Hot on the heels of the announcement of the release of the iFi ZEN Blue hi-res Bluetooth streamer, iFi expands the ZEN family of desktop-sized audio products with the ZEN DAC, a USB DAC/headphone amp.

Designed for home use, the ZEN DAC connects to PCs and Macs, or smart devices such as tablets or phones, via USB. Its hi-res digital-to-analogue conversation technology processes all forms of digital audio, while the integrated analogue headphone amplifier delivers sound with all headphone types.

USB DAC

As well as driving headphones, the ZEN DAC can be used as a USB DAC in a home audio system, with or without its volume control engaged. What’s more, whether you’re hooking up headphones, an external amp or active speakers, you have a choice of single-ended or balanced connection.

Burr-Brown DAC Chip

The DAC section is based around a Burr-Brown DAC chip that iFi uses extensively. This, together with the XMOS chip used for input processing, enables iFi to deliver sound quality across all manner of digital audio formats including hi-res PCM, ‘bit-perfect’ DSD and MQA.

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.

Another circuit feature is iFi’s in-house programming of the XMOS chip, iFi programs its own bespoke firmware to boost audio processing power. iFi’s continuous software development allows features to be added or optimised via firmware updates, enabling the ZEN DAC to be tailored to the user’s playback priorities. Users can even download and install different versions of iFi firmware to experiment with different digital filters should they so desire.

Extensive clock-locking is used throughout the digital stage to eradicate jitter, maintaining the integrity of the digital signal until conversion.

Analogue Stage

The ZEN DAC’s analogue stage is a balanced design. It incorporates a range of high-quality circuit components, carefully selected for their performance in an audio context, including C0G capacitors from TDK, a precision low-noise power supply IC from Texas Instruments and a high-quality analogue volume pot.

The headphone amp stage has switchable gain, which iFi terms PowerMatch. This matches the level of drive to the load presented by the headphones, by adjusting input sensitivity and thereby signal strength. 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 operates entirely in the analogue domain and may be switched in or out via another button on the front panel.

Connections

The ZEN DAC sports Pentaconn 4.4mm 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 4.4mm output sits alongside a standard, single-ended 6.3mm headphone socket. The 4.4mm output to the rear enables connection to amps and active speakers equipped with a balanced input – either a Pentaconn 4.4mm input, or XLR inputs via a 4.4mm-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.

In common with other ZEN Series products, the ZEN DAC sports an aluminium enclosure, neatly sized at 158x35x100mm (WxHxD). The rotary volume control is aluminium, and, behind the volume control resides an LED that changes colour to indicate the sampling rate of the audio data received.

Pricing & Availability

The iFi ZEN DAC is available from mid-October, at an RRP of £129. Further ZEN Series products are set to follow in the coming months.

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