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iFi Pro iCAN Headphone Amplifier Review

amirm

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#1
This is a review and detailed measurements of the iFi Pro iCAN headphone amplifier and preamp. It is on kind loan from a member. The iCAN costs US $1,799 from Amazon including Prime shipping so quite expensive.

There are more selectors and controls than any headphone amplifier:

ifi Pro ICAN Preamplifier Headphone Amp Solid State Tube Audio Review.jpg

The labels are clear in the picture but I had a heck of a time reading them in my typical workstation environment. Type is small and against silver background with too little contrast.

The headphone outputs are a mess. There is no standard 1/4 inch headphone out. Yes, there are two of those but they are for balanced headphones that have two 1/4 inch headphone jacks. There is a 3.5mm headphone socket but that seems to have huge attenuation, making it unable to drive any non-IEM headphone. Then there is 3.5mm balanced socket which is not common. The only common connector is the 4-pin connector. This is a mess in general in the industry but ifi takes it to another level here, putting so many on the device yet not the ones you may need.

There are various crossfeed/effects which I did not test. And some bass EQ boost which I did measure.

Most unique is the ability to switch from solid state to tube with both low and high levels of feedback. There is a nice internal timer that keeps the sound going in solid state while the tube warms up. But then strangely shuts off the sound for one or so second and then switches over. Why not wait the full amount to allow instant AB switch? Same deal exists with the gain switch which is odd.

I did not like the placement of the volume control in that my thumb would not fit between it, and the effects selector. And I have pretty narrow fingers.

There is some kind of wired remote but not wireless???

The back panel shows rich set of connections:

ifi Pro ICAN Preamplifier Headphone Amp Solid State Tube Back Inputs and Outputs Audio Review.jpg

A large, laptop sized switching power supply drives the unit. It has ifi sticker on it and seems to have some of their bits in it.

Nice to see balanced output, allowing the unit to be used as a balanced preamplifier.

Preamplifier Amplifier Measurements
I thought I start with measuring the unit as a preamplifier, XLR in and out on the back. Glad I did that as performance is quite good in that mode:

ifi Pro ICAN Preamplifier Headphone Amp Solid State Audio Measurements.png


Switching on the tube reduces performance but distortion and noise are still kept pretty low for a tube implementation:

ifi Pro ICAN Preamplifier Headphone Amp Tube  Audio Measurements.png


Switching to tube+ brings full brunt of tube distortion but still, not crazy bad:

ifi Pro ICAN Preamplifier Headphone Amp Tube+  Audio Measurements.png


Notice that output is third-harmonic dominant, not the 2nd harmonic that people praise.

Notice that the gain goes down in each step which makes direct comparisons more difficult due to change in volume.

Noise performance is quite good in all three modes:
ifi Pro ICAN Preamplifier Headphone Amp Dynamic Range  Audio Measurements.png


Indeed it is state of the art in solid state mode (left).

Frequency response is ruler flat to ultrasonics and beyond:

ifi Pro ICAN Preamplifier Headphone Amp Frequency Response  Audio Measurements.png


Notice the varying gain level I mentioned earlier.

Headphone Amplifier Audio Measurements
Keeping the input as XLR but switching to front XLR headphone jack gives us this frequency response with varying bass level boost:

ifi Pro ICAN Preamplifier Headphone Boost Mode Frequency Response  Audio Measurements.png


As you see, there is little relationship between labeling and the actual behavior. 10 Hz setting for example, starts to boost from 200 Hz down!

Here is the all important distortion+noise in balanced mode versus power in solid state mode:
ifi Pro ICAN Preamplifier Headphone Amp Solid State Power into 50 Ohm Audio Measurements.png


Once again we see excellent low-noise performance. Distortion though, in all three gain settings starts to take over noise at just 30 milliwatts.

Good news is ample amount of power though, reaching to whopping 5.2 watts with both channels driven! There is quite a bit of distortion then but still, if you need the power, it is there.

Keeping the gain in high setting and changing solid state to tube and then tube+ tells us what we already know:

ifi Pro ICAN Preamplifier Headphone Amp Solid State vs Tube Tube+ Mode Power into 50 Ohm Audio...png


Tube+ is especially bad, getting distorted earlier and going up quite fast.

Signal to noise ratio is essentially the same as preamp mode but now we get to measure the performance at 50 millivolts:

ifi Pro ICAN Preamplifier Headphone Amp Solid State SNR Audio Measurements.png



most quiet headphone amp review.png


I was surprised that the output impedance was a bit high, especially for this class device:

Lowest Output Impedance Headphone Amplifier Measurements.png


This was for balanced so I guess it is not so bad for unbalanced at half as much.

I measured the 300 ohm performance but with just one leg of the output (1/4 jack):

ifi Pro ICAN Preamplifier Headphone Amp Solid State Power into 300 Ohm Audio Measurements.png


This is similar curve to 50 ohm tests.

