iFi Micro iCAN SE: Powerful, clear, excellent sound with some sonic flexibility

Pros:  enough power to drive the HE-6/AKG K1000/name it to sufficient volume, very good sound, flexibility for different sound preferences, good value

Cons: sounds dull without switches engaged, demanding headphones don’t reach potential in spite of copious power, lesser amps may sound better with lower demanding gear

ican-se-rating-scale

Acknowledgment

Thanks iFi for lending me this review unit in exchange for my honest opinion. It was a good few weeks.

Introduction

This is my fifth review of a piece of iFi gear. I’ve previously reviewed the Micro iUSB3.0 (own it), the Micro iDAC2, the Micro iDSD Black Label and the iPurifier2 (extreme value for money and good performance) (links are to the reviews). I’ve also had brief listens to the Micro iDSD and the Micro iCAN, so I feel like I’ve got a good idea of what iFi has to offer now, and it’s generally good, though only the Micro iDSD Black Label has reached anywhere near the wow factor of the first product I reviewed, the Micro iUSB3.0. That thing is audio voodoo and I don’t practice Santeria.

I think it is appropriate that reviews begin with an introduction to the author. While we who take up the click-clack board in front of the insomniac blue light glow of the monitor are not generally great writers of fiction or journalistic endeavours, our perspective is often as important. While our bias won’t shape the world like the bias of a talking head, a reviewer’s bias can lead to one miscalculating the value of expensive purchases. So make sure to check out my bio before reading on.

Useability: Form & Function

The iCAN SE comes in the same 2 ½ pack of cards size as the rest of the iFi Micro product line. This consists of a uniquely contoured aluminum chassis, some rubber stick on feet, and cables coming out the back and the front. The inputs on the back include a 3.5mm input and a pair of RCA jacks, all you need for some ear-blastin’ fun. The iPower adaptor feeds into the back of the amp, which I like much more than the front orientation on the iDAC2. On the front of the amp we have an iFi standard aluminum volume pot, the aforementioned switches for XBass and 3D HolographicSound, and a 6.3mm headphone jack. On the review unit that I received the switches weren’t perfectly flush with the front face of the case, one faced slightly down and the other slightly up. This cosmetic blemish had no effect on performance.

The box includes the following:

  • iPower 15w
  • Generic 3.5mm to 3.5mm flat cable
  • Generic RCA to RCA cable
  • The Micro iCAN SE
  • 4 clear rubber feet (thou shalt not countest 3…, and 5 is right out)

The Micro series has two camps on portability, units requiring external power that aren’t really portable in the way I think of portable; and units that don’t need a wall wart that are on the big edge of portable. The iCAN SE falls into the former category for me. It needs the big wall wart and either an RCA cable or a 3.5mm to 3.5mm (or RCA) cable, which makes it something you can move about, but that you’ll most likely just keep at home. The iDAC2 and the Micro iDSD are truly portable, the iCAN SE is not, in my opinion.

The gain is adjusted by some switches on the bottom. I found the switches to be clearly explained and the effect of the switches noticeable, but not always positive. With the HD600, 24db gain caused loud buzzing with the volume pot at zero. Even when driving the HE6, I didn’t switch the gain past 12db as it caused degradation of the sound. These have power to spare, that 24db gain is totally unnecessary. On more sensitive headphones and IEMs, I don’t think that the gain should be turned up. I heard buzzing and there was very little play in the volume pot. The volume pot has buttery smooth volume control; cheers, iFi, on a very well-selected component. The Heron 5’s stepped attenuator is not nearly as smooth with volume going in little leaps.

This is where I would normally insert a table of all the sexy pictures, but “my dog at my homework.” Whilst sorting pictures of surfing and climbing the Cheese Ring with Trekasaurus on a recent visit to Cornwall and Devon I didn’t realise that I hadn’t already transferred my pictures of the iCAN SE to my computer and so deleted them from my memory card. This means I’ve only got one of my own pictures…from another review…heavily cropped…quite blurry—ick.

However, life is about taking the lemons you got and making sweet sweet lemonade. There are a few other people who’ve reviewed the iCAN SE on HeadFi, so the pictures below function as citations to these other reviews. It’s good to read a variety of perspectives.

From @thatonenoob’s excellent comparative review of iCAN and iCAN SE (my favourite of the current reviews)
Ostewart’s very positive review Dadracer’s quick impressions More Ostewart, that guy takes great pictures.

Audio quality

I should start with a caveat to this section. At the same time that I got the iCAN SE to review, I also had the Airist Audio Heron 5 on loan ($1000 desktop amp), which I loved so much that I bought it. The iCAN SE is something beautiful, but the Heron 5 just wanted to destroy it.

The ample shadow of the Heron 5 probably biased me a little against the iCAN SE. I enjoyed the iCAN SE and think it is good for $299, but it didn’t make me look at my sagging empty wallet and ask “what happens to a dream deferred?”

