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iFi audio ZEN DAC - The Official Thread

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  1. Be at one with your music with ZEN DAC

    Highly specified, super-affordable and simple to use, iFi’s ZEN DAC elevates your digital audio experience to a higher plane

    Southport, England – Hot on the heels of the ZEN Blue hi-res Bluetooth streamer, iFi expands the ZEN family of desktop-sized audio products with the ZEN DAC – a USB DAC/headphone amp offering a level of specification and performance that belies its eminently affordable £129 price tag.


    Designed for home use – on a desk, perhaps, or in the living room – the ZEN DAC connects to PCs and Macs, or smart devices such as tablets or phones, via USB. Its hi-res digital-to-analogue conversation technology processes all forms of digital audio to a super-high standard, while the integrated analogue headphone amplifier delivers superb sound with all headphone types, from in-ear monitors to larger on- and over-ear designs.

    Compared to simply plugging headphones directly into a computer or smart device, the ZEN DAC transforms the listening experience – sound is clearer, more detailed, more expansive and engaging, making the most of whichever headphones are connected.

    As well as driving headphones, the ZEN DAC can be used as a USB DAC in a home audio system, with or without its volume control engaged. What’s more, whether you’re hooking up headphones, an external amp or active speakers, you have a choice of single-ended or balanced connection – a remarkable facility at the price.

    Digital stage

    The DAC section is based around a Burr-Brown DAC chip that iFi uses extensively, selected for its fluid, highly ‘musical’ sound quality and ‘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. Given the diminutive asking price, the ZEN DAC’s digital audio credentials are highly impressive.

    PCM and DXD audio data is supported up to 24-bit/384kHz, alongside DSD sampling rates from 2.8MHz to 12.4MHz (DSD256). Thanks to the Burr-Brown chip’s True Native design, PCM and DSD take separate pathways – this 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; for DSD purists, the ZEN DAC is a fantastic affordable solution.


    Another circuit feature that separates this and other DACs made by iFi from competing designs is iFi’s in-house programming of the XMOS chip. While other manufacturers simply use the firmware that comes with the chip off-the-shelf, which is not typically optimised for audiophile-grade sound, iFi programs its own bespoke firmware to boost audio processing power.

    iFi’s continuous software development allows features to be added or optimised via firmware updates, enabling the ZEN DAC to be tailored to the user’s playback priorities and ensuring it stays cutting-edge over time. Users can even download and install different versions of iFi firmware to experiment with different digital filters should they so desire.

    Extensive clock-locking is used throughout the digital stage to eradicate jitter, maintaining the integrity of the digital signal until conversion.

    Analogue stage

    The ZEN DAC’s analogue stage is a balanced design – highly unusual in a DAC/headphone amp anywhere near this price point. It incorporates a range of high-quality circuit components, carefully selected for their performance in an audio context, including C0G capacitors from TDK, a precision low-noise power supply IC from Texas Instruments and a high-quality analogue volume pot.

    The headphone amp stage has switchable gain, which iFi terms PowerMatch. This matches the level of drive to the load presented by the headphones, by adjusting input sensitivity and thereby signal strength. With high-sensitivity headphone types such as in-ear monitors, leave PowerMatch at its lower setting for ultra-low-noise performance. But if your headphones require more drive – most on/over-ear types, for example – press the PowerMatch button on the front panel to increase gain.

    TrueBass is another user-selectable feature. An evolution of iFi’s established XBass circuit, TrueBass is a sophisticated form of ‘bass boost’ that subtly enhances low frequencies without muddying the midrange – particularly useful with earphones and open-back headphones that may lack deep bass. It operates entirely in the analogue domain rather than messing with the digital signal via DSP and may be switched in or out via another button on the front panel.

    Well connected

    The ZEN DAC sports Pentaconn 4.4mm balanced outputs, both front and back – this is a relatively new interface type, designed to enable balanced signal transfer between compact products that cannot accommodate traditional XLR connections. The front-mounted 4.4mm output sits alongside a standard, single-ended 6.3mm headphone socket – thus, the benefits of balanced headphone designs are fully utilised, whilst also accommodating every type of headphone, both balanced and single-ended.


    The 4.4mm output to the rear enables connection to amps and active speakers equipped with a balanced input – either a Pentaconn 4.4mm input, or XLR inputs via a 4.4mm-to-XLR cable. Single-ended RCA outputs are also provided.

    These line-level outputs – both balanced and single-ended – can be switched between ‘variable’ and ‘fixed’, enhancing the ZEN DAC’s versatility. The variable setting applies volume control to the audio signal, enabling the ZEN DAC to perform as a preamp feeding a power amp or active speakers. The fixed option bypasses the volume control, fixing the output at 4.2V (balanced) or 2.1V (single-ended) for connection to an external preamp or integrated amp.

    The ZEN DAC’s asynchronous USB Type B input supports the ‘SuperSpeed’ USB 3.0 standard and is also compatible with USB 2.0.

