While most of iFi's personal audio products have been designed primarily to help power more demanding headphones, the Hip-DAC was designed for those people that are still worried with the inferior digital-to-analog conversion and amp circuitry built-in into their smartphones, tablets, PCs and Macs, while offering a vastly improved headphone sound. The design was simply optimized to connect the user's favorite playback device via USB, plug in any type of corded headphones or in-ear monitors, and do what is supposed to do in the home, in the office, on a train, or a plane.
The DAC section is based around a Burr-Brown DAC chip (Texas Instruments) that iFi uses extensively in its products, combined with custom circuitry to deliver the best possible sound quality in a portable device from HRA digital audio formats, including PCM, native DSD and fully decode MQA, as used by Tidal’s ‘Masters’ tier. Hi-res PCM and DXD audio data is supported at sampling rates up to 384kHz, alongside DSD from 2.8MHz to 12.4MHz (DSD64, 128 and 256).
As iFi explains, thanks to the Burr-Brown chip’s True Native design, PCM and DSD take separate pathways, while extensive clock-locking eradicates jitter, to better ensure the integrity of the digital signal until conversion to analog. In either side of the rotary volume control there is a pair of LEDs that changes color to indicate the format and sampling rate of the digital audio being played.
Another circuit feature that separates the Hip-DAC and iFi’s other DACs from competing designs is the XMOS chip, which processes audio data received at the USB input and is programmed in-house. Rather than relying on firmware supplied off-the-shelf, which is not typically optimized for audiophile-grade sound, iFi programs its own bespoke firmware to enhance audio processing. And iFi’s continuous software development allows features to be added or optimized via firmware updates, enabling the Hip-DAC to be tailored to the user’s playback priorities and ensuring it stays cutting-edge over time. Users can even download and install different versions of iFi firmware to experiment with different digital filters if they wish.
The Hip-DAC’s amp circuitry is a balanced (differential) design – highly unusual in a DAC/headphone amp anywhere near this price point. Balanced audio circuits have long been championed by renowned high-end audio electronics engineer John Curl, now a technical consultant for iFi, given their ability to reduce noise within the signal path. Curl has worked closely with iFi’s in-house technical team, led by Thorsten Loesch, to produce an analog stage of exceptional quality for a device of this kind.
The circuitry incorporates a range of high-quality components, carefully selected for their performance in an audio context, including a custom iFi OV op-amp, TDK C0G class 1 ceramic capacitors, a precision low-noise power supply IC from Texas Instruments and a high-quality analog volume pot.
The headphone amp has a nominal power rating of 400mW and is capable of delivering over 700mW from the balanced output depending on the impedance of the attached headphones, driving all manner of headphone/earphone types with ease. The amp stage features switchable gain, which iFi terms PowerMatch. This matches the level of drive to the load presented by the headphones by adjusting input sensitivity and thereby signal strength.
XBass is another user-selectable feature – a sophisticated form of ‘bass boost’ that enhances low frequencies without muddying the midrange, particularly useful with earphones and open-back headphones that may lack deep bass. It operates entirely in the analog domain rather than messing with the digital signal via DSP and may be switched in or out of the signal path.
The Hip-DAC’s asynchronous USB input handles audio data up to 32-bit/384kHz and supports the ‘SuperSpeed’ USB 3.0 standard (5Gbps), as well as USB 2.0 for backwards compatibility. There are two USB ports – Type A for audio data and USB-C for charging.
Two outputs are provided – a 3.5mm socket for headphones with a single-ended cable/connector and a Pentaconn 4.4mm output enabling headphones equipped with balanced connectivity to take full advantage of the Hip-DAC’s differential amp design. In addition, the 3.5mm output benefits from iFi’s proprietary S-Balanced circuitry, cutting crosstalk and related distortion in half when used with regular, single-ended headphone connections – this is especially beneficial with high-sensitivity in-ear monitors.
Also helping to support the user on the move, the Hip-DAC’s 2200mAh battery lasts for around eight to 12 hours of playing time, depending on volume level and how power-hungry the connected headphones are. The Hip-DAC is available from February 2020 and will be showcased at CanJam NYC 2020 (February 15-16).
iFi is a sister-brand of Abbingdon Music Research (AMR), both headquartered in Southport, UK and with combined in-house hardware and software development teams. The two British brands respectively design and manufacture portable, desktop and lifestyle audio products and high-end hi-fi components.