iFi Go Bar review: DAC's the ticket

A sensational portable DAC/headphone amp, if you can ignore less-than-ideal user interface anyway

T3 Platinum Award
iFi Go Bar headphones DAC review
(Image credit: Future)
T3 Verdict

This portable DAC/headphone amp's performance is so complete that it’s easy to overlook the asking price and the pig’s ear of a user interface.

Reasons to buy
  • +

    Expressive, informative and absorbing sound

  • +

    Extensive compatibility

  • +

    Will connect to pretty much any digital audio source

Reasons to avoid
  • -

    Quite chunky (physically)

  • -

    Quite chunky (in price terms)

  • -

    Rotten user interface

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T3's list of the best headphone DACs is seven products strong at the time of writing, and two of them are by iFi. The company knows precisely what’s what when it comes to taking digital audio information from even unpromising sources and turning it into exquisitely life-like analogue sound.

The ‘dongle’ USB DAC is not a new invention - but iFi intends to put its own spin on it. With the Go Bar that ‘spin’, however, would seem to mean ‘class-leading pricing’ as well as ‘class-leading sound’ - so has iFi overreached itself with its (slightly) large and (definitely) expensive Go Bar?  

iFi Go Bar: Price & Availability

iFi Go Bar headphones DAC review

(Image credit: Future)

The iFi Go Bar is on sale right now, and in the United Kingdom it costs £329. The same product costs a slightly less startling $329 in the United States, while Australian customers will be asked to fork over AU$479.

That’s quite a lot of money for not much physical product, it’s true - but if my experience of portable DACs in general and iFi DACs in particular has taught me anything, it’s that it ain’t the size of your DAC that’s the most important thing about it.

iFi Go Bar review: What's new?

iFi Go Bar headphones DAC review

(Image credit: Future)

There aren’t many features to discuss here, naturally enough, but the few features there definitely merit discussion. Safe to say iFi hasn’t scrimped when specifying the Go Bar.

Capacitors have been sourced from the likes of MuRata, Panasonic and TDK. iFi has taken the already well-regarded XMOS 16-core processor that deals with the digital audio information that comes via the USB-C socket and made a number of significant changes and upgrades. And then it’s specified a (massively capable and currently very fashionable) 32-bit DAC chipset from Cirrus Logic to take care of the actual digital-to-analogue conversion.  

Once the Cirrus Logic has done its thing, the audio information is handed over to balanced analogue circuitry with a symmetrical two-channel output stage. The left and right-channel signals are kept entirely separate, reducing cross-talk and noise in the signal path.

All of which combines to produce a DAC that’s capable of handling each and every file type at one end, with the ability to deliver native hi-res playback of 32-bit/384kHz PCM, DSD256, DXD to 384kHz and can fully decode MQA files, and can easily power either balanced or unbalanced headphones at the other.

iFi Go Bar review: Performance

iFi Go Bar headphones DAC review

(Image credit: Future)

Thanks to the selection of cables in the packaging, wide-ranging compatibility with most types of digital audio sources is guaranteed. And no matter whether you choose to connect your Go Bar to your laptop or your smartphone before plugging in your headphones, the effect the iFi has on the resulting sound is never less than obvious and is occasionally quite profound.

And the Go Bar can work its magic no matter the standard of digital audio file you treat it to. It’s just as happy extracting some meaning from the marginal, information-light stuff Spotify hands over on its free tier as it is crossing the ‘t’s and dotting the ‘i’s on a full-fat DSD256 file. In every circumstance, music sounds fuller, more confident and more convincing after it’s been pored over by this iFi DAC.

As a basis for its overall performance, the Go Bar creates a much deeper, much wider and much taller soundstage for the elements of a recording to exist on. Compared to even the best-sounding smartphones, the iFi creates a far better defined stage - and it locks every strand of a recording on there with real certainty, meaning each element is secure in its own space and doesn’t impact on any other. And the Go Bar does this without making any part of a recording sound estranged from any other - rather, it presents the occupants of its soundstage as a single, unified entity.

iFi Go Bar headphones DAC review

(Image credit: Future)

From there, the iFi gives greater depth, better control and higher levels of information regarding the bottom of the frequency range, and describes the attack and decay of bass sounds with genuine positivity. It gives authentic bite and shine to the opposite end, but doesn’t ever get hard or unyielding - and it retains all of the substance to treble sounds, too, rather than letting them get airy like less capable DACs can. And in between, it grants singers of all kinds all the character, all the attitude, and all the emotional potency their original performance embodied. And it does all of this while remaining firmly in control of dynamics, while expressing rhythms with real conviction, and while remaining consistent in its tonality from the top of the frequency range to the bottom.

