iFi audio ZEN Stream

General Information

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From mainstream smart speakers to specialised audio systems, digital streaming – often
over a Wi-Fi network – has become the dominant method of listening to music at home. For those who care about
sound quality, building a system from dedicated audio components remains the best route to sonic satisfaction –
even in the streaming age.

There are various ways in which Wi-Fi streaming can be incorporated into an audio system. Amps with integrated Wi-
Fi reception are available, as are dedicated audio streamers, many with onboard DACs – these serve the purpose of a
traditional hi-fi source component, such as a CD player. But there are drawbacks – some solutions offer less-thanideal
sound quality, others lock you into a specific streaming platform or ‘walled garden’ system, while some
specialised solutions are prohibitively expensive.

Enter the ZEN Stream: the latest addition to iFi’s award-winning ZEN Series of compact and affordable audio devices,
designed to deliver flexible, high-quality network streaming to any audio environment.

Described as a ‘Wi-Fi audio transport’, the ZEN Stream acts as a bridge between your Wi-Fi network and your audio
system. It connects to a router via Wi-Fi or Ethernet cable, and outputs to an external DAC (or an amp with digital
inputs) via USB or S/PDIF. Its open-source architecture makes it flexible and future-proof; its purpose-built hardware
and software deliver excellent sound quality, and its price makes it an eminently affordable solution for high2
performance network audio streaming.

Open-source architecture – audio streaming unleashed

Many audio streaming devices lock users into a specific platform. That is not necessarily a problem, assuming the
facilities on offer are in line with the user’s requirements and they are happy with the interface. But, if they want to
select their preferred streaming platforms and apps without restriction, with the ability to adapt and evolve as
requirements change, a device with an open-source architecture offers clear advantages.
One open-source solution that has been making waves in the audio streaming community is the Raspberry Pi – the
well-known single-board computer, which can be used as a music streaming device. After all, an audio streamer is
essentially a computer that combines hardware and software to perform a specific task. The Raspberry Pi is effective,
inexpensive and not tied to a specific platform, giving the user plenty of streaming options. The flipside, however, is
that the Raspberry Pi is complicated to set up and has not been designed and optimised for high-performance audio
straight from the box.

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The ZEN Stream offers the best of both worlds in one unique package. Its open-source architecture ensures the user
is not tied to a specific platform or app, offering a wealth of options and the ability to add more via programmable
firmware. Its Linux-based operating system offers exceptional flexibility, with the streaming community encouraged
to work with iFi to create additional features to add down the line via OTA (Over The Air) updates.
Coupled to this flexibility is the fact that – unlike the Raspberry Pi – the ZEN Stream has been designed from the
ground up for the sole purpose of high-quality audio streaming. The hardware has been built to deliver the best
possible sound quality, working in perfect harmony with iFi’s in-house software development. From the device
drivers, to the kernel (the heart of the operating system), to the shell (which interfaces with the kernel), to the
applications and the user interface, everything is fully optimised for seamless operation and excellent sonic
performance.

Superb sound, no matter how you stream

The ZEN Stream’s hi-res audio credentials are top-notch, supporting PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD up to
11.2MHz (DSD256) over Wi-Fi – highly unusual – as well as over Ethernet cable. There are multiple ways in which the
device can interface with your music collection or favourite streaming service, depending on the user’s preference,
and thanks to the ZEN Stream’s open-source architecture these will expand over time. Here are some of the options
provided at launch:

  • Integrated Tidal Connect and Spotify Connect
    • Users of these hugely popular online music services can stream directly from the Tidal and Spotify apps – simple, seamless and effective.
  • DLNA certification
    • Any DLNA-compatible streaming app – including iFi’s forthcoming Stream-iFi app – can be used to control
      the ZEN Stream and access audio content from online services and DLNA-certified network storage devices.
  • AirPlay and Chromecast
    • Integrated Airplay and Chromecast ensures easy streaming from Apple and Android devices. AirPlay is
      included at launch; Chromecast will be added as a free firmware update later this year.
  • Roon compatibility
    • The Roon platform has become the standard-bearer for high-quality digital music management and
      streaming – a great interface, strong flexibility and high-quality sound are all benefits, although Rooncompatible
      hardware does not tend to come cheap. At launch, the ZEN Stream is compatible with Roon
      Bridge software, making in suitable for a Roon environment, and full Roon Ready certification is in the
      pipeline – a tempting proposition given the ZEN Stream’s affordable price point. With the ZEN Stream, you
      can add Roon compatibility to any DAC on the planet.
  • NAA operation
    • The ZEN Stream can operate as an NAA (Network Audio Adapter) in conjunction with Sygnalist HQPlayer
      software – favoured by many serious music streaming enthusiasts. This means it can direct packets of audio
      data received over Wi-Fi or Ethernet cable straight to the connected DAC without applying any processing
      whatsoever.

