iFi audio ZEN DAC 3

General Information

Fresh New Look. Unleash Every Music Detail.​

The ZEN DAC 3 serves as your gateway to the world of high-resolution music, offering support for sample rates of up to 768kHz. This future-proof feature ensures full compatibility with all music formats available on streaming platforms, bringing you the best in sound quality.
Equipped with a built-in headphone amplifier and the versatility to function both as a DAC and a DAC/Pre, this all-encompassing device is the only piece of equipment you’ll need on your desk. It seamlessly connects to headphones, preamplifiers, integrated amplifiers, or active speakers, offering a comprehensive audio solution for home and office.

Latest reviews

McCol

Headphoneus Supremus
The sweet spot?
Pros: - Detailed but warm smooth sounding
- Solid build quality
- Great value at this price
- Great features
Cons: - Xbass is alittle boomy at times
Disclaimer

I was sent the Zen Dac 3 to demo and review, this will be sent back once review is complete.


A short but sweet review

I'd normally try and write a long review with detials of various apsects of an audio product however the Zen Dac 3 is going to be an exception due to it's wonderful simlicity and brillance at doing what it does.


The package is quite minimal and contains the unit with a USB-C to USB-A cable and a RCA inteconnect. The unit itself is very well built and oozes quality at this price point.
On the front of the ZD3 is a volume knob in the middle, 4.4mm and 6.25mm headphone sockets to the right. On the left sits the power match button and the Xbass function button.
On the rear of the unit is the USB-C conneciton which is used to both connect to source and to power. There is a power inlet socket which I've not used, as well as variable/fixed volume switch, lastly there is the RCA sockets.

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Full list of specs and functions etc can be found here https://ifi-audio.com/products/zen-dac-3/

Balanced output power of 390mw (64ohms) was more than enough for my collection fo IEM's and was also suffice for my limited amount of full size headphones.
The Burr-Brown DAC used by iFi again produces excellent results for the sound on the ZD3. I've always liked thier use of the Burr-Brown DAC in previous products, I always find it produces a warm yet detailed sound, it's also very smooth in it's delivery.
I used a variety of earphones and the ZD3 sounded excellent with everything I used, of particualr note was my Sony IER Z1r earphones, the ZD3 added to their already excellent soundstage and seems to give even more air and presence to their sound.
My Sennheiser 660s also benefits from the ZD3, the bass is lifted and gives some more texture and the treble is also given some extra detail. Even though the stated power seems low, the ZD3 powered the 660s with ease and using the powermatch which gives a fgain boost also helps.

The Xbass was a feature I tried briefly, it works in terms of giving the lower frequency a boost but it's not something I use on any product and I won't be now. I find that altohugh it boosts it doesn't keep original detail and bass can become a bit boomy whe using it.

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This is probably the shortest review I've written and it's because the Zen Dac 3 really is just a simply wonderful piece of hardware, it looks good and is expremely well built. The easy connection to Laptop/source and ease of power delivery through USB-C is a great feature.
The sound that the Zen Dac 3 is for the price excellent, for £229 I think you are getting a device that punches way above it's price range.
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iFi audio
iFi audio
Thanks for your thoughts! We appreciate it very much!

Cheers!!
L
lior777
hey its will run good hifiman sundara?

Sunstealer

500+ Head-Fier
The Magic Number?
Pros: .
All in one solution, easily powered by USB C
Clean, balanced sound
Cons: .
Xbass too heavy handed
Noisy balanced output for sensitive transducers
Ifi invited me to review this item with no editorial expectations or guidance. Opinions and errors are my own. The DAC 3 will be returned to Ifi. Many thanks to Karina @ Ifi for reaching out to me.

Materials:
Fiio K7 DAC / Amp
Ifi ZEN CAN
iMac 2017, Pine player
Oneplus 6, Neutron player
Philips X2HR
Fostex TH-X00
Beyerdynamic DT150 250 Ohm
Koss Porta Pro
SoundRhyme SR5
Penon FAN

All transducers were used in balanced mode; I balanced modified the Philips, Fostex and Koss myself. The Beyer has a custom balanced cable.

Playlist consisted of a mix of genres: Shadow Child, Katy Perry, Alt-J, Dinosaur Jr., Richard Ashcroft, Chicane and various Deep House tracks.

The ZD3 arrives in a smart rectangular carton; a separate internal box contains an RCA interconnect and a 5V 0.5A DC power supply. The front fascia of the ZD3 has been redesigned: there is now a bicoloured panel of brushed and textured metal. Ever present are the Power Match and XBass buttons, 6.3mm and 4.4mm sockets.

At the back, the main difference from the V2 is a USB C socket which can be used for power and/or digital signal. I could discern no additional sonic benefit when plugging in the DC adaptor. Presumably it would be used when the transport is battery powered to prevent excess drain. The volume pot is nicely weighted, with none of the channel imbalance that has been present in previous incarnations.

