iFi Zen Signature Series DAC V2 & CAN HFM: Continuing what is loved from the series.
Pros: Affordable duo, typical iFi excellent sound, versatility, cool look to it
Cons: Shape while cool, is not conducive to stacking, maybe not as powerful as one would like, other options available now
While at T.H.E. Show, last summer, I struck up a conversation with one of the vendors present; Michael Giardina from BeachHiFi, which is an online shop specializing in portable gear. Michael brought some heavy hitters to the show, from the Audeze LCD-5, to the Meze Elite, to the Focal Utopia, and newly released Audeze MM500. Much time was spent at the booth by the patrons, and for good reason. But, in talking to Michael, he offered to send some quality offerings my way. I told him I already had the Zen Signature HFM in hand, from iFi and he determined the MZ99 would be quite complimentary. The iFi Zen Signature Series HFM here is from Lawrance and iFi. Two newly released options to the “standard” Signature Series are the HFM (HiFiMan) version and the MZ99 (Meze 99C). This review will be very similar to the MZ99 review, but a worthy comparison should come about easily. I thank Lawrance, and iFi for the loan of this excellent duo.
iFi is not new. The British company has been producing portable and home gear for a little over a decade, with fantastic success. I have several of their items and consider my iFi Pro iDSD/iCAN DAC/Amp to be the peak of what I personally own. Known for incredible power, but with equally good control over that power matched by wonderfully vibrant sound is a trademark or “house sound” to me. With the original Zen Series, iFi brought that superb power and sound control into the much more manageable price range. It is not surprise that the line is a success, especially following the excellent xDSD/xCAN combination. The Zen Series is also more affordable that the x-series as well. Early reviews called the Zen Series a winner at the affordable price and a true contender for those who want top class sound in an affordable package. While the HFM and MZ99 reviews will be separate, I will draw comparisons to the pair of duos, to compare equalization curves and general sound characteristics.
Retailing for $599 as a pair, you can also use the DAC V2 as a pre-amp for other amplifiers. Meant to be purchased as a pair here, you get everything you need to hook the pair up and get running quickly. A nice addition is the 4.4bal cable, which pairs the two; allowing for a balanced option through the whole system from source to headphone. I ran the MZ99 pair this way throughout the test, except for the 6.35mm jack, which was used by the Meze 99 Classics I had in on loan. For the HFM I used the HiFiMan Edition XS, through the 6.35mm jack with an adapter. I also threw on the excellent HiFiMan Arya for comparative purposes. What separates the two variations are the equalization curve, tailoring each to the specific headphones mentioned. The HFM curve is listed below.
With upgraded circuit components and short, direct signal paths for optimal signal purity, the duo delivers bit-perfect PCM (up to 32-bit/384kHz), native DSD (up to DSD256) and DXD. Using 16-core XMOS chip (the same as their Pro series), rather than the original 8-core, the DAC V2 is now a full MQA decoder rather than a renderer. Also offering a pair of RCA sockets for single-ended connection to an amp, you can run RCA connections as well as the balanced 4.4mm output mentioned. That XMOS 16-Core chip processes the audio data received via the USB digital input, with a new low-latency XMOS microcontroller, greatly enhanced processing power. Compared to the current generation of eight-core chips, this new 16-core IC delivers double the clock speed (2000MIPS) and four times the memory (512KB), as well as the latest SuperSpeed USB standard.
According to iFi, “The full benefit of the ZEN DAC Signature V2’s balanced circuit design comes to the fore when it is connected to an amp or active speakers equipped with a balanced input. This can either be a 4.4mm Balanced input or stereo XLR inputs via a 4.4mm-to-XLR cable.”
You can also switch between ‘variable’ and ‘fixed’ outputs. On Fixed, the volume is bypassed in the DAC V2, while on variable, you can use the volume knob. A light surrounding the DAC V2 volume knob also allows you to see the level being decoded by a changing color, format dependent. I kept the unit switched to fixed for the majority of time.
