iFi’s hip-dac/amp review [+ DAC Shootout]

Big Shoutout to Lawrance and iFi Audio for sending this demo unit, and for their continued support!!

Updates:

  • 3/1/2020. Added Table.

2,601 word post, approx. 7-8 min. read

Hey there friend, and Welcome aboard!!

Let’s start by taking a look at a chart!

iFi’s hip-dac

Title
iFi Hip-dac Portable DAC Headphone Amp Balanced for Android/iPhone
Thumbnail
iFi Hip-dac Portable DAC Headphone Amp Balanced for Android/iPhone
Capability
Up to 32-bit/384kHz
DSD Support?
Inputs
1x USB Type-A.
Headphone Outputs
3.5mm Single Ended, 4.4mm Balanced.
Formats Supported
DSD256/128/64, Octa/Quad/Double/Single-Speed DSD, DXD(384/352.8kHz) PCM (384/352.8/192/176.4/96/88.2/48/44.1), MQA
Output Power
400mW @ 16 Ohm.
Power System
Charging via USB-C, CBV1.2 compliant up to 1000mA charging current
Weight
135g
Prime
Price
$149.99
Learn More
Title
iFi Hip-dac Portable DAC Headphone Amp Balanced for Android/iPhone
Thumbnail
iFi Hip-dac Portable DAC Headphone Amp Balanced for Android/iPhone
Capability
Up to 32-bit/384kHz
DSD Support?
Inputs
1x USB Type-A.
Headphone Outputs
3.5mm Single Ended, 4.4mm Balanced.
Formats Supported
DSD256/128/64, Octa/Quad/Double/Single-Speed DSD, DXD(384/352.8kHz) PCM (384/352.8/192/176.4/96/88.2/48/44.1), MQA
Output Power
400mW @ 16 Ohm.
Power System
Charging via USB-C, CBV1.2 compliant up to 1000mA charging current
Weight
135g
Prime
Price
$149.99
Learn More

Before we get into the iFi hip-dac review, grab a snack, sit back and relax because..

I’m Here to Help!!

Table of Contents

Introduction
Build & Aesthetic
Features, Usage, and Power
Video Review
Photo Gallery
Sound & Comparisons to Other DACs
Final Grade
Album List
Stu’s Notepad

Now without further ado, let’s get rolling shall we?

iFi’s hip-dac and Headphone Amplifier

Specifications

  • Price: Check Amazon!
  • Digital Inputs: USB 3.0 Type ‘A’
  • High-Speed Asynchronous USB 2.0 (32-bit/384kHz)
  • Headphone Output: Balanced 4.4mm, Single-Ended 3.5mm
  • Power Output: 2.0V/400mW @ 16 Ohm.
  • Battery: Lithium-polymer 2200mAh
  • Power System: Charging via USB-C BC V1.2 compliant up to 1000mA charging current
  • Power (max): <2W idle, 4W max
  • Dimensions: 102(l) x 70(w) x 14(h) mm
  • Weight: 125g (0.28 lbs.)
  • Warranty period: 12 months

In The Box:

  • hip-dac and portable headphone amplifier
  • 1x USB-A Blue Cable for PC
  • 1x iFi Audio OTG Cable (Type-C) for phone
  • 1x Type-C Charging Cable
  • 4 adhesive rubber feet
  • User guide and warranty card

Introduction

Even despite my ever growing disdain for the Amp/DAC market, there is a company that I think deserves some props. That’s iFi and no, it’s not because they send me stuff. It’s because they actually make good products.

Is their new hip-dac worth the investment? What does it do? Who is it for? The answers to all of these questions and more can be had for the low low price of $299.99, now backed by a full money back guarantee! If you aren’t completely satisfied with the advice given here today, we’ll refund you no questions asked. Just swipe your credit card here and LOL JK.

Let’s talk build..

Build & Aesthetic

As with all of iFi’s products that I’ve gotten a chance to demo, the hip-dac is no different with regard to build.

It’s built wonderfully, feels heavy and substantial in your hand given what it is, and boasts a more robust profile than most DACs in this price range or otherwise.

When you finally hold it in your hand, you’ll know where your money went! I firmly believe this is part of what sets iFi apart from other companies. They always take great care in crafting a product that not only performs well musically, but is built for the long haul in terms of longevity and reliability.

