iFi hip-dac portable DAC/headphone amp review: Sublime sound from a tiny, well-built package

Transportable audio is likely one of the fastest-growing segments of the audio market, and for good purpose. Folks now have entry to an virtually infinite number of music wherever they occur to be. And for a lot of, sound high quality is critically vital.

The commonest supply for music on the go is a smartphone, however sadly, the sound high quality of many smartphones is sorely missing. That is primarily attributable to the cellphone’s built-in DAC (digital-to-analog converter) and headphone amplifier. So, the easiest way to enhance the sound high quality is to make use of an outboard DAC/amp.

British audiophile firm iFi gives a sublime, high-end answer to this downside with its new hip-dac, a small DAC and headphone amplifier. After spending a while with it tethered to my iPhone, all I can say is, Wow! (Okay, I can say greater than that…)

Options

The iFi hip-dac is smaller than most smartphones, measuring 4.Zero x 2.Eight x 0.6 inches (LxWxH) and weighing solely 4.Four ounces. With a protruding quantity knob, it bears a powerful resemblance to a small hip flask for booze, which is likely to be the inspiration for its identify. Talking of the amount knob, it feels very strong with easy, well-damped movement; in reality, your complete unit feels very sturdy with a strong extruded-aluminum casing. On the within, the corporate claims to make use of premium audiophile elements all through.

ifi hip dac front iFi Audio

The entrance of the iFi hip-dac contains (L-R) the PowerMatch button, XBass button, quantity/energy knob, 4.4mm balanced output, and three.5mm single-ended output.

There are two USB ports on the again. The bigger USB 3.Zero Sort A port connects to the supply gadget and accepts a digital-audio sign. Apparently, this port is a male connector with some area round it. In line with iFi, this offers larger mechanical integrity than the everyday feminine USB connector or Mini/Micro-USB ports discovered on many such merchandise. The hip-dac comes with a brief USB-Male-to-USB-Feminine twine for connecting to a pc in addition to a brief USB-C-to-USB-Feminine twine for connecting to an Android gadget. You want an Apple Lightning-to-USB Digital camera Adaptor cable (offered individually) to attach an iOS gadget. I want the hip-dac got here with one, however I suppose that might be an Apple licensing problem.

The opposite port on the again is USB-C for charging the battery, and the hip-dac comes with a USB-A-to-USB-C cable to plug it right into a USB charger. The hefty 2200mAh battery is rated to final round eight to 12 hours, relying on the amount degree and the way power-hungry the headphones are.

ifi hip dac rear iFi Audio

The rear of the unit holds a USB-A feminine connector for audio (and energy from a pc) and a USB-C port for charging its inside battery.

Along with the battery, the hip-dac could be powered straight from the USB port on a pc. The handbook recommends utilizing battery energy with iOS and Android gadgets, which don’t have sufficient juice to energy the unit. To make use of USB energy, join the hip-dac to the supply first, then activate its energy; to make use of battery energy, flip it on earlier than connecting it to the supply gadget.

Digital audio enters the hip-dac by means of the asynchronous USB Sort A port regulated by iFi’s precision international clock system, which successfully eliminates any jitter. The clock can be utilized to the Grasp Management Unit and custom-programmed XMOS processing chip, which could be up to date with new firmware. Customers may even experiment with completely different digital filters, such because the GTO filter from the corporate’s high-end Professional iDSD DAC/amp.

ifi hip dac computer iFi Audio

The hip-dac could be powered by the USB port on a pc with out utilizing its inside battery.

The digital sign then encounters the custom-programmed Burr-Brown DSD1793 DAC, which might accommodate PCM sampling charges as much as 384kHz and bit depths as much as 32 bits. It additionally helps DSD (Direct Stream Digital), the format of SACDs, as much as 12.3MHz, in addition to MQA (Grasp High quality Authenticated) information.

Multicolor LEDs flanking the amount/energy knob point out the kind of digital sign being acquired. I’ve a small nit to select right here. If the LEDs are inexperienced, that signifies PCM at 44.1, 48, 88.2, or 96kHz, whereas yellow signifies PCM at 176.4, 192, 352.8, and 384kHz. (These final two are also referred to as DXD.) I want that 88.2 and 96kHz had been included within the yellow group so customers would know that the digital audio is true high-res, which I don’t think about 44.1 or 48kHz to be. (BTW, cyan signifies DSD as much as 6.1MHz, blue signifies DSD at 11.Three and 12.3MHz, and magenta signifies MQA.)

