The iFi Zen Air DAC allows 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 digitized music in the best possible quality. However, turning all those numbers into glorious music you can listen to through headphones or a sound system requires a DAC (digital-to-audio converter).
The iFi brand now offers an absolute bargain in the form of the Zen Air DAC, a small, extremely affordable electronic box that can transform digital music files into superb analog sound. The Zen Air DAC can drive a pair of headphones directly or be connected to a conventional audio system using standard RCA phono connections.
In addition to handling standard PCM digital files up to 384k, the Zen Air DAC decodes perfect versions of DXD and DSD files up to 12.4 MHz. This smart little device plays back MQA files, the high-quality digital music files as played on Tidal’s excellent Masters recordings.
MQA stands for Master Quality Authenticated. It’s a technology that folds music into compact digital files enough to be streamed easily while retaining the nuance and character of the original master tape recordings, just as it was intended to be heard when mixed in the studio.
The Zen Air DAC renders rather than unfolds MQA. An MQA “rendering engine” like the ZEN Air DAC (and indeed most MQA-compatible DACs) does the final unwrapping; the preliminary steps are carried out by the software running on the computer, tablet or smartphone.
A DAC that offers “full MQA decoding” provides the ability to perform every step of the deployment process within the DAC itself. The next model in the iFi line – the ZEN DAC V2 – offers full MQA decoding, just like the other more expensive models in the iFi line. Full MQA decoding requires more processing power than basic rendering.
The Zen Air DAC is a compact device about the size of a paperback. Its shell is made of high-quality polycarbonate rather than metal, like the more expensive Sen models. There’s a big volume button on the device’s fascia, a 6.35mm headphone jack, a Power Match button, and a switch that activates the XBass+ feature. An LED on the panel changes 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.
On the rear of the unit there is a stereo pair of RCA phono sockets for connecting to an amplifier. A USB-B socket is also included to connect the Zen Air DAC to a computer, smartphone or tablet. The unit can normally work with USB power, but 5V power may be required when used with some smartphones or tablets that do not have enough power to drive the Zen Air DAC. The power supply is not included, but a suitable type is easily found on Amazon.
So why would you buy a Zen Air DAC? Why not use your computer or smartphone to listen to music from your favorite streaming service? The short answer is that the Zen Air DAC is a massive upgrade from the type of sound cards found in most computers or the audio output stage of most smartphones.
At the heart of the Zen Air DAC is a 16-core XMOS processor that powers a Burr-Brown DAC to decode digital signals. The analog output of the DAC includes an OV2637 operational amplifier, a component taken from the more expensive models in the Zen line, 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 good deal here.
As already mentioned, there are a few buttons on the fascia of the Zen air DAC. The Power Match button changes the headphone output to listen with high impedance headphones that need more power to play at an acceptable volume. The second knob is the XBass+ switch which looks a bit like a volume knob on an amplifier and provides more bass when needed.
Now let’s move on to sound quality. I’ll start with my verdict. The Zen Air DAC is one of the best DACs for the money I’ve ever heard. Yes, you could get a bit more performance out of a digital stream if you paid a lot more for a high-end DAC, but I think most people would struggle to tell the difference.
I tested the device with Al Stewart’s The year of the cat album released as a PCM and MQA file from Tidal’s Hi-Fi Tier subscription. For my money, in my opinion, Tidal is still the best sounding of any streaming service. 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 MQA files instead of unfolding them completely.
The Zen Air DAC’s overall sound is smooth and mellow, but still with the necessary attack and bite when needed. The sound coming straight from the headphone jack is stunning and full. I’ve tried several headsets, from cheap dynamic types to custom-made IEMs. The results were great and it’s good to see that iFi used an analog volume control rather than a digital variety which can degrade quality.
Verdict: The iFi Zen Air DAC is an awesome little device. The way it handles and decodes most digital files with ease and elegance is truly amazing at this price point. You could spend a lot 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 real bargain. The device would be ideal for use on a desk while typing on a computer or connecting a PC or Mac to your hi-fi system. At this price, you can’t go wrong. Highly recommended.
Price and availability: The iFi Zen Air DAC is available now and costs $99 / £99 / €99.
More information: www.ifi-audio.com
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