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The iFi ZEN CAN vs. iFi ZEN CAN Signature: which is the most zen?

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

Hey Guys and Gals!

Welcome back to the Neighborhood! Today we’re looking at the iFi ZEN CAN AND the iFi ZEN CAN Signature! Thanks to iFi by the way for reaching out, and sending both of these units in for review!

The ZEN CAN is the follow up and coordinating unit for the ZEN DAC for iFi Audio. I loved the ZEN DAC; and although it was somewhat underpowered, I thought it stacked up well as both an introductory amplifier and a sustainable DAC from which a person could continue to build a system around.

So what do I think of the more powerful, ZEN CAN Amplifier and its cousin the ZEN CAN Signature? Is one of these units the one to expand your zen with?

Well… let’s, get InToit…

The build of each ZEN CAN is almost identical, with some key differences, which we well get into, but both units are actually built very similar to the construction of the ZEN DAC. Speaking of the ZEN DAC, I reviewed the ZEN DAC previously, and I’ll place a link to that review in the description below. One of these days, I have plans to do a review on iFi’s GTO filter. Since my review of the ZEN DAC, I’ve updated its firmware to utilize this firmware, and, for now, I’ll just say that it’s pretty great, and definitely worth doing.

Anyhow, like the ZEN DAC, each ZEN CAN is made mostly out of metal, has solid connectors, a nice, machined, volume control, and metal buttons, which, unfortunately, do rattle when the unit is picked up or moved around. In addition, the front of the unit also has a power button, an input selector; which cycles between the unbalanced RCA input and 3.5mm input, and the balanced 4.4 mm balanced input on the back of the unit, a gain stage selector switch, which cycles between 0 dB 6dB 12dB and 18 dB of additional gain, a quarter-inch unbalanced input, a 4.4 mm pentacon balanced input, and an effects selector, which, with the push of a button, cycles between XBass, 3D, and a combination effect of each on the ZEN CAN, and the 6XX effect, XSpace, and a combination of each on the ZEN CAN Signature.

More simply, the back of the units consists of the female connections for the inputs previously mentioned, a 5V power port, and a female 4.4mm balanced out, which has variable output controlled by the volume knob on the front of the unit. As in the case of the ZEN DAC you’ll need adapter cables of the 4.4mm variety to make the most out of the ZEN CANs. For example, if you plan or stacking the ZEN CAN with the ZEN DAC, you’ll need a 4.4mm male to male adapter cable to be able to make the most out of this combination, as only a set of RCA cables, a quarter-inch to 3.5mm connector, and a 5V power supply came in each my box.

To obtain the cables you’ll need to maximize your ZEN CAN, I recommend checking out Hart Audio Cables. He has a 4.4mm to 4.4mm pentacon cable that is only 15 bucks for the 8-inch variety, which comes in either red or a black and gray variant, which matches the iFi color aesthetic. Hart Audio Cables can also produce cables for your headphones that terminate in a 4.4mm pentacon connector, or you can get one of their multi-kits in order to be able to use your headphones with a vast array of connections, including the unbalanced quarter-inch and the 4.4mm pentacon connections that the Zen CAN uses. So, Hart Audio Cables has you covered, but I think iFi should have included at least a 4.4mm to 4.4mm in the box for those that most likely bought one of these units to accompany their ZEN DAC.

Having said that, I will note that they have included 5V power supplies in the iFi iPower DC varieties. These normally run you at least $50 bucks, so this was a nice inclusion, as one of these did not come with the ZEN DAC. But I will also note that I don’t think this comes standard on all units, even though it was supplied with mine. I believe included power supplies are included with some ZEN Cans, but all ZEN CAN Signatures. Furthermore, I will draw your attention to the fact that the included power supplies are different, and the power supply that came with the Signature model was of a higher quality and produced better sound on both devices.

Specs suggest that these ZEN CANs are class A, and because of this, they do get somewhat warm. Much less warm than a Bravo Ocean, and slightly warmer than a Centrance DACport HD for example.

So, what do the ZEN CANs sound like, and how did they match up with my cans? To start with, there has been a lot of assumptions made that they sound the same; however, this is most certainly, NOT the case! Each of my test units does sound markedly different from one another, and while I don’t think either unit is objectively bad, I am only really going to recommend one of them.