With PCM knowledge, the six most important bits are transformed to analog within the standard method, whereas the decrease bits are transformed to DSD earlier than being transformed to analog. After passing by means of a lowpass filter, the low-bit sign is mixed with the high-bit sign and despatched to the amp stage. DSD indicators are transformed to analog of their entirety earlier than passing by means of the low-pass filter and on to the amp stage (see Fig. 1).

ifi hip dac fig1 iFi Audio

Fig. 1: When the hip-dac receives PCM knowledge, the six most important bits are straight transformed to analog, whereas the decrease bits are first transformed to DSD earlier than being transformed to analog. The 2 analog indicators are then summed and despatched to the amp part. DSD indicators are straight transformed to analog.

On the entrance of the unit, the amount knob (which operates on the analog sign and likewise turns the facility on and off) is joined by two outputs. One is a traditional 3.5mm stereo output, whereas the opposite is a barely bigger Pentaconn 4.4mm balanced output, which permits headphones with balanced connectivity to take full benefit of the hip-dac’s balanced-differential amp design.

This design is derived from iFi’s flagship Professional line of merchandise. Every channel contains two amps, one among which inverts the part of the enter sign (see Fig. 2). When a headphone with the suitable wiring and plug is related to the 4.4mm output, the 2 amps for every stereo channel are related to reverse ends of the corresponding driver’s voice coil. The balanced structure drastically reduces distortion, induced noise, and crosstalk between the amps, and the efficient sign degree and slew fee are doubled, which is nice for power-hungry, less-sensitive headphones.

hip dac corrected 3iFi Audio

Fig. 2: Within the hip-dac’s balanced-differential amp structure, the enter sign is break up, and one copy is phase-inverted. The 2 indicators are utilized to the alternative ends of the voice coil of 1 driver in a set of balanced headphones related to the 4.4mm balanced output. This will increase the efficient sign degree and slew fee whereas decreasing induced noise, crosstalk, and distortion.

After all, most client headphones wouldn’t have balanced wiring to their voice coils. Such “single-ended” headphones are related to the three.5mm output. On this case, just one amplifier is used per channel in what iFi calls an S-Balanced configuration (see Fig. 3). A devoted unfavorable wire extends again to every amplifier’s floor to verify there’s no crosstalk between channels along with decreasing noise and distortion than extra standard designs. The extent is decrease than the differential configuration as effectively.

ifi hip dac fig3 iFi Audio

Fig. 3:  With single-ended headphones related to the three.5mm output, just one amp is used per channel. The unfavorable finish of the voice coil is related on to the amp’s floor. iFi calls this an S-Balanced configuration.

Two buttons are situated on the opposite aspect of the amount/energy knob from the outputs. The smaller, outermost button controls the hip-dac’s PowerMatch operate, which offers two acquire settings. In line with iFi, this operate “matches the extent of drive to the load offered by the headphones by adjusting enter sensitivity and sign power. With less-sensitive headphones, comparable to giant cans, put PowerMatch at its larger setting for finest efficiency, and vice versa for IEMs.” Merely put, PowerMatch will increase the acquire by 6dB.

The opposite button engages XBass, which is an iFi-designed analog signal-processing circuit that reinforces the bass. It’s meant primarily to revive the bass that open-back headphones may lose due to their design. As iFi provides, it will also be used on “simply these tracks that miss that little bit of bass.”

Efficiency

I used the hip-dac in battery-power mode with my iPhone XS, making the reference to an Apple Lightning-to-USB Digital camera Adaptor. All tracks had been performed from the Tidal Grasp (high-res audio) library; a lot of the tracks I chosen had been in MQA format, as indicated by the LEDs on the hip-dac. I listened to every thing on 1More Triple Driver in-ear headphones (IEH), which I reviewed right here.

I started with “Life Goes On: And Then One Day” from the album Life Goes On by Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard, and Steve Swallow. The instrumentation is sparse: piano, bass guitar, and soprano and alto sax. The hip-dac’s rendition was beautiful, with clear delineation of every instrument and a very pure tonality.

Turning on PowerMatch definitely made the monitor loads louder and maybe only a tad harsh with the Triple Driver IEH. I additionally tried XBass, which drastically boosted the bass, however I used to be fairly stunned to listen to no congestion or change in tonality. This characteristic is nice for bass heads, although I want a extra pure steadiness, which I acquired with XBass turned off utilizing the Triple Driver IEH.

