iFi Zen DAC Review

AudioReputation AwardsIf you are in the market for an affordable and compact desktop DAC/headphone amp, iFi Zen DAC could be just the thing you need. Along with great looks, compact design, and affordable price, iFi Zen DAC delivers very nice, distortion-free sound and can drive the most demanding headphones (up to 600Ω). In this review, we will discuss the features and performance of this very nice entry-level DAC/headphone amp. 

iFi is a young audio company, founded in 2012. The company headquarters are located in Southport, UK. iFi makes all kinds of headphone amps, DACs, audio cables, and other audio equipment. Their products have quickly become very popular, mostly because of the value they offer for the price. iFi Zen DAC is another product that justifies iFi’s reputation. 

iFi Zen DAC uses a Burr-Brown chipset that delivers a warmish and punchy sound signature. It sports both balanced (4.4mm) and unbalanced (6.3mm) headphone outputs as well as RCA inputs and another balanced output for connecting to your stereo amp or to your powered speakers. The input stage consists of only one USB Type-B 3.0 input. iFi Zen DAC supports hi-res streaming as well as MQA. It also supports DSD (up to DSD256), DXD (up to 24bit/384kHz), and PCM (up to 384kHz) files. iFi Zen DAC has a variable gain (high-low) so you can match the power output to your headphones and it also has the bass boost feature.

When it comes to negatives, you should know that this DAC/headphone amp doesn’t come with a DC adapter even though it has a DC input. Also, it doesn’t have the OFF button and the only way to turn it off is to unplug it. The biggest downside is the lack of versatility. This thing has only one USB input. There are no optical or coaxial inputs. Also, iFi Zen doesn’t feature Bluetooth. 

iFi Zen DAC

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UPSIDES

  • Affordable price
  • Stylish, eye-catching design 
  • Solid build quality
  • Balanced (4.4mm) and unbalanced (6.3mm) headphone outputs
  • Balanced (4.4mm) and unbalanced (RCA) line outputs
  • USB 3.0 input
  • Supports hi-res streaming and MQA
  • Supports DSD256, DXD (up to 384kHz), and PCM (up to 384kHz)
  • Variable gain
  • Bass boost
  • Fairly balanced sound with a great punch

 
DOWNSIDES

  • DC adapter is not included in the package
  • There’s no OFF button (the Zen DAC stays on all the time)
  • Only one digital input (no optical, no coaxial)

 
VERDICT 

iFi Zen DAC is a great choice if you are looking for a compact and relatively affordable DAC/headphone amp. It’s one of only a few DACs in its price range with balanced outputs and that certainly makes it very attractive. It’s not extremely versatile when it comes to connectivity but if you are only looking for a DAC to stream files from your PC or Mac, that’s not going to be an issue. 

Official video – iFi Zen DAC

What’s in the box?

Inside the box, you will find your iFi Zen DAC/headphone amp, USB 3.0 (Type-A to Type-B) cable, RCA cable, user manual, and a warranty card. 

iFi Zen has a DC input but, for some reason, iFi decided not to include the adapter. You can buy the iFi 5V DC adapter separately (priced at $50) or buy some cheaper third-party adapter if you want to save some money. The good news is that you don’t have to buy it since iFi Zen can get the necessary power supply from your PC/Mac via the included USB cable. However, if you want the best possible performance, you should probably buy the adapter.

Box contents

Box contents

Specs

iFi Zen DAC Specifications 
DIMENSIONS
Width4.6in/117mm
Height1.18in/30mm
Depth3.9in/100mm
Weight1.08lb/491g
INPUTSUSB 3.0 (Type-B) x1
HEADPHONE OUTPUTSBALANCED – 4.4mm Pentaconn

UNBALANCED – 6.3mm
LINE OUTPUTSBALANCED – 4.4mm Pentaconn

UNBALANCED – RCA
DAC DETAILS
Supported sampling ratesDSD – up to DSD256

DXD – up to DXD 24bit/384kHz

PCM – up to 384kHz
HEADPHONE SECTION
Supported headphone impedance
6.3mm unbalanced output12-300Ω
4.4mm balanced output12-600Ω
6.3mm unbalanced output power
Output power into 32Ω280mW
Output power into 300Ω36mW
4.4mm balanced power output
Output power into 50Ω380mW
Output power into 600Ω70mW
THD (125mW at 32Ω)Lower than .005%
SNRGreater than 113dBA
LINE SECTION
Zout4.4mm BALANCED – up to 200Ω