I tested the iCAN SE with some upper echelon headphones, and my humble HD600. Headphones tested during this review included the following: HD600 (tights/panty-hose mod), HD800 (modded and improved), HE6 (grills removed), the AKG K1000, and the ERIB-2a. I did comparisons between the iCAN SE and the Heron 5 diligently, and with a buddy.

I found the iCAN SE to have a good soundstage that left me wanting more without engaging the 3D switch, my preferred sound was basically always with the 3D switch on. I found that I basically always wanted XBass and 3D switched on. It appeared to me that how 3D works is by boosting parts of the treble to make the sound more airy, but I don’t have the tools to measure this; it would be nice if someone who does, like Tyll Herstens had a go with these. I think that XBass works in a similar way, it boosts a few selected frequencies. I think iFi did well on their targeted ranges.

Since the Heron 5 and the iCAN SE arrived on the same day, I basically went back and forth between the two amps at the beginning. When using the same headphone this can even be done with some crude volume matching. I did volume matching at ~80db using white noise when I compared with the HE6, and ran both out of the Chord Mojo fed from my Micro iUSB3.0 with a LH Labs Lightspeed 1 Micro USB cable. This means that each amp was being fed about as good material as was possible. Other setups won’t reach the level of clarity or soundstage you get with this combo.

My initial listening with the iCAN SE was with the HD600 (without volume matching), which did not need any gain. In fact, applying gain was detrimental to the sound. At 0db gain the sound was clear and well-textured, 12db gain lost some clarity, and 24db introduced buzzing at low volumes. The 24db gain wasn’t necessary on the HE6 or the K1000, so I’m not sure it even needs to be a feature unless you just like to explode your ears into Nickelodeon slime. There is no question that the amp has lots of power. I found that the Heron 5 was more transparent, balanced, and had a larger more holographic soundstage, but it should for $700 more MSRP. The iCAN SE had more forward vocals that I think many people will enjoy, as I quite enjoyed them.

On one of my favourite test tracks, Roger Waters – Late Home Tonight, Part I, I can hear a cow about 25 seconds into the mix with the Heron 5, I don’t notice it with the iCAN SE. The song has a domestic scene unfolding in Tripoli with transitions between rooms and the street. These transitions are less distinct on the iCAN SE and I can’t pick out the placement of subtle details anywhere near as well. After listening to the Heron 5 the sound of the iCAN SE isn’t as revealing. The iCAN SE was more forgiving of poorer source material, though, like The Darkness.

Using the iCAN SE, the HE6 needed 12db gain to sound natural. The HE6 sounded muffled without it. The iCAN SE has an energetic signature with the HE6 and is forgiving of source material. Perla Batalla – Bird on a Wire from the I’m Your Man Official Movie Soundtrack exhibits some recorded hiss on the Heron 5, but not on the iCAN SE. Transitioning to Why – Strawberries the soundstage feels a bit flat on the iCAN SE, instruments share space rather than having their own designated position in the mix.

City of the Sun – To the Sun and All the Places in Between sounds much better on the Heron 5. The iCAN SE doesn’t have nearly as deep an image or as refined a sound. It does do the ethereal backing vocals on this track beautifully. The iCAN SE will drive the HE6 to earbleeding volumes. It is all I want for volume at a bit past noon on the volume pot. Switching to the AKG K1000, the volume pot is jacked to 2/3 on the same 12db gain. The iCAN SE gives the K1000 all the power it needs. The HD800 sounds best on this track. It has the best soundstage, the most precise crisp notes, and the ethereal backing vocals absolutely soar. At this point I started doing more experimentation with the switches. The 3D switch made the sound more engaging, and was consistently an improvement. It also improved soundstage depth. Another listener observed that the sound was ‘dull’ without the 3D switch. I didn’t think it was dull (with the HD800, at least), but it was much more interesting with it engaged. XBass to one dot was an improvement in the sound, especially on drum strikes. XBass at three dots was overbearing and unpleasant to me with the HD800, specifically (ERIB-2a liked three dots). I like lean muscular bass—Brad Pitt bass, not lasagne eating Garfield on the couch bass (Trekasaurus challenged me to work lasagne into a review, victory is mine). Don’t worry, the iCAN SE isn’t flabby like Garfield, and it’s smarter than Odie or John Arbuckle. It also has some punch like our dag slinging caravan selling friend in Snatch.

Brad: Garfield:

I only had a short amount of time with the HE6/K1000/HD800 pantheon of headphones, but I did have a lot of time with one of my favourite IEMs, the oBravo ERIB-2a (a polarizing IEM, listen before buying). The ERIB-2a’s notable characteristics are an open-headphone expansive soundstage, well defined beautiful mids, excellent instrument placement, with nice treble sparkle, but a bit bass shy. The bass has good quality (texture, decay, etc…) but is low in quantity. My initial listening with the iCAN SE was with the LH Labs Geek Out V2. It took about 52% on the volume knob with 0db gain to power the ERIB-2a to where I like them. I cycled through switch settings more when doing this listening session.

