My Ifi Zen Stream Review: 3D Soundstage!

Ifi and SMSL both recently launched stand alone streamers at $400. And based on the glowing review of the Ifi Zen Stream from Audio Excellence Canada vs the BS Node, and based on my past experience with Ifi, I decided to audition the Zen Stream unit. Conclusion: it will be my new reference streamer.

Product Page

Audio Excellence Review of the Bluesound Node vs Ifi Zen Stream
Their Reference Gear:
Stock ethernet cable into Bluesound Node, AQ Diamond Coax ($1250) into Hegel H390, AQ Robinhood SC into Sonus Faber Sonetto V.

Vilip’s review -- (starts at ~9 min) Another level. More of everything. Way more detail. Soundstage is bigger. Pinpoint imagining within soundstage. Strikingly more musical. Would put the Zen Stream up against some thing 2x-3x the price. Mentions the Innuos Zen Mini. Later he says the Ifi will replace streamers at 3-4x it’s price.

Adrian’s review -- Agrees with Vilip’s thoughts. Better in every way. Quieter background. Recommends for someone in the market for a streamer up to $1500-$2000. After listening, he learned that Ifi used surprisingly high quality parts in the Zen Stream.

Ifi Zen Stream vs modded CCA
My reference streamer was a Chromecast Audio (CCA) puck with an AQ Forrest optical cable into an Ifi Spdif iPurifier, with Ifi power supplies on the CCA and iPurifier. The iPurifier itself connects directly to the DAC, so no additional coax is needed. The Ifi additions to the CCA made a tremendous improvement to my system sound quality, and I wasn’t sure what monetary investment would be required to improve further upon the sound quality. Based on reviews by Darko, it looked like the Allo Digione Signature Raspberry Pi was the streamer to beat under about $1500-$2000. And because the Allo Digione Signature used a universal board with a reclocking HAT attached, I figured it was likely on par with my CCA + Ifi reclocker. For that reason, I’ve been hesitant until now to drop money on any entry level streamers--specifically by Bluesound, SOtM, Sonore, Cambridge, Volumio, or Allo.

My findings were different than those of Audio Excellence Canada, but my reference streamer and downstream gear were also different/more affordable. Compared to my modded CCA, the new Ifi Zen Stream had the same resolution and the same tone. (Maybe this can be explained by the fact that I was using Ifi mods for the CCA.) In my system, the difference in sound quality between the streamers came down to soundstage and imagining only. The modded CCA had a 2D soundstage. I knew my soundstage was only 2D, and I had hypothesized that I would have to upgrade the DAC, preamp, or speakers to achieve that third dimension. It didn’t occur to me that the streamer was the bottleneck here. The soundstage from the Zen Stream had the same height and width as the modded CCA, but it included that 3rd dimension. As a result of that third dimension, the instrument separation increased substantially.

The improved instrument separation changes how I perceive the roll of the individual instruments proportional to the whole song. As I scan the soundstage, I can more easily listen to any one instrument. That is, less effort is required to focus on different parts. Interestingly, this third dimension and improved imagining changes how the instruments appear to be mixed in a song. Each part seemed to be emphasized differently than before, now playing a proportionately smaller roll in a bigger picture. This reminds me of comparing the way music sounds when played in a car or on a bluetooth speaker vs played on a competent stereo system. In the car, the vocals or lead guitar often appear to make up most of the music while other parts play a minor background roll, or are non-existent. When that same song is played on a competent two channel system, the emphasis of the primary voice or lead instrument often plays a smaller roll in the larger picture. Adding the third dimension in my system had a similar effect, but with every part in the music.

How I tested/my reference gear
I purchased the Ifi Zen Stream shortly after Audio Excellent Canada posted their review. I’ve been playing the Ifi Zen Stream since to burn it in. For my test, I connected both streamers to the network via wifi. I connected the modded CCA to the Spdif iPurifier, which connected directly to the DAC’s coax input, and I connected the Zen Stream to the DAC with a cheap, off-the-shelf USB cord. The goal was to find any way in which the Zen Stream outperformed the modded CCA rather than to compare Spdif connections only. These differing inputs allowed me to easily A/B test the streamers. Because the Zen Stream did not yet have Chromecast Built-in support, I used the Bubble UPNP app to play 16/44.1 files from Qobuz on both streamers. (After an update last year, the CCA no longer supported streams larger than 24/44.) My downstream gear consisted of a Peachtree Decco65 with an AQ Monsoon PC, and 14 gauge OFC speaker wire into B&W CM9S2’s. I spent 1.5 hours A/B testing various parts of songs.

