ifi xCAN headphone Amplifier

Some will remember, that while reviewing the Ifi xDSD I lamented the lack of an analog input so I could use the amp section with my Opus and A&K players without having to use the DAC in the xDSD.    Ifi did little to tip their hand at the time but when a few months later the xCAN arrived, I knew they had already designed and were in the process of building what I was hoping for. I have been waiting rather impatiently to try one so when Lawrence sent me an email asking if I was interested I very quickly replied.   I am going to break one of my own rules and give away the ending first. I got the xCAN as a loaner to review free of charge provided I took care of it and returned it to Lawrence when finished. Within 48 hours of taking it out of the box, I sent him an email saying send me the invoice you aren’t getting this one back.

It is all too easy to get jaded as a reviewer when you see so much good gear go across your desk that it becomes pretty run of the mill. You spend time finding faults with products that most would call well above average and quite frankly it takes a lot to really surprise or excite you after doing this for a bit. I’ve resorted to listening to a set of 1st generation Beats for a day to remind myself what I could be living with. I’ve even used the earphones that came with my phone for a day. (Neither one of those tricks work by the way. I just kept asking myself why I was doing it when I knew I had my good ones in my backpack just begging to get out.) Now put my earlier comment in that context. Within 48 hours of plugging in the Ifi xCAN, I was willing to pay the invoice for it no questions asked. I didn’t even ask what the cost was. (I had a rough idea on retail price but honestly hadn’t looked it up). This is a game changer and a product I am genuinely excited about.

 

Packaging:

The xCAN arrived in the typical slip cover style white box with all the details shown in full color as is typical of all Ifi packages I have received.   The box is large enough that one expects the xCAN to be a fairly large which is not the case at all.    Inside the box, the xCAN itself takes up about 1/8th of the overall space.   The xCan sits on the top layer (in protective film case) with the Ifi velvet bag underneath it.  Below it sits a box contains a smaller white box that hides the cables.  Cables in this case are the 2.5-2.5 balanced, a 3.5-3.5 Single Ended, and a USB C charging cable.   the card-style manual,  and the warranty card are hiding hiding underneath the egg-crate box that holds the amp itself.     The interconnects and the usb cable are all roughly 6 inches long which is a good intermediate length as the micro connectors (JDSLabs) are just barely long enough to fit when using the Opus #1S and it puts a lot of stress on the connection and would be miles too short when paired to the AK70.   The USB cable seems a bit short but USB-C cables are easy to come by and again most will likely already have one around the house.

 

 

Build:

The first thing one will notice is the pictures don’t do the xCAN justice in most cases as they are blown up enough that one expects the xCAN to be bigger.  In reality, the xCAN is roughly the same size as a pack of cigarettes or a deck of cards.   The case of the xCAN is shared with the xDSD although the feet have been updated.  The case is metal with a polished faceplate and shell in titanium grey.  The rear faceplate is a matte black plastic and is about 3 times the thickness of the front plate.  Ifi’s documentation says the plastic rear cap was to improve wireless performance and that it performs substantially better than the all metal cases tested.   This helps explain a choice that might at first seem an odd aesthetic to some.  The faceplates are held in place using two star-head screws mounted on the outer edges. The device has good heft for its small size and feels extremely solid with no wobble or play in any of the connectors. The metal surfaces are very prone to finger prints and smudges so if that bothers you, you might want to have the aluminum case coated in a matte finish.

 

Features:

The xCAN is way more than just the amp section out of the xDSD, so my lamentation for an analog input on the xDSD must have seemed a bit like amateur hour to the Ifi engineering team.   To really understand what the xCAN brings to the table we need to look at it as two devices, the first a wired amplifier, and the 2nd a Bluetooth DAC/Amp.

