iFi Audio ZenDAC - Official Thread

Does anyone have a link to a splitter for the balanced outputs on the rear?

I think this would work :slight_smile:

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Thank you!..

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Excellent review as always.

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great review! For $130, that’s a pretty great feature set, especially for the Tidal crowd who want to get the most out of MQA. I bought it to play with and ended up using it on my bedroom PC.

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I am thinking of picking one of these up for the office, mainly to use as a SS and to feed the Loxjie P20 from the balanced output.

However, it would get a fair bit of use with IEMs and I have read that it does have a bit of a noise floor.

Can any of the owners chime in as to its use with IEMs?

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I picked up the Zen DAC this weekend to try to use in the summer months why my desktop system is too hot to use.

My first impressions:

  • Seems a tad bright compared to any other system I remember using. Maybe a focus on lower treble. Bass seems punchy.
  • On some headphones, the bass boost button is nice (more on this later). Works well with Hifiman Arya.
  • Gets my headphones and iems plenty loud. That said, I find it doesnt sound super great with Arya. Makes them a tad bright and brings out a harsh upper mid-range that I have also found using these and other hifiman planars on lower powered amps.
  • There is white noise when using with sensitive IEMs. Its much more noticable on 4.4mm than on 6.35mm. I heard audible white noise on my Viento IEMs. Not a huge deal as it’s not audible during music playback.
  • Powermatch (gain) seems to add a little more noise too. More so than other amp gain stages.

Overall, seems like a stellar value at $129 for a small dac/amp combo with 4.4mm (I love this connector…)

I wish it had more I/O but for the price and coming from a well-established company, it’s a pretty good value.

Here’s what the True Bass switch does. I measured an Etymotic ER3XR before and after turning it on and subtracted the difference to make this plot. It’s measured on a RA0045 clone (IEC-60318-4) coupler.

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The iFi Zen DAC is a $129 Digital-to-Analog (DAC) converter and headphone amplifier that is bound to get some interest for entry-level audiophiles and people looking for a small unit to use at work or to take with them on the go. The small unit takes on a new look than previous industrial looking iFi small DAC/Amp setups, with a smooth round boat/pagoda look and dark blue metal finish.

The Zen DAC features a Burr Brown DAC that comes with two filter options, with the second option available through a firmware update available on iFi’s website. This GTO filter is the same used on iFi’s Pro DSD set, and is available for most iFi DAC units. The amp comes in both a single-ended 1/4 inch standard output, as well as the 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced output, which is not seen often on a desktop amp at this price. Most devices that feature this connector are either mid-to-high tier digital audio players or amplifier setups, so finding something at $129 is pretty nice!

Also on the front of the unit is a Power Match button which essentially toggles low and high gain, a True Bass function which adds a 10dB Bass Shelf starting around 300Hz, and a good sized analog volume knob. Behind the knob is an LED indicator light that tells the user which music type is being decoded.

This device can play up to 32-bit/768KHz audio formats, and supports MQA, and on-board DSD/DXD decoding.

The back of the device has only one input, USB, and can output to an external amplifier or speakers using RCA or 4.4mm balanced. There is also a 5V DC input for connecting an external power source, however I did not notice any differences using 5V power or just using my PC to power it via USB. This may come in handy if you’re using a mobile phone and it can’t self-power the Zen DAC.

Usability

The volume knob, being analog, does have a little bit of channel mismatch at the very lowest turn. This is pretty normal for an analog volume control, and this goes away at about 7 o’clock on the dial. Turning the knob is easy and works very well.

I elected to add taller feet at the bottom of the my device to give me more room to turn the volume controls and just lifting it off the table for aesthetics. The buttons have a solid click when you press them in, as does the 1/4 and 4.4mm jacks.

There is some line noise using the 4.4mm output. It’s noticeable on my multi-BA in-ear monitors which are much more sensitive than headphones. The noise is faint but still audible when no music playback is happening, but seems to disappear into the music afterward. I did not try this on ultra-sensitive IEMs like the Campfire Andromeda or Shure IEMs.