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iFi delivers hot exclusives

An ingenious part of the ZEN Stream’s design is the ability to select between ‘exclusive modes’ – individual settings that deliver fully optimised performance by focusing operation on one particular mode of use.
The following modes are provided:
  • All-in-one This non-specific mode is great for all platforms, audio formats and devices.
  • DLNA streaming Select this mode to optimise performance when using the ZEN Stream with DLNA-compatible apps and devices.
  • NAA streaming Select this mode when using the ZEN Stream as a Network Audio Adapter in conjunction with Signalyst HQPlayer software.
  • Roon Bridge streaming Select this mode when integrating the ZEN Stream into a ROON environment.
  • Tidal streaming If you’re a subscriber to Tidal’s Masters Tier and use it exclusively, this is the mode for you. Built for sonic brilliance

Outwardly, the ZEN Stream is encased in the distinctive dark grey aluminium extrusion that houses every device in iFi’s ZEN Series. Its silver-coloured aluminium faceplate sports two multi-colour LEDs – one to indicate internet/intranet connection and speed; the other to show the incoming audio format and sample rate (these LEDs may be switched off if preferred). There are just two buttons: the power switch and a ‘hotspot’ button, the latter used to join a Wi-Fi network. While there is no display other than the status LEDs, all information about the music being streamed will be displayed on the control app selected by the user.

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iFi has taken the decision that it is better to focus on performance and value-for-money, rather than increase cost by incorporating a display that would arguably be superfluous to the end-user. Around the back, alongside the Wi-Fi antenna, reside an array of sockets and ports. Dual-band Wi-Fi reception supports 802.11a/b/g/n/ac for a fast, reliable wireless connection, while a high-grade Gigabit Ethernet port supplies a cabled network option of the highest quality.

There’s also a USB-A input, giving the option of playing music from HDD and solid-state storage devices, and a USB-C programming port to upload software/firmware updates (an alternative to OTA updates via Wi-Fi). Two digital outputs – asynchronous USB and coaxial S/PDIF – provide connection to an external DAC or amp with digital inputs. Both these outputs are regulated by iFi’s femto-precision GMT (Global Master Timing) clock circuitry to eradicate jitter from the digital signal. The USB ports – both input and output – support SuperSpeed USB3.0 and benefit from iFi’s ANC II active noise cancellation to remove distortion from the audio signal. Similarly, the S/PDIF output incorporates iFi’s iPurifier technology.

The ZEN Stream’s circuit design has been painstakingly engineered to deliver superb sound, with processing muscle supplied by a 64-bit, quad-core ARM Cortex microprocessor. This is accompanied by carefully chosen circuit components including discrete, high-grade surface-mounted devices such as TDK C0G multilayer ceramic capacitors and inductors from Taiyo Yuden and Murata. 5 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. As befits an audiophile-grade device, the ZEN Stream does not incorporate a noisy fan – instead, iFi has designed low-profile heatsinks to prevent overheating whilst maintaining the unit’s compact size. DAC’s your perfect partner Because the ZEN Stream is a network audio ‘transport’, as opposed to a ‘player’ – it outputs a digital signal rather than an analogue one – it can be combined with whichever DAC (Digital-to-Analogue Converter) the user prefers.

An obvious partner is iFi’s ZEN DAC – an affordable, multi-award-winning USB DAC with balanced circuit design and the same 158x35x100mm aluminium enclosure. Version 2 of the ZEN DAC has just launched, with enhancements including a new 16-core XMOS chip to process incoming audio data and improvements to iFi’s GMT (Global Master Timing) clock circuitry. The ZEN DAC also incorporates a great headphone amp – which means the ZEN Stream/ZEN DAC combo makes a splendid desktop-size streaming system to use with headphones, as well as with an amp and speakers. Plus, you can upgrade the headphone amp by adding a further ZEN device, the ZEN CAN – this versatility is part of the ZEN Series’ appeal. Fab and affordable Fusing state-of-the-art hi-res sound with open-source versatility, the iFi ZEN Stream is a uniquely specified network audio streaming transport at a refreshingly affordable RRP of £399 (€399, $399) – available from selected retailers from 25 June.

Notes for editors
  • High-performance Wi-Fi streaming for any audio system – simply connect to a DAC
  • Perfect streaming partner for ZEN DAC hi-res DAC/headphone amp
  • Open-source architecture – works with multiple platforms, perfectly future-proofed § Custom-designed hardware and software – built from the ground up for exceptional sonics
  • State-of-the-art hi-res audio support over Wi-Fi
  • Seamless integration with streaming services such as Spotify and Tidal
  • Powerful 64-bit quad-core ARM Cortex microprocessor
  • 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD256 supported over Wi-Fi and Ethernet cable
  • Stream straight from Spotify/Tidal apps with Spotify Connect and Tidal Connect § Roon, DLNA and NAA compatible
  • Integrated Airplay and Chromecast – easy streaming from Apple and Android devices (Chromecast to be added post-launch via firmware update) § ‘Exclusive mode’ selection – dedicated streaming modes (e.g. DLNA, NAA, Roon, Tidal) for fully optimised performance § USB and S/PDIF interfaces regulated by femto-precision GMT clock to eradicate jitter § Active Noise Cancellation and iPurifier technologies remove distortion from the audio signal § Dual-band Wi-Fi reception (2.4GHz and 5GHz) with 802.11a/b/g/n/ac support