For the first, Ifi has created a dual mono amplifier with both balanced and Single ended capability.    2.5mm balanced connectors are available for use with all sources while the 3.5mm jack supports single-ended inputs using TRS connectors in addition to iFi’s S-balanced functionality using TRRS connectors.  The S-balanced function allows some of the benefits of balanced (Reduced noise and crosstalk, while still maintaining compatibility with single-ended designs.  This is a pretty neat trick considering that plugging a single ended headphone into a balanced amp is often a good way to burn out the amp.   To understand iFi’s s-balanced technology, read more here.    It should noted that the 3.5mm input is labeled SE as it should only be used with TRS connectors unless being supplied by another iFi S-balanced product (xDSD or iCAN) as feeding the 3.5mm input from a balanced source other than S-balanced will cause damage to the unit.

iFi has a daunting task in trying to build an amp that is both dead quiet with sensitive IEMs and has the power to push 600Ω full sized headphones to reasonable volume levels.    As seen by the outputs specified below, they have brought plenty of power to the xCAN while maintaining a very good SNR and THD&N.

 xCAN output Power:
 
S-Balanced:
Balanced:
> 3.8V / 45 mW (@ 300 Ohm)> 7.6V / 90 mW (@ 600 Ohm)
> 3.5V / 380 mW (@ 32 Ohm)> 7.2V / 800 mW (@ 64 Ohm)
> 3.1V / 600 mW (@ 16 Ohm> 5.7V / 1,000 mW (@ 32 Ohm)
THD & NSNR
S-Balanced: < 0.005% (@ 100 mW/1.26V 16 Ohm)S-Balanced: > 121dBA (@ 3.8V)
Balanced: < 0.006% (@ 360 mW/2.4V 16 Ohm)
Balanced: >120dBA (@ 7.6V) 

With that numbers listed,  I think few would argue that the xCAN shouldn’t be capable of driving pretty much any headphone short of an electrostatic.  The problems that kind of power generally come with are a high noise floor, lots of heat generation, and power consumption.    To address these, iFi has included ifi Match technology to help lower the noise floor, the entire body of the unit acts as a heat-sink so while it gets warm it does not get hot, and the 2200 mAh lithium ion battery and battery management system does a good job of maintaining acceptable run time in spite of some pretty hearty power needs.

 

The Second use case for the xCAN is as a Bluetooth DAC/AMP.    This seems simple enough, add a Bluetooth circuit and just feed the output to the previously discussed amp, but here again iFi wasn’t content with the normal way of doing things.    Most Bluetooth chips are designed for cellphone use and are more concerned with voice calls than audio quality so iFi set about finding a way to de-couple the processes involved.  Bluetooth whether AptX or AAC depending on device type feeding the xCAN is used only as a data transport and only in the digital domain.   This digital input is then fed to an ESS DAC which handles the digital to analog task and that output is then passed to the previously discussed amp circuit.    Bluetooth bandwidth limits data to 16bit/48kHz at maximum but this still provides a marked step up from most system on a chip implementations.       The other common problem with Bluetooth devices is pairing and re-pairing.  Not to say the process is difficult, just that the fact that you have to disconnect one device and start over again in order to connect a different one makes use of the Bluetooth inconvenient at best.    iFi again stepped up and implemented a memory so that the xCAN retains the information of up to 8 partner devices and switching between them is as quick as turning off one device and turning on the other.  I found I could easily switch between android and iPhone while testing simply by enabling or disabling Bluetooth on each.  If I turned on Bluetooth on the device that was not connected before disabling the other, the xCAN would consistently stay attached to its original partner.    Once shut off, it would see the new partner and re-pair to it.

 

In addition to those two major functions, the xCAN offers some ability to tune the signature to one’s liking.   I have been somewhat critical of the 3D+ and XBass functions in times past as I have seen them as gross adjustments that seldom match what is actually needed to really tweak a particular pairing.  This time I am going to change my tune a bit.    Xbass has previously been an on/off affair on the nano and xDSD.  With the xCAN, XBass gets a refresh.   Now you have the option of Bass, Presence, or Both being boosted when you use the XBass function and it also seems the function is more narrowly defined than on previous iterations as the bass boost for example did almost nothing to the signature above the 150Hz mark with the bulk of its impact at or below 80Hz.   The Presence region boost again centers around the mids (1-2kHz) and does little above or below it.  The graph below shows the BQEYZ BQ3 with Xbass set to off (BLUE), Bass (RED) and Presence (GREEN) for comparison sake.   This was created by running the Sound card output to the xcan – then to the earphone in the test rig so all samples passed through the xCAN without adjusting volume or making any other changes other than the position of the xBass switch.   While not a perfect way to measure, it gives a good basic idea of how narrowly defined these new xbass filters are.

