>>I am brazilian and I speak portuguese, so forgive my english, I’ll use translator tools to help<<
iFi Audio is an UK company that manufactures audio products such as: DACs, Amplifiers, DAC/AMPs, dongles, bluetooth transmitters, and other audio accessories in general. The company is actually a subsidiary of AMR (Abbingdon Music Research), also a manufacturer of high definition audio products. This is the first time I have the opportunity to test a product from the brand, and the product in question will be the IFI AIR DAC, which is a desktop DAC/AMP.
Release date: 2022
Price: $99 USD
IFI AUDIO STORE:
|Input voltage||DC 5V/2.5A|
|Input||USB2.0 B Socket|
|DAC||Bit-Perfect DSD & DXD DAC by Burr Brown|
|Power consumption||No Signal ~0.5W / Max Signal ~2.5W|
|Dimensions||158 x 117 x 35 mm|
6.2″ x 4.6″ x 1.4″
|Net weight||315 g|
|Output||1V / 3.3V max.|
|SNR||<-113dB(A) @ 0dBFS|
|DNR||>113dB(A) @ -60dBFS|
|THD+N||<0.04% @ 0dBFS|
|Output||1V / 3.3V max. (variable)|
|Output Power||>280mW @ 32Ω ; >36mW @ 300Ω|
|THD+N||<0.04% (100mW @ 16Ω)|
– Tin HiFi C3
– FiiO FH3
– Tin HiFi P1
– Questyle M15
– Dell Inspiron Realtek HDA (W10)
A brief context. In my journey with in-ear monitors, the search for minimalism and practicality have always been one of the main elements, but I always wanted to build a desktop setup and a portable setup, because most of the time I listen to music sitting down and with my notebook as the primary device. I always saw the iFi HIP-DAC or the FiiO Q3 as good alternatives to use as a desktop DAC/AMP, however, the journey took other paths and brought me to the ZEN Air DAC, the first desktop DAC/AMP that I have the opportunity to test.
Let’s start by talking about design and construction. Like all products in the ZEN series, the ZEN Air DAC is also very beautiful, iFi took great care in the aesthetics of this product. The materials used are of excellent quality, it’s all made of plastic, but it’s not a generic plastic, it is of excellent quality and finishing. To me, it looks like a premium product at just $99 (almost half the price of the ZEN DAC series). The DAC/AMP is very compact, it doesn’t take up much space on the desk, I like minimalism a lot and the product managed to please me in terms of size. In the last photo you can compare the size of an IEM with the size of the ZEN Air DAC (in the end of this page).
On the front panel we have the input for the earphones, the analog volume (volume knob or potentiometer), a RBG LED, and two buttons with the functions: Power Match and XBass+. Power Match is nothing more than the nomenclature used by iFi to refer to the gain button. And XBass+ would be a resource to add a little more bass to the sound.
In terms of weight, we have an interesting detail. The product isn’t heavy, that’s a fact, but I always imagined that these desktop equipment had a greater weight, something that would make me be able to unplug the earphone without having to hold the product, let’s see, that’s not what happens here, cause if I remove the earphone without holding the DAC/AMP, it will slide across the desk. Perhaps this characteristic doesn’t happen when the person uses the stack with the other ZEN Air series devices on the top.
As can be seen from the specifications, the DAC/AMP supports several file types. A RGB LED in the left corner of the panel indicates which format is currently playing: Green (PCM 44.1/48/88.2/96kHz), Yellow (PCM 176.4/192/352.8/384kHz), Cyan (DSD 64/128 ), Blue (DSD 256), Magenta (MQA renderer). For me, only the green light appeared, as I only use 16bits/44.1-48kHz FLAC files and regular audio streaming (Spotify). However, I think it’s important for the product to offer the greatest possible file support.
Cable. The cable provided in the product is type USB-A<>USB-B. Here we already have a first point to be observed. The company chose to use the USB type B connection (like the ones we find on inkjet printers), and in my opinion, the USB type A connection is much more secure in physical terms than the USB type B connection. Another question to be observed are the physical aspects of this cable. First, the size I found too short, I can’t connect it to an USB port on the left side of my notebook and pass the cable behind to leave the DAC/AMP on the right side. I think a 1 meter cable would already solve this issue. Second, the cable material is kind of rigid, not as easy to handle as a paracord cable, for example. And third, they put a blue color cable, and the ZEN Air DAC is gray and black, that is, it doesn’t match with the product colors, I think a black cable would look better aesthetically.
The earphone input is the 6.35mm connection (P10), that is, the standard adopted here is more easy to found in headphones. In this case, as our website is only focused on IEMs, it was necessary to use a 3.5mm to 6.35mm adapter (which is not included in the product). In my opinion, it was good for the company to provide an adapter of the type mentioned. So, keep in mind if you’ll buy the ZEN Air DAC and use IEMs (or headphones with 3.5mm cables).
