Review - HZSound Heart Mirror Pro

Review - iFi Audio ZEN Air DAC

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Also available on YouTube in Spanish: Acho Reviews YouTube 

The iFi Audio Zen Air DAC has been loaned to me directly by iFi Audio for me to test it and share my opinions.

iFi have made no requests, as usual, therefore my review will aim to be as unbiased and sincere as possible.

You can find more info on the Zen Air DAC by visiting the official page here: https://ifi-audio.com/products/zen-air-dac/

As always, this is a non-affiliate link and I have no ties with iFi Audio (or any other brand).


Intro…

The Zen Air DAC is a recent release from iFi that is aimed at the budget end of the audio market. I actually believe this is the cheapest product that iFi has ever released (without counting things like IEMatch or purifiers etc.) but I could be mistaken, so please correct me if I am wrong.

As you may all know by now, I do like to focus on budget oriented items on Acho Reviews, seeing what options are out there for those who are maybe starting out in the audio world, or those that just don’t have the budget for some of the higher priced items out there. It is always great to be able to come across items that are aimed at those who can’t, or simply don’t want to, spend a lot of money on improving their audio experience.

So when iFi reached out and asked if I was interested in trying out the Zen Air DAC, which comes in at under 100€, I was of course very happy to do so.


Presentation…

The presentation of the Zen Air DAC is a little simpler than other iFi products that I have reviewed in the past but is still very much along the lines of iFi in how it is packed and shipped.

A simple white box with the product on the front opens to reveal the DAC, a brief quick start guide and an accessories box containing the usual iFi blue USB cable.

So we don’t get a whole lot in the box and the cardboard may not be a premium feeling as the higher end models, but we do get what we need, the DAC and the cable. 


Build and aesthetics…

The first thing I noticed about the Zen Air DAC, other than the colour, is how light it is. As this unit opts for a plastic case rather than the usual metal offerings from iFi, the weight is reduced quite a bit. Following the usual Zen shape of their other models, the use of plastic is obviously to help reduce costs, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t put some effort into the casing.

Sporting a light grey colour, the plastic is textured and has the iFi logo on the top. This does make it look a little more premium than if they had just gone with a simple smooth plastic (especially in black) that so many other budget orientated models opt for.

The front and back panels are of a shiny black plastic which gives it a bit of a black glass look, along with a central volume knob which is also plastic but knurled and finished in a titanium style colour, making for quite a pleasurable feel. 

While the plastic build is obvious, I have to say that I am a fan of the looks and none of the buttons or the knob give off too much of a cheap vibe or feel. The reduced weight means that this can also be easily transported in something like a laptop bag without being too bulky.


Functionality…

The Zen Air DAC is a simple unit but does have a couple of the features that iFi are known for.

On the front of the unit we have the center knob, with a 6.35mm SE connector to the right, followed by the XBass button to the far right and the Power Match button to the left with a kHz light on the far left.

Moving around to the back of the DAC, from left to right, we have 2 RCA’s for the single ended output, a USB B socket for the digital input and a DC5V socket off to the right. iFi don’t include a power supply with the Zen Air DAC (or at least they didn’t in the one I was sent) but it is nice to know that it can be powered by an external PSU if your USB should be noisy, or if you want to reduce the battery consumption of the source you are using.

There really isn’t much to explain as to how this works. You plug in the USB cable at the back, your 6.35mm jack in the front and your RCA’s in the back for the DAC output.

The Power Match button is just iFi’s way of calling the gain selector, giving you two options, low and high. There is a small white LED that illuminates to the right of the Power Match button, which will let you know if you are in high gain.

It is certainly nice to see that iFi have included the XBass function on this model as I know it is something that many people love about iFi products. As always, the XBass is a bass boost in the analog realm, meaning it doesn’t interfere with the digital signal at all.

Another thing that iFi have kept in the Zen Air DAC is the capability to render MQA, if that is something that you are interested in. In fact, the DAC supports PCM up to 32bit/384kHz and fully native DSD256 also.

I have had no issues with the functionality of the Zen Air DAC, except for it refusing to work when connected to my docking station in the office but that is something that I have experienced with many DACs (especially iFi) so I am guessing it is the dock that has issues (although Schiit DACs do seem to work).


Sound…

Here we are with my favourite part of a DAC/Amp review, explaining the sound (that is actually a little sarcasm). However, in this case, it is actually not that difficult and this is the part that makes up for any of the cost saving in any of the previous sections.

The Zen Air DAC sounds just like I would expect an iFi DAC/Amp to sound and my understanding is that it is due to them using the same internals as on the ZEN DAC V2. Basically the Zen Air DAC is like having the Zen DAC V2 but without the balanced circuitry.

That means that at less than 100€, you are actually not getting something that is reminiscent of the iFi sound, you are actually getting the Single Ended part of what is probably one of their most sold models, at around half the price.

So, for those of you that have heard about the smoothness, the warmness and the musicality of the Burr-Brown chips that is the iFi house sound, now you can stop wondering what people are referring to and actually give it a try.

