iFi introduced their new ZEN Air line with the release of the ZEN Air Blue and ZEN Air DAC. ZEN Air Blue promises top notch Bluetooth streamer performance with a built-in DAC and a major bang for your buck. And while the ZEN series always provided great value, the goal of the ZEN Air lineup is to make that level of performance even more affordable by using a minimalist presentation. So let’s dig in and see if ZEN Air Blue succeeds as an audiophile quality streamer at a rock bottom price.
Build and Design
The ZEN Air Blue box should look familiar to fans of the ZEN Series, as it shares the same basic packaging. Inside you’ll find a similar package with the device, a quick start guide, sticker, and small accessories package. Other than the unit itself, a USB power cable is included in the package with ZEN Air Blue. There’s also no manual – just a single page quick start guide. You can get the full manual from iFi’s website: https://ifi-audio.com/product-guides/
The first notable difference in design is that ZEN Air Blue has a plastic chassis as opposed to the classic aluminum design of the original ZEN series. The plastic has a bit of texture to it, and still feels high quality, but it lacks the immediate wow factor of the standard ZEN build. There’s also no external antenna, which may have some impact on range. You certainly won’t have any issues using ZEN Air Blue in most headphone setups, though using it connected to an integrated amp in a larger space might test the range a bit more.
Using ZEN Air Blue
The interface for ZEN Air Blue features a single button and two LED lights. A short press of the button serves to turn the screen on and off, while a long press puts the device into pairing mode. I tested pairing with a handful of sources that I had handy: my iPhone, computer, and an Astell&Kern SR25. After getting everything paired, switching between my phone, computer, and DAP was easy and seamless. I didn’t experience any sort of unintentional switching or difficulties reconnecting in my testing.
The lights on the device indicate the Bluetooth codec being used and the quality of the stream. The iFi logo in the center will change a variety of colors to indicate LDAC, AAC, aptX, or a number of other options, while the circle light on the left is either blue or white. Blue for 48kHz and below streams, and white for high res streams up to 96kHz (the max currently supported).
Sound and Performance
ZEN Air Blue shines where it really counts – the sound. Paired with an iFi ZEN CAN, streaming 96kHz LDAC in a desktop setting with headphones, was nearly as good as a comparable USB DAC like the ZEN DAC Air. The level of detail and the imaging were a clear step up from working directly with a phone or my iMac into a headphone amp.
In terms of range, I was able to easily move about a large room without losing the connection. LDAC seemed to have the best range, with no notable quality loss or skipping up to about 20-25 feet, meaning that you should have no problem in most situations like streaming to a home theater receiver or similar setup. The quality was also a big step up from the built-in Bluetooth in my personal home theater receiver (an entry level Denon), which means it could be a nice upgrade to the Bluetooth streaming quality for many similar lower to mid-tier setups.
Like any Bluetooth setup the real key to quality performance is going to be the device you’re streaming from and the codec you’re using. AAC streaming is fine, but LDAC Adaptive or aptX HD provided a clear, notable improvement, and ZEN Blue Air’s Bluetooth 5.1 support means you have access to the best codecs, so long as your device supports it.
From a feature perspective the one big thing you’re missing from its big brother, the ZEN Blue, is the ability to use a digital output to connect to an external DAC. That does mean that the built-in DAC for the ZEN Air Blue becomes somewhat of a limiting factor. The DAC is good, and provides an excellent, detailed 3D image for a DAC at this price point, but you don’t have the option to use any other DAC with ZEN Air Blue.
If iFi’s ZEN series is all about providing an affordable entry point into HiFi audio, than ZEN Air Blue succeeds in taking that a step further than previous generations. While the build is a step down from the ZEN Blue V2, the sound quality elevates ZEN Air Blue to the point where it’s providing an absolutely stratospheric level of bang for your buck.