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ifi Zen CAN Review (Headphone Amp)

amirm

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This is a review and detailed measurements of the ifi Zen CAN balanced headphone amplifier. It is on kind loan from a member and costs US $150 from Amazon including Prime shipping.

The design is identical to new line of budget products from ifi:

ifi zen can review s balanced unheadphone amplifier.jpg


No, it is not just the pictures. The silver labels on brushed metal are almost invisible. I literally had to tilt the unit, changing lighting, etc. to see what they say. I suppose you get used to it after a bit but still, should have used black ink.

The back panel is unusual in that it provides another 4.4 mm socket for balanced input:

ifi zen can review s balanced headphone amplifier.jpg


I didn't have an adapter for that kind of use so I limited my testing to RCA in. Power is provided by a Chinese generic 2.5 amp power supply and not the usual ifi one. Cost pressure and or requirements for voltage and current must have pushed them in this direction.

From what I recall, this is a discrete implementation so will be nice to see how it performs relative most of the market which uses IC opamps.

ifi Zen CAN Measurements
I used the lowest gain setting of 0 dB as that allowed unity gain for both unbalanced and balanced output for the dashboard. Let's start with unbalanced:

ifi zen can measurements balanced unheadphone amplifier.png


Distortion is at -100 dB which dominates SINAD. Interestingly it did not change when switching to balanced:

ifi zen can measurements balanced headphone amplifier.png


What is there is respectable but pretty far short of state of the art we see from other companies:

best headphone amplifier reviewed.png


Signal to noise ratio is very good at unity gain:
ifi zen can SNR measurements unbalanced headphone amplifier.png


50 mv output performance is above average but again, lags state of the art products:

Most quiet headphone amplifier reviewed.png


So very sensitive IEMs may generate audible noise if you play above 84 dB.

Frequency response is flat and good:
ifi zen can frequency response measurements balanced headphone amplifier.png


As we have seen before xBass provides significant amount of boost and extends to nearly 500 Hz. Would be nice to see such a boost but limited to 50 to 60 Hz where it is most needed for many headphones. Make it adjustable and you have a winning feature. As it is, it either works or is too much.

Someone mentioned measuring crosstalk and they were right:

ifi zen can crosstalk 3D crossfeed measurements balanced headphone amplifier.png


This is quite low for an amplifier. There is strong capacitive coupling between the channels. Would like to see this improved by 30+ dB, not for audible sake necessarily but for engineering excellence.

Channel matching was not great with disturbances early and going past my 0.5 dB threshold before a lot of attenuation:

ifi zen can channel matching measurements balanced headphone amplifier.png


Fortunately you have the 0dB setting for gain which should help you keep the volume from being too low.

The main theme of company's promotion is availability of power so let's start with 300 ohm unbalanced and then balanced:

ifi zen can Power into 300 ohm measurements unbalanced headphone amplifier.png


ifi zen can Power into 300 ohm measurements balanced headphone amplifier.png


Wow, in balanced mode this thing pumps out serious amount of power! My requirement here is 100 milliwatts and the Zen Can sails way past it in balanced mode to 645 milliwatts. And while distortion is not yet again state of the art, it is good enough to be competitive and not an audible concern.

Switching to the other extreme with 32 ohm unfortunately changed the picture fair bit:
ifi zen can Power into 32 ohm measurements unbalanced headphone amplifier.png


ifi zen can Power into 32 ohm measurements balanced headphone amplifier.png


I suspect the design is current starved as we can see it get worse as impedance goes even lower:

ifi zen can Power vs impedance measurements balanced headphone amplifier.png


Ifi Zen CAN Headphone Listening Tests
It is a gorgeous day here with blue skies, temperatures in 70s F and little humidity. This apparently enticed my XLR to unbalanced headphone adapter to take a walk so my testing is limited to using balanced output of the Zen CAN only. There, I started with Sennheiser HD650. I am telling, this thing can pump some serious power into these headphones. Play some techno music with heavy bass, turn up the volume and your skull may literally shrink a millimeter or two after being pounded in the middle by this headphone and amp combination!!! The sound is powerful, detailed and with no hint of distortion I could detect.

I was very surprised how much performance dropped when testing with my Ether CX 25 ohm headphone, again in balanced mode. Turn up the volume past moderately loud and the sound starts to get distorted. Turn it up a bit more and bass notes cause momentary muting, and distortion is abundantly audible. Now "normal" listening may be before all of this happens but still, I would not recommend low impedance headphones with this amplifier.

