We’ve always wondered why nobody was willing to take on Schiit Audio below $100; the logical reason would be the inability to make a product good enough and have the marketing acumen to sell enough of it for it to be a profitable venture. The folks at iFi looked rather cocky at CanJam NYC 2022 and now we know why. Can they sell enough of the new iFi ZEN Air Series to cause Schiit some real headaches?
We’re about to find out.
iFi Audio’s ZEN Series have been quite popular due to the combination of features and relatively low prices. We recently reviewed the Signature DAC/Amplifier Series for HiFiMAN which gives listeners a very compact and powerful solution for the desktop.
The system was designed around specific HiFiMAN headphones but it does work equally well with a wide variety of headphones and IEMs.
The asking price on the iFi ZEN Series have generally been in the $200 to $300 USD range which makes them slightly more expensive than the entry-level range of products from both Schiit and Topping.
Supply chain issues and increasing costs have forced both competitors to raise their prices on their products across the board creating an opportunity for iFi at the very bottom of the market.
It should also be pointed out that iFi are not immune to the same issues so this new launch is even more intriguing.
The new line includes the ZEN Air DAC, ZEN Air Blue Streamer, ZEN Air Can Headphone Amplifier and ZEN Air Phono Preamplifier. All four models share the same case shape as their ZEN brethren but instead of a brushed aluminum chassis, the Air Series uses a polymer shell with each model being a slightly different shade of gray.
Internally, the new line takes the functionality of the corresponding ZEN product and distills them down to the core elements while simplifying some of the circuitry to help lower costs.
ZEN Air DAC
The ZEN Air DAC differs from its ZEN counterpart ($189 at Amazon) by omitting the switchable fixed/variable preamp switch and the 4.4mm jack on the rear panel, and there is now an USB Type-B rather than the 3.1 version of the Zen DAC.
On the front, a 6.35mm port and an XBass+ switch are added for use as a headphone DAC/Amp. So while the ZEN Air DAC retains the ability to use it as a preamp and as a headphone amp, it is more limited in comparison to its big brother.
Internally the ZEN Air still uses the Burr-Brown chip that iFi has long favored in their product line and supports up to 32-bit/384kHZ PCM, DSD 256, and MQA rendering. This is the first place we see the cost saving as the ZEN DAC v2 in the current catalog uses MQA decoding rather than rendering.
ZEN Air Blue
The ZEN Air Blue takes a similar approach in that the only output is a pair of RCA jacks on the rear panel. This was the most common use of the Zen Blue ($189 at Amazon) so iFi omitted the coaxial, optical, and 4.4mm balanced outputs to save money. The plus is this allowed them to simplify the output section and use an ESS SOC to handle the analog side while retaining all of the Bluetooth connectivity of the original. The Air Blue still supports aptX HD, LDAC, LHDC, aptX Adaptive, AAC, and SBC.
ZEN Air Can
The ZEN Air Can again simplifies the circuitry so while we see what looks like a balanced input on the rear panel and on the front faceplate, a closer inspection shows these to be iFi’s proprietary S-Balanced connectors that allow the use of headphones with a balanced cable while not providing the fully balanced circuitry of the Zen Can ($199 at Amazon).
The power is slightly reduced as well with an output of 1200mW with a 32 ohm load. The good news is that the Air is still a Class A amplifier and still utilizes iFi’s “stealth mode” linear power regulation and noise filtering. It also still has 3 input options (all analog) and supports three gain levels as well as XBass and XSpace functions.
So while slightly lower powered and single ended only, the ZEN Air Can still offers the functionality of the more expensive ZEN Can which will have a lot appeal for consumers looking at headphone amplifiers below $100 USD.
ZEN Air Phono
Vinyl listeners are not left out of the loop here with the brand new ZEN Air Phono that differs from the ZEN Phono by using a simpler power supply and omitting the balanced outputs.
The supply is isolated to a single section of PCB and is designed to provide clean 15V DC power without the added expense of the power supply design in the ZEN Phono that effectively acted as an isolation transformer regenerating the power from the mains to clean up any imperfections it introduced.
The connections are RCA input and outputs along with a grounding post for connection of your table’s ground wire. Gain levels have been reduced from the 4 on the ZEN model to a two-position switch for moving magnet or moving coil with 40dB and 64dB of gain respectively.
The plus side is the Air Phono retains the -82dB SNR ratio of the ZEN Phono MC circuit which makes it one of the best measuring phono preamps available in its price range.
