Will all the readers who have spent over $130 on a dinner for two raise their hands? OK. Will anyone who did not raise his hands yet who’s spent more than $130 for a cable or interconnect raise his hand? By now we should have the vast majority of the folks reading this review with their arms in the air. You can put them down now. What if I told you that for that same $130 you could have a USB DAC capable of not only playing back high-resolution PCM files but also DSD and MQA files, in addition to offering single-ended and balanced headphone outputs and an adjustable balanced line-level preamplifier output? Interested? I hope so.
The iFi Zen series of components offers audiophiles and budding audiophiles on extremely tight budgets the prospect of excellent sound and extensive features for very little fiscal outlay. The Zen DAC, Zen Blu, and Zen Phono can be used alone or in concert with one another for different input sources, while the Zen Can provides headphone outputs. The Zen DAC handles USB digital inputs (2.0 or 3.0), while the Zen Blue accepts Bluetooth sources and has outputs for single-ended and balanced analog as well as coaxial and TosLink SPDIF. The Zen Phono has single-ended and balanced outputs and supports both moving-coil and moving-magnet cartridges via four different gain settings.
While it’s certainly important to know what’s inside a component (we’ll get to that), it’s equally if not more important to know who designed it. IFi, formed in 2012, was created as a sub-division of the high-end firm Abbington Music Research, whose principal designer is Thorsten Loesch. For the Zen DAC project John Curl was drafted as the co-designer, focusing on the analog sections of the Zen DAC. This impressively accredited designer-duo focused on making the most cost-effective high-performance DAC/preamplifier they could for the Zen’s price. While I have not reviewed any AMR products, my own history with John Curl’s designs goes back to his Class A, differentially balanced, two-chassis JC-80 preamplifier, designed for Frank Dennesen in the mid-80s. It was impressive both in sound and in the amount of heat its pure Class A amplification scheme could generate. In many ways the Zen DAC is just as impressive, though it is far smaller and runs much cooler than its ancient predecessor.
The Zen DAC’s list of component parts includes a mix of something old and something new. The device list begins with the latest XMOS 208 series USB input chip, which iFi proprietarily modifies, followed by a BurrBrown DSD1793 DAC chip, which is certainly not the newest DAC chip available but one that iFi has used in the past. The Zen’s analog stage features a true differential balanced circuit with TDK COG capacitors, Texas Instruments low-noise power supply, and an analog volume control. Using an older chip almost guarantees that the Zen DAC will not, and does not, measure as well as the latest generation of AKM DAC chips, but, as we learned from the “specifications war” of the late 70s, not all specifications are as audibly important as others, and in the end we all listen with our ears rather than through test rigs.
Ergonomics and Setup
The Zen DAC is not merely a DAC; it can also serve as a balanced-output preamplifier. But unlike the vast majority of balanced preamplifiers with XLR outputs, the Zen DAC uses a 4.4 Pentaconn balanced output-connector, due to space and price restrictions. Finding a suitable Pentaconn-to-dual-balanced-XLR cable so that the Zen DAC’s balanced outputs can be used to drive a balanced-input power amplifier and its single-ended outputs reserved for a subwoofer, proved to be the most difficult part of setting up the Zen DAC as a stand-alone DAC/pre. First, I tried a $30 Pentaconn-to-dual-XLR cable from Amazon, which generated a constant hum, so it was not useable. IFi sent me a cable that worked, but currently the equivalent via Amazon was around $80, which could be a bit pricy for a $130 DAC buyer. Another option was to use a cable to convert from Pentaconn balanced to RCA single-ended, but that route generated a low-level buzz on both channels with both of the cables I purchased for the application (from two different manufacturers).
During much of time I had the Zen DAC, I used it as a basic DAC with fixed output connected to a Tortuga Audio V2 passive preamplifier via its single-ended RCA analog outputs. I also used the Zen DAC connected via its balanced outputs to the $7999 Sony SA-Z1 active loudspeaker system. At the end of the review period I hooked up the Zen DAC via its balanced outputs to the Mytek Manhattan II’s balanced analog inputs so I could listen through the Spatial X-2s connected to the Pass 150.8 amplifier and dual JL Audio Fathom f112 subwoofers. Going from active volume control to a fixed output level on the Zen DAC was as simple as moving the switch on its back. I connected a bevy of amplifiers to the Zen DAC during the time I used it as a preamplifier, including the Benchmark ABH-2 ($2999), Clone Audio 25P (discontinued, last price $750), Fosi Audio TDA7498E ($75), and Perreaux E110 (discontinued). Loudspeakers tethered to the system include the Audience 1+1 V3 ($2965), Silverline Minuet Supreme ($699), Aperion 4B ($199), Role Audio Kayak ($695–$795), and ATC SC7II ($1495).
