iFi’s ZEN Series audio products earned countless accolades and industry awards in 2020, recognized worldwide for their exceptional performance. Never content to rest on their laurels, the ZEN design team immediately set itself another challenge-can the circuitry be improved, much like in the way that the micro IDSD was improved.
Both models sport a smart new livery, their 158x35x100mm aluminum enclosures finished in deep Space Blue – the color iFi uses to differentiate special Signature editions of its products – rather than the grey finish of the regular ZEN Series devices. This is complemented by dark grey front and rear panels (silver-colored on the standard versions) and blue controls. The differences, however, are so much more than skin-deep.
ZEN DAC Signature
The new Signature edition takes this excellent platform, removes the headphone amp stage, and upgrades the fully balanced circuitry to create a DAC for those who wish to maximize pure sonic performance.
While the existing ZEN DAC introduced the benefits of fully balanced circuit design at an extraordinarily low price point, the Signature edition further ups the ante with its enhanced true-differential balanced topology. Various key surface-mounted circuit components have been upgraded to high-end devices, including Panasonic OS-CON and Elna Silmic II capacitors, while the circuit has been refined to ensure short, direct signal paths for optimal signal purity. This results in even greater sonic detail and expression.
The ZEN DAC Signature’s digital stage retains the True Native DAC architecture of its award-winning sibling, delivering bit-perfect PCM (up to 32-bit/384kHz), native DSD (up to DSD256), and DXD, plus MQA – the hi-res streaming codec, as used by Tidal’s ‘Masters’ tier. The sample rate of incoming audio data is indicated by a multicolored LED residing behind the aluminum volume control.
The iFi-programmed XMOS chip, which processes data received at the USB input, and jitter-eradicating, audiophile-grade oscillators, contribute to exemplary handling of digital audio signals as they are received, processed, and converted to analog form.
Aside from the removal of the integrated headphone amp and associated front-mounted outputs, the Signature edition’s connectivity is the same as the regular ZEN DAC. The USB Type B input supports the ‘SuperSpeed’ USB 3.0 standard, as well as USB 2.0 for backward compatibility. It is asynchronous, meaning that the data rate is regulated solely by the ZEN DAC Signature’s specialized audio clock circuitry for accurate, jitter-free data transfer from the source device.
Alongside the USB input is a stereo pair of RCA sockets for single-ended connection to an amp, plus a Pentaconn 4.4mm output – this relatively new interface type enables balanced signal transfer between compact products that cannot accommodate traditional, bulky XLR connections. When connected to an amp or active speakers equipped with a balanced input – either a 4.4mm Pentaconn input, or stereo XLR inputs via a 4.4mm-to-XLR cable – the full benefit of the ZEN DAC Signature’s balanced circuit design can be heard. iFi makes its own balanced cables to enable this connectivity; cables from other makers are also available.
As with the regular ZEN DAC, the Signature edition’s outputs can be switched between ‘variable’ and ‘fixed’. The variable setting applies volume control to the audio signal, enabling the ZEN DAC Signature to act as a preamp to connect directly to a power amp. 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, integrated amp, or active speakers with their own volume control.
ZEN CAN Signature 6XX
The ability to drive tough headphone loads, the balanced circuit design, the vanishingly low levels of distortion and versatile sonic tailoring options to optimize performance are all highly unusual at such an eminently affordable price tag.
Given its all-analog design, the ZEN CAN have no digital input. It connects to any audio source with analog output, such as the headphone output from a DAP (Digital Audio Player), a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone, or the RCA outputs from a DAC or a phono stage – including those made by iFi, of course. As well as a headphone amp, it can double as a preamp to feed a power amp and speakers.
ActivEQ – made-to-measure equalization
The new Signature edition further improves the sound quality with enhanced circuit design, while maintaining the versatile features of the ‘regular’ version and adding something special – a custom EQ setting precisely tailored across the entire frequency response curve to making the most of a popular headphone model. This new feature, called ActivEQ, combines active and passive components to create a specific EQ curve to suit a particular pair of headphones, performed in the analog domain without a hint of added noise or distortion.
ActivEQ aside, the Signature edition sports the same impressive facilities as the regular ZEN CAN. In the center of the front panel is smooth-acting volume control, flanked by several sockets and buttons. On the left, beside the power button and input switch, resides a control for selecting gain. Four settings in six dB steps – 0dB, 6dB, 12dB, and 18db – enable the amp to precisely suit the connected headphones; unity gain (0dB) is useful to ensure low noise with sensitive in-ear monitors, while the higher gain settings make the most of tougher headphone loads, delivering excellent dynamic headroom.
To the right are a pair of headphone outputs – a 6.3mm output for headphones that have a standard single-ended connector (compatible with all headphones) and a 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced output for headphones offering a balanced connection. An increasing number of high-quality headphones and in-ear monitors either come so equipped or give the option of detaching the cable and upgrading to a 4.4mm Pentaconn connector, and this output makes the most of them (it is particularly recommended for high-impedance headphones).
Next to the headphone sockets is a button to engage the ActivEQ mode, plus a further sonic tailoring option – XSpace. This analog processing modes compensate for the ‘in-head localization’ effect that can occur when using headphones to listen to music that was mixed using a pair of speakers, effectively widening the headphone soundstage to deliver a more spacious and speaker-like experience.
Around the back, the ZEN CAN Signature 6XX offers stereo RCA and 3.5mm single-ended inputs, plus a balanced 4.4mm Pentaconn input. A 4.4mm balanced output is also provided, to connect to power amps equipped with a balanced input.
Balance of power
With a number of elements trickled down from the discrete Class-A circuitry developed for iFi’s flagship headphone amplifier, the Pro iCAN. Key components have been upgraded to enhance performance in line with the improvements made to the ZEN DAC Signature, including the use of Panasonic OS-CON and Elna Silmic II capacitors.
The amp offers prodigious drive capability, delivering 1600mW (7.2V) into 32 ohms from the single-ended output, with 15V+ available to loads of 300 ohms or more through the balanced output, ensuring it takes even current-hungry planar headphones in its stride. Delivering ultra-low distortion, rich sonic detail, engaging dynamics, and the ability to drive all manner of headphones with ease, the ZEN CAN Signature 6XX is a truly transcendent headphone amp at a down-to-earth price.
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