Latest reviews

knorris908

500+ Head-Fier
An Excellent Streaming Solution For Detailed & Natural Sound
Pros: Sound quality
Good balance of detail, dynamics, & "analog" sound
Wireless capability
Capable of accessing directly-connected drives with audio files
The addition of "Stream-iFi" app simplifies access
Cons: Basic AIO mode is fine, but service-specific modes to increase performance can be "cumbersome"
Consistent access to ifi.local for direct control and setup can be "tetchy"
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ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
Many thanks to Lawrance over at iFi - who has been patient and supportive of getting me info and started with product the past few years. This is my purely subjective review – based on my gear, my ears, and my experience. Please consider and respect this - especially if my impressions do not match your own.

I have used the iFi Zen Stream, (Going forward I will refer to it simply as " Zen Stream") extensively over the past 4 months, and I have clocked a lot of hours with the streamer. This review is MUCH later than I had anticipated because I realized that my then-current audio setup wasn't resolving enough to fairly comment on the capabilities of the Zen Stream. I had to wait for new headphones & amp to arrive, then break-in, and get to where I felt I had a decent baseline again to resume evaluating performance.

You can read specs anywhere, so for the sake of brevity, and since this is coming out much later than anticipated, I will stick to how my experience went and how the Zen Stream fit into my stable of audio devices.

Setup
For this review, I used the Zen Stream PRIMARILY from Tidal & Amazon MusicHD. I also tested against Local Network audio files stored on my PCs and NAS (Network Attached Storage) drives to see differences (if any) in performance. I am not a ROON user, so sorry, I couldn't get myself comfortable enough to try and comment on that functionality.


To ensure that I wasn't penalizing the Zen Stream for sonic differences/preferences, I tried it with a good selection of amps. (Hint: The thing is dang NEUTRAL. None of the amps "liked" or "hated" the Zen Stream.)
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In the end, the way I spent most of my time listening to it via Apple, Android, phone, or tablet was like this:
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(Obviously, I'm a "Headphone guy" & NOT serious about speakers.. Those pitiful things!)​
Setup: iFi Power Station-iFi Zen Stream-Denafrips Pontus II-Burson Soloist 3x-Harmon Kardon HK-870-HiFiMan He6se v2 - Running off HK-870's 100w per channel speaker taps. (Yes, to ensure that there was NO question that I was getting the most out of the He6se v2, I A/B'd the Burson 8wpc EXCELLENT headphone amp's Balanced XLR-out against the HK with a speaker tap to XLR adapter cable, and the HK clearly won for dynamics and soundstage, volume-matched with a BAFX3370 decibel meter.)

With the unit sitting right under the spare TV connected to Denafrips Pontus II DAC, Burson Soloist 3x doubling as headphone amp and pre-amp for my Harmon Kardon HK-870 power unit with XLR headphones driven off the speaker taps. (I wanted to see how long it would take for my wife to comment...) In order to better realize the capabilities, I had to upgrade my amplification to properly drive my new HiFiman he6se v2 headphones that I had gotten so that I had something to contrast my HEDDPhone One which was the highest resolving headphone I had. (While my other headphones sounded great, none of them had the resolving capability to truly discern the differences between streaming sources. I imagine this is tied to the argument where people say, "All DACs sound the same." because from my favorite daily-driver headphones: HD-650s, ATH-AD900Xs, Beyerdynamic T1 v2, and others, listening through my Topping A90, Asgard 2, and other entry-level amps there really wasn't a clear difference. They just didn't resolve highly enough to show the differences in levels of performance.)

All this upgrading should give you the idea that the iFi Zen Stream is a VERY technically/sonically capable streamer...
I had to swallow a bitter pill of humility and admit that the amps and headphones I had on-hand weren't up to the task of adequately reviewing Zen Stream.

Right - Now with all that out of the way, on to what matters!

WHAT IT IS
The Stream is a solid-state dual-band Wi-Fi streamer supporting 802.11a/b/g/n/ac from iFi’s ZEN line of products which also includes an ANC noise-reduced USB or iPurifier SPDiF digital connection out to your DAC or multimedia hub.

For my setup the BEST sound came from this chain: NAS-->iFi Stream-->PontusII DAC-->Burson Soloist 3x (Pre-Amp)
-->HK-870-->HiFiMan He6se v2. (Major boosts in dynamic range, spacial placement within soundstage, and greater resolution.) HEDDPhone One came close and was much easier to achieve it's best as it sounded great just from the Burson Soloist 3x Performance amp. Oddly enough, while listening through the HK-870 gave way more power, it actually took a little away from HEDDPhone's clarity & separation.

2nd place: TIDAL-->iFi Stream-->PontusII DAC-->Burson Soloist 3x (Pre-Amp)
-->HK-870-->HiFiMan He6se v2. (Slight drop in dynamic range, and resolution.)