With no switches engaged, the sound is a touch bass light. The soundstage has good width, but is a bit flat. The treble sounds a touch dull. Flipping the 3D switch to one dot makes the sound a bit brighter. Flipping the switch to three dots makes the sound airier with better depth and height and crisper treble. Three dots is a big improvement, I really enjoyed the amp with full 3D engaged. One dot on the bass gives a slight increase in drum presence. Three dots makes the ERIB-2a sound more like I want them to sound, the ERIB-2a would definitely be described as bass shy and need a good pairing. On City of the Sun – Brothers the iCAN SE sounds a bit dull without the switches flipped.

I did further comparisons with some stuff that is more in the price range of the iCAN SE. Compared to the LH Labs Geek Out 1000, the iCAN SE has better soundstage depth and clarity. It sounds pretty darn good. I like both of these amps, but the iCAN SE is better. Listening to the not great recording of The Darkness – Black Shuck, the guitars sound brittle on both amps (again, not a great recording, not the fault of the amps), but better on the iCAN SE. Here I note that 3D enhances width more than depth, and that the central image benefits most from the depth increase. When listening to The Beats, Man – Yummmmm, I need to have the switches engaged. The sound feels a bit dull without them, and truly lovely with them. The sound without the switches is almost like the music has been turned down. So I tested turning the volume up and it confirms this observation. I think that the switches selectively raise the volume of some frequencies. iFi has generally done a very good job placing these boosts.

I also preferred the iBasso DX50 without the iCAN SE to the DX50 feeding the iCAN SE, regardless of iCAN SE settings when listening to the ERIB-2a, but I think the ERIB-2a had some synergy going with the DX50 that I didn’t get on other sources.

Specifications

The folks at iFi Audio do a fantastic job describing their tech, and the tech description always sounds like foreign governments will be contracting them for their latest espionage endeavours. With all their stealth technology, I think they might actually be ninjas.

For the full skinny on the fat amplification power of the iFi Micro iCAN SE, you can check out iFi’s website—they have better graphics than me anyway. Here’s what iFi has to say, in brief:

The iCAN – Special Edition is a ‘specially-tuned’ version of the top-selling micro iCAN. Sonically, it boasts Class A, DirectDrive® and TubeState®. Features wise, it features a newly-refined XBass®, 3D Holographic® for headphones and 0dB, 12dB and 24dB Gain adjustment. Powered by the all-new iPower (15V), the special Turbo headamp® circuit pumps out 4,000mW to drive even the most demanding of headphones.

So let’s go over the differences:

  • iCAN SE has ten times the wattage of the original iCAN (4000mW versus 400mW)
  • The iCAN SE has cleaner power due to active noise cancellation on the 15w iPower that comes with the iCAN SE. The iPower tech is based on some French fighter jet technology designed to cancel out the sound of a jet engine. What chance does noisy wall power have?
  • The 3D HolographicSound® feature has been tweaked to not just expand the soundstage width, but also give a more ‘frontal location’. The claim is that this reduces fatigue in listening.
  • Class A tubestate: the sound is meant to emulate the sound of tubes in a solid state amp

Some elements are shared:

  • DirectDrive®: there are no output coupling capacitors in the signal path, and output impedance is 0.1 ohms.
  • XBass: a switch to boost normal bass headphones and bass shy headphones
  • Class A amplification for always on pure amplification
Specifications
Gain 0, 12, and 24 dB
Signal to noise ratio >123dB(A)
Total harmonic distortion <0.003%(400mV/150R)
Frequency response 0.5Hz to 500KHz(-3dB)
Output impedance
Output power >4000mW(16Ω)
Output voltage >10V (>600Ω)
Input voltage AC 100 – 240V, 50/60Hz

Conclusions

I have mixed feelings about the iCAN SE. The price is excellent, and the performance is pretty good for a semi-portable amp with 4w of power. At its best it has a good soundstage with more width than depth. It is fairly clear and has a good sound. It has shedloads of power (two-sheds full at least) Given the great power of the iCAN SE, and there can be no doubt of that, I expected the top-of-the-line headphones to sing a bit more, but I was left in search of more blackbirds.

Yes, you can drive an HE6 or a K1000 with this (and probably the Abyss and LCD4), but if you are printing money to buy those headphones, you probably want to hear them at their best and probably have heard them at or near their best. I can’t imagine using my top-tier power hungry full-size cans while traveling, unless I had an amp that made them sing enough to make me feel like I couldn’t part with them. The iCAN SE is not that amp for me. It is an excellent amp for $299, but it is probably unreasonable to expect it to make the rare beasts above sound their best.

It’s a good amp. The XBass is a very nice feature for helping with slightly bass light headphones like the HD600. Whilst 3D sounded good, I didn’t like that I felt the need to have it on no matter what.

For me, the amp wasn’t at its best driving demanding headphones in spite of its copious amounts of power. This leaves the amp being judged on what it does with headphones that don’t need 4000mW of juice. While it outperforms my LH Labs Geek Out 1000 with less demanding headphones and not by a little bit, it didn’t outperform the DX50 for me on the ERIB-2a (which likes a lot of power).

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