You won’t often see me reviewing—and as such unboxing—standalone DACs here on Access, given that most of the gear I’m likely to review in the appropriate price range already benefits from high-quality built-in digital-to-analog conversion. In fact, I recently wrote an editorial about this very subject.
But I’m making an exception for iFi Audio’s Zen One Signature DAC for several reasons, most of which I’ll dig into in my review. The long and short of it is that this is an incredibly comprehensive D-to-A converter with support for every meaningful digital audio format, made by a company with—to my knowledge—an excellent track record, and at a seriously attractive price point of $349 (all prices USD). iFi Audio touts it as the only DAC you’ll need, and if the performance matches the marketing hype, I’m inclined to agree.
A quick peek at the back of the box starts to give you a sense of what I mean. In addition to supporting PCM up to 192kHz, DXD up to 384kHz, and DSD up to 12.3MHz, the Zen One Signature also decodes MQA and supports all of the relevant Bluetooth codecs, including AAC, LDAC, aptX HD, and the list goes on. Another key feature that immediately stands out is the balanced circuit design of the analog stage.
A first look at the literature included with a product generally gives you a good indication of what you’re in for in terms of day-to-day operation, and the concision of the documentation included with the Zen One Signature gives me the impression—rightly or wrongly—that this isn’t a fussy device to install or operate. If this were my product to keep (it’s not), I might be inclined to use the main instructions as a spare bookmark, as I’m always misplacing those.
But wait—what’s that sliver of gray peering out from under the DAC itself? Are those pack-in interconnects? They certainly appear to be, and they don’t look like the bog-standard RadioShack-style phono cables that typically come with budget-conscious gear, if you get any at all.
Indeed, the Zen One Signature not only comes with some unexpectedly nice stereo analog interconnects, but also a spiffy-looking USB Type-B cable (unfortunately one that’s a weensy bit too short to be useful in my setup), an antenna for Bluetooth reception, and a power brick whose cord is long enough to accommodate placement just about anywhere in my two-channel listening room.
With the Zen One Signature pulled out of its protective bag—I think that’s frosted ethylene vinyl acetate, but don’t hold me to that—we get our first good look at the DAC’s connectivity. Tackling the ins and outs and what-have-yous in order of novelty, I think the main thing that stands out is the 4.4mm balanced output, which would be the connection of choice if you have a headphone amp like the Zen Can Signature HFM ($299).
Next up in terms of neat surprises is the digital coaxial connection, which functions as either an input or output depending on the state of the front-panel input selector. With the input set to Bluetooth or USB, the coax connection functions as an output; with it set to S/PDIF, it functions as an input.
There’s also, of course, an optical input, single-ended stereo outputs, and the aforementioned BT antenna, which surprisingly doesn’t interfere with any other connectivity, given its size relative to everything else.
It has a 5V power supply input, which I imagine I’ll be using despite the fact that the Zen One Signature DAC can be powered via USB. The USB connection from my Maingear Vybe media and gaming PC doesn’t provide the cleanest power in the world, and the last thing I want to do is introduce any noise into my system, however little it may be. But I do plan on trying it both ways just to see how much difference it makes.
With all that out of the way, it’s time to plug this puppy in and see how it sounds. The plan for now—depending on how the logistics play out—is to pair the Zen One Signature with Rotel’s A12MKII integrated amp, the review of which I just wrapped up. The Rotel has built-in Bluetooth reception, but it only supports the SBC codec, so it’ll make for another nice test of how much of a difference that actually makes. The amp also has a nice integrated USB DAC, and although A/B testing between that and the USB connection of the iFi Audio piece will be a little trickier, I’ll do my best.
If the Rotel has to go back before my evaluation of the iFi Audio piece wraps up, I’ll probably swap in my Denon PMA-150H integrated network amplifier for further comparisons. But whatever gear-shifting ends up happening, I’ll detail it all in my full review of the Zen One Signature, coming soon to the pages of SoundStage! Access.
. . . Dennis Burger