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True wireless with a twist: iFi Go pod review

  • Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh once sang about feeling like an Analog Man in a Digital World. Musically speaking, I prefer the track of the same name by thrash-metal band Nuclear Assault, or the similarly-titled album by Israeli electro-veteran Yost Koen, aka YosTek. But Joe’s lyrics, cheesy though they may be, arguably do the best job of capturing the angst of feeling out of touch in a rapidly changing world.

    It’s a feeling I can relate to when it comes to the topic of wireless earphones, and their ubiquity which has been foisted upon us by essentially every smartphone maker. What’s so wrong with continuing to offer a headphone jack for those of us who still have use for them? Do Apple, Samsung, and the rest not realize how much better traditional wired earphones still sound? Or am I just a grumpy old man shouting at a cloud?

    A potential solution reveals itself in the form of the new iFi GO pod system (US$399). The company describes it as a “wearable HD Bluetooth DAC and headphone amp”. Moving away from the marketing speak, what GO pod ends up being is a way to convert existing wired in-ear monitors into Bluetooth-capable wireless versions. iFi did something thematically similar with their GO blu device a few years back, but that was a compact dongle-DAC with Bluetooth capabilities and a jack with which to connect wired earphones – sort of a midway point on the path to true wireless operation.

    In contrast to the GO blu, the GO pod system is the real deal for completely banishing wires from your portable life. Each of the two pieces could best be described as an earhook device where the electronic “guts” live in a small pod worn behind the ear. It reminds me of the traditional style of hearing-aid devices – dubbed BTE for behind-the-ear – but is generally smaller and lower in profile. The business end of the GO pod earhooks connect to your earphones in the same way a detachable cable would. The hooks themselves can also detach from the actual pods, and iFi helpfully gives us multiple hooks with different connection formats. My review sample came bundled with the common “2-pin” connection type, as well as the newer MMCX and Pentaconn styles. That covers the majority of earphones on the market already. Additional hooks will be sold separately. I’m not positive which ones the final retail bundle will include, but iFi says they will soon offer hooks using the T2 and A2DC styles favored by Etymotic Research and Audio Technica earphones respectively. So this is clearly a system designed for maximum compatibility, even when the owner uses multiple monitors from different brands.

    Speaking of compatibility, the GO pod is based around a Qualcomm QC5144 system-on-chip which supports Bluetooth 5.2 and offers many different standards for receiving audio. There’s the usual SBC, as required for all Bluetooth devices, but far more interesting are AAC, various flavors of aptX, and LDAC, giving us a less-lossy (if still not completely lossless) music streaming experience. I’ll talk more about those options shortly but suffice to say, iFi has us well covered here regardless of which phone or source device we may want to use.

    Spoiler alert: in nearly all true wireless (aka TWS) designs, a Qualcomm system-on-chip (or SoC) embedded into each earpiece makes up the majority of the signal path. Translated into traditional audiophile terms, our phone or tablet would thus become the transport, whilst the Qualcomm SoC handles both D/A conversion and amplification. Designers making a TWS product can obviously choose their own flavor of driver(s) and tune them to taste from there, which of course has the largest impact on the resulting sound. But they are still bound by the quality of the Qualcomm solution used for DAC and amplification. With such little real estate to work with inside each earpiece, there’s really no easy way around it.

    iFi’s GO pod system is not bound by those same limitations. While still generally small, each behind-the-ear “pod” is actually quite large compared to the internal volume of your typical TWS. Remember, the bulk of those designs are dedicated to drivers and batteries, and the resulting product still has to fit in your ear – which leaves precious little space for additional electronics. The GO pod system meanwhile offloads all drivers, crossovers, and wiring to the attached earphone, thus permitting more room for the electronics. iFi uses those space savings to give us a dedicated Cirrus Logic “MasterHiFi” 32-bit DAC – one per earhook – with proprietary selectable digital filters and digitally controlled analog volume controls. Each DAC then feeds the signal to a dedicated balanced amplifier, which can automatically adjust its output based on the impedance of the connected earphone: 120mW per channel available for 32 Ohm loads and up to 4V for 300 Ohm loads. Back to our earlier analogy, this would be something like switching from an all-in-one streamer/DAC/amplifier to a trio of dedicated separate components. True, it is more complex, costly, and takes up more space, but the sonic improvement is usually worth the hassle.

