ifi hip-dac: A slim and trim xDSD? Could be…

Pros: Diminutive.
iFi build quality.
Multi-function.
Sound is typical iFi. Cons: An xDSD lite?
Not real powerful.
Many other choices out there.

ifi hip-dac ($149.99): A slim and trim xDSD? Could be…

ifi hip-DAC page: https://ifi-audio.com/products/hip-dac/

Discreet, intelligent, cunning, kicks, beautiful, understated, timely, trim.

Intro: I am an iFi fan. I own the xDSD, Pro iDSD and the iTubes2/iDAC2/micro iDSD Black Label stack. I use them all (mostly Pro iDSD). I like them all. The stack was my first “foray” into an upper-end DAC/Amp set-up. The BL was my very first review. I liked it then. I still like it. I’ve also reviewed the Pro iCAN and xCAN, but do not own them. Do you see where this is going? I could be considered a fanboy. Or maybe, I just like the way iFi products sound and perform. Regardless of how you want to look at that, I do believe this gives me the position to be more critical (when warranted) than others because I have so much experience with the brand.

The hip-dac was sent to me as part of the North American part of the ifi tour. I thank Lawrance for the opportunity and support. This review will be unbiased (it really will), and the unit will be sent to the next person on the list. The unit belongs to ifi and will be returned to them at the end of the tour. I also thank ifi for continuing to run tours with their wares. I have in fact purchased a couple of items as a direct result. So be it.



Specs:

Formats supportedDSD256/128/64, 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 InputsUSB 3.0 type ’A’ High-Speed Asynchronous USB 2.0, (32bit/384kHz)
Headphone OutputsBalanced 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
BatteryLithium-polymer 2200mAh
Power SystemCharging via USB-C, BC V1.2 compliant up to 1000mA charging current
Power (max)<2W idle, 4W max
Dimensions102(l) x 70(w) x 14(h) mm
Weight125g (0.28 lbs)

In the box:

1-hip-dac
1-blue ifi usb male to female cable
1-usb-c to usb male to female (direct connection to Android/DAP’s)
1-usb-a to usb male to female

Gear used/compared:

All prices in USD, unless noted otherwise

ifi xDSD ($399)
ifi micro iDSD Black Label ($599)
Audirect Beam ($99)

Sources:

iPhone XS Max
Shanling M2X
MacBook Pro
XDuoo x10t ii

Noble Savant II
Oriolus Finschi
TinHiFi T4


Songs used:

Coldplay-All I Can think About Is You
Coldplay-A Message
Coldplay-White Shadows
Dona Onete-Sonos de Adolescente
Los Lonely Boys- Heaven (en Espanol)
twenty one pilots-Trees
twenty one pilots-Car Radio
twenty one pilots-Heathens
Damian Marley-Everybody Wants To Be Somebody
Damian Marley-So A Child May Follow
Damian Marley-The Struggle Discontinues
Ziggy Marley-Lighthouse
Ziggy Marely-See Dem Fake Leaders
Mark Knopfler-Laughs And Jokes And Drinks And Smokes
Santana w/ Mana- Corazon Espinado
The new twenty one pilots album, Trench
The new Mark Knopfler album, Down The Road Wherever

Unboxing:

This will be quick, since others have noted this section. The box is small, with a paperboard frame of recycled material, which supports the hip-dac. Underneath the hip-dac is the proverbial blue ifi cable. Under the frame are the other two cables, which are included. That’s it. No case, no protective sleeve. On the back of the back of the unit, there are two ports: a USB-C for data, and a USB-A for charging only. That’s it. A small LED under the charge port shows the relative amount of battery left, like other ifi devices, by color. Good to see this across devices.


Build quality/functionality:

This will be another short section. The build is good as others have noted. The anodized turquoise-blue finish is tough, and much less prone to smudges than the chromed xDSD/xCAN. Those are fingerprint mongers. I do believe the finish may be tougher in day to day use as well. Small rubber pads would have been appreciated, but most likely, the hip will be tethered to a Smartphone, which should be in a case.

All buttons and the knob function without trouble, but I too note that the volume knob is slightly off-center and will touch a surface when laid with the “ifi” logo face up. So be it, but in the long run that may cause a problem if the item is knocked about. Pads on the bottom would alleviate this problem. The volume knob does function smoothly and without too much effort. Just right. Connections are solid and no problem there, as well. Either side of the volume knob, u-shaped LED lights show the audio format in use.

