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iFi GO Bar Kensei Review

Our comprehensive review of the iFi GO Bar Kensei, a high-end portable DAC with unique features like K2HD technology, XBass+, and XSpace. Discover its stellar build quality, power output, and sound quality that could replace many desktop DACs.
ifi go bar kensei

Disclosure: The Zen DAC 3 was provided by iFi for the purpose of this review. Please read more about our product review disclosure here.

iFi has always been known to deliver high-quality audio products, and the GO Bar Kensei is no exception. The Kensei is an iteration of the existing iFi GO Bar, a powerful and portable USB DAC/Amp, but adding some unique features and design changes. iFi markets the Kensei as “The Ultimate GO bar”. Let’s see if that is truly the case.


Key Specifications

  • Core Processor: XMOS 16-Core chip
  • DAC Components: Bit-Perfect DSD & DXD DAC by Cirrus Logic
  • Connectivity:
    • Unbalanced output: 3.5mm (300mW@32Ω; 3.8V@600Ω)
    • Balanced output: 4.4mm (477mW@32Ω; 7.2V@600Ω)
    • Input: USB-C
  • Supported Sample Rates and Formats:
    • Up to 32bit 384kHz PCM
    • DSD256
    • MQA full decoding
  • Features:
    • iEMatch
    • XBass+
    • XSpace
  • Power
    • Powered through USB connection
  • Case and Dimensions:
    • 65 x 22 x 13.2 mm
    • Weight: 65.5g

Overview

The iFi GO Bar Kensei is a special edition of the GO Bar, but not a limited run like the GOld Bar was. The two standout features of the Kensei are the stainless steel construction, giving the Kensei a sword-like quality, and the K2HD audio processing mode, which we will go over in more depth later in the review. Essentially though, the K2HD mode upscales audio output and adjusts the waveform of the audio to specific parameters (somewhat similar to Sony’s DSEE).


Design & Build Quality

In the Box

  • GO Bar Kensei
  • Unique wooden box with Japanese-inspired art
  • Leather case
  • USB-C to USB-C cable
  • USB-C to Lightning cable
  • USB-C to USB-A adapter
  • Documentation

External Design

Like most of iFi’s products, the GO Bar Kensei features its signature industrial, utilitarian design. The Japanese stainless steel construction and polished, brushed look of the Kensei is extremely eye-catching. The Kensei feels extremely sturdy and has a nice hefty weight to it, adding to the premium aesthetics. The weightiness might deter some from using the Kensei on the go, but I never had a problem with the weight while using it with my smartphone. 

The top of the device has a USB-C connection, while the bottom is populated by the 3.5mm unbalanced and 4.4mm balanced connections.

The controls are all located on one side. From top to bottom, we have the settings/mode selection button, volume up and volume down buttons, and the iEMatch slider.

On the front is where you can see which settings are selected, as well as the output audio format and sample rate. The buttons and LED layout might be confusing and overwhelming at first but after a bit of time, it’s easy to get the hang of.

The sleek design and flashy look of the GO Bar Kensei give it a unique and premium quality. The one annoying trait with the material choice of the Kensei is it does attract finger smudges, so you will find yourself constantly cleaning it with a cloth to keep it looking shiny.

Internal Design

The GO Bar Kensei utilizes a Bit-Perfect DSD/DXD DAC by Cirrus Logic, and a tried and true XMOS 16-core chip found in many of iFi’s products, including the original GO Bar.

Where the Kensei differs from the GO Bar though is with the ultra-low jitter clock, enhanced power supply and circuitry, and the K2HD technology (more on this in the sound quality section). 


Sound Quality

The GO Bar Kensei stays more in the neutral territory for sound, giving you a fairly transparent audio experience. It’s extremely clear, with excellent detail resolution and very accurate imaging. The whole listening experience is enjoyable, though I do find the bass reproduction to be a tad light. 

Power

I had no issues with power, the GO Bar Kensei was able to drive all of my headphones with ease. Specifically, I tested with the Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro 80ohm and the Focal Elegia. The DT 770 Pro did sound better with “turbo mode” (gain) enabled, raising the floor a bit to give the sound more depth. The Elegia are fairly easy to drive and sounded fantastic with the Kensei.

