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iFi Zen DAC Review: Getting More Out of Computer Audio

by Makiah Shenay August 10, 2021

iFi Zen DAC Review: Getting More Out of Computer Audio

Here at HeadAmp we've been happy to see the rise of High-Res streaming services that make it easier than ever for anyone with a internet connection to enjoy massive libraries of high resolution music! Tidal, Amazon HD and now even Apple Music all offer High-Res streaming options that only really require a basic smart phone or computer to access and enjoy. But are these modern devices enough to really get the most out of these new high resolution music platforms?

Likely you've realized that the basic hardware on your new computer or even modern "audiophile" tuned cell phone is not enough. That said we're happy you've stopped by our site to get what you need to really you enjoy the improvements high res music can offer! In fact we've recently just picked up the awesome line up of products from iFi Audio and feel their entry level Zen DAC is a great example of an entry level product that can step up your music listening experience.

[left]

I found Zen Dac to have an overall pleasant musical presentation that added a little body to both the mid-range and low end. It's top end is smooth with a touch of air and a spacious presentation. Zen Dac had excellent detail overall and good dynamic contrast, it strikes a nice balance of resolution and sheer musicality! It drove the Sennheiser HD560S wonderfully from the single-ended 6.3mm output and I did find the 4.4mm balanced output to be the best for the more power hungry Dan Clark AEON 2 closed-back headphone.

For the sake of context we've also taken a moment to compare the Zen Dac to an LG V20 smart phone which features an ESS Sabre Quad Dac and higher powered headphone out making it a popular choice among audiophiles even today.

Full Setup & Track List

Playback was done via the LG V20 utilizing Neutron Audio Player Pro with lossless files all in native 24/96 format. iFi Zen Dac utilized USB input from the LG V20 alongside the included USB 3.0 A to Type B Cable. For listening thru V20 I used a 3.5mm to 1/4" adapter connected to it's native headphone jack and on iFi ZEN Dac I used the single ended 1/4" out for the HD 560S and the balanced 4.4mm out for the Aeon 2 Closed. All test tracks where volume matched between devices and the track list is as follows:

  • Micheal Jackson's Beat It off the 1982 "Thriller" Album
  • Schubert Piano Quintet In A Major, Op. 114, D 667-5. Track 5 - Finale (Allegro giusto)
  • Eagles Hotel California Live off their Hell Freezes Over Album

LG v20 VS Zen DAC With HD560S [left]

I was somewhat pleased to find the LG V20 was rather sufficient for powering the HD 560s, I had enough headroom for casual listening and didn't notice any immediate roll off. Switching over to the Zen Dac I noticed a real improvement in both dynamic contrast and overall presentation. While the V20's aggressive nature isn't too offensive with the HD560s it did add emphasis that was often a little unnatural sounding. Don Henley's vocals on "Hotel California" where especially rough and often too forward. So much so that his voice over shadowed some of the more nuanced guitar work and backing vocals present on the track.

I also found while listening to the Finale of Forellenquintett the V20 struggled to convey the grandeur and nuance of the various changes in intensity featured through the piece, simply put the recording and performance sounded a either too exaggerated and excessively loud or muted... switching over to the Zen Dac I was able to appreciate and enjoy the full grandeur of this piece of music. The softness of quieter passages alongside the immediacy of louder ones without losing that gentle but often quick transition between them. In the end the V20's sufficiency came at the cost of losing a lot of what made my favourite tracks special and truly engaging.

Technically when listening on the LG V20 everything was present but a lot of times there was just something a little off. Compared to the Zen Dac the "quad dac" LG V20 often sounded a bit fake.

LG v20 VS Zen DAC With Aeon 2 Closed [left]

One of the most notable differences I found between the single ended V20 and the balanced Zen DAC was in how lows were presented. With a lot of music, such as the Quincy Jones mastered Dutch Pressing of Michael Jackson's "Beat it," the V20 alone had a rather rolled-off presentation. There was a lot of punch but a real lack of weight and clear extension. I really love that bass line and found myself a bit distracted by the lack of texture and weight overall, while there was speed there wasn't proper or even natural heft in the lows which I ultimately found unengaging. I did find the V20 to present a slightly more cohesive sound stage with better depth but more often than not this only emphasized how shouty, rough and often grainy the sound was. If I had to pick a single word to describe the V20's signature it would be forward, more often than not I found it to just be too forward. Vocals stood out over top of guitars and toms where overwhelmed by the crash of cymbals and larger symphonies came across as disjointed and simply unnatural. Even worse was a lack of headroom with the Aeon 2C, simply put Zen Dac provided a clear improvement both audibly and functionally. Zen Dac's balanced output had gracious headroom, plenty of bass extension and texture, more even presentation of the mids in relation to the highs and just a smoother more musical signature as a whole.

Conclusion

The iFi Audio Zen DAC is an excellent choice for anyone looking to get more out of their existing smart devices as it supports a variety of digital formats including MQA and it's powerful enough to drive less efficient planar magnetic headphones that cell phones and small dongle USB DACs sometimes struggle with! We’re confident music lovers will enjoy its detailed, natural musical presentation, plus its small size and dedicated line out options make it perfect for use both in the office, at home and on the go.


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