In summary, the ZEN CAN’s presentation was rather neutral, warm, but also somewhat thin, slightly dry, overly rounded, and lacking in transients and bass reproduction without it’s added XBass. In fact, I will note that with most headphones, I had to turn XBass on for this amplifier to produce a normal bass response for most cans. While some might consider this a disadvantage, it also came in handy on occasion. For example, on some amplifiers, my MK2 Argons can be a wee bit precocious in the low-end department. But, with the ZEN CAN, my balanced Argons felt more cohesive, and were an excellent match with the ZEN CAN. For similar reasons, I also really enjoyed this amplifier with the Beyerdynamic DT177X GO as well. Furthermore, the former, Mr. Speakers, now Dan Clark Audio, Ether CX also presented well on the Zen CAN, especially with its XBass and 3D effects turned on. Having said that, I ultimately still preferred my Argons on the THX AAA789, my Ether CX on the Bravo Ocean, and the DT177X GO on my Darkvoice.

With a glass half-full attitude, I would describe the mid-range and treble presentations as fairly neutral and balanced with a rolled off top-end. From a glass half-empty perspective, I would say that the ZEN CAN is somewhat dull and lacks brilliance at times. Although clarity and resolution capabilities are above average for the price point, The ZEN CAN could not beat stand-outs in or below its price range either, at least not for most of the headphones that I tested. We have come a long way in the headphone world in the last few years, and unfortunately for the ZEN CAN, seems somewhat of a relic in this regard. Surprisingly, despite its lack of power compared to the ZEN CAN, I ultimately favored the sounds of the ZEN DAC’s onboard amplifier to the tones of the ZEN CAN. The HIFIMAN HE4XX, AKG K7XX, and Sennheiser 6XX each showed greater separation, layering, and clarity with the ZEN DAC compared to the ZEN CAN.

IEM’s also favored the ZEN DAC. While the ZEN DAC’s balanced out was only slightly too noisy for the most sensitive of IEM’s, the unbalanced operation was more than sufficient. In contrast, the non-signature ZEN CAN was audibly noisy- both in balanced and unbalanced operations.

I also compared a number of other, similarly-priced amplifiers to the ZEN CAN as well. In comparison, the Bravo Ocean was most like the iFi here, but ultimately offered more bottom end performance, better transients, and enhanced musicality. The iFi sounded closest to the Ocean with it’s XBass and 3D effects on. But when testing with a 600 OHM DT880 SE, it wasn’t even a competition, as the ocean blew the ZEN CAN out of the water. The ZEN CAN was ultimately incapable of driving the 600 OHM to its fullest potential. Instead, it sounded thin, without body, and lacking liquidity on the Zen Can, no matter the settings or type of operation. While the ZEN CAN could push the DT880 to sufficient volume on its highest gain setting, it ultimately, didn’t sound any good. In contrast, on with the Bravo Ocean, I barely had to turn the volume knob to get warm, luscious, smooth tones from the 600 ohm 880’s.

When using the balanced connection of the Loxjie P20, it also bested the ZEN CAN for both IEMs and headphones. While I don’t recommend using the P20’s unbalanced output due to noise issues, in balanced operation, the Loxjie produced little to no noise with sensitive IEMs, while the iFi struggled in this regard. The Sennheiser 6XX also sounded astronomically better on the P20 than it did on the ZEN CAN, even with the iFi’s Xbass or 3D tuning modes enabled.

I’d like to point out that given the price of this ZEN CAN, you could buy both the P20 and the Bravo Ocean for your ZEN DAC- hook the P20 up via the balanced output, and the Ocean up via the single-ended, output, and have a much better overall experience for similar or less money. I’ll place links to reviews of the Bravo Ocean and the Loxjie P20 in the description below.

But what about the Signature? According to iFi, the Signature is constructed of higher quality components, and it shows. In general, the Signature is more spacious, more musical, notes have a more rounded definition to them, and it offers a significant bump in resolution and clarity to my ear compared to the ZEN CAN. I won’t say that its better than the Bravo Ocean with the 4xx, but with the true bass button enabled via variable out on the ZEN DAC, and the 6XX and XSpace modes enabled on the Signature; it’s a different presentation that rivals it. The notes come across with greater distinctiveness, and the presentation feels more natural and musical than its counterpart.

