When given the opportunity to review the iFi Pro iCAN Professional Headphone Amplifier / Line-stage (Preamplifier); you didn't have to ask me twice. I've become very familiar with iFi Audio over the past year. Having reviewed the excellent iFi Retro System (Stereo 50 with LS3.5 Speakers) several months ago; my greedy hands (and ears) were eager for more.
I contacted the excellent staff at iFi Audio (thanks Tyler!), and we bantered the issues back and forth for a few days. In the end, they eagerly agreed to send me another test unit. During my waiting period, I reached out for some additional equipment. As I am still in the "rebuilding" phase of my audio nirvana, I was short on some key pieces of equipment. Since the iFi Pro iCAN features both balanced and single ended (unbalanced) headphone outputs, I found myself short of a nice set of balanced headphones. In Stevens typical, matter-of-fact manner; he suggested I contact the fine folks at Oppo and see what they could do. After a few communications, they sent me out a little "package". They loaded me up (thanks Jason)!
Maybe it was because I mentioned I would be reviewing the iFi Pro iCAN Headphone Amplifier / Linestage Preamplifier, or their love of Enjoy The Music.com, and so they hooked me up! The little "package" included the Oppo HA-1 headphone amplifier / preamplifier, the Oppo PM1 planar magnetic headphones, five meter balanced headphone cable, and headphone stand. Christmas came early! I now had four different kinds of headphones to test on the iFi Pro iCAN (Oppo PM-1 [Unbalance and Balanced connectors], Meze 99 Classics, Noble Audio K10 CIEMs, and the universal Noble Audio 3 IEM). I was ready.
A week later, the replacement Pro iCAN arrived.
As with the original unit, the iFi Pro iCAN Professional Headphone Amplifier / Preamplifier arrived in the standard double box setup (retail box inside, plain brown box outside). The outside of the Pro iCAN retail box, is actually very informative. Clear front and rear pictures, specification and more. This is a nice touch, and completely expected from iFi Audio. Inside the Pro iCAN box, you'll find your usual accessories and "Quick Start" guide (a small remote control, RCA cable and power supply).
The Pro iCAN is heavier than it looks, and at only 8.5" x 7", fits easily on my desk. The unit is the perfect half-rack size and shape. Fit and finish is what I've come to expect from iFi Audio. Thick, mil-spec feeling to the touch; the flat silver finish would blend in with any interior. The front faceplate is packed with outputs and knobs. Let's start with the headphone outputs: Both balanced and unbalanced (two 3-pin XLR for left and right channels balanced inputs, including a balanced connection for double 6.3 mm jack or a single 6.3 mm jack for the unbalanced, in the center). A balanced 4 pin XLR stereo connector is between the center left and right outputs. For your mini-connectors, we have two, 3.5 mm inputs (one balanced, the other unbalanced). Done yet? Not even close.
The large knob on the left, is your Input Selector (inputs 1-3, plus a balanced input). Next to the Input Selector knob (and smaller), is your XBass selector (off, 10Hz, 20Hz, and 40Hz). To the right of that, your 3D Holographic Selector (off, 30/+, 60/30+, 90/60+). And finally, the large knob on the far right, is your volume control. Underneath all of that, you will find the (almost invisible) power button, Operation Modes (Solid-State/Tube/Tube+), Gain Selector (0dB, 9dB and 18dB) and finally the IR Remote receiver eye.
On the rear, you will find; one set of balanced XLR Inputs, three sets of unbalanced Inputs (RCA), one set of balanced line outputs (XLR) and one set of unbalanced line outputs (RCA). Rounding out the rear, are the DC Loop-Out, ESL-link (for iFi Electrostatic Add-On Module) and the DC Power Supply Input. The base, is a solid Quad-Damped Isolation Base. The top of the Pro iCAN? Very cool.
