Superb Tube Buffer from iFi Audio

The Micro itube buffer / preamp from ifi Audio is highly recommended. photo by ihi-fi.

The Micro itube buffer / preamp from ifi Audio is highly recommended. photo by ihi-fi.

I recently added the iFi Micro iTube Preamp/Tube Buffer to my computer audio setup with exciting results.  Every aspect of audio performance improved with addition of this device.  In particular --

  • Soundstage became wider and deeper.  Now it escapes the bounds of speaker placement.
  • Instrument and voice separation, placement, detail, and clarity all improved for a better illusion of the performance.
  •  Speed -- (attack, decay, and sustain of musical notes) are more accurate.
  • Complex instrument timbres became even more lifelike with cello, piano, guitar, and assorted percussion instruments.

These aspects of music are what high fidelity to the original performance is all about. I've used tube buffers before with good effect but this one is "the kind."  Critical listening began without allowing a break-in period. It's possible further improvement may become noticeable over the next few days.

I heard things in familiar recordings that did not notice before.  This is a benchmark experience and so welcome each time it happens yet again.  When I feel compelled to go back and listen to test music to assure what I am hearing, I know I'm into something special.  Not surprising, though, for a new venture of world-class AMR.

Incidentally, there is no connection whatsoever between iFi Audio, a British company, and my US venture, iHi-Fi, despite some phonic coincidence in our names.

This little tube buffer (dimensions: 6.9" x 2.6" x 1.1") is made with exceptional build quality.  Fit and finish are superb.  You'll feel proud to display one in your system. The metallic look resembles Apple's metal-case computers. The entire iFi Micro and Nano lines matches across all components with standardized packaging -- a smart move.

However, the real news is about musical functionality.  The iTube brings more improvement to computer audio than its cost would imply. I'm a tube nut from way back and pleased to configure a system with a dual triode where it matters most and doesn't detract from bass performance -- at the preamp stage.  The General Electric 5670 is new to me but it delivers the goods like a full-sized tube preamp stage.

Test System Setup

 

Audioengine D2 DAC includes Sender and receiver.  Highly recommended, up-samples to 24/96 and breaks any ground connection with your computer to eliminate digital grunge.

Audioengine D2 DAC includes Sender and receiver.  Highly recommended, up-samples to 24/96 and breaks any ground connection with your computer to eliminate digital grunge.

Computer: MacBook Pro Late 2011
DAC: Audioengine D2 (up-samples to 24/96) connected via standard USB 2.0 cable.
Tube Buffer: iFi Audio Micro iTube set to Buffer mode, zero gain, no volume control.
Amp/Speakers: Audioengine A5+ Bamboo and S8 Subwoofer, both self-amplified.
Anti-vibration Damping: Herbie's Audio dB neutralizer pucks under all speakers and the iTube.  Experimental damping sheets under the D2 DAC Sender and Receiver.  The four stick-on silicone feet that come with the iTube were not used.
Room Acoustic Treatment: Acoustic System International Sugar Cubes & Diffuser, Silver and Basic (copper) Resonators, and 4-piece Phase Corrector Array

 

Audioengine A5+ Bamboo speakers have plenty of power to drive even a large room, are very well reviewed, and highly recommended for cost/performance value.

Audioengine A5+ Bamboo speakers have plenty of power to drive even a large room, are very well reviewed, and highly recommended for cost/performance value.

Music and Source

Streaming from Spotify.com (Ogg Vorbis file format.)  I selected known excellent recordings of masterful performances that are familiar and timbrally complex --

  • Adam Hurst, Cellist, Elegy
  • Dustin O'Halloran, Piano Solos, Vol. 1 & 2
  • Niklas Aman, mostly acoustic guitar, The Meeting and Light and Water
  • John De Kadt, complex percussion, Rhythms of the Infinite
  • Mo Foster, bassist, Bass Themes

. . . and many others.  If you have not heard Spotify streaming music through a quality up-sampling DAC and a great pair of powered speakers, you may be pleasantly surprised by how great that combo can sound.

Summary Results

I believed I had maxed-out the Audioengine A5+ speakers' performance.  Happily, to sound even better, all they needed was a dose of "tube magic" on the front end.  The iTube in buffer mode makes beautiful music.  It's an incredible value (at $329 on Music Direct) for those who truly love music, have trained their ears, and want their computer audio to sound as much as possible like original performances.   

I experienced sound quality at least equal to any high end system I have owned or heard.  Especially notable were soundstage and timbres for astonishing realism -- truly holographic music.  Thanks, iFi, you hit the ball out of the park with this component.

In my system, the "Digital Antidote" feature seems to have little effect.  What it addresses is ground loop digital noise carried into the analog section via the USB connection.  This is a good problem to not have, probably made moot by the D2, which is a two-piece radio DAC running DLNA -- similar to typical home Wi-Fi.  The radio link between the Sender and Receiver breaks any ground connection between my laptop and the audio analog section.

Audioengine S8 Powered Subwoofer fills in the lower bass beautifully and is another great speaker value for building a complete computer audio hi-fi setup.

Audioengine S8 Powered Subwoofer fills in the lower bass beautifully and is another great speaker value for building a complete computer audio hi-fi setup.

I'll end with a teaser.  My readers are aware I have ventured into specialty audio furniture design as shown in several recent posts on this blog.  The main reason I acquired an iTube unit is for fit-check and mechanical verification of a new design -- the iHi-Fi Originals MicroVybra Audio Rack, made specifically to house, integrate, and enhance performance of all the iFi Micro and Nano components.

To me, the iFi plastic-shelved iRack -- with rubber O-rings, loose metal parts, and spikes-and-cups -- is a disappointing, atavistic design that leaves room for improvement.  Apparently AMR's "trickle-down" technology does not include advanced vibration damping and other mechanical tech, given the spikes, rubber, and plastic shelves that, for me, spoil the brew.  

The iHi-Fi Originals MicroVybra Audio Rack takes a whole different approach with real wood shelves of Birch and Maple (frequently chosen to panel concert halls;) molecular-engineered, purpose-formulated vibration-dampers; improved mass grounding; and resonance suppression.  Each iFi component is isolated and so is the entire rack as a whole.  The iHi-Fi MicroVybra Audio Rack design is complete and moving into production and possibly a crowdfunding effort.  

Even pocket-sized components benefit from a properly designed audio rack.  This design phase includes the NanoVybra, probably the world's smallest audio rack, made specifically for iFi Nano components. The NanoVybra is compact enough to be portable.  It affords battery powered, headphone listeners opportunity to listen with all the benefits of iHi-Fi Originals acoustic technologies.

The physical prototypes will arrive soon.  After final design verification comes product release.  I anticipate re-listening to the iTube Buffer when it's properly isolated and receiving benefits of iHi-Fi technologies.  Even higher levels of audio perfection should be reached as iHi-Fi MicroVybra and NanoVybra Racks make it possible for iFi's superb audio gear to reach it's highest potentials.

When the new iHi-Fi Audio Racks are ready to pre-order, I'll post more about them here.  In the meantime, enjoy your listening and look forward to even better-sounding music.