I don’t know if most of our readers have realized how far HiFi audio has come in the last few years. In 2019 we (the Hifi audio community) had access to no less than 4 fantastic headphone amps under $130 in fact 3 of the 4 were available for only $99. Well, now its 2020 and it seems that audio companies like ifi are keeping their foot on the gas with the introduction of their $149 portable, balanced amp/DAC. This is TLR Technologies review of the ifi audio Hip DAC.
Whats In The Box
As always we will quickly go over the packaging and whats included. The first thing that stands out to me is the quality of the overall packaging. It’s very seldom that a HiFi audio product ship in a box that has a nice imbossed full-color glossy image of the product stamped on the box. What’s even rarer is a box that shows all 4 sides of the product. This packaging won’t leave you guessing what you’re really getting and that’s great. Looking at the rear is a specifications section that provides all the information that you’d want to make an informed purchase… SWEET!
Let’s dig in. Inside you find the Hip DAC. A short blue USB A male to USB A female, this is used to connect the Hip DAC to a PC or laptop. A USB C male to USB A male, this is used to charging. The last cable is a USB C male to USB A female, this is used to connect to a phone or laptop. The last things that you’ll find are the instruction and warranty cards.
Overall I really only have one complaint about the accessories, and it is more of a nitpick. The Short blue USB A cable that is meant to connect to a PC/ laptop is short. I get you’d want a short cable for a laptop but a longer cable would be more useful in more situations. I can always wrap up a long cable but I can’t stretch a short cable. Any way longer cables are cheap on amazon, I’ve used these before. (USB extension cable)
Meet The ifi Hip DAC
Before we get into the sound I first want to talk about the Hip DAC unit itself. As the British would say “This is a great bit of kit”. The first thing that caught attention was the color which ifi calls Petrol Blue. It’s this blue color that has a slight tilt toward teal, its fairly close to the color on the box but a few shades lighter. The next thing that jumped out to me was the size. I expected it to be small due to the size of the box but it still managed to be even smaller than I expected.
Starting on the top going left to right you first have the PowerMatch button, this is designed to help match headphone impedance but it really acts more like a gain button. There is a small L.E.D that illuminates to indicate that PowerMatch(high gain) is on.
Next is the XBass button. This button is your traditional bass boost button that can be extremely hit or miss. I found the XBass button to be more per song VS per headphone thing. Some songs at some volumes with XBass were fantastic while other songs were a boomy muddy mess. I like the fact that we have the option of XBass but unlike the PowerMatch button, you’ll probably be cycling the XBass on/off. The indicator is a small L.E.D just like the PowerMatch button, illuminated is on.
The next element that you come across might be overlooked as LED strips that surround the volume knob. They actually change color to indicate which of the 5 audio formats that are being processed.
Between the audio format L.E.D bars is the awesome brass volume knob which also doubles as the on and off switch. I know that it might seem like a little thing but that touch of brass adds just the right amount of flare and complements the Petrol Blue color perfectly.
Now we get to the outputs. The first is the 4.4mm balanced connector. Yes! you read that correctly, I just said balanced on portable. In my testing, I did find the balanced connector made a difference, so if you have a choice I’d use the balanced output. The second and final output is the 3.5mm which is also fantastic and uses what ifi calls S-Balanced to remove any noise. In my testing, I didn’t detect any noise on either output but as always your mileage may vary.
I’ll quickly touch on the specs but I’ll list them fully above. Basically, ifi designed the Hip Dac to work with any audio format DSD, DXD, PCM, and MQA. You’ll have to go out of your way to find an audio format that won’t work on this thing.
Next is the power output, ifi rated the Hip DAC at 400mW of power at 16 Ohm, I’m not sure if this is the max output or the RMS but I suspect the maximum output is actually more than the 400mW especially when using the balanced 4.4mm connection.
The Hip DAC as the name implies has a build in DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter) so the only audio input is a USB male connector that has been mounted inside the unit. This results in a much more robust connection vs having the male USB jack hanging off the side. Again there is no analogue audio input on the Hip DAC.
The next input (NON Audio) is the USB C connection. IMPORTANT– The USB C is only for charging. I for one love this choice. USB C should really be the only choice in 2020 especially in a portable. I for example charge my Phone, Laptop, Nintendo Switch, and iPad all with USB C. If you’re like me one USB C charger is really all I need to carry.
The last spec that I want to touch on briefly is the battery. ifi chose to go with a 2200mah LiPo battery which they rate at about 12 hours of playtime. This time will vary depending on the headphone and your listening volume. What you might not know is that you can also power the Hip DAC from the USB port on your laptop, desktop, and even your phone. In any case, the Hip DAC should last a rather long time before it needs to be charged.
Let’s Get Started
With all of that out of the way, let’s get into the actual review. I’ve been using the Hip DAC for about 2 weeks now. Part of that time was moble connected to the latest Google Pixel 4 and the rest of the time it was connected to my windows desktop. This allowed me to A/B test it against other desktop amps around the same price. I know, that last part might not seem fair but just hear me out, I’ll explain it in more detail in a second.
