Looking for a low cost headphone amplifier that doesn’t take up too much desk space? Paul Rigby reviews a likely prospect with iFi’s iCAN SE
Ideal for both living room hi-fi users and mobile/laptop users, in term of it low footprint, this dinky head amp did strike me as slightly odd, to begin with. Mainly because of how it feels to the touch. The aluminium finish is a bit, well, tacky. It feels like substandard metal. Like those ultra-cheap metal toys that are flung out of Chinese factories and can be bent with two fingers. The iFi chassis itself is none of those things being strong and robust…it’s just how it feels under the fingers.
The morale dropped slightly further as I unpacked a wall wart power supply, partly expected considering the price. Fear not, though (at least according to the company) because this power supply apparently contains new Active Noise Cancellation technology.
On the back is a power socket, 3.5mm auxiliary source socket and two stereo analog inputs and, on the front of the chassis a 6.35mm headphone socket plus switches for two EQ modes: XBass (now, newly refined) provides bass lift while 3D Holographic Sound (again, tweaked) is supposed to enhance the soundstage. See the above graphic for more details on how each works. Notice the four DIP switches to control gain.
Of course, this is the SE, updated version of the earlier model, a ‘specially-tuned’ version offering DirectDrive and Class A, TubeState. The latter uses a discrete circuit offering a “valve-like” performance: a warm, spacious sound – well, that’s the idea – but without the attendant noise. The output power has now been upped 10-fold, from the original model, to 4,000mW. Which means that this little amp can handle far more headphone types, even the rather grouchy hard-to-run variants on the market. DirectDrive means there are no output coupling capacitors. This ‘direct signal’ is supposed to result in a more transparent.
Spanning just 28 x 68 x 158mm, the little amplifier weighs in at a measly 216g.
Playing the vocal harmony-rich Feeling Groovy via The Four Freshmen, I was impressed by the general sonic output of the iFi, even when compared to much more expensive products out there. OK, compared to more refined fare, the iFi might lack a touch of space and breath in and around the soundstage but, for the price, it offers serious competition for even head amps tagged at twice the price while crushing much of its immediate competition under foot.
That you are listening to a solid state box is self evident when you hear this headphone amplifier in action but there is no aggressive tone or edge that can sometimes accompany such a design. In solid state terms, the iFi is relatively smooth but it does present a precision and a focus that adds a slight etching to the included details, bringing out of the soundstage like an embossing effect might lift text from the page. The focus in term of the general presentation never once alluded to any form of midrange brightness or bass bloom or midrange smearing, though. This approach to music gave the iFi a real sense of ease and smoothness in terms of vocals while never losing the essential information that allowed the ear to pick up individual voices in among the crowd, as it where.
The background instrumentation never felt that it was trying too hard either. The tangy bass guitar, the strummed acoustic, the laid back percussion and the secondary percussion flowed with a measure of ease and effortless calm. There was never any sense of strain when listening to the iFi.
This stream of sonic information was produced with the amplifier in neutral stance, without the EQs engaged.
I then added the featured XBass enhancement which did just that. Unlike a typical loudness control, this feature never swamped the overall soundstage with too many lower frequency boosts. The enhancement didn’t feel false, either, which can often be the case with such EQ triggers. The bass enhancement insinuated itself into the music rather than entered the fray in sledgehammer-like fashion. Moving to the 3D EQ option, that did add a measure of air and space into the soundstage but it did this at the slight expense of sonic balance because it also added a slight upper midrange edge to the presentation which gave the music a slightly clinical aspect that could, at higher volumes, produce listening fatigue. Because of that, I would see this option as being of more use when listening at very low volumes because it emphasises detail and increases the etched nature of the midrange.
Moving to prog rock and the Greenslade LP, Time and Tide, the percussion utilised the solid state focus and precision that added punch and impact to the rapid drum sequence early in the track, Animal Farm. The percussion never overly dominated, though and, despite the good bass performance, bass values never swamped the entire soundstage. There was more than enough room to allow midrange detail to roam. Hence, cymbal work was easily evident as was the background synth detail while the funky piano that was shoved to the right of the soundstage was easily found by the ear and followed throughout the track. I would recommend, incidentally, support from a couple of sorbothane feet/pods, placed underneath the chassis, to increase the bass focus which will only serve to increase the air and space in and around the soundstage.
Finally, I plugged my Astell & Kern AK120 via the rear-mounted 3.5mm port, using the supplied cable and played Bob Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff. I was impressed with this 24bit/96kHz file because of the instrumental separation it imbued, making it a simple task for the ear to hear the rhythm guitar, the bass and the easily masked organ runs which were plainly evident here. All vocals were clear and concise while Marley’s own lead vocal was slightly separate from his backing music, giving him a focus within the mix.
A small footprint, light in weight with the essential features you need plus a couple of bonus extras, the iFi is a solid performer with an attractive sonic signature that offers great value for the price. Offering balanced sound quality that blends detail with precision, the iFi micro-iCAN SE is a serious performer and should be on any demo list for those looking for a new purchase.
IFI MICRO-ICAN SE
Tel: 01900 601954
GOOD: balanced sound, focus, smooth presentation, small footprint
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