It's Lonely At The Top
Power on take about 50 seconds. Whether you are in the Solid-State mode, Tube mode or Tube+ mode, the tubes come to a full glow. Placement of a Headphone amplifier is rarely an issue, as the proximity of your face and ears, usually means the unit will be somewhere close to you, and not in some cabinet. With the case of the Class A Pro iCAN, you want to make sure to leave some space on the sides and top. Especially the top. The Pro iCAN gets a bit warm. It won't burn you, but you won't want to rest your hand on the top for too long. Give it some room.
Considering how cool the "tube-glow" is on top...why would you want to hide it away at all?!
It's been redacted.
So, what is this thing? The iFi Pro iCAN is both, a Solid-State and Tube Headphone Amplifier / Line-stage (Preamplifier). It's not a DAC. As a matter of fact, you won't find a single digital input/output on the unit. It does have a USB-looking connector for iFi Electrostatic Add-On Module; but that's it. The iFi Pro iCAN is the first, in iFi's flagship Professional ‘Pro' series. Their website describes the iCAN as, "...a studio-grade headphone amplifier AND audiophile line-stage.", which sums it up quite well. The iCAN is as comfortable in your main rack, as it is, on your desktop.
Packed inside this little, heavy beast; you will find premium components: ELNA Silmic II capacitors for the power supplies, C0G type capacitors and Vishay MELF type thin film resistors, General Electric 5670 Tubes, and more. True high-end engineering, with a true balanced end-to-end path (from the input all the way through to the outputs). They call it "True Differential Balanced". One of the many features that makes the iCAN unique, is the "TubeState" design. It's a tube/solid-state hybrid; switchable, between solid-state, vacuum tube, or a mode called Tube+.
Described on their site, as "...a fully discrete, fully-balanced with either tube or J-FET input switchable, bipolar second stage and MOSFET-buffered bipolar class A Power stage (with Class AB for low impedance headphones at very high levels)"; you should just describe it as three kinds of fun! For the duration of this review, I found myself listening to the same songs, (usually) three times in a row. Once in Solid State mode, once in Tube mode, and finally in Tube+ mode. Which mode did I like to best?
Why Talk, If There's No One To
Disconnecting my Meridian Explorer DAC from my Mac; I plugged in the iFi Audio micro iDAC2, and connected the RCA output to Input 1 on the Pro iCAN. For my next source, I connected my constant companion, the Questyle QP1R DAP. My office setup is wired completely with Audioquest Tier 2 (Red) Level cables (Golden Gate, Cinnamon, Red River, etc.). My main system uses the Tier 4 (Solid Perfect-Surface Copper+) cables. Connections were USB to iFi iDAC2 (Audirvana Plus software), RCA out of the iDAC2, to the Input 3, and 3.5mm to RCA cable into Input 2,from the Questyle DAP. I left the remaining input (Input 3) open for various sources (CD player, Phono, etc.).
Finally, It's Time To Play Music!
Starting the review process, the iCAN was set "flat" (Solid State mode, Xbass set to off, 3D set to off). The setting would remain this way, for all forty review songs. My new "Go To" track of choice, is "Going Down Slow" by Tom Jones and Jeff Beck [DSD64], (found on Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Red, White & Blues). I highly recommend you add this track to your collection. I originally heard this piece during Axpona 2016, in the Wilson Audio room (listening to the Wilson ALEXX speakers). This is one of those tracks that will immediately bring out the best and worst of your setup. By the time you reach the chorus, the pro's and con's of your system will be splayed open, like a battle axe to the head. Jeff Beck's guitar licks are brutal and beautiful. This is one visceral track. Get it now. Add it to your demo collection. You will thank me for it, later. Your system might not.
Being designed from the ground up, as an audiophile quality headphone amplifier, the Pro iCAN is ready for any headphones you may plug in. With my gain originally set at 0dB, I auditioned the same track at 9dB. This setting allowed me to keep the volume set in the eleven to one o'clock position throughout the demo session. As is my process, I listened to my demo list in order: Michael Jackson's Thriller (DSD64), on to Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever (FLAC 24-bit/96kHz), to Billy Joel's The Stranger (AIFF 24-bit/88.2kHz) and then; Leclair's Sonata for Two Violins in G Major (AIFF 24-bit/96kHz). Finishing my Hi-Res list with classical music, I continued my first listening session with CD quality music (WAV 16-bit/44.1kHz) and worked my way to bass dropping rap and assorted mixes.