    In common with other ZEN Series products, the ZEN DAC sports a sturdy, smartly finished aluminium enclosure, neatly sized at 158x35x100mm (WxHxD). Even the rotary volume control is aluminium, giving a reassuringly solid feel – impressive at the product’s super-affordable price. Behind the volume control resides an LED that changes colour to indicate the sampling rate of the audio data received.

    The iFi ZEN DAC is available from mid-October, at an RRP of £129. Further ZEN Series products are set to follow in the coming months.


    1. The release note:
    iFi audio Stay updated on iFi audio at their sponsor page on Head-Fi.
    https://www.facebook.com/iFiAudio/ https://twitter.com/ifiaudio https://www.instagram.com/ifiaudio/ https://ifi-audio.com/ info@ifi-audio.com
  2. hamachan
    Let's continue the discussion in this official thread. I understood the intention of the product line. Balance circuit is an obvious difference, and something else I guess. In fact that catalogue spec seems to be better than nano series, for example SNR and THD+N for RCA line out exceed the spec of micro iDAC2! Though the spec does not represent sonic quality directly, I am curious how sound signature is.
  3. qsk78
    Will be able to compare ZEN DAC and xDSD very soon, especially in the DAC section.
    I hope that ifi audio will continue to develop in the direction of desktop DACs and the ZEN is just a beginning.
    Arghavan likes this.
  4. ClieOS Contributor
    Looking forward to pick one up when it reaches the local dealer
    iFi audio likes this.
  5. Asahi Templar
    Very interested but have some questions!

    Does the Zen Dac have two dac chips for a true hardware balanced dac?

    Also is it the same "True Native Burr Brown" chipset as the micro iDSD had? The website seems to suggest it is, but wanted to make sure :)

    How big is the bass boost on the True Bass function and does it lessen the power output of the amp at all?

    The headphone output appears to be true balanced which is really impressive for this price point!

    This seems like the DAC/AMP combo to beat in the 200 dollars range, load of features far more than you typically get.
    Arghavan and Miru like this.
  6. Miru
    Also interested in this. It does seem like a very compelling option for anyone wanting to start out with their first dac/amp.
  7. Baten
    Especially with those 4.4mm outputs!
    Sp12er3 likes this.
  8. iFi audio
    We'll release a tech paper shortly, stay tuned!
    iFi audio Stay updated on iFi audio at their sponsor page on Head-Fi.
    https://www.facebook.com/iFiAudio/ https://twitter.com/ifiaudio https://www.instagram.com/ifiaudio/ https://ifi-audio.com/ info@ifi-audio.com
    Sp12er3 and Asahi Templar like this.
  9. iFi audio
    We develop in all directions; from portable to desktop to high end.
    iFi audio Stay updated on iFi audio at their sponsor page on Head-Fi.
    https://www.facebook.com/iFiAudio/ https://twitter.com/ifiaudio https://www.instagram.com/ifiaudio/ https://ifi-audio.com/ info@ifi-audio.com
    qsk78 likes this.
  10. ClieOS Contributor
    I think there might be some misunderstanding on how DAC works. You don't need two DAC chips to get balanced signal. You just need one DAC chips that can output differential signal (as oppose to single-ended), which the DSD1793 that iFi used (as well as many other DAC) is fully capable of, to get the balanced signal. The key is really how the LPF stage is designed, not how many DAC is/are used.
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2019
    SteveOliver and qsk78 like this.
  11. Asahi Templar
    You can absolutely get a "balanced signal" from a single DAC but doing so doesnt give you a "complete" fully hardware balanced configuration.

    For that you need 2 dac chips operating in monaural mode and all the analog circuitry should be split but identical for each channel. Doing so can improve the SNR assuming the implementation is good. its a really small difference, but its nice to have if you are looking to get as much performance as possible. Of course this will increase the cost and power requirements so I suspect that the Zen DAC just uses one DSD1793 chip.

    Not having two DAC chips is certainly not a deal breaker!

    The document they released about the balanced circuit shows that everything after the initial conversion to analog is fully hardware balanced which is really impressive at this price point. I am actually not sure if there are any other DAC/AMP combos below $300 that offer that. C
  12. ClieOS Contributor
    Again, what you are talking has less to do with being balanced but DAC interleaving. If interleaving is the goal, you can use more than 2 DAC chips. For example, it is common for flagship ESS chip, which has 8 DAC cores on a single chip, to implement interleaving for stereo output (*interleaving 4 on each side). However, this doesn't equal to being balanced as you can just as well output single-ended as balanced, depends on how the LPF stage is designed. While interleaving does improve the DAC performance, it doesn't define whether it is balanced or not. If DAC has differential output, you are already half way there.
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2019
  13. qsk78
    @iFi audio
    Will this work fine with ZEN DAC? Thanks

  14. Baten
    Indeed, many people think balanced and dual mono are one and the same. Diferentially balanced is 100% balanced, just not with dual(or more) chips, and without interleaving (which can theoretically increase SNR just a little).
  15. Baten
    It's regulated 5V so yes it will work. Note that you don't need external power, USB alone will work too. The external input is for high quality 5V source if you have one (yours does not look like an improvement over plain USB power :p).
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2019
    qsk78 likes this.
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