iFi hip-dac Review: Warm and Smooth

The hip-dac. No. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a hole for whiskey. But stylish broads like me will find it attractive. iFi is catering to audiophiles who need a smaller and more affordable alternative to the iFi xDSD. And it may have even taken some cues from FiiO’s Q1, while adding some extra key features. What can we expect in terms of sound and design? Let’s take a look in this iFi hip-dac Review.

iFi hip-dac Review

IN the BOX

iFi hip-dac Box contents

iFi Hip-dac

USB-A female to USB-A male

USB-A male to USB-C male (charging cable)

USB-A female USB-C male

User guide and warranty information

BUILD 

Sleek and study in appearance, the hip-dac is shorter and a little wider than the famous FiiO Q1. It’s also half the thickness of its bulky big brother, the iFi xDSD. The hip-dac sits comfortably in my little hands, and if I could just find a damn stacking case for it, I’d be sold. In fact, I was surprised it didn’t come with a rubber band that would help secure it to a mobile device. Though the volume dial protrudes out a bit, I think it’s a much better design than the xDSD; the volume dial on the xDSD is too easy to turn and can therefore slip to dangerously loud volumes when you drop it in your pocket. But the volume dial on the hip-dac has some nice weight to it when adjusting.

iFi hip-dac fits nicely in the palm of a hand

iFi hip-dac size compared to these models

DESIGN

Inputs and Outputs

At the front of the hip-dac, you’ll find a 3.5mm headphone output, as well as a balanced 4.4mm output. The back of the device has a male USB-A input, which is used for data transfer, as well as a USB-C input, which is used for charging. iPhone users may want to note that you’ll have to get a separate Apple Camera Adapter to make the hip-dac work with your phone. The hip-dac only comes with a USB-A female to USB-C OTG cable, designed for Androids…Or the new Macs, I assume.

Buttons

Two silver buttons are situated on the front of the DAC; a bass booster and a gain function.

Battery Life and Charging

The hip-dac should offer 12 hours of playtime. But my colleagues who played around with it suggested that the actual usage time may be shorter. I only listened to it for a couple of hours, so I can’t verify either claim. But I will say that it charges quite quickly. I also appreciated the LED indicator on the back of the device, which gives you an idea of how much battery life you have left, depending on the color displayed.

iFi hip-dac USB-A for data and USB-C for charging

DAC Chip

iFi has employed the Burr-Brown chipset, which is used in my favorite and much higher priced iFi DAC, the Black Label Micro.

Supported Formats

DXD, PCM and DSD. But here’s the big one – MQA. MQA support is somewhat unusual for a DAC this affordable. And given that most DAC users are also streamers, the ability to unfold MQA is one of the hip-dac’s greatest assets. Another nice feature is the LED indicator that changes color depending on the sample rate being played.

Power

Forget about trying to push a moderate to higher impedance planar magnetic headphone with this cutesy putesy. It just won’t do justice to your headphone. That being said, the hip-dac can hold its own even with an 80 Ohm (you’re pushing it at 250 Ohms) dynamic driver headphone. And that’s impressive when you compare it to little DACs like the FiiO Q1. 

Sound Impressions and Pairings

Campfire Andromeda

I first hooked the hip-dac to my Campfire Andromeda. And I have to say, I was a little disappointed. (Don’t get discouraged, and read on). The sound became a lot warmer, which isn’t a bad thing. But the separation and definition felt degraded as well. Almost like it was a little bloated. And once you switched on the bass boost, forget about it. Even using a balanced cable, the result was the same.

Final Audio E5000

I decided to go with an IEM that’s a little harder to drive. So, I took out the Final Audio E5000. This may have been a mistake, because the E5000 also has some warmth to it. Again, it just didn’t sound as tidy as I’m used to hearing from these buds. And maybe this is just the sacrifice you make with a warmer sounding DAC. That being said, if you own a relatively warm IEM, and you desire a particularly thick and lush sound, you’ll probably gravitate towards this little device.

Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro, 80 Ohms

I then went for a thinner sounding headphone with higher impedance, the Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro, 80 Ohms. And the result was infinitely better. Not only was it cleaner, but the hip-dac presented a sweetly smooth, yet detailed profile. And it was a pleasure to listen to. In fact, it reminded me of the iFi Black Label Micro in its presentation. So, that’s a perfect pairing.

MrSpeakers / Dan Clark Aeon Flow

Just to see how much life it could bring to a more spiritless headphone, I hooked the hip-dac up to the Aeon Flow. Please, no hate mail. To each his own. And I have to say, it sounded much more lively than I expected. In addition to warmth, it added quite a bit of color as well, giving character to an ordinarily anemic sound signature. (I’m going into hiding after this review). In fact, it sounded more like the newer Aeon 2. So, don’t expect neutrality. On the contrary, you’ll get some noticeable flavor from the hip-dac.

The only problem I ran into was a bit of clipping; listening to the Aeon Flow, when I boosted the volume, a little distortion came into play. So, folks with a touch of tinnitus should take this into account. And still, the clipping was surprising to me, as the impedance is quite low on the Aeon Flow, while the sensitivity isn’t anything unusual either. That being said, planar magnetic drivers can be deceiving in this way. So, I think if you’re going to be driving a higher impedance headphone, you may want to stick with a dynamic driver. 

PROS and CONS

Pros: Brings tons of life, smoothness, color and warmth to less charismatic headphones; MQA support.
Cons: Makes warm sound signatures too warm and compromises definition; clipping may occur when trying to drive higher impedance headphones.

iFi hip-dac resembles a hip flask

SUMMARY

The hip-dac proves the importance of pairing the right headphone with the right DAC. Some synergies just don’t work, even if the DAC is high quality. If you’re trying to pair an already warm sounding IEM with a new DAC, you may want  to keep looking. Unless you like it Florida warm. But if you’re planning on pairing the hip-dac with a headphone that has a leaner sound signature, like the two examples provided above, the result is impressive. The MQA support is also a huge plus for Tidal streamers. In fact, I know of only a handful of other tiny DACs that can unfold this format, and the ones that do usually don’t have the same power capabilities. So, I have to admit, for 150 bucks, the iFi hip-dac is a pretty solid deal.

You can find the iFi hip-dac for the best price here:

iFi hip-dac at Audio 46

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