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ifi Zen DAC and Headphone Amp Review

amirm

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#1
This is a review and detailed measurements of the ifi Zen balanced DAC and headphone amplifier. I purchased it from Amazon last week. The Zen DAC costs US $130 including free shipping.

I must say, I am not a fan of the look of the Zen DAC. It hearkens back to 1960s furniture style which would look out of place on most desktops:

ifi zen DAC and headphone amplifier audio review.jpg

Despite commonality of aluminum in audio products today, the Zen must be using some kind of steel for its shell as it is quite heavy for its size. And sturdy to boot.

The controls are confusing. "Power Match" seems to just be extra gain/power and nothing to do with ifi's "IEMatch" products which lower output volume. Despite having plenty of space on the front, the "balanced" headphone output is 4.4mm jack which is much more rare. These guys have made such a mess out of this business of "balanced" headphones with so many connectors. I had to pay $25 to buy an XLR to 4.4mm adapter as I could hardly find the 4.4 mm plug itself to make my own cable!

I forgot to measure the Truebass effect. I did listen to it and it seems good if not somewhat overboosted. I wonder if it sounds as an improvement over longer listening period than when you first turn it on.

The rear follows ifi's proclivity for not following standardized connectors:

ifi zen DAC and headphone amplifier back panel connectors audio review.jpg


The USB connector is 3.0 but I wonder if it actually negotiates and uses the much higher power capability of such an interface. They supply a cable but it is just 6 inches or so. Even if you have USB connection to your monitor this is going to be awfully short.

No DC 5 volt adapter was supplied even though it seems the packaging had space for it. And something about it is taped over in the documentation.

I like the fixed versus variable analog output. But again was not a fan of the 4.4 mm for line out. Who uses that? I did not have a cable to test that so no measurements on that.

Overall, the packaging is fine especially at the price but someone went out of their way to make things different and possibly not for the better.

DAC Audio Measurements
I set the rear connector to fixed output and ran our usual dashboard view:

ifi zen DAC and headphone amplifier audio measurements.png


ifi is a fan of using these Burr-Brown/TI DAC chips which severely limit distortion ratings to neighborhood you see. They are long overdue to switch to an ESS or AKM IC to get much better performance. As it is, performance is just not competitive:

Best desktop headphone amplifier DAC 2019.png


We have distortions that pierce the noise floor of 16-bit audio even.

Noise performance is better though than distortion:
ifi zen DAC and headphone amplifier dynamic range audio measurements.png


Filter response is the typical, default, a bit slow response we see in DAC chip implementations:

ifi zen DAC and headphone amplifier Filter audio measurements.png


Our 32-tone test signal resembling "music" shows a bit better performance than the dashboard indicates, now clearing 16 bit performance:

ifi zen DAC and headphone amplifier multitone audio measurements.png


Linearity is "good enough" but not as nice and flat as I like to see:

ifi zen DAC and headphone amplifier Linearity audio measurements.png


Intermodulation distortion versus input signal level shows clear deficiency:

ifi zen DAC and headphone amplifier IMD audio measurements.png


We start with higher noise level but then distortion takes over at around -17 dB and keeps getting worse.

Jitter response looks better than it is due to higher noise level:
ifi zen DAC and headphone amplifier Jitter audio measurements.png


Finally, sweep of distortion+noise versus frequency tells us that performance is universally sub-optimal:
ifi zen DAC and headphone amplifier THD vs Frequency audio measurements.png


So really, the DAC foundation here is quite weak.

Headphone Amplifier Audio Measurements
Let's start with seeing how much good power we have into 300 ohm load resembling performance of driving headphones in that class (e.g. Sennheiser HD-650):

ifi zen DAC and headphone amplifier Power into 300 ohm audio measurements.png


That's not good. A desktop product should be able to produce a lot more clean power. I like to see 100 milliwatts here as to future proof the device for any high-impedance headphone you may own or buy later.

The situation does not improve much with the other extreme load of 33 ohm:

ifi zen DAC and headphone amplifier Power into 33 ohm audio measurements.png


Notice that in both cases the "Power Match" button simply removes a limit allowing the unit to get louder but at the expense of distortion.

Testing for "Balanced" headphone output, my load is 50 ohm so let's compare that to single-ended:

ifi zen DAC and headphone amplifier Power into 50 ohm audio measurements.png


So you do get some advantage if you use the 4.4 mm connector, nearly tripling the output. Same rise in distortion exist though more or less so this is not clean power necessarily.

Noise performance is good at max power, but not so at low power levels which may be used with sensitive IEMs.

ifi zen DAC and headphone amplifier HP SNR audio measurements.png



Most hiss free headphone amplifier.png


So you may experience some hiss there.

Another departure here from the norm of DAC+Amps is to use an analog volume control instead of using the digital one in the DAC chip. As a result, we lose the perfect channel match we normally see in such devices:

ifi zen DAC and headphone amplifier HP Channel Balance audio measurements.png


Headphone Listening Tests
I could not get useful volume without Power Match activated. Once there, I had decent volume with Sennheiser HD-650 headphones. Compared to my reference Topping DX3 Pro however, it just could not get as loud without getting distorted. And never had the clean output that the DX3 Pro had.

