Part of the iFi Zen Mini-Series!
Big Shoutout to Lawrance and iFi Audio for sending this demo unit, and for their continued support!!
2,195-word post, approx. 5-6 min. read
- 9/28/20. Article posted.
- 2/10/21. Linked Series.
All of these answers and more, comin’ up…
Greetings comrade and Welcome aboard… Stuart Charles here, HomeStudioBasics.com helping YOU make sound decisions, leading to a beautiful audio experience that will make you fall in love with music .. all over again, so.. don’t want to read?!
Don’t forget to leave me some love and Subscribe! <3
Table of Contents
Final Word/Is The Zen CAN Worth It?
Before we get started, all links to these products, as well as any articles related will be here in this post. Check out my Gear Recommendations below as well for most of my top picks, all in one place!
If you do purchase through one of my Drop or Amazon links, I will get a small kickback depending on where you live. Your continued support of the blog and channel means everything to me, so thank you!
- ?Stu’s STORE FRONT/Gear Recommendations/Setups!
- ?$10 OFF your first Drop purchase!
- ?All Audiophile Drops (Massdrop)
First, we’ll discuss build, which fortunately hasn’t changed much. The same rugged brushed aluminum chassis has returned, but of course, the color now matches the 6XX’s midnight blue/black colorway. It’s really a good look for the Amp, but by and large, isn’t going to make or break your decision.
The newer model Signature comes in a little bit heavier than the original, which came as a surprise to me considering it’s just an amp. Both feel very rugged and solid, one of the main perks of owning an iFi product for certain.
- Zen: 17.6 Oz., 515g.
- 6XX Signature (just amp): 18 Oz. 527g
- 6XX Signature (just dac): 16.5 Oz, 483g
There isn’t much more to say. The build is yet again outstanding.
Features on the newer iteration Signature are going to make up the bulk of what’s changed.
Let’s dive in.
Firstly, the Stack is obviously not a combo all in one like the original Zen was. It’s a bit more of an involved process setting everything up, but very easy nonetheless.
First, use an RCA to RCA male. Plug both ends into the red and white females on the back of the DAC portion, then plug the other ends into the females on the Amp portion. This will take care of the conversion process.
If you’re unfamiliar with how DACS work or what they are, click this link: Beginners Guide: What is a USB DAC?
Next, you’ll want to plug up the DAC to your PC via USB Type-B cable.
Finally, plug the Amp to power. There’s a brick inside the box supplied by iFi.
Now you’re ready!!
Your PC should instantly recognize the DAC and install drivers. It will light up green when it’s ready. Now just press the power button on the Amp portion, make sure you’re on input 1. Now fire up some music!
The newer model added some extras that the Zen didn’t have. There’s a 3 input button depending on what you’re using it for:
- The RCA connection from the DAC that we just discussed.
- Any single-ended line input. You can use any DAC with an RCA output or line output. So I can use a 3.5mm interconnect from an E10K or DF Red into the Amp if I want. You also have the option to use an RCA to 3.5mm in this scenario as well.
- A balanced 4.4mm input. You have the option of using the DAC + Amp fully balanced if you wish. Drop provides this at an additional $89. More on that later.
It’s also got a balanced 4.4mm output that you can use for connection to separate speakers.
In addition to that, there’s a 3 gain stage, similar to my beloved FiiO K5 Pro’s.
This puppy is packed with power!
You’ve got a 6dB boost, a 12dB boost, as well as 18 if you really want to blow your eardrums out.
Oh Boy! Hearing loss!!
In all seriousness, the higher gain will obviously be used with more demanding headphones that require more juice to get pumping.
You load up, you party.
An example would be an Audeze LCD-4 or an AKG K240M 600 Ohm, both of which are extremely inefficient headphones. I’d feel more than comfortable driving anything with this combo.
The Stack is so good, you may be up all night and forget to actually wake up.
Aside from those additions, there’s your standard unbalanced ¼”, and a 4.4mm balanced jack for use with balanced cables into your favorite headphone.
Part of this balanced breakfast!
Lastly, there’s an HD6XX button. Press once for the 6XX setting, twice for the 3D setting, and a third time for both.
The original Zen Amp/DAC combo had a True Bass button and a Power Match button. I wouldn’t consider it underpowered, but I do mostly use headphones with the Gain on. I’ve yet to have to turn the dial past about 2 o’clock, so whoever tells you the Zen doesn’t have enough power is LYING!!
Full disclosure: I have tested the 6XX extensively, but do not have a model here to use. I do however have basically the same headphone in the HD600. The main difference is that the mid-range on the 600’s is more forward at around 3kHz.
So, for the burning question:
What does the button actually do?
To be perfectly honest, it does add a bit of depth to the HD600, but it’s very subtle and could just be the track. I had to rewind the song to make sure the sound I heard off in the distance behind me was actually a part of the track.
- Here’s my playlist! Follow for some great tunes!
The 600’s generally have very good instrument separation, but Staging has always been fairly narrow.
