iFi ZEN Blue: A Bluetooth Receiver Crafted For Audiophiles

 

Our full review of the iFi ZEN Blue is up! Check it out here

iFi is bringing High-Resolution Audio via Bluetooth to a desktop near you.

The $129 iFi ZEN Blue is their new desktop-sized Bluetooth Reciever that leverages hi-res Bluetooth codecs like LDAC and aptX HD to convey 24-bit “better than CD quality” audio to your stereo system. If you look around online, you’ll see the majority of Bluetooth adapters out there are small, plastic affairs made for convenience, not necessarily sound quality.

However, with the ZEN Blue, iFi looks to elevate the Bluetooth Receiver to a full-fledged audiophile source component, giving the wireless signal the same care other companies give to CD-players and stand-alone DAC components.

From the Press Release:

Bluetooth reception represents a mere convenience for many audio manufacturers, enabled in the simplest and cheapest way to ‘tick a box’ on the features list. But the manner in which Bluetooth is implemented – the quality of signal processing and the circuitry that surrounds it – has a big impact on performance. Not all Bluetooth sounds the same, and iFi engineers its products to obtain the best possible performance from every audio source – Bluetooth streaming included.

With the ZEN Blue, this starts with a state-of-the-art Qualcomm QCC5100 chip to process the incoming data – the ZEN Blue is the first product of its kind to benefit from this new-generation Bluetooth IC.

All the latest hi-res Bluetooth audio formats are supported, including Qualcomm’s aptX HD, Sony’s LDAC and Huawei’s HWA – no other Bluetooth streamer boasts this hi-res specification. Other supported codecs include regular aptX, aptX Low Latency (for synching sound with visual media), AAC (the favoured format of iOS devices) and SBC (the ‘plain vanilla’ Bluetooth codec). This means that every possible source device is covered, at the highest resolution its Bluetooth audio specification will allow.

The Qualcomm QCC5100 offers a ‘system-on-a-chip’ Bluetooth solution, with all functions covered including D-to-A conversion. Many manufacturers would simply rely on this chip to deliver the DAC function, but this is not the iFi way. The ZEN Blue has separate digital and analogue stages; to feed the analogue stage, the processed digital signal is routed from the QCC5100 to a specialised DAC chip from ESS Technology’s Sabre family to convert the signal from digital to analogue.

Besides giving the audiophile treatment to internal electronics, the external interface is also very robust starting with an aluminum enclosure, and continuing with a plethora of digital and analog outputs.

Again from the press release:

The ZEN Blue adds high-quality Bluetooth reception to any audio system via analogue or digital cable connections. A switch at the back dictates how the digital signal is routed; either through the DAC and analogue output stage, or directly to the digital outputs. On the analogue side, RCA stereo outputs allow connection to amplifiers, active speakers and the like, while a 4.4mm Pentaconn output enables balanced signal transfer to amps/speakers equipped with a balanced input – either a 4.4mm input, or XLR inputs via a 4.4mm-to-XLR cable. For digital connections, optical and coaxial outputs are provided – these allow connection to anything with a built-in DAC and corresponding digital input, such as an AV amp or an external hi-fi DAC.

Along with the many connectors on the back, the ZEN Blue also has indicators on the front that tell you what BT Codec is in use (LDAC,aptX, etc.), and the sample rate (16, 24 bit).

From my experience with iFi’s xCAN a portable headphone amp that also has a Bluetooth output based around an ESS DAC, iFi’s Bluetooth implementation can sound really good. I guess the success of this product will be based on how many audiophiles are ready to adopt Bluetooth as a primary source.

The Zen Blue will be available for purchase in October.  It’s the first of several Zen Products that will share the same chassis as the Blue. The next one will be the upcoming Zen DAC with a USB input and an integrated headphone amp. For more info visit https://ifi-audio.com/.

 

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