Walking into our local AMC to enjoy “Cocaine Bear” for the third time, my daughter caught me fumbling with a pair of FiiO IEMs that I planned on using so that I could listen to the hockey game whilst watching the movie — one is there out of sheer gluttony at this point and not to listen to the dialogue.
With more than a dozen Dongle DACs currently in my desk drawer, it was decided that I needed something more powerful and refined to drive some of the new IEMs and on-ear headphones in my collection; including the wonderful Meze Audio 109 Pro and FiiO FH5s.
iFi Audio has been on a tear over the past two years delivering one great product after another including the GO Link Dongle DAC, xDSD Gryphon Portable Amplifier, and ZEN Signature Series.
The iFi hip-dac2 resembles a whisky flask and it certainly hits with the power of an 18 year-old Glenrothes. The 135 gram amplifier feels very well put together although we did note a rather mild rattle coming from the volume/power knob when we shook it in our hand.
If the ‘Sunset Orange’ finish doesn’t catch your attention, the industrial design most certainly will. My first reaction to the iFi hip-dac2 was that the late-Sean Connery would have carried one of these in his tweed jacket; right next to his Walther PPK and photo of Tatiana Romanova.
The iFi Audio hip-dac2 is a portable digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and headphone amplifier designed to improve the audio quality of music played from mobile devices and computers. It is an upgraded version of the original hip dac, featuring a number of improvements to its design and functionality.
The hip-dac2 supports a wide range of digital audio formats, including PCM, DXD, and DSD, and can decode high-resolution audio files up to 384kHz/32-bit PCM, DSD256 and DXD384.
How do you know the bit/sampling rate when listening?
44.1kHz and 48kHz PCM files are represented by a yellow light, whilst 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192, 352.8 and 384kHz files are represented with a white glow. DSD64 and DSD128 files are noted with cyan, and DSD256 files show up with the LEDs glowing red. MQA is also supported.
The hip-dac2 utilizes a Burr-Brown Multi-Bit DAC chip. It also has a USB Type-C input for connecting to compatible devices. The rear panel also features a male USB Type A data input port.
iPhone users will need Apple’s Lightning-to-USB (camera adapter cable) which allows users to use their iPhone as a source. However, the hip-dac 2 does come with three USB cables: a USB-C OTG (On-The-Go) cable which is for connecting Android devices and PCs/Macs with USB-C ports; a USB-A cable (for everything else); and a USB-A to USB-C for charging.
The hip-dac2 also includes iFi’s proprietary XBass audio enhancement technology, which is designed to improve the bass response of music. It has a built-in rechargeable battery that can provide up to 8 hours of continuous playback time, and can also be used as a portable power bank to charge other devices.
In addition to its DAC capabilities, the hip-dac2 also has a powerful headphone amplifier with a balanced 4.4mm output and a standard 3.5mm output. It can drive headphones with impedances up to 600 ohms and has a maximum output power of 400mW per channel (32 ohms) using the 4.4mm output. The single-ended is limited to 280mW per channel (32 ohms).
Even high-impedance headphones are in play with an output voltage of 6.3V into 600 ohms (from the balanced output).
The front panel is rather busy but everything has a rather useful purpose; the aforementioned volume knob/power button is dead center and has a solid feel as you rotate it.
The balanced and single-ended 3.5mm headphone jacks occupy the right side of the top panel and there is more than enough room if using thicker headphone cables.
The left side features the PowerMatch button, which allows users to change the gain of the headphone amplifier. That comes in handy if you are alternating between IEMs and on-ear and over-ear headphones.
Very few (if any) IEMs will require that level of power boost and it is best that you leave it off. The button has a white light that indicates that the amplifier is boosting the signal with harder to drive headphones.
The second button turns on the XBass; which proved to be a rather useful feature with some headphones and IEMs with leaner bass response.
|Digital Inputs||USB 3.0 Type ‘A’|
|Power Output (@1% THD)||Balanced|
|Battery||Lithium-polymer 2200mAh||Approx. 8 hours|
|Power System||Charging via USB-C, BC V1.2 compliant up to 1000mA charging current and 6.3 volts|
|Power (max)||<2W idle, 4W max|
|Dimensions||102 x 70 x 14mm|
4.0″ x 2.8″ x 0.6″
|Weight||135g (0.30 lbs)|
The iFi hip-dac2 spent some time on the road with me; tucked rather neatly inside my new Outdoor Research Helium Rain Jacket which has already taken a beating from some recent storms on the Shore. Running at 5 a.m. with the winds and rain pelting me on the beach, the hip-dac2 proved to be not a big deal from a weight perspective in the chest pocket. Whilst heavier than any of my regular Dongle DACs, it never proved to be a distraction and it is clear that iFi Audio built this thing to last.
Another advantage of the hip-dac2 is that it does not draw down the power of your smartphone; instead relying on its own internal battery to drive your headphones or IEMs.
Sitting in a local cafe working on my MacBook Pro, the hip-dac2 attracted the attention of a few customers who wanted to know what it was and could it work with their iPads and home computers. Indeed it can.