RCA UNBABALANCED – up to 100Ω
SNRLower than -116dB(A)
DNRGreater than 116dB(A)
THDLower than .0015%
ADDITIONAL FEATURESBass boost (TrueBass feature)

Adjustable gain (PowerMatch – switchable gain)

Design

Although inexpensive, iFi Zen feels quite premium. At $130, you would expect some plastic but it’s all metal. The controls, as well as the front and rear panels, are made of brushed aluminum. The housing is also made of thick and sturdy metal. All in all, the craftsmanship is really impressive.

The control/input scheme is quite simple. On the front panel, you’ll see the PowerMatch button (variable gain), TrueBass button (bass boost), and large volume knob. The PowerMatch button is used to match the power requirements of your headphones. When using some high-sensitivity and low-impedance headphones or IEMs, you can turn it off (low power) and you will get perfectly satisfying performance. When using more demanding over/on-ear headphones (lower sensitivity, high impedance), you can press it and get a higher power output. 

The front panel also houses two headphone outputs – standard 6.3 unbalanced and 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced output.

iFi Zen DAC – front panel

iFi Zen DAC – front panel

On the rear panel, you have 4.4mm balanced and RCA unbalanced line outputs, variable/fixed switch, USB input, and DC input.

iFi Zen DAC – rear panel

iFi Zen DAC – rear panel

Features

iFi Zen DAC is not extremely capable or versatile DAC/headphone amp but, for a pocket-sized device priced under $150, it packs a nice set of features. 

Feature overview

Feature overview

The heart (and brain) of this device represents the Burr-Brown’s chipset. Burr-Brown chips are known for their warm character so you can already guess what kind of performance and sound you get. According to the iFi’s claims, this chipset will leave your audio files unchanged.

iFi Zen DAC can stream Hi-Res audio files including DSD (up to DSD256), DXD (up to DXD384), and PCM (up to 384kHz).

It also supports MQA audio so you can stream music from Tidal Masters if you already have Tidal HiFi membership. In case you don’t know how to stream from Tidal, you have video tutorials on the official iFi’s YouTube channel.

In case you have Max or Linux, you can download the firmware update to unlock DoP256 support.

Also, if you want to experience a cleaner sound and better digital signal processing, you can install the 5.3C firmware update to add a special GTO filter.

iFi firmware updates – unlock DoP256 and GTO filter

iFi firmware updates – unlock DoP256 and GTO filter (source – iFi download page)

The iFi Zen DAC also features iFi’s proprietary TrueBass technology. It’s just a fancy name for the bass boost. When activated, it will emphasize the bass response by a few dBs and it will make it a little bit thicker.

One of the greatest highlights is the existence of balanced outputs (headphone output and line out) which is quite unexpected at this price point. Like some high-end iFi products, Zen DAC features separate circuitries for the left and right channels. Balanced outputs reduce the interference, crosstalk, and noise which results in clearer sound.

Balanced 4.4 Pentaconn outputs

Balanced 4.4 Pentaconn outputs

Setup and Performance

Setting up the iFi Zen DAC is done in just a few minutes. The unit will work perfectly fine with a USB cable but it’s still recommended to buy the DC adapter. For the purposes of this review, we used our desktop PC running on Windows 10. Tidal Masters was used as a source. We have only tried it with Sennheiser 660S headphones since they come with a cable with 4.4mm Pentaconn connector and we really wanted to try the balanced output. 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced connection is not exactly industry standard and there aren’t many headphone models that come with this kind of cable. However, many audio stores sell all kinds of headphone cable adapters and you can buy the adapter you need if you want to experience all the benefits of balanced connection.   

We did the testing with and without DC adapter. Also, we tested the Zen DAC with and without the GTO filter. The first thing to know is that you are not going to get a reference-grade detail but it would be unreasonable to expect something like that from such an affordable device. Having the price in mind, Zen DAC delivers quite an impressive performance with a very nice balance, accuracy, and just a little bit of warmth.