There is also much more noise when using High Gain Power Match mode. This isn’t totally uncommon with high gain mode on many amps, but I did feel that this was a little noisier than more expensive amps that exhibited some level of noise – my Schiit Jotunheim for example.

The other thing to note on noise is that I felt that turning the dial past 1 o’clock started to cause some distortion that is audible. This was backed by some measurements from Audio Science Review in which Amir’s review on this device showed some distortion starting prior to peak power.

Sound

As far as sound goes, I found that in general the Zen DAC sounded fairly netural, but with slight punchy nature to it and an emphasis on the upper mid-range and lower treble – maybe some sort of emphasis on 3-5KHz. I noticed this mostly with the Hifiman Arya and Fostex TR-X00 Ebony, however I did also try this with the ZMF Verite Open, as well as a salvo of IEMs including my Hidition Viento and Etymotic ER3XR, among others.

There is plenty of power to get even my Arya to painfully loud volumes even on low gain. I do use high gain for headphones such as the power hungry Arya but I still found it lacking some needed current to drive it to its best. It worked perfectly find for the ZMF Verite though and is way more power than I need for the Fostex X00, and my IEMs. In fact, I wish the low gain mode had less power so I can fine tune more with the volume knob. For most headphones, I am hovering on the lowest turn on the dial, which is a tad annoying to be honest.

Revised Sound Impressions

After posting my original review, LarryDog from Reddit mentioned he had better sonic impressions using an older firmware, so I went ahead, with a lot of skepticism, and downgraded from the 5.3c firmware to the 5.2 firmware available on iFi. This firmware is a universal one that works with most of the available DACs that iFi makes.

The 5.3c firmware is the latest and includes the newest GTO filter which is suppose to improve resolution and provide the most accurate sound. The 5.2 firmware is more of the traditional filter that iFi had used previously, and in my hours comparison testing between the two firmwares, I did find that the older firmware took the edge off of the sharpness I complained about in my original sound impressions. There was no longer the harsh upper mid-range that I found to be an issue with the Arya headphones, but it was replaced with a much smoother and softer presentation overall. Yes, I do think the GTO filter made a difference, as they proclaimed, reducing the decay and ringing resonance from the original filter, but I found it sharper (as intended?) and less natural.

With the change the to the 5.2 firmware, I find the sound of the Zen DAC to be improved for my tastes, even if it doesn’t measure or more accurately reproduces sound.

Wrap-Up

All in all though, I find the Zen DAC to be a great value at $129. It has some flaws and shortcomings, but it’s a stellar package at an affordable price and works well for my needs to use at the office or as secondary setup to my main system.

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made a small revision to my review above with some improvements found using an older iFi firmware.

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Did you use the Zen DAC with a 5v power supply at all or strictly USB? I know the power supply doubles the output which iFi isn’t very clear about on their Zen DAC product page itself. Makes the harder to drive planars a little more manageable but with the power supply you’re also adding an extra $49 so the package ends up being close to $200. So the value prop tends to get skewed at that point compared to a Schiit stack or JDS.

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I’m trying to figure out where the Drop Signature Zen DAC & Amp ($250 + $250 + $89 interconnect) fit in the market. The Zen products are admittedly style conscious and weird for the sake of being weird. That’s okay by me, but Drop is positioning this for big money…for a flawed entry level product with “parts upgrades” and a blue finish…?

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I use it with a normal 5V switching power adapter that I had handy. I havent noticed any difference when using it with and without it plugged in.

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iFi Zen Dac Impressions

Chain
iMac 5k -> iFi Zen Dac -> HD 6XX

I don’t have much experience all in ones (AIO) so I was doing this impressions coming from using my Asgard 3/Modius combo. I will disclose that I did not use this with MQA nor DSD, rather just Spotify with the highest quality. So my impressions could be far depending on how different this unit sounds with those file formats. I decided to almost exclusively use this with my HD 6XX as I felt that this would be the most accurate headphone that I owned that would be used with this piece of equipment so I wanted to give an impression with the end user for this product in mind.

