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ifi Zen DAC and Headphone Amp Review

makatech

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Ok, distortion pattern looks like tube, is this good or bad? ;-) Maybe this is in the nature of the Burr Brown DAC chip when running it usb powered, I have no idea. All I know is that iFi themselves emphasize the official specs is while running it with a power supply.

Well, I try my best to relax and enjoy my Zen Dac (running 5.3c firmware and a power supply) together with HD6XX. If reading reviews and looking at products every single day this hobby would probably drive me totally crazy. ;-)

I have been enjoying listening to music all my life but this is a new interest for me (better sound through headphones), if buying today I would most probably get the SMSL M500 instead. The Darkvoice tube amp for $200 from Drop is really good value too I think (?) but it's with no DAC included.

Anyway, for me the Zen Dac together with HD6XX is sounding really good, I can't complain. You can possibly get a tiny headroom issue if you EQ it a lot or listening a lot to classical music but I think it's ok for me, 300 ohm headphones definately the max for the Zen Dac though (and this is while running it with power supply. In addition I think the exclusive mode in Tidal is giving me little bit of extra hedroom comparing to Spotify which is interesting.

Perhaps both Zen Dac & HD6XX being slightly smooth, warm and a tiny rounded treble peak in their sound giving me a double effect of smoothness. I assume it's the Burr Brown DAC chip (DSD1793?) being a bit warm in it's nature? It's the opposite of ear fatigue though which I really like. Probably helps I don't have much to compare with and I'm not planning on visiting any Hifi stores in the nearest future. ;-)

Usually playing Tidal Hifi & MQA tracks but I have been trying some flac files stored on my computer too enjoying Pink Floyd, David Bowie and classical tracks. I have no idea if MQA is good or bad but it sounds really good in my ears when being rendered through the Zen Dac.

It's a little bit annoying it's not possible EQing the sound when running exclusive mode in Tidal unless buying Roon. I was playing around with oratory1990 settings using foobar2000 while running locally stored flac files and I liked it.

A found a good summarize in this review (not done by me):

"Thoughts / Conclusion:
Well, I have to admit, the Zen was on its way to being the 1st iFi product that I couldn’t honestly recommend. It has limited output power, limited input options, has a fair amount of noise and even a bit of hiss on high gain, and lacked a bit of detail to the signature that I would have preferred. Based on that, I was going to have to say pass on this one until they do a bit more work, but then two things happened. First they did a bit more work and the new firmware with the GTO replacement for the linear filter is a big improvement. So much for my too smoothed over argument. Then I plugged in a linear power supply and my other major argument about noise went away too. I was left with a good little dac / pre-amp once those two issues are cured."
 
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odyo

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Ok, distortion pattern looks like tube, is this good or bad? ;-) Maybe this is in the nature of the Burr Brown DAC chip when running it usb powered, I have no idea. All I know is that iFi themselves emphasize the official specs is while running it with a power supply.

Well, I try my best to relax and enjoy my Zen Dac (running 5.3c firmware and a power supply) together with HD6XX. If reading reviews and looking at products every single day this hobby would probably drive me totally crazy. ;-)

I have been enjoying listening to music all my life but this is a new interest for me (better sound through headphones), if buying today I would most probably get the SMSL M500 instead. The Darkvoice tube amp for $200 from Drop is really good value too I think (?) but it's with no DAC included.

Anyway, for me the Zen Dac together with HD6XX is sounding really good, I can't complain. You can possibly get a tiny headroom issue if you EQ it a lot or listening a lot to classical music but I think it's ok for me, 300 ohm headphones definately the max for the Zen Dac though (and this is while running it with power supply. In addition I think the exclusive mode in Tidal is giving me little bit of extra hedroom comparing to Spotify which is interesting.

