Part of the iFi Zen Mini-Series!
Shout out to Lawrance and the folks over at iFi for their continued support in sending this demo unit!
Hey there friend, and Welcome aboard!!
Before we get into the ifi Zen Amp/DAC Review, grab a snack, sit back and relax because…
I’m here to Help!!
Table of Contents
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Features & Usage
Even despite my complaining every time a DAC hits the market (and for good reason), it truly is a good time to be alive.
iFi’s new Zen is part of the reason why.
It was the first time receiving a product from a company where I thought, “Technology is truly advancing at an almost alarming rate.”
Times are much different now.
No longer does it require your kidney to achieve great sound, whether in setting up a small home studio or just simply investing in a good pair of headphones and an Amplifier to listen to your favorite music.
If my maths are right, roughly $339.23 will net you 97.2879% of what you’ll ever need.
My readers and subscribers by now should understand that the Law of Diminishing Returns runs rampant in audio, as it’s rarely worth investing much beyond that initial setup.
Any subsequent attempt to achieve a better sound is almost futile (there are some exceptions of course), and will have you ending up deep down the rabbit hole (or whoring yourself on a side street for cash to buy more audio). Moar Audio.
“Yo I got these Cheeseburgers man!”
It feels like iFi is attempting to set the bar high with their dirt-cheap Zen DAC/Amp, while at the same time impressively mapping out a standard and daring other companies to match it.
This thing clearly has no business being so affordable, and we’ll find out exactly why in this write-up.
In The Box
RCA to RCA cables
USB Type-B to Type-A cable
- Input: USB 3.0 (also 2.0 compatible)
- Formats: 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192, 384kHz. DSD 64/128/256
- DAC: Bit-Perfect DSD & DXD DAC by Burr-Brown
For a full list of specs, head on over to iFi’s website and check out the Zen: Zen DAC by iFi audio!
The build of the Zen is the first thing that will jump the f*** out at you.
Go ahead, put it in your hands, and marvel. This baby is hefty.
Imagine flopping out of the womb at a cool 25 lbs. That’s what you’re getting here (sorta lol).
There’s weight to this puppy.
It almost feels like you could casually toss it on the ground and it would ask for more like Mick Foley.
One of the things I complained about with JDS’ ATOM is that it just felt too light.
It wasn’t a deal-breaker by any means, but the Zen feeling so robust makes you wonder why other companies can’t follow suit.
- Update: JDS’ ATOM Hevi is … heavier. xD
The Zen DAC is a no-fingerprint gathering, all-aluminum chassis having, balanced input dabbling, kiss stealin’, wheelin’ and dealin’, limousine ridin’, jet flyin’, rock-solid sun of a gun! WOO!! YEAH!!
The analog-digital volume control is a dream to turn, while the True Bass and Power Match Buttons feel incredible to the touch.
Everything about this beast screams quality, from the connections on the back to the sleek and attractive front.
It’s an elegant alien if there ever was one.
It’s kind of futuristic-looking sitting on your desk, and comes packed with a lot of features at this price point!
Features & Usage
On the front, we’ve got a power match button, which kind of mimics the effect of a gain switch.
The True Bass feature can be hit or miss, but I find it really helps to add meat to a genre like Metal which sounds kind of thin in general.
Metal is also notorious for being badly mastered, so TrueBass puts some much needed meat on its bones and prevents it from sounding overly anemic.
The Zen really fills the 9500s out nicely while still helping to retain their incredible sense of clarity, detail, and depth.
The analog volume control can be used to control the headphone volume or preamp volume (on variable mode).
For the preamp section into some separate speakers/monitors, keep it fixed if you prefer to use the Volume control on the speakers and not the DAC, and variable if you prefer to control the volume on the Zen.
As a personal preference, I like to keep it fixed as it’s easier to manage and I like the output voltage being constant.
For speakers without volume control, you’ll have to use variable mode.
If you’re wondering why the Zen Blue is underneath, it’s because you can pair it with the Eris’ via Bluetooth connection with your phone!
Just use a pair of RCA to RCA cables, similar to the connection between the Zen and Eris.
The LED light indicates the audio format you’re in, and the Zen impressively covers a wide range:
- PCM 44/48/88/96 = Green
- PCM 176/192/353/384 = Yellow
- DSD 64/128 = Cyan
- DSD256 = Blue
- MQA = Magenta
Zen comes with a 1/4″ unbalanced jack as well as a 4.4mm balanced analog output.
On the Back
First up is another 4.4mm analog output.
You can use this to connect to some separately powered monitors/speakers (balanced) via something like this 4.4mm to dual XLR cable.
The Variable/Fixed Switch that we mentioned earlier.
The RCA/Analogue Outputs can also connect to some separate monitors/speakers.
The USB input is pretty self-explanatory, but I didn’t like the cable that came with it. It’s much too short.
I’m actually listening through the Zen as I type this, but I’m using the much better, longer cable that came with the FiiO K5 Pro.
iFi also claims a power brick comes with the Zen but I did not receive one inside the package.
These are really the only 2 cons to an otherwise wonderful product, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Technically you don’t need the brick; you could just keep it plugged into your PC and it will always stay on that way.
The trade-off is that the Zen will draw more of your PC’s battery power that way; something to keep in mind regardless.
