On the desktop, there is little better than headphones for an affordable high-quality audio experience. iFi has delivered again in spades with what can only be described as a basement price for their stunning iFi Zen DAC which at one hundred and sixty quid is a total bargain, offering a premium desktop headphone solution.
The iFi Zen DAC is simply a digital-to-analogue signal converter with minimal bells and whistles, this is good. It offers both balanced and unbalanced headphone output and a fixed or variable RCA analogue output to the rear. Interestingly at this price point, there is a balanced output too at the rear for output to a preamplifier or a headphone amplifier. The only input is through the USB C to the rear, which can provide power to run the DAC.
I’m really looking here at the Zen DAC V2, though I do have the excellent Zen Stream to match. The V2 is basically the original Zen DAC with the main improvements being a new 16-core XMOS processor, which claims to offer more processing power and enables full MQA decoding. There are also improvements to the GMT clock system.
The DAC is asynchronous, meaning that the data stream is managed by the ZEN DAC’s audio clock circuitry. This claims to offer the listener better accuracy and apparently jitter-free data transfer from the source.
The iFi Zen range, as well as the Stream and the DAC, features a Zen Blue, Bluetooth box; a Zen Phono, which is a turntable phono stage solution; and a Zen Can, a headphone amplifier.
The iFi Zen DAC is a diminutive but surprisingly weighty desktop companion but the winner here is the rearward illuminated volume knob that is so smooth it belongs on a high-end 10k preamplifier. The illumination behind the volume shows the sample rate of the track being processed and it is a thing of beauty.
The case itself is a solid aluminium case with a soft powder-coated finish, it is about the width of the Pixel 6 Pro I have. It is about an inch and a half high. There are four soft rubber feet on the base. There is no power button as it is powered either from the Zen Stream through the USB which has the on/off duties. Plugged into the laptop source, the power is drawn through the USB similarly. The Zen DAC weighs in at 800g with dimensions 158 x 35 x 100mm (WxHxD).
The Zen DAC V2 is currently £159 and the Zen Stream is £349.
With the iFi Zen DAC, in headphones mode, I’m using equally a Dell XPS laptop running Tidal and Qobuz as well as selected 24-bit downloaded tracks, and the Zen Stream as well. I’ve been listening mainly with a pair of Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro headphones (£109), a pair of Focal Radiance closed-back cans (£1,199), some Sendy Apollo Planar magnetic headphones (£759) and recently arrived, the new Meze Audio 109 Pros (£749).
I’ve also been using the Zen DAC/Streamer combination in my ‘proper stereo’ streaming the analogue output from the Zen DAC to my Moor Amps preamplifier. There is a fixed or variable output switch at the back of the Zen DAC and I’m using fixed to the preamplifier with Atlas Mavros interconnects.
The Zen DAC is an ideal desk partner, easy to pick up and move about the house with the Zen Stream, they are complimentary, stackable, and stable. I’m really just concentrating on the Zen DAC given its incredible value for money and ease of use, plug it into the laptop (no power lead clutter needed as it is drawn through the USB), download the driver (Windows) in my case and Tidal is your oyster.
There is a power match button on the Zen DAC front that is like a gain switch for more demanding headphones and is recommended to be off with in-ear monitors. I’m leaving it off generally preferring in my case to drive the headphones with the volume as needed, which is a very pleasurable experience indeed. I have the laptop on fixed output. I’m finding the lower volumes from the Zen DAC to be less open and controllable with the power boost on so I prefer to just crank it up as needed however this feature is useful, though not to me particularly. For example, the Beyers have a 250 Ohm impedance and the Focal Radiance headphones are just 35 Ohms, the Sendy’s are a planar magnetic 16 Ohms. At lower volumes, like less than 10% say, the volume control is less precise.
I generally have had the Bass Boost function on, and this weighs up the lower end. I just prefer it, although it does thicken up the Radiance headphones (see below), which is sub-optimal, so I’ve had it off in that case. I have found no difference if I have two headphones plugged in (one Pentaconn balanced and one unbalanced) at the same time.