Over the course of two days, I listed to all of my current headphones, from the Noble Audio Noble 3 IEM's to the Oppo PM-1's. My first impression was... nice. The Pro iCAN produced nice, clean sound. No distortions, no distractions, just nice, clean sound. For the second office review session, I switched to Tube mode. Quite a bit of engineering went into the operation modes. This is one of the stand-out features of the Pro iCAN and iFi should be very proud of themselves. Switching between modes is done very easily, from a small, clickable switch on the front. The iCAN will mute (briefly) upon switching between modes. This allows the outputs to be muted as the circuits switch. The dim front LED will indicate your mode as well: Warming-up: Orange (flashing).
Tube/Tube+ mode: Orange
Also important to note: After an extended period of operation in Solid-State mode, the tubes will switch off. The Tubes will need to warm up, if you switch to one of the vacuum tube modes (from solid-state). Switching to Tube mode delivered an immediate difference. WOW, just WOW! Immediate warmth. Like slipping under a heated blanket, on a cold winter's day (it got down to a chilly 48F here in Phoenix, so we need to bring out the cold gear)!
The change was quite dramatic, and inviting. Midrange and mid-bass are clearly more evident. Smooth transition from the mid's to the beginning of the Bass range was a constant. Sub-bass on the Tube mode setting were as solid as on the Solid-State mode, but with more warmth and depth. The mid to high range was the most noticeable. The harshness prevalent in many Solid State only systems, was not evident here. The treble was still present, with full attack and decay; but the harshness and fatigue was gone. Repeating my process, I eagerly cycled through all forty of my demo tracks. By the end of the week, I was listening to the combo of the iFi iCAN and the Oppo PM-1 (with balanced connectors), all day long. As in 10 to 12 hours, without fatigue.
The final operation is the Tube+ mode. This mode is supposed to keep negative feedback to a minimum, to produce more of the Tubes' natural harmonics. I found this mode to cloud the overall sound; applying a bit too much warmth to the final output. The highs' seemed a bit too muted, and the mids sounded a bit dull. After only a few tracks, I switched back to the middle selection, the Tube mode. It remained there, for the duration of the headphone office review period.
Having completed the headphones, I connected the iCAN to my bookshelf speakers; starting with my old Jamo Concert 8's, through my Martin Logan Motion 15's, and finally my new Sonus Faber Chameleon B speakers. The iCAN was powered through my old, rack mounted Bryston 3B-ST amplifier (120w per channel, into 8 Ohms). Again, the process starts over, with the iCAN set "flat" (Solid State mode, Xbass set to off, 3D set to off, gain set to 0dB). My ears are very sensitive, so I did not enjoy the 3D and Xbass functions while auditioning the headphones, but enjoyed them with the bookshelf speakers.
I had the opportunity to experience the 3D and XBass features on a previous iFi product (the iFi Retro System). If you're not familiar with these two features, let me explain. Both, the XBass and 3D systems, were originally designed to enhance the headphone/speaker user experience. Let's start with the 3D Holographic feature. There are two separate Analogue Signal Processing (ASP) matrix circuits that switch automatically between headphone and loudspeaker use. When using the headphone outputs, the Holographic matrix for headphones is engaged (When using the line outputs (RCA/XLR), the Holographic matrix for loudspeakers is engaged. It's worth noting; The XLR and RCA outputs on the back offer full preamplifier function, but are not switched off if headphones are connected.
The 3D Holographic for Headphones mode is designed to "undo' the negative sonic impact of headphone listening with recordings that were originally made for loudspeakers". The desired effect, is to reduce listening fatigue. In headphone mode, you can switch from Off, 30, 60 and 90 degree effect. When in off mode, the Holographic is disabled. Their 30 degree loudspeaker angle simulates a narrow loudspeaker placement.
