New Release: Brand new DAC from iFi Audio - iFi Audio Zen DAC

Hot on the heels of the ZEN Blue hi-res Bluetooth streamer, iFi expands the ZEN family of desktop-sized audio products with the ZEN DAC – a USB DAC/headphone amp offering a level of specification and performance that belies its eminently affordable £129 price tag.

Designed for home use – on a desk, perhaps, or in the living room – the ZEN DAC connects to PCs and Macs, or smart devices such as tablets or phones, via USB. Its hi-res digital-to-analogue conversation technology processes all forms of digital audio to a super-high standard, while the integrated analogue headphone amplifier delivers superb sound with all headphone types, from in-ear monitors to larger on- and over-ear designs.

Compared to simply plugging headphones directly into a computer or smart device, the ZEN DAC transforms the listening experience – sound is clearer, more detailed, more expansive and engaging, making the most of whichever headphones are connected.

As well as driving headphones, the ZEN DAC can be used as a USB DAC in a home audio system, with or without its volume control engaged. What’s more, whether you’re hooking up headphones, an external amp or active speakers, you have a choice of single-ended or balanced connection – a remarkable facility at the price.

iFi Audio Zen DAC

Digital Stage

The DAC section is based around a Burr-Brown DAC chip that iFi uses extensively, selected for its fluid, highly ‘musical’ sound quality and ‘True Native’ architecture. This, together with the XMOS chip used for input processing, enables iFi to deliver excellent sound quality across all manner of digital audio formats including hi-res PCM, ‘bit-perfect’ DSD and MQA ­– the hi-res streaming codec, as used by Tidal’s ‘Masters’ tier. Given the diminutive asking price, the ZEN DAC’s digital audio credentials are highly impressive.

PCM and DXD audio data is supported up to 24-bit/384kHz, alongside DSD sampling rates from 2.8MHz to 12.4MHz (DSD256). Thanks to the Burr-Brown chip’s True Native design, PCM and DSD take separate pathways – this enables DSD to remain ‘bit-perfect’ in its native form, right through to analogue conversion. Many DACs that claim DSD compatibility accept DSD data but then convert it to PCM; for DSD purists, the ZEN DAC is a fantastic affordable solution.

Another circuit feature that separates this and other DACs made by iFi from competing designs is iFi’s in-house programming of the XMOS chip. While other manufacturers simply use the firmware that comes with the chip off-the-shelf, which is not typically optimised for audiophile-grade sound, iFi programs its own bespoke firmware to boost audio processing power.

iFi’s continuous software development allows features to be added or optimised via firmware updates, enabling the ZEN DAC to be tailored to the user’s playback priorities and ensuring it stays cutting-edge over time. Users can even download and install different versions of iFi firmware to experiment with different digital filters should they so desire.

Extensive clock-locking is used throughout the digital stage to eradicate jitter, maintaining the integrity of the digital signal until conversion.

iFi Audio Zen DAC

Analogue Stage

The ZEN DAC’s analogue stage is a balanced design – highly unusual in a DAC/headphone amp anywhere near this price point. It incorporates a range of high-quality circuit components, carefully selected for their performance in an audio context, including C0G capacitors from TDK, a precision low-noise power supply IC from Texas Instruments and a high-quality analogue volume pot.

The headphone amp stage has switchable gain, which iFi terms PowerMatch. This matches the level of drive to the load presented by the headphones, by adjusting input sensitivity and thereby signal strength. With high-sensitivity headphone types such as in-ear monitors, leave PowerMatch at its lower setting for ultra-low-noise performance. But if your headphones require more drive – most on/over-ear types, for example – press the PowerMatch button on the front panel to increase gain.

TrueBass is another user-selectable feature. An evolution of iFi’s established XBass circuit, TrueBass is a sophisticated form of ‘bass boost’ that subtly enhances low frequencies without muddying the midrange – particularly useful with earphones and open-back headphones that may lack deep bass. It operates entirely in the analogue domain rather than messing with the digital signal via DSP and may be switched in or out via another button on the front panel.

iFi Audio Zen DAC

Well Connected

The ZEN DAC sports Pentaconn 4.4mm balanced outputs, both front and back – this is a relatively new interface type, designed to enable balanced signal transfer between compact products that cannot accommodate traditional XLR connections. The front-mounted 4.4mm output sits alongside a standard, single-ended 6.3mm headphone socket – thus, the benefits of balanced headphone designs are fully utilized, whilst also accommodating every type of headphone, both balanced and single-ended.

