Disclaimer: I own, use, and have reviewed quite a few iFi products and am a fan of several of them. In this case, the Hip DAC was sent to me as part of a review tour so it wasn’t a freebie from iFi, and my impressions are limited to 10 days use and I cannot speak to the longevity of the device. I’ve done my best to compare it to the other generations of iFi products I have in house and a few competitors, but with the limited time, A/B compares are somewhat minimal. I’d like to thank Lawrence and iFi Audio for giving me the opportunity to put the Hip DAC through its paces. If you have an interest in the Hip DAC or other iFi products please see their website for more details.
The Hip DAC comes in a white box with image of the device on the front and specs on the rear. Opening the top flap reveals a press board tray with the device itself protected in plastic and the provided cables beneath it. Cables include an short USB type C cable, a male to female full sized type A, and a type C OTG to female connector to allow direct connection from a phone to the device. No carrying case or other items are provided in the kit, so it is on the minimalist side, but at the $150 price point perhaps it is best that the money is spent on internals rather than fancy covers.
The hip dac is a very solid device in hand with all metal construction. Those familiar with the X series products will recognize the form factor as the Hip is roughly the same height and width but slightly thinner by comparison. For those unfamiliar, the hip dac is slightly wider than a deck of playing cards and roughly as tall and as thick. The hip dac also foregoes the polished metal housing of the X series in favor of anodized aluminum which is both durable and less expensive again allowing for more of your dollar to go to internals. The front, from left to right, has a single ended 3.5mm output (that also supports x-balanced), a 4.4mm balanced output, a brass volume control (with LEDs on either side to indicate power on/off and input format), the xBass control and led indicator, and lastly the gain control (power match) and led indicator. The rear panel is a bit less busy with a full sized recessed male USB type A connection for data only as is in common use on ifi products, and a USB type-C female for charging only and an LED indicator for battery status. Its a tidy package with little wasted space.
The heart of the Hip DAC is the Burr Brown DSD1793 chip which handles decoding duties and supports native DSD256 (even on mac w/ the right driver), PCM and DXD up to 384kHz, and MQA. Output is then handled by proprietary quad J-Fet OV4627A operational amplifiers and dual-mono power amp IC headphone drivers. The big thing of course if dual-mono design for true balanced output in a device in this class. The Hip DAC shares a lot with its desktop Zen cousins, and more than a little DNA with the Pro iDSD as well. Output power is quite respectable at 400mW@32Ω using the 4.4 balanced connector or 280mW@32Ω using the 3.5 connector. Finally a 2200 mAh lithium polymer battery provides the power for all this and easily supported an 8 hour workday with power to spare in my testing. For more information on the Burr Brown Chip, see TI’s build sheet. Also the Tech note for the Hip Dac is a good read if you want more technical detail than provided here.
Controls on the Hip DAC are very straight forward, the volume knob doubles as the on/off switch. The other two controls are push button on/off switches for xBass and what iFi calls Power Match that most of us know as gain. These two are either on or off rather than being tiered like some others. The Power match, per iFi is best left off for sensitive iems and turned on when paired with more power hungry over-ears. I found that low impedance, high-sensitivity cans like the Grado Sr60 did fine with power match off, but once you moved up into the 150Ω range, the added boost provided by enabling Power Match was helpful in having some extra headroom. I’ve spoken to xBass before, I am generally not a fan of any form of artificial bass boost as far too often it vastly over-emphasizes the bass and works on way too wide a band so everything comes out poorly defined and sloppy. xBass is admittedly better than most and does a better job of enhancing only where it needs it. It is one of a very few bass controls that I actually think serves a useful purpose at times. That isnt to say I’d turn it on and leave it on, but it is worth an experiment or two for those of you who cant seem to get enough bass out of your favorite can or in-ear. I’ve included the user guide below as it includes the meaning of the LEDs for power and format and it seems a bit silly to rehash all of that rather than just borrow their version.
Since the Hip DAC’s forte is portable use, I did most of my sound notes using either a phone or the Hidizs AP80 as the source, and my Eartech quints as the earphones. I did take turns using both the single ended and balanced outputs to be sure I caught any changes in signature between the two, and also used a couple of full sized cans including the HD700 and Campfire Cascade as these represent the kind of headphones most likely to be paired to the Hip DAC. In testing various other things to see just how far it could be pushed in either direction, I did find that the noise floor even with the gain on low is audible on super sensitive iems like the Magaosi K5. If you are planning on using something with an unusually high sensitivity (110db range), I’d recommend you audition this before purchase to make sure hiss wont be a problem. On the opposite end of the spectrum we have the He6 that has the sensitivity of a rock, and the Beyer 990 600Ω with good sensitivity but an impedance from… Neither of these are a good fit as sound is compressed, bass is anemic, and overall either of these headphones tax the Hip DAC well beyond its comfort zone.
