As we all know, headphone listening has become big-business of late. As a subset of the major HiFi shows such as AXPONA and The Rocky Mountain show, there are now whole shows devoted solely to headphones and associated equipment. With such catchy show names as “Can-Jam” and “The HeadRoom Show”™, this market has become so large and so diverse, that such shows command large attendance and have enough exhibits to engage the enthusiast for the entire day. And the prices! Until quite recently, headphones were mostly in the sub $1000 price range. You had to buy a pair of Stax or Sennheiser Orpheus electrostatics to get above that figure. Now, there are many headphone models above $3K and people will pay it for quality sound reproduction. Along with the phones themselves, there are literally hundreds of stand-alone amplifiers available at all price points as people start to notice that the headphone jacks added to preamps, CD players, and receivers are simply not up to the performance of today's better headphones. Since many headphone lovers like their music on the go, there is also a growing market for stand-alone portable amplifiers to improve the sound available through portable devices such as smart phones and music players.
Not a novice to this market segment is the British firm of iFi. Known for the innovative packaging of their high-performance, reasonable cost audio components, they have had several portable headphone amps in their lineup. The newest amplifier-only member of the iFi team is the US$299.00 xCan which along with it's sibling the xDSD initiate the launch of the x-line of components from the company. The xCan is designed to amplify the analog signal from one's smart phone or music player while the xDSD is a DAC plus an amplifier designed to play Linear PCM as well as Direct Stream Digital files.
While the xCan is sold as an amplifier, it will decode 16-bit, 44.1 KHz digital audio by way of its Bluetooth capability via an onboard DAC. Both of the current x-line members have very similar looks and are exactly the same size, that is to say, both are 95 mm or 3.74” (l) X 67 mm or 2.64” (w) X 19 mm and 0.75” (h) and both weigh a similar amount at 127 grams for the xCan and 128 grams for the xDSD.
The xCan sports this handsome high-gloss “black-chrome” finish with a longitudinal scalloped look and has all controls and I/O on the end bells of the enclosure in true iFi fashion.
The xCan has a large knob-like volume control on one end of the unit which, with its coaxially located button, doubles as a function switch as well as offering power on-off duties while also switching between wired and wireless input modes. There are also switch controls to the right of the volume control/function switch to select between what iFi calls “3D+” and “XBass II” filter functions. 3D+ seems to bring a portion of the midrange forward to enhance “presence” and the Xbass II boosts the low end of the audio spectrum and this could enhance listener enjoyment with some headphone types. There are two jacks on the opposite end of the unit from the end with the large volume knob. One is a single 3.5 mm socket and the other a 2.5 mm connector. The larger jack is a single ended input that can be plugged directly into a music player or a smartphone and the smaller one is for balanced inputs such as that available on a Pono player. On the same end as the volume control, and to the right of it. Are another pair of phone plugs, and again the big one (3.5mm) is for single-ended phones while the smaller of the two is intended for balanced phones (although I don't know of any headphone manufacturer who use the 2.5mm plug format for balanced 'phones). In the box that the xCan comes packaged, there are two short, 6-inch long cables; one with 3.5mm male connectors at each end and another with 2.5mm connectors. These are used to connect to one's player in either the balanced or the unbalanced mode.
Connecting the xCan To A Player
All that is required is for the user to choose the proper interconnect cable from the two provided, and connect the headphone (or line-level, if available) output of one's player to the appropriate input on the xCan. The cases on most players are flat and I would have much preferred that iFi had left at least one face of the xCan flat because the scalloped body, while attractive, makes it difficult to confidently physically attach the two securely using the supplied Velcro-like strips.
The unit is charged through one of the new USB “C” connectors, which is located on the output end of the xCan. The unit comes with a very short 6” USB “A” male to USB “C” male cable. This cable is designed to connect the xCan with a USB power source to charge the battery. Ifi specifies battery capacity at 18 hours via the unit's wired inputs and 12 hours when using Bluetooth. I applaud the USB-C connector's design because it, like the Apple Lightning connector, is reversible and can be plugged into the female socket either way.
Listening is Believing
I have two players that I use with the xCan. One is the Apple iPod Mini and the other is a HiFiMan SuperMini player. I also own an iPhone 6S and a current 9.5” iPad. The two players, the iPod and the HiFiMan are connected to the xCan via their headphone jacks while the iPhone and the iPad are connected via Bluetooth. The two players are not Bluetooth compliant, and the iPod has only a headphone-out 3.5mm jack. The HiFiMan SuperMini does have a balanced headphone jack output as well as a non-balanced one, but the jack is the larger 3.5mm type and the balanced cable on the xCan uses a 2.5mm plug, so I was unable to try that. I did the majority of my 16-bit listening on both the iPod and the iPhone, while I played my high resolution files via the HiFiMan SuperMini. I did listen to 16-bit/44.1 KHz recordings and MP3 Internet radio (such as Boston's WCRB which is 192 kbps MP3) as well as BBC3 from England (which is streamed as the Apple Lossless Audio codec (ALA) format) via Bluetooth. Syncing the iPhone 6S with the xCan was a snap. All one has to do is hold down the button top the right of the volume control on the xCan, with the device to be paired with in close proximity (in my case an iPhone 6S) until the device with which one is pairing acknowledges that it is pairing with the iFi xCan. After pairing is accomplished, to connect the two just turn-on the xCan and press and hold the power button until the center turns blue and is not flashing. That's it! The bluetooth equipped player is now playing wirelessly through the xCan. I was pleasantly surprised at how good the Bluetooth connection sounded. It was essentially the same as it is wired.
