iFi Audio xCAN

At first glance, the xCAN looks almost identical to iFi Audio’s stablemate xDSD (HFC 439). Both share the same gleaming aluminium casing, with a compact, ridged design that looks similar to a hipflask. But while the xDSD functions as a multi-purpose DAC/amp combo, the xCAN primarily focuses on providing a portable and powerful analogue headphone amp.

The main controls on the two devices are very similar too, with the same chunky volume dial, which also doubles up as a control button for switching between wired or wireless input modes. The xCAN also has the same Settings button on the right for switching between the 3D+ and XBass II filters, but where the xDSD sports just a single 3.5mm headphone socket, the xCAN adds a 2.5mm connector for balanced headphones as well. There are also matching 3.5mm and 2.5mm inputs around the back, allowing you to maintain a balanced signal right from your source device through to your headphones if required.

There is a USB-C port on the back, but this is for charging the internal battery. The only digital option is Bluetooth – with support for both aptX and AAC codecs for wireless streaming from a mobile device.

The xCAN has dual-mono amps that claim 1000mW output per channel. Battery life is quoted at 18 hours with wired connections, lowering to 12 using Bluetooth.  

Sound quality
Astell&Kern’s AK70 MKII player (HFC 428) provides pretty good output when listening to my library of lossless AAC and FLAC files via B&W’s P9 Signature headphone (HFC 421), but the extra firepower of the xCAN certainly adds impact. It’s not simply a matter of volume as it balances the sound with impressive finesse on Kate Bush’s Snowflake. The light piano notes swirl through the air, crisp and clean, but the xCAN knows how to flex its muscles just enough to lend the low, rumbling drums a sense of urgency.

Even more dramatic is the polyphonic chorale of Pro Cantione Antiqua on their heavenly recording of Spem In Alium by Thomas Tallis. With power to spare, the xCAN lifts the sound up and creates the cathedral-like sense of space this track requires, even on the early, gently whispered passages. It keeps a sharp eye on the intertwining voices, placing them precisely and maintaining all the detail as they build to an almost overwhelming climax. The xCAN allows the music to really soar without compromising the angelic clarity of the voices.

Inevitably, some of that clarity gets lost as I switch to Bluetooth streaming from my iPad, and Planetary (Go!) by My Chemical Romance. The combination of the xCAN and B&W’s PX wireless noise-cancelling headphone (HFC 431) is about as good as Bluetooth gets, and the xCAN does a good job of keeping the clashing sounds in focus, landing the power chords like a slap to the face while the keyboards and electronic effects fizz along like fireworks. But, as always, there’s the slight muffling effect I associate with Bluetooth, and some distortion starts to creep in as I turn the volume dial up higher. Even so, the xCAN’s power via Bluetooth is impressive, and if you like loud rock or dance music it adds real punch over Bluetooth.

As a headphone amp only, the xCAN isn’t as versatile as its more upmarket xDSD cousin. But if you simply want a headphone amp that can boost the power of your digital music player to your headphones in an attractive package, it fits the bill. It’s impressively powerful, but smart enough to focus that power so that it adds impact without compromising sound quality. And, with Bluetooth streaming and good battery life, it can earn its keep when you’re away from home too. CJ

Product: iFi Audio xCAN
Price: £299
Type: Portable headphone amplifier
Read the full review in March issue 447

iFi Audio
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