But what’s even more impressive than all this (very impressive) stuff is the remarkable amount of detail the Go Bar can extract from a digital audio file and hand over to your headphones. No part of a recording is too minor, too discreet, too deeply buried in the mix to escape the attentions of this DAC - if a singer licks their lips on-mic, if the snare beneath a drum resonates in sympathy with a bass guitar, if an audience member shuffles in their seat, the iFi will pounce on it. And having pounced on it, the Go Bar puts it exactly where it needs to be in the overall presentation, and with exactly the right amount of emphasis. And recordings sound vividly alive as a result.

iFi Go Bar review: Design & Usability

iFi Go Bar headphones DAC review

(Image credit: Future)

Despite the need for a product like this to be as small and unobtrusive as realistically possible, iFi has nevertheless had a go at Doing Some Designing. The result is a USB ‘dongle’ DAC that’s a little bigger and heavier than the norm - but also one that’s very nicely built and finished.

Its 29g weight is on the hefty side for a portable DAC, and dimensions of 65 x 22 x 13mm mean the Go Bar is far from the most compact around. Its alloy finish is smoothly tactile, though, and the multi-faceted shape of the enclosure itself make it a slightly more interesting thing than many nominal alternatives. Just be aware it’ll need more pocket-space than you might have been expecting.

As far as ‘usability’ is concerned, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Operationally, things couldn’t be simpler: there’s a USB-C socket at one end, and 3.5mm unbalanced and 4.4mm balanced analogue outputs at the other. iFi provides a couple of chunkily braided cables in the Go Bar packaging - one is USB-C-to-C, the other is USB-C-to-Lightning. There’s also a USB-C-to-A adapter. So connections to smartphones and laptops of all types should be simplicity itself, as should supporting pretty much any type of in-ear monitor or over-ear headphone.

iFi Go Bar headphones DAC review

(Image credit: Future)

Understanding what the Go Bar is up to is a little trickier. There are controls along one edge dealing with ‘volume up/down’, a switch to attenuate power to accommodate high-sensitivity headphones, and a button that allows access to four different digital filters. The volume controls can also activate the ‘normal’ or ‘turbo’ listening modes, while the filter-control button also gives access to ‘Xbass’ and ‘Xspace’ audio emphases. Remembering what does what, and how long the button-hold needs to be to access it, is far from intuitive.

But it’s on the rear of its enclosure the iFi goes from being ‘fiddly’ to ‘unknowable’. There’s a row of nine truly microscopic LEDs that give an indication of the type and/or bit-rate of the digital file you’re listening to, as well as indicating volume level, digital filter type and so on. Or they would, if they a) weren’t so small and b) were next to some similarly tiny text that iFi has decided should be coloured black. On a black metal background.

iFi Go Bar review: Verdict

iFi Go Bar headphones DAC review

(Image credit: Future)

It’s a measure of just how well the Go Bar performs that it’s not only possible to overlook the size (both of the device itself and the price iFi wants for it) and its incredibly unhelpful user interface - it’s obligatory. 

The effect the iFi Go Bar can have on the digital audio information stored (or accessed by) your smartphone or laptop is always significant and occasionally revelatory.

Also consider

The EarMen Sparrow is one of the non-iFi headphone DACs on our ‘best of’ list - and it’s a very worthwhile little device indeed. It doesn’t look or feel as premium as the Go Bar - but then it doesn’t cost as much. It doesn’t perform quite as well in quite as many areas as the Go Bar either - but then it doesn’t cost as much. And it doesn’t get caught up in trying (and failing) to keep you visually informed about bit-rate, file-size or all the rest of it, either. 

Simon Lucas is a freelance technology journalist and consultant, with particular emphasis on the audio/video aspects of home entertainment. Before embracing the carefree life of the freelancer, he was editor of What Hi-Fi? magazine and website – since then, he's written for titles such as Wired, Metro, the Guardian and Stuff, among many others. Should he find himself with a spare moment, Simon likes nothing more than publishing and then quickly deleting tweets about the state of the nation (in general), the state of Aston Villa (in particular) and the state of his partner's cat.