If I accidentally dropped this unit, I’d feel comfortable that it would shake it off and ask for more like Mick Foley.

All in all, everything feels solid to the touch. There isn’t much to it as far as moving parts go. It’s a simple and effective Amp/DAC for your mobile phone and also works as a desktop Amp/DAC. The buttons feel good, the volume pot feels solid and robust, and the connections are good for the most part. I sometimes have a bit of trouble actually getting the 3.5mm plug into the jack, but that could be a personal problem. 😛

Let’s get into some of the hip-dac’s features!

Features & Usage

The front of the unit reveals a very pragmatic and almost austere sensibility. It’s very utilitarian looking.

There’s iFi’s mainstays in both Power Match (essentially gain), and XBass, a volume pot that doubles as the On/Off switch, and 4.4mm balanced headphone jack as well as a single ended 3.5mm jack.

Just turn the volume knob and it will make a click sound before powering on and off.

The unit also displays different colors according to source file. Let’s take a look:

  • Green = 44/48/88/96kHz
  • Yellow = 176/192kHz, DXD352/384kHz
  • Cyan = DSD128/DSD64 2.8/3.1/5.6/6.2MHz
  • Blue = DSD256 11.2/12.2MHz
  • Magenta = MQA
  • Off = No Valid Signal aka you’re SOL buddy! Lol.

This configuration is similar to iFi’s Zen DAC/Amp for your desktop.

The Volume Pot is an analogue volume control. At extremely low volume you’ll notice there’s and ever so slight imbalance, but other than that I’d say it’s nearly perfect. And like, who cares right? Will you be listening to your music that low? I don’t think so, BUB.

To plug it in to your laptop, just use the supplied Blue Type-A cable. After plugging it in, turn on the unit to draw BUS power. If you power it on first and then connect, it will draw battery power.

In battery power mode, the hip-dac will continue to use battery power even if the USB cable is connected afterwards.

For connections to Apple devices, the Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter is required. For connection to Android devices, the supplied USB OTG cable will work. It is a Type-C cable, so if you have a phone with a micro connection like I do, you’ll need one of these adapters.

In addition to the Type-A port on the back, we’ve also got a USB Type-C charging port. Just use the supplied Type-C cable to charge. It takes around 3 hours and lasts 12 hours before needing another charge.

iFi hip-dac review

The back of the unit also reveals a small LED charging light to indicate the status.

  • White = > 75%
  • Green = > 25%
  • Red = > 10%
  • Red (flashing) = < 10%

The battery LED will also flash when charging.

What formats are supported?

  • DSD256/128/64
  • Octa/Quad/Double/Single-Speed DSD
  • DXD (384/352.8kHz)
  • PCM (384/352.8/192/176.4/96/88.2/48/44.1kHz
  • MQA

To enable MQA:

  • Click the 3 bars in the upper left hand corner inside Tidal.
  • Go to File > Settings > Streaming.
  • Scroll down until you see Sound Output, then set it accordingly. It will say something like (“iFi (By AMR) HD + USB Audio).
  • Click to the right of Sound Output where it says “More Settings”
  • Tick the box on to enable Exclusive Mode, which will allow MQA rendering.

If you don’t go through these steps first, the unit won’t display Magenta for MQA. Sometimes Tidal also gives you a pop up and asks if you would like to set the device to Exclusive Mode when you turn the unit on and fire up the program. If that happens, just press yes and you won’t have to worry about the above steps.

Something I would have liked to see:

  • Some rubber bands for your phone.

Power Output

The hip-dac supplies 2.0V/400mW @16 Ohm, which I find is very good for a unit as affordable as the hip-dac is. I don’t have any trouble driving my Sennheiser HD600’s or AKG K702’s, but I do have the power match button on. With it off, you’ll be mostly maxing out the volume, but it does get loud enough. With the button on, you’ll have more than plenty of headroom.

Speaking of headphones and getting loud enough, how does the hip-dac actually sound? For these albums, I listened to the entire duration, but picked out my favorites from each to dissect.

Before we get into it, let’s take a gander at some images and watch a video!

Video Review

Don’t forget to leave me some love! <3

Photos..

Photo Gallery

Afternoon Sun

Shoot 2!

Brisk Morning

Now for the sound!

