Which iFi Audio DAC & Amp is right for you?
After speaking to a number of you guys out there, it's become quite clear to me that for a lot of you picking your first IEM or headphone isn't as much of a task as picking your first DAC to go with the rest of your gear. Well, there's the age old question of what's a DAC in the first place and if I do end up getting one how do I know it's suitable for my headphones or IEMs and not to mention the endless online discussions which ultimately take you to nowhere. So if you're struggling with any of these questions then you should keep watching.
So even after serving the Indian Audiophile Community for the last 12 years we find ourselves overwhelmed by the number of newcomers to this hobby. After speaking to a number of you guys out there it's become quite clear to me that for a lot of you picking your first IEM or headphone isn't as much of a task as picking your first DAC to go with the rest of your gear. Well there's the age-old question of what's a DAC in the first place and if I do end up getting one how do I know it's suitable for my headphones or IEMs and not to mention the endless online discussions which ultimately take you to nowhere. So if you're struggling with any of these questions then you should definitely keep watching.
What is a DAC?
All right so let's try and understand what a DAC is and why do you need one? See for a lot of us out there we listen to music on our smartphones and laptops now this may be music you have downloaded or you're just streaming off apps like Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal - it doesn't really matter as long as it's in your phone it's stored digitally. We as humans can interpret and understand analog data right so you can already see where I'm getting at. A DAC simply stands for Digital to Analog converter its only job is to take a digital signal deconstruct it and re-construct it back into an analog form and then pass it on to your headphones or speakers which we then listen to as audio and enjoy as music. It's pretty simple right you can find a DAC typically located somewhere around the 3.5 and the internals on your source device. Now this might raise an obvious question if I already have an inbuilt DAC why do I need an external one? Well you see most manufacturers out there when putting a lot of R&D into their products, a lot of the budget is reserved into things like the processors, screen, camera and a whole lot of things where audio pretty much sits at the last. In fact it's so little of importance in our days to these manufacturers that you simply don't see the headphone jack on any of your smartphones. In fact, if you're using one, if you're using a smartphone right now and you have a headphone jack on it, do comment down below. I'm very curious to know. Having said that even if you have a DAC it's pretty substandard and switching to an external DAC can make a huge difference to the way you listen to music. If you're having a hard time visualising this, imagine this, you're watching your favourite movie on a standard definition television and now you move to an 8K ultra high resolution television, now imagine that difference but in audio. All right so now that we understood the importance of a DAC, let's actually start discussing some options.
Today we'll mainly be talking about desktop DACs for your beginner headphones. But don't worry in case you're looking out for DACs for your IEMs check out our video update it's an extensive video covering the best portable DACs in the market right now. All right so let's kick things off with the iFi Audio UNO - for those of you who have not heard about iFi, they're a UK based Audio company and have been doing this for the better part of 12 years and have a wide range of products from 5000 all the way to 3 lakhs, so I think it's pretty safe to say that these guys know what they're doing. All of the products that we will be talking about today are from iFi Audio itself because I think they have a wide range of products especially if you're getting started into desktop DACs and Beginner headphones.
iFi Audio UNO
All right so coming to the iFi Audio UNO. Now this is iFi Audio's latest entry into the desktop line and it's mainly aimed for all of you beginners out there. Now I like the overall compact form factor of this, I think it looks very nice on a desk, doesn't take too much space and it's made from an all plastic build and it's really light. However you have these rubber feet at the bottom which are quite grippy and it's going to ensure that your DAC is not slipping once you have it connected in a setup. So at the back over here you get to see this USB Type-C input which will be connected to a laptop or a desktop and you have a pair of RCA ports just besides that which you can use to probably connect a pair of active speakers you may have sitting on your desk. On the front you get a couple of options over here. Now you have the Equalizer button which takes you through three different modes. So you have a gaming mode, a movie mode and a music mode for most music listening. I kind of liked it without an equalizer I think the sound, it sounded pretty clean to me but if you if you turn on the gaming mode what it does is add a little bit of Sparkle to your treble so that way it makes the music seem a little bit more detailed and the audio just comes through a little bit nicer. I kind of like to turn on the movie mode when I was probably watching some podcasts or just having more vocal intrinsic things because the mid-range gets a little bit of a boost and music kind of gives you a little bit of a shift in the pace. So those of you enjoy that flavour profile you can listen to that and now it's important to know that all of these equaliser options are happening at the analog stage of the DAC which I found pretty impressive especially for an entry level DAC like this. Just besides that you have the power match button now what it does is just gives you a little bit of a boost so if you're using IEMs along with the iFi UNO. You can have that turned off but for most beginner headphones I would kind of put that on along with the volume, where I think it gives a little bit of boost in your overall listening experience and kind of sounds better that way. Then you have iFi Audio’s signature S Balanced 3.5 mm Jack, now what this does is kind of gives you a little bit of less crosstalk and that's something you get to see with fully balanced terminations like a 4.4 Pentagon connector or an XLR connector. So even without being truly balanced it gives you a little bit of that advantage and again it's iFi Audio’s proprietary tech in their cheapest desktop DAC. Now inside you have an ESS Sabre chip, iFi really doesn't get into details of which DAC is in this but it's going to handle any of the highest files you throw at it and speaking about power outputs I think there's quite a lot on this around 200 mW and good enough to power pretty much any entry-level headphone you want to throw on it. I personally use it with the Grados and I think this sounded fine I was just at around 12 to 1 o'clock on the volume knob and had plenty power, so yeah it's pretty good if you're looking out for an entry-level desktop DAC.
