iFi Audio Zen Blue Bluetooth DAC Review & Comments

Hillskill

Moderator/Games Reviewer
“Rosetta Stone” is very much this years “Swiss Army Knife” :D
 

Ed Selley

AVF Reviewer

bogart99

Well-known Member
Should have said was wondering if removeable so as to replace with a black less obtrusive one. Thanks.
 

Ed Selley

AVF Reviewer

symphara

Active Member
I'm very doubtful about the usefulness of these DACs. I have a collection of headphones - most recently got my Audiotechnica DSR9BT (I already had the excellent M50xBT) and as an iPhone user I was too worried about the codec. I read in advance that the DSR9 really benefits from stellar source quality (hi-res over USB being the best) and conversely really suffers from mediocre source quality.

In reality, I cannot tell the difference *at all* beween hi-res 24bit/192kHz USB vs 256kb SBC Bluetooth. Both sound equally excellent.

Same with the M50s, I cannot tell the difference between wired and wireless, for example.

Perhaps it's my ears but to contrast this, the headphones sound very different between themselves, and that's the important point. Spend the money on the headphones, not the Bluetooth intermediary.

I find it easier to believe that headphone amps will improve a hard-to-drive headphone on an analog wired connection.

For digital and Bluetooth, in my humble opinion it's just not worth buying one, it will make no difference.
 

coolcat

Active Member
This sounded very promising as I’m not yet ready to buy a hi-fi streamer, but I would like to stream using my iPhone. I have noticed that I can stream to my hi-fi using AirPlay via our SkyQ box. In this situation would using this method provide me with the better sound quality or would it be better to still use Bluetooth?

For info I listen to a lot of Radio Paradise via their iPhone app. We have a couple of Naim Mu-so, but they are in other rooms.
 

Off The Fence

Active Member
Interesting...

I've had one of these since December and my experience hasn't been as positive.

I currently listen to mp3/flacs on my phone (Mate 20 Pro) using a FiiO BTR3 to stream LDAC to my headphones (TRN V80s) for a couple of hours a day commuting. I also occasionally (weekends) stream the same files from my NAS to my home stereo setup using a (trusty old) Logitech Squeezebox Duet. Both of these solutions have been sonically excellent.

However, I've been looking to make the jump to a streaming service, so needed something to replace the Duet/NAS combo for home listening. I opted for a Zen Blue to stream from my phone to the stereo.

I'm not an audio expert, but for whatever reason the bluetooth sound quality isn't nearly as good as when using the NAS/Duet (which uses wifi). This with either LDAC or HWA, streaming the same flac files from my phone. It's really hard to describe the difference (again, not an expert!) - the Zen Blue doesn't sound nearly as wide/clear - but it's really noticeable when switching between the two. It's the kind of thing I might not have even picked up on if I hadn't listened to same source files a million times before (late at night, with a nice glass of wine :)). I've dragged my son in (23, probably better ears) for a second opinion and he agreed.

I have to say, the audio performance of the BTR3 is pretty awesome (as good as wired, I'd say), so I'd be surprised if it's Bluetooth per-se. For completeness, I really should plug that into my amp and compare it to the Zen Blue (but it wouldn't be a completely fair test, as the BTR3 doesn't have a line out). In fact, I might try that this afternoon...

Anyway, that's my 2c
 

timearp

Active Member
Very timely review. I'm looking for a Bluetooth receiver for my setup. My wife wants to stream DJ mixes from (primarily) Facebook and downloads on her phone without being plugged in to a wired connection.

I realise as sources go that this is one of the worst and am torn between a cheap BT receiver or paying the extra and getting one of a reasonable quality.

There aren't that many quality products that are in production, I was looking at the Arcam
rBlink but they're not being sold from many sources (Amazon still has them), choice is reducing. Am I being too picky? Should I stop looking for a 'named' device and just go for something cheap for now?
 

Jules Tohpipi

Active Member
Interesting...

I've had one of these since December and my experience hasn't been as positive.

