iFi ZEN Phono Review

Discussion in 'Vinyl Nutjob World: Turntable and Related Gear' started by purr1n, Oct 2, 2020.

  1. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    I'll post measurements over the weekend, but will start with subjective impressions and usability notes. In a nutshell, if I had an entry-level phono setup, I would immediately buy this over anything else on the market for less than $800, heck make that $1500 even. The fact is, the vinyl-nutjob world has been dominated by the www.orfas.org for far too long. Basically, anything below $1500-$2000 for a phonostage from well established brands will be a severely nerfed product. I like what Schiit has done with the Mani, but let's face it, the OG Mani wasn't well regarded. The second version was incrementally better, but it was more like, just buy this because there really isn't anything better unless you spend more or don't want to DIY your own power supply for the TC-750.

    With the ZEN Phono, the "nothing better until we spend much more" argument is still valid, but there's also buy this because it's actually very very good. To be honest, the $149 price is absolutely shocking. With iFi, I would expect $399. But heck, let's see iFi bring it on for the masses. I hope iFi sells thousands and thousands of these.

    I didn't bring out any of my major testbeds. We just swapped the TV and audio rooms, so things are still a mess. I still need to wire up the audio stuff back together. The VPI TNT 3 is gathering dust in the garage right now until I set up that room again (if it wasn't 101F degrees outside). Besides, a budget table would be more likely the use case for something like this. The Schiit Sol table, although a PIA because it's so finicky, meets the requirements. Having two arms, one with an MM and another with an MC cart will also give us a fuller picture of the ZEN Phono's capabilities. Somehow I had originally thought that the ZEN Phono was MM only. MC carts are supported too.

    DSC01045-1.jpg

    Here is the back of the ZEN Phono. Pretty straightforward, a ground lug, RCA inputs, outputs, a four position switch (MM and x3 MC at different gains), and get this, a balanced output? WTH? Balanced output for $149. That's insane. The downside of course is the requirement to have a 4.4mm TRRRRS to dual XLR adapter. Fortunately, I was able to snag one from Amazon for $30. Looks like these are becoming more and more available now. I usually expect iFi to provide a plethora of cables and sundry accessories, but hey for $149, I ain't complaining.

    DSC01306-1.jpg
     
  2. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    In terms of sound, in the overall scheme of things averaged out, I'd say that the MC output is full-bodied and very slightly forward energetic which reminds of of the voicing of the ZEN Signature DAC (it depends upon the loading, but more on this later). The MM is on the neutral or maybe leaner side. Note that I used the Denon DL-103 and the Shure M95HE carts respectively for MC and MM. I think this is a good approach. Nevermind that the Shure cart is already on the warm and full-bodied side, but lower cost tables will tend to sound warmer with a bit of bloat on the low end, therefore the MM circuit's voicing could be ideal. I also didn't feel either the MC or the MC circuit to be neutered over the other. For example, the F-117 Nighthawk and Mani phonostages perform better with MC than MM.

    Comparing with the Mani, the Mani sounds veiled to the point of hiding details despite having more air up top. In this respect, the Mani sounds less cohesive, with lows that don't quite match it's exquisite top-end. On MC mode with the DL-103, the F-117 generally sounded a bit leaner than the ZEN Phono, requiring more loading to get a similar tonality. The iFi Phono is generally meatier though as the F-117 lacks the bass extension as the other two. In terms of technicalities, once we get past tonal differences, the iFi Phono is on par with the F-117.

    If there is anything I wish the ZEN Phono had was the ability to change up the loading for MC carts. I was like "whoa" when I first tried the DL-103 at the MC High (the DL-103 has pretty decent output for an MC cart). 47K-ohms is way too high for the DL-103! It comes down to personal preference and component synergies, but I prefer about 100-ohms loading for the DL-103. This was validated when I used the ZEN Phono on the MC V Low setting. FWIW, I didn't run out of headroom either with such a high-gain.

    The MC loads are fixed on the ZEN Phono depending upon gain as follows:

    MM: 47K Ohms
    MC High (high output cart): 47K Ohms
    MC Low (low output cart): 1.4K Ohms
    MC V Low (very low output cart): 110 Ohms

    In general, I think those are good values given the types of MC carts out there (maybe iFi had a particular few in mind); but generally, I tend to run lower loads. For example, with the Ortofon Cadenza Bronze, which I consider a low output (but not very low) cart, I prefer 50-ohms. It may be possible that the standard values are convenient for you, or they may not be. Even if they are not, there are ways around this with RCA splitters where we solder on parallel resistors of appropriate value to get the final value that we want:

    [​IMG]

    I know it's a hassle, but if we want to be super anal retentive, we either do this, or pay much much more for a phonostage with all the bells and whistles (the Black Label Phono3 provides such options). Note that we can do the same with small caps for MM loading.
     
