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.
I see. You use the Auralic app as a meta-platform. There is a real need for this. Currently, I have Spotify, Apple Music, and Qobuz. It would be nice if I could access those three libraries from a single app, and it would be nice if that app was high quality. 

Back before the mainstream music services launched CD quality + tiers, a single meta-platform was possible. But now that Apple, Amazon, and Spotify have CD+ tiers, the apps needed are fragmenting. Audiophiles will have to access those services separately to use them.

I believe Roon's best business bet is to find a way to incorporate the mainstream music services onto its platform, then sell itself to Apple, Google, Amazon, or Spotify. 

Currently, the video streaming services suffer from a similar lack of a meta-platform. The video streamers have the video streaming apps on them, yes, but the consumer has to access those libraries separately. The best solution so far to accessing those libraries in one space as been the new Google Chromecast streamer. In the main page, the interface recommends movies and shows across one's streaming services based on past use. It's a game changer. 
I watched the linked video and don't doubt the Ifi sounds much better than the Node (as delivered).  But since this is a comparison of Node vs. Ifi, many will be interested in the bigger picture.  I have the new Node.  It also jumps up a level or two with a PD Creative power board and external switch mode power supply.  OK, that's about a $130 mod putting the total cost at $680 (new Node).  Clean power reveals inner detail and, in turn, focus and dimensionality.  I added an Sbooster LPS for another jump of a level or two - this may be true of the Ifi as well.  
Since only the streamer of each unit is under scrutiny here and buyers will be streaming first timers, things glossed over or left on the table by the linked Ifi review deserve mention.  No Ifi app so no internet radio.  No DAC in the Ifi.  No Ifi MQA.  No Ifi dedicated remote.  The Node remote (optional) will adjust volume with very fine steps, pause, skip, turn the Node off (stop streaming -save your bandwith) and switch to radio with any of 10 preset station buttons.  So, the feature set is Not comparable as stated in the video.  
Both are entry level. The Ifi is bare bones, has the upgraded power supply and it's frugal.  The feature set is what it is.  The Node  power supply can be upgraded and desirable features are built in, at a cost.  Different possibilities for different priorities.  Good sound either way, I'm sure.
the IFi Zen Stream sounds great, but i sent mine back after struggling for 2 months to get it to work consistently. hope springs eternal a and i stuck with it. its that good. IFI rushed this to the market. still a work in progress imho. i am thinking Bluesound or  LUMIN now?
I am seeing how iFi's software makes this unit difficult for current audiophile uses. I never plan to tie in a library of my own music or access internet radio, which would require that I use iFi's application via web browser. I don't want to ever use a web browser. Too painful. And even if iFi had a dedicated phone app, I wouldn't use it. 

My goal is to build a stereo system to be as convenient as a smart speaker as possible. To that end, I wanted a streamer that always stays on that I can cast to via Spotify Connect, AirPlay, and Chromecast--to be able to play directly from Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, and Youtube Music. That's it. I control volume from my music app or from the remote of the downstream pre-amp. 

For users who don't want to buy Roon, and who want a good meta-app from their streamer, I can understand the appeal in Bluesound/NAD and Lumin. 

But I believe that many audiophiles will change over the next few years now that the big consumer services have added CD quality/+ files, even if audiophiles don't realize it yet. Tidal and Qobuz are clunky compared to Spotify and Apple Music. Audiophiles will appreciate the better content curation, music indexing, search engine, etc. And because Spotify and Apple Music require users to remain within their apps, audiophiles will find that they remain within those apps rather than search separate apps to access internet radio or their locally hosted library. When audiophiles switch to the major streaming services (it's just a matter of time), the applications from streamer manufacturers won't be as important. That's my take on the future, and I'm building for that future now.  
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