RMAF 2019 Part Three: iFi Audio and Tom Christiansen

iFi Audio has been busy cooking up several new lines of product this year. At RMAF this year they were showing a soon to be released set of products dubbed the ‘Zen’ line. The Zen series is set for an October release date and includes two products; the ZenBlue and ZenDAC.

The ZenBlue will be priced at $130 USD and acts as a Bluetooth receiver with LDAC and aptX functionality built-in. It also has Toslink optical and Coaxial S/PDIF input and Analogue RCA outputs, takes a 5V wall adapter input and uses ESS Sabre 9023 DAC chips. The ZenDAC will retail for $150 USD and skips the Bluetooth functionality in favor of USB input and bus power. It has a ¼-inch headphone output, 4.4mm pentacon balanced output, switchable gain and supports MQA, high-sample Rate PCM and DSD up to DSD256. It also has an updated and refined version of iFi’s Xbass technology dubbed ‘TrueBass,’ and uses an ESS Sabre chip as well, though it wasn’t clear to me if it was the same 9023 as the ZenBlue or a different chipset.

The headphone output on the ZenDAC has about 300mw of specified output power, so I was cautiously skeptical when presented with a table full of HIFIMAN and Audeze headphones, which are notorious for liking lots of power. I can’t say the ZenDAC drove them majestically, but I was quite pleasantly surprised by the sound I got from the table’s supplied HE-1000SE. With the Truebass off, it was decent, if a bit anemic and shouty sounding. With Truebass on however, there was just enough drive and added warmth to actually make for a very pleasant experience. The TrueBass seemed a lot more natural sounding and seemed to induce much less coloration and phase-shift-like sound into the presentation than the older XBass, both from my recollections and from the iDSD unit at the table. I actually preferred many headphones on the ZenDAC with TrueBass on rather than off, as it seemed to make up more bass energy than I would have expected on the otherwise modestly-powered ZenDAC.

The bass didn’t just seem higher in level, it seemed smoother, more punchy and more textured. It was still slightly less natural sounding, but much better than the XBass in this regard. Again, at least as far as I could tell in show conditions. Very nice prices for really petite and decent sounding desktop units. Definitely a good listen for the beginner hobbyist or even an experienced head-fier looking for an easy work system or cheap portable rig.

Tom Christiansen was up next, showing with Redscape Audio, whose headtracker I reviewed a while back. I almost missed this little gem, but stopped by on a whim to say hi to Ryan Redetzke of Redscape, and noticed the little black amplifiers on the table. Tom Christiansen has made a bit of a name for himself in the DIY scene in the last few years, and has finally gone ‘pro’ with his amps. Though the name is probably the most copied in headphone electronics – it’s called the HPA-1 – they’re made entirely in Canada. Release date is mid-November 2019 and the pre-order price is $549 USD, while the regular price will be $699 USD.

Features are simple; a set of XLR and RCA inputs, and a single ¼ inch output and gain and input switching on the front. I took a listen, both with the Redscape software on and off. After reviewing and using the Redscape software for several months, I felt pretty comfortable with it’s own unique sound and listening ‘past’ it, and I must say, these amps really sounded great to me. They were clean and pure sounding without being sterile at all, and the soundstage was wide, deep and supremely natural sounding. I’m for sure going to be seeing if I can get my hands on one for review, because at this price point, what I was hearing was seriously competitive. Give these a listen if you happen to stumble on them in the wild – I was quite intrigued and nearly missed them due to the deceptively simple and small chassis.

That’s all for this part – coming up next, more fun with IEMs.

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