iFi Audio regularly presents devices that surprise because they do even more for less money. Mobile listeners are the favorite target group of the British brand, but two new Zen devices offer an affordable sound upgrade for people who enjoy music at home. The Zen Blue may even be interesting for bringing wireless TV sound to your stereo system.
IFI Audio Zen DAC and Zen Blue
The new Zen family is something new for iFi Audio, the sister brand of Abbingdon Music Research ( AMR). These are devices that occupy a completely different position than the previous IFI products that we viewed. Where the xDSD and xCan are very attractive propositions for those who want to listen to their music on the go and the iDSD Pro is for the most demanding headfi enthusiasts, the Vega DAC and Vega Blue are aimed at everyone who wants to get more out of their headphones at home – without thereby plunder the bank account. Both devices cost just under 150 euros, a price point where you will find few alternatives. Audioquests DragonFly Black and Red, for example, are 50 euros cheaper and more expensive, respectively. But these are also slightly different products than the two Zens, more aimed at the mobile listener.
Each with its own mission
The Zen family includes two devices in this respect: the Zen DAC and the Zen Blue. What the former does may not be difficult to guess, the function of the Blue may not be immediately clear. However, if we tell you that “Blue” stands for Bluetooth, it might become clearer. The Zen Blue is actually a Bluetooth receiver combined with a DA converter. The device is therefore intended for those who want to stream music from a smartphone, tablet or other Bluetooth device to a reproducer. Which one right? Perhaps an audio device with an analog cinch input or a digital input, such as an amplifier or a soundbar. So it is not a total solution for the headphone enthusiast. The Blue itself does not have an output for headphones, but offers you a series of outputs that allow connection to hi-fi devices or a headphone amplifier. Versatility is really an asset to this thing, allowing you to incorporate the Zen Blue into your system to listen to headphones or use it as a streaming source in your hi-fi system. It also provides an easy way to add Bluetooth to an older amp that hasn't eaten cheese from streaming. With an adapter like this, there is more possible than you might think. With the Zen Blue you could even prepare a soundbar that only has an extra aux input. Or another scenario: you use the Zen Blue to wirelessly send the audio from your TV to an amplifier.
What makes the Zen Blue surprisingly audiophile is the presence of many more outputs than normal. There are more Bluetooth receivers on the market that you can pick up for a good price, but they only have an analog cinch output. As a result, you have to rely on the quality of the built-in DAC, which is sad if you want to add Bluetooth streaming to an integrated amplifier that itself has a high-end DA converter. With the Zen Blue you are not obliged to make a sub-optimal choice. At the back of the device you will also find a balanced output and two digital outputs (optical and coaxial). With the latter two options, you can use the Zen Blue as a pure streamer and leave the crucial DA conversion to the next device in the chain.
Loose Bluetooth receivers usually do not excel in terms of codec support. It is a weakness that the Zen Blue does not have, because iFi Audio has provided the broadest codec support ever. In addition to the mandatory SBC and the semi-mandatory AAC (necessary for streaming from iPhones and iPads), aptX, aptX HD and LDAC are also available. The latter codecs guarantee the highest possible quality when transferring audio via Bluetooth, at the moment. Streaming music over Bluetooth always remains lossy – so with loss of audio data – but these codecs are intelligent enough to greatly limit the audible data loss. They are now also standard in Android, so smartphones have been using these codecs since approximately 2018-2019. Unfortunately, devices such as TVs still only support SBC.
iFi Audio is also strongly convinced that it is completely futureproof by offering support for HWA. This is a hi-res codec developed by Huawei, also known as LHDC. As far as we can determine, streaming with the HWA codec is currently only possible with the Huawei P30 and Mate 20 smartphones, but the HWA group has prominent audio companies such as Astell & Kern, Audio-Technica, FiiO and Onkyo / Pioneer in its ranks. .
In any case, it is a huge asset that the Zen Blue has all those codecs and Bluetooth 5.0 on board, so that you can listen in the highest possible quality and the battery of (compatible, newer) smartphones is less charged.  Classic concept
The Zen DAC – yet for the headfi enthusiast – a more recognizable device. It is a real desktop device, designed to hang from your computer via USB. There is only one input: a USB class B port. CD players or other digital sources are therefore not welcome, but mobile devices can in theory be connected if you trace the correct cable. For a modern Android smartphone that means a USB C to USB class B cable (also available with IFI Audio), with an iPhone you need the Camera Connection Kit adapter. The Zen DAC does have the necessary to connect your headphones. In fact, the device is very well equipped for this price point, because in addition to the expected single-ended 6.3-mm jack connection, there is also a 4.4-mm balanced output. Such a Pentaconn connection is something that has blown over from Japan and has been embraced by Sony and Sennheiser, among others. For many headphones, however, you're going to have to find a custom cable or adapter if you'd like to listen balanced. But you can also simply opt for a traditional single-ended connection via the 6.3-mm output. The choice is yours.
If you still want to connect a separate (headphone) amplifier, you can do so via the outputs at the back. Depending on the requirements of your audio system, you can switch between a variable or fixed output level.
We think you will never use the Zen DAC and Zen Blue together, because their functions do not really complement each other. But in terms of design it could be. The Zen devices have the same housing, both in shape (a rounded trapezium) and in materials. The outer jacket is made of a dark gray plastic resembling metal with a recessed front panel effectively constructed of aluminum. Ditto for the back, where especially with the Zen DAC a lot of connections (not to mention logos) are pressed on a very small surface. Back in the front, we nod approvingly when we notice that the knobs – including a large volume knob – are made of a solid metal. This gives you the impression that iFi Audio has really done its best to give this budget device as much as possible a certain premium appearance.
