Second generation of the English brand’s most popular DAC, the iFi Audio Zen Dac V2 adopts a more powerful processor and a new precision clock for a more accurate playback of music up to 32-bit/384kHz, as well as a bit-perfect reproduction of DSD files. Its connectivity remains unchanged, with a single USB-B input for connecting a computer or the iFi Audio Zen Stream network player. The latter is DLNA, Roon and AirPlay compatible and can access many online music services including Spotify Connect and Tidal Connect. Are these devices the perfect pair for decoding, amplifying and listening to music on headphones or the living room hi-fi system?
iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 and Zen Stream: packaging & accessories
The iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 comes in a compact package (28 x 16 x 6cm) that fits easily in most mailboxes. The cardboard box containing the DAC is slipped into a sleeve on which a life-size image of the DAC, some of its features and a picture of the connectors are printed. The DAC comes with a USB-A to USB-B cable and an RCA to RCA cable. The latter seems to be quite well made but is only 50cm long, which may not be enough for many installations. Finally, it is also important to specify that the iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 comes without a power adapter. Its power supply is therefore dependent on the computer to which it is connected via USB. The power port on the back of the device is for the optional iFi Audio iPower 5V power adapter.
The iFi Audio Zen Stream network player comes in a box with the same dimensions and a similar layout. However, it comes with its own power adapter, a 50cm Ethernet cable, a removable WiFi antenna and a plastic screwdriver to adjust the operating mode.
iFi Audio Zen DAC V2: presentation
Design and connectors
The iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 impresses with its ultra-compact design and streamlined, sculptural silhouette like a pebble polished by a flowing stream. It looks great placed on the corner of a desk next to the computer, or in a hi-fi cabinet. Its elegant chassis is entirely made from three different pieces of thick aluminum. The top, bottom and sides are made from a single part with curved corners to enhance the appeal of the device. The brushed aluminum front panel has a large analog potentiometer in the center for smooth volume adjustment, both for the headphone amplifier and the variable level output. The front panel also features a power match button, a button to activate the TrueBass filter (bass boost), and the 4.4mm balanced and 6.35mm unbalanced headphone outputs.
The iFi Audio Zen DAC V2’s rear panel – also in brushed aluminum – features a single asynchronous USB-B input that allows you to connect a Windows or Mac computer, but also a network player equipped with a USB output. In addition to the headphone outputs, the iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 provides two analog outputs: an unbalanced RCA output and a balanced 4.4mm jack output. The level of these two connectors can be fixed or variable, allowing this DAC to be used as a source with a hi-fi amplifier or as a pre-amplifier with a power amp. The iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 is therefore very versatile and can adapt to any system.
32-bit/384kHz and DSD DAC
The elegant metal chassis houses the same convertor as the first generation iFi Audio Zen DAC: a Burr Brown model often used by the English brand for its excellent musicality and high signal-to-noise ratio. Very versatile, it supports many formats up to 32-bit/384kHz for PCM streams, as well as MQA, DXD and DSD files. These formats are played in bit-perfect mode and aren’t subject to PCM conversion, contrary to many competing DACs.
To optimize the precision of the conversion, the iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 uses a new 16-core USB XMOS controller. This allows the different digital input streams to be more efficiently timed and more precisely addressed to the DAC. This interface also benefits from an exclusive iFi Audio driver to optimize processing power and conversion stability. Finally, a high precision clock prevents jitter effects for a smoother and more detailed listening experience.
The iFi Audio Zen Dac V2 has a fully analog balanced design at the output of the converter circuit. Its headphone amplification section has an unbalanced 6.35mm jack and a balanced 4.4mm mini-jack output. It is capable of delivering a very high output of 330mW into 50 ohms on its balanced output and 230mW into 32 ohms on its unbalanced output. To efficiently power any pair of headphones or IEMs, its Power Match function allows it to adapt the gain according to the sensitivity and impedance of the associated listening device. With IEMs and headphones with a high sensitivity, iFi Audio recommends leaving the Power Match function on the lowest setting for noise-free sound. With high impedance monitors and headphones, simply press the power Match button on the front of the device to increase the gain and power output. Thanks to this feature, the iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 headphone amplifier is able to power any pair of headphones or in-ear monitors with an impedance between 16 and 600 ohms.