Staying somewhere between those extremes, yields best results and gives a signature that is slightly warm signature. Detail is quite good and to my ear on par with the xDSD which is saying a good bit. I do think that the Hip DAC has a very slight warmth particularly evident in the lower mids that keeps it from being absolutely neutral, but certainly not enough to distract during listening and not enough to detract unless using a headphone that is already bordering on excessively warm. On the opposite end, things that tend to sound slightly cool benefit greatly from that and a few in-ears that I found a bit dull are actually greatly improved due to that very mild coloration. I think many will prefer the iFi house sound as I have come to regard it over an absolute neutral for that reason.
vs xDSD – There is some heritage here as the Hip DAC is arguably a direct descendant of the xDSD. Outwardly, I think one can argue that is true, inwardly it is probably a bit more closely related to the Zen, but they all share some common ancestors. The xDSD is a bit more versatile with bluetooth and optical input options, higher end file format support (for the few who need 768kHz), and arguably a bit more power. Both share the same battery with the Hip DAC conserving it a bit better and the xDSD using it to power those additional features. The xDSD also has the 3D+ function that was not incorporated in the Hip DAC. Both suffer from a bit of hiss when combined with extremely sensitive in-ears, and both have roughly the same upper limit on output power. For those who will use the Hip DAC with typical 24/96 flac or 128DSD files via a USB type-C interface from a phone or tablet, it can be thought of as the xDSD with all the unnecessary removed and improved battery life in the trade off. For those that need the additional inputs or crave the 3d+, the xDSD remains the operative choice.
vs Xduoo XD-05+ – The Hip DAC is much more portable than the XD-05+ as it is a bit under 1/2 the size of it, but it trades power for size with the XD-05 being able to easily drive some of the headphones that caused the Hip DAC to struggle. Again, input options are more versatile on the XD-05+, and some will appreciate the option to swap op-amps to tailor the sound or the exposure of the DAC filters to do the same. Others will find the XD-05+ cumbersome and over-complicated as it is easy to hit the input switch on the side while carrying in a pocket and all at once your music is gone. Here we have another battle of features vs simplicity and the end users desires will ultimately determine which is a better option. Sound wise both are very good so the user doesn’t lose either way in that department.
vs Earmen TR-amp – Here we have a bit more of a fair fight. The TR-amp like the Hip DAC is USB only, offers both a charging port and a separate data port. The TR-amp adds a pair of RCA pre-outs, disposes of the gain and bass controls, and adds a fixed vs volume adjustable switch for the pre-outs. The TR is similar in width and length, but nearly 3 times the height of the Hip DAC and weighs a bit more as well. Sound wise both are musical and slightly warm with good detail retrieval. Power is slightly better on the TR-amp, while battery life favors the Hip DAC albeit not by a huge margin. For pocket carry, I’d choose the Hip DAC as it is more convienent, for on the desk use, the pre-out is handy if you want to use a powered monitor, but otherwise the two are feature matched pretty well, and the TR is $100 more. You have to want the pre-out pretty badly, or need that additional power to justify the cost difference.
I’ve been accused of being an iFi fanboi a time or two, and I will admit that most of the products I have tested from iFi have fared well. I’d like to think that was more a matter of solid products at realistic price points than some predisposition to the brand on my part. Having said that, the Hip DAC isn’t going to change that pattern. It’s well made, sounds good, and offers good value for the price. It is kind of a one trick pony with its single USB input, but that is a pretty common usage scenario, so if you are going to pick a single input type, that is the one to choose (especially in the portable market). I do wish the noise floor were a bit lower as I suspect a few people with really sensitive in-ears will find a bit of hiss even on low gain, but again those with flagship in-ears are not really the target audience here. The Hip DAC is aimed squarely at those who want better sound out of their phone or computer without spending a fortune in the process and with a minimum of fuss to get it setup and working. It accomplishes that quite handily and will make a good laptop and phone companion for a lot of new audio enthusiasts. We should probably consider the Hip DAC as the gateway drug to things like the Pro iDSD as it will introduce many to higher quality audio and introduce the iFi name in the process. As for me, the addiction continues.
Pros – Great Build quality, DSD and MQA support, easy setup, good sound
Cons – slightly warm, usb input only, mild hiss with ultra-sensitive in-ears.