OK so this is going to be less of a review and more of a love letter, but first some context. I’ve had the Zen DAC for about a year now, it being my second attempt to turn my MacBook into a listening source. Before the Zen Dac I had the Rode Al-1, but ultimately I wasn’t convinced I’d made the best choice. The Zen Dac v2 was purchased after much research – very convincing research to which this article might not add very much. Unlike so much of what we can buy, the Zen DAC stuck me as an extremely well designed product, elemental in that it seemed to be designed and produced with intention.
- Great sound, especially for price
- Very sold build
- Tweakable sound (with firmware)
- Truebass sometimes overpowering
- Only accepts USB (PC) input
If you don’t have a lot of money to spend (of even if you do, it punches high) the ifi Zen DAC is a fantastic way to get better sound out of your computer. It does this and only this with impeccable style, quality and is amazingly cost-effective.
I was looking for a device to get audio out of my MacBook and into a set of powered monitors, and a pair of headphones. It was needed for both listening to and producing music, so it needed to be listenable without being too coloured. Before trying the Zen DAC I honestly didn’t like my chances of solving these problems on my budget – but the Zen DAC v2 does all this and sounds great. It certainly adds a good amount of dynamic range to the audio coming out of a Macbook. With music, it sounds smooth and warm, even with the ‘GTO’ firmware applied (for greater clarity than it has out of the box). It may not be the most transparent amp for production, but it’s honestly not too bad.
The Zen DAC v2 has received quite an amount of praise, and to me it’s very warranted. I’d be the first person to pick up any issue with it, as I tend to be just as critical with budget equipment as more expensive gear.
Take it or leave it
It solves my problems perfectly but the Zen DAC only suits a narrow range of use cases. You’d just better hope you like it just how it is, as it has no options for tweaking the sound other than the ‘truebass’ button, and some alternative firmwares that alter the sound in – let’s face it – inaudible ways (to the rest of us). Truebass is the only real way to alter the sound of this DAC, in the DAC itself.
The truebass function is a push button that for many people will add the right amount of thickness to the sound, but for others will be a touch too in your face. For audiophiles it will be unnecessary, as they will know how to get the sound they want out of their speakers and room, but for anyone else you’d better hope you like the Zen’s sound either with or without it, and aren’t wanting for the in-between. Seeing as you do need an amp for this (with speakers at least), most people would apply EQ at the amplification stage, so in most cases a clean sound should be great – and it does sound great.
USB source only
The biggest compatibility issue with the Zen DAC is that unlike many other DACs, the Zen DAC only accepts USB input. This means it will show up in your computer’s system as a sound device with an output. You can’t plug in sound from a CD player or any other source, analog or digital. This is reflected in the price of the DAC, making it an affordable but bare-bones product for those who need exactly what it does.
This device seems to be aimed squarely at beginner audiophiles, or music lovers who are exploring expansions to their computer-based music experience. If you want music from sources besides the computer, whether that be CD, dedicated streaming or analog, you’ll need other equipment.
Being as affordable and compact as it is, I can see this suiting many music lovers who might have another setup for dedicated listening, but still want a better sound from their office PC.
ifi Zen DAC use case: A minimal iPad streaming setup
You could create a very decent and minimal streaming setup using an iPad (preferably one of the pro-lines from 2018 or after, or the 2020 air, or the 2022 iPad – these models have USB), a Zen DAC and a good set of powered speakers. This is similar to how I use the Zen DAC v2, except I use an old MacBook (below) instead of an iPad. An iPad would be simpler. I stream to the MacBook using Airserver which displays the album art.
The Zen DAC v2 two has
- rear RCA out
- rear 4.4mmm balanced out
- front 4.4mm balanced out (for headphones)
- front 6.35mm unbalanced headphone out
Balanced vs RCA
The 4.4mm balanced rear output sound cleaner and more dynamic, but they’re not as loud as the RCA out, and some of the warmth is sacrificed. I found myself going for the truebass more over XLR to compensate for the more clinical sound. It’s a matter of preference of course, although the XLR output might be technically better.
4.4m to XLR balanced
If your amplified or powered speakers accept balanced XLR input, consider feeding them from the ifi Zen DAC’s 4.4mm balanced out. ifi even make a 4.4.mm to XLR cable to help you do just this. Just beware that it’s quite short (case in point below)
ifi Zen DAC as a Headphone amp
There are some reports online that the Zen DAC might be underpowered as a headphone amp, but that is only true with the most demanding of headphones. ifi have also included a level booster which adds to the amplification. I didn’t find this necessary with my Beheringer Dynamic DT 250ohm 770 pros. Although if my cans were higher impedance and I liked to listen loud, I would probably look at using the Zen DAC alongside a dedicated amp, or going with another setup entirely. ifi make such things and I’d probably stick with them until I had a good reason not to, as I’ve been impressed so far and I like their implementation of the Burr Brown chip.
I haven’t used the 4.4mm front headphone out, but I’ve heard that it affects the sound in a similar as going from RCA to balanced – that is, adding another layer of detail.
All in all I’m extremely happy with the ifi Zen DAC.
I’ve used it for desktop production with my Adam Audio T5Vs, which worked brilliantly. Currently, I’m taking a break from music production to listen to a bit of music instead, so it currently sits across the room, still with the T5Vs, but setup for non-fussy medium-field listening.