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iFi Zen DAC 3 Review

Like its predecessors, the Zen DAC 3 does everything you would want an entry-level or mid-range DAC/Amp to do and then some.
iFi Zen DAC 3

Disclosure: The Zen DAC 3 was provided by iFi for the purpose of this review. Please read more about our product review disclosure here.

Since the release of the original in 2019, the Zen DAC lineup has been hailed among audiophiles as one of the best budget-priced, “mid-fi” DAC/Amp combos on the market (I said as much in my review of the Zen DAC V2). iFi has made steady, iterative changes since then, and now we have the third iteration, the Zen DAC 3. 


Key Specifications

  • Core Processor: XMOS 16-Core chip
  • DAC Components: Burr-Brown True Native chipset
  • Connectivity:
    • Unbalanced output: 6.3mm (210mW@32 Ohm; 3.3V@600 Ohm)
    • Balanced output: 4.4mm (390mW@64 Ohm; 6.7V@600 Ohm)
    • Line Out
      • RCA
      • 4.4mm balanced
    • Input: USB-C 3.0
  • Supported Sample Rates and Formats:
    • Up to 32bit 768kHz PCM
    • DSD512
    • MQA full decoding
  • Features:
    • PowerMatch (gain switch)
    • XBass+
  • Power
    • Powered through USB connection
    • DC 5V power connection (adapter not included)
  • Supported Platforms:
    • Windows, MacOS, Linux
    • PS5
    • Nintendo Switch
  • Case and Dimensions:
    • 158(w) x 115(d) x 35(h) mm
    • Weight: 456g

Overview

The iFi Zen DAC 3 is the successor to the very popular Zen DAC V2, released back in 2021. While the overall design and use cases haven’t changed, iFi has again updated the Zen DAC enough to warrant another entry in the series. Despite the iterative updates, there are some notable improvements that iFi has made, so let’s get into the details.


Design & Build Quality

In the Box

iFi always likes to keep things easy and straightforward, so no big surprises here. In the box, you get:

  • Zen DAC 3
  • RCA Cable
  • 3.5 to 6.3 mm Adapter
  • USB-C to USB-A cable
  • Quick Start Guide
  • Instruction Card

External Design

The overall shape is extremely similar to that of the Zen DAC V2, but the actual dimensions have been shaved down a bit. 2mm less width and depth, and almost half of the weight (456g for the Zen DAC 3, and 800g for the Zen DAC V2). The Zen DAC 3 definitely feels lighter compared to the V2, but at the same time, it still feels solidly built.

Looking at the front of the device, the color scheme and material choice have been updated, with an elegant-looking metallic line moving across the front and connecting to all of the buttons and connectors. This, along with the two-toned material choice, gives the Zen DAC 3 a more professional look versus the industrial, utilitarian look of the V2.

Looking closer at the front of the Zen DAC 3 we have, from left to right, the Power Match (gain) button, XBass+ button, volume knob, 6.3mm unbalanced output, and a 4.4mm balanced output. The ring around the volume dial glows via LED lights, the same as on the Zen DAC V2, though the volume knob of the Zen DAC 3 has a different texture. They also adjusted the tensile strength of the knob in a way that makes it feel even smoother to use, but not loose or flimsy. The buttons also have a different tactile feel to them. They are less stiff and a little more wobbly, giving them a cheaper feeling than that of the V2.

Moving to the back of the Zen DAC 3 we have exactly the same layout and connections as the Zen DAC V2, with the only difference being the USB input change from USB-B to Type-C. From left to right we have a 4.4mm balanced line out, a switch to select variable or fixed volume control, RCA output, USB Type-C input, and a 5V DC power input.

Here’s some comparisons of the Zen DAC 3 with the Zen DAC V2:

Internal Design

The Zen DAC 3 still uses the same Burr Brown DAC for bit-perfect audio, with the XMOS 16 core chip, but it’s been upgraded to support audio formats up to PCM 768KHz/DSD 512/DXD 768 versus the Zen DAC V2s PCM 384KHz/DSD 256/DXD 384.

The power output is the same as the Zen DAC V2 and the original Zen DAC before that. We also get the same low-jitter crystal clock found in the V2.

iFi has said that the DC offset voltage has been improved, meaning fewer audible clicks when you switch between the various functions. I never experienced any when using the Zen DAC 3, so this is a good sign.


Sound Quality

The Zen DAC lineup is known for a transparent, smooth, and slightly warm sound, and I can say that is still present here. I listened to the Zen DAC 3 using the Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro 80 ohm, Meze 99 Neo, Focal Elegia (both 3.5mm unbalanced and 4.4mm balanced), and Hiby Seeds II iems (both 3.5mm unbalanced and 4.4mm balanced).