  • 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

There is enough “roughness” for a good tactile feel, so the critter should not slip out of your hand either. No straps are included, so you will have to grab one or two from your stash. Or if this will be a semi-permanent thing, Velcro. I would suggest something other than your hand, especially since the included USB-A to USB-C may not allow the paired unit to sit in the same orientation (see photo of DTR1/hip). Speaking of connectivity, you get the two cables with which to use. One for pairing and one for charging. The proverbial blue ifi can be used either way or as a bridge to another USB-A.

As stated above, each port has a singular use, and that’s all right to me, especially since they include the more common USB-C for source connectivity. With the ability to play up to DSD256 (even on a Mac, with the right driver according to Audiofools) and PCM/DXD384 as well as MQA, the little ifi can provide for quality music. Plus, based upon the specs, which include the Burr Brown DSD1793 chip you have a starting point equivalent or almost to the xDSD.

LED’s on either side of the volume knob show what audio format is playing, too. Just like the other portable ifi’s as noted above. Again, continuity. Plus, the 400mW is nothing to sneeze at, and drove most of my IEM’s/headphones well enough to enjoy. On par with other small amps I have. Battery life SHOULD get you through a workday fairly easily, unless you play continuously then expect 8 hours. Twice I left the device on and came back to a dead device. The first was less than 8 hours, the second just shy of 8. So, take the 12-hour life-expectancy as a “guide.” Under the charging cable sits a small LED that notifies you of the battery’s status. Listed below is a key to how much is left.

  • White >75%
  • Green > 25%
  • Red > 10%
  • Red (flashing) >/= 10%
  • (led also flashes when charging)

The volume knob dominates the front of the hip-dac and is even gold (as is the ring around the 4.4 bal jack opening) for effect. Easy to use, with good tactility, I never felt it got in the way like a too easy or too hard knob would. To the “right” are the 4.4bal and 3.5se jacks. To the “left” are ifi’s ever present “XBass” and what ifi calls “Power Match.” This is essentially a “gain” switch for using harder to drive headphones. Not to be messed with lightly on IEM’s though, as it can raise the volume to uncomfortable levels on the switch, with its 6dB addition. Use it wisely. Both switches are either on or off, which gives the user the nice ability to change quickly either to on or off. A nice feature.

Straightforward. Simple to use. Powerful. Longevity.

Sound:

I would call the hip-dac pretty close to neutral, except down low, where it becomes warmer; especially when the xbass is added. That extra bass does tend to warm the sound up a bit to me. I will add that as you go up the sound spectrum, I heard some hiss depending upon what IEM I was using. Plus, to me it sounded a bit less warm as well. Maybe an “almost-balanced” teeter totter would represent the sound well. Slightly off, but not offensive to those who prefer neutral. I did find it less bright than the xDSD, but that will wait for the comparison.

That “near-neutrality” can clean up a Smartphone nicely I might add. Many Smartphones now have pretty decent sound, but even with those that do, the hip-dac would improve that sound. Adding what I will call “cleanliness” as opposed to clarity; the sound is still quite good out of a Smartphone. Again, more in the comparison. Call the signature near-neutral-pleasantly-clean-with-an-added-touch-of-warmth, and you get the idea.

Comparisons:

Ifi hip-dac ($149) vs ifi xDSD ($399):

Using the same battery, the xDSD does “suffer” from having all of the extras, including BT, the 3D+ sound addition and increased number of input options. It can get quite loud as well, since it has more power. It can also take higher quality files, too. More features equal more cost. More power equal more cost. If you want features, the xDSD is as versatile as a baseball utility player than can hit as well. In that vein, think of the hip-dac as the specialty positional player who does one thing, and does it well. Very well.

I do think that when all “extras” are turned off, the xDSD comes across as slightly brighter to me. I tried volume-matching by ear (yes, not precise, but it worked), and still came up with the same result. All things equal, I’d take the xDSD for the versatility. If you want a plain dac, then the hip is very worthy of consideration here.


Ifi hip-dac ($149) vs ifi micro iDSD Black Label ($599):

This one ain’t fair. Not at all. Well…other than to show how far ifi has come since the BL came out. I still love the BL, and do not use it near enough. It’s near-cult status is deserved and earned. It has power like a Hennessy. It has features like a Benz. It has quality like a Lexus. And it sounds like a Porsche would if it were an audio piece. This is the piece, which to me set the tone for ifi to go “portable” The previous iteration was good, no doubt (and I compared the two), but the BL kind of put ifi on the headphone market as a very worth option for OTG.

