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Golden Ears: iFi GO Bar Kensei Review

Christopher Coke Updated: Posted:
Hardware Reviews 0

iFi Audio is one of the biggest names in the audiophile space. Its products routinely make best-of lists and push the limits on sound quality, features, and power for their size. We’ve put its latest product, the iFi GO Bar Kensei through its paces, seeing just what it has to offer over the original GO Bar. It’s a tiny, very pocketable DAC/amp that puts out a surprising amount of power — enough for most over-ear headphones, let alone in-ear monitors (IEMs) — and supports advanced features like sound customization with filters and its own X-Bass and X-Space enhancements, as well as JVCKENWOOD’s K2HD upscaling tech. It exists on the high end of the dongle DAC price spectrum, but if you want an audiophile experience on the go, it delivers.


Current Price: $449 (B&H Photo, Bloom Audio)

iFi GO Bar Kensei - Design and Highlights

On the surface, the iFi GO Bar Kensei isn’t that different from the original GO Bar. Their dimensions are the same with a very pocketable 2.6 x 0.9 x 0.5 inches and they feature the same dedicated buttons on the side for controlling volume, gain, and the current filter stage and X-Bass or X-Space effect. There’s also a switch for IEMatch and a column of indicator lights to indicate the current sampling rate and effect on the back. They both sport 4.4mm balanced and 3.5mm single-ended ports and have the same short, braided USB-C to C and USB-C to Lightning cables, as well as a Type-C to Type-A adapter and leather carrying case.

The similarities don’t end there, the two models pull apart when it comes to what’s happening on the inside, but there’s a visual difference as well. While the original GO Bar uses a dark, matte metal finish, the Kensei is made of Japanese stainless steel. The marketing evokes a classic samurai sword and you can definitely see the resemblance: the hues are the same and the angled top is finished a bit like the flat of a blade. 

To understand the GO Bar Kensei, you really need to understand why a device like this exists in the first place. Fans of high-fidelity audio often enjoy headphones and in-ear monitors, aka “earphones,” in turn. With headphone jacks going the way of the dodo, and their never really being that good anyways, there’s a market for a high-res solution. That’s where the Kensei, the GO Bar, and its legions of competitors come into play. These devices combine a high-resolution digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and a headphone amplifier into one unit that’s designed to be carried in your pocket. These listening devices are referred to as dongle DACs or “dongles” for short. 

There’s no shortage of dongles on the market today, but they’re not all created equal. You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to get something enjoyable for listening to IEMs on the go. The CX Pro has been a staple in my to-go back for the last couple of years and costs less than $20. But, if you want power and advanced features like MQA and DSD support, balanced output, or truly top-tier components and implementations, you need to start looking higher up the food chain. 

That’s where the GO Bar Kensei lives. In that upper echelon of high-powered, high-resolution portable listening devices. It’s been designed to deliver the best sound quality possible and with a surprisingly high power output for its tiny size. From its 4.4mm balanced output, it’s able to pump up to 477 milliwatts of power into 32 ohms, which is enough for most over-ear headphones to get dangerously loud — including many planars. There’s headroom to spare here. 

Let’s break down the advanced features it brings to the table. First off, K2HD. This is one of the greatest differentiating factors it brings to the table is this technology, which is the first fruit of a collaboration with JVCKENWOOD. K2 processing has been around for quite a while, especially in recording studios. As implemented here, it acts as an upscaler, interpreting the lower-resolution signal you send it and then applying algorithmic processing to deliver an enhanced result. iFi highlights that it restores emotion to music, and while this is flowery language, it does make a difference, if subtle, to the listening experience. 

Internally, it uses a series of components selected purely for their audio output. It’s not a “do-it-all” device. It’s designed to do one thing and one thing only: translate digital audio to analog with accompanying power. It does this with high-end components, including the same capacitors found in the iFi GOld Bar, a limited edition, even higher-end version of the GO Bar. While not something many consider in other devices, users reported an audible difference between the standard and GOld versions, which can be attributed to the capacitors. You also have an XMOS 16-core chip for processing data through its USB connection, a femto-precision clock for jitter reduction, and support for PCM audio up to 32-bit/384kHz. 

The Kensei offers other advantages over much of the competition with its audio processing. You can choose from four filters that subtly modify the sound signature: Bit-Perfect, GTO, Minimum Phase, and Standard. Each makes a small difference to the sound and can help it to synergize with different earphones. 

While those make a subtle difference, X-Bass and X-Space are much more pronounced. These two effects do exactly as their name implies, raise the low-end for a more impactful, full bass presence and enhance the soundstage with adjustments higher up the spectrum. X-Bass in particular makes a big difference, escalating bass impact. X-Space is more subtle but does widen the soundstage while also enhancing brightness a touch. 

