iFi has reworked the award-winning ZEN DAC and ZEN CAN to create step-up Signature versions delivering higher levels of performance, alongside an associated ‘crowd design’ initiative.

iFi’s ZEN Series audio products have been recognised for their performance at sub-£150 prices. Not content to rest on their laurels, the ZEN design team immediately set itself another challenge, given a higher target retail price of £249, could the ZEN DAC (a USB DAC/headphone amp) and ZEN CAN (an analogue headphone amp) be improved upon with enhanced circuit design to deliver a ‘signature’ level of performance, precisely tailored for discerning headphone enthusiasts?

iFi’s New ZEN DAC Signature And ZEN CAN Signature 6XX headphone amp

ZEN And Now

‘Yes!’ was the response, and the ZEN DAC Signature and ZEN CAN Signature 6XX were born.

Initially, these products were created in limited number to be sold exclusively by US-based crowd shopping website Drop.com; now that this limited run has sold through, iFi is ready to ramp up production and launch these special Signature editions at stockists worldwide.

Space Blue

Both models sport a smart new livery, their 158x35x100mm aluminium enclosures finished in deep Space Blue, the colour iFi uses to differentiate special Signature editions of its products, rather than the grey finish of the regular ZEN Series devices. This is complemented by dark grey front and rear panels (silver-coloured on the standard versions) and blue controls.

ZEN DAC Signature

Since launching in the autumn of 2019, iFi’s best-selling ZEN DAC (£129) has proved popular. The signature edition takes this platform, removes the headphone amp stage and upgrades the fully balanced circuitry.

In comparison to the ‘regular’ ZEN DAC, the Signature edition is a specialised, purist design. Without the built-in headphone amp, its sole purpose is to feed an external amp, whether this be a headphone amp or an amp and speakers. This simplification of its circuitry provides the opportunity to upgrade the signal path and critical components within it; while the existing ZEN DAC introduced the benefits of fully balanced circuit design at a low price point, the Signature edition further ups the ante with its enhanced true-differential balanced topology. Various key surface-mounted circuit components have been upgraded to high-end devices, including Panasonic OS-CON and Elna Silmic II capacitors, while the circuit has been refined to ensure short, direct signal paths for optimal signal purity.

iFi ZEN DAC Signature

The ZEN DAC Signature’s digital stage retains the True Native DAC architecture of its sibling, delivering bit-perfect PCM (up to 32-bit/384kHz), native DSD (up to DSD256) and DXD, plus MQA. The sample rate of incoming audio data is indicated by an multicoloured LED residing behind the aluminium volume control. The iFi-programmed XMOS chip, which processes data received at the USB input, and jitter-eradicating, audiophile-grade oscillators, contribute to exemplary handling of digital audio signals as they are received, processed and converted to analogue form.

Connectivity

Aside from the removal of the integrated headphone amp and associated front-mounted outputs, the Signature edition’s connectivity is the same as the regular ZEN DAC. The USB Type B input supports the ‘SuperSpeed’ USB 3.0 standard, as well as USB 2.0 for backwards compatibility. It is asynchronous, meaning that the data rate is regulated solely by the ZEN DAC Signature’s specialised audio clock circuitry for accurate, jitter-free data transfer from the source device.

Alongside the USB input is a stereo pair of RCA sockets for single-ended connection to an amp, plus a Pentaconn 4.4mm output – this relatively new interface type enables balanced signal transfer between compact products that cannot accommodate traditional, bulky XLR connections. When connected to an amp or active speakers equipped with a balanced input – either a 4.4mm Pentaconn input, or stereo XLR inputs via a 4.4mm-to-XLR cable – the full benefit of the ZEN DAC Signature’s balanced circuit design can be heard. iFi makes its own balanced cables to enable this connectivity; cables from other makers are also available.

iFi ZEN DAC Signature rear panel

As with the regular ZEN DAC, the Signature edition’s outputs can be switched between ‘variable’ and ‘fixed’. The variable setting applies volume control to the audio signal, enabling the ZEN DAC Signature to act as a preamp to connect directly to a power amp. 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, integrated amp or active speakers with their own volume control.