Build Quality
This was solidly built. You could tell that it was a budget product, mainly due to its 1/4 in input. There was a bit of wobble and the buttons were slightly mushy. The volume knob pretty nice and overall was something you would expect from this price range.

Power
I found this to be a bit weak in power. I had to go high gain and pump the HD 6XX to around 12:30/1:00 o’clock on the dial. This wasn’t a huge deal but just know that this was noticeable. For more demanding cans this might be a problem, but for a lot of the headphone offerings in the price range that someone who would be buying this is at, it shouldn’t be a real problem.

Bass
I found the bass to be pretty one note. It slammed but felt like I was missing some of the detail in the bass. I found the usage of the “TrueBass” to be a weak point. It felt like it muddied up the lower mids and sounded rather boomy. I preferred it turned off personally.

Midrange
The midrange was a bit lacking in emotional impact. I found vocals to sound a bit flat, with a squared off transients. Vocals seems to sit a bit further back in the mix, but just barely so.

Treble
Treble was a bit weird. It felt a bit bright and glaring at times. There was air in the treble region, but it seemed like it was a bit artificial. I didn’t feel like it was naturally just there rather something that was superficially created. I did find the treble to be a bit grainy at times, but it wasn’t that noticeable.

Soundstage
This is where the iFi Zen Dac really fell behind for me. The Zen Dac has an okay sized stage in terms of width. I felt like I was not far outside of my ears. Where soundstage really fell was in the depth. Everything felt like it was right in between my ears. There was no depth to the stage. With the Asgard 3 I felt that the sound was coming from alittle in front of my face, but this brings that sound and places it right inside of my dome.

Dynamics
The Zen Dac felt compressed in a way. The dynamics were lacking in the sense that I didn’t feel like there was much macro nor micro dynamics. It was about what you would expect from an amp in this price range.

Imaging/Layering
Nothing really to note here. It did okay, not the greatest but not bad. I felt that it fell behind compared to the Modius in this regard.

Detail
This was pretty good with detail retrieval. It might be due to the elevated highs and slightly more air than the Asgard 3 but I did feel it did performed well in terms of detail retrieval.

Conclusion
Overall I found this to be a pretty solid offering for the price. For $130 you are getting a pretty solid DAC/Amp. While it was not as good as my Modius/Asgard 3 combo, it really is almost 1/4th of the price. I think anybody who is trying to get into this hobby and want a solid product for their headphones, this should be in the discussion with the other budget options recommended such as the Magni/Modi combo.


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great review @dncnexus.

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Some lengthy impressions with HD 600. I’ll have a full review up here shortly. Which I’ll likely replace this post with. Tho I’ll add in the well different content in another post once it’s ready

As far as how I listened… I ran USB out of my Galaxy Tab S4 with USB Audio Player Pro Bit Perfect into Zen Dac. Zen Dac it self was powered via the iFi iPower 5V and I used the 4.4mm output. For music I went through the Chesky The Ultimate Demonstration Disc in 16/44.1 lossless. I also thumbed around Tidal for a spell to make sure the MQA function worked and it did.

Rebecca Pidgeon’s Spanish Harlem & Taylor Livingston’s Grandma’s Hands were the tracks that I paid close attention to.

Bass & Lower Frequencies

6.5mm out was noticeably soft and excessively round in the lows, there’s a meaty kinda thud present with each snap in Grandma’s Hands a real “meat on the bones” kinda quick transient. With the 6.5mm output it was hard to discern the quick but impactful feeling of that SNAP… the snap it self simply had added body but no real impact.

4.4mm BAL brought it back, just the slightest but discernible tactile sensation. As if there was some one snapping there fingers a few feet from me.

With Spanish Harlem the 6.5mm out gave me a lot of the reverb in the double bass, but again I was missing some of that slight tactile string/fret action. The gentle but discernible tactile force behind the instrument, very much I felt the leading edge of each pluck was too soft. Switching into the 4.4mm BAL brought it back,

Vocals & Mid-Range

With vocals I will admit I sometimes enjoyed the softness of the 6.5mm out tho there was a noticeable lack of depth to the staging, and again the 4.4mm BAL brought it back. Just a slight but discernible sense of depth to the sound presented within the capture’d space.