Close 3rd: Amazon HD-->iFi Stream-->PontusII DAC-->Burson Soloist 3x (Pre-Amp)
-->HK-870-->HiFiMan He6se v2. (Slight drop in spacial placements within soundstage, resolution varied more by track.)

*Large gap between 3rd & lower* Differences between Tidal & AmazonHD now negligible.

4th: TIDAL/AmazonHD-->iPad/iPhone/Android Apps-->PontusII DAC-->Burson Soloist 3x (Pre-Amp)
-->HK-870-->HiFiMan He6se v2. (No major difference between the Android's "direct" and IOS "Airplay" implementations for access of the Zen Stream on audio performance.) (Noticeable drops in dynamic range and resolution. A much "smaller" sound and a less engaging listen.)

5th: TIDAL/AmazonHD-->Sony Smart TV App-->PontusII DAC-->Burson Soloist 3x (Pre-Amp)
-->HK-870-->HiFiMan He6se v2. (Major drops in dynamic range, spacial placement within soundstage, and resolution. Sounded comparatively small and "flat".)

REFERENCE MUSIC BY GENRE

Rock –
1. “Kryptonite” – 3 Doors Down (The lead jumps out from the power chords beneath, & lyrics are SUPER (Haha!) clear.)

2. “Du Hast” – Rammstein (What? This WASN'T just cool because it's loud? There's subtlety in there?!?!?)

3. “Why Me?” – Planet P (Opening effects, SOLID and controlled bass-bounce, panning)

4. “Hotel California” – The Eagles (Detail of the strums, instrument placement, the vocals are completely on-point!)

5. “Money For Nothing” – Dire Straits (Panning, instrument placement, background effects, & that awesome "3d effect"!)

6. “Amaranth” – Night Wish (The SIZE of the stage is huge, & when resolved properly, isn't just a "wall of sound" coming at you.)

7. “Money” – Pink Floyd (Opening effects, controlled bass, panning, background effects.)

8. “Lucy” – Skillet (Lead vocals are on-point, and isolated in a black background.)

9. “Layla” – Eric Clapton (Clean vocals, guitar, and percussion instead of a "wall of noise" you need to pick through.)

10. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – Jeff Healey (That SOLO!!! Jeff's voice just grabs you out of the black.)

Blues/Jazz –
1. “Round Midnight” – Thelonious Monk (Each bass pluck, the breaths of the sax player, and the piano has "bite" when clean keystrikes, and rolls when his attack is slightly "off". A REAL piano sound.)

2. “Smoking Gun” – Robert Cray (Smooth, and the bounce is tight, I can truly hear more than just the bass, stellar guitar, and main riff behind Robert's vocals.)

3. “A Night In Tunisia” – Dizzy Gillespi (I can clearly hear the piano, (Even the missed notes!) people in the audience, breaths of the sax player, and of course Dizzy sounds remarkable.)

4. “Mood Indigo” – Duke Ellington (The strings scratching on the bass, the breathing of the clarinetist (Is that a word?), the piano (Again, missed notes I never noticed before!), the subtlety of the flutters from the sax, and even the clacks of the sax keys. And those trumpet "wawas" never sounded so gravelly & epic before.)


CONCLUSION

For $399 (At time of this review) the iFi Zen Stream offers serious audio performance above what I'd consider "commercial" audio product capability. As a source, the Zen Stream didn't change the "sound" (warmer/brighter) vs other sources. It DID however seem to determine how much information (detail and sound space structure) reached my DAC for it to work with. Can you enjoy streaming music directly from a PC, Android/IOS tablet, or phone? Of course! And if you want to passively listen to your tunes, then that's all you need. But if you want a source that will likely exceed the capabilities of the average consumer's gear, (With the trade-off of a slightly more technical setup process than some higher-cost solutions.) and that will allow you to "grow" a system around it as you slowly upgrade the rest of your audio components, then the Zen Stream is a solid piece of kit to have in your arsenal.
Last edited:

Ichos

Reviewer at hxosplus
A network streamer for the masses
Pros: - Plug and play
- Easy to use
- Crystal clear signal output
- Both USB and Coaxial outputs
- Wired and wireless
- Accepts hard drives
- Exclusive modes
- Dedicated app
- Spotify and Tidal connect
- Continuous support through updates
- Friendly price
Cons: - Exclusive modes system is awkward
- iFi iPower is only included in the first batch
- Loading large playlists takes time
- Second Coaxial output should be useful
- Advertised Chromecast and Roon are still missing
- Front buttons feel loose
The iFi ZEN Stream was kindly loaned to me for the purpose of this review and as always I am providing my honest and subjective evaluation.
All links provided are not affiliated and I don't earn anything by clicking on them.

Introduction

The ZEN Stream is the latest addition to the popular iFi ZEN range that consists of various well acclaimed, value for money, desktop audio devices.
The ZEN Stream is a mid-priced network streamer that integrates all the available methods of streaming over Ethernet or WiFi without relying on the noisy PC.
The price is €399 and is available from all iFi authorized dealers.

