iFi ZEN Phono Review

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

  1. iFi audio

    iFi audio MOT iFi Audio

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    Very good, thanks for lettin me know :)
     
  2. S_Vercellone

    S_Vercellone Rando

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    To all of you and to @iFi audio : today I received an Ifi iPower and the humming and noise eventually disappeared. The problem, therefore, was in the OEM power supply. I strongly suggest to buy this dedicated power supply which has a lot of connections and accessories. Thanks to all of you for your suggestions and comments.
     
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  3. purr1n

    purr1n Building Magnis part time because it's peaceful.

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    I suspect that you got a bad switcher. It happens.
     
  4. iFi audio

    iFi audio MOT iFi Audio

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    Very good, thanks for letting us know!

    Once in a while it sure does.
     
  5. Biodegraded

    Biodegraded Friend

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    Thanks to ifi Audio’s loan to audioreviews.org I’ve had one of these in and out of the chain for about 3 weeks now. There’s a review there too, but I hope the re-write below will be more in line with what SBAF readers like to see.

    Impressions are in comparison to the Hagerman Bugle (version 2, fixed ‘MM’ option: 40 dB gain & 47k Ohms input impedance) and the phono stage of the Rega Brio 2017 integrated (40 dB & 44k Ohms according to Stereophile’s measurements).

    The short version of the character of the Zen vs these comparison units is: a more forward and less warm tonality; significantly better technicalities, especially resolution and transient speed; and a less smooth, less euphonic, less 'vinyl-like' presentation.


    Associated gear

    TT is a Sansui SR-525, a c. 20 lb late-70s manual direct-drive deck with a medium-mass knife-edge tonearm (imagine an S-shaped take on the SME 3009) and a Denon DL-110 HOMC cart. Downstream components were:
    • Rega Brio 2017 -> Dynaudio Audience 52SE standmounts + Triangle Tales 340 subwoofer
    • MCTH (LPS, Telefunken ECC88) -> HD6XX (stock)

    Setup


    The DL-110’s output spec is 1.6 mV but according to internet assertions and my own comparison with a 4.0 mV Ortofon OM-20, it’s actually quite a bit higher: I can believe the now-defunct Needledoctor’s claim to have measured it at 2.2 mV. The manufacturer-specified loading is “more than 47 kOhms”, which corresponds with the Zen’s MM and MC HIGH settings. I tried both and thought MC HIGH had a bit more resolution so I spent most time on that – but I didn’t do any level-matching other than by ear, so I could well be fooling myself. I didn’t detect any tonality difference between the two settings. To use MC LOW or MC VERY LOW, I figured I’d need more attenuation to be fair to my amps’ volume pots so I didn’t try those settings.

    Note too that I didn’t do measurement-assisted level-matching vs either of the other preamps, which have gain (40 dB) in-between the MM and MC HIGH settings of the Zen.

    Neither of my amps have balanced inputs, so I couldn’t try the Zen’s balanced output.


    Disclaimer

    Old-man ears; see signature. Actually they’re now a bit worse, the right one topping out below 13 kHz. They’re even below 10k though, and I don’t have the common 8k dip. And they were checked yesterday morning and prounounced clear of wax. My prostate was also checked and I was told that shouldn’t be compromising my hearing either. When old audiophiles go to the doctor…


    Tonality

    The Zen comes across as more forward than either of the others. This is particularly noticeable, as might be expected, on material with female vocals and violins, horns, and high-pitched guitar solos. The Bugle is warmer, with bass that maybe goes deeper, or at least is more prominent; and is less extended in the treble. The Rega is slightly warmer than the Bugle, but its bass doesn’t go as deep. This warmth of the others vs the Zen is not only because of the contrast in the upper mids-lower treble, but also because they do have more elevated bass & lower mids – so it’s not just relative due to the more forward nature of the Zen.


    Technicalities

    For me the most notable technical characteristics of the Zen vs the other preamps are: increased resolution of low-level information throughout the frequency range; and increased transient speed, particularly in the bass. Bass guitar notes through the Zen snap on and off beautifully and preserve reverb missing from the Bugle and Rega in their decays; and attacks and decays appear from and fade into a blacker background. The more extended treble also has reduced hash, cymbal decays being cleaner and sibilants being rendered more correctly (‘sss’ not ‘shh’).

    As an illustration of the effect of the improved resolution: the little bit of vibrato in Richard Butler’s voice in the Psychedelic Furs’ ‘She is Mine’ is much more apparent, making a vocal that’s flat and uninvolving through the other preamps suddenly much more textured and appealing (the less warm & more forward tonality helps this perception too).

    As an illustration of the improved transients: the fast stop of the first bass note in the first repeat of the bass phrase (vs its initial play and subsequent repeats) near the opening of Steely Dan’s ‘Josie’ is much more striking through the Zen than through the others.

    The combined effect of the Zen’s improved rendering of subtle vocal and instrumental pitch and volume changes and its snappier transients is markedly improved instrument separation/imaging and staging and the ability to “hear every component of the music better” (Mrsdegraded’s phrase). The combination of these factors with its more forward tonality leads to improved timbral quality across the board but particularly in vocals, horns and piano.

    The Zen’s dynamics also seem heightened relative to the other two preamps, the leading edges of percussion hits and string plucks apparently coming in louder as well as faster. The Rega also has some slight grain in the mids which is not present in the Zen.


