Today we’re checking out the hip-dac from iFi.
Since 2012 iFi has been delivering a wide variety of hifi products to the audio world from their headquarters in Southport, UK. DACs, amps, DAC/Amps, power purifiers, impedance adapters, speakers, and various other products and devices have come from the brand. I’ve been lucky enough to review the Pro iCAN, one of their flagship headphone amplifiers, and the iEMatch which enables you to use very sensitive iems with otherwise poorly matched sources. The hip-dac is their newest and most affordable portable headphone amplifier, eschewing the unique candy-bar shape of past devices for a more pocketable and traditional flask-shaped device.
Full disclosure time. The hip-dac first showed up around mid-February of this year and I enjoyed using it extensively over the following month. Unfortunately, before I had a chance to finalize my notes and compare to other devices it developed an issue which required it to be sent back. Yes, a month was not long enough for me. I prefer to use devices extensively before dipping into a review. Anyway, their rep Lawrance was awesome as always and arranged a replacement but there was a mixup and the wrong device was sent back. That was returned and I opted not to request another unit to finish the review. With the whole Coronoavirus thing in full swing and a number of devices in queue for review, I figured with the notes I had there was enough to write a complete review, though one that wouldn’t be quite as detailed and in depth as usual. Still enough to get the point across though.
Enough dallying. Let’s take a quick look at iFi’s excellent little audio flask.
What I’m Looking For When it comes to portable amps and DAPs I take a pretty casual approach. If you’re wanting an in-depth look at this thing with measurement graphs going over THD, sinewaves, etc. you’ll want to look elsewhere. All I really care about is how easy is it to use? Is it well built and will it be durable long term? How’s the driving power and overall sound quality? Are the batteries going to run dry part way through a listening session? Is this the kind of device I’m going to take with me everywhere, or it is better suited to listening in the privacy of my home? Let’s dive right in and find out what it’s like to use the iFi hip-dac.
Using It As a portable DAC the hip-dac is a pretty sweet device to have with you. It’s not so huge as to be impossible to carry when strapped to a DAP or phone, though you will need fairly large pockets. The included rubber feet aren’t as useful when using it with a phone or DAP since they add a few extra millimetres to the overall thickness, unless you flip the device over but then you risk scratching your source. If you’re pairing it with a laptop the grippy feet keep the device stable when setting it on a table or desk. Without the feet it readily slides around and even just the stiffness of the included cables can unsettle things.
When it comes to sound signature I found the hip-dac to have a mostly uncoloured presentation. There is a hint of warmth, but the major characterization to my ears was that it had a slightly lean, very detailed sound to it. Everything sounds very accurate, precise, and well-controlled with notes attacking and decaying quickly. Already lean sounding earphones like the Echobox Finder or Nomad can sound a bit too thin through the hip-dac, especially in the mids where vocals to weight and density, but for thicker and/or more neutral earphones it is a wonderful pairing; ex. Shozy Form 1.4 and ADV Model 3 BA2. Extension at either end doesn’t seem to be lacking at all, while texturing throughout is also fantastic. Most importantly, the hip-dac sounds quite refined, especially when compared to more affordable options like the Auglamour GR-1 and Walnut F1. Next to Earmen’s TR-Amp I found them equally slick but with slightly different signatures; TR-Amp warmer and more analogue, hip-dac cooler and more analytic.
Bass boost functions are usually little more than a quick distraction from the listening experience for me since they rarely boost areas that end up being beneficial. XBass on the hip-dac ended up being a godsend for a couple different products; TinHifi P1 and Audio AF1120 MKII. Neither of these earphones have a particularly robust low end in stock form. They have decent extension, but the emphasis just isn’t there which left me wanting with bass-heavy genres. The hip-dac’s XBass feature completely rectified this, adding back the missing low end from these two products. It was especially welcome with the P1 as it rounded out that earphone’s bright, analytic sound allowing it to be much more versatile. The P1’s planar driver can actually pump out some pretty wicked bass, it just needs a big push to get there.
When it comes to driving power, the hip-dac should be good enough for most anything thrown at it. You’ve got a standard 3.5mm out and a 4.4mm balanced out, with the PowerMatch gain switch to bump up output if needed. For regular iems I could listen comfortably with nary a twist of the volume knob. With the gain increased the hip-dac could pretty easily get even something as demanding as the Hifiman Susvara up to volume. For more likely candidates, such as a Meze 99 Neo, or Hifiman Sundara, the hip-dac was be a killer pairing providing plenty of volume and satisfying dynamics that really allowed these headphones to flex what they could do.