ZEN CAN Signature 6XX

Launched in 2020, iFi’s ZEN CAN extended the ZEN Series with an all-analogue headphone amplifier housed in the same compact aluminium chassis. Priced at £249, the new Signature edition further improves the sound quality with enhanced circuit design, while maintaining the versatile features of the ‘regular’ version and adding a custom EQ setting precisely tailored across the entire frequency response curve to make the most of a popular headphone model.

This new feature, called ActivEQ, combines active and passive components to create a specific EQ curve to suit a particular pair of headphones, performed in the analogue domain without added noise or distortion. The first Signature model, the ZEN CAN Signature 6XX, features ActivEQ for the ‘Massdrop x Sennheiser HD 6XX’, a popular pair of headphones (more than 120,000 sold to date) based on the Sennheiser HD 650 and created exclusively for Drop.com.

When the ‘HD 6XX’ button is pressed, the ZEN CAN Signature 6XX calibrates its signal to complement the headphone’s response characteristics right across the frequency range, thus tailoring its performance to precisely fit the HD 6XX like a made-to-measure suit. The benefits of this ActivEQ curve are equally applicable to Sennheiser’s HD 650 headphones, which share the same sonic characteristics. This feature can be switched on or off; without ActivEQ engaged, the ZEN CAN Signature 6XX’s performance is balanced to make the most of all manner of headphones and in-ear monitors.

iFi ZEN CAN Signature 6XX

ActivEQ aside, the Signature edition sports the same facilities as the regular ZEN CAN. In the centre of the front panel is a smooth-acting volume control, flanked by several sockets and buttons. On the left, beside the power button and input switch, resides a control for selecting gain. Four settings in six dB steps – 0dB, 6dB, 12dB and 18db – enable the amp to precisely 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, delivering excellent dynamic headroom.

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 4.4mm 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).

iFi ZEN CAN Signature 6XX rear panel

Next to the headphone sockets is a button to engage the ActivEQ mode, plus a further sonic tailoring option – XSpace. This analogue processing modes compensates for the ‘in-head localisation’ effect that can occur when using headphones to listen to music that was mixed using a pair of speakers, effectively widening the headphone soundstage to deliver a more spacious and speaker-like experience. Around the back, the ZEN CAN Signature 6XX 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 equipped with a balanced input.

Like the regular ZEN CAN, the Signature edition features dual-mono, true-differential balanced circuitry – a topology usually reserved for high-end headphone amps – with a number of elements trickled down from the discrete Class A circuitry developed for iFi’s flagship headphone amplifier, the Pro iCAN. Key components have been upgraded to enhance performance in line with the improvements made to the ZEN DAC Signature, including the use of Panasonic OS-CON and Elna Silmic II capacitors. The amp 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, ensuring it takes even current-hungry planar headphones in its stride.

ActivEQ – Crowd Design Initiative, Vote Now!

The Signature 6XX isn’t the only ZEN CAN Signature edition that iFi is planning to make. A second version is on the cards, with ActivEQ tailored to another popular headphone model and iFi wants headphone aficionados to vote for which model they want it to be. Voting is now open at iFi’s website. Everyone who casts a vote has the option to enter a draw to win the new version once it has been made, complete with ActivEQ to match the winning headphones

iFi’s New ZEN DAC Signature And ZEN CAN Signature 6XX Headphone amp with the Massdrop x Sennheiser HD 6XX’ headphones

Price And Package Options

The ZEN DAC Signature and ZEN CAN Signature 6XX are available from selected retailers from today at £249 each. For a limited time, both come with iFi’s ultra-low-noise ‘iPower X’ AC/DC power adapter, which costs £99 when purchased separately

A ‘ZEN Signature Set’ is also available at an RRP of £499, comprising both Signature units plus a high performance 4.4mm Pentaconn cable (worth £69 when purchased separately) to connect them together.

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