iFi ZEN CAN headphone amplifier & ZEN DAC Signature V2 D/A processor

It had been a while since I'd done any serious, critical listening through headphones. That changed when Editor Jim Austin asked if I wanted to review the iFi Audio ZEN Signature Set ($599). Figuring I could use more Zen in my life, I agreed.

UK-based iFi Audio, which operates under the auspices of the Abbington Global Group, has released several compact products in its ZEN series: DACs, headphone amps, a Bluetooth receiver, and a network streamer.

Available in two iterations, the iFi Audio ZEN Signature Set consists of two boxes in a single cardboard sleeve: the ZEN DAC Signature (upgraded to V2 status mere weeks after the V1 release) and one of two versions of the ZEN CAN Signature headphone amplifier: either the ZEN CAN Signature 6XX, or the ZEN CAN Signature HFM. Each has a custom EQ curve optimized for a different pair of headphones. "6XX" designates the Sennheiser x Drop HD 6XX and HD 650 headphones; the newer (though both are quite new) CAN Signature HFM is optimized for the HiFiMan x Drop HE4XX 'phones. Apart from the optimized EQ curves, the two versions contain identical circuitry. I auditioned both.

Owners of headphones from other brands, fret not: The ZEN CAN Signature amplifiers are intended to be used with a wide range of headphones; everything but the custom EQ curve is still applicable.

Design and setup
I'm told that smooth, river-flattened stones inspired the ZEN components' design. Despite their quasi-ovoid shape, they're built to stack, with tiny rubber feet offering assistance. The ZEN units' gentle curves and black, textured, slightly recessed faceplates contrast with their deep-blue matte finish. Their form is retro-modern, slightly Space Age—although they're too trapezoidal to resemble flying saucers.

The ZEN DAC Signature V2's front panel is minimal, with just a single (defeatable) volume knob in the center. Behind the dial, a discreet LED changes color to indicate audio format and sampling frequency of the signal the DAC is receiving: white for PCM 88.2kHz to 384kHz, red for DSD 256, green for MQA, and so on.


The back panel has a toggle switch for fixed or variable volume. The digital input is asynchronous USB Type B, USB 3.0 (2.0 compatible). Analog outputs include a single balanced Pentaconn 4.4mm connection and an unbalanced RCA pair. There's no on/off switch; if you want it all the way off, unplug it.

iFi publishes the make of many parts used in the DAC Signature V2—a bold move in an era of parts shortages. Panasonic OS-CON, TDK C0G (Class 1 ceramic), and ELNA Japan Silmic II capacitors are used. A Burr-Brown True Native DAC chipset. The potentiometer is by Tokyo Cosmos Electric Company (TOCOS). The DAC Signature V2 version now uses an iFi-programmed 16-core XMOS chip; the short-lived, recently replaced original version used an 8-core XMOS. The upgraded 16-core chips provide more processing power, enabling full MQA decoding and rendering, whereas the original did only rendering, the company told me in an email. (All applicable iFi products are receiving the XMOS update.) To improve jitter performance, the ZEN Sig V2 DAC's crystal clock received updates said to provide a 20dB reduction in clock phase noise.

The ZEN CAN Signature headphone amplifier has the same analog volume control dial as the DAC Sig V2, based on the same TOCOS potentiometer. Also on the front are small pushbuttons for power on/off, input switching, gain levels (0dB, 6dB, 12dB, 18dB), and activation of iFi's XSpace feature, which is intended to expand the perception of space and get the music outside your head. The same button turns on and off the optimized EQ curve for the intended HD 6XX (or HD 650) or HiFiMan HE4XX headphones, depending on which kit you buy.

A few cables are included with the Signature Set: an interconnect with USB Type A to Type B, which I used to connect my laptop, a pair of RCA-to-RCA interconnects of respectable quality, and a balanced 4.4mm-to-4.4mm Pentaconn cable to join the DAC V2 with the CAN amp in the iFi-recommended balanced configuration. The DAC and CAN each come with a 5V DC power supply, a more attractive design than "wall wart" suggests.

