iFi audio ZEN DAC - The Official Thread

Discussion in 'Product Announcements' started by iFi audio, Feb 18, 2020.

  1. iFi audio

    iFi audio MOT iFi Audio

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    Be at one with your music with ZEN DAC

    Highly specified, super-affordable and simple to use, iFi’s ZEN DAC elevates your digital audio experience to a higher plane

    Southport, England – Hot on the heels of the ZEN Blue hi-res Bluetooth streamer, iFi expands the ZEN family of desktop-sized audio products with the ZEN DAC – a USB DAC/headphone amp offering a level of specification and performance that belies its eminently affordable £129 price tag.

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    Designed for home use – on a desk, perhaps, or in the living room – the ZEN DAC connects to PCs and Macs, or smart devices such as tablets or phones, via USB. Its hi-res digital-to-analogue conversation technology processes all forms of digital audio to a super-high standard, while the integrated analogue headphone amplifier delivers superb sound with all headphone types, from in-ear monitors to larger on- and over-ear designs.

    Compared to simply plugging headphones directly into a computer or smart device, the ZEN DAC transforms the listening experience – sound is clearer, more detailed, more expansive and engaging, making the most of whichever headphones are connected.

    As well as driving headphones, the ZEN DAC can be used as a USB DAC in a home audio system, with or without its volume control engaged. What’s more, whether you’re hooking up headphones, an external amp or active speakers, you have a choice of single-ended or balanced connection – a remarkable facility at the price.

    Digital stage

    The DAC section is based around a Burr-Brown DAC chip that iFi uses extensively, selected for its fluid, highly ‘musical’ sound quality and ‘True Native’ architecture. This, together with the XMOS chip used for input processing, enables iFi to deliver excellent sound quality across all manner of digital audio formats including hi-res PCM, ‘bit-perfect’ DSD and MQA *– the hi-res streaming codec, as used by Tidal’s ‘Masters’ tier. Given the diminutive asking price, the ZEN DAC’s digital audio credentials are highly impressive.

    PCM and DXD audio data is supported up to 24-bit/384kHz, alongside DSD sampling rates from 2.8MHz to 12.4MHz (DSD256). Thanks to the Burr-Brown chip’s True Native design, PCM and DSD take separate pathways – this enables DSD to remain ‘bit-perfect’ in its native form, right through to analogue conversion. Many DACs that claim DSD compatibility accept DSD data but then convert it to PCM; for DSD purists, the ZEN DAC is a fantastic affordable solution.

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    Another circuit feature that separates this and other DACs made by iFi from competing designs is iFi’s in-house programming of the XMOS chip. While other manufacturers simply use the firmware that comes with the chip off-the-shelf, which is not typically optimised for audiophile-grade sound, iFi programs its own bespoke firmware to boost audio processing power.

    iFi’s continuous software development allows features to be added or optimised via firmware updates, enabling the ZEN DAC to be tailored to the user’s playback priorities and ensuring it stays cutting-edge over time. Users can even download and install different versions of iFi firmware to experiment with different digital filters should they so desire.

    Extensive clock-locking is used throughout the digital stage to eradicate jitter, maintaining the integrity of the digital signal until conversion.

    Analogue stage

    The ZEN DAC’s analogue stage is a balanced design – highly unusual in a DAC/headphone amp anywhere near this price point. It incorporates a range of high-quality circuit components, carefully selected for their performance in an audio context, including C0G capacitors from TDK, a precision low-noise power supply IC from Texas Instruments and a high-quality analogue volume pot.

    The headphone amp stage has switchable gain, which iFi terms PowerMatch. This matches the level of drive to the load presented by the headphones, by adjusting input sensitivity and thereby signal strength. With high-sensitivity headphone types such as in-ear monitors, leave PowerMatch at its lower setting for ultra-low-noise performance. But if your headphones require more drive – most on/over-ear types, for example – press the PowerMatch button on the front panel to increase gain.

    TrueBass is another user-selectable feature. An evolution of iFi’s established XBass circuit, TrueBass is a sophisticated form of ‘bass boost’ that subtly enhances low frequencies without muddying the midrange – particularly useful with earphones and open-back headphones that may lack deep bass. It operates entirely in the analogue domain rather than messing with the digital signal via DSP and may be switched in or out via another button on the front panel.

    Well connected

    The ZEN DAC sports Pentaconn 4.4mm balanced outputs, both front and back – this is a relatively new interface type, designed to enable balanced signal transfer between compact products that cannot accommodate traditional XLR connections. The front-mounted 4.4mm output sits alongside a standard, single-ended 6.3mm headphone socket – thus, the benefits of balanced headphone designs are fully utilised, whilst also accommodating every type of headphone, both balanced and single-ended.

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    The 4.4mm output to the rear enables connection to amps and active speakers equipped with a balanced input – either a Pentaconn 4.4mm input, or XLR inputs via a 4.4mm-to-XLR cable. Single-ended RCA outputs are also provided.

    These line-level outputs – both balanced and single-ended – can be switched between ‘variable’ and ‘fixed’, enhancing the ZEN DAC’s versatility. The variable setting applies volume control to the audio signal, enabling the ZEN DAC to perform as a preamp feeding a power amp or active speakers. The fixed option bypasses the volume control, fixing the output at 4.2V (balanced) or 2.1V (single-ended) for connection to an external preamp or integrated amp.

    The ZEN DAC’s asynchronous USB Type B input supports the ‘SuperSpeed’ USB 3.0 standard and is also compatible with USB 2.0.

    In common with other ZEN Series products, the ZEN DAC sports a sturdy, smartly finished aluminium enclosure, neatly sized at 158x35x100mm (WxHxD). Even the rotary volume control is aluminium, giving a reassuringly solid feel – impressive at the product’s super-affordable price. Behind the volume control resides an LED that changes colour to indicate the sampling rate of the audio data received.

    The iFi ZEN DAC is available from mid-October, at an RRP of £129. Further ZEN Series products are set to follow in the coming months.
     
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  2. iFi audio

    iFi audio MOT iFi Audio

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    $100 vs $400 vs $1000 DAC AMP Showdown and Comparison? Yup! HERE:

     
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  3. ufospls2

    ufospls2 Friend

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    Hi Guys,

    Today we are having a look at the iFi Audio ZenDAC, their new entry level DAC/Amp combo unit.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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
     
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  4. iFi audio

    iFi audio MOT iFi Audio

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    Thanks! Great stuff!
     

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