Price: £149 / $169
ifi is a brand which is very well known in the head-fi world. Making everything from power supplies, USB cleanup devices, to DACs and amplifiers themselves. They’re a company which not only makes a lot of different products, but also makes products that are quite different from most other competing offerings, namely the ‘XBass’ and ‘3d+’ features.
Thank you very much to TheTalbotHound for lending me this unit for review.
If you’d like to see full measurements of the Zen Can they have been posted here:
Content and analysis made possible thanks to support from https://headphones.com, and https://patreon.com/goldensound supporters
Build and Design
The unit itself has quite frankly excellent build quality for a unit of this price, with absolutely no plastic in sight whatsoever. The shell is a single piece of metal with a high quality matte-grey finish, encasing the two brushed-metal front and back plates.
The knobs and buttons themselves would be expected to be plastic on a low cost unit like this but nope, they’re metal too with gently illuminated display indicators, and whilst not identical to the shell itself, the buttons and knobs do match it in colour closely.
The shape of the device is quite pleasing and overall from an aesthetic standpoint it looks and feels premium. I can’t find fault and have to commend ifi for going the extra mile when many products at this pricepoint would opt for lower cost materials and more basic designs. I imagine the tooling for producing the shell alone was not simple, so a big commendation there.
On the front are two headphone ports, a standard 6.35mm TRS port for unbalanced headphones, and a 4.4mm pentaconn port for balanced headphones. I do personally prefer an XLR output, but in a unit of this size that likely wouldn’t be feasible.
On the rear from right to left:
– 5v DC Input
– Balanced 4.4mm output
– RCA input
– 3.5mm input
– 4.4mm output
The zen can is able to function as a preamp, allowing you to use it for controlling active studio monitors for example, which could come in very handy for many desk setups.
It also has 3.5mm input which could make connecting to a DAP or other portable device whilst at your desk quite easy, however, the fact that the balanced input it only through a 4.4mm connection makes things quite difficult, as does the 4.4mm balanced preamp output.
Both of these will require an adapter to use which in my experience was hard to come by and many of the options were far from affordable.
ifi does sell a 4.4mm to 4.4mm interconnect to make connecting the zen can to a zen dac very easy, but using another dac is going to require the purchase of a third party adapter so do make sure you factor that into your budget if purchasing the zen can.
To describe the Zen Can in a sentence: A slightly warm, spacious sounding amp which pairs well with just about anything, but may leave a little to be desired if wanting a more incisive sound.
The zen can’s power ratings are given at different impedances for balanced and single ended which makes things a bit confusing, though I measured it at 1.3w @ 32 ohm. Though keep under 1w to avoid any potential for clipping.
DAC: SMSL VMV D1SE
Cables: Custom XLR to 4.4mm adapter
Power Supply: ifi iPower 5v
Headphones: Hifiman Arya, Sennheiser HD800S, HarmonicDyne Zeus
The zen can overall leans a touch warm, with a smooth ‘could listen all day’ signature that avoids going so far as to be veiled or ‘smoothed over’. It’s quite a resolving amplifier, and had no trouble driving any of the headphones I put on it with the exception of the Susvara.
It has a somewhat accentuated soundstage, with larger orchestral and reverberating synth based tracks sounding huge, but this comes at the cost of imaging being a little bit diffused and imprecise. This is most likely due to the high levels of crosstalk.
Timbre and texture of all elements is carried through in a wonderful, vivid manner, not necessarily the most outright ‘believable’, but a very engaging sound that makes everything sound good.
I’d recommend pairing this with a neutral or even slightly clinical leaning dac, as pairing it with a warmer dac like a schiit modius might end up with an overall sound that doesn’t quite have the clarity or bite to make some tracks sound as they should.
For those wanting to really pick apart their music and get the absolute most out of an exceptional recording, the zen can won’t be the ideal choice, but for the listener who wants an amp that will drive most any headphone, and make just about any track sound good without needing to worry about sibilance or fatigue, it’s a lovely choice, and one that I can happily recommend to anyone who hasn’t had the opportunity to try various devices and figure out their preferences just yet. No matter who you are, or what you listen to, the Zen Can is a safe bet and is guaranteed to sound good with all genres and gear pairings.
One area where this amp excels in is vocals. They are presented with plenty of body and texture and leaves little to be desired. Listening to the second half of “King of Everything” by Dominic Fike is a fantastic experience. Plenty of detail, the percussion is refined and powerful without being bloomy or getting in the way of the vocals, and all throughout the guitar remains clearly separate, refined, and wonderful.
The only issue is that as previously mentioned the precision of images could be a touch better, with vocals coming from a general direction rather than a clearly defined location.
A slight issue for some setups however is that it does lack a little bit of control/tightness to the lowend with the Arya. Low impedance, low sensitivity planars like the arya have stronger current demands which is the limiting factor for this amp, so if you mostly run planars, you may want something a little beefier. But for sundara, he400, lcd-X and other easier to drive planars, as well as dynamic headphones, the zen can will be plenty.
The 3d+ option is an analog, full range crossfeed implementation, which provides a ‘speaker simulation’ effect. Personally, I don’t find crossfeed to be my cup of tea, though it does definitely come in very handy for some ‘hard panned’ older tracks that don’t sound right on headphones without it.
It’s a fun feature though, and it’s certainly better to have it and not need it.
The Xbass feature is interesting, it’s not a typical low-shelf like many other options including a schiit loki/lokius provide. It provides a rising increase from about 200hz down into the subbass (measurement is shown on my measurements article). And the effect is REALLY good fun.
This is a feature I’ve enjoyed a lot and what I love about it is that it gives the extra impact and force that many genres can benefit from, without at all making things sound bloated, warm, or honestly having much if any negative impact at all. It’s a VERY well done implementation.
2 thoughts on “ifi Zen Can Balanced Headphone Amplifier Review”
How does it perform with the Arya?…. Anything else in this price range for Arya?
The Arya takes a good amount of power to fill out. In this price range I’m not really sure. You might look at some of the THX amps but I don’t really care for the sound personally. I like them best running off a warm sounding amp. I have the Arya running off the Denafrips Ares II and Singxer SA-1. Probably too warm for a 6XX but I think it sounds great with the Arya’s brighter sound signature.