The recently released iFi iCAN Phantom combines two of iFi Audio’s greatest hits into one of the most versatile headphone amps currently available. One part iFi Pro iCAN Signature, iFi’s powerful flagship hybrid-tube headphone amplifier, and one part iESL electrostatic energizer – with their powers combined, can this thing drive just about any headphone on the planet?
Build and Design
Under the hood, iCAN Phantom is a sort of chimera (“iCAN Chimera” would have been an awesome name that piggybacks on the ever-popular iFi xDSD Gryphon, but I do reviews for Bloom Audio, not product names for iFi, and no one asked me) and the aesthetics follow suit. Phantom – not unlike a mythical Chimera – looks more like multiple devices merged together rather than a single unified unit. The interface echoes that as well: depending on exactly what you’re using Phantom for, there are some buttons and switches you might never even touch.
One of my favorite visual features on iCAN Phantom is the window on top, giving you a clear view of the components inside. Internally, the components look clean and well-organized, with the glowing tubes adding some visual pop. The front of the top portion of Phantom has an OLED screen, the volume and input selection knobs, and switches for tube mode and gain level. Controls for XBass, XSpace, iEMatch, electrostatic impedance, and electrostatic AC mode are at the transition point in the middle. The bottom offers conventional outputs on the right side, and electrostatic on the left. On the right side, you get pro-audio style dual 6.3mm/3-pin XLR plugs, 4-pin balanced XLR, 4.4mm balanced, and 3.5mm single ended ports. On the left, you have the “Normal” and “Custom/Pro” electrostatic outputs.
On the rear, iCAN Phantom has the standard array of analog inputs and outputs. There are three sets RCA inputs and one set for balanced XLR. Phantom can also function as a preamp with RCA and XLR preamp outputs. None of Phantom's outputs are exclusive, so connecting headphones and an external amp to Phantom at the same time will output to all connected devices. The recommended operation is to only connect one output at a time, but so long as all devices are connected properly.
As a whole, iCAN Phantom presents as a well-built, premium unit, but there are a couple choices that detract from that. The physical toggles on iFi’s iCAN series always had a satisfying, tactile click, but the Phantom trades that for mushier feeling switches for gain and tube mode that don’t always do what you expect. The controls are now 100% digital, so the switch position doesn’t always line up with the current setting. There’s also some lag between turning the input selection knob and the digital click that accompanies the change. One big improvement over previous iCAN devices is the remote. iCAN Phantom’s remote is purpose built, and generally more functional than the remotes included in previous iterations.
Using iCAN Phantom
iCAN Phantom is a powerful, versatile device, but that power can be a bit overwhelming. For the most basic setup, all you need to do is connect an audio source via RCA or XLR cables, plug your headphones into the front, and turn up the volume. Of course, then you’ll need to use Gain and iEMatch to dial in the right amount of power for your headphones, and use the tube, XBass, and XSpace options to find the sound you’re looking for – and that’s not even getting into the electrostatic options.
iCAN Phantom manages more or less efficient headphones through the Gain and iEMatch controls. Gain has three steps: 0dB, 9dB, and 18dB. Typically the goal is to use gain so that you’re enjoying the music while keeping the volume level in between 40-60 on the dial. iEMatch activates an attenuator which provides better volume control for highly sensitive headphones and IEMs and eliminates hiss caused by impedance mismatches. So, for example, a Campfire Andromeda paired with iCAN Phantom will have a slight hiss even at 0dB gain and low volume, and you’ll only have a small portion of the volume control available. Activating iEMatch eliminates the hiss and functions as a sort of “ultra-low gain” in terms of volume control.
XBass adds a small boost in the lower bass in the form of an EQ shelf that starts to roll off at a certain frequency. It has three modes 10Hz, 20Hz, and 40Hz. Similarly XSpace has three modes, but its design is to simulate music playback from speakers some distance away from the listener. The 30, 60, and 90 degree options adjust the angle and distance that iCAN is simulating. The tube toggle switches between fully Solid State, Tube mode, and Tube+ mode. I’ve been using different Pro iCAN and Pro iDSD models that use this differentiation for several years now, but I can’t tell you exactly what’s happening between Tube and Tube+ mode, other than that Tube+ mode gives you more “tube-iness” than in standard Tube mode.