The front panel of the Zen DAC has a large centrally located volume knob flanked on the right side by single-ended ¼” and balanced Pentaconn headphone outputs. The left side has a “Power Match” switch, which alters the gain levels of all the outputs, and a “Truebass” switch, which enhances the Zen DAC’s bass output. On the rear of the Zen you’ll find a balanced 4.4mm Pentaconn and one pair of single-ended RCA analog outputs, a USB 3.0 input, and a 5V power barrel-connector. You have several options for an accessory/additional Zen DAC power supply. You can upgrade to an iFi Power ($49) or iFi iPower X ($99) power supply at any time. You can also add other iFi devices such as the iPurifier3 ($129), AC iPurifier ($99), and DCi Purifier2 ($99). At different times during the review I used the iFi Power, iPurifier 3, and DC iPurifier. During that period, the nearfield system was also attached to a PS Audio Dectet AC power conditioner. With this setup I did not hear any audible differences with the DC iPurifier2 in service. I used the iFi iPower supply (not the X) throughout the review, except for a couple of hours to confirm that it made an audible improvement. I did find that my choice of cabling between the Zen DAC and either a preamplifier or directly to a power amplifier made an audible difference. Kimber Kable’s KCAG ½-meter lengths were far more revealing, dynamic, and involving than the no-name standard freebie cables. And yes, even a ½-meter pair of RCA-terminated Kimber KCAS cables are more money than a Zen DAC, but if you want to hear what the Zen DAC can do, decent cables are needed…and yes, they could very well cost more than the DAC itself.
The shape of the Zen series products is unique without being wacky. You can still stack Zen components if that is your way, and with all but the thickest and heaviest cables there’s no need to pile additional weight onto the Zen’s tops to keep them from being pulled askew. For extra security, I added a steel cylindrical doorstop on top of the Zen DAC, which made it look like it had a stainless-steel chimney.
The Zen DAC supports every file format from PCM through FLAC and DSD512, as well as MQA. Unlike most entry-level high-performance DACs, which often lack any way to tell what format and bit-rate is being used for a particular file, the Zen DAC uses a color-coded system of lights that surrounds the volume control knob to signal the format and bit-rate. The Zen DAC isn’t the first DAC I’ve reviewed that used a color-coded system. The Chord Qutest also employs such a scheme, but with the Qutest there are more color options, some of which are not easy to differentiate. The Zen DAC keeps it simple with only five options—green for PCM up to 96k, yellow for PCM above 96k, cyan for DSD up to DSD128, blue for DSD256, and magenta for MQA. Unlike the Chord’s cornucopia of colors, I was capable of memorizing the iFi color code. The only tricky part of initial setup for Roon is that the Zen DAC must be designated as a “renderer only” rather than a “decoder and renderer”; otherwise it will not properly respond to or decode MQA. IFi recently added a new and different GTO filter set available via a free download for users who want to try a different “flavor” of digital filter on the Zen. And if the newer GTO filter is not to your liking, you can revert to the earlier version any time via iFi’s website.
The two buttons on the Zen DAC’s front panel add versatility. The “Truebass” is much like a fixed “contour” control that increases mid and low bass. This can be useful for listening at low volumes or with a pair of headphones that seems bass-shy. At normal listening levels I found it of little value, but when listening late at night at “don’t wake the wife” levels, it was OK (though I prefer headphones for this scenario). The other feature, called “Power Match,” changes the output-section gain. Its higher gain setting was useful for lower-sensitivity headphones and could possibly help with certain amp/speaker combinations.
Before I go all better-than-sliced-bread crazy over the Zen DAC, let me list my issues and quibbles with it. First quibble is the volume knob itself. It doesn’t wobble or feel loose, but it turns with so little effort that if you adjust by feel, you may find that as you reach down to adjust the volume it’s all too easy to accidentally come in contact with the control, at which point it will move. Some additional resistance or click stops would eliminate this issue. Next quibble is there is no remote control, so if you plan to use the Zen DAC’s volume control as opposed to its fixed output, the unit will need to be within hand’s reach.
I had some small issues with the 4.4 balanced headphone output on the front panel. Sometimes it required a bit of turning to successfully establish both channels’ outputs. The balanced 4.4 output on the back worked in perfect silence with balanced connections to balanced amplifiers, but when I tried to use several different brands of cable that went from balanced 4.4 to unbalanced RCA, I noticed low-level buzz on both channels. I ended up using an adapter to double the number of available outputs to two pairs of single-ended outputs, so I could attach both a single-ended-input power amplifier and a single-ended-input subwoofer to the Zen DAC.