    From an ergonomic standpoint, I was initially very skeptical about how iFi could pull off the charging and storage aspect of this design. One thing most TWS products do quite well is offer a compact, custom-fitting storage case that holds additional battery capacity and lets the user top-up their earphones whenever they aren’t being used. Given that the GO pod system is expected to work with a wide variety of earphones – each with a unique shape – how would iFi handle it?

    The answer appears to be size. The GO pod storage case is absolutely massive compared to every other TWS offering out there. For reference, the Sennheiser Momentum TWS 2 charging case, which I already consider to be slightly above average in size, takes up roughly 1/3 the volume of the GO pod case. The largest TWS charging case I had previously encountered was the Kenwood WS-A1G, and even that is maybe half as large by volume. The GO pod case is bulky enough that it won’t comfortably fit in front pant pockets.

    In exchange for that large size, iFi gives us enough space inside to hold just about any pair of earphones we might wish to use in tandem with the earhooks. Each side of the GO pod system clicks into place with magnetic chargers, whilst our attached earphones each get a large felt-lined chamber in which to rest. Even custom-molded in-ear monitors, which for my big ears are always huge compared to their universal counterparts (and thus make for a worst-case scenario), usually have enough room to fit. I only have trouble with one of my largest sets, mainly due to the protruding Apex modules on the faceplate, but even then the lid still mostly snaps shut. So I’m pretty confident that the vast majority of users should be fine no matter what earphones they might choose.

    The case size also allows for plenty of features. iFi gives us wireless charging in addition to fast charging via a USB-C port. Four rather large LED indicators display how much juice is left in the onboard battery – a highly legible system compared to many others with their tiny color-coded LED dots – and a pair of bright white LEDs helpfully illuminate the contents of the case when we flip open the lid. On battery capacity, the case is rated at a whopping 1500mAh, whilst each GO pod has a 180mAh battery. Contrast that with my Sennheiser Momentum TWS 2 at 600mAh for the case and 60mAh for each earphone. Interestingly, iFi rates their system as giving roughly 7 hours of playback and up to 35 hours with top-ups from the charging case. That’s certainly more than most competitors but not as drastic of an improvement as the battery specs might initially indicate. I attribute this to the higher power draw of using separate components rather than just an all-in-one SoC like other designs, with the potent amplifiers likely being the biggest culprit.

    As for the fit of the Go pods, I suspect the vast majority of users will be well served. My large head leads to the pod modules riding somewhat higher behind my ears, whilst having a much smaller friend try the system leaves them hanging lower. In either case, comfort factor remains surprisingly high, and we both remarked that it doesn’t feel significantly different from using a regular over-the-ear cable with memory wire. The one thing we both felt would take some getting used to was the placement of the pods when it comes to touch controls. Most TWS earphones have touch-sensitive faceplates, though a few still have a physical button of some sort, but either way, it feels more intuitive – each GO pod does have a large touch-sensitive area but consistently finding it behind the ear was challenging at first. We both got more accurate over time and I suspect this would eventually become a non-issue.

    I’ve amassed a fairly large collection of in-ear monitors over the years, so I sorted through them to see which models would be compatible with iFi’s included earhooks. I don’t tend to find universal in-ear monitors very comfortable and thus only have a few of those here and there, whilst my collection of perfect-fitting custom-molded monitors is roughly two dozen strong!

