Big Shoutout to Lawrance and iFi Audio for sending this demo unit, and for their continued support!!
Originally posted 2/15/20.
- 3/1/2020. Added Table.
- 6/10/21. Article/link cleanup.
- 1/17/22. Article update.
- 4/14/22. Article/links update.
Hey there friend, and Welcome aboard!!
At A Glance
In The Box
USB Type-A to Type-C Charging Cable
USB Type-A (Female) to Type-A Cable
Quick Start Guide
Table of Contents
Build & Aesthetic
Features, Usage, and Power
Sound & Comparisons to Other DACs
iFi’s hip-dac and Headphone Amplifier
- Price: Check Amazon! | Check B&H!
- 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
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.
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 it’s very small, and it also 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 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. 😛
Features & Usage
The front of the unit reveals a very pragmatic and almost austere sensibility. It’s very utilitarian-looking.
There are iFi’s mainstays in both Power Match (essentially gain), and XBass (Bass Boost), a volume pot that doubles as the On/Off switch, and a 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 the 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.
The Volume Pot is an analogue volume control. At extremely low volume you’ll notice there’s an ever so slight imbalance, but other than that I’d say it’s nearly perfect.
To plug it into 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 afterward.
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.
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?
- Octa/Quad/Double/Single-Speed DSD
- DXD (384/352.8kHz)
- PCM (384/352.8/192/176.4/96/88.2/48/44.1kHz
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.
The hip-dac supplies 2.0V/400mW @16 Ohm, which I find is very good for a unit as affordable as this one is.
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.
It’s interesting to note that even despite the 400se’s poor efficiency, I didn’t need power match.
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.
Don’t forget to leave me some love! <3
& 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, HE400se, Arya, DEVA, etc.
- Source: Tidal Hi-Fi, Spotify Premium
- Playlist: Here! (Keep in mind this is a new playlist that will be used to compare with the hip-dac 2.
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.
The differences are quite immense upon first listen.
- Album 1: J Dilla – The Shining (FLAC, 2006)
- Headphones: Sennheiser HD600
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 kickback 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**.
- Album 2: Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV (Master, 1971)
- Headphones: Sennheiser HD600
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 does 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 its bones out of the hip-dac.
I’d compare it to a lean bodybuilder who has some muscle on him (but not too much like a steroid meathead) 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 less sterile 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 (cool vs. warm).
- Q1 vs. hip-dac = Similar sounding.
- NX4 vs. hip-dac = NX4 is more neutral and sterile sounding. Similar to an Objective 2 actually.
All 3 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 its 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.
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 were the lack of rubber bands to attach to your phone, and the only 6.5 hrs. playtime when it was advertised as 12.
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 as 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 shouldn’t have any issues. 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.
The question becomes, is the hip-dac still worth the investment today?
In 2020 I thought it was a great value and purchase, and not much has changed other than the fact that since then, a lot more companies are manufacturing dacs with Bluetooth capability.
iFi’s Go Blu is one such example, and it is more convenient with a phone. You’ll sacrifice a tiny bit of sound quality, and it’s roughly $30 more. But you can use either the hip-dac or Blu with some sort of OTG cable.
The hip-dac is also a bit warmer than the Blu in terms of its sound profile, and that may or may not factor into your decision.
If I needed something portable, I’d purchase a BTR5 which is tops on my list Best Portable Headphone Amplifiers right now.
For something similar to the hip-dac with more flexibility, I still like the Q1 MK II though they have replaced that with the Q3.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy the sound of the hip-dac, because I do. I just don’t use it much at all, and so, at least at this juncture, I’m not recommending it anymore.
Do keep in mind that I’ve demoed over 55 Amp/DACS at the time of this update and have 10+ on my desktop at any given point.
With that, check out my list of portable options:
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!!
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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,
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