Sound

& Comparisons to the DragonFly Red, Q1 MK II, and Topping NX4

  • DAC chip: Burr Brown chipset True NativeDSD Bit-Perfect DXD/PCM
  • Headphones Used: Sennheiser HD600, AKG K702
  • Source: Tidal Hi-Fi, Spotify Premium

Because I own the DragonFly Red, I thought I’d do a little A/B comparison to get a sense of how the hip-dac sounds in practice.

“We talkin’ ’bout practice man!” -Allen Iverson

The differences are quite immense upon first listen.

ifi hip-dac review

  • Album 1: J Dilla – The Shining (FLAC, 2006)
  • Headphones: Sennheiser HD600

“Won’t Do”

This is probably my favorite beat on the album, and is up there with my all time favorite J Dilla joints. It’s incredibly layered and there’s a ton of amazing things going on. Dilla really had a way of working samples to his advantage and squeezing every last drop of nuance out of the vocals and instruments. This track is a prime example of him at the peak of his creative powers. He chops it up with absolutely incredible precision and care, paying attention to even the smallest, most subtle details to craft a masterpiece.

The DragonFly Red renders the song much more clear and open, while the hip-dac is a lot warmer, more laid back, and more relaxed. Imagine yourself skiing down a mountain in January while chewing Winterfresh gum. That’s what it feels like to listen out of the Red here. 😀

The hip-dac simply provides a different flavor. Neither is better or worse than the other. It mostly comes down to preference. How do you like your music to be portrayed?

The tracks “Love”, “Baby”, and “So Far To Go” all yielded the same result. The DragonFly Red dons a more open type of sound. It’s more neutral and clean sounding like Windex. That said, the hip-dac doesn’t sound congested or anything. It’s more of a kick back with a glass of scotch type of sentiment.

Being that the hip-dac does resemble a flask, I’d highly recommend a glass of spirits to go with it. Just don’t become an alcoholic and start hiding booze in your purse and sh**. XD

  • Album 2: Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV (Master, 1971)
  • Headphones: Sennheiser HD600

iFi hip-dac review

On Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks”, the differences heard from above are still there, but they’re more subtle. I think it’s easier to distinguish the differences in how this DAC sounds with Hip-Hop than it is with Rock and Roll.

On “Stairway to Heaven”, I was also surprised to not hear much of a difference, given the stark contrast between some of the tracks on The Shining.

  • Album 3: Pink Floyd – Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (FLAC, 1967)
  • Headphones: Sennheiser HD600

“Bike” – The differences in sound from above are still apparent, but this time a bit more noticeable than they were on Led Zeppelin IV. The DF Red sounds a bit more crisp and clear. More open.

“On Interstellar Overdrive” It’s more of the same. The hip-dac seems to have a subtle layer of blanky over it, rendering the track ever so slightly warmer and more relaxed.

  • Album 4: J Dilla – Jay Love Japan (FLAC, 2007)
  • Headphones: Sennheiser HD600

“Yesterday” is a great track to compare because it’s really clean and hits hard even without any bass boost. The DragonFly Red rendered it open, sterile and crisp, but it lacked the weight and body that the hip-dac provided. There seemed to be more meat on it’s bones out of the hip-dac. I’d compare it to a lean body builder who has some muscle on him (but not too much like a steroid meat head) vs. your average skinny dude.

Again, comparing these 2 DACs with Hip-Hop is much easier and reveals a fairly stark contrast vs. a genre like Classic Rock.

Comparison to the Topping NX4 & FiiO Q1 MK II

These 3 DACs are very similar in terms of aesthetic, build, and features. Sound wise, I’d say the NX4 is more sterile and neutral, similar to the sound of the DragonFly Red in comparison to the hip-dac (The DragonFly is a tad warmer than the NX4 though).

The Q1 is probably the warmest sounding out of this lot, coming in a tad warmer than the hip-dac. The relationship between the Q1 MK II and NX4 is similar to the relationship between the DragonFly Red and hip-dac that we discussed a bit ago.

