iFi Audio unveils new ZEN Air series

iFi Audio is launching its new ZEN Air range, which simplifies the circuitry and strips back some features from its previous ZEN products while retaining key core elements to enable a more affordable price point.

At £99 each, the ZEN Air DAC, ZEN Air Blue, ZEN Air Can and ZEN Air Phono look similar to their brand equivalents in the main ZEN line, featuring the same desktop-friendly size and shape but instead of the extruded aluminium enclosure they sport a synthetic polymer case with a textured finish, each in a different shade of grey.

The Zen Air DAC, like the ZEN DAC includes a headphone amp and can also be used as a DAC/preamp to feed an amp and speakers or a pair of active speakers via stereo RCA outputs. It connects to devices via USB, employs a Burr-Brown chip and supports PCM files up to 32-bit/384kHz, alongside DXD, and up to DSD256. Due to the Burr-Brown chip’s True Native design, PCM and DSD take separate pathways enabling them to remain ‘bit-perfect’ in their native form. MQA is also supported.

While simplified in comparison with the ZEN DAC V2’s (HFC 480) fully balanced topology, the ZEN Air DAC’s analogue stage comes with a symmetrical channel layout and audiophile-grade circuit components, including a custom op-amp offering ultra-low noise performance, and low-impedance power supply rails with Taiyo Yuden and Murata low-ESR inductors.

Like the ZEN DAC and ZEN DAC V2, the ZEN Air DAC’s headphone amp has switchable gain that matches the level of drive to the load presented by the headphones by adjusting input sensitivity and thereby signal strength.

XBass+ is another user-selectable feature, a form of ‘bass boost’ that enhances low frequencies without muddying the midrange.

The ZEN Air DAC omits the ZEN DAC’s 4.4mm balanced outputs, but otherwise retains the same connections. A 6.3mm headphone output is at the front, with an asynchronous USB Type B input at the back and gold-plated stereo RCA outs with variable level control.

The ZEN Air Blue is a Bluetooth DAC, which performs the same function as the ZEN Blue V2, but trades some features in return for the lower price point. Using Qualcomm’s advanced four-core QCC5100 Bluetooth processing chip, aptX, aptX Low Latency, aptX Adaptive, aptX HD, LDAC, AAC, SBC and HWA/LHDC are all supported. Like the ZEN Air DAC, the ZEN Air Blue’s analogue circuitry has been simplified, but a symmetrical channel layout and low-impedance power supply rails are retained. The balanced 4.4mm analogue output and optical/coaxial digital outputs have been ditched, but the gold-plated stereo RCA analogue outputs remain.

The ZEN Air CAN headphone amp, like the ZEN CAN, has no digital inputs; connecting via its analogue in. It can be paired with the ZEN Air Blue to add Bluetooth or combined with the ZEN Air DAC to upgrade its headphone amp.

iFi’s quad-amp circuitry features custom OVA-series FET op-amps using a ‘folded cascode’ design, with feedback circuitry to optimise performance. The input stage features automatic gain matching between inputs and feeds a TOCOS precision potentiometer, while the complementary bipolar output stage uses the same Class A buffer found in more expensive iFi headphone amps. The power supply circuitry includes ‘stealth mode’ voltage conversion, with linear regulation, noise filtering, physical isolation from sensitive audio circuits and more than 4,000uF capacitance to keep ample power in reserve to respond to musical transients.

The Air model retains the ZEN CAN’s XBass+, iFi’s bass enhancer, and XSpace, which widens the soundstage to compensate for ‘in-head localisation’ effects. Gain adjustment to suit the connected headphones is also provided, with three steps – 0dB, 9dB and 18dB – in place of the ZEN CAN’s four steps.

The ZEN CAN’s dual headphone outputs – 6.3mm and 4.4mm – are also repeated, although the 4.4mm output is not fully balanced as it is on the ZEN CAN. Instead, it features iFi’s S-Balanced circuit design, which the company claims: “cuts noise and crosstalk by 50 percent with single-ended headphone connections.” Similarly, the ZEN Air CAN sports three analogue inputs, but the 4.4mm balanced input is swapped for an extra pair of single-ended RCA sockets, providing two stereo RCA ins and one 3.5mm S-Balanced socket in total.

Finally, for vinyl fiends, there’s the ZEN Air Phono which iFi says offers: “excellent performance with both MM and MC cartridges”. Connectivity is via gold-plated stereo RCA sockets in and out, without the 4.4mm balanced output option of the mainline ZEN Phono (HFC 476). A grounding terminal is also provided for attaching to a turntable’s earth wire to eliminate audible hum.

The ZEN Phono’s four gain settings to suit different cartridges are replaced by an MM/MC switch (40dB/64dB gain).

The ZEN Air DAC and ZEN Air Blue are available now with the ZEN Air CAN and ZEN Air Phono coming later this month.

iFi Audio