Technical information

Beneath its classy exterior, the ZEN Stream is a technological streamer-de-force.
It has one purpose – to send music simply from the Internet to your DAC with no loss of quality.
True hi-res performance of PCM384/DSD256 via WiFi/LAN.
Just add your smart device as a remote and away you go.
Optimised open-source architecture – works with multiple dedicated platforms, completely and perfectly future-proofed as it is constantly updated.

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ZEN Stream is a true ground-up design by iFi — the hardware and software implementation is quite exceptional
Two SuperSpeed USB3.0 ports with Active Noise Cancellation II
S/PDIF out with the iPurifier built-in.
iFi software developed with Volumio open-source as the starting point, then coded and optimised by us to achieve the purest streaming software bar none.
These are some of the factors behind why the ZEN Stream is at the cutting-edge handling PCM384/DSD256 on LAN and WiFi (802.11n, with 100Mbps on 5Ghz).

From the device’s drivers, to the kernel (the heart of the operating system), to the shell (which interfaces with the kernel), to the applications and the user interface — everything is fully optimised for seamless operation and excellent sonic performance.

An ingenious part of the ZEN Stream’s design is the ability to select between ‘Exclusive’ modes – individual settings dedicated to specific modes of operation to deliver the purest possible performance.
All other programs are shut down – to minimise ‘software jitter’ — an often overlooked aspect that negatively impacts the quality of computer audio playback.

This ensures that the ZEN Stream is not merely a ‘jack of all trades’, but a master of all too.

All-in-one (AIO) covers all modes
Roon only (not available at the time of the review)
Tidal streaming
NAA streaming
DLNA streaming

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So with ZEN Stream we can

Stream straight from Spotify/Tidal apps with Spotify Connect and Tidal Connect.

Works with any DLNA certified streaming app including the recently released iFi own app.

Integrated Airplay and Chromecast (not yet available) easy streaming from Apple and Android devices.

ROON Ready functionality to be added in a future update.

NAA operation in conjunction with Sygnalist’s HQPlayer software.

Hardware

Beneath the unassuming casework sits some serious horsepower in terms of both technologies and components:

Powerful 64-bit quad-core ARM Cortex microprocessor.
USB and S/PDIF interfaces regulated by femto-precision GMT clock to eradicate jitter.
Active Noise Cancellation II and iPurifier technologies for USB and S/PDIF interfaces respectively.
Intelligent Ethernet switch controller.
High-PSRR, low idle current, low-dropout voltage regulators with soft start.
Synchronous 1.6MHz high-speed precision power supply controller.
C0G capacitors and Taiyo Yuden and Murata low ESR inductors.

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Build quality and appearance

The ZEN Stream shares the same physical appearance with the whole ZEN series so they can be stacked together.
The case is made from a combination of metal alloy and aluminium with a nice finish and good build quality.
At the front there are two small press buttons that both feel a little loose and two multicolor LEDs that inform the user about the connection status and the streaming bitrate.
The back is heavily populated with the DC jack, a LAN port, a USB type C port for system only service, two type A female USB ports, (one for connecting a hard drive/USB stick and the other as a USB audio interface), the Coaxial output, the exclusive modes switch and the WiFi antenna.
The unit comes bundled with an iFi iPower 9V or 15V DC supply (both work), a short Ethernet cable of good quality, the WiFi antenna and a plastic screwdriver for the modes switch.
The first batch of the product includes as a bonus the upgraded iFi iPower instead of the generic power supply.

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Setting up and operation

Initial setup is quite easy and almost plug and play as long as you follow the included quick start manual.
"Almost" because for some strange reason we didn't manage to configure it through the Ethernet connection but instead we used the WiFi hotspot method that worked like a charm.
Anyway it is pretty easy to get started and then the Stream will seamlessly work either wired or wirelessly without any further actions from the user, just press ON and after a few seconds you can start streaming.

The unit gets quite hot during operation and the exclusive mode switch needs a screwdriver in order to turn something that is not very practical especially if you use various streaming methods and you need to change the settings frequently.

Web based UI

In order to access the menu you have to open a browser and type the IP address "192.168.211.1" and then a web based UI will pop up displaying all menus and the music player home screen.
The graphical environment looks quite similar with the original Volumio but with a practical customization done by the iFi software developers.
Sometimes if you unplug the streamer and power it again the above IP address will change and you have to use an app like Fing to find it.
Learning curve is quite short and you don't have to be an expert in order to operate the Stream as it is very simple and a few minutes of exploration and experimentation are enough to successfully master it.

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iFi application

While writing this review, iFi released their own Android and iOS compatible application to control the ZEN Stream.
All control and playback actions can be performed through the application which shares the same graphic environment with the web browser interface but this time you don't have to deal with IP or anything else.
Just launch the application, wait a few seconds for the Stream to be recognized and you are good to go with all menus and actions available at the palm of your hand.

