iFi Audio ZEN Air CAN Review

iFi Audio ZEN Air CAN review featured

In this article, I’m looking at the iFi Audio ZEN Air CAN headphone amplifier. The ZEN Air CAN is part of iFi’s new AIR series that aims to deliver great audio quality to people on a budget. It’s priced at $99.

Disclaimer: This sample was provided by iFi Audio for an honest review. All observations and opinions here are my own, based on my experience with the product.

iFi Audio ZEN Air CAN Review
Verdict
The iFi ZEN Air CAN offers great performance and features at a low price.
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Pros
Transparent, confident sound
Loads of output power
3 distinct gain modes
xBass and xSpace features
Cons
The included USB to DC cable is too short for practical use
Polycarbonate chassis
4.5
Our Score

iFi Audio ZEN Air CAN

Design

The iFi Audio ZEN Air CAN will be recognizable to anyone familiar with iFi’s ZEN series of products. It has the same iconic shape and aesthetic that we’ve become used to and I, for one, think that’s a good thing.

However, to keep costs down, the products in the Air series have forgone the old aluminium chassis for a thermoplastic polymer (plastic) case with a textured surface. The new case might not feel as substantial in the hand as the older one but it sure looks the part.

On the front panel are (from left to right): a Power button, an output select button, a gain mode select button, the aluminium volume knob, the 6.3mm & 4.4mm outputs, and the xBass/3DSpace button. That’s a lot packed into a small space! A single press of the effects button activates xBass, two clicks enables 3DSpace, and three clicks turns on both xBass and 3DSpace simultaneously.

ZEN Air CAN rear I/O panel

On the rear I/O panel, we find a 3.5mm auxiliary input and dual RCA inputs plus the DC 5V input port.

For the uninitiated, the xBass is a bass boost and xSpace is a spatializer. Both functions are processed in the analog domain, as opposed to digital, ensuring the preservation of the highest audio fidelity.

The ZEN Air CAN can drive just about anything, including power-hungry headphones with its maximum 1200mW output power.

One criticism I have is the length of the included USB to DC Cable, which is approximately 65cm. This is too short for many situations and I imagine many people will need to buy a replacement or a USB extension cable.

Air CAN front panel

Sound

To my ears, the iFi Audio ZEN Air CAN simply takes the audio that you send to it and magnifies it. There’s no added colour or character, it just passes on the electrical information. That’s not to say it doesn’t improve the sound – if you need more output power than your source provides, the ZEN Air CAN will happily oblige.

Even if you don’t think you need more power, this headphone amp might just surprise you. There’s something to be said about a headphone amp or amplifiers in general that have a muscular, confident presentation. What I noticed with the Air CAN was that compared to the standalone iFi ZEN Air DAC, the Air CAN sounds more effortless and more assured.

This added ‘swag’ is especially noticeable with headphones like the Sennheiser HD650 but it also works for IEMs. Compared to listening straight out of the ZEN Air DAC, the Air CAN adds more dimensionality to the soundstage and more precise imaging.

Select Pairings

iFi Audio ZEN Air CAN with IO Audio Volare IEMs
I\O Audio Volare

IO Audio is a new brand that recently emerged on the ChiFi scene with its maiden release, the Volare. Turns out, the Volare is an incredible IEM and paired with the ZEN Air CAN, it moves me in a way that few other IEMs do. It’s a testament to the Volare but it also demonstrates how good the ZEN Air CAN is.

The sub-bass extension is exhilarating. It’s powerful and authoritative but doesn’t sound forced or bloated. The midrange is spacious and articulate albeit with a slightly dry tone. Treble notes are airy and linger in the air before dissipating naturally. There’s good stage depth and height.

MEZE 99 Classics

This pairing sounds superb. I sometimes forget how good the 99 Classics are (review here) but the Air CAN helped remind me in a hurry. These headphones are easy to drive so the lowest gain setting is sufficient to reach ear-bursting levels. They’re also bassy headphones so there’s no need for the xBass unless you’re a bit mad. I found that the treble sounded a little thin with xSpace on, so the default setting worked best here.

Sennheiser HD650

The Sennheiser HD650 (review here) presented more of a challenge regarding driving power but the ZEN Air CAN handled it with ease. I found the medium gain setting to be the sweet spot with loads of power on tap and plenty more in reserve.

With this combo, the bass is tight and controlled with great layering and depth. The midrange is lush but open with an inviting tone. The treble is laid-back, slightly warm yet detailed and airy. The soundstage is expansive but has good density and stable boundaries.

The potentiometer and headphone jacks

Verdict

The iFi Audio ZEN Air CAN is the second model I’ve tested from the ‘Air’ series and I’m just as impressed by it as I was with the ZEN Air DAC. It’s got loads of output power, 3 different gain settings plus the added versatility of the xBass and xSpace features. Considering its capabilities and low price, it’s no surprise that it gets my recommendation and the Prime Audio Reviews gold award.

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