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iFi GO Bar Dongle DAC: On the Road Again…

Our Editor in-chief takes the iFi GO Bar Dongle DAC on the road with Grado and Meze Audio headphones. Find out what he heard.

iFi Go Bar Dongle DAC Bottom View

Having been on the road for the majority of 2024 in preparation for something that nobody wants to deal with as our parent’s get older, I have been afforded the opportunity to stare out of airplane windows (and not ones that pop out at 32,000 feet thankfully) and do a lot of listening as I try not to think about what is going to happen.

Florida. New Jersey. Israel. Canada. And more times than any of you can even imagine.

TIDAL and Qobuz are probably sick of me at this point.

In a previous life, I spent more than a decade on the road working with my father and he taught me how to travel light and only carry with you the essentials; which in this particular moment includes my rather abused MacBook Pro, multiple pairs of headphones, 2 Dongle DACs, 9 black pens, 3 legal pads, portable phone charger, throat lozenges, and a clean pair of underwear and socks.

My Jewish mother is very proud somewhere knowing her eldest child is well prepared. For what…I have no idea whatsoever.

We have covered the Dongle DAC category rather extensively over the past 3 years and it is fair to say that the category is heavily oversaturated at this point. There are simply too many models doing exactly the same thing without any real points of differentiation.

One could say the same thing about loudspeakers — but the performance gap between the entry-level and very top of the category is rather substantial.

What was once a category dominated by the AudioQuest DragonFly Series, is now heavily dominated by products from FiiO, Questyle, and iFi Audio.

Even the award-winning DragonFly Cobalt (which is suddenly on sale everywhere in anticipation of its impending replacement) feels very dated and only marginally impressive at this point.

iFi GO Bar

iFi Go Bar top
iFi GO Bar

William Jennings reviewed the iFi GO Bar almost 18 months ago and for some odd reason one landed on my doorstep recently on one of the few days that I was actually home in New Jersey.

Timing is everything I suppose.

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iFi Audio celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2022 and the British brand now offers more than 50 products in the portable, desktop, and accessories categories including a number of award-winning DACs, phono pre-amplifiers, and headphone amplifiers.

Unboxing in the Middle of The Airport

iFi are one of those brands that supplies everything you might need when it comes to their products and that is the case with the GO Bar; the package includes the GO Bar, USB Type-C to Type-C cable, Lightning to USB Type-C cable, USB Type-C to USB Type-A Adapter, and a small carrying case with a belt loop. 

You do not need the Apple Camera Adapter if your iPhone still uses the Lightning connection and that was a really nice surprise to find that in the box.

The iFi GO Bar is 2.6″ x 0.9″ x 0.5″ and comes finished in a very sturdy and robust aluminum shell. The unit weighs 28.5 grams and conveys a genuine sense of quality.

The nose includes 3.5mm and 4.4mm (balanced) headphone jacks which are nicely finished and provided firm connections with all of the plugs that I tried throughout the review. 

iFi Go Bar Side Top

The tail has a singe USB Type-C port for both charging and source device.

The iFi GO Bar has two modes that allow users of sensitive IEMs or harder to drive full-sized headphones to use the Dongle DAC with either at the flick of a switch and I found that it was quite easy to use either.

For those of who can barely read instruction manuals anymore because the print is ridiculously too small (if your product requires ten pages of instructions — you have made it too complicated), iFi has rather smartly provided a very well designed instruction card with bold print that actually tells you how everything is supposed to work. And what all of the pretty colours mean.

Learning all of the button sequences to engage the wide range of settings and features was relatively easy using the card; the iFi GO Bar is capable of driving a rather extensive range of IEMs and headphones and offers support for up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM, 2X DXD, DSD256, and full MQA decoding.

Our most prolific commenter, ORT, will be happy to know that the MQA indicator was only illuminated to ensure that it works.

iFi Go Bar Circuit Board
iFi GO Bar Circuit Board

The DAC section of the GO Bar uses a powerful 16-core XMOS micro controller to process the audio data received at the USB input. The iFi team has programmed the XMOS firmware to optimize the sound quality and ensure a perfect partnership with the GO Bar‘s 32-bit Cirrus Logic DAC chipset.

The iFi GO Bar offers 475mW into 32 ohms​ and 7.5V into 600 ohms when using the balanced headphone output.

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The single-ended output offers 300mW into 32 ohms and 3.8V into 600 ohms.

Listening

Grado Labs SR80x Headphones Angle Left
Grado Labs SR80x

One of the first things you notice about the iFi GO Bar is its size; you are not going to walk around town with it dangling off the end of the USB cable as you speak into your phone.

As someone who uses a layering approach to winter weather, the Dongle DAC resided in either my chest pocket or inside of my laptop bag as I sat on the subway.

It’s a robust cable and one that will last a rather long time.

For the purposes of convenience, a pair of Grado SR80x and Meze Audio 99 Classics accompanied me as I travelled. Another pair of Meze Audio 109 Pro’s were used at night as I wrote and attempted to fall asleep in a rather tight, twin bed that was not designed for my 6′ 3″ frame.

The Meze headphones offer the opportunity to utilize both single-ended and balanced cables and I made a point to try both as the difference in power is rather significant.

With my mind stuck in the 1980s at the moment, it made perfect sense to start with the Smiths, Cure, Depeche Mode, Talking Heads, Blondie, New Order, and Echo and the Bunnymen.

