iFi ZEN DAC V2 Review – Worth The Upgrade?

Recently, iFi announced that it was upgrading its popular ZEN DAC model. I’ve used the ZEN DAC as one of my go-to devices for headphone reviews, and now it’s gotten a couple of new additions. A new chipset and jitter clock are the main improvements, but these features mean a lot more to the quality of the sound than you may think. For this review, I’ve tested a few headphones using TIDAL MQA, to see how the new ZEN DAC stacks up to its original model. Let’s see if the changes made to the ZEN DAC Version 2 make it worth the upgrade. 

What You Get

  • iFi ZEN DAC V2
  • USB Cable
  • Dual RCA
  • Quarter-inch Headphone Jack
  • Warranty Card 

Design Improvements

The ZEN DAC V2 basically includes only two major new additions to its internal design. However, these changes can have a substantial effect on the DAC/Amps sonic quality depending on how you use it. One of the V2’s major additions is its upgrade from an 8-core AMOS chipset to a 16-core chip. This makes the processed audio even more capable of enhancement. Processing power has been greatly improved, delivering a clock speed of 2000MIPS and 512KB of memory. With the return of the Burr-Brown DAC chipset, the system is even more optimized, with “bit-perfect” playback. 

For resolution, the 16-core chipset changes the behavior of the DAC. Most audio systems only act as a renderer for lossless audio, MQA tracks. However, the ZEN DAC V2 uses its 16-core design to instead act as a decoder. This means that the conversion is performed internally for more accurate signal output. You’ll know you’re streaming MQA at its highest resolution when the LED light on the volume knob turns blue. iFi has also given the ZEN DAC V2 a new and improved jitter-clock. This component ensures a super low noise performance for its digital stage. 

Sound Quality

MQA is a big point of debate for some. It’s what the ZEN DAC V2 pushes the most out of all its new features. Although MQA implies accuracy, the ZEN DAC V2 is also a machine that adds texture and greater fullness to the sound. With that being said, the accuracy of the sound might bring more contention than expected, but this isn’t a review to explore that debate. However you want to characterize the sound, the ZEN DAC V2 offers excellent articulation and clarity to your tracks. When it came down to it, coloration only came so far, as the more headphones I listened to, the more the textures became more subtle. This made the ZEN DAC V2 an amp that presented a more accurate quality but still had room to bring a bit more energy to the sound when it was needed. If you’re not finding that the ZEN DAC V2 isn’t giving you enough of that color, TrueBass can definitely help left the sound even more. 

Testing the ZEN DAC V2 myself, I used the Kennerton Gjallarhorn GH 50, Audeze LCD 2 Classic, and the Beyerdynamic DT 770. Of course, each of these headphones has its own quirks, but I mainly focused on the differences the amp and MQA brought to them individually. Starting with the Gjallarhorn, I found it very surprising how restrained the soundstage became when going through the V2. Usually, the GH50 is one of the most expansive closed-back headphones around, but the V2 brings the image in a little closer in order to convey a more accurate image without all the fancy spaciousness. In effect, this makes the image more solid but doesn’t sacrifice the height or depth of the sound signature. The Audeze LCD 2 had a similar response, but the frequencies felt more detailed, like the gaps in the space were being filled in. Treble was given a fresh sparkle, with that smooth timbre still intact. Almost like the details are being leaked out of the upper highs. Finally, The Beyerdynamic DT 770 was in full form here. With the V2, the image felt like it was coming out of its comfort zone, delivering more greatly articulated layers. Unlike the Gjallarhorn, the depth greatly expands, and the timbre receives even more crispness in the midrange especially. 

Summary

With the ZEN DAC V2 it all comes down to whether it’s worth the upgrade. If you haven’t experienced the ZEN DAC yet, or any of iFi’s products, then this is a no-brainer. The ZEN DAC has been one of my personal go-to devices for a while, and the V2 upgrade makes it even more of a hot item. If you already have the ZEN DAC, the V2 might not offer enough, but you will get more out of your lossless, high-fidelity tracks than you usually would. Some will find great use for the V2, and in my opinion, the upgrade makes a worthy case in terms of pure sound quality. 

The iFi ZEN DAC V2 is available at Audio 46.

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