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ifi Zen Phono Review (phono stage)

Rate this phono stage:

  • 1. Poor (headless panther)

    Votes: 11 9.6%
  • 2. Not terrible (postman panther)

    Votes: 56 48.7%
  • 3. Fine (happy panther

    Votes: 45 39.1%
  • 4. Great (golfing panther)

    Votes: 3 2.6%

  • Total voters
    115

amirm

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This is a review and detailed measurements of the ifi Zen Phono pre-amp. It is on kind loan from a member and costs US $199.
ifi zen phono review balanced stage MM MC.jpg

As you can see, it comes in a similar case to other (newer) ifi line. And as with those, the white labels are not legible in all but one or two angles. The left switch is power which has a delay in it (?). The right switch is a sub-sonic filter. The four dots are LED indicators for the four separate gain settings which you can select in the back:

ifi zen phono review balanced stage back panel MM MC.jpg


Power is provided by an ordinary (non-ifi) 5 volt supply. Internally this is stepped up using a very high frequency switching regulator (running at 1.5 MHz). This should do away with mains spikes we see in many phono stages.

An unusual output is the 4.4 mm penticon balanced output. This is a very unusual connector for anything but headphones. It is nice to see it though if it provides a benefit in the form of cutting out ground loops. Internal architecture is balance as well (I think).

Company provides extensive measurements/specifications compared to what we typically see and speaks a lot to the low noise of the unit.

ifi Zen Phono Measurements
I stayed with the gain setting 1 which is suitable for Moving Magnet cartridges. Here is our dashboard using 5 mv input:
ifi zen phono measurements unbalanced stage MM MC.png


The spectrum of our 1 kHz signal is extremely clean. It is free of both power supply and distortion spikes. You would expect SINAD to excel but it does not:
best budget phono stage review.png


The reason it doesn't is that noise floor is rather high. This did not add up with company specs/brochure and member comments about it being quieter. So I emulated one of the company SNR measurements:

ifi zen phono measurements SNR unbalanced stage MM MC.png


As you see, I am very close to their specs/measurements. Balanced output does not help:
ifi zen phono measurements balanced stage MM MC.png


You can see the elevated noise level in this measurement and comparison:
ifi zen phono measurements THD vs level unbalanced stage MM MC.png


Our top of the line pre-amps have far lower noise floor in low frequencies.

Distortion is also rather high when we discard noise from it:
ifi zen phono measurements THD unbalanced stage MM MC.png


On the other hand, the RIAA equalization is the best I have ever seen/measured:
ifi zen phono measurements frequency response unbalanced stage MM MC.png


It is essentially ruler flat!

On subsonic filter, I am measuring its static response. It may do better in practice due to "AI" logic that it say sit has.

Headroom shrinks sharply as frequencies increase which is unfortunate:
ifi zen phono measurements THD vs Level vs Frequency unbalanced stage MM MC.png


There is also increased distortion with frequency which is something I don't normally see.

Conclusions
Going into this review, I expected to see excellent measurements across the board. But this did not come to pass as far as noise and distortion. However, RIAA implementation is superbly accurate and this is something you will hear. On the strength of this, I am going to recommend the ifi Zen Phono pre-amp.

-----------
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/
 

Leiker535

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Ouch, I had expected this to measure as high as the Schiit Mani 1/2 given the reviews, unfortunately not so. Mani 2's still king of the hill spec and feature wise as I see it then. The bal out option sure is nice though.

Also, thank you amirm for doing the pre phono reviews, you surely did made a mystical niche more clear and objective. Only thing left for me in this medium now is seeing accomplished chi-fi companies trying their best within it, as there is certainly room for it.
 

respice finem

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The Germans say "was wollte uns der Künstler denn damit sagen"? = whatever the Artist wanted to tell us with this...
 

tonycollinet

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Hi @amirm Thanks for the review.

your last chart seems to show THD+N with generator level, but the text states frequency.

Is this correct?
 
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amirm

amirm

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Hi @amirm Thanks for the review.

your last chart seems to show THD+N with generator level, but the text states frequency.

Is this correct?
Yes because each line is for a different frequency.
 

daftcombo

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Nice review, thanks Amir!

Should these noise and distortion be audible with actual records?
 
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amirm

amirm

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The record grove noise and distortion will be quite high by itself. And the noise is loaded in lower frequencies where we are less sensitive. So probably not. I let owners give real-life answers.
 

deniall83

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Thanks for your review. As someone who owns this unit, I'm very surprised. Mine was much quieter than the phono stage in my Yamaha amp and I just assumed (wrongly so) that it would measure well.

Is the Cambridge Solo (or Duo?) still the one to beat then?
 

GWolfman

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Nice to see no power supply noise, but maybe it's hiding just under the (elevated) noise floor.
 

JeremyFife

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Many thanks for the review, I've been hoping this would come up as I have one of these.
Noise and distortion figures are disappointing - especially given the balanced output.
Subjectively, mine sounds pretty good (not aware of added noise above what I'd expect from vinyl anyway!) i.e. no audible artefacts to my ears.
I'm happy with my unit, especially for the money so no need to change, but I'd have thought twice (thrice) if I was buying now.
This site is a great resource.
 

MarcosCh

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Balanced out!