If you want the TL;DR version for $149 as a portable/desktop DAC/Amp all in one the ifi Hip DAC is probably the easiest purchase in HiFi audio right now… SERIOUSLY.
Now for you that want the details about why I just said the Hip DAC is probably the easiest purchase in HiFi, let’s get into it. When connected to my windows PC I changed the sound setting for the Hip DAC (make sure you do this) if you don’t it will just sound Meh, once I change the setting the sound quality greatly improved.
This is where I want to mention the only minor issue that I encountered. I initially changed the window property for the Hip DAC to 32bit/384kHz. What I found was a constant clicking in the music this made me want to just about pull my hair out. I eventually figured out that if I changed the setting to 24bit /192kHz (which is still high) that the clicking went away. This could easily be due to something with the PC which was streaming FLAC music from Amazon HD, which is fantastic and not the Hip DAC. Either way 24/192 is way above anything that I was playing and more than most people will play in I’m being honest. Click below to check out Amazon Music HD, its one of the best ways to get FLAC (Lossless music)
Single Ended VS Balanced
Let’s get into the sound. This is a bit complicated, and not because it’s bad but due to the number of choices that ifi has baked in (not a bad problem to have).
I’ll start with the 3.5mm output first. ifi uses a technology they call S-Balanced (standard balanced). It is designed to reduce noise and in my testing, I found no noise at all. If you want more detail there is a very technical write up that can be found on ifi’s website.
Moving onto the next output which is probably the output that most people are interested in, the 4.4mm balanced. The first thing to note is the connection is metal, not plastic like the 3.5mm output. The next thing you may be thinking is why add a balanced connection if you’re not getting noise from the 3.5mm output. Well, choice and to set itself apart from other portable Amp/DAC.
When it comes to Hifi audio most of us love choice, we want DAC with multiple inputs. We want headphone amps with multiple outputs and pass-through. ifi knows that and they delivered, but they also know you shouldn’t just add an output especially a balanced output and not have a benefit.
Swapping from the 3.5m to the 4.4mm balanced results in easily twice the volume and increase in clarity and detail. The balanced connection is really a night and day difference. Good job ifi, well done.
I listen to more than a few headphones and IEM on the Hip DAC in the time that I’ve had it. This a brief summary of my experience.
IEM that I test had no noise and sounded fantastic, they didn’t require high gain (PowerMatch) to be on. I did find that I like the Xbass on when using my Tin HiFi T2 Pros. The power and detail from the Burr-Brown chipset combined with the Xbass made listening to T2 Pro an amazing experience. The Hip DAC completely obliterated the sound that I had been getting from my phone and laptop. The Hip DAC is an easy recommendation if you’re looking for a portable and own IEM.
When it comes to headphones you’d be surprised. I found the Hip DAC could push most of my headphones to deafening levels with ease.
Focal Clear -$1500 Open Back- Sound was fantastic, the sound stage was fairly wide. The Xbass made them sound a bit like a muddy mess on many songs. I found my finger riding the Xbass button as it is extremely song depended with the Clears. Overall much better detail and clarity vs phone and laptop.
Hifiman HE4XX– $130 Planar, Open Back- Planar headphones are known to require more power and the Hip DAC had no problem driving them. I preferred high gain (Power Match) on. I found due to the tuning and increase in power handling that Xbass was nearly perfect to leave on 95% of the time. The Hip DAC easily put my phone and laptop shame. I found that despite being open back that I could get enough clean volume to easily wear the HE4XX outside. This is pretty impressive from a device that’s smaller than my phone.
Beyerdynamic DT880 600 Ohm– $180 Semi-Open Back- These headphones would be the real test. 600 Ohm headphones are notoriously hard to drive due to the increased impedance. Once again the Hip DAC passed with flying colors. BUT!!! You need to use high gain and at minimum 75% volume. This could be a problem if you plan to use this setup mobile. The battery will drain much faster at high gain and 75% plus volume. The thing is DT880 really isn’t designed to be portable. However, with the Hip DAC connected to and being powered by a PC battery power isn’t a problem. As far as the sound, I found the Xbass to be too boomy and not pleasing but the overall sound quality is fairly detailed and balanced.
Headphones Used For Testing
ifi Hip DAC Final Thoughts
I tested a LOT of headphones with the Hip DAC but I can sum it up here. The Hip DAC isn’t the best headphone amp that I’ve heard, not by a long shot. It is not the cheapest either.
So what is the Hip DAC then?
The Hip DAC is a fantastic portable amp/DAC. One of the best on the market (in my opinion) at one of the best prices in the market. It is feature-packed, it has tons of usable power, a really low noise floor, fantastic styling. The size is easily portable, the controls are easy to use, and it can use nearly any audio format.
Finally, the Hip DAC is a passable desktop amp. If I was on a budget and on the go or a student the Hip DAC is as no brainer. The fact that I can run all my headphones at my desk, pick up and be mobile with this amount of build and sound quality is frankly amazing. In fact, I’m pretty sure we’ll be adding a Hip DAC to our amp collection, it’s that good.
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