Some have likened the iFi
brand naming as leveraging off Apple iProduct naming. I don't believe that. For
me it seems more about the "H" in HiFi being dropped as happens with
some accents and dialects. Dare I say too that historically in the UK there
would have been some class connotations? This suggests to me products positioned
with no-nonsense performance at a very reasonable and affordable price. Hence 'iFi
for Everyone. That's my take anyway!
The iFi micro range is currently four-strong; the iDAC, iUSBPower, iPhono and iCAN. As I'm not a hardcore headphone user the iCAN headphone amplifier was not a product I could review so even though I've heard great things about it, that one was a raincheck. The other three units were of great relevance to me so I was pleased to be offered the chance by Vince Luke and Thorsten Loesch of iFi to investigate three of their new micro babies.
The iFi company spawned from Abbingdon Music Research (AMR) and as the iFi promotional material states, the iFi micro series benefit from technology trickling down from AMR. There's no doubt that AMR make very seriously good sounding equipment which is also well styled and built. The challenge with iFi is can they use those technology foundations, save cost in components and manufacturing and still deliver great product at a much lower price point. Of course a $299 DAC shouldn't compete with a $5,000 DAC but if it's half as good it would be amazing. But that's not the point, the real issue is would the $299 iDAC compete with products in a similar price range. Add to this iUSBPower which supplants the USB power from your electrically noisy computer, giving the iDAC a fighting chance to be a high achiever. The iUSBPower can be used with other USB powered devices. I must find out whether a USB mouse runs smoother with iUSBPower. For the skeptics amongst you that's just my humour, I'm not quite that mad yet! Trying iUSBPower between a USB drive and computer would be worth go, some have reported benefits almost wherever USB power is cleaned up. The iPhono rounds off the devices I tried, as you might imagine this is a phonostage. Rather than regurgitate the technical detail on these devices I suggest you visit the iFi site, there's also some interesting pages at improve the sound of my...
This particular iPhono had a good number of hours on it when I received it so I cannot comment on how it sounded brand new out of the box, probably some hours would normally be needed for the iPhono to give its best. I used the iPhono with my London Reference cartridge on a Garrard 301 as well as my other turntable, a Trans-Fi Salvation with Garrott P77i cartridge sporting a Northwest Analogue fitted boron cantilever. I was able to compare the iPhono with the Vinyl Song LCR-based tube phonostage (approx $2000 all-in) and the Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk, a $795 solid-state battery-powered phonostage.
record playing source I believe has to be treated as one complete unit, just as
a CD player is. We have the record deck, arm, cartridge, and phono stage. All
four components very much need to work in concert. Given four variables there
isn't a right so wrong balance for any one component, what matters is being able
to find synergy such that the combination you've chosen works in totality. My
job here is to advise you what sort of combination will work well with the
I commenced with the Trans-Fi Salvation turntable with
modified Garrott P77i cartridge. The turntable is very neutral, coloration is
very low, its rim drive delivers great pace and substance to the sound. The
parallel tracking airbearing arm is very truthful and of course it doesn't
suffer tracing errors when traversing records. The Garrott P77i has powerful
bass, a slightly relaxed mid-range and treble with what seems to me to be the
correct amount of sparkle given correct loading. I introduced the iPhono into my
system which includes a Transformer Volume Control, 300B SE amplifiers and open
baffle speakers, there was immediate synergy. My speakers comprise two
15" dipole bass per side driven by XTZ solid-state amps with DSP. For starters
the bass was powerful, deep and well-articulated. Mid-range I found was fresh
sounding; it was as though a bright but hazy day had suddenly cleared.
Treble sparkled and tinkled without being bright, it was just
right. Stage width was as good as I'm used to, depth was more typically
solid-state, not bad but not quite up with what tube phonostages can do.
Connecting up my F-117 Nighthawk gave very similar results except that the
treble exhibited a trace of harshness, this confirmed the lingering doubt I'd
always harbored about the Nighthawk's treble being only close to great. Given
the price differential and the iPhono's additional facilities this was a result
for the iPhono. Next up was my LCR-based tube phono stage which given it costs
about 5 times the price of the iPhono, this wasn't really a fair test. The LCR
is in effect 'RIAA compensation in a can' and wire coils play an important part.
What this phonostage did was to highlight the difference between a good
tube/LCR phono stage and solid-state. Tube/LCR possessed depth and fluidity
whereas the solid-state iPhono demonstrated verve, tightness and resolution.
The iPhono worked with this combination of deck, arm and
cartridge. The spice and freshness of sound combined well with the tweaked P77i
in a most welcome way.
We move on next to my other deck, a Garrard 301 with Northwest Analogue main bearing, Origin Live Encounter mkIII arm with a London Reference cartridge. The bearing upgrade to the deck makes it more "modern" sounding with less bloom whilst retaining plenty of bass. The cartridge is very dynamic and open, verging on lean at times. Bass is good though not explosive as with the P77i. This time around the iPhono tended to expose the slight leanness of the London Reference, this cartridge benefits from a phonostage voiced a tad to the warm side. The tube/LCR phono stage was a better match plus the depth of the soundstage provided a special presentation that most solid-state designs struggle to achieve. The iPhono wasn't totally out-classed but instead it gave a different fresher view to the music but the very open mid-range of the cartridge added to the fresh sound of the phonostage wasn't my perfect match. Likewise with the Nighthawk so I would conclude the London Reference needs a little warmth rather than additional detail. It's all about synergy.
