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IFI Hip DAC 3 review : A Big Step Forward

You can try denying but Ifi has to be one of the most popular portable source makers in the world and of all of their products Hip DAC lineup is one of the most popular and have been there for long. Yes, they have the Diablo and Nano DSD sitting at the top with the mid range being handled by Gryphon and Micro Signature. Hip DAC takes care of the entry level and the Go Bar is there to satisfy dongle needs.

Known for their accuracy and details, Ifi do make warm and enveloping sounding sources too and Hip DAC lineup is known for this. It’s the 3rd gen and there are a few improvements not only with functionality with Sound quality too. Priced at $200 this is one of the most complete and capable wired DAC/amp available in the market and goes head on against the Shanling H2.

Get one from here:

For Indian Buyers:

UNBOXING AND ACCESSORIES:

Open up the small cute looking box and the Hip DAC 3 is placed upfront. There are some documentation and I don’t think it’s necessary to go through it anymore. All the accessories are placed under it. We get 2 cables, one C to C cable to use with PC and another C to A cable to connect with PCs. Mine did come with a C to lightening cable but this is not true for all regions.

We get an iFi sticker and 4 rubber foots to protect the body from rough surfaces, this ends the list of accessories.

BUILD QUALITY AND CONNECTIVITY:-

The concept of the hip DAC is to make it very portable dac, as portable as a hip Flask which can be carried around without any problem. The Hip DAC emulates similar shape and looks without being heavy. With a dimension of just 102 x 70 x 14mm while tipping the scale at just 135grams it is one of the most powerful portable DAC/Amps in its price bracket.

Thanks to its metal housing, it feels strong and can take a few dings without any external damage. The color scheme is eye catching, its new Titanium shadow hue with silver volume knob emulating a hip flask gives it an aesthetically premium look. It feels really sturdy from every aspect except. Let it be the Silver colored power/volume knob or the Xbass and power match switches they all have nice click to them and work as intended. I do find the IE Match switch to be slightly fiddly but that’s not a problem at all.


Connectivity options:-

We get only one input option. The music can only be streamed into the newly incorporated type C port and the output has to be through the S-balance compatible 3.5mm or the 4.4mm ports. Before connecting it with the PC a driver should be installed from their website. Connect it with the PC, go to the sound menu and set Hip DAC as default output device and you are good to go.

TECH TALK, DRIVING POWER AND BUTTONS:-

Hip DAC 3 is one of the most formidable portable DAC/AMPs in this price range. It can be used with mobile phones and PCs but looking at its size and convenience I assume most of the users use it with their mobile phones while on the move. It houses a Burr Brown chip which can handle hi-res PCM up to 384kHz as well as DSD256 and MQA. The 4.4mm pentaconn opens up the balanced world and even though the 3.5mm feels like single ended it too is S-balanced which provides balanced like experience while reducing some hissing with sensitive IEMs. Doesn’t matter which port is in use the Hip DAC delivers plenty of power, going as high as 400mw at 32ohm with peak voltage of 6.3v with a 600ohm load (with the 4.4mm balanced). And even if you are not someone who likes to buy separate cables for your ear/headphones the Hip DAC can do 280mw with the 3.5mm socket, which in my opinion is plenty to drive power efficient headphones.

The Type C digital input port is compatible with USB 2.0 and 3.0 while the XMOS 16core is 2 times faster. 

Buttons:-

X-bass:

If bass is what drives the sound for you, iFi has equipped the Hip DAC 3 has retained the XBASS button which delivers fuller and meatier notes even with flatter sounding head gears. I tried it with a couple of my headphones and it works flawlessly boosting the sub-bass and mid-bass region, giving the lower end plenty of rumbles. It does slow down the decay speed a bit but that is a tradeoff a bass lover is always willing to.

Power match:

To get the best output with less sensitive headphones Hip DAC 3 has a power match button which acts like a gain switch and is perfectly capable of driving most of the headphone in the market. Don’t Expect it to drive the least sensitive and needy headphones. On the other hand it can drive nearly 99.9% Iems with ease.

