iFi Pro iCan – Headphone Amplifier Review

Since hearing the first products from iFi, I’ve been watching this company, because I think it really deserves our attention. It has some lovely products out there and I am sure iFi has more surprises to offer us in time.

I love the iFi iDSD Micro, iTube and Micro USB3 and actually I currently own the last two.

iCan Pro was a big curiosity of mine since it was first announced and with the help and courtesy of Avstore, I managed to get my hands on a  review unit for a couple of days.

Presentation and Specs

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From a design point of view this amplifier looks quite nice and the build quality seems very sturdy.

In the dark, if you activate the Tube/Tube+ modes, you will get a really nice tube light inside the amp.

From a technical perspective, there is a lot to talk about. The specs on this amplifier and the features presented on the websites are quite impressive.

I won’t get into all of them but will mention some  below. You can find all the info on the product page.

Flagship, studio-grade headphone amplifier…

The Pro iCAN will for many, be used as a top-of-the-line, headphone amplifier that drives anything and everything – from CIEMs through to the most difficult to drive headphone ever made, the AKG K-1000.

The K-1000 are extremely demanding headphones when it comes to amplification and iFi seems to say that it handles them. Unfortunately I didn’t have a pair of HE-6 or K1000 to test the amplifier, but I did manage to test it with LCD-4 which isn’t as demanding as the two above, but are still quite a power hungry headphone, and iCan Pro did a wonderful job indeed.

LCD-4 was was no big challenge, it seems. What I also loved about it is that it was dead silent  with very efficient headphones like IEMs, where Master 9 presented a hum for example.

Tube/ Solid-State Real-time Switching

Compared to high-end headphone amplifiers, the tube stage of the Pro iCAN is different in two-ways. First, we don’t use good-quality 6922s or similar. Instead we use the very best; General Electric 5670 which is the premium variant with a different pinout.

Second and just as important is the circuit design. Unlike other headphone amplifiers that have the same circuit and just switch in/out the tube section, the Pro iCAN is the very first of its kind that has two individual input circuits – one tube and one Solid-State. This results in the best sonics of both worlds because the signal path is the shortest and there is no compromise to ‘shoe horn’ the tubes into an already existing solid-state circuit.

For the first time, one can enjoy both the sound of Solid-State and Tubes in a single package (rather than as an ‘Effect Type’ add-on within an otherwise conventional solid-state design) and be able to switch in real-time. For some recordings and headphones/loudspeakers, Solid-State may sound ‘more lively.’. For others, Tube and Tube+ (especially Tube+) will sound more ‘luxurious.’ Select the one that sounds best for that particular moment, be it the recording, the mood or even the weather. After all, enjoying music is an experience to be savoured and not a scientific research exercise.

We haven’t stopped there. We are tube lovers and we appreciate sometimes there is a need for even more tube-like sound, there are two tube settings – Tube and Tube+. The Tube+ position reduces overall loop-gain and thus negative feedback to the minimum. This gives a different trade-off between the tube’s natural harmonics and the transient performance.

I found the above feature quite awesome and these modes changed the sound by quite a bit. It’s actually like you have 3 amplifiers with 3 different sound types. That is very nice for diversity.

iFi also managed to describe quite well what happens to the sound depending on the mode you select as I’ve reached similar conclusions for myself.

Class A Solid-State, J-FETs and Fully-Discrete

The Solid-State amplification section of the Pro iCAN is just as seriously executed as the Tube amplification section.

The amplifer audio circuit is a development of iFi’s revolutionary ‘TubeState’ design. It is 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). The resulting circuit may be best described as ‘tri-brid’ where each device is used to greatest sonic advantage while minimising any drawbacks. Furthermore, the circuit is pure DC coupled to avoid using any sonically-degrading coupling capacitors.

Reference class parts quality

ProiCAN_tu7 The Pro iCAN employed TDK Japan-made C0G type capacitors and Vishay MELF type thin film resistors. These are complimented by Panasonic Japan-made ECPU Film Capacitors explicitly designed for audio use with extremely low distortion (<0.00001% @ 1V/10kHz).

SILMICCAPACITORS We employed ELNA Japan-made Silmic II capacitors for the power supplies. These use special silk fibre paper for the isolating barrier resulting in decreased odd-order distortion and reduced microphonics/mechanical resonances.

