iFi sent me this portable amp/DAC for review, and I've had a particularly fun time running it through its paces, given how incredibly feature-packed this little thing is.
The first thing I noticed about this device was, of course, its design. I'll admit that it's on the larger end of portable, but I had little issue taking it with me, although I got a couple side-looks when I set it down next to my laptop. I think the design on the whole is very attractive. It features orange text wherever necessary (heavily on its bottom). The switches actuate solidly and satisfactorily. The volume potentiometer twists very pleasantly, with just the right amount of resistance and play (which is very little). I had no issues with the 1/4" jack, which was pretty standard.
The back features a recessed male USB type-A plug for digital input, two RCA jacks for output to a standalone amplifier, and a coaxial input/output that also functions as a S/PDIF input with the included adapter. Interestingly, there is a female USB type-A plug on the side of the device, which is used exclusively for charging other devices. It charges at 5V/1.5A, which is pretty darn good for something off of an audio device as focused and high quality as this. There is, on the front, a 3.5mm auxiliary input in order to only use the device as an amplifier.
Included in the Package
Above is pictured the following, all of which was included, very tightly packed, into the package: 1 velvet or velour (can't distinguish) carrying bag, 2 rubber rings to attach the device to a phone or portable player, 1 set of RCA cables (branded "iFi", I might add), 1 short 3.5mm auxiliary to 3.5mm auxiliary cable (both terminate in right angles), 4 rubber feet, 1 silpat to put a buffer between the device and the portable player/phone, 1 optical (S/PDIF) to coaxial adapter, 1 male USB type-A to female USB type-B adapter, 1 male USB type-A to female USB type-B cable, and, finally, 1 male USB type-A to female USB type-A cable.
A Moment on Detail
I'd like to take a moment to point out how much attention has been paid to detail on this device. The quintessential example that I found was that on the rubber feet that are included, which can be stuck on the bottom, there is an embossed iFi logo. See picture below.
I'd like to discuss all of the switches, next. There are a lot of them. Starting on the bottom, near the RCA outputs, the user can select direct out or preamplifier, which is a nice convenience for those using this in a longer chain than just "source --> device --> headphones". Next there is the power switch, which controls the gain scaling. It is computer controlled, with three positions ("Eco", "Normal", and "Turbo"). At full volume in "Turbo" mode, this little brick can output 4W per channel. For six straight hours, on battery power alone. To me, that's pretty obscene, given its size. Moving towards the headphone jack, still on the bottom, there is a switch label "iEMatch". This operates additional computer controlled gain stages, specifically for very-low impedance headphones (such as many IEMs). I found this to be an incredibly useful feature, as it allowed me to use this very powerful amp with even the most sensitive of headphones. It has three positions, off, high-sensitivity, and ultra-sensitivity. The last two switches we have on the bottom are pretty special. The first is a polarity switch. That's right, a portable amp/DAC in this form factor has a polarity switch. If you are of the type that perceives a difference between positive or negative polarity in use, this option is here for you. I, personally, am not, but I appreciate the feature for those few that are. The final set of switches to discuss is the filter set. This is a three-position switch that has the options of bit-perfect, minimum phase, and standard. During use, I personally did not hear a notable, consistent difference between these three, but this is, again, a gracious feature for the (let's call it) extremely distinguished listener.
Now we move to the front of the device. There are only two switches here, but both are welcomed, in my opinion. I wrote about them fairly extensively in my impressions post, so I will copy that text below, with contextual adjustments, as my opinion of them has not changed over the course of my review.
I'd first like to mention how impressed I am by this feature. I've seen many implementations of bass boosting on amps, and all too frequently the result is a distorted, bloated, muddled mess. This isn't the case here. Upon flipping the very satisfying switch, I was greeted with a warmer, fuller, and heavier sound. The bass maintains the majority of its responsiveness and is magnitudinally increased in volume without adding bloat of distortion. On tracks that I feel are bass-anemic without reason, this served to almost fill back in what I perceived as a gap. I haven't seen specs on the technical change in frequency response with bass boost on versus off, but I'd hazard a guess that its between a 5 and 6 dB jump.
