About the iFi Audio ZEN DAC
Solidly built DAC/amp that fits into small spaces
My home office is a little cramped, but the iFi ZEN DAC took up little space and drove premium headphones of all shapes and sizes.
Solidly built DAC/amp that fits into small spaces
My home office is not exactly spacious or private — but I make it work. And thanks to the iFi Audio ZEN DAC, I'm still able to enjoy premium sound through a nice set of headphones. This compact yet heavy-duty device connects between your computer and headphones for two reasons: to bypass your computer's lousy soundcard, and to provide your headphones with enough power to make them sound their best.
And you have to love that old-school volume dial sitting right in the center of the front panel — it's the first thing you see! It was really satisfying to adjust the volume that way. I got that nice, tactile feel you just don't get from clicking a mouse to turn the volume up and down.
Connects to your computer and comes to life
The ZEN DAC has sort of a grab-and-go design, but I can't call it portable. There is no built-in battery. But it will draw power from your computer, so you don't have to connect to an AC outlet. In fact, the AC adapter is sold separately.
I connected the ZEN DAC to my work laptop using the included USB cable (with a Type A USB male on one end and Type A USB female on other end). I auditioned several pairs of headphones, including some superhigh-end models, and the ZEN DAC was powerful enough to drive them all. This unit also doubles as a stereo preamplifier, with RCA outputs for connecting directly to an amplifier.
Makes all your digital music sound better
The ZEN DAC features a high-grade Burr-Brown DAC chip that can squeeze out more musical detail from Spotify®, Apple Music®, YouTube, and other digital audio sources. This DAC will decode high-resolution music files up to 32-bit/384Hz resolution, and DSD files up to 11.2 MHz. So I primarily streamed lossless high-res tracks via Qobuz. (It also offers full MQA support if you use Tidal Masters.)
Listening impressions with a few different headphones
I made one really clutch move back in mid-March. On my way out of the office, I grabbed the Audio-Technica ATH-AWKT over-ear headphones. These premium audiophile cans have large, handmade earcups made of rare Japanese kokutan striped ebony wood.
I've been driving them with the ZEN DAC. It is a super-nice combo that delivers an enormous soundstage with incredible depth and detail. And iFi's “Truebass” boost button provides some extra oomph that really rounds the sound out. On "Grandma's Hands" by Bill Withers, his moving, familiar opening riff and vocals seemed to leap out as the wood earcups lent a realistic, refreshing timbre.
Another combo I really enjoyed was the ZEN DAC and the open-back Audeze LCD-1 planar magnetic heaphones. These two together give you a lot of bang for your buck. They complement each other well, and I would put them up there with some headphone/DAC/amp systems that cost thousands of dollars.
A view of the front-panel headphone outputs and the impressive volume dial.
S-balanced headphone amp
On the front panel, there is a 1/4" stereo headphone jack along with a balanced 4.4mm headphone output. The latter is the new industry standard balanced connection that helps cuts down on signal noise and distortion. A growing list of headphones from multiple brands use it.
Either way you connect takes advantage of what iFi calls "S-balanced" headphone amp technology. Their dual-mono circuitry keeps the left and right audio channels separate for as long as possible to avoid cross-talk and distortion.
