iFi audio ZEN Blue - Enlightened audio at a down-to-earth price

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iFi David

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Enlightened audio at a down-to-earth price

First of a new range of audio components priced at just £129, US$129 and €149, iFi’s ZEN Blue delivers hi-res Bluetooth streaming to any audio system

Southport, England – iFi kicks off a new range of high-quality, super-affordable, desktop-sized audio products with the ZEN Blue – the world’s first Bluetooth receiver supporting all the latest hi-res codecs for the best-quality music streaming from smartphones, tablets, PCs and Macs to any audio system.

The ZEN Blue immediately impresses with its sturdy aluminium enclosure, unusual at such a low price. But what really sets it apart is the circuitry within – as always, iFi has gone to great lengths to ensure that sound quality over Bluetooth is the best it can be, even if it has to be designed from the ground up.

Bluetooth reception represents a mere convenience for many audio manufacturers, enabled in the simplest and cheapest way to ‘tick a box’ on the features list. But the manner in which Bluetooth is implemented – the quality of signal processing and the circuitry that surrounds it – has a big impact on performance. Not all Bluetooth sounds the same, and iFi engineers its products to obtain the best possible performance from every audio source – Bluetooth streaming included.

With the ZEN Blue, this starts with a state-of-the-art Qualcomm QCC5100 chip to process the incoming data – the ZEN Blue is the first product of its kind to benefit from this new-generation Bluetooth IC.

All the latest 24-bit-capable Bluetooth audio formats are supported, including Qualcomm’s aptX Adaptive and aptX HD, Sony’s LDAC and Huawei’s HWA – no other Bluetooth streamer boasts this cutting-edge hi-res specification. Other codecs covered include regular aptX and aptX Low Latency, AAC (the favoured format of Apple iOS devices) and SBC (the ‘plain vanilla’ Bluetooth codec). This means that every possible source device is covered at the highest audio resolution its Bluetooth specification allows.

The Qualcomm QCC5100 offers a ‘system-on-a-chip’ Bluetooth solution, with all functions covered including D-to-A conversion. Many manufacturers would simply rely on this chip to deliver the DAC function, but this is not the iFi way. The ZEN Blue has separate digital and analogue stages; to feed the analogue stage, the processed digital signal is routed from the QCC5100 to a specialised DAC chip from ESS Technology’s Sabre family to convert the signal from digital to analogue.

One of the key advantages of the ESS Sabre DAC chip is its Hyperstream architecture with integrated Time Domain Jitter Eliminator, which helps to deliver vanishingly low distortion and high dynamic range. iFi has found that this allies perfectly with the Qualcomm chip to deliver Bluetooth audio that sounds far better than the norm.

None of this would mean much if the rest of the ZEN Blue’s circuitry were not up to scratch. This is the first iFi product to benefit from the input of legendary audio designer John Curl, who has teamed up with the iFi electronics design team, led by Technical Director Thorsten Loesch, to ensure the circuit design of every product is fully optimised.

The ZEN Blue’s analogue output stage is a balanced design – highly unusual in a DAC anywhere near this price point. It incorporates a range of high-quality circuit components, carefully selected for their performance in an audio context, including professional-grade balanced line drivers, C0G capacitors from TDK and a precision low-noise power supply IC from Texas Instruments. It all adds up to a highly affordable Bluetooth streamer with a sound that punches well above its weight.

It’s all connected

The ZEN Blue adds high-quality Bluetooth reception to any audio system via analogue or digital cable connections. A switch at the back dictates how the digital signal is routed; either through the DAC and analogue output stage, or directly to the digital outputs. On the analogue side, RCA stereo outputs allow connection to amplifiers, active speakers and the like, while a 4.4mm Pentaconn output enables balanced signal transfer to amps/speakers equipped with a balanced input – either a 4.4mm input, or XLR inputs via a 4.4mm-to-XLR cable. For digital connections, optical and coaxial outputs are provided – these allow connection to anything with a built-in DAC and corresponding digital input, such as an AV amp or an external hi-fi DAC.

The ZEN Blue ‘remembers’ up to seven paired Bluetooth source devices, making it easy to switch from one device to another, with impressive reception range thanks to the latest Bluetooth 5 specification. The DAC stage handles sampling rates well in excess of the maximum delivered by current hi-res Bluetooth formats – of the 24-bit-capable codecs, aptX Adaptive and aptX HD support up to 48kHz, while LDAC and HWA reach 96kHz.

The LED at the centre of the ZEN Blue’s front panel changes colour to identify the Bluetooth codec being received, while another LED to the right indicates the sample rate. Qualcomm’s QCC5100 chip can be updated over-the-air, enabling future Bluetooth codecs to be added to the ZEN Blue’s specification.

Find your ZEN

Available from October, the ZEN Blue hi-res Bluetooth streamer is the first of a range of ZEN Series products, all of which share the same 158x35x100mm (WxHxD) aluminium case. It will be followed swiftly by the ZEN DAC, which swaps Bluetooth reception for a USB input and adds an integrated headphone amp. Further ZEN Series products will arrive in the coming months.

iFi David

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It’s Bluetooth, but not as you know it.