The lack of an included power supply would be an issue if the Zen DAC supported SPDIF like the Schiit Modius does. But since it will always be connected to USB, as that is its sole input, an additional power supply should be considered an upgrade and not a necessity (except for optimal sonics). My final issue with the Zen DAC was the choice of 4.4 Pentaconn balanced connections as the balanced-output option. It’s not that the Pentaconn is in any way inferior to 3.5mm balanced, but it is certainly not as common—there are simply too few cabling options at prices that would be acceptable for an entry-level system. My hope is that iFi will supply a commensurately priced Pentaconn-to-balanced-XLR cable in addition to the Pentaconn-to-Pentaconn cable that’s available.
Given the Zen DAC’s price, most experienced audiophiles, including me, would assume that while adequate for background listening, the Zen DAC would be no real competition for “serious” cost-no-object flagship or “premium” DACs. This assumption is based on past experience with DACs built for a budget price-point. And while physically the Zen DAC is no competition for a flagship DAC, if you close your eyes and listen to reference-quality recorded music you know well (or that you were the original recording engineer for) you will be as surprised as I was. The music is all there without the grey haze, middling-level definition, noise, grain, or that soft “pleasing” sound that I was expecting. Used as a Roon endpoint with an accessory outboard power supply I found the Zen DAC’s performance to be good enough that I could happily live with it and even use it in a high-level nearfield or desktop digital-audio system.
When listening to a super-expensive component, most audiophiles listen for where and how it sets new audible performance standards. With a budget or entry-level component, the listening scheme is reversed—you’re listening for the sonic flaws. But what if, after many hours of listening on a wide variety of systems, you don’t hear any of the usual flaws or “tells” that telegraph a component’s budgetary roots? That leaves an audiophile or reviewer in a pickle…but not a big pickle. The only logical conclusion is that DACs, even an entry-level one using older DAC chips such as the Zen DAC, can now perform at a high enough level to satisfy many audiophile’s sonic needs. This was not the case even a few years ago.
I used the Zen DAC in three rather different systems. In the Sony SA-Z1 desktop system, the Zen DAC was connected via its balanced fixed-output and got its signal from a Raspberry Pi4 powered by an iFi iPower supply. Compared to the same streaming sources from an Astell & Kern AK2000 connected via analog mini-stereo, I couldn’t discern any differences in the sound quality. In both cases I heard everything I was expecting to hear and perhaps even a bit more. The midrange purity and detail I was accustomed to hearing through the Sony with other streaming/DAC combinations was not diminished in any way by the Zen DAC. When I listened in my main system, connected via the balanced analog outputs, using the Mytek as an analog preamplifier, I could hear that the Raspberry Pi4 was simply outperforming a Mac Mini on streaming sources. The Mac mini’s stream wasn’t as dynamic and lacked a bit of low-level detail and precision compared to the Pi4 through the Zen DAC.
I assembled a budget-friendly combination of the Zen DAC connected to the Fosi Audio TDA7498E ($75), driving the Aperion 4B ($199), and wired it up with basic no-name cable…my sonic verdict was that the loudspeakers were the weak link, not the Zen DAC or that ridiculously good Fosi chip amp. When I swapped in the Role Audio Kayak speakers and installed my reference Kimber KCAG and Audience Au24-SX speaker cables, the sound was nearly as refined as it was through the Clones 25P or Benchmark ABH-2.
My favorite somewhat cost-effective combination of components with the Zen DAC was my MacPro titanium-trashcan desktop system, using Roon connected via USB, with the single-ended fixed output connected to the Tortuga Audio LDR V2 passive preamplifier, which was then connected to a Velodyne DD 10+ subwoofer and Clones Audio 25P power amplifier driving a pair of Role Audio Kayaks. The midrange purity and delicacy of this system reminded me of the kind of seductive presentation I usually associate with a single-ended tube amplifier, but without any of the background noise or low-level hum. It didn’t matter whether it was a male or female vocalist; the absence of grain and electronic texture was entrancing. On Julia Michaels’ track “Just Do It” via Tidal, her voice had a commanding presence that was not owed to volume or gain but to the harmonic rightness of her particular vocal timbre.
Using the Zen DAC connected via balanced to the Benchmark ABH-2 driving the Audience 1+1 V3 proved that time travel is indeed possible. OK, not really, but almost. I have MQA-encoded FLAC files of Eric’s Wiggs’ new EP Vermillion Road, which unfolds to 96/24 via Roon and the Zen DAC. Wiggs and his guitar had a three-dimensional presence and sense of weight and dimensionality in this system that rivaled any ultra-high-end system I’ve ever heard. These same tracks sound equally transformative with the Zen DAC connected to the Sony SA-Z1 system. These same two setups also handled big, bold, in-your-face pop music, such as Halsey’s “Clementine” on Tidal, with aplomb.
