When iFi releases a new product, it's worth taking a gander: in just a few short months the company's first Zen Series products – the Zen Blue and Zen DAC – both gained resounding and hard-to-achieve five-star reviews from this publication. And who could forget the cheeky design (but solid, five-star performance) of the iFi hip-DAC?
Now, iFi has expanded the Zen range with the Zen Can – an all-analogue headphone amplifier in the same compact aluminium chassis and in the same, sub-£200 price category.
The company, based in Southport, England, says the Zen Can sports many features usually reserved for high-end headphone amps at many times the price. A number of key elements have trickled down from the Class A circuitry developed for iFi’s flagship headphone amplifier, the Pro iCan, which at £1799 (AU$2599) is 12 times the price of the Zen Can.
The new Zen Can does promise prodigious drive capability for such a modestly priced headphone amp, delivering 1600mW (7.2V) into 32 ohms from the single-ended output, with 15V+ available to loads of 300 ohms or more through the balanced output, meaning the Zen DAC should take even current-hungry planar headphones in its stride.
As an all-analogue headphone amp, the Zen Can has no digital input of any kind, USB or otherwise. It can connect to any audio source via an analogue output, such as the headphone output from a DAP (Digital Audio Player), a laptop, a tablet or a smartphone, or the RCA outputs from, say, a CD player or phono stage.
It could, of course, be paired with the Zen Blue to add Bluetooth reception, or combined with the Zen DAC to upgrade the DAC’s headphone amp stage. As well as a headphone amp, it can double as a preamp to feed a power amp and speakers or a pair of active speakers.
In common with the other iFi Zen Series products, the Zen Can looks smartly finished with a neatly-sized, sturdy aluminium enclosure. In the centre of the front panel is a rotary volume control, flanked by a range of sockets and buttons. On the left, beside the power button and input switch, there's a control for selecting the appropriate gain. Four settings in six dB steps – 0dB, 6dB, 12dB and 18db – enable the amp to suit any connected headphones; unity gain (0dB) is useful to ensure low noise with sensitive in-ear monitors, while the higher gain settings should make the most of tougher headphone loads.
To the right are a pair of headphone outputs – a 6.3mm output for headphones that have a standard single-ended connector (compatible with all headphones) and a 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced output, for headphones offering balanced connection (an output particularly recommended for high-impedance headphones).
Next to the headphone sockets is a button to engage the latest versions of iFi’s ‘XBass’ and ‘3D’ sonic tailoring options for headphones. XBass adjusts the frequency response to enhance low frequency performance – useful with open-back headphones that might ‘leak’ deep bass. 3D compensates for the ‘in-head localisation’ effect that can occur when using headphones to listen to music that was mixed using a pair of speakers. It aims to widen the headphone soundstage to deliver a more speaker-like experience. Both XBass and 3D engage purely analogue processing and may be bypassed entirely if preferred.
To the left of the aluminium volume control are three buttons: power on/off, input selection and gain selection.
Around the back, the Zen Can offers stereo RCA and 3.5mm single-ended inputs, plus a balanced 4.4mm Pentaconn input. A 4.4mm balanced output is also provided, to connect to power amps and active speakers equipped with a balanced input – either a Pentaconn 4.4mm input, or XLR inputs via a 4.4mm-to-XLR cable. This balanced output can also be used for single-ended connection if no balanced input is available. All the Zen Can’s inputs and outputs are gold plated for optimal conductivity.
It's a lot of attention to detail; the kind that might be expected in a pricier model, but the fact that iFi has implemented it in a headphone amp amp retailing at just £149 is intriguing indeed.
The iFi Zen Can is available at selected retailers from today, 31st July. The first 1000 units (150 in Australia) are bundled with iFi’s ultra-low noise ‘iPower’ AC/DC power adapter, which costs £49 (AU$79) when purchased separately, at a special package price of £169 (AU$269). When these bundles have sold out, the Zen Can will be available with a standard AC/DC power adapter at £149 (AU$239).
When availability and pricing for the rest of the world is known, we'll update this page. And once we've listened to the iFi Zen Can, you'll know about that, too...