With prices starting around £159 ($159, AU$229) for the What Hi-Fi? 2021 Award-winning Zen DAC V2, the Zen Blue V2 (an updated version of the excellent iFi Zen Blue), Zen Can and Zen Phono, iFi's popular Zen Series has arguably already achieved the company's aim of making high-performance audio more accessible.
But iFi's ambition clearly knows no bounds. The UK audio specialist's new Zen Air range takes these four Zen devices, simplifies the circuitry and strips back some features while retaining core elements to enable an even more affordable price tag.
The Zen Air DAC, Zen Air Blue, Zen Air Can and Zen Air Phono look similar to their brethren in the 'main' Zen line, featuring the same desktop-friendly size and distinctive shape. However, in place of the extruded aluminium enclosure used throughout the Zen Series, the Zen Air devices sport a synthetic polymer case with a textured finish, each in a different shade of grey. iFi is quick to tell us this isn’t just generic ABS plastic though, it’s a high-grade thermoplastic polymer with additives to reduce brittleness and improve shock absorbance.
So are the Zen Airs essentially Zens in more affordable jackets? No. iFi explains that the simplification of the circuitry within the Zen Air models means the mainline Zen devices remain sonically superior, and some of the features supported are correspondingly absent from their Zen Air equivalents. For example, the fully balanced circuit topologies in the new Zen Air devices have been simplified, so the 4.4mm balanced connections offered throughout the Zen Series are not included in their Zen Air counterparts.
Some of the upgrades made to the latest V2 editions of the Zen DAC and ZEN Blue, (such as the enhanced GMT clock system) are also absent. But by retaining most of the core features and ensuring the circuit designs remain high quality – including discrete components and symmetrical channel layouts – iFi assures us that the performance across the range comes remarkably close to the mainline Zen models.
The core DAC technology in the Zen Air DAC, for example, is the same as the original Zen DAC, using the Burr-Brown DAC chip that iFi has long favoured. You're also getting the company's bespoke XMOS firmware and digital filtering, and iFi’s GMT clock system to tackle jitter. Hi-res PCM is supported to 32-bit/384kHz, alongside DXD, and DSD64, 128 and 256. MQA is also supported but take note, it's MQA rendering, as with the original Zen DAC, rather than full MQA decoding as performed by the Zen DAC V2.
The Zen Air DAC (a USB DAC and headphone amp) and Zen Air Blue (a Bluetooth DAC with support for Bluetooth 5.1 with aptX Adaptive, aptX HD, aptX Low Latency, LDAC and HWA/LHDC) are available at selected retailers from today, 4th March.
The Zen Air Can analogue headphone amp and Zen Air Phono (an MM/MC phono stage) will follow in May.
Pricing is easy to remember – they're all £99 each (which is around $130 or AU$179, although these last two prices are guidelines).
Certainly, there’s little competition in the market at under £100...
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Can't fault them for value when all around are increasing prices.
Personally, I wasn't impressed with the K92 model (despite its best-buy WHF review).
Ideally you'd get to try some options before settling because the differences in sound (and comfort) can be vast.
Don't read this as me saying that more expensive will always be better....though I would imagine the HE1 from Sennheiser isn't too shabby - £51,000 - but you do get an amp with it.
(I paid 335 times less for my HD-560S from Sennheiser Direct, £152 with a 10% first-order discount).
Start with some decent (low to medium impedance) headphones and see how you go.
You can always think about DAC / amps later.