    Last edited: Oct 6, 2020
  3. rhythmdevils

    rhythmdevils Best SBAF member of all time

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    nice one @iFi audio ! I'm stoked to see a super well performing low cost product regardless of my lack of a TT (furiously fighting off that rabbit hole)
     
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  4. Cspirou

    Cspirou They call me Sparky

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    One of the things that always astounded me by the Nighthawk was the price. Good on iFi for making a high-value product!
     
  5. limesoft

    limesoft Facebook Friend

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    would love to hear sound comparisons vs their iPhono 2
     
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  6. murphythecat

    murphythecat Friend

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    I suspect the phono stage in my iFi retro stereo 50 tube amp is likely of similar quality then the zen phono. I also use the denon dl-103r. It sounds so good as is, I have little interest in investing more to get a "better" phonostage. it sounds already glorious, musical, and shit on anything digital ive ever heard or had.

    awesome to see iFi getting some recognition. the main designer is a true audiophile and I feel the "mission" of iFi is to bring solid, smart, honestly engineered designs for every price range.

    LOL at the orfas reference, never understood what orfas stand for. hilarious
     
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2020
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  7. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Here are the RIAA curves and measured gains.

    MM: 36.87db
    MC High (high output cart): 48.98db
    MC Low (low output cart): 60.71db
    MC V Low (very low output cart): 71.81db

    iFi ZEN Phono
    RIAA curves and gain at each setting
    (subsonic filter off)
    upload_2020-10-4_13-30-14.png
     
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  8. shaizada

    shaizada Friend

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    I am amazed by this post. $149 for a seemingly very good phono stage!

    Looking forward to hearing one sometime.
     
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  9. Decomo

    Decomo Facebook Friend

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    Thank you for the review and info. I just started looking for budget phono pre and this would fit the bill nicely. Keen to try the phono pre..
     
  10. iFi audio

    iFi audio MOT iFi Audio

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    Thanks!

    The idea was to make it as affordable as possible :)
     
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  11. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    iFi Phono
    MM Setting
    THDN vs input (dBu)
    upload_2020-10-6_9-51-53.png

    Add 36.87dBu to get output. Note -37.78dbU = 10mV. Best SINAD is at -17dBU input which is a little more than 100mVrms. The output at this level is about 6.9Vrms. Lots of headroom here.
     
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  12. iFi audio

    iFi audio MOT iFi Audio

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    Thanks Marv!
     
  13. Azteca

    Azteca Friend

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    My foot-dragging has paid off. Finally a worthy, cheap phono stage that sounds far and away from Mani and modded TC-750. Well done, iFi.
     
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  14. iFi audio

    iFi audio MOT iFi Audio

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    Thank you!
     
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  15. Mirko

    Mirko Rando

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    hi everybody. 1st post, happy to be here from now on!

    what is the Zen phono input capacitance?
    Since purr1n said that is beafier than mani v2 (which I own, and it's 100pF),
    I wasn't able to find this detail in the specs.
    Thanks,

    ps I would like to read other opinions and comparisons with the Mani.
    I use VM540ML cartridge.

    Thanks!
     
  16. iFi audio

    iFi audio MOT iFi Audio

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    I'll double-check this.
     
  17. Wushuliu

    Wushuliu Rando

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    Wonder if there's any benefit to using, say, an iPower 5V power supply...
     
  18. Decomo

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    May I ask How you get 100pF capacitance figure for Mani? I could not find out from specs. It only states input and output impedance.
     
  19. Mirko

    Mirko Rando

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    Hi Decomo, you're perfectly right! I googled it around and some people asked manufacturer the input capacitance. Turns out to be surely 100pF and surely no lower than that.

    Using MM, settings like 0pF, 50pF, would be much more useful than preset values greater than 100pF (imho)
     
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  20. Mirko

    Mirko Rando

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    thank you! Let us know, this is important matter for those who will go interface MM cartridges with the Zen.
     
    Last edited: Oct 14, 2020

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