ifi iPhono3 “Black Label” Phonostage Review
The iPhono3 “Black Label” is the latest phonostage from AMR owned ifi Audio, a company with its HQ and development center based in Southport, England.
If the name “Black Label” is intended to suggest that there’s something more potent going on under the hood of the iPhono3, compared to its older sibling the iPhono2, then that’s fine, but there’s really no surface indication of a change other than color and the Black Label moniker – I don’t have the two units side by side, but going from memory, they’re identical on the surface in every way other than those stated.
Owners of the iPhono2 will recall the wall-wart supplied with their unit as being a cheap affair, pretty much the bog-standard type of adapter that you get with any cheap electronic item running low voltage AC or DC. Not so with the iPhono3. Supplied with the new unit is the iPower X, “the very latest in ifi power supply technology“, according to the ifi website.
So, other than color, and an uprated power supply, it really doesn’t appear to have changed any on the outside. Its long, slender aluminum case houses the 15v DC input socket on one end, a pair of RCA phono outputs, and a 3 position toggle for selecting either Columbia, RIAA, or Decca LP equalization. On the other end of the can, two pairs of RCA inputs, one MM and one MC, and an earth binding post. Atop the unit are LEDs for the following –
When you flip the unit over you’re faced with the same style of DIP switch arrays as used on the iPhono2: settings for gain, impedance, EQ types, and options for MM and MC.
I mentioned in my preliminary review of the unit that I’m not a big fan of using dip switches as they’re just too small and fiddly for an old dude with banana-fingers and a perpetual squint, and there’s too much potential for winding up with the wrong settings. But there is a useful tool at the manufacturer’s website here https://ifi-audio.com/home/iphono-calculator/ The tool won’t help you see any better but it does take away some of the frustration of setting up the unit to match your particular cartridge.
And that’s really all there is to it. Set the dip switches according to your cartridge particulars, plug in your phono cables and IC’s, attach the plug from the iPower X, and wait for the short enabling sequence as indicated by the sequential illumination of the LEDs.
Well, not quite.
As with the iPhono2, this iteration is extremely light in weight, around 0.5lbs in its stocking feet. There’s a negative connotation in the audiophile world linking light-weight with lightweight performance, but my beef here is more to do with getting the unit to sit flat when the cables are connected. It’s so light that with my cabling I needed to add some mass atop the unit to keep all four of its rubber feet firmly planted. I used a heavyweight brass footer, with the tip pointing to the sky, which I hoped might also remove any unwanted vibration from the chassis. Over time, I tried a variety of component isolation tweaks with the unit, including small brass cones and various small iso-pads, but its lack of weight always made this process a challenge.
ifi Audio is very much a tech-centric company. As a subsidiary of AMR (Abingdon Music Research), they have access to trickle-down technology from AMR’s flagship products, such as the PH-77 phonostage and other products including CD Players and Amplifiers.
While AMR builds for the high-end markets and targets those who seek maximum performance with cost secondary, ifi is very much value-focused, striving for good performance at a cost most people operating within the constraints of a modest budget, can afford.
To get high performance from a comparatively low-cost device, and still turn an operating profit, it’s pretty much mandatory these days to build the product overseas, in this case, China. While visions of poor operating conditions and an underpaid workforce may spring to mind whenever a ‘Made in China’ sticker is found, ifi/AMR approach overseas manufacture very differently than most of their competitors – they actually own their own factory in China, they split their R&D, circuit design, assembly and other operations between the UK and China and even have programmers operating from both locations.
Rather than re-state the already stated, I’ll refer people to ifi’s Website Via This Link, to review the technical achievements associated with the iPhono3, of which there are many. Or for those more interested in a quick summary:
- The ifi iPhono3 uses only the best audiophile components including op-amps, high-gain bi-polar output transistors and Nichicon audio-grade capacitors.
- The ifi iPhono3 has a super-low 85dB noise floor.
- The ifi iPhono3 has a 108dB dynamic range (!!)
- The ifi iPhono3 can handle very low output moving coil cartridges as well as moving magnet designs.
- The ifi iPhono3 has a THD of <0.005%. (!!)