At least as important is that the devices are relatively compact and have an attractive design. You have other entry-level DACs in the budget class, but most are cheap-looking cabinets that make your desk look messier. The IFI Audio devices are smart enough to be placed visibly next to your computer or laptop. And that exactly where we think the Zen DAC will usually end up. The Zen Blue may find a place near an audio system.
Surprisingly, the Zen Blue and the Zen DAC are equipped with different DAC chips. The Zen Blue is equipped with an ESS Saber chip, while the Zen DAC comes with a Burr-Brown chip that is supplemented by iFi Audio with its own transcoder. Thanks to this True Native chipset, Zen DAC can handle virtually any relevant hi-res format: PCM up to 384 kHz / 32-bit, DSD streams up to DSD256. DSD will of course always remain a niche, but those who listen to it will receive a “pure” playback via this DAC via a path other than PCM audio. After all, PCM and DSD require a different approach in terms of DA conversion, including filtering.
Convenient to use
The Zen Blue is nothing more than a receiver for a Bluetooth stream that may come from your smartphone is. It is not really complicated to use. You connect the included 5V adapter; it is a pity that you can not use a USB cable, because many devices have a USB port at the back that could provide enough power. You choose with which cable you hang the Zen Blue on your amplifier or active speakers, after which you only have to connect your mobile device to the iFi Audio box. Just press the single button on the Zen Blue and do the necessary on your phone. If your amplifier is already switched on, you will hear an English lady voice confirming that the connection has been made and which codec is being used. Because we happen to use a P30 Pro, we hear the magical words “HWA” echo through the JBL HDI speakers hanging on our Hegel Röst. If we link an LG G8X later, we will be informed that aptX is serving the codec. If you have missed this message, you can also just peek at the Zen Blue. An illuminated iFi Audio logo indicates which codec is in use, along with a large LED light to tell you which kHz is streaming in. The dullest in colors you see when you use the best option, such as when we listen to Sarah McCoy's dark, menacing album 'Blood Siren' via the Huawei phone and the Qobuz app: white twice.
To To get an idea of the advantages and disadvantages of the built-in DAC, we connect the Zen Blue to the Hegel amplifier via cinch (and therefore the iFi Audio-DAC) and via an optical cable. After all, when using the digital cable, you rely on the DA converter in the amplifier, not in the box of the British brand. The difference is noticeable: the Hegel-DAC offers slightly more resolution, it seems. But it is not a big difference, which leads us to conclude that the Zen Blue is one of the best options if you want to add Bluetooth streaming to your system. In terms of dropouts or other problems, there was not much to note, even if we oblige the HWA codec to stream at 900 kbit / s. We would add right away that in our experience streaming over the network will usually provide the very best sound experience.
To test a completely different scenario, we connect the Zen Blue over Bluetooth to the Sony KD-65AF9 that we recently used another review. We want to see if you can get TV sound out of a stereo system in this way, without lag, so that lip movements of actors do not match what you hear. With an optical connection to a Hegel Röst amplifier paired with a set of Dali Menuet SE speakers (small things that are great for smaller rooms and shorter listening distances), the result was excellent. It is true that lag can become a problem with certain amplifiers with longer signal paths. If you experience that, it can also be worthwhile to compare a digital connection to an analog. Depending on the amplifier design, one of the two can take a shortcut in the amplifier.
The Zen DAC got a place at our desk in our test room, connected via an USB cable to an iMac . That cable also gave it enough power to function, but you can also use a (not included) 5V adapter. iFi Audio also sells power supplies, so it is not surprising that that option is there. When testing, we usually reached for the affordable AKG K371 (see FWD77) and the classic that is the Denon D7200 (an EISA winner). But first we take the FiiO FA7, very special 3D-printed in-ears with four drivers per ear. For their approximately 279 euros they offer a lot of listening pleasure. They are also relatively sensitive in-ears (110 dB, 23 Ohm) that are great for checking the purity of the headphone output. Again, iFi Audio scores here again, proving that it doesn't have to be about expensive components. There is no price on “good engineering”. On the FiiOs, we also hear the impact of the TruBass button in the front, a feature that increases the bass if you prefer. It works very well without introducing unwanted distortion. iFi Audio does this in the analog domain, not via a DSP, which appears to be the right choice in this case.
Overall, we are very satisfied with the performance of the Zen DAC. You do not offer the drive or resolution of the approximately ten times more expensive Chord Hugo 2 that is also on our desk. But is it ten times less inferior? Certainly not. In fact, we are really baffled by this box. It doesn't have the power to really bring the hungriest headphones to life, like our Focal Stellia or the Sennheiser HD650 – but most headphones sound very pleasant. Whether we listen to the dexterous Bach interpretations of Trevor Pinnock on harpsichord on or to Baxter Dury's muttered poetry on 'The Night Chancers', it sounds great.
If you use the Zen DAC you cannot help but be impressed. This compact device offers a lot for its price. For a very modest sometimes, this IFI Audio lets you listen to your digital music in much higher quality. A nice upgrade for anyone who gets their daily dose of motivation from music on their computer.
The Zen Blue is a more specific product. It fulfills its mission well, thanks to the unseen broad support for Bluetooth codecs. Bluetooth streaming is always a compromise in quality, but the Zen Blue eliminates the shortcomings to the maximum. It is – again – a very nice audio upgrade at a reasonable price.