iFi Audio Pro iCAN, Chord Hugo2, Final D8000, and Campfire Andromeda system
As high-performance personal audio systems have evolved, they have become more specialised. Some focus on top class headphones and electronics intended for use within the relative quiet of one’s home, while others centre on advanced, high-performance universal fit earphones, CIEM’s, and associated portable components that can be enjoyed either at home or on the go. For a systems-orientated issue of Hi-Fi+, we decided to configure a multi-part personal audio system that not only offers some of the best headphone and earphone sound around, but that also offers exceptional versatility for in-home and portable listening applications.
Our system is comprised of four components: the iFi Audio Pro iCAN hybrid valve/solid-state fully balanced headphone amp/preamp (Hi-Fi+issue 143); the Chord Electronics Hugo 2 transportable headphone amp/preamp/DAC (Hi-Fi+issue 153), the Final D8000 planar magnetic full-size headphones (Hi-Fi+issue 157), and the Campfire Audio Andromeda universal-fit earphones (Hi-Fi+issue 158). These components are strong individual performers, but also harmonise beautifully with one another as a group. Let’s look at each component in turn and then talk about the synergies between them.
iFi Audio Pro iCAN
At a recent personal audio show an industry colleague told me he was considering purchasing a Pro iCAN. “I’ve searched all over the personal audio market space and I haven’t found any amp that offers the sound quality or versatility that the Pro iCAN does,” he said. “Have you found anything that tops it for around the same amount of money?” After scratching my head for a moment, I had to admit my colleague was right. iFi’s Pro iCAN is that rare product that combines exceptionally high baseline performance plus an expansive set of useful features and functions unmatched at or even above its price class.
The Pro iCAN is a powerful yet also quiet balanced headphone amplifier/preamp. Significantly, it offers three operating modes: Solid-State, employing a Class A discrete J-FET circuit; Tube, employing a Class A valve-powered circuit with moderate negative feedback; or Tube+, employing the same Tube circuit, but with feedback reduced “to a minimum”. Users can switch between modes on the fly to choose the mode(s) best suited to one’s headphones, earphones, or listening tastes. Pro iCAN also provides switch selectable gain settings of 0dB, 9dB, and 18dB.
The Pro iCAN incorporates sophisticated versions of two proprietary iFi circuits: namely, the firm’s XBass Bass Correction System and 3D Holographic System, both of which are switch selectable. The XBass Bass Correction System aims to compensate for low-frequency deficiencies found in some headphones and many loudspeakers and can apply a maximum of 12dB of bass boost at 10Hz, 20Hz, or 40Hz. The 3D Holographic system addresses spatial aspects of playback with two ASP (Analogue Signal Processing) circuits—one for headphone listening and the other for loudspeaker listening. iFi says the 3D Holographic System is neither a traditional “cross-feed” system nor a DSP-driven system that adds artificial reverb. Rather, the system aims to provide ‘out of head’ sound source placement for headphone listeners while rendering “the whole 3D sound field in a manner that strongly parallels listening to loudspeakers in a normal room, all achieved without added reverb.”
I tried both systems at some length and found them admirably subtle and restrained in their effects and useful when applied in appropriate contexts. With that said, however, I left the circuits switched off for most of my headphone listening to better appreciate the rich, pure, and unprocessed sound of the Pro iCAN.
Predictably, the sonic character of the Pro iCAN is determined by the operating mode chosen. As a rule, the Solid-State mode yields the tautest presentation with excellent linearity (that is, neutral tonal balance), quick and lively transient response, and crisp, sharp focus. Switching to the Tube mode gives similar linearity with a very slightly more softly focused sound, but with more vividly rendered tonal colours, superior harmonic richness, and even more expressive dynamics. Finally, the Tube+ setting is like listening to the Tube mode on steroids, meaning that, on the right track and with the right headphones, the Tube+ setting is positively enchanting.
When I used the Pro iCAN with Tube+ mode engaged to play the title track of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Come On Come On[SBME Special Markets, 16/44.1] through a set of almost clinically revealing headphones the Pro iCAN helped draw forth the headphone’s more expressive, magical side. Chapin’s voice sounded downright luminous and seemed to float gracefully upon the air, while the backing instruments—most notably the piano and bass—sounded achingly beautiful with rich, deeply saturated tonal colours and expansive harmonics that made them sound almost breathtakingly realistic.
