iFi is a UK audio brand with an impressive catalog of headphone-focused products including DACs, amps and DAC/amps. The Zen Can is a straight-up headphone amplifier, no DAC. Its focus is on giving you the gain you need to enjoy power-hungry headphones, even when using something like a phone or tablet as a source. This is a flexible, compact, well-designed headphone amp that’s handy for maximizing the performance of power-hungry headphones and it sells for $149.

Features & Specs

With single-ended (unbalanced) headphone connections, Zen Can is able to deliver 1 W of power (4 V) into 16 ohm loads, 1600 mW (7.2V) into 32 ohms and 196 mW (7.6 V) into a 300-ohm load. With a balanced connection, it is able to output 1890 mW (11 V) into a 64-ohm load and 756 mW (15.2 V) into a 300-ohm load. It also offers multiple gain boost settings (0 dB, +6 dB, +12 dB and +18 dB) so you can match it to the overall sensitivity of your headphones. Inside, the dual-mono amp design uses high-quality parts including Panasonic and TDK capacitors.

Frequency response is a very tight +0dB/-0.03 dB from 20 Hz to 20 kHz and -3 dB from <10 Hz to 200 kHz. The SNR is spec’d at -120 dB with THD & noise listed as <0.0069%.

iFi sells a low noise power supply for $50 that you can use instead of the stock wall-wart. But iFi is also bundling this power supply with the first 1000 Zen Can units and selling it for $169. My unit included the low noise power supply.

Speaking of power supplies, I bought an adapter cable on Amazon (3 for $8) that allows you to use USB power supplies with the Zen Can. This adds the convenience of portability (and even outdoor use) by tapping a USB power brick as the power supply. Running the Zen Can untethered from wall outlets lets you put the amp on a coffee table, without worrying about a cord to trip over or being able to reach the outlet to begin with. This approach worked just as well as the included power supply. Perhaps in the future we’ll see these old-fashioned power connectors replaced by USB-C.

Physically, it’s a stylish little unit with a solid chassis and a nice, smooth-turning TOCOS potentiometer (volume knob). The chassis includes a ¼” unbalanced output, a 3.5mm unbalanced input, stereo RCA, and 4.4mm “Pentaconn” balanced input and outputs.

This amplifier includes a pair of optional audio enhancements. It has a bass boost function as well as a “3D sound” feature that places the soundstage forward and outside your head.



Performance

The performance of the Zen Can is pretty much flawless. I can’t hear any noise, distortion or coloration. The most compelling application I found is using the Zen Can amp to power the new Audeze LCD-1 open-back planar-magnetic headphones. They seem like a perfect match, in terms of total system cost and capability. The LCD-1 is a 99 dB at 1mW headphone that can output >120 dB with a frequency response of 10 Hz to 50 kHz, and handle up to 5 watts of power—they can take anything the Zen Can will dish out.

The real benefit of the Zen Can, versus all the headphone jacks in all the devices in my home, is when you push a dynamic recording to live concert levels and realize the headphones and amp are not straining, compressing or distorting in the slightest. The result is the pleasure one derives from listening to a great stereo system with the volume turned up, a musical experience that’s visceral and engaging to the point where you get lost in it.

All the other headphones in my house sport higher sensitivity ratings than the Audeze LCD-1, for example the HiFiMan Edition X is a 103 dB planar model. But as of now, when properly powered by the Zen Can, the LCD-1s are my favorite “sit down, listen at home” headphones. They have a “punch” to their sound when the electron juice is flowing that’s addictive and very “Grado-like”.

My favorite source for the Zen Can is Apple’s USB-C headphone adapter, which I use with an iPad Pro 12.9”, a Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra phone and a Windows PC. I leave the adapter connected to one end of a 3.5mm headphone cable that’s plugged into the Zen Can. Long story short is the adapter only costs $8.99 on Amazon and it turns your existing USB-C compatible computer, phone or tablet into a high quality source+DAC.

I had no practical use for the bass boost function since all my headphones excel down low. Activating it usually resulted in too much bass. However, in the past I have owned headphones that I liked, but could use the boost (AKG 701 comes to mind). Whether you use the feature or not will come down to a matter of taste, as well as the capability of the connected headphones. The 3D effect is extremely subtle, depending on the track you might not notice it at all. I’m going to say this is a good thing, because a lot of those type of effects add an unnatural tonality to music. I will confess that some electronic tracks (namely dubstep) were an enjoyable listen when the bass enhancement and 3D effect are concurrently activated, so beyond just a matter of taste, using the features could be genre-dependent.

The same qualities that allow the Zen Can to excel at concert level playback make it a great amp to use for watching movies or playing video games while wearing headphones.

Pros & Cons

Pros


  • High quality components
  • Balanced input and output
  • Excellent specs
  • Compact
  • Powerful
  • Easily powers planar-magnetic headphones
  • Supports both balanced and single-ended (unbalanced) headphones
  • Nice volume knob
  • “Perfect” match for Apple USB-C to 3.5mm headphone adapter/DAC
Cons

  • Should have USB C connection for power
  • High-quality power supply is $50 extra
  • no 3.5mm headphone jack (need to use adapter)
  • Zen DAC costs less than Zen Amp
Conclusion

I like the Zen amp. I’ve bought numerous pro audio headphone distribution amps in the past when searching for a similar solution at this price point. The Zen DAC is better design, namely because it offers such a nice volume knob and a solid chassis that is heavy enough to stay put. It’s a perfect match for Apple’s USB C to 3.5 mm headphone adapter.

Its ability to drive power-hungry planar-magnetic headphones is the key selling point, it’s able to deliver live concert dynamics, yet is also dead-quiet. I’m sure there are headphones out there that need something more than the Zen Can to drive them to their full potential, but I don’t own a pair. The Zen Can is all the headphone amp most people will ever need, so it’s a Top Choice for 2020.




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