Hi-Fi Starters Club should have launched earlier but Covid et al got in the way. Never mind, we’re up and running now. It’s just that I’ve had an iFi ZEN DAC sitting on the shelf for a while. Then before I review it along comes the upgraded iFi ZEN DAC V2. Oops.
No sweat, the lovely folk at iFi duly provided the new ZEN DAC V2 that sells for £159 / US$159 / €159 (£135 UK street price). Meaning I could review it and compare it to the original one I still have. I love it when a plan comes together (ahem).
So what exactly is it?
The ZEN DAC V2 is a single-input DAC that can either slot into your main system or play via headphones. Both functions have equal billing.
The sole input is USB. You connect to a computer, mobile phone or network streamer that can output USB (‘me me me’ shouts the Raspberry Pi). I tried all three. Forget working with TVs, the digital outputs of CD players or similar though, they need optical or coax digital outputs. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are also off the agenda (for Bluetooth there’s the ZEN Blue).
The ZEN DAC V2 can be used with fixed output into an integrated amplifier. Or go variable output, using the ZEN’s front-mounted volume control that handles both headphone and line outputs. Using variable output allows you to connect directly to a power amp or powered speakers, negating the need for a pre-amp. A neat option.
Two types of line-output are provided – balanced and single-ended. Balanced is like 4-wheel drive on a car, (electrically) steadier, so generally a good thing. It’s usually only found on more expensive equipment so good to see it here. You might have to hunt down suitable cables though as the ZEN DAC V2 uses Pentaconn connectors, which are rare. iFi does market a balanced cable of its own but at £100 it’s expensive when paired with the ZEN DAC V2.
Headphones plug in two different ways, again single-ended or balanced. The single-ended option uses a standard 6.3mm (¼”) headphone socket. Balanced is – you guessed it – via a 4.4mm Pentaconn connection. Pentaconn headphone cables are slightly easier to find but not all headphones can be used in balanced mode.
Next comes Power Match that switches between high and low power with headphones. Low power is for IEMs (In-Ear-Monitors), which are easier to drive. High power is for anything needing more grunt.
Then we come to True Bass, which boosts low frequencies – bass-light IEMs may benefit. There’s nothing stopping you trying it elsewhere though; let your ears tell you which you prefer. The feature works in the analogue domain, not digital, meaning it should sound a bit better. Truth is there’s no way of comparing.
Finally we come to power for the ZEN DAC V2. Most people will take the required 5V from the computer / phone / streamer that’s feeding the ZEN DAC V2, using the USB cable that’s already connecting them. It’s simple and reduces the number of wires.
Or you can use a separate 5V power supply for supposed better sound quality. £8 buys a ‘bog-standard’ 5V supply but it’s unlikely to make a difference. I have iFi’s original £49 iPower – we’ll see if it’s worthwhile.
Overall the ZEN’s spec is very flexible for a USB DAC. Too flexible / complex? Worry not, if you want to keep it simple you can, and (spoiler alert) it sounds good. Or take advantage of the different options available. The choice is yours.
Tech / looks / build
A darker grey than the original, the new ZEN DAC V2 feels nice. The metal casework is solid and the volume control is a tactile delight. And on looks the ZEN DAC V2’s ‘flying saucer’ vibe getting a thumbs up here.
The key changes from the original are inside, notably a more powerful computer in the V2. There are now 16 cores vs the original’s 8. A better clock also reduces jitter and electrical noise, which usually helps sonically.
Being more powerful means the ZEN DAC V2 now decodes and renders MQA. On rates it goes up to PCM 32bit/384kHz and DSD256, enough for both advanced users and beginners. A light behind the volume control changes colour to indicate the sample rate in use.
Headphones were Audioquest Nighthawk Carbons (£600) and Meze 99 Classics (£270) – both large over-ear models. The Nighthawks were used single-ended as no balanced cable was available. The Mezes ran both balanced and single-ended. A pair of KZ-ATE in-ears – suprisingly good for £12 – also had a run-out.
Comparison was made to the original ZEN DAC (£130) and an Audioquest Dragonfly Red (£170). Source was a standard i5 Dell laptop running Audirvana 3.5.46 (very capable sonically).
For line-out use a Marantz PM6006 amplifier drove Elac Debut 6.2 speakers. The ZEN DAC V2 was powered by my iFi iPower. The streamer was a RaspberryPi4 running Ropieee, powered by Allo’s Shanti power supply. Total cost for this setup is a smidge over £1,000 – real-world company for the ZEN DAC V2. A Gold Note PA-10 power amp (£1,400) was also later used for balanced-mode testing.
Bookended by a high quality source and great headphones the ZEN DAC V2 has nowhere to hide. It doesn’t need it, stepping up to the challenge confidently.
Tonally the sound is a little on the dark side – treble isn’t particularly extended. Stephen Stubbs’ intimate ‘Refrain’ from Care Charming Sleep lacks a little sparkle. That’s more observation than comment though. It also means you can play brighter recordings loud without discomfort (don’t overdo it).
