We understand the adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” At the same time, we recognize that in a competitive sector like hi-fi, making the best even better off your own back isn’t always a terrible thing. It’s what iFi has done with its low-cost home DAC and headphone amp, with the original Zen DAC giving way to a ‘V2′ edition.
The sequel employs the new-generation processing chip featured in the higher-end Neo iDSD and iDSD Diablo DAC/headphone amps, which delivers twice the clock speed and four times the memory of the original chip. In addition to handling PCM (up to 384kHz) and DSD (up to DSD256) files, the Zen DAC V2 is now an MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) decoder, rather than just a renderer, as the first Zen DAC was. That is, it incorporates full MQA decoding, taking over the entire ‘unfolding’ process that music encoded in the technology necessitates in order to be played back in its most accurate form. That should please Tidal HiFi members who enjoy the service’s MQA-encoded hi-res Masters.
Last but not least, iFi has updated the circuitry, which now features a new crystal clock meant to improve timing and minimize jitter even further.
iFi Zen DAC V2 Specs
- Outputs RCA, balanced 4.4mm x 2, 6.3mm
- Inputs USB Type B
- Supported files PCM 384kHz, DSD256, MQA
- Dimensions (hwd) 35 x 160 x 117mm
- Weight 0.8kg
These under-the-hood improvements aren’t immediately apparent to the human eye, which would have difficulty distinguishing the new Zen DAC from its predecessor when comparing the two. Their exteriors are identical, with the exception of a subtle ‘V2′ corner mark on the new model’s back panel. As on the V1’s panel, it is flanked by a USB Type B input, an RCA line, and 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced outputs.
The Zen DAC output can be set between fixed and variable, allowing the iFi to function as a digital preamp if desired; the Pentaconn output is a bit of a niche connection for this level of gear, but it’s there if you want it. The same can be said for the Pentaconn balanced output on the front panel, which sits alongside the more traditional 6.3mm unbalanced headphone jack, a reliable volume dial, and two-mode buttons. The first, Power Match, is essentially gain modification to help compensate the variable sensitivity of headphones, whereas True Bass is for increasing the presence of bass in a mix.
The final connector on the Zen DAC V2 is for mains power, though it should be noted that a mains adapter is not included. iFi has omitted it to keep expenses down — and because one will not be required for everyone. The Zen DAC V2 can be driven solely via its USB port, pulling power from the source attached to it; however, the mains approach is advised with more difficult-to-drive headphones. Any 5V AC/DC adapter will work, however, iFi recommends the iPower (£49, $49, AU$80) or iPower X (£99, $100, AU$159) power supply.
Neither of those accessories is being tested here, but keep in mind that we reviewed the iPower X with the original Zen DAC and stated it “certainly improves the sound in all areas,” so there’s no reason to expect it’ll behave any differently with this updated model. We borrow the mains adaptor from a previously tested iFi component while connecting the Zen DAC V2 to our hi-fi system (through an iFi-supplied 4.4mm Pentaconn to XLR cable) and then in a desktop arrangement. However, the power supplied by the attached MacBook Pro (and also an iMac) source through USB proved sufficient to power all of the headphones we utilized during testing, from the Grado SR325x to the Beyerdynamic T5 (3rd Gen) and Focal Stellia.
We reacquaint ourselves with the Zen DAC’s clean, tonally even-handed, and insightful sound – all of which we are pleased, if not astonished, to hear materialize in the Zen DAC V2’s performance when we switch to it. We praised the Zen DAC for providing a big boost in audio quality for a low price, and the Zen V2 improves on that even more. Indeed, what’s most pleasant is that iFi hasn’t released a more expensive sequel with only minor enhancements.
The Zen DAC V2 is noticeably better: it is still wide, fluid, and well-judged in its frequency management, but dynamic expression and clarity are confidently carried to the next level, with the bass a touch tighter and the presentation a little more refined.
Play a Tidal Master of Billie Eilish’s Your Power between the two, and the new Zen DAC provides a more comprehensive view of the recording. Greater clarity immediately draws you into the pop ballad, making her delivery of the song’s essential, topical message all the more heartbreaking, and fleshing out piano notes that express that extra emotion. Tyler, The Creator’s I THINK has a more atmospheric opening crackling, a background piano rhythm and drum beat sample, and dynamic inflections in his vocal delivery.
Even when listening via the Grados, the least revealing of the trio of headphones we primarily use, the V2’s sound improvement is obvious.
- Clearer and more insightful
- Expressive dynamics
- Good output selection
- No mains adapter included
Of course, nothing in life is free, so iFi is charging a £30 ($30, AU$30) extra over the previous Zen DAC. But we believe it is justified.
Zen DAC owners with price-competitive headphones may not feel compelled to upgrade to the V2 unless they can get a good return on their original – the V2, despite pedaling performance forward, evolution over revolution – but for newcomers to the company or type of product, iFi is offering a good jump in quality here to keep performance and features best in class – and for not much more.
The Zen DAC V2 is another feather in the cap for iFi’s cheap Zen series, providing a significant boost over PC sound quality at a time when people most need it.