iFi is building on its diminutive but impressive Zen Series with the introduction of Zen Stream, a component that promises to facilitate high-performance wi-fi streaming for any audio system. Simply connect it to a DAC.
Described as a ‘Wi-fi audio transport’, the Zen Stream acts as a bridge between your wi-fi network and audio system. It connects to a router via wi-fi or Ethernet cable and outputs to either an external DAC or an amplifier with digital inputs, via USB or SPDIF. In its press release, iFi is quick to state that the Zen Stream's perfect streaming partner might be its own Zen DAC hi-res DAC/headphone amp (and it could well be right).
The brand also claims the Zen Stream's open-source architecture and custom-designed hardware and software make it flexible and future-proof – it works with multiple platforms, has streaming services such as Spotify and Tidal integrated and offers hi-res audio support over wi-fi.
Under the distinctive dark grey aluminum extrusion (which houses all of iFi's Zen Series products), a quad-core ARM Cortex microprocessor and dual-band wi-fi (2.4GHz and 5GHz with 802.11a/b/g/n/ac support) means up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD256 files can be played over wi-fi or Ethernet cable.
You can also stream straight from Spotify and Tidal apps with Spotify Connect and Tidal Connect, plus the Zen Stream is Roon, DLNA and NAA compatible. With integrated AirPlay, there's easy streaming from Apple devices. iFi says that Chromecast is to be added post-launch via firmware update, too.
A novel part of the Zen Stream’s design is the ability to select between exclusive modes, promising an optimised performance by focusing on one particular mode of use.
The following five modes are: 'All-in-one', a non-specific mode for all platforms, audio formats and devices; 'DLNA streaming', to optimise performance when using the Zen Stream with DLNA-compatible apps and devices; 'NAA streaming', for when using the Zen Stream as a Network Audio Adapter in conjunction with HQPlayer software; 'Roon Bridge streaming', when integrating the Zen Stream into a Roon environment; and 'Tidal streaming', for subscribers of Tidal’s Masters tier.
There are just two buttons on the front of the unit: the power switch and a ‘hotspot’ button used to join a wi-fi network. Around the back, alongside the wi-fi antenna, you get a high-grade Gigabit Ethernet port, 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 of these outputs are regulated by iFi’s femto-precision GMT (Global Master Timing) clock circuitry, in a bid to eradicate jitter from the digital signal.
The iFi Zen Stream is available from today in the UK, priced £399 (approximately $555, AU$800, although pricing and availability in the US and Australia is not yet known).
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So I decided to take the plunge and have the unit directly connected to my router (LAN cable) and configured for Roon connected to the ifi DAC via USB. Initial impressions are very good. Plugged in the Fostex HD900 cans and definitely an improvement on connecting directly to the DAC via PC. Suspect it removes a lot of noise and jitter from the stream. Will need to do a bit of analysis on the streaming traffic to be certain. Worth £400? only time will tell. Plan to test with my mates Naim NDX2 streamer to see if it makes any discernible difference.
As I was reading this story I was basing it on their usual £129-£149 pricing, thinking they'd sell loads.....then I saw the asking price. No doubt it's well made and will do its job well but....
Wouldn't be surprised if they are soon heavily discounted…..