Today we are having a look at the iFi Audio ZenDAC, their new entry level DAC/Amp combo unit.
It really is amazing what you can purchase at the entry level nowadays, even compared to 5 years ago. This unit would have been unthinkable back then. The ZenDAC provides pretty much everything a beginner could ever need or want, at an MSRP of $129.99USD. Thats right. You heard me. $129.99USD. Thats crazy. 5 years ago this would have cost $500USD I would guess. It really is a testament to how far we have come as a hobby in such a short time span.
The ZenDAC provides less options than the usual iFi Audio fare, but for the asking price, that is expected. It still has everything you need as a beginner. It does have an update to iFi XBASS to what they now call TRUBASS. This provides a 6(ish) decibel boost to the low end, which is welcome on some headphones, and low and high gain settings (what iFi calls “Power Match.”) What I found really quite interesting was that the ZenDAC is a balanced piece of gear. This is unusual at this price point. Now, balanced doesn’t really matter to me, I would prefer a good single ended design over a poor balanced design, but it is something to take note of. Thankfully, iFi has gone with the 4.4mm Pentaconn sockets for both balanced headphone output and line out. This is a much better connector choice than 2.5mm jacks, which are not as durable.
Now, the ZenDAC is not the most powerful of amplifiers. The specs say 280mw at 32ohms single ended, and 380mw at 50ohms from the balanced output. With the high gain option, this will be enough for most headphones, especially as this piece of gear will likely be used by beginners, and entry level headphones tend to be easier to drive. Its not powerful enough to drive something like the HE6, but to be honest, I really don’t think that matters, its not what the ZenDAC was designed for. This is a piece of gear that will work great with something like the Drop/Sennheiser HD6XX, or similar. I mean, think of it like this. You purchase a pair of HD6XX for $200USD (or less if you buy them used) and the ZenDAC for $129.99USD, combine it with your laptop, and you are set. That is a system that would outdo a lot of more expensive set ups, especially from years past.
The ZenDAC can also be used as a system DAC in combination with an external amplifier. It has RCA outputs, as well as a 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced output. This would need a special cable to be made (4.4mm to dual 3pin XLR) for use with a balanced external amplifier, but the option is there, and that is pretty neat. You can also choose either variable output, for use with a power amplifier, or fixed, for use with a preamp or integrated amplifier.
As you can see, the ZenDAC may not have all the typical iFi features, but it has everything you need, and even some stuff you don’t. Two thumbs up.
Now, the most important question. How does it sound? Perfectly acceptable. Is it a giant killer? Of course not. But the tonal balance seems fairly neutral, and detail is certainly acceptable. You have to keep in mind, this is $129.99USD! Its not meant to be a giant killer, its meant to get you started as a first option beyond the built in output to your laptop, or as a secondary set up beside your bed. That sort of thing, and honestly? I think it excels at those jobs.
The obvious thing to compare the ZenDAC to was my iFi Audio Micro iDSD Black Label, their top of the line transportable option. As you might expect, the iDSD is more capable, in every aspect. From features, to power, to sound quality, it is better. However, the iDSD retails for $600USD. That is almost 6 times more than the ZenDAC. It is more detailed, has better timbre and tonality, but the ZenDAC isn’t as far off as you might think.
If someone had just purchased their first pair of headphones that are something beyond a gaming headset, the HD58X or HD6XX, something like that, and asked me the fabled question of “do I need an amp or DAC?” I’d say, well, listen to your headphones from your computers built in output for a while, but after that, if the itch is there, give the iFi ZenDAC a try.
The ZenDAC is not the most sonically competent piece of gear ever made, it’s not the most powerful, it’s not the most detailed, but its not designed to be. It is a simple, beginner level, $129.99USD MSRP, piece of gear, and I think it lives up to that mark very well. I would totally recommend the ZenDAC to a beginner, or someone needing an affordable back up piece of source equipment. Thank you iFi for letting me give the ZenDAC a try