iFi is expanding its Zen family of desktop-sized audio products with the Zen DAC, a USB DAC/headphone amp that connects to PCs, Macs, smartphones, and tablets via USB.
The hi-res digital-to-analogue conversation technology processes all forms of digital audio to a super-high standard, says iFi, while the integrated analogue headphone amplifier delivers improved sound with all headphone types, from in- ear monitors to larger on- and over-ear designs. Sound, says iFi, is clearer, more detailed, expansive, and engaging compared to plugging the headphones directly into a computer or mobile device.
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. Whether you're hooking up headphones, an external amp or active speakers, you have a choice of single-ended or balanced connection.
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 is combined with the XMOS chip used for input processing, which enables iFi to deliver "excellent sound quality" across various digital audio formats, including hi-res PCM, ‘bit-perfect' DSD and MQA, which is used by Tidal's ‘Masters' tier.
PCM and DXD audio data is supported up to 24-bit/384kHz, alongside DSD sampling rates from 2.8MHz to 12.4MHz (DSD256). Due 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.
A circuit feature that separates this and other DACs made by iFi from competing designs is iFi's in-house programming of the XMOS chip, says the company. While other manufacturers use the firmware that comes with the chip off-the-shelf, which is not typically optimized 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 optimized via firmware updates, enabling the ZEN DAC to be tailored to the user's playback priorities. You can download and install different versions of iFi firmware to experiment with different digital filters.
Extensive clock-locking is used throughout the digital stage to eradicate jitter, maintaining the integrity of the digital signal until conversion.
The ZEN DAC's analogue stage is a balanced design that 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.
The ZEN DAC sports Pentaconn 4.4mm balanced outputs, both front and back, 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.
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. The rotary volume control is also aluminium. Behind the volume control resides an LED that changes colour to indicate the sampling rate of the audio data received.
The iFi ZEN DAC will be available in Canada later this month for $189 through iFi's Canadian distributor, Motet Distribution.