The Zen Stream is the streaming bridge that matches in the Zen range, much like the Chord 2Go is to the Hugo 2. It is perfectly fine on Wi-Fi or Ethernet and seems to be very stable, I’m using Tidal or Qobuz Connect with the Zen Streamer.
Zen DAC Performance
The DAC itself is, for me, straight down the line, good in the midrange, refined in the treble with plenty of punchy bass being offered through the DAC. There is not much music being left behind in my view and the electronics are well out of the way. Personally, I appreciate the fact there are no filters to fiddle about with and wonder if your ears are working correctly, the bass button is enough here.
Zen DAC Headphone Performance
Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro
this Zen DAC is really a desktop headphone no-brainer
These headphones, at a hundred-odd pounds, are just no-brainers for their even frequency range and excellent detail in the same way as this Zen DAC is really a desktop headphone no-brainer if music matters to you. The Zen DAC compliments these headphones and offers an entry into higher level HiFi listening.
Meze Audio 109 Pros
There is, in my view an audible shift in performance with these new open-backed Meze 109 Pros, Meze’s first dynamic headphones. It is tangible and easy to spot. The fact the Zen DAC is able to demonstrate the difference as plainly as this says much for its own performance. From Tidal’s My Daily Discovery, I was offered Hayley Williams’ Simmer (Tidal Master 16 bit, 44.1kHz), a quite beautiful track. The volume knob switches blue for Tidal Master, the guitar detail and fingers are exquisite in this head stage.
The Radiance headphones are always a listening joy with their punchy low end and responsive dynamic bounce. I have had to turn off the Bass Boost, however, as the Zen DAC is offering a bit too much at the low end with these normally bass-tolerant headphones.
Sendy Apollo balanced headphone output
balanced output at this price point is quite a thing
These open-backed planar magnetic headphones are very easy to drive at 16 Ohms, there’s nothing to it. The Sendy Apollo retain their poise and gentle warm presentation that is very forgiving and open. I suspect, at this time, I’m preferring these headphones with the iFi Zen DAC for their wide-open presentation overall, though these preferences do tend to vary with me I find, and it is pretty hard to dismiss the very nicely appointed Meze 109s or the long listening Focal Radiance headphones.
I suspect further the Apollo benefit from having the balanced Pentaconn 4.4mm connection direct, rather than using the 3.5mm to 6.25mm adaptor that is needed for most of the above. Indeed, the balanced output at this price point is quite a thing.
For the record, if you have not experienced Finley Quaye’s beautifully produced 1997 album Maverick a Strike (Tidal Master 16 bit, 44.1kHz), I urge you to have a very good listen, Your Love Gets Sweeter and Even After All, in particular, are fine tracks and he seems to have been heavily overlooked in the popular press. His release A Sign of Things to Come earlier this year was missed by me and many but it is on rotation at the moment.
iFi Zen DAC is crazy good at this price
There are several things happening here: there is the headphone output and the straight DAC output to a preamplifier. The Zen DAC is really very good indeed at both of these things which are quite interesting at this price point.
Often if I get asked about desktop listening, or ‘one thing to buy’ to enter the world of HiFi and I would probably suggest an Audioquest Dragonfly Red (usually £169) and a pair of headphones (like the Meze 99 Neo). The Audioquest Cobalt, with higher bit rates and MQA like this Zen DAC, is much more at £239. I have to say, now, I would comfortably point to the Zen DAC as an entry to the Audiophile world, without a doubt. As a regular Chord Mojo 2 desktop user I still think that is going to be the next step up both in price and quality but this iFi Zen DAC is crazy good at this price.
I cannot recommend it (iFi Audio Zen DAC ) highly enough…
This iFi Audio Zen DAC is a fine performer and at £159 it is probably mispriced for the quality and performance offered. As a DAC it is pretty straight down the line in terms of balance across the frequency range. I cannot recommend it highly enough, Christmas is coming.
No need for a power lead
Zen Stream partnership
No filters or DSP distractions, apart from the bass boost
I’d like the low volume to be a bit better
A S/PDIF or a Toslink input would be amazing but of course, that’s not really what this is.
Full details are on the company’s site.