Drop x iFi ZEN DAC Signature Review and Measurements

Discussion in 'Digital: DACs, USB converters, decrapifiers' started by purr1n, Jul 20, 2020.

  1. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    This is the companion unit to the iFi ZEN CAN. I'm going to ship this to @ChaChaRealSmooth to get his take on it because he's heard the regular iFi ZEN DAC/amp AIO. From the sounds of it, it seems like the Signature is a more grown up version. The Drop x ZEN DAC Signature is a DAC only.

    There's only one day left on Drop to buy this as it's an exclusive to Drop: https://drop.com/buy/ifi-audio-zen-dac-signature-drop-exclusive

    IMG_20200720_200136.jpg

    Overall the sound is warm and a touch on the polite and forgiving side in the overall universe of DACs, cheap or expensive, that I have heard throughout the years. The ZEN DAC Signature is a still delta-sigma DAC, but iFi seems to go for a house sound that doesn't shear your ears of with digititus. The highs are plenty natural or as natural as can be. I'm assuming iFi is still going with the BB PCM179x series chips for this listenable quality. These chips are a bit dated. They are not the last word in microdetail compared to today's latest and greatest AKM or ESS parts. However, they don't suffer from the dreaded VELVET SOUND that every other person seems to dislike around here, or the still slightly unnatural highs of the ESS. The ZEN DAC Signature actually reminds me of iFi Nano BL's DAC section except livelier, more energetic, more balls. The Nano BL is reviewed here: https://www.superbestaudiofriends.o...ds-el-dac-ifi-nano-bl.6313/page-2#post-208350

    Getting back to comparison with good AKM4493 implementations, for example the Modius, the iFi ZEN has tighter lows, more articulate transients. The Modius's bass sounds blurrier and less focused, although it's low note pitch differentiation seems to be better at times. (I play fretless bass, so I tend to pick out this pitch differentiation thing). The highs of the ZEN DAC Signature are less sharp and prickly. The soundstage is more compact all around, but also less diffuse. Modius has that power in the low and sub bass. ZEN DAC Sig is warm, punchy, and a bit more full bodied. In all, the ZEN DAC Sig, even more the unbalanced outputs, seems to be on par with the Modius using it's balanced outputs. Ultimately, they are on the same level, but different. What goes best will likely to be a matter of synergy with the other components in the chain and personal preferences. Note that I have no idea how the balanced outputs on the ZEN DAC Signature sound like because I did not have the requisite cable in time. All listening and measurements were done with the wall wart plugged in. The DAC will work with only USB power however.

    One thing that I know folks will ask: is there a BitPerfect switch? Unfortunately there isn't. I liked the BitPerfect mode on all of the iFi gear that's fallen into my hands. However, if I had to say, the tuning sounds like it's somewhere between the linear phase and BitPerfect modes. I think that's a good compromise that will please either camp.

    If there is any downside: lack of SPDIF input. I know there's a big Raspberry Pi + SPDIF / AES out contingent here. There is only one digital input via USB. BTW, no driver issues with Windows 10. Didn't even need to install a driver. The ZEN DAC Signature has both unbalanced and balanced outputs. The volume knob at the front allows for attenuation of the signal when the switch on the back it set to variable. This could be useful for IEMs which are too sensitive, assuming that your amp is of sufficiently low noise. Volume knob with variable output also works dandy if you have powered monitors.

    IMG_20200720_220432.jpg

    Measurements forthcoming.
     
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2020
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  2. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Take a with grain of sand. I did the best that I could going back and forth in a more limited time than usual. Note the differences are much smaller in reality than the plot would suggest. Even smaller when level matched double-blind test is administered (typically anything with 0.5 points could not be reliably discernible).

    upload_2020-7-20_20-52-44.png

    upload_2020-7-20_20-50-56.png

    Note that headstage differences are easily discernible, even possible with a quick AB. Even moreso if soundstage (from speakers).
     
  3. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    1kHz steady state sine at -90dbFS (1-bit more than limit of CD quality)
    upload_2020-7-20_21-2-17.png

    There's a little bit of AC mains here, but it's about 4db below what CD quality can resolve. Otherwise clean. These results are with the unbalanced output. There is a strong possibility that the AC mains could be significantly lower or even null from the balanced outputs.

    Also note that my USB tests, where the generator is from another PC, can sometimes be infected with mains noise. So take the AC mains noise with a grain of salt. I will investigate later when I get a chance. Heck, I've seen differences based on what outlet on the power strip the device is plugged in!

