A Small Wonder: iFi Audio's Zen Blue Hi-Res Bluetooth DAC Reviewed

Manufacturer & Model
iFi Audio Zen Blue Hi-Res Bluetooth DAC
MSRP
$129
Link
https://ifi-audio.com
Highlights
Small size, brilliant physical design, quality materials, dedicated high-end DAC, excellent sound quality.
Summary
iFi Audio's high-end Bluetooth streaming device, Zen Blue, is a beautifully crafted streaming device that delivers a true Hi-Res streaming experience. Internally, a separation of duties between Bluetooth reception and digital to analog conversion makes for unsoiled analog audio that sounds amazing. Set up is simple, the device is intuitive to use, and playback lives up to the hype.
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Heading into this review, I was guardedly intrigued by iFi’s Zen Blue Hi-Res Bluetooth streaming device. Having covered its launch, I had a general understanding of Zen Blue’s design and technologies but wasn’t sure what to make of its audiophile-grade billing. Perhaps it’s the device’s $129 price point, which doesn’t scream high-end. Or maybe it’s the fact that Zen Blue shuns networked streaming in favor of Bluetooth, a technology that’s rarely promoted as a gateway to elite audio. Whatever the case, Zen Blue was a bit of a mystery.

Fast-forward to unboxing day, and I found myself going through the motions. A cut here, a cut there, open the flaps and… voila, an unopened Zen Blue was born from its brown shipping container. “Hello there,” I thought, as iFi’s classy packaging, complete with an attractive slipcover, caught my attention. I removed the cover, lifted the inner box’s lid, and felt an unexpected tinge of agreeable energy.

Out came the manual (which is more like a leaflet) and some customer information, and then my eyes caught a glimpse of the main event. There she lay, neatly packed in a protective bag, cradled in a form-fitting cardboard nest. Before I knew it, Zen Blue was in my hands, and that’s when it happened. As I slid the device from its bag, I experienced a rare “wow” moment. I feel silly writing this, but I’m almost certain I let out a small gasp.

iFi Audio’s Bluetooth creation officially had my full attention.


Physical Features
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Holding Zen Blue speaks volumes. Its dark gray wrap-around shell is made from thick, seamless aluminum. Every ounce of its weight (1.05 lbs) and low-sheen texture exudes quality, and its squashed oval-ish shape imparts a classy retro flair. Even the tacky rubber feet firmly affixed to the base have the feel of thoughtful design.

The front brushed aluminum faceplate, which subtly angles inward at the top, houses three circular features. On the left, you’ll find a Bluetooth pairing button, the middle is a larger cutout with a backlit iFi logo, and the right is an indicator light. The trio completes a basic user interface that’s surprisingly capable of relaying valuable playback information – more on this later in the review.

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Moving around back, a second brushed aluminum plate carries a threaded Wi-Fi antenna post, digital optical and coaxial outputs, stereo RCA outputs, a 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced output, and an analog/digital selector switch. Labeling for these connection points, along with a few logos, is tastefully etched into the plate’s surface, rounding out a very impressive physical package.

It’s almost impossible to find fault with iFi’s design choices. In fact, the only physical feature that falls slightly short of perfect is the Bluetooth pairing button. It’s a tad jiggly and depresses with a hollow-sounding “tink.” Not a deal-breaker by any stretch of the imagination… obnoxiously picky, perhaps? Definitely.


Why Zen Blue?
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If you’re questioning why anyone would drop $129 on a palm-sized Bluetooth streaming device (6.22” W x 3.93” D x 1.38” H), then have a seat and let’s go to school. As you’ll see, answers to that curiosity can head down several different paths, but ultimately they all lead to the same conclusions: sound quality and wireless convenience.

From a convenience perspective, Zen Blue is sized to fit nearly anywhere; it’s easy to move around, and is handsome enough to showoff in a room. It’s also designed to be nearly plug and play. Simply remove it from the box, screw on the articulating antenna, plug in the power supply, connect it to any compatible digital or analog gear (RCA cable included), and follow light and voice prompts to pair it with your preferred device.

Honestly, folks, it can’t get much easier.

Wirelessly speaking, you can’t integrate it with your home network because it doesn’t have Wi-Fi capabilities. So, no need to go fumbling for your router’s security password. Instead, you’re given access to Bluetooth 5.0 and all of the speed, increased range, and ease of connection that comes with it. And that goes without mentioning that Zen Blue can pair with eight different devices at the same time, which likely means you’ll only have to go through the pairing process a few times during ownership. Simple, simple, simple.

Zen Blue’s streaming capabilities are built around Qualcomm’s latest 5100 Bluetooth 5.0 chip. It's a proper all-in-one solution that can process incoming Bluetooth data and perform the necessary digital-to-analog conversion for output. It also supports better than CD quality 24-bit/96kHz audio and can receive over-the-air updates to accommodate future Bluetooth codecs.

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Most Bluetooth SOCs can process an incoming signal and perform digital-to-analog conversion. While convenient and cost-effective to implement, these SOCs have a tendency to soil audio quality with variations in clock frequency during the conversion process. Tapping the 5100’s receiving prowess, iFi’s engineers opted to side-step unwanted jitter by endowing Zen Blue with a world-class ESS Sabre Hyperstream DAC. This particular chip has a time-domain jitter eliminator, which eradicates distortion and delivers a better high dynamic range. In other words, it’s a much more capable component.

With that in mind, it’s easy to understand why Zen Blue’s version of Bluetooth is better than other cost-conscious products. Qualcomm’s 5100 chip is used for its Bluetooth 5.0 capabilities, and the resulting digital signal is sent to a superior ESS Sabre DAC for conversion. The process allows for a definitive separation of duties, ensuring that jitter doesn’t enter into the equation.