Ok, enough of sounding like a salesman (please remember I am not affiliated with them in any way 😁) and on to the actual performance of the Zen Air DAC…

Starting off with IEMs, I have to say that the performance of the Zen Air DAC is very pleasing, driving all of the IEMs I tried with authority and giving a nice touch of that iFi sound. The performance is a bit behind the Gryphon, as far as details and overall sound are concerned, but I really can’t pick faults with the performance that this little unit provides for less than 100€.

Moving over to headphones is where I found the amplification section to struggle a little. I have to be fair and say that, somehow, I have ended up with a collection of headphones that are either planar or quite high impedance, which does makes things a little more difficult for the device. With some of the easier to drive planars, like the Ananda or HE1000se, it was not such an issue but when moving to more difficult sets, such as the Arya, I did find that I had to push the Zen Air DAC around 50% on the dial (on high gain) in order to reach my usual listening levels, which are not really loud levels. When trying to push them a little further, I found that I could start to hear distortion start to appear before things got too loud. The Zen DAC Air will make them sound loud but the result is not the best.

Again, this is with planars that are rather difficult to move correctly. Moving on to dynamics, the Custom Pro Studio (which are 80 Ohms) still needed a fair bit of power on the dial to reach my usual levels, probably more than the planars, but didn’t seem to present signs of distortion as early as the planars as the Zen Air DAC was struggling less to perform.

With the HD6XX (300 Ohms), I again found that the DAC/Amp needed to be around 60% (on high gain) for a listening level that is around my normal level and that the sound was a little “dull” with this combination. It doesn’t sound terrible but it is missing some of that magic that I have found these headphones can create when paired with the correct chain. Now that is not really something I can say is a real complaint on my side, as I have a love/hate relationship with the HD6XX.

Where I did find the Zen Air DAC to be a very good performing device is a standalone DAC, which is logical seeing that it is called the Zen Air DAC and on the Zen Air DAC/Amp (even if it is a combo unit).

Running it into the JDS Labs Atom, I found it to be a very pleasant combination that I enjoyed and would happily use this instead of the Modi 3+ DAC that I usually pair with the Atom. I don’t think it is because the Zen Air is actually “better” (a very subjective term) than the Modi 3+, I am just a fan of the iFi sound and this DAC gives a little bit of the iFi flavour while keeping the performance of the Atom.

Paired with the THX789 it also worked well, again giving the overall sound a taste of iFi. This is another pairing that I found worked well with over ear headphones, taking some of that analytical sound away from the SU-8 + THX and making things a little more relaxed.

Paired with the Felix Audio Echo Mk2, I found it to be ok but not amazing. To be fair, we are talking about powering an 800€ tube amp with a little sub 100€ DAC and comparing it to the EF400 (which is my usual choice for feeding the Echo), so I can't really pick faults with the result. It performed well enough for me to enjoy it and I feel that this is the important thing in a device like this.

As far as the XBass, it is another flavour of iFi XBass. I am not sure if it is identical to the one on the Zen DAC v2 (as I don’t have it) but it is slightly different (to my ears) than the one on the Gryphon or Go Blu (the two iFi devices I have on hand.

I must say that I don’t use the XBass too much (personal preference) but I can’t say that the one on the Zen Air DAC isn’t good, it works great for when something needs a little more of that low end and much appreciated on a device in this category.


Conclusion…

The iFi Audio Zen Air DAC is obviously aimed at the budget end of the market and I think that it hits the target. There are two groups that I really see this being a good option for. The first is for those who are either starting out in this world and wanting a solution that doesn’t break the bank. This DAC offers good performance and also features an onboard amplifier that will run IEMs and easy to drive headphones quite easily (absolutely no issues with various Koss models and the M40X, which are the only easy to drive headphones I have available at the moment). There are other DACs at similar price points but not many include an onboard amp in the same package. Some of the other contenders will also prove more difficult to source for those of us in Europe.

Or maybe you are already in the DAC world and are just looking for something for a secondary bedroom or office set up. I know I would be happy with this and something like an Atom to pair with it.

The second group I would say are those who are wanting to experience the iFi house sound to see if it is something they enjoy, as iFi really does have its own “flavour”. In this case, I feel that the Zen Air DAC is a perfect first stepping stone, giving you a good sense of what the house sound is all about and maybe helping you decide if you want to move up in the iFi ranks to some of their other models with more features and/or performance.

Is the Zen Air DAC perfect? No. But I don’t really feel that there is anything glaringly wrong with it that would lead me to not consider it in this range of prices. I feel they have made savings in the correct places and kept the important parts intact, by which I mean the sound.

Yes, I would prefer a better amplification section. Yes, I would prefer more digital inputs than just USB. But for what you get for the money invested, I feel it is a very powerful contender in the sub 100€ market.

There is a whole line of Zen Air products, including both a Zen Air CAN and a Zen Air Blue (BT receiver), all priced at the sub 100€ mark, so it would be very interesting to hear them paired together and see what you can get in a full stack set up for a very reasonable investment.

So I guess I can add the Zen Air DAC to the list of iFi products I have tried and liked, this time without even being able to complain about price 😉


All FR measurements of IEMs can be viewed and compared on achoreviews.squig.link
 
All isolation measurements of IEMs can be found on achoreviews.squig.link/isolation

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