In their words:-

“PowerMatch The amp stage features switchable gain, which we call PowerMatch. This option matches the level of drive to the load presented by the headphones, by adjusting input sensitivity and signal strength. With less sensitive headphones such as large cans, put PowerMatch at its higher setting for best performance and vice versa for IEMs.”

IE Match:

This time around we get If match too. This I felt was a bit unnecessary because we already have the power match and IE match doesn’t boost the power, flick it to any side and it dials down the power to suit more sensitive IEMs. The problem is, at 400mw it doesn’t need a volume knob, a gain switch and a power reducing switch.

“An underside switch engages iFi’s iEMatch technology, optimising output for high-sensitivity headphones, especially in-ear monitors (IEMs). It reduces hiss, enhances detail and dynamic range, and improves volume control range.”

BATTERY:-

The Hip DAC is small and slim but it still houses a very respectable 2200mah battery inside it which is good for at least 7-9 hours of usage and can be as good as 12 hours with 3.5mm output. While driving the Hidizs MMP145 through the 4.4mm socket with “Power match” and XBASS on, we get the poorest battery life of around 7 hours and around 8 hours with the 3.5mm S-balanced with both the buttons on. To get the best out of the battery one has to use the 3.5mm socket with all the switches off with moderate volume. iFi says the Hip DAC can be charged with high power charger with 5V support yet it takes around 2 hours with my 30w (5V 6A) charger.

On a longer commute, there is a small chance that the Hip DAC will die halfway. I would love iFi to fit a higher capacity battery even if it translates into a slightly larger and heavier device.

SOUND QUALITY:

This is not my first review of the Hip DAC. I reviewed the first gen and it wasn’t what I outright loved. It was smooth warm and thick, a bit mushy and less clarity oriented. It was tuned to be a musical, a more tranquil source but this 3rd gen is a big improvement when compared to that. Ifi Hip DAC 3 does carry forward their house tuning yet it has much better definition and resolution with a hint of warmth and comfort of wholesome notes. I am happy to report that unlike the last 2 generations it doesn’t lack treble energy or definition while the mid range is highly resolving too.

I have used a handful of IEMs, mostly Hidizs MP145 and Dunu Falcon Ultra for this review.

BASS:

Given the fact that the last 2 gen of Hip DAC had amplified warmth and thickness does the 3rd gen too is warm? It’s warmish, it’s not like it has lost all of its warmth but thankfully the overly thick notes that delivered heavier and slower notes are tightened and made to shed the extra weight. Oh no, don’t worry, we don’t get lean bass notes but they are just a notch over neutral, leaning marginally towards a warmer presentation.

I love this to be real, it’s not turned for best resolution or clarity but the soothing feeling while getting most of the details and clarity puts a smile on my face. We get excellent sub-bass extension and very good rumble. The best thing is it can add a bit more oomph to balanced sounding IEMs too. Mid bass is a bit more fuller and heavier yet fairly clear of excess bloating or muddy passages. Hip DAC 3 doesn’t add more area or change the flow of the notes but slightly slows the notes giving them the extra bit of weight and punch. So how’s the dynamics? It’s very good. “Sucker for pain” shows it’s ability of keeping the upper bass notes separated from mid bass notes. If the IEM has well layered delivery, Hip DAC 3 will only add better resolution to them.

Mids:

If your IEM is a bit hard edged and slightly shouty, pairing it with Hip DAC 3 is one of the best things that can happen to it.

The instruments are not lacking resolution or definition but are calmer and slightly smoother side which takes of the extra sharpness and energy, delivering more tranquil and cohesive notes. I do find the decay to slightly slower which gives the notes a wider landing area making them a lot more comfortable but does sacrifice a bit of cleanliness, back and foreground contrast and layering. On the other side we get better texture, more organic and pleasing timber and tonality with vocals male vocals sounds a bit more throaty and grunty while female vocals are slightly less sharp or accurate making them a lot more soothing. There is no upper mid energy to worry about either so it’s a smooth sailing with the Hip DAC 3.