With Drop Ether CX low impedance headphones, there was no usable performance to be had using 1/4 headphone jack. Switching to "balanced" 4.4 mm jack, did provide some relief and I could listen reasonably loud. But turn up the volume past about 1:00 o'clock and distortion would set in in the form of harshness and brightness, eventually leading to clearly static and drop outs.

Conclusions
The ifi Zen on paper has dazzlingly good feature set for its price. Lots of connectivity is there together with a western company standing behind it. Alas, the DAC portion is yesterday's news and not competitive. Headphone output is low and distorts quite easily.

Redeeming the unit is availability of more power through its 4.4 mm "balanced" headphone jack and very low price for the category.

Net, net, it works and is adequately good. Won't hold a candle to higher end devices or separates. For $200 you can get a DAC and Amp combo that would run circles around it.

I can't recommend the ifi Zen DAC as long as I have my audio performance elitist hat on. :) You can choose to do otherwise without said hair covering.

--------
As always, questions, comments, corrections, etc. are welcome.

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#2
RIP man I bought this dac and have issues it was good while it lasted but what am I gonna get for £129 there ain't no dac and amp combo
 
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#5
I cannot get what you're trying to say. Maybe... with punctuation? ;)
lol so basically i bought this dac and have issues where unless on ASIO this dac pops (hear it as a thump on headphones) when pausing a song and playing a song

maybe this unit is faulty, but then along with this review i am thinking of returning it

the thing is tho for £129 i don't know what amp to get, maybe up to £150

I have an SMSL SU-8 which has RCA Out, are there any amps with rca in to amplify
 

restorer-john

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#8
I must say, I am not a fan of the look of the Zen DAC. It hearkens back to 1960s furniture style which would look out of place on most desktops:
I think you're being a little hard on the design, it's refreshingly different, attractive and appears well finished in my book.

And the Pentaconn plugs may be a pain right now in terms of availability and cost, but they are destined to replace those horrible balanced jacks.

Their power output/THD claims however appear to be way off the mark:

1573770180559.png




Is there any combination of outputs (bal/unbal) and gain that will achieve the rated [email protected]<0.005% THD+N into 32R?
 
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#10
Two questions,Amir did you measure with the unit being powered via it's USB port, or via its separate 5v input? If it was the latter what type of PSU was it?

Lastly, there has been a firmware upgrade, was it measured at factory firmware,on did you measure with the latest firmware?
 

raif71

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#11
I think you're being a little hard on the design, it's refreshingly different, attractive and appears well finished in my book.

And the Pentaconn plugs may be a pain right now in terms of availability and cost, but they are destined to replace those horrible balanced jacks.

Their power output/THD claims however appear to be way off the mark:

View attachment 38838



Is there any combination of outputs (bal/unbal) and gain that will achieve the rated [email protected]<0.005% THD+N into 32R?
I agree about the balanced pentaconn cable for future use and proofing. I hope to see just a single pentaconn cable connecting all dacs to amps in the future.
 
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#13
Appreciate the review as usual Amir!

I actually thinks it looks pretty nice in person and feels well built but maybe my tastes are different lol.

Did you measure it off a USB 3.0 port or a 2.0? I find subjectively it sounds better off a 3.0 than a 2.0. Maybe it gets more power from it but I cant be sure.

Also did you try it with a power adapter? I added one and it seems like it puts out a little more power but I could be imaging that as well.

If not would be interesting to see if it performs better with an adapter.

I have been using it for 2 weeks now and it sounds quite good subjectively but I am not listening that loud and my headphones are not difficult to drive. I think its pretty good for 129 bucks if you are looking for a easy to transport DAC/AMP combo, though its never going to be as good as a nice amp/dac stack.

Also if you upgrade the firmware to the 5.3c one on the IFI website you can change to their GTO filter. It would be interesting if you could measure that as I am curious as to what it actually does. I tried it for a short while and thought it sounded worse to me than the default one so I changed back.
 
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amirm

amirm

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Thread Starter #14
Is there any combination of outputs (bal/unbal) and gain that will achieve the rated [email protected]<0.005% THD+N into 32R?
No I don't. That would be -86 dB THD+N and even in balanced it is not going to get to that level of power.
 
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amirm

amirm

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Thread Starter #15
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amirm

amirm

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Thread Starter #16
Also did you try it with a power adapter? I added one and it seems like it puts out a little more power but I could be imaging that as well.
No I did not. What is the rating for that?
 

restorer-john

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#17
That would be -86 dB THD+N and even in balanced it is not going to get to that level of power.
That specification is a headline number, no doubt a buying trigger for some, and it apparently doesn't come remotely close. Not a good look eh?
 
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#18
No I did not. What is the rating for that?

It uses a standard barrel type 5v adapter. I got a cheap 10 dollar 5v3a adapter off amazon that works great.

The plug dimensions are "Outer diameter 0.3 inches (5.5 mm), Inner diameter 0.1 inch (2.1 mm)."

You probablly already have one laying around I would guess lol.

And thanks for the reply!
 
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