The Zen Bluetooth Receiver closely resembles the iFi Zen DAC in both look and feel. At 1.05 lbs., it’s just a hare lighter than it’s 1.08 lb. blood brother, but the difference is basically negligible when you hold them both in your hands.
Like the Zen DAC, this baby is an all aluminum chassis and also rejects fingerprints. This is a welcome change from your typical Amp/DAC; it seems like they’re all fingerprint magnets and it just ends up looking awful. I’m glad to see that iFi took note of the smudgy issues present in both their xDSD and xCAN. Both of those were fantastic products in their own right, but the glossy finish kind of ruined the vibe. You were constantly wiping them clean with a small cloth and it got kind of annoying (to the point of you just not giving a crap anymore).
With the Zen Blue and the Zen DAC, even trying really hard to make a fingerprint results in no fingerprint. Maybe I’m beating a dead horse by now.
Everything here feels solid to the touch. There aren’t too many buttons or knobs to speak of, so let’s get into the features of this thing, and find out what it actually does.
Features & Usage
The Zen Blue might seem a bit intimidating at first, but don’t fret. It has but one button on the left, with a center iFi logo that illuminates different colors, and another light on the right that also displays colors. Cool. Colors.
On the back, there’s a balanced 4.4mm output, a pair of RCA Analog Outputs, an Analog/Digital Switch, a Coaxial Output, an Optical Output, and a DC 5V power jack.
The Zen Blue is thus a wireless DAC that outputs to various sources, but most notably functions as a Bluetooth DAC that you will pair up to your phone.
The front and center illuminated iFi logo indicates which codec you’re using. I have an Android phone with aptX, so it lights up blue. Let’s take a look at some other formats you may encounter:
LDAC = Cyan
The kHz LED on the right will illuminate one of 2 colors:
44/48 = Blue
88/96 = White
For pairing, the Zen Blue comes with a pair of RCA to RCA cables. Just make sure you have some sort of Headphone Amplifier that has a pair of RCA inputs.
All you would do is plug both cables into the RCA Outputs on the back of the Zen Blue, and then plug the other ends into the RCA Inputs of whatever amp you’re using. Now you’re ready to pair it up to your phone.
From iFi’s Card that comes with the unit:
“From switch on, the ZEN Blue will blink blue as it searches for a previously paired device. If a stored device is not found, it will automatically enter pairing mode and blink blue/red.
To enter pairing mode, press and hold the front leftmost button until the “Bluetooth mode LED’ is blinking blue/red. To pair, on your handset, look for ‘ZEN Blue’ in the list of available Bluetooth devices.
The ZEN Blue is able to store up to 7 paired Bluetooth devices.”
It’s important to note that your phone may not display it as ‘ZEN Blue.’ For instance, my phone shows it as ‘iFi Hi-Res Audio.’
After you’ve found whatever it’s labeled as, pair it up and then it will display the color of whatever codec your phone supports.
All that’s left to do is plug your headphones into the Amp and fire up Tidal/Spotify, etc. Now you can play music wireless with your phone! Pretty neat.
If you leave the house, come back, and find that it’s flashing, just go back into your Bluetooth settings and pair it again. Because I hit the gym 4 nights a week, I have some Bluetooth Ear buds paired when I’m working out. When I come home, it either pairs up automatically or I have to do it manually. Not really a big deal.
The RCA outputs on the back of the Zen Blue can also be used to hook up to separate speakers/monitors for some wireless action through your phone as well! What are Studio Monitors?
The 4.4mm balanced output on the back can also be used to connect to some sort of preamp or separate monitors/speakers. Just use a balanced 4.4mm to dual XLR for this.
Flick the switch on the back to digital for use with the Coaxial and Optical Output. These can basically hook up to anything that supports Coax or Optical In.
The enclosed white antenna should be attached on the back for maximum reception quality.
With all the technical stuff out of the way, let’s get into the sound. How is it?
All in all, the sound is good! I have an LG-X Charge which only supports aptX. If you go to Qualcomm aptX’s website, you can filter for your specific phone and find out if it supports aptXHD. This will net you a bit better resolution.
Some of the other codecs supported are of a higher quality as well (supposedly).
What HIFI did a great write up on aptXHD and it’s ramifications:
Now for aptX HD. Also called aptX Lossless, it is essentially an updated, beefed-up aptX with the ability to transfer music in a way that allows better sound quality.
It was released in reaction to the increasing popularity of hi-res audio and supports audio at 24-bit/48kHz. Compression remains at a ratio of 4:1, with a bit-rate of 576kbps.
Whether it is a match for a wired hi-res signal is debatable, and straightforward comparisons are tricky as you can’t turn aptXHD on/off on products to discern sound quality differences, but Qualcomm seems to be happy gunning for ‘better-than-CD’ sound quality.WHAT HIFI?
If your phone is LDAC compatible, you may be even better off. Some people claim there’s no contest between aptXHD and LDAC and that the latter is demonstrably better:
It’s important to note your mileage may vary, and you may not even have access to aptXHD anyway. Also keep in mind you may not even be using the Zen in conjunction with an Amp; rather with some separate monitors/speakers.
I find that getting caught up in the technicalities of sound leaves you losing sight of what’s truly important – the music.
Sure, it’s nice to have the best equipment, codecs, headphones, etc. as possible, but it still boils down to the music and not the gear. I do think your source file does end up being the most important aspect, a long with the headphones as a close second.
Even with that said, there comes a point when pining after better source files becomes kind of fruitless as well.
For instance, in my iFi Zen DAC/Amp Review I was able to test all 5 formats that the Amp is capable of: PCM 44/48/88/96, PCM 176/192/353/384, DSD64/128, DSD256, and Tidal MQA. I found that in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t really matter. A DSD file doesn’t sound better than a Tidal Master, and that’s the truth. Both the numbers and implementation (actually listening) both back that up. Cambridge Audio has a great explanation:
There are some important details worth knowing when making a comparison between DSD and a FLAC file, for example. The first is that DSD is not magically better than its rivals. A ‘standard’ DSD file – often referred to as DSD64 is roughly equivalent to a sample rate of 24/88.2kHz. ‘Double DSD’ or DSD128 samples that single bit of information 5.6 million times a second to give you a signal equivalent to 24/176.2kHz. Again, this is a sample rate that can be reproduced by formats that are not DSD. Higher rates exist but they are very, very rare. If anyone says that DSD is ‘better’ than other formats, the numbers don’t necessarily support that. Cambridge Audio
My experience backs this up as well. DSD doesn’t sound better. I listened to a 64, 128, and 256 and none of them really provided anything vastly different from a Tidal Master.They sounded good, sure. But you’re not missing out on some extra detail. It’s just not the case.
While it’s cool to see your DAC light up different colors according to source, it ultimately detracts from what the goal was in the first place: TO LISTEN TO MUSIC.
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s fun to play with these gadgets and find out what they’re capable of. But they should be merely used as a tool and nothing more.
With all that said, the Zen Blue sounds great. I’m listening to Talib Kweli and Mos Def’s only album, Blackstar (1998). Could it sound better? Perhaps, but I don’t really care and that’s the main takeaway. I’m completely satisfied and I love listening.
Every time you’re listening to music and start thinking about how it could sound better, just don’t. Stop. Take a deep breath. And enjoy the music.
Video Review (Coming Soon!)
This was my preliminary set up to make sure everything worked with the K5. 🙂
Here I was messing around with a few different Amps & Setups.
What’s the final grade?
The Zen Blue is a great tool for people to listen to music wireless, whether that’s through separate monitors, into a separate amplifier, or via anything in your home theater set up that supports coaxial in, optical in, etc.
Like the Zen DAC, it’s build quality is phenomenal and everything feels solid to the touch. Add to that it doesn’t collect fingerprints and looks gorgeous, and you’ve got a winning formula.
Stu is determined to help you make sound decisions, and strives to deliver the best and most in depth content on the internet! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, pray, rap, make beats, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His sense of humour, coupled with a knack for excellence and strict attention to detail are what allow him to stand out in an crowded industry.