With a sound as flavoursome and richly detailed as a delicious single malt, the hip-dac portable USB DAC/headphone amp delivers the perfect pick-me-up for any music lover on-the-go
Smartly dressed in petrol blue with a touch of copper, the go-anywhere hip-dac is designed to slip discretely into a pocket and offers an extensive hi-res specification that belies its eminently affordable price tag.
The hip-dac replaces the inferior DAC (Digital-to-Analogue Convertor) and amp
circuitry in smartphones, tablets, PCs and Macs to vastly improve headphone sound.
Its design and performance set it apart from other DAC/headphone amps in its class
– connect your playback device via USB, plug in your favourite corded headphones
or in-ear monitors and the hip-dac delivers a sound brimming with bold dynamism
and fluid refinement, effortlessly engaging the listener with all manner of music.
In the home, in the office, on a train or plane – the hip-dac is the music lover’s
The DAC section is based around a Burr-Brown DAC chip that iFi uses extensively in
its products, selected for its fluid, highly ‘musical’ sound quality and True Native
architecture. This, combined with custom iFi circuitry, enables the hip-dac to deliver
excellent sound quality across all manner of digital audio formats, including bit-
perfect PCM, native DSD and MQA – the hi-res streaming codec, as used by Tidal’s
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). Thanks to the Burr-
Brown chip’s True Native design, PCM and DSD take separate pathways – this
enables both PCM and DSD to remain ‘bit-perfect’ in their native form right through
to analogue conversion, which is not the case with most other DAC/headphone
amps. Either side of the rotary volume control reside a pair of LEDs that change
colour to indicate the format and sampling rate of the digital audio being played.
Extensive clock-locking eradicates jitter (digital distortion), using iFi’s GMT femto-
precision clocking system to maintain the integrity of the digital signal until
conversion to analogue.
Another circuit feature that separates this 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 optimised for audiophile-grade sound, iFi programs its own
bespoke firmware to enhance audio processing.
iFi’s continuous software development allows features to be added or optimised 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 of 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 analogue 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 analogue volume pot (many portable
DAC/headphone amps use inferior digital volume controls).
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 – impressive in comparison with the hip-dac’s peers,
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. With high-sensitivity headphone types such
as in-ear monitors, leave PowerMatch at its lower setting for ultra-low-noise
performance. But if your headphones require more drive – most on/over-ear types,
for example – press the PowerMatch button on the front panel to increase gain.
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 analogue 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 USB input handles audio data up to 32-bit/384kHz and supports the
‘SuperSpeed’ USB 3.0 standard, as well as USB 2.0 for backwards compatibility. It is
asynchronous, meaning that the data rate is regulated solely by the hip-dac’s
specialised audio clock circuitry for accurate, jitter-free data transfer from the source
There are two USB ports – Type A for audio data and USB-C for charging. Unusually,
the Type A input features a ‘male’ connector, rather than a typical ‘female’ port. This
arrangement provides greater mechanical integrity than the USB/Micro USB ports
commonly found on DAC/headphone amps from other manufacturers. It also offers
an advantage to iPhone and iPad users, because it accepts Apple’s Lightning to USB
Camera Adaptor directly without requiring an additional female-to-male USB
adaptor. (The Camera Adapter is required to connect Apple iOS devices to third-
party USB devices.)
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. Combined with the hip-dac’s PowerMatch facility, these
outputs deliver class-leading performance with a broader range of
headphone/earphone types than other comparably priced DAC/amp designs.
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. It comes bundled with three USB cables: a USB-C OTG (On-The-Go) cable, ideal
for connecting Android devices and PCs/Macs with USB-C ports; a USB Type A cable;
and a Type A to USB-C charging cable. (The Camera Adapter required to connect
Apple iOS devices is purchased separately.)
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, (32bit/384kHz)
Headphone Outputs: Balanced 4.4mm, Single-Ended S-Balanced 3.5mm
Power Output: 2.0V/400 mW @ 16 Ohm
Battery: Lithium-polymer 2200mAh
Power System: Charging via USB-C, BC V1.2 compliant up to 1000mA charging current
Power (max): <2W idle, 4W max
Dimensions: 102(l) x 70(w) x 14(h) mm Weight: 125g (0.28 lbs)