Putting the Zen DAC’s headphone outputs through their paces I discovered a mixed bag. If you want to use your high-sensitivity in-ears, such as the 115dB-sensitive Empire Ears Zeus, you will be disappointed, due to some low-level hiss from the unbalanced output and even more hiss from the balanced 4.4mm output. If you have medium-to-low-sensitivity headphones, the results will be more to your satisfaction. Using the Zen’s unbalanced outputs, I had enough gain to drive the Beyer Dynamic DT-990 600-ohm version without activating the gain boost. Using the balanced output with the Sony MDR Z-1R headphones, I also had more than enough gain, and the bass through these extended-bass headphones was most impressive. DJ Snake’s “Frequency” had just the right amount of push coupled with pitch clarity on the lowest frequencies. One small ergonomic issue is that when you plug in headphones, the outputs on the back of the Zen DAC do not mute. You will have to turn off your amp and subwoofers to engage in any late-night headphone listening.
While the Zen DAC’s “Powermatch” feature may have value with some harder-to-drive headphones, I did not find it of value with amp/loudspeaker systems. In almost every case the sound became less controlled with some added harshness in the upper frequencies during loud passages. Also, the midrange lost some of its relaxed and natural timbre with Powermatch engaged. The “Truebass” bass boost proved to be more useful, especially at low volume levels and on extremely bass-shy recordings, but given its 10dB boost at the lowest frequencies I wouldn’t engage it on any loud hip-hop tracks, unless you enjoy watching your woofers trying to jump out of their cabinets.
As I said earlier, just a few short years ago there would have been little competition for the Zen DAC that could deliver similar features and sound quality at even close to its price, but nowadays you do have several other high-quality options at equally appealing price points. The Schiit Modius ($199, Issue 311) has a more limited feature set, since it is only a basic DAC with no preamplifier or volume adjustments, but it does offer additional input options including TosLink and RCA SPDIF. The Modius also lacks MQA capabilities, but it does have a balanced out via full-sized XLR connections instead of the Zen’s 4.4mm Pentaconn connections. Another competitive option is the Grace Standard Balanced DAC ($150, available through drop.com), which offers excellent sound in a small box with fixed-level XLR balanced outputs and an additional optical/coaxial SPDIF input. Connected to the Sony SA-Z1 system via its balanced outputs the Grace performed on a par with the Zen DAC, but it is not MQA-compatible as the Zen DAC is. The Grace would be an excellent option for someone who already has a high-performance balanced analog preamplifier. If you don’t mind putting in some assembly time, the Khadas tone board with plexi case ($104 via Amazon) delivers remarkably good sound for either USB or SPDIF. It only has single-ended outputs and no MQA capabilities, but for PCM, FLAC, and DSD files the Khadas, with its 119dB S/N figure, will amaze you. For $399 the Pro-ject Pre Box S2 Digital offers almost all the features of the Zen DAC, while adding additional ones such as a full-color display, multiple filter options, more inputs, and a better interface for high-sensitivity in-ears; it even has a remote control. What the Pro-ject lacks are the balanced outputs for amps or headphones, a bass boost, and different gain-range options. But I never felt a need for either a bass boost or different headphone gain options while using the Pro-ject. If you don’t require balanced outputs, the Pro-ject Pre Box S2 Digital would remain my top budget choice if you can pony up the extra cash.
I often see the cliché “giant killer” in positive reviews of lower-priced gear. That really doesn’t tell you much. An “it is what it is” approach strikes me as a more even-handed way to look at the Zen DAC. Yes, it offers a lot of features at an entry-level price, and I found that when it is mated with other high-performance components the end result can be reference- or near-reference-level sound, but it does require careful system matching and quality cables that will likely cost far more than the DAC itself.
I see two ideal users for the Zen DAC: younger just-minted audiophiles looking for good sound on a budget for nearfield listening, and older ones looking for an inexpensive way to add an MQA DAC and a decent headphone amplifier to their room-based systems. The former will use most of the Zen DAC’s features while a majority of the latter will set it on fixed output and use it as a basic DAC. Both win.
Just as I was finishing up this review, drop.com (formerly Massdrop) announced a Signature version of the Zen DAC at $249. This version eliminates the headphone outputs, as well as the Truebass and Powermatch options. It adds “better parts.” I suspect it will appeal more to seasoned audiophiles than to newbies, but I will admit that I committed to purchase one, and am still awaiting delivery. The big question in my mind is whether the Signature actually delivers additional sonic performance. It sure does look cool and capable. You can expect a follow-up in a future issue.
Specs & Pricing
Inputs: USB 2.0 and 3.0
Formats supported: PCM to 384/24, DSD to DSD128, FLAC, MQA
Output: Balanced and unbalanced analog via one pair RCA and one 4.4 Pentaconn, fixed or variable
Dimensions: 100 x 30 x 117mm
Weight: 491g (1.08 lbs.)
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