Acoustic Sounds

iFi Audio

ZEN Phono 3

ifi Zen Phono 3
By: Michael Fremer

June 10th, 2024

iFi ZEN Phono 3 is 2 Good!

features switchable "Intelligent" sub-sonic filtering

Jerome Sabbagh's newest album Heart arrived as I was packing for Munich so I couldn't play it before leaving. Upon returning, once my ears had unclogged from the plane flight, I got right to it, playing it on the MoFi Electronics Masterdeck turntable, a review of which is coming right up.

First play I found the James Farber engineered at The Power Station live to 2-track analog tape recording wonderfully transparent, timbrally rich, and overall, sonically addicting as Sabbagh's's trio featuring Joe Martin on bass and the veteran drummer Al Foster went slow-walking through a set of de-constructed classics, the Sabbagh penned title tune, and a pair written by the trio. If you like "classic" jazz you'll like everything about this record.

But as it kept playing I began noting underdone dynamics, a bit of transient softness and an overall lack of expected immediacy, especially since the cartridge installed on the Masterdeck was Ortofon's very immediate sounding $7000 Verismo. Nonetheless the sonic presentation was fundamentally correct and definitely enjoyable from the bottom end of the frequency scale all the way to the top.

The sonics were certainly pleasing and I listened through the entire record enjoying both music and sound but wondered where the cartridge's slam, transient precision and ultra-transparency had gone. It wasn't the turntable, because I'd been playing and enjoy it for a few months. And it wasn't the record.


When the album had finished I went over to the darTZeel preamp and realized the input wasn't on the CH Precision P10 and that the Masterdeck was plugged into the $249 iFi Zen 3! Then I remembered I'd connected it up and turned on the Zen 3 to "cook" while I was gone, though to really get it burned in required playing music through it so it was still a bit "green", but the sound of this record through a $249 phono preamp was so convincing i thought I was critiquing the record, not the gear! Of course playing it on the OMA K3/CH P10 combo produced a staggeringly better sonic ride, but then the price differential is $6295 versus, well $75,000 for the phono preamp alone!

The Zen Phono 3

The latest Zen series phono preamp takes its visual and chassis shape cues from older models in the series but it's been drawn in a more sophisticated fashion. A rear panel mounted switch selects 36dB, 48dB, 60dB and 72dB gain. The front panel's large circular feature includes LEDs that reflect your rear panel setting—a nice idea so you don't have to turn the unit around if you forget your chosen gain setting. The large push button to its right selects the well-chosen 100Ω, 400Ω and 1000Ω loading options. The outer packing says there are four load settings but there are three. Set to the 36dB MM setting the push button selects 200pF with the default being 100pF.

Further to the right is the latest improvement to the Zen Phono series: what the company calls a switchable "intelligent" subsonic filter. Ifi's phono preamps since it began manufacturing and selling them in 2012 have always featured subsonic filters. The new ZEN 3 features "intelligent" subsonic filtering that the company says can distinguish between low bass musical frequencies and warp-produced vertical modulations that if left uncorrected, waste amplifier power and produce deleterious lower frequency sonics.

Traditional "rumble filters" tend to both cut musical bass and affect phase, producing bass that sound somewhat disconnected from the music's rhythmic thrust. The owner's manual claims the subsonic filter "...will intelligently detect whether a subsonic frequency is a warp or a bass note. It will eliminate the warps and let all the bass and mid-range frequencies pass through untouched".

Unfortunately iFi provides no useful information about how this is accomplished or the frequency and slope of the cut-off. Wouldn't you like to know? Perhaps an answer will be forthcoming following publication. I did run into iFi/Abbington Music Research's (AMR) Vince Luke in a crowded Munich High End hallway but had no time to engage him. I found this graphic, which looks good! though no frequency details:

Nonetheless, consumers buying a phono preamp at this super-reasonable price point are the ones more likely to benefit from a well-designed "rumble" filter so it's really an essential feature. When the woof stops pumping while not producing any sound, the benefits are real. when the woofer also stops producing the lowest audible frequencies a speaker can produce, that's not good!

