Bluetooth gets a bad rap in the audiophile world. And deservedly so… until now. In this review, I check out the iFi Zen Blue: a high-resolution Bluetooth streamer sporting balanced cable outputs and support for all the major Bluetooth codecs. And while the Zen isn’t the first Bluetooth DAC on the scene, it’s the first one of its kind at $129.
(For the non-Bluetooth version, check out our review of the Zen Dac)
Hi-Fi Bluetooth? iFi Zen Blue Review
The Zen is designed for home use, made painfully clear by its internet router style appearance. It even has an antenna! But more attractive than your typical router, the front panel has only the pairing button and two indicators on the shiny metal surface.
The iFi logo in the center displays different colors depending on the codec it receives. The other indicator shines a steady blue for 44/48 kHz, and white for 88/96.
On the back, we have a smattering of outputs that ensure the Zen can integrate seamlessly with different home audio setups:
- A 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced output for amps or speakers that can take balanced inputs (that means XLRs if you get an adapter).
- Stereo RCA outputs for unbalanced amps or speakers.
- Digital outputs (coaxial and optical) for use with an AV amp, external DAC or TV
So basically, if you’ve been wanting to rid your hi-fi setup of a few wires but have been reluctant about letting Bluetooth fidelity into the mix, allow the Zen Blue to intervene.
If we take a look under the hood, we find a few more pleasant surprises. Fair warning: things are about to get techie.
The Zen Blue utilizes the latest Qualcomm 5100 chip for converting the raw Bluetooth signal, but makes use of another chip to do the actual digital to analog conversion. This is handled by the ESS Sabre Hyperstream DAC chip, with time domain jitter eliminator, a discrete oscillator and 112dB of dynamic range. Typically, a single chip would handle all these functions (they call it System on a Chip… or is that a weird System of a Down cover band?) but iFi goes for discrete components handling each process separately to allow for greater quality in both. It’s like economic specialization, but on a circuit board.
But of course all this technical jargon is meaningless if it doesn’t noticeably improve the sound. So, on to the important part.
It’s important to note that the Zen Blue won’t solve all your fidelity problems… it is only a DAC after all. It doesn’t make any sound on its own. And the quality of your music will be largely shaped by your choice of headphones, speakers and/or external amplifier. The Zen Blue is just there to make sure the highest quality audio can transmit via Bluetooth.
Disclaimer aside… it does impart a certain quality to the sound. All those fancy chips inside are doing something after all! The question is… what?
I didn’t get the opportunity to use the Zen Blue with a home stereo setup, which is where the fidelity would truly shine. But after pairing it with a few different headphone amps to get a feel for it, I came away with a general impression: smooth.
The effect is subtle, and it’s tough to describe without getting too abstract. But music felt smoother, lows and highs felt clearer, and the midrange emphasis received a slight shift. I noticed a slight, glossy shine in the high-mids as well as the highs. The lows and the low-mids get smoothed over in a way that makes all the frequencies sound very cohesive.
I wouldn’t describe it as warm… and it doesn’t boost the highs in that classic “hi-fi” way either. Smooth is the word that keeps coming to mind. It takes all the frequencies and gives them a nice massage, relaxes them and helps them all play nice together.
In short, the Zen Blue does what it says, and does it well. Nothing more, nothing less. Zen indeed. It will significantly improve the quality of Bluetooth audio, and it will fit into most existing home audio setups.
It’s a pretty niche product, as you will need your own preamp, speakers, etc. to get the most out of it. For your average plug-and-play or on-the-go-listener, it will be useless. But if you have already dropped more money than you care to admit on home audio, and you wish there was a way to sneak a little Bluetooth into the mix, the Zen Blue is for you.
Find one at Audio46
MajorHifi may receive commission from retail offers.