Introduction - What is the Zen DAC?
The iFi Zen DAC is a single input USB DAC. It is a close relation in design terms to the Zen Blue Bluetooth DAC we looked at recently but there are some crucial differences too which we’ll cover in due course. iFi Audio has been steadily increasing the breadth and scope of its product range and the Zen marks its entry level, and at £129, it is very firmly that.
This is iFi though; a company that enjoys the concept of ‘value added’ at an almost metaphysical level. You read ‘single input USB DAC’ and might (entirely reasonably) assume that this is a burlier take on an Audioquest Dragonfly that costs about the same, but it has some functionality that puts it in a completely different place to that. In fact, it does some things that are not replicated on any other product at any remotely comparable price point.
Before we get too carried away though, we have to work out if these are facilities that are actually useful for would be owners and if the Zen DAC is any good at being a DAC. So, without further ado, let’s get decoding.
Specification and Design
The Zen DAC is, as noted, a single input design. The only means of sending audio to it is via USB. From the off though, the manner in which this has been done is not exactly how you might expect. There is a single USB-B connection and this has the means of handling PCM to 24/384 and DSD to 256. This is entirely competitive with anything up to the £3-400 point and far in advance of the actual material widely available to play. Of rather more use in the real world is that the Zen DAC is, like the rest of its iFi stablemates, MQA compatible. For Tidal users on a budget, this is rather handy. The Dragonfly series of devices is also MQA compatible too but the iFi has format handling that they lack.
If you look closer at that USB input, you’ll see that not everything is as it first appears. That extra notch at the top of the socket is a 5v power line and the iFi is supplied with a cable that allows connection in this configuration. Confusingly, the Zen DAC also supports a 5v DC PSU input. This does mean that you can find yourself hunting around in the box for a PSU that isn’t there because the iFi is intended to run on the USB power and so the supply itself doesn’t come as standard.
Next to the USB connection, your output options for the Zen DAC are where things start to get interesting. It has a pair of RCA connections and, as befits a device with a volume control, there is the option to run these as fixed or variable output devices. Then there is also a 4.4mm balanced connection. This is something that can be output to XLR (single or twin) and makes the Zen one of the most affordable balanced sources I have ever tested.
Impressively, the Zen DAC isn’t done there either. Around the front you’ll find another 4.4mm connection and a 6.35mm headphone socket. It is important to stress that these are not completely independent of the connections on the rear panel. If you are using the RCA connections in fixed level mode, the front socket is disabled to prevent you from doing yourself an injury. Switch to variable output though and the iFi becomes a headphone preamp. Thanks to that power enabled USB connection, the whole ensemble is mobile too. It can be powered off a phone and, while I’d describe it as ‘nomadic’ rather than ‘portable’, it works rather well.
The internal hardware that makes this work is also more than ‘a DAC chip.’ For starters, the decoding itself is handled by a Burr Brown device instead of the omnipresent ESS. Interestingly, the Zen Blue does use an ESS so this a clearly a conscious decision on the part of iFi Audio to go with the Burr Brown here. This is used in an arrangement that has a genuine output stage which is - naturally - fully balanced to power those 4.4mm connectors. iFi makes extensive use of TDK ceramic capacitors too. These are rather more ornate than you’d traditionally find in a product at this price point but, by using them across many different products and getting the order quantities up, iFi can make them work here too.
There are some other interesting features too. If you are using the Zen DAC with headphones, iFi has fitted a system called Power Match that is effectively a dynamic gain system. This can alter the amount of gain (and with it noise) available depending on the load on the headphone socket. This means if you are connecting something gaspingly sensitive like the Campfire Audio Io, you can have less gain which reduces the chance of unwanted hiss (and, by the by, means you don’t have to operate the volume control in the manner of a bomb disposal expert).
Also present is a feature called ‘True Bass.’ This does exactly what it suggests, augmenting the low end in a manner that helps the use of small speakers by flattening the sharp low end roll off. What is interesting is that the manner in which it functions is exclusively analogue. There is no DSP functionality or user adjustability, it’s simply a lift to part of the circuit.
So why is there a PSU input if the DAC can drive itself via the USB input? The answer is the headphone amp. Even though the voltage is the same on both the PSU and the USB connection at 5v, the external PSU can swing higher current and it gives the Zen DAC more scope to drive more demanding headphone loads. I can fully understand people feeling that one method or the other should be chosen but I appreciate the flexibility of being able to power the Zen locally for standard line out work and then also being able to request more oomph should you need it. A suitable PSU is around £10 and I think the decision of iFi Audio not to supply it and trim the price is a good one.
