iFi Pro iCAN…uCAN, we allCAN!

iFi Pro iCAN-4.5 stars…

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Entrée:

I had a dream sometime ago…I was walking down a road, not unlike an old London street, fresh from rain and cobbled, of bygone era. I caught a look into a shop with much dust on the shelves and wares stored on said shelves. I could almost make out that whatever was on the shelves, was quite intriguing, to the point that I changed my path to enter and inquire of the shopkeeper what type of shop it might be….it was at that point I woke up. I have imagined that it could be of almost anything, but after receiving an email from Lawrance, I understood…you see it was a scant two days later, that he contacted me… it was rather unsettling, but titillating at the same time…At current, I look down upon our Australian Shepherd puppy, and pen this intro, thinking of that dream. It all became clear tonight, and one hopes I can convey that in what follows. White Shadows guides me to the finishing of this diatribe, and I am glad.

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Listening to Radioactive from Lindsey Stirling and Pentatonix, through the UM Maestro V2, one simply sits drinking in that fine single-malt, and amazes at the wonderful cacophony of sounds and sensations wrought from such diverse vocals and music. While not something I listen to all that much, the combo certainly gains my respect for their sheer musical prowess, and an exceptional guise to decipher finer and faults of the critter(s) at hand. Love can indeed be built slowly, but explode exponentially when the paths converse in the universe of synergy. And that is what I can garner from the iFi Pro iCAN, adding a synergy of almost simplistic pleasure. Harkening back to an older day, when tubes were not only the best, but an exceptional tool for our indulgence, I find myself imagining that I am front and center in the finest McIntosh system, something I have stated before, and probably will again (possibly from that shoppe…). The combo of Maestro leading, and the tubey-support rendered by the Pro cannot be underestimated. Even through a “normal” MacBook Pro, one can certainly appreciate the qualities wrought from those fine wares. Exquisite mids, and vocals to make one simply exist. Treble, which while a bit hot for me in the Maestro, can certainly be tamed through the tubeyness of the iCAN. And for that I am grateful.

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To come off of the Chord Hugo2 tour, into this was a surprise I could not imagine. To say that I could go from one $2400 DAC/amp (much, MUCH more…) to a $1700 hybrid amp is more than could be asked. But, that does allow one a certain look into how those who relish or fret over a choice such as that think…we as audiophiles are blessed with choice such as that. And I for one am honored to be included with the ability and the want to audition such worthy “problems.” A problem, I hope can be helped by the wretched writings I put forth here. Words cannot really allay the emotives of which I feel. Moving into Kitchen by twentyonepilots, I “suffer” that consequence of trying to garner diminutive differences or similarities, which would allow those in the position to purchase that little extra motivation. That over the edge push I give them in order to nudge them in their chosen path, knowing full well that they probably chose before…but needed that verification I provide.

I wholeheartedly thank Lawrance and iFi for the continued support. To have such an opportunity come up out of the blue such as this is indeed humbling. My hope is that my feeble words can lend some guidance for those looking. I do not take that responsibility lightly. In return for the loan, they only asked two things, an honest opinion, and the ability to use whatever they see fit from said review in their advertisements (one hopes that part comes true!!).

About me: *I am older. I am happy that I have rediscovered the joy of music, through personal listening devices. Through this opportunity, I have become exposed to some wonderful kit. Much I now own, much I covet. Much I would never purchase, for various reasons.

My listening style has changed somewhat over the years…from old time Rock-n-Roll to the Blues to Reggae, to Bluegrass. I cut my teeth on Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Outlaws, The Who, Santana, Bob Marley, Eric Clapton, David Bowie, Bob Marley, and Pink Floyd. But the music I hold dearest and nearest my soul, is Stevie Ray Vaughan. I was lucky enough to see him perform four times…twice in open air venues, followed by (that evening each time!!!) smoky blues bars, where intimate would be an understatement. Each holds a very special place in my psyche, and I can almost remember the whole of each concert in their entirety…