Build And Battery The hip-dac is well-constructed with all-metal shell using anodized aluminum. The blue paint job and pebbled texturing looks fantastic, should be durable, and gives you something convincing to grip. All the dials and buttons feel solid and stable with smooth operation and definitive clicks when pressed. The volume knob in particular is a standout since it doesn’t extend past the edges of the case which means it can be used while the device is laying flat on a surface, and is knurled providing plenty of grip for single finger use. I must note that out of the box there was no low volume imbalance which is quite common for this style of switch. However, after being used for a few days this quirk did rear it’s head, though at volumes low enough to avoid affecting the listening experience. Overall fit and finish is quite good, minus one aspect. My only qualm is that the edges of the casing surrounding the plastic from and rear plate is quite rough/sharp. I accidentally sheared off a bit of skin on the back of my hand sticking it in my pocket with the device. If iFi could round off or taper those edges, that would be a welcome change.
On the front of the device front left to right (or right to left if you decide to orient it the other way) you find buttons for Power Match (impedance selector with a cool name) and Xbass and small LEDs for each to indicate when they are one. The volume/power dial is next up surrounded on either side by u-shaped LED lights that highlight the audio format in use.
- Green – 44/48/88/96kHz
- Yellow – 176/192kHz DXD352/384kHz
- Cyan – DSD128/DSD64 2.8/3.1/5.6/6.2MHz
- Blue – DSD256 11.2/12.2MHz
- Magenta – MQA
You also find a 4.4mm balanced out, and a 3.5mm output with iFi’s S-Balanced feature. This feature is intended to provide the noise reducing benefits of going balanced, but in a regular 3.5mm jack. Flipping around to the back you’ve got a female Type-A port on the left and to the right a Type-C port used exclusively for charging, under which sits a teensy led that notifies you of the battery’s status.
- White >75%
- Green > 25%
- Red > 10%
- Red (flashing) >/= 10%
- (led also flashes when charging)
The hip-dac is rated for up to 12 hours of use but even at the low volumes at which I listen and with less than demanding products being powered, was getting closer to 10 on most charges. While getting closer to the rated life would be ideal, what I was seeing was enough for regular, daily use and I never found myself wanting for more.
In The Box The hip-dac’s packaging is basic and functional, made from somewhat flimsy white cardboard. It does only what a package needs to do without much in the way of frills. On the front is an image of the device with the brand name and model, along with a big Hi-Res sticker. The only embellishments are a neat raised triangular pattern in the top left and bottom right corners. On the left of the box is a profile shot of the hip-dac, while the right poses a few highlight features; Xbass, balanced out, MQA hi-res audio streaming support, and a Burr-Brown chipset. Flipping to the back is a brief product description noting features like a 12 hour battery life, as well as images of the front and back of the device. Beneath those images is a complete specification list. Cutting the security seal and lifting back the top flap reveals a dense cardboard insert, countering the flimsy exterior and protecting the device and accessories within. In all you get:
- iFi hip-dac
- Blue USB-A (female) to USB-A (male)
- Cloth coated USB-A (female) USB-C (male)
- Black USB-A (male) to USB-C (male) [charging cable]
- User guide card
- Four rubber feet (uninstalled)
- Warranty information card
Overall a very good unboxing experience. One area the hip-dap one-ups the competition, like the Radsone HUD100 and Earmen TR-Amp, is in the included cables. Whereas those two devices lack the ability to connect to Type-C output devices out of the box and require adapters, the hip-dac absolutely does. This enables you to use it with the portable devices it was intended to be paired with, right away. Big points earned with that.
Final Thoughts Like the Pro iCAN before it, the hip-dac left a mark on my memory and is something I’ll be looking to pick up in the future pending I have the available funds. And that is despite the issues my review sample had. I’m the only one I’ve read of that experienced a failure, so when it comes to durability I remain hopeful the hip-dac is a reliable device and my experience was a one off.
It’s a wonderful device to use thanks to an attractive, easy to use design with features that are not gimmicky. XBass completely revivified the TinHifi P1 by fleshing out the low end. The PowerMatch switch enables the hip-dac to comfortably power headphones that otherwise wouldn’t be feasible. You have a ton of support for high quality music files, including DSD and Tidal’s MQA format. The battery life is decent, the sound output is clean, and in general there really isn’t much to complain about. The hip-dac is a good device that is well worth consideration.
Thanks for reading!
Disclaimer Thanks to Lawrance for reaching out to see if I would be interested in reviewing another iFi product, and for arranging a loaner sample for review. The thoughts within this review are my own subjective opinions based on just over a month using the hip-dac. They do not represent iFi or any other entity. At the time of writing the hip-dac retailed for around 150 USD: https://ifi-audio.com/products/hip-dac/