Perhaps both Zen Dac & HD6XX being slightly smooth, warm and a tiny rounded treble peak in their sound giving me a double effect of smoothness. I assume it's the Burr Brown DAC chip (DSD1793?) being a bit warm in it's nature? It's the opposite of ear fatigue though which I really like. Probably helps I don't have much to compare with and I'm not planning on visiting any Hifi stores in the nearest future. ;-)

Usually playing Tidal Hifi & MQA tracks but I have been trying some flac files stored on my computer too enjoying Pink Floyd, David Bowie and classical tracks. I have no idea if MQA is good or bad but it sounds really good in my ears when being rendered through the Zen Dac.

It's a little bit annoying it's not possible EQing the sound when running exclusive mode in Tidal unless buying Roon. I was playing around with oratory1990 settings using foobar2000 while running locally stored flac files and I liked it.

A found a good summarize in this review (not done by me):

"Thoughts / Conclusion:
Well, I have to admit, the Zen was on its way to being the 1st iFi product that I couldn’t honestly recommend. It has limited output power, limited input options, has a fair amount of noise and even a bit of hiss on high gain, and lacked a bit of detail to the signature that I would have preferred. Based on that, I was going to have to say pass on this one until they do a bit more work, but then two things happened. First they did a bit more work and the new firmware with the GTO replacement for the linear filter is a big improvement. So much for my too smoothed over argument. Then I plugged in a linear power supply and my other major argument about noise went away too. I was left with a good little dac / pre-amp once those two issues are cured."
I think it's good. It's different. We have lots of good measuring products out there. They have inaudible noise/distortion, Zen Dac have inaudible noise/distortion as well. 90 sinad is still inaudible. I consider Zen Dac as a dac. Amp portion is not looking good. I recommend stacking it with Zen Can. It would be very nice stack.

Distortion pattern probably not coincidence there should be intentional planning behind this product. They are not targeting super duper measurements.

I personally wouldn't buy this as all in one. Only consider it with Zen Can stack. K5 pro, SBX G6 or SBX internal soundcards are better all in ones.

For MQA, Earmen products seems nice as well. Their Donald Dac measures better with Cirrus Logic chip.

Don't feel like you made a bad buy. It's a nice product. ASR measurements are not that important. Lots of reviewers tried lots of products and they liked Zen Dac sound a lot. Features and aesthetics great as well.

In fact if you are using external power and balanced cable i think it's amp portion is fine.

It's a little bit annoying it's not possible EQing the sound when running exclusive mode in Tidal unless buying Roon. I was playing around with oratory1990 settings using foobar2000 while running locally stored flac files and I liked it.
This is not specific to Zen Dac. Exclusive mode bypass everything. It's the nature of it.
 
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odyo

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This particular Burr-Brown chip offers two separate signal pathways for PCM and DSD. What this means is that one chip offers the ‘best of both formats’ as the signal quality remains native. Choosing the right DAC topology significantly effects the final sound. We loved the dynamics and slam of the multi-bit topology (e.g. the legendary Philips TDA1541A), however when a HighDefinition signal is used, the Multibit topology (actually no true multi-bit DAC chipset available yet) doesn't have the low-level linearity of the Delta-Sigma topology. So to get the best of both worlds, we need: • Multi-bit for dynamics and slam (the higher bits of the PCB data); • Delta-Sigma for the low level linearity (the lower bits of the PCB data); So the DAC chip we picked for the micro iDSD has the following topology: • Top 6 bit: true multi-bit; • Lower bits: Delta-Sigma.

Here is another ''different'' thing about this dac. I don't know how much snake oil this is but it's different.

12.png
 

makatech

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I think it's good. It's different. We have lots of good measuring products out there. They have inaudible noise/distortion, Zen Dac have inaudible noise/distortion as well. 90 sinad is still inaudible. I consider Zen Dac as a dac. Amp portion is not looking good. I recommend stacking it with Zen Can. It would be very nice stack.

Distortion pattern probably not coincidence there should be intentional planning behind this product. They are not targeting super duper measurements.

I personally wouldn't buy this as all in one. Only consider it with Zen Can stack. K5 pro, SBX G6 or SBX internal soundcards are better all in ones.

For MQA, Earmen products seems nice as well. Their Donald Dac measures better with Cirrus Logic chip.

