Overall Experience – 2
As I remarked, you have several outputs from this device and I’m sure you can make it work with every possibility in your home environment. RCA, coaxial and optical outputs are there for you. These are very common outputs and I mostly used the device with optical.
There’s one more output that is balanced. The surprising thing here is the 4.4mm socket. As we know, this output is getting more and more common across the market. But it’s not that much common with DACs like this one. Normally we see them in flagship DAPs and so forth, so I’m a little bit surprised by this decision. If you want to utilize it with your speakers, you need to have a 4.4mm to RCA or 4.4mm to XLR cables. iFi puts a standard RCA cable to the package so you need to purchase separately.
Don’t get me wrong on this one though. I love the 4.4mm connection as all the other Headfonia writers know how fond I am with 4.4mm. I just think that it’s still a bit early to fully utilize it in a DAC like this. It is not very common in home audio just yet. But I reckon that iFi saved some valuable space on the circuit board with this route. So I’m OK with that.
Last but not least, I haven’t understood the reason why there’s no power button on this device. To switch it off, you need to remove the adapter, which puts a small dent on the premium feel. So I don’t get it. I’m sure there’s a reason behind that and it is maybe cost-saving, but I still don’t understand.
Sound-wise, the ZEN Blue reflects iFi Audio’s house sound unsurprisingly, with a very clean presentation, a nice background, good resolution, and clarity. To me, it has a very neutral and linear response, good bass quality, and good transparency in mids & treble. These impressions are from the 4.4mm BAL output directly, but my experience has been consistent with the digital mode as well.
The analog mode sounds very clean and it reminds me of the sound of the Nano iOne. It’s quite crisp, a little bright and mid-forward. The sound has a linear response in general except for the boost in the midsection. The impressive parts here are the resolution and transparency. iFi usually nails these two areas in every product I’ve tried or tested from them. This one is no exception.
Bass is not big, but it’s easily trackable and very much under control. It lets your other gear do the coloring part and stays truthful to the original sound in many aspects. Lows are a good example of that. The bass overall doesn’t have the best texture, but it has a good resolution and impact. The mids are the highlight of the ZEN Blue to me as they sound very engaging, lively, and organic. Treble is not quite special, but it’s very well under control and articulated. The extension is fairly good as well. The staging performance is good and the stereo imaging is very very nice.
However, in analog mode, the sound doesn’t have the best control in the mids. There are some peaks here and there, mostly audible with high volume levels. On normal listening, it’s not that much of an issue. Another problem for me is the “digital”-like presentation. I would’ve liked a more organic and life-like approach with more body and warmth.
The review continues on PAGE 3 with more thoughts on sound in digital mode.