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ifi Zen Blue Review (Bluetooth Receiver & DAC)

amirm

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#1
This is a review and detailed measurements of the ifi Zen Blue Bluetooth Receiver and DAC. It was sent to me by the company for testing months back and costs US $129 on Amazon with Prime shipping. There is now a version 2 of it. From my read of their description, it has a better antenna. Not sure what else is different.

The Zen Blue looks like the other recent ifi products:

ifi Zen Blue Review Bluetooth Analog Digital Output LDAC.jpg


The back side shows some interesting options:

ifi Zen Blue Review back panel power supply Bluetooth Analog Digital Output LDAC.jpg


The slide switch controls whether the output is digital or analog (can't be both). There is both coax and Toslink optical out. What is unusual is the balanced 4.4 mm that is normally reserved for headphones. Here, it is a mini balanced line out. Do not use it for headphone as it will play at full level and likely exceptionally loud!

ifi Zen Blue Measurements
From previous measurements of Bluetooth receivers, LDAC codec has shown to be most transparent. Other codecs degrade the signal quite a bit on their own, erasing hardware differences. So for this review, I am strictly focused on LDAC. Playback was through my Roon player on my Samsung Android phone. It defaulted to adaptive mode for LDAC. I set the bit depth to 24 bits and sample rate 44.1 kHz to match the test signals. Here is our dashboard using Toslink output:

ifi Zen Blue Measurements Bluetooth Toslink Digital Output LDAC.png


This is exceptionally good performance. Distortion products are at -140 dB. Hook this up to your favorite high performance DAC and the wireless link is as good as using USB! Of course there is some latency involved but still, this is an excellent transport and best we have seen.

Switching to RCA analog output costs you a lot in performance:

ifi Zen Blue Measurements Bluetooth RCA Output LDAC.png


The degradation is due to high distortion levels as signal to noise ratio is quite a bit better:

ifi Zen Blue DNR Measurements Bluetooth RCA Output LDAC.png


Switching to balanced output gets you more voltage but not more performance:

ifi Zen Blue Measurements Bluetooth Balanced Output LDAC.png


Yes, I had the channels reversed in this test. Can't be perfect all the time after stringing multiple cables and adapters to make this measurement! :)

The higher output voltage though may provide better signal immunity if you are sending it over long distances as would be the case in live sound.

Conclusions
The ifi Zen Blue is an excellent digital transport when used with LDAC codec and Toslink/Coax output. You can pair this up with a DAC and get any level of end to end performance you need. The internal DAC is not that good though. Like to see that improve by at least 15 dB to give us CD rate of 96 dB.

I am going to recommend the ifi Zen Blue for its excellent digital pipeline. Company has also been very good to work with over the the last few months which I appreciate.

-----------
As always, questions, comments, recommendations, etc. are welcome.

Any donations are much appreciated using: https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/how-to-support-audio-science-review.8150/
 

Frank Dernie

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#3
Just looked here and it is £159 on Amazon UK.
I was thinking of getting one to compare with Airplay but maybe not here in the UK :(
 

Grotti

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#5
This is a review and detailed measurements of the ifi Zen Blue Bluetooth Receiver and DAC. It was sent to me by the company for testing months back and costs US $129 on Amazon with Prime shipping. There is now a version 2 of it. From my read of their description, it has a better antenna. Not sure what else is different.

The Zen Blue looks like the other recent ifi products:

View attachment 140795

The back side shows some interesting options:

View attachment 140796

The slide switch controls whether the output is digital or analog (can't be both). There is both coax and Toslink optical out. What is unusual is the balanced 4.4 mm that is normally reserved for headphones. Here, it is a mini balanced line out. Do not use it for headphone as it will play at full level and likely exceptionally loud!

ifi Zen Blue Measurements
From previous measurements of Bluetooth receivers, LDAC codec has shown to be most transparent. Other codecs degrade the signal quite a bit on their own, erasing hardware differences. So for this review, I am strictly focused on LDAC. Playback was through my Roon player on my Samsung Android phone. It defaulted to adaptive mode for LDAC. I set the bit depth to 24 bits and sample rate 44.1 kHz to match the test signals. Here is our dashboard using Toslink output:

View attachment 140797

This is exceptionally good performance. Distortion products are at -140 dB. Hook this up to your favorite high performance DAC and the wireless link is as good as using USB! Of course there is some latency involved but still, this is an excellent transport and best we have seen.

Switching to RCA analog output costs you a lot in performance:

View attachment 140798

The degradation is due to high distortion levels as signal to noise ratio is quite a bit better:

View attachment 140799

Switching to balanced output gets you more voltage but not more performance:

View attachment 140800

Yes, I had the channels reversed in this test. Can't be perfect all the time after stringing multiple cables and adapters to make this measurement! :)

The higher output voltage though may provide better signal immunity if you are sending it over long distances as would be the case in live sound.