MELF_1 As one can see, the Pro iCAN despits its ‘desktop’ footprint is absolutely chocked full of premium components yet with a 4-layer pcb, has the ultimate topology in signal path layout/grounding.
There is just no more ‘real estate’ left to develop. It truly is deserving of the iFi flagship mantle.

There are some other features for the bass and soundstage that some may find useful, but I liked the sound in their default states.

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Specifications:
Gain: 0dB, 9dB and 18dB user-selectable
Frequency Response: 0.5Hz to 500kHz(-3dB)
Total Harmonic Distortion (THD, Balanced/Single-Ended):
Balanced SE
Solid-State: ≤0.0015% ≤0.005%
Tube: ≤0.002% ≤0.005%
Tube+: ≤0.012% ≤0.2%
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

When I first saw these, my jaw dropped on the floor. I have never seen such SNR in any other amplifier in the world.

This is the first amplifier that in theory beats my Msb Analog Dac  in terms of SNR(137 dB) and Dynamic Range (133dB).

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Listening Impressions

The tests were performed with   MSB Analog DAC  with Quad USB + custom lps ,  Audio Gd Master 9, Audeze LCD-4, Meze 99 Classics, AKG K553, FiiO Ex1.

This amplifier actually offers you 3 type of sound depending on the setting you choose from solid state amp only, tube and tube plus modes. I actually ended up preferring the first “Tube” mode, which seemed to be a very good combination of Tube+ and Solid State mode.

The Solid State mode was the most snappiest/fast one, but the Tube mode was cleaner with less grain, a more holographical soundstage and more seductive/natural voices and sound in general.

The Tube+ mode was too wet for me, too slow.

Pink Martini – Amado Mio

The harp from the beginning  made a spectaculars entry into the song as it was very sparkly, tactile and effervescent. All instruments in the scene were actually quite impressive and gave me goosebumps often during the song.

Another very impressive aspect was the voice which was natural, decompressed and very clean. The background was dead silent and free of grain. The soundstage was somewhat intimate, but holographical.

Pink Martini – Silent Nacht

iCan Pro managed to produce a very intimate and emotional experience with this song. The voices were upfront, textured, very cursive and detailed. They were also very natural and the experience was like the quire gathered around you and tried to sing to you and you only. Indeed, this also means a smaller soundstage, but the separation of the voices was very good.

Variations on a String, on a Theme by Rossini

I lost myself in this song. The strings sounded extremely natural and textured. You could feel their vibration and the whole instrument. I had goosebumps after goosebumps on this song. I love how iCan Pro managed to represent even the smallest detail in a very natural and vibrant nature.  This amp has soul and musicality, and this happens on solid state mode. If you want a little more soul, you can switch to tube mode, but in exchange for leading edges clarity and overall details.

Brazilian Jazz – Triste

Again the pitch “blackground” is very noticeable with Pro iCan. Every plucks seems to appear out of nowhere with strong impact, energy and sparkle, showing very good transient response and energy. You can also hear the vibration of the chords.

Mamma Mia – I Have A Dream

The sparkly and tickling guitars from the beginning were very nicely reproduced by iCan Pro, but when the voice started, it conquered the scene with  hypnotizing presence, texture and natural tonality. The chorus showed very good separation of voices. It’s almost like you could feel the breath of each singer, especially of the main singer which seemed to play into your ears. Lovely!

Noisia Alpha Centauri

Let’s see how it can handle electronic music. When this song starts, it should wipe the floor with you in every direction. The bass was nicely reproduced, with good punch and depth but it wasn’t as controlled, deep and accurate as on Master 9. Overall it was a good performance,  but not as impressive as with Master 9.

 

Summary

Bass

The bass presents good punch,  decent depth and control, but it’s not what this amplifier does best and I didn’t find it very impressive here. However, it does a good job overall and I didn’t find it lacking.

Midrange

The midrange is what  this amplifier is all about. Everything from voice to instruments is vibrating, full of life and very natural sounding and textured.

Treble

The treble is also natural sounding and detailed. One of the nice things about it is that it doesn’t sound digital or harsh, not even in solid state mode.

Transparency 

This is another area where this amplifier manages to shine. The music is free of grain and the bakground is pitch black. The sounds seem to materialize out of nowhere.

Transients 

The transient response is very good, with strong attack and a natural sounding decay. What gives energy to the instruments however isn’t the attack on the notes, but rather the energetic and natural decay.