Without the firmware update and GTO filter (by default, Zen DAC uses a linear phase filter), you will get warmish and punchy sound with perfectly clear and detailed mids and just a little bit laid-back treble. The update brings GTO filter which offers the same kind of fluid and relaxed sound reproduction but more detailed, more textured, with cleaner vocals, and more extended and more energetic highs. These were our observations without the adapter.

The adapter will give you a bit more stable power supply than USB. When you plug in the cable, the iFi Zen will restart and you will be able to use it in a few seconds. The adapter reduced the noise and interference and made the sound even fuller and weightier. The bass had a better impact and the soundstage expanded and became cleaner. It was quite an enjoyable experience.  

So, to conclude, Zen DAC does a great job for the price. It’s precise and balanced. It also brings a little bit of warmth which compliments genres like rock and hip-hop. That warmth never gets excessive or distracting.

The Competition

Finding a device with similar characteristics and balanced outputs at this price point is really hard. You can find similarly priced amps but without balanced outputs. If you are interested in balanced outputs and you don’t like iFi Zen DAC, you will have to pay a little bit more. 


FiiO K5 ProFiiO K5 Pro

FiiO K5 Pro is just a little bit pricier than iFi Zen DAC ($10 price difference). It’s also very sleek and it’s solidly built.

Compared to iFi Zen DAC, it has more digital inputs (additional coaxial and optical inputs) and it also has RCA line inputs. Like iFi Zen, it has RCA line outputs. However, FiiO K5 Pro does not have balanced outputs. It only has a 6.3mm unbalanced headphone output.  

FiiO K5 Pro has a very high output (up to 1.5W at 32Ω) and can drive the most demanding headphones. K5 Pro also supports very high sampling rates (up to 786kHz and up to DSD512).

K5 Pro, like the iFi Zen, features variable gain (low/medium/high). 

K Pro delivers a very accurate, balanced, and detailed sound without any obvious colorations.


Schiit Fulla 3Schiit Fulla 3

Schiit Fulla 3 is significantly cheaper than the iFi Zen DAC (the price varies from $99 to $119) and it’s also less capable.

Fulla 3 is a pretty basic device. It looks nice but it’s not very versatile and it’s not as capable as iFi Zen DAC. It only has one micro USB input for connecting to your PC/Mac. There’s an additional micro USB port for power supply. On the front, there’s a 3.5mm headphone output and mic input (this DAC/headphone amp is designed for gaming). There are no balanced outputs and no additional digital inputs. 

Fulla 3 has a decent power output (up to 400mW at 16Ω) and it only supports sampling rates up to 24bit/192kHz. 

The sound output across the audible range is nicely balanced and relatively flat but not as detailed and exciting as the sound output of iFi Zen.


Audioengine D1Audioengine D1

AudioEngine D1 is pricier than iFi Zen ($40 difference) and, in our opinion, it’s a little bit overpriced. It’s maybe a bit more versatile when it comes to inputs but it’s not as capable when it comes to power output. D1 doesn’t have variable gain and it doesn’t have balanced headphone output. 

AudioEngine D1 has USB and optical inputs. It also has high-quality analog RCA line output and 3.5mm headphone output. No balanced outputs.

There’s no info on the power output but we can tell you that D1struggles with high-impedance headphones and can’t deliver the same kind of power output and performance as iFi Zen DAC. 


Comparison Table 

DAC/ampPower outputMax. sampling rate
iFi Zen DAC380mW (BAL) @50Ω384kHz/DSD256
FiiO K5 Pro1.5W (UNBAL) @32Ω786kHz/DSD512
Schiit Fulla 3400mW (UNBAL) @16Ω24bit/192kHz
Audioengine D1N/A24bit/192kHz

Final Thoughts

We really enjoyed testing this budget-friendly device. It’s attractive, it’s small, it has balanced outputs, and it sounds really good for the price. It has only one digital input but it’s still worth the money. If you are looking for an entry-level DAC/headphone amp with balanced outputs under $150, iFi Zen DAC is your best option.

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