If You Vinyl: Don’t Sleep On the iFi Zen Air Phono Preamp

Just recently, we had the chance to try out our first phono preamp to test with our HiFi system and it was in the form of the iFi Zen Air Phono stage. The Zen Air is a moving coil and moving magnet supported phono stage that costs $99 and is the first in the iFi product line we’ve tested.

The outside is made out of plastic with a textured pattern casing, but do not let that fool you from what’s inside. The product feels and looks more modern than you’d expect, even without a metal case on the outside. This also makes it weigh less than your standard pre-amp, adding to any desktop or turntable set up, without standing out too much. It is sleek and would bring life to any vinyl setup.

Power comes from a USB to barrel connector, which to be honest, is a little too short for connecting (more on this later). Off the jump, just know that you’ll probably need to get a longer cord to connect to a 5V USB-A outlet to power the iFi Zen Air.

As you can see from the front, the Zen Air has gain for moving magnet and moving coil cartridges, as well as a subsonic filter. The subsonic filter normally reduces bass and rumble to help with warped records but according to the iFi website, it only reduces rumble and does not decrease bass.

If you own big brother: the Zen Phono Stage, you would probably expect more out of this product, considering little brother has a little bit less to offer and isn’t as beefed up. But if you don’t, this phono stage is more than enough to support your stereo setup.

Our current setup consists of a pair of Kanto 5.25” passive speakers, an Aiyima T9 Pro amp and a vintage Technics SL-QD33 we picked up at the local antique shop that came with a Grado P-Mount cartridge. Adding the iFi Zen Air phono preamp was a great addition to the mix and we were blown away by the pairing. Even without messing with the equalizer on the T9 Pro, the Zen Air brought out the instrumentation, detail and separation. Bass was controlled and the warmth of our amp and our cartridge made the high’s roll-off, while still maintaining the detail and clearness you’d want.

We played records from Sade, Santana, Fleetwood Mac, Marvin Gaye, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan and more, and they all sounded incredible when channeled through the iFi Zen Air. The only time we noticed a difference is with certain pressings (ie. Maze), which was probably more the recording than the equipment we used.

If there was one downside in all of this: the power cord is so small, you may need an alternative. It’s only USB-A compatible and not long at all. For us, we plugged it into an Anker Powerbank that has enough juice to power it when it’s on, so we haven’t had that much trouble with it. An alternative would be to look on Amazon and buying a DC5V power cord that can directly plug into a power outlet. Or you can also find a DC5V to USB-A cord long enough to power the preamp and possibly a plug to connect to an outlet. Especially if you’re minimalistic and don’t want adapters, and a crowded space for your vinyl setup.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for your first phono stage or something withing budget, this is probably the product for you. You might be able to find cheaper alternatives like the ART DJ PRE II or a Pyle phono stage, but it may not equate to the quality of what you’d get from this iFi Zen Air. Unfortunately we did not have a chance to A/B test with another phono preamp, but we had a friend connect it to his current setup (Fluance tower speakers, IOTAVX stack and Fluance RT85 turntable) and he mentioned the iFi Zen Air was “slightly better than the phono stage inside the IOTAVX.” It was “subtle and the bass is a little more controlled. Instruments and vocals seem to have more separation.” Either way, the Zen Air seems to be rivalling the phono stage inside a $500+ receiver. Which is amazing, especially because this is the budget pick, in comparison to the original Zen Phono or the new Zen Phono 3 that was released recently.

Would it make sense to upgrade to the iFi Zen Phono 3 if you own the Zen Air? Most likely, especially because it would be a significant upgrade. If you own the Zen Air, it probably wouldn’t make sense to buy the original Zen Phono because this is sufficient enough. However, in a second setup or if you’re on a budget and need a phono preamp, this is well worth the price tag.

The iFi Zen Phono Air Preamp will certainly be getting you quality bang for your buck which will rival anything in price range and even things above it.


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