Post ESS Sabre conversion, Zen Blue’s analog output is given the white glove treatment, passing through an assortment of high-grade circuit components. iFi touts its use of balanced line drivers, TDK’s C0G capacitors, and a low-noise power supply IC from Texas Instruments. It also says that pricey TDK Class 1 Ceramic capacitors are employed for stable, low loss performance.

Ultimately, owners can dump an analog signal to an external device using single-ended RCA outputs (2V) or a balanced output stage (4V), which means Zen Blue is compatible with typical Hi-Fi and Pro Audio gear. And if you’d prefer to let an outboard DAC handle your audio’s digital-to-analog conversion, single optical and coaxial outputs are present.


Playback
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Earlier in the review, I mentioned that Zen Blue has a deceptively simple faceplate. Its complexity is only evident once the device is in use, as iFi’s implementation of color-changing LEDs communicates quite a bit of information.

Once powered on, the smaller (right) Bluetooth Pairing window flashes blue when searching for a previously paired device and red/blue when in pairing mode. During playback, it switches functionality and displays the maximum sample rate associated with the kind of Bluetooth format connected to the device. It remains blue for 44/48 kHz and red for 88/96 kHz. Meanwhile, the larger Bluetooth Code / iFi Logo display (middle) changes color based on the kind of file format received. Supported formats and associated colors are as follows:
  • SBC: OFF
  • AAC: Yellow
  • aptX: Blue
  • aptX HD: Magenta
  • aptX Adaptive: Green
  • aptX LL: Red
  • LDAC: Cyan
  • HWA: White
The incoming file format is also announced by Zen Blue when you first begin playback.

So, as you can see, the device provides plenty of connection information, keeping a listener well informed about the kind of playback they’re experiencing. In my particular case, I paired Zen Blue with an iPhone 11 Pro, resulting in a Yellow backlit logo and a solid blue pairing display. Also, a female voice pleasantly announced “AAC” during the first track played.

For this review, I tested Zen Blue using RCA outputs connected to two different arrangements: (1) directly to an Emotiva Gen3 Amplifier powering SVS Ultra Towers and (2) directly to a StormAudio ISP MK2 paired with the same amp/speaker configuration plus dual SVS SB16 Ultra subwoofers.

All music was streamed directly from Qobuz.

Much like linking a phone to a receiver using AirPlay, playback was completely controlled within the Qobuz app, and volume levels were attenuated using the phone’s rocker control. Zen Blue doesn't require the use of a third-party or manufacturer-specific app.

Here’s where we dip into sound quality, and I’m pleased to report that demo sessions were stellar. In fact, I ran direct A/B comparisons between Qobuz tunes streamed using Zen Blue versus the same Qobuz tunes played in maximum resolutions via Roon. To put it bluntly: any differences were imperceptible, and there’s zero chance I could blindly delineate between the two. Playback via Bluetooth was that pure.

Zen Blue was a silent source that didn’t inject any sort of buzz, hum, or hiss. And the quality of sound during playback was exquisite. During Van Halen’s “Jump” (Remastered), the song’s synths had an airy top-end that seemed to float high above an organized and articulate soundstage. There was zero evidence of choppy or crystalized highs. Pink Floyd’s “Mother” delivered thick and detailed vocals that engulfed the soundstage with size, as the song’s strumming acoustic guitar was clearly positioned, melodically flowing with a pleasant shimmer. As the track opened up, a confident bass punch helped to drive the song along. And Norah Jones’s “Don’t Know Why” had delicious vocals that were as smokey and flavorful as ever, complemented by detailed and tight bass lines.

From Temper Trap to Keith Jarret and beyond, Zen Blue proved to be an invisible curator of sonic bliss, serving up Bluetooth audio with reliable Hi-Fi class.


Conclusion
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Color me more than impressed. iFi Audio’s Zen Blue is a true Hi-Fi device that can be purchased for a relative song and dance. Practically everything – and I mean everything – about Zen Blue is perfect. Its build quality and looks are fabulous. It’s easy to set up, even easier to operate, and it never leaves you in the dark when it comes to wondering what kind of signal is in play. And its ability to deliver reliable, stunning Hi-Fi Bluetooth audio is indisputable.

Considering price, build, and performance, Zen Blue gets a resounding stamp of approval. If you’re in the market for a Bluetooth DAC streaming device, look no further… buy it!

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iFi Audio's Zen Blue Hi-Res Bluetooth DAC Specifications
  • Input: Bluetooth 5.0 with AAC, aptX, aptX HD, aptX Adaptive, LDAC, HWA codecs
  • Outputs: Digital: coaxial and optical (S/PIDF); Analog: Stereo RCA (unbalanced), 4.4mm (balanced)
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz-20kHz (<+0 / -0.5dB /44.1kHz); 1Hz-44kHz (<+0 / -3.0dB / >=88.2kHz)
  • Output Voltage: (at 0 dBFS): 2.05V (+/- 0.05V)(single-ended); 4.0V (balanced)
  • Dynamic Range: 109dB (A)
  • Signal-to-Noise Ratio: 109dB (A) @ 0 dBFS
  • THD + N @ 0 dBFS: < 0.0015% (10k load)
  • Output Impedance: < 50Ω
  • Power Source: DC 5V
  • Power Consumption: < 2.5W
  • Dimensions: Width 6.212", Height 1.364", Depth 4.159" (5.175" with antenna)
  • Weight: 16.95 ounces
 
Last edited:

Sonnie

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Did you perceive any difference between the DAC in the StormAudio ISP MK2 vs the DAC in the Zen Blue?

Or is there a way to bypass the MK2 DAC and you did not compare it?
 

Todd Anderson

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Good question. I dumped it both direct to an amp and via analog through the MK2, Sound quality direct to amp was excellent.
 
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