Firstly I would like to thank iFi Audio for the loan unit for review, I have been using it for about 3 weeks and as always I will try to write an honest review.
Dell XPS 15 / Marantz CD5400 / Audio Opus #2 > Matrix Quattro II DAC > XLR Out > Pro iCan
Headphones: Hifiman HE-500 (4-Pin XLR Balanced) / AAW Nebula 2 IEM’s / Fostex TH-500rp
Very comprehensive list on their website: http://ifi-audio.com/portfolio-view/pro-ican/
Packaging, Accessories and Build quality:
The packaging is similar to other iFi offerings just bigger, it is white, with actual size pictures on the side, and product info and specs on the back. Once you remove the outer sleeve you are greeted by a thick car box, which holds the amp in place well during transit, and underneath you will find the accessories. I really like the simple yet effective packaging, it doesn’t look cheap or cluttered. iFi is embossed in silver on the ends of the box, a classy touch in my opinion.
Accessory wise you get a pair of RCA interconnects and a remote control which controls the volume only, you also get a very good user manual. Nothing else is needed to complete the package.
Build quality is on par with other offerings, an impeccable finish on the amp itself all laid out in a very symmetrical manner. It is not the best looking amp, but what it lacks in looks it makes up for in features, I like the more understated look. All inputs and outputs are built to a very good standard, the volume knob is very smooth to operate and the switches are tight so you won’t accidentally increase the gain for example. On the top of the amp there are holes which help keep it cool and lets you see a little of what is inside, there is also a small window through which you can see the GE valves. The only thing I would like improved would be the bottom, it has a big rubberised patch, but I find the amp is a little light and still moves quite easily on a desk, so you have to hold it tight when plugging anything in. I think soft rubber feet on each corner may have been better.
This amp is packed full of features, and I don’t quite know where to start.
Input wise you get 3 sets of unbalanced RCA inputs, and a set of balanced XLR inputs, the input is selected with the big knob on the left hand side of the amp.
You also get a set of XLR outputs and a pair of RCA outputs, so you can use this as a pre-amp.
On the front you have the source select knob, next to this there is a smaller knob which controls the Xbass boost, then you have a jack/XLR combi socket for normal stereo 6.3mm unbalanced output or as the L balanced channel (jack or 3-pin XLR).
In the middle you have a balanced 4 pin XLR socket, and next to this you have another jack/XLR combi socket for normal stereo unbalanced 6.3mm jack or as the R balanced channel (jack or 3-pin XLR). The next small knob is the 3D sound switch, then the volume knob.
Underneath these there is another layer, with the mode select (solid state, tube, tube+), normal unbalanced 3.5mm output, a balanced 4-pole 3.5mm output and then the gain switch (0dB, 9dB, 18dB).
As you can see it is packed full of features but they are easy to find and get used to their placement on the amp.
So more about the Xbass, it is not a traditional bass boost, all analogue circuitry and it provides a minimum of 12dB boost at 10/20/40Hz (selectable). It works well in combination with the 3D sound and also for leaner headphones. It is not a big increase, and doesn’t muddy the sound, and obviously will affect different headphones differently. I personally didn’t find myself using it when using Tube or Tube+ with the HE-500, but if I engage the 3D sound at 60 (solid state) I used the 20Hz boost to fill the sound out a little.
The 3D sound settings are also an interesting feature, I can’t really explain it so read on their website: http://ifi-audio.com/portfolio-view/pro-ican/
What I can say is that it is subtle but makes a difference, it takes a while for your ears to get used to the sound but is does become a little more like speakers, the centre image is more focused. Using the more extreme settings on headphones does make them sound a little leaner which is where the Xbass comes in handy. The main difference is when you switch the 3D settings off and the sound just sounds a little odd and panned right and left in comparison, also the sound is slightly less fatiguing with the 3D engaged.
Now on to the main part, unfortunately I don’t have any other high end amps to compare this to, but I will try to describe this amp as best as possible.
Lets start off with running it in SS mode, this is a very reference amp with no added flavour. This does mean it will show up any flaws in your music and also source, so I recommend pairing it with a good DAC. I am running it balanced from my Matrix Quattro II DAC, and I have not needed to increase the gain at all with the HE-500’s, and the volume knob is sat around the 9o’clock position.
This amp handles everything with ease, never a hint of strain or harshness, it really brings out the best in the HE-500, you get the deep controlled bass that lesser amps cannot provide, but also the soundstage improves. Not artificially but one things the HE-500 lacked a little is width, which this adds, the layering is also superb. On some brighter headphones some people may find this a little fatiguing as it doesn’t take anything away from the highs, so be careful with bad recordings. But when paired with good headphones and good recordings it will let you hear every nuance and bring you sonic satisfaction.
Now lets change it to the Tube mode, like this you get a richer sound, more body and it just sounds fuller. This works wonders on the slightly brighter headphones out there, or just those who want that smoothness of tubes but without sacrificing fine detail. I find the tube mode better for just sitting back and enjoying my music, the good thing about the tubes in this is that they don’t alter the overall clear sound of the amp, they just add a touch of warmth and body.
So what about the Tube+ mode? Well with this sounds a little grainier than the Tube mode, and fuller too, but it sounds ever so slightly closer in presentation (the soundstage isn’t quite as wide) the differences are not huge between Tube and Tube+, and it will depend largely on the headphones you have and on your preferences. I find Tube+ to be a little richer in tone, and a little grainier, whereas the normal Tube mode offers the added richness I like with the HE-500.
Conclusion: I don’t even know where to start, this is a feature packed amp that has an understated look but does not disappoint on the sound front. A few people have thought this amp is jack of all trades, master of none, but in my opinion iFi have made the perfect all in one amp for all headphones and have not failed in any area. Whether you want reference sound from the SS mode, or a richer sound from the Tube mode you have it all in one neat package. Add to that the possibility of using it as a pre-amp, and being fully balanced throughout and you have a very impressive array of features for the money.
The price looks high, but if you factor in buying a good solid state amp, and a good valve amp, you are looking at the same price if not more, and most likely they won’t be able to drive pretty much every headphone on the market.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Pro iCan, and I wish it could stay in my permanent collection, it just works so well with anything you throw at it and has the perfect form factor too.
Sound Perfection Rating: 10/10 (You won’t find this amount of power and features on another amp in this, or any other price range, and sonically this amp exceeds all expectations)