What is people's opinion on the headroom? Seems impressive until 5kHz and then starts to drop... what are the frequencies for which this is most important? Seems to me that a typical click/pop is in the middle low frequencies (by ear but no idea...)
 

Chester

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Another great review, thanks.

I bought one of these as I was hearing so much noise (no pun intended) about them. When I plugged into my RME ADI-2 Pro though, couldn’t get the noise floor below -60dB, compared to my Pro-ject and Cambridge Duo who were both around -74dB to -79dB.

I thought it was something particular about my setup but this makes sense now.
 

DSJR

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The input level 'standard' I'm sure, used to be 5mV, so I'm disappointed that they tweaked the levels to 15mV to get their stated specs instead.

I'd also add that one way to help the ear disregard vinyl clicks and pops (in addition to a top quality finished stylus and good generator design), is to have hf overload margins as high as possible and without ringing when it does overload (which I believe could be a problem back in my day). Some vinyl systems do actually fool the listener into thinking they're 'quieter' than they are in terms of vinyl roar and noise, purely I believe, because there's no nasty reaction to clicks and snaps when playing..

It's currently still a growing market, this 'new fangled old fashioned vinyl thang,' so like it or not, it's here to stay for a good long while and pressing plants are apparently opening up again or being created from scratch (deliberate pun). The albums I sold for a quid each - worth a small fortune now as many were first presses too :(
 

Endibol

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This is a review and detailed measurements of the ifi Zen Phono pre-amp. It is on kind loan from a member and costs US $199.
View attachment 214691
As you can see, it comes in a similar case to other (newer) ifi line. And as with those, the white labels are not legible in all but one or two angles. The left switch is power which has a delay in it (?). The right switch is a sub-sonic filter. The four dots are LED indicators for the four separate gain settings which you can select in the back:

View attachment 214693

Power is provided by an ordinary (non-ifi) 5 volt supply. Internally this is stepped up using a very high frequency switching regulator (running at 1.5 MHz). This should do away with mains spikes we see in many phono stages.

An unusual output is the 4.4 mm penticon balanced output. This is a very unusual connector for anything but headphones. It is nice to see it though if it provides a benefit in the form of cutting out ground loops. Internal architecture is balance as well (I think).

Company provides extensive measurements/specifications compared to what we typically see and speaks a lot to the low noise of the unit.

ifi Zen Phono Measurements
I stayed with the gain setting 1 which is suitable for Moving Magnet cartridges. Here is our dashboard using 5 mv input:
View attachment 214694

The spectrum of our 1 kHz signal is extremely clean. It is free of both power supply and distortion spikes. You would expect SINAD to excel but it does not:
View attachment 214695

The reason it doesn't is that noise floor is rather high. This did not add up with company specs/brochure and member comments about it being quieter. So I emulated one of the company SNR measurements:

View attachment 214696

As you see, I am very close to their specs/measurements. Balanced output does not help:
View attachment 214697

You can see the elevated noise level in this measurement and comparison:
View attachment 214698

Our top of the line pre-amps have far lower noise floor in low frequencies.

Distortion is also rather high when we discard noise from it:
View attachment 214700

On the other hand, the RIAA equalization is the best I have ever seen/measured:
View attachment 214699

It is essentially ruler flat!

On subsonic filter, I am measuring its static response. It may do better in practice due to "AI" logic that it say sit has.

Headroom shrinks sharply as frequencies increase which is unfortunate:
View attachment 214701

There is also increased distortion with frequency which is something I don't normally see.

Conclusions
Going into this review, I expected to see excellent measurements across the board. But this did not come to pass as far as noise and distortion. However, RIAA implementation is superbly accurate and this is something you will hear. On the strength of this, I am going to recommend the ifi Zen Phono pre-amp.

-----------
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/
Thanks for the review Amir, quite interesting. since I own this unit. I am happy to see that the RIAA equalization is very good. SINAD is somewhat disappointing, but I think that this is of less importance for my old ears than the flat frequency curve.

@amirm A question concerning your last THD+N curve. The input generator range goes from approx. 5 to 170 mVrms. My MM cartridge has a spec of 3mV output. So I wonder why this curve is really relevant in this case.

One comment about the sub-sonic filter. I think it does do its job: It substantially reduced the very low (around 1 Hz) frequency scary high amplitude cone movement present in Joe Henderson's track "Recorda Me" from his album "Page One" (Blue Note AAA ST-84140, mastered by Kevin Gray). This extreme movement by the way was not present on the "Spotify" version of this track.
 
Last edited:

SMen

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I have this phono stage and it's a pity in a way that Amirm did not test the higher gain settings. For me the lowest gain MM sounds rather 'warm' (the noise floor measured perhaps?) and so I wondered if it had been tailored in some way for this by Ifi.

The next higher gain up (for high output MC's) sounds much, much cleaner - which is not an intuitive result! Surely the noise would be more intrusive as you increase the gain?

I am only going on the subjective comparison of a very high quality lower output MM (same as a high output moving coil) through both the 2 lower gain, MM compatible settings - including the one measured.

It almost sounds as if 'noise' is bypassed as you switch to higher gain. This might be an interesting discovery if you felt like investigating as it's a conundrum for me :).

Delighted and not surprised to read about the ruler flat RIAA. I actually find the lowest gain (standard MM) rather warm sounding, and quite different to the next setting up.
 
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