Don't feel like you made a bad buy. It's a nice product. ASR measurements are not that important. Lots of reviewers tried lots of products and they liked Zen Dac sound a lot. Features and aesthetics great as well.

In fact if you are using external power and balanced cable i think it's amp portion is fine.

This is not specific to Zen Dac. Exclusive mode bypass everything. It's the nature of it.

We will see, first of all I will try the Zen Dac with a balanced cable, I'm already running it through a power supply. Hopefully I will be even more satisfied when getting some extra headroom. If getting an amp I'm not totally sure getting the Zen Can though. I'm a little bit afraid it may be slightly too warm since each of Zen Dac, Zen Can & HD6XX adding a tiny bit of warmth to the mix. I really like the sound now but I'm not sure I want even more smoothness/warmth. I'm really curious about the "Drop + THX AAA™ 789 Linear Amplifier". More expensive, especially from Europe but the overall stunning review results (including measurements) distracting me a bit. ;-)
 

totenkglock

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We will see, first of all I will try the Zen Dac with a balanced cable, I'm already running it through a power supply. Hopefully I will be even more satisfied when getting some extra headroom. If getting an amp I'm not totally sure getting the Zen Can though. I'm a little bit afraid it may be slightly too warm since each of Zen Dac, Zen Can & HD6XX adding a tiny bit of warmth to the mix. I really like the sound now but I'm not sure I want even more smoothness/warmth. I'm really curious about the "Drop + THX AAA™ 789 Linear Amplifier". More expensive, especially from Europe but the overall stunning review results (including measurements) distracting me a bit. ;-)
I, too, have the ZenDAC and I am loving what it can do with my Hifiman Sundaras. I am also considering the THX 789 Amp. Although a friend of mine did mention that the Monoprice 887 measures ever so slightly better and has an extra 2 years of warranty compared to the 789.
 

makatech

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I, too, have the ZenDAC and I am loving what it can do with my Hifiman Sundaras. I am also considering the THX 789 Amp. Although a friend of mine did mention that the Monoprice 887 measures ever so slightly better and has an extra 2 years of warranty compared to the 789.

Are you living Europe or North America? I'm very curious about the Hifiman Sundaras myself, seems like they are a huge success with tons of really good reviews (for this specific price range). Are you happy with these and they are sounding good through the Zen Dac (?) something you feel you are missing? Did you buy balanced 4.4 mm cables for your Sundara?

I am trying my best to relax and keeping my Zen Dac and HD6XX after all. ;-) Running it through a power supply and using quality balanced cables to my HD6XX has been giving me some extra headroom. The headroom is probably enough right now unless going really crazy with EQing. I'm aware of it should sound slightly better with a more powerful amp though. I also tried Tidal Hifi for 30 days and running Tidal in exclusive mode is also giving some extra headroom which is nice. Back to Spotify now, not sure for how long. ;-) EQing using EqualizerAPO + Peace is easier now though. I'm a little bit hesitant in investing in more iFi gear even though I really like the Zen Dac, it's a smooth sounding dac/amp and doesn't give me ear fatigue. Perhaps I'm simply a Burr-Brown fan after all, not sure yet. ;-)

What's also making the iFi situation a bit "messy" are the power supplies and the 4.4 mm cables. If running a full balanced setup you need these 4.4 mm cables and if wanting quality ones it will cost you. For some Zen products iFi is including a power supply but not for all, this may also be additional cost. Initial low price for the the Zen Dac and Zen Can but this is not the whole truth.

Also I recently saw this review which was a really, really interesting one for me, a great reviewer by the way.
 
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totenkglock

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Are you living Europe or North America?
Living in Southeast Asia.

Are you happy with these and they are sounding good through the Zen Dac (?) something you feel you are missing? Did you buy balanced 4.4 mm cables for your Sundara?
I am absolutely in love with how they sound through the ZenDAC. As of now I am still running it through USB power because I can't stomach the cost of the iFi iPower just yet but I will get to it soon enough. Although even without the power supply, I am able to get to 1 o'clock for it to be comfortable to listen to
I didn't buy or custom make any balanced cables for them because I am still trying to financially recover from the cost of the Sundaras themselves. Point to note, the Sundaras have absolutely horrid stock cables so I highly recommend buying an aftermarket cable for them. Luckily for me I had my old HE4XX cables lying around so all is well on that front.