I enjoyed the ZD3’s sound. It was clean, clear, and crisp. Overall, I felt that the profile was sonically balanced with a cool timbre.

The X2HR retains its airiness, space and soundstage with nice instrumental separation and a modest, if tasteful bass. The deep bass of the Fostex was well controlled, impactful and really matched well with the ZD3. This was my favourite pairing overall. The Koss’ were also a nice match, benefitting from balancing and a thicker pair of foams to realise a smooth, musically sweet character with a touch of treble roll off.

The DT150 are quite neutral in timbre with a mids focus, treble roll off and absence of the Beyer 8kHz spike - the only pair of Beyers that I have been able to tolerate for any length of time! I was concerned that maybe the ZD3 wouldn’t be able to power the Beyers but there was enough juice to give a respectable showing. They responded nicely to Power Match as you might expect with a 250 Ohm resistance. The Xbass worked OK, my mass damped Beyers can handle that amount of bass but I preferred it off. I consider myself a bass lover so am confused by my dislike for the Xbass function. I think I prefer my bass ab initio, part of the native signature of the transducer, rather than introduced on top.

Unfortunately the SR5 treble edge was accentuated with the ZD3, verging on uncomfortable (for me). I felt that the SR5s are a useful judge of source nature, being affected by what they are connected to. The FAN has a deep V-shaped profile, which produced no sonic surprises.

I didn’t enjoy the Xbass - it added far too much boomy mid bass and overwhelmed the X2HR. None of the other transducers really need a bass boost anyway. It might have been better to have a staged boost, rather than all or nothing.

There was a huge amount of waterfall hiss on the balanced output with the SR5, becoming muted on single ended connection. Also heard a touch of hiss with the FANs. This is something I have come to expect with ZEN DACs. No hiss with any of the headphones.

I added the ZEN CAN as an amplifier - only the Porta Pro and Beyers changed their sonic character, becoming slightly fuller and deeper. I couldn’t hear any change with any of the others, or it was too slight and probably placebo.

The K7 has a warmer, smoother, sweeter nature compared to the ZD3. I was really surprised - only after listening to the ZEN does the difference become apparent. There is a slight loss of fidelity but I cannot tell if it is the midbass obscuring those details or whether it is true lack of separation / resolution. The K7 however has a completely black background using the SR5 - no hiss whatsoever.

To sum up, the ZEN DAC 3 is a great place to start your journey. It coped effortlessly with everything I had, with the proviso that sensitive transducers hiss to some degree or other. I feel that it works well with bass orientated or balanced transducers.
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K
KhalBrando
I’d have to agree to disagree, the only thing the K7 has on the ZD3 is more inputs and power. Power that a lot of headphones can probably still operate just fine without, and since I’d imagine most would be using this with a dedicated amp, it doesn’t matter much anyway. I feel like the ZD3 sounds far better. Every Fiio dac I’ve heard has been lifeless, cold and “digital” while the ZD3 is warm and engaging, buttery smooth, some call the term I’m looking for “musical.” If not for only being usb, this could easily be endgame. Definitely for a desktop. If someone doesn’t have a computer or a streamer with usb, that can be a problem because you’re likely going to be stuck using your phone. Which is going to drain your battery and keep you from doing much of anything else you might need or want to do with it. I would love to see IFI add coax at the very least. I could even accept optical although coax would definitely be better.
Sunstealer
Sunstealer
The differences in timbre are only apparent back to back. If I had bought either and not listened to the other, I would still be happy with my choice.
K
KhalBrando
Fiio just seems to be a brand I haven’t found one thing I really loved the way it sounded yet. Of course I’m to the point of avoiding them now. But the K7 must be decent, there are a lot of people that have that and are happy with it. That one and a few of the Bluetooth dongles seem really popular. I’m having trouble wanting to send this zen can back now. I should get the money but it’s a really nice dac even with just plain bus mode. Let alone when it’s got power hooked up to it. It looks like I’m going to get a gungir to put in my system as my main. I’m betting for my taste it doesn’t get much better. But we shall see. You’re probably right about testing them back to back. Still, that must mean the K7 is pretty good and not all cold and digital lol. Thanks for the reply

jamejfio

New Head-Fier
It's not all about the power...
Pros: Unit stays ice cool
Smooth Burr-Brown sound, slightly warm but detailed
Overall build and materials are solid
Cons: Not much... maybe the divisive styling and low power output for price

Simple Audio Review: iFi ZEN DAC 3​

It’s not all about the power… (Full review: https://jamesfiorucci.wordpress.com/2024/05/27/simple-audio-review-ifi-zen-dac-3/ )
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The ZEN DAC series of DAC/amps catapulted the British audio tech company iFi Audio to the forefront of the audiophile and headphone communities.
Renowned for their smooth and effortless sound as well as high build quality, the iFi ZEN DAC has now entered its third generation which has introduced a few key changes compared to the V2 model.
Will the ZEN DAC 3 continue iFi’s reputation as a the default choice for budget audiophiles and headphone enthusiasts? Let’s find out.
The iFi ZEN DAC 3 retails for £229; more information can be found on iFi’s website. Many thanks to Karina at iFi Audio for sending out a ZEN DAC 3 for review.

