The Zen Air DAC from iFi enables music fans like me to stream high-resolution digital files in the best quality. For example, music streaming services like Tidal, Qobuz or Deezer offer a massive selection of music digitized in the best quality possible. However, turning all those digits into glorious music you can enjoy with headphones or an audio system needs a DAC (digital-to-audio converter).
The iFi brand now offers an absolute bargain in the form of the Zen Air DAC, a superbly affordable little box of electronics that can turn digital music files into superb analog audio. The Zen Air DAC can directly drive a pair of headphones or be connected to a conventional audio system using standard RCA phono connections.
As well as handling the standard PCM digital files up to 384k, the Zen Air DAC decodes bit-perfect versions of DXD, and DSD files up to 12.4MHz. This clever little device renders MQA files, the high-quality digital music files as streamed on Tidal’s excellent Masters recordings.
MQA stands for Master Quality Authenticated. It’s a technology that folds music into compact digital files mall enough to stream easily while still retaining the nuance and character of the original master tape recordings, just as it was intended to be heard when it was mixed in the studio.
The Zen Air DAC renders rather than unfolds MQA. An MQA ‘renderer’ like the ZEN Air DAC (and, indeed, most MQA-compatible DACs) performs the final unfold; the prior stages are performed by the software running on the computer, tablet or smartphone.
A DAC that offers ‘full MQA decoding’ gives the option of performing every stage of the unfolding process in the DAC itself. The next model up in the iFi range – the ZEN DAC V2 – offers full MQA decoding, as do the other more expensive models in the iFi range. Full MQA decoding requires more processing power than basic rendering.
The Zen Air DAC is a compact device about the same size as a paperback book. Its shell is made of high-quality polycarbonate rather than metal, like the more expensive Sen models. There’s a large volume knob on the unit’s fascia, a 6.35mm headphone jack, a Power Match button and a switch that turns on the XBass+ feature. An LED on the fascia alters color to indicate the type and quality of the digital file being decoded. For example, the LED turns purple when an MQA file is being rendered.
At the rear of the unit there’s a stereo pair of RCA phono sockets for connecting to an amplifier. A USB-B socket is also included for hitching the Zen Air DAC to a computer, smartphone or tablet. The unit can normally run with USB power, but a 5V power supply may be needed when used with certain smartphones or tablets that don’t have sufficient power to drive the Zen Air DAC. The power supply isn’t included, but a suitable type is easy to find on Amazon.
So why would you want to buy a Zen Air DAC? Why not use your computer or smartphone to play music from your favorite streaming service? The short answer is the Zen Air DAC represents a massive upgrade from the kind of soundcards found in most computers or in the audio output stage of most smartphones.
At the Zen Air DAC’s heart is an XMOS 16-core processor that feeds a Burr-Brown DAC to decode digital signals. The analog output from the DAC includes an OV2637 OP-amp, a component taken from the more expensive models in the Zen range, which have ultra-low distortion. Even the components used in the Zen Air DAC include high-end TDK C0G ceramic capacitors. In other words, you’re getting a bit of a bargain here.
As already mentioned, there are a couple of buttons on the fascia of the Zen air DAC. The Power Match button alters the headphone output for listening with high-impedance headphones that need more power to play at an acceptable volume. The second button is the XBass+ switch which is a little like a loudness button on an amplifier and provides more bass heft when needed.
Now let’s move on to the sound quality. I’m going to start with my verdict. The Zen Air DAC is one of the best DACs for the money I’ve ever heard. Yes, you could squeeze a bit more performance from a digital stream if you paid much more for a high-end DAC, but I think most people would struggle to tell the difference.
I tested the unit with Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat album streamed as a PCM file and MQA from Tidal’s Hi-Fi Tier subscription. For my money, In my opinion, Tidal is still the best-sounding of all the streaming services. I love its inclusion of MQA files and set up a blind test between the PCM and MQA versions of the album; the MQA won hands down, even though the Zen Air DAC only renders instead of fully unfolding MQA files.
The overall sound from the Zen Air DAC is smooth and mellow but still with the necessary attack and bite when needed. The sound straight from the headphone jack is stunning and fulsome. I tried several headphones, from cheap dynamic types to custom-fit IEMs. The results were excellent and it’s good to see that iFi has used an analog volume control rather than a digital variety that can degrade quality.
Verdict: The iFi Zen Air DAC is a brilliant little device. The way it handles and decodes most digital files with poise and elegance is truly amazing at this price point. You could spend much more on a high-end DAC, but for most people who want to stream music from a computer to a pair of headphones or a music system, the Zen Air DAC is a genuine bargain. The device would be ideal for use on a desk while typing away at a computer or connecting a PC or Mac to your hi-fi system. At this price, you can’t go wrong. Highly Recommended.
Pricing & Availability: The iFi Zen Air DAC is available now and costs $99 / £99 / €99.
More info: www.ifi-audio.com