(Note: This review was written by Nymphonomaniac, an enthusiast audio writer. If you also would like to write for us, please contact us via the contact form. Free device can be shipped to you if we think that you are a qualified writer. )
IKKO take budget earphones world by storm lately with their OH1 hybrid that is undoubtedly one of the very best sub-150$ iem you can buy today.
After this success story, they did not sit on their laurel and keep evolve with their latest iem release call OH10, but as well they even expand their audio universe by launching an ultra portable USB-C DAC-AMP call Ikko ZERDA.
The ZERDA is a small USB-C DAC-AMP with both Audio and Optical output. It use the flagship dac chip CS43198 from Cirrus Logic which can decode audio up to 32bit/384khz.
As a big fan of Cirrus CS4398, this high end DAC sure is a promising one. The fact it use low power consumption promise to not drown you phone battery too fast as well.
The Zerda looks like to be ideal solution for audiophile that do not want to bring a DAP when they already have a phone in their pocket that take all the place.
As a rather conservative audiophile that never use the audio output of any of it’s phone, I was not that impress with some very small DAC-AMP I try like the Audirect Beam which lack power, have connection issue and not the cleanest sound.
Priced at 99$, the IKKO Zerda enter a very crowded dac-amp dongle market, let’s see if it stand apart and offer a sound as impressive as it’s decoding specs promise.
DAC:Cirrus Logic CS43198
Fiber Optic Output:32Bit/192kH
Tough the presentation is nicely done, there’s nothing to talk about in term of accessories with the Zerda, simply because it’s the Zerda and nothing else in the little box.
I think at this price it should at least include a usb-c to USB adaptator so you can use the Zerda with your laptop. I have to order one myself and it cost me a big dollar (and 2 weeks of waiting).
CONSTRUCTION & DESIGN:
Once in my hand, I know the Zerda was a well built device.
It have good weight for its size (12 grams), the metal look thick and very sturdy, the OCC silver plated cable is thick and solid but enough flexible too. The Audio/Optical output is made of black metal. I’m not afraid at all about potential damage with the Zerda, and I’m pretty certain it can be beaten up without falling in pieces.
The design is very simple, it’s all about plug and play. There no buttons to press, no battery in the body. The body is thick with appealing curves and angle. The sandblasted blue cobalt color on solid alloy body is very eye appealing and most importantly not easy to scratch.
I’m not sure I’m the biggest fan of DAC-AMP without detachable cable because we are stock with USB-C, but as said ,you can buy adaptor for very cheap.
It’s really a child game to connect this device, it’s plug and play and do get recognize with any phone or Laptop I use it with. I never encounter any cut up or clicking sound neither strange hissing.
As the Zerda have no battery, I was afraid it will drown fastly the (excellent) battery of my LG G6, and indeed it do use quite a lot of battery power.
After 2 hours of use it use about 25% of my battery. This isn’t disastrous, but I still prefer DAC-AMP with battery so I never have to care about lacking phone battery time.
Optical output is a very nice feature and work like a charm.
Again, it’s plug and play as the dual output recognize the optical cable once pluged to an amp. The sound it deliver is more balanced and clearer, but this is really subtle. As well, it tend to use less battery of my phone than when I plug directly iem or headphones.
I didn’t find any specification about real power output of the Zerda.
It’s only stated as ‘’impedance adaptative’’ up to 600Ω. While it’s sure quite powerful for its size and can easily drive headphones, earphones or earbuds up to 64ohm, I’m more than skeptical it can drive properly a 600ohm headphones (it will not). It barely drive my Hifiman Sundara which is 37ohm (but hard to drive because it’s a planar). The Ikko Zerda isn’t a powerful DAC-AMP, it’s just average.
The Zerda have a very appealing mix of warm beefy bass, rich mid range and very sparkly treble. I would not call this reference or neutral sound because it’s slightly colored and do not offer the same level of definition from low to highs. The slight emphasis on bass and treble as well as timbre thickness do offer an highly appealing level of lush musicality.
SOUNDSTAGE feel very wide, airy and immersive, but it will not add extra deepness to your earphones.
IMAGING isn’t the highlight of Zerda, when it do not have lot of bass and instruments, like in classical, it can be very well resolve with a vast sens of spacial definition, but with bassy music instrument separation will lack accuracy due to thick timbre that affect layering transparency.
BASS is thick and punchy, it have lot of energy and weight. Sub bass extension have extra rumble and slam to it which can affect proper separation with mid bass depending of iem pairing. Texture is quite soft, but not to the point of being to liquid. The only drawback about lower end is that it’s rather opaque and lack transparency which can affect overall clarity of mid range.
MID RANGE is slightly warm, lush and mostly flat but with a great liveliness due to it’s thick natural timbre. This isn’t the type of DAC-AMP that will add extra vocal presence to your earphones, so it will pair well with mid centric earphones as it will add both bass and treble as well as mid range timbre lushness. This isn’t a very detailed mid range, but for instrument like violin and piano it give a weighty attack that add extra excitement to musicality.
TREBLE is very nice with the Zerda and offer higher level of clarity and definition of whole frequency range.
From about 10 to 17khz we have highly resolved highs, very crisp and sparkly with good natural brilliance. This sharpness help to push high range sound trough rather opaque mid range.