Details

As previously mentioned, the bass performance is on the lighter side, though they are still textured and resolve nicely. Enabling XBass+ helps the bass hit a bit deeper, but if you need ultra-deep bass hits you aren’t going to get it with the Kensei.

The mid-range is pleasantly balanced with a slight intimacy that brings the audio closer to you as if you are listening to it in a small venue. 

The treble is clean and not too bright. It offers good detail and isn’t fatiguing in the slightest.

K2HD Mode

Without going into the technical aspects of what K2HD does as an upscaler (more info is provided on this in the Features section), I will preface this by saying that the K2HD engine is supposed to “revive rich, natural harmonics into the sterile, detached digital sound” of an audio file.

The result overall is very positive. I did notice that in quite a few songs, specifically ones that are in CD quality (16-bit/44.1kHz) there was an added musicality to them when using the K2HD mode. Nothing ever sounded worse with it enabled, a lot of music sounded slightly better, and in some cases more alive. Almost as if it changes the dynamic of how the music is delivered. In the end, I found myself listening to the GO Bar Kensei with the K2HD mode enabled more often than not.

Overall, the Kensei is appropriate for any genre, regardless of which filter option you use (standard, GTO, minimum phase, or bit-perfect with no filter). 


Features

iFi has their staple features that they include with many of its products, and they have been nicely refined through the years. First, though, we will look at the flagship feature of the Go Bar Kensei.

K2HD Technology

The K2HD tech was developed by JVCKenwood and Victor Studio engineers to “restore emotionally flat and lifeless” audio masters and give them “an organic quality unlike any other”. It essentially restores “lost data” that occurs when digitizing an audio file and upscales it to a 24-bit/192kHz file, applying their hand-selected K2 parameters for waveform correction. This works on any audio file that is less than 24-bit/192kHz.

k2hd process

I did try this with MP3 files with limited success. If you’ve read my Sony Walkman DAP reviews you will know that I am a big fan of Sony’s DSEE technology, but it is not directly comparable to K2HD as they both have their own goals in mind. While I do find DSEE to be more useful overall, there is still a place for K2HD and I am happy that other upscaler options exist, especially in such a small and portable device as the iFi GO Bar Kensei.

XBass+

With XBass+ we get a slightly tighter and leaner sound for the bass response, but also giving the extra deepness in the bass that the Kensei is lacking. A good feature that works well here.

XSpace

The XSpace setting recreates a holographic sound field, essentially expanding it to sound more open and airy. The Kensei’s sound profile is slightly intimate, so if you want your audio to sound a bit more out of your head then XSpace will accomplish that. I think this feature sounds excellent when paired with live recordings or classical music, giving you a spatial quality to the listening experience.

iEMatch

This feature is fairly common on iFi’s portable DACs. iEMatch is specifically for when using IEMs and works on both the 3.4mm and 4.4mm connections. When enabled, it reduces the output level on the specific connection. If you have sensitive IEMs you may get a static-filled signal or slight background hiss, and iEMatch aims to solve this. I did not notice any issues when using my HiBy Seeds II IEMs, the audio output sounded clean.


Final Thoughts

The GO Bar Kensei is a very unique portable DAC, one that could probably replace many desktop DACs given the power output and features. It has excellent build quality, a stellar feature set, and a special and unique feature in the K2HD mode.

The biggest downside with the GO Bar Kensei is the price, at $450, which lends itself to being in the high-end territory for what is essentially a dongle DAC. Looking at it that way you might be tempted to go with something like iFi’s hip-dac 3 at just $199. The Kensei sounds much better though, and is certainly more enjoyable to listen to.

If the price does not deter you then it’s easy to recommend the GO Bar Kensei. It is extremely portable, has a high-quality build, and is the ultimate portable DAC for sound quality and power.


We are not always able to cover all details of a product, both hardware and software, in our reviews. If you have any specific questions you’d like answered about this product please feel free to leave a comment or contact us directly.

HiFi Oasis Verdict

HiFi Oasis Verdict
9 10 0 1
9/10
Total Score
  • Design & Build Quality
    9/10 Amazing
  • Sound
    8/10 Very good
  • Features
    9/10 Amazing

Pros

  • Excellent build quality and aesthetic
  • Clean, neutral sound profile with lots of power
  • Small and portable
  • Lots of features, extensive audio format support

Cons

  • Stainless steel finish lends itself to fingerprints and scratches
  • Price is on the higher end
Total
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