I am trying my best to relax and keeping my Zen Dac and HD6XX after all
Just curious, is it powerful enough to power the HD6XX through the SE output? Because I am looking to get the HD600 in the future if it sounds good.

EQing using EqualizerAPO + Peace is easier now though. I'm a little bit hesitant in investing in more iFi gear even though I really like the Zen Dac, it's a smooth sounding dac/amp and doesn't give me ear fatigue. Perhaps I'm simply a Burr-Brown fan after all, not sure yet. ;-)
I use APO + Peace too and have an EQ preset for my Sundaras on days where I just want a more rounded sound, but I usually listen to them as is.
I think getting the ZenCAN is the natural and most compatible route after the ZenDAC but I am looking to get a more powerful and cleaner amp like the THX ones so that it will treat my future cans well.

What's also making the iFi situation a bit "messy" are the power supplies and the 4.4 mm cables. If running a full balanced setup you need these 4.4 mm cables and if wanting quality ones it will cost you. For some Zen products iFi is including a power supply but not for all, this may also be additional cost. Initial low price for the the Zen Dac and Zen Can but this is not the whole truth.
Yea it was all sunshine and rainbows until you realize that they gave you a port to use but not the supply for it. The ZenCAN comes with the power supply and if I'm not wrong the ZenDAC Signature comes with a power supply, iFi has realized that it was a bad initial move perhaps. It will run you quite a bit of money to have the Zen stack running full balanced since they did not include the 4.4 to 4.4 cables but, for me, at this price point its not really a necessity for the full balanced setup as SE will do you good at this price.

great reviewer by the way
Ah I watch his reviews too. I like his detailed explanations.
 

makatech

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Just curious, is it powerful enough to power the HD6XX through the SE output? Because I am looking to get the HD600 in the future if it sounds good.

Note: I am not 100% sure about this answer but I will give you my views anyway, it may turn out a bit vague. Difficult giving a precise recommendation in this topic.

I have been running my Zen Dac using a power supply all the time. I am not 100% sure how much you loose in power running it USB powered (and possibly in noise/interference if you are unlucky). I believe Zen Dac is having difficulties delivering power fully up to it specs if not running through a power supply. I don't think you need to buy the most expensive 5V power supply from iFi though (thus saving some money).

Anyway, I have been running it user a power supply all the time and I think it manage to drive the HD 6XX with SE cable but balanced cables will definately give you some extra headroom. I have been running a balanced cable about three weeks. You may get into issues (or closer to the limit) if EQing aggressively though and lowering the pre amp value a lot. Depends a little bit of type of music too, for classical soft music you sometimes need higher volumes.

Several things affecting power on Zen Dac
1. Power supply perhaps giving you slightly more headroom
2. Balanced cables for the headphones giving you more headroom
3. If using Tidal Hifi and running the desktop client in exclusive mode you also get some extra headroom.

It could be better buying the Zen Can instead of potentially expensive balanced cables and continue connecting through SE. At least you should be mentally prepared for this step, try HD 600 only using the Zen Dac first.

Finally, looks like a more powerful amp is great for headphones like HD 600 and HD 6XX though. They simply answer/react well on more power, this is what I read anyway?

I am not sure if my decision was correct. Instead of buying quality balanced cables for my HD6XX it may have been a better move buying the Zen Can instead (a slightly more expensive option though).

With my current setup I do find it is driving the HD6XX well though, good enough. Zen Dac + power supply + HD6XX + balanced headphone cable. I will most probably not get the Zen Can. Trying to relax and use what I have right now. If/when getting a more powerful amp I may get another product/brand, we will see, I do like the slightly warm Burr-Brown sound though, there is definately a reason why iFi is using this chip. If changing brand it would be really nice if it has a 4.4 mm balanced output though since I recently bought this rather expensive cable from Forza Audioworks for my HD6XX... ;-) I am guessing 4.4 mm will be more common in the future but I am not sure.

