iFi’s has been very busy releasing their first ZEN Series products, the ZEN Blue and ZEN DAC. Now they are expanding the range with the ZEN CAN, an all-analogue headphone amplifier in the same compact aluminium chassis.

As an all-analogue headphone amp, the ZEN CAN has no digital input of any kind, USB or otherwise. It connects to any audio source with an analogue output, such as the headphone output from a DAP (Digital Audio Player), a laptop, a tablet or a smartphone, or the RCA outputs from, say, a CD player or phono stage.

ZEN DAC

It could be paired with the ZEN Blue to add Bluetooth reception, or combined with the ZEN DAC (which we reviewed here) to upgrade the DAC’s headphone amp stage. As well as a headphone amp, it can double as a preamp to feed a power amp and speakers or a pair of active speakers.

Aluminium Enclosure

In common with the other ZEN Series products, the ZEN CAN sports an aluminium enclosure, neatly sized at 158x35x100mm (WxHxD). In the centre of the front panel is a smooth-acting rotary volume control, flanked by a range of sockets and buttons. On the left, beside the power button and input switch, resides a control for selecting the appropriate gain. Four settings in six dB steps – 0dB, 6dB, 12dB and 18db – enable the amp to 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.

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 4.4 Pentaconn balanced output for headphones offering 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).

XBass & 3D

Next to the headphone sockets is a button to engage the latest versions of iFi’s ‘XBass’ and ‘3D’ sonic tailoring options for headphones. XBass adjusts frequency response to enhance low frequency performance – particularly useful with open-back headphones that ‘leak’ deep bass. 3D compensates for the ‘in-head localisation’ effect that often occurs when using headphones to listen to music that was mixed using a pair of speakers, effectively widening the headphone soundstage to deliver a more speaker-like experience. Both XBass and 3D engage purely analogue processing and may be bypassed entirely if preferred.

To the left of the aluminium volume control are three buttons: power on/off, input selection and gain selection. On the right side of the front panel are 6.3mm single-ended and 4.4mm balanced headphone outputs, plus a button to engage XBass and 3D analogue processing.

Inputs

On the back, the ZEN CAN 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 and active speakers equipped with a balanced input – either a Pentaconn 4.4mm input, or XLR inputs via a 4.4mm-to-XLR cable. This balanced output can also be used for single-ended connection if no balanced input is available. All the ZEN CAN’s inputs and outputs are gold plated.

Circuitry

The ZEN CAN’s circuitry is a balanced, symmetrical dual-mono design. . Balanced circuits have long been championed by high-end audio electronics engineer John Curl, now a technical consultant for iFi, given their ability to reduce noise within the signal path. Curl has worked closely with iFi’s in-house technical team, headed by Thorsten Loesch, to produce an analogue circuit of exceptional quality for a device of this kind.

A number of key elements have trickled down from the discrete Class A circuitry developed for iFi’s flagship headphone amplifier, the Pro iCAN, It delivers 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.

Components

The ZEN CAN’s circuitry utilises many discrete, high-grade surface-mounted components to maximise sonic purity, such as TDK C0G and Panasonic ECPU capacitors, and ultra-low-distortion thin-film resistors. iFi’s custom OV4627 quad-amp stage features four independent FET op-amps using a ‘folded cascade’ design, with low-impedance feedback circuitry to optimise performance.

A further custom op-amp is used for the input stage, which features automatic level matching and feeds a TOCOS precision potentiometer, while the fully discrete, balanced, complementary bipolar output stage utilises the same Class A buffer found in the Pro iCAN. The power supply circuitry includes ‘stealth mode’ voltage conversion, again derived from the Pro iCAN, with linear regulation, noise filtering,

Topside and underside of the ZEN CAN’s circuit board, revealing the discrete, balanced design physical isolation from sensitive audio circuits and 4,000uF capacitance to keep ample power in reserve to respond to musical transients.

Even the way the ZEN CAN switches between settings has been engineered to ensure sonic transparency. FET-based switching is handled by a microcontroller, which only ‘wakes up’ when the user changes a setting, thus eradicating any sonically deleterious interference.

Price And Availability

The iFi ZEN CAN is available now at £149. The first 1000 units are bundled with iFi’s ultra-low noise ‘iPower’ AC/DC power adapter, which further enhances performance and costs £49 when purchased separately, at a special package price of £169. When these bundles have sold out, the ZEN CAN will be available with a standard AC/DC power adapter at £149.

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