iFi Audio hip-dac making mobile phones sound great!
Making more of your Smart Phone
Do you use your phone or maybe a tablet or laptop to listen to music or watch content from YouTube, Netflix or Disney+ or any of the other great streaming services? I do a lot because when I finish work often its late in the evening and as I have young children in the house I cant make loud noise, especially on school nights. I will be honest one of my current life vices is watching content or listening to music while doing the washing up, living the YouTube Audio Reviewers dream life I know. If you are living the dream too I have some great news for you.
Recently I reviewed the iFi audio Zen DAC a usb headphone amplifier and DAC predominantly designed to be used with a computer source. I also reviewed the Zen Blue a Bluetooth music streamer for your HiFi and both of them are killer products for the £129 or $129 dollars they cost. Following this I have also been looking at the iFi Audio hip-dac which is much smaller but costs more £149 or $149 why do you think that is?
The Power of Batteries
I think the reason the hip-dac costs more is its battery powered and batteries cost money but the good news is the hip-dac can be useful to you in different ways because its battery powered. From the two iFi ZEN products the hip-dac closest resembles the ZEN DAC in terms of functionality because its also a USB input based headphone amplifier but miniaturized into a very compact form factor that is slimline enough to fit into your pocket and be very unobtrusive. Lets not forget batteries can be great for digital component sound quality because its clean power that’s “off the grid”
Small doesn’t mean poor quality, just like the other ZEN products the hip-dac is all metal construction, the volume control is metal and it has a nice resistance and its very sensitive allowing for a very fine amount of volume adjustment control. I have got to say I love the look, I love the feel and I really love the colour of the hip-dac in the flesh its a very lovely thing.
Connections are simple
There is a USB C port for charging and a USB 3.0 type A port for everything else, something to bear in mind in typical iFi audio fashion the USB 3 slot is a male so you need a female cable to make this connection. Also in typical iFi fashion the hip-dac comes with a few cables which is probably enough to get most people going and you may want to join several of them together depending on how much cable you need. If you need a replacement cable this is one to consider for Android phones
I think iFi have built the hip-dac predominantly to connect to mobile phones which makes a lot more sense to me now my phone doesn’t have its own headphone output and that means I am now forced to use something external if I want headphone sound, the great thing about that is external solutions like the hip-dac are better than any headphone output I have had built into any smart phone I have ever owned. But there is a trade off for convenience because I think whatever way you look at it using a cable to connect from the phone to the hip-dac is not an elegant solution especially when you compare this to a wireless Bluetooth connection. But the BIG benefit is you are free to use whatever analogue headphones you want or already own and there is not the bluetooth signal compression / degradation going on.
Another way to use a hip-dac could be connected to a computer or a laptop or MAC and you have a small high quality headphone amplifier that’s easy to take with you on the go and again its battery powered so there is the potential uplift in sound quality over other devices that take their power from the USB connection.
More Power More Bass!
The volume control is also the on and off switch and you do need to turn the hip-dac off as it doesn’t do so automatically at least that I am aware of. Do remember that otherwise your battery will go flat. You have both an expected 3.5mm headphone connection and also a 4.4mm balanced pentaconn connection for balanced headphones.
There are 2 important buttons that iFi Audio users will be very familiar with, firstly XBASS, an iFi proprietary analogue circuit that increases bass in a certain frequency region to help all manner of different headphones sound more full and “bassy”. I really like this feature about iFi products and depending on what headphones I was using, for example the Sennheiser or Drop 6XX it would be one of the main reasons I might chose an iFi product over its competitors. Even though XBASS is not 100% perfect for all headphones it can be a significant improvement to the listening experience on some headphones.
The second button is called Power Match and this will increase the power of the hip-dac to better suit more demanding headphones, so if your using very easy to drive in ears then you might not need to enable Power Match. In reverse if your using higher impedance over ear headphones then having more power from the hip-dac will give you a louder, more full and solid sounding better audio experience. If your new to iFi this is an easy system to test, start with it off and if you want the hip-dac to sound louder turn Power Match on. You can have one, either or and both XBASS and Power Match on at any time.
