iFi ZEN DAC: $129 USD for Entry-Level Computer Audio

The cost of high-fidelity is something of a flash point in the hobby for many who see $10k USD DACs as outrageous and long for pricing more down-to-earth. (Let’s not forget that it’s those flagship models which bring the breakthroughs in technology that end up trickling down to lower-priced models).

Enter iFi Audio who has been designing, manufacturing and touting sub-$200 USD computer-audio designs as viable alternatives to the higher-priced gear turning so many audiophile heads these days.

Many home-audio enthusiasts that are looking to jump into the digital realm from their tradtional vinyl or CD rigs have balked at the startup costs involved for what they see as quality gear entry points into computer audio/online music streaming services, but companies like iFi and AudioQuest with their Dragonfly models are making it more affordable than ever to get a taste of what everyone is talking about when it comes to streaming audio or accessing high-resolution (PCM, DSD or DXD) or Redbook files off your local area network (LAN).

iFi’s newest product, the ZEN DAC is meant to connect PCs or Macs, tablets or smart phones via the asynchronous in-house programmed XMOS chip-enabled USB Type-B input and outputting analog signals via unbalanced RCA, balanced 4.4mm pentacon or to headphones via 6.3mm unbalanced or 4.4mm balanced pentacon. The ZEN is built around a Burr-Brown DAC chip with what iFo describes as “‘True Native’ architecture. This, together with the XMOS chip used for input processing, enables iFi to deliver excellent sound quality across all manner of digital audio formats including hi-res PCM, ‘bit-perfect’ DSD and MQA – the hi-res streaming codec, as used by Tidal’s ‘Masters’ tier.”

Specifications list PCM and DXD formats are supported up to 24-bit/384kHz and DSD from 2.8MHz to 12.4MHz (DSD256).The Burr-Brown chip is designed for PCM and DSD to take separate pathways, which “enables DSD to remain ‘bit-perfect’ in its native form, right through to analogue conversion. Many DACs that claim DSD compatibility accept DSD data but then convert it to PCM…” The ZEN does not do this.

According to the company, the ZEN’s analog headphone amplifier “delivers superb sound with all headphone types, from in-ear monitors to larger on and over-ear designs.” Hopefully this will translate into driving some more difficult-to-drive dynamic models, not just high-efficiency planars.

For home systems, the ZEN’s line-level outputs (balanced and unbalanced) are designed to switch between ‘variable’ and ‘fixed,’ which allows it work as a preamplifier for an existing power amplifier or active speakers – another check in the plus column for the unit’s versatility.

The ZEN DAC is scheduled to be available later this month.

iFi Audio

Stephen Scharf's picture

Please tell me this doesn't use the dreaded Switch Mode Power Supply.

funambulistic's picture

I was considering the iFi xDSD and almost pulled the trigger when they released this. It has all the features I want and none that I don't (like Bluetooth) and the price is outstanding!

Brown Sound's picture

This looks like a great replacement for my original iFi Nano iDSD, which has been on desktop duty. Looking forward to an actual review.