In sum, the Pro iCAN is a versatile, powerful, accomplished, and masterful headphone amp/preamp that is ready to serve as the centrepiece of a very high-performance personal audio system.
The Chord Hugo2 is a major upgrade on the firm’s original and critically acclaimed Hugo transportable headphone amplifier/preamp/DAC. What’s different and better about the Hugo2? Just about everything.
Chord has given the Hugo2 more power, lower distortion, reduced noise floor modulation, and a more sophisticated DAC section as compared to the original Hugo. For example, where the first-gen Hugo’s DAC was a 4-element pulse array design with a digital filter offering 26,000 filter taps, the Hugo2 DAC is a 10-element pulse array design whose digital filter offers a stonking 49,152 filter taps.
Why is the number of filter taps significant? Chord Consulting Designer Rob Watts has long maintained that a properly designed DACs could theoretically deliver just as much sonic information, detail, and analogue waveform accuracy from a garden-variety CD-resolution file as from an ultra-high-res file, provided it uses correctly designed digital filters with an extremely large (and ideally, infinite) number of filter taps—an astonishing claim. The only difference, says Watts, is that the CD-version would have a slightly higher noise floor than the ultra-high-res version.
Putting theory into practice, the Hugo2 uses Watts’ signature WTA (Watts Transient Aligned) filter system, which is implemented via an extremely powerful Xilinx FPGA device. Recognising that the best off-the-shelf DAC devices offer filter taps numbering in the hundreds, Hugo2’s 49,152 filter taps obviously represent a huge (and audible) step in the right direction. The end result is a portable DAC that renders transient and timing-related details (and especially three-dimensional spatial cues) in the music with exceptional accuracy. Better still, the Hugo2 is sonically competitive with full-size tabletop DACs more than twice its size and price.
The Hugo2 provides four dome-shaped, self-illuminated, colour-coded switches to provide On/Off, Crossfeed, Input, and Filter selection functions, plus an also dome-shaped and colour-coded touch-sensitive volume control. There are four available digital filter settings and also four Crossfeed control settings. Colour-coded lights, visible through an upward facing ‘porthole’, indicate the type and resolution levels of the files being played. Users can choose from five digital inputs including a Micro USB port, coaxial and optical S/PDIF inputs, a TOSlink input, and an AptX Bluetooth input. Analogue outputs include a set of 3.5mm and 6.35mm headphone jacks, and stereo DAC/preamp outputs.
Whether used as a standalone DAC or headphone amplifier, the Hugo2’s sonic character is defined by fundamentally neutral but also naturally warm and ‘organic-sounding’ voicing, with exceptional resolution of low-level transient and textural details, striking three-dimensionality, and extremely quiet backgrounds.
The Hugo2’s noise-free and natural-sounding presentation complements all types of music, but its terrific low-level detail and inherent three-dimensionality really come alive on tracks such as Ron Miles and Bill Frisell’s ‘Darken My Door’ from Miles’ Heaven[Sterling Circle Records, DSD64]. Through the Hugo2, Miles’ cornet simply sounds real, letting listeners clearly hear even the smallest details that define the horn’s attack, sustain, decay characteristics, and dynamics. Moreover, the Hugo2 places the horn with pinpoint precision within a broad expansive soundstage. Frisell’s supporting guitar is captured in a slightly more diffuse way, as if its amplifier had been placed onstage and then fairly closely mic’d. The result is a wonderfully up-close-and-personal rendition of the recording event.
Hugo2 is quiet enough to use with high sensitivity earphones such as the Noble Kaiser Encores or Audeze iSINE20’s, yet powerful enough to drive demanding full-size headphones such as the MrSpeakers Ether Flow or Abyss AB-1266 Phi edition. Only for very low sensitivity headphones like HiFiMAN’s Susvara would one wish for more power. Otherwise, the Hugo2 can drive most any transducer you choose.