Price & Availability
The iFi Air DAC and iFi Air Blue are available now and we already have requests in for review samples to test out and report on. The iFi Air Phono and iFi Air Can are expected to start shipping in May of 2022 and we’ll be sure to report back as soon as we can get our hands on them.
- iFi ZEN Air DAC – $99 at Audio46
- iFi ZEN Air Blue – $99 at Audio46
- iFi ZEN Air Can – $99 (expected May 2022)
- iFi Air Phono – $99 (expected May 2022)
March 5, 2022 at 10:03 pm
Only crap has MQA. And Schiit ain’t crap.
Take away their blue K-Mart light that “alerts” these simpletons that their toilet paper has been unfolded is the only way they can wax on and then wax off over their MQA.
MQA – The FARCE is with you. Music nuzis love that stuff like the loved DRM.
I will NEVER buy nuzi stuff and will buy from companies like Schiit. Starting today because of their ignorance, I will NEVER purchase any thing from Zen. NEVER. If MQA was ultimately FARCED down every one’s throat I would simply listen to my vinyl and CD collection which number’s comfortably in the mid 500s combined.
Bob Stuart and those that buy into and sell out for his dross are all nuzis. For the too young or those without a sense of humor, that is a Daffy Duck term.
March 6, 2022 at 5:01 pm
That’s just silly. Some of the highest measuring DACs now support MQA, including the Topping D90se, Gustard x18 and Gustard x26pro, and they are anything but “crap”. The cost of the tiny XMOS chip to unfold MQA is nominal, and I have no problem with these exceptional manufacturers including that technology (even if I don’t use it) to make their products more broadly compatible if I can attain their levels of quality.
And as much as I chafe at MQA’s marketing practices, if it’s good enough for Roon, Signalyst’s HQPlayer and Audirvana to include it, it’s good enough for me. My objection is not to your qualms with MQA; it’s to your statement that all MQA-compatible DACs are “crap”. You’re just virtue-signaling in the most dishonest of ways.
And say what you want, measurements are the final benchmark in evaluating a DAC’s performance (unlike amps or headphones). And by Audiosciencereview’s gold standards, the three DACs I mentioned handily outperform anything Schiit has ever produced, including their outrageously-priced Yggdrasil—by a safe margin. Amir at ASR has proven that the era of modern delta-sigma DACs has finally put to rest any advantage of R2R ladder configurations; there’s not a single one in ASR’s top ten, and the cost of that little MQA XMOS is certainly more justifiable than the waste involved in implementing all those R2R resistor circuits.
MQA’s days are numbered by design, as faster bandwidths and mass storage becomes standard on affordable devices. But until the Tidal wave passes, I’d put my money on a Topping or Gustard over a Schiit or Denafrips any day. You’re welcome to your preferences, but you’re not credible spreading politically-biased misinformation. Relax and enjoy your music.
March 10, 2022 at 9:45 am
I don’t know what are you talking about chips, but not crappy box, just can’t to have so crappy design. Awfully!h
March 6, 2022 at 5:17 pm
Bet you’re fun at parties. Strange hill to die on.
March 6, 2022 at 5:42 pm
Will’s point is that Schiit Audio has operated below $200 with great success for almost 5 years with very little competition and that it’s great to see another brand offering quality components below $100. That’s it. Most of us own components from both brands (I own 4 Schiit Audio components) and are encouraged to see better sound quality at these prices.
March 6, 2022 at 8:54 pm
Agreed. I have been using a Schiit Mani/Loki combo for a while and I am perfectly satisfied with them. I will, however, give the Air Phono a shot when it becomes available. For that money, it’s well worth a try.
March 6, 2022 at 9:11 pm
I NEVER virtue signal. That is for the pusillanimous and I am not one of those people. And typical that you go the fetid “political” route. That is so typical of cucks. Quisling.
I tested MQA at a high end show a few years back and could heard no difference. Never looked for the K-Mart light, just listened. No difference.
WTF? Fun at parties?! frAudiophiles disgust me. You don’t want people to enjoy the music, rather you desire them to suffer over the “details”. God isn’t in the details but BS is in your details.
You could not discern a difference in a real double blind test. No one can. As with DACS, there is no valid listening test as it is all subjective when nothing but ears is involved. Humans are not bats although some are bat guano crazy. frAudiophiles strain at a bit and swallow the lies and then vomit them our as Holy Rote. You cannot hear measurements at such levels. Oh wait…You have the ears of a god…Small “g”, right? LOL!
Ian is right about Schiit being challenged by this price level. But Schiit enthusiasts despise MQA and will not pay for it even if they never use the useless feature.
