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ifi Zen Dac, thoughts, reviews?

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Nov 6, 2019
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#1
Hi All,

I didn't see too many reviews on this yet so I thought to ask, has anyone here purchased/listened to the ifi Zen Dac yet? I recently purchased the ifi Zen Dac for home use with my desktop machine, and am not really sure what to make of it.
For anyone wondering, this thing here: https://ifi-audio.com/products/zen-dac/

I know its an entry-level dac, and my other comparisons for this are as such: Asus Xonar DS, Asus Xonar DG, Asus Strix Raid Pro and LG V20.
Am not sure what bracket my LG qualifies in, however, I'm aware all of those Asus cards are also entry-level/mid-level(Strix Raid Pro).

The reason I'm mentioning all of these, is because I'm wondering if anyone else here had the chance to hear, and/or compare any of these with other dacs, and particularly the ifi Zen Dac.
Here's why I'm asking.

The Zen Dac is a nice looking box, with solid feel to it(heavy) full aluminium body. The Volume knob is very smooth, but doesn't feel flimsy, with an LED behind it that changes color to indicate the type of decoded signal - green for PCM, blue/purple/magenta for various DSD formats etc. Has one pentaconn balanced output and one 6.3 jack, as well as one pentaconn on the back(assuming for use only as DAC without amp).

Sound:
all reviews I've read(few) https://www.head-fi.org/threads/ifi-zen-dac-discussion-impression.917041/ the dac performed admirably for the price-range. However, here are my findings(am no professional so take it with a tea-spoon of salt):
Pro: I've found no audible hiss/pop/crack, nor any sort of discernible distortion(to my ear). There is definitely a lot of detail there, and most instruments can be heard clearly, voices can be heard clearly, almost crisp I'd say. I don't have any high impedance headsets, but considering the volume gets very loud when knowb is half way through, I'd say it could drive 300Ohm headsets easily(This from my 50Ohm HD579).

Cons: As I said before, I am no sound expert, but to me, this sounds a little lifeless. As in, there is detail, and you can focus on any individual instrument and you won't struggle to hear it, however, none have emphasis - they sound bland. Also, at times, it feels as if the sound is coming from behind - or back of the room, rather than in front, closer to the listener(me).

I know this is subjective, and not a very technical description(as I know of no way to measure that), but the device isn't fun to listen to when I compare it to, particularly the LG V20, and Xonar DS. The Strix Raid I find offers good detail even when compared to the V20, but the mids/lows are a bit obscured by its dark tone/emphasis on the bass - its not muddy, but maybe a bit leaking into the other ranges? With all that being said, the V20, Strix Pro and Xonar DS all are very fun to listen to - they're engaging - still detailed, but the music has more feeling to it/feels more expressive and natural. Also the sound is very forward(if that makes sense), present and near you, even though you can still get a good image and understand where each instrument is.

Note: When listening to the Zen Dac, for some reason my ears feel strained as well. Something I don't get with any of the other devices. Also, I can't precisely describe it, just feels like when you hear a harsh sound for prolonged times. But then, it doesn't sound at all harsh.

With all that being said, I'm not sure what to make of this device. I'm sure there is some bias in there, but has anyone else listened to any of these? Does the above sound legit, or am I just being crazy? Or are my references irrelevant?
The headsets I used are HD579 and ATH-M50x. (the weird strained feeling is stronger with the HD579s).

Apologies for the rant, and, if you lasted this far, let me know your thoughts. Am really curious if anyone else has encountered anything of the sort, or if ^^ sounds at all familiar.

Kind Regards,
George


P.S. Only double-blind comparison was done with the Zen Dac and the LG V20, Strix Pro. All others are personal impressions while testing myself.
 
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#2
I've used same sources to compare all of the above - I realize some are just youtube streams, however the audio is fairly decent with most:
youtube.com/watch?v=tGh4FcZKekA --> Two Steps From Hell - High C's
youtube.com/watch?v=GWZTyiMXulQ --> Vivaldi L' estro armonico Op.3 Concerto No.10 in B minor for 4 violins, RV 580 Ospedale della Pietà
youtube.com/watch?v=kaoqCARilbA --> Antonio Vivaldi - "Summer" Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor
youtube.com/watch?v=SQNymNaTr-Y --> Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade
Blur - Parklive --> Google Play Music
Black Keys - lonely boy --> Google Play Music
Nightwish - She Is My Sin --> Google Play Music
Metallica - Blackened --> Google Play Music
Metallica - Orion --> Google Play Music
Rammstein - Auslander --> Google Play Music
Dvorak - Symphony No. 9 --> Flac CD rip
David Arnold - Stargate(1995) --> Flac CD rip

P.S. I've unlinked the videos to avoid blowing up the post...
 