There's no Bluetooth. I didn't miss it.

In use
I played music mainly through Roon (version 1.8, build 831), both from stored files (downloads; CD rips) and streaming from Qobuz and Tidal. My MacBook Air (M1, 2020) served as the Roon Core.

Setup was straightforward, nearly plug and play—unless you're using a Windows computer as a source, in which case you must download and install drivers for the DAC. It's easy; drivers and firmware updates are available on iFi's website.

In Roon's settings, I added the iFi ZEN as "CoreAudio." Under Settings > Audio, the specific device was unidentified but was listed as "iFi (by AMR) HD USB Audio." I selected "Decoder and renderer" as its MQA capabilities, as the DAC Signature V2 can handle full MQA decoding and playback. Because I'm on a Mac, I set the DSD playback strategy to "Convert to PCM," as recent Mac OS versions don't support native DSD, regrettably. The ZEN gear worked seamlessly with Roon.


A sensitive issue
iFi sells these specific components—the DAC and the amplifier—together, to be used with a third specific component: those specific HiFiMan or Sennheiser headphones. And yet, early in my auditioning, using them precisely that way (and also with similarly specified 'phones), I found the output levels to be on the high side for comfortable listening at the recommended volume-control settings: TOCOS, which makes the potentiometer used to control volume in the amplifier (and also in the DAC), recommends using it at 11 o'clock or higher for optimal channel matching—a fact plainly displayed on the iFi website. Plus, an insert in the package said that "at normal listening levels, the volume control should be around the 12 o'clock position." With the headphones I used—including the headphones specifically recommended as partners for these amplifiers—I found myself listening with the volume control at 10 o'clock or lower; if it got much louder, I started to find the volume uncomfortably loud.

What's more, the iFi website contains a headphone-matching calculator, which allows you to choose an amp and a pair of headphones and determine whether (gain-and-sensitivity-wise) they're a good match. Doing that exercise with the two versions of the ZEN CAN and their intended headphones, the calculator advised me that, connected directly, with no attenuation, they're not a good match: The volume would be too loud—unless you add another iFi device, the iEMatch, an inline attenuator that's used between amplifier and headphones. The iEMatch costs $49; two other versions, the iEMatch+ (which can switch between single-ended and balanced operation) and iEMatch 2.5 (which has 2.5mm balanced connections) each cost $59. Neither is included in the ZEN DAC/CAN package.

I noticed the iEMatch as I explored the iFi site and asked iFi to send me one. They did, and after that—with the iEMatch inline—no more problems with too much gain.

Why, when two components are sold together, intended to be used with a specific third component, is an attenuator needed to make it work that way? I don't know. But if you plan on buying one of the ZEN Signature combos—and it is, otherwise, a fine, affordable headphone setup—be sure to check the iFi headphone calculator first; you may want to add an iEMatch to your order.

The Signature Set's ZEN DAC V2 and ZEN CAN headphone amp pack a punch, with high resolution, output, and impact. At least relative to the demands of the headphones I was using, the CAN is a powerful amplifier.

The CAN easily drove all four headphones I tried: HiFiMan HE400S and Drop + (formerly MassDrop) HiFiMan HE4XX, Sennheiser HD 650, and the exquisitely sensitive Sonus Faber Pryma 0|1. I concentrated most of my critical listening on the first three, as they were the best matches for the two ZEN CAN amps.

The product information states that turning on the CAN Signature HFM's EQ "further improves the texture of deep bass and injects more immediacy in the upper midrange." The curve is also said to help smooth uneven treble peaks. What I heard was sharper transient attacks, more air and presence. I also heard more detail and clarity. And yes, the EQ curve obviously boosts the bass.

AMR/iFi Audio
US office:
105 Professional Pkwy. Suite 1506
Yorktown, VA 23693
(800) 799-IFIA

georgehifi's picture

For those that want a good cheap dac with volume, I think they shot themselves in the foot with the lack of digital input types.

Just a single usb3 input!
spdif, toslink, aes/ebu would have been nice to have, as the measurements show it's not a bad stand-alone dac with level control (simple two button up/down volume remote would have been great also).

