iFi Zen Blue Hi-Res Bluetooth Streamer Review: Wireless can actually sound good

iFi rarely disappoints the audio world. I’m a proud owner of their Micro Black Label DAC/amp, and most audiophiles and headphone junkies will certainly be familiar with the brand. But now, it seems that iFi is trying to reach a new crowd; iFi has just released a weirdly affordable Hi-Res Bluetooth streamer, the Zen Blue, at $129. And the name seems fitting, since this thing is undeniably Zen in terms of sound and design. Why? Let’s find out in this iFi Zen Blue Hi-Res Bluetooth Streamer Review.

iFi Zen Blue Hi-Res Bluetooth Streamer Review

DESIGN

DAC Chip and Bluetooth Implementation

For those still getting acquainted with the audiophile world, the following is good to note: iFi’s Bluetooth implementation is the reason why the Zen Blue sounds so much better that the Bluetooth crap you’re used to hearing. Unlike a lot Bluetooth receivers, where one Qualcomm chip covers all functions, including digital to analogue conversion, the Zen Blue has separate digital and analogue stages. The digital signal is routed from the Qualcom QCCC5100 chip to an ESS Sabre DAC chip for the digital to analogue conversion.

Outputs

Digital Outputs – Coaxial, Optical
Analogue Outputs – RCA, Balanced 4.4

The available outputs give you a lot of options in terms of application. You can connect to your external amp or active speakers via RCA. And the Zen Blue even has a balanced 4.4 output if you want to connect to a balanced amplifier. You could also get a 4.4.mm to XLR and hook it up to your studio active speakers. Finally, you can take advantage of the coaxial or optical to improve the audio on your TV system. 

Bluetooth and Supported Hi-Res Codecs

iFi has employed the Latest Bluetooth 5.0 technology. And the Zen Blue supports all high-resolution codecs – aptX, aptX HD, LDAC, AAC and even Huawei’s HWA – up to 24bit / 96kHz.

Bluetooth Pairing

The Zen Blue is able to store up to 7 paired Bluetooth devices. And the pairing button sits on the front side of the receiver. Just like a wireless headphone, it blinks until you connect it in the Bluetooth settings of your device.

kHZ LED Display

The front side of the Zen Blue has two displays, one of which is the kHz LED display – 44/48 lights up blue, while 88/96 lights up white.

Codec Format Display

The other display, lit up with the iFi logo, changes color depending on the format received. For example, using my iPhone’s AAC codec, the iFi logo was yellow. If I was using Android’s aptX, it would light up Blue. 

If this aesthetically minimalist design doesn’t whisper zen, then I don’t know what does.

SOUND

Equipment Used for Review

Unfortunately, we don’t house speakers at Headphone Dungeon’s headquarters. (But you can bet your ass I’m taking this thing home tonight to hook up to my stereo system). So, I had to do a little improvising. I connected the Zen DAC to our little iFi xCAN amp for the sake of brand consistency. And I streamed TIDAL via AAC from my iPhone. I also used my Campfire Andromedas, since those are IEMs with which I’m most familiar. 

Impressions

Let me preface this by saying that, in terms of the final sound result, you can’t separate the DAC from the amp. So, this review is limited to the amp I used. That being said, I’m rarely this impressed. The profile on this thing is divine; smooth as silk, while maintaining a relatively neutral feel. There’s no contrived warmth, but at the same time, there’s nothing sterile about the Zen Blue. It reminds me a lot of the iFi Black Label Micro, though the DAC chips are different (and again, the iFi xCAN probably played a role). Highly melodic and cohesive, the Zen Blue conveys a sweet fluidity that’s oh so pleasing to the ears. The peaks in the high frequencies are a tad softened, though they don’t feel rolled off; The Zen Blue merely eases any sharpness that you might hear from percussion or brass in the highs, for example. And in the same way, any harshness in the upper mids is also moderated. So, it’s a very forgiving listen, though the sound remains super clean and well separated. Like a good single malt scotch, it just takes the edge off.

SUMMARY

As an audiophile, I’m all about uncompromising fidelity. And I’m always sticking to wired setups. But there’s also value in not getting off the couch to flip a record; lounging with my iPhone and Tidal’s vast album collection at my fingertips while the sweet smoothness of this DAC lulls me into a meditative state. No, I’m not a shill for iFi. The Zen Blue is just that good. Whether you’re a regular ol’ music lover looking to upgrade your wireless sound or a seasoned audiophile trying to make life easier, the Zen Blue is a fantastic Bluetooth option. 

Five skulls means nothing to complain about.

You can find the iFi Zen Blue for the best price here:

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