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iFi ZEN Phono Review

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My publisher, Constantine Soo, suggested I improve on my NAD PP-1 phono stage with a more updated unit. I have resisted the urge to make changes because, after years of experimenting with different components, I finally have my stereo system sounding the way I want. It is very natural and pleasing to me and this was accomplished without spending an excessive amount of money. My NAD PP-1 has no noise and complements the rest of my system, so “if it isn’t broken don’t fix it” is my motto. This probably violates a number of audiophile rules; however, it is my system and I listen to it every day, so as long as it makes me happy that is all that matters. (Hear, hear. –Pub.) I tend to keep my components for extended periods of time, especially if I enjoy the product. The few times I regretted a purchase, I immediately removed the component. This has only happened a few times in the past 50 years of buying audio components. (An Audio Innovations line stage was an example of buyer’s remorse.)

When Constantine asked me if I would like to review the iFi ZEN phono stage, which sells for a bargain price of $149, I felt this would be a good opportunity to expand my horizons. This unit fits my niche of inexpensive high-end products, so I could not pass it up.

According to their website, iFi has, since 2012, been overseeing the design, development and manufacture of over 30 products from their headquarters in Southport, UK. The ZEN series is their most-affordable product line. Even though the iFi ZEN is only $149, it does use quality components throughout the unit. The OV series operational amplifier used in the ZEN Phono is an example of a top-notch component used to get the best sound quality out of iFi Audio products. The OVA2637 op-amp has low noise density and low distortion (0.0001%) and performs on a much higher level sonically than the product price suggests. Each Panasonic ECPU capacitor in the ZEN Phono is constructed from some 3,500 layers of ultra-thin dielectrics less than 0.5μm thick. It offers class-leading Equivalent Series Resistance (ESR), low impedance, frequency stability, and astonishingly low distortion. Texas Instruments low-noise ICs offer great Unity-Gain Bandwidth, very low-noise, high output-drive capability, Common-Mode Rejection Ratio of 100 dB and maximum-output-swing bandwidth, low distortion and high slew rate. Class 1 ceramic TDK C0G capacitors offer high stability and low loss for resonant circuit applications. They are pricey but are a perfect addition to these iFi  products.

The ZEN Phono uses muRata control-type, low-ESR high-Q multi-layer capacitors. The ‘ESR control’ aspect of the muRata is something special. Their noise suppression abilities are impressive.

iFi products and their packaging are made from recyclable materials, including aluminum, paper and recycled plastics. There are no hazardous toxins in their components, and they ensure every product released meets environmental standards. iFi prides itself on being an eco-friendly company.

The iFi ZEN is a very lightweight and easy to use phono stage. There is one set of inputs and one set of single-ended outputs plus balanced outputs via a Pentaconn connector. The ZEN has four different gain settings, one for moving magnet cartridges and three for high to low output moving coil phono cartridges.

The aesthetics are also very pleasant with an almost art deco look. Obviously, some thought went into the industrial design. You will also notice the ground plug is conveniently placed next to the inputs. My NAD PP-1 lacks a ground terminal, so I have to unscrew part of the body and attach it there, otherwise hum can be a problem. I do notice and appreciate these little things.

I started this review with my AR “The AR turntable” with the Sumiko Premier MMT tonearm and the Hana EH phono cartridge. The rest of my equipment includes the Antique Sound Lab Line One tube line stage and my Quicksilver Mini Mite 25 watt tube power amplifiers using KT77 output tubes. The Acarian System Alon 1 speakers complete the system, along with my AudioQuest speaker cables and interconnects. My records are regularly cleaned with my Nitty Gritty vacuum record cleaning machine. I generally prefer tubes, however, the signal from the phono cartridge is so small that, when amplifying this signal, I prefer solid state at this early stage of the record playing chain.

I used the moving magnet setting, which is normal for most high output moving coil phono cartridges. This seemed a better fit in my system compared to the high output moving coil setting because the Antique Sound Lab line stage has higher gain than most preamplifiers. I preferred using the ZEN with the subsonic filter off — it just seemed to give me a more natural sound. One of the advantages of using tubes is three dimensional sound with pinpoint imaging. I have said in other reviews that when I sit back, I can visualize the musicians right in front of me. The ZEN did not limit this feature in my system in any way, even in my small room.

I listened to a lot of the same records as I have for my other reviews, including Copland, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Handel and jazz such as Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, and Billy Cobham. The ZEN phono stage has a similar sound to my NAD with maybe a hint of better resolution. My Hana EH sounded spectacular playing through the ZEN no matter what record I played. The bottom end was there and the midrange had a very natural sound with no harshness or forwardness. The highs had a sweetness with no tipped up sound. The ZEN let the virtues of the Hana EH come through without adding any colorations. The sound was warm and sweet sounding as opposed to crisp and harsh.

2 Responses to iFi ZEN Phono Review

  1. John Mulvihill says:

    Which power supply did you use with the phono? IFI has a base power supply and upgraded units.

  2. Byron Baba says:

    The stock power supply that came with the unit.

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