Rear panel connections are well-laid out, especially for such a small chassis, though large diameter RCA plugs will not fit, nor are people buying the ZEN Phono 3 likely to be using such cables. The supplied ones are well-constructed and sound fine in this context. I loved the large ground lug that accept both bare wire and banana plugs. Another interesting and useful feature, though I couldn't try it, is the balanced output jack—a single small one that delivers both channels if you have the proper phono cables for it, which I, like most people, do not. I probably should get a set and report back and I will.

Among the ZEN series phono preamp build features that always impresses are the high quality parts found inside that produce among other benefits, very low noise and excellent measured RIAA accuracy. The ZEN Phono 3’s RIAA EQ circuitry uses multiple TDK C0G (Class 1 ceramic) capacitors in parallel that result in the inverse RIAA curve being within +/- 0.15dB tolerance from 20-20kHz. iFi claims this and others have confirmed by measuring. These caps are also said to reduce to very low levels, capacitor-induced distortion.

Noise specs are truly impressive and if you're going to use a very low output cartridge like the Ortofon Verismo (.2mV) with the 72dB gain, noise had better be low. iFi claims EIN (equivalent input noise) to be -151dBV, but how I could not find how that related to traditional S/N ratio, which is the ratio of the noise floor to the input signal. More to the point, backgrounds are very quiet.

Sound is the Game

Jerome's record was a treat through this $249 phono preamp. Next I played a record Fred Kaplan raved about Kahil El' Zabar's Open Me, A Higher Consciousness of Sound and Spirit I think you will really dig this I don't care what are your musical tastes. He's a percussionist and the sound of the drums, tambourines and moving on to the others, Alex Harding's baritone sax will floor you! The percussion is so well recorded and three-dimensionality is visual: tambourines floating in three-dimensional space. 11 for sound is 100% correct and it opens with the familiar: a cover of "All Blues". Pressing and packaging are also outstanding.

Whatever the iFi Phono 3 doesn't do is a matter of subtraction not addition, as I noted in the Jerome foolery at the top. Playing this record through the Phono 3 for you, and looking at what's in the rack, you would never know you where listening to a $249 phono preamp until you heard it through the P10. That's how good and transparent and precise this little sucker is. And its imaging and staging are well beyond $249. The stage set up by this record was wide, deep and just wow!

Even if you have a "mega system", if you can drop $249 on one of these (and if you have such a system you can), it would be worth your while to hear the ZEN Phono 3 just to give you a lot of perspective.

That's all I have to say about this. There's this:

NOTE: these seem to be out of stock most places, due back July 11th or so. Worth the wait!



Analogue Input: RCA L/R

Analogue Output: Balanced 4.4mm


Max.^ Output Voltage RMS:

Balanced ≤19.98V RMS 100kΩ (THD + N <1%)

≤12.75V RMS 600Ω (THD + N <1%)

Single-Ended ≤10.07V RMS 100kΩ (THD + N <1%)

≤7.94V RMS 600Ω (THD + N <1%)

Output impedance:

Balanced ≤200Ω

Single-Ended ≤100Ω

Input impedance:

MM/MC HIGH 47kΩ 100pF or 200pF (optional)

MC LOW/MC MC V-LOW 1kΩ or 400Ω or 100Ω (optional)

Gain settings

MM 36dB (±1dB)

MC HIGH 48dB (±1dB)

MC LOW 60dB (±1dB)

MC V-LOW 72dB (±1dB)

SNR: (All 2V Balanced/1V Single-Ended)

MM 91dB (A-weighted)

82dB (unweighted 80kHz BW)

MC HIGH 81dB (A-weighted)

8 / 10

71dB (unweighted 80kHz BW)

MC LOW 89.6dB (A-weighted)

80dB (unweighted 80kHz BW)

MC V-LOW 78.6dB (A-weighted)

69dB (unweighted 80kHz BW)

Ein (equivalent input noise): (All 2V Balanced/1V Single-Ended)

MM 8.9nV|/Hz (unweighted) -127dBV (A-weighted)

