Want an easy way to add Bluetooth connectivity to your traditional stereo system? Just buy iFi’s new Zen Blue. While there are a number of cheaper Bluetooth receivers already on the market, this is one of a handful that puts a priority on good sound.
It’s a really nicely built unit that takes up less shelf space than a typical paperback. We were expecting a moulded plastic box, but what we get is a quality aluminium casing that’s finished to a far higher standard than the price suggests.
That impression of substance is reinforced when we take a look inside. The Zen Blue uses a premium Qualcomm QCC5100 ‘system on a chip’ Bluetooth solution. But, rather than using the Qualcomm’s internal digital-to-analogue conversion abilities, it pipes the digital data stream into an ESS Sabre DAC for improved performance.
Once converted to analogue, this signal is fed into a balanced output stage, something that is unusual at this price level.
The company’s engineers have tried to make the Zen as accommodating as possible, so it accepts a wide range of Bluetooth codecs including aptX HD, AAC and Sony’s LDAC.
Power DC 5V
Inputs Bluetooth 5.0TM with AAC, aptX, aptX HD, LDAC, HWA Codec
Outputs Optical/Coaxial, Audio RCA L/R, 4.4 Balanced Lineout
Frequency response 20Hz – 20kHz
Dimensions (hwd) 3.5 x 15.8 x 10cm
While there’s cross-compatibility between Bluetooth types, iFi is trying to make the most of any signal the Zen receives.
Alongside the expected stereo RCAs, the Blue also offers a balanced 4.4mm Pentaconn analogue output, as well as optical and coax digital alternatives. There’s a small switch on the back panel that swaps between the analogue and digital outputs.
It only takes a minute to get the iFi going. Simply fit the screw-on Bluetooth aerial, plug-in the 5v mains power supply and pair with your Bluetooth device. We connected to both an iPhone X and an Apple MacBook Pro without issue.
The Zen Blue delivers a fine sound regardless of whether we play REM’s Automatic For The People, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet or Four Tet’s Rounds. Detail levels are good, as is the way the unit organises all that information. We’re pleased with the level of composure too, with the Zen refusing to sound stressed when the music gets dense and demanding.
Bluetooth usually sounds compressed, but even here the iFi delivers more dynamic variance and expression than we would expect for the money. There’s a good sense of openness to the recordings and pleasing stability to the sound stage.
If you’ve already got a good DAC, it makes sense to try that with the Zen Blue. While it’s obvious that the iFi’s internal DAC is capable, connect the unit to something like Audiolab’s M-DAC and the sound quality takes a significant lift, just as it should bearing in mind the price differences. Adding an outboard DAC is an obvious upgrade for the future.
The Zen Blue is a terrific product. It’s sensibly priced, carefully specified and sounds good. What’s not to like?
- Sound 5
- Features 5
- Build 5
Nice review. I have been thinking of getting this unit ever since late last year as part of my quest for better wireless audio. I have now purchased one and been using for the last 2 weeks.
I'm disappointed, however, that you only tested this unit with Apple hardware (iPhone X and Mac). I'm connecting to mine with an Android phone (Samsung Note 10+). One of the beauties of this ifi Zen Blue is that it is Bluetooth 5 and also supports virtually every Codec currently available. While my Note 10 does not support aptX HD Codec, it does support LDAC (Sony's highest bit rate codec). The quality of the audio from the ifi Zen Blue when using a Bluetooth codec that can stream at above 600kbps is exceptional for Bluetooth transmission. I have the Zen Blue and my phone streaming using LDAC at 990kbps.
I output coaxial digital audio from the Zen Blue into and Arcam irDAC. The richness, clarity and presence of the sound is undeniable!
Furthermore, when using a lower bitrate codec such as aptX, the range is exceptional! I have my Zen Blue positioned close to the middle of my 5 bedroom house, but was easily able to maintain a stable stream in the far corner of my garden, some 30 metres away, through an internal wall and the rear cavity brick wall of the house! The signal strength there measured as 'very good'.
That the unit informs you of the codec being used in your connection and gives you information about the the sample rate of the file it is receiving, leaves you in no doubt as to what the unit is receiving and the quality of the established connection. It even verbally tells you the name of the codec when it makes the connection with your source device!
Your review missed all of these things. The Zen Blue has audio quality in abundance and has lifted Bluetooth into the realms of true hifi and the audiophile!
What Codec are you connecting with and what is your streaming bit rate?
I also have an older Rotel amp from the 80s/90s-is it possible to connect that to something like this (in another room), or would that not work? Thanks in advance...