Doug Moore investigates The Ifi Zen Phono Preamp
As this is the first phono stage/preamp review here in The Sound Advocate (there’s much more to come!), I’ll start out by saying that when we get older, from time to time we look back at our childhood. Reminiscing about times our father played catch with us, kicked around a soccer ball, or went hunting or fishing. That was not my childhood. You see my father was different, and he knew I was too. His day job was running a printing department but after hours he was a television repairman.
He was also an audio buff and an avid music lover. While my friends were out playing ball with their fathers, I was learning about how a cathode ray tube worked, how the path flowed from the turntable through the amplifier to the speakers, how each driver worked in the speaker and how each driver only played specific frequency ranges. This was taught to me before my teenage years. When my father first formally introduced me to his turntable, he of course started slow due to the delicate nature of the format.
As I got a little older new technology like the CD took command and my father and I kind of lost the connection to vinyl. I now switched my focus to the new technology of digital music and computers. Well, my father must have known that someday I would put new life into vinyl on my system because he kept his mid 70’s MCS(Hitachi) PS17 turntable in storage for me. Not sure if he knew vinyl would someday be resurrected or if he thought that I would reach a time in my life when I would want to relive my childhood. Nonetheless, the Turntable has stayed with me through 3 moves knowing that the day would come for a resurrection.
Knowing I had spent some previous years stuck in the digital domain I knew that my preamp did not have a phono stage and, in my opinion, an outboard phono stage is generally a superior choice unless the preamp/integrated is purpose-built mostly for vinyl playback. So, I went on a search for a phono preamp to get my vintage-based vinyl rig spinning again.
For my requirements for this phono preamp, I wanted something that had good specs, was from a reputable brand, and was able to work with multiple types of cartridges. While I was willing to part with a little bit of coin to get a phono preamp, I knew that I did not want to go overboard because I was getting back into vinyl. Until I found out how good my vintage Hitachi worked at least. After looking at many options at different price classes and technologies I decided to try the Ifi Zen phono.
The Zen Phono preamp physical design has an elegant look in my opinion and I like the fact that it is somewhat small so it does not take a lot of real estate on my rack. Also, the color of the outer metal case is blue/grey which is very appealing. Looking at all the switches’ buttons and lights they all are well placed and all seem to have a very good feal to them when used. The only thing that I could complain about is that the indicator lights on the front panel could be a little brighter when used in a normally lit room but that is a small gripe. The overall build quality is good and sturdy especially for its $200 price.
Hooking up this unit is a breeze. It has RCA jacks for input, output, and a ground terminal for your turntable. It also has another jack that allows you to take advantage of the balanced architecture that Zen possesses. You can get an adapter cable to use this jack with XLR inputs. I did not use the balanced jack in my system as my preamps XLR input is being used by my digital source so I stuck with RCA jacks which is what I based this review on (most people will most likely use this more traditional hookup method). The cool thing that the Zen has that most phono preamps even close to this price do not seem to possess is the ability to use both MM and MC cartridges. The Zen has a switch on the rear panel that allows you to select the gain for the MC cartridge according to the specs of your cartridge and turntable.
The Zen Phono uses quite a collection of upscale technology and components in this piece. The circuits are a true balanced design for lower noise and crosstalk. The capacitors used in this design are high-quality Panasonic, TDK, and Murata, all Japanese high spec capacitors used throughout. This is quite good to see knowing there are a lot of audio components in the entry-level price category using Chinese copies of these capacitors that either do not hold up or may miss the mark spec-wise.
The Zen Phono also features Ifi’s own custom OV series Opamps that have a distortion of 0.0001%! This is very low distortion indeed. This all equates to an Equivalent Input Noise at -151DBV which is quite remarkable for any phono preamp. Power for the Zen comes from an included power supply wall wart which can be upgraded using Ifi’s own Ipower 2 power supply which promises even lower noise and improved performance. For this review, I used the factory power supply.
My favorite feature of the Zen Phono is their smart subsonic filter. I have always seen subsonic filters as a feature that sometimes is needed but always has drawbacks. The filters one usually comes across take out the rumble but almost always will rob you of bass and punch. Ifi combatted this with the use of their proprietary smart subsonic filter.
The use of AI tech in their subsonic filter allows the Zen Phono to do away with the rumble inherent to some records on some turntables but also allows you to keep all the bass and punch. I tested this for myself by engaging and disengaging this filter on multiple occasions and I never heard any loss of bass.
The first thing I noticed with the Zen Phono was that it is a very clean-sounding unit. The designers of the Zen put their work into designing a preamp that has the least effect on the over sound as possible. It just does its job, equalizes the sound with the RIAA curve like it is supposed to, and goes on with its day allowing you to hear the sound characteristics of your selected cartridge in all its glory.
The bass on the Zen Phono is exactly as good as the cartridge your turntable has on it, no more no less. Some phono preamps will exaggerate the bass with a “warmth” to the sound and some people do like that. The Zen has a firm punch but is light on its feet when the music calls for it.
When playing tracks off of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon, ‘The Great Gig In The Sky‘ shows the bass guitar was detailed with a solid weight and the kick drum was punchy and tight. On the song Money, the beginning of the track has a distinct and well-toned bass guitar that the Zen phono allows to flow. Then the bass drum kicks in and forms the rhythm. If your turntable and cartridge have a good, firm bass impact this will show it in spades!
