iFi ZEN CAN Review

The iFi ZEN line started with the ZEN DAC and blossomed into a series that provides an excellent entry point into audiophile sound. The most recent addition to the series is the iFi ZEN CAN, a standalone solid state headphone amp. The ZEN CAN promises to drive all of your headphones and IEMs, big and small, with both a low noise floor and enough power to drive the biggest of big boys. We’ll see how the ZEN CAN does by itself, and then take a look at the full ZEN line, and how each piece can work together in a stack.

Build and Design

The ZEN DAC started this whole thing with a simple, retro-futuristic design, and the ZEN CAN continues the tradition with identical housing, but with a few more buttons and controls. The case itself is simple and sturdy. It stacks easily with other ZEN components (more on that later) and can easily blend into most desktop setups.

ZEN CAN and ZEN DAC

The ZEN CAN provides a number of options for connectivity and a good number of controls to accommodate different types of headphones and listeners. On the front of the device, you can choose between the RCA, 3.5mm single-ended, or balanced 4.4mm inputs (the inputs themselves are found on the back), and adjust the gain from 0dB, 6dB, 12dB, and 18dB. There’s also a nice big analog volume knob for controlling the volume. You can output to 6.3mm unbalanced (a 6.3mm to 3.5mm adapter is included in the box), 4.4mm balanced headphones. or use balanced output on the back to connect to another device like a set of powered speakers.

Because the ZEN CAN is a standalone amp, you’ll either need a separate DAC, or a source that has a built in DAC. Luckily, most common sources – like phones and laptops, have built in DACs, so if you don’t have a DAC, you can connect to it directly from the headphone jack on any number of devices. 

The Sound

The ZEN CAN is an excellent headphone amp, and a great value. The exact sound signature is going to largely depend on what DAC you’re pairing it with, and it will scale nicely with more expensive DACs or DAC/amp combos that might be lacking the “oompf” to really make your headphones pump. I found that it had a generally warm sound, and provided plenty of headroom. The soundstage also scales nicely with the DAC you use. If you use your laptop, it’s going to be a bit lacking, but if you pair it with a dedicated DAC, you’ll get much better results. You can also use iFi’s XBass+ add a little bass extension, or the 3D+ Matrix to enhance the soundstage.

ZEN CAN Unboxing

I found that the XBass+ was a nice addition to the HiFiMAN Sundara, and helped regain the sub-bass that’s rolled off in the Sundara’s design. On the flipside, the XBass+ was not the best fit with the Meze 99 Classics which already have plenty of bass to go around. Generally speaking, the XBass+ isn’t so much of a “bass boost” as it is a gentle extension in the sub-bass. I can’t help but wonder if this feature isn’t specifically targeted at the Sundara and the Audeze LCD-1, two excellent entry-level audiophile headphones which have recessed sub-bass.

The 3D+ Matrix is nice, but I didn’t feel particularly strongly about it whether it was on or off. There is definitely some feeling that the soundstage is a little bit bigger with it on, and I didn’t feel that it sounded bad at any point. To my ears, it provided a little more benefit to balanced armature based IEMs, and the least benefit to any of the over-ear headphones.

One of the best features of the ZEN CAN is that it can work with anything from the most sensitive of IEMs, like the Campfire Andromeda, to the most power hungry of planar magnetic over-ear headphones. On the 0dB setting, I was able to pair it with all the IEMs I had available (including the current Campfire Audio lineup, 64 Audio Tia Fourte and U12t, Meze Rai Solo, and the oBravo Cupid), and it was able to drive all of them perfectly with no noise or hiss.

ifi ZEN CAN

Creating a ZEN Stack: Pairing with the iFi ZEN Blue and ZEN DAC

In addition to the ZEN CAN, the ZEN series includes the ZEN Blue and ZEN DAC. The ZEN Blue is a very simple and straightforward to set up wireless streamer. You can get it plugged in and paired with your phone within minutes of opening the box. The ZEN DAC is a solid entry level DAC/amp combo which also features a simple design and easy setup. While the ZEN DAC and ZEN Blue don’t really have much synergy (or even a simple way to directly connect them), both have some strong pairing possibilities with the ZEN CAN.

