Reference iFi Pro iCan Headphone Amplifier Balanced from End to End, Features Solid-State and Tube Sections and Real-Time Switching, Drives Any Headphone Made: Doubles as Audiophile Preamp
The iFi Pro iCAN studio-grade headphone amplifier and audiophile-caliber preamplifier is a flagship high-end component of firsts. The first reference headphone amp that can claim to literally drive any pair of ‘phones under the sun with absolute confidence, natural ease, and staunch authority. The first such device that allows listeners to enjoy solid-state and tube sound from a single chassis – and have the ability to switch in real time. And the first commercial product to employ 3D Holographic for Headphones – not crossfeed, and not crossfeed mixed with another technology. Outfitted with four balanced headphone outputs (3.5mm, 6.3mm, XLR 3-pin, XLR 4-pin) and two single-ended headphone outputs (3.5mm, 6.5mm), the fully balanced Pro iCAN also boasts the ultimate in flexibility as well as head-spinning power. Outputting 20V and 14,000mW in balanced mode (the equivalent of 100W into a 4-ohm speaker), it is a true juggernaut by which other models in the field will be measured. And yes, its sound – clean, resolving, detailed, fluid, smooth, dynamic, transparent to the source – is the stuff of wish lists.
"It's got a clean, resolving, and technically excellent signature which can be adjusted ever so slightly with a myriad options, ranging from a simple bass enhancement (XBass) to completely changing the core operation of the amplifier from solid state to tubes. As a flagship, the iCAN Pro has got just about everything that I'd expect and hope for!"
– Ken Ho, PMReviews
Anchored by two separate amplifiers, one solid-state and one tube, Pro iCAN is literally and figuratively loaded with superlative parts and optimized with sensational topology. A six-track Japan Alps motorized rotary volume potentiometer resides at its core, permitting true beginning-to-end balance. Indeed, Pro iCAN is True Differential Balanced, meaning it is balanced from the input all the way through to the outputs and operate with full-differential internal signaling so that the signal always remains two separate signals of equal level with opposite polarity. (For a more detailed explanation, see below.) The plain-English upshot: Significantly lowered noise and total harmonic distortion, plus three times the dynamic range of traditional "balanced" designs. Pro iCAN's tube stage boasts premium General Electric 5670s and two tube settings (Tube, Tube+) for transient variation. On the other side, the fully discrete, fully balanced solid-state section is equally sublime: Tube or J-FET input switchable, bipolar second stage, and MOSFET-buffered bipolar Class A power stage. Factor in a thoroughly enhanced version of iFi's XBass bass enhancement and the fact Pro iCAN also doubles as a preamplifier at home with most high-end systems, and this 4.3-pound wonder transforms into a heavyweight miracle. 100% Music Direct Guaranteed.
Six Track Alps Volume Potentiometer Is Truly Balanced
The Japan-built Alps motorized rotary volume potentiometer is the 6-Track version with four tracks used for a true balanced volume control. This is the litmus test for any amplifier to see if it is truly balanced or operates internally in single-ended mode. Those using 2-Track volume controls may offer balanced in and out, but are not true balanced designs. Pro iCAN, however, is fully balanced from beginning to end. In terms of flexibility, with three single-ended and one XLR balanced inputs as well as one balanced and one single-ended output, Pro iCAN is a full-function audiophile line stage.
Most Balanced Headphone Amplifiers Are Not Truly Balanced...
At the upper end of the headphone amplifier market, things are not always what they seem. This is a curious case of ‘is balanced balanced?' For headphones, it makes good design sense to implement balanced topology (the possibility of higher power, increase dynamic range and lower noise etc.) It goes without saying that the balanced design should be balanced all the way through, or end-to-end. Yet the majority of "balanced" high-ended headphone amplifiers are actually single-ended amplifiers with balanced inputs and outputs. The balanced input will be converted into single-ended operation inside the amplifier, then converted back to balanced just before the output. To provide balanced drive to the headphone, the signal is inverted using more circuitry added to the single-ended audio path. A sure fire giveaway of such circuitry is the use of a 2-Deck volume control (4-Deck for true balanced circuitry), as well as having more than four gain/current buffer blocks among two channels. At the input, the additional balanced to single-ended conversion circuit generates extra noise on top of the volume control pot. At the output, the inverter circuit used to create the balanced signal simply doubles the signal, noise, and distortion of the amplifier. Nothing is reduced or cancelled, only added. So one gets double the signal but also double the noise and distortion. Hence this is truly a case where more is less. There is much more circuitry, but far lesser performance.
...Which Is Why Pro iCAN's True Differential Balanced Circuitry Is Special – and Better
The Pro iCAN circuit is fully balanced with completely equal circuit sections for Positive (Hot) and Negative (Cold) signal phase of each channel. The Alps volume control has 6 Decks: two decks each control the volume of one channel, and the other two decks are used for monitoring the volume control operation. As the two halves of the volume control and the two halves of the amplification operate differentially, they effectively become a single stage. So the circuitry is highly elaborate in actual implementation, yet it comes down to the simplest design possible for a headphone amplifier: a volume control, a gain stage, and a current buffer. Compared to a single-ended design with exactly the same circuit, True Differential Balanced® lowers noise by 3dB and also lowers THD dramatically. Additionally, it allows the signal level to be doubled, so True Differential Balanced® circuitry also produces 9dB (or three times) greater dynamic range.
Unique Tube Stage and Real Time Switching Between Solid-State and Tube Sections
The tube stage of the Pro iCAN is different from other high-end headphone amps in two ways. First is its use of General Electric 5670s, the premium variant of 6922 with a different pinout. Second, and just as important, is the circuit design. Unlike other headphone amplifiers that have the same circuit and just switch in/out the tube section, Pro iCAN is the very first of its kind that has two individual input circuits – one tube and one solid-state. This results in the best sonics of both worlds because the signal path is the shortest and there is no compromise to shoehorn the tubes into an already existing solid-state circuit. For the first time, one can enjoy both the sound of solid-state and tubes in a single package (rather than as an "effect-type" add-on within an otherwise conventional solid-state design) and be able to switch in real time. For some recordings and headphones/loudspeakers, solid-state may sound more lively. For others, Tube and Tube+ (especially Tube+) will sound more luxurious. Select the one that sounds best for that particular moment, be it the recording, the mood, or even the weather.
Improved 3D Holographic for Headphones Parallels Sound of Listening to Loudspeakers
3D Holographic for Headphones is not based on a standard cross-feed 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, sometimes almost approaching mono. Most DSP-based 3D designs produce an unnatural, echo-like sound, which may initially be impressive but soon becomes tiring. By contrast, 3D Holographic for Headphones provides not only out-of-head placement of the sound sources, but renders the whole sound field in a manner that strongly parallels listening to loudspeakers in a normal room, all achieved without the added reverb. This is the first system in commercial production to achieve this.
Finest Capacitors and Resistors Utilized in Construction
Pro iCAN employs TDK Japan-made C0G type capacitors and Vishay MELF-type thin film resistors. These are complemented by Panasonic Japan-made ECPU film capacitors explicitly designed for audio use with extremely low distortion (<0.00001% @ 1V/10kHz). ELNA Japan-made Silmic II capacitors are utilized for the power supplies. They use special silk fiber paper for the isolating barrier, resulting in decreased odd-order distortion and reduced microphonics/mechanical resonances.