iFi ZEN One Signature Review: A Captivating Digital To Analog Converter On The Cheap!

iFi ZEN One Signature Digital To Analog Converter

$349.00
iFi ZEN One Signature Digital To Analog Converter
7.7

Build

8.0/10

Features

8.0/10

Sound

7.0/10

What We Dig

  • Great Build Quality
  • Warm, Natural Sound
  • Extraordinary Bluetooth Performance

What To Think About

  • Could Use A Touch More Focus

TL;DR

The ZEN One Signature’s natural sound and remarkable array of features make it a great option for adding digital on the cheap.


Intro

Back in January, iFi announced the availability of their latest ZEN component (not to be confused with the lower-priced ZEN Air Line), the $349 ZEN One Signature.

The One Signature is a pure Digital to Analog Converter (no headphone amp) that takes the excellent DAC stage from our 2021 Product of the Year, the ZEN DAC V2, then adds Bluetooth technology from the ZEN Blue V2 Bluetooth DAC. The goal is to offer a ‘universal DAC’ that can take digital signals, both wired and wireless, from any source then output a clean analog signal.

As usual for an iFi Audio product, the list of quality components and features is long, but the real question is, how does it sound? Is this new affordable high-end DAC worth putting in your 2-ch or headphone system? Read on, and I’ll let you know the scoop!

Disclaimer: This unit was sent to us by iFi Audio in exchange for our review. In the interest of full disclosure, iFi is a sponsor of Hifitrends. However, no input was given or promises made regarding the content contained in this evaluation.


Key Features/Specs:

  • Burr-Brown “True Native” DAC chip
  • supported files: PCM and DXD up to 32-bit/384kHz; DSD up to DSD256; MQA384kHz
  • full decoding for MQA audio files
  • USB Type-B input for connecting PC and mobile devices
  • optical digital (Toslink) audio input
  • coaxial digital audio input/output
  • balanced 4.4mm output for connecting a compatible powered speaker or amp
  • stereo unbalanced RCA output
  • built-in Bluetooth 5.1supported codecs: aptX®, aptX HD, aptX Adaptive, aptX LL, LDAC, LHDC/HWA, AAC and SBC

Build/Features

As the ZEN One Signature is designated part of iFi Audio’s ZEN line of DACs and Headphone amps, one would expect it to have the same exceptional level of build quality, and you would be correct.

It has the same aluminum casing and robust controls as the rest of the ZEN gear, but this time it dons the “deep space blue” exterior, which signifies iFi’s “Signature” level of circuitry inside.

Standout features include support for all hi-res formats (DSD256, PCM384, MQA384kHz), “high-definition” Bluetooth support via the aptX HD, aptX Adaptive, LDAC, and HWA/LHDC codecs, plus a fully balanced circuit design. You also get an upgraded GMT Femto-precision clock and customized digital filter to handle digital distortions.

High-resolution D/A conversion is possible via iFi’s tried and true Burr-Brown DAC chip setup with a four-channel True Native design. This, in theory, lets PCM and DSD signals take separate pathways, so they stay bit-perfect before conversion.

Additionally, because of iFi’s 16-Core XMOS chip and custom firmware, full decoding of MQA files is also supported.

This means the ZEN One Signature can complete the full three-part unfold of these files (as opposed to just being a renderer), allowing you to hear them in the best quality possible. This should especially please users of TIDAL’s “Masters” tier, which uses MQA for high-resolution playback.

Qualcomm’s four-core QCC5100 Bluetooth processing chip makes “high-resolution” Bluetooth possible, and BT 5.1 is on board for quick connections with an extended range.

Furthermore, as part of iFi’s “Signature” tier of components, this DAC receives several internal upgrades over the “standard” ZEN components, like upgraded capacitors for greater linearity, and upgraded resistors for low noise, amongst other things.

Undoubtedly, this DAC offers an impressive amount of connectivity for the price. There’s an asynchronous USB Type B port on the rear panel for PCs, two S/PDIF inputs (optical and coaxial) for CD Transports, etc., and RCA analog outputs joined by a balanced 4.4mm output.

