IFi’s tiny Kensei DAC/amp produces big sound

During each AXPONA, the makers of head-fi products set up their booths in the ground-floor central ballroom of Schaumburg’s enormous Renaissance hotel. The Ear Gear Experience, they call it. I always have a look and a listen, in part because the products there aren’t crazy expensive: three and four figures, mostly. It’s refreshing to temporarily get away from stereo systems that cost the price of a house.

Ah, who am I kidding, I love those too. But in the real world, who can afford $80,000 amplifiers and $200,000 speakers?

If your budget is perhaps just two or three percent of that sum, you could do worse than buying high-end cans and a serious headphone amplifier. Provided the two are well matched, a very elevated level of performance awaits, in some ways rivaling what those super-pricey speakers and extravagant amps can do.

At AXPONA 2024, a lot of the younger visitors flocked to the Ear Gear space; that’s where they found what they could (maybe) afford. The organizers of the show revealed afterwards that sales of AXPONA’s $10 Gen Z pass had doubled. I was thrilled to hear it.

One of the prettiest baubles I saw at the Ear Gear Experience was iFi’s new GO Bar Kensei, a DAC, preamp, and headphone amp wrapped in a silver body the size of a USB thumb drive. IFi goes a little overboard with the purple prose about the product, claiming that the device is “akin to a legendary sword meticulously forged for a Kensei. Embodying the dedication of a master swordsmith, we focused on purity, balance, and refinement.” In reality, the blingy little powerhouse has nothing to do with swordsmanship (except that it is said to be made of “Japanese steel”) and everything to do with delivering superior audio.

A customized digital filter clamps down on pre-echoes and ringing artifacts. A GMT (Global Master Timing) precision clock is said to push jitter below audibility. The Kensei supports higher-than-streaming audio formats, including PCM up to 32/384 and native DSD256. With a maximum output power of around 475mW, it’s about 10 times more powerful than the analog output on an iPhone 15 (footnote 1).

The Kensei acts as the middle man between a digital source (desktop or laptop computer, tablet, or smartphone) and a pair of wired headphones. I listened mainly with the Meze 99s ($300) and later with the Massdrop Sennheiser HD 6XX ($219). My late-model iPhone Pro Max was the source, pulling hi-res streams from Qobuz.

Instrument timbres on the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields” were lifelike and colorful. I heard the same on “The Incredibles” by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. “Sweet drive and pacing,” I scribbled. Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” rocked in both senses of the word.

The GO Bar Kensei would make a super-capable travel companion. The often fiddly cables and adapters inherent in these portable setups aren’t for everyone, but if those things don’t bother you, iFi’s little dynamo might be of considerable appeal. Only you Kensei.

Footnote 1: Yes, there is an analog output; you just need a special adapter to access it.

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