In a recent interview with The Verge, Neil Young blasted Apple for the Macbook Pro’s ‘ ‘Fisher-Price’ audio quality. His words might have been strong but his assertion isn’t exactly wide of the mark. A Macbook Pro’s internal D/A conversion isn’t built to sound good. It’s built to a vanishingly low price. Good sound quality from a headphone socket is a feature Apple chooses not to afford. This truth also holds for most PCs and the Raspberry Pi.
Tackling this problem head-on is British manufacturer iFi Audio whose pocketable USB hip-dac promises to elevate the sound of any Mac, PC or Raspberry Pi. From a petrol blue extruded aluminium enclosure that’s not much bigger than a smartphone, we get battery-powered D/A conversion and headphone amplification that goes wherever we go.
The hip-dac’s asynchronous USB input is marshalled by an XMOS chip loaded with MQA code (Hello Tidal Masters), the incoming data stream stripped of jitter by iFi’s ‘GMT Femto-precision clocking system’. The signal is then handed off a ‘True Native’ Burr-Brown DAC chip, which forks the signal according to type. Burr-Brown specifies separate decoding pathways for PCM up to 32bit/384kHz (hello Qobuz) and DSD64, 128 and 256 (Hello, is anybody out there?).
Behind the volume control that sits proud of the hip-dac’s business end lies no DSP. Its attenuation is all analogue. So too the ‘XBass’ function that optionally boosts the low-end — intended by iFi for headphones or IEMs that sound a little lightweight.
You will have noticed by now that iFi names each of their innovations. Their hip-dac’s ‘PowerMatch’ functionality offers options for standard gain – for more sensitive / low-impedance headphones – and higher gain for hungrier beasts.
We net up to 400mW from the hip-dac’s single-ended 3.5mm output where iFi’s proprietary ‘S-Balanced’ circuitry reportedly cuts “crosstalk and related distortion in half”. Less common for products of this type is a balanced circuit that exits via the Sony-designed 4.4mm Pentaconn socket for up to 700mW.
Behind the iFi DAC’s headphone outputs sits an analogue output stage designed by Parasound’s John Curl that comprises “a custom iFi OV op-amp, TDK C0G class 1 ceramic capacitors, a precision low-noise power supply IC from Texas Instruments and a high-quality analogue volume pot.”
At the hip-dac’s other end, two USB ports: USB-C for charging the internal 2200mAh battery (max 12 hours playtime) and a male USB-A socket for audio data — the corresponding cable for Mac, PC and RPi can be found inside the box.
Battery power means the hip-dac will also talk to smartphones. Cleverly, that male USB A socket sidesteps a second USB cable to permit direct connection to an Android device’s OTG adapter (also in the box) or a Lightning-to-USB adapter required by iPhones (a separate purchase).
Yet to be solved by any manufacturer of brick-like portable DACs is how we attach it to our smartphone without 1) partially obscuring the phone screen and 2) crushing one end’s cable connections when we drop the two-fer into a pocket. Until then, the hip-dac, like other DAC/headphone amps of its type, remains transportable.
The hip-dac will sell for £149, €159 or US$149 when shipping begins in February 2020. New Yorker’s can catch a preview at CanJam NYC just after Valentine’s Day.
Further information: iFi Audio