Out of the unbalanced port:
- 280mW @ 32 Ohm, and 36mW @ 300 Ohm
For the balanced port:
- 380mW @ 50 Ohm, and 70mW @ 600 Ohm
iFi rates the Zen as being compatible with anything 12-300 Ohms which is about right.
With the HD600, there’s plenty of headroom here as it only requires about 20mW from an amp.
20mW isn’t set in stone either. I can drive it with less powerful Amps & DACs.
Just think of the number as a good benchmark to try and hover around.
It’s important to note that I’d feel comfortable driving most anything here. Power output specs aren’t overrated, but they sometimes don’t tell the whole story.
There have been plenty of instances when I thought a headphone wouldn’t work out of a certain amp but many times I was pleasantly surprised.
You’re getting more than enough in 99% of listening situations.
Don’t forget to leave me some love! <3
Click to see the Zen in action!
Exploring the different file formats! 🙂
- Headphones used: Creative Aurvana Live! Philips SHP9500, Sennheiser HD600, AKG K702, AKG K612, AKG K712, HIFIMAN HE400S, HIFIMAN Arya, Apos Caspian, HIFIMAN DEVA.
- Source: Audirvana, Tidal, FLAC, Masters, DSD64, DSD128, DSD256, PCM up to 384kHz.
- Playlists: Here, Here, and Here! In reality, most of my playlists have utilized the Zen in some form or fashion
I did a little comparison to the Topping NX4 and found that the Zen is a bit warmer with slightly more recessed vocals.
The NX4 sounded more sterile and a bit colder by comparison.
I’ve been demoing a Zen since 2019 and listened with a vast array of setups and headphones, also trying all of the newer iterations that have since come out.
I have to say that I don’t use the bass boost all that much but do find it to be incredibly beneficial when listening to Metal music as we discussed earlier.
This is because, for the most part, Metal is not mixed or mastered that well and sounds a bit thin with most offerings (headphones or otherwise).
I find the bass boost on the Zen adds some much-needed meat and makes the genre sound much better.
I also found that the Zen gives the HD600 a lot of life with the bass boost on. Many Wow. Such life.
This is significant because the 600’s low end is very delicate; it doesn’t really respond well to EQ or added bass.
With the Zen, I find it remains clean while also adding some extra zest.
Despite not using True Bass all that much, I do use Power Match (or Gain for Purists) quite often.
With IEMs, you’ll probably want to have it off, but I find myself with it turned on 99% of the time because I mostly listen with headphones.
The sound profile of the Zen is a cross between warm-ish and neutral which is typical for iFi and essentially their “house” sound if you will.
In Sylo Nozra’s “Losing Myself” at around 3:33, I found the background vocals were standing out considerably more than I remember.
It was like they demanded a certain level of attention that I don’t remember experiencing before.
On Kevin Garrett’s “Little Bit of You”, the High Hat at @ 2:02 also emerged with a more immediate and noticeable presence, making itself known right away.
There was more clarity to it.
The background soundscape also felt more alive and coherent.
I had never noticed that before even despite listening to the song many times with other set-ups.
It just seems like the Zen paired with the 600 is a great match all around. I’m not finding the 600s sounding quite as shouty or irritating (around 3k) out of the Zen as I would with other, more neutral setups.
There’s an undeniable warmth with this amp.
It just makes you want to chillax and listen to music for extended periods of time.
It’s a relaxing, inviting sound that will satisfy nearly everyone, and I can’t recommend it enough.
This original version is a solid A and leaning towards A+ because I’ve had it here since 2019 and it’s never once malfunctioned or given me any problems.
The short blue cable and lack of power brick in the box turned me off a smidgen.
I would have liked to see iFi include more cables here.
I understand it’s a lower price point, but there are a lot of great features to take advantage of.
This would have been an even more insane value with some more appropriate accessories to match – even just an extra cable or 2.
Still, it’s incredibly easy to hook up (instantly recognized and running within seconds), its build is outstanding, it sounds great, and there are a lot of options at your disposal.
You can’t ask too much more at this price point to be honest.
The Zen is still something I was recommending quite often to people, and I still love it now though the situation has gotten quite complicated.
The original iteration reviewed back then was around $130 and an absolute steal.
If you consider that a JDS Labs ATOM amp + DAC costs around $200, iFi was basically giving the Zen away when it first came out.
2021 saw the updated Zen DAC V2 which added plug-and-play (no optical cable needed) console compatibility for an extra $30 ($160).
I still thought that was more than fair considering I do a lot of gaming on my PS4 and felt it remained an excellent value.
There is no more original Zen.
It’s been replaced by the Zen V2 which costs around $189 – now overpriced in my opinion.
I will update this article as new information comes to light and/or things change, but for now, I’m not recommending the Zen.
So what do I recommend?
I think the FiiO K5 Pro is a much better value than the Zen at this point, especially since it’s more versatile and as of now (Subject to change at a moment’s notice), you can still get the original AKM version at around its original price.
Ready for the next article in the series?
Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you’ve gotten some valuable information out of this iFi Zen Amp/DAC Review.
What are your thoughts on these changes? What’s your go-to Amp/DAC? Be sure to let me know!!
If you have any other questions or feel I’ve missed the mark on something, leave a comment down below or contact me!
I very much look forward to speaking with you…
All the best and God bless,