The Hifitrends.com Product Of The Year is an award given to an exceptional product that has passed across our desk– or through our listening room– this past year.
It’s not a “Best Of” award, it’s just us giving recognition to gear we find to have extraordinary value within its category.
Also, since we cover low-cost, high-performance gear, you can expect our selections to be more affordable than some of the stuff you see on other Product Of The Year lists.
So without further ado, here is our first Product Of The Year, in the Desktop Component category, the $129 iFi ZEN DAC Headphone Amp/DAC Combo.
About the ZEN DAC/What we dig:
The iFi ZEN DAC was the second piece to come out as part of their new ZEN range of affordable desktop components, and it marked a new direction for them. Before this, they made a name with their portable/transportable DAC/Amps, which they built to be packable, and had built-in batteries for use on the go.
The ZEN DAC and its sister unit, the ZEN Blue Bluetooth receiver, which I reviewed a while back, are widebody products with no batteries. They are made expressly for stationary use. However, like the portable units, they are designed chock full of features that provide a ton of value for the price.
For example, the ZEN DAC has a USB input, 1/4” and RCA unbalanced outputs, plus two 4.4mm balanced outputs. This allows for a lot of flexibility, meaning you can use it in a lot of different configurations, whether on your desk or as part of a full-size hi-fi rig.
It also decodes MQA, has analog Bass enhancement, and one-step gain control for full-size headphones. It does DSD 256, and PCM up to 24/384. This is all in a unit that sells for a little more than a hundred twenty-five bucks. That is a steal!
What to look out for:
For all its virtues, the ZEN DAC is still missing a couple of things, in my opinion. For one thing, it would be nice to have a DC power supply included in the box to facilitate use with portable devices.
As it is, you can power it from your laptop’s USB port, but if you want to use it with a smartphone, keep it in mind that the phone may not have enough juice to power up the ZEN on its own.
iFi does sell a power supply that will work with it and possibly improve the sound quality, but it’s $49 or almost half the price of the unit itself. Amazon also sells cheaper alternatives, but the quality may be dubious.
I also wish the ZEN DAC had a power button. I guess if you leave it plugged into the computer, it will go off when the computer does, but if you use it with an external power supply, you’ll have to unplug it every time you’re done.
But for $129, I guess you can’t have it all, and neither one of my bugaboos changes the fact that the ZEN DAC provides an enormous amount of musical enjoyment for the dollar.
Listening to the ZEN DAC:
I used the ZEN DAC with my HP Envy Laptop, playing a bunch of Tidal streams, and the sound was fantastic, especially with dynamic headphones. I really loved it with two headphones in particular. One was the Focal Elear, and the other one the Massdrop/Sennheiser HD 58X.
Both benefited from the full, rich sound of the ZEN, but the HD 58X came alive with a press of the TrueBass button. iFi’s bass enhancement isn’t like your run of the mill Bass Boost, it works in the analog domain, so it doesn’t muddy the signal.
It did an excellent job of filling in the 58X sound without altering the fidelity of the music.
It’s hard to overstate how much I love the ZEN DAC. Once again, iFi has come up with another piece of gear that’s jam-packed with value. If you have a nice pair of headphones and you have a desk, then you need one.
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I’m an audio writer who started as a young audio salesman/consumer electronics professional back in the late 90s. That’s where I discovered the magic of 2-Channel sound. My thirst for great sound has led me on a delightful music quest that continues today.