Nothing can stop ifi Audio for being innovative I guess? I have reviewed some of their very first line up of Micro series DAC and headphone amplifier, having really impressed with their product idea and sound quality of it, they have some kind of high quality product and simplicity to the their product design (very much like an Apple product) but they never skimmed on the feature/innovation of the products. People from Hi-fi world might know them by their mother company, AMR Audio UK, which specialized in high end audio product for a very long time, so it is no doubt that they already have exceptional knowledge of ‘know-how’ to make an excellent audiophile products, luckily their products (ifi Audio) are not priced same league as AMR branded product, in fact, I always found that their products have been priced quite reasonably, they definitely have some picky standard on the finishing and audio quality of their products.
Ifi Audio xCAN (299USD)
I contacted them for review opportunity hence I am reviewing one of their latest portable headphone amplifier today, the ifi Audio xCAN, speaking of a pure portable headphone amplifier, xCAN is more like a portable headphone amplifier that have built in DAC (But only for wireless audio, Bluetooth audio to be exact) usage, and it has a built in battery 2200mah battery (which has excellent battery life, claimed more than 12hours and my real life testing come close to that), do noted that the xCAN is a fully balanced headphone amplifier, so if you have balanced DAC and balanced connection headphones you will do it full justice, with ability to input and output both 2.5mm and 3.5mm, it is remarkably useful if you have a balanced connection headphone and DAC. Despite of being fully balanced, xCAN can also accept unbalanced input and output, so there is nothing holding you back if you want to expand or have multi system along the Hi-fi journey, the flexibility is there and I think this is good.
Although it is part of the ifi Audio headphone amplifier series but I really think that the proper usage is use it connecting with smartphone through Bluetooth, or use the full balanced capability, one reason I can see why xCAN will sell like a hot cake is it allowed head-fiers to enjoy music easily through wireless audio solution, everyone has a smartphone nowadays and I believe many like us, never satisfied with smartphone headphone output directly, or there is no 3.5mm headphone port on your new phone, personally, 95% of my usage of xCAN is through Bluetooth audio from my Huawei Mate 20 (AptX), streaming either Spotify Premium or Tidal Hi-Fi, I can say I really enjoy the simplicity of it, it is such a small device but capable to output some serious stuff for your headphone system.
Of course you will also get all those good stuffs from ifi Audio, like 3D Holographic (enhance soundstage experience) and XBass II (Better bass response and richer sound), 2.5mm full balance output and 3.5mm S-Balanced output (means both balanced or unbalanced output automatically through 3.5mm), aptX CSR and AAC Bluetooth Codec streaming, built in Global Master Timing (For attenuate Jitter) and the super powerful headphone amplifier section, these are all so ‘ifi Audio’.
Be careful though if you wish to use it with your PC or directly through your phone (wired), xCAN doesn’t allow USB input audio so if that is what you want to use it for I will say pick up the DAC series like xDSD, but for 299USD, I will have no complain and use it especially is wireless audio is your thing, me myself certainly enjoy music this way.
I have listened(mainly) ifi Audio xCAN wirelessly (aptX Bluetooth) through Huawei Mate 20, streaming Spotify Premium or Tidal Hi-Fi, with Philips Fidelio X2 HR, Venture Electronic Monk Plus and Monk Lite, ZMF V1, Creative Aurvana Live! And German Maestro GMP450. I also listened to xCAN as pure headphone amplifier through Stoner Acoustics UDXA, JDS Labs The Element and Chromecast Audio (cast) as DAC, either through Spotify Premium, Tidal Hi-fi or lossless music through Foobar 2000
AS Bluetooth Audio: How should I describe sound characteristic of xCAN? It is energetic, forward and engaging. The sound tuning is definitely better suit for youngster rather than old-school Hi-Fiers, such as pop, hip-hop, rock and some jazz. Don’t get me wrong though, the sound quality is good enough for everything but it really excel in pop and those stuffs, like what I said before, the sound is quite forward and engaging, the vocal seems to be more forward than neutral, generally all instrument and music ‘brought’ nearer to your ears, all of the listening happened in a positive transparent, clean and balanced way, I kind of like it.
What is even better is that the Bluetooth audio quality is really quite good, I can’t believe we have come this far with Bluetooth audio, I did connected the Google Chromecast Audio dongle to bypass the internal DAC of xCAN and found that although both xCAN and Chromecast Audio’s DAC sounded differently, they however have pretty good sound and I have no issue with the Bluetooth Audio quality, with the Chromecast Audio, the sound is much warmer, more analog and has more spacious sound, however with the xCAN internal Bluetooth audio DAC, the sound is more upfront, clearer detailed and more transparent, I can’t decide which sound I prefer but if you assume the Bluetooth feature came as free in xCAN, you will sure pretty satisfied with it like I do.
xCAN is not without shortcoming though, with the Bluetooth audio path, the soundstage is quite cramp and although I don’t have issue with imaging, but the soundscape is really a little tight. Not a bad thing though if you listened to more vocal oriented songs, I also appreciated xCAN sound tuning to the hip-hop and rock music which quite enjoyable when it bring the music more upfront.
AS Pure Headphone Amplifier : I try to hooked it up with Stoner Acoustics UDXA and the Chromecast Audio that I mentioned ealier, it is proved that with higher tier DAC the sounded improved a lot. Good thing is all those goodies are better, transparency, detail level, speed and cleanliness are better now, and those that was not so good, such as soundstage and nuance are much better now, the music now has more space to breath, but to be frank, the sound characteristic is still more towards forward and clean sounding, if you really so care about soundstage performance, I honestly think xCAN is not for you, it is not a bad thing though, but you will need to know what kind of sound do you prefer, more forward sound can get you nearer to certain type of music, see what Grado did all these while and they still have their fans.
If you want clean, undistorted and clear sound I believe xCAN will impress you, however if you want those coloured, beautiful and thick sound, you might look other way, there is no right and wrong, just matter of preference. I am quite enjoying xCAN’s sound quality and I believe you will too.
XBass II and 3D+
Personally I do find myself liking how XBass II bring weight to the midrange and enhance bass in a healthy way, nothing boomy, this is not your typical bass boost eq which simply just boosting bass response and bleed it into midrange, there is 3 stage of XBass II, ‘Bass’ (Bass boost), ‘Presence’ (midrange weight’ and ‘Bass + Presence’ (Bass and midrange enhance), with my Fidelio X2, I quite enjoy switching to the ‘Presence’ XBass II mode, this give me more weight and body to the midrange, I am quite liking it, when I listen to music that need more oomph on bass, I won’t hesitate to switch to ‘Bass’ and get more out of it, this is really convenience and able to give you more flexibility.
For 3D+ however, is another story. Personally didn’t like the effect it brought to the formulae, however it do give you more sense of space scaling but in a weird way that just have that little unnatural sound to it, not a bad thing though, just switch it off if you don’t like it.
If you are asking me will I buy XCan with my own money besides doing review, certainly YES. For me it do bring Bluetooth audio up to audiophile level, we just can’t beat the conveniency, we can easily enjoying high quality music nowadays, a Spotify Premium account, Aptx enabled smartphone and XCan are all you needed, forgot about cables, plug in your headphones and you just enjoy, personally I enjoy XCan very much, it can’t replace my desktop rig but my desktop rig just caused me so much hassles when I want to enjoy my music, smartphone is just so much more convenience. So if you need a high quality Bluetooth Audio DAC + Amp, you simply can’t go wrong with XCan, and if you like the to squeeze more out of your music’s tonal, toggled to XBass II and you will be blessed.