It can often be a challenge to go for an audio company that prizes rigorous engineering over marketing flair. Judging by their website and their staid, sober presence on social media, you might be forgiven for bypassing iFi Audio in favor of flashier companies like Schiit. That would be a mistake. They might not be the most welcoming of the hundreds of headphone amp companies out there, but their pedigree is indisputable. And for those who enjoy kicking their headphones sound up a notch, an iFi has become a mark of distinction. They sent us their latest mini amplifier to test out, and we’ll say this for it: it’s got some surprising depth.
OK, you know how we said that iFi Audio (pronounced eye-fi, in case you are wondering) is a bit boring? Somewhere in their design department lurks an engineer who really wants to build something amazing. The micro iCAN SE amplifier, and its partner, the iDAC2 - we were shipped both, and tested them both together and separately over the course of a month – have one of the most distinctive builds we’ve ever come across.
You know what the iCAN SE makes us think of? It makes us think of spaceship coffins. You know the ones we’re talking about. In a science fiction movie, whenever some poor bastard gets horribly murdered by an alien or gets too close to the positron core whatever, his shipmates package up his body in a futuristic box and jettison it into the void. That’s what the iCAN SE looks like. One of those boxes. Either that, or a chocolate bar designed by a steampunk Willy Wonka.
Whichever image you prefer, you can tell from the photos that there are very few headphone amps that have a shape this eye-catching. The only other one we could think of that we could recognise at a distance would be the Schiit Magni 2.
The SE in iCAN SE stands for Special Edition, and it’s the upgraded version of the original iCAN, one which has, as iFi put it, been “specially tuned”. We admit, we’ve never heard the original, but design-wise, there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of difference between the two. And for the most part, the strange sci-fi design works well.
The amplifier is a slim, light silver box around the size of a couple of cigarette packets stacked in tandem, with multiple controls located on either end. The one we’ll refer to as the business end is where the main volume pot sits: a pleasing brushed-metal cylinder with a nice weight to it. On the other side, you’ve got a 6.3mm headphone jack, and in between them, two switches – one to control the bass boost, and the other to control the 3D stereo effect. We’ll go into the ins and outs of how these perform in the section below.
On the other side, you’ve got twin RCA inputs, a 3.5 mm input jack, and a socket for the power cable. There are a set of self-explanatory indicator lights on the top – one for power, one for the Direct Drive function, and another to indicate the presence of audio. We don’t quite understand why the Direct Drive needs its own indicator – it’s not like you can turn it off – but it doesn’t get in the way.
The build is light enough and small enough that you could theoretically take it on the road with you, which we liked. In practice, it would probably be a bit fiddly, but we appreciated the idea.
On the bottom of the unit, there’s a gain switch, and this is where things get confusing. See, it’s more like gain switches, with four tiny, fiddly toggles that you have to flip in certain sequences to boost the gain by up to 24dB. It’s entirely possible that the demands of the internal layout meant that the gain switch couldn’t be located elsewhere, but it’s still fiddly to operate. And while we’re on the subject: for all its solid build and unique silhouette, there’s no denying that some elements of the design here are a mess.
The bottom of the unit is not only home to the gain switch, but also to a host of marketing copy. We cannot think of a single incident – really, not one – where we’d want a list of what the amplifier can do written on its surface. That’s what manuals are for. Even though it’s hidden most of the time, it feels like iFi is trying just a little too hard, including placing a bunch of obnoxious logos on the casing. This cavalier attitude to labelling goes further, too, with indicator text shoved almost haphazardly next to the individual controls. Some of it doesn’t make sense, either. To maximise the bass boost, you position the otherwise faultless toggle in the center – but to do the same for the stereo switch, you need to push it all the way to the top. It’s a minor niggle, but an annoying one.
