iFi Pro iCan

iFi Pro iCan

Having previously found the IFI Micro iCAN SE impressive with its small factor yet high power, along with the synergy between its XBASS hardware bass boost and the Sennheiser HD800, I was greatly looking forward to tackling the company’s flagship amplifier. The elder brother of the Micro iCAN is called the Pro iCAN and it retails for $1700.

I’d like to thank IFI for sending me this unit of the Pro iCan for my honest impressions and a review.

Specifications

 Gain: 0dB, 9dB and 18dB user-selectable

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

Total Harmonic Distortion:        

Solid-State: ≤0.0015% (Balanced) ≤0.005% (SE)

Tube: ≤0.002% (Balanced) ≤0.005% (SE)

Tube+: ≤0.012% (Balanced) ≤0.2% (SE)

Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR, Balanced/Single-Ended): >147dB(A) / > 137dB(A)

Output Power (16Ω, Balanced/Single-Ended): >14,000mW / >4,800mW

Output Voltage (600Ω, Balanced/Single-Ended): >23V / >11.5V

Input Voltage (Pro iCAN): DC 9V/6.7A – 18V/3.35A

Input Voltage (iPower Plus): AC 85 – 265V, 50/60Hz

Power Consumption: ≤ 22W idle, 50W max.

Dimensions: 213(l) x 192.5(w) x 63.3(h) mm

Weight: 1.93kg (4.3lbs)

Test conditions:

Gain = 0dB, 0.775V(0dBu) with 300 Ohm load unless stated otherwise

SNR Balanced: re 23V

SNR SE re.: 11.5V             

Build Quality & External Features:

I do not know why I expected the actual unit size to be substantially bigger, as it really is not large at all – especially compared to the size of the Audio-GD NFB-28 that I bought recently. I really do not care much for the looks of the Micro-series by IFI, but I had to admit that they were built like little tanks. The Pro iCan takes that robustness and gives it a chassis that one can proudly display as a member of their audio chain with its textured metallic look.

The front panel has two dials and seven outputs. The large dial on the far left is to select the input feed, as the Pro iCan has the capability of three pairs of RCA in and one balanced XLR input. Also implemented is one pair of RCA and XLR outputs each, all on the back of the chassis. The next dial on the front, a smaller one, selects the four settings for IFI’s hardware bass boost – known as XBASS. The settings are off, 10 Hz, 20 Hz and 40 Hz.

Neatly placed at the front are no fewer than three balanced output options – dual XLR, 4-pin XLR and a 3.5mm. There are also slots for two 6.35mm plugs contained in the centre of dual of the dual XLR, as well as two pairs of 3.5mm jacks – one balanced and one unbalanced.

At two points on the front panel are small switches, each with three settings. The switch on the left selects between solid-state mode, tube mode and a mode that IFI calls “tube plus.” The next switch, on the right, toggles between 0, +9 dB and +18 dB gain. The smaller knob on the right toggles between 30/+, 60/30+ and 90/60+.

I found that the unit ran quite cool in solid-state mode, but heated up a bit when the tubes were activated – showing a picturesque orange glow emanating from the stylized vents of the chassis. This heat is expected from a tube amp, and as there is no exposed tube – there is no chance of burning yourself by accidentally (or deliberately, if you’re into that) touching it.

Finally, a remote is also included which can control the volume.

Sound

 Just like I found to be the case with the Micro iCan SE, the solid-state mode of the Pro iCan provides a very clean and powerful amping experience. There is no colouration to the sound of any sort, to my ears, and it is designed to take the sound signature of your headphones and simply make it louder. However, I honestly could not hear much of a difference in the presentation of the solid state mode between the Micro iCan and its elder brother. Keep in mind that the Micro iCan SE’s wattage was strong enough to power most headphones on its own, so Pro iCan only feels like an upgrade in this mode if you have severely hard-to-power headphones. I wish I had a Hifiman HE-6 on hand to test this, but alas I do not.

The tube mode is where matters get a bit more interesting. The stereotype of tube amps is that they colour the sound, adding a little distortion and warmth to make the overall experience more “musical.” Other characteristics of tubes is that bass thump is slightly reduced, with the trade-off being increased soundstage and a wetter sound. Allow me to go through this one-by-one:

-          Distortion is only really audible on really revealing headphones, like my Sennheiser HD800. Even then, it is very low and barely noticeable unless you are actively looking for it.

-          There is not much more warmth compared to the solid-state mode. On headphones like the ZMF Atticus, itself a very mid-bassy and warm can, a change can be heard but it is not very distinct.

-          Bass thump is indeed reduced slightly, but a low setting of XBASS can be added to counter this.

