Unusual part comes in when you find out that Bluetooth is the only digital input available on this unit. Yes, you heard it correctly, there is no USB or any other physical way to connect it to the source. Situation is quite different on the output front. There we have digital outputs in the form of optical and coaxial toslink. Integrated DAC makes sure to provide us with two analog outputs: a pair of RCA connectors for single ended connection and a 4.4 mm Pentaconn for balanced outputs.
All major protocols are supported, including aptX, aptX HD, LDAC, AAC and so on. In the heart of analog section we have ESS Sabre Hyperstream DAC chipset.
SOUND (ANALOG OUT)
I hooked Zen Blue to my main system, Cyrus 8vs2 + KEF LS50, and paired it with my smartphone. Pairing was quick and easy. Except different colors on the front of the unit, there’s even a voice telling you that device is paired and what Bluetooth protocol is being used – neat.
Then listening started. I was using local files of different qualities as well as Tidal stream. Zen Blue treated me with very listenable and enjoyable sound. Level of details is respectable and comparable to it’s wired cousin Zen DAC. Sound character differs a little bit though. Whereas Zen DAC offered warmer and almost fluid-like presentation, Zen Blue has a bit leaner approach. Blue’s bass notes sound less weighty but firmer, while midrange is somewhat sharper and more upfront. Vocals sound rich and present through both of the devices. In upper midrange and higher range Blue is favoring details over smoothness. I must say I prefer Zen DAC conically but the difference is not big by any means. On it’s own Zen Blue is quite capable DAC and you want feel lacking on the sound quality front, especially if you like its more upfront approach.
SOUND (DIGITAL OUTPUTS)
Next thing I was interested in is how good of a Bluetooth streamer Zen Blue really is. For that purpose Topping D50s came in really handy. First of all, it’s a very competent DAC. Secondly, it has an integrated Bluetooth receiver that sounds OK but nothing more.
I’ve connected Blue to D50s using optical cable and started listening. First thing that was immediately noticeable is that D50s has better analog stage than Blue itself can provide. Sound was simply more revealing, with weightier bass notes. Soundstage was deeper and populated with cleaner and better separated tones. I caught myself just browsing through my playlist, enjoying the music instead of taking notes, and that’s always a good sign. Quick switch to D50s internal BT receiver revealed that it is no match for Blue. Sound became mushier and softer. Bass notes were not as deep and punchy while other instruments didn’t have as clean edges and transients. At this moment I started to realize that some of the bad sonic traits I previously assigned to Bluetooth connection were much less obvious with Zen Blue.
This called for further testing and I connected Blue to the best DAC I had at hand – Burson Playmate. Sound coming from this combo was rich and meaty. Again, I found myself in a situation of taking a tour to enjoy the music instead of taking notes for the review. Switching between this setup and Playmate’s USB input finally showed the limits of a Bluetooth connection. As good as it was, music coming through USB had more micro details, leading edges had more byte and upper register was more airy. That said, I wouldn’t notice anything seriously missing in Blue-Playmate setup if I hadn’t made this direct comparison. That good and nicely balanced this wireless combo sound is.
Zen Blue is an interesting device. I think it’s made for those with specific demands. For those that put convenience in front of that last drop of sound fidelity accessible through wires. With its fine sound quality it makes a hell of a case for such a decision too. Its analog outputs are as good as you get in this price range. But by being able to sound this good over digital outputs, Zen Blue qualifies itself as an upgrade for any of you having a really good DAC already but wanting to enrich it with a Bluetooth connectivity.
. . .
You can find this and many other reviews on my website iwireviews.com