If you’re planning to get into hi-fi, one of the first things you’ll need to buy is a headphone amp and digital-to-analog converter (DAC) because audiophile headphones can be challenging to drive, needing more power than your phone or laptop can supply. A good headphone amp and a good DAC will drastically improve the sound quality of your connected device, whether it’s your phone, PC, laptop or even TV.
You don’t need to shell out much money to experience hi-fi sound on your first headphone setup. The iFi Zen DAC is the perfect starting point, which is a DAC and amp combo with enough power to drive power-hungry headphones while working with sensitive in-ear monitors, making the product extremely versatile. iFi Zen DAC offers more features than anybody would think at its price point. It supports for MQA, DSD256, PCM384, DXD384 with balanced inputs, and outputs. You can bypass the amp if you want to use it solely as a DAC. Starting in the hi-fi hobby may not need all of these features, but it’s a good future-proofing as you mature during your audio enthusiasm.
If you only look at the specs on paper, you would think the iFi Zen DAC to cost at least $500, but it only retails for $129, making it one of the best audio bargains on the market today. The iFi Zen DAC is perfect for users who either just dabbling in headphone audio or wanting a portable DAC/amp to take on the go.
The iFi Zen DAC is entirely a metal in a trapezoidal layout. It looks like it can stand up to the abuse of being tossed into a backpack repeatedly as it is built like a tank. The unit may not be the most compact DAC/amp but it is undoubtedly still portable, measuring 117mm long, 100mm wide, and 30mm tall.
A beautiful, smooth-operating volume knob is located on the front of the unit. The volume knob is backlighted with multiple color LEDs, depending on the sampling rate of the played file. It’s an awesome visual indicator without needing a screen. Also present are the buttons for Power Match (gain), TrueBass (bass boost), a 6.35mm single-ended output, and a 4.4mm balanced output.
At the back are a 4.4mm balanced input, variable and fixed options’ switch, single-ended RCA outputs, USB-A port and a DC 5V input for the optional power supply. The unit runs off of USB power only out of the box and if you want to help improve the sound, you need to purchase a wall-wart power supply. While the headphones sound good without the use of a wall-wart power supply, it’s a bit disappointing that it is not included out of the box.
One important thing to note is that no power switch to turn on or off the iFi Zen DAC. The unit powers up as soon as it is connected to a PC and remains on. The volume LED will always stay on, even if the computer is turned off, which is a bit annoying if you’re in your bedroom with the unit.
The unit handles all digital platforms from steaming to DSD256 to PCM without issue. The iFi’s driver and the control panel is needed on Windows but no need on Macs.
The sound from the unit is excellent, giving sufficient power for power-hungry headphones like the Beyerdynamic DT1990 Pro and Sennheiser HD600. The DAC/amp is also good with low impedance headphones, such as Grado’s RS2i and different in-ear monitors. The unit supports headphones up to 300 ohms, providing enough volume without issues.
When it comes to tonal balance, the Zen DAC is neutral most of the time with a little warmth that helps tame the harsh highs of the headphones like the DT1990 Pro. While bass response is a bit insufficient, dynamics are generally good. Fortunately, the TrueBass option can add some mid to low-end punch without intruding on the mids. TrueBass comes handy when hopping between different genres of music.
The optional iFi power supply is worth purchasing to squeeze out a few extra drops of audio performance. There’s slightly more detail with the optional power supply at high volumes, though playing via USB still sounds excellent.
The iFi Zen DAC is a superb DAC and amp for the price. The unit has features that are rare for entry-level audio products. The Zen DAC has support for most major hi-fi audio formats and it has balanced connections. It elevates the music listening experience of someone new to hi-fi hobby.