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.