Conclusions
Despite paving its own path here, ifi gets a number of things right. Price is very attractive for balanced headphone amplifier. Feature set is very good. Most importantly this thing produces a ton of clean power into high impedance loads. Down sides are poor crosstalk, and inability to drive low impedance headphones well or at all.

I am going to give a conditional recommendation for ifi Zen CAN for high impedance headphone use only. It is one of the best in that category if not unique with the incredible amount of power it has together with balanced I/O and multiple gain settings. Outside of that the weaknesses of the design stand out too much to recommend over many other alternatives.

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As always, questions, comments, recommendations, etc. are welcome.

Any donations are much appreciated using: https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/how-to-support-audio-science-review.8150/
 

3125b

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That's actually better than I thought it would be.
Thanks for the review.
 

Jimbob54

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Yup, there it is again, that pretty spray of ifi distortion. That wonderful signature that gets reviewers a bit frothy..

Good review, proving once again that what some perceive as magic /special sauce is in fact just mediocre design and performance but with added shinola.
 

Carnatux

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Looks to be on sale for $149 from $169. I originally bought the launch edition at $169 to match with the zen dac and there is plenty of power on 0 gain. Even +6 Db is plenty, Between the 2 i still like the L30 with how clean sounding it. Unless you need a budget balanced Amp the L30 is still king in my book.

Also did you experience any noise/cracking while turning the volume?
 
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vins555

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What is the output impedence? Maybe headphones with lower impedence will perform better from single ended output?
 
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raif71

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Looks to be on sale for $149 from $169. I originally bought the launch edition at $169 to match with the zen dac and there is plenty of power on 0 gain. Even +6 Db is plenty, Between the 2 i still like the E30 with how clean sounding it. Unless you need a budget balanced Amp the e30 is still king in my book.

Also did you experience any noise/cracking while turning the volume?
Yeah, plenty of power. I myself at 6db most of the time. Owh, you mean L30 didn't you? I too have this but in terms of power enjoyment, the ifi zen can is better imho. Using this with Senns 600 series, hd800 and Sundara. Thanks for the can review, @amirm
 

Carnatux

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Yeah, plenty of power. I myself at 6db most of the time. Owh, you mean L30 didn't you? I too have this but in terms of power enjoyment, the ifi zen can is better imho. Using this with Senns 600 series, hd800 and Sundara. Thanks for the can review, @amirm

I hear ya! this was my first amp and all of my headphones I own are easy to drive so the volume was never turned up most of the time. The only "hard to drive" sets I have are the dekoni blue t50rp and Aeon 2 Noire. Really enjoyed the xbass feature with my 400i.
 

Tks

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Such an odd company. They always have some compelling aspect to their products, but then drop the ball utterly in some sense. Like, what is that crosstalk figure? It's not like even the most audiophiley of audiophile companies don't include such figure in their barren spec's pages. I would assume this is one the things most devices get right due to being relatively simple to test and account for (which is why it's seen on specs figures because it's usually a higher triple digit number).

As for the text legibility, it's not like they dont' know it.. Their higher end stuff has black ink (though I hear people say legibility is still an issue due to sizing).
 

acbarn

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Typical quirky iFi product, intriguing in one sense, then broken in another (the crosstalk issue is bizarre).

I know the design is supposed to differentiate the amp in a crowded market, but boy is it ugly. It reminds me of the dashboard of my parents’ 1960 Plymouth we had when I was a kid.

9E23FB78-608D-4588-A795-23D3109F9855.jpeg
 
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Great review, Amirm. I am quite like the sound of MOSFET. I connected it with Gustard X16 for the balance input. It provides a lot of energy but it is also very hot when running in balance mode.. In Japan is summer, and it's like a oven :eek::eek::D
I am considering another equilibrium amplifier that works better with sensitive ems. Does someone have any suggestions?
 
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amirm

amirm

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2M2B

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Yup, there it is again, that pretty spray of ifi distortion. That wonderful signature that gets reviewers a bit frothy..

Good review, proving once again that what some perceive as magic /special sauce is in fact just mediocre design and performance but with added shinola.

Wonder if that why Reviewers will call headphones with <0,4% THD under 300Hz "Dry, clincal, no impact" since I've seen that a lot with ER4XR, LCD 2?.
 

GWolfman

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Thanks. The shape looks like that of mini- (left) & micro- (right, rotated 180°) USB.
 

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