I don’t like to make reviews personal, but this has to begin with an apology… and a rant. I’ve been sitting on the review of the iFi Audio ZEN range for too long; it was one of those products that slipped through the net too many times and this review should have happened six or more months ago. No excuses, no caveats… They were boxes on my ‘to do’ list that stayed on my ‘to do’ list and that was wrong.
Now the rant. Audiophiles remain dismissive of Bluetooth, even in the light of products like the ZEN Blue. This review will engender the same mealy-mouthed whine about Bluetooth audio from a part of the community, and it’s at best based on very outdated notions of how Bluetooth sounds and something entirely not applicable to the sound of the ZEN Blue.
The iFi Audio ZEN DAC and ZEN Blue are effectively almost identical in form factor; a small, elegant brushed aluminium and gunmetal grey loZENge, that is deceptively hefty. The size precludes the use of XLR outputs for balanced audio use, and instead a 4.4mm Pentaconn jack socket is provided requiring break-out cable (not supplied in either ZEN product).
As the name suggests, the ZEN Blue is a Bluetooth DAC; it can accept up to seven Bluetooth inputs and outputs to either S/PDIF (coaxial or optical output) or balanced or single-ended analogue outputs. Pairing is simple (just press the button on the front panel and look for ‘iFi Hi-Res audio’ in your list of available devices on your phone or tablet). The ZEN Blue is the only such product to cover all the ‘high-definition’ Bluetooth codecs – aptX HD, aptX Adaptive, LDAC and LHDC – thereby ensuring that whatever the sources device, you’ll get the best possible sound quality its Bluetooth specification will allow. The ‘HD’ codecs are all 24-bit-capable; in terms of sampling rate, the aptX codecs support up to 48kHz and LDAC/LHDC reach 96kHz. The ZEN Blue is intended to act as a ‘Bluetooth receiver’ to add wireless streaming over Bluetooth at the highest possible quality to a system that doesn’t currently offer the facility. Or, to upgrade the Bluetooth performance of a component or system that does have Bluetooth reception but, as with the vast majority of Bluetooth implementations, is basic and outdated.