iFi Neo Stream and Zen Stream as good as direct media playback


I have been attempting to get streaming to sound ubiquitous with a direct CD in the drive of my player or a physical media transport connected to a dac since 2007 when I first started experimenting with using my mac mini as a server. Back then I was using Amarra and M2Tech as the main tech drivers. Eventually I was able to achieve very good sound, but never as relaxed and free sounding as the disc in the drive produced.

Things got much better around 2011 when I placed a cheap Dynex hub between my mac mini (this was before USB filters were around, as I recall) and my dac. I could not believe the undeniable increase in sound quality. I passed this information on to an industry acquaintance and about 6 months later (after initially being told, “it shouldn’t make a difference”), one of the most well-known USB filters was born.

I did everything I could to clean my USB signal up and at one point my digital audio chain consisted of a mac mini with an Uptone Audio retrofit linear power supply and an outboard JS2 linear supply. The mac mini, making use of two iSilencers fed an iFi Mercury 3.0 USB cable into an iFi micro iUSB 3.0 also powered by the JS2 linear supply. Next coming out of the micro iUSB 3.0 with an iFi  Gemini 3.0 USB cable a connection was made to the iPuirifer3 and finally into the AMR CD77.1 (with a TDA1541 double crown retrofit). This combination was very very good and close to the CD drive unit in the player, but no cigar. I listened to this configuration when playing digital most of the time because, it was convenient and as I mentioned, very good.

My goal was to get the computer out of the rack and out of the room. I had looked at extreme servers like the Taiko and Pink Faun. They look gorgeous and impressive, but as a software developer, all I see, no matter how I look at it is another computer with all its concomitant clocking on my rack, near my analog gear, (pre and phono stages). Also of concern to me was the cost and how quickly computer tech becomes ancient. I am aware that such a server can be upgraded, but it is just not my route. In my experience, there exists a better and more cost-effective way to get to my nexus. Get the computer out of the rack and out of the room.

When iFi came out with the Zen Stream, I jumped right into the pool. I used it with Roon and hqPlayer as my audio engine of choice. At the time I found hqPlayer to outperform Roon’s audio engine. I was getting even closer to my goal. I used the Zen Stream in Wi-Fi mode and after countless permutations with filters and such I had surpassed the sound of the directly connected mac mini. I was still using the mac mini as the server and all the iFi sound enhancers, but the connection schema was different. I also used a linear supply for the Zen Stream.

I have mentioned in the past that while I find that iFi makes some of the least problematic SMPS I have experienced, and I have used them all including the Elite series, I simply don’t like SMPS in hi-end audio gear. I have seldom if ever experienced one that could not be improved upon with a competently designed linear supply. I will not buy a piece of audio gear if I find that has an internal smps unit.

The Zen Stream is a bargain for what it brings to the table. I never had any real issues with the device.

I acquired a Neo Stream as soon as it was released. It is an attractive unit with a nice display which will show the title playing and album art as well. I first used it in Wi-Fi mode. I tried it with the supplied iPower X and the  iPower Elite. In my situation I could not get it to work with the iPower Elite. I would always hear clocking noises coming out of my system. This could have been specific to my setup. I did not experience any issues when using the supplied iPower X into the Neo. I used the Neo Stream in Wi-Fi mode for months as I learned it sound qualities and characteristics. I found that I prefer the minimal filter mode and it absolutely sounds better with the display “off”. I am running a Roon system so the Neo is used in Roon Native mode, which produces qualitative better sound. I no longer use hqPlayer as I have found Roon to have come up in sound quality using the native engine. I have not visited hqPlayer in a few years at this point, no doubt they have made further gains in sound quality as they produce an excellent audio engine.

The Neo clearly and demonstrably outperforms the Zen Stream. The delta in performance is not close. I was getting closer to the sound of the disc drive in the AMR CD 77.1, still not quite there!!!

I decided to go “Full Retard”! Oops sorry, thinking of Tropic Thunder 😊

I decided to go with ethernet cabling and ditch Wi-Fi. The CAT8 cable SMOKED my Wi-Fi connection. Now, I am starting to believe maybe I can get streaming to sound like a CD’s internal drive or a superb transport.

I added the iFi LAN iSilencer and I can easily hear the music become a bit more relaxed, a bit easier. Finally, the item that got it there, was to add the optical transceiver that comes in the box with the NEO Stream. The transceiver comes with its own little 5v SMPS which terminates to a USB C connector. Well, that would not suffice. I repurposed my micro iUSB 3.0 and fed it 9v from the Uptone JS2 Linear supply. Next, I used one of the regenerated USB outputs on the micro iUSB 3.0 to power the optical transceiver.

Mission accomplished!!! I have a sound that is so close to AMR CD77.1 spinning a disc that I have no confidence in my abilities to repeatedly identify the source, and that was good enough for me. In some cases, I noted the CD being played may sound a hair better but in other cases the streaming was better. These tests were performed with the same CD played and burned to the HDD.

I had a chance to pick up an Innuous Zentith MK 3. Beautiful gear, and I thought, everything in one place, disc reader right there in the rack. It’s gotten rave reviews. Let’s give it a go. It got flat out destroyed!!! It was feeding my AMR CD 77.1 and I left the iPurifier3 in place. First issue, the moment I turned it on, I could hear the RF noise it was emitting, contaminating my system. The sound took on that sort of stark, hard, sterile sound that computer-based systems can exhibit without good USB filtering. I placed the micro iUSB 3.0 between the Innuous and the AMR 77.1 and it got better, but the RF noise was still present, and the sound just wasn’t what I am used to hearing.

My analog buddies were over just yesterday, one who is not a huge fan of digital and they were making streaming requests!!! That caught me off guard. I was introduced to (on Quobuz) “Color and Light: Jazz Sketches on Sondheim”, check it out 😊 I hope this has been of some use to someone.

The net net is you do not need to pay $40k for a music server (save that money for tonearms and cartridges 😊. Just get the computer off the rack and out of the room and add an optical transceiver in the chain, you may be shocked at the sound quality achievable.

Now analog!!! Yeah, there’s no getting around it, money is involved 😊My Grado Epoch 3 and Audio Technica MC-2022 60th Anniversary cartridge reviews on my Kuzma 4 Point and 4 Point 14” are on the way!!!

Happy Listening!

audiofun

@chiliray I run the Zen Stream as a Roon End Point. It works great and sound great. Very stable for me via wifi and ethernet. I recommend for a Roon use case.

I have been looking at that. I believe it would work for my case. I am also looke at the Eversolo DMP-A6. Thanks for the advice. 

I also use a Zen stream. I think it sounds as good or better than my old Mac over optical. What do you gain from the Neo in terms of sound quality. 
 

the streams software is a little wonky, I have to connect then skip a track every time to get it to start playing, then it is fine. 

I too bought a NEO Stream soon after release. It checked all the boxes for me. Fiber input, versatile OS, USB & i2s output. I thought it would be the perfect fit in my system. Until I demo'd it. Honestly, I could not discern a bit of difference between it and A/Being with my PS Audio Bridge II card. I run a full Fiber Optic LAN as well. So I returned the NEO. Then the Lumin U2 released and I was one of the first in the US to get my hands on one. And oh my, what a difference. Sure it's much more costly than a NEO, but at that point, I was beginning to believe that all streamers/bridges sounded the same. So glad I was wrong. I supposen it all boils down to system synergy.