iFi Pro iCAN Headphone Amp Review: You Can With the iCAN

November 18, 2017


It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Just before my annual spring/summer hiatus from pursuing #AudioNirvana, I decided to part ways with my Eddie Current Balancing Act amplifier, HiFiMAN HE-6 headphones, and Schiit Yggdrasil DAC as part of a downsizing, capital-raising, not-quite-sure-why-I-am-doing-this selling spree. During the process, the buyers of the HE-6 and Yggy both asked me how they would perform with iFi Audio’s Pro iCAN. Of course, I hadn’t the slightest idea because I had never used an iFi product in any of my personal audio systems. Ironically, the first product I am offered to audition this fall turns out to be the Pro iCAN. So, thank you Lawrance at iFi Audio; now I’ll be able to share some real opinions about this desktop headphone amp the next time someone asks.

Prior to this audition, my experience with iFi stretched as far as a brief audition of the original Micro iCAN at a friend’s and seeing several iFi products compared against Schiit Audio’s. Much like Schiit’s USA-made wares, UK-based iFi has made a mark in the computer audio and headphone scenes for its small, silver, affordable amps, DACs, and power-purifying devices. You’ll often see these two brands going head-to-head in debates on audio forums across the web. Aside from competing in the same spaces with similar products, there’s another reason why these two brands are so well regarded among their fan bases: Quality—both brands benefit from R&D by veterans of high-end audio manufacturers. It doesn’t seem often noted, but iFi’s parent company is Abbingdon Music Research, or AMR. AMR is regarded for making ultra-high-end, reference-class stereo amps, DACs, transports, and other hi-fi wares. The Spirited Uncle M actually cycles AMR’s DP-777 DAC through The Sound Lab on occasion, which I attest is one sweet piece of equipment. But I digress; my point is that iFi is able to later deploy tried-and-true technology from AMR at a fraction of the cost—enter the Pro series.

The Pro iCAN is iFi’s first flagship product released under the brand’s “Pro” or professional series line. Designed with some trickle-down technology from AMR, the Pro iCAN is iFi’s “studio-grade” headphone amp and preamp, chockfull of features not commonly found in desktop-sized amps, let alone ones priced at $1,699. I can see some iFi fans suffering from initial sticker shock, but this is a distinctly different product from anything iFi has put out before, and it brings far more value and flexibility than you’d first think.

You can read about all of the technically excellent details and specs—like the end-to-end, fully-balanced design, premium components, and incredible dynamic range—on iFi’s website, so I’ll just tell you about the features I liked most.

Tube Flavor

Do you like tube or solid-state sound? Don’t know? The Pro iCAN gives you a taste of both. The Pro iCAN houses individual solid-state and tube amplification sections. A switch on the front panel shifts the Pro iCAN between its Solid-State, Tube, and Tube+ modes, letting you select which circuit sounds best to your ears.

Solid-State mode is notably for you audio purists; employing a pure solid-state circuit using JFET transistors and a fully discrete, Class A power stage. Switching over to one of the two tube modes engages two top-grade General Electric 5670 tubes for an all-valve sonic presentation to give you that taste of tube flavor.


As a tube guy, I unsurprisingly preferred the Tube+ mode, which iFi says “reduces negative feedback to a minimum” and lets a “greater amount of the tubes’ natural harmonics” be produced. Still, I personally found the differences between the solid-state and tube circuits to be little more than subtle overall. My takeaway is that the Pro iCAN in Solid-State mode is crisp, clear, and precise. It has good reach and resolution without being overly dry or analytical. On the other hand, the 5670 tubes introduce a few degrees of mild but welcomed warmth and body to my ears. Bass lines and vocals seemed a touch richer and more involving, dynamics became a bit rounder and less pinpoint precise, and the sound stage opens up just ever so slightly, becoming a share wider and more holographic.

While clearly audible, I admit to wanting a greater sound variance between the different modes—more of that classic tube lushness, make-me-feel-euphoric goodness if you will—but the Pro iCAN remains a dialed and mostly analytical amp across the different modes. Don’t take this as a bad thing; iFi is clearly going for a notably resolving reference sound with the Pro iCAN—just don’t expect it to sound like three completely different amps by switching modes. I know this goes against what some other reviewers have touted, but I stand by my impressions that the solid-state and tube modes only let you subtly tweak the performance to best suit the gear and music you’re enjoying at the time.

In use, I also personally found the Pro iCAN’s wide dynamic range and sonic purity a challenge to describe in detail. Accuracy and neutrality are what come to mind most, which are pretty self-explanatory. Add in the amp’s ample power and the Pro iCAN is simply a lively performer that lacks any notable “house sound” coloration like my Eddie Current, Ray Samuels, and Woo Audio tube amps all had. Again, not a bad thing, just different. Neutrality and resolution in an amp can help a system’s synergy; by essentially getting out of the way, your sources, DACs, headphones, and speakers are given the opportunity to shine—providing they’re resolving enough.

That’s not to say the Pro iCAN is sonically boring. In fact, it’s quite engaging as it’s wide dynamic range and resolution draw out fine details and texture in the music that lesser spec’d amps gloss over. Add in the simple and surprisingly good sound tweaks for those that might need, scratch that, will need them, and you can an amp that packs a powerful punch.

Easy EQ

I generally let my system speak for itself, avoiding digital equalization tools and adjustments that alter the voicing of my gear. But the Pro iCAN packs two very usable EQ-like features into its compact chassis that are impossible to ignore. “XBass” and “3D Holographic” are two proprietary circuitries that help correct two common headphone and loudspeaker shortcomings: sub-bass and imaging.