    Of the few universal models I do have on hand, it seems none of them is a good fit for the GO pod system. All my Sennheisers seem to use their own proprietary connection type – the older models with a unique form of 2-pin connector, the newer a sort of recessed MMCX – which is not compatible with the GO pod setup (or most aftermarket upgrade cables for that matter). The Campfire Audio Comet do use a standard MMCX socket (which technically fits) but the resulting angle is all wrong. Campfire designed the Comet to be worn with the cable hanging straight down rather than wrapping over the ear, so the GO pod earhook connection just doesn’t line up where it needs to be. I’d say striking out here seems more indicative of my limited sample size rather than a shortcoming of the GO pod system, as it really should work with the bulk of universal earphones on the market (including all other models of Campfire Audio earphones).

    That leads me to my custom in-ear monitors, each of which uses some form of the classic 2-pin connection which has existed since the earliest custom designs from several decades ago. Some favorites are the 64 Audio A18t (US$2999), the Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered (US$1079), and the Radioso (US$1650) from boutique Korean firm AME Customs (which appears to have folded during the pandemic). Those got the most ear time but I also rotated through a dozen others from Noble, Empire Ears, JH Audio, Unique Melody, Westone, Jomo Audio, and more, each ranging from approximately US$600 to US$2500.

    There are a few different ways these various brands handle things when it comes to the monitor/cable connection point, which in this case actually becomes the monitor/earhook interface. Some have a recessed socket where the connector actually inserts several millimeters into the monitor shell itself for a more secure fit. Others just have a flush-mounted socket which doesn’t give that extra protection but in my experience still works well enough. My Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered actually has the socket protruding outward from the monitor shell – sort of an inverted version of the recessed socket – and their special matching cable slides over/around that portion.

    Thankfully the GO pod is designed in such a way that it pairs well with all three of these types. The recessed style ends up looking the most streamlined but the others are fine if not quite as tidy looking. I’ll note that at some point after I got my Reference Remastered set, Ultimate Ears switched to using what they call an IPX connection format rather than the 2-pin design. So unless they still allow the 2-pin option as a custom order, Ultimate Ears in-ear monitors will not be compatible with the GO pod system at this time. I have not seen iFi mention anything about IPX-compatible earhooks but I imagine they would consider it if the demand was there.

    When evaluating a TWS earphone, I always start with the basics. Among those are things like background hiss, maximum volume capabilities, connection stability, and whether or not the product comes close to achieving its advertised battery life. These aspects may not be as exciting as more esoteric audiophile attributes like imaging and transparency, but they can make or break the experience regardless of how things sound.

    I’m happy to report that the iFi GO pod performs flawlessly in all the above areas. They get louder than I can handle even with my most difficult-to-drive in-ear monitors, yet play nicely with the most sensitive models to avoid unwanted background hiss. Battery life is obviously variable based on volume levels, codec choice, etc, but I generally experience at least the advertised 7 hours and at times well beyond that number. With the massive power reserve of the (admittedly bulky) charging case, I feel like this device has a leg up over every other TWS earphone product I’ve encountered when it comes to lifespan. And lastly, on stability, I experienced zero unexpected dropouts whether using a Google Pixel 6 or an iPhone 14.

    With those essentials fully satisfied, how does the GO pod system actually sound? The answer seems to depend on what earphones we use as well as the Bluetooth codec in play, but at its best, I’d say the Go pod system approximates a quality wired setup – which is really the goal that any wireless solution should shoot for. That means deep bass extension, engaging midrange, airy treble, rich tonality, and a reasonably discernible sense of imaging. The GO pod system drives all of my in-ear monitors to the level I am accustomed to when using a quality DAP, portable DAC/amp unit, or even a reasonably nice desktop setup. The level of clarity, refinement, and “drive” is satisfying enough that I don’t feel short-changed despite the presence of Bluetooth transmission.

    Whether playing the masterful drumming of Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers, the dense electronic soundscapes of Infected Mushroom, the sweetly relaxed vocals of Deb Talan from folk-pop duo The Weepies, or the emotive doom metal of King Goat, the GO pod unleashes subtlety and nuance from whatever earphones it drives. Wireless gear is ostensibly intended for use “on the go” but this sound is so good I just want to stop what I’m doing, sit back, and take it all in. When a hi-fi product engages me on this level, I have to consider it a success. I speculate that the result here is mainly due to the combination of discrete balanced amplification and dual-mono DAC chips as I have never heard a wireless solution sound so good driving my best in-ear monitors – not even iFi’s own GO blu product can match what I’m hearing with the GO pod setup.