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System updates

iFi is very actively supporting the Zen Stream by releasing frequent updates that improve the performance and solve various bugs.
Updating is not automated and the user must manually check whether an update is available or not.
If an update is available you have to press "OK'' in order to download it and then it gets installed without the need of any further actions.
We have installed about 5-7 updates without encountering any issues with system crashing or freezing and everything worked as intended.

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Streaming

We have tested the unit by streaming music from the Qobuz music service and a hard drive directly attached to the ZEN Stream USB port but we don't use Spotify or Tidal accounts.

Streaming music from an attached hard drive is easy to do through the iFi application or any other compatible DLNA/UPnP app that can access the music library.
Building the music library doesn't take too long and navigation is pretty lag - free although you might experience a certain slow down while browsing larger libraries.
Search can be performed either through the traditional file system (which is faster) or using the various tagged musical categories.
All file types and sample rates are supported, gapless playback is available and the cover art is displayed in the application player screen.
Streaming music from a network attached hard drive is easy and straightforward without requiring any complicated actions.

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Regarding Qobuz or any other streaming service (except the Tidal and Spotify) there is no other way to stream except using a third party UPnP application like the BubbleUPnP.
Chromecast would be a savior but by the time of writing this review it is not yet implemented so the user must rely on the paid edition of BubbleUPnP or something similar.
Now, it is not that expensive ($4.69), it is very easy to set it up and start streaming your favorite tunes.
You just have to enter the Qobuz subscription account details and then you get access to a full Qobuz browser including managing your favorites and playlists plus a full featured search.
User interface is simple and beautiful and the only thing you have to do is to choose the iFi player from the drop down menu which lists all the available UPnP servers that are running at your home.

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Of course Tidal and Spotify have their own embedded "connect" feature so browsing is as simple as it gets and it is performed through the host application itself.

WiFi signal strength is strong and we didn't experience disconnections or any kind of lag even while streaming 192kHz/24bit material and then it is up to the user to decide whether LAN or WiFi yields better sound quality.

The (not so user friendly) exclusive mode

iFi streamer features an exclusive mode system, selectable through a screw switch at the back, that kills all unnecessary tasks giving priority to the selected one resulting in a better performance.
The default switch position is the "all in one" (AIO) that is the mode to use in order to perform initial system setup, updates, all other non music related actions and of course streaming with all the supported methods.
Selecting one of the other available modes like the exclusive DLNA that we have used while streaming Qobuz, there is an increase in performance speed, for example loading playlists and skipping tracks is done faster without any kind of lagging.
The exclusive modes system seems to be useful and yield better computing performance but the implementation is not so practical.
The procedure is that you have to power ON the device with the switch set to AIO and then select the desired mode because if you power ON with the switch left to another position except the AIO, the system will not boot up.
So if you want to avoid switching back and forth, you must leave the device constantly powered ON with the switch set to the desired mode.
Of course if you need to perform any other non exclusive action, like for example check for updates then you have to set the switch back to AIO.
Furthermore if you wish to switch between various modes, for example alternating between DLNA and Tidal exclusive then you have to power OFF, set the switch to AIO and then select the Tidal exclusive after powering ON.
At the end the whole system was proven to be troublesome and non practical so after a while we got bored and left the switch set permanently to the AIO position.

*Some combinations might work without powering off or might work without any problem after powering on but the DLNA exclusive mode definitely doesn't work as it is supposed to do.

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Streaming quality

The user can choose between the USB or the Coaxial outputs but one at a time because they cannot be active together.
The USB output is active and can successfully power any USB powered DAC so it can be paired with all kinds of USB DACs and not only the ones with internal power supplies.
The outgoing digital signal is jitter and noise free, totally silent without the slightest audible distortion.
All DACs we have tested, delivered a crystal clean sound with excellent transparency, great detail retrieval and without any tonal shifts.
Both USB and Coaxial outputs perform with the same quality so it depends on your DAC implementation of which one to choose.
Furthermore the iFi ZEN Stream does an absolutely excellent job in killing the noise that is generated by the dirty power supply and the mechanical parts of the attached hard drives which otherwise greatly affects sound quality.
Excellent performance that can be further enhanced by updating the power supply to the iFi Power X or even better the iFi Power Elite.
Compared to the resident reference streamer, the Allo DigiOne Signature with the Shanti linear power supply, the iFi ZEN Stream sounded a touch less detailed and not as crystalline but differences where very minimal and on the plus side, the ZEN Stream appeared to generate a slightly more organic sound.

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At the end

The iFi ZEN Stream is branded, plug and play, easy to use, has a nice UI with a dedicated app, both USB and Coaxial outputs, USB input, it is wired and wireless, it has noise suppression circuits, it is competitively priced and there is continuous support through regular updates.
Two things are missing, the Chromecast and Roon support that when they get implemented as advertised then they should raise the performance bar even higher.
Till then the ZEN Stream is still the most inclusive and user-friendly network streamer in the market with a price to performance value that is absolutely very hard to beat and as such it gets our highest recommendation.

*Roon is not officially supported but Roon users report that iFi ZEN Stream is perfectly working with Roon Bridge or something like that.

