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iFi hip-dac - A Smooth, Musical Operator!

11-10-2020 | By Kermit Heartsong | Issue 112

iFi hip-dac

The Streaming Houses—Spotify, Apple, Amazon, Qobuz, Tidal, etc.—that provide access to, literally, millions of albums at home or On-The-Go (OTG), can be said to have birthed the "Glorious Age of Accessible Music (GAAM)." And the generation that is, arguably, best suited to take advantage of this is Generation Z (<20yrs)—the largest population segment at 25.9%, followed now by Millennials  (20-34yrs) at 24.5%, and then Baby Boomers (50-68yrs) at 23.6%. Why Generation Z? Apparently, they have a penchant for absorbing multiple genres of music on a regular basis.

The digital media company Sweety High's 2018 report—Gen Z Music Consumption & Spending Report—stated that, "Gen Z teens are listening to more diverse music than ever before." Further, the study goes on to say, "that nearly 97% of Gen Z females say that they listen to at least five musical genres on a regular basis."

It was also noted in the report that not only does music play a rather vital role in the lives of the Gen Z, but:

"They have more options than ever to find undiscovered music, and Gen Z embrace that diversity in their music genres and platforms, blending a mix of new and traditional media options for music discovery and consumption."

For the audio manufacturers that are listening and, most notably, the headphone, In-Ear-Monitor (IEM) and headgear (DAPs, DACs, Amps) folks—OTG manufacturers—GAAM represents an incredible and mutually beneficial opportunity for all—near Yottabytes of available music listened to OTG anywhere and at anytime!

This brings us to our review of the iFi hip-dac ($149.99) and to a company, iFi Audio, that has been quite conscious of the GAAM and as a result has been steadily providing notable solutions and advancements since its inception in 2012.

Some of iFi Audio's other solutions—micro iDSD, nano iDSD Black, nano iOne, Zen Blue, Zen DAC and others—have all been tailored to bettering the musical experience/interaction between one's smartphone and/or computer.

As I have listened to the iFi hip-dac these past weeks it has made its signature known across various headphones, IEMs, and as plugged into smartphone and computer alike. That signature is its wonderfully, natural musicality and more than sufficient detail, which will engage a wide range of music lovers. Though not the smallest in a transportable DAC, it will fit neatly into most pockets (back and front) and even (relatively) small purses.

Refrain: Unlike most reviews, this review will be non-sequential, as it will start with how the headphones actually sound and not the process of physically "undressing" them and/or laying out their various parts, specifications, etc. Think of this review then, as a  non-linear movie—Memento, Kill Bill, Arrival, etc—that, likewise, starts at the end and winds its way to the beginning.

The Sound

The iFi hip-dac is platform agnostic in that it will "meld" with iOS, Android, Mac or PC and will deliver beautiful music, in every case (tested), far above the natural abilities of the various platforms in question.

I listen now to Erykah Badu's "On & On" (Buduizm, Universal), a bass-heavy track, and the iFi hip-dacs allied to the FiiO FH5 brings a good measure of the potency contained within this track. However, when XBass is implemented, via push button, Yikes! The bass now rumbles and roars, and there is no noticeable loss of detail. Erykah's voice is still smooth and engaging and alive with detail amid the solid bass. Bass-heavy genres? Check.

The iFi hip-dac's volumetric cube—its soundstage—is of good size. It is wide, though not particularly deep, but it allows for good height. There is cohesion across the frequency spectrum which provides for a nice, well, tuned balanced. The iFi hip-dac has a detailed, natural, and engaging sound, which will not fatigue over long hours.


David Holland's "Spheres" (Emerald Tears, ECM) plays via the iFi hip-dac and the FiiO FH5 duo. The iFi hip-dac's bass (with XBass engaged) is, as mentioned above, substantial, tight, musical, and relatively fast. And as noted above, the bass will rumble and roar when called for, but not in a way that overpowers or compromises the midrange or obscures detail.


Joan Shelly's "Not Over By Half" (We'd Be Home, No Quarter) plays. The most obvious thing that the iFi hip-dac does across this song is to draw you into the music and the beauty of Joan's voice, which is passionate, engaging, and natural. It is a midrange that will tame the screecher IEMs and, possibly, give life to the living-dead IEMs/headphones. The iFi hip-dac possesses a natural musicality, that is very lovely across the midrange.