Voices

The voices on this amplifier sound wonderful. They have an excellent presence in the scene, being brought up front, with excellent textures, fluency and natural tonality. It manages to create an intimate experience on many occasions because of this. You can often hear and feel the breath of the singers.

Soundstage & Imaging

The soundstage isn’t very expansive. Intimate would be a good word to describe it, but even if not very big, it is quite holographical and natural sounding. The imaging is quite good, but not spectactular, Master 9 being better in both areas for example.

Natural & Musical

Another very important aspect of the sound on iCan Pro is the natural tonality it is capable of. This is also available on solid state mode, but gets even better on Tube mode. It has a sense of fluency and rich texturing that is just wonderful.

Compared to Master 9 

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Bass

The bass on Master 9 is faster, goes deeper and has a stronger punch. Master 9 is a clear winner here.

Midrange

The midrange presents  more details on Master 9 compared to iFi Pro iCan, while the latter has a more natural sounding, more cursive midrange. Also the natural instruments have a little more energy and vibrate more on iFi. Instruments with chords and strings sound beautifully on iCan Pro.

Treble

The treble on Master 9 is a little more “digital” sounding than on Pro iCan, but it’s also more detailed and sparkly. Don’t get me wrong, Master 9 sounds quite natural, but just not as much as iCan Pro.

Voices

The voices are closer and more intimate on iFi, with better presence, fluency and a more natural tonality. The voices are a little more rugged on M9, which still has good detail and textures. Overall I ended up liking iFi more in this department.

Transients

The transients on Master 9 are faster and more accurate. The attack is more powerful on M9 and the decay is faster. iCan on the other hand has a more natural and effervescent decay, especially on string and chords making it a very interesting alternative.

Soundstage and Imaging

The soundstage is more immersive on Master 9, but more holographic on iCan.
The imaging has better precision, with clearer leading edges and better focus.

Details

The details are good on both amplifiers but Master 9 holds the upper hand here as well.

Transparency & Clarity

Both amplifiers are very good in this section. I often felt that the background might be a little blacker on iCan Pro with less grain, but Master 9 sounds clearer due to the more focused leading edges, better imaging and details.

Conclusions on comparison

As you may suspect, I consider Master 9 to be overall slightly superior from a technical perspective, but iCan Pro also has a sufficiently different voicing and good technical qualities to make it a very nice alternative, or a valid choice based on different tastes.

What I love about iFi, is that it has a very seductive, natural and nicely textured midrange that includes wonderful instrument and voice reproduction. Besides that, it also presents a very black background and free of grain which makes the sounds appear to come from nowhere.

It’s actually the first amplifier I’ve ever tested to sound cleaner, less grainy on some occasions than Master 9.

iCan Pro also offers some features that change the sound signature based on your taste, features like bass boost, tube modes, soundstage adjustments. This makes it a versatile unit.

On the other hand, as you have read above, Master 9 excels in other areas, areas like bass control and depth, details, imaging and speed.

Overall, I just want to say that the differences between the two are not big in technically speaking and iCan is the first amplifier I’ve heard until now that I would be very happy with instead of Master 9.

Conclusions

Well, the first thing that you might think while looking at this amplifier is that it shouldn’t be too powerful considering its size.

Well, this little guy packs some power under the small hood, showing no stress with LCD-4 for example, which is a power hungry headphone compared to others.

It also seemed to handle more efficient headphones and even IEMS very well.

This unit is very versatile and it also can offer you different sound signatures depending on the mood.

Besides this, what surprised me the most is that I found the first amplifier to really compete with Master 9 in the Clean/Transparency/Grain Free department, on some occasions even managing to surpass it in this regard.

Overall I found it to be an excellent amplifier and it has very good value for the money.

Besides this, I consider iCan Pro to be truly a jack of all trades. You can use it with any headphone out there, from IEMs to really demanding headphones.

Pros

  • Good bass overall but not as impressive as the midrange section
  • Excellent, natural, lively and detailed midrange
  • Nicely extended and natural treble
  • Superb voices
  • Very Clean/Free of grain/transparent sound
  • Good transients with “vibrating” decay and good attack
  • Natural and holographical soundstage
  • Natural and musical sound signature
  • Extremely versatile

Cons

  • Bass could use a little more control, punch and detail
  • Soundstage is sometimes a little intimate