Your Hifiman Sundara experiences are very interesting, you are writing they sound great through the Zen Dac (and I'm not surprsied about that). I am really curious about the Sundara but also a bit concerned about the Hifiman quality issues.

Finally: If thinking about the HD 600 you should probably compare it to the new HD 560S first though.
 
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odyo

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I use APO + Peace too and have an EQ preset for my Sundaras on days where I just want a more rounded sound, but I usually listen to them as is.
I think getting the ZenCAN is the natural and most compatible route after the ZenDAC but I am looking to get a more powerful and cleaner amp like the THX ones so that it will treat my future cans well.
THX 789 is great amp and can run any headphone but they sound bad in my opinion. Especially with lean headphones like Sundara, Ananda. I geniunely prefer SBX AE5 soundcard over it.

Zen Can power output is interesting. It's quite powerful with low impedance headphones. More than something like L30 which is only $10 cheaper. Interesting part is it's very powerful with high impedance headphones. On par with THX 789 @600ohm.
 

JohnYang1997

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THX 789 is great amp and can run any headphone but they sound bad in my opinion. Especially with lean headphones like Sundara, Ananda. I geniunely prefer SBX AE5 soundcard over it.

Zen Can power output is interesting. It's quite powerful with low impedance headphones. More than something like L30 which is only $10 cheaper. Interesting part is it's very powerful with high impedance headphones. On par with THX 789 @600ohm.
It's powerful in balanced for high impedance yes. But its SE out is not really close to L30's power.
 

odyo

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It's powerful in balanced for high impedance yes. But its SE out is not really close to L30's power.
Spec is 32 ohm 1600mW single ended. L30 is 1W i guess ?
64 ohm balanced 1890mW. I guess they have issue at lower impedance. They can go wild with higher impedance headphones.
If i remember correctly you switched the power supply to have higher power at 16 ohm. Seems like Zen lacks that.
Ifi specs can be fishy. I hope @amirm can test that.
 
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totenkglock

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@makatech Thank you for letting me know your experience with the HD600 series on the ZenDAC. I'll compare it with the HD560 when I can and see where I go from there.

Hifiman quality issues
This had me going back and forth before buying the Sundaras, but I eventually realized that their major quality issue was the headband adjustment part. My head wouldn't be growing anytime soon so this was not a big concern. The shop I bought it from had a few extras for exchange if needed so that was covered.

but they sound bad in my opinion
Oh? This is a first. I thought their lack of colouration would mean that you will get pure, clean power which will let you hear your music as it is.
 

makatech

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@makatech Thank you for letting me know your experience with the HD600 series on the ZenDAC. I'll compare it with the HD560 when I can and see where I go from there.

I only have experiences with HD 6XX though but it has the same ohm as HD 600 I think.

My recommendations would be: Try HD 600 (or HD 560S) only using Zen Dac first (usb powered + SE output) but be mentally prepared (if not happy with the result) to complement with perhaps a power supply, either a balanced cable or (and...?) a more powerful amp (Zen Can or another one). Myself I would probably invest in a more powerful amp (if necessary) comparing to a balanced cable but it depends on the deal you find for a balanced cable. The one I bought myself from Forza Audioworks is great but rather expensive. First buying a rather cheap amd/dac and then an expensive balanced cable is perhaps a bit strange, debatable. I do believe I will be able to keep my balanced cable for the future though even if getting another amp. Slowly more and more amps getting balanced 4.4 mm output, Topping have the A90 (expensive though).

Note: The HD 560S (120 Ω & 110 dB) is definitely easier for the Zen Dac to drive comparing to HD 600 if you want to stay economical.

Some reviewers are really liking the new HD 560S, check the DMS review. ;-)
 
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raif71

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I only have experiences with HD 6XX though but it has the same ohm as HD 600 I think.

