At risk of seeming like a bit of an overzealous fan of iFi, I’ve got yet another product review. What can I say – they make fairly priced gear and they’re always eager to send new toys for review. In any case, I’ve been both intrigued and puzzled by these two little units for the past couple months, partially why I’ve not posted much content recently.
The units I’m talking about are the xDSD ($399 USD) and xCAN ($299 USD), which are essentially two flavors of portable Bluetooth DAC/AMP. If you’re puzzled about where the Bluetooth fits into these units, rest assured, I was as well. Unlike the Chord Poly, this is not an all-in-one streaming, digital input type device (nor does it cost anywhere near as much) instead, it connects via bluetooth to your source. All other connections to the headphones and playing music off your computer or phone are identical, it just runs off Bluetooth. Otherwise it functions as a normal DAC/AMP unit – plug headphones in, tunes play.
After my initial confusion as to the functioning of these units, which the iFi team was super helpful and patient in explaining to me, I was further confused by the difference between the two units. They both do Bluetooth, and both function as DACs and amps. They both have USB-C inputs on the back. They both have similar front panels with headphone jack, 3D+ and xBASS button and the funky colored volume control button.
Again, the iFi team was quite patient with me. The xDSD is essentially a DAC first and an amp second. It can be plugged in via USB and functions much like any other old USB unit. Plug in headphones, rock out. It also has a SPDIF input which is a combination 3.5mmm Coax/Toslink digital input in case one wanted to plug in a CD player or older DAP for example. It also has a filter switch labelled ‘listen’ and ‘measure’ which I presume to be similar to other iFi gear as indicating minimum phase and linear phase filters respectively.
The xCAN is an AMP first and a DAC second. It offers the same 3.5mm single-ended output as the xDSD, but adds a 2.5mm balanced connection as well. On the back it has the same 3.5mm and 2.5mm balanced connections as inputs, and a USB-C charging port. It also has an adjustable xBASS switch, with three options to change the amount of bass and presence region boost when using the bass boost feature.
So these two units are sort of ‘separated at birth’ twins, one of whom took the digital road and the other the analog road. I’ll say this – if you’ve got really inefficient phones and need really nice amplification, the xCAN is the one you want. If you need the extra digital inputs and might not use the Bluetooth all the time, the xDSD is the one to get.
I mention this because the sound of both units is more similar than different, and it really is a matter of features and usage. Yes, the xDSD uses slightly nicer conversion chips and the xDSD has cleaner, higher power amplification specs, but this really was a difference I only noticed because I had both units to compare for an extended period of time. On casual first listen the differences were subtler than I had anticipated.
So what do these units sound like? If you’re familiar with the iFi black label and iDSD products, then forget everything you know. These share nothing but a passing familial resemblance. I’ve always enjoyed the sound of iFi units and felt they were tastefully tuned, but perhaps a little laid back and soft in the treble, and while punchy, was never my first choice for more refined, acoustic music like classical (some people call this boring music) The x-series DACs have the smooth kind of midrangey presentation those familiar with other Burr-Brown converters will recognize right away.
The analog presentation is more forward and sharper than the Black Label units however. The transients snap instead of punching, and everything just seems a bit tighter and more refined. On neutral headphones this presented no problem, though I wouldn’t recommend pairing these with HD800s or older Beyerdynamics, as my attempts at those pairings were decidedly less pleasant – though not unlistenable – than my results with the Mr. Speakers Aeon Flow Closed and some ZMF Oris. That said, any thoroughly modern warm-to-neutral headphones should have no issue with these.
I think besides the increased clarity and transient definition in the presence and treble region, the lower mids and midbass have been cleaned up a bit, which really helps take the perceived refinement and definition up several notches higher than I’m used to with the iDSD series units. Pop and rock music had an increased clarity that was helpful, but it was really well-recorded classical and acoustic music that benefitted most.
Listening to the Cat Empire’s Brighter than Gold album and Jean Rohe’s End of the World Show albums, which are two of my references for transient clarity and definition, was an absolute pleasure. Despite the altered balance, I never felt the units strayed into harshness as long as the headphones used weren’t overly bright. For those looking for a little more Bass, which I did appreciate on the Aeons for example, the xBASS feature does quite well. It gives a slight presence boost as well as a bass boost. I would say the boost is more in the low midbass and sub-bass and is quite tasteful on the lower settings on the xCAN. The highest settings introduced a slightly processed, artificial sound and made the presence region a bit too forward for my tastes, though I’m sure some will really enjoy the higher settings.