The 4.4mm output to the rear enables connection to 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. Single-ended RCA outputs are also provided.

These line-level outputs – both balanced and single-ended – can be switched between ‘variable’ and ‘fixed’, enhancing the ZEN DAC’s versatility. The variable setting applies volume control to the audio signal, enabling the ZEN DAC to perform as a preamp feeding a power amp or active speakers. The fixed option bypasses the volume control, fixing the output at 4.2V (balanced) or 2.1V (single-ended) for connection to an external preamp or integrated amp.

The ZEN DAC’s asynchronous USB Type B input supports the ‘SuperSpeed’ USB 3.0 standard and is also compatible with USB 2.0.

In common with other ZEN Series products, the ZEN DAC sports a sturdy, smartly finished aluminium enclosure, neatly sized at 158x35x100mm (WxHxD). Even the rotary volume control is aluminium, giving a reassuringly solid feel – impressive at the product’s super-affordable price. Behind the volume control resides an LED that changes colour to indicate the sampling rate of the audio data received.

The iFi ZEN DAC is available in North America right now for $129.99 USD.

iFi Audio Zen DAC | Affordable DAC & Headphone Amplifier
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Music streaming services such as Tidal are now offering “Masters” quality Hi-Res versions of albums. The tracks on these albums have been digitally sampled at 24-bit/96kHz which promises to offer a superior audio experience to CD versions of the album which are always digitally sampled at a lower 16-bit/44kHz frequency. The great news is that “Masters” albums are not just limited to recent releases by the likes of Ed Sheeran, Stormzy, Justin Bieber and Drake. The entire back catalogue of musical icons such as the Beatles, Bowie and Led Zeppelin have been resampled at this higher bit rate and frequency from the original Master tapes.

I initially expected that it would be relatively easy to enjoy the full Hi-Res audio experience from MQA (Masters Quality Authenticated) files played from the Tidal app on my iOS devices. After a little bit of research I soon learned that MQA files require two stages of unpackaging and processing to unlock the Hi-Res sound. The first stage of the unpackaging is done by the Tidal App on your iOS device. The data is then passed on to the DAC (Digital to Audio Convertor), which is responsible for completing the final unpack and processing of the MQA audio file.

The removal of the 3.5 mm headphone jack from recent iOS devices resulted in the loss of the onboard DAC. You are therefore left with one of three choices to transfer your music from your iOS device. The first option is Bluetooth streaming but iOS devices automatically downsample the Hi-Res audio files to AAC format before transferring them, which naturally leads to a reduction in quality. The second option is to use the included Apple lightning to 3.5 mm dongle, which has an inbuilt DAC. This DAC however lacks the ability to reproduce Hi-Res audio. Attaching an External DAC is therefore the only option that will allow you to reproduce Hi-Res audio from an iOS device. If your choice of provider of Hi-Res “Masters” audio files is Tidal you are going to need a DAC that is MQA certified. Unfortunately most DACs on the market are not MQA certified and lack the capability to complete the final unpack and processing of the MQA audio file which is required to deliver true Hi-Res audio.