 

Controls

The rear panel of the xCAN from left to right has the USB-C power port, the Xbass II selector switch for Bass/Presence/Both (note the on/off for Xbass is on the front), the Single ended 3.5mm input and the 2.5mm balanced input at the far right.

The front panel has the 2.5mm Balanced output, 3.5mm output the Volume dial with the multi-colored LED internal to it that represents volume level and pairing functions, followed by the XBass/3D+, Bluetooth pairing button on the far right of the case.

 

All buttons are easy to use and very tactile so even with gloved hands this time of year they are easily manipulated.

 

Sound

The best thing one could say about an amp regarding its sound signature is that it lacks one and for the most part the xCAN does a great job of just that.  It maintained an absolutely black noise floor with my most sensitive IEMS and turned out to be a very good pairing with the hypersensitive Magaosi K5 while still having enough power to push the He-4xx, the Fostex t50rp variants, and the Sennheiser HD700s.   Admittedly the Beyer 600Ω is driven better by desktop amps but this is a deck of cards sized portable on a battery and the Beyers are still very usable when paired with it if not as well driven as using my Valhalla2.

Interestingly, one of the IEMs that has grown on me is the Magaosi K5 which while slightly bass shy does an awful lot right.  I found the combination of xBass II on Bass only and the Magaosi K5 maintained a black enough noise floor to have zero hiss (which is easily induced on these) and brought the bass just forward enough to really balance the K5.   I have tried previous iterations of bass boost and always been dissatisfied with the collateral damage done by boosting that range.  The xBass II function is the first time it has been narrowly defined enough to keep the mids of the K5 intact while moving the bass forward just enough to be more enjoyable.   While I still think 3D+ is a bit gimmicky, I have to say the XBass is now a real tool for shaping sound.   Kudos to iFi on that.

Sound quality using the Bluetooth setup is markedly better than most other implementations I have heard to date (xDSD excepted here) and was rock solid once connected.   I did find it a bit fiddly sometimes to get things connected initially but once connected I had no issues and could walk about any distance where I could maintain line of sight to the xCAN without problems.  Even a single interior wall did little to defeat the connection.   When multiple interior walls were encountered the signal did struggle but then again, I haven’t found a Bluetooth device that doesn’t struggle with that.

 

 

Conclusion

Superlatives are thrown around way too often and way too easily in this business.  The words giant killer and game changer have lost all meaning as a result.  That creates a problem when a product comes along that is really good as we then have to anoint it as the second coming in order to differentiate it from the rest of what we have already praised.   That is the position I am left in with the xCAN and I am not as free with praise as others so I can only imagine the predicament reviewers who gave the Aune B1s a near perfect score are in.   No, the xCAN won’t walk on water, no it won’t make 128k mp3s sound like the gold master, but it is a damn fine piece of gear at a price point that is very reasonable.        The xCAN is the best portable amplifier I have heard to date which at last count was 30+ models including most of the rest of the iFi lineup.     I already had the xDSD on my products of the year list for 2018 and now I have to admit the xCAN betters it.  It isn’t often that a company manages to bottle lightning and even less so when they do it twice in a row.  iFi is on to something great and I hope the team that produced the xDSD and xCAN together as I can’t wait to see what comes next.

  • 7/10
    Packaging - 7/10
  • 7/10
    Accessories - 7/10
  • 7/10
    Build Quality - 7/10
  • 8/10
    Sound Signature - 8/10
  • 7.5/10
    Tuning Options - 7.5/10
  • 8/10
    Output Power - 8/10
  • 8/10
    Connectivity - 8/10
  • 8/10
    Battery Life - 8/10
7.6/10

Summary

Pros –  Extremely potent amp for its size, great bluetooth implementation, long battery life.

Cons – Xbass controls split between front and rear faceplate, fingerprint magnet.