- desktop USB DAC with built-in high-performance headphone amp
- improves sound from your PC, laptop, digital music player, iPhone, and/or Android phone
- USB 3.0 cable included (Type B Type A on other end)
- compact design with sturdy metal chassis
- four rubber feet with no-slip grip
Built-in digital-to-analog converter:
- Burr-Brown "True Native" digital-to-analog converter chip for high-quality sound
- allows for separate signal pathways for PCM and DSD
- supported audio files: up to 24-bit/384kHz PCM; DSD 256 ( up to 12.4 MHz)
- offers rendering for MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) audio files
Balanced headphone amplifier:
- two front-panel headphone outputs:
- one unbalanced 1/4" headphone output (3.5mm mini to 1/4" adapter included)
- one balanced 4.4mm output
- iFi's dual-mono circuitry helps reduce crosstalk between the left and right audio channels
- low noise floor for clear audio reproduction
- output impedance: 12-600 ohms (balanced); 12-300 ohms (unbalanced)
- output power (balanced):
- >380mW @ 50 ohm
- >70mW @ 600 ohm
- output power (unbalanced):
- > 280mW @ 32 ohm
- > 36mW @ 300 ohm
- TrueBass sound control processing for boosting bass
- PowerMatch switchable gain
- high-precision volume control dial
Back-panel DAC/preamp connections and controls:
- Type B USB input for connecting PC, smartphone, and other mobile devices
- one balanced 4.4mm output for connecting a powered speaker or amp
- Note: do NOT connect balanced headphones to this output — the full signal could damage your headphones and/or hearing.
- line direct/preamp selection switch (fixed or variable)
- stereo unbalanced RCA preamp output with selectable fixed/variable level (RCA cables included)
General info and specs:
- draws power from your laptop or PC when connected via USB
- 5-Volt DC power input
- power cable not included
- color-coded LED indicator for incoming sample rate
- headphone output impedance: < 1 ohm (balanced and unbalanced)
- 6-1/8"W x 1-3/86"H x 4-5/8"D
- weight: 17.85 ounces
- warranty: 1 year
- Our 60-day money-back guarantee
- MFR # 311002
What's in the box:
- Digital-to-Analog converter
- 20" USB cable (Type A USB 3.0 on one end and Type B USB 3.0 on other end)
- 21" Audio cable (stereo RCA plugs on each end)
- 3.5mm-to-1/4" adapter
- Quick Start Guide
- Warranty card
iFi Audio ZEN DAC reviews
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More details on the iFi Audio ZEN DAC
Overview: The ZEN DAC is a stylish, compact desktop DAC (digital-to-analog converter) and headphone amplifier. Like it's cousin, the ZEN Blue, ZEN DAC is housed in a blue aluminum enclosure with brushed aluminum front and rear panels. It has a USB 3.0 Type B input, with RCA stereo and 4.4mm Pentaconn line outputs on the back, and 3.5mm unbalanced and 4.4mm balanced headphone jacks on the front. USB (3.0) and RCA cables are included.
Digital-to-Analog Conversion: ZEN DAC plays Hi-Res audio in the original format, including DSD (up to 256 MHz), DXD (up to 384 kHz), and PCM (up to 384 kHz). You can also listen to MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) audio. It uses a Burr-Brown "True Native" chipset which sends PCM and DSD signals down separate pathways so each format remains "bit-perfect" all the way to its conversion to analog. The ZEN DAC is compatible with the following audio formats:
- DSD: 256, 128, 64 MHz
- DXD: 384, 352.8 kHz
- PCM: 384, 352.8, 192, 176.4, 96, 88.2, 48, 44.1 kHz
MQA (Master Quality Authenticated): The ZEN DAC includes MQA rendering technology, which enables you to play back MQA files and stream MQA audio from sites such as Tidal Masters. MQA delivers the sound of the original master recording, so you'll hear the music exactly the way the artist intended.
LED Indicator: The ZEN DAC's analog volume control is backlit by an LED that indicates the sampling frequency received from the source. The LED color scheme is as follows:
- Green: PCM 44.1 / 48 / 88 / 96 kHz
- Yellow: PCM 176 / 192 / 353 / 384 kHz
- Cyan: DSD 64 / DSD 128
- Blue: DSD 256
- Magenta: MQA
Headphone Amplifier: The iFi ZEN DAC's headphone amplifier can drive most headphones and in-ear monitors rated at 16 to 600 ohms. The balanced 4.4mm Pentaconn headphone output uses inverse positive/negative electrical paths to deliver equal and opposite audio signals to each side of the headphone driver voice coil. The balanced output offers double the voltage output for driving bigger and more difficult-to-drive headphones. It also produces reduced THD distortion and crosstalk, compared to unbalanced, single-ended outputs. The ZEN DAC also features a single-ended 1/4" (6.3mm) unbalanced headphone output with iFi's S-Balanced circuit topography, which is specially suited for IEMs (in-ear monitors). S-Balanced features a dedicated negative wire for each channel, and supports both TRS and TRRS headphones. For headphones with a 3.5mm plug, you can use the included 3.5mm-to-1/4" plug adapter.