I currently listen to mp3/flacs on my phone (Mate 20 Pro) using a FiiO BTR3 to stream LDAC to my headphones (TRN V80s) for a couple of hours a day commuting. I also occasionally (weekends) stream the same files from my NAS to my home stereo setup using a (trusty old) Logitech Squeezebox Duet. Both of these solutions have been sonically excellent.

However, I've been looking to make the jump to a streaming service, so needed something to replace the Duet/NAS combo for home listening. I opted for a Zen Blue to stream from my phone to the stereo.

I'm not an audio expert, but for whatever reason the bluetooth sound quality isn't nearly as good as when using the NAS/Duet (which uses wifi). This with either LDAC or HWA, streaming the same flac files from my phone. It's really hard to describe the difference (again, not an expert!) - the Zen Blue doesn't sound nearly as wide/clear - but it's really noticeable when switching between the two. It's the kind of thing I might not have even picked up on if I hadn't listened to same source files a million times before (late at night, with a nice glass of wine :)). I've dragged my son in (23, probably better ears) for a second opinion and he agreed.

I have to say, the audio performance of the BTR3 is pretty awesome (as good as wired, I'd say), so I'd be surprised if it's Bluetooth per-se. For completeness, I really should plug that into my amp and compare it to the Zen Blue (but it wouldn't be a completely fair test, as the BTR3 doesn't have a line out). In fact, I might try that this afternoon...

Anyway, that's my 2c
I'm not 100% sure if I followed your various connection routes fully, but testing by Soundguys has shown that LDAC devices (phones) rarely connect at the maximum available data rate.

The ultimate guide to Bluetooth headphones: LDAC isn't Hi-res

In their testing, the two Huawei phones only auto connected at 660kbps - that's despite being located only an arm's length from the receiver. The lowering of the data rate is due to LDAC's default “Best Effort (Adaptive Bit Rate)” option, which will pick 330, 660, or 990kbps based on the strength of your connection." At 660kbps they noted it generally measured OK "but there’s a risk that higher frequency details may start to be masked by the noise."

If auto connecting LDAC at 330 kbps (which happened to two of the phones on test) then from the measurements they weren't happy with LDAC at all and concluded: "Regular Bluetooth SBC is nowhere near this bad, and this is by far the worst high-frequency performance I have seen from any Bluetooth codec."

I don't know what rate your actual phone is connecting at, but I post this for others who may be interested generally.

Some codecs like aptX HD have one fixed rate (per sampling frequency that is) so you can be sure of the connection speed it's aiming at.

By far their most worrying observation about LDAC for me was this (note their intended context extends well beyond just the Sony headphones scenario):

"We also took a look at the Sony WH1000XM2 and WH1000XM3, both LDAC wireless Bluetooth headphones. The average connection strength is about -51 and -49dBm respectively, with lows ending up closer to -60dBm when arms and hands get in the way. In other words: Sony headphones sport connections fast enough for LDAC’s highest quality settings, but don’t offer a lot of headroom to guarantee a stutter-free experience in less-than-ideal environments. In those situations, the codec will always fall back to its 330kbps setting."
 
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Off The Fence

Active Member
I've already enabled developer options and fiddled with all the settings to try to maximize/prioritise audio quality. In fact, I'm currently listening in the garden connected using HWA at 900 KB/s (allegedly).

I'm now (vaguely) toying with the idea of picking up a new amp with a built in DAC...pricey experiment though!
 

mrwhoppit

Member
This looks perfect for when I cannot cast to my amp using chromecast music, which includes a number of android apps such Mixcloud and of course anything on the ipad ....ordered
 

mrwhoppit

Member
Successfully linked this into amp via coaxial digital cable. Streaming from android phone no problem although not without some minor issues namely..
Phone does not connect automatically which means you have to press the pairing button every time !
Whilst on a Bluetooth connection you hear incoming notifications or worse an incoming call can cause the music app to stop
Maybe there are some settings that could correct these issues?
 

