Earlier this year, we reviewed a unique headphone amplifier from a unique company — the iFi micro iDSD Black Label — that wowed us with as a portable DAC and amplifier with desktop-class power output. In that review, we couldn’t help but remark about the dizzying array of proprietary features (“XBassII,” “3D++,” “IEMatch,” etc) and iFi’s equally overwhelming website. This fall, iFi launched a new headphone amplifier and a new website, simplifying its lineup and presentation with a new, more mobile-friendly mix of features. We put iFi’s xCAN portable headphone amplifier through its paces, and while it is undeniably still an iFi product, we think it’s quite good.
Calling the micro iDSD BL “portable” was always a bit of a stretch — while it could operate on battery power, its long, beefy chassis was far from pocketable. The xCAN, by contrast, is crammed into a 95 x 66.5 x 19 millimetre case — less than half the size of the iDSD BL — and weighing only 127 grams, making the xCAN much better suited for mobile use. Inside is a 2200 mAh battery which iFi claims can last up to eight hours, though we averaged around six hours as we were regularly testing its performance with demanding headphones. The xCAN features balanced (2.5mm TRRS) and single-ended (3.5mm TRS) inputs and outputs. Bluetooth audio is also included in this device via ESS Sabre DAC (max resolution of CD-Quality 16-bit/48kHz), with a memory of up to eight devices and support for AAC, aptX, and aptX Low Latency codecs, the latter of which is ideal for video. The polished magnesium-aluminum housing of the xCAN is striking, especially with its rippled form-over-function design, but not ideal for mobile use — it’s a fingerprint magnet, and we found some light scratches after just a week of normal use. A matte anodized finish — perhaps in colors like Sony’s old magnesium-body portables — might have avoided the fingerprints and looked better alongside its plastic volume knob and antenna section. The xCAN ships with balanced and single-ended interconnect cables and a USB A-to-C charging cable. In our testing it seemed that the xCAN would only charge using USB A-to-C cables — C-to-C cables did not work. We reached out to iFi about this, and we’ll update if we hear any explanation.
Our only real gripe about the xCAN lies with its interface, specifically its multicolor-multifunction center button. It looks cool, but we think it attemps to cram too much functionality into a single button. A long-press of this translucent button powers on xCAN, initially lighting up in the color of the selected source (green for analog, blue for Bluetooth), then changing to indicate the color of volume level (through about 100 volume steps, colors range from blue to red to indicate volume of -101dB to +12dB). Short-pressing the button will toggle mute — a nice, but superfluous feature. To switch between Bluetooth and analog inputs, the xCAN must be turned off, then turned on with the center button held until the source changes. A second, smaller button handles Bluetooth pairing and the xCAN’s proprietary sound tweak modes. We think it would have been more intuitive to reserve white and blue to indicate the selected source, use the remainder of the color spectrum to indicate volume level and, instead of mute, use short presses to switch between analog and Bluetooth. This is not to suggest that the xCAN is difficult to use — it’s not — but we think some minor tweaks could avoid initial confusion and the need to refer back to the user manual. It certainly could have been worse; the xCAN’s interface is definitely not as bad as the multicolor marbles on the Chord Mojo, but we can’t help but feel that a two-button device shouldn’t need a user manual.
We don’t usually seek out sound tweaks in our amplifiers — we generally prefer to listen to music unmodified — but we can appreciate when they’re well-implemented. Like the iDSD BL, the xCAN offers “3D+” and “XBass II” sound tweaks. According to iFi, these are not DSP, but rather analog adjustments. Turning on XBass II adds an immediate, clean bass boost — with a switch on the back of the xCAN, the XBass II feature can be adjusted between Bass, Presence, and Bass + Presence modes. Pure “Bass” mode was a little too blunt for our tastes and Bass + Presence sounded a bit overintensified — Presence mode is our favorite. The 3D+ adds a subtle, but audible sense of space. Perhaps more interesting is the addition of iFi’s “S-Balanced” technology, which claims to provide the benefits of balanced circuitry for single-ended headphones. Though the xCAN does offer a balanced output, we were skeptical that this was just marketing puffery — luckily iFi was happy to provide some technical documentation. The core benefits of balanced circuity in audio components is that, unlike a single-ended circuit, the left and right channels of a balanced amplifier do not share a ground, are susceptible to far less noise, and are able to produce significantly more power. According to iFi, many headphone amplifiers with balanced inputs and outputs actually have single-ended circuitry in between. When balanced headphone amplifiers mimic pro-level balanced equipment — two signal amplifiers in the chain — they also amplify noise that, although acceptable on speakers, is problematic for sensitive headphones. iFi’s solution is simple: the xCAN uses fully-balanced circuitry, with only a single amplifier in the signal path. As a result, even single-ended headphones reap the benefits of this low-noise, high-power design.
iFi makes big claims about the xCAN’s power output, up to 1W into 32 ohms in balanced mode, and 380 mW into the same load in S-Balanced (single-ended mode), with THD+N of .005% and .006% respectively and a SNR of about 120 dBA. The xCAN’s output impedance was not listed at the time of this review, but we did not encounter any problems with sensitive IEMs. Though the xCAN is undeniably less powerful than the larger, more expensive brother, iDSD micro BL, but found it to be plenty powerful, especially for a portable device — it drove our Focal Elear (80ohm, 104db/mW) within the “green” volume range, and even pushed the power-hungry Hifiman HE6 SE (50ohm, 83db/mW) to listenable volumes, albeit near maximum volume. We conducted our testing on the xCAN’s balanced and single-ended inputs and outputs and we can vouch for the extremely clean quality of its sound. It’s great to see real engineering in this device, and not just audiophile buzzwords. The xCAN sounds equally good in Bluetooth mode — our only wishlist item here would be for the xCAN to report its battery status to iOS.
With the xCAN, iFi has put out another very compelling audiophile component. It’s still a touch esoteric but, with the launch of the xCAN, it seems we’re seeing an effort by iFi to make their products more accessible and more broadly appealing. Though traditionally shunned by headphone enthusiasts even despite it’s substantial improvement over the years, Bluetooth remains the only way to ensure that a headphone product is compatible with all streaming music and video services. The xCAN is, in some ways, a bridge between the two worlds. With its wavy, reflective shell, and fully-balanced circuitry, it pays homage to opulent and exotic audiophile products of old. By adding wireless connectivity, it embraces the listening habits of modern music fans. All that, with a ton of clean power on tap, earns our recommendation.
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