iFi ZEN Air Separates Review

Posted on 24th January, 2023

iFi ZEN Air Separates Review

Michael Evans samples four bargain-basement baby boxes from this innovative mini hi-fi specialist…

iFi Audio

ZEN Air Components

£99 each

Starting a journey into the world of high-quality sound reproduction is a daunting task. Not only is there a confusing world of jargon to overcome, but there's a myriad of different hardware available, too, across a variety of sources. However, the most puzzling factor can be the price, and the most asked question for hi-fi newbies is, “how much money do I need to spend, and what can I get for it?”

Enter iFi's new ZEN Air range of baby hi-fi separates – four tiny boxes of joy that provide a wonderful place for rookies to start. Their killer 'USP' is value for money; for just £99 per item, you can buy the ZEN Air phono stage, Bluetooth DAC, headphone amplifier and even a USB DAC and headphone amp. On the face of it, they sound like a bargain – but only if they perform sufficiently well, which is a big ask at that price…

iFi has only been able to offer this range by cost-cutting its already low-priced ZEN range – each different product is basically a cheapened version of an existing ZEN item. This is no bad thing, of course, because the ZEN range has been very well received, but has the company gone too far in order to hit that magic sub-£100 price point?

On the face of it, at least, the cost-cutting isn't too savage. All the new ZEN Airs sport the same pocket-sized form factor as their more expensive siblings. They are smart and discreet and sit neatly on a desk, quietly doing their job. The differences are both internal and external. The Air range has slightly simplified circuitry and strips back some features to enable a more affordable price. iFi's standard aluminium enclosure is replaced with a synthetic polymer case with a textured finish, each in a different colour, so you can recognise which unit is which. This still looks and feels neat enough, and the manufacturer claims it reduces vibration too.


One of the biggest sellers is likely to be the ZEN Air USB DAC. Simply connect your phone or computer to the USB type B socket at the rear and plug a pair of headphones into the front, and you have a crisp-sounding mini hi-fi system which supports multiple file-formats including 32-bit/384kHz PCM, native DSD256 and MQA. You can also use the X-Bass+ button to boost the bass, should you so wish. If you have an amplifier and speakers, or just a pair of active speakers, you can plug these in too. It gives excellent results at the price; I can't think of anything that comes close.

For those who don't need DAC functionality, there's the new ZEN Air Can. This analogue headphone amplifier boasts some cool electronic trickery, with a gain adjustment for less sensitive headphones, a 4.4mm balanced output and something called S-Balanced output which feigns a balanced signal to non-balanced headphones. It also has X-Bass+, plus an X-Space setting, which offers a level of signal processing to emulate a live-sounding performance; the latter works well and is fun to play with if you're that way inclined.

The ZEN Air Can is a particularly lovely product for the money; I used it with a Raspberry Pi with an Allo Boss DAC and a pair of inexpensive in-ear headphones to get a surprisingly decent sound that's clean, open and musically engaging. By the way, both aforementioned products make great travelling companions – whether it's for hotel room use or even on a train journey. Whilst they rely on a power supply, I used a standard Powerbank to fire them up on the train.

The Zen Air Phono looks set to be a popular choice for turntable owners who may not have a phono stage built into their integrated amplifier or wish to upgrade from a poor-sounding one. It's easy to use and has both moving magnet and moving coil functionality; the latter is nice to have but won't get the best out of anything but entry-level MCs.

All the same, it's designed to get analogue addicts up and running and does the job very well. It's smooth and detailed sounding – and a big step up from the old QED Discsaver, which was the last ultra-budget phono stage that sold for this sort of money twenty-five years ago. I tried it with a Rega moving magnet cartridge, and a Linn moving coil and got enjoyable results.

Finally, we have the ZEN Air Blue – a clever Bluetooth DAC. Set-up could not be easier. Simply start pairing mode on your phone or laptop, and the software will suggest the best codec available for the highest sound quality. For my Samsung Android phone, it chose the hi-res LDAC Codec.

Connect to your amplifier or active speakers via the RCA connections at the back, and you're ready to stream TIDAL, Qobuz, Spotify, or any other music file over as good quality Bluetooth as you need. Whilst this is the new range's worst-sounding device due to the lossy Bluetooth format, I can see it becoming the best seller because it's cheap and performs effectively. It's simple to use and gets the best out of Bluetooth.


iFi's new range of ZEN Air mini separates teaches us that less is more. Each costs under £100, yet performs as good as you have a right to expect at this price – and often better too. These neat little boxes of tricks offer a brilliant way to begin anyone's hi-fi journey and/or provide solutions to missing gaps in your system without breaking the bank.

Visit iFi Audio for more information


    Michael Evans's avatar

    Michael Evans

    A music junkie who served his apprenticeship in UK hi-fi retail in the 1990s, Mike loves the simplicity of analogue and the complexity of digital. With an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject, he’s been on a life-long quest for great sound at a sensible price – and is still loving the journey…

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