iFi ZenDAC Review

iFi’s recently released Zen line includes two products – the ZenBlue, a Bluetooth receiver and amp, and the unit on review; the ZenDAC, which is an integrated DAC/Amp.

iFi has a solid track record when it comes to all-in-one portables and desktop units, so the Zen series isn’t exactly out of their wheelhouse.

The ZenDAC falls into a category I think of as ‘transportable,’ not truly portable since there’s no battery, but small enough and capable of being powered via USB so that they can easily be taken on the go without much fuss. For the traveller or 9-5 worker who doesn’t have the need for a pocket-friendly headamp, but would like something small enough to toss into a backpack for use at the office or coffee-shop stakeouts, this ‘transportable’ form factor is the perfect balance of function and quality.

The ZenDAC arrived in iFi’s standard packaging – a white sleeve over white cardboard. Inside the box, accessories were surprisingly sparse; a pair of RCA cables and a USB 3.0 cable. Although the unit can be powered off 5VDC power, an adapter is not included in the box, and the ZenDAC ran fine via USB-bus power on every computer I had on hand, including a Chromebook, Intel NUC, and a beefy gaming laptop. That’s it for accessories, like I said, barebones. But for the very reasonable price it seems to point towards most of the bill of materials being spent on the unit proper, which is always a good thing in my book.

Speaking of the unit itself, it’s a very simple affair, grey brushed metal that feels solid in the hand like most iFi products. The front panel has two buttons, one labelled ‘Power Match’ and another labelled ‘TrueBass.’ To the right of those is the prominent volume knob, and two headphone jacks. The first is a single-ended 6.3mm jack, and other is a Pentaconn 4.4mm jack for balanced operation, which iFi claims is truly balanced, not simply a balanced jack tied to a single ended circuit.

On the back are the aforementioned 5V DC power socket and USB 3.0 input, as well as a pair of RCA outputs and 4.4mm Pentacon output which can be switched between fixed and variable modes, allowing it to function as a handy little preamp in both single-ended and balanced systems. I’m not aware of any powered speakers or amps that take Pentaconn 4.4mm connections yet, so you’d have to use a 4.4mm to xlr adapter for most truly balanced systems, but it’s still nice to have the option in such a small and inexpensive unit.

Design and specs wise, the $130 USD ZenDAC is loaded to the brim, as is usual with iFi. PCM rates up to 32-bit/384kHz, DSD up to 12.4Mhz and 384Khz DXD are supported, and there is also native MQA support. The DAC is an unspecified Burr Brown chip, although several of the iFi DACs use Burr Brown chips so I suspect the DAC is similar to the chips in other iFi units around the same price. Output power is about 280mW into 32 Ohms and 380mW into 50 Ohms balanced.

While that might sound relatively modest compared to smaller desktop amps which now routinely offer several full watts of power, there’s been a bit of confusion about what exactly the result of that is. More power does not determine a system’s volume - that is in fact determined by gain. A lower powered amp will actually sound louder than a higher powered one if it has more gain at a given input. Power is more important in determining what the maximum current or voltage a device can swing into a transducer when hit with musical peaks as well as how loud waveforms are. So, think of power as being a rough indicator of how dynamic a system can be, and gain as determining its relative loudness when listening. I’m grossly oversimplifying and all the electrical engineers are squirming, but I think you get the point.

I mention this because despite what appear to be relatively low power numbers, iFi has rather mysteriously decided to leave out what the gain settings on the ZenDAC are. Instead opting for the rather vague ‘power match,’ terminology. Not a huge fan, but I suppose for those of us who don’t speak tech-geek it might be less confusing, though the website copy directly mentions that this is a gain switch, so I’m just a bit puzzled by the whole distinction, primarily because the two gains on this device seem extremely widely-variable. iFi claims, and I indeed found this was the case, that very sensitive IEMs or inefficient headphones can both be used noise-free with the ZenDAC. I didn’t have anything as sensitive as a Shure IEM, but I did indeed find a generally noise-free listening experience with IEMs. The surprising corollary to this is that the ZenDACs high gain mode seems capable of running headphones that would otherwise far outstrip what you might expect based on its power rating. I was able to get decent listening levels from very hard to drive planar magnetics, including a pair of HifiMan headphones.

