iFi Audio iCAN Phantom Headphone Preamp Page 2

I've always found Oppo's PM-1s [HFN Jul '14] to be rather 'difficult', needing a powerful amplifier to get the most out of their planar magnetic drivers – even though the specifications look amp-friendly enough. Yet connected single-ended, with a Chord Hugo 2/2go [HFN Aug '18] as a streaming source, the iCAN Phantom didn't seem challenged, bringing a lot of energy and drive to its portrayal of the crossover jazz of Snarky Puppy's Empire Central album [GroundUp Music; 96kHz/24-bit]. There was a palpable sense of movement when the bass drum kicked in on 'East Bay', giving an intense aspect to the listening.

At the same time, the percussion was nimble and well-defined, indicating that iFi Audio's new flagship is not only offering sufficient levels of power but also keeping a solid grip on proceedings. In this regard the iCAN Phantom compared positively with the headphone output of the Chord DAC, itself no slouch. And swapping out the Hugo 2 for an ADI-2 DAC FS from RME made me appreciate the even-handed and neutral sound of the Phantom even more.


No hint of 'digital' – just one balanced (XLR) and three single-ended (RCA) inputs with single sets of (variable) RCA and XLR preamp outs. The biasing resistors for different electrostatic 'phones are stored behind the chassis (reversed here)

RME's studio DAC isn't one for colouration – and neither is the iCAN Phantom. The resulting precision and control ensured a massive but rhythmically astute wall of sound during 'State Of Slow Decay' on In Flames' Foregone [NB 6514-2; 96kHz/24-bit], via MrSpeakers Ether CX closed-back planar headphones. There's little subtlety about this release from the Swedish melodic death metal band, but the Phantom powered through it and ensured all the musical info was made available.

Making The Switch
Swapping between Solid-State, Tube and Tube+ modes is a headline feature of the iCAN Phantom, but if you are expecting 'two or three amps for the price of one' you'll be disappointed, as going from one mode to another doesn't produce a very pronounced effect. With Tube activated, there was a slight increase to the sense of high detail and spatiality when listening to the piano on Melanie De Biasio's 'We Never Kneel To Pray' and the echoing vocals on 'Now Is Narrow', two tracks from her upcoming Il Viaggio [PIAS 96kHz/24-bit]. It was a nice embellishment that I liked with this album but didn't miss when playing others.

Highs And Lows
The XBass function is a perennial iFi Audio favourite, and on the iCAN Phantom it's offered in 10Hz, 20Hz and 40Hz settings. As PM notes [see Lab Report], these give a broad low-shelf boost to sub-bass frequencies, up to a gargantuan 10dB! 'Noticeable' is an understatement with such values, especially with content already rich in low frequencies. Both the underlying beats and sweeping synths on Moderat's 'Fast Land' [More D4ta, MTR122DNL; 48kHz/24-bit] were fat and overpowering with 40Hz XBass and Oppo PM-1s.

This was a convincing demo of its latent muscle, but I had more joy with the 10Hz setting, as this 'filled out' the rather bright sound of Beyerdynamic's DT-1990 headphones, and proved XBass has its uses. So too does iFi Audio's loudspeaker-emulating XSpace crossfeed mode, offered with the 'speakers' virtually positioned at 30, 60 and 90 degrees. The latter was rather extreme, but the first two options worked well.


Alloy Phantom remote offers control over input, volume and the various gain, tube, XBass, XSpace, IEMatch and display brightness options

Another feature included on the Phantom is iEMatch, which adjusts the amp gain to suit the power and low noise requirements of in-ear monitors. Listening to a set of Meze Audio Rai Penta in-ears, over a balanced connection, it did feel like I was using only a fraction of the power on tap. When the volume indicator says '4' (out of 100) and Natalie Duncan's Free [Fallen Tree 1Hundred; 44.1kHz/16-bit] is rolling out at quite a respectable level, you start to wonder why you need the other 96 steps. However, the iEMatch function is a boon when listening to sensitive IEMs, giving a smoother sound and a finer control over levels. The Rai Pentas were driven to excellence by the iCAN Phantom – the trumpets and horns underlining Duncan's singing on 'Pools' were amazingly lifelike.

Such a stellar performance was duplicated with a pair of balanced Sennheiser HD 660 S2s. 'Delighted', by Benjamin Clementine [And I Have Been; Preserve Artists 0197146378190; 48kHz/24-bit], found strings and Hammond organ combining as a colossal, weighty background, and Clementine's beautiful singing voice naturally rising out of the mix. Nary a sign of stress was to be heard from this truly flagship-worthy performance.

Hi-Fi News Verdict
Looking past some extra functionality that you may or may not find useful, iFi Audio's iCAN Phantom is a headphone amp that delivers the goods in style. Its potent power and steadfast tonal qualities will let your DAC and chosen pair(s) of cans strut their stuff. On top of that, the integration of its iESL energiser technology means this top-of-the-range design will suit even the most avid headphone collector.

iFi Audio
Supplied by: AMR/iFi Audio (Abbingdon Global Ltd), Southport
01704 543 858