I enjoy a warmer signature in my equipment, and listening, with a good bass line (but not basshead), complimented by outstanding vocals. Combine the sweetness of SRV’s guitar and Billy Holiday’s voice, and you get my musical grove.*

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Entrée part deux:

I am lucky to have a stack of the iFi products, running together as my main testing equipment, with the ability to hook into any of my players. Purchasing the excellent iFi iDSD Micro Black Label first, I added the iFi iTubes2 after the audition tour (a victory tour of the BL), and finally an iDAC2, with which to tame the whole system. Spending roughly half of what I would have on the Pro iCAN, this was a natural test of “would it be better,” or “could double the price give THAT much better.” I did compare the two set ups, but mainly used and experienced the Pro iCAN (with and without the iFi iDAC2), since I had fresh knowledge of the stack. A stack, I will add in which I am extremely pleased and feel no need to upgrade.

The iCAN is a device, which can take the place of my whole iFi stack, but at what cost? As mentioned, costing roughly double what I spent, for the trio, is it worth it? Well…I do think I am the wrong person to ask. But through my words, I hope that a semi-informed decision can be fashioned. I will state, that since my loan of the Pro, I have not even turned on the iFi stack, except to draw a quick comparison (until tonight and a final comparison). Is it better? I would respectfully state, “yes.” Is it worth double the cost I spent? The Luddite in me says NO WAY! But, the practical, long-term answer is I do believe yes. Why? Well, for that price, you do get an all in one, which can do everything my stack can, and does it better. It is more dynamic in sound, takes up less space, and can attach many MANY more device set ups than the stack. One could easily throw this into a small home system, and not miss a beat. I do also believe it has enough power to sufficiently drive all but the hardest speakers or headphones. Using Pinky’s HD600’s, I did have to run the 18dB push. But that was the only set up in which I did. And it sufficiently drove the legendary hard-to-drive headphones. It would be quite adequate for all but the hardest songs. That alone, says quite a bit.

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To get the best out of the Pro iCAN, one should include a DAC of similar quality. Through conversations with Lawrance, I extended my time to test that aspect. And it was WELL worth it!!

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To say I was excited would be an understatement…

Equipment used/compared:

Macbook Pro
Shanling M1/M5
Fiio x5iii
iFi combo of: iDAC2, iTube2, iDSD Black Label

iFi iDAC2 used between MacBook Pro & Pro iCAN

Unique Melody Maestro V2
Unique Melody Martian
Lendmeurears FLC8s
Grado GH-2
Audioquest Nightowl
Sennheiser HD-600 (borrowed from @PinkyPowers)

Music used:

Adele- Hello
Adele-Someone Like You
Tom Petty-I Won’t Back Down
Tom Petty-Learning to Fly
Tom Petty-Free Fallin’
Coldplay- Technicolor ii
Coldplay- Sky Full of Stars
Coldplay- White Shadows
Coldplay- Paradise
Coldplay- Lover’s in Japan
Lindsey Stirling w/ Pentatonix- Rasioactive
SRV- Mary Had A Little Lamb
SRV- Look at Little Sister
Twentyonepilots- Regional At Best album
Ziggy Marley-I Am A Human
Ziggy Marley-Dragonfly (Live & Studio)

Specs (from the iFi site):

Specifications:

Gain:

0dB, 9dB and 18dB user-selectable

Frequency Response: 0.5Hz to 500kHz(-3dB)

Total Harmonic Distortion (THD, Balanced/Single-Ended):

Solid-State: ≤0.0015%/≤0.005%
Tube: ≤0.002%/≤0.005%
Tube+:≤0.012%/≤0.2%

Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR, Balanced/Single-Ended): >147dB(A) / > 137dB(A)

Output Power (16Ω, Balanced/Single-Ended): >14,000mW / >4,800mW

Output Voltage (600Ω, Balanced/Single-Ended): >23V / >11.5V

Input Voltage (Pro iCAN): DC 9V/6.7A – 18V/3.35A

Input Voltage (iPower Plus): AC 85 – 265V, 50/60Hz

Power Consumption: ≤ 22W idle, 50W max.