PowerMatch: The headphone output is equipped with iFi's PowerMatch technology. You can turn PowerMatch on or off as needed to match the level of the drive to the load presented by the headphones. When switched on, PowerMatch adjusts the input sensitivity and signal strength, which works best for less sensitive large headphones. Leaving PowerMatch off works best for the more sensitive IEMs.
TrueBass: The iFi ZEN DAC features iFi's switchable analog TrueBass circuitry that adds back the lost bass response to give you a more accurate reproduction of the original music. TrueBass' High Setting works well for many IEMs and open-back headphone designs, while the Low Setting should be adequate for most closed-back over-ear headphones.
USB Input: The ZEN DAC has a Type B USB 3.0 input that connects to your computer audio source. The input supports the "SuperSpeed" USB 3.0 standard, and is also compatible with USB 2.0. It also supplies power to the unit.
Analog Outputs: The rear panel offers both balanced and unbalanced analog outputs. The balanced output has a 4.4mm Pentaconn jack, which can be used with 4.4mm-to-XLR or other balanced interconnects. This output can be used for an active speaker or amplifier. The unbalanced output is an RCA stereo pair.
Variable/Fixed Output: ZEN DAC offers switchable variable or fixed line outputs. If you wish to use the unit's analog rotary volume control on the front panel, you should set the Variable-Fixed switch to the "Variable" position. This is recommended for connecting ZEN DAC to a power amplifier or active speakers. If you are connecting ZEN DAC to a receiver, integrated amplifier, or other device with a volume control, setting the switch to "Fixed" will provide the best results. This switch does not affect the front panel headphone outputs.
5.0V DC Power Input: A 5-volt DC input is provided for a DC power supply (not supplied). ZEN DAC can be powered by either a DC power supply or via the USB 3.0 input.
- Input: USB 3.0 Type B (USB 2.0 compatible)
- PCM: 44.1 / 48 / 88.2 / 96 / 176.4 / 192 kHz
- DSD: 2.8 / 3.1 / 5.6 / 6.2 / 11.2 / 12.4 MHz
- DXD: 353 / 384 kHz
- DAC: Bit-perfect DSD & DXD DAC by Burr Brown
- Line Section:
- Unbalanced (RCA): 2.1V fixed; 1V - 3.3V max variable
- Balanced (4.4mm): 4.2V fixed; 2V - 6.2V max variable
- Z-out: <= 100 Ohm (unbalanced); <= 200 Ohm (balanced)
- SNR: < -116dB (A) @ 0 dBFS (Unbal/Bal)
- DNR: > 116dB (A) @ -60 dBFS (Unbal/Bal)
- THD+N: > 0.0015% @ 0 dBFS (Unbal/Bal)
- Headphone Section:
- Unbalanced (1/4"): 1V / 3.3V max (12 - 300 Ohm headphone)
- Balanced (4.4mm): 2V / 6.2V max (12 - 600 Ohm headphone)
- Output Power:
- Unbalanced: > 280mW @ 32R; > 36mW @ 300R
- Balanced: > 380mW @ 50R; > 70mW @ 600R
- Output Impedance: < 1 ohm (Unbal/Bal)
- THD+N: < 0.005% (125mW @ 32R)
- SNR: >113dBA (3.3V Unbal / 6.2V Bal)
- Power Consumption: ~ 2.5W (max); ~0.5W (no signal)
- Dimensions: Width 6.215", Height 1.375", Depth 4.709"
- Weight: 17.85 ounces
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