Bluetooth functionality in a device is one thing, but actually making is sound really great is another.

Did you know..?

The first consumer Bluetooth device was invented in 1994 by Dr. Jaap Haartsen at Ericson. It was launched in 1999. As we all know, Bluetooth was originally intended for wireless voice calls. It was not intended for high quality music streaming.

It was named after Harald Blåtand Gormsen, who was the Viking King of Denmark between 958 and 970. Bluetooth is the Anglicised version of Blåtand. He was known for ‘uniting’ Scandinavia. Bluetooth was intended to ‘unite’ the PC and mobile phone industries.

The Bluetooth logo is not the clever etchings of a 1990’s PR agency / focus group – it’s actually the initials of Harald Bluetooth written in Scandanavian runes.

iFi is proud to be able to say that the ZEN Blue is the world’s first Bluetooth receiver supporting all the latest hi-res codecs for the best-quality music streaming from smartphones, tablets, PCs and Macs to any audio system.

We’re sure Harald would be proud too.

The iFi Bluetooth implementation

So, Bluetooth is now everywhere and we take it for granted. But what we don’t have to take for granted is that audio transmitted via Bluetooth doesn’t always sound that great.

At iFi, we never settle for second best , so when we decided to incorporate Bluetooth into our products, we took a long hard look at it and thought, let’s make it the best Bluetooth we can. Here, we tell you how.

There is one tried and tested way to add Bluetooth to you device – we call it the ‘cookie cutter route’.

Grab yourself an SOC module – system on a chip – ; and implement according to the datasheet and you are done. Like this:

SBC stand for Standard Bluetooth Codec. You simply run it through the SOC and there you have it. Job done. And, while this is adequate for a lot of products, we feel that audio deserves better, so we made a few tweaks with our implementation.

We developed a ground-up solution where the SOC in the xCAN is used only for reception (ie: no conversion/amplification).

We use the newest Qualcomm QCC5100 chip in conjunction with the very latest version of Bluetooth – Bluetooth5.0. The QCC5100 is a DAC chip and could be used for the digital to analogue conversion BUT we use it for data processing only. It includes aptX and AAC codecs for best audio quality from Apple devices (AAC) and Android devices, laptops etc. (aptX). It will also enable our devices to process LDAC and HWA, Sony and Huawei’s answer to hi-res Bluetooth respectively as well as Qualcomm’s aptX Adaptive codec.

The digital-to-analogue conversion is performed by the ESS Sabre Hyperstream DAC chip. The signal from SOC has a huge amount of jitter. The ESS Sabre chip has Domain Jitter Eliminator Elimination and a discrete oscillator so this eliminates jitter and for the conversion to analogue. Once the conversion is complete, it is then sent to the amplifier.

We use our own custom-designed op-amp, as found in our higher priced DACs such as the micro iDSD Black Label. And the Qualcomm and sabre align perfectly with our own GMT femto-precision clocking system to bring you an amazing performance from Bluetooth that is a positive surprise.

iFi David

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First in the world with the very latest QC5100 series Bluetooth chipset.

And we’ve maxed it out!

Bluetooth technology is advancing at such a rapid rate that all manufacturers are doing their utmost to keep pace.

Here at iFi audio, we are pleased to announce that we are the very FIRST in the world to use the QC5100 series chip in high-end audio equipment.

And there’s more. This Bluetooth chipset is so new, we have had to integrate the LDAC (Sony) and HWA (Huwai) coding ourselves in-house via our own software team.

So, enough of the unashamed trumpet blowing. Why is this important?

Firstly, the processing power of the Q5100 series chipset is TWICE as good as the previous 8675 series chipset launched back in 2015. This means improved sound quality over Bluetooth. Plus, with the aptX Adaptive codec too, it is at the very cutting-edge of Bluetooth technology.

Secondly, it means that you can get your hands on this very latest Bluetooth tech at an affordable price. Better tech equals better sound quality. Our ZEN Blue and Aurora are the first high-end audio products in the world  to use the QC5100 Bluetooth system. It simply isn’t available in any other audio product.

And, as stated earlier, we added the highly sought after LDAC and HWA codecs. We’ve left no stone unturned to bring you the very latest and greatest in Bluetooth technology.

A bit more on the Qualcomm family

The very latest Qualcomm audio range of Bluetooth chipsets, the 5100 series launched in 2019. The older 8675 series launched back in 2015.

The table below outlines the main differences between them. 

About iFi audio products

iFi make a range of portable and desktop DAC/amps and, whether you choose the entry-level but feature-packed ZEN Blue, or the stunning all-in-one bamboo-clad Aurora, both released very recently, you’ll be able to stream all the very latest hi-res Bluetooth formats.

This includes Qualcomm’s aptX, aptX HD, aptX Adaptive, Sony’s LDAC, Huawei’s HWA, Apple’s favoured format, AAC and SBC, the standard Bluetooth codec.
We’ve got your Bluetooth needs covered.

iFi David

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Our ZEN Blue scored 9/10 and the Best Buy award at AVForums!

Ed Selley closed his review by saying this: "iFi has built the best Bluetooth interface I’ve ever seen and they only want £130 for it. The result is unquestionably a Best Buy."