Dimensions: 213(l) x 192.5(w) x 63.3(h) mm

Weight: 1.93kg (4.3lbs)

Test conditions: Gain = 0dB, 0.775V(0dBu) with 300 Ohm load unless stated otherwise, SNR Balanced re 23V, SNR SE re. 11.5V

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Sound:

Compared to iFi stack, the Pro has better control of the bass. Not necessarily MORE (in fact less due to the ability to add “Bass Boost” from both the iTubes2 & BL…and a LOT, too!), but better controlled. Also, the sub bass is a bit forward, giving that more full sound to my ears. The iFi stack for whatever reason has a more forward mids sound, to me. Bass is more, but less controlled. I think this might be a result of the bass boost switch, as mentioned but with either 6dB (on the BL), or 6/12dB (@20Hz on the iTubes2). While I do enjoy that push on some songs, I like the Pro’s ability to add at more frequencies, tailoring to a possible lack in the headphones/IEM’s used…a nice touch, indeed.

As mentioned above, the Pro iCAN, one can tailor the bass boost to different frequencies. I cannot really tell what the difference is at the 10 Hz setting, but can clearly hear the boost at 20 & 40Hz. The push of bass at 20Hz is quite pleasant, giving that somewhat audible rumble to me. At 40 Hz, the push forward is quite noticeable on songs such as Tom Petty’s (RIP, dear sir) Learning To Fly. An extremely energetic sound is the result. I left the bass switch at 40 Hz most of the time.

On Ziggy Marley’s live version of Dragonfly, the sound is simply intoxicating. I can say with a decent authority that this is as close a sound as I have heard to the vaunted (to me) ampsandsounds Kenzie, with which I had the pleasure to audition some time ago. An incredible synergy focusing on that exuberant support guitar can be heard like it should be…an equal to Ziggy’s voice. Just incredible. And I would be hard pressed to decide between the Hugo2 and the iCAN based upon that song alone…It would be a long audition’s night for me to decide, and a good one…

While I appreciate the ability to adjust either set up as needed when speaking of bass boost, 3D, gain, wash, rinse, spin, etc.…I have decided that I am simply a lazy slovenly sod, who would just as soon set something and leave it. There is a reason I like complicated things, but this isn’t one of them. Changing only as needed, I do find both aspects appealing, but…just a random thought, and to tie it to the gear at hand (if you are still with me…), my personal iFi stack needs adjusting more than the Pro iCAN, when it comes to the toggles, and buttons. I can get away with, errr tolerate less adjusting while listening to the Pro. On the stack, I seem to be constantly reaching for those little toggles, and I have a genuine fear of destroying my four hours of hard Lego work on the rack itself as a result…I do lose much sleep over this…no really…

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Coming back to the Pro (finally, you say…), I found it to be eminently competent. As Army Firedog mentioned, it does pretty much all well. This can be a fault, if you want, especially if you are anal about “compatibility.” THIS amp, MUST go with THIS headphone, and THIS DAP, etc…blah, blah, blah. I do not fault any of you that wish, desire and have that. In fact, I applaud and bow in your general direction. But something must be said for a device, which can simply work. I state this in several reviews, going all the way back to my Vibro Labs Aria IEM…it just works. Call it the Luddite in me (haha, I know especially with all this durn technology), but the Pro simply works. I say this as I now listen to twentyonepilots excellent Regional At Best album, with no added bass or 3D. I could go 40Hz on the Bass boost and 90/60+ (floor-standing speakers setting) 3D, and happily drink my Boulevard Nutcracker Ale, but going “naked” seems to be how this particular time in the space continuum was intended for me. And I am not disappointed in that.

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Cracking a smile out of the corner of my mouth, with the Traveling Wilburys song, End of the Line, I get it. I love my stack; don’t get me wrong…I will happily have that for a good long while (ssuuurrre I will…). But the Pro can do that and more. iFi set the bar again when it comes to compatibility and adjustability, but on that simple tubular-level. Desire Solid State? Turn the switch. Tubular? Cool bro, flip the switch one more notch. Totally tubular? Again, flip the switch. It is almost like each Wilbury taking turns singing a verse in that iconic song. And that is the way it should be. A Mega Group to end all Super Groups, much like the Wilburys, the Pro comes along for that ride letting you swing gently in your rocking chair. And I thoroughly appreciate that. And GOD, I miss the Wilbury’s.