What flavour of Firmware?
There is one other choice for users to make and that is what digital filters you want to be used on your hip-dac and this review could get very technical very quickly, but to save you from that really its a simple A or B choice of which you think sounds best from GTO or Cookies and Cream?
To change between them you have to update the firmware on the hip-dac so its not something you are likely to do very often, maybe once or twice and it is worth doing because the sound from the hip-dac definitely changes. Its also a simple process really that only takes about 2 minutes and iFi have created a guide video of how to do this linked here for Windows and here for MAC users
But what does it Sound like?
I used my smartphone as the main source for this review which is a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and for headphones I used the Beyerdynmic DT1770 Pro, these are normal headphones not balanced. I know the balanced output from the hip-dac would sound much better from my previous experience with iFi products but I didn’t have any headphones here that I could test with the balanced 4.4mm Pentaconn output, please do bear that in mind. With the DT1770 Pro being 250 ohm headphones I used the power match button on all the time and I liked the XBASS button on sometimes for watching Netflix content or similar, but for music I did turn it off as these headphones are quite bass strong already.
With these more demanding headphones definitely the Power Match and XBASS really made a difference for sound quality and I think this level of headphone impedance might be where I would stop as the maximum for the 3.5mm output anyway. However the balanced output from the hip-dac has more power so if you want to use more demanding headphones then I would suggest probably using the balanced output as being the best the way to go.
I tried both of the firmware options and for me the GTO which is taken from iFi’s “Pro” product line sounded the clearer of the two, the Cookies and Cream firmware sounded thicker with less clarity. I think the GTO firmware is also a little more powerful sounding in the bass which may or may not be how you like sound, but for me it was a good thing. I would say for at least 85% of this review I was using the GTO firmware.
The hip-dac packs a pretty big punch in terms of overall sound quality, it creates a big, full and solid sound with a nice amount of overall clarity and it reminds me of both the ZEN DAC and ZEN Blue in how it surprises you with just how good it sounds for the money. The hip-dac again so long as the Power Match option was enabled it sounded dynamic in the bass with very nice tonal quality to vocals and it creates an impressive soundstage or head stage content depending. The treble is good too and I really cannot fault the sound quality of the hip-dac for the money, especially for its size. It’s a lot smaller than the ZEN DAC but its that same level of quality of sound, so if you know the ZEN DAC and like it see the hip-dac as having a similar kind of sound quality but from a device you can fit it in your pocket and use it with your phone and easily take with you anywhere.
If you look at the spec of the hip-dac iFi havent pulled any punches or scrimped, you get the same kind of spec as the ZEN DAC which includes MQA and DSD support. The box says 12 hours of run time, I think I have been getting maybe 6-8 hours which is still plenty for most people in most situations, full charge time is around 3 hours.
I will admit when I first saw the hip-dac it looked like a very quirky and a very cool product but I wasn’t sure if it would be all show and no go but after spending a lot of time with it, I very quickly could tell it’s a real deal product that delivers great sound quality.
The only snag I can see is the awkwardness of the connection via a cable and I couldn’t see me using the hip-dac on a work commute because I would be forever putting my phone in and out of my pocket for different things and the attached cable would make this impossible, but a plane flight or long train or car journey that’s different and I would definitely use it for them.
Like I said at the start if you are using your phone at phone at home to watch content like my amazing YouTube channel or great shows on Netflix or Amazon Prime video then being connected via a cable might not be such a big deal and I have become accustomed to it and I even have a stand for my phone to keep it safe while I am doing the washing up – living the dream!!
A Serious Bang for Buck Award is granted in recognition of a products stand out high performance being significantly greater than its perceived price point
For the full Specification of the iFi Audio hip-dac
See the website here