Vilde Frang's "Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 II. Canzonetta - Adante" (Nielsen, Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos, Warner Classics) plays. Across the treble, the iFi hip-dac provides smooth, sweet, sibilance-free extension. Again, it is engaging, detailed, and very natural and there is air and separation.

The Wrappings and Accessories

The iFi hip-dac comes in a small, white, printed box with a hang tab, not unlike those found hanging in department and big box stores. The box's design is straightforward, clean in a very functional, no thrills, no frills manner.

Once opened and the hip-dac is slid out. One sees that the hip-dac rests in an injection-molded, white plastic tray. The hip-dac itself is wrapped in a semi-clear, plastic pouch. When the pouch with the hip-dac is removed, beneath it in the ejection molded cavity can be found:

  • 1-Warranty card
  • 1-Instruction manual
  • 1-USB-A (male) to USB-C (male) adapter
  • 1-USB-A (females) to USB-A (male) adapter
  • 1-USB-A (female) to USB-C (male) adapter
  • 1-Small, adhesive pad of 4-silicon feet

Design - Look and Feel

The hip-dac's design is reminiscent of a small, metal "hip flask." It is finished in a beautiful, dark, teal blue metallic with black end-caps and a copper volume knob at its front center. It fits comfortably in the hand, can, indeed, fit into one's pockets (back, front), and is a very good companion for OTG listening.

It's black front-end-cap features (left to right) a PowerMatch button, an XBass button, an on/off/volume control knob, two LED's to either side of the control knob which indicate mode, as outlined below:

  • Green - 44/48/88/96kHz
  • Yellow - 176/192kHz/DXD352/384 kHz
  • Cyan - DSD 128, DSD 64/2.8/3.1/5.6/6.2 MHz
  • Blue - DSD 256/ 11.2/12.2 MHz
  • Magenta - MQA

While, it's back-end-cap features a USB-A (female) data input, a USB-C (female) charging input, beneath which is a very small LED, whose color indicates the level of the iFi hip-dac's remaining battery charge.

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

The iFi hip-dac is truly a compact and elegantly designed solution for music lovers, who are On-the-Go.


The hip-dac via its Burr-Brown DSD1793 DAC supports PCM (up to 384kHz/32 ), DSD (up to 12.3MHz ), DXD (up to 384kHz), and MQA. MQA being a rather nice touch for a DAC/Amp at this price point. The iFi hip-dac has a Lithium Polymer 2200mAh battery with a claimed twelve hours of use per charge. However, the claimed battery use never actually came to fruition, as the time we were able to document was closer to a maximum of seven to eight hours.

Its PowerMatch button is a gain switch that allows for on-the-fly gain increase for more demanding, higher impedance headphones, whereas in standard operation, low impedance, high sensitivity headphones are, generally, well matched.

The hip-dac's XBass button boosts the low-end for IEMs and headphones in need of "tone" adjustment for what might be considered an anemic or light bass. When implemented XBass nicely boosts the bass without bloat, smearing, loss of detail, or any annoying artifacts.

The hip-dac is not quite powerful enough to drive the demigods of inefficiency (they know who they are), but for most IEMs and a good number of headphones, it will bring forth quite a volume of enjoyable music.

In addition to its balanced 4.4mm (Pentaconn) headphone input, a 3.5mm "S-Balanced" headphone input is included. "S-Balanced" being a proprietary implementation, which simulates a balanced connection by virtue of an extra ground connection.


  • Formats supported: DSD256/128/64, Octa/Quad/Double/Single-Speed DSD DXD(384/352.8kHz)
  • PCM(384/352.8/192/176.4/96/88.2/48/44.1kHz), MQA
  • Digital Inputs: USB 3.0 type 'A' High-Speed Asynchronous USB 2.0, (32-bit 384kHz)
  • Headphone Outputs: Balanced 4.4mm, S-Bal (SE) 3.5mm
  • Power Output (@1% THD): BAL: 400mW@32 Ohm
  • S-BAL(SE): 280mW@32 Ohm BAL: 6.3V@600 Ohm
  • S-BAL (SE): 3.2V@600 Ohm
  • Battery: Lithium-polymer 2200mAh
  • Power System: Charging via USB-C, BC V1.2 compliant up to 1000mA charging current
  • Dimensions: 102(l) x 70(w) x 14(h) mm
  • Weight: 125g (0.28 lbs)