My Meze Audio 109 Pro Headphones feature an open-back design and were not overly suitable for working in a cafe setting where others would be subjected to my music listening. I did take the iFi/Meze combination with me on a trip to Florida to visit my parents and listened to it extensively at night in the privacy of their guest bedroom.
I can hear clearly now…
The Meze Audio 99 Classics and FiiO FH5s IEMs became my go-to picks whilst working in public and it was clear from the very beginning that the hip-dac2 does deliver its stated power rating with using both single-ended and balanced connections.
A few years back, I spent almost $150 for a 4.4mm balanced cable for my 99 Classics and have never regretted that purchase; improved clarity, detail, and a much tighter sounding low end.
The cable works perfectly with the hip-dac2 and I found that the iFi amplifier elevated the sound of these workhorse headphones in a few areas.
The 99 Classics can be slightly heavy-handed in the low end; the bass response benefits from a Dongle DAC or portable headphone amplifier that can tighten up the definition, strip away some of the bloat, and add some speed to the proceedings.
The hip-dac2 does all of those things without the XBass engaged and that was how I decided to keep things for most of my listening.
From a tonal perspective, the hip-dac2 is a very neutral sounding amplifier and that benefited the 99 Classics because it added even greater clarity in the upper bass and midrange; Sam Cooke, Sinatra, Nick Cave, Tom Russell, and Orville Peck all came through with a very high level of resolution and detail without stripping away the meat.
Peck’s “Let Me Drown” off the Bronco release really shows off his rich, baritone voice, and the hip-dac2 did not strip away any of the color or drama which would have been a big negative in my book.
The hip-dac2 was consistently forward sounding with all of the IEMs and headphones on my desktop; vocals were pushed forward of the instrumentation and whilst that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing — one should be slightly careful in regard to which headphones and IEMs they pair with it.
The Meze headphones benefitted from the presentation style; as did the FiiO IEMs, but I would not use the hip-dac2 with thinner sounding headphones or IEMs that also push vocals too far forward.
The top end of the hip-dac2 was not overly aggressive sounding and it certainly benefitted headphones and IEMs that needed some additional top end clarity and detail but without adding too much emphasis.
One of the biggest surprises was how spacious the sound became with the hip-dac2 with all of the headphones and IEMs; the closed-back 99 Classics need all the help they can get in that department and whilst the hip-dac2 did not turn them into a pair of 109 Pro’s or HiFiMAN Edition XS, the improvement in soundstage width and depth were quite noticeable.
Bill Frisell’s “Dear Old Friend” (Four, Qobuz, MQA Master) and “The Pioneers” were both delivered with excellent timbral accuracy and a clear sense of space in the studio where Frisell, Greg Tardy, Jonathan Blake, and Gerald Clayton recorded this really solid album. One should expect nothing less from Frisell.
“D’un feu secret” is a funkier track off Cécile McLorin Salvant‘s latest and it swirls around in your head somewhat with the right combination of headphone/amplifier; the iFi/Meze 109 Pro does it rather well — but falls somewhat short of the hip-dac2/HiFiMAN Edition XS in that department.
The iFi hip-dac2 does everything you need it to do in a small enough package that feels more substantial than any of the Dongle DACs that I have tried so far. The form factor won’t be for everyone and this is not something that you can leave dangling out of your jacket all day tethered to your smartphone.
But for those who want something more powerful that does not draw down the battery of your smartphone and delivers rather outstanding sonic performance with full-sized headphones and high-end IEMs, it is very hard to go wrong with this amplifier.
The battery life is long enough for any commute or plane trip (10 hours or less) and it is too large to lose on your cluttered workspace desktop.
For under $200 USD, there are few portable DACs/headphone amplifiers that really stand out or feel as substantial in the palm of your hand.
For more information: ifi-audio.com/products/hip-dac2/
Where to buy: $189 at Amazon | Crutchfield
April 30, 2023 at 11:24 am
I still think this is the bestest looking portable DAC/AMP available. More Tatiana than Klebb. Speaking of Lenya, I never understood the, for lack of a better term, fascination with her singing. Shirley Horn was lovelier and a far better vocalist and she played the piano too.
One imagines Rosa Klebb would have developed (at the least) a case of “pianist envy”. I am listening to Horn fall in love with the lyric of…”A Time For Love”.
The MandalORTian 😉
April 30, 2023 at 12:58 pm
It’s quite the little amplifier. Definitely more Tatiana.
April 30, 2023 at 5:33 pm
I BOUGHT AN OLDER MODEL THAN THIS A COUPLE YEARS AGO. THE ON/VOLUME KNOB SCREWD UP PRETTY QUICKLY. ABOUT 6 MONTHS. EMAILED THEM TWICE TO FIND OUT WHERE I COULD GET IT FIXED, OR THE REPLACEMENT PART SO I COULD HET IT FIXED. NEVER HEARD BACK. FUCK EM!!! NEVER BUY THEIR SHIT AGAIN?!