There is also a major design oversight in how the iCAN SE relates to its partner, the iDAC2 (review coming soon). They have an identical build, and are the same size and shape. The first thing we tried to do with them – the first thing almost anybody, we’d submit, would try to do with them – is stack them on top of one another. It didn’t work. We could position the one so it stayed in place on top of the other – just – but it was very clear that it could slip off at any moment, and hadn’t been designed with this in mind. That’s a bit of a fail.
(UPDATE: It's been pointed out to us that iFi do make a dedicated rack/component shelf to hold all their micro/nano products. We still think the amp/DAC/etc should be stackable on their own, but we're happy to correct the error.)
In functional terms, the amplifier works extremely well. We’ve got no complaints there. And as we said, we do love its distinctive shape. But the masses of text that swamp the metal shell detract from what should be a landmark product.
Whatever our quibbles with the design, there’s no doubt that the iCAN SE has some fun stuff going on under the hood, and some fairly nifty technologies.
It’s a Class A tube amplifier, and although you can’t get at the tube to swap it out for one of your own, you probably won’t want to. The tube circuitry, coupled with the aforementioned Direct Drive tech (a circuit layout that results in increased transparency and a very low output impedance), the bass boost function, and the 3D stereo enhancer, meant that we quickly became addicted to the sound this little beauty gave us.
(UPDATE: iFi's Lawrance Lee has pointed out that "The unit's actually not a tube amplifier. It is Class A, but it's solid stage. There are certainly technologies in it that mimics the sound of a tube to some degree though. That's where the "TubeState" name comes from." Could have fooled us - it's certainly got tube characteristics, and the description on iFi's product page isn't entirely clear. Still, compliments to the amp.)
While it didn’t have the outright warmth and character of something like, say, the Hafler HA75 (full review here), there was definitely plenty of bouncy, gooey tube quality to the audio we put through it. It had real weight and heft: the bass always felt full and complete, even when we supercharged it with the surprisingly excellent bass boost. We found that the greatest improvement it gave to our basic headphone sound was in the mids, where it really filled out some of the gaps and brought the details to the fore. Very occasionally, when there was a lot going on in a particular mix, we detected a little bit of muddiness at the low end as the amp struggled to handle all the bass frequencies, but this didn’t occur too often. And while the highs could occasionally sound a little bit harsh, this was so slight as to be almost unnoticeable. The closest comparison we could make to the sound was actually a portable amp: the OPPO HA2 SE, and not just because it has a similar suffix. It doesn’t have as much emphasis on the tube character, but it makes up for it with clarity, and has a bass boost function of similar quality. (It also has its own design issues, like a nasty leather cover that makes it look kind of cheap, but that’s neither here nor there).
The amplifier, as we mentioned, includes a 3D stereo enhancer effect. This didn’t make a massive difference, but there was definitely an audible change when we flicked it up to the max. In fact, we were so pleased by the combination of maximum bass boost and maximum stereo that we mostly just left it there.
We tested the iCAN SE with a variety of headphones and DACs. It was quite capable of driving cans of all impedances, ranging from 250 ohm Beyerdynamic Amiron Homes to 25 ohm AudioQuest NightHawk Carbons (full review here). It also played nicely with a variety of DACs, although predictably, it responded best to the aforementioned iDAC2. They might not be able to stack, but they work extremely well next to each other, the DAC giving its amp partner a little bit of an extra sharpening and poise. It also helps that unlike many tube amps, you cannot only leave this one permanently plugged in, and it works instantly upon playback.
So in general: hell yeah. Whatever design foibles it may have, the iCAN SE sounds magnificent. That has always been and will always be the main thing we look for in a headphone amp, and so this gets top marks.
We admit: iFi surprised us a little here.
Most amplifiers come with the power cable, and that’s it. That’s your lot. You supply the other cables, the headphones, the sound source. So imagine our surprise when we opened the packaging to discover that our little iCAN SE came bundled with a purple RCA cable – a short one, to be fair, but short is a lot longer than non-existent. It’s a great touch, and it made us warm to both the company and the amp.
