Interview time: Owen from iFi Audio

Interview with iFi

iFi is a household name in the audiophile world – it’s garnered a reputation for fantastic products with beautiful sound. After I got in touch with them and I tried the iFi micro iCAN SE, I was left with a few questions and asked them if they wanted to chat a bit about the audio market in general and about a few specific topics regarding their products.

I was introduced to Owen, who agreed to respond to my questions (thank you, Owen!).

Riccardo: Hi! Would you like to introduce yourself and iFi to Soundphile Review’s readers?

Owen: Hello Soundphile readers! This is Owen with iFi Audio’s Support Department!…….. (I know right? Someone from support doing an interview?). Anyway, it’s a great honour to be interviewed and featured amongst Soundphile Review. Hope you like the interview!

Riccardo: What’s the current trend in the audio world from your point of view?

Owen: From my point of view, as I deal with distributors/dealers/customers on a regular basis, the trend is slightly different from culture/country/age range. However, the digital market is forever increasing mainly due to services which are more advanced. What do I mean by this? Well, you now do not need to ring or visit a fast food joint to order a pizza, you can order online and get tracking. Audio is going the same route as there is no need for anything physical such as CD or even file format! Streaming services like Spotify / TIDAL are making it much more convenient.

But I guess no matter how the trend goes, as long as people enjoy the music.

Riccardo: Do you see any differences in the different markets (i.e. American, European, Asian)? If so, what are they?

Owen: Yes for sure! See above! The American market seems to handle digital products really well but still have some analogue base there. Japan market is HUGE for DSD, hence our products are always in demand. European is a mixture.

Riccardo: Would you like to tell us more about the new nano iDSD BL? What’s your favourite feature?

Owen: Sure! Well, it has the following new features:

1) USB A Male – This is so you can directly pair it with an Apple CCK or Android OTG without having any adapter. You can literally piggyback them together with the short cable (CCK/OTG) whereas USB B devices require an extra cable. No one really likes to have multiple adapters (at least whilst portable).

2) MQA – The first iFi product to incorporate this technology. We like to give the customers that choice and always stay up to date with technology.

3) iPurifier 1 technology built in – Similar to the iDSD Micro, the Nano BL has REbalance technology built into the USB port which will address any DC offset.

4) Powerful headphone amplifier & built-in Ear Buddy (attenuation) – Increased amplification is great as at home I use 650’s but on train, I use in-ears, so to select the output to match the amplification/volume level is really good. At least there is an option to either go louder or quieter!

5) Black chassis & redesign – Black is a universal colour but with the orange, it really does make an attractive device. We’ve added silicone feet, reduce the volume knob and updated the end plates making it a more portable ready & friendly device.

My personal favourite is them all! The reason why is the iDSD micro BL is a hot product but it is too big for portability, even though smartphones are ‘Plus’ in size, so the Nano BL is the compact version of that. You can see from the Nano LE to the Nano BL how more portability friendly it is.

Riccardo: With smartphones ever getting better at reproducing music, what’s the future like for audio companies like iFi?

Owen: You are correct, smartphones are now paying more attention to audio. I got the Samsung S8+ and seen ‘Tube Amp’ DSP which I wouldn’t expect. However, there is always a limit as the smartphone is the digital Swiss army knife. Smartphones really have come a long way for audio as they reduced (in my opinion) the iPod type devices; however, with USB being a universal connection, as long as they keep allowing USB audio out there will still be the market for audio lovers to improve.

As a company, at iFi we are thinking ahead. We notice that wireless / BT is really taking off even though there is a loss of sound quality, customers don’t want to feel tethered by a cable. Again it comes back to convenience.

Riccardo: In your opinion, what should one look for in an amplifier or DAC?

Owen: First, if you are new to audio or at least would like to experience something better, I wouldn’t recommend a DAC or amplifier. In fact, the younger market questions ‘what is a DAC’ (from my experience), but if you say ‘amplifier’ they would understand. Similar to how they understand ‘memory (storage)’ , but they are confused by ‘CPU/RAM’ (mass market that is).

Instead, I’ll suggest trying a pair of headphones from a premium brand. From that recommend then recommend a DAC/amplifier to drive the headphones to a reasonable level.

Past that, what should one look for? Well, it really is a subjective matter. You could spend big bucks but be contempt with something cheap! What I say really is – keep it respectable to what you can afford and make sure you do some comparisons or even listening before purchase.

However, I do really like these entry-level devices with enough power, few inputs, nice form factor too.

Riccardo: Have you got a favourite pair of amplifier and headphones?

Owen: As we are a DAC/Amplifier manufacturer we get to sample a large range or use demo headphones, however I have the Sennhesier HD650’s. I listened to a pair of electro-statics vs the 650’s during Munich but the 650’s had something about them that I liked. The week after I returned they were ordered.

BUT the best headphones I’ve tried have got to be the Abyss. But at the price of a new car I’m not rushing out to buy a set right now!

Amplifier? I’m using an iFi iCan SE 🙂

Riccardo: Now, on to personal things: what’s your favorite song and album and why?

Owen: OK, I love music and I would say I have a weird ritual where I need to read the lyrics and understand the song meaning of how/why it was written so it’s more ‘enjoyable’ for me I guess. Kind of like watching a movie and understanding the characters, then you become emotionally attached once you understand the background. However:

Favourite song: Bruce Springsteen – I’m on Fire (Live in Paris, 1985) – I remember listening to this at 3AM in the morning and how Springsteen gave an introduction by talking about his father then broke into the song was just ‘Wow’…
Album: There is a lot, but in terms of album I could always listen to it would have to be: Thin Lizzy – Jail break
Best music video: Meat Loaf – I’ll do anything for love – Shot by Michael Bay but I really like the ‘Beauty & the Beast’ concept
Best Album art – Meat Loaf – Bat out of hell 2

That’s an interesting choice – I also love Meat Loaf’s style. And Thin Lizzy is always a solid performer, so I’m with Owen on this one, too! While we’re here, I would just like to give my opinion on the DAC/amplifier thing – invest your money there when you feel your equipment isn’t sounding as it should or if you want to experiment, but give headphones (or speakers) preference if you need to choose. Also, don’t expect drastic changes in sound – they shouldn’t be there. The DAC and amplifier market is more of a “war of nuances”.

I seize this opportunity to announce that a nano iDSD BL should come my way in January, though I have no specific time frame yet. I’m excited at the prospect of trying it out as it received rave reviews online – I wonder how it compares to the RHA Dacamp L1 (featured in the last Out of the Box article) and to the previously-mentioned micro iCAN SE.

I look forward to offering you a number of reviews in the coming year – 2018 is going to be exciting, so stay tuned!

About Riccardo Robecchi

Living in Glasgow, Scotland but born and raised near Milan, Italy, I got the passion for music listening as a legacy from my father and my grandfather. I have reported on technology for major Italian publications since 2011.

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