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#4
The specs for it seem just fine. As for your(?) listening impressions against other DACs. Unless you've double blinded that, most people here won't be interested in them.
Cheers for that, I've updated my post to specify. As mentioned, only Strix Pro and V20 were double-blinded. The specs do seem great.

Also, if there's a more correct way to describe the expressiveness of these, feel free to correct me. As I said, I don't consider myself an expert.
 
Joined
Nov 10, 2019
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#5
Hi All,

I didn't see too many reviews on this yet so I thought to ask, has anyone here purchased/listened to the ifi Zen Dac yet? I recently purchased the ifi Zen Dac for home use with my desktop machine, and am not really sure what to make of it.
For anyone wondering, this thing here: https://ifi-audio.com/products/zen-dac/

I know its an entry-level dac, and my other comparisons for this are as such: Asus Xonar DS, Asus Xonar DG, Asus Strix Raid Pro and LG V20.
Am not sure what bracket my LG qualifies in, however, I'm aware all of those Asus cards are also entry-level/mid-level(Strix Raid Pro).

The reason I'm mentioning all of these, is because I'm wondering if anyone else here had the chance to hear, and/or compare any of these with other dacs, and particularly the ifi Zen Dac.
Here's why I'm asking.

The Zen Dac is a nice looking box, with solid feel to it(heavy) full aluminium body. The Volume knob is very smooth, but doesn't feel flimsy, with an LED behind it that changes color to indicate the type of decoded signal - green for PCM, blue/purple/magenta for various DSD formats etc. Has one pentaconn balanced output and one 6.3 jack, as well as one pentaconn on the back(assuming for use only as DAC without amp).

Sound:
all reviews I've read(few) https://www.head-fi.org/threads/ifi-zen-dac-discussion-impression.917041/ the dac performed admirably for the price-range. However, here are my findings(am no professional so take it with a tea-spoon of salt):
Pro: I've found no audible hiss/pop/crack, nor any sort of discernible distortion(to my ear). There is definitely a lot of detail there, and most instruments can be heard clearly, voices can be heard clearly, almost crisp I'd say. I don't have any high impedance headsets, but considering the volume gets very loud when knowb is half way through, I'd say it could drive 300Ohm headsets easily(This from my 50Ohm HD579).

Cons: As I said before, I am no sound expert, but to me, this sounds a little lifeless. As in, there is detail, and you can focus on any individual instrument and you won't struggle to hear it, however, none have emphasis - they sound bland. Also, at times, it feels as if the sound is coming from behind - or back of the room, rather than in front, closer to the listener(me).

I know this is subjective, and not a very technical description(as I know of no way to measure that), but the device isn't fun to listen to when I compare it to, particularly the LG V20, and Xonar DS. The Strix Raid I find offers good detail even when compared to the V20, but the mids/lows are a bit obscured by its dark tone/emphasis on the bass - its not muddy, but maybe a bit leaking into the other ranges? With all that being said, the V20, Strix Pro and Xonar DS all are very fun to listen to - they're engaging - still detailed, but the music has more feeling to it/feels more expressive and natural. Also the sound is very forward(if that makes sense), present and near you, even though you can still get a good image and understand where each instrument is.

Note: When listening to the Zen Dac, for some reason my ears feel strained as well. Something I don't get with any of the other devices. Also, I can't precisely describe it, just feels like when you hear a harsh sound for prolonged times. But then, it doesn't sound at all harsh.

With all that being said, I'm not sure what to make of this device. I'm sure there is some bias in there, but has anyone else listened to any of these? Does the above sound legit, or am I just being crazy? Or are my references irrelevant?
The headsets I used are HD579 and ATH-M50x. (the weird strained feeling is stronger with the HD579s).

Apologies for the rant, and, if you lasted this far, let me know your thoughts. Am really curious if anyone else has encountered anything of the sort, or if ^^ sounds at all familiar.

Kind Regards,
George


P.S. Only double-blind comparison was done with the Zen Dac and the LG V20, Strix Pro. All others are personal impressions while testing myself.
Hi George! I hear if you download the ifi GTO filter firmware upgrade on their website the sound improves noticeably.Also using a linear power supply cable helps too.I heard this from a You Tuber review of this product.Please let me know if this firmware changes your perspective.Because I have the Zen Dac being delivered to me next week. Hope this helps and take care! Steve
 

BDWoody

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#6
Cheers for that, I've updated my post to specify. As mentioned, only Strix Pro and V20 were double-blinded. The specs do seem great.

Also, if there's a more correct way to describe the expressiveness of these, feel free to correct me. As I said, I don't consider myself an expert.
Can you describe how you conducted your double blind test? Not trying to be difficult, but if you didn't level match with a volt meter (ideally to within .1db), with neither you nor your helper/switcher (you did have a helper didn't you?) knowing which was playing, your results may not be as useful as you want them to be.

It isn't that there's a more correct way to express the differences, it's more about controlling for as much bias as possible so you can be sure they exist.