ZEN Blue + ZEN CAN

The ZEN Blue and ZEN CAN make for an excellent low budget streamer setup. The ZEN Blue has a built in DAC, but does not have an amp, so the two are a match made in heaven. The Bluetooth connection to the combination of the ZEN Blue and CAN provided a marked improvement in sound quality over a direct connection to either, so you’re getting the best of both worlds – the convenience of a wireless connection and improvements in sound quality.

Pros:

  • Wireless convenience with easy setup
  • Good sound quality

Cons:

  • Wireless is not 100% lossless
  • ZEN Blue DAC is not as powerful as ZEN DAC

ZEN DAC + ZEN CAN

If you don’t want to use a wireless connection, or if further improvements in sound quality trump convenience, the ZEN DAC and ZEN CAN can be connected to provide one of the best combinations for driving headphones south of $300. This combination is a touch cleaner sounding than the Zen Blue with clearer mids and more coherent bass. As a comparison point, I listened to “Snow (Hey Oh)” by Red Hot Chili Peppers on the oBravo Cupid with both setups. With the ZEN DAC + ZEN CAN, there was a pleasant pop to the snare. The bass had a nice physical thump to it. With the ZEN Blue + ZEN CAN the bass felt slightly more congested, and the snare had a little less snap.

While some of the characteristics of the pairing might be true of the ZEN DAC by itself, the biggest thing that the ZEN CAN adds isn’t just a couple more buttons and some warmth, it’s raw power.  The ZEN CAN is capable of putting out a maximum of 15.3V @ 600 Ohm via balanced connection, while the ZEN DAC can only only produce 6.2V @ 600 Ohm. This means that the ZEN CAN can power pretty much any headphones you can throw at it.

Pros:

  • Incredible power, quality, and versatility for the price

Cons:

  • Lacks any wireless functionality
  • Lots of capital letters

ZEN DAC 

The ZEN DAC is the one unit in the series which can be used in a 100% standalone fashion. It’s an absolutely solid DAC/amp combo for the price, but without pairing them with the ZEN CAN, you lose the XBass+ and 3D+ Matrix features, and narrow the range of usable headphones and IEMs. Even with the PowerMatch feature, more power hungry planar magnetic headphones like the Meze Empyrean sound a little anemic with the ZEN DAC, and more sensitive IEMs like the Campfire Andromeda generate a bit of hiss.

The output is a little more neutral than the ZEN CAN, so if you don’t like the extra warmth, and have headphones or IEMs for which you won’t have much concern about power or hiss, the ZEN DAC might be a better pick as a standalone unit than the ZEN CAN.

Pros:

  • More neutral output
  • The best standalone choice for most headphones and IEMs
  • Low price

Cons:

  • Lacks the ability to work with the full range of the most sensitive and most power demanding headphones

What’s the best choice for me?

If you want wireless streaming functionality, then it's a pretty easy choice: the ZEN Blue and ZEN CAN provide excellent sound quality and convenience for the price. If you’re looking at a traditional wired setup, you’ve got a few more options. The ZEN DAC and ZEN CAN combined, are potentially a best in class combo in the under $300 range, but if you’re on a tighter budget, your specific needs will determine which unit is best for you. The ZEN DAC is going to provide better performance with most headphones and IEMs than the ZEN CAN, but if you’re using high impedance headphones or very sensitive IEMs, the ZEN CAN is the better choice.

Most IEMs

Sensitive IEMs

Most Headphones

Power Hungry Headphones

ZEN DAC Standalone

Better

Not Recommended

Better

Okay

ZEN CAN Standalone (using phone or PC for DAC)

Good

Better

Good

Better

ZEN DAC + CAN

Best

Best

Best

Best


The Bottom Line

The iFi ZEN CAN is a powerful, versatile headphone amp and a great value for the money. Whether you use it standalone or combine it with something like the ZEN DAC or ZEN Blue, it provides plenty of power for the biggest, hungriest headphones, and has a low noise floor while driving sensitive IEMs. While the ZEN CAN probably won’t bring you inner peace, it is a great headphone amp to get you started on the path of high-end audio.