REVIEW: IFI AUDIO XCAN - IF EVER A PORTABLE HEAD AMP COULD
Already kitted out with a decent DAP or DAC but looking for better amplification? The iFi xCAN might be just the thing.
Portable Headphone Amp
We fell in love with the iFi xDSD portable DAC/amp and, if memory serves, it was the first component to be given a StereoNET Applause Award by us. So, it's no real surprise that we were excited to see what iFi Audio came out with next.
The xCAN might share its overall look with the xDSD as the more recent unit similarly sports the undulating casing and fingerprint-loving coating, but the differences are easy to spot if you know where to look.
The biggest giveaway is that there is no USB/SPDIF input on the xCAN. This apparent omission precisely underlines what the xCAN's intentions are - this is an amplifier for those looking for an extra jolt from their portable device.
As well as an analogue wired connection, you can hook up a Bluetooth source to the xCAN - anything from a phone to a telly.
The extremely portable 95 x 67 x 19mm (LxWxH) device weighs in at just 127g and comes bundled with a felt drawstring carrying pouch, velcro strips, a 3.5mm AUX cable, a 2.5mm balanced AUX cable, and a USB-C charging cable.
Now, it would be easy for iFi to have whipped out the DAC section from the xDSD, knocked a few quid off the asking price and called it a new product. However, that's now how iFi Audio works - no siree. The xCAN is a game of two halves if you allow me the indulgence of clumsy metaphors. The first half is the xCAN as a wired portable headphone amplifier; whereas, in the second, you get a Bluetooth DAC/amp.
Firstly then, iFi has created a dual mono amplifier boasting both balanced and single-ended skills. The 2.5mm balanced connectors are for use with all sources while the 3.5mm jack supports single-ended inputs using TRS connectors as well as iFi’s S-balanced functionality using TRRS connectors.
iFi Audio's S-balanced function allows some of the benefits of balanced connections while still maintaining compatibility with single-ended designs. Do not underestimate the cleverness of S-balanced tech because it performs a near-miracle as, generally speaking, plugging a single ended headphone jack into a balanced amp is usually the best way to make it go pop.
What iFi has set out to do is no mean feat. You see, they had to build an amp that is both dead quiet with sensitive IEMs but also has the oomph to power 600 Ohm full-sized headphones at reasonable volume levels. Well, the xCAN can can can. The portable head amp has bragging rights to 1000mW of power per channel which can unleash the full potential of both 32 Ohm through to 600 Ohm headphones without breaking a sweat.
As for noise, the charts tell us that the xCAN has a THD & N (Total Harmonic Distortion and Noise) rating of < 0.006% (@ 360 mW/2.4V 16 Ohm) and an SNR (Signal:Noise) of >120dBA (@ 7.6V) in balanced operation.
However, should you not want to be tied to your sound source, the xCAN is also a Bluetooth DAC/amp.
Again, iFi has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure you get the best signal possible, even from something as taken for granted as Bluetooth. The result is, no matter whether squirting virtual audio via AptX or AAC, the xCAN is used only as a data transport in the digital domain. This digital input goes to an ESS Sabre 44.1/48k 16-Bit DAC which handles the digital to analogue conversion task before handing it off to the amp circuit.
The xCAN is capable of remembering up to 8 paired devices meaning that swapping between your wireless sources is no hardship at all. Here you have some well sorted Bluetooth, folks.
As found on the xDSD, you can tailor the sound somewhat by using the 3D+ and XBass functions. XBass hands you the option of boosting Bass, Presence, or Both.
Battery life is quoted as being 18 hours when using wired and 12 using Bluetooth, but I have been getting a bit more through my testing. Naturally, it all depends on how hard you push the xCAN though. Fortunately, should the battery get needy, it can be re-juiced in no time thanks to the fast USB-C charging.
The xCAN delivers a clean, uncoloured sound without you dialling in those filters, of course.
As with the xDSD, I could not detect any excessive compression or distortion no matter whether using my Noble Savanna IEMs or Oppo PM-3 headphones.
Naturally, activating the 3D+ and XBASS II filters, you get an added sense of depth and bass extension, respectively. Both features are implemented well, never sounding too artificial while adding some extra emphasis to the music should you so desire.
Engaging 3D+ and XBass II with Presence + Bass selected instantly adds some extra va-va-voom to rock and electronic music. As entertaining as these options are, I probably wouldn't use them all the time. However, this is down to personal sonic taste, and depends on the nature/sound quality of the music you’re playing, the character of the headphones you’re using, and so on.
Pairing the iFi xCAN with my Honor Mate 20 Pro, the Bluetooth amp is impressive. iFi Audio shows that wireless can perform remarkably well if treated right. I loved the wireless option as it allowed me to keep the xCAN in the inside pocket of my jacket plugged into my headphones while being able to whip out my phone from another pocket without getting in a tangle.
Wireless connectivity was robust and only really faltered a little for me in the signal-dense areas of Kings Cross and Liverpool Street stations during rush hour. However, this is to be expected and some days were better than others.
Using the xCAN on the commute, in the office and at home with a variety of music (I love to hit shuffle and let my collection surprise me) the little iFi portable remained poised. Music came from a black space, balanced and open.
iFi Audio xCAN review conclusion
The xCAN is one of those products where I feel that I should find a weakness just to make the review more interesting. However, save its love for collecting fingerprints, I honestly cannot find a downside to buying one.
The little portable amp is reasonably priced at just under £300, performs brilliantly and even throws in some slick Bluetooth skills for good measure.
Thanks to its terrific sound quality and capability to use a balanced line-in connection along with Bluetooth and single-ended hook-ups, this iFi amp deserves a StereoNET Applause Award.
For more information, go to iFi Audio.
StereoNET UK’s Editor, bass player, and resident rock star! Jay’s passion for gadgets and Hi-Fi is second only to being a touring musician.
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