Desktop audio has become a huge category in 2021. With so many people around the globe stuck at home working remotely, there is a need for affordable and high performance audio components that don’t take up a lot of space. Even though of us with OCD issues and perfectly arranged desktops can’t get too complacent. iFi Audio have been pushing high performance in a small package (that sounds wrong) for many years and the new iFi Audio Zen Signature Series takes that to a new level.
Originally designed for Drop.com, the new iFi Audio ZEN DAC Signature and ZEN CAN Signature are being made available to the general public.
iFi Audio have raised the prices on both components but they are still remarkably affordable considering the extensive connectivity options and sound quality.
The new iFi Audio ZEN Signature edition takes this excellent platform, removes the headphone amp stage and upgrades the fully balanced circuitry to create a DAC for those who wish to maximize its sonic performance.
In comparison to the ‘regular’ ZEN DAC, the Signature edition is a specialized, purist design. Without the built-in headphone amp, its sole purpose is to feed an external amp, whether this be a headphone amp or an amp and speakers.
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 True Native DAC architecture of its award-winning sibling, delivering bit-perfect PCM (up to 32-bit/384kHz), native DSD (up to DSD256) and DXD, plus MQA – the hi-res streaming codec, as used by Tidal’s ‘Masters’ tier. The sample rate of incoming audio data is indicated by an multicolored LED residing behind the aluminium volume control.
The iFi-programmed XMOS chip, which processes data received at the USB input, and jitter-eradicating, audiophile-grade oscillators.
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 the ‘SuperSpeed’ USB 3.0 standard, as well as USB 2.0 for backwards compatibility. It is asynchronous, meaning that the data rate is regulated solely by the ZEN DAC Signature’s specialised audio clock circuitry for accurate, jitter-free data transfer from the source device.
Alongside the USB input is a stereo pair of RCA sockets for single-ended connection to an amp, plus a Pentaconn 4.4mm output – this relatively new interface type enables balanced signal transfer between compact products that cannot accommodate traditional, bulky XLR connections.
When connected to an amp or active speakers equipped with a balanced input – either a 4.4mm Pentaconn input, or stereo XLR inputs via a 4.4mm-to-XLR cable – the full benefit of the iFi Audio ZEN DAC Signature’s balanced circuit design can be heard. iFi makes its own balanced cables to enable this connectivity; cables from other makers are also available.
As with the regular ZEN DAC, the Signature edition’s outputs can be switched between ‘variable’ and ‘fixed’. The variable setting 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.
ZEN CAN Signature 6XX
Launched in 2020, iFi’s ZEN CAN extended the ZEN Series with an all-analog headphone amplifier housed in the same compact aluminium chassis. The ability to drive tough headphone loads, the balanced circuit design, the vanishingly low levels of distortion and versatile sonic tailoring options to optimise performance are all highly unusual at such an eminently affordable price tag.
Given its all-analogue design, the ZEN CAN has no digital input. It connects to any audio source with an analog output, such as the headphone output from a DAP (Digital Audio Player), a laptop, a tablet or a smartphone, or the RCA outputs from, say, a DAC or a phono stage – including those made by iFi, of course. As well as a headphone amp, it can double as a preamp to feed a power amp and speakers.
ActivEQ – made-to-measure equalization
Priced at $249 (£249, €269), the new Signature edition further improves sound quality with enhanced circuit design, while maintaining the versatile features of the ‘regular’ version and adding something special – a custom EQ setting precisely tailored across the entire frequency response curve to make the most of a popular headphone model.
This new feature, called ActivEQ, combines active and passive components to create a specific EQ curve to suit a particular pair of headphones, performed in the analog domain without a hint of added noise or distortion. The first Signature model, the ZEN CAN Signature 6XX, features ActivEQ for the ‘Massdrop x Sennheiser HD 6XX’ – a popular pair of high-quality headphones (more than 120,000 sold to date) based on the Sennheiser HD 650 and created exclusively for Drop.com. These headphones are renowned for the quality of their midrange performance but exhibit some quirks in the bass and treble regions, which can be seen in frequency response measurements.
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, thus tailoring its performance to precisely fit the HD 6XX like a made-to-measure suit. The benefits of this ActivEQ curve are equally applicable to Sennheiser’s HD 650 headphones, which share the same sonic characteristics. This feature can be switched on or off; without ActivEQ engaged, the ZEN CAN Signature 6XX’s performance is adroitly balanced to make the most of all manner of headphones and in-ear monitors.
Balance of power
Like the regular ZEN CAN, the iFi Audio ZEN Signature edition features dual-mono, true-differential balanced circuitry – a topology usually reserved for high-end headphone amps – with a number of elements trickled down from the discrete Class A circuitry developed for iFi’s flagship headphone amplifier, the Pro iCAN. Key components have been upgraded to enhance performance in line with the improvements made to the ZEN DAC Signature, including the use of Panasonic OS-CON and Elna Silmic II capacitors.
The amp offers prodigious drive capability, delivering 1600mW (7.2V) into 32 ohms from the single-ended output, with 15V+ available to loads of 300 ohms or more through the balanced output.
Price & Availability
The ZEN DAC Signature and ZEN CAN Signature 6XX are available from selected retailers from Friday, February 6, 2021 for $249 / £249 / €269 each. For a limited time, both come with iFi’s ultra-low-noise ‘iPower X’ AC/DC power adapter, which costs $99 / £99 / €99 when purchased separately – another performance-enhancing upgrade over the regular ZEN devices.
A ‘ZEN Signature Set’ is also available for $499 / £499 / €549, comprising both Signature units plus a high-performance 4.4mm Pentaconn cable (worth $69 / £69 /€79) when purchased separately) to connect them together.
For more information: iFi Audio ZEN Signature Series