There’s still plenty of detail on offer, meaning complex mixes are easy to hear into. And bass control is good, keeping the Meze’s occasionally fat bottom-end in check. Overall there’s a solidity to the sound that makes the ZEN DAC V2 great with rock and large scale orchestral, but simpler fayre comes across well too. The ZEN DAC V2 is very engaging.
I switch True Bass on. The bigger headphones don’t need it but the KZ-ATE IEMs lap up the stronger bass without messing the rest of the sound up (as can happen with many bass-boost controls). This tallies with other True Bass iFi devices I’ve reviewed – it’s a well thought out facility.
The original ZEN DAC sounds much the same
All of the above applies equally to both the original ZEN DAC and the V2; frankly there’s little difference between them sonically. The new model’s sound is slightly better defined, bass a little tauter, a complex mix easier to dissect. But, we’re talking very marginal changes. Ones that take a lot of A/B listening to hear and that have little or no musical consequence. Headphonistas with the original ZEN DAC shouldn’t rush to upgrade.
Fine-tuning the sound
Switching the Meze 99 Classics to balanced mode tidies the sound up slightly – there’s more air around performers, better bass control and generally a sweeter tone. Overall the sound is more organised. Not huge improvements but to these ears worth £49 for the balanced cable for the Mezes.
iFi’s iPower supply makes a bigger difference though; the sound is just cleaner. Across the board too; tighter bass, clearer treble, altogether more finesse. It’s noticeable through the Mezes, blatantly obvious through the Nighthawks. Even the KZ-ATE IEMs show an improvement. An even better spend of £49.
Headphones; versus Dragonfly Red
Playing headphones in single-ended mode the Dragonfly Red sounds slightly more open, better able to split the whole into its constituent parts. There’s a greater sense of acoustic space, improved low-end control and more refinement. The gap isn’t huge though. Small enough for functional differences between the two devices to influence your choice more than sound quality.
And in balanced mode any sonic differences between the Dragonfly and the ZEN DAC V2 all but disappear.
MAIN SYSTEM LISTENING
It’s time to try the ZEN DAC V2 & iPower through speakers, so into the RPi/Marantz/Elac system it goes. I use the ZEN DAC V2’s volume control rather than the amplifier’s. Overall the sound is light in nature – a trait of the Marantz amplifier – but can dig deep when needed. ‘Olympic Fanfare’ from Kunzel’s Cincinnati Pops Orchestra (Pomp & Pizazz) is certainly impactful. The sound is slightly lacking in colour, but it’s not overdone and I adjust to the tonal character quickly.
Dragonfly through speakers
Switching out the ZEN DAC V2 for the Dragonfly Red brings obvious improvements though; the change is not subtle. The iFi’s dryness is replaced by the Dragonfly’s tonal richness, and the top end is altogether more refined – ‘Enter Sandman’ is weighty and dynamic as it should be, any splashiness gone.
The soundstage is also bigger, and better resolved; musicians are more distinct. When Infected Mushroom’s ‘Bliss on Mushrooms’ kicks off at 1’30” the Dragonfly rides the track majestically, tracking its dynamic changes well, delivering real weight. The ZEN DAC V2 by comparison is hanging on by the tail, struggling to keep up.
Fixed-output ZEN into speakers
In a main system the ZEN DAC V2 will normally be used in fixed-output mode though, using the integrated amplifier’s volume control rather than it’s own. I make the switch and things get better. The dryness is gone, bass gains weight, the soundstage expands. Most importantly the sound is much better organised, it’s easier to hear what’s going on in complex passages. It doesn’t quite close the gap to the Dragonfly Red but gets close.
And finally to the ZEN DAC V2 in balanced mode. Bye bye Marantz amplifier – it doesn’t do balanced. Enter the Gold Note PA-10 power amplifier that has both single-ended and balanced inputs, making comparison easy. The streamer software (Roon) handles volume control.
Single-ended first and wow, what a sound. The ZEN DAC V2’s refinement has moved up several notches, as have dynamics. ‘Bliss on Mushrooms’ gains an extra dose of bounce factor, the sound is weightier. More delicate too, the intricate fingering of Stephen Stubbs’ Care Charming Sleep clear to all. The ZEN DAC V2 is clearly making the most of better amplification.
Balanced mode takes the biscuit though. There’s added texture to Stubbs’ lute, and greater depth to the soundstage making the acoustic notably more believable. Dynamics take another step forward – Bliss on Mushrooms has you bouncing off the walls now – and there’s even more heft. Together with a dash more colour, and silkier treble. I could genuinely listen to this all day.
Well that was some ride, what’s the bottom line?
The ZEN DAC V2 isn’t quite perfect at the price – its volume control holds it back slightly when playing in a main system. Going fixed-output sorts that though.
Nor is the ZEN DAC V2 without competition – the Audioquest Dragonfly amongst others sounds impressive too – but that just means good digital costs less nowadays. Which it does.
Besides, that’s really putting the iFi ZEN DAC V2 under the microscope, assessing it as I would much dearer kit. The truth is it’s a fabulous little USB DAC & headphone amp. A slam dunk for student / bedroom / second systems. Comfortable driving headphones costing multiples of its price. And I’ve yet to find a main system in which the ZEN DAC V2 is really out of its depth, including some pretty pricey ones.
All for £159. Or less. Go on, you know you want to.