Now, the sound was not necessarily as full or controlled in the bass regions as I would have liked, so its not a replacement for a truly powerful headamp for hungry headphones like that. However, the TrueBass switch, which to my ears has changed a little every iteration – usually for the better – makes an interesting addition. The result of pumping the gain way up and compensating for bass in the analog circuit, means you can almost fool yourself into hearing the ZenDAC as far more capable than the specs would otherwise lead you to believe. The circuit still struggles with truly hard-to-drive headphones and won’t do justice to something like an HE-6, but is surprisingly robust at creating the impression of a more powerful unit.

I tend to lean towards the purist side with regard to playback devices like this, but I do think that at the price, iFi has fairly tastefully executed these additional features. The effect isn’t perfect, but especially if you’re on a budget, this is a more flexible unit than you’d typically get for the money.

So, how does it sound?

Well, overall it’s quite pleasant, it has the slight warmth across the frequency range that is part of what I hear now as the ‘house sound’ of iFi’s lineup. I find it cleaner sounding than what I recall of the larger Black Label units, but it still has a slight soft punchiness to the bass that reminds me a bit of a ‘Class A’ richness. The mids and treble are pretty clear and clean, though treble may be just a tad laid back from truly neutral, though of course this will be headphone dependent. I find it has a bit more presence and is a bit brighter than some of iFi’s portable units, but overall works great with a wide variety of headphones, and didn’t worsen bright headphones, nor did it make warm headphones sound dull.

The TrueBass switch seems to muddy up the low mids less than in previous iterations, though take that with a grain of salt as I don’t have any other units to directly compare against. My perception was that TrueBass was much closer to the very subtle kind of sub-bass shelving I prefer when implementing bass boosts. Detail remains good in the midrange and treble even when the circuit is active – regardless of gain. Speaking of gain, the power match functionality, though not specific about the exact gain levels, seemed very well implemented, and no matter what transducers I threw at it, just seemed happy powering them noise-free and without much issue. Sometimes wide swings in gain can cause noise issues, but in this case, however iFi has set the different gain levels, there was never a hitch when plugging new gear into the unit.

As a DAC the unit is straightforward, and has what I think of as the ‘iFi/Burr Brown’ house sound, a slight warmth that trades off some dynamics and details for an always smooth and fatigue-free listen. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, especially if you’re a detail-hound, but it’s great for putting some tunes on in the background and sitting down to work for a while.

All-in-all this is a solid unit with a strong value proposition. If you’re a fan of iFi’s house sound, or just want a simple, fatigue-free listen at your workplace or coffee-shop, the ZenDAC is a good option to investigate. It won’t break the bank, and gives plenty of options for running just about anything near its price range.

  • Input Formats: DAC – USB3.0 B Socket (USB2.0 compatible) 44.1/48/88.2/96/176.4/192/384kHz PCM. DSD 2.8/3.1/5.6/6.2/11.2/12.4MHz. 353/384KHz DXD. Bit-Perfect DSD & DXD DAC by Burr-Brown.
  • Line Section Output: SNR DNR THD+N
  • Headphone Section: Output – Output Power, Output Impedance THD & N
  • Power consumption: Audio RCA (UnBAL) — 2.1V fixed
1V / 3.3V max. (variable) 4.4mm Pentaconn (BAL) — 4.2V fixed 2V / 6.2V max. (variable)
  • <= 100 Ohm (UnBAL) <= 200 Ohm (BAL) < -116dB(A) @ 0dBFS (UnBAL/BAL) > 116dB(A) @ -60dBFS (UnBAL/BAL) < 0.0015% @ 0dBFS (UnBAL/BAL)
  • < 1 Ω (UnBAL/BAL)
  • < 0.005% (125mW @ 32R)
  • > 113dBA (3.3V UnBAL / 6.2V BAL)
  • < 1.5W via USB power OR 5v DC (power supply not included)

COMPANY INFO
iFi Audio

COMMENTS
Simply Nobody's picture

May be a better value for the money than AQ DragonFly Red or Cobalt? :-) ..........

Simply Nobody's picture

Another contender in this price range is Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 DAC/headphone amp, $399 (reviewed by Stereophile) :-) .........

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