- The ifi iPhono3 offers six selectable EQ curves and I refer you to *below, which is a direct extract from the user manual.
- And of course, there’s the new and enhanced power supply, to round off this quick summary.
Columbia*: most Columbia/CBS, Epic, EMI (records originally issued under Columbia) etc.
RIAA: standard EQ curve for all records issued after 1980s and some after 1950s. There are four different types of RIAA EQ available, e.g. eRIAA, IEC, RIAA, eRIAA+IEC. Adjust it via the micro switches located on the underside of iPhono3 Black Label.
Decca*: most Decca, London, Deutsche Grammophon (DG), Archiv, EMI, Argo, NAB etc.
* For pre-1980 records
If an LP sounds overly bright, edgy, thin and lacking scale and body via RIAA EQ, please try Decca EQ.
If an LP sounds both too bright and with muddy overblown bass, please try the Columbia EQ.
In my ‘first impressions’ overview of this unit, I split my listening sessions into 3 stages. I listened to the unit straight out of the box, then I ran an RIAA burn-in CD 24/7 for around 18 hours and listened again, then I ran the burn-in CD for a further 100 hours, at which point I began some critical listening. If you want to read my impression of how the unit sounded during the different stages of break-in, then you can find them here.
Anyone thinking that this unit needs at least 400 hours of break-in, is probably correct. But that’s what the RIAA burn-in disc is for. It not only accelerates the process but it ensures the circuitry is subjected to a wide range of input frequencies.
I pushed my luck with the length of time I had the ifi iPhono3 here for review (Sorry, Lawrance!), the upside being I was able to use the unit extensively within several different system configurations and also go back and forth listening to the unit against the excellent Allnic Audio H-1202 ($3750) phono preamp. [You can see the list of gear used during the review elsewhere on this page.]
The iPhono 2 bested several phonostages when I owned it and it was competitive up to around the $1000 price point. The Allnic Audio H-1202 (reviewed here) is an excellent tubed phono preamp which punches above its $3750 sticker price. While it has been here for review it has bested the Manley Labs Chinook ($2700) and the Zesto Andros 1.2 ($4700) phono preamps, which are both excellent performers and highly respected peers of the Allnic. For this review, I’m going to be comparing some of the iPhono3’s attributes directly to those of the Allnic. You may think comparing a $1000 phono preamp with one costing $3750, is a worthless comparison to make, well….maybe – but sit tight and read on.
How Does The ifi iPhono3 Black Label Sound?
With the unit configured for use with my LOMC ZYX Ultimate 100-z, well, quite simply, it sounded wonderful.
The first thing that struck me was the dynamic ability of this little black box. It really excels at both micro and macro dynamics. Acoustic guitar notes are rendered without any noticeable losses in tonal color or definition. The notes start life with tremendous dynamic energy, blossom with tonal density and harmonic richness, then decay rapidly, giving way to the next note without any unwanted overhang or blur. Notes from strings just seem to happen, vividly, in their own space, and then they’re gone. It sacrifices just the ‘nth degree of texture and timbre to the Allnic, which you would mostly attribute to the latter’s use of tubes, but for sheer dynamic ability, it has the Allnic beat by a worthwhile margin.
Macro dynamic renderings via the iPhono3 are big and powerful with ample heft that gives the music a strong sense of realism. The foundation of the music, which is largely responsible for the ‘live feel’ delivered by some high-end systems, happens from the lower midrange through the lowest bass frequencies, and with the iPhono3, it’s all there and it’s all very realistic and ‘live’.
Bass extension is very, very good and the bass is tight and well defined with just a slight amount of dryness. If you prefer a slightly softer, tubbier bass then you won’t find it with the iPhono3 unless you go looking for it with ancillary component changes. I augment my Dunlavy SC-III’s bass output with 3 Aerial Acoustics SW-12 subs, plus an HSU VT-3 sub, configured as a distributed bass array or ‘swarm‘, and the bass performance in my room is very good, given the almost square room dimensions. With the iPhono3 replacing the Allnic H-1202, I found it beneficial to lift the sub’s volume outputs each by a +1 and raise the crossover point on each from 50 to 60hz on a 24db XO setting. With the Allnic, the bass is fuller, warmer, and tubbier and it needed to be dialed down a fraction to prevent any overhang in the room. Whereas the iPhono3’s tighter and more impactful bass warranted a more liberal setting on the bass volume and a little more output up the frequency range.
