With the current work from home arrangements most of us are familiar with, I moved my desk from the Master to the Music Room. My main stereo setup is in the same room on the wall to the right of my desk. Undoubtedly, it would be simpler to have just one setup for my music, that involved running some kind of cable across the room and was something I wanted to avoid. The end result was deciding to setup a Mini PC since I last got rid of my Silverstone mATX tower and listen to my FLAC library. I spent a few months doing research, reading up on forums and watching YouTube reviews. I finally landed on an Intel NUC and a one box DAC/AMP from iFi Audio.
The Intel NUC decision: My intended use for a Mini PC was primarily to listen to my FLAC library rip of Redbook CDs; on occasions some light web browsing and productivity work. Given my intent, a low powered Celeron or Pentium based machine would more than suffice. It was a toss up between the older NUC 6CAYH or the next generation NUC 7PJYH. I skipped the 7CJYH given it had just Duo Cores.
The 6CAYH is a Celeron based Quad Core machine and quite frankly would do the job just fine. The 7th generation Pentium based Quad Core 7PJYH is not exactly the latest (11th generation release delayed) but had a few upgrades on speed including Bluetooth 5.0 as opposed to Bluetooth 4.2 on the 6CAYH. That said, I picked up a new NUC 7PJYH online. Installing my old Samsung 840EVO 250GB SSD and a couple of used 4GB (8GB total) DDR4 2,666Mhz SODIMM modules from a Mac Mini 2018 took less than 5 minutes. The NUC 7PJYH/3 included a UK IEC power cord in the box which was useful. I did run into some issues installing a fresh copy of Windows 10 Pro x64 but eventually got that sorted. The other new device I picked up was the LG GP65NB60 optical drive to rip more Redbook CDs and that was pretty it. I was not planning to watch any Blu-ray titles on the NUC so the DVD-RW drive was good enough.
The DAC/AMP Combo decision: This was a somewhat tougher decision due to the number of offerings available today. Ideally, I would settle for a one box solution to reduce desktop real estate required for multiple devices. Separate components were possible but had to take up minimal footprint.
The DROP THX AAA 789 was something I considered. By far costing the most penny on the list, the 789 was more of an AMP than anything else. I was curious about the THX technology to begin with and like the pass-through option for future integration into my stereo setup as I was already running separate preamplifier and power amplifier setup. Still, the 789 did not solve my DAC requirement on my desk and that alone would cost additional to the pretty penny. I ultimately scratched the 789 as there were other alternatives available for the same or less money.
The Schiit Modi 3 & Magni 3+ stack was definitely on the list. These were well reviewed all over the web and not having these on the list would not make sense. Housed in the smallest of aluminum case (1/3 width) amongst all of Schiit Audio’s offerings, the utilitarian brush appearance feature a small footprint, highly stackable and did not look dated over time. I currently own the Schiit Sys and Mani which are in my main stereo setup. The Schiit Mani for one has been reviewed well over and quite frankly makes for a killer budget phono preamplifier; a giant killer to be more accurate. Should I decide to integrate The Modi/Magni combo with the Sys/Mani combo at sometime further down the road, they would make for a nice stack of 4 devices. Granted, except for the Schiit Sys being a passive preamplifier, each of the other 3 would some kind of power supply. If there was one thing, just one thing that annoys the hell out of me about Schiit is their ridiculously bright LED on the front panel. Halfway across the room, they are blinding. Imagine in close proximity on a desk? I had to KIV some Schiit.
The Topping E30 & L30 stack was something that really caught my interest. These measured well on the AudioScienceReview forum. The E30 pretty much beats the Schiit Modi in just about every technical specification down to the USB-B input on the rear (Modi has micro-USB instead). Not limited by 24/192k as on the Modi, the E30 will top out at 32/768k, does DSD and is HiRes certified. Quite frankly, those are nice to have but not necessary as 90% of my FLAC library was 16/44.1k anyway. Notably, the E30 had some reverse polarity issues in the earlier production and not exactly sure if it has been resolved in follow-up production. Folks who picked up the earlier production were left with a firmware fix for the USB but the issues remain on SPDIF. The challenge here was not knowing if I would be picking up a new or old production E30 unit online; no way the tell if it has been resolved entirely. The L30 is the intended matching amplifier housed in a similar 1/3 width sized aluminum case. Beta testing on the ASR forum showed huge potential too. Now that the L30 is available, I am noticing some mixed reviews. While it is impossible to make everyone happy, I think the E30/L30 stack is a killer combination. Not a fan of the orange LED but the silver housing option looks the best in my opinion.
The Fiio K5 Pro was an interesting one box solution that caught my attention. The form factor was just a smidgeon different in size the NUC 7PJYH. A huge volume dial on the front panel meant easy control. The taller K5 Pro had all the connectivity on the rear panel plus a pair of RCA Line inputs. It was the only device on the list that included RCA input. There was no separate on/off switch (only via the volume knob). While it only comes in black, the aluminum case looked fairly decent. The RCA outputs on the K5 Pro was the weak link. Measurements on ASR did not look good but subjective listening tests by other reviewers was the final nail in the coffin for the K5 Pro. The latest offering by Fiio ticked all the boxes like a Swiss Army knife but the subpar line outputs let it down. Above and beyond that, the K5 Pro did not have a bypass, pass-through or fixed output switch for the RCA/Line outputs. That is something I will miss and noted the 789 has that built-in. Neither the Schiit nor Topping offerings have those either. Yes, you could turn the volume knob all the way to the max position and you could technically get 2V line out but I do not think that is the best approach with headphones on the desk.
