Affordable streamers that support high-resolution audio (24-bit/96kHz at a minimum) are becoming increasingly popular with both audiophiles who have abandoned their CD collections, and the mass market who are starting (albeit at a slower pace) to take a closer look at streaming services like the recently launched Amazon Music HD, Tidal, and Qobuz. High-resolution audio needed a solid kick in the behind, and it remains to be seen how the new Amazon HD offering will move the needle. One brand that has pushed high-resolution digital playback very hard for both the home, and portable market is iFi Audio.
The British manufacturer has succeeded in differentiating its products from the rest of the market with unique industrial design, and solid performance that is very affordable. iFi is a solid choice if your budget falls below $1,000, but you put great value on high-end digital audio playback and love listening to headphones.
To push further into the mainstream, iFi Audio have just announced the ZEN Blue High Res Bluetooth Receiver which “supports” all high-resolution audio codecs for only $129 USD. Support, however, is rather misleading as Bluetooth does not yet support lossless streaming.
From the press release:
“All the latest hi-res Bluetooth audio formats are supported, including Qualcomm’s aptX HD, Sony’s LDAC and Huawei’s HWA – no other Bluetooth streamer boasts this hi-res specification. 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). This means that every possible source device is covered, at the highest resolution its Bluetooth audio specification will allow.
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.”
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 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.
How this moves the needle, we’re not sure quite yet…but it may be what the mainstream streaming customer needs to see what all of the fuss is all about. What will be more exciting is when Bluetooth actually supports 16-bit or 24/96 playback.
For more information: iFi Audio ZEN Blue