Hugo2 is an industry benchmark and is the finest transportable headphone amp/preamp/DAC presently available. It is a superb DAC that just happens to incorporate a versatile and also excellent portable headphone amplifier worthy of use with top-tier headphones and earphones.
Final is a respected Japanese manufacturer of premium-quality headphones, earphones, and other audio products; the company enjoys a reputation for technology-driven but always music-centred product design, a great example of which is the revolutionary D8000 planar magnetic headphone reviewed here.
Final’s aim with the D8000 was to create a ‘best of two worlds’ design that would offer, “…the sensitive high ranges of planar magnetic models and the volume and open-feel bass tones of dynamic models.” Consequently, Final took a ‘clean-sheet-of-paper’ design approach for the D8000 and effectively wound up reinventing planar magnetic driver technology in the process.
The D8000’s driver uses a ring-shaped diaphragm featuring an inward-spiralling circular band of voice coil traces etched into the surface of an aluminium-skinned, ultra-thin film diaphragm material. The diaphragm also uses concentric corrugations to promote more linear motion over the diaphragm’s entire working surface. The result: a driver said to achieve superior “reproduction of subtle high frequencies.”
Each D8000 driver features two sets of ‘doughnut-shaped’ magnets, with one magnet ring placed just to the inside and the other to the outside of the voice coil traces. Importantly, each driver features front and rear-facing sets of magnets (for improved efficiency and lower distortion) positioned to minimise sound wave obstructions. Magnetic fields from the front/back and inner/outer magnet rings combine to create an evenly balanced magnetic field across the voice coil surface.
Finally, the D8000 driver uses an air film damping system the design for which was suggested by Dr Heitatro Nakajima, a microphone specialist who lead Sony’s Compact Disc project and who collaborated with Final on the design. The system places perforated metal screens a precise distance away from the front and rear sides of the diaphragm to provide a semi-constrained layer of air between the diaphragm and the outside world. Sound waves pass through the screen perforations, while the openings in the screens offer a just-right amount of resistance to provide critical damping or “braking” for the diaphragm. The sonic benefits of the system are readily apparent.
Straight out of the box, the D8000 offered astonishingly fine bass and midrange performance, but with upper mids and highs that initially seemed a bit reticent or subdued. However, after several hours of run-in time the D8000’s mids, upper-mids, and highs opened up magnificently, so that the headphone’s tonal balance became pleasingly neutral while its overall resolution, transient speed, and focus took dramatic steps forward.
Stated simply, the D8000 combines in roughly equal parts the following qualities: accurate and neutral voicing, high levels of resolution, superb transient agility from top to bottom, finely shaded dynamic contrasts, energetic expressiveness and impact—all with remarkable freedom from audible ringing, overshoot, distortion, or compression. Listening through the D8000 can be a revelation; it lets listeners hear recordings in their most pure, unexaggerated, and unadulterated forms—as if the slate suddenly has been wiped clean of a thousand small sonic obstructions, leaving just the music behind.
To appreciate the D8000’s superb resolution and expressiveness listen to Imogen Heap’s witty and deceptively complex song ‘Bad Body Double’ from Ellipse[RCA, 16/44.1], which contains a heady mix of natural, synthesized, and electronically processed sounds. The song combines funky and intricate riffs with high-energy rhythms, while Heap’s wry lyrics refer to her being her own ‘bad body double’. The D8000 effortlessly teases out the sophisticated multi-layered sounds used in the track while highlighting Heap’s feisty, self-deprecating humour. What is more, the D8000’s reveal a cool sonic detail that sets the stage for the song: namely, the fact that as the track opens Heap is softly working out the lines of the song as she sings to herself in the shower (!).
Few headphones have captured our attention and musical imagination in the way that Final’s D8000 has. It is a breakthrough design that has an uncanny ability to capture the essence of the music while pushing the usual sonic obstructions aside.
Campfire Audio Andromeda
Campfire Audio arrived on the scene in 2015 with the release of its Jupiter, Orion, and Lyra earphones, followed in 2016 by members of Campfire’s “Liquid Metal” earphone range, plus the flagship Andromeda model covered here. Campfire is a start-up company with a pedigree, in that it is a spin-off from ALO Audio, an Oregon-based firm famous for its specialized personal audio cables, headphone amplifiers and amp/DACs. Industry veteran Ken Ball serves as the president of both companies.