After some dedicated listening time and switching between my Zen DAC V2 and the 3 I started to notice slightly more detail retrieval in the highs with the Zen DAC 3. It also seems to smooth it out a bit as well, which works great with the DT 770 Pro as the treble can sometimes be harsh with them.

Otherwise, I would say the sound quality is comparable to that of the V2. This is not a bad thing as the V2 sounds great, you’re just not getting a huge upgrade with the Zen DAC 3.

The same goes for power. The Zen DAC 3 powered all of my headphones in the same way as my V2 does, with Power Match (iFi’s version of gain) only being somewhat needed for my DT 770 Pro 80 ohms. If you need even more power, I’d suggest looking at iFi’s Zen CAN.

There are no changes to imaging or soundstage either, which again is not a bad thing as the V2 was very competent here as well. So much so that I had no problem using this for PC gaming. It works especially well with Dolby Atmos enabled in supported games. The Zen DAC 3 is very natural sounding and scales well, meaning you won’t have to worry if you go out and buy high-end headphones to use with it. Despite being considered closer to a budget DAC, it may be the only one some people ever own or need because it can do so much so well.


Features

I won’t delve too deep into the drivers or firmware (check out my review of the Zen DAC V2 for that), but one thing that is missing for the Zen DAC 3 is the various firmware options that the V2 had. With the V2, iFi provided two additional firmware versions that would either disable MQA decoding or enable the GTO (Gibbs Transient Optimised) filter. Both are missing for the Zen DAC 3. This probably won’t affect the majority of people who will purchase the Zen DAC 3, but it’s worth mentioning if you’re one of the few who want that.

XBass+

On the Zen DAC V2 we had True Bass, which gives the lower frequencies a bit more punch and modifies the bass response to help headphones lacking bass and sub bass. It was also if you just wanted a little more depth in the bass presentation without turning your headphones into bass cannons. For the Zen DAC 3 though we get the XBass+ feature, which improves upon the already great True Bass. With XBass+ we get a slightly tighter and leaner sound for the bass response. That sounds like a downgrade, but really it’s not. After listening to XBass+ on the Zen DAC 3 for some time and then going back to listen to True Bass on the V2 you get a sense of how True Bass is slightly muddying the low end, and in the end, I started to prefer the more subtle approach of XBass+.

Volume Knob LED Lighting and MQA

The volume knob features a ring of LED lights behind it to indicate the sample rate of the audio you are listening to. This is a great feature that iFi implements on many of their products, and it assures you that the device is out-putting bit-perfect audio. The chart below indicates what each color means:

LEDMode
YellowPCM 44.1/48kHz
WhitePCM 88.2/96/176.4/192/352.8/384/768kHz
CyanDSD 64/128
RedDSD 256/512
GreenMQA
BlueMQA Studio
MagentaOriginal Sample Rate (MQB)

Lastly, we have MQA decoding. The Zen DAC 3 can fully decode MQA audio files if you have them. This is less of an important feature now given that Tidal, the only music streaming service to offer MQA audio, is phasing it out and moving to traditional hi-res FLAC files, but the Zen DAC 3 supports it all the same.


Final Thoughts

Like its predecessors, the Zen DAC 3 does everything you would want an entry-level or mid-range DAC/Amp to do and then some. It isn’t a huge upgrade over the Zen DAC V2, but it improves on enough things to stand out on its own, such as expanded audio format support, the addition of USB-C, and an updated appearance.

All of the cons I gave the Zen DAC V2 remain for the 3 though. The metal finish is still prone to showing fingerprints, MQA support adds an extra cost for little gain, and despite support for a 5V power supply one is not included in the box. 

In terms of value, the price of the Zen DAC 3 is $229, $30 more than that of the Zen DAC V2, which is still in bargain territory from my point of view. If you are a current Zen DAC or Zen DAC V2 owner, there’s little reason to upgrade to the Zen DAC 3 unless you have a use case to do so. For those looking to buy your first DAC/Amp though, you don’t need to look any further than the iFi Zen DAC 3. 


We are not always able to cover all details of a product, both hardware and software, in our reviews. If you have any specific questions you’d like answered about this product please feel free to leave a comment or contact us directly.

HiFi Oasis Verdict

HiFi Oasis Verdict
9 10 0 1
9/10
Total Score
  • Design & Build Quality
    9/10 Amazing
  • Sound
    9/10 Amazing
  • Features
    8/10 Very good

Pros

  • XBass+ feature a welcome addition
  • Clear, smooth sound profile with excellent detail retrieval. Especially in the highs
  • Full MQA support
  • Lots of connectivity options
  • Sturdy build quality and pleasant, updated aesthetics over the Zen DAC V2

Cons

  • The metal finish is prone to showing fingerprints
  • MQA support adds additional cost for arguably little gain
  • Dedicated power supply not included
Total
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