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  1. Aibo
    Surprise-packed Zen
    Written by Aibo
    Published Nov 9, 2019
    5.0/5,
    Pros - - Great build quality
    - Great sound quality with GTO filter
    - Upgradability with low noise power supply
    Cons - - None with latest firmware
    Zen DAC is one of the latest iFi products and it's their most affordable desktop DAC to date. It's actually a DAC/headphone amp combo with an USB input and several outputs: single-ended line out, balanced line out, single-ended headphone out and balanced headphone out. Quite a bit for a device costing $129/149€.

    It's built like a tank with thick aluminium shell, it's reassuringly weighty too. It lights up when it's connected to PC, it turns down automatically with it even if external power supply is connected. No signal, no need to be powered - smart.

    Regarding formats it can handle basically anything you throw at it: Hi-Res PCM, DSD, MQA...

    DSC_6813.jpg DSC_6832.jpg

    SOUND QUALITY

    When I took it out of the box I firstly hooked it up to my room setup which is Cyrus 8v2 integrated amp and AE Aegis Evo 3 speakers. The sound was fluid and kind of laid back. Bass was weighty and pleasantly warm but not as fast and precise as the best in class. Mids were clean and vocals were too, spatially they were laid back - this is not your typical "in your face" Sabre-like sound. Highs were extended and slightly pronounced so Zen sounds positively sparkly and recreates air from the recordings very nicely. All in all I found sound to be fluid and pleasant but not really as precise and engaging as some other DACs (Schiit Modi 3 for example).

    GTO to the save

    But then I was browsing the official web page and I saw that there's a possibility of installing new firmware on the device, and with it comes a new GTO filter in place of Linear Phase one that comes as a factory default. A minute later my Zen was flashed with latest 5.3c firmware and that's when I really started to like this unit. Everything just came into focus. Bass was still deep but now moved faster and created cleaner, more precise notes. Vocals became better defined and sounded fuller, not as laid back as before, very present. Highs essentially kept their liveliness and airiness. Things that were already very good, like fluidity, were still good. So to my ears, GTO filter is clearly superior and it's addition elevated this DACs sound from good to great.

    Now, let's dance

    Finally, I decided to try out the Zen's ability to use external power supply. I hooked it up to my self-made SuperTeddyReg based PS and was surprised by the result. Why surprised you ask - well because I try it with every DAC I test but usually it makes very little difference so I usually don't mention it. This time around it was clearly different. Zen reacted to it very nicely, background became darker and notes gained in body and energy making everything sound more realistic and lifelike, putting smile on my face. I liked this newly unleashed fidelity, I liked it very much. Unfortunately I didn't have a chance to try iFi's own low noise wall wart called iPower, but if those can provide similar result as my linear power supply, that would make a great bundle buy.

    Headphones

    I'm currently not in possession of any demanding headphones but I tried it with what I have: AKG K92, Takstar Pro 82, Tin Audio T2, BLON BL-03... Everything said for sound character on line-out stands here too. Fluid and clean sound with lush bass and sparkly highs. I never felt that I'm lacking power but I do like power match (basically low gain mode) so I can use IEMs more comfortably. Bass boost of course elevates bass and mid bass but is not really my cup of tea so I preferred it on off - Zen has quite enough bass as it is in my opinion.

    CONCLUISON

    Zen was really interesting experience, great build and functionality, with several layers to it regarding sound quality. Directly from the box it's already very good sounding, but you should definitely spend few minutes to install new firmware with GTO filter which will peel its first layer and get sonud quality to a class leading level. At this moment Zen is already a great buy and very easy recommendation. But if you feel adventures, there is yet another layer to be peeled if you add a low noise power supply to it.

    Lastly, I'll share what is probably the best testimony of my impressions about Zen - this unit was loaned to me by iFi for a review but I decided to purchase it and keep it in my system. Is there a better recommendation to give?

    ...

    I made a video review too:

      border66 likes this.