Bluetooth is becoming a big part of hi-fi, whether you like it or not.
Many came to know it as a way to make a cellphone call without getting tangled up in wires, but now it’s how many people listen to music.
With the current version, Bluetooth 5.0, we have arrived at a place where you can achieve a considerable amount of fidelity without wires or a network.
As Gizmodo recently put it, Bluetooth Is Good Now.
It’s become so ubiquitous that a ton of integrated amps under $1000 now have built-in Bluetooth receivers. You can turn your cellphone on and play thousands of songs almost instantaneously without special software.
So what if your hi-fi rig doesn’t have Bluetooth? Well, there are a ton of Bluetooth receivers out there that can connect to your receiver or amp and get you set up pretty quick.
I loved the xCAN when I reviewed it earlier this year, primarily because it had superb sound via Bluetooth, which speaks to the quality of iFi’s circuitry. Because of this, I expected great things from the ZEN Blue. Did it live up to my expectations? Read on to find out.
Disclaimer: This unit was sent by iFi in exchange for an honest review, and that is what follows.
Features and Build Quality
The ZEN Blue was the first release from iFi’s new ZEN series of low-cost desktop/home components, the second being the ZEN DAC, which I will review very soon.
As with the rest of iFi’s line, ZEN aims to provide components with an impressive cost to performance ratio, albeit this time in a new form factor.
In the past, they have built electronics with an eye for portable/transportable use, but the ZEN components are more substantial with wider stances that look more at home on a desk or console.
They also don’t have batteries, so external power (like a wall wart) is necessary to power them up. The ZEN Blue comes with a power supply, so you are covered there.
iFi also offers an upgrade power supply called iPower if you want to tweak things that way. At $49 bucks, it’s almost half the cost of the ZEN Blue itself, so I don’t know how many will go that route.
The ZEN components also share a curvy aluminum chassis. The shape of the case, combined with the color scheme, are meant to provide a calming influence upon the user, hence the ZEN name.
It’s a solid, classy, out of the box design, and I dig it. The unfinished faceplate and volume knob do give it a DIY kind of feel, but it doesn’t look cheap. The knob, buttons, and connectors are fitted tightly, so overall, the unit seems well-made.
Speaking of connectors, the ZEN Blue has a plethora of them on the rear panel. We’re talking both optical and coax digital outputs to feed external DACs, one RCA out to access the internal DAC, plus a 4.4mm true balanced output for gear with balanced inputs.
There’s also a two-way switch to select between analog and digital.
Similar to the xCAN mentioned above, the BLUE feeds the wireless Bluetooth input through an ESS DAC chip for remarkably full and detailed output. The ZEN , however, uses an upgraded Qualcomm BT 5.0 chip, which can handle a wide variety of Bluetooth codecs.
The codecs range from your standard AAC and aptX, all the way up to “high-resolution” (CD-Quality) codecs like aptX HD, LDAC or HWA. It pretty much covers them all, and according to iFi, the Blue supports upgrades to add future options.
The front panel is pretty clean with just a Bluetooth pairing button, a center LED with iFi Logo, and a plain LED to the right of that. Both LEDs change color to designate different operating states.
The center one with the logo indicates Bluetooth pairing, and the codec in use once paired. The one to the right shows the sample rate, with Blue designating 44/48 and White 88/96.
The ZEN Blue isn’t the first “Hi-Fi” Bluetooth receiver to hit the market. Up to now, this one from Audioengine was probably the most popular, but that one is about $60 more and doesn’t have all the connections or support for high data-rate codecs like the iFi product.
So for me, the Blue is the one to look at if you want to add high-quality Bluetooth to your rig.
My only issue with it is the lack of a power button. The Audioengine doesn’t have one either, so it’s not alone in this regard. But unfortunately, the ZEN Blue has a bright light on the front that stays on whenever then unit is plugged in.
To me, this is distracting when I’m not using it. YMMV. However, if you want to get rid of the light, you can unplug it. I think a power button would be more elegant, though.
Listening to The ZEN Blue
So we know it’s got a lot of excellent features, but how does it sound? Well, It’s pretty damn good. To test it out, I plugged it into my Audiolab 6000A Integrated Amp, which coincidentally has it’s own built-in aptX Bluetooth receiver.
I thought this would be a good choice since I’m familiar–and pleased–with how Bluetooth sounds on the Audiolab and could make a quick comparison with the ZEN Blue. I also compared it to the Triangle AIO C, which streams high-resolution via Wi-Fi.
Pairing, as with most Bluetooth 5 devices was simple. When you plug it in, it automatically goes into pairing mode. Once you connect a device to it, it will look for that same device and pair automatically the next time. You can pair up to 7 devices.
During pairing, ZEN Blue gives voice prompts through the connected system to let you know whats going on. For example, when I paired my phone, it announced that I was paired, and then announced the codec used, in my case, LDAC. It also lets you know when a device was disconnected. I liked this.
Listening to Jazzmeia Horn’s “I Thought About You” from her latest album “Love and Liberation,” the ZEN Blue did a better job than the Audiolab’s integral BT receiver at fleshing out the performance. There was more space and openness, plus Jazzmeia’s vocal was more vibrant, as were the strings backing here.
This was somewhat expected since the ZEN Blue transmits at a much higher data rate using LDAC, the best the 6000A Integrated could do on its own was aptX.
When compared to the Triangle Wi-Fi streamer, the ZEN Blue sounded closed in by comparison. The imaging was also less focused, with less detail.
This again was expected since Wi-Fi data rates are higher than LDAC, meaning that you can transmit music files without any loss. But what surprised me was how enjoyable the ZEN DAC was in comparison.
The Wi-Fi streamer is what I would use for critical listening, but the LDAC connection was crisp enough to stand-in when I just wanted to enjoy some music during a quick listening session. If you are looking for the best that Bluetooth has to offer, then the ZEN Blue will fit the bill.
The ZEN Blue offers a ton of flexibility, great sound, and amazing value. You get a ton of features for a meager price, and the design will fit any decor. If you are looking to add Bluetooth to your hi-fi system, this appliance from iFi has no competition.
The only thing its missing is a power button. If you can deal with the constant blue LED on the front or don’t mind unplugging it when you’re done, then the ZEN is a no brainer.
There’s nothing else out there with the same amount of connections or codecs, especially at this price.
I’m an audio writer who started as a young audio salesman/consumer electronics professional back in the late 90s. That’s where I discovered the magic of 2-Channel sound. My thirst for great sound has led me on a delightful music quest that continues today.