The Andromeda features angularly shaped, matte finished earpieces CNC machined from aluminium, with matching metal faceplates attached with recessed, miniature cap screws. The earpieces are fitted with very high-quality Campfire beryllium-copper MMCX-type signal cable connectors. One small caveat: because Campfire’s earpieces are somewhat angular, it would be good to do a test fit to make sure they are comfortable for you (they are for me). Campfire models each have distinctive colours and the Andromeda’s arrive in a beautiful Kelly green-anodised finish with accents in the form of silver-coloured metal sound outlet ports.
The three-way Andromeda uses five balanced armature-type drivers per earpiece, grouped as two high-frequency drivers, one midrange driver, and two low-frequency drivers. Outputs from the mid and low-frequency drivers are directed outward via traditional bore tubes, but the high-frequency drivers are treated differently. Instead of a “traditional ‘tube & damper’ tuning system,” says Campfire, the Andromeda’s dual high-frequency drivers are loaded into a 3D-printed Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chamber™ (T.A.E.C.) said to provide the requisite “acoustic tuning without compression”, thus yielding uncommonly extended and open-sounding treble response.
Andromeda is an earphone created by and for audio purists. It is a well-balanced all-rounder that offers nearly ideal neutral tonal balance, with a substantial amount of resolution—especially when it comes to capturing spatial cues in the music. The Andromeda might exhibit a very subtle degree of bass emphasis, but this mostly serves to give a sense of more solid grounding whenever foundational bass elements are present. Like many fundamentally neutral transducers, the Andromeda sounds so disarmingly natural that it can at first seem self-effacing, though it is simply standing aside to let the music tell its own story.
In practice, the Andromeda proves highly transparent to its sources. When the music is well recorded and rich in emotional content, the Andromeda sounds accomplished, expressive, and nuanced. But, on recordings that sound flat, compressed, or lacking in focus, the Andromeda will honestly reveal those shortcomings. What this means is that the better the recordings you play and the better your ancillary equipment is, the more you will be impressed by the Andromeda’s sound. I found the Andromeda competitive with top-tier models from firms such as JH Audio and Westone (many of which carry higher price tags than the Andromeda), which is to Campfire’s credit.
A track that highlights the Andromeda’s strengths is Dead Can Dance’s “Anabasis” from In Concert[PIAS America, 16/44.1]—a well-made live recording of the famous electro-acoustic ensemble led by Lisa Gerard and Brendan Perry. This atmospheric track combines both powerful yet delicate high and low percussion instruments, a wide variety of other acoustic and electronically synthesized instruments, plus haunting, Middle Eastern-influenced vocals. Through the Andromedas, the variegated textures and tonal colours of ‘Anabasis’ are brilliantly revealed, so that the track sounds by turns dark, brooding, shimmering, soaring, and majestic. Importantly, the Andromeda’s superb low-level resolution gives the earphones an uncanny ability to capture subtle concert hall sounds and the almost electric atmosphere and ‘feel’ of a live event.
The Andromeda is a serious purist’s earphone that does all things well and that offers particularly good top-to-bottom balance and coherency, plus very effective rendition of spatial cues in the music.
In many respects, the heart of this system lays in the components produced by iFi Audio and Chord Electronics, which not only set a very high-performance bar, but also are capable of driving virtually any headphones in almost any context. Notionally at least, they could form the electronics root of any non-electrostatic headphone system.
The iFi Pro iCAN may look compact, but it’s a sonic giant offering the elusive combination of high power, low noise, subtle user-selectable voicing options, excellent resolution, and matchless versatility—including the ability to serve as quite effective preamp in a traditional speaker-based system. Chord’s Hugo2 matches the Pro iCAN step for step thanks to its brilliant, Rob Watts-designed DAC, plus a quiet, powerful portable headphone preamplifier that is ideal for headphonistas on the go. Put the Pro iCAN and Hugo2 together and the two components basically ‘turbocharge’ one another, each making the other better.