The switchable TrueBass feature of the iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 headphone amplifier is an evolution of the iFi Audio XBass system. It allows you to slightly emphasize the low frequencies without drowning out the mids or impacting the tonal balance. This feature is therefore useful with headphones or in-ear monitors that may lack power in the lower end of the spectrum, but also to appeal to bassheads. The TrueBass function relies on analog filtering and not on a DSP processor. The signal is therefore not digitized, maximizing the fineness of details.
iFi Audio Zen DAC V2: key specifications
- 32-bit/384kHz, MQA, DXD and DSD 256 compatible
- Burr Brown DAC
- 1 x USB-B input
- Variable or fixed RCA output
- Balanced and unbalanced headphone amp
- Unbalanced headphone output level: 280mW into 32 ohms
- Balanced headphone output level: 380mW into 50 ohms
iFi Audio Zen Stream: presentation
The iFi Audio Zen Stream network player’s design is identical to that of the DAC. The aluminum chassis is 158mm long, 35mm thick and 100mm deep. It therefore forms a perfect pair with the DAC, placed under or on top of it. The front panel of the iFi Audio Zen Stream is also made of brushed aluminum and features a power button, as well as a network pairing command. Two LED indicators are also present. The former lights up white when the device is connected to the network, while the latter changes color depending on the file sampling: green for PCM up to 96kHz, yellow for PCM from 176.4 to 384kHz, cyan for DSD 64 and 128 and blue for DSD 256.
The iFi Audio Zen Stream player can connect to the network via WiFi or Ethernet. Its DLNA compatibility allows you to access music shared over the network from a NAS or computer. All these tracks can be streamed in 32-bit/384 kHz, MQA and DSD 11.2MHz from a USB flash drive or a hard drive connected to the player’s USB port. In addition, listening to streaming services is also possible thanks to Spotify Connect and Tidal Connect, as well as Qobuz using the player’s Roon compatibility. However, during this test, the compatibility with Spotify Connect wasn’t optimal, with frequent interruptions despite a good network connection. We were therefore forced to abandon this playback mode in favor of AirPlay and Chromecast transmission to enjoy this music service without interruption.
The connectivity of the iFi Audio Zen Stream network player is exclusively digital, with the implementation of a coaxial and a USB output. It must therefore be associated with a DAC/amplifier or an external DAC, ideally the iFi Audio Zen Dac V2. To maximize the performance of the associated DAC, the USB output is equipped with an active noise reduction system to limit interference and ensure a purer and more transparent sound. A GMT Femto clock for the transmission of USB and S/PDIF signals is also used to provide accurate timing of data and limit jitter.
iFi Audio Zen Stream: key specifications
- WiFi and Ethernet network connection
- DLNA, AirPlay, Roon and Chromecast compatible
- Spotify Connect and Tidal compatible
- Femto-precision GMT clock
- Active noise reduction on the USB port
- USB and coaxial outputs
iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 and Zen Stream: configuration
For our review, we connected the iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 to a MacBook Pro using a Norstone Arran USB cable and to the iFi Audio Zen Stream network player. As the DAC is powered via USB, it automatically starts working when the associated source is turned on. We were then able to play various 24-bit/192kHz FLAC and DSD files shared over the local network, as well as tracks streamed from online music services. We took advantage of its headphone amp with Audioquest NightHawk (25 ohms) and Beyerdynamic Amiron Home (250 ohms) headphones.
The iFi Audio Zen Stream network player needs to be powered from the mains via the included adapter. Once switched on, you can select the preferred operating mode using the rear potentiometer. It is set to All In One by default. We advise you to leave it at this position to take advantage of all the functions of the player. The other settings force the player to work only with certain technologies: Roon only, TIDAL only, NAA (Network Audio Adapter) only and DLNA only.
After connecting the iFi Audio Zen Stream network player to the power supply, it is necessary to wait 2 minutes for the player to initialize. A WiFi network called “iFi Audio” is then created to which you have to connect your smartphone, tablet or computer. The player’s web interface is then automatically opened to configure basic settings such as menu language, device name, WiFi network to use, as well as audio output (coaxial or USB).
Once the setup is complete, you can access the iFi Audio Zen Stream interface by entering “ifi.local” in the web browser of a device connected to the same local network (smartphone, tablet, DAP, computer, TV, etc.). As the iFi Audio Zen Stream has no mobile application, this interface is the only way to control music playback. It allows you to navigate through the various albums shared via DLNA or connected to the USB port of the player. This interface is relatively simple to use, but its design is rather austere and outdated. It’s a far cry from the refinement of modern applications found on most competing players. Fortunately, this does not hinder the player’s performance.
iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 and Zen Stream: listening impressions
The iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 demonstrated a beautiful transparency and a noise-free sound. The TrueBass mode is an essential function of the headphone amplifier, optimizing the tonal balance in a very well controlled way. The sound became more vivid, coherent and natural when this analog filter was activated. The bass benefited from a better foundation, was deeper, better defined and more robust. The midrange was also reproduced more effectively and was more consistent with the TrueBass mode.