Next I'd like to discuss what is essentially their "soundstage enhancement" feature. My impression is that it is a crossover, with possibly some other adjustments of which I can't guess the specifics. I found that it really tends to center vocals, and spread everything else (instruments, etc.) further behind you. I've found that it also, as a result of this centering, can sometimes add an extra level of realism to the main vocals of a track, depending on how it was mixed and mastered. Ifeel that this was often a result of a perceived smaller distance in my head between the two channels of vocals. Although sheerly out of personal preference, I haven't used it much with music, I've found that it really does wonders for movies and TV shows. Its centering effect helps to bring the dialogue to the forefront of my attention and push the background noise back.
This is the critical part of my review, for any device. And, thankfully, just like every other aspect, iFi absolutely nailed it. I'd like to take a moment to list all of the features and specifications that this device has in regards to performance, all of which, to one degree or another, contribute to this device's tremendous performance.
- Dual DSD512/DXD2x/PCM768 capable Burr Brown DACs (their "swansong" chipset, configured in 4-channels, 8-signals, with custom interleaving for "maximum SNR")
- Custom op amps, with HCOFC copper lead-frames and 4N Gold bond-wire
- Sanyo OSCONs
- Ultra-low jitter AMR GMT computer controlled Femto clock (RMS jitter at 12kHz-1MHz < 280 Femtoseconds
- THD+N (DAC section) < 0.003%
- THD+N (amp section) < 0.008%
- Maximum output (Turbo) - 4W @ 16Ω
- Maximum output (Normal) - 1.9W @ 16Ω
- Maximum output (Eco) - .5W @ 16Ω
The best way I can put is this: any headphone on the market right now, from a pair of Tennmak Pros to Hifiman's HE-6 (the hardest to drive headphone that I believe is on the market right now), and this can power it cleanly and with ease and with grace. It will do justice to any pair of cans that you throw at it. I experienced no untold buzzing, sputtering, or distortion of any kind, and generally, I had nothing but a pleasurable time using this device. It self installed its drivers on every device I used it with, and although it looked a little bit funny, it even worked with a female USB type-A to male USB type-C dongle that I had for my Pixel.
To reiterate, for those who haven't read my reviews before, I, based on my knowledge of amplifiers and of DACs, do not subscribe to the mentality that solid-state amplifiers and DACs color sound. The best, electrically speaking, that either device can do is introduce as-close-to-no distortion as possible. This is still no small feat; it's inherently incredibly challenging, but I think that iFi has hit the mark right on the money with this device. It conveys the music, from source to my ears, more faithfulness to the source than I could reasonably expect of a device in this form factor and price-range. It isn't as clean as Neurochrome's HP-1, but it is exemplary nonetheless, and doesn't cost the $1250 that a fully assembled and tested HP-1 will run you. The benefit that it can slip into a backpack pocket is not lost on me, since it doesn't need clean power and a spot on your desk, either.
Here's my advice: if you are in the market for an incredibly capable and feature-packed portable amp/DAC in this price range, this is the one for you. Hell, I think it's more than reasonable to let it sit on your desk when you get home, as well. It can power everything on the market, and it features pretty much nothing but high-end parts. It comes with a (to me) unheard of number of features, ranging from the everyday-useful to the very esoteric. It is beautifully and solidly designed, and, in my opinion, having spent this much time with it, is one of the most fully complete packages on the market.
Below is a gallery of all the pictures that I took of this product, including the ones above, and including those taken in the unboxing process when I intially received this product.
This setup was provided to me for review by iFi. I am not being paid by anyone to write this review, to endorse the product reviewed, or for the content that I put in the review.
I have had this setup for about three weeks, and I have put about 90 hours of analytical listening time through them during that period.