According to iFi, the xCan has dual-mono amplifiers. They claim that each is capable of 1000mw (that's 1 Watt, into a 32Ω load). That translates into loads of volume with just about any headphones, earphones or earbuds (including the 300Ω Sennheiser HD-300). This certainly applies to the HiFiMan Ananda headphones that I'm currently using. The xCan can drive these phones to ear-damaging volume levels. No matter how loud you like your music, the xCan headphone amplifier can accommodate you – and more!
Switching on the xCan is accomplished by pushing the frosty, translucent center on the volume control. Push and hold the button until the LED behind the button lights up. The xCan will always come-up in the last mode used. If you wish to remain in the last mode you used, simply release the button. If you want to cycle through the available modes, keep holding the button down. The LED display will change color as it cycles through the following modes: Green is for wired input (either balanced or unbalanced), Blue is for Bluetooth (connected), Flashing Blue (indicates that the unit awaiting wireless Bluetooth connection) and alternate Red/Blue flashing (means wireless Bluetooth pairing). Also the volume control will change color (in the same center translucent window as the mode indicator) as volume is advanced. Green is for low volume all the way to Red when the volume is high. Watch out. If you have really efficient headphones, one full watt can cause serious hearing damage!
In the interest of a comprehensive review, I listened both with and without the two filter modes; the 3D+ and the XBassII. I found that I did not care for either mode, and preferred to listen with the amplifier set “flat” (more about this later). Of course your requirements and tastes could be quite different from mine so try both, either separately or in combination. The same button that selects these two modes (or both) also works to pair the xCan with Bluetooth. Somewhat confusing (to this reviewer, anyway), the 3D+ and Xbass II switch is repeated on the opposite end of the xCan as a toggle. It selects between Xbass II, 3D+ or both no matter how the buttons on the volume control end of the unit are selected. I have no idea why this seeming redundancy exists.
Using the xCan with my iPhone 6S, I tried Amazon Music, Spotify (paid), and Apple Music. I was impressed with the clean, low distortion presentation of the xCan even when connected, either via the iPhone's unbalanced headphone jack or via Bluetooth. Switching to my HiFiMan SuperMini, I played the 24-bit, 176.4 KHz Reference Recording of Stravinsky's “Rite Of Spring” with Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra on Reference HRX #HR-70. The quadruple-f crescendi in this work are a real test of equipment and the xCan amplifier sounded spectacular reproducing them! The high frequency quality of the xCan is impressive, with no hint of harmonic or intermodulation distortion in the upper registers. The air around instruments was palpable whether listening with the HiFiMan Anandas or the Shure SE112 In-Ear isolating headphones. The low frequency performance is nothing short of spectacular! Through the HiFiMan Anandas, like the entire HiFiMan headphone line, the bass performance is superb. The xCan amplifier reproduces my favorite low-frequency note, the opening chord (double low-C on double basses, contrabassoon and pipe organ) in Richard Strauss' “Also Sprach Zarathustra” with Andre Previn conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Telarc CD-80167) like I've never heard it before played on a portable device. It is loud, deep and clean. The rest of the amp's performance is likewise incredibly clean and transparent. I did find one recording where the 3D+ mode worked to an advantage. “Gordon Lightfoot's Greatest Hits” (Rhino/Warner Brothers B00005YW4N), Gord's voice kind of gets swallowed by the accompaniment on several tracks and invoking the 3D+ mode brought him more front-and-center. So I guess these two “filter” modes can be useful, even to purists (read that: “audio snobs”) like me!
There are quite a few outboard headphone amps available for quality portable listening and I've heard many of them. The only headphone amplifier that I have heard that betters the iFi xCan for playback quality is the amp section of the US$2800 Hugo II DAC/Amp from Chord. I cannot recommend the xCan amplifier too highly. It sounds great, will drive most headphones to the threshold of pain (and in some cases, well beyond it), and it doesn't cost an arm and a leg. You'll want to connect it via the supplied cables for playback of 24-bit, 96 KHz (or higher resolution) fare, but to listen to MP3 or CD quality music, pairing the xCan with one's player via Bluetooth (assuming the player has that function) will give you maximum flexibility. You can put a cell phone or music player in one pocket or one's purse, with the xCan in another pocket or on one of those arm bands that you often see runners wearing. Of course you can always “Velcro” the player and amp together, just don't be surprised if they don't stay together too well. Those flutes on the side of the xCan are deep enough to impair the bonding of the Velcro-like strips that iFi includes for that purpose.