Switching to Digital
The latest incarnations of JPLAY, v5.0 and v5.1 now offer the option of splitting the music playing task over two computers. One computer is the "Streamer" playing your ripped files, the other computer is in effect a big buffer for your DAC, this is termed the "Audio" PC. Best if possible is to connect the two PCs Peer-2-Peer (P2P) via an Ethernet cable. I didn't want to risk the wrath of the skeptics but I'll have to. I tried three Ethernet cables and there was a noticeable difference in sound -- yes this is "just" a data connection between two computers. CAT5e was least good, CAT6 had better bass and smoother treble, CAT7 was better still and my personal preference. Maybe this is down to better noise rejection and lower insertion loss RJ45 plugs. These cables were all low cost patch cables.
JPLAY v5.0 and v5.1 have really moved the game on. With v4 the
sound stood up very well to a top-notch vinyl rig with the main area where vinyl
pulled ahead being stage depth. The JPLAY v5 architecture running off twin PCs
addresses stage depth well; now it does not lose out in this area. JPLAY has 4 "engines", River, Beach, Xtream and ULTRAstream, in addition there are a few
buffer parameters to play with. Just start out with the defaults and play later.
By "playing tunes" with the engines and parameters you can make significant
changes to detail levels, soundstage width and how "natural" the sound is. It is a lot of fun. Had CD sounded this good 15 years ago I seriously doubt
whether I would have returned to vinyl from a brief CD-only sojourn. I can't
recommend JPLAY highly enough.
iDAC And iUSBPower
Back to burn-in; there is no doubt in my mind that burn-in can
be vital and with the iDAC and iUSBPower all the more so having witnessed the
effect with these devices. My initial impression even after an hour or so was
not favourable as the sound was somewhat thin with traces of harshness. I then
ran the devices for a couple days for background music purposes and left them
powered up in the daytime when no music was playing. I listened critically again
and noted the sound was now fuller, more detailed and not harsh. I continued to
use the two devices over the next 10 days, I then reached the point where I felt
burn-in was complete.
Streaming my music using JPLAY via my two PC setup provided me with a really top quality transport for the iDAC. As I progressed through the JPLAY v5.1 beta programme I could hear every change very clearly so the iDAC and iUSBPower were doing a good job giving any changes nowhere to hide.
The overall voicing of the iDAC is similar to the iPhono in that its character is fresh and open sounding with tight bass. I compared the iDAC with iUSBPower to the $650 / €500 JKDAC32 - winner of the recent Enjoy the Music.com USB DAC Shootout. Without reviewing the differences in-depth I would score these DACs as close to equal in terms of sound quality. This is not to suggest they sound the same, they don't. The JKDAC32 is a little richer in the bass; whilst focus and spatiality are close to identical. Treble is close too. The character differences are that the iDAC has slightly fresher sounding mid-range and the JKDAC32 is a more propulsive lower down.
The sound I heard with the iDAC and iUSBPower with JPLAY v5.1
was spacious side-to-side and deep front-to-back. The soundstage was in no way
limited to the location of the speakers. Focus was excellent with good placement
of instruments and vocals within the soundstage, each having their own place.
iDAC Without iUSBPower
If you are buying an iDAC but don't have enough money for the
iUSBPower then you simply must make sure you save and buy the iUSBPower just as
soon as you can. Likewise I expect the forthcoming Gemini Dual-Headed USB Cable
to be very worthwhile.
Some of the direct competitors for iFi operate a direct
business model, in other words this means no dealers for advice, auditions and
support. Some offer free trials so it's up to you whether you prefer the direct
or indirect (brick 'n mortar) model. What is interesting (to me at least) is how
iFi manage to develop and market such well priced products whilst being able to
pass margin to their dealer network. Often manufacturers operating a direct
sales model pass dealer margin savings onto their customers as lower pricing,
thus making their products very attractively priced. iFi clearly have got
something very right to be able to go down the dealer selling route and
being able to undercut their competition.
For those who need equalization flexibility, sub-bass
filtering and gain options the iPhono could justify twice its asking price. For
those who don't need these options the iPhono is still a great bargain that can
see off higher priced phonostages. The only proviso I would make is that if you
need to tame a bright setup the iPhono won't help you out. For the vast majority
of record playing systems it will be a tremendous asset.
The iDAC is a perfectly decent DAC when powered from a
computer USB port, adding the iUSBPower takes the iDAC into a totally different
league. These two devices should be partnered automatically in your thinking.
Just as with the iPhono, the iDAC + iUSBPower can match or see off competition
which costs considerably more. The musical presentation of the iDAC I
characterise as being lively and open as well as delivering great resolution and
If headphones are your thing there is the iCAN to consider.
Also look out for some new iFi products such as the dual-headed Gemini USB cable
and I've heard a rumour of a device to help bring warmth to equipment that's
sounding a little too clinical. Frankly with the iFI products it is hard to go
wrong, they are thoughtfully designed, produced and presented. Their sound
quality exceeds expectations for their price points and indeed well-beyond their
Music Used for Comparisons
We would like to very much thank Clive Meakins for his very
thorough review of the iPhono, iDAC and iUSB. The iUSBPower takes the iDAC to
another level but this is only one instance as it was designed as a 'blue ocean
product' to apply to a whole smorgasbord of applications where USB-power is
used. We have also started to make waves in the pro-audio sector, namely the
recording industry and DJ-mixing where again, USB-power is ubiquitous.
Suffice to say, 'watch this space' as more new and inventive
iFi products are being prepared for launch over coming months.
Thank you very much,