Final’s D8000 is one of the finest planar magnetic headphones available today—a headphone whose revolutionary design gives it a well-balanced, powerful, revealing, and highly expressive sound that is wonderfully free of ringing, resonance problems, and other distortions. It is an ultra-high-performance headphone whose sophisticated sound will not easily be outgrown and that takes full advantage of our iFi and Chord Electronics.
The Campfire Andromeda is a very sophisticated universal-fit earphone that sounds almost like an in-ear sibling to the Final D8000. It’s an earphone that—like the D8000—exudes sonic refinement and sophistication that just won’t quit. Andromeda works beautifully with the Chord Hugo2 for those seeking top-quality sound away from home.
Our system takes listeners close to the sonic mountaintop for headphone and earphone performance, yet at a price that would seem modest by the standards of typical high-end loudspeaker-based system. Better still, it’s a system whose performance headroom will give owners plenty of room to grow in the future.
iFi Audio Pro iCAN
Type: Fully balanced hybrid solid-state/valve-powered headphone amplifier/preamplifier
Valve Complement: Two NOS GE5670 valves
Inputs: Three stereo single-ended (via RCA jacks), one stereo balanced (via dual 3-pin XLR jacks)
Preamplifier/DAC outputs: One stereo single-ended (via RCA jacks), one stereo balanced (via dual 3-pin XLR connectors)
Headphone outputs: Three stereo single-end headphone output jacks (two via 6.35mm headphone jacks, one via 3.5mm mini headphone jack); three stereo balanced headphone output jacks (one via 4-pin XLR headphone jack, one via dual 3-pin XLR headphone jacks, one via 3.5mm balanced—TRRS type—jack)
Solid-State: <0.0004% balanced/<0.004% single-ended
Tube: <0.0005% balanced/<0.005% single-ended
Tube+: <0.1% balanced/<0.01% single-ended
Signal-to-Noise Ratio: >147dB (A) balanced/>137dB (A) single-ended
Power Output @ 16 Ohms: >14,000mW balanced, >4,800mW single-ended
Dimensions (H×W×D): 63.3 ×192.5×213mm
Price: £1,695 UK; $1,799 US
Manufacturer Information: iFi Audio
UK Distributor: Select Audio
Tel.: +44(0)1900 601954
Chord Electronics Hugo2
Type: High-resolution portable headphone amplifier/DAC.
Digital inputs: Micro USB (PCM up to 32/768, native DSD from DSD64 to DSD512); Coaxial S/PDIF via 3.5mm combo jack (32/768); Optical via 3.5mm combo jack (24/192); TOSlink (24/192); and Bluetooth (Apt X implementation, 16/44.1/48)
Analogue outputs: One 3.5mm headphone jacks, one 6.35mm headphone jack, one stereo analogue output via RCA jacks
Battery: Two Enix Energies 3.7V/9.6Wh lithium ion batteries. Sufficient power at full charge for playing time in excess of seven hours.
Power Output @ 1kHz, 1%THD: 300 Ohms, 94mW; 32 Ohms, 740mW; 8 Ohms, 1050mW
Distortion – 1kHz 3V RMS output: 0.0001% THD
Signal-to-noise ratio: 126dB ‘A’ weighted
Output Impedance: 0.025 Ohms
Dimensions (H×W×D): 21 ×100 ×131mm
Price: £1,800 UK, or $2,379 US
Manufacturer Information: Chord Electronics Ltd.
Tel: +44 (0) 1622 721444
US Distributor: Bluebird Music Ltd.
Type: Planar magnetic headphone with air film damping system
Driver complement: Full range AFDS planar magnetic driver
Maximum SPL: 98dB
Impedance: 60 Ohms
Warranty: 2 years
Price: £2,999 UK; $3,799 US
Manufacturer information: Final
Distributor: KS Distribution
Campfire Audio Andromeda
Type: Five-driver, three-way universal-fit earphone
Driver complement: five balanced armature-type drivers grouped as two high-frequency drivers in a Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chamber enclosure, one midrange driver, and two low-frequency drivers.
Frequency response: 10Hz–28kHz
Sensitivity: 115dB SPL/mW
Impedance: 12.8 Ohms
Price: $1,099 US
Manufacturer Information: Campfire Audio
Tel: +1 (503) 853-8606, +1 (855) 204-1492
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