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May 2013
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
ifi iPhono, iDAC And iUSBPower
iFi for everyone! Can the lucrative ultra high-end company AMR succeed at making bargain-priced equipment under their iFi brand too?
Review By Clive Meakins

 

ifi iPhono, iDAC And iUSBPower  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...

 

iPhono
ifi iPhonoThe first unit I received was the iPhono. This device is massively more flexible than most available phonostages and that's without taking its diminutive $399 (350) price into account. You get multiple EQ curves; RIAA, Columbia and Decca, then within RIAA you have IEC (roll-off 20 Hz downwards) and eRIAA (higher bandwidth at the top-end). Gain can be set to to 40, 46, 60 or 66 dB. Moving Coil has options for loadings of 22, 33, 75, 100, 250, 330, 1k and 47k Ohms. Moving Magnet capacitive loading options are 100pF to 500pF in 100 pF steps, all at 47k resistive loading. There are separate inputs for MC and MM. The power supply is a plug-top switching device. I'm told there's been a lot of work been done to ensure the power supply plug-top and on-board power treatment are high quality. This is part of the trickle down of technology from AMR. The casework is common to all four iFiunits, it is a very compact aluminum extruded case which is light, well-formed and finished. The ground post is a little fiddly due to a lack of space so you are supplied with a short extension lead you can use if need be.

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.

iPhonoA 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 iPhono.

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
ifi iDACBefore I move onto the iDAC I should say something about the music player I used for auditioning the DAC. I use JPLAY, since I last mentioned it in the recent USB DAC Shootout, JPLAY has morphed to a new architecture. JPLAY v5 is still a hairshirt player when used with the JPLAYmini interface but it can also work with any ASIO player, Foobar2000 and JRiver being frequent companions. JPLAY is all about low latency data feeding into USB DACs. Even DACs with large buffers benefit from JPLAY, quite why is challenging to understand but I've heard it for myself.

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
ifi iDACThe $299/275 USB-only DAC is ESS9023 Sabre based with XMOS receiver, it will drive some headphones though a serious headphone amplifier is also available from iFi. As you'd expect with a modern DAC it comes with asynchronous USB and is 24/192 capable. For Windows there is driver to install, OSX and Linux do not require a special driver. Given that I wanted to burn-in both iDAC and the $199/175 iUSBPower I started out with this higher spec configuration. The DAC can be powered directly from a computer USB port but the iUSBPower exists to independently purify the electronic lifeblood of the DAC and is powered via its own plug top power supply. The USB cables you require are all supplied, the link from the iUSBPower uses a single cable to carry data and power, as it typical with USB. I have found with a different DAC that splitting data away from the power lines is very beneficial and it turns out iFi have such a cable soon to be released, their new Gemini cable. I would expect this option to be worthwhile.

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.

ifi iUSBPowerStreaming 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
I finally got around to listening to the iDAC powered from a laptop USB port. The resulting sound quality wasn't the total disaster I feared but it did drop considerably. Listening to Jennifer Warnes / Bird on a Wire it was very apparent the soundstage had now narrowed to not even reach the speakers, focus was not as good either.  Depth front to rear was about half what it was with iUSBPower. Bass had lost some impact too. The sound was less spacious and less "easy" though it wasn't at all harsh. A lot will depend on the quality of the 5 volts emanating from your USB ports, indeed try various ports in differing positions on your computer, it's likely they will not all be created equal.

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.

 

Conclusions
ifiIt just goes to show, you do not need to spend a fortune to get a really good sound. The iFi products demonstrate the law of diminishing returns to a significant degree. You could easily spend two to five times the cost of the iPhono and iDAC + iUSBPower and not gain much or any sonic benefit.

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 musicality.

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 price points.

 

Music Used for Comparisons
I listened to the iFi devices over several weeks. Here's a list of some of the music I used when making specific comparisons with other equipment.

Vinyl
Sonny Rollins / Sax Colossus
Zoot Sims / Down Home
John Coltrane / Blue Trane
Jennifer Warnes / Famous Blue Raincoat
Saint Germain / Tourist
Eagles/ Long Road Out Of Eden
Alison Krauss / Paper Airplane
Cara Emerauld / Deleted Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor
\

Digital
Sonny Rollins / Saxophone Colossus (Hi Res)
John Coltrane / Blue Trane
Jennifer Warnes / Famou
Blue Raincoat
Cara Emerauld / Deleted Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor
Bonnie Raitt / The Lost Broadcast
Andreas Vollenweider / CavernaMagica
Jesse Cook / Montreal
Rodrigo y Gabriela / Live Manchester and Dublin

 

Manufacturer's Response
Dear Clive Meakens and Everyone at Enjoy the Music.com,

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,

iFi audio

 

 

Specifications
iDAC
Signal to Noise Ratio: >111dB
Dynamic Range: >111dB
Crosstalk: <-102dB
Total Harmonic Distortion: <0.005% 
Jitter: Below measurement limit 
Frequency Response: 3 Hz to 33 kHz (+0.1dB/0.3dB)
Headphone section: 
Output Power: >150mW (15 Ohm) 
Output Voltage: >3.3V (>100 Ohm) 
Signal to Noise Ratio: >97dB
Total Harmonic Distortion: <0.003%
Output Impedance: <110 Ohm 
Power Consumption: < 2.5W 
Dimensions: 158 x68 x 28 (LxWxH in mm) 
Weight: 0.43 lbs.
iDAC $299

 

iPhono
Dynamic Range (MM): >96dB 
Dynamic Range (MC): >90dB 
Signal to Noise Ratio (MM): >76dB 
Signal to Noise Ratio (MC): >82dB 
Crosstalk: <-70dB 
Total Harmonic Distortion: <0.01% 
Frequency Response: 10 Hz - 100 kHz (0.5dB) 
Output Impedance: <110 Ohms
Dimensions: 158 x68 x28 (LxWxH in mm) 
Weight: 0.44 lbs.
iPhono $399

 

iUSBPower
Output Voltage: 5V 0.5% 
Output Current: 1A 
Output Noise: 0.1uV
High-Speed USB 2.0: 480Mbps 
Input Voltage: AC 100 - 240V, 50/60Hz
  (Ultra Low-Noise Power Supply included) 
Power Consumption: < 9W (includes powered USB device) 
Dimensions: 158 x 68 x 28 (LxWxH in mm) 
Weight: 0.43 lbs.
iUSBPower $199

 

Company Information
ifi Audio
E-mail: contact@ifi-audio.com
Website: www.ifi-audio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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