The iFi hip-dac ($149.99) is, indeed, a smooth, musical operator and though not the last word in transparency, it will not embarrass itself in any genre or over any piece of music and that is, indeed saying a lot! And at its price point the iFi hip-dac represents a rather amazing opportunity for those exploring better sound from smartphone and computer alike. Further, the hip-dac will decode MQA, DSD, DXD, and other high resolution files and that ability, at its price point, I'm afraid, is as rare as raptor's teeth. Bonus!

Should you have bass light IEMs/headphones, be on a rather tight budget, and consider yourself a "music lover" of the first degree, then the iFi hip-dac deserves very strong consideration. And, at the very least, it deserves to be on the short list of music lovers the world over. The only "Con" that we were able to uncover, across our listening sessions was the purported battery time versus the actual battery time, which fell quite short. Other than that, highly recommend!

Music - Quboz, Tidal exclusively

  • Alexander Tharaud, Tharaud Plays Rachmaninoff
  • Omar Sosa, Ballads, Calma
  • Patricia Barber, Verse
  • Rickie Lee Jones, Pop Pop
  • Sade, Lovers Live
  • Sheku Kannah Mason, Inspiration
  • Tracey Chapman, Where You Live
  • Olafur Arnalds, Island Songs
  • Melody Gardot, My One and Only Thrill
  • Melody Gardot, My Worrisome Heart
  • Eiji Oue, Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances
  • Hilary Hahn, Tchaikovsky
  • Mechell Ndegeocello, Bitter
  • Jordi Savall, Tous les Matins du Monde
  • Maxwell, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite
  • Sarah Jarosh, Undercurrent
  • Igor Stravinsky, Stravinsky: Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)
  • Annie-Sophie Mutter, Mendelssohn, Brahms: Violin Concertos
  • London Grammar, If You Wait
  • Stevie Wonder, Innervisions
  • Marvin Gaye, What's Going On
  • Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
  • Jóhann Jóhannsson, Orphée
  • Alexis Ffrench, Evolution
  • Dave Holland, Emerald Tears
  • Gidon Kremer, Daniil Trifonov, Giedre Dirvanauskaite, Preghiera/Rachmaninov Piano Trios
  • Joan Shelly, Joan Shelly
  • Magdalena Kožená, French Arias
  • Andy Beyv, American Song
  • Erykah Badu, Baduism
  • Kronos Quartet, Kronos Caravan

Pros: Plug and play efficiency, great musicality, and fun!

Cons: Battery time.

Ancillary Equipment

  • Meze Empyrean
  • OBravo EAMT-2C IEMs
  • Final Sonorous III
  • FiiO FH5
  • Cayin N6ii/A01
  • Cayin N6ii/E01
  • Burson Audio Conductor 3XP
  • AudioQuest Cobalt
  • AudioQuest Red
  • AudioQuest Dragon Tail
  • Samsung S10
  • Apple X iPhone

iFi hip-dac

Retail: $149


Abbingdon N.A./iFi audio USA

105 Professional Pkwy, Suite 1506

Yorktown, VA 23693

Abbingdon N.A./iFi audio USA

1085 Blair Avenue

Sunnyvale, CA 94087


Kermit Heartsong is a published author, writer, and working screenwriter, who brings an established writer's approach/perspective to Personal HiFi reviews. Kermit has owned numerous high-end and ultra-high-end components/systems and has tested numerous pieces of audio gear over the course of his life. And he is a music lover first and foremost with regard to the types of Personal HiFi equipment that he enjoys and enjoys to review. 

In conjunction with Positive Feedback, Kermit, as an Associate Editor for PF, will focus on Personal HiFi and Headphones for the venerable and long standing audio magazine. Kermit is currently Managing Director of AudioKey Reviews. AudioKey Reviews' mandate is to review Personal HiFi equipment from headphones to DACS to Amps/DAC to IEMs and, in doing so, to seek out that which is, above all, musical, transparent, and engaging.