Pressing once more, the 3D button seems to open things up a tad, but it’s still not a night and day difference. It’s very subtle. Perhaps that’s what iFi was going for. I’m not entirely sure.
The combo of both 3D and 6XX does make a fairly significant difference in the way a track sounds, but it’s not necessarily an improvement if that makes sense. As in, I don’t really give a d**n.
The bass seems to slam a bit harder, adding a meaty flavor to the song. That’s really about it.
By all means, push the button.
What about the sound differences between the original Zen and Zen CAN Signature without the button pressed?
In short, there are none. It’s the same sound. Not quite neutral, but not overly warm, striking a nice balance between the 2.
If you’re interested in my full review of the Zen, here it is: iFi Zen Amp/DAC Review [New Standard?] This goes into more depth about how it sounds.
Let’s take a gander.
The Amp by itself costs $229 without a DAC. The original Zen combo Amp/DAC was $130. A pretty insane value.
Drop claims they’re giving you a free power brick included at a $99 value with the CAN. I’m not going to argue with that, but okay. *eyeroll*
You also have the option of adding an $89 balanced 4.4mm cable to connect the 2. Hmm. Okay. I’ll pass for now.
“But I need a DAC”, you say.
“Absolutely, mate. Can’t be too much more right?”
That’s $478 without a 4.4mm balanced cable. With one? Well over $500 @ $567.
This amp better give good hand jobs for that price, and brew me a mean cup of coffee to boot!
I’m sorry, but I would personally never pay that much for the Zen CAN. It’s a great Amp, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not worth almost $500.
The Mojo isn’t even really worth $500 sound-wise, and that’s tied for the best I’ve personally ever heard out of an Amp, the other being a Bryston BHA-1 at around $1400.
A fair price for the Zen CAN Signature, taking into account the added input options and improved power output would be about $250 total if they included a 4.4mm cable, an RCA to RCA, and a special power brick.
Without every cable imaginable included in the package, this is a $200 product (combined Amp + DAC). What can it do (haha, pun intended) that my K5 Pro can’t? Well, it has a balanced 4.4mm option for your headphones, a line input (a very nice feature), and an HD6XX button. Okay, I’ll give you $50 for all of that. Nothing more.
This product seems to be taking advantage of the HD6XX’s popularity, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, provided you’re pushing it at the right price. You’re essentially shelling out a ton of money for… a button.. that may or may not be a placebo. It adds some atmosphere, okay.
So I’m going to drop everything (Haha, get it?), and throw lots of cash at you? The 6XX is a fantastic headphone and deserves all the praise it gets and then some. But it shouldn’t be used as a tool to sell an overpriced Amp, especially considering the ever-growing problem of there being way too many amps and dacs on the market already.
Does the 6XX really need The Zen CAN? That’s debatable, but I would say no, it doesn’t. Good Amp, but nothing extraordinary. It’s like a high-maintenance blonde chick that looks really good on the outside, but she isn’t quite the conversationalist you were anticipating, to put it mildly.
She’s dumb as a brick!!
My Recommendation for YOU
I would either go with the original Zen DAC and Amp combo or the K5 Pro depending on your needs. If you really want to get a Zen CAN, just get the original for around $169. It’s a much better value than just an Amplifier (linked below).
Many people have come back to me raving about how much they love the original Zen. It’s not under-powered, and it’s not distorted, no matter what some “Audiophile” snobs tell you. What is an Audiophile? It’s a fantastic product at a dirt-cheap price. People in this “hobby” tend to get really really elitist about this stuff, but at the end of the day, it’s just not that serious.
So if your goal is to kick back and relax like a true “kick back and relax typa homie”, you don’t plan to do any console gaming with this rig, and you really don’t care about the extra ins and outs that the K5 Pro has, go with the Zen.
It can play MQA files, as well as anything up to 32-bit/384kHz. It can also run DSD up to 512. It can output to separate speakers via the RCA outs on the back or the 4.4mm balanced out, it has a standard 1/4″ for all of your headphones, and it has a 4.4mm balanced input for any headphone with a balanced 4.4mm cable. An example would be this cable for the HD600 series.
Interested in the Zen?
The K5 Pro is for the jack of all trades homie. He wants to do a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Learn more about 4 of my top desktop options:
Finally, for those interested in the original Zen CAN (not the signature):
Ready for the next article in the series?
Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you’ve enjoyed this comparison of the original iFi Zen Amp/DAC combo vs. the Zen CAN Signature, and now understand the main differences between them!
If you love what I do here and want to support the blog and channel in a more personal way, check me out on Patreon and discover all the value I have to offer you.
Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss the mark on something? Please let me know down below or Contact me!!
Is the Zen CAN worth it to YOU? I would love to hear your thoughts. Until next time…
All the best and God bless,
Can’t decide which headphones to purchase? Interested in a complete buyers guide outlining over 40 of the best options on the market? Click on over to the best audiophile headphones to learn more!!
Click to see them in action!