At What HI-Fi?, we often recommend investing in a decent entry-level phono stage to complement the growing market of budget record players, or as an upgrade to the phono stage built into the main amplifier. However, in doing so, we might be guilty of making it appear there are more out there than is actually true.
The arrival of the iFi Zen Phono has swollen the ranks of decent entry-level phono stages. You certainly won’t find one with a better spec sheet, or that is better built, but most importantly you’ll also struggle to find anything at this price that’ll make your records sound cleaner.
Build and Features
iFi is a company known for its ambition, determined to create entry-level products able to stack up against the best many times the price, and it almost encourages the listener to be as ambitious with them.
The Zen Phono not only caters for moving magnet cartridges, as you’d expect from a product such as this, but it can handle moving coil too, offering a range of gain in steps from 36dB up to 72dB. It also features a balanced circuit design to reduce noise and crosstalk, a feature even less common at this end of the market.
Gain settings 48dB (MC high), 36dB (MM)
Output impedance 200 ohms
Input impedance 47k ohms (MM), 47K ohms (MC high)
Dimensions (hwd) 3.5 x 15.8 x 11.7cm
The company has even dedicated considerable attention to creating its own low-noise power supply, as you might find in a flagship phono stage. Everything used, from the Panasonic and TDK capacitors to the Texas Instruments ICs, is geared towards low distortion and crystal clarity.
We often mention hi-fi components offering headroom for upgrades, so they continue to perform when the components around them step up a level. But rarely do we come across those that stop just shy of begging you to explore a world of opportunity, firmly nudging to try new things.
A good-sounding MC cartridge alone costs around double the price of the Zen Phono, so an entry-level do-all phono stage won’t keep up for long – but if iFi gets you to imagine a system beyond your own, then it has served a purpose.
In the meantime, the iFi Zen Phono sounds good. There is no mistaking where the company's focus has been – the presentation is immaculately clean. There will be components costing two or maybe even three times the price that will struggle to dig out this amount of information and deliver it with this level of clarity.
That isn’t to say the Zen Phono is overly clinical – it will embrace the warmth and character it is offered from your turntable – but it isn’t adding anything to the sound, merely polishing each note to the best of its ability.
Unsurprisingly, the balance is spot on, too. The iFi is willing to reach as high or low as your turntable asks it to, and treat each frequency with that same sympathy to tone and texture.
There is a compromise here, though. With all this focus on clarity and detail, the iFi loses a little of the rhythmic and dynamic sense we’d expect from a five-star product. While the texture and timbre of an instrument is interesting in itself, it needs timing and expression to be music.
The Zen Phono is not bereft entirely of these talents, but it doesn’t snap in time or throw lines at us with the energy some deserve. We’re not exactly bored or left confused by the iFi’s performance, but we’d certainly trade some of that cleanliness for a little more feeling. Using the balanced output makes the presentation bigger and bolder, but doesn't change the phono stage's fundamental sonic character.
It’s the kind of thing at which Rega excels, and it offers products that sandwich the Zen Phono in price. The Fono Mini A2D isn’t in the same league when it comes to features or build quality and doesn’t match the Zen Phono for detail, but its sound is overall more musical and engaging for two-thirds of the price.
And if you are willing to spend a little more, the What Hi-Fi? Award-winning Rega Fono MM MK3 matches that kind of hi-fi nous with a knack for finding a groove and contouring low-level dynamic shifts.
They are basic affairs, though, so while we might question just how necessary it is to have a budget phono stage that can handle MC cartridges and has a balanced output, the iFi stands head and shoulders above its rivals in terms of features before even getting started.
The iFi Zen Phono’s clarity is bound to give it plenty of suitors. Its slight lack of enthusiasm means we can’t quite give it the full five stars, but it should certainly be on your shortlist for a test drive nonetheless.
- Sound 4
- Features 5
- Build 5
Read our guide to the best phono preamps
Read our Rega Fono Mini A2D review
Read our Rega Fono MM MK3 review