Today we are taking a look at the top of the Zen Range DAC from iFi. Anyone who reads this blog or my posts knows I’m a fan of iFi’s products, especially at the more affordable end of the product spectrum. I think they offer a lot of sound for the money, and usually strike a good balance between a very agreeable tonality and technical performance when compared to other options of the market in a similar price range.
The Zen range originally consisted of one product line, but has since become a three tier product range. You have the most affordable, single ended line, the Zen AIR. The original, now mid tier range, the plain Zen V2 line. Thirdly, you now have the Zen Signature line, which improves on some of the components and circuits used. I’m curious if the Zen AIR range was created to try and target the original price point and affordability of the the original Zen line, due to increased costs across the the board resulting in much higher MSRP of the original (now V2) line.
The Zen Signature lineup consists of the Zen One Signature, a bluetooth/USB combo DAC, the Zen Can Signature, which is a headphone amp/preamp, and the Zen DAC Signature, which is the subject of todays review.
The Zen DAC Signature is unlike the Zen AIR DAC, and the Zen DAC V2, as it is the only standalone DAC in the entire line up, in that it doesn’t feature a headphone amp. It can be used as a preamp as it does also have an analog volume control. The major differences from the Zen DAC V2, are the use of higher quality components, improved USB input, and some circuit changes. The look is entirely different, featuring a navy blue shell and black front panel. I actually really like the look of the Signature range, and think it looks much better than the other Zen lines. The back of the volume knob lights up in different colours according to the sample rate you are playing, and overall, makes the unit quite fetching in terms of aesthetics.
Of course, the most important thing isn’t how it looks, but how it sounds. In terms of overall tonal balance the Zen DAC Signature is very similar to the Zen DAC, with slight improvements in overall refinement and clarity. For the rest of the comparisons I will just refer to the Signature as the Sig.
The bass of the Sig is somewhat rounded off sounding, and there is a slight bloom to the low end (and lower mids) which does bring some slight warmth to the overall sound signature. The Sig is not a bass monster or very bass light either, but there does seem to be slight elevation of the low end. In terms of impact or slam, the somewhat rounded off nature takes away from the perceived speed of and impact of the lows, but I also wouldn’t say the bass is muddy or lacking definition.
The low mid range of the Sig does have the slight warmth and elevation mentioned previously. The upper mid range is not massively forward or recessed, and seems mostly neutral throughout that range. I found the Sig to work really well with acoustic music, and vocals in particular. The upper mids were never shouty or harsh and nasal. However, if you are looking for a very neutral DAC with a lot of slam and speed for electronica and a neutral tonal balance, you might be better with a different option.
The high end of the Sig was probably my favourite part of its overall response. Not sharp or sibilant, and not overly forward. At the same time, mostly neutral sounding, not recessed or too dark. If you prefer a darker sounding DAC, or perhaps are using very bright headphones/speakers, you might be better served with a different DAC, but for most users I think the treble of the Sig will be very agreeable.
The Sig retails for $300USD currently, which for the performance it provides is very fair I reckon. It does improve on the technical performance of the Zen DAC V2, and as such, also the Zen Air DAC I would assume (I have not yet heard the Air DAC.) The overall detail levels and clarity seem slightly increased. The sound staging is very similar, but the imaging does seem slightly sharper and well placed throughout the soundstage vs the V2. It’s not a massive difference in terms of overall technical improvement, but it is noticeable and does add up to a more refined and higher performing sound signature.
The build quality of the Sig is largely similar to the other Zen Lines, and simply has a different colour scheme. All of the Zen line feel well built, solid and sturdy in the hand, and entirely in line with their price point. You can choose to run the Sig off the USB input for its power and data, or buy a separate DC input power brick to provide the power, and use the USB for data. You can choose either balanced or SE output via RCA for SE, and 4.4mm pentaconn for balanced. This will require a pentaconn to XLR cable, which can be bought separately. I would recommend using the balanced output if possible, as it does improve on the SE output. With that being said, if your amplification only has SE inputs, you aren’t missing out on a ton, and I would still recommend the Sig even if it is only going to be used single ended. The volume control and pre amp function is achieved using an analog pot, which as long as you are above 9 o’clock has good channel matching. It’s a handy feature to have, and would work well either to a power amp directly, or to a pair of active speakers. I mostly just used the Sig with a headphone amplifier, but I did try the pre out function, and found that it worked well and as advertised. You can turn off the preamp function on the rear of the device by selecting “fixed” vs. “variable.”
Overall, the Zen DAC Signature is a great option in the $300USD range if you don’t need amplification built in, like the rest of the Zen DAC options. It is the highest performing DAC model in the range, and also works as a pre amp if you are a speaker user. I think that its overall tonal balance is very agreeable, and will likely work for the vast majority of users well. The colour scheme is attractive, and easy on the eyes, and an improvement over the grey of the Zen V2 line up. The technical performance is an improvement over the Zen DAC V2, and entirely acceptable for the price point. If you are looking for a colder sounding DAC, with a sharper leading edge, you may be better off with a different option, but for most people, I think that the Zen DAC V2, is a better choice than a lot of the other similar option on the market currently.