iFi Zen DAC Joins New Range
iFi promised more from its new ZEN range and, as if by magic, here is the DAC.
The ZEN DAC closely follows the announcement of the ZEN Blue Bluetooth streamer from iFi.
The new desktop USB DAC/headphone amp matches the ZEN Blue in price and promises the same performance per pound, too.
iFi ZEN DAC
The ZEN DAC connects to PCs, Macs, and smart devices via USB and gets an aluminium enclosure that measures 158x35x100mm (WxHxD) like its stablemate.
The DAC section is based around iFi's favourite Burr-Brown DAC chip. The company says that it has been selected for its fluid, highly 'musical' sound quality and 'True Native' architecture.
The ZEN DAC supports PCM and DXD audio data up to 24-bit/384kHz. Additionally, it plays nicely with DSD sampling rates from 2.8MHz to 12.4MHz (DSD256), as well as MQA tunes.
Thanks to the Burr-Brown chip's True Native design, PCM and DSD take separate pathways, enabling DSD to remain 'bit-perfect' in its native form. Many DACs that claim DSD compatibility accept DSD data but then convert it to PCM; for DSD purists, the ZEN DAC is a fantastically affordable solution.
Additionally, iFi programs its own bespoke firmware to boost audio processing power rather than merely using the firmware that comes with the XMOS chip off-the-shelf.
iFi's continuous software development allows features to be added or optimised via firmware updates, enabling the ZEN DAC to be tailored to the user's playback priorities. You can even download and install different versions of iFi firmware to experiment with various digital filters should you feel the need.
Extensive clock-locking is used throughout the digital stage to eradicate jitter, maintaining the integrity of the digital signal until conversion.
The ZEN DAC's analogue stage is a balanced design incorporating a range of high-quality circuit components uncommon at this price point.
For instance, there are C0G capacitors from TDK, a precision low-noise power supply IC from Texas Instruments and a high-quality analogue volume pot.
The headphone amp stage has switchable gain, dubbed 'PowerMatch' by iFi. Here the level of drive is matched to the load presented by the headphones by adjusting input sensitivity and so signal strength. Basically, for equipment with high sensitivity, such as in-ear monitors, leave PowerMatch at its lower setting for ultra-low-noise performance. However, if your headphones require more drive – most on/over-ear types, for example – press the PowerMatch button on the front panel to increase gain.
TrueBass is an evolution of iFi's established XBass circuit that subtly enhances low frequencies without muddying the midrange. Furthermore, the boost operates entirely in the analogue domain rather than messing with the digital signal via DSP and may be switched in or out as you wish.
Ins and Outs
The ZEN DAC sports Pentaconn 4.4mm balanced outputs, both front and back enabling balanced signal transfer between compact products that cannot accommodate traditional XLR connections. The front-mounted 4.4mm output sits alongside a standard, single-ended 6.3mm headphone socket. With this suite of connections, all eventualities should be covered.
It is worth noting that the rear 4.4mm output enables connection to amps and active speakers equipped with a balanced input – either a Pentaconn 4.4mm input or XLR inputs via a 4.4mm-to-XLR cable. Single-ended RCA outputs are also provided.
The line-level outputs – both balanced and single-ended – can be switched between 'variable' and 'fixed', enhancing the ZEN DAC's versatility. The variable setting applies volume control to the audio signal, enabling the ZEN DAC to perform as a preamp feeding a power amp or active speakers. The fixed option bypasses the volume control, setting the output at 4.2V (balanced) or 2.1V (single-ended) for connection to an external preamp or integrated amp.
The ZEN DAC's asynchronous USB Type B input supports the 'SuperSpeed' USB 3.0 standard and is also compatible with USB 2.0.
Price and availability
The iFi ZEN DAC is available from mid-October, at an RRP of £129. Expect even more ZEN Series to come.
For more information, head on over to iFi Audio.
StereoNET UK’s Editor and Bass playing gadget junkie. He’s captained the good ship GadgetyNews for over a decade, making low jargon high tech a very handy thing. His passion for gadgets and Hi-Fi is second only to being a touring musician.
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