Todays review will be a bit shorter than normal as the piece of gear we are talking about is actually quite simple. The iFi Audio ZenBlue. The ZenBlue is a member of iFi’s slowly expanding Zen Range, and has the same form factor as the rest of the line. It offers up very simple functionality as a bluetooth receiver and DAC. There is no volume control, headphone amp, XBASS or 3D features. There is one button on the front to pair with a device, and one on the back to switch from a Digital to Digital function, or use the internal DAC and operate via RCA outputs. You can also use a 4.4mm balanced pentaconn output on the rear, either to connect to another member of the Zen series (which makes sense) or a 4.4mm to dual 3pin XLR into an amp. The problem with that is pentaconn to dual 3pin XLR cables will cost almost as much or more than the ZenBlue itself, so perhaps not the economical way to do things.
The ZenBlue is very simple in how it works. You screw in a short antenna which comes in the box, and plug it into the 5v included DC power brick. You then decide if you want to use it as a DD convertor into whichever DAC you prefer, or as a DAC itself using its RCA outputs. You then press the pair button on the front of the unit, which makes it searchable, and then on the device of your choosing, you pair with the ZenBlue. Thats it. Totally easy, totally simple.
I initially tried the ZenBlue as a DD converter into my Rockna Wavelight DAC. This worked well, and there was no latency between selecting songs on my computer, and hearing them come out my headphones or speakers. The same can be said for when I tried it as a DAC directly into my Kinki EX-M1 integrated amp.
Bluetooth as a technology does limit you to less than lossless levels of transmission. As far as I understand, it currently cannot transfer losslessly regardless of the CODEC you use. I did a bit of research and it seems that 320kbps mp3’s or the equivalent in other file formats are the best it can manage. Now, I personally don’t believe the difference between a 320kpbs mp3 and lossless is that big. The difference can be hard to hear, but there is certainly a slight difference, especially with material you are familiar with. With all that being said, as lossless streaming is becoming more and more common, and more and more affordable, I can’t recommend the ZenBlue for someone who is going for ultimate sound quality. Perhaps iFi’s newly announced ZenStream would be a better choice for those people. However, if you need an affordable, small, transportable DAC package that does bluetooth, maybe for a secondary non reference system, or in the kitchen for listening to tunes while you cook, or something similar, the ZenBlue would be perfect.
As a DD convertor, I didn’t notice it having a tremendous amount of influence on the sound. It simply passed through what it was being given. As a DAC, it was a bit thinner and sharper sounding than I am used to gear sounding from iFi, but again, for its price and use case, it is totally fine. Again, not for a reference system, but certainly ok for other uses. Not every piece of gear has to be top of the line, and its always neat to see a manufacturer coming up with other ideas and trying new things in the more affordable “entry level” market space.
Overall, the ZenBlue does what is says on the tin. It is an affordable, handy, and simple bluetooth receiver. Its not the best DAC I have ever heard, and bluetooth itself is a limiting factor, but within those boundaries, the ZenBlue actually works very well. If this is the sort of thing you have been looking for, and you feel it fits your use case, then I would recommend it highly. If it doesn’t, I would certainly check on the ZenDac, or again, the new ZenStream 🙂