Conclusions
The ifi Zen Blue is an excellent digital transport when used with LDAC codec and Toslink/Coax output. You can pair this up with a DAC and get any level of end to end performance you need. The internal DAC is not that good though. Like to see that improve by at least 15 dB to give us CD rate of 96 dB.

I am going to recommend the ifi Zen Blue for its excellent digital pipeline. Company has also been very good to work with over the the last few months which I appreciate.

-----------
As always, questions, comments, recommendations, etc. are welcome.

Any donations are much appreciated using: https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/how-to-support-audio-science-review.8150/
Thank you very much for this test. One question: the scale for SINAD when testing Ldac is now down to more than 190 dB. It used to be about 160 dB IIRC. Could you explain that to a layman?
 

Frank Dernie

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#6
Strange as the company is located in UK!
It is, but the UK often gets "rip-of" prices since I don't think our market is as competitive as many others and it looks like there may be sone sort of price control going on (which isn't actually legal here) since every dealer stocking it quotes the same price even though the official ifi "shop" is on Amazon UK.
It is quite dependant on importer business model but I think the USA is the most price focused market so it is not uncommon for US prices of UK goods to be less in the USA (though the opposite is true for fashionable brands).
Quoted prices always include tax too, unlike the USA, which is 20%
 
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#7
While the performance is good to to see on a BT device, I just don’t trust the iFi brand anymore.

I am still bitter about my iDSD Signature made by iFi, due to internal fuck-up they secretly released a new revision of hardware with XU216 instead of XU208, right around the time I bought my unit from their official store (and received the old revision), and since then new firmware features are only added for the new revision.
 
OP
amirm

amirm

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Thread Starter #8
Thank you very much for this test. One question: the scale for SINAD when testing Ldac is now down to more than 190 dB. It used to be about 160 dB IIRC. Could you explain that to a layman?
Normally it is an analog capture so noise floor is never that low. Here, it is digital capture so can be much lower.
 

vkvedam

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#9
Good to see that iFi performing decent although subjective reviews of analogue out are again, not correlating to the measurements :p. Otherwise the digital implementation seems to be spot on. Unless you care about Airplay I can't think of any advantage in getting this over Topping's BC3 which is half the price plus performs better without a DAC. With an external DAC both would perform the same I suppose.

Either way it's a resounding success for LDAC!
 

Tks

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#12
Surprised they got something in this price range, don't these guys make $2K+ desktop devices?
 
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amirm

amirm

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Thread Starter #13
Surprised they got something in this price range, don't these guys make $2K+ desktop devices?
No, they have a lot of DACs and such in hundreds of dollars and accessories for less.
 

dougi

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#14
My Oppo phone upgraded itself to Android 11. Now it says what bt codec it is using in the bt connection menu. Great! You still need to go to developer settings to set bit depth etc, but much better than before. I only wish the Zen blue had a power button. I used to power it from a USB port on another device so it came on when that did.
 

Frank Dernie

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#15
Surprised they got something in this price range, don't these guys make $2K+ desktop devices?
Their expensive stuff was sold under the Abbingdon music research brand iirc. It has been through reincarnations and is now ARC. I suspect it was a market driven "high end" brand that didn't become fashionable and they settled for the lower priced mass market with ifi.
I could be wrong since my memory isn't what it was.
 

Harmonie

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#17
Thank you @amirm
that's a very good surprise.
If it had an RJ45 it would be even better as not everyone would like to mess with a Raspberry
 
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#18
I understand the technical limitations in the way you have to do these measurements, but I’d love to see multitone or frequency response to better understand the sacrifices the codec makes in more dynamic situations. Thanks for all the great reviews lately!

edit: found this in the BC3 review :)
 

keebz28

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#19
I have one of these and i have been using toslink out and LDAC to stream Amazon Music HD and the sound quality on it is great. I was also able to recently upgrade the firmware on it via iFi' native Gaia app on Android. This is definitely a good transport if you wish to use bluetooth for your listening preferences.
 
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PeteL

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#20
With an external DAC both would perform the same I suppose.

Either way it's a resounding success for LDAC!
In these measurements, for 24 bits LDAC to digital out, The IFI gives about 12 more dB of SINAD. Not that it necessarily matters, but not the same. I'd like to know how IFI can get these number. Limitations of the Toslink vs Coax perhaps? This is significant, I don't think we have seen before in these pages a BT signal being decoded with such resolution. Personally I don't expect the analog out to be great in theses types of devices, unfortunately maybe. Another + for the IFI is that it's much prettier and serious looking.
 
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