JDS Atom stack vs. iFi Zen DAC/Can stack

So sometime recently I bought a pair of Hifiman Sundara headphones and I bought a Zen DAC to drive it. After some conversation online, I was convinced to upgrade it by added the Zen Can to it for more power, and it noticeably improved the sound. (I was going to get the Asgard 3, but it’s backordered, though at the time I backordered it with the plan to a/b it with the Can to see which sounded better.)

Now this set-ups sounds great. However, after further conversations on this board, I was pointed to the section in GoldenOne’s MQA video where he talks about how the filtering on the Zen DAC and other iFi DACs is designed to make it sound like MQA. This got me curious. DMS and others recommend the JDS Atom stack for the Sundara headphones, and that DAC doesn’t have any MQA or filtering of this type. So I ordered it, and have the chance to A/B test it! I’ll sell off or return whichever one sounds inferior.

Caveat: I’m an audio n00b. I know very little about audio engineering (I understand how an equalizer works and what the different bands mean, but that’s about the extent of it). I don’t have any equipment to measure things scientifically, and I’m not going to the trouble of setting up any kind of double blind testing or anything like that. So this is just my subjective opinions switching back and forth between these two stacks.

Note that the Zen DAC and Can are connected with a balanced pentacon cable, but I’m using an SE headphone cable, while the Atom is entirely SE, whatever difference that makes.

In terms of build quality, the Zen stack wins hands down, with the aluminum shell and metal knobs with truly smooth pots. The Zen also has that weird shape though, which I never actually liked that much but got used to, and honestly the build quality of the internals is much more important to me than the outside.

The Zen stack also has more features–balanced inputs and outputs (via pentacon, which is unusual but whatever), XBass and Truebass bass boosting, “3D” effect (which I don’t like much), and four gain options as opposed to the Atom’s 2. The Zen Can is more powerful, delivering 1.6W at 32ohm vs. the Atom’s 1W. This is observable plugging them both in, since even at the lower gain settings, I need to keep the Zen Can at less that 10 o’clock, while the Atom I can comfortably pump up to 2 o’clock. Of course, all these extra features come with a higher cost, totaling $280 USD vs. the Atom’s $200.

The thing that really matters is the sound though. And the difference is really noticeable. The Zen stack just sounds warmer, smoother, and darker, while the Atom stack sounds clear and bright. I think the difference became really apparent to me when I listened to the song “Daddy’s Home” by St. Vincent, and when the backing vocals came in on the Atom it hit me like a punch, while the effect was much more muted on the Zen stack. At first I wasn’t sure if I liked this quality of the Atom; when you’re switching back and forth, it definitely feels a harsher by comparison, and sharper-edged. But as I listened to the Atom over the course of some albums, I really started to appreciate the brightness and it made me feel like what was getting smoothed over with the Zen stack made it miss impact and detail. However, I could definitely see why someone would prefer the Zen products and their smooth warmth. It feels like bathing in a heated pool by comparison. It also makes it clear to me why people just keep lots of different gear, and switch between them when they’re in different moods or listening to different kinds of music. I could see myself getting geared up for work on the Atom and then relaxing after a long day on the Zen.

That all said, I think I prefer the Atom’s sound signature overall and I think that’s the one I’ll be keeping. (And the one feature I actually used on the Zen Can that doesn’t exist in the Atom, XBass, I managed to duplicate with the equalizer in Roon, so why do something in hardware when you can do it in software.)

Of course, I could also A/B test the DACs separate from their amps which might be interesting, but probably isn’t worth the effort for my purposes; I think I’ll just keep the stacks the way they’re meant to be and leave them evaluated together.

Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.

What do you all think? Is it worth it to get the Asgard 3 or one of the SMSL amps or something and a/b test them as well? Or should I just stick with this, since it sounds great already and why mess with success?

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I think it’s possibly worth it because there’s a possibility that Asgard 3 delivers the warmer sound in a more sophisticated way and it convinces you that you will prefer it over the Atom. I mean when I entered the hobby I also preferred the Heresy to Zen, but now I am into R2R DACs and tubes and a neutral to slightly warmer sound. If that’s the case for you the A3 will be a meaningful upgrade to the Atom despite adopting a very different sound.

But also may not be worth it if you are sure you prefer neutral sound, in which case it may be worth getting something like the Geshelli Erish and JNOG instead

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Also sorry I misread: I thought you were asking whether getting the Atom stack is worth it, will edit my original post now

Oh, one more thing I want to add: I have a pair of cheap ($150) Edifier speakers. They actually sound significantly better on the Atom stack than the Zen DAC (I had to output to the speakers from the Zen DAC directly rather than the Zen Can, because the Zen Can doesn’t have RCA outputs). From the Zen DAC they sounded kind of muddy, and I thought it was just because they were relatively cheap speakers. But from the Atom they sound clear and detailed and it’s a real upgrade to the sound, which surprised me!