In terms of their goal to make an amp that is special for the Sennheiser HD6XX, I actually think iFi hits the mark here. I have never enjoyed my HD6XX this much. I’m not sure that the HD6XX button is necessary, as its really just a slightly different presentation, and sometimes I prefer the headphone without it, but it does work for the HD6XX and other headphones alike. I think I actually prefer the 6XX with it and the XSpace on together, or without it or the XSpace enabled individually, but your preferences here may vary regarding this. These are less straightforward effects than the XBass and the 3D effects on the ZEN CAN, but they are more subtle, sophisticated, and special in my opinion. With the 6XX specifically the sound-field feels more spacious, the low-end is perfect, and imaging is enhanced. The dreaded three blob affect, that is often talked for this set is all but imperceptible. Compared to the THX AAA 789, sonics are less precise, but more natural, filled-out, and enjoyable. If I were in the market for an amplifier strictly for the 6XX, I would consider this, the Loxjie P20, or the THX AAA 789- most likely in that order.

Other headphones also sounded more like themselves on the Signature compared to the ZEN CAN. For instance, MK2 Argons had a fuller presentation with a more substantial bottom-end, the Deva sound more liquid, and the Aeon Open X had great definition its notes. And while, the Signature struggled less with the DT880 600 Ohm variant from a tonal perspective, like the non-signature ZEN CAN, it still struggled from a power stand-point to drive this headphone to its peak levels of performance.

Unlike the ZEN CAN, however; it was possible to use sensitive IEMs for both unbalanced and balanced operation on the ZEN CAN Signature, which was suggestive of a cleaner signal in general. I was actually pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed this experience in comparison to the non-signature, ZEN CAN, which was too noisy to be used effectively with IEMs. I tested the KZ ZSX, Shozy Neo CP, Shozy Rouge, and KZ ZSN Pro X, and, in each case, the ZEN CAN Signature performed well without any interference really. Further, I was only able to detected hiss if I turned up the volume to unlistenable levels.

On a side note, I also felt that I could dial in the low end better with the Signatures’ modes in combination with the ZEN DAC’s TrueBass switch compared to the ZEN CAN’s modes in combination with the ZEN DAC’s switch. I just wish that the TrueBass in the ZEN DAC output in both lineout operation as well as the variable one.

So, to wrap things up, let’s start with the iFi ZEN CAN… in my estimation, what is it, and what does it represent in the modern audiophile landscape? Simply put, it’s an option. Is it an option I would pick, or believe adds value to a setup over other offerings in a similar price-range? No, not really. In fact, I actually preferred the ZEN DAC's integrated amplifier to the ZEN CAN in most circumstances.

But, is the ZEN CAN a bad amplifier? No far from it, but I wouldn’t call it exceptional for its price either. For comparable amounts of cash, if you are willing to match other amplifiers to your particular headphones, in most cases, I would recommend a different amp to this one. It might even cost you less money! Yet in terms of the ZEN CAN, the simple fact remains that out of all my headphones, I never preferred the ZEN CAN to one of my other amplifiers, even if it did come close on occasion, here or there.

Nevertheless, if you’re in the market for an amplifier that matches the aesthetics of the ZEN DAC, which produces a neutral, warm; mostly clean, and somewhat powerful signal, at least in most cases; well I won’t argue with you if you made the choice to purchase the Zen Can either. One might also consider purchasing the base model of the ZEN CAN if they have a set of headphones, which may lean towards boom or bloom in the low-end, as its leaner presentation may suite this type of can particularly well.

However; it won’t get my recommendation because the ZEN CAN Signature also exists; which just sounds significantly better, offers some more unique sonic filters, and achieves its ultimate goal of playing extremely well with its signature headphone, the Sennheiser HD6XX. So, if you’re looking to reenergize your 6XX, or for an amplifier to match the build, and not necessarily the paint job of the ZEN DAC, then I would most certainly would recommend spending the extra money on this amplifier. Which brings up my only gripe with the Signature really- its price. At $250 dollars plus tax, the Signature is over $80 dollars more expensive than its cheaper cousin. While I ultimately believe that the sound difference of the Signature warrants its additional cost, its still a bit high. I would have capped it at $199; or, at the most, priced it at the price of the HD6XX at $220. I also would have included a 4.4mm cable to 4.4mm cable in the box for free. But, the lack of adapters in both boxes are problems for both units. And with that, I’m out… for now…

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