-          With more analytical headphones, such as the Sennheiser HD800 and the ZMF Eikon, a wetter sound is definitely heard over the dry presentation of the solid-state mode. What this means is that music becomes more laid back, with frequencies gelling slightly to achieve a less stark and analytical and more thick and rich tone. However, the change is very subtle once again.

The tube+ mode is meant to bridge the gap between the dry and analytical solid-state mode and the wet and musical tube mode – with less-reduced bass thump while maintaining some characteristics of the tubes. The most noticeable change between it and the tube mode is that the low distortion is further reduced, providing a blacker background to the audio. However, it does lose some soundstage and the feeling of there being more space in the mix – but adjusting the crosstalk/3D holographic sound setting can adjust this to what you enjoy.

Ultimately, it took a lot of careful listening to distinguish the three modes with all four of my main headphones as nothing overt comes about from switching between them. I can, however, attest that the biggest difference is between the solid-state and tube mode, but it is still so slight that the tube+ mode being a middle ground is a little baffling. If I could make any changes, I would have picked a tube that is more distinct from the solid-state mode. The current tube mode might have been more suitable for the tube+ mode, a subtle change that bridges the gap between solid-state cleanliness and a very coloured sound.

That being said, I do have favourite modes for each of my main headphones.

Pairings

DAC used: Schiit Gungnir Multibit with XBASS and 3D Holographic Sound Turned Off. All testing done on 4-pin XLR balanced output.

Sennheiser HD800

Sennheiser’s former flagship is a very clinical listening experience with vast soundstage and imaging capabilities. I find it difficult to pair with many headphone amplifiers, as the treble glare can get too painful to me with bad pairings. One such painful pairing was when I tried it with the Rupert Neve amp at the London Can Jam 2016 – and that is with the superdupont-resonator mod added to it too.

In my delta-sigma Schiit Gungnir days, I would find the treble presentation of the DAC to be a bit harsh when paired with the HD800. However, since upgrading to the more natural sounding Multibit version, I have found it to be an easier pairing with some amplifiers due to its less reliance on pushing air out to the listener.

The solid-state mode did not bring me any sort of glare or pain, but was still a bit treble-peaky at times depending on the source material. I did find the sound to be too dry for my taste, especially since I am used to the more coloured and warm Cavalli Liquid Carbon being paired with the headphones.

Tube mode brought about subtle changes that I preferred in this pairing. The sound became more laid back, and while not nearly as warm as I am used to – it was not as stark or alert in its attempt to dispense audio. Details, particularly in heavily layered rock and classic rock recordings, seemed to be brought out better in the mix and any distortion was barely noticeable after listening to music rather than deciphering the capabilities of the amp itself. I would actually classify this mode as being more detailed than the richer and more syrupy Liquid Carbon – but with reduced low end.

Tube+ mode was quite similar to the solid-state mode, too much on this headphone for my tastes. Thus, the winner of the three modes with the HD800 was tube mode.

 ZMF Eikon (Padauk)

ZMF’s new flagship is a slight departure from their headphones in the past, opting for a more resolving and detailed sound while maintaining a punchy and fun sound signature with well extended and audible sub-bass. Since I’ve had this headphone, I’ve found myself drawn to the possibilities of tube amplifiers for their sound-shaping features.

While the tube mode of the Pro iCan is not quite a stark departure from the sound I can obtain on the Eikon using the Audio GD NFB-28 solid state amplifier – it provides a more laid sound to the very dynamic headphone. The tube mode rounds off some of the edges in airy instruments such as strings and horn sections, and provides slightly more soundstage to boot. I much prefer this combination with smooth jazz recordings and classic rock, but not so much with electronic genres due to slightly reduced sub-bass performance. Vocals, particularly female vocals, have slightly reduced airiness than the solid state mode but more body to the lower tones.

Tube+ mode, in this instance, can be used to offer a slightly wetter sound while maintaining the bass impact needed to enjoy genres more reliant on it. However, because it would seem that I indeed prefer the pairing of the Eikon with tubes (no matter how subtle the effects may be) I would say that the tube mode is my preference with the ZMF Eikon.

Focal Elear

To my ears, the Elear was not designed to be used for laid back and easy listening. My go-to can for metal music, the dynamic and aggressive nature of the Elear makes it stand apart from the other headphones I am using today. However, due to these characteristics, I would not choose to try and modify the Elear’s sound to be anything other than what it is normally. Tube mode with the Elear does not do this much, but it is still at a level where I feel that it would be better served with the cleaner amping experience of the solid-state mode.