The physical interface for the Kensei is also very nice. Dedicated volume buttons are a nice feature that far too many dongles lack. Holding both can engage a high-gain Turbo mode or disable it with a second hold. A dedicated filter button is placed alongside those and can be single-tapped to engage X-Bass or X-Space or both at once. It can also be held to cycle through the filters described above.

Another key feature it offers is IEMatch. This toggle switch is positioned alongside the gain and filter buttons and is used to adjust the Kensei’s output to the impedance of the headphones that are plugged in. This can be useful if you’re listening with very sensitive IEMs and you hear hiss. Dropping the noise floor helps to improve the clarity and detail of the listening experience overall. 

One important thing to note is that the power output isn’t uniform between the single-ended (3.5mm) and balanced (4.4mm) outputs. While you can pull 477mW from the balanced port, that drops to 300mW when listening from the single-ended output. If you’re planning on connecting more demanding headphones, the balanced output is the best choice. Most IEMs will be fine with either. 

Another key thing to mention before moving on is that the device is fully compatible with Android, iOS, Windows, and Mac. I don’t own a Mac or iPhone, but on PC and Android, it is completely plug-and-play. Importantly, if you’re spending this much, it can completely replace your desktop’s audio while taking up hardly any room and will offer more volume and much higher sound quality.

iFi GO Bar Kensei -  Performance

The iFi GO Bar sounds great. That shouldn’t come as a surprise given that the original GO Bar and GOld Bar both received high marks for their sound reproduction. Compared to the original, I find that the Kensei has a touch more warmth to the sound. 

I listen to a wide range of music, from melodic dubstep, to folk, to progressive metal, and neo-classical. The Kensei handled each with ease. The slight bit of added warmth added a lushness to the sound that I really enjoyed. There’s a tactile quality to music and games that is definitely more immersive than most other dongle DACs out there. The sense of space and detail is also very good. 

In short, the Kensei does exactly what a good DAC/amp should: it makes your earphones sound their best. It’s not completely neutral, though, as that enhancement gives it character that I personally find very enjoyable. Some DACs try for a reference sound, but here, you’ll be reaching for the Kensei because you like its sound, not just because you need something to power your earphones. 

With that said, nothing about it overpowering. These do not completely color your listening experience. Your headphones won’t sound like a completely different pair, even if you enable both X-Bass and X-Space — which I recommend you do, by the way, because this might just be my favorite implementation of each. My 7Hz Aurora (review forthcoming) has never sounded as good as with these two effects enabled. 

With such high power output, battery drain on your source device is something to keep in mind. I didn’t find it too bad but it does increase when you kick into turbo mode and start decoding MQA tracks. 

K2HD is an interesting addition but its enhancement is subtle. At times, I think I could hear it, but I genuinely can’t say for certain. There seemed to be enhancements in the upper harmonics, but, like X-Bass and X-Space, this isn’t going to reinvent your music. If you have something that’s lower bit rate, you’ll hear more of an impact, but if you’re streaming from Spotify or Tidal, you’ll likely find that the sound quality is close to the original GO Bar.

iFi GO Bar Kensei - Compared to the Original and the Competition, Should You Buy It?

Compared to the original GO Bar, the Kensei has a bit more richness to the listening experience. They’re not far removed from each other but I would definitely lean toward the Kensei for better synergizing with different IEMs and headphones. I never heard the GOld bar, but from what I understand, this is similar to the difference between those two as well. 

This makes sense, because in forum posts on Head-Fi and elsewhere, iFi has commented that the Kensei exists to bridge the gap between the GO Bar and the GOld Bar, which was a 1,000-unit limited run. 

But at $449, is it worth buying where there is some truly great competition that costs less? The original GO Bar remains excellent at only $329. Then there are heavy hitters like the Questyle M15i, which has a fantastic sound with its own character and richness for less than $300. It doesn’t have nearly as much power, however, or K2HD, or Japanese stainless steel.

Here’s the thing: the GO Bar Kensei isn’t going to make sense for most people. There’s a very defined audience for a product at this price point and against this competition. You can achieve great sound and decent power output for much less, but this, this is for people who want that higher drive without sacrificing pocketability. A portable hi-fi rig that will make your music and games sound great, no matter where you are or what you might want to listen on (within reason). It’s also for people who like the iFi house sound.

So it’s not something I recommend to everyone. But it is safe. If you decide to pick it up, you can be secure in the knowledge that you’re getting one of the best dongles on the market today. It’s packed with features, has headroom to spare, works with just about anything, and sounds fantastic. It costs a lot but is the kind of purchase you can make and not give a second thought, and that has value of its own. 

The product described in this article was provided by the manufacturer for evaluation purposes.

8.5 Great
  • Great sound quality with LOTS of power
  • Robust stainless steel construction
  • Top-tier components for audio
  • Physical buttons for volume and filter controls
  • Exceptionally portable
  • Extremely expensive
  • Only up to PCM 32-bit/384kHz resolution, not 768kHz
  • K2HD is hard to discern


Christopher Coke

Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight