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iFi GO Blu Portable Headphone DAC/Amp Review

Portable Powerhouse

Christopher Coke Posted:
Category:
Hardware Reviews 0

While true wireless earbuds are taking over the portable audio market, there's still a big audience of listeners who prefer wired headphones. With audio jacks going the way of the dodo, there needs to be a good solution for portable listening that also delivers excellent sound quality. The iFi GO Blu is exactly such a device, delivering lots of power in a tiny package and Bluetooth support for high-resolution listening without being tethered to a bulky smartphone. At $199, it's a device that demands a premium but is also easy to fall in love with. 

Specifications

  • Current Price: $199.00 (Amazon
  • Chipset
    • DAC: Cirrus Logic CS43131
    • Bluetooth: Qualcomm QCC 5100
  • Inputs
    • Wireless: Bluetooth 5.1 (AAC, SBC, aptX, aptX HD, aptX Adaptive, aptX LL, LDAC, LHDC/HWA Codec)
    • Wired: USB-C (24/96)
  • Headphone Outputs
    • Balanced: 4.4mm
    • SE: 3.5mm
  • Power Output
    • Balanced: 245mW @ 32Ω; 5.6v @ 600Ω
    • SE: 165mW @ 32Ω; 2.8v @ 600Ω
  • Output Impedance
    • Balanced: <1Ω
    • SE <1Ω
  • SNR
    • Balanced: 111dB(A) @ 0dBFS
    • SE: 116.5dB(A) @ 0dBFS
  • DNR: Balanced/SE: >120dB(A)
  • THD + N
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz - 45kHz (-3dB)
  • Battery: Lithium-polymer 450mAh 
  • Battery Life: approx. ~8 hours (depending upon volume and headphones)
  • Power System : Charging via USB-C, BC V1.2 compliant up to 1000mA charging current and 6.3 volts
  • Dimensions: 54 x 34 x 13 mm
  • Weight: 27g (0.95 oz)
  • Warranty period: 12 months

iFi GO Blu - Design and Key Features

The iFi GO Blu is iFi’s smallest portable audio solution yet. It doubles as both a DAC/amplifier as well as a high resolution Bluetooth receiver. At only about the size of a matchbook, it offers plenty of power to drive even fairly demanding headphones like the Sennheiser HD58X and HIFIMAN Sundara. It also offers support for standard 3.5mm (S-Balanced) and 4.4mm balanced headphones, as well as all of the major high resolution Bluetooth codecs, including aptX Adaptive and LDAC; compatibility, thy name is GO Blu.

It’s quite a striking little unit. It’s tinier than it appears in pictures. Those above give you and idea (the third picture is a key fob) but you really need to see it in person and hold it in your hands to get a good idea of how easy it is to carry. Despite being tiny, it’s anything but chintzy. Three sides of the device are protected by soft-touch plastic, but the face is an attractive brushed metal. The buttons are also metal, matched in tone, but the volume wheel is stainless steel, finished with a beryllium cobalt-copper coating. It looks and feels like a premium device.

Inside that shell is a collection of high-quality components configured to deliver a rich mixture of outstanding sound quality and features. Power delivery is handled by a bespoke op-amp designed by iFi and is able to output up to 245mW from its balanced output and 165mW from the S-Balanced (3.5mm) output (both into 32 ohms). S-Balanced is another bit of technological innovation delivered in this device that was previously only found in higher-end iFi devices. This allows you to use a standard 3.5mm headphone but receive sound through a balanced circuit process for reduced crosstalk and distortion, particularly on sensitive IEMs.

While most devices of this type push off of their functions onto a single chip (see the hundreds of no-name dongle DACs on Amazon), iFi separates Bluetooth, DAC, and amp functions into separate stages to optimize sound quality. The amp stage is covered above, but DAC duties are handled by a Cirrus Logic 43131 processor and a digital filter for artifact-free 32-bit audio with an expansive 130dB of dynamic range. Bluetooth, on the other hand, uses the Qualcomm QCC5100 chip, which supports Bluetooth 5.2 and all of the latest high-resolution codecs, including LDAC and aptX Adaptive, Low Latency, and HD. 

In addition, the GO Blu also features iFi’s sound-crafting tech, XBass and XSpace. I’ll go into these more in the next section, but these are on-demand options to increase bass and soundstage. Both options offer immediately noticeable enhancements and can add extra life to a set in need without resorting to software-level EQ. 

The battery life on the device is respectable at 8-10 hours, depending on what you’re listening to. I didn’t time the device from start to finish, but I was able to listen to it for 2-3 hours a day for three days in a row before it needed a recharge.

Interestingly, the GO Blu lacks any kind of app for customization or control. I don’t find it particularly necessary since all of the controls are readily accessible on the receiver itself, but another feature is that iFi can add support for additional codecs over time. How does it do this? Through another app called Gaia. It’s a bit counter-intuitive, though works just fine once you know what to do. 

iFi GO Blu - Performance and Listening Impressions

I've been living with the iFi GO Blu for about two weeks and during that time, it's become a pivotal part of my daily routine. I have to admit, when I discovered the device and reached out to iFi about a review, I didn't expect it to become such a pivotal part of my everyday carry. But now that I've actually used it, I've fallen in love with it more than I could have anticipated. 

If you're still toting wired headphones, there's a good chance you've had to develop a workaround. Without a headphone jack, plugging in means picking up a dongle. If you prefer over-ear headphones or want to push the best sound quality, it might even mean a larger DAC/amp solution like the iFi Hip DAC 2, which I'll be reviewing soon. While those devices are great and represent the two ends of the sound spectrum, the GO Blu hits a middle ground: it's small enough to slip into a pocket and not be cumbersome but big enough to pack extra power and features dongle DACs cannot. 

I've found it effortless to slip the GO Blu into my pocket and carry it throughout the day. In fact, it fits perfectly in the small coin pocket on my jeans, so there's no risk of it getting damaged thrown into a pocket with keys. When I'm able to plug in, it's as simple as turning the device on: it automatically pairs and I'm listening within seconds. Being able to toss it on my desk and still browse my phone without a wire trailing out of it was almost as freeing as using fully wireless earphones. 

The sound quality is fantastic. I did all of my listening wirelessly on my Samsung Note 20 Ultra. The GO Blu supports LDAC and multiple varieties of aptx for high-resolution listening. You'll need to have a refined ear and high-quality audio sources to hear the difference, but if you do, it's there. Between aptX and LDAC, the sound was rich, clean, and full of detail. 

At $199, these are welcome additions and mean that you can listen without being physically tied to your phone and sacrifice little compared to wired headphones. The only big omission here is the lack of MQA support, so you won't be able to unfold Tidal's highest resolution tracks (though, the benefits of MQA is currently being questioned by the audiophile community, so this may not matter at all depending on your opinion of the technology. 

A good DAC, in my subjective opinion, shouldn't have a big impact on the sound of headphones and the GO Blu does not. It is slightly warm, adding a touch of lushness to the listening experience, but it's very mild. When I'm listening to something that does need a little adjustment, the GO Blu has an answer for that with XBass and XSpace. 

These two sound modes can be enabled independently or at once using the small button under the volume wheel. As the name implies, XBass adds low-end thrust but it's not overdone. If you're listening to a set of balanced earphones or just want to add a bit more fun to your listening experience, this does the trick without becoming muddy or stomping on the mids. One of the qualities that sets this apart is that it’s not changing the signal. It’s just adding volume to those lower notes, giving them more energy and punch. The detail and texture — the quality — is completely intact. It was exactly what the ThieAudio Legacy 4s needed to nail my personal taste. XBass gave my earphones new life.

XSpace enhances the sense of space and width in your listening but in doing so enhances the mids and treble, adding more clarity. These options are essentially hardware-level equalizer effects, with XSpace also offering a spatial enhancement. Using the two together can sometimes be too much depending on the track, but I found it especially enjoyable on live tracks where space and thump add to the realism of the experience (“Holy Ground - Live in Vienna” by Jeremy Riddle is an excellent example of this).

Though it’s not the purpose of the device, this also enhanced gaming through the GO Blu. The ability to add cinematic bass and widen the soundstage at the push of a button is tantamount to a gaming mode. I would only recommend doing this when connected over USB, however, as there is some noticeable latency when gaming over Bluetooth.

The experience is tied together by the hardware itself. The size is just perfect. At only 2.1 inches long and 1.3 inches wide, it’s only about the size of a match book. It also only weighs 27 grams, so there’s no pull on your ears if you happen to move away from the device. The volume wheel is gnurled and feels great to use while also having plenty of steps to dial in your exact volume. The button in the middle is tactile and easy to press but not accidentally press. The position of the power and XBass/XSpace buttons are also well considered: easy to press when holding the device but not when it’s in your pocket. 

The biggest downside I’ve experienced is that it’s fairly easy to break the bluetooth signal if the device is in your pocket. If you’re in the same room, it’s very stable. But even walking 10 feet away, I found that my body would break the signal and cause my track to cut out. This problem would be improved if the GO Blu could be clipped to your belt or shirt, but right now there is no accessory available to do that.

Final Thoughts

The iFi GO Blu is one of my absolute favorite devices of the year. It’s so easy to slot into your daily life that it becomes a staple before you’ve even realized it’s happened. Its wider compatibility with different headphones (balanced and single-ended, efficient and moderately power demanding) means that it will work with just about anything. Add to that excellent sound quality and you have a device that earns its asking price with aplomb. 

The product described in this article was provided by the manufacturer for evaluation purposes.
 
9.0Amazing
Pros
  • Outstanding sound quality
  • Wide high-res codec support (LDAC, aptX HD/Adaptive/Low Latency, etc)
  • Plentiful power output across balanced and single-ended connections
  • Exquisite attention to detail
  • Built-in mic for phone calls/virtual assistant with any headphones
Cons
  • No clip to hook on shirt/belt
  • No companion app
  • No MQA support for Tidal


GameByNight

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


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