iFi’s Bid To Define A “Flagship Amplifier”
The Pro iCAN. An understated name for a product that politely seeks to be the alpha and omega of flagship headphone amplifiers. The fully packed, bright red PCB is illustrative; according to iFi there is simply “no more ‘real estate’ left to develop” on the Pro iCAN. Consider it an embodiment of the iFi philosophy. One will not find a slick webpage for the Pro iCAN –instead be prepared to be confronted with a smorgasbord of tech and hardware specifications. Making a return at the top of the page is the rounded rectangle proclaiming the glorious 14,000 mW output power rating of the amplifier. It’s all very impressive, in a uniquely iFi way.
It’s no secret that the Pro iCAN has been cooking for quite some time. Well, at least one of the various iterations of the device. The development history of the iFi Pro devices (including the sister iDSD Pro) can be found in bits and pieces on the 87-page long thread here. A more recent, dedicated thread for the Pro iCAN can also be found here. Going through the pages, I realized just how much effort and time had gone into designing the Pro series. In fact, the iDSD Pro went through an almost complete redesign in its still continuing development. It’s a testament to just how far the iFi team will go to get it right. There’s a lot of ground to cover in this review, and we’d better get started.
The iFi Pro iCAN was provided by iFi through Stereo for the purposes of this review. I have now had it on loan for close to 3 weeks. I am neither a paid affiliate nor an employee of iFi. I’d like to thank the iFi team for this opportunity, and for answering my various questions. In addition, I’d like to offer a shout out to @HiFiChris and @ClieOS, who both respectively helped aid my understanding of the finer points of RMAA measurements, especially the implications of its non-absolute nature and the scaling tendencies of the program. It’s been a great experience with many things learnt. The Pro iCAN is truly an immense product –and one of the reasons why it took comparatively longer for me to get this review out was because there were simply so many features and combinations to test, and I didn’t want to formulate a representative opinion without first attaining a certain level of familiarity with the amp. Thanks for reading folks, and I hope that at least some of y’all will find this helpful and/or meaningful.
PACKAGING AND ACCESSORIES
- RCA Interconnects
- Power Supply
- iFi + Native DSD Free Albums
- User Guide
BUILD AND DESIGN
One would be hard pressed to find an amplifier that captures the spirit of utilitarian practicality better than the Pro iCAN. The first thing that struck me out of the box – the amplifier was pretty darned heavy. Okay, maybe not as heavy as the Feliks Audio Espressivo sitting next to it, but a heck of a lot heavier than the Micro iCAN. Think Rocky Balboa vs Ivan Drago. The design of the amp is immediately striking –the wavy top surface collides with the concentric arcs around an off-centered magnified viewing window. It’s something that looks like it came straight out of my old multivariable calculus textbook. My only gripe is that the front panel has not been machined to match the cross section of the “waves” on the side panels. It’s a small detail.
The front panel is symmetrical and absolutely packed with knobs and switches. It’s hectic –and yet it all makes sense. On the far left is input selection, followed by the XBass selection (off, 10Hz, 20Hz, 40Hz). Directly underneath the XBass selection is the amplification mode switch (SS, Tube, Tube+). In the center are a total of 5 headphone output options. For balanced outputs there are 2 x XLR 3-Pin, 2 x 6.3 mm TRS (iFi’s Single-Ended Compatible system), 1 x XLR 4-Pin, 1 x 3.5 mm TRRS (AK style). For single-ended outputs, there are 2 x 6.3 mm TRS (XLR 3-Pin doubles up), and a 3.5 mm TRS. On the far right is the volume pot, and on its left is the 3D Holographic selection (off, 30/+, 60/30+, 90/60+), with the gain switch right below it. The back panel of the iFi Pro iCAN houses an equally impressive number of input and output options. There’s a balanced input, 3 x unbalanced inputs (RCA), a balanced line output, and an unbalanced line output. In addition, there is also a DC Loop-Out and a connector for iFi’s Electrostatic Add-On Module (for Stax users).
The Quad-Damped Isolation Base Mount seriously had way more engineering in it than I had expected. It features a 4-layer sandwich comprised of dual layer elastomers (fancy talk for a polymer with elastic properties, i.e. a rubber-like material) and a dual-layer of metal alloys. Specific details about the composition of these layers can be more easily found on the iFi Pro iCAN user-manual. However, I second an observation brought up by @Koolpep his respective review of the amplifier. This brick slides around far too easily. Heavy weight and low friction on a smooth desktop surface are not necessarily the best characteristics to have together, especially not in an expensive flagship amplifier.
Starting up the amp is fairly simple. There’s various glowing colors, and a protection circuit will be activated if something were to go seriously wrong. Glaring issues – none, except the remote control for the volume pot. This bothers me. Now, I’ve used Beyerdynamic’s flagship amp, which I believe has a solid implementation of the remote control idea. The iFi Pro iCAN on the other hand has some issues. For example, it takes me close to 15-16 separate clicks to traverse 18 degrees on the volume pot. That’s about 75 – 80 separate clicks to traverse from 9 o’clock to 12 o’clock! In case you’re wondering, holding down the button doesn’t do much either. Now I’m not sure if this is because the remote is for fine-tuning, but this isn’t workable by any stretch of the imagination. I do believe that other users have reported similar issues with their units, and I hope that this will be resolved soon. As a final note –this amp runs hot (not that this should be surprising).
TECH AND SPECIFICATIONS
The iFi Pro iCAN is filled with a fair bit of technology. Let’s start with the balanced capabilities of the amplifier. I’ll preface this by saying that for this review, I did not have any balanced headphones to run the Pro iCAN with. My Fostex TH-900, Audio Technica R70x and Beyerdynamic T1 are all currently wired for single-ended use. That said, I’ve gotten excellent results out of the single-ended output on the iFi Pro iCAN (more on that later), and if experience is anything to go by, the balanced will be just as good, if not better than the single ended option. Returning to the matter of balanced circuitry, iFi is quick to point out that they have implemented a “true differential balanced” system for the Pro iCAN. That is to say, there is no combining of signals into a single-ended path post amplification, and then splitting again for the output. Instead, the Pro iCAN maintains two separate signal paths from end-to-end. It’s a straightforward implementation that keeps fidelity in mind.
At the heart of the iFi Pro iCAN is the ability to switch between the tube/ solid-state modes almost instantly. Granted, prolonged use in solid-state mode will cause the amplifier to turn off the tubes to prolong operational life. One of the questions that I had was regarding what had changed between the Micro iCAN and the Pro iCAN from a technical perspective. Like one concerned member brought up (and I paraphrase), it wouldn’t have been okay for a Micro iCAN to be combined with an iTube and put into a fancier enclosure. Rest assured, no such thing occurred. The tech guys at iFi explained that the Pro iCAN is a ground-up, fully discrete design. The Micro iCAN on the other hand utilizes a discrete gain-stage followed by a monolithic IC as a current buffer. Passive components are shared, but that’s where the similarities end. From a sonic perspective, the difference is fairly obvious (more on that later). The tube of choice employed in the iFi iCAN is the GE 5670. Its implementation is also unique in the sense that there are two-individual input circuits for solid-state and tube operation. But it’s no gimmick. This isn’t a two-for-one that achieves nothing overall. Consider it a refinement of operation. Also returning are the XBass and 3D functions, which I’d like to cover in greater depth in the sound section of the review.
Now for some basic RMAA results. RMAA results are only as good as the equipment used to perform the tests, and there has been a decent amount of coverage on its limitations and weaknesses. Consider it as a broad proof-reading of published technical specifications. And in this sense, the iCAN achieves, checking out fairly comfortably given the limitations of my rig. THD was 0.0048% and IDM + Noise at 0.013 %. Currently, I am utilizing an Asus Xonar U7 external sound card (line-in mode). The ADC is a Cirrus Logic CS5361-KZZ that is capable of 24/192 w/ a 114 dB dynamic range. It uses a 5th order MBT Delta-Sigma Modulator, and attains low levels of noise and distortion. For those curious, the DAC is the equally capable CS4398-CZZ. At any rate I’ll get to it below.
Solid-State FR (No Boost, No 3D, Gain 9 dB)
Solid-State, Tube, Tube Plus Compared (Scaling Pushed to Extremes, No Meaningful Discernible Difference)
The Pro iCAN is a subtle and perceptive amp in my mind. It’s powerful, and yet humble in its sonic presentation. Why do I say this? The Pro iCAN is a resolving and clean sounding amp, one that prefers to be authentic rather than dramatic in its presentation of sound. Switching between the solid-state and tube modes, you never get the sense that you’re listening to three different amplifiers. In my listening experience, the changes were more often than not, subtle. And this is a very good thing. It indicts a strong sense of sonic direction, that the team at iFi knew just how they wanted their amp to sound. The feature set, while extensive (XBass, 3D, etc.), always complements the Pro iCAN in an intuitive manner, and represents why they cannot be discounted as gimmicks.
The XBass functionality has returned in both 10, 20, and 40 Hz options. It relies on analog signal processing (no DSP), and provides a minimum 12 dB boost at the previously stated levels (see RMAA results). It is a clean boost that depending on the level can add a slight to moderate emphasis at subbass levels. It’s well-executed, and can make some tracks significantly more fun to listen to.
The 3D Holographic System (also no DSP) makes a return as well on the Pro iCAN, and is even better implemented than before. In a retrospective comparison, the Pro iCAN’s implementation makes that of the Micro iCAN look a tad unrefined and even a bit brash. The 30˚ Loudspeaker Angle simulates narrow loudspeaker placement, and it really works on some of the crazier stereo recordings. Running ACJ’s Stone Flower, I found that it worked decently to tame the rather extreme placement of instruments (my right ear is ever thankful). The 60˚ Loudspeaker Angle is meant to simulate an equilateral triangle placement and I often found that it was a good center ground to listen at. The 90˚ Loudspeaker Angle is quite impressive. While listening to the Vangelis’ Antarctica OST on this setting, I encountered an overwhelming spatiality that made for an awesome experience. Of course, it won’t be suitable for all recordings, and one shouldn’t expect it to do so either.