The some what forward/shallow sound of the 6.5mm out did strip some of the real magic behind recordings that purposefully capture and utilize the room acoustics of the spaces there recorded in. Track #23 featuring the Westminster Choir performing Festival Te Deum is one such example.

The same can be said for the Presence Track, Ask me Now with McCoy Tyner & Joe Henderson, a lot of the faster tactile action that can be felt from the pressing of each of the valves is lost on the 6.5mm. But to my ears with the 4.4mm BAL that action’s tactility becomes ever so slightly discernible.

Concluding Thoughts

Just overall I felt the 4.4mm BAL out was a stronger performance with deeper staging and better transient or micro detail resolve. 6.5mm was a bit too soft and kind flat, not consistently engaging for my tastes.

Regarding the Line outs I did find feeding into something like the JDS Labs Atom was an improvement over the native Zen Dac 6.5mm out. However aside from having more power, I did not feel the Atom eclipsed Zen DACs 4.4mm BAL output. An for my listening needs on 4.4mm BAL I did not go much past 1:00

While I will admit the Zen Dac 4.4mm isn’t quite as detailed or resolving as even the Modius XLR into my Loxjie P20 XLR OUT [w/Upgraded Tubes GE 5670W, Upgraded iFi 12V PSU] it’s not too far behind. Tho I do feel Zen DAC 4.4mm BAL out was a step above Modi 3 & Atom as well as a step above feeding Zen DAC single ended line out into the Topping L30.

However the price as tested for me was $130+$50[iPower 5V]+$50[4.4mmCable] so a total of $220. An without getting too deep into Cable Talk I did find that there are a variety of HD 600/650 4.4mm Pentaconn cables available for around $50, for my review I did use the ZMF Atmos C re-terminated to HD 600 with an OCC Copper 4pin XLR to 4.4mm.

Still for $230 with Tidal Master Support, SE and BAL Line outs and a rather attractive and tidy form factor I’d say it’s an excellent combo unit that compared well again’st similarly priced stacks in my office.

I would be curious to see how it stacks up again’st something like Modi 3 Magni 3 as well as do some listening with the Balanced Line Out via a 4.4mm to dual 3pin XLR so hopefully I can re-visit exactly that in the future

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Great writeup. iFi it seems, is looking to conquer all sectors of the market. They have some great gear at present.

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This is a bit unfair comparison. Did you tried feeding Asgard 3 with the Zen dac and compare it to Modius instead of Asgard ? I’m curious how it performs as a dac. It’s amp seems weak but it should do the job if you are not picky.

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Maybe it is unfair but it wasn’t supposed to be a comparison to say which is better and put one down. I just used it as a reference to compare to my existing system. I did not use it as a DAC only since I felt someone buying probably would use it as an all in one.

Anyways I don’t have it anymore, was only on loan for a week.

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I feel like it’s more interesting as a dac since it’s amp weak and feels like just there for the convenience. Curious about the Zen Can though. It’s discrete class a amp just like Asgard 3. It would be perfect comparison if someone can do it.

Thanks for the nice review btw. I might try this Zen stack in the upcoming months. Seems more unique than other dacs and amps around this price point.

I have E30 and THX 789 with Ananda i find this combo lacks soul a bit for Ananda. I’m also considering Asgard 3 but i guess it’s high gain is a bit too much for Ananda. Asgard’s low gain is nothing special is my impression from reviews.

I’m trying this aio dac lately. I feel like this is obviously bright and sibilant. Bass lacks detail as well. I really like the product overall but most important part is sound and i’m not sure about it.

THX 789 was cold but wasn’t bright or sibilant. This is bright, sibilant and kind of anemic ? I’m using balanced output and ipower 5v as well.

It’s actually pretty loud product. I wonder what is the gain. High gain 12 o’clock is absolute max i can go with Ananda.

Truebass is really bad for music. It’s too much and uncontrolled. I like it for games and movies though.