My initial research left me seriously doubting whether there would be any solution within my price range to enable me to deliver Hi-Res audio from my my iOS devices to my Hi-Fi. I therefore couldn’t believe my luck when an internet search brought up the recently released iFi Zen DAC for less than £130. It is such a beautifully designed DAC, with a full metal chassis that gives the Zen such a premium feel. The absolute killer feature of this DAC is that it is MQA certified. This means it can complete the unpacking process and output the Tidal “Masters” files in full Hi-Res audio to the device of your choice. RCA connections allow you to output to your Hi-Fi and there are also two 4.4 mm outputs to hook up a pair of headphones.
I connected my iPad Pro by purchasing a £7 USB-C to USB-B 3.0 cable (not to be confused with a USB-C to USB-B 2.0 cable, which won’t fit the USB-B 3.0 port on the Zen). To connect my iPhone I require a Lightning to USB-A dongle (Apple call it the Lightning to USB 3 Camera adapter) along with the supplied USB-A to USB-B 3.0 cable. A slightly less elegant solution but still incredibly simple.
I’d initially used my award winning Cyrus Soundkey DAC/Headphone amp (not MQA certified) to deliver audio from my Tidal app on my iPad to my amplifier, via its 3.5mm headphone output. The device has done an admirable job when coupled to my Senheisser Momentum headphones. However to say I was disappointed with the experience through my Hi-Fi was an understatement. Even at low to moderate volume my system really exposed the flaws in the outputted audio, which suffered from very audible distortion.

With the iFi Zen DAC I can use a vastly superior, balanced RCA connection to my Hi-Fi’s amplifier, instead of a sub-optimal unbalanced 3.5 mm connection. As soon as I play a “Masters” quality track on my iPad Tidal app the light on the front of the iFi Zen DAC goes purple (technically Magenta) to indicate it is receiving and processing an MQA authenticated file. As soon as I switch to playing one of the more usual standard “Hi-Fi” quality tracks on the Tidal app, the light on the front of the unit switches to green to indicate it’s receiving a lower bit rate file. It is really satisfying to be able to see as well as hear that the DAC is performing its magic on those Hi-Res MQA tracks.

In reality however by far the most important part of this review comes down to the sound quality. The iFi Zen DAC delivers were it really matters. I tested it with a wide variety of source material and really “cranked up” the volume and still the music remained absolutely crystal clear. I then cross referenced a “Masters”quality album streamed from the Tidal app on my iPad through the DAC with the CD version I owned, played through my £300 CD deck. The audio reproduction from the DAC was at least as good as that from my CD player.

The big difference however comes from the fact that I have unlimited access to millions of songs through the Tidal app. The iFi Zen DAC costs less than £130 and can reproduce these tracks to a level that is at least on par with my CD player. I bought the CD version of an album to experience the ultimate sound quality but thanks to the iFi Zen DAC I can now experience the best quality through a music streaming service.

It’s rare to find such a clever, elegant and technically sound product that perfectly matches your requirement. It’s even rarer to find it at such an affordable price!

Dave Champion

Dave Champion

A quick synopsis mini review… The ZEN’s are just a watered down DAC’s for those entry level peeps not looking to shell out 4 bills for a REAL DAC/AMP like the iFI xDSD. The xDSD is nothing short of AMAZEBALLS. Sure its easy to pull the trigger on the ZEN at that price point but will it really bring you audio bliss now and ever in Buddhas Zen World? Not very likely. Sure you can easily jump in and try the lovely MQA format with this starter DAC at $130 US Dollars. The catch is when, and when you will, want to upgrade to say the aforementioned xDSD by…iFI. The iFI xDSD is desktop AND portable. Its also LOADED with every bell and whistle iFI can stuff in there. It works remarkably well easily blowing your socks off. THINK FIRST befeore you cross the street… If you are at all serious about quality audio formats that speaks generations now and future oohs and ahhs, the iFI xDSD REALLY, REALLY delivers. Yes you are paying for what you are getting. Its a lot easier to swallow Zens’ $129. over xDSD triple priced $399. I do own the xDSD. I could purchase a Zen, but would not at all do so at my current stage in the absolutely giddy world of High Res. Just be careful before you press “complete order”.
Yes, I’ve upgraded xDSD firmware. I use it with PC, iPadOS and Android 9.1 by Samsung S4 Galaxy Tab and Note 9.
Best of luck and don’t forget, ENJOY IT ALL.




How do you connect an i phone to the unit? Please advise, thanks! T

Ashit Modi

Ashit Modi

Hi I fan of ifi gears and new zen regular model like to buy .but brand not supplying 5v power adapter in box have buy $49 ex.pric. over that USB connect with laptop and smartphone . what it run as adapter power source consume from gear’s? Or must by adaptor? if latter purchase it valid….. Also give your opinion about it .if any response from you soon I I’ll be thinking of it.

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