iFi has built a solid reputation for its well-featured, affordable digital-to-analogue converters. Thanks to a combination of features and sound quality that’s hard to better at the price, the Zen DAC is arguably one of its finest products.
This is a USB-only desktop product that takes power from the computer that’s connected to it. If you need optical or coax this product is not for you, though iFi makes a range of other products that will appeal.
You don’t need to be near a mains outlet, so it’s possible to use this in the garden or away from the house. It’s not portable in the sense that the Audioquest DragonFly or Cyrus soundKey are – the Zen is about the size of a small paperback, so it’s too large for a pocket. It’s well built with a nicely finished aluminium case and precise-feeling controls.
There’s upgrade potential too, with iFi making an outboard mains power supply called the iPower X (£99/$99), which definitely improves the sound in all areas, but also moves the DAC into desktop-only scenario and a higher price segment.
While we would certainly recommend the upgrade for the future, we think the Zen DAC is a great performer as it is. It’s easy to set up and we get going in a matter of minutes, using the supplied USB cable.
iFi has always tried to pack as much compatibility as possible into its products and this one is no different.
Input USB3.0 (USB2.0 compatible)
Output Audio RCA
Output impedance < 1ohm
Dimensions (hwd) 3 x 10 x 11.7cm
Despite its budget nature, the Zen can handle PCM files up to 384kHz and up to DSD256. It can also decode MQA, which is impressive at this price.
As for outputs, there are 6.3mm and 4.4mm balanced Pentaconn jacks on the front, a stereo RCA line output on the back with another 4.4mm balanced option next to it.
The inclusion of balanced outputs is unusual at this price, but also points to the fact that the Zen’s analogue output stage has a fully balanced layout. There’s a choice of having a fixed or variable output through the line connections, which means that the Zen can operate as a digital preamp in a system if you want to use it that way.
While it’s commendable that iFi has gone to the trouble of implementing such a design, it’s also true that the bulk of price compatible kit that will be partnered with the DAC won’t be balanced or capable enough to make the most of it. Still, that hardly makes the inclusion of such outputs a negative.
iFi has tried to optimise the sound for a wide range of headphones. There’s a button on the front that offers a choice of output levels to take into account the large difference in sensitivity between headphone types, and another that adds a degree of bass boost. This works subtly enough to be useful, adding extra weight and authority to thin or lean sounding cans.
Most budget digital-to-analogue converters aren’t particularly inspiring to listen to and don’t tend to offer much of a step-up over the soundcard of a computer. That’s certainly not the case here.
The Zen DAC clearly outperforms our MacBook Pro laptop easily, sounding clearer and more detailed. We listen to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and are impressed by the iFi’s expressive dynamics and its ability to reproduce the piano’s harmonic richness convincingly. The leading edges of notes are precise but not over etched, and there’s a good sense of authority to the sound.
Tonally, this is a well-judged unit, having just the right degree of smoothness at high frequencies to prevent low bit rate or thin-sounding music streams from getting annoying. We like the openness of the presentation and its generally even-handed nature.
We switch to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and the Zen responds with enough in the way of punch and rhythmic drive to keep us listening. There’s a good amount of insight, so we can follow Lamar’s flow, and a decent dose of composure to keep this dense recording sounding organised. Such things aren’t a given at this level.
Compare the iFi with price rivals and it’s clearly up there with the best when it comes to sound quality. But it also offers a degree of versatility that those rivals don’t. If you’re looking for a well-built, budget desktop DAC, this iFi should be top of your list.
- Sound 5
- Build 5
- Features 5
Read our iFi Zen Blue review
Read our Cyrus soundKey review