The product stays on the whole time connected to the computer/device, this is because it doesn’t have an On/Off button, nor the volume knob have this function to turn off. I think it would be interesting to have the option to turn off the equipment. As this is my first experience with “desktop” DAC/AMPs, I noticed this because it’s something I miss about dongles. Dongles are portable equipments, but it is also possible to use them on computers (as is my case), so to turn them off you need to disconnect the USB cable.
The ZEN Air DAC can be powered by an external 5V/2.5A source (not included in the package), however, it can also be powered only through the direct USB connection to the computer, that is, through the USB-B cable that comes with the DAC/AMP. It works for both data and energy.
The product has an analog RCA output on the back that can be used as a DAC/Pre-AMP for an amplifier or speakers. In this case, the company has an exclusive amplifier for this series, the ZEN Air CAN, which can be connected to the ZEN Air DAC by this RCA output.
I tested for approximately 2 hours the IEMs and the ZEN Air DAC with the volume knob at “12h” (twelve o’clock), as well as the Power Match and XBass+ turned on. I didn’t notice any signs of heating on the surface of the product. The test was on a very warm day in my region. Not even the best of dongles could accomplish such a feat.
The product was immediately recognized as soon as I connected to my notebook, I didn’t need to install any drivers for it to work in Windows10 (Plug & Play). Note that the product has been detected and entered the maximum volume of the Windows volume scale (100%), so you need to be a little careful when connecting the equipment for the first time. I left it in this configuration, 100% in the Windows volume scale and I was controlling it only in ZEN Air DAC.
iFi makes firmware updates available for its products in the >support< section of its official website. There you can put the serial number of the product and check if there are updates available. In the case of the ZEN Air DAC, I checked and saw that there was a firmware for the product, however, I installed the program to perform the update and it found that the firmware was already updated with the latest version, so I didn’t need to make any changes.
It must be remembered that this analysis is subjective, based on my experience with the product and also on the synergy with the other equipment I used here. I also already inform you that the more objectivist part of the hobby is not really my beach, so it may be that some information can be limited, I don’t have much knowledge about the technical side of this type of product.
The audio quality of the iFi ZEN Air DAC I found very good. The company uses the Burr-Brown Native DSD1793 DAC chip, in addition to other internal components from the North American manufacturer Texas Instruments. I’ve always heard that some iFi products are more “musical”, in the sense that the sound was something different from other products available on the market, well, that’s not exactly what I noticed here. For me, the ZEN Air DAC’s sound is transparent, uncolored, and faithful to the recordings I listen to. I didn’t notice any noise, distortion or strange sound during the time that I was testing the product.
XBass+. As already mentioned in the physical aspects, XBass+ is nothing more than a boost in the bass region. What I noticed here was a small amount of boost in the sub-bass and mid-bass region. The resource was very well implemented, it’s nothing exaggerated, on the contrary, it’s something similar to changing an eartip, for example, sometimes we lose or gain a little bit of a certain frequency when we change the eartip. Here the change will only impact the region of the bass, and yet, something very subtle. XBass+ gains a little more notoriety when Power Match is on.
Power Match. Also as previously mentioned, the iFi Power Match is the same as a Gain selector. In general, I thought that the gain conferred by the product was interesting, it does make a good difference in the sound. iFi recommends that Power Match when activated would be more suitable with headphones, and off for IEMs, but there is no rule here, you really need to test each earphone with the feature and without the feature activated to define which sound was the best (this is something very individual). In my tests here I liked to use the Power Match on and the volume knob giving low volume.
Amplification. Well, in this aspect I noticed two positive points and one not so positive. The first two positive points are that with the Tin HiFi C3 and with the FiiO FH3, the ZEN Air DAC pushed them with ease, they are IEMs that don’t need extra amplification. The not so positive point was that with the Tin HiFi P1 I needed to activate Power Match and XBass+ so that the sound was more “correct”. In theory, this is not a problem, however, the more I increased the volume on the potentiometer, the more the sound entered into clipping (distortion). So, it’s worth mentioning that I didn’t really like the result of the ZEN Air DAC specifically with the Tin HiFi P1.
I made a comparison with the Questyle M15 DAC/AMP dongle and the ZEN Air DAC, for me, the only difference from the M15 to the ZEN Air DAC was that the M15 presented a little more definition in the positioning of the instruments (imaging), as if the presentation were a little more “clear” in relation to the other, since I could feel more separation between one instrument and another. Remembering that this “a little more” is always good to see as a tiny difference, something very subtle. Also remember that it’s difficult to extract something exact from this comparison, since they are also different equipments, even trying to make sure that both are well leveled in terms of volume, the impedances, the power, and etc, are distinct.
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