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.
UsabilityThe 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.
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.
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.