Cheers George

Julie Mullins's picture

Just a single usb3 input!
spdif, toslink, aes/ebu would have been nice to have

I agree it would have been nice to have one more option anyway. But obviously they wanted to keep the unit compact, which means limited space.

MauriceRon's picture

another stereophile article where goerge hifi is in first with a grumpy man complaint

is it good form for one manufacturter to criticize the work of another?i guess any pub licicity is good pub licicicty.

did u know that this DAC and headphone output from iFI is intended for office desktops. no need for a remote when you can reach to turn.no need for spdif inputs when a computer's USB output is availble.

your little lightspeed sells for almost the same price as this ifi doublepack.does IT have a DAC with optical/coaxial?does IT have a remote?

Currawong's picture

...as far as I'm aware. They use a USB 3 socket so that they can include a better-shielded USB 3 cable in the box.

Jack L's picture


Agreed. How can a properly designed DAC come without any optical & digital coaxial inputs? Incredible for a DAC tagged for $599.99 & even made cheaply in China !!!

What a lame duck! Who wants it? I don't given some many better choices in the marketplace for muchh lower pricing !

Jack L

Julie Mullins's picture

Incredible for a DAC tagged for $599.99...

It's intended as a desktop duo—and it's $599 for the pair, the Set with DAC and headphone amp/preamp.

ok's picture

..and I don't mean usb 3 compatible, which is the case here and elsewhere, is not intended for audio. All other connections are mostly useless nowadays for better or worse.

windansea's picture

At this point in time, I don't see the need for any cable other than USB. I think USB is superior than toslink in terms of max data transfer. I've heard of other little differences like jitter issues with toslink, or toslink's advantage with electrical isolation, and toslink can handle a much longer run, but at this price level it makes sense for the company to focus on one input and go with the most popular one.

georgehifi's picture

Sorry not for me, depends on what source you have.
It may be fine to just have a usb input for those that are happy listening to the later compressed/louder, re-issues of streamed and download stuff.

EG of compression, the later re-issue of the same thing the more compressed it got, and usually the ones the streaming/download companies use.

Cheers George

GRBH's picture

As far as audio file support goes, USB is more advanced than either spdif or toslink, both limited to 24-192.
USB is the only interface of the three mentioned, that can accomodate PCM rates above 24-192 or DSD.

Jack L's picture


Really ????

I am pretty gratified sonically with my 24-192 DAC with spdif+toslink i/ps withOUT any USB considering I am a vinyl addict. This USA NY brandanme DAC cost me muuuch less than the $599 Zen DAC.

Question to you re a realistic situation: e.g at my home: A 4K UHD TV with only toslink O/P & a WiFi DVD player gets only spdif O/P. That ZEN DAC would be useless there !!!

It ALL depends what you need to hook a DAC to, pal.

Listening is believing

Jack L

GRBH's picture

I'd hazard a guess, that without USB, computer based audio would have never gotten off the ground. A large part of the audiophile community, to this day, is still listening to high resolution music including DSD via a PC. Because of the interest in PC based music, enhancements to USB have taken place, such as the development of DOP,(DSD over PCM)

As you say "It ALL depends what you need to hook a DAC to"

Jack L's picture


Sure as long as you love PC based music ! Why not?

But digital music, even HD PC music, is not my favourite cup of tea considering I am a vinyl addict.

For conveniency & updating myself with the music world, streaming is the way to go for me. But for closest-to-live music enjoyment, vinyl analogue is my only way.

No offense intended.

Jack L

rwwear's picture

I've heard a lot of things I didn't believe pal.

buckaroo's picture

Right off the bat, the reviewer has no credibility. Why pick a reviewer who doesn't regularly listen to headphones?

Julie Mullins's picture

I'd like to clarify that I own a couple pairs of headphones and do listen to them regularly—when I host a weekly radio show (FM and streaming) for instance. But it had been a little while since I'd done critical listening through them was what I meant.

MatthewT's picture

The first sentence was perfectly clear as to what you meant.