Percussion sound very clear, never splashy or too crunchy-grainy, and this will sure add extra details and highs attack to dark sound iem. I’m very impress again about how violin and piano sound, because of fast attack in upper range.
With MEZE 99 NEO:
The NEO which is already bassy do gain some extra bass which isn’t very welcome as it will warm the mid range even more and make vocal more recessed.
In fact, this is like multiplying by two it’s V shape nature. But the NEO do lack some treble sparkle and micro details and this is where the Zerda show it’s talent and improve clarity in upper region. For electronic and Classical this will sound good, for jazz, rock and pop it’s less convincing.
With FAAEAL HIBISCUS:
Now this is a good mixture of different flavor.
The Hibiscus which have nicely controlled bass but lack weight and impact gain in liveliness, presence and thickness without warming too much lower mid range. The vocal became more bodied and mid range attack have more weight, making piano, violin and electric guitar sound better. Treble too gain in crispness and offer a more exciting sound. This pairing is excellent.
(Using Tidal Premium with Hi-Fi or Master quality going up to 24bit/96khz)
VS AUDIRECT BEAM (99$):
So, the BEAM here sure win in term of accessories at it have 3 high quality USB type of cable included with it.
As well, you can control volume and pause-play tracks unlike the Zerda. But that’s about it for the very positive part. Construction is less sturdy and more prompt to scratch, and the advantage of have a control switch made of cheap plastic will surely affect long time durability as it look quite easy to broke.
But we just care about sound aren’t we?
The beam have a quite capable Sabre ESS9118 dac in its ultra slim body, the specs are rather similar with decoding up to 32bit/384khz but the Cirrus dac in Zerda have higher dynamic range at 130db vs 125db for the Beam.
SOUNDSTAGE is mostly dependent to amping power, and the Zerda do deliver higher volume so while the BEAM feel deeper in presentation, the Zerda have larger taller soundstage.
IMAGING is similar with both, but give more holographic spaciality with the Zerda while its flatter and less sharp in highs separation with the Beam.
BASS is where the Beam feel anemic and less muscular, having dryer presentation and even slight sub roll off. With the Zerda it’s weighty and more punchy, so both sub and mid bass sound more alive even if a little more liquid.
MID RANGE is a little more emphases with the BEAM, but thinner too, here it’s transparency against full bodied mids of Zerda which are warmer while the Beam is brighter. If your iem are prompt to sibilance, the Zerda will heal them while the Beam will make them worst. Still, for vocal, it’s always nicer to have them forwards than a little too flat or recessed. As well, I feel level of mid range clarity is higher with Beam.
TREBLE is both more extended and more forwards with the Zerda, so you have more micro details as well as extra brilliance and sparkle with it.
Here, the Beam sound a little roll off on top or well, more flatter and balanced?
VS RADSONE EARSTUDIO ES100:
You know what?
I always say the Radsone ES100 is just unbeatable for the price and it’s still true against the Zerda.
This little DAC-AMP isn’t just a plug and play device, it can be use as Bluetooth dac as well, and while it do downgrade decoding when its above 16bit/48khz, it still sound incredible because of the use of dual independent AK4375A dac.
As well, it have both 3.5mm output and balanced 2.5mm output wich can deliver extremely high output power up to 6.4V peak to peak(!). It’s not all, because it include an incredible Earstudio app that make you control output gain, sound filters, oversampling, EQ and lot of other nice features.
For sound, tough the THD level is the same, the Cirrus is suppose to be higher end dac…but well implemented dual dac sure can suprise.
SOUNDSTAGE is slightly more intimate with the ES100, but have notably more deepness and tallness as if the Zerda create an artificially large soundstage.
IMAGING is superior with ES100, sharper and more accurate so we can pin spot any instrument, this is due to better layering and higher level of clarity from ES100.
BASS is more controlled and less boomy with ES100, Zerda is thicker but suffer from lack of clarity and accuracy. As well, sub bass extend more naturally with the ES100, while it’s beefier and warmer with Zerda.
MID RANGE is similar, but due to overall more flatter neutral reference sound of ES100, it’s cleaner and with higher clarity and accuracy. Zerda sure have fuller timbre but the definition isn’t as refined than with ES100. In one word, the Zerda is more Opaque which can make the vocal stole instrument presence and definition.
TREBLE is more balanced with the ES100, while the Zerda feel slightly push forward but offer crisper emphasis in upper range. Still, we will hear more details in lower treble with ES100, the Zerda offer extra sparkle and brilliance to highs and presence to micro details that should be hide in the background.
All in all, in term of price value the ES100 still is unbeatable, and for the sound it will depend if you like it very neutral or with colored dynamic range that can give lusher and sparkier sound presentation like the Zerda did.
While not a king of value, the Ikko Zerda is sure a king of entertaining musicality with it’s lively bassy sound, thick lush timbre and revealing sharp treble.
The construction is sturdy and look great and the fact you can use it for optical output make it stand apart in it’s category.
If you do not search for reference neutral sound source that sure can be too flat or boring for a lot of audio enthusiast, I think the Zerda can really give extra fun to your audio gear without affecting negatively it’s resolution.
If you search for extra bass and treble as well as full bodied mid range, the Zerda will certainly WOW you.