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This is one critter you do not have to Handle With Care, for it can handle quiet as well as loud and boisterous. This little critter can rock. Much the way the remaining Wilburys carry on, the Pro just glows along in that sensuous orange, almost smiling through those ever increasing in size vent rings. Taking in more and more, the song envelops your senses, just the way the Pro looks. Small, with the ability to be a multitude of things, and powerful. Kind of like that ultimate Executive Assistant. The one who can anticipate your every move; and in many ways is MORE qualified than you for the job at hand. But one, that just as happily stays behind the scenes knowing their role perfectly. One in support of the overall program. That role, which is invaluable and perfect for most situations. Maybe perfect would be too much of an insult. It has been a good long while, since I have enjoyed an audition device at low volume as much as cranking it up. Quite often we are hell-bent on cranking things to 11, but here I am quite content to stay below the horizon.

Listening to Adele’s Someone Like You, I think of a dear friend I lost recently. We traveled some of the same roads in life, but not often enough. I am sad I did not find out sooner after he died, but in his honor I analyze the iCAN like he loved analog albums. I so thoroughly enjoyed hearing about his latest find, or replay of an “old friend.” He was an exquisite writer of prose, published rightfully so, deep of thought. I drink a local Porter in his honor, and envelop myself in the sweet succulent virtue of Adele’s melodic interludes. Dear god, this is good. Saturated depth, which would make Rembrandt jealous, the Pro provides that velvet tubeness, which oozes through every tender note of her voice. Simple in support, the piano plants the foundation, and Adele flowers the song, as it should be. A thorough drowning of hue, note & tone; sweet & sorrow; rich and forlorn. Vibrant & colorful, I stop to take another sift of drink. I am thoroughly enthralled with how this song is presented.

It is often said, that if a song can move our soul, move our desire to provide the best we can, then the song is perfect. I prefect that this song is indeed faultless for my needs as of this instant in the cosmos. Supple bass through her voice, fulfilled and complimented oh so well by the piano. A song, which needs no more, but makes you desire more. A song, which the iCAN presents respectfully, highlighting her sensuous voice of deep, rich and melodious tone. Thorough in presentation, and complimented by her “duet” part, the song indeed is perfect through this mix. I shed a tear, lift my Porter skyward for that dear friend, and do my best to emulate his wonderful prose of writing. I feel, that I fail in that regard, but must continue writing. It is to be, and I will.

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Sound deeper:

A love affair can be sudden. It can also be long of build. It can blossom from the go, or be subtle of that build. I would say my affair with iFi was of the former. Fortunate I was to be on the iFi Micro iDSD Black Label tour; I was thrown over a cliff at what the BL could do (much the way those of Chord UK love are…). So much so, that my comparison stack consists of the BL, the iTube2 (after I started that tour, honored I was), and the excellent iDAC2. Roughly half the price of the Pro, this is now my basis of comparison for all. The stack held up well to the excellent Chord Hugo2, at roughly 1/3 the price. A comparison you will have to read, and view elsewhere. Needless to say (but I do anyway…), the trio will be used again for comparison, and I am glad.

At roughly half the price of the Pro, the comparison may be more valid. Should one splurge double the cost for the excellent iCAN? Well, for that my hope is that I have outlaid a proper response. If one wants an all-in-one, then the iFi Pro iCAN should be on your short list. If you are frugal of means, or want of piecing together, you may have to go a different route and still be 85% satisfied.

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As with the latest iterations of iFi products, the Pro iCAN has both XBass and 3D technology. From my first interlude on the BL with both, I was impressed at how the tech could change the sound. Not an equalizer, but worthy of inclusion in that argument, XBass & 3D provide listener “tunable” aspects to aid an otherwise excellent sound. Crave more bass in a song? Move the toggle to the right. Prefer a more “expansive” floor standing speaker sound? Again move the 3D all the way to the right. There is a difference to all, and gives one the ability to tailor each song to your contentment.

