I have been contacted by Vincent from iFi Audio to review their latest product, iFi Audio iTube. Thanks Vince for the chance that he is giving to me.
Everything amplifier/pre-amp that has ‘tube’ in releavant to their naming will actually caused intimacy for audiophilers, this of course including me. I thought it was a tube headphone amplifier before this but in fact it is not, it is a tube pre-amp/tube buffer (Using New Old Stock of Generic Electric 5670 Valve, which iFi Audio claimed is second only to the famous Western Electric WE396A).
A pre-amp for speaker syatem is often been heard but a pre-amp for a headphone system? Is this really necessarily? Or just another gimmick? So what the heck is a tube buffer then?
Tube buffer/Pre-Amp, and what are they helping in your headphone system?
For pre-amp feature, I don’t think much of the users will really need this although I rarely see the need for this especially when you have a headphone amplifier that is capable enough to power up your headphones, adding another layer of ‘process’ is something that audiophile tried to avoid (Some will not, this depends). I guess that is not important anymore how it should work or how it helped, the most important factor is always the final outcome. I am not fancing towards the pre-amp feature but the tube buffer. Tube is something that is very obsessive and attractive in audio world, I love it as well, the glow in the dark behaviour, the warmth, lush and smooth tone, the emotive coloration, I love everything but the lifespan and conveniency of tube valve.
So what is new in the iFi Audio iTUBE and what is their terminology means?
It can worked in 2 ways:
- As a tube buffer
- As a tube pre-amplifier
Let me explained terminologies iFi Audio used in their iTube:
- 3D Halographic Sound : This feature has been available since iFi Audio iCAN and to be honest, is one the best selling point of iFi Audio products. Result is quite apparent and noticeable, turning it on will widen the soundstage and more spacious soundscape, even with my Q701 (Which has a very wide soundstage and spacious sound), I will turning this on for classical music. Worth to mention as well, no other headphone amplifier (Even those few times more expensive) has similar feature as this.
- Digital Antidote Plus : This feature is mainly used to ‘filter’/’eliminate’ the digital flavour or harshness of music.
- Analog Volume Control :
There is 4 stages which is :
- Buffer (0db) : Volume control is not functioning as well, means it just added ‘tube flavour’ into music.
- Buffer (6db) : Volume control is uncontrolable, means output volume from DAC is always boosted by 6db.
- Pre-Amp (0db) : Volume control is still playable, max volume is 0db, means if you turning down the volume level of iTUBE, you are actually ‘reduce’ the volume from DAC to amp.
- Pre-Amp (6db) : Volume control is playable and max volume is amplified by 6db, you can select the volume from silent to 6db (From DAC).
Buffer VS Pre-Amp
I have noticed better audio quality if I use the Pre-Amp mode rather than the buffer mode. In buffer mode, audio is softer and gentler, pre-amp is generally better in transparency and sounded more engaging. The different is not night and day but worth to mention.
How is the sound quality then?
Source : Soundaware D100 Pro Premium Version and Pioneer CD Player
DAC : iFi Audio iDAC, Firestone Audio Tobby, Arce MDAC3, M2Tech Hiface DAC
Speakers : oBravo AI-25P/AIS-100 and AI5
iTube is not intended for headphones to be honest, I knew that instantly when I first listened to it through my headphones. Vincent told me that iTube is designed to use with speakers setup, after I test it with my speaker setup I can say Vincent is completely honest here.
Itube is a Godsend when you paired it up with thin and neutral sounding speaker in my opinion, I have tested it as a tube buffer and the result is very welcoming. Obravo AI5 is a thin sounding speakers setup with very strong sense of detail level, however, thin and somewhat more towards a analytical sound character might not be everyone’s preference, adding up the iTube seemed like a correct tools for the job. The digital antidote do smoothed out the digital edge and make everything sounded analog and warm, I can promised you the result is very euphonic, even my audio buddies are impressed with the performance of this so called tube buffer.
Besides the analog feel and the warmth, there is a lot of weightier body added to the sound, sound is meaty, fuller and weightier. Before this, AI5 always sounded less full than what I like, but adding up iTube truly help, the sound is fuller and I can listen to it much longer.
The soundstage itself is fuller as well, not light as it was before, bass is tighter and sounded insightful now. I am kinda impressed with what iTube capable of honestly.
Let say if you have a speakers that you like very much but found it sounded digital as oppose to your preference, you wish to retain its goodies but make everything better, you really need to try iFi Audio iTube.