The iFi Zen Dac was one of the first shortlisted offering and quite frankly, the limited input connectivity options have always been the roadblock. Perhaps the most notable feature on the front panel is the sizeable full aluminium volume knob for the analog potentiometer. The single halo ring surrounding the volume knob (similar to the K5 Pro) let’s you know the unit is powered on. On form factor, it looked the part as a nice little (slightly wider than 1/3 width) DAC/AMP combination. The case design detracts away from most other manufacturers. The fact that the Zen Dac housed the Burr-Brown PCM1793 DAC chip had my interest from day one. Call me bias but yes, I like the Burr-Brown sound signature. PCM179x True Native (aka Bit Perfect) DAC chips in reasonably priced DAC/AMP combos are far less common compared to AKM/ESS based DACs. The RCA Line outputs faired better than the Fiio K5 Pro according to the ASR forum and I did not come across a single reviewer pointing out any issues with the RCA outputs in subjective listening tests. Not the most powerful amplifier section but it is something I can live with given both my Sony MDR-7506 and Philips SHP-9500 are both low impedance at 63ohms and 32ohms and pretty sensitive 100+dB. On my SHP-9500, running the potentiometer at 12 o’clock, I get very audible and comfortable (74dB) listening level without ‘Power Match’ engaged. I might pick up a pair of Hifiman HE-400i (2020) or the Monolith M570 in the near future. I am not sure if the Zen Dac will have sufficient power to drive either somewhat inefficient pair of headphones properly but guess what? I am not too concerned as that is a little further out and I did snatch up the iFi Zen Can just this month too.
What I do like a lot about the iFi Zen Dac was the presence of a fixed/variable line output switch on the rear panel. These things do not cost that much and takes up almost no space to implement. I am of the view manufacturers should not have omitted that. Having these makes their products so much more versatile. There is a 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced output included on the rear (and front) panel. Topology is similar to Sony’s implementation and perhaps in the future, we will see more and more 4.4mm implementation in audio devices for balanced section. I do not currently run any of my headphones balanced out so it is something of future proofing for me. Notably, picking up any form of single-end or balanced cables with 4.4mm termination on at least one end is not exactly cheap in 2020. You could buy a pair on AmazonBasics 3ft Single-Ended RCA cables without having to think too much. Those are good quality, well shielded and very affordable. 4.4mm Pentaconn cables today remain ‘custom’ and nowhere near ‘easily available’ hence the price remains a noticeable premium. Before I forget, the white LEDs on the front panel are tiny, dimmed so they are not blinding and still easy enough to pick out from across the room. Points to iFi Audio for getting it right here.
Finally, here is the quick low-down. The iFi Zen Dac won the Best Budget Dac Award at the recent EISA 2020/21. I think the award was well deserved for iFi Audio. Everything on the Zen Dac is very well put together in a nice tight little package with no shoddy finishing whatsoever. While my Zen Dac runs cool and connects primarily to the PC via a USB 3.0 cable, I would have preferred separate digital coaxial and toslink inputs too. That would have made the Zen Dac so much more versatile, expanding use case in a home audio setup. Of course, the ability to render MQA playback is a nice feature. I found the Zen Dac to be very easy to listen to over extended sessions. On my Sony MDR-7506, it sounds pretty much flat as one would expect of proper studio on-ear monitors. On my over-ear Philips SHP-9500, there is a good sense of air on the top end as you hear brass instruments expand into the outer realms. Listening to the Zen Dac on open-back headphones, the mid-range is velvet smooth and quite frankly the star and just a hint forward on the upper mid-range. Overall, the mid-range provides just enough body to tone and project an enveloping vocal experience. That top-end and mid-range signature is reminiscent of my experience with Burr-Brown based DAC/OPAMP Chips. The sibilant top-end some reviewers say plagues the SHP-9500 does not present an issue here. Bass note extensions will dig deep without overpowering your ear drums. Cello notes are well defined, never obscuring the vocalist but rather complementing the entire quartet. Overall, The iFi Zen Dac sounds very balanced across the frequency range, not shouty by any measure and is maybe just a hint warm off neutral. Ultimately, it will drive a good number of headphones without glaring issues.
So what I do not like about the Zen Dac? For starters, the limited digital input options. The NUC 7PJYH has a optical output via the 3.5mm audio jack. So do many Mac based systems. A toslink input would free up the USB 3.0 port on my Mini PC. Somehow, we never seem to have enough of those. For those who rely on a USB-to-Coaxial bridge (such as the Schiit Etir) when playing music from a computer, the lack of s SPDIF input basically rules out the Zen Dac entirely. You could pick up something like a USB ‘degritter’, ‘jitterbug’ or iFi Audio’s iPurifier and such but at a cost (with subjective benefits). While the Zen Dac is USB bus-powered, there is an option to power it with external DC 5V/2.5A power supply. A power supply unit included in the box would have been nice of iFi. At the minimum, a decent length (3ft/1m) USB to DC 5.5mm*2.1mm shielded cable would do too. I mean there are iFi branded purple RCAs included in the box, a USB 3.0 cable. How much is another DC 5.5mm*2.1mm going to cost really? There is already savings from not using shrink wrap apart from saving the environment. Second nag which is less of an issue but still valid is the height of the rubber feet. The Zen Dac sits so low I need to be careful placing any of the products from the Zen line on edges of equipment with raised surrounds such as on faceplates of power amplifiers. I think I might have picked up a couple of hairline scratches on the underside already.