As stated above, I am more one to set the toggles and switches, and simply listen. That said, given the ability to fine tune, one would be silly not to try. Using the above Adele songs as the test bed, when moving the 3D to floor-standing speaker equivalent on the scale I was stunned. Stunned at how the already excellent depth of the song was given MORE. A most definitive width of stage was added, and it was good. Too often when the “bells and whistles” are added and played with, they are either gimmicky, or unfounded in their ability. Happily what iFi does with their two-standout technologies is not gimmick. It works to these tired old ears.

The XBass does work a bit differently than other iFi products, though. Instead of a 9dB or 12/18dB (product dependent), the Pro uses different frequencies. Coming in at 10Hz, 20Hz & 40Hz, the “added bass” works differently than a simple loudness or the other iFi XBass switches mentioned. Targeting a specific frequency, the 10Hz gain is for headphones/loudspeakers missing only the very lowest bass (below 40Hz). The 20Hz is for bass missing below 80Hz, and the 40Hz is for those missing “substantial bass” & some mid-bass below 160Hz.

To me, a “thinning” of sound ensued when the switch moved towards the lower frequency settings. When switched off completely, the mids moved forward almost overpowering the sound signature. Almost. Maybe “truer representation” would be a better response. Regardless, I found happiness in all of the settings, leaving the switch mostly at the 40Hz setting with my Martian’s, and off or 20Hz with my Grado GH-2’s. A maximum of 12dB was added, and I assume at the 40Hz level, as I could “feel” that the most. Unscientific, I know, but the added bass could be heard most at this level. Conversely, I kept the bass switched all the way to 40 Hz with the Maestro V2, and I liked it. An added boost of the bass pretty much made the already wonderful Maestro sound near perfect to me.

As for the 3D, the settings are “similar” to the other iFi units, in that there is a definite widening of stage. Other than that, the settings are unique to the iFi iCAN lineup. With settings running from 30, 60 & 90 degree setups, one can mimic narrow placement of speakers such as outside a computer to a full-on room setup with floor standing speakers. This last set can also be used to enhance recordings, which lack “spaciousness.” The 60-degree setup would be similar to bookshelf speakers, which can sound quite good in and of themselves.

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I ran either 60-degree or 90-degree settings for all headphones involved.

Comparing the Pro iCAN to the Hugo2 may not seem like a fair comparison, but since I was fresh off the H2 tour, valid in my mind. Garnering numerous design awards for 2017, the H2 is stunning. Getting the connections right, one could very easily be set for a long time in the “portable” audio world. With numerous filter settings, boosts and the ability for a multitude of hook ups, versatile would be an insult. With the sound to back it up, I rarely passed the mid-range on the volume “color wheel.” I did like how when one gets used to the colors, you could easily decipher what settings you were on, and it does make logical sense. If you are across the room, you only need look at the colors to know what adjustments you have made. A novel idea, and done mostly well. And logically laid out, too. Following the color spectrum from cold to hot, you only need know your colors (such as the rainbow…) to decode what levels you set. An interesting concept done well, once you understand.

Here is where the Pro iCAN falls behind the H2…other than the volume pot and the input switch, you must be fairly close to understand the settings. Not a bad thing mind you, but just like those who want every conceivable option in their CUV, many here would want the ability to read all of the knobs/settings. The Luddite in me says who gives a crap, and leaves it alone. Also, the 3D knob is too close to the volume pot on the iCAN, even for these skinny digits on your humble narrator. But, I’m not sure what could be done to alleviate that…