The 60 degree loudspeaker angle simulates traditional ‘textbook' loudspeaker placement. 90˚ Loudspeaker Angle simulates a wide loudspeaker placement. Being blessed with an outstanding headphone selection, I rarely get headphone fatigue. After sampling the 3D feature for several days (with headphones), I choose to leave this feature off. Your mileage may vary.
The 3D feature used with loudspeakers, was a totally different story for me. When using the line outputs, the 3D feature corrects the spatial distortion in stereo recordings and increases the width of the soundstage. In Line Out mode, Off is disabled. + mode corrects the spatial distortion caused by the recording/mixing/mastering process and restores the original width of the soundstage. 30+ degree corrects the spatial distortion caused by the recording/mixing/mastering process and adds an approximate 30 degree to the soundstage. 60+ degree corrects the spatial distortion caused by the recording/mixing/mastering process and adds an approximate 60 degrees to the width of the soundstage.
The limits of my office setup, force my left speaker to be two feet away from my listening area, while my right speaker is three and a half feet. This speaker is forced to be tilted at an odd angle. Not ideal placement. The 3D Holographic feature was very useful in correcting this speaker placement issue. In my situation, the 30+ and 60+ degree settings worked the best (depending on source material).
The iFi Pro iCAN also features a Bass correction system, called XBass. The XBass correction system is an analogue signal processing (ASP) circuit. It is designed to correct bass deficiency in your headphones or loudspeaker. Your setting choices are: Off, 10Hz, 20Hz, and 40Hz. Off is disabled. The10Hz is if you are missing only the very lowest bass (below 40Hz). The 20Hz selection is if you are missing bass below 80Hz. The last selection is 40Hz, is if you are missing substantial bass and some mid-bass (below 160Hz).The sweet sound for my office review, was with the 3D Holographic feature set to 30+ or 60+ degree settings; the XBass correction system set for 10Hz or 20Hz, depending on the source material.
Having spent several weeks with the iCAN in my office rig, I was eagerly looking forward to auditioning the Big Rack. The main listening room (Big Rack) is currently in my main living room. The room is far from ideal (with 21 foot tall cathedral ceilings, windows, and misc. furniture), but it's all I've got. My dedicated listening room is still a bedroom, occupied by my college-going daughter (I love you honey, but GET OUT!!). For now, the iCAN was placed on top of my Parasound Zphono Phono Preamplifier.
My main rack consists of Martin Logan Summit speakers, powered by a Bryston 4B SST amplifier. In stereo mode, the current headphone amplifier / preamplifier on hand, is the awesome Oppo HA-1. Since the Pro iCAN was resting on top of the Parasound Zphono Phono Preamplifier; the natural urge was to spin some wax! When you happen to have on hand, Oracle Audio's newest turntable, the Origine; you don't need many excuses to play some records!
You Spin Me Round Round Baby
Finishing this review during the holiday's afforded me a little extra time to slow down and reflect. It also afforded me the chance to buy myself (and my spouse) a small gift. Since most (o.k. all) of my record collection is from the 80's; it is easy to assume, that they have seen better days. I didn't treat all my records with the love and care they deserved (back then). I was young, in college, and my records reflect that phase of my life. Eager to find out if today's record presses are better than they were before; I took this opportunity to order a few new LP's. Acoustic Sounds was running a holiday discount, so I ordered Beth Hart's "37 Days" (180 gram) for my wife, and Bruce Hornsby and The Range "The Way It Is" for me [APRV 30118 and AEXH 44072 respectively]. Ordering a 180 Gram LP has been on my "to do" list for a while, so I eagerly awaited the FedEx man.
One they arrived, I was ready to try some new vinyl, with the iCAN. This time, I strayed a bit from my usual process, and started with the iCAN set in Tube mode, with Xbass set to off, 3D set to 60+ degree settings, and gain set to 0dB. Waiting for the perfect moment to begin, I decided to wait until a few quiet days after Christmas. My wife was eager to listen to the new Beth Hart LP, and I was happy to oblige.