Gear used during this review

Denafrips Venus II (resident DAC)
Denafrips Ares II (kindly provided on a long term loan by the official distributor www.denafrips.eu)
Topping X Shenzhen
SMSL DO200
iFi ZEN DAC
FiiO E10K TC
Everything was plugged into an iFi Power station.

Test playlist

Copyright - Laskis Petros 2021
Last edited:

qsk78

Headphoneus Supremus
ZEN Stream: A Streaming Core of your home audio
Pros: Overall sound quality improvement (mostly soundstage depth and clarity), multiple modes and ways to manage your home audio streaming and music collection, build quality, ease of setup and operation
Cons: No iPower PSU in the package, no Qobuz exclusive mode, minor issues in operation (should be solved with software or firmware updates)
Many of us know that ifi audio has built their reputation primarily making high quality DACs, amplifiers for portable and desktop applications, as well as power and digital signal enhancements.

It's time to explore a new device designed to improve and manage the digital signal within your home network now. This is not the first step of the company in this direction but perhaps the first separate device if you do not consider the ZEN Blue.

Thank you for the demo sample provided by ifi audio through Qvinta-audio, their distributor in Russia.

Here is the official webpage https://ifi-audio.com/products/zen-stream/

ZEN Stream (hereinafter ZS) is a network player and/or a wi-fi audio transport which main purpose is to transmit a signal to a DAC within a home network, both wired and wirelessly, from both streaming services and local sources.

The second important function in my opinion is to manage all your home music content as All-in-One Solution.

For quite a while I was interested to know if there is any reason in getting rid of the signal coming from the computer directly to you DAC?

The signal quality question may arise when it comes from a Windows PC but when you run a dedicated Roon server the signal should be better, isn’t it?

The second point is wireless streaming to arrange an “audiophile's nest” somewhere apart from your desk without losing sound quality, taking with you some transportable gadget like iDSD Diablo.

Well, let's go into some more details and see if I can get answers to my questions.


The following desktop system was used to evaluate ZS:

Source: Intel NUC on ROCK (Roon Optimized Core Kit)
DAC: Burson Audio Composer 3X Performance
Amplifier: Burson Audio Soloist 3X Performance
Power: 2 x Burson Audio Super Charger 3A
Interconnect: Oyaide Tunami TERZO V2 2 x XLR
USB cables: AQ Cinnamon type C- type-C, AQ Forest USB A - type-C
Ethernet Cable - QED Performance
Headphones: Snorry NM-1 (planar-magnetic type)


Transportable audio kit:

DAC / Amplifier: ifi audio iDSD Diablo
Headphones: MrSpeakers Aeon C Flow (planar-magnetic type)


Appearance. Build Quality. Inputs and Outputs.


DSC_0495.jpg


The box contains:

1 x ZEN Stream
1 x Ethernet cable
1 x Plastic screwdriver
1 x Power adapter
1 x Antenna
1 x Quick-Start Guide
1 x User Manual

Appearance.

The device is put in the already familiar ZEN series case. If you have something from this series, then they should look identical. There are no questions about the build quality. The design looks solid.

I don't know if other streamers are to be produced in the future but it would be nice to have possibility for a vertical position of the device like NEO iDSD.
The ZS as well as the entire ZEN series can only be horizontally positioned.

55.jpg


The front panel

There are two buttons only:
- the left button - turn on/off the device with its indicator
- the right button - LED/HOTSPOT switch. Its second function is to turn off/on the main two LED backlights
Two Light Indicators:
- the left one shows the network connection status
- the right one shows the bitrate/file format

It is well explained in Tech Lowdown file on the official website:

a.PNG

The back panel

- Wi-Fi antenna
- Mode Selector (5 exclusive modes)
- SPDIF / Coaxial output
- 2 USB type A:
- top is for connecting external hard drives
- bottom is for signal transmission to the DAC
- System upgrade port
- Ethernet port
- Factory reset
- DC power supply connection

By the way, I replaced the supplied PSU with iPower 12V, 1.8 A just to ensure better quality power supply to ZS.


Specification

Input voltage: DC 9V/1.8A-15V/0.8A, AC 100 -240V, 50/60Hz
Input: Wi-Fi / Ethernet / USB HDD, (Firmware updates via OTA and USB-C at rear)
Formats: PCM384, DSD256, (MQA-fully compatible)
Output: USB3.0 (Type-A Socket) x2, SPDIF (Coaxial)
Power consumption:
No Signal ~6W
Max Signal ~10W
Dimensions: 158 x 100 x 35 mm
Net weight 578g

The software on the device is the latest at the time of this writing - 2.29.8



Let’s go to operation.

Wired connection

It takes some time for the device to fully start up after connecting the ethernet cable. Then the left round indicator on the front panel reports the connection status (white color in case of the fast internet).

Access to Zen Stream settings is possible via the web interface http://ifi.local/ as well as via a Stream-iFi app (available for iOS only today).

