IFI ZEN One Signature Review

Throughout the last year, iFi has been releasing one new product after another and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Most of their latest models of amps, DACs, and other HiFi systems have either gone with version two, or signature moniker. This time around we have the Zen One Signature, a new Bluetooth DAC that’s sure to be a significant upgrade to your wireless setup. Ifi also released the Zen Blu V2 back in 2021, it seems this is its older brother, as the Zen Can to the Zen Can Signature. Let’s see what benefits the Zen One adds.

ifi items

What You Get

  • ZEN One Signature
  • RCA Cable
  • Instruction Card
  • iFi IPower 2
  • Antenna
  • USB 3.0 Cable
  • User Manual

iFi Face

Build

If you’ve seen one model from iFi’s Zen series then you’ll know what to expect. Looking at the Zen One, I still think it’s impressive how they’re able to utilize the same basic structure for each of their products. They all utilize the same chassis, with the dark blue coloration being the main characteristic of the Signature series. For the Zen One, this could be the case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I’ve never had an issue with how these devices have been built before, and I always enjoy the aesthetic they present when stacked on top of one another.

The front face of the Zen One is pretty bare aside from a few key functions. Of course, you have the power switch all the way to the right, while the input selector next to it cycles through three sets of operations. You have Bluetooth, SPDIF, and USB, all indicated by an assortment of colors shown on the LED in the middle of the Zen One. Blue, or red for Bluetooth, green for SPDIF, and green again for USB.

The middle display will also indicate your selected format, which can range from yellow for AAC, and blue for MQA/aptX. Another LED right next to it will also read your audio format, showing you what sample rates and bit-depth you’re currently using. The last button you’ll see on the front of the Zen One is for pairing and display toggle. For pairing, the Zen One will require a long press, and you’ll be able to connect instantly.

You have a few ins and outs on the rear of the device as well, which you should be familiar with if you’ve used a Zen product before. First, you’ll see a balanced output for 4.4mm analog connections, with single-ended RCA out sitting right next to that. This is mainly the output I used to connect to my amplifier. Sitting next to that is an input/output for digital coaxial, which can only be used as an output when operating in Bluetooth mode. Otherwise, you can use SPDIF for coaxial input. A USB input is supplied for digital audio to connect to a computer, and can also be used as a power source. Lastly, you have your power source, which is stressed that you only power with no more and no less than 5 volts. It’s a good thing iFi provides you with the iPower 2, which works perfectly as is also quieter.

iFi back

Design

Inside of the Zen One is a wealth of tech and design that makes this unit the all-in-one digital audio hub that it is. Its digital engine is made up of a few different components that help establish its HiFi credit. the Zen One implements a true native DAC which is able to support 32-bit/384kHz PCM and fully native DSD. This is all driven by a 16-core XMOS processor, which has the ability to fully decode MQA up to 384kHz. Much like we’ve seen in the other Zen signature models, as well as the Zen DAC V2, the Zen One takes the same upgraded clock to help eliminate jitter and other forms of destructive noise. In terms of its analog design, the Zen One provides balanced circuits that help deliver ultra-low distortion for enhanced sonic resolution.

iFi with amp

Sound Quality

Being that I spent a lot of last years trying out iFi’s various signature products, I’ve grown used to everything this series has to offer. I’ve been impressed with each signature set they’ve released, to the point where they blend into each other, especially with the version two models iFi also released this past year. For a device such as the Zen One, determining its sonic fidelity more so depends on the system you’re pairing it with. If your looking for some of the cleanest, and most natural responses from a Bluetooth system then this is going to fulfill that need.

With the Zen One, I was able to get a consistently clear and transparent signal when pairing the system with iFi’s  Zen Can. I find the Zen Can to be one of the most reliable models to pair with any other iFi DAC, and adding the XBass and 3D options is always a blast. Using a solid reference headphone as the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 gave me a fairly accurate sense of how the Zen One was specifically manipulating the sound signature I was perceiving.

One of the most immediate standouts was how the Zen One reacted to the Zen Can’s XBass. Sometimes the resonance of the low-end can appear more bloated sometimes with the exception of a more pronounced mid-bass and sub-bass lift. When paired with the Zen One, some of that resonance tightens up, and the timbre becomes more griping in response. This could also be the case of some detail getting lost in the shuffle when making the transition to an AAC Bluetooth CODEC. However, the control that the Zen One is showing when paired with the Zen Can is admirable, to say the least. I still think this significantly helps with clarity, especially when comparing some of the more heightened emphasis in the midrange and treble.

In terms of power, the Zen One can make quite the difference when dealing with high-impedance headphones. The Zen Can is a powerful amp for its price, but when pairing it with the Zen One, I was able to obtain a comfortable level of gain parking the volume dial around 11 o’clock. I was on the highest gain setting, but I’ve listened to the Zen Can plenty of times before and I’ve never seen it have this much potential. This could be the new high-gain antenna at play, but I wouldn’t have thought the power would be as substantial. The hi-res DAC also makes a good amount of difference here as well, shaping the sound signature in a way that makes me forget I’m listening to a compressed signal. Enough detail is still maintained and well communicated throughout the frequency response that it feels the closest to a high-fidelity experience from a Bluetooth device that is currently possible.

Summary

Getting to spend some time with the Zen One, I quite enjoyed the effect that all of its elements had on the sound as a whole. It works as an upgrade to the Zen Blue V2, however, if you already have one, then I don’t see much reason to run out and buy the Zen One. I see it as a great companion if you want to reduce the number of cables you have in your HiFi setup while maintaining a standard level of fidelity in your at-home music listening. I would say there’s enough here to choose this model over the Zen Blue V2 strictly in terms of sonic fidelity over a wireless signal, but I wish there were more features offered or even a companion app.

Pros  Cons
  • Impressive fidelity
  • Additional amplification
  • Stable Bluetooth signal 
  • Good standard build 
  • MQA decoding 
  • Versatile 
  • Could use some more features    

The iFi Zen One is available at Audio46.

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