-118dBV (unweighted)

MC HIGH 7.95nV|/Hz

(unweighted) -129dBV (A-weighted)

-119dBV (unweighted)

MC LOW 0.7nV|/Hz

(unweighted) -149.6dBV (A-weighted)

-140dBV (unweighted)

MC V-LOW 0.63nV|/Hz

(unweighted) -150.6dBV (A-weighted)

-141dBV (unweighted)

Total Harmonic Distortion: (All 2V Balanced/1V Single-Ended @ 600Ω)

MM <-91dB/0.0027%

MC HIGH <-80dB/0.0095%

MC LOW <-70dB/0.031%

9 / 10

MC V-LOW <-73dB/0.022%

Channel Separation: >75dB (1kHz all modes)

Frequency Response:

Balanced 20Hz - 20kHz (±0.15dB)

Single-Ended 20Hz - 80kHz (±3dB)

Power supply requirement: DC 5V/0.5A (centre +ve)

Power consumption:

No Signal ~1.5W

Max Signal ~1.8W

Dimensions: 158 x 115 x 35 mm (6.2" x 4.6" x 1.4")

Net Weight: 456 g (1.0 lbs)

Limited Warranty: 12 months*

Manufacturer Information

ifi Audio

Abbington Global Limited

79 Arnhem

6827 DC Netherlands


  • 2024-06-10 08:23:23 PM

    Zaphod wrote:

    $299 Speakers? $249 Phono Stage? What is going on here?!? What is next, a $200 dollar turntable. Do you think we want to read about these low priced bargains?

    Well, WE DO!!! I am glad to see that you guys review products of all price points. Reviews like this prove you can have great sounding gear without having to mortgage your home.

    Keep up the disinterested work. (Quote from my favourite Radio Drama)

    • 2024-06-11 12:56:29 AM

      Anton wrote:

      I am with Zaphod!

      Great review.

      Great sense of the real fun of this hobby!

    • 2024-06-11 05:09:46 PM

      JACK L wrote:


      What can go wrong with $249 for a phonostage ?? I easily spent 3 times for the last Christmas dinner with my family at Ruth's Steak House.

      That said, for those balanced I/P phono freaks, there is one of better money value: Schiit $399 Balanced Discrete MM/MC Phono Preamp With Remote Control, made in USA. 2-year warranty with money back 15-day guarantee.

      Here you go!

      JACK L

      • 2024-06-12 08:54:47 PM

        Anton wrote:

        So, you are saying what could go wrong is someone spends less than you did at a chain restaurant?

        • 2024-06-13 11:52:26 PM

          JACK L wrote:


          A few hundred bucks nowadays is no big deal for a fine dine let alone purchasing a quality audio component ! Right ?

          JACK L

  • 2024-06-10 08:31:16 PM

    Bruce Nelson wrote:

    Michael: You've really got to do a review of the Sota Pyxi phono preamp ($300). I think you'll be very impressed. I am.

    • 2024-06-11 03:37:07 AM

      Michael Fremer wrote:

      I’ll try to get one

      • 2024-06-11 04:28:54 PM

        Bruce Nelson wrote:

        I suggested to Christan Griego, Sota CEO, that he send you one. You can reach him at Looking forward to your review! Be sure to try both MM and MC cartridges.

      • 2024-06-12 08:53:28 PM

        Anton wrote:

        If you are taking requests, perhaps the Parks Audio waxwing?

        (Puppy eyes face)

  • 2024-06-11 05:19:51 AM

    Jake wrote:

    A reasonably priced, high performing phono component. Thanks for reviewing this, Mike.

  • 2024-06-12 06:42:01 PM

    Pedro Gonzalez wrote:

    I have the previous version of this and it is already amazing! Would love to know ow they. Compare.

  • 2024-06-13 07:22:31 PM

    Jeff 'Glotz' Glotzer wrote:

    Brilliant! I love a great value offering like this for all of that it offers! Smart-subsonic filter! Killer.

    Ifi has been smashing it out of the park, just like Schiit and SOTA. Great to hear!