My recommendations would be: Try HD 600 (or HD 560S) only using Zen Dac first (usb powered + SE output) but be mentally prepared (if not happy with the result) to complement with either a balanced cable or (and...?) a more powerful amp (Zen Can or another one). Myself I would probably invest in a more powerful amp (if necessary) comparing to a balanced cable but it depends on the deal you find for a balanced cable. The one I bought myself from Forza Audioworks is great but rather expensive. First buying a rather cheap amd/dac and then an expensive balanced cable is perhaps a bit strange. I do believe I will be able to keep my balanced cable for the future though even if getting another amp in the future. Slowly more and more amps getting balanced 4.4 mm output, Topping have the A90 (expensive though).

Note: The HD 560S (120 Ω & 110 dB) is definitely easier for the Zen Dac to drive comparing to HD 600 if you want to stay economical.

Some reviewers are really liking the new HD 560S, check the DMS review. ;-)
You mean this one...

 

odyo

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lack of colouration would mean that you will get pure, clean power which will let you hear your music as it is.
Thats bs in my opinion. There is nothing let you hear music as it is. Almost every amp transparent on paper anyway. Thx 789 is good amp but i personally didnt like its flavour with my headphone. Synergy thing is real. This forum is about objectivism but let me tell you how it sounds. It lacks macrodynamics. It sounds soft and smooth. Soundstage is big/airy. Its cold, calm and sterile amp. Not engaging, lively or punchy. Its traits not good with Ananda since it already lacks body, weight, punch. It already sounds spacious and effortless.

It should sound good with warm and fuzzy headphones. Transients are good. I feel its improving the technicalities of the headphone a bit. Bass transparency is really good. Adding lots of bass with eq yet still not overwhelmed by it. Clean and transparent all the way. I feel it lacks the harmony and cohesiveness of the music.

Just my two cents.
 

Jimbob54

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Thats bs in my opinion. There is nothing let you hear music as it is. Almost every amp transparent on paper anyway. Thx 789 is good amp but i personally didnt like its flavour with my headphone. Synergy thing is real. This forum is about objectivism but let me tell you how it sounds. It lacks macrodynamics. It sounds soft and smooth. Soundstage is big/airy. Its cold, calm and sterile amp. Not engaging, lively or punchy. Its traits not good with Ananda since it already lacks body, weight, punch. It already sounds spacious and effortless.

It should sound good with warm and fuzzy headphones. Transients are good. I feel its improving the technicalities of the headphone a bit. Bass transparency is really good. Adding lots of bass with eq yet still not overwhelmed by it. Clean and transparent all the way. I feel it lacks the harmony and cohesiveness of the music.

Just my two cents.

Even within the realms of subjective opinions- thats some of the most contradictory fluff I have ever read!

How on earth can electronics that are transparent also be at the same time "soft and smooth" but also "cold, calm and sterile"- they are pretty much opposite descriptors!

I think you've fallen headlong into head-fi there.
 

DivineCurrent

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Not about the Zen DAC, but I just got the iFi Hip Dac today, been testing it out and it has enough power to drive my Hifiman Sundaras (37 ohms, 94 dB/mW) to insane levels even out of the unbalanced 3.5mm. And it sounds exactly the same to me as the RME ADI-2 DAC (as any good DAC or amp should). I do wonder how well the Hip Dac measures, because I drove it pretty loud and heard no distortion, so maybe it's better than the Zen Dac. Maybe I'll send it to Amir at some point, it's becoming a popular DAC now.
 

raif71

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Not about the Zen DAC, but I just got the iFi Hip Dac today, been testing it out and it has enough power to drive my Hifiman Sundaras (37 ohms, 94 dB/mW) to insane levels even out of the unbalanced 3.5mm. And it sounds exactly the same to me as the RME ADI-2 DAC (as any good DAC or amp should). I do wonder how well the Hip Dac measures, because I drove it pretty loud and heard no distortion, so maybe it's better than the Zen Dac. Maybe I'll send it to Amir at some point, it's becoming a popular DAC now.
I have the hipdac and yes it provides good power with my Senns on balanced out and with iems the 3.5mm out
 
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