Рисунок2.png


The settings and UI are accessible in Mode 1 (All-in-One) only. The Mode 1 (All-in-One) is universal for all cases and connections. If you use only one service, for example Roon, then it is better to select the appropriate exclusive mode to disable other unnecessary services.

I’m not planning to describe in detail the content and menu of the web interface. There should be special guides and tutorials for that.

Moreover, if the ZS is used as a Roon Bridge then there is no need to dive deep into settings, until you need to update software in tab Settings - System. You can also change the interface language in the Settings but I leave everything in English.

And yet, as it was discovered by ‘head-fiers’ the Mixer type in Volume Options should be in the None position for the best SQ.

фыфы.PNG



ZEN Stream and Roon

Since Roon is a basis for my home desktop system for a couple of years (with active subscriptions to Tidal and Qobuz), the first thing I wanted to understand is how well ZS would work in this environment.

There were no surprises with identification and connection.

ZS was identified as Roon Bridge and it was immediately updated to the latest version.
I could see my DAC in Audio Settings (under ZX as a bridge) connected via USB and the SPDIF of the ZS itself.

1633024391337.png

For Roon, as well as for any other services, you can stay in mode 1 (All-in-One).
I preferred to switch to “Roon Exclusive” Mode 2. Everything worked flawlessly as expected. It will stay the main mode for me after I try some other services and functions.

You can see ZS in the signal path as R.A.A.T (Roon Advanced Audio Transport).


Снимок.PNG


Is there any difference between the signal I get directly from Intel NUC on ROCK and the hero of our story, Zen Stream?

To my ears “dressed” in Snorry NM-1, it is obvious and clearly distinguishable.
The first and the main thing I noticed is the change in soundstage - substantial depth increase.
As you listen more you notice better instrument definition, positioning and separation.
A more "transparent" overall sound.


DSC_0674.jpg




ZEN Stream and Tidal


If you do not use Roon but have Tidal subscription, you can stream directly from your phone or tablet by selecting “Ifi’s Streamer” in the sound source menu when playing a track.
It works on both iOS and Android Tidal apps. Just do not forget to select your sound source in the settings of the ZS itself.

Рисунок1.png

At first, I could not manage Tidal working in its Exclusive Mode 3. It worked fine in Mode 1 only in the beginning. The issue was resolved easily by reconnecting my iPhone to my home Wi-Fi network.


(Please note that there is no exclusive mode available for Qobuz today. If this is important for you there are other ways to stream Qobus - in Mode 1 and 2 (if you use Roon).)



ZEN Stream and UPNP

UPNP protocol is another available connection option. In this case I used the mconnect app for iOS. ZS acts here as UPNP Renderer. By the way, this app allows to stream Qobuz to your DAC, just log in the service in the app settings.

wqeq.PNG




Zen Stream and Apple AirPlay

There were no problems here either. Just choose iFi in Airplay and everything works. You can see the track via the web interface of ZS too. Now my subscription to Apple Lossless has not been renewed, so I ran tracks from the offline collection. I think there will be no problems with online streaming either.

134.PNG



ZEN Stream and NAS


If you have a NAS with music you can also add it through tab Settings - Sources. ZS recognized all my drives. By specifying the desired folder on your NAS (Public, for example), ZS scans and adds all your albums to the collection. And you can already start listening at the same time.



3311.PNG



ZEN Stream and External Hard Drive

In case you are neither Roon nor streaming services user and you have no NAS or others, you can plug in an external hard drive (Transecend for 500 Gb in my case ) and listen to your favorite collection directly from the hard drive, controlling the process via Stream-iFi app or via the web interface.




фыыфы.jpg




Wireless connection

There were no problems with wi-fi connection following the quick-start guide. It is more convenient to set up through Stream-iFi app which also gives step-by-step tips. You can also do it through the web interface, and here you can use Android.

All settings for services and sources are identical to the wired connection.

As a result, I got the answer to my second question - Yes, wireless connection lets you move and have a high-quality digital signal anywhere in your home.



3144.jpg




Conclusion

Probably at first glance it is difficult to evaluate this device without fully understanding what it can do and what functionality it brings.

ZS essentially can become the Core of your home system whether you're streaming or not, use Roon or any other services. ZS will either improve the existing setup and the signal in your home system or it will become the center of communication uniting every gadget and service that lives "its separate life".

Maybe not everything is working perfectly today but I think ifi audio will solve all the issues quickly with new software updates.

Ifi audio is a company that listens attentively and reacts quickly and efficiently to the feedback received from us, music lovers and audiophiles.

Of course, you can stay where you are today, change nothing in your current setup. But can you go back to where you were after spending a week with ZEN Stream?

Personally for me – ZEN Stream will find a place in my home audio environment.
I see no return to computers as signal sources.


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Last edited:
HansBarbarossa
HansBarbarossa
Excellent and very detailed review. Great. Thanks
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Mr BubbaHyde
Mr BubbaHyde
Awesome review, and A Prime example of why I don't write full blown reviews!! Others are just Too Damn Good at it, lol

Cheers!!
iFi audio
iFi audio
Excellent work! Kudos!
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