Does your computer’s audio suck? Even if it isn’t terrible it could probably be better right? The iFi Zen DAC is a budget entry-level integrated DAC/Amp with MQA support and a very nice price. In this review, I’ll try to help you decide if it’s what you need for an easy and affordable upgrade for your computer-based audio system.
iFi Audio is actually a subsidiary of AMR Audio, a high-end HiFi brand that makes exquisite (and costly) DACs, Phono Stages, Line Stages, Speakers and more. iFi Audio brings the expertise and knowledge of AMR to deliver audio products that ordinary people can afford and to date, they have been very well-received by the portable audio enthusiast community.
The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.
Note: Using 5v power. If powered from USB, power output may vary.
< 1 Ω (BAL/SE)
THD & N
< 0.005% (125mW @ 32R)
> 113dBA (6.2V BAL/3.3V SE)
< 1.5W via USB power OR 5v DC (power supply not included)
160(l) x 117(w) x 35(h) mm 6.3″ x 4.6″ x 1.4″
0.8 kg (1.8 lbs)
Packaging & Accessories
The iFi Zen DAC box comes wrapped in a white cardboard sleeve. On the front of the sleeve is an image of the DAC amidst a splash of green colour. On the back of the sleeve there’s a list of specifications and on the top side is an image showing the DAC’s rear panel.
Inside the box is the iFi Zen DAC, a USB data cable, a pair of RCA cables, a 3.5mm to 6.35mm adapter and some documentation/warranty etc.
It’s a reasonable bundle but I should mention that the included USB cable is only about 50cm long which is very restrictive in regards to where you can place the DAC – it doesn’t even reach my desk when plugged into the front ports of my full-sized PC tower.
The iFi Zen DAC has a rugged aluminium chassis that feels extremely solid and hefty. From the moment you lay your hands on it, you start to get an inkling of this device’s value for money; at least in a physical sense. The main body of the Zen DAC is dark grey with a smooth matte finish while the front and rear panels are brushed aluminium.
Let’s take a look first at the front panel. On the left side of the panel are the Power Match (hi/low gain) button and the Truebass (bass boost) buttons. I love the fact that both of these buttons have their own LED to indicate when they’re turned on. Both buttons feel firm and respond with a satisfying tactile click.
Power Match is a dynamic gain setting that changes the gain depending on the amount of load coming from the headphone jack. So if you plug in a very sensitive IEM, for example, Zen DAC will lower the gain and subsequently the background noise to prevent any hiss. On the other hand, if you plug in something like a demanding planar headphone, Zen DAC will increase the gain to provide the required extra output power.
In the centre of the panel is a large volume pot with ridged edges. It has a nice, smooth action making it easy to perform accurate adjustments. Behind the knob is another LED that lights up in different colours depending on the current sample-rate being played.
On the right side of the front panel are the 6.35mm single-ended and 4.4mm balanced headphone jacks. This is a great combo because it means you can plug pretty much anything into Zen DAC although you will need adapters if your headphones have a 3.5mm or 2.5mm termination.
Going from left to right, the first thing on the rear panel is a 4.4mm balanced output. This can be used to send the signal to an external amplifier or powered monitors (Zen DAC has both fixed and variable output modes) and is a rare feature on budget DACs. Next to the 4.4mm output is a switch to select between fixed and variable line out modes. Yes, Zen DAC can also be used as a preamp.
One neat feature to note about this is that the front headphone jacks are automatically disabled when ‘Fixed’ mode is enabled. This prevents you from damaging your ears and/or headphones. Next is a pair of RCA outputs followed by the digital USB input port.
Lastly, there’s a 5V input. Although Zen DAC doesn’t come with a separate power supply, you can buy one from iFi Audio should you desire the extra stability and upgrade.
The Zen DAC features a Burr-Brown True Native® chip for bit-perfect playback. Most modern portable devices opt for AKM or ESS chips so it’s a little unusual to see the Burr-Brown here in Zen DAC. It’s fine with me though because I’ve been enamoured with the Burr-Brown sound ever since I got my Acoustic Research AR-M20 which also has a BB chip and sounds fantastic.
You won’t find any stinky low-class capacitors in this device. No, the Zen DAC has TDK C0G (Class 1 ceramic) capacitors: something you normally only see in more expensive products, much like the fully balanced circuit design found here as well.
Zen DAC supports PCM and DXD to 32-bit/384kHz, DSD256, MQA and DSD. The line output goes up to 4.2V in fixed mode from the Pentaconn 4.4mm (BAL) output. As for the headphone output, it does 330mW@32 Ohm; 6.6V@600 Ohm from the 4.4mm (BAL) output which means you should be good to go with any 16 Ohm – 600 Ohm Headphones. Not only that but the output impedance of the headphone section is just < 1 Ω (BAL/SE) so it’s fully compatible with sensitive multi-BA IEMs.
*Zen DAC was tested with Firmware 5.3c
Setup used for testing the Zen DAC
The Zen DAC was connected to a Windows 10 PC via USB. The music software used was Foobar2000 and MusicBee playing a variety of FLAC and DSD files. I also tested using some playlists on Spotify Premium.
Headphones/IEMs used for testing include the DUNU Studio SA6, Empire Ears Bravado, Hifiman Sundara and iBasso SR2. I also tried the infamous Tin Hifi P2 just for kicks. The Zen DAC drove everything with ease although, in reality, the P2 is the only one that needs a lot of power. Having said that, with Power Match enabled I didn’t need more than 50% on the volume pot to reach levels that were uncomfortably loud for my ears with the P2.
My first sound impressions when listening to Zen DAC were of an effortless, resolving but calm presentation with a hint of warmth. Of course, if you really want warmth, it’s available at the touch of a button with the Truebass feature.
Speaking of Truebass, it fattens up the low frequencies and enhances the bass but leaves the mids mostly untouched. In other words, it works really well. It’s also worth noting that there is no DSP used for the Truebass feature and the changes are all analogue.
Regardless of which IEMs or headphones I was using the Zen DAC showed nary a whisper of any background noise. Even with sensitive IEMs, the Power Match featured eliminates any hiss or audible noise floor.
One thing that really surprised me about this DAC was its soundstage. It’s wide and deep and with good headphones creates a holographic 3D image. Listening to Riverside’s “Lament”, Zen’s stage is so organized and stable I had to double-check to make sure I wasn’t listening to one of my more expensive DACs.
iFi Zen has a great sense of dynamics and a tonal balance that’s precise yet smooth. This makes it a great match for all types of headphones and music genres. It’s capable of mixing excitement with serenity and will surely help you find your personal Zen moments.
Every now and then a product comes along that makes the playing field unfair for its competition. The iFi Zen DAC is such a product as it simply stomps on its peers in terms of price to performance. Not only does it sound like a more expensive DAC/amp, but it’s also built like a tank and has genuinely useful features. The iFi Zen DAC is simply an amazing value product and if you’re looking for a desktop upgrade on a budget, this is the one to get.