Specifications and Features​

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Included in the box with the ZEN DAC 3, apart from the unit itself of course, is a handy quick-start guide, RCA cables and a USB-C to USB-A cable to connect the unit to your media playback device. A USB-C to USB-C cable would have been nice as well to connect to a mobile phone, but I understand iFi’s decision to go with USB-A as the ZEN DAC 3 will be used primarily in a desktop setting.

The ZEN DAC 3 can be powered completely via USB, meaning no external power supply is needed. However, iFi have included a 5V power socket on the unit just in case you would rather power the DAC using mains.

iFi claim that hooking up the ZEN DAC 3 to an external power supply ensures that the USB connection is solely dedicated to data transfer, improving the sound quality. I had iFi send over their iPowerX power supply to test this theory, which I will dive into in the sound section of this review.

Compared to the ZEN DAC V2, the third generation model has swapped out the USB-B data connection for USB-C and can decode up to PCM768 and DSD512 (compared to PCM384 and DSD256 in the former). TrueBass circuitry has also been swapped out for XBass+, which can be toggled on and off with a button at the front of the unit. These can all be regarded as positive changes.

The output power has remained unchanged, rated at over 390mW (@64 Ohms) from the balanced 4.4mm connection. Both units still use the fabled Burr-Brown DAC chip and 16-core XMOS audio processors, though the ZEN DAC 3 has better harmonic distortion figures but slightly worse signal-noise ratio and dynamic range compared to its predecessor. The differences are negligible, but we will see whether this has had any effect on the sound later on.

Design and Build​

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In my opinion this is just a flat-out better looking version of the ZEN DAC V2. I love the extra details and more premium-feeling volume knob on the third gen; the V2 now looks more bland in comparison.

Some don’t like the shape that the ZEN DAC has always had, especially because it doesn’t really fit well in a stack with another amplifier. But as a standalone unit, I’m a fan of the smooth curves and the overall material choices are high quality with barely a hint of plastic on the exterior of the device.

The volume pot has a smooth rotation with enough resistance to prevent unwanted changes in volume, and the buttons for XBass+ and Power Match work well. Furthermore, I thought it would be worth mentioning that the unit never got warm, let alone hot in my many hours of testing. I have only praises for the design and build of the ZEN DAC 3.

Sound and Synergy​

Simply put, I found the sound coming out from the iFi ZEN DAC 3 to be absolutely flawless. Every facet of the sound bellied its admittedly sub-par power output, which goes to show that a high wattage is no guarantee of high quality sonic performance.

The Burr-Brown DAC chip provides a warmer-leaning tonality, but there has been no sacrifice to the midrange and treble frequencies. Overall, the ZEN DAC 3 puts out a smooth listening experience, one that can help tame troublesome peaks in the highs present in some headphones.

Take the Beyerdynamic DT880 Edition 600 Ohm for example. Infamous for it’s jagged treble response, the ZEN DAC 3 smoothed out the upper registers and brought out the most from the DT880. Despite the low power output, I was only at noon on the dial on low gain which goes to show that the ZEN DAC 3 has plenty enough juice to drive the vast majority of headphones.

What impressed me the most however was the imaging and soundstaging capabilities of the unit. There’s outstanding coherency and width to the soundstage, with better layering than the similarly-specced Fosi Audio SK02.

Every now and then I would toggle the XBass+ switch, and wow was it addictive. It bumps up the bass frequencies by a fair few dBs, but does so without overly interfering with the midrange. It particularly helped to alleviate the anaemic bass response of certain dynamic open-back headphones such as the Sennheiser HD600.

I tried listening with and without the iPowerX powering the ZEN DAC 3, and truth be told I didn’t hear a huge difference. Perhaps there was a slight increase in macrodynamics, but that may have just been a bit of placebo.

The fact that the ZEN DAC 3 can simply be driven from a laptop or phone and provide such a faultless listening experience is amazing if you ask me.

Overall Verdict​

The iFi ZEN DAC 3 looks good, sounds good and perhaps best of all, costs good. While it doesn’t have the highest power output amongst its competition, it may well be the best sounding DAC/amp right now in its price category.

Rating: 9/10​

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