What follows are my general observations on the differences between the Pro iCAN’s various operation modes. To start, the perceived difference between the SS and Tube modes was less immediately obvious than between the Tube+ mode. The Tube+ mode reduces negative feedback, and thus allows the musical even order harmonics that play nicely on tubes to take precedence. Naturally, there is a corresponding increase in distortion. I think that it is important to note that you will not encounter any major roll-off on either end of the frequency spectrum while using the Pro iCAN in both of its tube modes (see RMAA). The SS mode was obviously the cleanest, and represented an excellent mix of dynamics and resolution. It is speedy and responsive, and sounded excellent. Compared to the Micro iCAN, it sounds much more refined, airy, and generally more transparent. Consider this to be the pinnacle of the “iFi sound”. Switching over to the Tube state, the tonality more or less remains the same. There is a weightier bass and a slightly increased mid-range presence. The way I’d describe this increase in presence is as if the “shadows” of sounds had increased in size (a little abstract I suppose). In other words, the sound space had been “filled up”. The Tube Plus mode was interesting. It’s perhaps the “tubiest” of the three states. It’s a luxurious, smooth sound that still maintains the resolution and soundstage performance of the prior two settings. In a bit of a wildcard match up, I threw the Feliks Audio Espressivo into the mix. I feel that the latter has excellent synergy with the T1, and I was interested to hear how it would fare against a much more expensive Pro iCAN. This is where I felt the iCAN could have used a slightly more dramatic presentation. Compared to the Espressivo, the iCAN sounded at times a bit too smooth and even restrained. Granted, it wins squarely on technical performance and soundstage/ imaging, but the result isn’t quite as powerful sounding as the Espressivo. I recognize that there is a need to stay within certain sonic boundaries (and I mentioned this as a strength at the start of this section), but there is a lingering feeling that just a bit more shine could’ve been added. Overall, I loved the SS and Tube modes, and occasion did enjoy dipping into the Tube+.
Now are some of my thoughts on how the Pro iCAN performed with a selection of tracks.
Orchestral – Princess Mononoke OST (Joe Hisaishi)
The Pro iCAN did stunningly on this. The sound is very big, and the lower frequencies have great presence and physical impact. The highs are not in the least bit limited and it feels like I’ve managed to hit the limit of my T1’s vertical soundstaging capability. Trombones are brought to life with an excellent portrayal of the instrument’s ability to sound incredibly metallic and dramatic when played at forte. Similarly, the traditional Japanese Koto never lost its place in the mix with the help of the Pro iCAN’s detail retrieval/ separation. I found presentation to be mostly on par between the three modes with slight variances in line with my original impressions above.
Bossa Nova/ Jazz – So Nice (Wanda Sa)
The bass line is very tight, and well-controlled with just enough quantity. Wanda Sa’s voice is nicely textured, and contrasts well with the rest of the band. I did not enjoy this on Tube+ as much though. The lower frequencies, while being quite lush, almost felt a tad too bloomy. The slight edge on the instrumentals, especially the plucking on the bass, was lost and it demonstrated an instance where the Tube+ didn’t do as great as I’d have hoped for.
Chill-Out/ Downtempo – International Flight (David Snell, Thievery Corporation)
This is a congested track if not properly handled. There are simply a lot of instruments playing at once. However, the Pro iCAN navigated it brilliantly. Between the drums and the harp, the Pro iCAN simply breezed through the track, keeping the bassline at a comfortable distance and placing just the right amount of emphasis on the harp. The one thing I did note was that in SS mode, the harp tended to get a slight bit peaky, especially on the T1. But apart from that , it was a great showing from the Pro iCAN.
Pop – Goodbye Stranger (Super Tramp)
Hey, you can’t beat some cheesy pop from the 1970s/80s. The wonderful synth tracks were well executed, and the vocals felt clean and clear amidst the Wurlitzer Piano, electric/ bass guitars, keyboards, and percussion. The one thing that I did note was that the sound in SS wasn’t as euphonic as I would’ve liked, but switching into the Tube modes fixed this. It wasn’t a huge difference, but it helped “push” the Pro iCAN nicely in a direction that I wanted it to go while still maintaining its base performance/ core sound signature.
This is a great amplifier. I really don’t have much else to say, except that if you enjoyed iFi’s previous offerings, this will definitely be a hit with you. It’s got a clean, resolving, and technically excellent signature which can be adjusted ever so slightly with a myriad options, ranging from a simple bass enhancement (XBass) to completely changing the core operation of the amplifier from solid state to tubes. And speaking of XBass, the traditional iFi set of features has returned in this new amplifier in a refined and upgraded form. As a flagship, the iCAN Pro has got just about everything that I’d expect and hope for, and if you put aside its remote control issues and its tendencies to slide around, you have a real winner. Congrats iFi!