The Zen has a very balanced sound that lends itself very well to the full midrange frequencies. Being that this preamp is designed to get out of the way it certainly does just that. The midrange of your cartridge, turntable/arm combination glides through this area of reproduction better than any other affordable phono preamp I have heard. Most affordable models either sound overly warm with limited detail or possess a character themselves; thus, smearing the sound from your chosen cartridge. The cartridge I did most of my listening was the Audio Technica AT-VM95E which is a good cartridge in its price class. It is also in a price range I could more likely see being paired with the Zen Phono. I wanted to keep things here in perspective for this evaluation. Putting a multi-thousand-dollar cartridge with this preamp would have been unrealistic because it undoubtedly would likely never happen in the real world. The AT-VM95E has a sound that I would describe as being quite neutral with a slight focus on the midrange and bass. This is reflected through the Zen Phono as well.
With the Zen, If your cartridge is detailed and airy so will be the Zen’s reproduction capabilities. If your cartridge is on the warm side, that is exactly how the program source will display it. It is among the cleanest phono preamps I have heard in a system anywhere near or within this price point.
Weather Reports self titled album from 1982 is a recording that can sound bright and forward on some systems. The controversial use of the synthesizers can be a bit much at times. Through my system, with my Hitachi singing through the Zen phono, the treble detail was as good as this cartridge would allow — seeing that treble detail is not the AT-VM95E’s strongest quality. The elements that this cartridge did present were quite discreetly displayed by the Zen. The Zen Phono allowed Peter Erskine’s cymbals to shine without harshness and the album presented itself with good dynamics and smooth, elegance when called for. Pretty impressive!
Soundstage and imaging:
If any parts of the Zens sound could be bested by spending more money on your Phono Preamp it would be here. While playing John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” Coltrane’s sax is pretty hard-panned to the left and Elvis Jones drums to the right, with some decent depth to the drums in the soundstage.
Jimmy Garrisons’ bass is center-left and back into the stage. The Zen also does a really good job in allowing the piano to set back into the mix and flow virtually to center stage. While it is true that a more costly phono preamp could best the Zen on soundstage and image depth the fact is for the cost of the Zen it delivers the goods,
As I get my grips on the vinyl side of my system again and remember the days of my childhood bonding with my father, I am aware that the turntable I am listening to right now is 47 years old. It was the same table that I cut my teeth on and learned how vinyl rigs worked. I know there are better tables out there. Tables that are higher-tech and weigh 150 pounds. Someday very soon I will do a major upgrade. But for now, I am enjoying this table very much after bringing it back to life,
The emotional connection to this table is just a bonus. The fact that the Zen Phono allows me to enjoy this table and gets out of the way in both sound and size is great. Yes, you could spend more and get better. But I will say this. The Zen Phono gives you a lot of value for money spent. I would dare say that it will give you a good percentage of the sound quality a more expensive phono preamp may offer at an easily attainable cost. As for now, I will ride off into the audio sunset enjoying a vintage Turntable and reminiscing about my childhood. Do yourself a favor and give the Zen Phono a shot, it might surprise you.
Ifi Zen Phono preamplifier $199.99
IfI Zen Phono Specifications
MC (v lo)@ 72dB (+/- 1dB)
MC (lo) 60dB (+/- 1dB)
MC (hi) 48dB (+/- 1dB)
MM72dB (+/- 1dB) 36dB (+/- 1dB)
AI Sub-sonic filter (Remedies only LP ‘warp’ —no negative impact to bass response
Max Output Voltage (RMS) 20v RMS bal output into 100k (< 1% THD & N)
13.5V RMS bal output into 600R (< 1% THD & N)
BAL 200 ohms
SE 100 Ohms
MM: 47K Ohms (Load: 110pF)
MC High: 47K Ohms
MC Low: 1K Ohms <.br> MC V Low: 110 Ohms
94dB (A) MM re 2V BAL/1V UNBAL
80dB(unweighted 80kHz BW) MM re 2V BAL/1V UNBAL
84dB(A) MC Hi re 2V BAL/1V UNBAL
71dB(unweighted 80kHz BW) MM re 2V BAL/1V UNBAL
90dB(A) MC lo re 2V BAL/1V UNBAL
79dB(unweighted 80kHz BW) MC lo re 2V BAL/1V UNBAL
79dB(A) MC vlo re 2V BAL/1V UNBAL
69dB(unweighted 80kHz BW) MC vlo re 2V BAL/1V UNBAL
EIN (equivalent input noise):
0.6nV|/Hz (unweighted) MC lo/vlo:
-151dBV (A weighted)
6.5nV|/Hz (unweighted) MM/MC hi-
-130dBV (A weighted)
Harmonic Distortion: < -110dB / 0.0003% MM re 2V BAL/1V UNBAL
< -80dB / 0.01% MC lo re 2V BAL/1V UNBAL
< -86dB / 0.005% MC vlo re 2V BAL/1V UNBAL
Dimensions160(l) x 113(w) x 35(h) mm
6.3″ x 4.4″ x 1.4″.
Power Supply: DC 5V / 500mANet weight:515g (1.14 Ibs)
AMR/iFi audio (USA) WEB: https://ifi-audio.com/
105 Professional Pkwy, Ste 1502, Yorktown, VA 23693
1211 Park Ave, Ste 102, San Jose, CA 95126
Tel: +1 (800) 799-IFIA (4342)
Review System: Speakers: Spatial Audio M3 Turbo S open baffle. DIY sealed enclosure Subwoofer system. Digital: Denafrips Venus II, Modified PC-based Music server/streamer. Analog: Hitachi PS17 Vintage Turntable, Ifi Zen Phono Preamp. Amplification: Hegel P20 preamp. Pass Labs X150.5 power amp. Conditioner: PS Audio Quintet. Cables: All custom-made speaker and power cables using top-shelf cables and connections
iFi Zen web: https://ifi-audio.com/products/zen-phono/
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