Subsequent up was “Good Lava” from Esperanza Spalding’s album Emily’s D+Evolution. The sound was beautiful, very easy and liquid. Spalding’s voice was fantastically rendered, and I may hear deep into the combination. As earlier than, XBass boosted the bass considerably whereas remaining well-integrated with the remainder of the combination, although the bass drum was only a bit overblown.

ifi hip dac lifestyle2 iFi Audio

Utilizing the iFi hip-dac with a cell phone could be a handful.

Transferring on to classical music, I listened to the third motion of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 30, as carried out by Behzod Abduraimov on the piano with the Concertgebouworkest orchestra below the course of Valery Gergiev from the album Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3. It was very good; the piano sounded fully pure, and every orchestral part was clearly delineated with no congestion in any way. And the dynamics had been artfully rendered, from delicate passages with solo flute to thundering brass.

For some a cappella singing, I cued up Adoramus te, Christe by Orlando di Lasso as carried out by the Sistine Chapel Choir below the course of Massimo Palombella on the album O Crux Benedicta, which was recorded within the group’s namesake venue. The Sistine Chapel has superb acoustics and an extended reverb time, and the hip-dac rendered that sound splendidly; I may hear the corridor clearly, whereas the voices remained clear and distinct.

Turning to pop music, I listened to “Agua De Beber” from the album Within the Key of Pleasure, Vol. 2 by Sergio Mendez. On this monitor, he’s joined by will.i.am for a Latin groove that sounded liquid easy. I attempted XBass once more, which introduced up the bass massive time whereas remaining well-integrated with the remainder of the combination.

Lastly, I sampled “Cerulean Blue” from the album Mixing Colors by brothers Roger and Brian Eno. This monitor is a fragile mix of synthesized sounds, which sounded super-clean as rendered by the hip-dac.

ifi hip dac phone iFi Audio

The hip-dac connects to a cellular gadget with a brief cable. It comes with a USB-C-to-USB-Feminine twine for Android gadgets, however you’ll want to produce an Apple Lightning-to-USB Digital camera Adaptor cable (seen right here) for iOS gadgets.

Comparability with the iPhone inside DAC and amp

With every monitor, I in contrast the sound of the hip-dac with the iPhone’s inside DAC and amp by connecting the IEMs on to the cellphone utilizing a Lightning-to-headphone-output adaptor. In each case, the direct connection sounded considerably sharper and extra brittle than the hip-dac, typically leaning a bit into harshness.

On some tracks, the bass was much less distinct, and the sound was barely congested and veiled, particularly within the low frequencies. The Rachmaninoff recording appeared like your complete orchestra was extra crowded collectively, whereas it sounded open and expansive on the hip-dac.

Backside line

The iFi hip-dac gives an outstanding different to the built-in DAC/amp present in any widespread digital-audio supply gadget. Its sound is tremendous clear, open, and liquid easy, and it’s appropriate with all kinds of digital-audio codecs as much as 384kHz/32-bit PCM and 12.3MHz DSD in addition to MQA. Additionally, it’s constructed like a tank with premium, pro-quality elements all through.

With most audio merchandise, a characteristic referred to as one thing like XBass means boomy, ugly bass, however not with the hip-dac. Its XBass boosts the low frequencies in a method that also integrates effectively with the remainder of the combination. I think about it might work exceedingly effectively with bass-deficient open-back headphones. And the PowerMatch operate provides 6dB of unpolluted acquire, which must be a welcome characteristic for inefficient, power-hungry cans. Lastly, a completely balanced output ought to present even higher sound high quality with headphones which have balanced wiring to their voice coils.

I’ve solely a few minor quibbles. I want the format-indicator LEDs made it clear that PCM knowledge was true high-res audio (88.2kHz or larger). And despite the fact that the hip-dac is comparatively small and light-weight, it’s a bit awkward to bodily handle it and a smartphone collectively. Additionally, as a result of the amount/energy knob stands out, it may get banged pretty simply. I might like to see some form of case that holds a cellphone and the hip-dac in a unified bundle and protects the amount/energy knob.

Amazingly, the hip-dac prices a mere $149. I do not know how iFi trickled that a lot high quality into such an affordable bundle, however I positive am glad it did. If you need the very best sound high quality out of your smartphone or different digital-audio supply gadget, the iFi hip-dac is a no brainer.

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About Scott Wilkinson

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