iFi Audio ZEN Blue Review
Jay Garrett gets to grips with a handy little fifth generation Bluetooth streaming DAC…
Bluetooth Streaming DAC
Once the poor relation of network streamed audio, Bluetooth is now coming of age. Its latest 5.0 incarnation takes it ever further from its early years of poor sound quality, dropouts and general fussiness. Indeed these days its undoubted virtues of simplicity and ease of use really shine through.
Unsurprisingly then, we're now seeing several serious small Bluetooth music playing devices appear, such as the £130 iFi ZEN Blue you see here. It follows the design language of the recently reviewed ZEN DAC and lives to facilitate hi-res wireless streaming from any Bluetooth-equipped device through your hi-fi system.
This nicely profiled, aluminium cased unit sports a Qualcomm QCC5100 chip inside, which means that it not only receives aptX, aptX HD, aptX Adaptive and aptX Low-Latency codecs, but also AAC (Apple), LDAC (Sony), and HWA/LHDC (Huawei). This leaves the likes of Audiolab's M-DAC Nano (£140) and Audioengine's B1 (£160) slightly embarrassed. Furthermore, rather than letting the Qualcomm chip do all the heavy lifting, iFi has enlisted an ESS Sabre Hyperstream DAC to flex its time-domain jitter eliminator, discrete oscillator and claimed 112dB dynamic range during the conversion process.
Once the stream has been converted to analogue, this signal is fed into a balanced output stage where it meets low noise, low distortion (0.0001%, claimed) OV series op-amps along with C0G (Class 1 ceramic) capacitors from TDK.
Alongside the unbalanced RCA analogue outputs, there's a balanced 4.4mm Pentaconn output which sets it further apart from its price rivals. Then there are the optical and coaxial digital outs, with a simple switch to toggle between the two, letting you use your own DAC or DAC-equipped integrated amplifier. Setting up is just a matter of screwing in the stubby white antenna and plugging in the 5V DC power adapter. Once attached to your amplifier, you're ready to pair the ZEN Blue with your source device.
Armed with a Huawei P30 Pro smartphone, I took advantage of aptX HD as well as HWA. My review sample was plugged into an Anthem STR integrated amplifier via its RCA analogue outputs, as well as an Oppo UDP-205 disc player via its coaxial input to make use of the player's highly regarded DAC. I have tested a range of aptX HD headphones and components, such as Naim's Uniti Atom for instance, and so am aware how much of a difference the post-nominal HD can make when appropriately used, and this little iFi unit does just that.
Billie Eilish's My Future had a luxurious tonal richness and intimacy via my Marten Duke 2 loudspeakers. It was so unexpected that I had to play the same track via Roon and the Oppo UDP-205 for comparison. Indeed, I doubt that many could discern any significant difference between my smartphone-plus-ZEN Blue combination, and the 'proper' hi-fi source!
Yet the little iFi wasn't lackadaisical in any way. It served up a rhythmically tight and convincing performance of Bright Size Life by Pat Metheny. The tangible vitality of the players along with the instrumental staging was impressive, especially for a product at this price. It's a tricky track to master, full of potential stumbling blocks for budget components, yet the ZEN Blue acquitted itself well via its analogue outputs.
Flicking the switch to digital, I routed the ZEN Blue through the Oppo's built-in DAC and also later through a Chord Electronics Hugo 2. This raised its game even further. With the increase in DAC firepower, perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised, but the results were as good as I've ever heard Bluetooth sound – the music had a lovely clarity and ease that wasn't that far away from proper, grown-up streaming. Still, no matter how much I enjoyed the results, I can't see this being the route that most buyers will take – because it's a bit fussy for typical ZEN Blue buyers, I suspect.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, iFi has done it again with the ZEN Blue. The company has packed an affordable option with fine-sounding tech and wrapped it in an aesthetically pleasing package – and the cherry on top is the flexibility given by the choice of digital and analogue options, balanced on the latter if you so wish. So, if you're looking for a tiny, state-of-the-art Bluetooth streaming DAC that lets you upgrade later, you really must hear this.
StereoNET UK’s Editor, bass player, and resident rock star! Jay’s passion for gadgets and Hi-Fi is second only to being a touring musician.
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