So, look at this like the grandfather schooling the grandson, giving him lessons on how to compete in a tough world. And it worked. The hip-dac is a worthy descendent of the BL.


Ifi hip-dac ($149) vs Audirect Beam ($99):

At the time of my review, I said the Beam might be all the ultra-portable dac/amp you need. Using it from my iPhone XS Max, I still feel it is really quite good. For sound qualities, the Beam is still a very fine unit, and I for one am glad a second iteration is coming out. Two things let it down to me though, a touchy volume control, and that it cannot be used with some of my items (XDuoo X10tii) without their own volume control. No big deal, really. For its purpose, the Beam is a really good option, but here the hip-dac bests it with the balanced option, xbass and “gain” options. Not really a fair comparison, as the Beam may be all you need, but worthy of mention simply because both are competitors. I like both.

Sources:

iPhone XS Max:
For most people, their Smartphone will be the point of connection. And this really is why the hip-dac was made: bring high fidelity to your Smartphone. Connecting to the iPhone is easy, if you have the camera dongle. If you do not have one, you will need to purchase one. Mine was $34+/-. Coupled with the ifi blue cable makes for a somewhat ungainly connection “kit,” but that is the life of an iOS owner…never easy.

Immediately, you hear the difference. Cleaner, crisper with more detail, the ifi makes a pointed difference. The noise floor is not perfectly black using the Oriolus Finschi, but not intolerable. Adding in the XBass, you get a satisfying thump to your sound. Adding those extra dB’s makes a difference at the requisite frequencies. Adequate volume was no problem, either. The ifi had the ability to drive the iPhone to loud levels, aided by the phone itself. No problem there.


XDuoo x10t ii: Switching to the x10, an interesting situation arose. Even on full volume with the IEM power match, the volume through the Finschi’s were not all that loud. Quality was the best of the lot, but I could not reach a “loudness” of which I would consider LOUD. Running the volume all the way up right now, without the power match, I find the listening level tolerable, but not loud.


Shanling M2x: Unfortunately, in a recent update, Tidal changed some “coding,” which Shanling did not account for so Tidal was not working on FW 2.6. A fix is in the wind, so I ran the M2x via SD card and accompanying music. Adding a bit of warmth to the sound characteristics, the M2x performed well. A nice portable set up this would make. Not as clean as the x10, but nonetheless quite a pleasant sound emanated from the mix.


MacBook Pro: Upon connecting to Tidal, an MQA message asked if I wanted to use the ifi as output audio. I clicked yes, and it warned me that the volume would be turned down to prevent hearing damage, kind of like an anti-line out. Once in, I raised the volume a bit (and it didn’t take much) to acceptable levels. Without that raise in volume, the same situation occurred, lackluster volume. Adding a bit from Tidal itself removed that lower-volume problem from the equation and I could reach very loud levels. It was rather fun playing with the XBass and Power Match here. The most yet.

Sound from Tidal was deep, rich and vibrant. Keeping Power Match on, I could easily change levels and kept the volume knob lower. Adding about 2x gain across the board will do that. The hip proved its versatility across platforms, and across the board with just the small sampling above. It worked, and it worked well.

Conclusion:

The hip-dac worked easily across different sources and worked well. The little ifi provided a bit of spark to some (iPhone), while adding bass to others when XBass was activated. I have a good admiration for the XBass feature, and have ever since the BL. It was and is a bit ungainly on the BL but serves its purpose. Moving down the lineage, the xDSD comes across as clean and powerful, with the added features of BT and optical. There is no denying its useful purpose. I really enjoy the features and the sound emanating from it.

The hip-dac is a bit different, though. It is simple. It is svelte. It is airy, and fairly cost-efficient. The Power Match provides the hip-dac with the added boost on the fly as convenient and thoughtful. It works, too. For that noisy commute, sometimes you need a quick jolt of volume, and the PM can do that. But don’t expect it to work miracles for hard to drive headphones on competent sources. It did work well on my MBP and iPhone, but as stated on the XDuoo and Shanling, struggled a bit. For easy to drive IEM’s, which most of us own this should not be a problem, though.

And the hip-dac really isn’t meant for use with a DAP. Nope, mostly for Smartphones and computers. With that in mind, the ifi does a fine job of giving a clean, slightly warm sound that also can support DSD and MQA. Nice features to have and looked at for the singular purpose, the hip-dac does just fine.

I thank ifi for arranging the tour and Lawrance for organizing it. They both do a fine job, and I really appreciate when a company puts their wares out for review tours. The diversity of “knowledge” benefits all who read the reviews. That’s a positive in my book.

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