ZMF Atticus (Cherry)

ZMF’s new Atticus headphone is a mid-bassy experience with a lush and smooth midrange. It is quite picky with amp pairings, absolutely refusing to play nice with my Cavalli Liquid Carbon for instance, as a warm amplifier causes it to become overly muddy in presentation – with the mid-bass becoming overpowering and causing bleed that detracts from any details and accuracy.

None of the modes of the Pro iCan are a bad pairing with the Atticus, but I opt for the cleanest experience in this regard. The airiness of the solid-state mode, coupled with the lower distortion than the tube modes (once again, no matter how subtle they may be) make it the best pairing with the Atticus. However, I must admit that the amp of the Audio-GD NFB-28 (solid-state) controls the bass of the Atticus far better, bending it to its will. Comparisons, once again, made with the Schiit Gungnir Multibit DAC being fed into both amps.

XBASS & 3D Holographic Sound

While also being present on the Micro-iCan SE that I reviewed previously, both these modes have been upgraded substantially for the Pro-iCan’s usage. In my honest opinion, these two settings are the main selling point of this amp – and its true character, geared towards those wanting customization in their sound.

XBASS is a hardware bass boost that pairs very well with the Sennheiser HD800, something that I noticed while reviewing the Micro-iCan a few months ago. On the Pro iCan, however, it is a far more customizable experience with more texture and reach. Offering 10 Hz, 20 Hz and 40 Hz settings, it ranges from giving a slight kick to the low-end of your listening experience to making it a basshead’s dream. As it is a hardware boost, any trade-off to its usage is heavily reliant on the headphones being used and their ability to separate the frequencies well.

XBASS on the HD800 alerted me to just how well the sub-bass on the Sennheiser extended, just not very audibly due to the low volume of its low end. A HD800 with XBASS turned on full transforms the headphones into a punchy and bassy experience while retaining its crispness in the mids and highs – and most importantly the fantastic soundstage and imaging. It is a result that would make purists balk, however, as you are essentially making the headphone “lie” to you in a manner that goes far beyond mere tube colouration. Despite that, it is my favourite pairing of this amplifier – just an expensive one.

3D Holographic Sound is meant to add more panning distance and area into the soundstage of headphones. Using what I assume to be crosstalk, it widens the soundstage to varying effects depending on the headphones. I found the same function on the Micro-iCan to be a bit eerie, ethereal and whispery in nature – removing any impact or depth from the sound. On the Pro-iCan, however, the experience has been made more robust so that this is avoided.

Looking to try it, on full setting, with the HD800? Don’t bother, it does not benefit much at all. Closed headphones, like the ZMF Eikon and Atticus, do experience some widening of soundstage – and it is definitely interesting but something that is heavily dependent on the listener’s preferences.

Some combination of the two settings could fine-tune the Pro-iCan into sounding how you want, making the amplifier a consideration for those who are into such levels of customization.

Conclusion

Observant readers might notice that I did not touch very much on how the Pro-iCan simply “drives” headphones in this review. That is because it simply does so, driving most headphones is no problem for it with its ample wattage. Once again, I do not have a Hifiman HE-6 on hand to test how it does with that notoriously low-sensitivity headphone, but it handled my three 300 ohm and one 80 ohm headphones with ease. Through the 3.5mm output, it drove the 320 ohm VE Zen 2.0 easily too. I never had to make use of the gain switches.

I also have to praise the small form factor of the Pro-iCan, which is especially small compared to my gigantic Audio-GD NFB-28. It is quite transportable, and if it had a DAC component then it would have been all you need for a transportable setup.

However, ultimately, I find that the Pro iCan (when used in its pure solid-state, tube and tube+ modes) lacks a distinctive flavour that sets it apart from other amps that I have tried. While the XBASS and 3D Holographic Sound settings exist to customize your experience, I feel that IFI played it a bit too safe with the difference between the three modes – with tube+ mode feeling redundant with some headphones and it was too indistinct from solid-state mode.

That being said, there is nothing wrong with this amplifier.  Anyone seeking a cleanly amped experience that comes with the bells and whistles of customizable hardware bass boosts and crosstalk settings will find it here – if they are willing to spend the aforementioned $1700 for it.

I would imagine that even the subtle differences would suffice for some, but I would personally want a tube amplifier for this price in which it was possible to roll several different tubes for customization in a different way – so the switching mode isn’t a selling point for me.

So, in summation, the Pro-iCan is a solid product that will drive any of your headphones and give you the ability to customize your experience with features that are, frankly, not present on most amplifiers.

ZMF Eikon

ZMF Eikon

Aune M1s

Aune M1s