How you prefer your bass will determine your preference between the iPhono3’s “solid-state” presentation and the more tubey quality of the Allnic H-1202. Across a broad spectrum of musical genres, I slightly favored the warmer/softer style of bass presented by the Allnic, but I can imagine anyone playing predominantly rock music preferring the ifi.
Through the all-important midrange, the ifi/Allnic comparison followed the same path. Warmer, slightly softer compared with a tighter and brighter presentation from the iPhono3 Black Label.
At the top of the frequency scale, the iPhono3 projected plenty of detail without any harshness or glare and actually managed to sound quite sweet, even when pitched against the Allnic’s tubes. My hearing is probably shot when it comes to the higher end of the audible frequency range but I know glare when I hear it and I know when there’s a hardness to the upper-frequency range, and I never heard these things through the iPhono3.
Compared with the previous iPhono 2, well there’s really little similarity between the 2 and 3 beyond their aesthetic. There’s a vast improvement in dynamics, which I imagine is assisted by the iPhono3’s impressive 108dB dynamic range, coupled with a lower noise floor and improved power delivery courtesy of the iPowerX. Bass performance is elevated in the 3, treble is smoother and less brittle and there’s a noticeable improvement in resolution through all ranges of frequency. The iPhono3 is an altogether superior unit than the 2, way more of an improvement than you’d expect from the sub $500 price hike.
To dig deeper into how the iPhono3 sits performance-wise against the far more expensive Allnic Audio H-1202, it’s best to use a few listening comparisons citing the actual music played.
Playing my well-worn copy of ‘Friday Night In San Francisco‘, featuring Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco de Lucía, the ifi iPhono3 delivered most of the sense of space, ambiance, and hall-reverberation as its more expensive counterpart. Anyone familiar with this wonderful recording, and you should be, will know that a highlight of the mixing/mastering is the presentation of the layering and space between these virtuoso guitarists on the stage of the Warfield Theatre. My favorite track, “Mediterranean Sundance/Río Ancho” has Paco de Lucía (left channel) and Al Di Meola (right channel) exchanging musical blows in the style of ‘dueling banjos’, with notes from each guitar propelled explosively and dynamically toward the listener in an often startling manner. The iPhono3 handles this exchange with aplomb, in fact, there was a heightened sense of dynamics versus the Allnic phonostage, almost on par with the far more expensive Zesto Andros 1.2 I reviewed recently.
It’s worth pausing here for a moment to consider what’s afoot when a $1000 phonostage gives the impression of having enhanced dynamic performance when compared with a $3750 phonostage (Allnic H-1202). I mentioned at the start of this section that the iPhono3 has excellent dynamic ability and has no issue rendering the tonal density and harmonic richness of notes. Of course, it doesn’t have the ‘bloom’ or ‘fullness of note’ on offer from a good tube-based phonostage, like the H-1202. When you take away that subtle sense of bloom, warmth, richness – call it what you will, then it’s logical to feel that you’re hearing a heightened sense of dynamic ability working in its place. To simplify all of that, just think of the age-old tube versus solid-state debate as it relates to power amplification, it’s basically the same thing when comparing the ifi with the other tubed units. Which one is better is entirely subjective and down to personal taste.
I used the cut “November 99” from Manu Katché‘s excellent “Neighborhood”, when I reviewed the Allnic H-1202 a few weeks back, so it made sense to pull that album out and focus on the one track. I noted previously the relaxed groove of Katché’s drumming and through the ifi, the percussive elements of this track were portrayed with more of a dynamic feel, consistent with observations made on other recordings.