    7/23/2020 UPDATE: All of the 60Hz and harmonics related noise is related to a ground loop. Read here: https://www.superbestaudiofriends.o...view-and-measurements.9608/page-2#post-310232

    1kHz steady state sine at -60dbFS
    upload_2020-7-20_21-7-7.png

    1kHz steady state sine at -10dbFS
    upload_2020-7-20_21-8-39.png

    1kHz steady state sine at -1dbFS (didn't do 0dbFS because of Windows DirectSound stack)
    upload_2020-7-20_21-10-21.png

    In theory, too low to be audible and below limits of CD playback. The distortion pattern looks like. Classic successive lower distortion with each harmonic. See here for ramblings: https://www.superbestaudiofriends.o...hd-n-or-why-both-tell-us-almost-nothing.9544/
     
    Last edited: Jul 23, 2020
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  4. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Multitone measurement
    upload_2020-7-20_21-30-5.png

    50Hz + 7000Hz
    upload_2020-7-20_21-32-44.png

    600Hz + 1700Hz
    upload_2020-7-20_21-35-22.png

    Little bit more IMD on the R channel. All of this "distortion" is well below CD quality.
     
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  5. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    HF rolloff 44.1kHz
    White noise 16384 window size 32 average
    upload_2020-7-20_21-46-25.png

    Impulse response
    upload_2020-7-20_21-51-23.png

    Looks like linear phase filter with steep slope. This is good.
     
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2020
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  6. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    12kHz at 48kHz sampling
    upload_2020-7-20_21-58-36.png
     
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  7. JellyRhino

    JellyRhino Acquaintance

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    Is it too dark for HD650s + Asgard 3? How does the USB compare to Unison? The lack of digititus is interesting compared to SE Modius, but then there's the loss of low level info. Oh well... it's probably a sidegrade, so I guess I shouldn't care and start saving for Bitfrost 2 or wait for a new cheap Schiit multibit DAC with Unison.
     
  8. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Not too dark with HD650s, but with Asgard 3, may be too warm / dark. I evaluated this DAC with my 45 Studio amp (SET with a tiny bit of feedback), which is neutral in the overall scheme of things and HD650 was fine with this and many other DACs. Something like Clear or Elex would be a good match as well. I really liked the Verum (cough) with the DAC.

    I felt it could have been a good match with the Drop x iFi ZEN CAN HD6XX, but can't be totally sure because I couldn't turn off the HD6XX EQ mode off on the amp. That they would gel well together makes sense though.
     
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  9. Vtory

    Vtory Illogical Spock

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    Very well shaped D2 and D3.
    Might be a great alternative to bifrost 2 if one is on the much tighter budget or want something in the DS world. Modius (bal out) feels like kinda different direction.

    @ChaChaRealSmooth Count me in when you collect loaner tour participants! (but want some 4.4mm to xlr interconnect included... staring at @iFi audio )
     
  10. RedFuneral

    RedFuneral Facebook Friend

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    Is there anyone whose heard both the signature & the original zen DAC? I'm liking what I'm reading about this but I personally can't rationalize buying a premium version of something when there's a standard version that shoots for the same sound profile & is likely to perform just slightly worse. It's hard to make a purchase decision without knowing the width of the gap between the Zen & Zen signature.
     
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  11. iFi audio

    iFi audio MOT iFi Audio

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    Great work @purr1n, thanks. So, should I assume that you like it :) ?
     
  12. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Yes, ZEN DAC Signature is definitely recommended for people looking for a USB solution. It worked on Windows 10 without a hitch. The approach is a more listenable DAC rather than an analytical DAC. I bet it could fool people into thinking it's a modern implementation of R2R if they listened to it blind. (It's my understanding the D to A parts used are a hybrid with a R2R for parts of the bits). A touch on the polite side and warm side, but not overly so (I would not like it if it were). The product is priced appropriately (which is high praise around here since we can be so stingy).

    I would have liked to see an option for a 4.4mm balanced to XLR breakout cable, but I'm sure something like this would be available from third parties.

    This is a good time in audio. There have recently been a few small form factor DACs priced under $300 that can compete with DACs that were priced from $800-$1200 five or six years ago. This is one of them. (Note there are still many inexpensive DACs which are not competitive). It obvious some ears were put into the design of this DAC, not just an engineer looking at dScope and AP analyzers all day.
     
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2020
  13. zerodeefex

    zerodeefex Grumpiest admin

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    Wait, wait, wait. What asshole said they should be selling a balanced interconnect for $90? That's no good. And why not use a normal balanced connector if you have a powered amp that will sit on your desk? OR, offer other cable options! OR, include an adapter in the box and raise the price slightly so... most people with amps that don't have that terrible EQ can use the balanced output.

    It's like there was no one at Drop who could find their ass with both hands and a map involved. Or, like, a product manager who even tried out the products and cared about the product space.

    Also, this number is just sad:

    womp_womp.jpg
     
  14. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    It's a small form factor DAC, not much real-estate, so I understand the 4.4mm Sony spec. However, an included breakout cable for convenience to connect to powered monitors (that usually accept XLR), for example the JBLs that Drop carried a while back, may have been the "little thing"* that moved this DAC. I'm bummed that more haven't sold. It's just a tough environment right now, with COVID, and also lots of competition, including lots of excellent measuring but meh sounding generic China brands.

