iFi Audio is expanding its line-up of high-res audio products and peripherals with the new Zen Blue, which it dubs the "world's first" Bluetooth receiver supporting all of the latest hi-res codecs, allowing you to stream music from a smartphone, tablet, PC, or MC to any audio system.
Housed in an aluminum enclosure, the Zen Blue has a Qualcomm QCC5100 chip to process the incoming data, making it the first product of its kind to benefit from this new-generation Bluetooth IC.
All the latest hi-res Bluetooth audio formats are supported, including Qualcomm's aptX HD, Sony's LDAC, and Huawei's HWA. Other supported codecs include regular aptX, aptX Low Latency (for synching sound with visual media), AAC (the favoured format of iOS devices), and SBC (the ‘plain vanilla' Bluetooth codec).
The Qualcomm QCC5100 offers a ‘system-on-a-chip' Bluetooth solution, with all functions covered including D-to-A conversion. Meanwhile, 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 specialized 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, says iFi, is its Hyperstream architecture with integrated Time Domain Jitter Eliminator, which helps to deliver 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.
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 optimized.
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. The DAC stage handles sample rates well in excess of the maximum supported by the best hi-res Bluetooth formats - of the current 24-bit-capable codecs, aptX HD's specification tops out at 48kHz, while LDAC and HWA support up to 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.
Available from October, the Zen Blue hi-res Bluetooth streamer will be available in Canada through Motet Distribution for MSRP $189. Next up will be 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.