Beyond that, you get a power cable, which comes with a wall wart designed to reduce noise. The manual comes on a strangely-folded bit of cardboard, but it’s fairly self-explanatory, and gets the job done.
Here’s something weird that annoys us: Boxes where the top and sides completely cover the interior, leaving you to fiddle and winkle out the internal compartments, or shake it over table while you wait for the air to give you a bit of purchase. It’s a strange thing, we know, but more companies are guilty of it then we’d strictly like. Not iFi. God knows what wizardry they’ve got going on with this box, but it slides off neatly and quickly. It’s a very small thing, but a welcome one.
Slide off the lid, and the iCAN SE is nestled in a white cardboard insert, with the cables beneath. Like the manual, it gets the job done.
It’s clear that, in design terms at least, iFi have quite a way to go. If they are really going to capture peoples’ imagination, then the outside of the iCAN SE (and the iDAC2) needs a major cleanup operation, with special attention paid to things like labelling. And it has to be able to stack. The design may be distinctive, but it’s a little bit too muddled right now.
However, there’s no question that this is an endlessly rewarding amplifier, in terms of sound quality. It delivers clear, confident tube sound which we found addictive. It very quickly became our regular go-to headphone amp, regardless of what we were listening to. We think the price is right, too - at just under $300, this is reasonably affordable. It didn’t quite crack the top ten on our list of this year’s best headphone amps, thanks to its design issues, but it’s still on the fifteen-strong list.
If you’re more interested in what goes into your ears than what goes into your eyes, then this is well worth a serious look.
- Great tube sound and character.
- Excellent bass and stereo boosts.
- Fun and distinctive shape.
- Ugly labelling.
- Slightly confusing switches.
- Not stackable with the iDAC2.
It costs a bit more, but then again, it offers quite a bit, too. Not only do you have access to the four tubes, but you can also use this compact unit as a preamp.
We’ll be honest: we prefer this one to the iCAN SE. We think it gives you a staggering amount for your money, and it doesn’t have the same design quirks. But sound wise, the two are comparable, and we think the iCAN SE may even have the edge – just a little. If you have the extra money, we say go for this one, but you’ll be very happy with either.
This portable powerhouse has at least one major advantage on the iCAN SE, in that it packs both an amplifier and a DAC into its leather and metal frame. It also has a couple of other nifty tricks, like acting as a portable power bank for your phone.
We have to say that we prefer the sound of the iCAN SE, and we think that iFi made the right choice by shipping the DAC in a separate unit. But if you can spend $20 more, and you want something that is more amenable to being taken on the go, then spring for the HA2 SE. Just don’t say we didn’t warn you about that leather cover.
We’ll sing the virtues of this little monster until the day we die. Why wouldn’t we? It’s a gorgeous, cute little tube amp, highly affordable, with great sound considering the price.
Admittedly, the build quality and audio clarity isn’t a patch on the iCAN SE, but it does offer a similar experience. If you’re strapped for cash, but still want to experience some tube goodness, give Bravo’s little beast a go. Just watch out - it can be quite fragile, and that cool little tube is exposed to the elements. Don’t drop it.
|iFi Audio micro iCAN SE||$299||7.7oz||6.5" x 2.5" x 1"||10-600Ω||4/16Ω||No|
|Schiit Valhalla 2||$349||7lbs||9" x 6" x 3.25”||28-600Ω||0.18/50Ω||No|
|OPPO HA2 SE||$300||6.2oz||5.4" x 2.7" x 0.5"||10-300Ω||0.22/32Ω||Yes|
|Bravo Audio V2||$68||1lb||3.1” x 3.1” x 1.7”||20-600Ω||Unknown||Yes|
*RHI = Recommended Headphone Impedance
**WPC = Watts Per Channel
***DAC = Digital-to-Analogue Converter
For more in-depth specs, see iFi Audio's product page.