XBass is iFi’s solution to bass deficiency in reference headphones and loudspeakers. Through analog signal processing circuitry, XBass provides a 12dB boost at the 10, 20, and 40Hz frequencies through a convenient front panel knob that lets you dial in the desired level of bass correction on the fly.

iFi says this implementation is not like traditional tone or loudness controls and is “sonically superior to Digital Signal Processing (DSP) systems.” I don’t know-how to confirm this in a meaningful way, but I can say that I was pleasantly surprised by how well the controlled bass boost integrated into the resolving timbre of the amp. Results obviously vary by recording frequencies and headphone/loudspeaker responses: XBass filled in the nether regions of my Sennheiser HD650 gloriously up to 20Hz but quickly made my AudioQuest NightHawk bloated and boomy with most recordings. XBass is likely more useful for filling out a headphone like the flatter responding AKG K701 or Q701.

Turning to the recording side of things, I found XBass most useful in combating tipped-up rock and anemic live recordings. And while it would have been nice to have varying levels of decibel boosts, the appeal of the 12dB XBass boost is that this easy-on, easy-off feature breathes visceral life into bass-light recordings and headphones/loudspeakers at the turn of a dial, which turns out to be something pretty nice to have—especially for us bassheads.


While XBass helps correct for bass deficiency, 3D Holographic for Headphones helps correct for imaging and sound stage deficiencies when listening to stereo recordings through headphones, meaning that closed-in feeling when the sound is stuck right between your ears. In other words, 3D Holographic was designed to create an “out-of-head” headphone listening experience that parallels listening to loudspeakers in a normal room.

This is something other manufacturers have tried to achieve with software plug-ins and crossfeed features, but as iFi explains, 3D Holographic for Headphones “is not based on a standard crossfeed system, as found in some high-end headphone amplifiers. Many so-called ‘3D systems’ are usually DSP based that artificially effect the sound and add unwanted reverb in order to simulate a ‘spacious’ type of sound.

“It’s true that traditional crossfeed tends to produce an ‘out-of-head’ sound, but with much diminished spatial components and a narrower soundstage,” iFi continues, adding that these implementations often produce “unnatural, echo-like sound, which may initially be impressive, but soon becomes tiring.” By contrast, iFi claims 3D Holographic for Headphones, which was developed based on research extending back to the 1980s, is the first system in commercial production to achieve the desirable out-of-head imaging rendered without added reverb.

Because the Pro iCAN is the first amp I have tried with a feature of this kind, all I’m willing to say is that I generally liked whatever was happening when turning the 3D Holographic front panel dial from off to the 30°, 60°, and 90° Loudspeaker Angle settings. Much like the XBass feature, 3D Holographic has varying degrees of impact. In particular, I found 3D Holographic to gradually widen the sound stage in each increment, especially with must-own jazz classics like John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” where instrument localization is often strongly apparent. Studio recordings by Ben Howard and John Mayer’s various live albums also gained noticeably more depth and dimension by cranking the dial, although electronic tracks from the likes of Bonobo and Moderat seemed to benefit in lesser degrees.

During my time with the Pro iCAN, I often found myself cranking the 3D Holographic dial all the way to the 90° setting for the fun of it, which created a more lively listening experience at the expense of some precision. The 90° setting generally gushed with the greatest sense of space and width, moving the sound stage from dead center in my head to the edges of my ears. Admittedly, some tracks can get too busy and displaced sounding in this mode and in some instances cymbals and strings tacked on a strange artificial sounding tizzy-ness. So, it’s safe to say results will vary—implement as needed. As a guy who also has a listening room with a loudspeaker setup, I won’t say that 3D Holographic truly emulates properly positioned loudspeakers, but it takes welcomed and major steps in incrementally making headphones far more bearable and spatially believable, especially during long listening sessions when that “stuck in your head” feeling gets fatiguing.

Heady Options

Lastly, as I own and audition a lot of different headphones and IEMs with different types of cables, I thoroughly like the flexibility and scalability packed into the Pro iCAN. Never have I had a headphone amp that had every jack I needed, let alone one that could play well with every headphone or IEM I threw at it. The Pro iCAN never failed to impress here.

Armed with a host of balanced (3.5mm TRRS, two x 6.3mm, two x 3-pin XLR, and 4-pin XLR) and unbalanced (3.5mm and 6.3mm) headphone outputs, outside of some exotic cable types, the Pro iCAN has compatibility covered.

Better even, regardless of whether I had a sensitive IEM or a power-hungry full-size headphone connected, there was absolutely zero background noise or that annoying gain hiss—even in Tube mode with the volume knob cranked to the max.

What’s more, the Pro iCAN pumps out up to 20V via its balanced outputs, which is equivalent to 100W into a 4 Ohm speaker. Pair this ample power with the variable gain stages (0dB, +9dB, +18dB) and the Pro iCAN easily drives just about every headphone on the market with accuracy and ease—including the venerable HiFiMAN HE-6 and AKG K1000.

Parting Thought

With plenty of single-ended and balanced inputs and outputs, pretty much every headphone jack you could ever need, a ton of power, a few unique tone-tweaking features, great specs, and packed-in premium components, the Pro iCAN packs a powerful punch, offering scalability, flexibility, and performance. Oh, and it sounds darn good. If you’re already an iFi fan, you’ll undoubtedly like the Pro iCAN. If you’ve never tried an iFi product, the Pro iCAN is unlikely to disappoint. Without a doubt iFi’s flagship Pro iCAN is a headphone amp and pre-amp I can live with.

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