If you need more power from the ZEN CAN Signature HFM, which delivers 1600mW (7.2V) into 32 ohms from the single-ended output, and 15V+ available to loads of 600 ohms or more through the balanced output, you can use the PowerMatch feature boasting four gain settings in six dB steps – 0dB, 6dB, 12dB and 18db. The Zen also boasts symmetrical, dual-mono balanced circuitry. The XSpace button functions along with the HFM switch to vary sound signatures a bit. The XSpace functions to “modify” sound location within the soundstage, essentially enhancing the soundstage (in-head localizations) within limitations. To me this functions similarly to the 3D switches on the older iFi models I own, broadening soundstage from a bit to cavernous stadium-like sound.
The specialty of the HFM is its HiFiMan equalization tuning (pictured above), which helps “fill in” what others might do normally with equalizing on their own. While the Edition XS I used, is a fantastic headphone, I do find it a slightly bass shy for my tastes, and with a bit too much emphasis on the upper mids (similar to the Meze 99C, coincidentally). Pushing the HFM button brings forth control in iFi’s version of equalizing. Adding in lower sub bass, and a taming a bit of the upper mids allows me to thoroughly enjoy the sound. Rebelution’s Safe And Sound came forth with deep reaching, bass that was taut in control, but full of excellent rumble. The lowering of the upper mids did not tame the vocals, nor Ziggy Marley’s when played beforehand, coming across with vibrancy and a slight push forward. The HFM equalization curve, which is readily available shows exactly what iFi did to limit the “discrepancies” some find in HiFiMan models. Also listed is which headphones of HiFiMan will work the best, down to average help at best. This is a nice feature to have so you know which of your HiFiMan models work best. Nonetheless, the addition was very prevalent when turned off. Mids came forward more than I liked, and bass fell behind the scene as well. Mids seemed to become flatter in response without the EQ curve, and hence I left the HFM setting on for the vast majority of time. If I wanted more “verve,” I switched on the XSpace as well; giving me an added amount of space between notes. Note overly expansive, but one of those “just right” moments from the fabled fairy tale.
Michael Franti & Spearhead’s excellent The Sound Of Sunshine came across like I was sitting on the beach on a wonderful summers day. Vocals were excellent, and the extension of sound beyond my head was enhanced without using the XSpace button. I was really enjoying the sound. Mind you, I still have the PowerMatch on 0dB’s added. Running the volume at the 1000 positon was plenty vibrant for me, and loud enough. Switching to the earsonics Grace Platinum with a 4.4bal cable, 0900 was plenty loud to me. This shows the versatility of the Zen Sig Series as well. Running the Platinum without the HFM or XSpace EQ settings gave a rich, vibrant tone all itself. I did run both on for a thrill, and the bass was a bit overwhelming, but fantastic.
Beyond all of the great sound, which emanates from within the Zen duo, the looks promote a curvy sensuousness to your desktop as well. Mind you, I have nothing against plain black boxes, but the shapeliness of the iFi duo adds a certain Zen-like peace and order to your surroundings. Plus, controls are readable and quite handy as well. Yes, the volume knob is quite large, and could do with a better volume location “detent,” but in the overall scheme, it works. You work the volume knobs the most in my mind, so making them handy and prominent is quite fittings.
What do we end up with then? I am a fan of iFi, whether it be their affordable components or their expensive ones. But I have noticed that some of their products may not have hit the “correct” marks. By that I mean not only target audience, but price point. iFi never fails to innovate, though. From my first audition of the superb (and nuclear powerful) micro Black Label, to the tubey goodness of the Pro combo I own, the company has laid a path that many follow. All try and compete at a better price. When doing so, there certainly are some items, which come about as cheaper, but to me fail to completely impress like the equivalent iFi product. And here is where the Zen Signature Series excels in my mind. The “ordinary” Zen Signature Series was quite good for the price, but the V2 and subsequent HFM & MZ99 versions here exceeds that. It is powerful, poised, adaptable, and very good looking as well. It ticks all the right buttons in my mind, and that is all I can ask of it. Miles Davis On Green Dolphin Street sounds quite nice as I finish this, and I can highly recommend the iFi Zen Signature Series, no matter the tuning.