HIGHS:

Even when it’s hardly energetic, sparkly, agile or lively I am impressed with the extra resolution, transparency and energy compared to the last Gens. I like this active yet slightly docile presentation delivering cozy and comfortable notes without any scope for aggression or sharpness. While doing all this, we get very good extension and I won’t hold my words while appreciating the improved clarity and definition. We get very good layering and separation with good amount of air between instruments.

It’s not all rosy though, Hip DAC 3’s biggest flaw can be found here. Can be, because this might not be a flaw for you but if you play high pace music like trance and house, or synths, it’s hard to ignore the slightly laggy or clipped notes.

STAGE AND IMAGING:-

The Stage size of the Hip DAC is very good for the price. We get a well expanded stage with excellent height and width. The Z-axis depth is slightly lacking but it’s not something found with other DAC/Amps in this price range so, no complains. Imaging is very good so is the out of the head presence. Instruments have nice density and don’t feel clumsy, cramped or hollow. Bass, mid range and treble region have nice presence without obstructing each other.

PAIRING WITH IEMS:

With Dunu Falcon Ultra:

Slightly warmer and fuller source paired with a balanced IEM should have a pleasing output, this pairing is a good example of that. We get slightly fuller notes with heavier mid bass punch, it adds extra weight but does not increase the area of impact a lot. Dynamic aren’t hampered either. Mid rage is slightly more poised with better texture with slightly more heavier and dampened notes. Falcon Ultra’s natural sharpness is now a lot more pleasing with s bit of smoothening. Treble is where things get slightly less desirable. Hip Dac 3’s slight lack of energy and extra bit of poise doesn’t sit well with the faster, transparent and more agile Falcon Ultra, the output is a bit laggy. We get very good extension, nice clarity and details with very good air between instruments.

Stage is nearly unchanged with very good expansion and very good sonics.

With Hidizs MP145:

This was the best pairing of this lot. I can safely say that this made the V shaped, slightly thin and sharp sounding MP145 a much more desirable IEM. I have used the silver nozzle on the MP145 which is lacking a bit of bass body, V shaped and treble forward but when paired with Hip DAC 3 it changes into a well balanced IEM.

Bass is slightly fuller. Just like the DUNU, we don’t get bigger area of impact but the notes get heavier. Slightly slower decay means we get excellent poise and the right amount of body to enjoy the rumble and texture of the notes. Dynamics is unchanged. Mid range is delightful with taller notes, less sharp finishing and a more cohesive tonality and timber. Treble is another positive too. This pairing has reduced treble energy and slightly better control over sharpness with equally impressive extension. Stage too is slightly bigger in every direction with a more even instrument distribution, sonics too are a lot more pleasing.

Here is my pairing video of these 2 and ISN Neo 5, feel free to have a go:

COMPARISONS:

VS Shanling H2:

VS Hidizs DH80s:

CONCLUSION:

Color me impressed, Hip DAC 3 is a big step forward, yes the power and form factor remains the same but the improvement with clarity, control and definition is substantial. It’s a marked improvement from what the 2nd gen had on offer. It’s a lot more balanced, has much better resolution and definition with better control over bass notes than it’s predecessors. Both mids and highs benefit from the improved accuracy and clarity. We get much better treble clarity and extension which was missing with the past generations.

Look at it from both positive and negative points, when compared to more analytical sources like Shanling H2 and Hidizs DH80s, Hip DAC 3 brings in a bit more poise and slightly slows the decay speed which eliminates sharpness, giving it a more musical and smoother finishing. Get it for a relaxed experience, not for excellent details or technical excellence and you are in for a treat!!

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ABOUT AUTHOR

Picture of Suman Sourav Meher

Suman Sourav Meher

My humble audiophile journey started in 2010, when I was in college, where I fell in love with the elements, nuances, and variations of this mesmerizing world. The ability of tiny earphones to recreate amazing sounds made my bad days tolerable and good days better! Now I am a full-time audiophile with a preference for musical tracks, especially vocals and engaging ones. I must admit I am addicted, but not to drugs or alcohol, but to earphones. Come join me as I share my experiences, bad or good, and let’s have some fun!

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