    My favorite pairing is definitely the rather obscure AME Radioso. A so-called “tribrid” design, the Radioso leverages three different driver types to cover the full spectrum, with each playing to its strengths – dynamic driver for low frequencies, balanced armature for midrange, and quad electrostatic drivers for the top end. This is among the most difficult-to-drive in-ear monitors I’ve encountered, with a sensitivity rating roughly 20dB lower than most others in my collection. That means it really needs some juice before it wakes up, sounding overly reserved and dull when inadequately driven. The GO pod has no such issues and powers the Radioso with authority, speed, and grunt, whilst spotlighting their superbly delicate treble presentation. I had not listened to these in a while but with the GO pod in play, I don’t want to put them down.

    The Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered is also somewhat less easily driven than most, rated at 100dB/mW, whilst the 64 Audio A18t sits at a more sensitive 111dB/mW. We thus have representative products in the low, medium, and high sensitivity range, and the GO pod setup pairs well with all three models. I can’t say for sure that there aren’t some ridiculously inefficient in-ear monitors out there that the GO pod will not happily drive, but I am unfamiliar with anything like that at this point. This means that for the vast majority of earphones, both custom and universal, the GO pod is a go in terms of driving them to their full potential.

    I achieved the best results using the LDAC codec that now comes as standard in all Android phones. In my case, that’s a Google Pixel 6. While still not quite lossless, I find LDAC so good as to be nearly indistinguishable from a wired connection. It’s certainly close enough for portable use where background noise and other distractions tend to keep one from doing extremely critical listening. I have encountered issues in the past where some devices don’t achieve reliable transmission with LDAC, but thankfully both Google and iFi seem to have it figured out. This combination works consistently well with no interruptions in my experience, and it follows that the same should be achievable with other phones. Granted I’m not setting my Pixel 6 down and wandering across the house or out into the yard, but within a reasonable distance it remains rock solid.

    iPhones don’t have advanced codec support, which leaves us with the relatively unexciting AAC format. Surprisingly, I still quite enjoy the GO pod setup even with that limitation. Top-end air takes a hit, overall clarity is reduced by a step or two, and the presentation can feel a little flatter in terms of staging. But ultimately the sound is less obviously compromised than expected. Remember, I did my listening via some of the best and most resolving in-ear monitors on the market, so the difference will be even smaller when using more sensible options.

    Switching back to my Pixel 6, I went to try out the various aptX options, and had a bit of a surprise – only the baseline aptX appeared rather than the more advanced versions like aptX HD and aptX LL. The packaging for my review sample advertises all of those as well as the newer aptX Adaptive, but I note that iFi’s product page now only shows the latter. This appears to have been a misunderstanding on iFi’s part, caused by the admittedly dense marketing which Qualcomm puts out regarding their aptX Adaptive mode which is meant to supersede its HD and Low Latency versions. I have seen other brands with TWS products making similar errors so this is not an isolated case. Unfortunately, very few smartphone makers actually support aptX Adaptive, so it isn’t very useful despite being a technically impressive codec. This means phones without LDAC will have to fall back to the baseline aptX mode, which thankfully sounds at least as good as AAC (at times slightly better) and thus gives similarly satisfying results as mentioned in my previous paragraph. Is it ideal? Nope. Is it still enjoyable? Very much so.

    Making a direct comparison against something like the Sennheiser Momentum TWS 2 makes little sense as far as sound quality goes. If we just talk about those basics again – connectivity, battery life, background hiss, and max volume – iFi’s solution comes out ahead on all fronts. Yet since the GO pod doesn’t actually make music on its own, comparisons involving sonic performance don’t work. Instead, I’ll bring out iFi’s own GO blu (US$199) which can act as a stand-in for the GO pod setup, powering the same in-ear monitors and using the same Bluetooth codecs streaming from the same phone. That puts us on a level playing field to evaluate the internal D/A conversion and amplification stages of each device.