But if you buy the device with the MQA logo then you are funding BS. Bob Stuart. I refuse to do so, you craven cuckolds.
You can keep your Romper Roon Ready. I tried it for two months and found it lacking. You must like it. Good for you. No…seriously. Good for you. MQA nuzi.
March 6, 2022 at 10:21 pm
I have a request. I’ve had a very hard two weeks health wise and would ask that you both keep it mostly civil. I love good debate and ORT has a solid track record in my book during my time as EIC posting some valuable insight and being civilized.
Brian and I keep the comments open (and post them) even when we have issue with comments. You don’t want to see the ones we delete.
IMHO…having used MQA a lot since launch and having 5 DACs at home that include it…I have yet to truly hear the benefit. I stream 3-4 hours a day and use TIDAL a lot and I usually go with the non-MQA versions of tracks. Just my experience.
ASR’s methodology is a glass half-full thing for me. I don’t think the measurements are being fudged but I also value my hearing more than their measurements. I don’t think they listen enough to make the judgements that they do. If they listen at all.
Schiit Audio is a great company. I’ve given them over $3,000 of my money over the years. They needed some competition below $200. That’s a good thing when people can assemble a decent sounding system for less.
Be good to one another and be grateful that nobody is dropping bombs on your home (Ukraine). I spent an hour today consoling a friend in Kyiv who lost 4 family friends this morning.
Our issues are 1st world problems.
March 7, 2022 at 1:27 am
Well done with the Schiitstorm headline. Schiit is who I immediately thought of when I heard the $100 news. The tie goes to Schiit for their product(s) are far more good-looking. And what’s more important than looking good in the hifi game? Right. Nothing. And that weird-ass, oblong looking face from iFi Zen seals the deal for Schiit. The look is not good.
March 7, 2022 at 1:41 am
You may be right. I’m looking at them both right now and I wouldn’t trade this schiit for anything.
March 7, 2022 at 2:56 am
Well said, MadMex! Well said indeed. And for the record, your nom de plume is excellente’! I have recently given my Valhalla 2 to my son as it does not have the requisite Vu Meters so loved by such as I and I rarely used it for just that reason. I also gave him a Modius. And some new ‘phones. I have spent not quite a thousand with Schiit over the last few years but all save the V2 were for family and since giving that one to my sone, I am Schiit less…That reads really goofy.
I may yet buy a Modius for my self as I am quite fond of Schiit and near as I can tell DACs do not have Vu Meters so I may well allow my self that one purchase from them, but I am trying to save up for a new tubeified integrated amp from either LSA or Decware.
Being a toad of very little brain and easily distracted by beauty, I need to stay away from the 8th generation AUNE X1S GT DAC/Amp…It is relatively fetching looks wise. I must say, some toadish PLLs would be nice.
Pretty Little Lights.
With that I must say g’nite lads.
March 7, 2022 at 2:33 pm
Have to love audiophiles who always think their advice and product is superior to others and have to boast and be rude about it. Sound worst than the Rega and Pro Ject turntable fanboys bragging arguing about who’s product is better. Just shut up and enjoy the damn music.
March 7, 2022 at 2:39 pm
March 7, 2022 at 3:19 pm
Huzzah! Well said, gentlemen.
The Doobies sang “Listen To The Music”, NOT “Listen To The Equipment”.
March 18, 2022 at 5:27 pm
Schiit audio is named properly, their customer service is schiit . Try sending them an email see if they ever reply to you . I asked a question 6 times I have never heard from them yet . Guess what I’m never going to buy schiit from them ever . To many horror stories I say fuck that schiit.
June 29, 2022 at 12:54 am
MQA debates aside…. Decided to sell my Schiit mini stack (Heresy, Modi, Loki and SYS) to simplify set up in my new home office.
Paired my Pro-ject Pre Box S2 Digital with the zen air CAN and I’m a very happy chappy. Air Zen CAN really helped bring the Pre Box Digital to life (it has a headphone amp – but the power isn’t there to drive mos theadphones properly and lacks gain). If anything can, the Zen Air CAN can (see what I did there).
LOVE Schiit but it just didnt have all the inputs I wanted and power switch at the back wouldn’t cut it on a desk (for me). Miss my Loki mini… brought back happy hifi eq memories of the 80s. Ah crap… I’ll have to buy another now.
(P.S thing that schiits me about Schiit though – I had to buy straight from US and pay a heap in postage. Local retailer here sells them at a mark up – fair enough – but stock is always zero).
June 29, 2022 at 1:36 am
Have you seen the new Folkvangr? Story in the morning.