The ZEN DAC is a USB DAC/headphone amplifier that connects to PCs, Macs and smart devices via USB to take your audio experience to a higher plane. Designed for home use, its hi-res digital-to-analogue conversation technology processes all forms of digital audio to a super-high standard, while the integrated analogue headphone amplifier delivers sup... Click To Read More About This Product
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The ZEN DAC is a USB DAC/headphone amplifier that connects to PCs, Macs and smart devices via USB to take your audio experience to a higher plane. Designed for home use, its hi-res digital-to-analogue conversation technology processes all forms of digital audio to a super-high standard, while the integrated analogue headphone amplifier delivers superb sound with all headphone types, from in-ear monitors to larger on- and over-ear designs.
The DAC section is based around a Burr-Brown DAC chip used extensively at iFi, selected for its fluid, highly ‘musical’ sound quality and ‘True Native’ architecture. This, together with the XMOS chip used for input processing, enables iFi to deliver excellent sound quality across all manner of digital audio formats including hi-res PCM, ‘bit-perfect’ DSD and MQA – the hi-res streaming codec, as used by Tidal’s ‘Masters’ tier.
The Digital Stage
PCM and DXD audio data is supported up to 24-bit/384kHz, alongside DSD sampling rates from 2.8MHz to 12.4MHz (DSD256). Thanks to the Burr-Brown chip’s True Native design, PCM and DSD take separate pathways. This enables DSD to remain ‘bit-perfect’ in its native form, right through to analogue conversion. Many DACs that claim DSD compatibility accept DSD data but then convert it to PCM. For DSD purists, the ZEN DAC is an affordable solution. Extensive clock-locking is used throughout the digital stage to eradicate jitter, maintaining the integrity of the digital signal until conversion.
Another circuit feature by iFi is their in-house programming of the XMOS chip. While other manufacturers simply use the firmware that comes with the chip off-the-shelf, which is not typically optimized for audiophile-grade sound, iFi program their own bespoke firmware to boost audio processing power. Their continuous software development allows features to be added or optimized via firmware updates, enabling the ZEN DAC to be tailored to your playback priorities and ensuring it stays cutting-edge over time. You can even download and install different versions of iFi firmware to experiment with different digital filters.
The Analogue Stage
The ZEN DAC’s analogue stage is a balanced design – highly unusual in a DAC/headphone amp near this price point. It incorporates a range of high-quality circuit components, carefully selected for their performance in an audio context, including C0G capacitors from TDK and a high-quality analogue volume pot. The headphone amp stage has switchable gain, which iFi calls PowerMatch. This matches the level of drive to the load presented by the headphones by adjusting input sensitivity and thereby signal strength. With high-sensitivity headphone types such as in-ear monitors, leave PowerMatch at its lower setting for ultra- low-noise performance. But if your headphones require more drive – most on/over-ear types, for example – press the PowerMatch button on the front panel to increase gain.
TrueBass is another user-selectable feature. An evolution of iFi's established XBass circuit, TrueBass is a sophisticated form of ‘bass boost’ that subtly enhances low frequencies without muddying the midrange. It's particularly useful with earphones and open-back headphones that may lack deep bass. It operates entirely in the analogue domain rather than messing with the digital signal via DSP and may be switched in or out via another button on the front panel.
The ZEN DAC sports Pentaconn 4.4 mm balanced outputs, both front and back. This is a relatively new interface type, designed to enable balanced signal transfer between compact products that cannot accommodate traditional XLR connections. The front-mounted 4.4 mm output sits alongside a standard, single-ended 6.3 mm headphone socket. Thus, the benefits of balanced headphone designs are fully utilized, whilst also accommodating every type of headphone, both balanced and single-ended.
The 4.4 mm output to the rear enables connection to amps and active speakers equipped with a balanced input – either a Pentaconn 4.4 mm input, or XLR inputs via a 4.4 mm-to-XLR cable. Single-ended RCA outputs are also provided. These line-level outputs – both balanced and single-ended – can be switched between ‘variable’ and ‘fixed’, enhancing the ZEN DAC’s versatility. The variable setting applies volume control to the audio signal, enabling the ZEN DAC to perform as a preamp feeding a power amp or active speakers. 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 or integrated amp.
The ZEN DAC’s asynchronous USB Type B input supports the ‘SuperSpeed’ USB 3.0 standard and is also compatible with USB 2.0.
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