Ethernet or Wifi in, asynchronous USB or coaxial S/PDIF out. BYO DAC. That’s the basic premise of the new ZEN Stream, iFi Audio’s first network streamer. Connecting input to output is a streaming platform built around a quad-core ARM Cortex microprocessor running a Linux operating system. It supports an impressive feature set: Roon Bridge, Spotify Connect, Tidal Connect, AirPlay, Google Chromecast Built-in (coming later via a software update), UPnP (including directly attached USB storage devices) and NAA (for use with HQPlayer).
Hi-res enthusiasts take note, this new iFi streamer supports PCM up to 32bit/384kHz and DSD up to 11.2MHz (DSD256). Over Wi-Fi. Bonkers.
iFi also gives us the ability to select between something they call ‘exclusive modes’. According to the press release, these are “individual settings that deliver fully optimised performance by focusing operation on one particular mode of use”.
Around the ZEN Stream’s multi-faceted music streaming core, iFi has built a hardware platform that pays closer attention to audiophile sensitivities. We return to the press release for the specifics:
“Discrete surface-mounted devices such as TDK C0G multilayer ceramic capacitors and inductors from Taiyo Yuden and Murata. Regulators with high PSRR (Power Supply Rejection Ratio), low idle current and low dropout voltage are used, together with a synchronous 1.5MHz high-speed power supply controller, further contributing to the ZEN Stream’s pure, distortion-free performance.”
The ZEN Stream’s board also incorporates iFi’s Femto-precision GMT (Global Master Timing) clock circuitry that promises to eradicate jitter from the digital signal. All USB ports support SuperSpeed USB3.0 and come loaded with iFi’s ANC II active noise cancellation that the British manufacturer asserts will remove distortion from the audio signal. Furthermore, the S/PDIF output incorporates iFi’s iPurifier technology (reviewed here).
Priced at £399/US$399/€399, the ZEN Stream lands at the entry-level end of the market where margins are low enough to see tech support costs eat them whole. Moreover, this is where Raspberry Pi-based streamers dominate. And whilst the iFi press release correctly asserts that the Pi itself has not been optimised for digital audio streaming, many add-on HAT boards have to make them bona fide ZEN Stream rivals.
Curiously not mentioned in the iFi press release is the ZEN Stream’s more obvious advantage over the world of Pi: the iFi box is plug n’ play and Pi-based streamers are not. We don’t have to assemble the unit, put it in a case or write an operating system to a microSD card. We don#t have to ask ourselves if our chosen Raspberry Pi OS offers wi-fi support. With the ZEN Stream, everything is done for us. And that kind of handholding is priceless for newcomers to the world of hi-fi streaming.
Further information: iFi Audio