Meze 99 Classics Over-ear Headphones in Walnut and Gold
Meze 99 Classics

The closed-back Meze 99 Classics offer a rather dark sounding tonal balance and require a great deal of illumination.

The bass range also needs a firm hand. Something to grab the reigns and tighten up its performance.

Even using the single-ended output, the iFi GO Bar became somewhat of a Marine Corps Drill Sergeant drilling a form of discipline and order into its performance.

Bass notes tightened up significantly, giving 1980s new wave tracks an improved sense of snap and pacing. The thickness that can be too much of a good thing with the 99 Classics and obscures clarity and detail — took the day off.

Vocals lost some of their tonal weight but the improvement in both clarity and detail were worth the change.

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The soulfulness of Sam Cooke remained but he felt slightly larger and closer to the listener. The soundstage is not huge on these headphones, but anything that stretches the sound naturally in terms of width and depth is a step in the right direction.

Meze 109 Pro

Meze Audio 109 Pro Open-Back Headphones Slanted
Meze Audio 109 Pro Open-Back Headphones

There was a misconception when Meze Audio introduced the 109 Pro headphones that they merely represented a response to market demand for an open-back pair of 99 Classics.

Based on my experience with them over many months, they were far more than that and they should have been considering the difference in price.

The 109 Pro are a much more difficult load and better suited for DAPs, desktop headphone amplifiers, and Dongle DACs from Questyle and Cayin can deliver a lot more power.

The big advantage of the open-back design is that it can deliver a far more spacious sounding presentation and the bass response takes a bit of a backseat to the midrange and treble which sound more transparent and detailed.

The 109 Pro proved to be rather capable in the bass range, but it was the change in tonal balance and the sheer scale of the music that sold me.

The iFi GO Bar does add a small degree of coloration to the sound in the upper bass and lower midrange and quite frankly — that is definitely a good thing.

With the exception of that additional emphasis, the iFi GO Bar is rather linear and neutral sounding; and none of that turns into a rather strident sounding top end unless your headphones are illuminated like a Christmas Tree.

Detail retrieval is very strong with this Dongle DAC, but it never made any of these headphones sound fatiguing; which would have been rather uncomfortable on the 3 hour flights between Toronto and Florida.

The Grado SR80x could have been a disaster with the iFi GO Bar with its rather expressive sounding upper midrange and treble, but as long as I kept the volume at sane listening levels, it was a rather good combination.

iFi Go Bar portable USB DAC AMP sides

Final Thoughts

Sitting in the departure lounge at YYZ, I’m currently listening to Peter Gabriel’s i/o (Qobuz, 24-bit/96kHz) and losing myself in the moment and not focusing for the first time in many days on what is to come.

That’s the power of music. Taking us somewhere else.

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Upon my return to the Garden State, the iFi GO Bar will be joining the Linear Tube Audio MZ3 Headphone Amplifier and Meze Audio Empyrean II headphones on my desktop to see just how good this little Dongle DAC truly is.

I suspect it will not disappoint.

More to come…


Where to buy$329 at Amazon | Crutchfield | Audio46 | Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.ca

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. ORT

    February 27, 2024 at 1:45 am

    Hmmmmmm…Dare I say this?

    Oooooo…DARE! DARE!

    I think that I would make the perfect Brand Lambasstador for MQA.

    For those unfamiliar with my phraseology, “Lambasstador” is a portmanteau of “lambast and “Ambassador” so no, I am not intimating that I am a “lame ambassador” and this in spite of me being handicapable!

    I am still looking for a portable battery-backed DAC/Amp with an optical input that I can actually afford. It is not the end of the world if I cannot find one as while I possess a rapier-like wit (relax little wokelings, a rapier is a SWORD), I am cursed with the ears of a pauper. I just think such a device would look cool and ultra Pinky Suavo!

    ORTson Welles

    • Ian White

      February 27, 2024 at 12:11 pm

      ORT,

      On the stagecoach to Rockridge and I almost spit my coffee out.

      Sheriff Bart

    • Mongo

      March 2, 2024 at 8:20 pm

      Moar ORT please! Hey Sheriff Bart, where’s the column we wuz all promised awhile back?

      Mongo

      • Ian White

        March 2, 2024 at 10:33 pm

        Mongo,

        I will be conversing with ORT this week on his first instalments for March. He’s also dealing with a death in the family and we’re being respectful.

        Best,

        Ian White

  2. Fielding

    February 27, 2024 at 8:54 am

    Travel a lot too and would love to hear impressions using high-end earbuds for those of us who don’t want to lug headphones around.

    • Ian White

      February 27, 2024 at 12:12 pm

      Fielding,

      Any relation to Dan?

      I will take some IEMs with me on the road and add that to part II.

      Best,

      Ian White

  3. PAUL GITTINS

    April 20, 2024 at 3:50 pm

    I recently bought a GO Bar and although the sound quality is good, I find it impossible to use in a real-life commuting situation. Any pressure on the lightning connector cuts the connection, you can’t bend the cable to hold the phone and GO Bar at the same time without it cutting out or, worse, playing your music to the whole train via your phone speaker. If you’re standing up on a busy tube, trying to get your phone out of your pocket to change track, then it’s game over.
    It may be a nice bit of kit if you’re sitting down and can have if laid out on your lap but that isn’t the reality for most people commuting. It’s as if iFi just didn’t bother properly testing it in real situations and most of the reviews I’ve read don’t do that either, they unbox it and listen to it at home. I’d love to see some proper testing of these dongles over a period of time so people could make an informed choice about which is best for them.

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