    My sense is that the sound of this DAC would have been a great match with the JBL LSR series monitors. The slight brightness of the JBLs would have been toned down, and the punchiness would have been compounded. The volume knob on the front is sweet and would have been dandy for self powered monitors, eliminating the need for a separate volume control or preamp.

    *Someone also mentioned BitPerfect mode in another thread, that could have been another iFi "little thing" that got peeps super excited. These things are like a scale, just need a bit to flip it. Just need that touch. Optimus Prime is gone and a Rodimus to step up.

     
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2020
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  15. zerodeefex

    zerodeefex Grumpiest admin

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    I think it goes back to Drop clearly not having anyone thinking about their product assortment strategically and how it all fits together. It's a string of meaningless collabs with no rhyme or reason. Can anyone here tell me what the Drop brand means or stands for? What are your expectations if you buy something with their name brazenly emblazoned on the front with a mish-mash of fonts and styles like some typographer's nightmare? I can't for the life of me point to a single brand value for Drop anymore. At this point, I'd trade their entire marketing org for a single, solid product leader.

    A really wonderful mentor of mine once told me that your product and assortment will oftentimes be defined more by what you choose NOT to do than what you choose to do. I see a successful product manager/leader's role as being ruthless with the "no"s. It's easy to throw spaghetti against the wall but the best know that balancing compromises makes for something special. I can almost guarantee that a well understood set of audio products that made sense in the context of each other would do way better than the absolute mish-mash of brands, products and strategy that represent Drop's audio assortment. They went from a really focused set of products with their name on it to becoming the homer car of audio.

    I mean, hell, I bet if you ask @schiit, they could point to 100 random things they chose not to bring to market for each product they've launched. The process for Drop was clearly outlined by a marketer rather than a product person:
    1. Log onto reddit and popular forums, blogs, etc
    2. Look at popular brands and FoTM
    3. Hit up the popular brands, see who agrees to your margin terms + brand requirements and launch whatever the fuck you can
    I suspect they're taking the wrong lessons from Supreme and hype culture. At least when you buy Supreme collabs, you can generally mix and match. Here, there is tons of bullshit hype with influencers like Z reviews but no one has asked "does this all make sense when I look at it together?" Whoever is still at Drop needs to stop asking "can we do it?" and start asking "should we do it?"
     
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  16. murphythecat

    murphythecat Friend

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    anyone know the difference between the zen drop vs the "normal" zen dac?
     
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  17. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    @ChaChaRealSmooth has the normal Zen DAC. I will be sending this to him very soon for comparison. Need to get a few packages together. So far from impressions, it seems the DACs are quite a bit different.
     
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  18. rtaylor76

    rtaylor76 Can't wipe his tag

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    I think the nature of the Drop brand is they let the true market segment of that particular thing decide what they sell or not. Remember, they are more a retail store, not a manufacturer. However, it a more specialized store that you can only get certain things from them.

    I think they play off the group buy-in or crowdfunding and piggybacking off of things like Go Fund Me and Groupon. In this sense, they to have to sell and hype and FoTM stuffs. The thing becomes hype train and then it is almost gone out of existence a year or two later. Look at the MCTH. SO much hype around that thing and I hardly hear anything about it anymore.

    I don't quite agree with their marketing or their sales approach. I hated when I worked at Gibson and would see Les Pauls and acoustic guitars that were only for Musician's Friend or Guitar Center. It meant the other mom and pop stores could not get that exclusive deal. But Drop's from their standpoint, they get to carry less inventory and sell deep only a few products at a time instead of having a wide variety of products in a certain category. And with their success of the BS hype and people like Z Reviews (because people actually watch, listen, and buy what that dude talks about unfortunately), and they get to try something and kind of experiment.

    I agree with you on the putting their name on the product. Kind of unnecessary and ugly. Drop started as one of these new and fresh companies like Groupon and we'll see how long they can keep up with this FoTM thing going, because next month it will be something else. And really, I think other retail stores do this too, just in a way that is not so obvious.
     
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  19. DEATHxMACHINE

    DEATHxMACHINE Friend

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    @zerodeefex That is exactly what I thought a couple years ago when they released 5 headphones in the $150 to $200 range (Fostex tr50p, 6xx, 58x, hifiman 4xx and something else not) in the same year. Was wondering if anyone asked if they should instead of can. Sometimes I think they create competition with themselves. Why should a Drop member buy this dac over their Sdacs (SE and balanced).

    They also need to do a better job explaining the difference between the normal Zen. People are wondering what $120 gets you other than blue housing, Drop labelled and no amp.
     
  20. fraggler

    fraggler A Happy & Busy Life

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    This might be an odd question but does it look like the logos and branding would be removable without damaging the anodized faceplate?
     
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