Channel balance started well but then fell apart early:
ifi Pro ICAN Preamplifier Headphone Amp Solid State Channel Match Audio Measurements.png


Given the 0 dB mode and the attenuation on the 3.5 mm output, this may still be OK in practice.

Headphone Listening Tests
I started testing with Sennheiser HD-650 with the 3.5 mm adapter. There, the volume was way low and quickly got distorted, telling me this has the ifi voltage divider on the output. So there was no sense in testing this output further.

I switched to Ether CX with balanced cable with its 25 ohm and inefficient design. The iCAN drove these to maddeningly high SPL levels in solid state mode. This is one powerful headphone amplifier.

I toggled the mode switch to Tube and the difference was very subtle. Due to long switchover time, direct comparison was difficult. I thought there was some difference but I could not quantify it, or give points for either mode.

No such problem with Tube+ mode. Performance dropped massively, with bass taking a big hit, becoming soft. Overall sound was dull and unexciting even after I turned up the volume. It is like buying a Porsche and have them charge you extra for a mode that drops half the horsepower and telling you that you should like it!

Conclusions
Avid readers of ASR know that we have embarrassment of riches when it comes to superbly sounding and performing headphone amplifiers these days. Prices are at a fraction of the ifi Pro iCAN as well. The iCAN has a fancier case than some so maybe that is worth a bit. But not much after that.

I suggest ifi redesign this model, get rid of the tube nonsense, put in proper 1/4 headphone jack, and a wireless remote. Price it well below US $1,000 and there may be a market for it.

Until then, I cannot recommend the ifi Pro iCAN for anything but the most power hungry headphone out there, or its preamp functionality. Overall, it is a pass for me.

------------
As always, questions, comments, recommendations, etc. are welcome.

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Music1969

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#2
Channel balance started well but then fell apart early:
Would this channel balance performance be identical for the pre-amp mode?

I guess yes as it's the same volume control but just double checking
 

Music1969

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#4
Would this channel balance performance be identical for the pre-amp mode?

I guess yes as it's the same volume control but just double checking
At this premium price a volume control like Benchmark's HPA4 would have been nice and made it more competitive.
 

wje

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#6
Looks like some redesign work is about to be underway at iFi Pro when they see this review. :facepalm:
Not only iFi, but some other manufacturers out there too, with some of the mediocre reviews that have been posted. I'm sure many company executives are going to the accountants and proclaiming "you said that if we saved .50 cents in parts for each product, the savings would pay off". Sigh!
 

frogmeat69

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#9
Hey @amirm , just so you know, and if you still want to test them, those 3 pin balanced headphone jacks are also the single ended 1/4" jacks, the plug just goes in the hole in the center.
And it also has a wireless remote, but it's just for volume.
 

pavuol

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#12
I must say, very incomprehensice review. Does the tube glow? At what level? Because that's what you want in the first place when buying this type of gear. You need some visual guide to know how "warm" it should sound actually ;).
I must looked elsewhere just to find out, it really glows! (caution, some satanistic symbols there! o_O, but I must admit I like they named it "The eye of Sauron")

Again thanks for a wonderful review, and to Mr.Postman especially (working even during pandemics :eek:)
 

kn0ppers

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#14
Not necessarily John, I don't think it's that obvious to not as tech savy people.

On the Product: No surprises here. I think ifi products are rarely a complete fail, they just feature very hefty pricetags and relatively nice enclosures (depending on who you ask) while performing not considerably better than the average of products tested. Never really considered buying their stuff, if I wanted to overpay for nice looks, I'd buy Chord products ;)
 

Tks

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#19
This is Matrix territory in terms of costs.. While these do have a wealth of connections, the build quality that comes from Matrix ain't getting beat at that price (try others as they might).

This thing is pretty cool tbh, the only thing is, it feels old somewhat in terms of choice of connections and such, dual 1/4ths and things like that. Ehh.

The volume control on one of these units is like the Benchmark, where the volume is motorized and I think can be hardware-level controlled with a remote, and perhaps also save it's settings.

Regardless, this thing is nearly half a decade old, and iFi has done a good job with respect to that. Great connectivity and choices I would say. I think it is time for a refresh. Clean up some nonsensical aspects of the design, a facelift, and perhaps a look-over at what other companies are doing to get spectacular measurements, and I feel they could still hold on to this admittedly somewhat high price (though not really).
 
Last edited:

Veri

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#20
Regardless, this thing is nearly half a decade old, and iFi has done a good job with respect to that. Great connectivity and choices I would say. I it is time for a refresh. Clean up some nonsensical aspects of the design, a facelift, and perhaps a look-over at what other companies are doing to get spectacular measurements, and I feel they could still hold on to this admittedly somewhat high price (though not really).
Agreed!
 
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