IFI Zen DAC Review: Economical Ecstasy

IFI Zen DAC Review: Economical Ecstasy front of unit

A few months ago, someone in a raincoat met me in a dimly-lit parking garage to let it slip that IFI Audio was working on a $129 DAC.  If I had known then what I know now, I would have been even more excited to get my hands on the IFI Zen DAC.  But just like a good Sugar Ray song or the best currywurst, one tiny mistake can derail the whole experience.  So how does this cheap-as-chips USB DAC fare?

IFI Zen DAC Review: Economical Ecstasy

IFI Zen DAC Review: Economical Ecstasy top down view of unit

Zen feels like an accurate epithet for IFI’s newest DAC.  Simplistic but refined, it’s fairly simple to understand how the device functions without ever consulting the manual.  It just feels simple – stripped of anything unnecessary.  By definition, it’s a minimalist DAC.

What really sets this DAC apart, though, is the obvious quality of the components.  In terms of guts, the Zen DAC packs quite a punch.  While the housing offers the same dimensions as the Zen BLUE wireless DAC, it uses a Burr Brown chipset (in comparison to the Sabre ESS chipset in the BLUE).  For some folks this won’t translate to all that big of a deal; for me, I’ve grown to loathe the Sabre sound in most applications, while the Burr Brown chipsets have grown considerably on me.

But it’s not just the DAC here that deserves praise; IFI has slapped some features onto this model that feel sorely missing from other price-conscious entry-level DACs.  For instance, the bass boost function doesn’t sound like complete garbage.  Also, the Zen DAC is fully balanced, allowing you to run a balanced connection to a balanced amplifier for better, more balanced sound.  Balance.

IFI Zen DAC Review: Economical Ecstasy back of unit

Design

There are two headphone outputs on this DAC – one 6.3 mm single ended and one 4.4 mm balanced.  I’m really glad that IFI seems to be adopting 4.4 mm.  I have bent way too many flimsy 2.5 mm plugs through heavy-handed usage.  The 4.4 mm seems to stand up better to prolonged rocking out and violent arm gestures.

Dominating the center of the DAC’s faceplate is a volume knob.  The textured feel belies a smooth action.  If you don’t think a DAC can feel sexy, just play with that knob for a sec and get back to me.  There’s also two buttons on that faceplate – one for the bass boost funtion (IFI calls it TrueBass) and one for gain (IFI calls it Power Match).

In terms of output, IFI recommends headphones with an impedance of 12-300 ohms for single-ended use or 12-600 ohms for balanced use.  This unit does put out a good amount of power, though, and it’s more than enough to drive the likes of Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro or the Amiron Home.

On the back of the Zen, there are balanced and unbalanced outputs, as well as the option to use a dedicated 5 volt power supply.  While the manual implies that a power supply comes included with it, there’s no power supply in the box.  So, fair warning, you’ll have to shell out extra if you want to run this via AC power.

Compatibility

Connection-wise, the Zen DAC offers compatibility with a computer via USB 2.0 and 3.0, and with amplifiers via RCA and 4.4 mm outputs.

In terms of resolution, the Burr Brown DAC will handle bit-perfect DSD and DXD up to 12.4 MHz and 384 KHz, respectively.  PCM audio gets support in frequencies ranging from 44.1 to 192.

IFI has gone to some length to make sure everyone and their mother knows this DAC is also MQA-compatible.  From the retail packaging to the “MQA” stamp on the back of the unit, you won’t miss the Zen DAC’s suitability for your Tidal masters.

IFI Zen DAC Review: Economical Ecstasy mqa logo

Sound Quality

Sound quality -the meat and potatoes of any review.  Unless you don’t like potatoes, I guess.  But nah, I gotta be joking.  Who doesn’t like potatoes?  I feel the same way about the sound quality with the Zen DAC – if someone tells me the sound quality doesn’t fall right on the money, they can take it on the arches.

First off, the Burr Brown DAC chip does a very admirable job of balancing accuracy with listenability.  It’s a fun kind of precision you could listen to all day and never grow tired of.  Secondly, there’s just the slightest bit of warmth here, too, and one that seems complimenting to rock, hip-hop, and electronic music.  And yet that same warmth never seems too detracting from other genres.

IFI Zen DAC Review: Economical Ecstasy front of unit

Pros and Cons

Pros:  Solid audio, svelte package with minimalist styling that works with damn near anything.  The Burr Brown DAC and solid amplification result in a potent combo your ears won’t soon forget.

Cons:  No 5 volt charger.  While this in no way prevents me from using or even enjoying the DAC, I personally find it inexcusable and therefore equate it to an objective and moral failing on the part of the manufacturer, IFI.

Final Analysis

I really enjoy listening to the IFI Zen DAC and I will probably purchase one in the near future.  But it would make a good gift, too, to my friends and family who love good audio but don’t want anything too flashy or expensive.  At the heart of the matter, that’s what the Zen DAC is – just really good audio, in a simple, economic package.  At $129, you can’t get much sweeter than that.

Acquire the IFI Zen DAC for the best price here:

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