The headphone is the simplest starting point in one’s audiophile journey. A good pair of wired headphones makes such a big difference to the quality of the sound. The good thing is headphones are available at every price point and that really makes it easy for one to start. The biggest complaint one hears about headphones consist of two major items: they are not loud enough and there’s hardly any bass. And that’s where a headphone amplifier comes into the picture. iFi Audio recently launched the Zen Air DAC in India. An entry-level DAC and headphone amp at a very attractive price point.
Part of the ZEN series of DACs the Air DAC is a simple and effective way to get great sound quality. The design is very simple, mostly made in plastic with the exception of the volume knob and the input and output connectors. Of course the internals would have more metal in them but despite being plastic, it does have a bit of a heft to it. Weighing in at just under 400 grams, it is not quite portable. In fact, it is ideally suited as a desktop DAC/amp.
The box contains the main unit and a USB-B connector, the kind that printers used to have. In 2022, that does seem to be an odd choice and a USB-C would have been much better, but the cable provided, though very short, does the job rather well. I was able to connect my laptop, iPad, and phones as a source without any issues.
The Zen Air has just two outputs, a single-ended 6.3mm port for headphones and a standard RCA output at the back, which can be connected to an amplifier or active speakers. I did actually use it with both multiple headphones and with an amplifier and speakers as well. It sounded great in all circumstances.
The sound signature is more on the neutral side, which means it neither adds nor detracts from the original sound. There is also an XBass+ switch on the front, which gives a significant bass boost without overwhelming or muddying the sound.
The front of the unit has a Power Match switch, which can be used with headphones that need more power, but do remember that the unit is actually powered via the USB source unless you buy the extra power supply that iFi sells. In my case, I did not need it and the headphones I was driving were very well supported.
Formats and pricing
In terms of formats, the Zen Air really shines. It can playback a variety of formats with ease and rivals many of the much more expensive DACs. The Zen Air is capable of playing back Hi-Res PCM up to 32-bits/384 kHz along with DSD256 and supports MQA, using the Burr-Brown DAC chipset to deliver bit-perfect sound.
Finally, there is a coloured indicator light on the front, which lets you know the bitrate of the music being streamed. It starts with a green for 44.1kHz and goes to a red when playing MQA. Nice and simple indicator. While streaming from various sources, one can visually see the bitrate by colour.
iFi Audio partners with Headphone Zone to sell it’s products in India and the Zen Air DAC can be bought via https://www.headphonezone.in While the MRP shows ₹9,999, there seems to be an introductory offer or special price at just ₹7,999, which is very much value for money and a great start to your audiophile journey.