The soundstage delivered by the iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 was spacious. Although not quite as open as the stage offered by double DAC models, it was wide enough to correctly position each element. The various registers were nicely separated and organized. They were always accurately reproduced and delineated. The sound was melodious, well-paced and precise. The iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 boasted a very appreciable attention to detail for a model available for less than €160.
The iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 is the perfect partner for the iFi Audio Zen Stream network player. They formed a perfect duo for a pure, transparent and lively sound, and were incredibly versatile as they managed to reproduce any style of music with efficiency and balance. Vocals were consistently natural and were reproduced with authority in the center of the scene. The reverberations were nicely sustained, in particular with the string instruments. The percussion instruments illuminated the soundstage and stood out with authority and power.
iFi Audio Zen DAC V2: compared to…
Cambridge DacMagic 100: Sold for €179, this Cambridge DAC is the only real alternative in a price range close to the iFi Audio Zen DAC V2. The Cambridge DacMagic 100 has the advantage of being a little more versatile thanks to a wider range of connectors, including a USB-B input, an optical input and two coaxial inputs. The connection of a CD/SACD player or even a network player other than via USB is therefore possible. On the other hand, its Wolfson WM8742 DAC is limited to 24-bit/192kHz playback (96kHz max in optical and USB) and is not DSD compatible. It is therefore not able to play the most recent Hi-Res files. In this respect, the iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 is more durable.
iFi Audio Zen Stream: compared to…
Yamaha MusicCast WXC-50: available for the same price, the Yamaha WXC-50 is an HD audio network player, a high-fidelity pre-amplifier and a Yamaha MusicCast multi-room control center. It plays music shared over the network via DLNA, but also music streamed via AirPlay or Bluetooth from a smartphone, tablet or computer. Support for Yamaha MusicCast technology also provides access to more music services, including Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz, Napster and Amazon Music. Managing the player is also made easier with the MusicCast mobile app, which has a more refined design than the iFi Audio Zen Stream’s web interface. Lastly, it can be controlled vocally thanks to its Alexa and Google Assistant compatibility. However, even if the Yamaha MusicCast WCX-50 comes out on top in terms of features, the iFi Audio Zen Stream is a bit more refined, both in terms of design and audio performance. That said, it needs to be paired with a powerful DAC like the iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 to reveal its full musicality, unlike the Yamaha which has its own converter.
iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 and Zen Stream: who are they for?
The iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 offers an affordable solution for any music lover who wants to optimize the music quality of their computer and efficiently power their headphones. It is at home on a desk, next to the computer whose sound card it bypasses to ensure the Hi-Res decoding. Thanks to its RCA and 4.4mm jack outputs, it can also be added to a hi-fi system to bring high-resolution audio to a purely analog amplifier.
The iFi Audio Zen Stream network player is the ideal companion to the iFi Audio Zen DAC V2, allowing you to bypass your computer and enjoy a fully independent connected headphone amplifier. The combination of this pair with a hi-fi amplifier is possible, with the advantage of providing access to streaming and dematerialized music.
iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 and Zen Stream: conclusion
With the iFi Audio Zen DAC V2, the British manufacturer renews its most iconic DAC by offering an even purer and more transparent sound. The keys to the success of the previous model are still present, in particular the ultra compact and contemporary design which facilitates the integration of this DAC on any desk or hi-fi cabinet. The sound signature also remains very similar, with a luminous, lively soundstage and powerful bass when listening to headphones, provided that the TrueBass mode is activated. Finally, the soundstage could be slightly more open, but this does not hinder the precision of the reproduction. It is difficult to ask more from a DAC of this price, which is already very generous.
The iFi Audio Zen Stream network player is an obvious choice for enjoying music with the iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 without using a computer. However, its web interface could do with a serious facelift to make it more user-friendly. Finally, its Spotify Connect compatibility should also be reviewed to optimize stability. Fortunately, there is nothing here that can’t be corrected by future updates.
- The transparency and clarity of the DAC
- The headphone amplifier’s TrueBass mode
- The compact and minimalist design of the two devices
We would have liked
- A more modern web interface for the network player
- Better stability with Spotify Connect for the network player