  • The Q1  = Warmer, more relaxed, more lush sounding.
  • NX4 = Cooler, more intense/lively, more sterile and neutral sounding.
  • hip-dac vs. DragonFly Red = same relationship.
  • Q1 vs. hip-dac = similar
  • NX4 vs. hip-dac = NX4 is more neutral and sterile sounding. Similar to an Objective 2 actually.

ifi hip-dac review

All 3 support support DSD and have gain and bass functions. The NX4 does not have a balanced 4.4mm jack, but does have a line out. The Q1 MK II also has a line out function on the front, in addition to it’s balanced 2.5mm port and standard 3.5mm single ended port.

Instead of Type-A, the NX4 has 2 micro USB inputs, 1 for charging and the other for listening. Charge time on the NX4 and Q1 MKII are rated at less than four hours, while the hip-dac claims 3. Probably a minuscule difference there to be honest.

The Q1 MK II has one micro USB port on the back for connection to a PC. For your phone, you’ll either use the auxiliary port for Android, or the supplied Apple Lightning Cable for your iPhone/iOS device.

The NX4 claims 7.5 hours playback time before needing a charge (via USB DAC mode), while the Q1 says around 10 hours for the USB portion, and 20 hours via auxiliary. For me and my Android, aux is ideal. I don’t feel like I’m ever having to charge the Q1 since I use it with both my phone and PC.

In headphone Amp mode, the NX4 claims 28 hours. So basically, if you’re using it as just an Amp into a separate DAC. Related: Beginners Guide: What is a USB DAC

The hip-dac claims 12 hours via USB, but I was only getting 6.5 through my PC.

Weight wise, the Q1 is the lightest at 101g, followed by the hip-dac at 125g and the NX4 at 148. It should be noted that on my scale the hip-dac weighs in at 134/135g.

Final Grade

Overall, the hip-dac deserves an A or an A-. For what it is, it performs beautifully. You can pair it with your phone, listen at your desk, and it comes packed with plenty of power and the XBass button if you desire some extra low end slam.

2 things that I had to dock some points for was the lack of rubber bands to attach to your phone, and the only 6.5 hrs. play time when it was advertised as 12.

Even so..

I much appreciated the inclusion of the Type-C Adapter for your phone. That’s an extra $15 that they included for free. The only downside is that if you have a phone with Micro USB like I do, you’ll have to snag the adapter linked above. Still, that’s (roughly) $8 well spent in my estimation. Just make it a habit of charging the DAC like you would your phone and you should be good to go. I wouldn’t wait ’till it completely drains. Charge it as soon as you’re done listening to music and you won’t have to worry much or do any sort of waiting around.

A DAC like this that’s built incredibly well, sounds great, and functions exactly like it should is a win every day and twice on Sunday, bloke!

 

Well that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you’ve enjoyed this iFi hip-dac Review and Comparison to the DragonFly Red, Topping NX4 and FiiO Q1 MK II.

Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss the mark on something? Please let me know down below or Contact me!!

Which of these Amp/DACs fits your needs better? I would love to hear from you. Until next time..

All the best and God bless,

 

 

-Stu

[Xtr@Ba$eHitZ]

Can’t decide which headphones to purchase? Interested in a complete buyers guide outlining over 40 of the best options on the market? Click on over to the best audiophile headphones to learn more!!

Be sure to also check out my Reviews and Resources page for more helpful and informative articles!

Albums..

Album List

More coming!

J Dilla – The Shining (2006)
Pink Floyd – Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (1967)
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
J Dilla – Jay Love Japan (2007)
J Dilla – Ruff Draft (2007)
Yes – Fragile (1971)
Led Zeppelin – Presence (1976)
The Police – Synchronicity (1983)
Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue (1958)
Yes – The Yes Album (1971)
Yes – Close To The Edge (1972)
Yes – Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973)
Peter Frampton – Frampton Comes Alive! (1976)
Rush – Hemispheres (1978)
The Pharcyde – labcabincalifornia (1995)
Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)
Sufjan Stevens – Michigan (2003)

Notes..

Stu’s Notepad

Coming Soon!

iFi hip-dac

4.85

Build

5.0/5

Sound

5.0/5

Ease of Use

4.3/5

Features

5.0/5

Ergonomics/Power

5.0/5

Pros

  • Fantastic Build
  • Plenty of Power
  • Bass and Power Match
  • Warm, Smooth, and Detailed
  • Easy to Use

Cons

  • Could have used some bands for phone
  • Not getting 12 hour play time
  • A Type-C to micro adapter would have been nice
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