In terms of build and feel, the iFi does an awful lot right. The casework is metal and, when you remind yourself of the asking price, it feels impressively solid. This is a different feel of product from the Audioquest which leverages its small size to feel chunky and more like a nicely finished USB stick than a DAC. This feels like a Hi-Fi product but it really doesn’t feel like it costs £130. I fractionally prefer the aesthetic of the Zen Blue but it would be hard to be disappointed at the way that the Zen DAC feels in use.
In terms of build and feel, the iFi does an awful lot right
How was the Zen DAC tested?
The Zen DAC has been run almost entirely on its USB power feed from a Roon Nucleus that served as source and allowed for MQA testing. Some additional running was undertaken with an Oppo Find X2 Neo over OTG connection It has largely been tested with the Rega Io and a pair of Triangle Borea BR03 speakers but some running has been done using a Cambridge Audio Edge A into a pair of Kudos Titan 505s. Headphone running has been via the Sennheiser IE800S. Material used has been FLAC, AIFF, DSD, Tidal and Qobuz.
More: Audio Formats
Before the minutiae of the behaviour of the Zen is discussed, it is worth pointing out what this DAC can do in the context of the last ten years. In 2010, DSD over USB didn’t exist in anything other than a theoretical sense and 192kHz over PCM was a big deal. In about 2015, I recall being astounded that the Chord Electronics QuteHD combined 192kHz playback and DSD for under a grand. Five years later, the iFi doubles the PCM handling and quadruples the DSD support and does so for £130. As a marker for technical progress, it is a truly emphatic demonstration of just how affordable digital sources have become.
Of course, we shouldn’t be hung up on numbers. There’s still not a significant requirement for format handling past 24/192kHz so the more important aspect is whether it sounds any good. And for the avoidance of doubt, it really does. There have been points where I have been running the iFi with the Rega Io - a combination that is a whisker over £500 - the results are genuinely excellent. The newly released Love & Peace by Seasick Steve doesn’t really break any new grounds in terms of material but it’s a well recorded and benefits from equipment that can unpick the dense, grungy performances.
Working with the Io, the Zen DAC does this brilliantly. As one of the most distinctive vocalists going, you are going to know pretty quickly if he doesn’t sound right and here he’s completely convincing. Tonally, the Zen DAC is well balanced. It’s neutral without being dull and ensures that lively material has the ‘zing’ needed to sound right but it manages to avoid tipping over into unwanted aggression, even when you provoke it with decidedly poor recordings. Partnered with any degree of care, it manages to sound consistently good regardless of whether you give it pristine Hi-Res or CD rips of victims of the loudness war.
This in itself would be impressive for £130 but the headphone amp section is more than an afterthought too. Sticking a pair of £860 earphones into the Zen DAC might seem like absolute overkill but the result is genuinely great to listen to. Some tests with both the IE800S and a pair of Audio Technica MSR7b headphones suggests that the iFi has enough power to handle devices like this on USB power and you don’t need to automatically buy the external PSU.
The same well balanced and fundamentally benign presentation is matched with linear volume that makes setting the level you want simple rather than choosing something approximating to it. iFi’s claims of low noise are more than met in reality too. Switching over to OTG operation is no less successful and - while I would say that phone battery consumption is higher than it would be via something like the Dragonfly - it would work for hours at a time if you wanted to take it with you to work offsite.
As a marker for technical progress, it is a truly emphatic demonstration of just how affordable digital sources have become
- Sounds unreasonably good for the asking price
- Well made
- Surprisingly flexible
- Single input only
- Needs an additional PSU for full headphone performance
- Some limits to portability
iFi Audio Zen DAC Review
Something that crops up in the comment threads of various reviews is the idea that a product is ‘sufficient’ and that spending any more than that is a pointless waste. Putting aside the limitations to this for one moment, it could reasonably be argued that the iFi Zen DAC is an interesting take on ‘sufficiency.’ For £130, provided you only need a USB input, this is a blindingly good piece of kit. The manner in which it performs is enough to ensure that it can be placed with electronics that cost significantly more and its performance will not be enough to ensure they deliver the sort of performance you expect. This is not a statement that nothing after this point gets better - I assure you it does - but a reflection that this is a level of performance that was unimaginable for the price even five years ago.
This isn’t some sort of abstract technical exercise either. That iFi has done this while still equipping the Zen DAC with some very useful extra features only sweetens the deal because it can be used in a surprisingly comprehensive number of ways and it feels extremely accomplished in all of them. This is a truly brilliant bit of kit that will deliver superb digital on a seriously tight budget. The iFi Zen DAC is an absolute bargain and comes Highly Recommended as a result
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