We look at the new, affordable, and impressive bluetooth centred product: the iFi Zen Blue. We revisit another star when it comes to Bluetooth performance – the D-Stream WAMP-200SB digital integrated amplifier.
Getting Better Bluetooth
Bluetooth has a lot going for it as a wifi system – it’s simple, works almost anywhere and is as close as we come to a universal standard that works across brands, operating systems and regions. Yet the simplicity and ubiquity of bluetooth means it’s often seen as a compromise option. The arrival of a new and affordable bluetooth centred product – the iFi Zen Blue at just NZ$280 – will change this way of thinking. And it’s prompted us to have another look at one of the unsung heroes in our range that’s also a star when it comes to Bluetooth performance – the D-Stream WAMP-200SB digital integrated amplifier.
But let’s first talk about the new. iFi have been around for a while and have built up a suite of small and reasonably affordable digital components – DACs, headphone amps and accessories. The new Zen Blue stands out in the iFi range for several reasons:
*It’s the first of a new generation of products with input from renowned audio designer John Curl The sprinkling of audiophile pixie dust over the Zen Blue may not have any impact on the mass market but for those of us that value sound quality, I can assure you from my own listening that this is a level of quality from Bluetooth that you will not have heard before and even better, it has applications in many different systems.
*The actual design and build quality of the Zen Blue is way ahead of anything else at this level – the sleek metal casework and solidity have me wondering how on earth they do this for the price.
*Finally the connectivity and how this allows us to better exploit the Zen Blue’s abilities are outstanding.
The Zen Blue is primarily a Bluetooth receiver but has both analogue and digital outputs. What sets it apart from everything else is the quality delivered from both (noting that there is switching between them).
It is by definition a DAC and so has the ability to convert the digital Bluetooth signal to analogue and does this with a high performance Sabre DAC chipset. Thus making it perfect for direct connection into any analogue system. It even comes with some quite reasonable connecting cables.
If you’ve wanted to take a leap into wireless connection from your smartphone to your system, but haven’t wanted to either change the actual components, or been reticent about either quality or simplicity of operation, the Zen Blue is the solution you have been waiting for.
It also features a new 4.4m balanced jack output option. This has applications with some active speakers and specialist amplifiers.
The internal DAC is very good, and it’s highly likely that in many lower cost or older systems where the amp may have both analogue and digital inputs (think almost all home theatre products) , that the Zen Blue delivers the highest performance via analogue.
Where the Zen Blue absolutely shines is when connected to a high quality system with digital inputs – especially the coaxial (RCA) option. Bluetooth has not been an option with many better amps and DACs, in part because of concerns of quality compromise relative to wired connections or networked wifi.
The evolution and proliferation of Bluetooth standards means for many designers it’s just too hard to include. When you see what iFi have done this becomes clear – ‘All current and future Bluetooth® audio formats are supported. This includes Qualcomm’s aptX and aptX HD, LDAC and HWA, hi-res Bluetooth® codecs created by Sony and Huawei respectively, AAC, Apple’s favoured format and SBC, the standard Bluetooth® codec.’
So yes – it will work in virtually any setting. And with the rapid improvements in the quality of streaming via Spotify, Tidal, Apple and more, there is no better time to make this jump. Not forgetting also that for music that you choose to buy and store, the levels of resolution are often well above CD.
The Zen Blue is, by a considerable margin, better than our previous solutions in every regard which is all the more impressive given the modest difference in cost.
Consider these specific applications:
Our very best DACs – the NuPrime Evolution and DAC-10 – don’t feature Bluetooth. But when connected to the Zen Blue via coax the sound quality from iPhone is remarkable – the music is free flowing and detailed. If it weren’t for our exposure to some truly high end digital options such as the Nativ Vita, I would be quite happy to have this as my primary digital source.
Both the NuForce DDA-100 and NuPrime IDA-16 are awesome digital amplifiers that don’t have Bluetooth – again, the Zen Blue is the perfect fit. Add to this a long list of other quality DACs and amplifiers such as Meridian, Wadia, Rotel, Cambridge and many more, and you can start to see the possibilities.
All this said, there are a couple of things the Zen Blue doesn’t do. The whole idea behind Bluetooth is that it’s a relatively simply system to use that ‘pairs’ with your smartphone. If you want multi-room or multi-source abilities then we should be talking about networked wifi systems and that’s a conversation we’re happy to engage in.
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And if you want the performance of the Zen Blue into your speakers but have reservations about your existing amplifier, let’s look at the D-Stream option.
In a classic case of convergence both the Zen Blue and D-Stream WAMP 200 SB have little aerials and could be mistaken for modems. But the D-Stream, as well as having Bluetooth and several other inputs, both wireless and connected, is also a fully fledged amplifier that will outperform many existing analogue amps. Just as it’s easy to underestimate the performance of the Zen because of both low cost and size, the D-Stream is often overlooked in favour of bigger or more costly solutions. But its finish and build quality is even higher than the iFi and it offers control of all features via front panel or ap.
So – if looking to add the simplicity and performance high quality of bluetooth to an already capable system the Zen Blue is exactly what you need.
If wanting Bluetooth at this level, AND upgrading the overall performance of an older amplifier (not to mention a host of other features), taking the next step up to D-Stream makes even more sense.
Here are some end user reviews from Amazon – the D-Stream consistently gets 5 stars.
I took a chance without much knowledge of this product. I hooked the D-Stream up to my ELAC UB5 speakers and streamed some tunes from Tidal in high resolution.
All I can say is – it’s been quite a while since I have been this pleasantly surprised. The amplifier in the D-Stream is legit! I had to hear it to believe it. This is an amazing product for the money.
That’s one small amp for man, one giant leap for sound!
I really like this amp/streamer!
I’ve had it about a month now and have used it with Kef LS50 speakers (8 ohms), Elac UB5 speakers (4 ohms) and wharfedale Diamond 230 Floor standing speakers (8 ohms) and have enjoy the sound of all three sets of speakers hooked up to this. It’s clear, detailed, the bass is never boomy, and I never get tired of playing music on it (tidal hifi and Qobuz). Really, the sound of this thing is amazing!
I did have an issue with the remote not working. I reached out to the seller and they were very supportive. They even sent me a replacement right away without waiting for me to return the first one. The second on had no issue with the remote. Tops in customer service, I wish more companies were like them.
I’m giving it 5 Stars because it’s that good!
I would recommend you give it a try, worth the money!
Sound quality is my priority. The WAMP 200 is round & warm (not-digital sounding), but authoritative in bass. Very green – I notice no heat waste. Totally Wired reviewer says: “On sound quality alone, the innovative D-Stream WAMP-200SB stands as the best sub-$1000 amplifier I’ve had the pleasure of listening to.”
Well said. Very versatile with Hi Def streaming (wireless or Ethernet), Bluetooth, Toslink (electronically isolated), and analog line in. Front panel controls, remote and IOS controls all intuitive and effective. Set up was easy and sound is improving each day (warmer). I opted to leave power on constantly to accelerate maturation; seems to draw very few watts and produces zero apparent heat. Would be great if Version II has headphone out. Impressive product even in current configuration.
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