ifi ZEN One Studio

Digital to Analogue converter with Bluetooth

ifi ZEN One Studio

Review by George Shilling

ifi have been designing hifi products in Britain for over 20 years. I first came across the brand several years ago when I was alerted to the importance of using a good quality phono preamp to boost turntable cartridge gain and implement the required RIAA EQ curve when playing back vinyl records. Someone on a forum recommended the ifi iphono2 and after doing some research I ended up with its successor the fantastic sounding iphono3. With two posh turntable setups (in the studio and in the lounge) I also acquired a rival preamp for the other setup. Admittedly it was a rather cheaper model, but when comparing, the difference was notable – the ifi was far superior in terms of depth and clarity. So I was a fan of ifi – even before they moved into the studio realm.

Now, a separate ifi division, ifi Studio has been established to cater to audio professionals and project studio owners, using their experience in designing audio products for the hifi enthusiast over many years.

ifi ZEN One Studio and ifi Zen Can Studio headphone amplifier

ifi ZEN One Studio and ifi Zen Can Studio headphone amplifier

One of the first products is this sexy looking D/A converter, the ZEN One Studio. Features include Burr Brown True Native bit-perfect conversion, DSD256, Bluetooth 96kHz, and PCM up to 384kHz. Its compact curved case has a delicious purple brushed aluminium finish, with small rubber feet. It feels weighty, and more like a refined boutique piece of hifi, rather than the more utilitarian studio fare we have become accustomed to over the years.


A Quick Set-Up card is included but my demo unit lacked a full manual. But it wasn’t hard to know what to do. Let’s start on the black rear panel, which is stuffed with connections. There’s a 5V DC barrel connection socket for power – a wall-wart is provided. And there’s an adjacent cable loop to stop it coming out accidentally. Getting digital signal into the ZEN is achieved three possible ways. There’s a USB-C input, an S/PDIF phono (which can also operate as a digital output), or Bluetooth. A coaxial antenna connection is provided for enhancement of an incoming Bluetooth signal with the included screw-in hinged 9cm aerial. Analogue outputs are provided on a pair of good quality XLR sockets. And there’s also a balanced 4.4mm socket – not a connection format often found in studios, but more familiar in the world of posh hifi for balanced headphones. Indeed the sister ZEN Can headphone amp includes both input and output connections in this configuration. But if you intend to connect the two, perhaps budget for the £69 interconnect from ifi. (Cheaper ones are available!)

I Have The Touch

Around the front, there’s a small black pushbutton for power. It needs a long press to power off, sensibly preventing accidental power-down. A larger button toggles through the three input choices, and tiny LEDs indicate the choice between Bluetooth, S/PDIF and USB. There are two further displays which change colour to indicate formats. The central ifi logo is illuminated differently to show whether you are running PCM, DSD, MQA, AAC etc. The smaller one indicates sample rate - 44.1/48k PCM is green, higher PCM rates are white, DSD 64/128 is turquoise, DSD 256 is red, and blue/red flashing indicates Bluetooth pairing mode. There’s a pairing button far right, which also turns off the panel LEDs should you prefer darkness.

Signal To Noise

ifi ZEN One Studio and ifi Zen Can Studio headphone amplifier

ifi ZEN One Studio and ifi Zen Can Studio headphone amplifier

Setting up is straightforward. Firstly I ran my CD transport (Pioneer Stable Platter) into the S/PDIF, and selecting the input and hooking up outputs was all that was required. It sounded great; clean and crisp. Recently mastered CDs like Peter Gabriel’s I/o Bright Side mix sounded terrific with every detail presented smoothly, without any of the closed-in digital fug that you can get –particularly with older CD players’ converters. It was a vital-sounding yet musical, airy and relaxed listen.

So Much

Hooking up the USB to my Mac with the supplied USB-C cable (a USB-A adaptor is included) I was able to bypass MQA in Tidal and could convince myself it sounded better with the ifi doing the decoding (and changing display light colour to confirm) on Simply Red’s Stars album – but I could be mistaken! And of course, the future of MQA is a moot point. It did sound absolutely wonderful though. Finding the aforementioned Peter Gabriel album in 96k FLAC mode I was intrigued to see if it outperformed the 44.1k CD. In truth, there’s not a lot in it, even with my super-revealing ATC monitors, but I thought I could sense a fraction more openness from the Tidal stream at the expense of a fraction less weightiness. Not sure what that tells us though – much depends on the sample rate conversion algorithm used at the mastering stage, and Matt Colton – who did such an amazing job on the mastering – wasn’t at liberty to divulge the Metropolis Studios top-secret SRC method when I cheekily asked him!

On The Air

The Bluetooth input also sounded remarkably good, and the convenience of being able to hear phone ideas without bodging cables and patchbay shenanigans is a whole lot more convenient in the middle of a busy studio session. All the latest Bluetooth formats are supported, and while BT won’t likely measure up to pro formats, it nevertheless sounds very good here when streaming from Tidal, just lacking a smidge of the air and openness of the direct connections, and opens up the flexibility of the ZEN One for a bit of fun phone listening. The antenna seems to ensure a solid connection – even from quite a distance.

Big Time

The ZEN Studio’s Global Master Timing clock has an “intelligent memory buffer” to eradicate source jitter, and the onboard 16-core XMOS processor efficiently handles the incoming digital data. For the money, this is remarkably advanced tech, and although differences can be subtle when comparing DACs, the ZEN sounds very smooth and enjoyable.

Road To Joy

The ZEN Studio will suit most studio setups. It sounds great, and is quick and easy to configure, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. It’s way cheaper than many esoteric hifi DACs and I’m sure would give them a good run for their money. If you need even more features (e.g. 768kHz PCM and valve input stage) then check out the upmarket Pro iDSD Studio from ifi Studio which I’m hoping to get my hands on soon…

Pros: Great sounding modern Burr Brown converter, efficient, flexible, reliable, solidly built.

Cons: QuickStart card but no full manual provided(?), 4.4mm cable not provided.