For the latter, iFi makes a balanced 4.4mm to stereo XLR cable (sold separately), so you can connect the ZEN One Signature to an amp with XLR inputs. In addition, the Coax input doubles as a digital output when using Bluetooth or USB inputs.

There’s also a jack for the included 5V iPower2 power supply ($69 sold separately). Of course, you can also power the DAC via the USB port, but using the power supply should provide the best sound quality.

Consequently, the ZEN One Signature is very flexible regarding use cases. It will work as a DAC/Bluetooth Receiver for a 2-ch Hi-Fi system, headphone rig, or in conjunction with powered speakers. That said, the inclusion of a premium power supply somewhat reveals an ambition to position it as a low-cost component DAC.

As with the majority of iFi components I’ve come across, the ZEN One Signature is pretty easy to operate. There’s a power button on the front panel that turns the unit on with a short press, then an input selector that cycles through the three inputs (Bluetooth, S/PDIF, USB).

Centrally located on the front panel is a multi-color display with a back-lit iFi Logo. The logo’s color signifies the file format of the music processed by the DAC. For example, a Cyan colored logo represents a DSD (or LDAC for Bluetooth) file, and a Green logo represents an MQA file (or aptX Adaptive for Bluetooth).

Next to the display is another multi-color LED that indicates the audio format and sampling frequency of the file in use. Again it lights up in different colors to show different values, like Yellow for PCM with a sampling frequency of 44.1 or 48kHz. This input also shows input in use when selected, with Blue/Red meaning Bluetooth and Green meaning S/PDIF or USB.

Another button also serves the dual purpose of shutting off the display screen or initiating Bluetooth pairing. The unit automatically goes into pairing mode when you first put it into Bluetooth mode.

In the box, you get the DAC and the previously mentioned power supply, an antenna for wireless connection, an RCA cable for analog output, and a USB cable for PC connection.


Sound

Initially, I connected the ZEN One Signature to an Audiolab 6000A Play/Wharfedale EVO 4.2 amp/speaker combo using the RCA cable that came in the box. Then I paired my Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra to the DAC via LDAC Bluetooth. The connection was super-quick, and I played music from my TIDAL app in just a few minutes.

I have to say; I was quite impressed by the One Signature’s wireless performance. Through this amply resolving system, I didn’t feel like I was missing a lot of detail, nor did I want for a lot of depth or separation.

I compared the Signatures’ BT output to the output of the 6000A Play’s internal BT receiver, and I found the iFi connection to be superior in every way, providing a more nuanced and transparent presentation.

Next, I switched to the USB input and connected my Envy X360 laptop to the ZEN One Signature using the supplied USB cable. While I was dazzled by the ZEN One’s Bluetooth connection, once I played some tunes through Roon, I realized I hadn’t heard anything yet.

Listening to TIDAL MQA tracks via Roon on the iFi DAC was pure pleasure, as the music just sounded warm, natural, and not overly processed. The somewhat laid-back perspective lets you “hear into” the music instead of assaulting you with a wall of sound, which can be fatiguing after a while. I won’t say it was the end all be all of detail and separation, but the scale and musicality of this DAC were excellent.

When I played “Afro-Bossa” by Duke Ellington, the presentation was nicely layered, with the drums floating in the background and the horns upfront to the left and right. In addition, the instruments had a nice realism which I feel is the hallmark of this DAC.

If I had any issue with the ZEN One Signature, it would be a slight lack of focus in the soundstage, but there’s enough there to bring out the essence of the music. Along with that, it’s refreshing to hear a budget DAC that doesn’t play up the detail to the point of sounding etched.


The Wrap Up

Ultimately, the iFi ZEN One Signature is a capable DAC for $349. It has a nice easygoing sound with good dynamics and a natural presentation. While it could use a touch more focus, it does an excellent job of bringing out the music’s essence and emotion, which is the important thing. Add its remarkable array of connections and impressive wireless sound, and you have a great option for those who want to add digital capabilities to a modest system.


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