iFi's just taken its Zen total to four – and we're not talking about Block Puzzle.
The all-new Zen Phono is, as its name overtly suggests, a phono stage, and it's the first sub-£200 phono stage the firm has ever made. (For reference, the company’s recently launched flagship model, the iPhono3 Black Label, will set you back a cool £999/$999/AU$1699.)
The company's first Zen Series products – the Zen Blue and Zen DAC – both gained resounding five-star reviews from this publication, and there's also an analogue headphone amp called the Zen Can on the books, too. Zen Series products from iFi are typically desktop-sized and affordable, and this Zen newbie is no different.
iFi says that the Zen Phono's circuit design is like nothing else at the price, with a range of precisely engineered settings that ensure genuine versatility. Whatever the turntable, whatever the cartridge, iFi promises that the Zen Phono always delivers.
Drilling down into its circuitry to assess those claims, the Zen Phono features a balanced, symmetrical dual-mono design. Reduced noise and crosstalk is the aim, and it's a method that has long been championed by engineer John Curl – a man whose analogue amp designs and phono stages have been lauded since the 1970s (interested? Have a look at the Halo JC 1+ and Curl's 16-year tenure at Parasound).
Curl is now a technical consultant for iFi and worked with iFi’s in-house technical team on the product.
In common with many iFi audio products, the Zen Phono incorporates a custom OV Series op-amp – in this case, the OVA2637. And it creates its own power supply off the mains in order to amplify the audio signal from the cartridge without adding noise, but it doesn't do it in a conventional way. The power supply circuitry is located on its own ‘island’ on the circuit board to ensure there is no contamination of the audio signal, too.
iFi says the Zen Phono is able to handle both moving coil (MC) and moving magnet (MM) type cartridges with ease. It offers a range of four gain settings, along with an LED panel to indicate your selection, from 36dB to 72dB: 36dB (MM), 48dB (high-output MC), 60dB (low-output MC) and 72dB (very-low-output MC), meaning that the Zen Phono should take even the more exotic MC cartridges in its stride.
Another rarity at the price-point is a subsonic filter, engaged via a front-panel button, to tackle the large subsonic signal output caused by warped records. A feature of all iFi phono stages, this proprietary circuit promises to filter out the unwanted subsonic output without affecting any deep bass on the recording – an undesirable side effect of some warp filters.
In terms of ins and outs, as well as the usual stereo RCA inputs and outputs (gold-plated for optimal signal integrity), the Zen Phono’s rear sports a 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced output, which can be used to connect to an amp or active speakers equipped with a balanced input – either a Pentaconn 4.4mm input (such as the one found on the Zen Can analogue headphone amp) or XLR inputs via an adapter.
According to iFi, even the way the Zen Phono switches between settings has been engineered to ensure sonic transparency. It's handled by a microcontroller that only ‘wakes up’ when a setting is changed to avoid any sonically deleterious electronic noise.
The iFi Zen Phono is available now, priced at £149 ($149 / AU$239).
Read all our phono stage reviews