    Ignoring the fact that the GO blu requires a cable running from its output jack to our earphones, the listening experience is surprisingly similar. Both solutions are warm, inviting, and surprisingly resolving. Again, it does not seem immediately obvious that a lossy, wireless transmission is involved. Splitting sonic hairs, I do hear the GO pod setup as having superior inner detail, slightly more expansive staging, and just a touch more heft on the lowest end of the spectrum. More significant is the difference in background blackness – the GO pod has music emerging from the void, whilst GO blu has a bit of noticeable low-level hash with quite a few earphones. It’s not usually a dealbreaker, and is likely a tradeoff for increased output when driving full-size headphones, which is something the GO pod obviously isn’t equipped to do. But to my mind the GO pod is clearly superior when it comes to in-ear monitors, to say nothing of their superior true wireless nature.

    Note that other firms such as FiiO and Shure offer vaguely similar Bluetooth earhook systems, which sell for less than half the GO pod price and seem to be positioned more as entry-level products. None of them have the same advanced codec support as the iFi, nor do they feature the clever swappable hook system for use with different connection types. The GO pod setup also has significantly more potent amplification and superior battery life as well. My brief experience with the Shure TW2 (US$189) in the past was fairly positive but again, it only worked with MMCX connections which precluded the majority of my custom in-ear monitors. Meanwhile, I’ve had nothing but problems with several of the FiiO offerings, with battery drain and connectivity issues making them basically unusable. I’m sure firmware updates improved the situation to some degree but I didn’t stick around to find out. Thankfully, iFi’s solution has been rock solid right from the start.

    At this point, readers may think I’m overselling the GO pod experience. And I’ll admit, when it comes to the listening aspect, this device does live up to iFi’s always-enthusiastic marketing spiel. But that doesn’t mean it is without flaws.

    My first complaint pertains to the dedicated iFi GO pod app. Or rather its absence. While all of my other TWS products from Sennheiser, JBL, Kenwood, AKG, etc have dedicated apps used for things like initial setup, EQ, battery life monitoring, and – most notably – customizable button functionality, iFi has no such app. I get the impression iFi originally had no intention of offering one, but due to recent demand, the UK company may now be in the process of coding an app. Only time will tell.

    The one thing they do give us is their barebones “Gaia” utility software which is used to update firmware and choose between several digital filters inside the DAC. The difference between those filters is vanishingly small, but my main issue is that even this utility app (as limited as it is) does not appear in the Google Play store – at least not here in North America, and not with any Android device I tried. I eventually used an iPhone to snag the app and update firmware but Android-only users in my region must resort to sideloading an APK, and not everyone is comfortable with that operation.

    The second potential issue is a lack of active noise cancellation, which is now a common feature on many TWS products at nearly all price points. My use of custom molded monitors with their superior isolation negates this drawback, but universal monitors will not fare as well. Which may or may not matter based on your listening situation.

    I’ll also note that while the GO pod system does have integrated mics for making/receiving phone calls, the quality of that experience is merely adequate at best. Which I suppose makes sense considering their location behind the ears. It will certainly work for occasional use, but road warriors making frequent calls should probably stick to a proper TWS earphone.

    In spite of those complaints, the iFi GO pod system remains a unique and impressive accomplishment. The general concept may not exactly be new, yet nobody else has so far managed to execute the idea to such a high standard. And certainly, none have made a universal system capable of accommodating so many connection types. End result: those who already own one or more sets of (wired) earphones that they love can now ditch the DAP or dongle DAC for a true wireless setup with very minimal sonic compromise. Smartphone makers will likely never resurrect the headphone jack but iFi’s Go pod really helps take the edge off.

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    Written by John Grandberg

    John Grandberg is a US-based audio journalist who has been immersed in the scene for over a decade. A recovering percussionist, he has a particular affinity for headphones and associated gear.

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