a full-sized amplifier, which makes its placement on the micro iCan especially conspicuous. That being said, it handles effectively and increases volume in a smooth manner with no distortion whatsoever. To its right are the two switches for XBass and 3D sound. Under the two are signs indicating at which placement you can choose one of the three settings for each. In a strangely anti-uniform manner, what is full setting on one does not match what is full setting on the other, leading to it feeling like a strange design choice overall. To the right of that is a gold plated output for a single-ended ¼ cable.

On the back there is a spot to plug in the wall-wart power connector, along with a single pair of RCA inputs. There is also a 3.5mm input, for those who probably want to attach a digital audio-player to the micro iCan.

The underside of the chassis makes one wonder why they even bothered to include a manual in the box. There is so much literature printed there that you won’t ever forget the basics if you take this one the go. Interestingly, it gives advice as to which of the XBass and 3D sound settings one should use with what kinds of headphones. Most importantly, to the right exist four dip switches that control the very powerful gain options that this amp possesses. As the gain is so very powerful, it’s good that they opted for this method because an easier to flip gain switch could possibly damage headphones. I have the gain on half setting, +12dB, and that is all I need. Anything more and my sensitive headphones pick up sound at 0 volume.

I have not, and will not, open the iCan up to poke around inside but the press release says that it possesses “ELNA Silmics, MELF resistors and C0G capacitors.” I have not an inkling what those mean, but I assume it has something to do why I hear a slightly richer sound than secondary amp that I had before.

Sound

The iCan SE takes what I enjoy about my Schiit Magni 2 and refines it, while greatly upgrading the power it can emit. This amp is so powerful, in fact, that I dare not go past the halfway gain point – a setting where even 0 volume on some more sensitive headphones can pick up sound. The halfway setting, specifically +12 dB, is more than enough for both my Sennheiser HD800 and Focal Elear.

The sound characteristic itself is similar to the clean output of the Magni 2, but with a slightly less of a hard edge to it. It’s not “tube” ish, but it isn’t the rigid and neutral sound that the Schiit amp has gotten me used to. The best test for this is how it couples with the notoriously picky HD800, which is a bad pairing with the Magni 2 – in my opinion. The reason for this is that the treble peaks and, at times, thin sound of the headphones are left unchecked (if not exacerbated).

When paired with the iCan SE, with both XBass and 3D sound turned off, the HD800 mellows out but retains a clean sound. It is not as sparse as before, but it is not particularly lush and warm either. The highs, while not as peaky as on the Magni 2, are not as tamed as on the likes of my other amp – the Cavalli Liquid Carbon. The iCan SE occupies an effective and interesting middle ground between my two other options – and that is only on the default setting.

Bringing the Focal Elear into the mix yields easier to describe results – it is just driven very well. Unlike the fickle HD800, the Elear sounds like itself out of every source and amp I have thrown at it – and the iCan SE is no exception to this. Hearing how alike it sounds to the Magni 2, I remember my days with my ZMF Omni and Hifiman HE-500 and wish I still had those on hand to compare. However, it is with the two toggle switches that matters get interesting.

XBass

The concept of XBass seemed suspect to me at first, and I do not know why. Surrounded by the words of audio purists for a while now, I have come to expect an eschewing of equalizer and a reliance on sound-morphers like tube amps instead. Even my own forays into using equalizers, particularly when trying to tame the sibilance of the Massdrop x Fostex TH-X00 several months ago, led to mixed results. I found that there was often always a trade-off in clarity or balance whenever I attempted the process.

XBass is a hardware boost and is said to bypass some of the limitations of software equalizer. I first tried it with my Focal Elear, the first headphone I plugged into the amp, on the low setting. Yeah, definitely an increase in bass but not one I felt like I particularly needed – as the sound of the Elear is already quite thick and punchy. High setting felt like a direct downgrade, the low end became muddy and displeasing. Despite that, I recognized the XBass to be powerful, but one that relied heavily on the sound signature of the headphones paired with it. I needed to be sure of its power, I needed to bring out my HD800.

The HD800 has precise bass, unlike its woollier/looser brother the HD800S, but it is very subtle in its presentation. When I reviewed my model, a superdupont-modded one, it became obvious that the bass extended impressively low – but it could not be brought out further, volume-wise, without equalizer…which distorted the rest of the incredible characteristics of the headphones. Flipping the XBass feature on, to low, didn’t make too much of a noticeable difference to me. I theorized, while listening, that the HD800 might just be beyond the capabilities of a bass-boost. Then I switched the XBass to the high setting.

Suddenly, a headphone that I had known so well transformed before my eyes…ears? All the sub-bass extension that I knew was lurking beneath the sheets was suddenly loud and proud. To my ears, it made the headphone far more of an all-rounder than I had considered it before – but I needed to be absolutely sure about the trade-offs. I spent several days listening to my entire music library, from hip-hop to classic rock, to try and find an area where the high XBass setting would make the headphones stumble. I did not find one, and that surprised me immensely.

The delicately recorded In the Court of the Crimson King album by King Crimson is one that demands absolute resolution and clarity from an audio setup. It is an album I prefer my HD800 for, for this reason, and I’m happy to report that the XBass only enhanced the experience instead of detract from it. The shimmering cymbal work remained intact and crisp while the delicate guitar stabs, improvised noodling and (above all) the vocals were all injected with a sense of body that served them well. I turned to my Pink Floyd albums, also reliant on clarity, to investigate further and found that it was the same story – the low end was brought to a musical level without taking away from the midrange or treble clarity.

So, essentially, I could listen to Dr. Dre’s The Chronic album and not feel left wanting of low-end with my HD800. That is an incredible achievement, and the second strongest feature of this amp after the large amount of power it provides. It just takes a “bright” pair of headphones to bring it out, as it can pair quite badly with headphones that do not need it.

3D HolographicSound

While I don’t particularly care for the term used to describe what this setting does, I can’t think of a better one myself – so 3D HolographicSound it is. Promising an expansion of soundstage, it does achieve that but with some slight trade-off (on the low setting) where some headphones lose their impact. With the HD800, it just diffuses the impact of the headphone itself to thin out the sound even further, something you absolutely want to avoid with the Sennheiser flagship/former flagship.

Only the most closed headphones, with the most intimate soundstage, will benefit truly from this switch – also depending on how good the seal is to preserve the bass impact that using it lessens in general. It’s an interesting concept, but not one I would purchase this amp for.

Conclusion

I have to hand it to IFI, this amp is a clean and effective punch-in-your-headphones’ sensitivity/impedance in a small form factor that does not try to overstep its boundaries – in terms of aesthetics or showmanship.

On one hand, this is an amp for that utilitarian individual who just wants to drive their headphones through a SE output jack without the bells and whistles that come with visible tubes (and, at times, their fetishization) – but on the other hand it’s an amp for those who do want to add a bit of manipulation to their listening experience. It’s certainly a pairing that I really like with my HD800, and that alone is a staggering achievement due to the notoriety of this headphone’s amp pairing process.

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