    Thoughts on system synergy

    @purr1n only mentioned this in passing but I think system matching will be important to consider with this. If a common characteristic of lower-cost modern turntables is to be warmer and looser in the bass, the Zen’s not-warm tonality and tight bass delivery could be a good complement. If good vintage direct-drive decks generally have snappier transients, cartridge matching might require some thought.

    The DL-110 is described by the internets as tonally balanced, with solid rather than strong bass, a sweet top end, and good rendering of detail in the midrange. I’d generally agree – it doesn’t seem to me to have any particularly explicit signature either tonally or in terms of presentation. With this cart on a direct-drive turntable, transducers that are on the laid-back side, and amps on the slightly warm (2-channel) and slightly lean (headphone) sides, I appreciated the Zen’s technical uplift but I did find the other preamps smoother and more relaxing to listen to (particularly through speakers because my room is currently giving me a bit of a lower treble peak).

    Having recently changed from a belt-drive turntable to a direct drive, I might be over-sensitive to the transient speed thing – but I’d be cautious about putting this in a system with a turntable that does fast transients and an analytical or dry cart, especially if that cart is also forward or bright. Likewise with a lean amp and cool or bright transducers.

    For me on my system, the improved technicalities are worth the change so I’ll likely be acquiring one of these – but having been enjoying the tonality of the Modi Multibit as a digital source I’m a bit conflicted. The current turntable was always meant as an experiment, so I might go back to the Rega until another arrives – but that other will probably be direct-drive too.

    I also wish the Zen was more liquid through the mids. The Bugle is smoother there but now I know the resolution it's missing.

    Edit: Power supplies: all impressions & comparisons are using the stock power supplies of the Zen and the Bugle. I did try a LPS and thought I might have heard some differences; but even after being told what to listen for my wife told me she didn't so I went back to the ifi one.
     
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    Last edited: Nov 6, 2020
  6. purr1n

    purr1n Building Magnis part time because it's peaceful.

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    Can we roll opamps with the Hagerman Bugle? Granted it would spending more, but the tuneability in sound may be well worth it?
     
  7. Biodegraded

    Biodegraded Friend

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    Probably. The stock ones are LM4562 (parts list on p. 4 here: http://www.hagtech.com/pdf/bugle2.pdf). Maybe I should do some research, there's a DIYAudio thread but I don't recall the details... Could alternatives give me an uplift in microdynamics/plankton?
     
  8. purr1n

    purr1n Building Magnis part time because it's peaceful.

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    It's possible. I'm thinking maybe mix and match. It's a good sounding part, slightly warm and smooth. Maybe x3 it's too much of a good thing. The Analog Devices parts are more neutral and can be coarse.

    Maybe stick one AD797 somewhere? They are singles, so you will have to do on eBay for duals.

    The OPA637 is incredibly clear and resolving, and would work in the earlier stages (the opamp needs > x5 gain). But it is also a single and is $$$.

    Now OPA1656... that is affordable, could be the ticket. Should be able to find on eBay someone who has mounted then on a DIP adapter if you don't want to do this yourself.
     
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  9. BearFacts

    BearFacts Rando

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    I also have an iFi ZEN Phono and am enjoying it.

    Regarding the bugle, I took @purr1n's advice and picked up some OPA1656 opamps and to my old ears believe that they provide more detail and kind of prefer them over the LM4562s. I ordered some AD797s but they haven't arrived yet.

    I also picked up a 24 volt version of the SOLA power supply similar to the one that was used with the TC-750 Frankenphono (found a used one for CAD$12 which is about US 39 cents) and that really seemed to give the bugle a kick in the pants. Much more dynamic.
     
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  10. Biodegraded

    Biodegraded Friend

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    For those who were wondering earlier: the MM input's capacitance has now been added to the specs list on the product page: 110 pF.

    Nice to see a manufacturer responding to user questions. Kudos, @iFi audio . :)
     
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  11. iFi audio

    iFi audio MOT iFi Audio

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    Thanks, it's a pleasure :)
     
  12. fleasbaby

    fleasbaby Rando

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    Hi All...just picked up a Zen Phono, and am liking it. It is indeed a step up from the Schiit Mani.

    I have a Freya S I am using as my preamp in my system, feeding two Vidars in monoblock, and would like to use the balanced out on the Zen. I saw @purr1n picked a cable up on Amazon for this, but its no longer available. Is anyone else running this unit from its balanced out, and if so, what cable are they using?

    I found this one on Beelzebub's retail site....looks right, but am curious to see if any other options are out there:

    https://www.amazon.com/Balanced-Hea...s=pentaconn+to+male+xlr&qid=1610154349&sr=8-3
     
  13. DignifiedAndOld

    DignifiedAndOld Rando

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  14. Azteca

    Azteca Friend

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    Dang, I totally missed that it had a balanced out. I'd like to use it for needle drops so that is very welcome. Neat!
     
  15. Lautreamont

    Lautreamont Rando

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    I just bought one of these for a second turntable. Do you still feel as enthusiastic about it a few months later?

    Are you saying it will outperform other phono stages in the $800-$1500 range or just that you think it's a better value?
     
  16. deniall83

    deniall83 Acquaintance

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    Just picked one of these up today as I got a silly deal. I agree with the impressions so far. Very good value. Using the MM input there's a significant drop in noise and good bit more detail present. I actually find it's smoothed things out slightly for me as I now have the correct capactiance loaidng for my cart and it was overly bright and brittle before.
     
  17. iFi audio

    iFi audio MOT iFi Audio

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    Thanks and enjoy!
     

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