My thoughts/Future tests
My Zen Stream and used Peachtree cost less than $1000 total, and they produce a 3D soundstage when paired with nice speakers. Some people may find that price point noteworthy. I have plans to upgrade the integrated. After the integrated upgrade, I plan to audition the coax vs USB connections from the Zen Stream to the new DAC, and I plan to upgrade the digital cable at that time. I also plan to install a switch and connect via ethernet. So, there’s plenty more to play with.

Although I focused on sound quality in this review, unit feature set and end-user convenience were also major considerations for me. I wanted a streamer that would (eventually) support all the major streaming options for non-audiophiles--namely, Chromecast Built-in, Airplay, and Spotify Connect. My goal is to have a system that allows any guest to be able to hear their music reproduced in high fidelity from their device and their music streaming service. That means I needed all the major software protocols covered, which the Ifi does. So, even if the Zen Stream turned out to be a lateral move in sound quality, I was still prepared to upgrade to it just for its Airplay functionality. Fortunately, the Zen Stream turned out to be a level up in sound quality and feature set.
got the Zen Stream replaced, but now my NAD D1050 DAC'S coax connection has gone south. its being repaired but is 8 years old. still it sounds terrific. can anyone who knows this DAC recommend something as good or better to replace it with
I just bought the ifi Stream as the reviews have been very good, it arrived last week.

I am very pleased with it, a big step-up from my very inexpensive Dayton Audio streamer it replaced.

I do not stream a lot, nor other digital sources; my listing is mostly vinyl. But I can say this iFi Stream has increased my enjoyment of streaming a lot in a very short time. I don’t feel the need for an ’all in one’ streaming unit with a DAC, software, and a server built-in, so a stand alone streamer does not limit me at all. Others requirements may be different. Most all my streaming is via Tidal, and with ’Tidal Connect’ built-into the unit it has increased SQ by a large amount. Why? Because prior I was streaming via my iPad to an inexpensive streamer, so in essence, was limited by iOS and AirPlay (and the streamers limitations I'm sure). Now, the iPad is simply a remote/interface, and the iFi Stream does all the implementation of the stream directly, and is much more capable than AirPlay. I didn’t realize my streaming experience was so poor prior. Could I get Roon to be a better solution? Yes, it is Roon compatible, but right now I see no need for the software or the expense.

My iFi Stream is connected to my Denafrips Aries II DAC via an XLO UltraPlus USB cable. I also do have a remote hard drive ’server’ that can be accessed wirelessly via DLNA. This holds all my ripped CD’s, and there are many DLNA programs that can access the drive via my iPhone or iPad. I believe I can also connect the hard drive directly to the iFi Stream (as it has a USB in) but have not tried that yet.

So, I’m good. It does exactly what I wanted it to do; increase the SQ of my streaming experience when used. I am now more likely to seriously stream music than ever before. Which before was just to check out selections I was unfamiliar with, before buying the vinyl.

New to streaming, and am looking for some tech knowledge. I replaced the Yamaha WXC-50 streamer with the Ifi Zen Stream. I am using the dac in my McIntosh MA5300. The Mac display always shows 44.1 Khz while internet radio shows much higher broadcast speeds. Is this due to my internet speed being too slow at 23 meg? Thank You!

@gillsysb You're confusing sampling rate with bandwidth requirements. CD quality has a bit depth of 16-bits, and a sampling rate of 44.1kHz--often expressed as 16/44. Taking these figures together, CD quality requires a bandwidth of 1411kbps. You have an internet connection that supports 23Mbps, more than enough to handle CD quality streams. 

You can google this to read more, but Spotify's highest MP3 quality currently tops out at 320kpbs, just a fraction of CD quality. Modern internet connections in the US should have no problems with music streaming.