iFi Audio ZEN DAC/Headphone Amplifier Review
Jay Garrett makes a karmic connection with this affordable new DAC/preamplifier/headphone amplifier…
iFi has always been strong on value but has also recently hit a sweet spot in the style stakes too. Whether it's the flask-inspired hip DAC, the angular wood and metal lifestyle audio sculpture known as Aurora or the undulating form of the xCAN and xDSD, there's no denying the attraction. Recently the company announced its new ZEN range, comprising the DAC and the Blue – the latter is a Bluetooth streamer, whereas the former is a desktop DAC which is the subject of this review.
The ZEN DAC and headphone amplifier is wrapped in an attractive matt-finished trapezoidal aluminium case and is fed digital audio and power via a USB3.0B Socket (USB2.0 compatible) port – meaning you don't need to be near a wall socket. However, it does offer the option of using outboard mains; iFi's iPower X was sent along for me to try, and it did improve the audio, while of course reducing its portability.
Measuring 117x30x100mm, this little bit of kit is portable rather than pocketable and comes with an impressive array of skills. Thanks to the native Burr-Brown DSD1793 chip that forms its beating heart, the ZEN can unfold MQA, decode PCM and DXD to 32-bit/384kHz, and also crunch DSD256.
On the unit's front, you'll find standard 6.3mm and 4.4mm balanced Pentaconn jacks for your cans, while a stereo RCA line output, along with another 4.4mm balanced output nearby, can be found around the back. This is impressive stuff at the price, something its peers can't quite match. The ZEN DAC's analogue output stage offers fully balanced operation, but you also get the option of a fixed or variable out through the unbalanced line connections. This means you can use it as a digital preamp or purely as a DAC, should you so wish.
Joining the central volume dial – backlit by coloured LEDs indicating the sampling rate of the file being played – are the Power Match (ingenious headphone impedance match circuitry and gain) and TrueBass (bass boost) buttons. Oddly, there's no way of switching the unit off.
Predictably perhaps, Windows users must install software to get the most out of the ZEN DAC, along with augmenting some Tidal settings. Of course, you can just plug-and-play if you're not an MQA-user, or rocking one of Cupertino's Macs. Still, the Power Match button made up on lost time, getting the best out of my assortment of weird and wonderful headphones – it drove my Erzitech Thalia, Oppo PM1 and Ultrasone Edition 15 Veritas nicely.
Plugging the ZEN into my recently built PC, the iFi desktop DAC still raised the game even though my new machine boasts the now de rigeur ESS Sabre converter chip, plus fancy WIMA and Nichicon audiophile capacitors. With Simply Red's eighties soul classic Money's Too Tight to Mention, I heard a certain richness and ease that lent a Zen-like calm to the sound – if you pardon the pun. This track came across as rhythmically punchy, its eighties-tastic synths cutting through the authoritative bass groove with relish. With The Ways of the Force from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the wee iFi was no slouch when it came to dynamics either. Additionally, it handled the layers of an orchestral arrangement just as easily as that earlier slice of funky pop.
Switching on a Chord Mojo that I had to hand – admittedly a considerably more expensive purchasing proposition – and I was struck by its more engaging and visceral presentation. Yet still, the ZEN did exceptionally well for its price; it has been voiced to sound less urgent without losing much dynamism. Most obvious compared to the Mojo was a subtle rounding off of higher frequencies, which lost a little bite. Yet this made the iFi kinder to poor source material, conveniently glossing-over the nasties inherent in low bitrate streams, for example. This was especially obvious after I had installed the 5.30C firmware, which adds the GTO (Gibbs Transient Optimised) filter that aims to produce more natural transients.
The ZEN DAC's midband isn't quite as forward as the hip DAC's, but still handles vocals well. There is also a pleasant amount of separation, as demonstrated with Prefab Sprout's 1984 ballad When Love Breaks Down. Those ethereal vocals from Paddy McAloon and Wendy Smith occupied their own space but were evenly balanced with the well-produced instrumentation. This underlined the natural air of confidence that the iFi has in its presentation.
iFi's new Zen DAC/headphone amplifier does an awful lot for the money, then. If you're into music on the move and want a fine sounding, versatile and robust little powerhouse – then this is it. Offering super keen value compared to some price rivals, it's an essential audition for cash-strapped head-fi fans.
For more information, visit iFi Audio.
StereoNET’s resident rock star, bass player, and gadget junkie. His passion for gadgets and Hi-Fi is second only to being a touring musician.
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