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As I mention in my H2 review, the Hugo has superb detail retrieval. No muss, no fuss as to where and what the instruments are to sound like. Placed where they should be, the detail amazes me no matter the setting. The iCAN falls a bit behind here, but not enough to worry. I found that the Pro is more listening device of choice dependent than the H2. Moving from my Martians to the Maestro, opened up the iCAN the way it should. Wide sound stage, excellent depth, solid but not bloated bass, as well as detail of the same range as the H2. The GH-2’s were portrayed the same way, with excellent depth as well. Make the iFi more IEM/headphone dependent, and you can hopefully understand the differences. Not unpleasurable mind you, but not as forgiving as the H2. One would expect this most likely for a device costing roughly 50% more…

That said, when you throw the iDAC2 into the mix, between source & the iCAN to take advantage of it’s excellent DAC capabilities, you end up with something very close to the Hugo2’s price; and a sound, which is quite close. In fact, when using the two together, I prefer the iFi set up. I just do. It’s hard to explain, but just the way I prefer the Shanling “house sound” to their DAP’s, I prefer the iFi sound to others. And as said above, for ½ the price I have a very good set up, in which I am happy. Choosing only one, between the H2 & Pro; I would lean towards the Hugo2. I like what iFi does to the sound very much. I respect what Chord has done for the sound. When it comes down to it, I prefer like to respect in what I listen to…

Compared to the stack, the Pro wins all the way around. Better control, less fiddling to achieve that “perfect sound, “ in which you strive, the Pro just works. The stack is like that old steam machine you see in movies, where the Scientist is constantly fiddling with knobs, buttons and pull levers to achieve maximum “velocity.” The Luddite in me screams, ENOUGH! Just play! But the techno-Scientist in me cherishes the adjustability…a conundrum indeed. With the iDAC2 along supporting the Pro, it is a sound, which could satisfy for a good long while…

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Finale:

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From my first indoctrination with the iFi DSD Micro Black Label, I have been smitten. My first foray into the netherworlds of “mid-fi,” I have consequently pathed to high priced and “better” items. One need only look at my review of the wondrous ampsandsounds Kenzie or Focal Elear (luckily together) to understand how far I have journeyed. And the last two in my review stable, the Hugo2 and this one iCAN have allowed me to passion further up into the “high-fi” range. But I still harken back to the BL, thinking how it threw me over the cliff, and I protected it, lest we all lose the privilege of such fine wires and circuit boards. Much stays the same with the iCAN, and I am glad. Glad that Lawrance allowed me this extended visit with such a fine piece. One, which I do say can indeed go toe to toe with the vaunted Hugo2, in my humble opinion. The H2 certainly gets all of the accords, while the Pro simply sits by waiting for that next person who wants something a bit different. With a bit of a different approach, and does it well. A stop in that shop, which looks dusty and deserted if one simply walks by, but if one takes a closer look, you see history. You see the old dusty forgotten turntables on the shelves, or the vintage tube amps from days gone by. And you are piqued with interest. Interest you dare not ignore, such, as you would listen to your inner voice. Because to do so, would be what the mainstream does. And in that own right, if that is what makes them happy, that is all right, too. But you stop knowing there is something special in that “shop,” so you enter. An Australian Shepherd of unknown aged sleepily raises her head and looks up at you, smiles (which they indeed do, incredible dogs, they are…) and goes back to sleep, while her owner states, “You have come to the right place, please sit down and join me in a single-malt while we audition.” And you do, knowing you have made the right choice, with Duke Ellington sounding in the background.

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As Tom Petty so fervently stated, I Won’t Back Down, and neither will the Pro iCAN. It takes your challenge and throws it into the wind, to watch the ensuing wonderful show of music on the wind, such as the flowing plastic bag scene in American Beauty. I don’t care if that was a scene, which was staged or made up for the film. To me, it was the most beautiful scene and dialogue of the entire movie (which was simply superb anyway). The artist would be the iFi Pro iCAN, and the bag being strewn about so eloquently the music thrown, and for that I am grateful for iFi and the passion in which they provide their wares. I am so very grateful, that I have found a company as passionate as I in what I listen to…and one, which would be humbled if you were to part with some of your daily wage to make your life better.

As you Learn To Fly, one becomes enamored and respectful of all that the Pro can do…after all it IS the iCAN. And can do, might as well be the motto.

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