Within moments of gently resting the Ortofun Blue needle to the record; I knew I had stumbled on to something special. The sound was enveloping and soothing. The majority of the LP had been recorded live (in the studio), and this was apparent within the first few minutes. Clear, strong vocals cut through the soundstage, with the rasp and tonality of someone who (obviously) has had one too many cigarettes. You could heard the fingers touching the guitar strings and the occasional shuffle of a chair (or probably her piano seat). Song after song, warm, deep, mid-tones filled our great room. We ended up playing all four sides, before breaking for breakfast. This kind of detail is usually only heard on DSD or like files. While I will not dismiss the fact that I was playing a brand new (180 Gram) album; and that this might have something to do with the overall quality of the sound; I believe I may have stumbled upon one of the best Line-Level Preamplifiers (for Phono playback) available today?
iFi Audio, I think I need to talk to your marketing people?! You clearly should be marketing the iCAN next to a high-quality turntable. Purchasing Bruce Hornsby and The Range The Way It Is LP was a no-brainer for me, as I have listed to this CD for many years. I know every song, note and beat. I was looking forward to seeing what the 180 gram LP could offer up. I was not disappointed. While the recording performance was more "studio track over track" and less "live studio" recording; the sound performance was equally enjoyable. Reverting back to my 80's collection of LP; the overall quality was diminished and still enjoyable. I kept the iCAN in this configuration for a few weeks. In that time, I listened to over 20 LPs.
The final audition was the (more) punishing Digital Demo. I play the same Review Demo collection of forty tracks, but this time, I add several club-ready, Bass-Breaking re-mixes. I have over twenty cone-splitting tracks. Unfortunately, the majority of them are MP3 files, but this is a lesson in pain and punishment, not finesse. The iCAN was set in Tube mode at first, but I discovered I preferred the Solid State setting for the majority of my Digital Demo testing. Xbass was set to off, then changed from 10Hz to 20Hz, depending on how heart-stopping I wanted the Bass. For the Bass-Breaking re-mixes, I connected my old M&K V1250THX Subwoofer, using the unbalanced outputs on the iCAN (remember, they are always ON). The 3D setting remained at 60+ degrees. The gain remained set to 0dB. Tracks such as "Don't Let Me Down" featuring Daya re-mix and "Never Forget You" MNEK re-mix tested the iCAN and my old subwoofer to their limits. At times, my subwoofer failed and so think I see the SVS SB13-Ultra or SB16-Ultra subwoofer in my future. The Pro iCAN did not fail or falter. Not once.
Track after track, source after source, the iCAN was on point. Sub-bass (with or without XBass) was punchy, with deep melodic tones and long decay. Mid-bass and midrange was the same. Clean, clear and warm. Sharp attacks were direct and strong, but never harsh. Even though I was playing the same tracks, time and time again; I never felt tired or fatigued. I just wanted to listen to more music. With the iFi Pro iCAN, you can experience your music, your way. Because you can.
You Leave Me No Choice
So This Is The End
Is the iFi Pro iCAN right for you? I can't answer that particular question for you. But I can say this. If you are looking for a small form factor, audiophile quality, professional headphone amplifier / line-stage preamplifier; that will give you years of high-quality audio pleasure; the iFi Pro iCAN can.
Digital Processors: Wadia Di322 DAC/Pre, Audioquest DragonFly Red DAC, iDAC2 USB (loaner), Meridian Explorer - USB. Headphone Amplifier/Pre-Amp: Oppo HA-1, iFi Pro iCAN
Phono Pre-Amp: Parasound ZphonoPower
Amplifiers: Bryston 4B SST2, Bryston 3B ST, Rotel A14 Integrated Amplifier
AV Receivers: Denon AVR-X4300H, Integra DRX-5
Loudspeakers: Martin Logan Summit, Martin Logan Purity, Jamo Concert 8, Sonus Faber Chameleon B, M&K V1250THX Subwoofer, Velodyne F-1800R Subwoofer, Velodyne HGS-10 subwoofer.
Headphones: Oppo PM-1 (Balanced), Meze 99 Classics, Noble Audio K10 CIEM, Noble Audio 3 IEM.
Accessories: Dedicated 20A lines to dual Furman Elite ELITE-20 PF I surge protectors.