What I was drawn to with the ifi however was a battle for dominance between piano and percussion in the latter part of the track. (yes, I know that a piano is a percussive instrument 😉
Katché is unapologetic in displaying his prowess on the kit, as he should be, and this extends to the way in which the percussion tracks are mixed. Throughout the album, the drum/percussion tracks are more spotlit in the mix than might be the case had the music not been written and performed by a drummer. On “November 99” played through the Allnic, the piano notes are round and full and the instrument remains palpable beyond the solo introduction. The drums and percussion commence with shimmering cymbals and are quickly joined by the double bass in laying down the rhythmic foundation of the track. The emotional connection between Katché, Marcin Wasilewski, and Kurkiewicz on double bass is a real feature and the Allnic provides the stage beautifully for these talented musicians to strut their stuff. Switching over to the ifi iPhono3, there’s that impressive sense of dynamics again, particularly as the track evolves, but the piano lacks a little fullness and presence and sounds just a tad hard in the midrange, by comparison. My comments about the different styles of presentation of stringed bass instruments on tube versus solid-state gear are cemented on this track, with the iPhono3’s rendering of the double bass sounding dryer and tauter than I imagine it would in real life, and certainly so when compared with the Allnic’s richness and bloom.
Regarding the iPhono’s bass performance, don’t take anything I’ve said above as a weakness or criticism. It’s just a different style of presentation and you’ll be drawn to one or the other based on your own taste. Certainly if fast, tight, deep bass is your thing, you won’t be disappointed with the ifi.
To summarize the key points I’m going to reference back to my initial listening impressions, as the iPhono performed consistently on everything I sent through it, and my listening notes after lengthy evaluation remained pretty much the same as my earlier notes and impressions.
- There’s an impressive 3-dimensionality to the sound with good soundstage dimensions.
- There’s abundant detail retrieval and not at the expense of any brightness or harshness.
- Micro and macro dynamics are excellent, up there with the Zesto Andros 1.2.
- Low bass is very good and presents its attributes in contrast to those offered from the Allnic H-1202
- It’s missing a little of the midrange ‘flesh on bones’, a strong virtue of the Allnic, and indeed of most quality tubed equipment.
- The ifi iPhono3 can sound a little hard on occasion, heard mostly on piano notes.
I have strong mixed feelings when I think about the iPhono3 Black Label. On some levels, it causes me to doubt my own ability to hear musical information well enough to judge subtle differences in performance from one component to the next. On another level, it causes me to doubt my own sanity. (Those who know me will wonder why this took so long). The question surely is: how can something this small, this light in weight, and this inexpensive, sound so close to something 38 times larger in size, 20 times heavier in weight, and 4 times higher in price?
Fortunately, I believe there may be a perfectly reasonable answer to this conundrum, but I’ll be darned if I can find it. You see, the answer is hidden in the meaning of the three words “sound(s) so close”. What do these words mean in the context of comparing one audio component with another? And do they mean the same thing to one person as they do to the next? Oh, and this ‘closeness’, is it measurable or quantifiable in some way?
Were common sense to prevail where it rarely does, there would be absolutely no rational reason to spend $5,000 on something like the Zesto Andros 1.2, or even $4,000 on the Allnic Audio H-1202, when the ifi iPhono3 Black Label could be had for a paltry thousand bucks.
Yes, it really is that good. And so was its predecessor the iPhono 2. But with the 2, one always needed to add the qualifier “for the money”, after complementing its sonic performance. With the iPhono3, “for the money” is now redundant.
Components Used For this review
Origin Live Resolution IV With All Factory Options Including Hybrid Silver Cable / Origin Live Illustrious IV/ ZYX Ultimate 100
Allnic Audio H-1202 Phono preamp
Zesto Audio Andros 1.2
Manley Labs Chinook
Allnic Audio L-5000 DHT preamp
Thor TPA 60 Monoblock KT77
ARC Ref 110 w/KT150
Dunlavy SC-III Speakers
Sonus Faber Cremona Auditor M
NHT 2.9 Speakers
ESP The Reference PC’s
Interconnects from Harmonic Technology / Bogden Audio
Speaker Cables from Tara Labs / Anti-Cables.
Platforms And Isolation from Symposium / Audio Points / Mapleshade Heavy Brass Footers / Custom Platforms and Racks / IsoPad 6 / Springs
PS Audio P10 Power Plant
Thor Audio TPA-60 Monoblocks – coming soon(ish)
Allnic Audio H-1202 Review
Our review of the Allnic Audio H-1202 phono preamp – did this litte unit live up to expectation or not? Find Out!
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