You aren't crazy, and you aren't deaf (neither am I), but without strict controls on subjective comparative listening you aren't starting with good information...
 
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#9
Can you describe how you conducted your double blind test? Not trying to be difficult, but if you didn't level match with a volt meter (ideally to within .1db), with neither you nor your helper/switcher (you did have a helper didn't you?) knowing which was playing, your results may not be as useful as you want them to be.

It isn't that there's a more correct way to express the differences, it's more about controlling for as much bias as possible so you can be sure they exist.

You aren't crazy, and you aren't deaf (neither am I), but without strict controls on subjective comparative listening you aren't starting with good information...
@BDWoody Afraid my test wasn't as thorough. The leveling was done by ear, so no tight control there. The person that helped did know what/which device was playing at a given moment, with me putting down the impressions on paper.
With that said, am happy to redo that test with tighter control over the setup. Although, may be better to send off the unit to @amirm for some measurements, if possible. At least will have some real/pro readings to go along with subjective listening tests.

@raif71 maybe. I haven't heard any real high-end dacs, so my reference may not be sufficient/useful. Also I've never owned a burr brown dac before - though if what I'm hearing is just the signature of it, I'm very curious as to why its so different from both the Sabre and the Wolfson's (I find these two to be more alike - for the one's I've heard that is, Xonar DS and the V20/Strix Raid Pro). Could it be just implementation? With that said, there's still the issue of discomfort/pain with prolonged listening on the Zen DAC.

@Alphadog58 from what I could see here https://ifi-audio.com/downloads/ the only download for the Zen DAC are the USB drivers(which shouldn't really be needed IMHO). The Zen DAC doesn't seem to be on the supported list for either of those firmware downloads.
Am really curious to hear your thoughts/impressions once you receive the unit.

Kind Regards,
George
 

BDWoody

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#10
@BDWoody Afraid my test wasn't as thorough. The leveling was done by ear, so no tight control there. The person that helped did know what/which device was playing at a given moment, with me putting down the impressions on paper.
With that said, am happy to redo that test with tighter control over the setup. Although, may be better to send off the unit to @amirm for some measurements, if possible. At least will have some real/pro readings to go along with subjective listening tests.
Cheers to you for not reacting with immediate outrage...refreshing...!

I would encourage you to do the listening test with the controls tightened up as best you can, then give it a go... (The switcher being also 'blind' is the 'double' part of a DBT...;))
I'm a big believer in proving things to myself as much as possible, and this one is worth the effort.
It has made a believer out of many...and suddenly you aren't as worried about what everybody else says anymore.
It's like an inoculation against bullshit... It's a pain to do, but it will give you meaningful information. If you want to send it in after, by all means...but you should treat yourself to some self delivered truth...
 
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#11
@BDWoody Afraid my test wasn't as thorough. The leveling was done by ear, so no tight control there. The person that helped did know what/which device was playing at a given moment, with me putting down the impressions on paper.
With that said, am happy to redo that test with tighter control over the setup. Although, may be better to send off the unit to @amirm for some measurements, if possible. At least will have some real/pro readings to go along with subjective listening tests.

@raif71 maybe. I haven't heard any real high-end dacs, so my reference may not be sufficient/useful. Also I've never owned a burr brown dac before - though if what I'm hearing is just the signature of it, I'm very curious as to why its so different from both the Sabre and the Wolfson's (I find these two to be more alike - for the one's I've heard that is, Xonar DS and the V20/Strix Raid Pro). Could it be just implementation? With that said, there's still the issue of discomfort/pain with prolonged listening on the Zen DAC.

@Alphadog58 from what I could see here https://ifi-audio.com/downloads/ the only download for the Zen DAC are the USB drivers(which shouldn't really be needed IMHO). The Zen DAC doesn't seem to be on the supported list for either of those firmware downloads.
Am really curious to hear your thoughts/impressions once you receive the unit.

Kind Regards,
George
Damn man the dac is coming tomorrow i wonder if u could test the XMOS drivers
 

amirm

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#15
Well, I finished the testing only to realize I don't have a 4.4 mm plug to test balanced output. Ordered one from Amazon but won't be here until Wednesday. You want the review without it now, or wait to have it all then?
 
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#16
@BDWoody Nothing to be outraged about, and also nothing useful ever comes out of that. To your point, the tests aren't of much use with no controls. May well give it a shot this weekend(assuming I can set it up properly) and see what comes out of it. I'm assuming a fixed frequency tone will do for voltage measurements?

@AnikBanic USB - should work out of the box, on any recent kernel OS.

@amirm Would love to hear the results so far. I do appreciate your fast turnaround with the tests :)
 
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#18
also i have an issue where when pausing any song (except in asio) the dac thumps out and thumps back in and i can hear the thump in headphones
happens in every application, if there isn't a continuous sound the dac cuts off then comes back with a thump when playing a song
 
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