What Hi-Fi (UK)

ifi Zen Phono


At What Hi-fi?, we often recommend investing in a decent entry-level phono stage to complement the growing market of budget record players, or as an upgrade to the phono stage built into the main amplifier. However, in doing so, we might be guilty of making it appear there are more out there than is actually true.

The arrival of the ifi Zen Phono has swollen the ranks of decent entry-level phono stages. You won’t find one with a better spec sheet, or that is better built, but most importantl­y you’ll also struggle to find anything at this price that will make your records sound cleaner.

ifi is a company known for its ambition, determined to create entry-level products able to stack up against the best many times the price, and it almost encourages the listener to be as ambitious with them.

The Zen Phono caters not only for moving-magnet cartridges, as you would expect from a product such as this, but moving-coil too, offering a range of gain in steps from 36db up to 72db.

It also features a balanced circuit design to reduce noise and crosstalk, a feature even less common at this end of the market.

The company has even dedicated considerab­le attention to creating its own low-noise power supply, as you might find in a flagship phono stage. Everything used, from the Panasonic and TDK capacitors to the Texas Instrument­s ICS, is geared towards low distortion and crystal clarity.

We often mention hi-fi components offering headroom for upgrades, so they continue to perform when the components around them step up a level. But rarely do we come across those that stop just shy of begging you to explore a world of opportunit­y, firmly nudging you to try new things.

A good-sounding MC cartridge alone costs around double the price of the Zen Phono, so an entry-level do-all phono stage won’t keep up for long – but if ifi gets you to imagine a system beyond your own, then it has served a purpose.

It’s all becoming clear

This little box sounds good. There is no mistaking where the company’s focus has been – the presentati­on is immaculate­ly clean. There will be components costing two or maybe even three times the price that will struggle to dig out this amount of informatio­n and deliver it with this level of clarity.

That isn’t to say the Zen Phono is overly clinical – it will embrace the warmth and character it is offered from your turntable – but it isn’t adding anything to the sound, merely polishing each note to the best of its ability.

Unsurprisi­ngly, the balance is spot on, too. The ifi is willing to reach as high or low as your turntable asks it to, and treat each frequency with that same sympathy to tone and texture.

There is a compromise here, though. With all this focus on clarity and detail, the ifi loses a little of the rhythmic and dynamic sense we’d expect from a five-star product. While the texture and timbre of an instrument is interestin­g, it needs timing and expression to be music.

The Zen Phono is not bereft entirely of these talents, but it doesn’t snap in time or throw lines at us with the energy some deserve. We’re not exactly bored or left confused by the ifi’s performanc­e, but we’d certainly trade some of that cleanlines­s for a little more feeling. Using the balanced output makes the presentati­on bigger and bolder, but doesn’t change the phono stage’s fundamenta­l sonic character.

It’s the kind of thing at which Rega excels, and it offers products that sandwich the Zen Phono in price. The Fono Mini A2D isn’t in the same league when it comes to features or build quality and doesn’t match the Zen Phono for detail, but its sound is overall more musical and engaging for two-thirds of the price. And if you are willing to spend a little more, the What Hi-fi? Awardwinni­ng Rega Fono MM MK3 (p60) matches that kind of hi-fi nous with a knack for finding a groove and contouring low-level dynamic shifts.

While we might question just how necessary it is to have a budget phono stage that can handle MC cartridges and has a balanced output, the ifi stands head and shoulders above its rivals in terms of features before even getting started. Its clarity is bound to give it plenty of suitors, and although its slight lack of enthusiasm means we can’t quite give it the full five stars, it should certainly be on your shortlist.

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 ??  ?? In terms of features per pound, the Zen is a master
In terms of features per pound, the Zen is a master

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