iFi Audio unveils ZEN masters

iFi Audio has reworked its ZEN DAC (USB DAC/headphone amp) and ZEN CAN (analogue headphone amp) to create what the company is calling its Signature editions. The first thing those familiar with the earlier versions will notice is the colour change – both have their 158 x 35 x 100mm (WxHxD) aluminium enclosures newly finished in deep Space Blue rather than the previous grey. This is complemented by dark grey front and rear panels (silver-coloured on the standard versions) and blue controls.

Deeper changes from the ZEN DAC to the Signature edition include the removal of the headphone amp stage and an upgrade to fully balanced circuitry. The company says: “Without the built-in headphone amplifier, its sole purpose is to feed an external amp, whether this be a headphone amp or an amplifier 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.”

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.

The ZEN DAC Signature’s digital stage retains the same 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 a multi-coloured LED that resides behind the aluminium volume control.

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 USB 3.0 as well as USB 2.0 for backwards compatibility. It is asynchronous, meaning that the data rate is regulated solely by the audio clock circuitry.

Alongside the USB input is a stereo pair of RCA sockets for single-ended connection to an amplifier, plus a Pentaconn 4.4mm output.

As with the regular ZEN DAC, the Signature edition’s outputs can be switched between variable and fixed. The former 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.

The initial ZEN CAN extended the ZEN Series with an all-analogue headphone amplifier. It connected to any audio source with an analogue output – such as the headphone output from a digital audio player, laptop, tablet or a smartphone – or the RCA outputs from a DAC or phono stage. As well as a headphone amp, it could also double as a preamp to feed a power amplifier and loudspeakers.

iFi says the new Signature edition adds a custom EQ setting (called ActivEQ) with profiles for specific headphones to make the most of the performance

The first Signature model is the ZEN CAN Signature 6XX, which features ActivEQ created for the ‘Massdrop x Sennheiser HD 6XX’ headphone. 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. iFi claims the benefits of this ActivEQ curve are equally applicable to Sennheiser’s HD 650 headphones (HFC 388), which share the same sonic characteristics.

In the centre of the Signature’s front panel is a volume control, while on the left beside the power button and input switch is a control for selecting gain. Four settings in six dB steps – 0dB, 6dB, 12dB and 18dB – enable the amp to match the connected headphones; unity gain (0dB), useful to ensure low noise with sensitive in-ear monitors, while the higher gain settings suit tougher headphone loads.

Headphone outputs include a 6.3mm and 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced out. Around the back are stereo RCA, 3.5mm single-ended and balanced 4.4mm Pentaconn inputs. A 4.4mm balanced output is also provided, to connect to power amplifiers equipped with a balanced input.

iFi says that, like the regular ZEN CAN, the Signature edition features dual-mono, true-differential balanced circuitry with a number of elements trickled down from the discrete Class A circuitry developed for iFi’s flagship headphone amplifier, the Pro iCAN. The amp delivers 1600mW (7.2V) into 32ohm from the single-ended socket, with 15V+ available to loads of 300ohm or more through the balanced output.

The ZEN DAC Signature and ZEN CAN Signature 6XX are priced at £249 each. For a limited time, both come with iFi’s £99 ultra-low-noise iPower X AC/DC power adapter.

A ‘ZEN Signature Set’ is also available for £500, comprising both Signature units plus a high- performance 4.4mm Pentaconn cable (worth £69) to connect them together.

According to the company, the Signature 6XX is soon to be followed by another edition featuring ActivEQ which will be tailored to another popular headphone and iFi wants headphone aficionados to vote for which model they want it to be.

Voting is now open here. Everyone who casts a vote has the option to enter a draw to win the new version of the ZEN DAC Signature once it has been produced.

IFi Audio