The road to nirvana

My journey into Photography, Horology, and Audiophilia

iFi Audio Zen DAC

November 17, 2020

Since I subscribed to Tidal HiFi, I never had the opportunity to experience MQA. The closest thing I ever had is streaming Superstar, The Carpenters with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra MQA 24/192 to my Raspberry Pi + I2S hat via Coaxial cable to my Hegel H190. The result is 24/96 PCM which is the best it can get as the Hegel H190 is not MQA compliant.

SMSL, Topping, Bluesound Node 2i, and a few luxury brands whose price are not within my reach have MQA support but I wanted something sub-$200 which is impossible to find, until...

Magenta, finally!

<insert photo here>

The Zen DAC showed up in my radar a few months ago, but is unobtanium. Finally Egghead Audiohub re-stocked and I was able to bag one.

While I'm not new to the brand as an owner of the iFi Audio iPhono 2, this is one of their offering that fits the budget. To be honest, I don't know what to expect with MQA and it has been discussed as fervor as politics and religion, so I wouldn't engage on such and rather have a personal experience, with a low price ceiling, should I despise it.

What does it offer?  For a reasonable P6,400 ($129.99 at Amazon) here's what we get:

  • MQA Renderer, that means the first unfold has to be done in software and Tidal or Audirvana can do that.

  • PCM up to 384 kHz, using firmware 5.3.

  • DSD up to 256 (Windows) or 128 (Mac), using firmware 5.3.

  • Headphone amplifier with decent output.

  • Line output with fixed and variable setting.

  • Balanced headphone (front panel) and line output (rear panel) via 4.4 mm Pentaconn sockets.

  • Single-ended headphone output (front panel) via 6.3 mm socket.

  • Analog volume control.

  • "True Bass" and "Power Match"  features.

Setting up

Download the Windows 10 ASIO driver here, make sure you select version 3.2. If this driver is not installed, the device manager will show an "Unknown" device for the Zen DAC. Once the driver has been installed, this is how it should appear in Device Manager.

Upon launching Tidal on Windows 10, it prompted me for the confirmation that it recognizes the Zen DAC as a MQA device.

Sonic goodness or just specifications madness?

I was supposed to insert the Zen DAC in my main system, but for the moment it turns out my desire to know the headphone performance grew. At the moment, I don't have balanced cables so the test will be limited to the 6.3 mm single ended output. iFi Audio claims 230mW@32 Ohm; 3.3V@600 Ohm for the single-ended output, which was in contrast to the Audioscience measurements.

The Zen DAC use Burr-Brown DSD1793 DAC and iFi Audio does not hide the fact that they know that chip very well and quite proud of it. Some early owners in Head-Fi questions how a 24/192 DAC chip is able to process up to PCM 384 kHz, and I am interested to find out as well but it won't deter my testing.

The following are to be driven by the Zen DAC

  • HIFIMAN HE400i 3.5 mm version (planar)

  • Audeze LCDi3 (planar)

  • Sony XBA-A2 (2 x balanced armature drivers, 1 x dynamic driver)

  • Flipears custom IEM (1 x balanced armature driver)

  • Huawei AM180 (1 x 13 mm dynamic driver)

My Focal Spirit Pro would have joined the session but it is currently out of service. My AKG K-702 and K-240S will not join the party.