iFi GO Kensai DAC is perfect for listening to music on the go

One downside to having a great hi-fi system is that other audio systems just don’t sound as good. Whether you use your smartphone or some sort of digital audio player, the quality of the audio probably won’t match what you’re used to at home if you’re lucky enough to have a great system. There are solutions to this problem if you like great music played through great sound systems.

The new iFi GO Bar Kensei is a portable DAC and headphone amplifier that connects to a smartphone or computer and delivers audiophile-quality sound that can hold its own in many high-end hi-fi setups. All you need is a good streaming source (like Tidal) and decent headphones.

I’ve now had a chance to listen to the iFi GO Bar Kensei to see if it’s worth the money compared to one of the much more affordable DAC/headphone amps on the market today. The iFi GO Bar Kensei is the world’s first pocket-sized DAC with K2HD technology.

Invented by engineers at JVC Kenwood, K2HD claims to make digitized music sound as close to the original analog master tapes as possible by recovering the harmonics normally lost during the digitization process. It’s a bold claim and I’ll get to it later in this review.

The iFi GO Bar Kensei is the size of a small cigarette lighter (remember those?) and has a choice of a 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced and 3.5mm unbalanced jack. The 4.4mm output has a balanced twin-mono output that can drive even the fussiest headphones.

Thanks to something called iEMatch, the iFi GO Bar Kensei automatically varies the output to match the impedance of the connected IEMs or headphones. And for headphones with very demanding specifications, there is even a turbo mode that is amplified by an additional 6 dB if necessary. You can enable this by pressing the volume buttons + and – at the same time.

The iFi GO Bar Kensei comes in a classic Japanese wooden box and has that unmistakable handmade Japanese feel. Also included in the package is a leather pouch for storing the iFi GO Bar Kensei; there’s even a small pocket for a cable that allows you to connect the iFi GO Bar Kensei to a smartphone. Both USB-C and Apple Lightning cables are included in the box.

The iFi GO Bar Kensei feels relatively heavy for its size and feels extremely well made. On one side is the USB-C input, while on the other side there are outputs for 4.4mm balanced and 3.5mm unbalanced connections. Whichever one you choose will likely depend on the headphones or IEMs you use. If you have IEMs or headphones with the option of a balanced cable, use them. It’s a great sonic upgrade.

On the left side of the iFi GO Bar Kensei are volume buttons and a multi-function control for switching between XBass, XSpace and one of four digital filters. The last control on the left is a three-way switch for the iEMatch headphone function which can be set to 4.4mm and 3.5mm outputs or turned off altogether. The purists will like that. The best approach is to try out the settings and see how they suit the headphones you are using.

On the back panel of the iFi GO Bar Kensei there are nine LEDs that light up according to the type and resolution of the audio file being played. The iFi GO Bar Kensei can handle PCM, DSD and MQA files. The last two LEDs in the row light up when the XSpace and XBass settings are activated.

XBass mode boosts the low frequencies a bit like a loudness knob, while XSpace produces a spacious sound field. The four digital filters are Bit-Perfect, GTO, Standard and Minimum Phase. Again, just play them back and test them to see what works for your ears, as the effect will vary depending on the original recording.

To enter digital filter mode, simply press the multi-function button for three seconds. Then an LED lights up opposite the MQA lettering. Then scroll through the settings to see which ones you like.

The four digital filter options are BP, STD, MIN and GTO. BP stands for Bit-Perfect and was my favorite. STD is a modest filter that does not scare the horses. MIN is a Minimum Phase filter with a slow roll-off with minimal pre- and post-ringing. Finally, there is GTO Gibbs Transient Optimized which upsamples to 352/384kHz with minimal filtering.

To test the overall sound, I fired up Tidal on my Mac and played a Maximum FLAC recording Just a little love by Shelby Lynne. The sound with the Bit-Perfect filter was beyond great through my Sennheiser HD660 S2 open-back headphones connected to the 4.4mm balanced output.

The sound quality that the iFi GO Bar Kensei produces is higher than some of the best audio systems you’re likely to hear through headphones. The bass response feels like a real power amplifier. The control that the iFi GO Bar Kensei exerts over the music is astonishing in accuracy.

The separation of instruments and vocals in the recording was exemplary. Of course, if you’re using the iFi GO Bar Kensei on a smartphone and your data bandwidth is limited to using a lower quality streaming file, you won’t get that full experience. However, if you work from home and are connected to a Mac or PC, the iFi GO Bar Kensei is hard to beat for personal listening. It’s breathtaking.

My next piece of test music was Besam Mucho by Chantal Chamberland, the French-Canadian jazz singer. Really tingling, that’s the best way I can describe the sound. The guitar and piano were perfectly in tune with the soundstage, while the brush drums in the background were positioned so that you could visualize the musicians as they played.

Now we come to the K2HD filter and the bold claim that this digital filter restores some of the harmonics lost during the digitization process. When analog music is mastered for CD, all data above 22 kHz is cut and the resolution is reduced 256 times. The K2HD Processing technology was developed by JVC KENWOOD engineers who used their ears to tune the filter by comparing the sound to the original master tapes.

Does it work? To enable the feature, you need to press and hold the multi-function button for three seconds and then use the volume buttons to power on and off. The effect is subtle, but on balance I think the H2HD adds a warmer analogue atmosphere to the music. Some songs are more obvious than others. It has a more noticeable impact on lower quality files, such as CD quality, but minimal on best quality streams.

Pronunciation: The iFi GO Bar Kensei is a mini wonder and produces the best audio quality with a high-quality streaming service like Tidal. It sounds great and makes you listen to all your favorite songs again. The overall sound is simply fantastic. If you’re picky about audio quality and enjoy listening through headphones, whether at home on a computer or on the go with a smartphone, the iFi GO Bar Kensei is hard to beat. Yes, it costs quite a bit, but in many ways it’s a better choice than a high-end Android Digital Audio Player and a great solution for iPhone users. If you love music, you’ll love the iFi GO Bar Kensei.

Prices and availability: The iFi GO Bar Kensei is available now and costs $449 / £449 / €449.

More information: www.ifi-audio.com

Technical specifications:

  • Input: USB-C.
  • Formats: PCM 384 kHz, DSD 256, DXD 384 kHz, MQA full decoder.
  • DAC: Cirrus Logic Bit-Perfect DSD and DXD.
  • Outputs: balanced 4.4mm and unbalanced 3.5mm.
  • Output power: 475 mW @ 32Ω (balanced) and 300 mW @ 32Ω (unbalanced).
  • Output impedance: <1Ω.
  • SNR: 132 dBA (balanced) and 108 dBA (unbalanced).
  • DNR: 109dBA (balanced) and 108dBA (unbalanced).
  • THD + N: <0.002% 6.5 mW/2V @ 600Ω (balanced) <0.09 100 mW/1.27V (unbalanced).
  • Frequency response: 20 Hz – 45 kHz (-3 dB).
  • Dimensions: 65 x 22 x 13.2 mm.
  • Weight: 28g.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *