iFi kicks off a new range of desktop components with the ZEN Blue – a £129 Bluetooth receiver that supports all the latest hi-res codecs for music streaming from smartphones, tablets, PCs and Macs to any audio system. The ZEN Blue has an aluminium enclosure and circuitry that aims to provide sound quality over Bluetooth that’s “the best it can be”.
The manner in which Bluetooth is implemented – the quality of signal processing and the circuitry that surrounds it – has a big impact on performance. Not all Bluetooth sounds the same, and iFi claims to “engineer its products to obtain the best possible performance from every audio source – Bluetooth streaming included.” A situation confirmed in the Pro iDSDDAC we reviewed last year.
The ZEN Blue has “a state-of-the-art Qualcomm” QCC5100 chip to process the incoming data – the ZEN Blue is the first product of its kind to benefit from this new-generation Bluetooth IC. All the latest hi-res Bluetooth audio formats are supported, including Qualcomm’s aptX HD, Sony’s LDAC and Huawei’s HWA. Other supported codecs include regular aptX, aptX Low Latency (for synching sound with visual media), AAC (the favoured format of iOS devices) and SBC (the ‘plain vanilla’ Bluetooth codec). This means that every possible source device is covered, at the highest resolution its Bluetooth audio specification will allow.
The Qualcomm QCC5100 offers a ‘system-on-a-chip’ Bluetooth solution, with all functions covered including D-to-A conversion but the ZEN Blue has separate digital and analogue stages; to feed the analogue stage, the processed digital signal is routed from the QCC5100 to a specialised DAC chip from ESS Technology’s Sabre family to convert the signal from digital to analogue. One of the key advantages that iFi highlight in the ESS Sabre DAC chip is its Hyperstream architecture with integrated Time Domain Jitter Eliminator, which helps to deliver vanishingly low distortion and high dynamic range. iFi has found that this allies perfectly with the Qualcomm chip to deliver Bluetooth audio that “sounds far better than the norm”.
This is the first iFi product to benefit from the input of legendary audio designer John Curl, who has teamed up with the iFi electronics design team to ensure the circuit design of every product is fully optimised. The ZEN Blue’s analogue output stage is a balanced design – highly unusual in a DAC anywhere near this price point. It incorporates a range of high-quality circuit components, carefully selected for their performance in an audio context, including professional-grade balanced line drivers, C0G capacitors from TDK and a precision low-noise power supply IC from Texas Instruments.
The ZEN Blue adds Bluetooth reception to any audio system via analogue or digital cable connections. A switch at the back dictates how the digital signal is routed; either through the DAC and analogue output stage, or directly to the digital outputs. On the analogue side, RCA stereo outputs allow connection to amplifiers, active speakers and the like, while a 4.4mm Pentaconn output enables balanced signal transfer to amps/speakers equipped with a balanced input – either a 4.4mm input, or XLR inputs via a 4.4mm-to-XLR cable.
For digital connections, optical and coaxial outputs are provided – these allow connection to anything with a built-in DAC and corresponding digital input, such as an AV amp or an external hi-fi DAC.
The ZEN Blue ‘remembers’ up to seven paired Bluetooth source devices, making it easy to switch from one device to another, with impressive reception range thanks to the latest Bluetooth 5 specification. The DAC stage handles sample rates well in excess of the maximum supported by the best hi-res Bluetooth formats – of the current 24-bit-capable codecs, aptX HD’s specification tops out at 48kHz, while LDAC and HWA support up to 96kHz.
The LED at the centre of the ZEN Blue’s front panel changes colour to identify the Bluetooth codec being received, while another LED to the right indicates the sample rate. Qualcomm’s QCC5100 chip can be updated over-the-air, enabling future Bluetooth codecs to be added to the ZEN Blue’s specification.
The ZEN Blue hi-res Bluetooth streamer is the first of a range of ZEN Series products, all sharing the same 158x35x100mm (WxHxD) aluminium case. It will be followed swiftly by the ZEN DAC, which swaps Bluetooth reception for a USB input and adds an integrated headphone amp. Further ZEN Series products are set to arrive in the coming months.