Ahh, affordable DACs. You gotta love ’em. The Zen DAC is the wired counterpart to the wireless Zen Blue DAC, and they both feature the same minimalist housing and the same easy price tag. And what’s more, they both offer a balanced input and output; something of a rarity for DACs at this price point. It looks like an Internet modem, but does it sound like one too?
Understated Brilliance: iFi Zen DAC Review
Firstly, I love the way then Zen looks. Metal housing, big analogue volume knob, and nothing unnecessary. It’s clean and simple, wabi-sabi style. The size is convenient for a desktop but make no mistake, the Zen is not designed for portability.
Running down the front panel, we first have a Power Match button that switches the gain stage for use with high-impedance headphones that need extra juice. Then we have the switchable TrueBass boost (also analogue!) which uses “two downward-firing 8′ bass radiators”. I have no idea what those are, but they sound cool! And everybody loves extra bass. And by everybody I mean me.
Next up we have ourselves a big ol’ volume knob that looks and feels great, and lights up a different color underneath depending on the sampling frequency. It’s worth mentioning that all these controls have a brushed metal finish and feel very sturdy. The craftsmanship of the Zen impresses me. Then we’ve got our unbalanced 1/4 inch out and a 4.4mm balanced out.
On the backside, we have the balanced output, RCA outputs and the USB (2.0 and 3.0) input. Plus, a variable switch to bypass the volume control, and a little “MQA-Compatible” stamp in case you forgot that you can stream your Tidal Masters!
The Zen DAC uses a Burr-Brown True Native chipset, which supports up to DSD256, PCM384 and DXD384 resolutions. But enough of this technical poppycock! What do mine ears thinketh?
The sound is at once clean and punchy. Somehow, it seems totally coherent with the rest of the Zen’s design. Unadorned and efficient. Compared to some similarly-priced DACs that shall rename nameless, the Zen brought slight warmth and punch to the low-end and the midrange while simultaneously bringing the upper midrange to the forefront. The high-end was smoothed a bit; nothing too harsh or heavy-handed going on here. But my music sounded more in-my-face but also cleaner and more distinct. An impressive feat, handled by the Zen with graceful subtlety.
Now for the sound of those downward-firing radiators of bass. In short, the TrueBass sounds great. Especially with a pair of IEMs. It reintroduces that voluptuous punch that is so often lost in smaller speakers. It’s a setting that I left on all the time, and my ears will certainly long for it when they next encounter a non-bass-boosted DAC. There were only a few instances where the boost felt like too much, most notably in the sub-bass of certain hip-hop tracks which resonated a little longer than normal.
The Zen DAC looks great, sounds great, and is relatively inexpensive. The build quality and balanced connections are especially nice high points considering how they are usually among the first things to vanish on the budget-friendly side of things. It is singular, yet flexible. Understated, yet powerful. Simple, yet refined. You get the point. But in all seriousness, I can’t really find that much I don’t like about the Zen DAC. As long as you don’t try to fit it in your pocket, I think you’ll be pretty happy.
Great design, good looks, clean and punchy sound, fair price.
Not at all portable.
Zen out at Audio46
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