Sophia Wilson

Standard Member
Successfully linked this into amp via coaxial digital cable. Streaming from android phone no problem although not without some minor issues namely..
Phone does not connect automatically which means you have to press the pairing button every time !
Whilst on a Bluetooth connection you hear incoming notifications or worse an incoming call can cause the music app to stop
Maybe there are some settings that could correct these issues?
Yeah, it makes sense to use ZEN as a cost-effective wireless BT receiver with LDAC. Not too many of them out there.
In regards to not being able to connect automatically, I know iFi have lots of firmware on their website that may be able to help you, you should go check it out :). They also have a good support system on there to help you too! :)
 

Jokerr

Well-known Member
Plenty of devices have AptX LL. My Sennheiser BT100 has AptX LL which has been around for years and I use it for TV sound into Sennheiser Momentum 3 [also has AptX LL]. There is no audio lag and works perfectly.

your points about AAC on Apple is misleading. Apple created there own Bluetooth chips which may be based on AAC, however only Apple knows. If you have the latest iPhone with the Apple chip and the new Apple AirPod plus - the compression is unknown. It might be superior even to AptX HD and LDAC. Only Apple knows and they are keeping quiet about compression.
 

Ed Selley

AVF Reviewer
Plenty of devices have AptX LL. My Sennheiser BT100 has AptX LL which has been around for years and I use it for TV sound into Sennheiser Momentum 3 [also has AptX LL]. There is no audio lag and works perfectly.
That's great but there's no readily identifiable latency issue with Apt-X. Additionally, if the signal is audio alone (and the Zen is far less likely to be used as a partner for video in comparison to a pair of headphones), latency is secondary anyway because there is nothing for it to have latency with.

your points about AAC on Apple is misleading. Apple created there own Bluetooth chips which may be based on AAC, however only Apple knows. If you have the latest iPhone with the Apple chip and the new Apple AirPod plus - the compression is unknown. It might be superior even to AptX HD and LDAC. Only Apple knows and they are keeping quiet about compression.
[/QUOTE]

This is- bluntly- irrelevant. Apple may be doing something whizzy with the AirPod but, in the context of streaming a signal via Bluetooth from an iOS device to anything else- including the object that the entire review is written about- it is using AAC with a maximum transfer of 320kbps.
 

Off The Fence

Active Member
Mine's up for sale if someone wants to give it a whirl at a bargain price:

 

mateematy

Novice Member
today I finally found the K5Pro in my country. It costs 212 dollars and the Zen 156. Would you say that it’s worth the difference or I will be good with the Zen ? Planing to use it with the Adam T5v
 

BrianC97

Novice Member
today I finally found the K5Pro in my country. It costs 212 dollars and the Zen 156. Would you say that it’s worth the difference or I will be good with the Zen ? Planing to use it with the Adam T5v
I personally prefer the sound of the ZEN blue over the K5Pro but that's just my preference
 
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jonholmzee76

Novice Member
I've just purchased an IFI Zen Blue and plan to play music from Amazon HD music through my LG G6 using AptX HD codec. I have an Onkyo amp/receiver & Monitor Audio Silver speakers to deliver the goods. I see on the rear of the Zen it has digital & analogue connections. What one would you recommend I use for best results?
 

Sophia Wilson

Standard Member
I've just purchased an IFI Zen Blue and plan to play music from Amazon HD music through my LG G6 using AptX HD codec. I have an Onkyo amp/receiver & Monitor Audio Silver speakers to deliver the goods. I see on the rear of the Zen it has digital & analogue connections. What one would you recommend I use for best results?
You should try them both out and see what you prefer, let me know what you recommend :D
 

jonholmzee76

Novice Member
I have plugged in and paired up to the Ifi Zen. I'm amazed at the improvement in sound quality. The soundstage is amazing with real depth. The best £129 I've ever spent on hifi.
Incidentally, I have connected via analogue RCA using QED performance cables.
I assume the digital connections are there in case you are using an external DAC.
 

mrwhoppit

Member
I have plugged in and paired up to the Ifi Zen. I'm amazed at the improvement in sound quality. The soundstage is amazing with real depth. The best £129 I've ever spent on hifi.
Incidentally, I have connected via analogue RCA using QED performance cables.
I assume the digital connections are there in case you are using an external DAC.
I've connected into stereo amp via optical, didn't have much choice as all analogue inputs taken !
Did you compare a digital connection at all ?
 

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