With ESL mode on, the conventional headphone amp section operates as the preamp, providing all the same options you had for your conventional headphones, but energized for electrostatic headphones. Depending on your specific headphones, you’ll have the Normal or Custom/Pro options available. The Custom/Pro output supports a wide range of electrostats through the bias card system, which allows you to run just about any electrostatic headphone from a major manufacturer with the device.
Of course, if you want to use the Custom/Pro side, you’ll need to find the bias cards. When I first opened iCAN Phantom I was stumped as to how and where you got the bias cards. As it turns out, they’re in a storage container magnetically attached to the back of the unit. Once that’s all sorted, you’ll need to check your electrostatic headphone’s manual or find the manufacturer information to use the correct card for your headphones. Using the wrong bias card can damage your headphones, the amp, and potentially your ears as well.
In addition, electrostatic operation has options for adjusting the impedance and activating AC voltage mode. AC voltage mode is a bit of a mysterious feature, but it seems to give you a little extra oomph with more power hungry headphones. Impedance controls the output impedance for electrostatic headphones, and you can select a range of options from 16 Ω through 96 Ω. Lower output impedance can help you achieve higher volumes, but it also adds more load to the amp - making it work harder and run hotter than simply turning up the volume would. The question is, when you put all this stuff together, how does it sound?
Sound and Performance
If you’ve used the iFi Pro iCAN or Pro iCAN Signature, you have a pretty good idea of what iCAN Phantom is capable of with conventional headphones. There’s very little that Phantom can’t handle, and it manages the full range of “inefficient” headphones, whether they’re high impedance like HD800 or low sensitivity and low impedance headphones like Susvara. The iEMatch feature means that even sensitive IEMs do quite well with Phantom.
Phantom’s sound signature, even in solid state mode, tends to be slightly warm. If you prefer rich layers or lush instrumentation to a more crisp, airy delivery, iCAN Phantom might be just what you’re looking for. Phantom’s Solid State is more neutral, but it may come up just short of “reference accuracy.” Tube mode adds a hint of smoothness to the highs and some warmth in the low mids. Tube+ goes all in with a sweet, musical tonality that sounds great with brighter headphones, like the HiFiMAN Arya Organic, and also really helps add some weight and thickness to electrostatic headphones.
XBass is a favorite iFi feature, and the implementation here gives you exactly what you need. At 10Hz, it fills in the slight bass roll-off that many more reference tuned headphones feature. At 20Hz, it adds an extra bit of low bass that helps further enhance the fun-factor on those same headphones. At 40Hz… well, I think only true bassheads will ever want this setting.
While I’ve yet to meet a conventional headphone that Phantom can’t handle, volume management for electrostatic headphones is a bit tougher. My initial experience with the DCA Corina was that I needed everything fully cranked to get decent volume, but was still coming up just short on 100 volume. Switching devices around, I was able to offer more pre-gain from the Astell&Kern CA1000 to achieve a good listening level around 70-75, but the electrostatic headroom wasn’t as good as the headroom for conventional headphones.
iCAN Phantom’s characteristic warmth ends up being a perfect match for electrostatic headphones. Where typically electrostats give you excellent resolution and a spacious soundstage, but lack a sense of weight – feeling more airy and diffuse – Phantom adds a great sense of body and a more lifelike character. In some ways it sounds like a scaled down Headamp Blue Hawaii. Phantom has some similar sonic characteristics to Blue Hawaii, like its characteristic strong note weight with electrostatic headphones, but where Blue Hawaii gives you the whole package – speed and resolution and spaciousness and weight – Phantom loses some of the speed and resolution along the way to providing that more tactile feeling.
The Bottom Line
iCAN Phantom, like many boutique, high-end HiFi devices, has some incredible features, and might be the absolute perfect choice for some people, but also comes up short in a couple places. If all you need is a top of the line headphone amp for flagship level conventional headphones, the $3749 price tag isn’t fully justified, and the extra features make the experience more clunky than the competition. As an electrostatic solution – even without taking the conventional headphone aspect into consideration – Phantom is an excellent option for those looking to inject a little warmth into the sometimes cold electrostatic sound. Where Phantom really shines is if you want a single solution for driving your complete headphone collection. In terms of driving everything from a single amp – from IEMs to Electrostats – Phantom isn’t just a great option, for under $5000, it’s probably the best one out there.