iFi Audio ZEN Air DAC
All right next up we have have the iFi Audio ZEN Air DAC. Now we're getting into proper desktop size DAC and what that means is more space and you're going to have more power and place for iFi Audios well-renowned Burr Brown chip. So you get to see this full polymer construction which I would say feels quite nice, in fact although the weight is a little bit light it doesn't feel cheap. Everything you touch and feel is quite premium. Now at the back again you get to see a USB data connection which you can connect to your source device as well as a pair of RCA outs you can use to connect into an external amplifier or a set of active speakers and you also get to see a DC firewall adapter. What that means is in case you're running off sources like a smartphone or an iPad which doesn't have enough power to power the DAC itself you can add a 5 volt DC adapter and that should help. At the front you have a dedicated LED indicator which is going to show you the sample rate of which Hi-Res file you're playing. You have a power match button which we've discussed on the iFi UNO and you have a proper analog volume control which is pretty good again to find at this price point. Besides that you have a full sized headphone jack which is a 6.3 mm and then you have iFi Audios X-Bass plus. What this does is when engaged it's going to give you a 10 DB boost in the bass frequencies, especially around that 20 Hertz and it sounds quite nice and exciting. It's not really making your mids and trebles muddy. So it gives you a bit of that excitement and I think it works with headphones that maybe sound a bit sterile out of the box. Case in point I was using the DT770 Pro and they sound pretty good but when i engage The XBass plus it just took the headphones to a whole another level and I enjoyed it for music listening in general. So I tried out the Audio Technica ATH-M50x and the Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro and this sounded great, they had more than enough power and I was quite comfortable using it. The iFi Audio ZEN Air DAC is pretty clean but it's not too sterile, so it sounds great in general and you have that X-Bass Plus function which gives you a little bit of a kick if you're into that.
iFi Audio ZEN DAC V2
So finally we have the award winning ZEN DAC V2. Now this thing is really well put together, it has a nice metal build, everything you touch and feel, feels nice and sturdy and yeah just feels great. So you have the iFi Audio Motif right here on top and at the back you might be familiar with most of the ports. Now you have a USB B 3.0. What this allows for is faster reading and writing speeds, that 5 volt adapter which we have seen the DC input, a pair of RCA outputs along with a 4.4mm analog output. That's pretty nice you have a switch over here which you can toggle, what this allows you to do is in case you're using this with an external amplifier you can keep this in the fixed position and that's going to allow the ZEN DAC V2 to just act like a DAC and not have any amplification done. It's pretty nice at the front you have again things that we already discussed, you have power match you have True Bass which is going to give a little bit of kick in the bass and you have a proper analog volume knob along with two headphone outputs. So you have a full size 6.3 mm headphone jack along with the 4.4 Pentaconn balanced output, so those of you want to try out your balance cables with this DAC you can do that. Now coming to the actual sound quality of this, I felt it's slightly on the warmer side but still very crisp very clear it's using iFi Audios Burr Brown DAC chip. In terms of power output it has plenty around 330 milliwatts pretty much good to go with planar headphones in this segment. So I tried it out with the HiFiMAN Edition XS, the HiFiMAN Sundaras and it did a lot basically. So I just had the volume knob around two two or three o'clock and that was quite a lot for me. It brought about the dynamics just perfect and I never felt that I was lacking for any sort of volume. In case you want to go a bit higher, probably like have the headphones like HiFiMAN Arya or probably running 250 ohm headphones, you get the iFi Audio ZEN CAN, which you can pair along with the ZAN DAC V2 for a fully balanced setup and that should give you more than enough power.
All right so coming to the all important question! Which iFi DAC is right for you? For most beginners out there I feel the iFi Audio UNO is perfect. It's well built and sounds great. So I ran it with the Grado and it sounded really nice and I think anything in that caliber perfectly suits the iFi UNO and it's priced really nice. Anything a little bit more power hungry and then you might be looking at the ZEN Air DAC - again a little bit more desktop sized, so you have that power output and the X-Bass Plus feature which you're going to see on more premium iFi Audio equipment and then if you really want to get into a serious headphone listening - we're talking about dynamic drivers or planar magnetic headphones and trying out balanced cables then the iFi Audio ZEN DAC V2 still remains the reigning champ in this segment. That's it for this video guys I hope you found this helpful if you want to try any of these products you can drop in here in our experience studio in Mumbai or if you're not from Mumbai you can catch us at one of our headphone connect events happening at the city close to you. Thanks for watching, we'll see you in the next one.